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Seven Curses That Seem To Be Doing Their Jobs (plus that Billy Goat one)

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Looks like the Curse of the Billy Goat has struck again, and with the Cubs' loss last weekend, it will be at least one more year until the curse is lifted. 2008 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Cubs' last World Series win, so a Series win next year would be pretty poetic anyway.

The story goes like this: Greek immigrant William "Billy Goat" Sianis, who owned the nearby Billy Goat Tavern, bought two tickets to game four of the 1945 World Series against Detroit. The second ticket was for his pet billy goat, Murphy. They made it into the game for a little while, but were thrown out after owner P.K. Wrigley complained about the goat's smell. In retaliation, Sianis cursed the Cubs and said they would never win a pennant or a World Series again. Looks like there might be something to that curse.

If you're not too superstitious, read on for seven more curses that seem to be doing their jobs. By the end of this post, you won't want to endorse soup, knit any presents or turn 27.

1. The Curse of William Penn

WilliamPenn.jpgWilliam Penn is not a man to be crossed. His wrath isn't confined to one sport "“ no, he has cursed all four professional sports teams in Philadelphia. A statue of Penn adorns the top of City Hall in Philly, and legend has it that an agreement was made that no building in town would ever stand taller than the statue. That was all fine and dandy until 1987, when One Liberty Place was constructed three blocks away from City Hall, dwarfing William Penn by nearly 400 feet. Ever since that date, not one of the professional teams in Philly has won any of their respective championships. There may be hope, though "“ in June 2007, a new tallest-building-in-Philly record was set with the Comcast Center, which stands 58 stories. When the final beam was raised, the iron workers attached a William Penn figurine to the top of it, officially making him the tallest thing in town again. We'll see if it appeases Mr. Penn. It hasn't appeared to yet... along with the Cubs, the Phillies lost their hopes at a 2007 World Series win last weekend.

2. Sports Illustrated, Campbell's Soup and the Madden NFL video game series

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All three seem to have one thing in common: whenever NFL players appear on their covers (on the can, in the case of the soup), he will either be injured soon afterward or be cursed with an exceptionally poor performance. I won't cite all of the instances that this has held true, because it is pretty overwhelming. SI has a whole site dedicated to their jinx. Donovan McNabb, Shaun Alexander, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, Marshall Faulk and Ray Lewis were all injured after appearing on the Madden cover. The Campbell's Soup curse applies to Terrell Davis, Kurt Warner, and yes, Donovan McNabb. Again. As the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles (see 'The Curse of William Penn'), he may very well be the most cursed player in sports history.

3. The Sweater Curse

CosbySweater.jpgNot all curses are sports-related. Any knitter worth his or her salt will tell you about the Sweater Curse. Legend has it that after spending much time, effort and money to create a sweater for your significant other, the relationship will fail soon after giving them the garment. I am a knitter and have yet to gift anyone a sweater...although I'll admit this is more a matter of skill than superstition. (Note: This is the best picture we found in a search for "cosby sweater." He was a pitchman for Texas Instruments in the 1980s. OK, back to the list.)

4. The Curse of Tippecanoe

tecumseh.jpgBroken but still worth mentioning, The Curse of Tippecanoe was placed in 1811, when William Henry Harrison defeated Tecumseh (at right) and his brother Tenskwatawa in battle. They cursed Harrison "“ and all future Presidents. For the next 120 years, every president who was elected on a 20-year interval would die before his term officially ended. Harrison was elected in 1840 and died of pnumonia the next year. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley, respectively elected in 1860, 1880 and 1900, were all assassinated. Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920, suffered a stroke before his term was up. Franklin Roosevelt, re-elected in 1940, had a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. Granted, this was during his fourth term, which would not be allowed by today's laws. John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, was, of course, assassinated. It was Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, who finally broke the curse. He narrowly escaped being assassinated, however, so it wasn't for a lack of effort on Tecumseh's part.

5. The Omen

TheOmen.jpgIt wouldn't be a post written by me if I didn't work horror movies in somewhere. I have a legitimate reason, though: both The Omen and Poltergeist are plagued by curses.

The Omen author and scriptwriter David Seltzer's plane to the filming location in the U.K. was struck by lightning, and so was the movie's star Gregory Peck's. They were on two separate planes. Poor Gregory Peck kept just barely escaping aviation disaster "“ in another incident, he canceled a reservation he had on a flight. The flight he canceled crashed and killed everyone on board.

The hotel where director Richard Donner was staying was bombed. And on the very first day of shooting, the main members of the crew got in a head-on collision. Even those barely associated with the movie couldn't escape: a warden at the safari park used for a scene in the movie was killed by a lion less than 24 hours after the scene was shot.

Finally, the incident that I find the creepiest is that special effects artist John Richardson, who created the famous beheading scene, was injured on the set of a movie a year later. His girlfriend was beheaded in the same accident.

6. Poltergeist

poltergeist.jpgThe actresses who played sisters in the original movie both died at terribly young ages: Dominique Dunne, who played the older sister, was murdered by her boyfriend in 1982. Heather O'Rourke, who played Carol Anne, died in 1988 of septic shock.

Why the curse? Supposedly, real human remains were used as props for the movie. The actress who played the mom in the movie, JoBeth Williams, said she was told the skeletons used in the swimming pool scene were the real deal. She also said that when she would get back to her house after filming Poltergeist every day, the pictures on her wall would all be crooked. She would move them back to their rightful positions, only to find them crooked again when she got home the next day.

7. The 27 Club

Forever27.jpgFinally, readers who are 27, beware, lest you join the 27 Club. Only people who die at the age of 27 are allowed to join, and, OK, they also happen to be famous rock stars. The illustrious list includes Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Pigpen McKernan (founding member of the Grateful Dead). Although these are the most famous, other musicians who died at the same young age include bluesman Robert Johnson; Dave Alexander, the bassist for Iggy Pop and the Stooges; Peter Ham, the keyboardist/guitarist for Badfinger; and Kristen Pfaff, the bass guitarist for Hole.

I know there are other curses, especially sports-related ones. Let me know what other curses I should be avoiding.

Previously on mental_floss:

Quiz: Discontinued Ben & Jerry's Flavor or Band I Found On MySpace?
Six Cool Plants I Would Find A Way To Kill
12 Classes We Wish Our Schools Had Offered
Strange Gravestones
Five Ballpark Promotions That Went Wrong

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20 Facts About Your Favorite Coen Brothers’ Movies
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Gramercy Pictures

Ethan Coen turns 60 years old today, if you can believe it. Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with the cult classic Blood Simple, the younger half of (arguably) the most dynamic moviemaking sibling duo in Hollywood has helped create some of the most memorable and quirky films in cinematic history, from Raising Arizona to Fargo and The Big Lebowski to No Country For Old Men. To celebrate the monumental birthday of one of the great writer-directors of our time (though he’s mostly uncredited as a director), here are some facts about your favorite Coen brothers’s movies.

1. THE COENS THINK BLOOD SIMPLE IS “PRETTY DAMN BAD.”

Fifteen years after Blood Simple’s release, the Coens reflected upon their first feature in the 2000 book My First Movie. “It’s crude, there’s no getting around it,” Ethan said. “On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual process of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience,” Joel said. “You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad!”

2. KEVIN COSTNER AND RICHARD JENKINS AUDITIONED FOR RAISING ARIZONA.

Kevin Costner auditioned three times to play H.I., only to see Nicolas Cage snag the role. Richard Jenkins had his first of many auditions for the Coens for Raising Arizona. He also (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Miller's Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996) before calling it quits with the Coens. In 2001, Joel and Ethan cast Jenkins in The Man Who Wasn't There, even though he had never auditioned for it.

3. THE BROTHERS TURNED DOWN BATMAN TO MAKE MILLER’S CROSSING.

After Raising Arizona’s success established them as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the Coens had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

4. BARTON FINK AND W.P. MAYHEW WERE LOOSELY BASED ON CLIFFORD ODETS AND WILLIAM FAULKNER.

The Coens acknowledge that Fink and Odets had similar backgrounds, but they had different personalities: Odets was extroverted, for one thing. Turturro, not his directors, read Odets’ 1940 journal. The Coens acknowledged that John Mahoney (Mayhew) looks a lot like the The Sound and the Fury author.

5. THE COENS'S WEB OF DECEPTION IN FARGO GOES EVEN FURTHER THAN THE OPENING CREDITS. 

While the tag on the beginning of the movie reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel stating “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.”

However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." 

6. THEY WANTED MARLON BRANDO TO PLAY JEFFREY LEBOWSKI.

According to Alex Belth, who wrote the e-book The Dudes Abide on his time spent working as an assistant to the Coens, casting the role of Jeffrey Lebowski was one of the last decisions made before filming. Names tossed around for the role included Robert Duvall (who passed because he wasn’t fond of the script), Anthony Hopkins (who passed since he had no interest in playing an American), and Gene Hackman (who was taking a break at the time). A second “wish list” included an oddball “who’s who," including Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, Andy Griffith, William F. Buckley, and Ernest Borgnine.

The Coens’ ultimate Big Lebowski, however, was the enigmatic Marlon Brando, who by that time was reaching the end of his career (and life). Apparently, the Coens amused themselves by quoting some of their favorite Jeffrey Lebowski lines (“Strong men also cry”) in a Brando accent. The role would eventually go to the not-particularly-famous—albeit pitch-perfect—veteran character actor David Huddleston. In true Dude fashion, it all worked out in the end.

7. JOEL COEN WOOED FRANCES MCDORMAND ON THE SET OF BLOOD SIMPLE.

Coen and McDormand fell in love while making Blood Simple and got married a couple of years later, after production wrapped. McDormand told The Daily Beast about the moment when she roped him in. “I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend,” she said. “He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, ‘Which one should I start with?’ And he said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ I read it, and it was one of the sexiest f*ckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, ‘Would you like to come over and discuss the book?’ That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was f*ckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.”

8. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? WAS ORIGINALLY INSPIRED BY THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Joel Coen revealed as much at the 15th anniversary reunion. “It started as a 'three saps on the run' kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, 'You know, they're trying to get home—let's just say this is The Odyssey. We were thinking of it more as The Wizard of Oz. We wanted the tag on the movie to be: 'There's No Place Like Home.’”

9. THE ACTORS IN FARGO WENT THROUGH EXTENSIVE TRAINING TO GET THEIR ACCENTS RIGHT.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including Frances McDormand and William H. Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.

10. NICOLAS CAGE'S HAIR REACTED TO H.I.'S STRESS LEVEL IN RAISING ARIZONA.

Ethan claimed that Cage was "crazy about his Woody Woodpecker haircut. The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got. There was a strange connection between the character and his hair."

11. A PROP FROM THE HUDSUCKER PROXY INSPIRED THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

A bit of set dressing from 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy eventually led to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a barbershop scene, there’s a poster hanging in the background that featured a range of men’s hairstyles from the 1940s. The brothers liked the prop and kept it, and it’s what eventually served as the inspiration for The Man Who Wasn’t There.

12. GEORGE CLOONEY SIGNED ON TO O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? BEFORE EVEN READING THE SCRIPT.

The brothers visited George Clooney in Phoenix while he was making Three Kings (1999), wanting to work with him after seeing his performance in Out of Sight (1998). Moments after they put their script on Clooney’s hotel room table, the actor said “Great, I’m in.”

13. A SNAG IN THE MILLER’S CROSSING SCRIPT ULTIMATELY LED TO BARTON FINK.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

14. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY IS THE FIRST COEN MOVIE THAT WASN’T THE BROTHERS’ ORIGINAL IDEA.

In 1995, the Coens rewrote a script originally penned by other screenwriters, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano. They didn’t decide to direct the movie, which became Intolerable Cruelty, until 2003.

15. THE LADYKILLERS WAS WRITTEN FOR BARRY SONNENFELD TO DIRECT.

The Coens effortlessly jump from crime thriller to comedy without missing a beat. So when they were commissioned to write a remake of the British black comedy The Ladykillers for director Barry Sonnenfeld, it seemed to fall in line with their cinematic sensibilities. When Sonnenfeld dropped out of the project, the Coens were hired to direct the film.

16. BURN AFTER READING MARKED THE FIRST TIME SINCE MILLER’S CROSSING THAT THE COENS DIDN’T WORK WITH THEIR USUAL CINEMATOGRAPHER, ROGER DEAKINS.

Instead, eventual Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki acted as the director of photography. The Coens would work with Deakins again on every one of their films until 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

17. IT TOOK SOME CONVINCING TO GET JAVIER BARDEM TO SAY “YES” TO NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Though it’s hard to imagine No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem’s menacing—and Oscar-winning—performance as antagonist Anton Chigurh, he almost passed on the role. “It’s not something I especially like, killing people—even in movies,” Bardem said of his disdain for violence. “When the Coens called, I said, ‘Listen, I’m the wrong actor. I don’t drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.’ They laughed and said, ‘Maybe that’s why we called you.”’

18. PATTON OSWALT AUDITIONED FOR A SERIOUS MAN.

Patton Oswalt auditioned for the role of the obnoxious Arthur Gopnik in A Serious Man, a part that ultimately went to Richard Kind. Oswalt talked about his audition while appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, in which it was also revealed that Maron was being considered for the lead role of Larry Gopnik (the role that earned Michael Stuhlbarg his first, and so far only, Golden Globe nomination). 

19. THE CAT IN INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS WAS “A NIGHTMARE.”

Ulysses, the orange cat who practically stole Inside Llewyn Davis away from Oscar Isaac, was reportedly a bit of a diva. "The cat was a nightmare,” Ethan Coen said on the DVD commentary. “The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, "Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.’ A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don't want them to do, if anyone's interested; I don't know if there's a market for that."

20. THE COEN BROTHERS PROBABLY DON’T LOVE THE BIG LEBOWSKI AS MUCH AS YOU DO. 

We’re assuming the Coen Brothers are plenty fond of The Dude: after all, he doesn’t end up facing imminent death or tragedy, which is more than most of their protagonists have going for them. But in a rare Coen Brothers interview in 2009, Joel Coen flatly stated, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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