Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Louis Gossett, Jr. in Class with Marilyn Monroe

AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN put him in the Hollywood history books.                        
Louis Gossett, Jr. got the role originally intended for a white actor (Scott Glenn of Urban Cowboy and The Right Stuff.)  Gossett starred opposite actor Richard Gere.
The Academy Awards nominations for the Best of 1982 made the acting categories exciting.  And no  reporters asked "Who are you wearing?" back then.  There were new faces and there were veteran faces in the competition.  Big screen newcomers Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange won Oscars -- Streep was Best Actress for Sophie's Choice and Jessica Lange was Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie.  In the Best Actor category, screen veteran Paul Newman was a nominee for his remarkable work in The Verdict.  Yes, we film fans knew Newman as The Hustler, Hud and Cool Hand Luke, but he really hit a new height in that legal drama.  He played an alcoholic lawyer who finds redemption and self-respect while taking on a difficult David versus Goliath legal battle.  He's on the David side.  Newman was outstanding in this film directed by Sidney Lumet.
Matching him in that quality was James Mason, nominated for Best Supporting Actor.  He played the crafty, high-powered lawyer on the Goliath side of the complicated medical malpractice case.  Like Newman, Mason was at his peak in this movie.
If you're a classic film fan, the type that watches Turner Classic Movies, you know that James Mason got Hollywood attention with his performance in the British classic, Odd Man Out.  After that 1947 production, he went on to give memorable performances in the 1954 remake of A Star Is Born with Judy Garland, Hitchcock's North by Northwest, Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Kubrick's Lolita and 1966's popular British import, Georgy Girl.  And many others.  But American fans probably didn't know that he'd been the leading man in British films since the 1930s -- films such as 1939's I Met a Murderer, 1942's Hatter's Castle (co-starring Deborah Kerr) and the Oscar-winning 1945 British psychological drama, The Seventh Veil.

Mason, who'd never won an Oscar nor ever received a well-deserved Honorary Oscar, was a favorite to win.  The award went to Gossett for An Officer and A Gentleman.
His work as the tough-as-nails Marine sergeant drill instructor made Gossett the first African-American actor to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  In the Best Actor category, veteran Paul Newman lost to newcomer Ben Kingsley for Gandhi.  Gossett felt a bit of a chill from longtime buddy Paul Newman after he won his Oscar.  He thinks it might have been because he won over Newman's The Verdict co-star, James Mason.  Gossett told me this when I was in his Malibu home a couple of summers ago to tape an interview for a TV pilot.  We talked about his script offers after he won his Oscar.  We talked about his work in the original Broadway cast of the landmark play A Raisin in the Sun and in the film version with fellow members of the original cast.  He talked about having to withdraw from the hit 1971 made-for-ABC TV movie Brian's Song due to a foot injury sustained while preparing to play football star Gale Sayers.  The role went to Billy Dee Williams.  We talked about his work in Roots.

And we talked about Marilyn Monroe.

Lou Gossett studied at The Actors' Studio in New York City.  So did Paul Newman.
So did the lady he knew as Norma Jeane, known worldwide as Marilyn Monroe.
She was the reigning sex symbol and movie queen of the day.
She was a gifted musical comedy film actress, although under-appreciated in her day, and she was serious about studying to improve her skills and branch out into drama.  At the time, she was married to acclaimed playwright, Arthur Miller.
Marilyn attended the New York City premiere for the film version of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo.  It was a benefit for The Actors' Studio.  Fellow student Marlon Brando pitched in to help.
In class, Marilyn wanted to do a scene from The Rose Tattoo.  And she wanted to do it with Lou.   Marilyn was already quite a dish and a glamorous Hollywood superstar.
On top of that, she carried the fragrance of a certain bath soap that had Lou Gossett's hormones spinning like they were in those giant teacups at Disneyland.  He told me about being in his apartment and getting a phone call from Marilyn Monroe:

I asked Mr. Gossett how the Monroe performances in their Actors' Studio classes differed from the famous Monroe work on the big screen in comedies such as How To Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot.
Oscar and Emmy winner Louis Gossett, Jr. was born on May 27th.  This year, he's been seen in the historical TV mini-series, The Book of Negroes, on BET.  Happy Birthday, Mr. Gossett.




Sunday, May 24, 2015

A New POLTERGEIST

It's a rare remake that can match or even surpass the qualities of the original.  The new POLTERGEIST is not a rare remake.  It doesn't stand a ghost of a chance to be as popular as the original.
With today's technology, it's got some impressive special effects that we didn't see in Tobe Hooper's 1982 original.  But I really missed the giant tissue monster and the possessed closet that looked like a giant vagina trying to supernaturally suck little Carol Anne into it.                                        
The remake is, at best, fair.  The scariest thing about this 20th Century Fox release is that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to write good material for actresses.  One element that won us over about the original was how the married couple played by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams totally loved each other and their kids.  That suburban husband and wife had a fun marriage.  We got wit and humor in their relationship.  He was a big lovable papa bear.  She was the smart, energetic and ultimate cheerleader -- a cheerleader who turns into the family quarterback as she charges down a hall to rescue her child from a demon. The suburban mom and the short psychic lady were vivid characters and memorable women.  The daughters in the poltergeist-plagued family stood out too.  In the remake, the writing is average and the women are a bit dull.  The dad is now portrayed by talented Sam Rockwell.
He's one of those actors -- like Guy Pearce and Ewan McGregor -- who should have an Oscar nomination or two to his credit, but doesn't.  Rockwell plays the father who has been laid off from work.  Recession hit the family.  He's frustrated. He may drink a wee bit too much.  Husband, wife and the three kids need to move to a smaller house.  Wait till you see the house.  I grew up in a family of five in Los Angeles.  The five of us shared one bathroom in a ranch-style house.  Their new downscale house in the suburbs is the size of a bed and breakfast. It's big.  With lots of closet space.  Rockwell's character hopes he can afford this new house.  His wife is a writer, but we never see her write.  She's pleasantly bland.  She doesn't have the verve JoBeth Williams had in the original.  The oldest daughter is a teen brat.  The little girl has imaginary friends (always a red flag in a horror movie) and the youngest boy is basically ignored by his parents when he professes that he has some serious fears about things in the new house.  We, of course, know that it's a huge mistake for the parents to ignore his expressed fears.  In the first 10 minutes of the movie, the boy finds his little sister talking to a closed closet.  She's got an invisible friend.  Then they both experience a hair-raising force. It really does raise their hair.  And then there's the flatscreen television.  The little sister puts her hand to the screen, hands appear through the static on the other side of the screen and her brother freaks out when the TV stays on even though he yanks out the plug.

Being that this is a Caucasian family in a horror movie, when they see that something abnormal, supernatural and scary has happened in the house...they decide to stay in it.  Here's the trailer.
If that had been a black family like in a Tyler Perry movie, Madea would've tracked down the lady realtor who sold them the house and gone upside her head with a skillet.  In the remake, the parents eventually do learn to listen to their son.  It's a lesson they had to learn the hard way.

The little psychic lady from the original has now been changed to a macho male ghost hunter who has a reality TV show.  The female paranormal expert with him seems rather passive in his presence.  Another woman character who wasn't exactly vivid.  Why was she written to be so drab?

In the original, we really connected to that family.  I would've loved to have them as neighbors -- if it wasn't for all those spooks in their house.  In the remake, the family is nice but it's not like they're so charismatic you want to invite them over for a cookout.  Like the walls in their new living room, they're sort of beige.  And so is the movie.

This Poltergeist has more ghosts than the original but none of its spirit.  It runs about 90 minutes.

To see the gifted Sam Rockwell at his best with much better material, try these 5 movies:

The Green Mile (1999)
Galaxy Quest (1999)
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Moon (2009)
Conviction (2010).

Oh...and rent the original Poltergeist, if you haven't seen it.





Thursday, May 21, 2015

Diversity and Disney's TOMORROWLAND

If you have kids -- especially girls -- 14 years of age or younger, this new Disney feature will be fun weekend family entertainment with them.  The special effects are dazzling and there's plenty of action.  At its heart, TOMORROWLAND shows kids that they have the chance to change the present and improve the future if they use their imagination in a positive way.  That's a great message.  However, Disney missed a great chance to embrace diversity in the lead role female casting.  The leading man is George Clooney.  The movie opens with Clooney in a close-up alone on screen talking to the audience.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with having to look at the face of George Clooney.
As his character talks about the mess today's world is in with wars, poverty, global warming and such, he's interrupted by an off-screen young female voice.  She wants to present a brighter view of things.  They bicker in a friendly way.  He's a lovable grouch.  We then go back in time to 1964 and see Frank (Clooney's character) as a little boy arriving at the World's Fair.  Something extraordinary and unexplainable happens.  He has a jetpack he invented.  Frank's a boy-genius and this jetpack flies him through the air.  He and it are noticed by a little girl.  I was wondering what parents would let their youngster go to a World's Fair alone on a bus whether he's a boy-genius or not.  Frank notices the little girl.  She smiles at him.  He follows her on one of the Disneyland-like boat rides.  The boat sails him into an alternate universe.  Say "hello" to Tomorrowland.  He's got his jetpack.  He's got colossal robots trying to confiscate it.  And, yes, I'm still wondering if Frank's parents realize that their kid has not come home for dinner.

Then we jump to the modern-day story of Casey.  She was the off-screen female voice who interrupted grumpy grown-up Frank in the opening scene.  She lives with her dad, an out of work NASA genius and, we guess, a widower.  She's a smart girl who wants to change things for the better -- even if that means getting in trouble with social protest type of activity.  The transition from young Frank's story to her story is clunky.  But she will find a magic pin that will transport her instantly to Tomorrowland.  When these experiences happen, she can be in two places at the same time.  For instance, she's in the car with her hot papa (played by country music star Tim McGraw) but, when she touches the pin, she's magically whizzing through a futuristic wheat field while her dad sees her still seated next to him in the car.  Casey will have thrilling, dangerous adventures as she goes back and forth from ordinary life to Tomorrowland.  She wears her dad's red NASA cap during these adventures.  The main thing is the pin.  When she gets that, she gets chased by killer robots in human form.  She also gets saved by the little girl who smiled at young Frank and prompted him to take a strange boat ride at the World's Fair.  She hasn't aged since 1964.  That's because Athena (played by Raffey Cassidy) is a robot in little girl form.  Athena was young Frank's big love in the 1960s.

Casey needs to find Frank.  Athena needs to help.  And Frank is now middle-aged and cynical because he was kicked out of Tomorrowland in his youth.  Athena still holds a special place in his frustrated heart.  This is why the film needs fabulous special effects and lots of action --- because the story is awkwardly written and directed.  The studio obviously had make sure the film didn't come off like a Disney version of Lolita when modern day Frank sees little Athena.  And this story is much too complicated a way to tell youngsters that global warming is bad.  George Clooney keeps it grounded.  He brings a certain world weariness to older Frank without making him sour.  After all, this is a Disney feature.  He's funny and fun to watch.  The chase scenes are exciting and he knows how to make older Frank's scenes with Athena tender without seeming creepy.  You can also tell that he believes in the ultimate message of the feature.  Here's a trailer.
Now let's talk diversity.  The non-aging Athena sounds like a little Mary Poppins.  She has a British accent.  She can be stern and direct.  Casey is another spunky young blonde who comes to us from under the Disney corporate umbrella.  Look at Elsa from Frozen, the star of Disney's recent live action remake of Cinderella, the lead female character on ABC/Disney's Once Upon a Time  series (a fantasy series that repurposes characters from Disney classics)...even look at Kelly Ripa, the co-host of Disney daytime TV hit, Live with Kelly and Michael.  Disney is the parent company of ABC.  Count the number of blondes as anchors and contributors on Good Morning America.  Britt Robertson does a fine job as Casey in Tomorrowland.
But Casey did not have to be blonde. Or Caucasian. She could've been a brunette Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican...she could've been African-American or she could've been Asian-American.  Such diverse casting would've been a welcomed Disney sight nowadays.  Elsa from the huge 2013 hit, Frozen, already had a short feature sequel.  I saw it paired with this year's Cinderella.  How many sequels or live action remakes have we seen for Disney's Asian heroine Mulan (1998) or for Disney's first African-American princess, Tiana, seen in The Princess and The Frog (2009)?

One Tomorrowland  highlight is the very funny Keegan Michael-Key as Hugo.
He's half of the award-winning Key & Peele team on Comedy Central.  Keegan has got the gift.  He doesn't even need dialogue to break you up laughing.  He's only in this movie for about ten minutes but he's a talent that Disney should tap for lead roles.  If the company continues to repurpose/remake its classics like The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber, he's the guy for the lead roles.  He's perfect for Disney features.

For a Disney feature, Tomorrowland has some un-Disneylike violent images.  What appears to be a child getting run over by a pickup truck on a highway...kids being shot at...dismembered body parts....we get that in Tomorrowland.

There's a touch of The Terminator about this screenplay and a little bit of Big tossed into a bowl of Kim Possible episodes from the Disney Channel.  Disney's Tomorrowland   was directed by Brad Bird.  He gave us the animated features The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Iron Giant.  Those stories flowed better than this one.  But, as I wrote, children 14 and under will dig it.  Tomorrowland runs 2 hours and 10 minutes.  That's a good half-hour longer than it needs to be.  The movie ends with a most optimistic montage that looks more like an upscale credit card commercial.

If anything, it's a commercial to inspire kids use their skills and talents to join Team Disney where anything's possible.  But, if the company's consistent casting in big screen releases implies that young blondes get the spotlight and special treatment, can young girls of color really feel that anything's possible for them?  They need to see a reflection of themselves in the spotlight as the special female.




Just a thought from a longtime Disney fan.  Tomorrowland opens May 22nd.



Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Letterman Leaves LATE SHOW

I've been watching him since he was on early in the morning.  Many full time and not-so-full time media critics will be analyzing the late night TV magic David Letterman had for decades.  It started on NBC then transferred to CBS.  This blog post of mine is written as a viewer and a longtime fan.  I will miss him.
I started laughing out loud at David Letterman during my days at my first professional television job.  I worked at the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee on the city's edition of PM Magazine.  I also did appearances on the station's live afternoon shows.  When we got to the PM Magazine offices early in the morning for work, we'd watch Letterman's short-lived morning show.  Our little ragtag Midwest crew really dug his loopy sense of humor.  His elevator races were a hoot.  We fully recognized the Midwest vibe underneath the on-camera goofiness, a goofiness the edged more into brashness during his NBC years.  I was still working in Milwaukee when NBC gave Dave Late Night with David Letterman.  That show quickly became required viewing for all us young professionals.  Heck, back in those days, we could actually stay up late without nodding off.  He was in our age group.  He was younger than the Elder Statesman of Late Night,  the renowned Johnny Carson.  Letterman did his monologues wearing a jacket, tie...and sneakers.  He had a gap-toothed smile and his tall frame was topped with a generous amount of curly hair.                                                                                                                              
His material was different and fresh -- a bit on the smart aleck-y college boy side -- his band was groovy and hip and his segments were wacky in their originality.  Stupid Pet Tricks made my nights!  So did Stupid Human Tricks.  And his "Top Ten" lists were priceless.  When it came to his guests...he could be fun with Carol Channing.  He could be a terrific straight man to a very animated and funny Bette Davis in her latter years.
And he could knock young stars off-balance by saying something we viewers would be thinking but never expected a late night host to say.  Remember the exotic-looking Natassja Kinski when she starred in movies such as Tess and the remake of Cat People?  She was a guest on his NBC show.  She'd been given a piled up, hipster hair style.  Letterman asked, "Is that your hair or do you have a barn owl on your head?"  She was not amused.  I laughed so hard my sides ached.

That's what I meant about the brashness.  He wasn't easy on stars simply because they were stars.  That was Letterman's trademark then.  He was still at NBC when I was new to New York City.  Stars would be nervous before going onto his show.  How do I know?  They'd say so to me in our green room.  Several times celebrities came to VH1 to tape interviews for my talk show and they'd remark "I have to do Letterman's show later today" and they'd say that with the same dread as a 7th grader saying "I have to go to the principal's office."  Tony Danza moaned the most.  He really hoped that Dave would be nice to him.  Cher got bleeped for casually calling Dave "an asshole" on the show  Shirley MacLaine casually repeated Cher's sentiments.  His brashness would be replaced by a maturity because life knocks you around as yet get older.  He grew out of the brash smart aleck phase and into more of an informed, embraceable curmudgeon.  And we watched him get older over the years.  Just like we viewers did, he experienced workplace disappointment, sexual immaturity, health problems, love, death, changes in family life and aging.  We watched him flop.  Remember when he hosted the Oscars?  I started watching David Letterman when he was the new kid on the late night block.  This week, I heard a reporter refer to him as the "elder statesman" of late night hosts.  For us baby boomers, Dave reflects our growing older and our life experiences.
I really wanted Dave to succeed Johnny Carson on the Tonight show.  I was stunned when he wasn't selected and Jay Leno got the gig.  Probably not nearly as stunned as Dave was by NBC's decision.  His disappointment made me even more of a fan.  I, in my own way, knew the feeling.  I was blessed with an A-list roster of guests for my VH1 weeknight talk show.  After my wonderful VH1 years, I was approached to be a regular on a new WNBC weekend morning news program.  I'd do celebrity interviews, film reviews, and humorous human interest features.  That appealed to me.  I'll admit it, in taking that part-time weekend gig, my goal was to be so good that I'd be promoted to doing entertainment features and interviews for the network's weekend Today show.  Our local show premiered in the fall of 1992.  Management changed my duties in the show's first week and assigned me a steady beat as the "wacky" correspondent in the field.  That meant doing live segments from shopping malls and street fairs.  The film review spots disappeared and I had to push to do occasional celebrity interviews.  It was as if I'd never hosted a national TV talk show that got me excellent reviews from The New York Times, People magazine and TV Guide.  But I was under contract and did the work.  In December 1995, management told me that I was doing quality work and I was very popular with viewers.  However, I'd no longer be under contract, I'd only be working two days a week -- just weekends -- and I would not be moving up to any network opportunities.  One more thing:  If I was offered any other on-camera work during the week -- such as TV commercials or small acting roles that could bring me in extra income to supplement my part-time TV wages -- I'd need WNBC's approval to accept the work.  Even though I was not under contract.  (You can see samples of my VH1 talk show work here:  YouTube.com/BobbyRiversTV.)

I gave two weeks notice and quit in January 1995.  Yes, I understood Dave's disappointment at 30 Rock.  I was thrilled when he relocated to CBS.  His gifts, his hard work that made comedy look easy, had been validated, appreciated and highlighted.  And his artistic gifts grew.  A Kennedy Center Honor was bestowed upon him for his intelligent and innovative comedy.  Our President made guest appearances on his show.


I watched David Letterman at night from the days of my first professional TV job at a local station in Milwaukee, my days as a national talk show host for VH1 and my days of disappointment in the same building for the same corporation for which Dave worked.  I've watched him from when I found true love to when I lost my love to AIDS in 1994.  I watched Dave when he returned to work in the days following our enormous September 11th tragedies.  Those shows displayed Dave at his respectful, mature, tender-hearted best.  When he felt comfortable to make us laugh again, I felt ready to laugh again.  He helped heal millions of broken hearts in the TV audience.

We watched him through major changes in television, in our society and in the world around us.  I've continued to watch him over the last few years as I attempt to revive a career and rejoin the workplace.  I was hit hard and rendered unemployed by The Great Recession.  Like Dave, I'm older now too.  And still in need of a laugh.
I have a feeling that David Letterman has been to many like a friend or family relative we really do love but don't always make time for.  He's that friend we'd call at the last minute to cancel and postpone, the friend we'd call at the last minute if we couldn't find a more fabulous date, the relative whom we knew whose birthday we could forget because he or she was always understanding.  You assume that friend or relative will always be around.  When you're hit with the reality the person is leaving, you're driven to make up for lost quality time.  You realize how special that person really is.  This week, millions of folks probably returned to the Late Show on CBS because this was its last week.  They loved Dave but hadn't been paying attention to his show in a long, long while.

I've never met Mr. Letterman.  But I stood close to him in the NBC lobby by an elevator once as he chatted with Bob Costas.  I've had tickets to a few tapings of Letterman's show.  However, he did mention some of my past work in one of his monologues.  In between my VH1 and WNBC years, I was the host of a syndicated late night summer replacement game show.  It was called Bedroom Buddies.  I had a great time with a great crew taping that awful show in Los Angeles.  The show was like a very low-rent version of The Newlywed Game -- only the couples weren't married.  I did my best with that cheesy material because the gig, quite honestly, helped me pay off some bills.

I was told that Letterman mentioned seeing Bedroom Buddies.  He did not say my name but he reportedly did say Bedroom Buddies "...marks the end of civilization as we know it."

It was a bad show.  But I take comfort in the fact that both David Letterman and I have lived long enough to see even worse shows premiere on network television.  Some even in prime time.

So long, David Letterman. I'm gonna miss you.  A lot.  Thanks for the laughs when I really needed them.





Monday, May 18, 2015

Visit GRACE AND FRANKIE

Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston.  Four acting pros having fun on Netflix.  A few nights ago, a dear friend invited me to binge-watch four episodes of the new sitcom, GRACE AND FRANKIE.  What a surprise!  Man, did I enjoy those shows and the performances.  Yes, we focus on four people who are well into their AARP years.  But I saw an episode of NBC's Undateable recently. Oy.  Grace and Frankie felt fresher than NBC's rehash of a Friends-type sitcom with a group of 30-somethings in Detroit.  It's a sitcom set in Detroit and there's only one black person in the cast of regulars.  Are you kidding me, NBC?  Grace and Frankie were certainly fresher and funnier than either of the Kevin Hart movie comedies I had to endure this year for film review purposes.  In this Netflix original production starring two actresses in their 70s, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play rivals who share a beach house in Southern California.                                              
Their husbands have been partners in a law firm for years.  Now they're taking the partnership to a different, intimate level.  One that involves possible marriage.  Yes, their husbands have come out.  The ladies get the news while both couples are at dinner.
That's not a spoiler.  It's the first five minutes of the premiere episode.  The irony of this tense and funny restaurant scene is that Frankie, a liberal earth mother type who's aghast to hear that her husband is gay and in love with another man, is played by an openly lesbian actress who recently married her partner of 42 years.  Frankie wears shoes that look like they were made by an 8th grade at summer camp.  Sophisticated and image-conscious Grace doesn't take the news very well either.  She's designed her life to be like one long piece of linen -- a material that travels well and doesn't wrinkle.  All four lives are now different.  The women go through feelings of shock, anger and denial.                                      
Grace and Frankie must put their rivalry in the closet and share the beach house while their soon-to-be-ex-hubands start a new life together and share a bed.
Here are four actors who were in some of the most significant and well-received films of the 1970s and 80s.  Jane Fonda won Best Actress Oscars for Klute (1971) and Coming Home (1978).  Lily Tomlin was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for Nashville (1975).  Sam Waterston was a Best Actor Oscar nominee for The Killing Fields (1984).  Martin Sheen has never been nominated for an Oscar but  he's got Badlands (1975) and Apocalypse Now (1979) to his film credits.  Sheen has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe nominations for playing President Bartlett on TV's West Wing.
I've written before how much I wish ABC would revive its Movie of the Week series from the 1970s.  Some of those original made-for-TV movies were pleasantly cheesy but there were also strong 90-minute network features that were just as good as new movies we got on the big screen.  I loved Duel, a road thriller from a young new director named Steven Spielberg, the football biopic tearjerker Brian's Song, the revenge murder mystery comedy called The Girl Most Likely To...,written by Joan Rivers, Dr. Cook's Garden with Bing Crosby giving one of the last and best performances of his career as a twisted and dangerous doctor, and the groundbreaking That Certain Summer.  It was a 1972 drama about a gay father coming out to his teen son.  Hal Holbrook starred as the divorced dad who moved from L.A. to San Francisco.  He's happy and in a relationship with a good man played by Martin Sheen.  This was controversial, mature material for TV movies.

If I could interview Martin Sheen (on the right in the above color photo), I sure would ask him about social changes and progress since that feature premiered on ABC in 1972.

Sheen plays Grace's husband, Robert.  We've seen Sam Waterston for years as a no-nonsense character on Law & Order.  In a rare and refreshing comedy role, Waterston stars as Sol, the man who must leave Frankie because he's fallen in love with Robert on Grace and Frankie.  We see the sweet two senior males kiss.  We see them in bed.
Sheen (on the right again in the above color photo) couldn't go that far when we played half of a gay male couple back in 1972.  Back then, actors could not come out, marry a significant other and keep getting work in film and TV.  Now gay actors play straight characters and gay actors play straight characters.  This is like a full circle role for Sheen to play on television.  And he plays it so very well.  You see him as a man who has come to the truth about himself, wants to do the right thing in a non-combative way divorce-wise, and has a new light in his eyes as he finds a new life and a new love in his later years.  Heck, I got a serious man-crush on him watching those four episodes.
As for Fonda and Tomlin, we loved them together when they had comedy chemistry in a big box office hit from 1980.  9 to 5 co-starred Dolly Parton.
They've still got chemistry.  Their 1980 film comedy tackled feminism and equality in the workplace.  Those were issues of the day.  Woven into the loopy fabric of Grace and Frankie are serious issues of senior citizens being ignored and treated as if they're invisible in society, fear of growing old alone, the need for love, dating and trying to remain relevant for today's workplace employment consideration.
An older woman's sexuality is also addressed.  Fonda gets a hot, steamy, sexy kiss in one episode from a hot, steamy, sexy man in her own age category.  And Grace makes 70 look great.  I totally dig what Martin Sheen is doing with his character and I never thought I'd see Sam Waterston get laughs playing someone so huggable.
Four characters starting over.  This may not be the best sitcom I've seen in a few years, but Grace and Frankie certainly deserves thanks to executive producers Fonda and Tomlin.  They've boldly slapped down Hollywood ageism and embraced racial diversity with their sitcom's casting of friends and relatives.  With laughs, they show that actors and viewers over 60 are still vital and should not be ignored.  Give Grace and Frankie a look.  I think you'll enjoy it.









Friday, May 15, 2015

On I AM BIG BIRD

He is one of the most brilliant, gifted actors we've seen for decades.  Yet many didn't know his name and many didn't even know what he looked like.  He's been the puppeteer inside the tall, yellow. feathery and lovable icon from TV's Sesame Street.  Caroll Spinney, an Air Force veteran, gave life, movement and voice to Big Bird.
Is there more man in the bird or more bird in the man?  You'll see that the two are practically one.  This actor loves and is the characters he plays.
I AM BIG BIRD: THE CAROLL SPINNEY STORY runs only about 90 minutes, a documentary like children's programming at its best.  It's simple, direct, well-paced, entertaining and it has a fondness for its audience.  Much of footage is old, but that's fine.  We see the early years of Spinney and what turned him into the famous, beloved TV character he's been playing.  His story covers childhood, young adulthood, employment, love, divorce, love again, death in the workplace family and aging.  First of all, you will be wowed to see the amount of complicated physical toil -- gadgetry included -- that has gone into giving a performance inside that costume.  His playing Big Bird equals what many actors have discovered about children's theater.  It's not as easy as it looks.
Spinney, now a dapper gent in his 80s, speaks with wit, gratitude, affection and honesty.  We hear about his angers and his loves.  We hear about his trials and tribulations.
He is the only person ever to play Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street.  He's done so since 1969.  Here's a trailer for I Am Big Bird:  The Caroll Spinney Story.
This man has given joy and education to youngsters for a long, long time.  He's taken Big Bird to other countries.  His love of his craft started when he was a boy and saw a puppet show.  His mother realized his love of that art and supported it.  One person in the documentary describes his mother as "...a huggable lady.  She was fun."  Spinney added, "She was a great mom."  His father was the opposite.  His dad, like mine, had a bad temper that would put young Caroll in physical and emotional pain.  Parents.  Sometimes they just forget they're bigger than their kids are.  Caroll grew up and found happiness in the Air Force.

When he was pursuing his artistic passion and landed work, he was married.  Married and involved with The Muppets.  But his wife never watched, respected and praised his quality work.  They divorced after 11 years of marriage.

But Caroll Spinney found true love the second time around.  They are still together and still very much in love.  We meet his wife in the documentary too.  Debra is delightful.
And, or course, there's talk of another person he loved. We all did.  He calls Jim Henson "a true genius."  Bird singing at Jim Henson's funeral will break your heart.
Your heart will be touched by the love story that runs through the feature.  That love story is the one between Caroll and his wife.  I never realized the extent and longevity of his artistry.  And he performed under grueling circumstances.  Wait until you see him as Big Bird in China.  That was not an easy shoot.  He is one committed and professional actor.  Like Oscar winning performers, he came up with the voices and physicality for his characters.   In this doc, we also see that children's programming is fun for kids to watch.  However, behind the scenes, it's still a business.  A business that employs talented people with egos and tempers.  People who get ticked off and occasionally drop a word that's more 42nd Street than Sesame Street.

Caroll Spinney was bullied by kids in his youth who thought he was gay.  He's a person who didn't have a totally happy childhood, but he chose not to go through life as an angry man because of it.  He's given millions and millions of children -- many now grown -- the kind of happiness he didn't get from one parent.  He's given them the attention he didn't get from one spouse.  He has added light to the world around him.  There are lessons in this documentary for everyone.  He reminds us all who've felt or do feel emotionally beaten down and at a low point that "...the sun will eventually come out for you."

I Am Big Bird:  The Caroll Spinney Story put tears in my eyes.  It's very moving.

Check to see if this feature is playing at an arthouse movie theater in your vicinity.