Copyright 2004 Associated Press
All Rights Reserved
The Associated Press State & Local Wire
May 27, 2004, Thursday, BC cycle
1:27 PM Eastern Time
SECTION: State and Regional
LENGTH: 911 words
BYLINE: By BEN NUCKOLS, Associated Press Writer
DATELINE: BALTIMORE

HBO movie shines light on overlooked heart surgery innovator

It's hard to believe now, but as late as 1944, the idea of performing heart surgery was medical blasphemy. After the Hippocratic oath, surgeons followed another dictum: "Don't touch the heart."

Dr. Alfred Blalock, a brash, egotistical Georgia native who in 1943 was named head of surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, changed that. But he wasn't alone.

"Something the Lord Made," a polished and compelling movie that premieres Sunday on HBO, gives credit where it's due: to Blalock's lab assistant, Vivien Thomas, a quiet, introspective man with a fertile mind and incomparably skilled hands.

Why wasn't Thomas recognized at the time? Because he was black. Even now, his accomplishments haven't gotten wide attention.

"I did an informal survey at Hopkins," said the film's director, Joseph Sargent, "and I was shocked to find out how few workers at the hospital ever heard of Vivien Thomas, and how few doctors had heard of him."

"Something the Lord Made" - the title comes from Blalock's description of a shunt Thomas stitches into a dog's heart - sets out to change that. It opens in 1930, when Thomas (Mos Def) gets a job working for Blalock (Alan Rickman) at Vanderbilt University.

Thomas, a talented carpenter, is dismayed at first at taking a glorified janitorial position, but Blalock quickly recognizes the value in his employee's steady hands and sharp mind. Blalock puts Thomas to work performing experimental surgeries on dogs.

Jumping ahead 13 years, Blalock is hired at Hopkins, and Thomas goes with him. There, Dr. Helen Taussig (Mary Stuart Masterson) confronts Blalock with the dilemma of "blue babies" - infants born with a heart defect that keeps their bodies from getting enough oxygen, turning them blue. At the time, the condition was fatal.

Blalock recognizes his chance to make history, and once Thomas replicates the condition in a dog, they find a way to perform a heart bypass to save the animal. That leads to the first heart surgery performed on a human. It is a success - but only after Blalock, defying his colleagues, brings Thomas to the operating table with him.

It's the highlight of a working relationship that lasts for decades, despite disputes initiated by Thomas over his pay and Blalock's abrasive demeanor.

Thomas earns Blalock's respect in the lab, but the surgeon doesn't exactly treat his assistant as a colleague - he doesn't mention Thomas' contributions when the international medical community showers him with accolades.

"I think there was an inadvertent emotional need that Blalock had to go into some kind of unconscious denial," Sargent said. "I would imagine he was so protective of this adulation and acclaim that he suddenly found coming his way, that it was convenient emotionally to not give Vivien Thomas the credit he deserved."

Sargent adds: "I became conscious somewhere in the middle of shooting that we were actually doing a love story. There's anger, there's hate, there's disenchantment, and there's a certain amount of denial, which is what makes the whole thing very complex and challenging."

The movie boasts strong performances from a somewhat unlikely cast. Rickman is known for velvety-voiced British villains, and rapper Mos Def, who has received strong reviews for his work on stage, is best known to movie audiences for a comic supporting role in "The Italian Job."

"I had not heard of Mos Def, and I didn't know why he had that name. Then I discovered it was because his favorite phrase was 'most definitely,"' Sargent said. "It was such a pleasant surprise to find out the extent of his acting talent, as someone with no advance notice as to whether he could even act or not."

Executive producer Robert Cort describes the casting as "brilliant but not intuitive." Rickman had to master a Georgia accent, which he evidently had little trouble with.

"English actors often do very well with Southern accents," Cort said. "Alan would probably do well with any accent, but there's a lot of history of that."

Cort was equally struck by how easily Mos Def slipped into Thomas' shoes.

"I think Vivien Thomas was defined by his dignity and his intelligence, and I think Mos is (too)," Cort said. "He's not an out-there guy in the sense of a big, overwhelming personality or carrying himself with a big entourage. He's thoughtful and extraordinarily intelligent."

In keeping with Thomas' reserved demeanor, the movie dramatizes his conflicts with Blalock subtly - without a lot of confrontation or histrionics.

"They were both Southern gentlemen," Mos Def said. "I don't think Dr. Thomas was concerned with worldly recognition as much as just general respect from his colleague, Dr. Blalock. I think that hurt him more than not being on some sort of world stage."

Mos Def's use of "Dr." in front of Thomas' name is no accident. Late in his life, Thomas - who couldn't afford to go to medical school and wasn't allowed to use his work at Hopkins for credit at Morgan State University in Baltimore - was given an honorary degree by Hopkins.

Since the movie was shot in Baltimore, the filmmakers were able to use the auditorium where the ceremony took place. "There's no question that it helps," Cort said. "No matter how good actors are or who good a director is, there is an environmental impact when you're standing in the place where it happened. ... That last piece of emotion comes out."

A cikket Georgiana (Seattle) tette fel Suzanne Alan Rickman Guest Book nevû fórumára 2004. május 27-én.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
May 28, 2004 Friday
Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section E; PT1; Column 1; Movies, Performing Arts/Weekend Desk; TELEVISION REVIEW; Pg. 25
LENGTH: 623 words
BYLINE: By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN

Agonies of a Great Surgeon Who Never Was

"Something the Lord Made," which will have its premiere on HBO on Sunday, is supposed to be an uplifting tear-jerker about two men who defy racism to accomplish miracles. Fortunately, it's much, much better than that.

As Alan Rickman plays him, Dr. Alfred Blalock, who pioneered open-heart surgery, initially for the treatment of ''blue babies,'' is an ambiguous hero. And he's not just cosmetically ambiguous, as so many movie heroes are, their bad qualities (messiness, a taste for Champagne) being little more than charm.

He's simply not charming. Mr. Rickman's Blalock has a venal air, an oleaginous, even faintly lecherous manner and a cloying self-regard that appears to blind him at times to the very existence of other people. Mr. Rickman deserves praise for forfeiting the opportunity to play an attractive Southern gentleman; he does not muck up his performance with cuteness.

By contrast, his partner in surgery, Vivien Thomas (Mos Def), is cute: charming, kind and physically agile, with a knack for dignified deference of the kind that possibly characterized model black men during segregation days, when much of this movie is set.

But Thomas is also depressed, almost fatally. Blalock hires him in the Depression-era South, first as a janitor and then as a lab technician, for which Thomas is evidently supposed to be grateful. Grateful? He tirelessly earns every promotion with technical work and medical insights that go largely uncredited. He submits to Jim Crow, refraining from using the hospital's front door. And he's paid virtually nothing, ''$16 a week for 16 hours a day,'' as he says, working after hours at Blalock's whites-only cocktail parties to make ends meet.

It's grinding racism; it's unjust. But the movie underscores the real problem that torments Thomas: Why is he supposed to be grateful? Because Blalock doesn't run from him in horror? As Blalock's only interest is in rising to prominence as a surgeon, why imagine that anything but pure opportunism led him to exploit the intelligence and surgical talents of his teenage janitor?

We need not. That's it. Blalock wanted fame, and he took on a black man who helped him develop his most important procedures, a surgical assistant who gives him instructions in the operating room. For not going to ludicrous lengths to conceal Thomas's achievements -- though he didn't trumpet them, either -- he's not due gratitude.

All that would be clear if it weren't for one catch: Thomas loves the work. He loves -- and Mos Def pulls this off -- the euphoria of medical discovery. He loves, just as Blalock does, the surgeon's high. And, without a medical degree or the time or money to pursue one, he can get that high only by Blalock's side.

A cornier movie would twist this logic to let Thomas have both, somehow: his freedom from patronage and his accomplishments. But here he has to choose. Can he forfeit his pride, even his humanity, for the joy of good work?

"Something the Lord Made" is based on a true story, and it faithfully tracks the rise of both Blalock and Thomas. But along the way, the weepy movie raises true moral stakes, the ones in good fiction, and they make the tears the film works to inspire feel more real.

A cikket Georgiana (Seattle) tette fel Suzanne Alan Rickman Guest Book nevû fórumára 2004. május 27-én.

 

Copyright 2004 The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved
Los Angeles Times
May 28, 2004 Friday
Home Edition
SECTION: CALENDAR; Calendar Desk; Part E; Pg. 2
LENGTH: 918 words
BYLINE: Robert Lloyd, Times Staff Writer

 

Honoring a match made in medicine - HBO's 'Something the Lord Made' dramatizes the lives of two men who teamed, despite prejudice, to develop an important heart surgery

"Something the Lord Made" is a splendid docudramatic retelling of the intertwined lives and careers of Dr. Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman) and his longtime technician and research assistant, Vivien Thomas (Mos Def), and their pioneering work in heart surgery in the 1930s and '40s. The film pulls off an inspirational hat trick: It's at once the story of a medical breakthrough (celebrating its 60th anniversary this year), of honor belatedly bestowed and of a friendship that defied prejudicial convention. Sick babies are cured, overdue awards bestowed, deep feelings shyly expressed. You may weep.

It is one of the points of the film (premiering Sunday at 9 on HBO) that Thomas, as a black man in a segregated society, was only belatedly recognized for his contributions, but you have quite possibly not heard of Dr. Blalock, either, or of the tetralogy of Fallot, the condition whose groundbreaking treatment much of this film concerns. (You may know it by its nickname, "blue baby" syndrome -- a congenital deformation of the heart that robs the lungs of oxygen.) This is to the movie's advantage, it being a biopictorial rule of thumb that the less the viewer knows the better.

Thomas was a 19-year-old Nashville carpenter whose dreams of medical school disappeared into the black hole of the Depression; he found himself as an odd-jobs lab assistant at Vanderbilt University Hospital under Blalock, who quickly recognized his talent and initiative and trained him as a surgical technician. For more than 30 years, they remained professionally inseparable; when Blalock became head of surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, it was on the condition that Thomas come with him. Thomas ran experiments, invented new surgical equipment and procedures, and, finally, in the "blue baby" operations, stood by Blalock's shoulder while he operated, giving him advice and guidance.

The film doesn't tell a story so much as paint a picture, but it is dramatic and even exciting, and the protagonists bump up against history in ways that illuminate both their characters and the society that made them (and which to a great, though not superhuman extent, they rose above or managed to ignore). It's a time that seems both near and far, not only in matters of race relations, but in medical practice -- heart surgery was thought impossible before the '40s. "We are going to challenge this ancient doctrinal myth," Blalock tells his colleagues.

And while the film doesn't specifically draw parallels between scientific and social progress, they are there for you to consider. (Thomas' achievements were acknowledged within his lifetime, fortunately, with an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins, where he became an instructor in surgery and where his portrait now hangs along with Blalock's.)

Directed with a light hand by Joseph Sargent, who also made HBO's "A Lesson Before Dying" and "Miss Evers' Boys" -- Sargent seems to be the network's go-to guy for African American period pieces -- the film is a lesson in modulated tone. Though it packs a lot into two hours, within each scene the pacing is quiet and slow, so that it's enough for a character to raise his voice or widen an eye or move a little faster to create drama. When Blalock says, "Helen, I want to see all your diagnostic notes," with the music gently swelling below, it feels like John Wayne strapping on the six guns.

There is no fancy camerawork, no pace-quickening edits; the score is mostly well-behaved. While the film is not entirely free of obvious "movie moments," they are relatively few, or executed with natural carelessness. The facts are compelling enough; they don't need help.

The facts, in fact, have already spoken for themselves: The script (by Peter Silverman, of "Hill Street Blues" and "Harlan County War") pretty much follows the lines of last year's PBS documentary "Partners of the Heart," whose director, Andrea Kalin, was a consultant on the present film. Though events have been telescoped or switched in time for dramatic effect and narrative arc, nothing of substance has been invented. (Though Dr. Helen Taussig, who first suggested a surgical response to the tetralogy of Fallot, and is here played by Mary Stuart Masterson with a funny haircut and a jumbo antique hearing aid, perhaps does not quite get as much credit as she should.)

Rickman plays Georgia native Blalock with a touch of the Southern aristocrat, balancing the doctor's hauteur and temper with passages of sympathy or delight. (There is a lovely throwaway moment when he takes the hose from a respirator Thomas has just built and blows air over his own face.) As Thomas, Mos Def -- best known as a recording artist, but an actor since his teens, including a regular stint on "The Cosby Mysteries" -- doesn't possess Rickman's expressive palette, but he has a quiet authority and more than holds his own.

Kyra Sedgwick and Gabrielle Union play Mrs. Blalock and Mrs. Thomas; Charles Dutton is hugely patriarchal as Vivien's father.

There are scenes involving experimentation on animals, sensitive viewers may want to know, and a little bit of blood.

A cikket Georgiana (Seattle) tette fel Suzanne Alan Rickman Guest Book nevû fórumára 2004. május 28-án.

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Copyright 2004 The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved
Los Angeles Times
May 30, 2004 Sunday
Home Edition
SECTION: TV TIMES; Calendar Desk; Part TV; Pg. 3
LENGTH: 712 words
BYLINE: John Crook, Special to The Times

 

Recalling a friendship that led to greatness - The bond between a white surgeon and a black lab technician is recounted in 'Something the Lord Made' on HBO

Working together despite the strictures of Jim Crow racism, a white surgeon and a black lab technician make revolutionary strides in cardiac surgery techniques at Johns Hopkins Hospital in "Something the Lord Made," a moving historical drama premiering Sunday on HBO.

If viewers experience a sense of deja vu as the movie unfolds, that's probably because this extraordinary story also was explored in a PBS "American Experience" documentary called "Partners of the Heart" in February 2003.

As the HBO drama opens in Nashville, 19-year-old Vivien Thomas (actor/rapper Mos Def), a bright member of that city's thriving black middle class, sees his dreams of medical school dashed as his savings are wiped out by the Depression.

In a desperately tight economy, Thomas is forced to accept a low-paying janitorial job at Vanderbilt University's medical school, where his precocious medical insights and aptitude soon catch the attention of Dr. Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman), an ambitious white surgeon not known for suffering fools gladly.

Over the next few years, Blalock becomes so impressed with Thomas' resourcefulness that the two men become an unofficial team, and in 1941, when Blalock is offered a coveted position at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins facility, he accepts only on the proviso that Thomas will move to Baltimore as well.

If Thomas and his wife, Clara (Gabrielle Union), had hoped a move farther north would decrease the racism they encountered, they were disappointed. If anything, Thomas faced an even more openly dismissive attitude within the hallowed halls of Johns Hopkins, where he was not allowed to enter through the same door as Blalock.

Somehow, however, the soft-spoken Thomas found the resolve and the courage to bear up under the bigotry, and he and Blalock wound up creating a surgical technique to save the lives of "blue babies," assisted by a colleague, Dr. Helen Taussig (Mary Stuart Masterson).

Thomas "struck me as someone who had a very defined idea of himself that couldn't be disturbed by his surroundings," Def, 30, says. "I believe he remained true to that. He had a great deal of integrity, a great deal of pride, and he was also a man of quiet resolve. He was just very attractive as a historical figure and as a character to portray."

As the other half of this exceptional team, Rickman manages a creditable Southern accent and a subtly multifaceted portrait of Blalock, a combination of genuine compassion, a self-confidence bordering on arrogance and a willingness to recognize excellence that crosses social, cultural and racial boundaries.

Even more strikingly, however, the British-born Rickman captures the more casual kind of racism practiced by many white American professionals in the mid-20th century, men who turned a blind eye to the segregated water fountains, restrooms, building entrances and passenger seating unless these restrictions crossed over into their own world.

"It's an amazingly complicated story and extraordinary relationship," Rickman says, "and it's like basic food to an actor to play something that rich, that complicated."

Rickman and Def spent time with technical advisor Alex Haller to learn how to believably simulate surgical techniques of the period.

"We had to know what we were doing in all of the operations, and there was this whole series of [them]," Rickman says. "You can't be holding a scalpel when you should be holding a clamp."

Likewise, director Joseph Sargent demonstrates a deft hand of his own in the way he films and paces this mostly low-key double character study. In addition to sterling work from his two stars, he also draws fine performances from Masterson as a third valued member of this experimental team, as well as Charles S. Dutton as Vivien's demanding father and Kyra Sedgwick, who brings substance and texture to the underwritten role of Mary Blalock, Alfred's wife.

There are no car chases, no explosions, no acts of extreme violence, but this engrossing tale of a special and very human friendship will hold an audience spellbound right through its poignant conclusion.

A cikket Georgiana (Seattle) tette fel Suzanne Alan Rickman Guest Book nevû fórumára 2004. május 30-án.

 

'Something' salutes unlikely medical duo - By Ann Oldenburg

An ambitious, eccentric white surgeon and a gifted black carpenter turned lab technician: This unlikely pair made history with their pioneering heart surgery, a story that has always been known among cardiologists.
Mos Def (left) and Alan Rickman star in the true story,Something the Lord Made (HBOÖ

Now the Depression-era portrait of Alfred Blalock, the white, wealthy head of surgery at Johns Hopkins, and Vivien Thomas, the quiet, hardworking carpenter who dreamed of becoming a doctor, airs as a movie called Something the Lord Made on HBO (Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT), with Alan Rickman and Mos Def.

"It's a fantastic story and one that's true," says Koco Eaton, 43, the real-life nephew of Thomas and a consultant on the film. "Nothing really needed to be added or made up. It's about extraordinary times and two men who overcame a lot and accomplished a lot."

The two doctors not only had to defy racial prejudices of the time, but also broke rules by operating on "blue babies," infants suffering from a congenital heart defect that slowly suffocated them.

Eaton couldn't be happier with Die Hard and Harry Potter veteran Rickman, who "just draws you in," he says. "Dr. Blalock was a complicated man, and Rickman does a great job of showing the conflicts."

As for rap musician and actor Def, Eaton says his family "wanted to make sure that my uncle was portrayed in the dignified way in which he lived his life. Mos was an excellent guardian of my uncle's legacy."

Thomas' widow is a "very private person," Eaton says. "If she had her druthers, all of this would simply go away. None of this attention will bring (him) back."

But for Eaton, now an orthopedic surgeon in St. Petersburg, Fla., "I never knew how much influence he had over the course of modern medicine. It's sort of like finding out your uncle is Michael Jordan, but you never watched a basketball game and never had any idea of how great he was."