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Norman Corwin’s ‘Triumph’

POLITICS HAS its down-ballot races. So do the Oscars.

In Mondo Politico, they bring up the rear behind the headliners for president, governor, U.S. Senate. The school board candidates, the sewer bonds, the annexation measures -- they’re all vital to governance and good order, but they’re dim wattage against star-power politicians.

On Planet Oscar, the Big Six categories -- best actors and actresses, best picture and director -- are trailed by 18 other sets of contenders, including documentaries, sound editing and makeup. They too are vital to the good order of cinema. But it grieves me to say that whenever a refrigerator door opens or a toilet flushes anywhere in America on Oscar night, it’s probably during one of the down-ballot awards, unless you’re within a 100-mile radius of the Kodak Theatre. (A good many Angelenos, after all, sit through film credits all the way to the union bug.)

I live within that magic radius, and so, yes, I was reading every single nominee in all 24 categories on Tuesday when I saw a friend’s name and did a one-woman standing ovation.

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David Strathairn was nominated for best actor for portraying Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and George Clooney was nominated for co-writing the screenplay. (Neither of them is the friend I’m talking about, but if they’d like to be, my e-mail address is at the bottom of this column.)

Their film breathed new life into Murrow’s dead bones. But my friend -- who was also a friend and colleague of Murrow’s -- is still among us. And he’s the subject of the short documentary, “A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin,” a film now burnished with that prefix, “Oscar-nominated.”

Norman Corwin is 95 years old and a career multi-tasker long before anyone came up with that word. He is still writing, still speaking, still teaching. He has more wit and brains and heart than the rest of us, even after banging his head in a recent fall. (After he was introduced at a USC event by a man who said Norman would be back teaching in the fall, Norman said dryly that he wished the man had used the word “autumn” instead.)

He is, I have told him, the only man I’ve ever known who makes me wish I were 40 years older.

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Norman was nominated for an Oscar himself, 50 years ago, for his screenplay for “Lust for Life.” But the 2006 version is better. “Lust” was about Van Gogh’s work. This is about his own.

WHEN RADIO was king, Norman was its court chronicler, dramatist, voice and conscience. The documentary’s title comes from his famous broadcast “On a Note of Triumph,” which aired on V-E Day, May 1945, celebrating the Allied victory in Europe and casting ahead to what it would mean for the world. Not quite four years earlier, and eight days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, CBS had aired Norman’s radio play, “We Hold These Truths,” honoring the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. FDR delivered the epilogue.

In Norman’s considerable heyday -- a span of decades -- he was as famous, and with far better reason, as any of today’s revolving-door celebs who arrive without merit on their part and depart without regret on ours.

Radio then wasn’t only theater of the air but theater of the mind. Norman’s plays -- about the Statue of Liberty, about the founding fathers, about a Satanic plot to overthrow Christmas that bears no resemblance to recent moronic tirades on the topic -- trade in light, not heat. His knowledge directs his passions, not the other way around. How often does that happen nowadays? The word “patriot” has been so degraded that I hesitate to use it, but Norman is my idea of a real patriot: forthright, conscientious, humane, civil, learned, tolerant of human foibles, intolerant of human cant and with eternal faith that the human spirit can triumph over itself.

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The world, his work and friends such as Carl Sandburg, Groucho Marx and Arthur Miller were Norman’s education. By metaphor and anecdote, he delivered to his listeners and readers the heroes and hypocrites he encountered.

He told me about what happened when Miller was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the same McCarthy era that the Murrow movie is about. A few of the congressmen took Miller aside; they’d drop the whole business, they assured him, if they could have their pictures taken with his wife -- Marilyn Monroe.

It tickles me that the year the iPod generation meets the virtual Ed Murrow could be the same year that it meets the real Norman Corwin. When “Good Night, and Good Luck” comes out on DVD, Warner Independent Pictures should make it a boxed set with “A Note of Triumph.” I’m sure George Clooney would be pleased to share the DVD shelf with Norman Corwin.

Heck, I’m just proud that my name and his are on the same page in the newspaper.

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PATT MORRISON‘s e-mail is patt.morrison@latimes.com.


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