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Robert K. Massie, Narrator of Russian History, Is Dead at 90



Robert Kinloch Massie III was born in Versailles, Ky., on Jan. 5, 1929. His father, Robert Jr., was an educator and his mother, Molly (Kimball) Massie, was a progressive activist. He grew up in Versailles and in Nashville.

After graduating from high school in Nashville, he earned a bachelor’s degree in American studies at Yale and another degree in the field at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar before serving in the Navy. In addition to working at The Saturday Evening Post, he had stints as a journalist at Collier’s and Newsweek. He taught briefly at Princeton and Tulane and was president of the Authors Guild.

His marriage to Suzanne Rohrbach in 1954 ended in divorce in 1990. Suzanne Massie’s books include “Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia” (1980), which President Ronald Reagan read. She met a number of times with Reagan, and she was widely credited with telling him of the Russian proverb “doveryai, no proveryai” — “trust, but verify” — which he repeated in a meeting on arms control with the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Mr. Massie married Ms. Karl in 1992. In addition to her and his son Bob, he is survived by two daughters, Susanna Thomas and Elizabeth Massie, from his first marriage; a son, Christopher, and two daughters, Sophia and Nora Massie, from his second; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson. His brother, Walter Massie, who went by Kim, died last year, also on Dec. 2.

Mr. Massie’s love of books — particularly the ones that fueled his own formidable literary output — was downright visceral. In an essay for The New York Times Book Review in 2012, he told of moving his many books on Catherine from his office to a nearby spot so he could visit them as “friends.” He said he showed the same respect to books in libraries.

“I like to make sure they are alive and well,” he wrote. “If they have collected dust, I take out the small towel I carry in my briefcase and wipe them off.”

Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.

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Best Performances of 2019



With all due respect to the entire history of the police procedural, I’ve never seen one like this rape investigation. More than being interesting, it’s so interested, in the vicissitudes of victimhood and survival, in quiet and restraint. It’s hard to explain how that interest reveals itself, except to say that the people playing cops, accusers and parents create this nexus of frustration, outrage, patience, doubt, empathy, determination and shame. One beautifully written and acted exchange follows another. Danielle Macdonald, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Dale Dickey, Elizabeth Marvel, Annaleigh Ashford, Bridget Everett, Eric Lange: The show lets them all do painterly work, shading even minor characters. Kaitlyn Dever, playing a spiky foster kid whom law enforcement chews up and spits out, is especially good at navigating post-traumatic stress with no GPS. And as a pair of detectives, Toni Collette is self-amusedly made of Kevlar and Merritt Wever is the closest acting gets to emotional stethoscope.

Whenever that moment arrives partway through a movie or TV show in which your excitement, curiosity or belief spikes, odds are very good that Lucas Hedges, Hong Chau, Merritt Wever or Rob Morgan has arrived to do the spiking. Everything about them is a sideways thrill. I spent most of “Just Mercy” devastated by its most rueful death-row inmate, only to belatedly realize that it was Morgan who was breaking my heart. He’s got a raw, transparent realness you don’t teach or learn. It takes a certain amount of guts to cast him since that realness could expose what surrounds him, the way it does in “The Last Black Man,” as otherwise vacant.

Officially, what Ohashi did with her perfect-10 floor exercise at a college gymnastics meet in January was a solo routine. But somebody made a video of her slingshot leaps and Velcro-tight landings, and in it, you can see her daggone teammates not just cheering her on, but eventually moving with her in synchronicity to choice bits of songs like “Proud Mary” and “September.” They don’t just have the usual tumblers’ spunk. They’ve got rhythm and timing and great taste for that floor-exercise soundtrack.

Everybody in this musical, about beached stage actors who crash a small-town dance, worked with an astonishing sense of farce. But Leavel polishes narcissism to marbled perfection. The flailing limbs, the snobby rictus of disgust and self-delight. Remember in May when the Met Gala had lots of people wondering, “What’s camp?” Well, for eight shows a week, it was wearing skintight jungle prints and doing misleadingly titled numbers like “It’s Not About Me.”

“Hadestown” is a musical Greek myth, American music mash-up in which Hades is essentially Leonard Cohen, the three Fates are the Labelle trio, and Orpheus is the troubadour who replaced Garrison Keillor on the old “Prairie Home Companion.” But it’s Gray, as Hades’ lady, Persephone, who burned me up. Gray uses precision to amplify jaggedness, want and wrath and to ask and answer an urgent question: If Billie Holiday got dragged to hell, she’d be reborn as Tina Turner’s Acid Queen, right?

The best written thing on television of any kind this year also inspired the best acting. She’s a sexual time bomb. He’s a weak priest. Scott’s job is to keep the priest’s lust in tension with his chastity. Waller-Bridge’s is to convince him (and herself) that she’s worth the breaking of his vows. Morality, physics, theology, self-deception and grace pass between them, in halting verbosity and these friezes of guilt and incrimination. Unless a third season happens (Phoebe, don’t do it!), the only place to find the likes of these two again is probably the Bible itself.

People who love the first season found this second helping an unnecessary excuse to see Meryl Streep insinuate her way through a wig and fake chompers onto everybody’s last nerve. It was also crucial to discover that Kravitz can sulk, worry, break down and seethe with a soul she’s never been allowed to bare. While Streep and company are doing their gold-medal high jumps, Kravitz takes things where you’d expect a woman thinking about the murder she committed would: under the top.

It’s true that Jerome is around for the first three parts of this mini-series about the so-called Central Park Five, but the final installment focuses on the incarceration of Korey Wise, and Jerome and his full, searching eyes change the meaning of the dutiful, scrupulously moral thing we’d been watching. He gives the existential terror some rage and physical imagination and, most impossibly, these glimmers of wonder.

There are gimmicks, then there’s what these two have done — grown women playing middle-schoolers surrounded by actual middle-schoolers who manage somehow to keep a straight face. The riot comes in part from the contrast between the adult actors and the kids but mostly from Erskine and Konkle’s studied attitudinal accuracy that, in a single facial expression, can capture awkwardness, cockiness, horniness and chagrin.

Officially, the umbrage Kelly took during this one-on-one interview was the performance. But as he stomps around a hotel suite, his giant frame spewing profane self-defense all over, King holds steady. “Robert,” she intones, “Robert …” All journalist, of course, but a lot of profile in courage and a little Dr. Melfi, too.

This kid can eye-roll, wear 30 patterns at the same time, deeply develop what’s usually the funny-gay-best-friend sidepiece and supersonically deliver line readings like he’s been acting since the screwball era (he has not; Gatwa is 27). But playing a teenage Brit on the best show about young lust maybe ever, the most important question is: When does he breathe?

On March 8, scores of people left a Robyn concert at Madison Square Garden only to travel to the subway station beneath it and resume the show. I’ve yet to die, so I’ve yet to go to heaven. But surely an overcrowded train platform full of strangers all belting “Dancing on My Own” must be a nightly recurrence inside at least one of its gates.

1. Brandi Carlile

2. Alicia Keys

3. H.E.R.

4. Chloe x Halle

5. Post Malone and Red Hot Chili Peppers

6. Cardi B

7. St. Vincent and Dua Lipa

8. Kacey Musgraves

9. Jennifer Lopez

10. Diana Ross

If I ever teach a class, I’ll make sure to spend a week dismantling the shocking magic of Zendaya as a physical comedian. She’s playing a sullen teenage junkie, but she’s doing it with more colors than Crayola has crayons. Her face is a wonder of pique and lifelessness, the mask of tragicomedy, basically — on opioids.

Even though all of this guy’s YouTube micro-musicals are pretty straightforward (change the lyrics of an old show tune or current-ish pop hit and crosscut them with Trump-oriented news footage), I don’t how he does it. Not simply the withering wit and the richness of his singing but the hydraulic reactions. Those alone make Joan Crawford seem like Steven Seagal.

In February, before she laid her soaring stank on Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s mega hit, Clarkson apologized for any perceivable disservice. But this murder was premeditated: she was barefoot. Anybody who plans to put a hurtin’ on a song does it shoelessly.

This man should no more have played D’Urville Martin than the Incredible Hulk should play Kermit the Frog. But Snipes doesn’t care. He’s made Martin such a prissy, sissy macho that you don’t know whether to call the Academy or Vince McMahon.

This 10-year-old pockets the movie’s longest, most rigorously conceived sequence from Leonardo DiCaprio, who otherwise owns it. She’s a world-weary child actor on a TV western. He’s a beached hack. And Butters excels at about half a dozen things (weathering his chauvinism and balancing adult wisdom with childlike wonder, for starters) while never losing the idea that she’s also playing a kid who expects the man-baby next to her to act like more of an adult than she is.

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D.C. Fontana, First Female ‘Star Trek’ Writer, Dies at 80



D.C. Fontana, who helped craft the lore of the 1960s television series “Star Trek” and developed one of its signature characters, Spock, as the show’s first female writer, died on Tuesday at a hospital in Burbank, Calif. She was 80.

Her husband and only immediate survivor, Dennis Skotak, said the cause was cancer.

Ms. Fontana was part of the “Star Trek” universe from its early days, working alongside the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, as a story editor and writer.

The original series, which had its premiere in 1966, introduced audiences to Captain Kirk, the United Federation of Planets and the Starship Enterprise. But Ms. Fontana was best known among fans for her work on Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan Starfleet officer portrayed by Leonard Nimoy.

Spock was torn between the emotionality of his human side and a Vulcan’s zealous commitment to logic. That narrative tension powered much of the series and several of the feature films that followed.

“From Day 1 she was there helping Gene, in the early days, as a confidante,” Mr. Skotak said. “Captain Kirk always found a way to solve whatever problem they were facing — using Dorothy’s words in a lot of cases,” using Ms. Fontana’s given name.

In a 2013 interview with, the franchise’s official website, Ms. Fontana said she thought her greatest contribution to the franchise had been “primarily the development of Spock as a character and Vulcan as a history/background/culture from which he sprang.”

She fleshed out the character’s back story as the child of a human mother and a Vulcan father while she was a story editor and associate producer for “Star Trek: The Animated Series” in the 1970s. She later wrote, with Mr. Roddenberry, the pilot that launched “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in 1987.

After high school, she studied to become a secretary at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. She told the foundation that she had thought that clerical work would be a good day job for an aspiring novelist, but that her goals had changed when she became a secretary at Columbia Pictures’ television arm, which was based in New York.

“I was seeing scripts come across our desks for the various shows we had on the air at the time and I thought, ‘I can write this,’ like so many fools before me,” she said. “I had watched television for years and years and kind of got the idea of how stories were structured.”

When her boss died of a heart attack, leaving her jobless after just two months, she decided to move to California, in December 1959, to see if she could break into television writing. She achieved early success selling scripts to western series, which were popular in the early 1960s, including “The Tall Man,” “Shotgun Slade” and “Frontier Circus.”

Ms. Fontana told in 2013 that her big break came when she was hired to be the secretary to Del Reisman, the associate producer of a show called “The Lieutenant.” She was soon reassigned to work for another producer, whose secretary had been hospitalized for two months because of complications from an appendectomy: Gene Roddenberry.

When “The Lieutenant” went off the air, Mr. Roddenberry sold “Star Trek” to Desilu Productions and asked Ms. Fontana to work for him there as a production secretary. But her role soon expanded.

“She would read the scripts and retype them and things like that,” Mr. Skotak said. “Then she thought, ‘I should try writing these, because I have some ideas.’”

Mr. Roddenberry recognized her ambition, as well as her record of writing for westerns, and asked her to pick which story she wanted to write from the production outline for “Star Trek’s” first season. Her first script, about the ship’s encounter with a mysterious human teenager who possesses strange powers, became the series’ second episode.

Ms. Fontana wrote for all three seasons of the original series. She later wrote for other science fiction shows, including “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Babylon 5,” as well as influential series outside that genre like “Bonanza,” “Dallas” and “The Waltons.”

In her later years, Ms. Fontana taught at the American Film Institute. Mr. Skotak, her husband, a special effects designer, said she had continued to teach at the institute until just a few weeks before her death.

“She was a very, very tough lady,” he said. “She carried a phaser with her right up to the end.”

Speaking to in 2013, Ms. Fontana reflected on what it was like to be a female writer in Hollywood in the 1960s. While working on “Star Trek,” she said, she did not realize that she had gone where no woman had gone before.

“At the time, I wasn’t especially aware there were so few female writers doing action adventure scripts,” she said. “There were plenty doing soaps, comedies, or on variety shows. By choosing to do action adventure, I was in an elite, very talented and very different group of women writers.”

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What’s on TV Wednesday: ‘Vikings’ and ‘Good Will Hunting’



VIKINGS 9 p.m. on History. Bjorn Ironside’s ambitions and struggles as the king of Kattegat continue in a new season of “Vikings.” In the two-hour-long first episode, Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) finds difficulty in trusting his mother, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), while Ivar (Alex Hogh Andersen) is put to the test by the ruthless Prince Oleg (Danila Kozlovsky). Mike Hale wrote in his review for The New York Times that the series benefits from the modesty “Game of Thrones” lacks. “‘Vikings’ was admirably focused and engaging, its story easy to follow and its requisite elements of family soap opera and philosophizing relatively restrained,” he wrote.

AMERICAN WOMAN (2019) 6 p.m. on HBO. After her teenage daughter goes missing, Deb — a single mother in rural Pennsylvania played by Sienna Miller — attempts to pick up the pieces. With the help of her sister, Katherine (Christina Hendricks), and her mother, Peggy (Amy Madigan), Deb raises her grandson and navigates the challenging relationships she is left with. This film, directed by Jake Scott and written by Brad Ingelsby, is a “character study” of the working class, Glenn Kenny wrote in his review for The Times, adding that “the performances are excellent, and Ingelsby’s dialogue largely rings true.” “American Woman” will be available for streaming on HBO Thursday.

GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997) Stream on Starz; rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube. The 1998 winner of two Academy Awards, “Good Will Hunting” has become a classic. The film’s title character, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), is an unacknowledged genius — with a legal charge against him — working as a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When he solves a near-impossible-to-solve math problem left on a chalkboard, a professor (Stellan Skarsgard) gives him a real “Get Out of Jail Free” card on one condition: he see a therapist. Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), the only psychiatrist who can handle Will’s antics, and Will’s friends, played by Ben and Casey Affleck and Cole Hauser, work with him to bring out his brilliance. “The script’s bare bones are familiar,” Janet Maslin wrote in her review for The Times, “yet the film also has fine acting, steady momentum, a sharp eye and a very warm heart.”

MALCOLM X (1992) Stream on Netflix; rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube. “In the film’s view, a god has been recognized, then lost,” Vincent Canby wrote of “Malcolm X” in his review for The Times. Based on the autobiography of Malcolm X published the year he was killed, this Spike Lee movie tackles his life, with Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) arriving in 1940s Boston from Michigan as a teenager. The telling of his life unfolds, with his evolution from a rising Nation of Islam member to the black liberation movement’s spokesman. “Malcolm X” earned Lee an Oscar nomination for his depiction of this visionary.

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