Wednesday, May 23, 2012

149: The Self-Empowered Woman: Madeleine Stowe

Dear Followers,

Wednesday night's season finale of Revenge will leave TV viewers hungry to see more of Madeleine Stowe's complicated character Victoria Grayson. Just when her career was at it's peak after The Last of The Mohicans movie, Stowe decided to turn her back on the entertainment business and move with her husband (Brian Benben) to a 400 acre cattle ranch in Fredrickburg, Texas (14: Selective Disassociation).

Fortunately, the 53 year old actress is more than just another pretty face. And much of what makes her a substantial talent is the challenging childhood she faced in Eagle Rock (a working class neighborhood in LA). Stowe's mother was from an wealthy, aristocratic Costa Rican family, while her father came from a lower-class family in Oregon. He was prone to anger-management issues, and the situation escalated when--at age 28--he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; a self-taught civil engineer, he was forced to retire due to health issues when Stowe was only six years old (1: No Paternal Safety Net).

Because the disease took both his mobility and his memory, Stowe and her brother essentially wound up helping to provide full-time care to an uncommunicative father who spoke in one word sound bites, and spent his time watching one TV station and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Stowe recently told More magazine that as a young girl, she would stay near him with water in case his cigarettes might start a fire (12: Hard Times).

This type of a complicated home life caused a number of difficulties for Stowe while growing up. In addition to her anxiety and heightened sense of responsibility, she was also unable to have a normal social life as a schoolgirl. Because of what was going on at home, she was never able to invite other children to visit. In her words "I was always afraid of being deeply humiliated...I always had a recessive quality. i could never come out of the shadows too well" (5: Life is Not A Popularity Contest).

The one safety valve she had as a youngster came from her piano lessons with the Russian pianist Sergei Tarnowsky, who had taught the young Vladimir Horowitz; their lessons took place in a room that had two grand piano's placed side by side (9: Music). The other escape for Stowe was the movies, and during college she worked as an usher at a playhouse in Beverly Hills. While handing out programs one night, the pretty teenager was asked by legendary agent Meyer Mishkin if she'd ever thought about becoming an actress. Several months later, however, she signed with him--even though he primarily represented male stars like Charles Bronson, Richard Dreyfuss and Lee Marvin. He is credited with guiding her career and landing roles for her opposite Kevin Costner, Daniel Day Lewis, Jack Nicholson and James Purefoy (4: Supportive Someone).

For years, Stowe has worked to bring a movie about the abductions of settlers' children by Native Americans in the wild west to the big screen. The script (Unbound Captives) tells the story of a woman whose children are kidnapped by the Comanches in the 1860's, and for close to a decade Stowe has been determined to bring it to production and to act in it as well. Nine years ago, 20th Century Fox offered her $5 million for the script, but stipulated that there was no role for Stowe; she rejected their offer "without a moment's thought" (11: Risk Addiction).

But the project has been close to her heart for so long that by the time she turned 50, she'd had an epiphany. Because she was now too old to play the leading role of the mother, she decided she would direct the movie instead. Now in development, Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz have signed on, and Stowe admits that "I'm on fire with this idea of what I want this film to be." (8: Turning No Into Yes).

In 2008, Stowe's other passion emerged when she went to Haiti and met with Father Rick Frechette who heads the Saint Luke Foundation for Haiti. Ever since then she has frequently flown to Haiti and even participated in grim chores like processing dead bodies out of the Port-au-Prince public morgue. In addition to her on the ground work in Haiti she has also endeavored to raise money and interest in the work that needs to be done for the island's hardest hit (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, May 19, 2012

148: The Self-Empowered Woman: Donna Summer

Dear Followers,

It came as a real surprise last week to learn that Donna Summer (aka The Queen of Disco) had died of lung cancer even though she didn't smoke. Years ago I met and interviewed her at the Mayfair Hotel in London and was blown away by how open and warm she was. I had expected to meet a larger than life diva with attitude, but was pleasantly surprised to learn that the only oversized thing about her was her talent. She was one of the 68 women profiled in The Self-Empowered Woman, and even though her story was used as part of the Supportive Someone chapter she actually embodied several important traits.

LaDonna Adrian Gaines (born in Boston on December 31st, 1948), began singing as a toddler, and by the time she was a ten year old elementary school student (who was asked to fill in for a no-show soloist) she knew that she possessed a remarkable voice (2: An Early Sense of Direction). She sang in the church choir, but (remarkably) never had singing lessons or vocal training. The strength and power of her voice surprised her when she first began to sing in public, and astonished others for decades. Her tight knit family was strongly affiliated with Grant African Methodist Episcopal Church, and it was in that church where she believed that God told her she would be a famous singer, but that she must never misuse her talent (3: Belief In The Unbelievable).

Summer struggled for years with low self-esteem. One side of her face had been badly scarred in a childhood accident, and her siblings teased her by giving her the nickname "scarface." To make matters even worse, one of her girlfriend's father often poked fun at her by calling her "Donna Ugly," a taunt that stayed with her for years (6: Life Is Not A Beauty Contest).

When the teenaged Summer decided to suddenly audition for a psychedelic rock group called The Crow, which   was looking for a male lead singer (11: Risk Addiction), her rendition of Aretha Franklin's "R.E.S.P.E.C.T." secured her the position of the band's lead vocalist. The leader of The Crow was a young man named Hoby Cook, and he took Summer under his wing and, in her words, "...became Professor Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle."  

Summer moved to New York after high school, but didn't find the success she had hoped for. What she did secure, however, was a role in the German production of "Hair," and that experience changed her life (8: Turning No Into Yes). While in Germany she recorded the 17-minute record "Love to Love You Baby," which became 1975's major disco hit.

Several years later, I attended her sold-out concert in Los Angeles at The Hollywood Bowl. Her performance  was being filmed for a network TV special, and I remember being amazed at how comfortable she was when it came to calling a halt to the filming whenever she was displeased with the orchestra or the lighting or whatever (10: The Critic Within). Summer's first marriage was to an actor she met when she lived in Europe (Helmuth Sommer), but after their daughter, Mimi, was born they divorced (15: Forget About Prince Charming). In 1980, she married Bruce Sudano, and they had two daughters, Brooklyn and Amanda.

Around 1985, untrue rumors spread that Summer had made anti-gay remarks, which resulted in a backlash from her fan base. Angry fans returned thousand's of her records, and the controversy negatively affected her record sales and her reputation (12: Hard Times). In 1989, Summer wrote a letter of apology to ACT UP, explaining that the alleged quote was untrue.  

Summer's mother, Mary, said that Donna sang from the time she could talk and "...literally loved to sing. She used to go through the house singing." And, obviously, that passion stayed with her until the very end. At the time of her death she had begun recording material for two new albums (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Looking forward to your comments....

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

147: The Self-Empowered Woman: Female Friendship

Dear Followers,

The cute illustration of elephants (above) was created by Serge Bloch to accompany an article in the New York Times by Natalie Angier about the importance of "The Spirit of Sisterhood."  Her article, which appeared last month, addressed the fact that "...female friendship is one of nature's preferred narrative tools."  Some of the examples mentioned include:
  • Female chacma baboons with strong sororal bonds have lower levels of stress hormones, live significantly longer, and rear more offspring to independence than their less socialized peers.
  • Among wild horses, mares with female friends are harassed less often by stallions and have more foals that survive than mares with no social ties.
  • Female mice who get to choose a friend to be their nesting partner bear more "pups" than those who must share space with a mouse they dislike.
  • Female elephants use rumbles (low-pitched vocalizations) to keep in touch with their friends.
  • Female baboons with a small but devoted number of grooming companions develop fewer stress hormone (cortisol) spikes than females with more (but less intense) friendships.  Three is the ideal "buddy count," according to Joan B. Silk, a UCLA Primatologist.
  • Lionesses who are friends suckle each other's cubs.
  • Female spotted hyenas who are friends greet each other through elaborate "trust ceremonies" that involve exposing their genitals.
  • Female blue monkeys in Kenya physically injure their enemies during disputes, but then groom each other to decompress and bond.
  • Female chimpanzees cultivate friendships and express affection by staying within eye contact as they forage for food by day, and rest back-to-back while they relax at home.  According to Dr. Julia Lehmann (of London's Roehampton University) these female friendships often last until one member of the (bonded) pair dies.
  • Female baboons are connected due to biochemistry and predictability because their friendships buffer them against the things  that they have no control over--like the huge, nasty male baboons, the hungry leopards, and the scarcity of food.
  • Female elephants often touch trunks, share food, play lifeguard for the day, and have even been known to rescue a friend's calf from a dangerous situation when needed.
Angier writes that long-lasting female friendships (throughout nature) turn out to be "the basic unit of social life, the force that not only binds existing groups together, but explains why the animals' ancestors bothered going herd in the first place."

Girlfriends offer each other "emotional tourniquets" in times of stress, but those of us (like me)  lucky enough to have a great circle of friends already knew that.  Wouldn't you agree?

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, May 6, 2012

146: The Self-Empowered Woman: Emmy Noether

Dear Followers,

Today, I'd like to introduce you to Amelie (Emmy) Noether, who was born in Germany in 1882, and went on to be considered--by Albert Einstein, no less--as the most "significant" and "creative" female mathematician of all time.  Her Noether's Theorem is now considered as important as Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

Emmy's father, Max Noether, was a distinguished mathematics professor at the University of Erlangen, and because of his health problems and disabilities, he often had her help him with research and lectures (1: No Paternal Safety Net).  Her mother was from a wealthy family in Cologne, and Emmy was the eldest of the family's four children as well as the only daughter. As a schoolgirl, she was enrolled in (and excelled at) English, French, piano and clavier (9: Music), which were considered socially acceptable studies for a girl at that time. 

But as a teenager she decided that she wanted to study Mathematics (2: An Early Sense of Direction) even though she was not allowed to enroll at the school where her father taught.  Refusing to be excluded, she decided to audit the courses without receiving credit from 1900 through 1902.  When she took her final exams, she did so well that she received the equivalent of a Bachelor's Degree (8: Turning No Into Yes).  She then enrolled in graduate school at the University of Gottingen, where she earned her doctorate and graduated summa cum laude (10: The Critic Within).

As a student, she met David Hilbert and Felix Klein who not only became her mentors (4: Supportive Someone), but tried to persuade the university to hire her as an associate professor--even though, at that time, the administration was not interested in having a female mathematics member of the faculty.  As a compromise, she was allowed to join the staff only as a "guest lecturer."  She was extremely popular with her students (nicknamed Noether's Boys), and would get so enthusiastic during her math lectures that her long hair often fell from the pins that kept it in place.  She never let her messy hair interrupt her lessons (6: Life is Not a Beauty Contest).

Her reputation grew, and in 1908 she was elected to the Circolo Matematico di Palermo, and the next year she was invited to become a member of the Deutsche Mathematiker Vereinigung, and the same year was invited to address their annual meeting in Salzburg.  But it wasn't until 1919 that she was allowed to become an official at the University of Gottingen (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

When World War I broke out, Emmy had been a critic of the military mentality (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest), and when students began showing up for classes wearing Hitler's brownshirts, she dismissed the entire movement.  But she was one of the very first Jewish professors to be fired, and by 1933, she had received help from Einstein to move to the United States where Bryn Mawr College offered her a teaching position.  Finally, she had arrived at a welcoming place where neither being Jewish nor female was a disadvantage.

Sadly, that sense of relief didn't last long.  Only 18 months after she arrived in the U.S., Emmy
under went surgery for an ovarian cyst, and died only a few short days later at the age of 53.

Looking forward to your comments...