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Marilyn Monroe

Arts Days: September 15, 1954: The Blonde Bombshell
Standing over a subway grate with a train rushing by below, Marilyn Monroe titillated moviegoers when her skirt blew up in the wind.

The director of The Seven-Year Itch, Billy Wilder, had ordered this scene to be filmed repeatedly. The shooting was taking place at Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street in New York City, and as he ordered more takes, more people gathered around to ogle Monroe. She was one of a long line of movie blondes dating back to Jean Harlow, who appeared in the 1933 film, Bombshell. Movie fans have idolized these golden-haired beauties of film and television. Monroe may well be the most famous of them all.
Controversial, Fashion, Movies & Movie Stars, Popular Culture

A model wearing a mink trimmed peignoir designed by Elsa Schiaparelli.

Arts Days: September 10, 1890: Shocking Fashionista
Elsa Schiaparelli designed the kind of couture clothes you see on the pages of Vogue and on the backs of celebrities. Known for her sometimes startling, often witty designs, including a shoe-shaped hat, she also created garments that responded to news events. For example, after France declared war on Germany in 1939, she debuted taffeta skirts printed with a camouflage look.

Schiaparelli was the first designer to use shoulder pads and to prominently feature hot pink, a color she called “shocking pink.” Collaborating with important artists of the day, such as Salvador Dali, she created a fancy evening gown decorated with Dali’s drawing of an enormous red lobster. This renegade clothier helped elevate fashion to high art.
Innovators & Pioneers, Fashion, Controversial, Visual Arts

Oh Susanna

Arts Days: September 11, 1847: America’s First Pop Hit
This American folk tune starts with lines that make absolutely no sense: “The sun so hot I froze to death/Susanna don’t you cry.” Yet Stephen Foster, the songwriter, was probably most concerned with just creating a hummable tune. And that he did. The song tells the story of a man going to New Orleans to see his beloved Susanna.

Filled with desire and longing, the man sings of dreaming of his love at night. Foster intended the song to be sung in minstrel shows, during which white performers often performed in blackface makeup. Traditionally the song is sung with only the accompaniment of a guitar and harmonica.
America, Controversial, Music, Music Legends, Popular Culture

The Simpsons

Arts Days: December 17, 1989: Springfield Shenanigans
Isn’t it cool that the longest-running American sitcom features an animated mom with a mountain of blue hair? Yes, Marge, Homer, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, and the rest of their gang of neighbors and co-workers in Springfield just happen to be cartoon characters. And they happen to be hilarious, too, as they—helped by the show’s extensive staff of writers—poke fun at American culture and spoof sitcom conventions.

As created by Matt Groening, beer-swilling Homer, sax-playing Lisa and the others muddle through work and school, comment on everything from environmentalism to pop music, and love one another, just like any other normal American family. Blue hair and all.
Cartoons, Comics, & Animation, Comedy, Television, America, Popular Culture, Controversial

The Flamingo Hotel

Arts Days: December 26, 1946: Vegas on the Verge
The gangster Benjamin Siegel—better known as “Bugsy”—was instrumental in the rise of Las Vegas from a patch of desert to an entertainment hub. In early 1946, Siegel met William Wilkerson, who was building a hotel called the Pink Flamingo Hotel and Casino. Siegel’s mentor Meyer Lansky wanted a piece of the Flamingo, and while Siegel initially balked at being away from L.A., he soon became invested in the construction.

He bought building materials on the black market and overrode blueprints for the hotel with his own ideas. Siegel was no architect, though; these decisions ultimately led to huge cost overruns and delays. On opening day, construction racket and drop cloths filled the lobby, and the air-conditioning—a first in this town—was on the fritz.
Art Venues, Popular Culture, Architecture, Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers

Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Jessica Tandy in A Streetcard Named Desire

Arts Days: December 03, 1947: Passion Play
The great American playwright and 1979 Kennedy Center Honoree Tennessee Williams took home the Pulitzer Prize for this Southern Gothic play. Elia Kazan directed the young newcomer Marlon Brando and the veteran Jessica Tandy in the iconic roles of Stanley Kowalski and his sister-in-law Blanche DuBois, whose violence-laced attraction to one another drives much of the action.

Blanche, a frail, helpless relic of the Old South, has come to New Orleans to seek refuge in her sister’s home, only to face psychological and sexual clashes with Stanley. As the play unfolds, the audience witnesses Blanche’s slow descent into insanity. After completing the show's run on Broadway, both Tandy and Brando enjoyed illustrious acting careers; Kazan not only went on to direct the 1951 movie version of Streetcar, but was also named a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1983.
Broadway, Playwrights & Plays, Theater, Controversial

Schindler's List

Arts Days: December 15, 1993: Angel in the Darkness
People who went to see director Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List were surprised to find the movie about the Holocaust was filmed in black and white. But the surprise gave way to deep emotion as the story unfolded. Spielberg wanted to shine a light on the little known story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman active in the Nazi party, who saved as many as 1,100 Jewish people from death in German concentration camps by hiring them to work in his factories.

Actor Liam Neeson brought Schindler's character to life on screen, and the film went on to win seven Academy Awards®, including Best Picture and Best Director. The movie—including its final scene, in which real-life people saved by Schindler’s actions, place rocks upon his grave—is deeply moving and has captured the attentions of millions of viewers worldwide.
Movies & Movie Stars, History, Controversial, Europe, Military, Tragedy

John Milton

Arts Days: December 09, 1608: A Man of Letters
John Milton is best known for penning Paradise Lost, a really long poem published in the mid 17th century. How long you ask? So long it filled ten books; a second edition published a few years later filled 12 books. In this epic work, Milton explores man’s fall from grace as told in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. In his version, he incorporates elements from Greek classicism, paganism, and other areas of study.

Milton was a learned man with a broad range of interests, and he wrote about other things, too, like history, travel, marriage, censorship, you name it. Late in life, Milton lost his eyesight completely, but never his rigorous intellect and deep curiosity. He is generally considered the greatest English poet after Shakespeare.
Europe, Poetry, Literature, Controversial

Martin Scorsese

Arts Days: November 17, 1942: One Fearless Filmmaker
No one can argue that Martin Scorsese has brought a gritty new realism to movies. An asthmatic child, young Martin was often confined to bed. But all that solitary time allowed him to watch a lot of movies on TV, which helped to shape the visions behind his works. One of the most accomplished movie directors of our time, Scorsese is fearless behind a camera—unafraid to expose the violent underground of his beloved New York City in films like Mean Streets, Gangs of New York, and the especially unsettling, Taxi Driver.

He explores complex human themes of guilt and redemption, repression, and emotional conflict in films like Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The King of Comedy. Scorsese, a 2007 Kennedy Center Honoree, has said that the movies he aims to make are “physically expressive, psychologically acute, brutally honest, and emotionally overwhelming.”
Movies & Movie Stars, America, Controversial

Mark Twain

Arts Days: November 30, 1835: America’s Good Humor Man
The author of one of the great American novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, wasn’t named Mark Twain at birth. He was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, taking Mark Twain as his pen name later in life. While he’s probably best known for creating characters Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Twain also wrote travel stories, social commentaries, essays, and lots of other kinds of things, all characterized by his signature satirical humor.

All of his work was informed by his rich array of distinctly American adventures, from his time as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi to his reporting for newspapers across the U.S. Without a doubt, Twain’s humor has remained timeless and relevant. So much so that each year, the Kennedy Center awards the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to individuals who, like Twain, are social commentators, satirists, creators of characters, and fearless critics of society.
Comedy, Innovators & Pioneers, Literature, America, Controversial

Rolling Stone Magazine

Arts Days: November 09, 1967: The Bible of Rock
Back then, it featured John Lennon on the cover and looked more like a newspaper than a magazine. The inaugural issue of Rolling Stone aimed to report not only on the performers and trends shaping rock and roll, but also, in the words of founder Jann Wenner, “the things and attitudes that music embraces.” As a result, the magazine has consistently printed long articles about politics, the environment, and other topics as well as influential record reviews and detailed question-and-answer pieces with top artists.

While on-staff at the magazine, photographer Annie Leibovitz helped shape the modern look of the publication. Her photos reveal surprising and controversial sides of world-famous celebrities, created through close collaboration with her subjects.
Rock & Roll, Music, Popular Culture, Literature, Controversial

Kurt Vonnegut

Arts Days: November 11, 1922: “A Zany But Moral Mad Scientist”
With a unique voice that melds humor, science fiction, and social commentary with the absurd, Kurt Vonnegut is considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. In novels like The Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle, he explores technology’s effects on the human race, (not always positive), and the dangers of social isolation.

Though his fictional works often paint a picture of a bleak world, he used wildly inventive characters—like the alien race known as the Tralfmadorians who appear in Slaughterhouse-Five—and his trademark black humor to lighten things up a little bit. Later works, such as Breakfast of Champions, are no longer overtly fantastical. As his themes shifted, so did his style in writing about them, becoming more straightforward.
Innovators & Pioneers, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Literature, Controversial, America

The Catcher in the Rye

Arts Days: July 16, 1951: Teenage Wasteland
Catcher in the Rye takes us into the mind of the self-destructive Holden Caulfield, the teenage protagonist and narrator of the book.

After being expelled from school, Holden’s misadventures in New York City and his profanity-laced comments about people around him, who he considers “phony,” contributed to the book being the most banned in the United States. Still to this day, however controversial the book is for some, it has become a standard text in most high school English classes. The book allows high school students to witness a fellow teen struggling with feelings of alienation from others his age as well as most of his family.

Salinger used the title as a metaphor for Holden’s attempt to protect a child’s innocence, though he is unable to preserve his own.
Controversial, Literature, America

The Rolling Stones I can't get no Satisfaction

Arts Days: July 10, 1965: Satisfaction Guaranteed
That blistering riff from Keith Richards’ guitar kicks off “Satisfaction,” a rock-and-roll song that shook up a lot of teenagers and alarmed some parents with its provocative lyrics. Richards and his fellow Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger, wrote the song together, with Jagger adding lyrics about a very different theme: the push he had seen while in America for material possessions.

The song hit number one on this day and stayed there for a month. It is also an example of the sensation created by a hit record.
Rock & Roll, Controversial, Music, Popular Culture

To Kill a Mockingbird

Arts Days: July 11, 1960: Do the Right Thing
Alabama author Harper Lee published one of the most important works of 20th century fiction. To Kill a Mockingbird examines American attitudes toward race and how those views have shaped our legal system.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s six-year-old narrator, Scout Finch, along with her brother, befriends a reclusive neighbor named Boo Radley, who later becomes the children’s protector after Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, defends an African American man wrongfully accused of a crime. The Finches are said to be modeled on Lee’s own family, including her own father, an attorney who defended two black men in a murder case (and lost).

Lee’s storytelling gifts and the memorable characters she created make To Kill a Mockingbird a moving story about doing the right thing.
Literature, America, Controversial

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Arts Days: March 20, 1852: The Little Lady's Big Book
During the entire 19th century, only one book sold more copies than the Bible. That book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, changed countless minds about the then-accepted practice of slavery or forcing people against their will to perform manual labor in Europe and the United States. Author Harriett Beecher Stowe was a preacher and an abolitionist: someone who believed that slavery was immoral and worked to end it everywhere.

Her book contains the message that Christian love can overcome the evils of slavery, which had such an impact on readers that it’s widely considered to have advanced the long-simmering feud between the northern and southern states toward the Civil War. In fact, when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the time the fighting began, he is reported to have said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” The power of Stowe’s words helped dismantle the cruelty of slavery.
America, History, Literature, Controversial

Rudolf Nureyev

Arts Days: March 17, 1938: Ballet's Rebel
Rudolf Nureyev was born on a train, setting the stage for a lifetime of perpetual movement, onstage and off. The premier male ballet dancer of his time, Nureyev began dancing to folk music as a child, attracting the attention of teachers who signed him to a local ballet troupe. He soon moved on to a major Russian ballet company, the Kirov, where he danced lead roles and got permission to leave the Soviet Union to dance in other cities like Vienna and Paris.

His dancing enchanted audiences, but his defection from the USSR in 1961 stunned the dance world. He soon signed with London’s Royal Ballet, the company he remained with until 1970. Nureyev’s creative partnerships with prima ballerinas like Margot Fonteyn are legendary; their pas de deux (“dance for two”) in Giselle and other ballets are exquisite examples of technical prowess and gorgeous artistry.
Ballet, Dance Legends, Dance, Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers

Harry Houdini

Arts Days: March 24, 1874: Magic Maker
His family immigrated to the U.S. when Harry Houdini (then known as Ehrich Weiss) was just four years old. It wasn’t long before his taste for thrills was cemented; by age nine, he was a trapeze artist. He moved on to simple card tricks, but the magician and “escapologist” was always searching for the next stunt—the trick that would ensure his reputation as the man who routinely cheated death.

Using ingenious props—and sometimes swallowing keys he could spit up on command, or purposely dislocating his shoulders—Houdini upped the ante from, say, escaping from handcuffs to escaping from a straitjacket dangling from a building. Some of his stunts were the result of his superior strength and flexibility. Others made use of illusions or trapdoors. No matter what, his escapades thrilled audiences.
Innovators & Pioneers, Popular Culture, Controversial, Europe

Tennessee Williams

Arts Days: March 26, 1911: For Dreamers Only
Stanley Kowalski, Amanda Wingfield, Big Daddy, and Blanche Dubois are only a few of the memorable stage characters created by Tennessee Williams, one of America’s greatest playwrights. Born Thomas Lanier Williams, his brutish, traveling salesman father and traditional, Southern belle of a mother provided all the necessary emotional turmoil Williams needed to fuel his plays. No wonder Williams chose to write about people who are emotionally crippled by hypocrisy and illusion, lies and denial.

It was while waiting tables in New York in 1944 that Williams got his lucky break. The Glass Menagerie, his play about the complex relationships within the dysfunctional Wingfield household, opened to rave reviews. Williams followed with A Streetcar Named Desire, his highly-charged encounter between a woman haunted by her past and her crude, confrontational, working-class brother-in-law.
Playwrights & Plays, Controversial, Theater

The Godfather

Arts Days: March 15, 1972: Mob Appeal
The Godfather was a hit when it first appeared in movie theaters. Critics hailed the work of the cast—from Al Pacino as Michael Corleone to Marlon Brando as his father Vito, the Mafia godfather of the title—as nearly flawless. The drama also earned kudos for its music and screenplay, and for the nuanced portrayals of the members of the Corleone family and their friends and rivals in organized crime. Over the years, The Godfather has stood the test of time.

Critics—as well as millions of ordinary fans—have continued to praise the film and its director, Francis Ford Coppola, for making viewers feel sympathetic toward characters who routinely committed murders and other crimes. Coppola pushed his actors to explore and portray the psychological reasons why their characters acted as they did, making each character multi-faceted and complex. Adapted from the book of the same name by Mario Puzo, The Godfather won several Academy Awards®, including one for Best Adapted Screenplay.
America, Controversial, Family, Literature, Movies & Movie Stars

Vaslav Nijinsky

Arts Days: March 12, 1889: Lord of the Dance
One of the most talented ballet dancers the world has ever seen, Polish dancer Vaslav Nijinksy is forever associated with Russia and its exceptional heritage of ballet. Without question, Nijinsky could leap higher than anyone else and dance on the tips of his toes, a feat usually performed only by female dancers. Whether portraying a straw puppet in Petrushka or a charming prince in Sleeping Beauty, Nijinsky’s dancing was equally expressive and bold.

But Nijinsky’s career truly turned the corner when he met ballet producer Sergei Diaghilev. Diaghilev made Nijinsky one of the stars of his famous dance company, the Ballets Russes. Over the years, Nijinsky often performed in starring roles in Gisele, Scheherezade, and many other important ballets. Later in his career, he went on to choreograph his own ballets, breaking the rules about how ballet “should” be performed and greatly expanding modern dance as he did so.
Dance, Dance Legends, Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers

Sidney Poitier

Arts Days: February 20, 1927: Breaking the Color Line
The first African American actor to receive an Academy Award® for Best Actor, Sidney Poitier helped dismantle a worn-out belief system in Hollywood—that audiences were not familiar with seeing black actors in lead roles of serious films.

After a stint in the U.S. Army and a stage career, Poitier turned in many deeply nuanced performances in films like Lilies of the Field, To Sir, With Love, and In the Heat of the Night where he created the character of cool, highly-intuitive detective Virgil Tibbs.  In 1967, in fact, he was the top box-office draw, starring in three well-received films including Lilies, for which he won that Oscar®.

Poitier went on to direct films such as Stir Crazy, starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. Audiences have long considered Poitier onscreen and off as charismatic and elegant.
Innovators & Pioneers, Movies & Movie Stars, Controversial

Gone with the Wind

Arts Days: February 29, 1940: Wind Wins
When the epic movie Gone with the Wind—about life in the South before, during, and after the Civil War, from a white Southerner’s point of view—racked up nine Academy Awards®, it broke all previous records for how many awards one movie could win.

It made superstars out of Vivian Leigh (who played Scarlett O’Hara), Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), and others. The soaring music, dramatic shots of battles, and fantastic costumes—plus the love, loss, and intrigue captured in the book upon which the movie was based—all contributed to the film’s amazing success that night.

And one cultural barrier was shattered, too. Actress Hattie McDaniel became the first African American ever to win an Oscar®. She won her award, for Best Supporting Actress, for her moving performance as “Mammy.”
Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers, Literature, Movies & Movie Stars

Woody Guthrie

Arts Days: February 23, 1940: Music of the People, For the People
The great folk singer Woody Guthrie communicated his messages of social justice and human equality through his music. Living as he did through everything from the Great Depression to the Cold War, Guthrie commented on these and other events’ effects on everyday people, like the hunger many faced in the Dust Bowl years.

“This Land is Your Land” was written in response to the themes of “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin; Guthrie considered that patriotic song to be out of touch with the cares and joys of common folks. When he created the song, he borrowed the melody of an old hymn called “O My Loving Brother” and set his own words to it.

Guthrie didn’t record “This Land is Your Land” until 1943, but he tinkered with the verses over the years, adding new words here and there.
Innovators & Pioneers, Controversial, Music Legends, Music, Folklore, America, Poetry

National Public Radio

Arts Days: February 24, 1970: Radio Free America
Formerly known as the National Educational Radio Network, commercial-free NPR was formed to produce and distribute news and cultural programming to a network of public radio stations around the U.S. Its first broadcast, the U.S. Senate hearings on the Vietnam War, went out over the airwaves in April 1971.

The radio stations in NPR’s network are required to be noncommercial stations, to have at least five full-time employees, and not to advocate any specific religious viewpoints. What’s more, they may pick and choose among the programs NPR produces from its Washington, D.C. headquarters. NPR receives funding from listeners, its member stations, and the federal government.
America, Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers

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