Can Anything Go Right for the 2019 Oscars?

Rob Lowe’s duet with Snow White is an indelible memory of the host-less 1989 Oscars; 2016 host Kevin Hart, center, was hired and fired for this year’s show; Dwayne Johnson, right, declined to host.
Rob Lowe’s duet with Snow White is an indelible memory of the host-less 1989 Oscars; 2016 host Kevin Hart, center, was hired and fired for this year’s show; Dwayne Johnson, right, declined to host. Photo: From left: Reed Saxon/Associated Press; Mario Anzuoni/Reuters; Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Los Angeles

Are these the Oscars from hell?

In the runup to Sunday night’s ceremony on ABC, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has weathered a string of controversies that have alienated everyone from the Screen Actors Guild to makeup artists to Allison Janney.

As producers of this year’s show struggle to reverse a 40% decline in ratings over the last five years—and rejuvenate a telecast many see as moribund—they’ve proved the adage that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. From Kevin Hart’s hiring, firing, and then possible rehiring as host to the abrupt about-face on last week’s announcement that four category winners will be announced during commercial breaks, the Oscar producers have found themselves addressing myriad controversies weeks before any winner is revealed.

ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke subscribes to the theory that bad buzz is better than no buzz at all. “I, ironically, have found that the lack of clarity around the Oscars has kept the Oscars really in the conversation and that the mystery has been really compelling,” Ms. Burke said at a news briefing this month. ABC largely plays a spectator role when it comes to producing the Oscars but the network has pressured the Academy to shorten the show to three hours.

“Our mission is to promote these movies and this art form to the widest possible audience. We have a 91-year history of evolving to meet that goal—and discussions about how to keep the show relevant are ongoing,” an Academy spokeswoman said.

‘Move quickly!’ At a lunch this month, Academy President John Bailey urged nominees to hotfoot it to the stage at the Oscars ceremony.
‘Move quickly!’ At a lunch this month, Academy President John Bailey urged nominees to hotfoot it to the stage at the Oscars ceremony. Photo: Matt Petit/A.M.P.A.S.

Telecast producers are striving to satisfy two constituents: a network that wants to reverse a dramatic ratings decline and Academy members or die-hard fans who view such changes as antithetical to Oscar tradition.

To shorten the show, which in some years has run more than four hours, the producers are focusing on a practical sticking point: How much time winners take to reach the stage.

At an annual lunch in Beverly Hills where nominees pose for a “class photo” and get marching orders on matters such as keeping acceptance speeches succinct, the telecast’s producers stopped just short of asking winners to wear sneakers and sprint from their seats to the podium.

“Move quickly!” Academy President John Bailey beseeched the nominees. “Show us how eager you are to get up there.”

To say the Oscar telecast is in a ratings slump would be an understatement. Last year’s broadcast averaged a record low 26.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen. The show’s ratings have plummeted from the 1990s, when about 45 million tuned in. This year, Walt Disney Co.’s ABC is paying more than $75 million for the rights to the telecast, about the same as last year, a person familiar with the pact said.

Last week, the Academy took just a few days to reverse a plan to announce four of its 24 winners during commercial breaks, then air just the acceptance speeches later during the ceremony. The categories that would have lost their moment on live TV: cinematography, editing, live-action short film and makeup and hairstyling. Blowback was swift.

“Cinematography and Editing are at the very heart of our craft,” last year’s best director winner, Guillermo del Toro, wrote in a tweet following the announcement. “They … are cinema itself.” Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese urged the Academy to reverse course, in a public letter calling the commercial-break plan “nothing less than an insult.”

Guillermo del Toro, who won best director and best picture last year for ‘The Shape of Water,’ spoke out against announcing some awards during commercials.
Guillermo del Toro, who won best director and best picture last year for ‘The Shape of Water,’ spoke out against announcing some awards during commercials. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

In announcing the reversal, the organization’s board of governors said, “The Academy has heard the feedback from its membership.”

In another bid for wider appeal, the Academy initially asked Dwayne Johnson to host, according to a person familiar with the matter. After he declined, the Academy in December hired Mr. Hart, only to fire him two days later over homophobic tweets and jokes he had made.

With no replacement for Mr. Hart, Sunday’s ceremony will be the first hostless Oscars since 1989, when the show notoriously opened with Rob Lowe performing a duet with an unknown actress dressed as Snow White. Audiences were flummoxed by the performance and the ensuing ceremony often is cited as memorable—for all the wrong reasons.

Six months ago, in a bid to pull in more viewers, the Academy announced a “best popular film” award. The announcement came with few details, including what constituted a “popular” film and how that would differ from best picture. A month later the plan was scrapped. The Academy ended up nominating hugely popular movies anyway: the blockbusters “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star Is Born” are all up for best picture.

Over the past month, nearly every Academy decision about the Oscars was rejected and ultimately reversed. The Academy began enforcing rules on how many other awards shows presenters may participate in before the Oscars. If Jennifer Lawrence or Chadwick Boseman haven’t been on television much lately, the thinking went, viewers may tune to the Oscars to see them.

The Screen Actors Guild criticized the Academy last month over the rules, assailing what it called the organization’s “graceless pressure tactics and attempts to control the awards show talent pipeline.” The dispute remains unresolved.

Ten days later, Hollywood trade magazines reported that in a departure from tradition, only two of the five nominated songs would be performed during the ceremony. After fan outcry, the producers reversed course a week later and said all five songs would be sung.

Less than a week after that, it was revealed that the producers weren’t planning to have last year’s winners hand out prizes this year. The reasons behind the decision, which ran counter to yet another tradition, weren’t clear.

“It breaks my heart,” Ms. Janney, a winner last year for “I, Tonya,” wrote on Instagram. Within days, the producers reversed course again and added back winners from the prior year.

Allison Janney won best supporting actress award at the 2018 Oscars.
Allison Janney won best supporting actress award at the 2018 Oscars. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Despite the decline in viewers, the price to advertise during the Oscars continues to rise. Last year, the average 30-second spot in the broadcast went for more than $2.1 million, according to advertising-tracking firm Kantar Media, an increase of 10% from the previous year and up 20% from five years ago. This year, the price of the average spot went up single digits and some commercials went for as much as $2.6 million, a person familiar with the matter said.

“We continue to see an increase in rates,” said Rita Ferro, president of Disney Advertising Sales. Ms. Ferro said 16 companies created commercials specifically for the Oscars, 12 of which celebrate the entertainment industry.

This year ABC is taking the unusual step of premiering a series—the spy thriller “Whiskey Cavalier”—after the Oscars, making the three-hour deadline all the more important.

ABC’s current deal with the Academy runs through 2028—and when it comes to controversy, there appears to be a sequel in the making. Mr. Bailey, the Academy president, said he still supports reviving the most-popular movie award, suggesting it could return under a different name. “General” or “wide-release” were two terms he threw out. “Categories have long been in flux,” he said. “People seem to act like they’re written in stone.”

Write to Erich Schwartzel at and Joe Flint at

‘Botticelli: Heroines and Heroes’ Review: Harrowing Scenes of Women’s Sacrifice

Botticelli’s ‘Tragedy of Lucretia’ (1499-1500)
Botticelli’s ‘Tragedy of Lucretia’ (1499-1500) Photo: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston


Murder, rape and suicide are not generally terms that we associate with Botticelli. His most famous paintings, “Primavera” and “The Birth of Venus,” both at the Uffizi in Florence, evoke a world of ethereal beauty, wood nymphs, and gently flowing garments. But in “Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes,” a small show currently on view here in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that comprises six paintings by Botticelli and two of his drawings, another side of the artist emerges. In the two panels at the heart of the exhibition, depicting the ancient stories of Lucretia and Virginia, Botticelli artfully orchestrates violent stories of women’s sacrifice. The Lucretia panel is the Gardner’s own, and was the first Botticelli in America.

The protagonists of these stories are held up as heroines. But they are troubling ones, given their fates. Worse still, they were frequently the subject of paintings presented to brides, as a way of encouraging virtue and honor.

Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Through May 19

In the case of Lucretia, she had the misfortune of attracting the lascivious gaze of the king’s son, Tarquin. He rapes her, and in her shame she kills herself. On the panel’s left edge, we see Lucretia’s dismay when she sees Tarquin, sword in hand, on her doorstep. The right edge shows the aftermath of her rape, when she collapses into the arms of her father, Spurius Lucretius, her husband, Collatinus, and his friend Brutus. In the center of the composition her lifeless body is laid out at the base of a column, surrounded by soldiers led by Brutus, who raises his sword. The emphasis on the soldiers at the center of the composition and the staging of the action in a public square rather than an interior point to a political reading of the narrative. Specifically, outrage at Lucretia’s fate stirred the soldiers to rise up and overthrow their tyrant king, paving the way for the establishment of the Roman Republic.

Virginia’s story, shown in a pendant panel from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, also ends badly for her but well for the Romans. She is abducted by the henchmen of a powerful judge, who wishes to claim her as his slave. She collapses in tears before the judge, while her fiancé and father attempt to rescue her and fail. Her father, realizing the consequences of his failure, chooses to murder his daughter rather than allow the judge to take her. The story ends with her father’s soldiers vowing to overthrow the corrupt judge, and the revolution results in the restoration of the Roman Republic.

Botticelli’s ‘Story of Virginia’ (c. 1500)
Botticelli’s ‘Story of Virginia’ (c. 1500) Photo: Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

The message is clear: Attracting the lustful attention of a powerful man can have dire consequences. Although the contemporary resonances are hard to miss, the stories are dense, and even in Botticelli’s hands they are not easy to read visually. To bridge the gap, curator Nathaniel Silver commissioned a graphic novelist, Karl Stevens, to reimagine the stories on his own terms.

This is a bold move, and Botticelli is a tough act to follow for anyone, much less a graphic artist. Putting a small contemporary ink drawing next to a Renaissance painting wouldn’t be fair to either one, and the curator worked around this by enlarging the drawings and printing them, so that they appear in the guise of didactic panels rather than as art. While effective, they are also visually jarring and might have worked better on a nearby but separate wall. Nonetheless, Mr. Stevens does a wonderful job in bringing the stories to life in a contemporary idiom, as well as in envisioning the action from the viewpoints of Lucretia and Virginia.

Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (c. 1500)
Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (c. 1500) Photo: Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence

Whether in a Renaissance or contemporary guise, the stories are gruesome. But the paintings are beautiful and beautifully composed, every inch of their surfaces filled with delightful details, whether animated horses, spry demons, or richly colored architecture. In Botticelli’s hands, neither story is directly violent: The rape, suicide and murder happen “offstage.” Yet their beauty poses something of an ethical problem. What exactly are we enjoying in looking at them?

While these two panels, believed to have been commissioned by Giudantonio Vespucci on the occasion of his son’s wedding, and never before displayed together in a museum, are the centerpiece of the show, it also includes three other similarly shaped panels by Botticelli, as well as an unfinished and larger fourth panel. The three panels depict scenes from the life of St. Zenobius, and provide further illustration of Botticelli’s deft navigation of complex narrative scenes. The relation between these panels and the stories of Lucretia and Virginia is an unexpected one: All of them are spalliere, a distinctive type of furnishing in a Renaissance home, designed to be displayed at eye level, sometimes above storage chests. The last panel, an unfinished “Adoration of the Magi” from the Uffizi, provides some insight into Botticelli’s process and technique.

From top: Botticelli’s ‘Tragedy of Lucretia’ (1499-1500), a detail of the work, and his ‘Story of Virginia’ (c. 1500). Preparatory study for Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi.’ ‘Men Conversing and Two Magi’
From top: Botticelli’s ‘Tragedy of Lucretia’ (1499-1500), a detail of the work, and his ‘Story of Virginia’ (c. 1500). Preparatory study for Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi.’ ‘Men Conversing and Two Magi’ Photo: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

These are all fascinating paintings. But the point Mr. Silver makes about them in the catalog, that they demonstrate the revolutionary character of the spalliere format in shaping the look of European history paintings to come, may be hard for anyone but specialists to grasp in the galleries themselves. In any case, many visitors, once they have delved into the stories of Lucretia and Virginia, may have a hard time thinking about anything else. In these two panels alone, there is much to excite contemporary viewers, intrigue and repel them.

Appeared in the February 20, 2019, print edition as ‘Harrowing Scenes of Women’s Sacrifice.’

Fashion World Recalls an Influential Legend

Karl Lagerfeld, seen walking the runway at the end of his spring 2013 ready-to-wear show for Chanel in October 2012, was an irreverent and energetic creator.
Karl Lagerfeld, seen walking the runway at the end of his spring 2013 ready-to-wear show for Chanel in October 2012, was an irreverent and energetic creator. Photo: charles platiau/Reuters

Karl Lagerfeld was remembered Tuesday as a protean and peripatetic designer whose boundless creativity was rooted in an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history.

News of Mr. Lagerfeld’s death cast a pall over fashion week, now under way in Milan before heading to Paris. The irreverent and energetic creator, whose career included work for Chanel, Fendi, Chloe and other storied houses, was 85 years old.

Mr. Lagerfeld embraced pop culture well before others in luxury fashion did. He became a celebrity in his own right, globe-trotting in his white ponytail, fingerless gloves, dark glasses, high collared white shirt and fitted black jacket and trousers.

Olivier Rousteing, the 33-year-old creative director of Balmain, said that as a youngster, he admired how Mr. Lagerfeld exploded couture’s appeal with his larger-than-life personality and designs, including a 2004 collaboration with fast-fashion retailer H&M that sold out in hours. “He was a figure that anyone knew outside of the fashion scene,” Mr. Rousteing said.

Mr. Lagerfeld and Claudia Schiffer at a Chanel haute-couture show in Paris in July 1990. The designer, whose career also included work for Fendi, Chloe and other storied houses, became a celebrity in his own right.
Mr. Lagerfeld and Claudia Schiffer at a Chanel haute-couture show in Paris in July 1990. The designer, whose career also included work for Fendi, Chloe and other storied houses, became a celebrity in his own right. Photo: ARNAL/PICOT/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

With Chanel especially, Mr. Lagerfeld mounted shows that were extravagant spectacles. He lavished attention on craftsmanship and spared no expense on sets that replicated everything from space stations to beaches and supermarkets.

“He was fashion’s direct and only link left to the golden age of couture in the post-war era,” said Pamela Golbin, the former chief curator of fashion and textiles at Paris museum Les Arts Décoratifs. His longevity and ability to stay relevant were notable, she said. “You can choose any decade, there are just so many ‘wow’ moments.”

A statement from Ralph Lauren, a generational peer of Mr. Lagerfeld’s, praised the designer as “the modern couturier committed to the artistry of those traditions, but always with an eye for everyday life” and noted his “influence way beyond the world of fashion.”

“His impact has been huge, particularly with regard to the work he’s done at Chanel,” said Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

“He just turbocharged the house and made it super exciting.”

—Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology

“After [Coco] Chanel died in ’71, the house really lost any cachet it had before. He just turbocharged the house and made it super exciting and relevant again and kept it at the pinnacle of luxury fashion through the decades and up to the present,” said Ms. Steele. “It was an enormous success story from the beginning and he kept it longer than almost anyone else, meanwhile juggling a million other projects,” referring to his work with Fendi, a namesake collection, photography, and magazine editing, among other pursuits and collaborations.

His success with injecting inventive modern touches to iconic Chanel designs such as the tweed suit, “was instrumental in reminding other investors there was a lot of capital latent in these great names of fashion,” Dr. Steele said.

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Mr. Lagerfeld also championed diversity, and in the 1980s was an early supporter of supermodel Veronica Webb. “He was someone who took the risks and reinvented a genre,” Ms. Webb said. “Not only did he help to convince the fashion world that I could be a star, that black girls and brown girls were symbols of elegance and aspiration, but personally he helped give me the confidence so that I can walk into any door that I wanted to.”

Friends remembered Mr. Lagerfeld’s bracing candor and wit. Fluent in several languages, he was never at a loss for a biting epigram or tart observation.

“Karl was so much more than our greatest and most prolific designer— his creative genius was breathtaking and to be his friend was an exceptional gift,” Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue and artistic director of Conde Nast said in a statement. “Karl was brilliant, he was wicked, he was funny, he was generous beyond measure, and he was deeply kind.”

The True Confessions of a Serial Houseplant Killer

PLANT PARENTHOOD How to make peace with having a black thumb.
PLANT PARENTHOOD How to make peace with having a black thumb. Photo: Illustration by Serge Bloch; istockphoto (plant)

DESPITE MY BEST EFFORTS, I keep killing my houseplants. “Please don’t leave me, cranky little man,” I implored the other day, stroking a plant’s wrinkly, desiccated limb. But it was too late. One of Mr. Fern’s crispy brown leaves fell to the floor, and another old friend was gone for good.

Mr. Fern had fabulous fronds when I brought him home and put him on the mantel, where he added feathery elegance to the living room. But a few months later as I was dumping his remains into the compost bin alongside other victims—including Fiddle-Leaf Frank, Mr. Fern Sr. and Robert (a finicky begonia)—I realized I had to face the truth: I’m a serial plant murderer.

This confession, by the way, comes from a person whose job is to keep plants alive. I not only love the look of greenery as décor, I’m the editor of Gardenista, a horticulture website. I dispense advice like “Don’t overwater your plants” daily. If I can’t keep my houseplants alive, what hope is there for my readers?

My epiphany is coming just as houseplants are having a moment. Sales of plants are up. Nearly one-third of all American households grew houseplants in 2017, and the $1.6 billion they spent on them was a 29% increase over the previous year, according to a nationwide survey by Garden Research, a Vermont market analyst. Not since the 1970s have interior designers accessorized clients’ homes with so many potted plants. On Instagram, it’s getting hard to see the furniture through the foliage.

But not at my house.

“People are starting to call me the angel of death,” I told Prof. Stanley Kays, a horticulturalist at the University of Georgia.

“Everybody kills a lot of houseplants,” he said. “Of course, the industry isn’t extremely upset. Growers can sell them again and again.”

“So why do we keep buying them?” I asked.

“People think plants in a house improve the air,” he said.

Don’t they?

‘Maybe it’s a delusion of grandeur to think you can sustain a fern indoors.’

“Maybe. But to aerate the house, your best bet is to open a window,” he said. There’s no proof houseplants significantly improve air quality in homes. That’s because studies that show plants absorb airborne toxins have been conducted in sealed laboratories, not a typical house, he said, where the indoor air exchanges with the air outdoors every hour.

That said, Prof. Kays has his own houseplant collection. “If you’re a horticulturalist, it’s practically required,” he said. “You are probably overwatering yours.”

Maybe I should set all my plants free. Every indoor plant would rather live outside in its native habitat. Unless you’re a horticulturalist like Prof. Kays, maybe it’s a delusion of grandeur to think you can sustain a fern for any length of time indoors.

“Don’t look at it like that,” said Eliza Blank, co-founder of The Sill, a houseplant seller with two shops in Manhattan and a third in Los Angeles. “Houseplants aren’t going away, because they connect us to nature.”

When Ms. Blank launched The Sill in 2012 (as a houseplant-delivery service), “there was already a movement to embrace nature,” she said. “People had chicken coops in their backyards. That wasn’t going to last. But finding a way to return to nature is just going to get more important.”

If you feel so guilty about killing a plant that you don’t want to try again, you’re missing the point, Ms. Blank said. “We have customers who buy a plant because it will look good on a bookshelf, and it dies in three months. The next plant they buy, when they see the health start to degrade, they put it in a sunny window,” said Ms. Blank. “Having plants is a process, and hopefully you learn something from the experience.”

Comedians on Their Foliage Failings

“I don’t have the knack for growing houseplants. I bought a hanging fern and the rope died.” —Milton Berle

“I like to tease my plants. I water them with ice cubes.” —Steven Wright

“I have no plants in my house. They won’t live for me. Some of them don’t even wait to die, they commit suicide.” —Jerry Seinfeld

“My fake plants died because I did not pretend to water them.” —Mitch Hedberg

This view, it turns out, is shared by my friend Margot’s mother, Estelle Guralnick, who may possibly own the world’s oldest living houseplant. Her husband, Eugene, who introduced her to gardening when they were newlyweds in the 1950s, brought a monstera home one night.

“I named it Monsterioso, and it only had two little leaves when my husband picked it up at an A&P supermarket on his way from work,” she told me the other day.

Ms. Guralnick doesn’t live with Monsterioso anymore. After a stroke three years ago (“Thank God it didn’t affect my marbles, but it did affect everything on my right side”), she decided to move permanently to an assisted-living facility in Cambridge, Mass. By then the houseplant—which nowadays looks more like a tree—was too big to move with her.

It still thrives in a sunny spot in the nearby apartment she keeps for her visiting children. It is sending restless roots over the lip of the pot to explore the living room. “It has roots like tiny fingers that destroyed a small scatter rug I had,” she said fondly. “Some of the roots were really embedded.”

Since the stroke, Ms. Guralnick has built a new collection of houseplants. “Nothing that needs too much maintenance. With the wheelchair, it’s hard to maneuver,” she said.

She has orchids she found discarded outside other residents’ rooms after they stopped blooming (“I get them to bloom again in three months”), geraniums, succulents and scented paperwhites (“very sweet this time of year”). Oh, and a ponytail palm. Plus a new monstera, tabletop size.

I told Ms. Guralnick that I am a houseplant failure.

“Stop saying that,” she said. “That’s like saying you’re giving up on the miracle of life. Nothing is more independent and inexorable than Mother Nature. Don’t you think it’s very exciting to see plants grow?”

She offered some tips: “Try something easy. Succulents are good. And don’t overwater. Do you know what that means?”

“Maybe not,” I admitted.

“Use common sense. Use your fingers to test the soil, and only water when it’s dry,” she said. I started to feel cautiously optimistic.

“Maybe I’ll get another fern,” I said.

“I would like a report in six months,” Ms. Guralnick said, adding that in the meantime she will be coaxing more orchids to bloom. “I can’t wait to see what they produce.”

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‘Documentary Now’ Returns With a Wink

Cate Blanchett and Fred Armisen in an episode from the new season of ‘Documentary Now.’
Cate Blanchett and Fred Armisen in an episode from the new season of ‘Documentary Now.’ Photo: Rhys Thomas/IFC

“Waiting for the Artist” presents an overview of the long and storied career of the acclaimed Izabella Barta, featuring such memorable works as “Coat Rack,” “Late for Dinner” and “Ein Tag, Ein Frankfurter.”

Except the artist, and her work, isn’t real. Neither is the documentary—it is an episode in the third season of “Documentary Now,” premiering Wednesday on IFC. The television series is produced by “Saturday Night Live” alumni Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers, with a cast that includes Michael Keaton, Natasha Lyonne and Cate Blanchett, who plays Ms. Barta.

As in past seasons, which included sendups of “Grey Gardens,” “The Thin Blue Line” and “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” the new season pays winking homage to well-known documentaries. The re-creation of the look and feel of the source material—in everything from production design, to the particular way people behave on camera, to video technology and techniques—is meticulous and painstaking.

“Every episode begins with detective work,” says series co-director and co-showrunner Alex Buono. “Part of the game is laying the groundwork of verisimilitude, figuring out the style, the language of each episode, and to get as close to the world you’re trying to re-create. We’re really adopting the identity of whoever’s shooting this.”

As series co-creator and director Rhys Thomas points out, the parodies come from a place of affection. “Everybody involved in the show is a docuphile,” he says. “It’s not cruel. To me, at least, good parody has a sincerity to it.”

In the case of “Waiting for the Artist,” a riff on the Marina Abramović documentary “The Artist Is Present,” the process involved coming up with several decades’ worth of performance-art pieces, replete with photographs and performance videos shot on period equipment. Ms. Blanchett went through 13 wigs in four days.

“She provided some of her own costumes,” says Mr. Thomas. “She really met us on the plane of obsessive detail.”

John Mulaney and Renee Elise Goldsberry in ‘Documentary Now.’
John Mulaney and Renee Elise Goldsberry in ‘Documentary Now.’ Photo: Rhys Thomas/IFC

Occasionally, the detective work will involve conversations with the original filmmakers. For one new episode, Mr. Buono sought advice from D.A. Pennebaker on his 1970 fly-on-the-wall documentary “Original Cast Album: Company.”

Where Mr. Pennebaker’s film documented a late-night recording session for the Stephen Sondheim musical “Company,” the “Documentary Now” episode, written by John Mulaney and Mr. Meyers, features Broadway actors performing Sondheim-inspired numbers. In a further blurring of the line between life and comedy, IFC announced plans for a vinyl album based on the episode, the third time the series has spawned a musical release.

“We can’t wait to find out what Stephen thinks of it,” says Mr. Buono.

Season three of “Documentary Now” begins airing on IFC on Wednesday.

Carnival in Haiti: The Most Raucous Bash in the Caribbean

Carnival in the Haitian town of Jacmel is both visual feast and street theater.
Carnival in the Haitian town of Jacmel is both visual feast and street theater. Illustration: LAURA GREENAN

THE BEST TRIPS, we’re often told, are never planned. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I harbor doubts born of having booked many last-minute journeys whose exciting “spontaneity” devolved into the remorse particular to eight-hour layovers and airport dinners wrought by poor planning.

No trip, however, is so memorable as the impromptu leap that actually pans out. That’s true, anyway, of the one that brought me for the first time to a country I’d been aiming to visit for years but hadn’t—until I got a phone call asking if, by chance, I could be there in 16 hours.

The country was Haiti. The call was a kind of summons. It came five years ago from a writer friend in California who said that some musicians he knew, members of a band whose records I’d loved since college, were planning to visit Haiti. They nurtured old ties there and wanted to take part in the country’s famous carnival. They were open to bringing along a writer, to describe the experience for a magazine he helped edit. Would I like to join them? There is, to a question like that, only one reply.

I booked a ticket that took me, briefly, to the Dominican Republic, where I met my musician hosts and boarded a small plane. We flew above the dusty streets in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, over denuded mountains and then, minutes later, down toward Haiti’s lovely southern coast.

‘Jacmel is famed for the great papier-mâché masks its artisans craft.’

The town of Jacmel is set around a turquoise bay. In colonial days, Jacmel was a prosperous coffee port, and the wrought-iron balconies of its handsome homes evoke New Orleans—the city to which its wealthy fled after Haiti’s revolution. But Carnival in Jacmel little resembles the Big Easy’s Mardi Gras. It little resembles Carnival anywhere. I’ve been lucky enough to witness Rio’s samba troupes and the steel bands of Trinidad. But nothing in my experience has matched the astonishment we felt in Jacmel. After driving into town from the airport, we swam through happy crowds on teeming streets and made our way onto the wooden roof of a restaurant overlooking the town’s main drag.

Before the trip, I had read that Jacmel is famed for the great papier-mâché masks its artisans craft from scraps of cardboard and glue. But knowing this didn’t prepare me for the sight of hundreds of revelers donning these masks—many dwarfed by them—parading down the town’s Avenue Barranquilla.

Among those animals and creatures of myth were flamingos and toucans, zebras and ghouls. A team of giraffes paused to make way for a giant bat. A group of girls and boys, clad in black and white and purple and red, honored various lwa—deities—of Haitian voodoo.

With roving “rara” bands propelling the parade with trumpet-line horns, this moving visual feast would have been stunning even if I hadn’t attempted to parse what it meant. As I stood transfixed for hours with some new Haitian friends, they did their best to keep up with my torrent of questions about what I was seeing—a kind of street theater, whose characters acted out events from this place’s recent and distant past.

One group of revelers pushed wheelbarrows loaded with others playing dead, and it wasn’t hard to glean the connection to the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that struck the area. Less easy for the outsider to interpret were the paraders who portrayed historical figures from the age of Haiti’s Revolution, or stood in for the dark-grey pigs known as cochon creole—a hearty species that was killed off en masse by U.S. aid workers, to devastating effect to Haiti’s peasants, after a 1980s swine-flu outbreak. But they all danced along to the music, turning history’s pain and its pride alike into ravishing art for today.

The weekend that followed included a raucous concert, in the town’s main square, performed by the visiting rock stars and several Haitian groups. Our time in Jacmel also featured encounters with local activists and aid workers wiser than those pig-killers in the ’80s—more than enough to fill a magazine article. But I left Haiti’s south coast with much more than that. History may have been what drew me to Haiti, but what defined my first visit there—and has seen me return as often as I can—are the hard-won beauties of its present. They’re the reason that whenever people ask me whether they should visit Haiti if they have the chance, I give some simple advice: Go.

Carnival in Haiti: The Most Raucous Bash in the Caribbean

More in Off Duty Travel

Do AirPods Make You Look Rich? These Millennials Think So

WILL KELLOGG regards his headphones with a degree of shame. In New York City, where people proudly brandish their bright-white wireless AirPods, he listens to music through a “do they even make those anymore?” wirebound set. As the 26-year-old administrator for a Brooklyn theater company confessed: “I still use corded headphones.” In late December, he vented his perceived aural inferiority in a Twitter missive, framing a recent quote by Catherine Zeta-Jones—“I will not apologize for being rich, beautiful and famous”—as something AirPod owners might say to a poor soul like him.


A Ford Thunderbird From the Good-Time 1950s

Phil Hoon’s 1955 Ford Thunderbird, photographed in his backyard in Chestertown, Md. Ford created the car to compete with Chevrolet’s new Corvette..
Phil Hoon’s 1955 Ford Thunderbird, photographed in his backyard in Chestertown, Md. Ford created the car to compete with Chevrolet’s new Corvette.. Photo: Matt Roth for The Wall Street Journal

Phil Hoon, 65, an attorney from Chestertown, Md., on his 1955 Ford Thunderbird, as told to A.J. Baime.

In 1954, Ford Motor Company debuted the Thunderbird as a 1955 model. My grandfather was a Ford dealer at the time in the small town of Chestertown on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where I still live. His dealership got one T-Bird the first year the car came out and that is the car you see pictured here.

Originally, my grandfather sold the car to his lawyer, who owned it until 1974. When this lawyer grew elderly, he sold the car to my mother, who gave it to me in 1978. So the car has gone through three generations of my family. My two sons, both now in their 30s and living about an hour from me, grew up with this car in the garage. It was there before they were born, and they love it. I still drive the car in the town where it was first sold.

I am a fan of American history, and the Thunderbird holds a special place in that long story. During the early 1950s, Chevrolet developed the Corvette, and soon after, Ford debuted the Thunderbird to compete with the Corvette. These were the first real American sports cars. To me, the original Corvette was sportier, but the Thunderbird was more stately.

Photos: An Icon of the 1950s

An attorney shows off the 1955 Ford Thunderbird originally sold nearly 65 years ago from a dealership owned by his grandfather

Phil Hoon, 65, an attorney, with his 1955 Ford Thunderbird. This Thunderbird was originally sold in Chestertown, Md., nearly 65 years ago, from a dealership owned by Mr. Hoon’s grandfather.
Matt Roth for The Wall Street Journal

When these cars came out, there were very few Mercedes, Porsches, or any foreign cars on American roads. So the Thunderbird and the Corvette stood out. Elvis, Coca-Cola and the Ford T-Bird—these were emblems of the good-time 1950s. Gas was cheap back then, and while I have never measured, I would be surprised if my T-Bird got more than 14 miles a gallon.

When you drive the car, it is like an event. You don’t want to turn on the radio, because you want to hear the sound of the engine. The car has this beautiful, curved-glass windshield. It has no air conditioning and no seat belts, but it does have power steering and power brakes.

The first year of production, the car came in just a handful of colors, and while my car was originally a shade of blue, I had it painted snowshoe white, which was still one of the original colors. I have had the engine rebuilt and new tires put on, but aside from that, it is pretty much as it was, when it first rolled out of my grandfather’s dealership.

One funny thing about the car is the speedometer. It goes up to 150 mph. Ha! Can you imagine?

The Link Between Menopause and Alzheimer’s

The Link Between Menopause and Alzheimer’s
Illustration: James Steinberg

Women make up nearly two-thirds of patients with Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S., in part because they live longer than men. Now, researchers are exploring whether hormonal changes related to menopause affect the development of the disease.

“The truth is that Alzheimer’s is not a disease of old age, it’s a disease of middle age,” says Lisa Mosconi, director of the Weill Cornell Women’s Brain Initiative in New York City, a research program aimed at reducing Alzheimer’s risk. “In reality, the brain changes start in mid-life.”

Most people think of how menopause affects fertility. But Dr. Mosconi says its effect on the brain is what results in night sweats, hot flashes and even memory changes. Those symptoms are caused by declining levels of estrogen and other hormones. Estrogen protects the female brain from aging and stimulates neural activity. It may help prevent the buildup of clusters of proteins, or plaques, that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Studies show that when estrogen production declines during menopause, the brain’s metabolism appears to slow down and it becomes less efficient.

PET scans of brain metabolic activity at three menopausal stages: premenopause, perimenopause, and postmenopause. The red color indicates areas of maximum metabolic activity, yellow-green indicates less activity, and green to blue indicates low to no activity.
PET scans of brain metabolic activity at three menopausal stages: premenopause, perimenopause, and postmenopause. The red color indicates areas of maximum metabolic activity, yellow-green indicates less activity, and green to blue indicates low to no activity. Photo: Dr. Lisa Mosconi/Weill Cornell Medical College

For decades many women entering menopause tempered its effects with hormone replacement therapy. But in 2003 a large randomized controlled study called the Women’s Health Initiative was halted after the women taking HRT had an increased risk of heart attacks and breast cancer. Some women also showed a small increased likelihood of developing dementia. Since then HRT has fallen out of favor though many women continue it. When researchers re-examined the data they noticed that the trials focused on older women—on average age 63 and more than a decade past menopause. When they looked solely at the women in their 50s, they found estrogen therapy reduced the risk of mortality related to heart disease and breast cancer.

“The jury is still out and we’re still trying to sort out all of the current data, whether hormone replacement therapy will help prevent the development of Alzheimer’s disease or even put women at risk,” says Howard Hodis, a professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. “This issue is complicated by a lot of factors—not just timing as to when women start HRT, but also the hormone regimen, what kind of hormone or estrogen that is used and the route of delivery.”

In a study published in December in the journal PLOS One, Dr. Mosconi and co-researchers documented how healthy women’s brains change before and after menopause. The 59 women in the study had higher rates of brain-energy decline and shrinkage in the memory centers, as well as higher rates of Alzheimer’s plaques compared with 18 men of similar age.

“Women’s brains seemed to age faster than men’s brains during the transition to menopause,” Dr. Mosconi says. “This accelerated aging process is likely related to the loss of estrogen in the brain and all the hormonal changes going on inside the brain.”

“It’s not that menopause causes Alzheimer’s disease,” she adds. “It’s more like for the average woman, if you have an Alzheimer’s predisposition, menopause may accelerate the process.”

Such changes don’t affect all women. About 20% of women don’t suffer from the hormonal changes associated with menopause, Dr. Mosconi says, and the other 80% have varying effects, from mild to severe.

In a 2017 study published in the journal Neurology, Dr. Mosconi and co-researchers used PET scans to analyze the brain activity of 42 healthy 40- to 60-year-old women and 18 men of a similar age.

Perimenopausal women had a 15% to 20% reduction in brain metabolism compared with the men, while postmenopausal women had over 30% reduction. Perimenopause, which lasts an average of one to five years, is the transition period that leads to menopause.

Postmenopausal women also showed the emergence of Alzheimer’s plaques in the brain. Alzheimer’s plaques don’t necessarily mean that a person will get the disease but indicate a higher risk for developing it.

Dr. Mosconi said there is some evidence that estrogen therapy initiated within five years of menopause, particularly during perimenopause, may also protect against dementia though more research is needed.

But other experts say it isn’t clear whether hormone therapy can help—or harm—cognitive health and affect the development of Alzheimer’s disease in women.

Dr. Hodis was the lead researcher in a trial that randomly placed more than 600 healthy women into groups who either started taking an oral form of estrogen therapy within six years of menopause or more than 10 years after menopause.

Their findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2016, found that the women who started taking estrogen earlier had a reduction in the progression of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks. Another 2016 study in the journal Neurology showed that there was no difference between the two groups of women in cognitive decline, a potential precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. An earlier randomized controlled study had similar findings.

Roberta Diaz Brinton, director of the Center for Innovation in Brain Science at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and senior author of the PLOS One study has been studying why the female brain is at risk for Alzheimer’s disease for three decades. She says estrogen therapy may be a useful intervention for women in perimenopause who experience a lot of symptoms such as hot flashes, insomnia and depression. Dr. Brinton is studying whether estrogen therapy can lower a woman’s risk of Alzheimer’s.

She is developing an estrogen-only formulation which targets the estrogen receptors in the brain, but not in the breast or uterus. One small clinical trial to be published this year demonstrated the safety of the formulation. Its efficacy against Alzheimer’s is now being tested. “Estrogen therapy alone is not going to be the panacea,” she says. “Exercise, diet, sleep. These are all important.”

Timing is key. Estrogen therapy is unlikely to be effective in women 60 or older who are no longer experiencing menopausal symptoms. “The time to intervene is when women are having symptoms very early on in this process potentially at the inception of perimenopause,” Dr. Brinton says.

She noted that the women in Dr. Hodis’s study were all post-menopausal so their brains were no longer responsive to estrogen. Her research is focused on determining the process that leads to a loss of estrogen response in the brain.

Dr. Mosconi currently has funding to look at hormonal and brain changes in both men and women at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. For men, she says testosterone levels lower very gradually over time, typically in one’s 70s.

Paula Spencer Scott is participating in a study examining hormonal and brain changes in people at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Paula Spencer Scott is participating in a study examining hormonal and brain changes in people at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Photo: James Scott

The study will follow about 200 men and women between ages 40 and 65 over two years. Among the participants is Paula Spencer Scott, a 58-year-old Fort Collins, Colo., resident, who has written a book on Alzheimer’s. Ms. Scott’s father and maternal grandmother suffered from different types of dementia, as did her father-in-law and both her mothers-in-law. As part of the study she had several different brain scans over the summer. She gave blood for testing and did an extensive lifestyle survey. “It was a low-risk opportunity for me to help unravel these kind of mysteries about what causes Alzheimer’s,” she says.

Ms. Scott has three daughters and says “figuring out hormonal influences on dementia would help them when they approach menopause.”

Appeared in the February 19, 2019, print edition as ‘Seeking Alzheimer’s Clues.’

Roses Are Red, Orchids Are Addictive

About a year ago, 11-year-old David Marcovici started collecting orchids. Since then, he’s amassed a few dozen that have turned the family kitchen into a mini-rainforest. His favorites are miniatures, which he calls his “little guys.”

He brought $267—all his savings—to spend at a recent orchid show in New Jersey. Then it was on to another show earlier this month. “God help us,” says his dad, Geno.