"THE RIGHT thing to do never requires any subterfuge, it is always simple and direct," said Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States.
A TV show that interested me last year was "The Americans," on the FX Channel. As you may know, this is about a pair of deep undercover Russian spies, posing as a typical all-American family during the early 1980s. They are married, have two children and appear to be totally assimilated into the American way of life. The reality is that they are ruthless, working for the glory of Mother Russia, and will not shy away from murder, if necessary. Even the murder of innocents.
The two stars, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, as the masquerading "homebodies," are beyond excellent. Particularly Miss Russell, once a sweet TV darling in "Felicity," she has matured into a seriously fascinating woman, beautiful and (here, certainly) deadly. Her character is almost sociopathic in faithfulness to the Russian cause, with nary a flicker of sentiment or regret, (this season, at least, she seems to be caring a bit more about the safety of her children.) The husband, Matthew Rhys, shows less open contempt for American capitalism and more humanity and conscience when the time comes to kill.
Despite endless, infuriating commercial breaks, "The Americans" is unbearably intense and holds the mood. You don't want it to end. You do look forward to next week's episode. It reminds me of "Homeland," when it was good, only better!
Because "bad guys" are the protagonists, as they were in "The Sopranos," "Dexter" and "Breaking Bad," there is guilt associated with being in any way sympathetic to Russell or Rhys, and even more so than with the others because there is virtually no humor to lighten their deeds. It's a grim, soulless business, being a spy, especially ones who are driven totally by ideology. (As a character on the show recently observed to a shocked Russell: "I don't care if they're driven by ideology or money. Money is cleaner, sometimes.") But we gradually invest some emotion in the pair because they are human and struggling with normal issues (their sex life, their son's interest in video games, their daughter reading the Bible), along with the kidnappings, blackmail, cruel deceptions and killings.
There's a great supporting cast, notably a marvelous Richard Thomas as one of the real Americans, a CIA head, looking for Russian heads to mount on spikes. The various subplots never become overwhelmingly complex and so far, the writing has been excellent.
But nothing in this show would work without Russell and Rhys who are perfectly cast. Miss Russell in fact is delivering a career-best here; faceted despite her strong convictions and strikingly beautiful. (She is not photographed to appear especially glamorous. In fact, cinematography is on the harsh side. Her beauty survives the shadows that hollow her face, and gives her character and the show a high level of sensuality, every moment she is onscreen.)
There has been no news yet of a third season, and although this genre can run out of steam and plot quickly, the scripts are enough to encourage at least one more year. "The Americans" is thought-provoking -- and alarmingly current, given our newly strained relations with Russia. What's bad for Ukraine can only be a boost to FX!
My one and only complaint? The wigs. Both Russell and Rhys are obliged to wear "disguises" at times. None are convincing or even seem necessary. (Rhys' character lives an entirely different double life with another woman, which consists of wearing a toupee and glasses. He looks exactly the same. It's like Clark Kent taking off his glasses and nobody knows he's Superman!)
The wigs plopped on Miss Russell's head are even sillier. She looks like Elizabeth Jennings (her character's name) in a wig. With a face like Keri Russell, you'd have to resort to major prosthetics to truly transform her. These impersonations wouldn't fool a child. But, there's some comedy element in having to suspend disbelief, and as the show is unrelentingly grim, maybe the wigs serve some purpose.
I hope the quality of this show continues and that FX picks it up for another season. I've come to care -- in a queasy manner -- about these people who are doing their best to do their worst to the USA.
YOU'VE READ the encomiums to Mickey Rooney, who was certainly one of the greatest movie stars ever to grace the silver screen and one of the most popular as Andy Hardy.
But when all the obits are said and done, I think the wonderful Mickey stands out as a young success at age 21, selecting and wooing and marrying the unknown beauty Ava Gardner, and thereby -- before they divorced a year later -- having made Ava into one of the most beautiful and prominent of stars in the MGM era.
If you only read one thing about Mickey, pick up Peter Evans' recent book on Ava entitled "Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations." The brief marriage to Mickey, the great sex, the come down and divorce -- Ava manages to give Mickey the kind of credit divorced people seldom offer to one another's reputations.
Mickey had power and he used it. He beat Louis B. Mayer at his own game and whatever he did in his long glorious career rebounds with the credit he deserves for pushing Ava Gardner to stardom in spite of everything the studio did to thwart her!
KATE WINSLET says she is "haunted" by the nude sketch of her, which famously appeared in "Titanic." Fans still keep handing her copies of it to sign. But she won't. It makes her "uncomfortable." Really, Kate? The only thing that should make this Oscar winner uncomfortable about "Titanic" is her performance. Ditto Mr. DiCaprio. It's a good thing industry insiders already knew Winslet and DiCaprio could act, and were simply trapped in a film with a lousy script and trying to keep their heads above water, literally and figuratively!
I say be a sport and sign the picture. Marilyn used to sign copies of her nude calendar right to the end, trying out various messages: "Do you like my hair longer?" ... "This isn't my best side" ... "I still don't know how anybody knew it was me!"
DO you have a few million bucks you want to get rid of for a good cause? Be at the Doyle New York's auction of the very last of the earliest surviving Revolutionary-era flags on April 9. For information, call 212-427-4141 ext. 248.
"The Forster Flag" is probably the last of these historic symbols in private hands. It uses white bars to represent the 13 colonies.
It is being sold by the Flag History Foundation to benefit the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. This great historic repository, run by Don E. Carleton, holds the papers and objects of -- to name a few -- David O. Selznick, Woodward and Bernstein, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Gloria Swanson, Norman Mailer and yours truly.
You could make history bidding for the Forster Flag and giving it a good permanent home in Austin.
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)
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