Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Lincoln Center Love for Astaire and Rogers

Never underestimate the power of the fine arts and the power that artists can have on our lives.  I've not revealed this to some close relatives, but it is true.  Before I started the 5th grade, I had been slapped, spat upon, whipped with a belt while I was totally naked, and someone had peed in my face.  That last one was a rather comical.  I was a latchkey kid.  Mom was a registered nurse. There were times when she and Dad, who also worked, might have to be out and would leave me in charge of my younger sister and our newborn baby brother.  So Mom, like a drill sergeant, taught me how to diaper the baby.  One time, as I removed the soiled diaper, my little baby brother sprang an energetic leak.  But, also before I started the 5th grade, I had discovered the artistry of Fred Astaire and the extreme joy of seeing him dance.
My love of classic films started very early in my life when I saw them on television.  I still remember the weekend afternoon day when I first was dazzled by Fred Astaire.  I was in the living room with Dad.  He was watching one of his idols -- famed golfer Sam Snead.  During the golf game telecast, a severe and sudden thunderstorm broke out bringing an early end to the match and the telecast.  The local channel aired back-up programming.  It put on an old RKO musical, FLYING DOWN TO RIO.  I saw Fred Astaire in a solo dance number and that was it.  I was hooked.  When he danced with Ginger and their foreheads touched whitle dancing "The Carioca," my spirits lit up like a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza.  A few weeks later, that same station aired TOP HAT.  How'd I feel as I watched it?  To sample lyrics from one of the classic's original songs introduced by Mr. Astaire, "Heaven...I'm in Heaven..."
Throughout all the pains and humiliations of my life, in my childhood and today, a Fred Astaire musical number could always, always heal my heart and turn light back on in my soul.  Always.  Fred Astaire danced me into an interest in, an embrace of and a passion for the fine arts.
If you're in New York or if you're headed there for the weekend, keep this in mind.  Keep it in mind especially if you love the musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  The Film Society of Lincoln Center salutes Astaire and Rogers starting this Friday.  There will be a three-day complete retrospective dedicated to their brilliance.  This goes from their RKO musicals of the 1930s in black and white to their MGM reunion in Technicolor in the late 1940s.  For more information, go to this website:

www.filmlinc.org.

Here's the kind of screen magic that repeatedly healed my broken heart, made me smile and gave me the spirit to pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the "Pick Yourself Up" number in SWING TIME (1936).

Their dancing was not like what America sees on ABC's DANCING WITH THE STARS.  Fred and Ginger weren't dancing for a mirror ball trophy.  They were actors who danced in character.  Their numbers were a revelation of character and they advanced the emotions of the scene.  In the "Pick Yourself Up" number, the Manhattan dance instructor has no idea that the well-dressed man who hopes to ask her out is really a professional dancer.  He's determined to prove he's on the level by getting her re-hired.  So, the number shows that they'd be perfect partners and it's also an audition piece for employment.

In Ginger Rogers, Astaire did have a perfect partner for those times.  They changed the game of the Hollywood musicals with their 1930s original film musicals scored by Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. In other film assignments that didn't co-star Astaire, Ginger Rogers proved to be one of the top comedy actresses of her day in such films as Billy Wilder's THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, in TOM, DICK AND HARRY, in ROXIE HART, BACHELOR MOTHER, STAGE DOOR, LUCKY PARTNERS and VIVACIOUS LADY.  Ironically, the two greats of Hollywood musicals each got one Oscar nomination in their long careers and those nominations came for work in dramatic films.  In the 1970s, Astaire was up for Best Supporting Actor for wearing a trademark tux and getting dirty in the box office blockbuster all-star disaster thriller, THE TOWERING INFERNO.  Ginger Rogers won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for a solid, truthful performance as a strong-willed, loyal, white collar career woman named KITTY FOYLE (1940), a movie with a definite feminist vibe.

There's a popular quote that "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire, except backwards and in high heels."  Was Ginger a multi-talented movie star?  Yes.  Did she deserve equal billing, equal pay and equal benefits?  Absolutely.  Did she do everything Fred did?  Not exactly.  Ginger never lifted and twirled Fred.

CAREFREE (1938) showcases Ginger's comedy chops and it boasts another original score by Irving Berlin.  At a country club dinner dance, popular radio personality Ginger coaxes stuffy psychiatrist Fred to get up and dance "The Yam."
And another thing.  Fred Astaire was nearly 40 when he did "The Yam" with that knockout ending.  When he and Ginger reteamed for THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY, a 1949 MGM musical, he was nearly 50.  Astaire was extraordinary.
The Lincoln Center retrospective on the legendary Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers screen partnership starts Friday, July 13th.  Treat yourself.



Monday, July 9, 2018

Tab Hunter and the Nature of Love

A movie star died.  1950's Warner Brothers movie star Tab Hunter died just a few days shy of his 87th birthday.  Teen girls would scream at the sight of his big, blond beefcake presence.  He was handsome.  He became a very good actor.  He had to learn how to emotionally and spiritually balance stardom with his off-screen life because he was gay man.  Onscreen, he was doing love scenes with luscious beauties such as Sophia Loren, Natalie Wood and Linda Darnell.
One of his boyfriends was actor Anthony Perkins who gained international fame as Norman Bates in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, PSYCHO.  A few years ago, a big and brawny straight buddy of mine (a fellow classic film fan) urged me to see the documentary TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL.  He said "Dude, if I love him, you will love him even more after seeing that documentary."  He was right. Hunter is so warm, so honest and forthcoming in that doc. He talked about his past boyfriends and his current longtime partner.  Besides the very interesting look at Hollywood's sexual politics and repression when he was a 1950s movie star, you get the sense that he was a great boyfriend to have.  He went for content and character, not just looks.  Check out Netflix for TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL.
I was a child of the 60s when television was still pretty much in its infancy.  A TV was usually a big heavy box of lights and wires that you put in the living room.  There were only three networks to watch -- ABC, NBC, CBS -- you had your local network affiliates and a few independent stations. There were no cable channels, no VHS or DVR capabilities.  If you missed a network show, you waited until it was repeated.  Color TV was rare.  There was no remote control.  You had to get up and walk over to the TV set to change the channels and adjust the volumes.  We paid attention to the shows as they aired. There was no live tweeting during a telecast which, in my opinion, is often like texting while driving.  You're not paying full attention to what's happening before you.  With less technology, we paid more attention. But, I digress.

It's now KCAL.  But, when I was a kid, it was KHJ TV/Channel 9.  This independent local Southern California station was attached to the Warner Bros. film library.  Channel 9 carried "The Million Dollar Movie" format.  One film would air at the same time at night during one week and then get a couple of airings on Saturday and Sunday, if I recall correctly.  To me, Tab was terrific with Sophia Loren in Sidney Lumet's THAT KIND OF WOMAN, in THE PLEASURE OF HIS COMPANY with Debbie Reynolds and Fred Astaire, in the fabulously unconventional John Waters' movies with Divine and he was very good as "The Boy Next Door" in a CBS production of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.  But I dig Tab most in a baseball musical.

When I was in elementary school and on summer vacation, I lived for "The Million Dollar Movie" airings of the Warner Bros. musical comedy, DAMN YANKEES.  Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston repeated their hit Broadway show roles in the film version.  The lead role of the mysterious star athlete who helps the Yankees become champs went to Tab Hunter.  Perfect casting.  He was that wholesome, All American team player.
It's a fantasy musical, a modern spin on the Faust tale.  When we meet Joe Boyd and his wife, he's a middle-aged man with a pot belly.  The wife cannot pull him away from the TV during baseball season.  Joe doesn't realize it, but he makes deal with the Devil to be a young man again so he can play for the Yankees.  Middle-aged Joe Boyd disappears and he's magically turned into a hot new unknown player eager to try out for the Yankees.  He gets signed.  Young Joe returns to his unsuspecting wife (who doesn't recognize him) and the polite, handsome young man rents her spare room.  Joe is so pure of heart that it frustrates the Devil (played by Ray Walston).  The Devil has planned to screw Joe over and see the team fail and....well, you get it.  So, the Devil sends for his ace vamp, Lola, played by the delicious Gwen Verdon.  Lola has ruined men's lives for centuries and figures Joe will be a quick, easy job. But she's wrong.  He is still faithful to his wife.

When you get older, you see different things in movies you've loved for a long time.  Here's what I mean about Tab Hunter and the Nature of Love.  It refers to DAMN YANKEES.  Lola is a hot babe. She pretends to be a Dominican beauty pageant winner.  But young loves his middle-aged Mrs. who wears a simple  house dress and glasses.

There's a sweet and sexy undercurrent, when you think about it, in the scenes of Joe Hardy, baseball star, with Mrs. Meg Boyd.  I didn't pick up on this when I was a kid watching DAMN YANKEES. Meg sees Joe as a clean-cut, sweet young man who's a great baseball player.  He sees the woman who's been and still is the love of his life.  And now, with his youth restored, so is his sexual energy.  There is a sexual chemistry between them but Meg doesn't realize it.  She may feel she's just an ordinary housewife whose husband has mysteriously disappeared for a time but Joe can reveal in his eyes that he has a physical yearning for her, his wife.  He desires Meg, not the shapely vamp, Lola.  Meg is what his heart wants.  That is the nature of love.  When it's the real thing, the attraction is not just about age and physical beauty.  There's something else.  Something sincere, substantial and special.

Here's one of the numbers that made me love this musical time and time again thanks to "The Million Dollar Movie" on KHJ.  Tab Hunter and Gwen Verdon as Joe and Lola are in the locker room after a game for "Whatever Lola Wants."
A big glass of Hawaiian Punch or Kool-Aid, a bag of Laura Scudder's potato chips and DAMN YANKEES on TV.  That was total summertime fun for me when I was a kid in South Central L.A.  Tab Hunter -- he made my heart happy.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Black Films, White Critics in 2018

Films are my passion.  They have been ever since I was a kid.  I mean that.  When I was in the 6th grade, I could tell you the names of five musicals starring Fred Astaire.  When our family went to the drive-in, seeing reflections of myself onscreen was always significant.  Seeing films that starred Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Diahann Carroll or Cicely Tyson wasn't just entertainment.  We felt that seeing them was our duty.  Three films centered on black stories open this season and they've gotten rave reviews from critics.  I am so excited to see these movies.  I'm also excited to see if this season brings about changes in the segregated field of film critics we've seen since the 1980s.  More on that later.  First up, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU got terrific reviews from critics in national publications, the kind of reviews that lead to Oscar buzz.  Actor Lakeith Stanfield, seen in the Oscar-winning GET OUT, stars in this movie written and directed by Boots Riley.
Stanfield is Cassius Green.  (Say it fast and it sounds like "Cash Is Green.")
He's in Oakland and learns what millions of black men in American have learned.  There is a class division.  A black man with talent, imagination and perseverance can be stuck for years at minimum wage while a white guy with a teaspoonful of talent can wind up making a 6-figure salary seemingly overnight.  From what I can gather in reviews I've read, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is a social commentary that makes you laugh in the same way Paddy Chayefsky's NETWORK did.  It's rooted in reality.  Click onto this link to see a trailer:

https://youtu.be/XaBGcorkzpk.

Another film with a story set in Oakland is BLINDSPOTTING.  It stars Daveed Diggs who graduated from Broadway's revolutionary HAMILTON to the cast of ABC's hit sitcom BLACK-ISH.  Diggs also co-wrote the screenplay.  Think of recent news stories about unarmed young black men who have been shot multiple times and killed by police.  Then think of white males who shot and killed several people in an Annapolis newspaper office, in a Florida high school, in a Colorado movie theater, in a church and were taken in custody unharmed.  Film critics Peter Debruge of VARIETY and Stephen Whitty tell us to put BLINDSPOTTING on the must-see list.  It opens in select cities on July 20.  Click onto this link to see a trailer:

https://youtu.be/WtjU0DlwpWM.

Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman got big applause and praise at this year's Cannes Film Festival.  It opens in August.  This is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black detective who went undercover and infiltrated the KKK.  He was interviewed by Scott Simon on NPR last month and he feels his 1979 story is intensely relevant now in the Trump era.  (The interview with Scott Simon on NPR is worth hearing.)  Spike Lee co-wrote the screenplay with the brilliant University of Kansas film professor and filmmaker, Kevin Willmott.  Here's a trailer for BlacKkKlansman, winner of the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix Award.
Spike Lee has never been an Oscar nominee for Best Director. Not for DO THE RIGHT THING. Not for MALCOLM X. Maybe his upcoming release will change that.

From two years, from 2006 to 2008, I was a regular on Whoopi Goldberg's live weekday morning radio show.  Our studio was in midtown Manhattan and the show was in 16 cities across the nation. I was the weekly film review and entertainment contributor.  I contacted Kevin Willmott after I saw the DVD release of his blazingly brilliant 2004 mockumentary called C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA.  It should have brought him an Oscar nomination.  Think Woody Allen's ZELIG with a touch of BLAZING SADDLES with a lot of American history and film history.  I urged Whoopi to watch it.  I wanted Kevin Willmott to do a radio interview during one of our shows.  For some reason, Whoopi nixed the idea when I passionately pitched it to her.  She was chilly to giving him airtime. I don't know why.

That mockumentary is worth a look now -- especially with Trump in office.  Because of the excellent reviews that Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott have received for BLACKKKLANSMAN, I am interested to see how Whoopi reacts now to Kevin's work.

About critics. My first professional TV job was film reviewer.  I reviewed new movies every week on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate and I was the first African American in that city's history to do so.  I was a movie critic on WISN TV for four years and, on a local indie station, I was half of a duo on a half-hour film review show. This is the early 80s.  On national TV, all the film critics on TV news programs were white males. ABC, NBC and CBS gave us white males.  Joel Siegel and Gene Shalit.  On PBS, after Siskel & Ebert departed for Buena Vista syndication, the new film review couples were Jeffrey Lyons, Michael Medved, Neal Gabler and Rex Reed.  Men as white as Cool Whip.  Then Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons (son of Jeffrey Lyons) had their syndicated film review show.  Two more white males.  Caucasian Peter Travers of ROLLING STONE magazine has a film talk show that airs on some ABC stations. It's called POPCORN WITH PETER TRAVERS.  Today, we see Chris Connelly on ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA and David Edelstein on CBS SUNDAY.  White guys.  This is from the early 1980s to this month.  Chris Connelly and David Edelstein talked about films in segments that aired around the 4th of July.

I lived in New York for 25 years and never saw one black person on a regular basis as a film critic for a local station.  Sandy Kenyon was on local ABC and Neil Rosen was on cable's NY1.  Kathie Lee Gifford's son, Cody, reviewed films every week on TODAY in 2016 because he'd recently taken a film course in college.  He was 20.  I worked at WNBC in 1993 and wanted to review movies. The weekend news show producer didn't feel I had the skills to do it.

I am not the only black person in New York City who pushed and pushed for a regular spot on a TV news program as a film reviewer but could not crack the apparent color wall.  Nothing against those critics, but the executives who do the hiring seemed determined to keep the film arts discussion limited to a field of Caucasian male viewpoints.

Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg was the first person in New York to offer me work as a film reviewer.  Why?  Because she'd been a guest on my late 1980s VH1 talk show and she was aware of my film knowledge.  She was also aware that the playing field has not been level in the areas of onscreen entertainment news and movie channel hosting.

News show executives will bring us black contributors in to discuss black-related topics such as Blaxploitation films, classic films to see during Black History Month, or films relative to a specific black artist.  But when it comes to a mainstream conversation about superhero franchise sequels or new films from Scorcese, Spielberg and Meryl Streep, we are never seen in the on camera conversation.  From the early 1980s to 2018.

Early in his acting/directing film career, Tyler Perry stopped making his news available for screenings in New York City?  Why? Because the white critics were not attending and not writing about them.  This frustrated us black reviewers but we understood.  The absence of black critics seen on TV was so prevalent that Tyler Perry didn't even think we existed back in 2005 and 2006.  Just like years, Tiffany Haddish won an award from the New York Film Critics Circle for her GIRLS TRIP performance.  In her funny acceptance speech, she mentioned that she only seen two movie critics on TV in her lifetime -- Siskel & Ebert.  Can you imagine if she'd been able to see a black film critic on TV back in the 1990s?  A lot of us were around then in New York City alone.  Tiffany grew up where I did -- in South Central L.A.  She did not see a reflection of herself reviewing movies.  Neither did I.

David Edelstein reviewed STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON in August 2015.  No offense, but do you think David Edelstein has ever walked through Compton after dusk or sat alone on a bench in Compton waiting for a local bus?  I have.  I grew up just a few blocks away from Compton.  Rex Reed hated GET OUT.  He didn't think it was as good as THE STEPFORD WIVES.  I've been acquainted with Rex since the 1980s.  I've seen him and chatted with him at several New York City movie screenings.  At one screening, he told me he'd just gotten back for four weeks vacation in the south of France.

I have never, ever. ever ... in my entire life... known a black or Latino person who had four consecutive weeks of vacation time at a job. Ever.  But Rex Reed did -- and Rex Reed was quoted in national publications telling folks of all colors why we needed to see 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

Last year, HBO premiered SPIELBERG, a documentary directed by Susan Lacy.  There were six film critics and one film historian seen in the HBO documentary. Not a one was African American.  All seven people were white.  And one of the Spielberg films that got a lengthy discussion was THE COLOR PURPLE.

There needs to be diversity and inclusion in the field of film critics.  It cannot continue to be driven by a predominantly white male perspective.  Also, I deeply feel that some bookish white male film critics are mainly writing for other bookish white male film critics.  Not for the masses.  Not for working class people of color.  I mentioned movie channels.  On TCM, there are now four regular hosts -- Ben Mankiewicz, Eddie Muller, Dave Karger and Alicia Malone.  On a semi-regular basis, Leonard Maltin is the host of Disney feature nights.  Five hosts.  All Caucasian.  In 2018.

With those three summer releases hitting the screen, let's see if the light of inclusion turns on in the heads of network TV news producers who book film critics.  Let's see if that light gets turned on in the heads of other TV producers who hire and book talent to talk about movies.  If it doesn't seem to get turned on, I say "Time's Up."  Let's get on social media and write that we want race/gender inclusion and diversity in the field of film reviewers and TV hosts.

I'll see you at the movies.









Friday, July 6, 2018

For Summer Reading, Try FORREST GUMP

Man, how I would love to interview best-selling novelist Winston Groom.  In the spring of 1994, I was on the road with a two-man WNBC local TV news camera crew.  We had to go to an out of-Manhattan street fair or community bake sale or some other outdoor event from which I'd do live segments for the weekend morning news program.  On the way back, the cameraman was driving.  The audio guy was in the front passenger seat and I sat in the back of the van.  The audio guy would break out into an infectious giggle while reading a paperback book.  The cameraman and I had to know what he was reading.  He told us that he'd been at a garage sale in his neighborhood and he bought a book for a quarter.  He didn't know anything about the book but the price was right and he liked to have some reading material for periods of down time during the work day.  The book was FORREST GUMP by Winston Groom.
I told him I'd heard about the book thanks to entertainment reports that Tom Hanks would be playing the lead role in a film version.  Our audio guy said that he's started reading it the day before and could not put it down.  The following week, I checked the book out from my local library.  Just like the audio guy, I'd break out laughing and I could not put the book down. I read it within three days.

I've been a devoted Tom Hanks fan since his ABC TV sitcom days in the early 80s.  I'm in awe of his range and skill.  However, while reading the novel, I was curious to see how Hanks would play a big musclebound and seemingly well-endowed idiot savant Southern football player with a crew-cut.  I've written in a previous blog that if the movie FORREST GUMP was being cast today, based on his physical description in Winston Groom's book, the top candidate for the role would be John Cena.

The screenplay by Eric Roth takes Forrest and other main characters and sweetens them, if you will.  The movie is poignant, honey-flavored and sentimental.  The book has the tart tang of vinegar with the zest of lemon squeezed into it.  In the book, Forrest has several adventures and not just on the playing field.  He becomes a soldier, an astronaut for NASA, he encounters shady politicians and, in one of my favorite chapters, he gets Hollywood work.  He's in a low-budget sci-fi movie starring a cranky, gorgeous and nearly naked starlet named Raquel Welch.  In the book, Forrest has an active sex life.  He 6' 6" and not exactly pure.  He's got an edge to him that keeps you turning the pages.

His girlfriend, Jenny, is a 1960s free spirit who loves to have sex.  With Forrest and men.  His mother is a annoying old bat who selfishly clings to him and constantly whines.  Although he doesn't do well on scholastic tests, he's a savant who has an astonishing series of adventures.  Some of the funny, outrageous complications in Forrest's life cause him to say -- "Bein' an idiot is no box o' chocolates."

In the film, that line was sweetened to "Life is like a box o' chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."
The mother in the movie version is flipped.  She's loving, unselfish and devoted to getting her special needs son the scholastic respect and attention he deserves.  She is not a rich Southern woman.  If sex is the only currency she has in negotiations to get a better life for her son, she will use that.  Sally Field is excellent as Mama Gump.  In real life, Sally Field and Tom Hanks are in the same age category and both graduated to Oscar winning performances in dramas after having started their national careers in lead roles on ABC sitcoms.
Thanks to the box office bonanza FORREST GUMP struck with moviegoers, the 1980s book became a best-seller again.  I've often wondered how people who loved the movie felt when they read the book.  I also wonder what kind of response Winston Groom got from folks who saw the movie first and then read his novel.  If you loved the movie, you'll discover a different Forrest if you read the book.  But I totally feel you will also enjoy it.  Winston Groom wrote a funny and delightfully twisted adventure with a memorable lead character.

If you're interested in screenwriting, read the book.  See how the characters were retained yet changed for the film version, a film that became a major money-maker and a top Oscar winner (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay).  Compare that to, say, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.  That screenplay, based on a short story, masterfully and brilliantly opened up the story while remaining very faithful to the original material and its tone.
The movie FORREST GUMP opened nationally on July 6, 1994.  Screenwriter Eric Roth went on to write THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, which is basically a remake of his FORREST GUMP screenplay with Brad Pitt and Taraji P. Benson in variations on the Forrest and Mama Gump film roles.  I'm eagerly awaiting his upcoming film.  Eric Roth did the screenplay for the new remake of A STAR IS BORN opening in October.  It stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the story first seen in 1937, then seen with music added in the critically acclaimed 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason, then remade yet again -- this time with rock music -- starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976.

There you have it.  A summer reading book tip.  FORREST GUMP by Winston Groom.  If you read it, let me know what you think.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

On Milos Forman and RAGTIME (1981)

Serious film fans are in for a treat come the afternoon of July 7th.  TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, will have a special screening -- the director's cut of AMADEUS.  The late Milos Forman directed AMADEUS, based on the acclaimed play by Peter Shaffer.  I saw the play on Broadway.  What a fascinating work.  The movie opened up the story beautifully and brilliantly.  Genius vs Mediocrity.  Creation vs the Creator.  The play was fascinating.  The film adaptation lit up my soul.  The film won Oscars for Best Director and Best Actor (the excellent F. Murray Abraham) and for Best Picture.
At that time in society, the arts were stimulating our hearts and minds with products that examined that almost razor-thin difference between someone who's been blessed with the gift of stardom and someone who's got all the talent and training to be a star but didn't quite hit that mark in the public's heart.  Look at the dancers who were good enough to be in the chorus but not good enough to be stars in the story of A CHORUS LINE.  Look at the star ballerina and her best friend who left the dance world and became a housewife in the movie THE TURNING POINT starring Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine.  There's the element of that in the tale of young Mozart and his rival, Salieri, a composer who has the musical skills but lacks "that little something extra" that actor Norman Maine sees in band singer Esther Blodgett in 1954's A STAR IS BORN with Judy Garland and James Mason.

Forman's AMADEUS (1984) is a treat for the eye, the ear and the mind.

I've seen AMADEUS more than once.   Right now, I want to recommend a Forman film that I'd seen only once until this week.  I saw RAGTIME in its early theatrical release.  I saw it this week, before the 4th of July and during this, frankly, frightening time in our democratic American history.  Wow.  This film holds up and deserves a look.  RAGTIME is based on the novel of the same name.
I was riveted to how relevant and timely the film feels in this modern age of Trump -- and RAGTIME takes place in the early 1900s.  A wealthy bigot, a black man who can play classical piano and is complimented by the wealthy bigot on being "articulate," a Black Lives Matter vibe after an innocent black person dies at the hands of white guards, the cult of celebrity, immigration, and lethal gun violence in a public place of entertainment.
If you have a chance, give this American story a look.  For me, it was a reminder that the powerfully talented and handsome Howard Rollins, Jr. died way too soon. His performance as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker brought him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. After RAGTIME, he did the lead role in the 1984 Best Picture Oscar nominee, A SOLDIER'S STORY.  Television viewers saw him in the Sidney Poitier detective role in the TV series adaptation of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  Rollins died of AIDS in 1996.  He was only 46.
The film also stars Mary Steenburgen, Jeff Daniels, Debbie Allen, Mandy Patinkin, Norman Mailer and Elizabeth McGovern.  RAGTIME also reminds you of how effective Fran Drescher can be in a dramatic role.  She plays the wife of Mandy Patinkin's character.  In the gang of black radicals tired of New York's segregation and racism, you'll see newcomer Samuel L. Jackson.

Also in 1981's RAGTIME are two veterans of the Warner Brothers gangster movies of the 1930s, the kind of movies that put the studio on the map.  They are Pat O'Brien and James Cagney.  Cagney still had the magic.  You cannot take your eyes off him.  He holds the screen as the police commissioner.
One of my favorite Warner Bros. gangster classics is 1938's ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES starring James Cagney and Pat O'Brien.

Milos Forman, a wonderful filmmaker and an immigrant whose parents succumbed to Nazi evil, made a film in 1981 that rings true today.  He saw the fences in this Land of the Free, fences that must be removed or knocked down. He saw those limitations to freedom whether the limitations were artistic, political, social or racial.  Look at ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEXT, AMADEUS, THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT or HAIR.  And look at RAGTIME.


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Starz Has More POWER

I had some great luck just a few years ago when a good buddy of mine had a problem catching a flight back from L.A. to New York City.  She was taping entertainment reports and there was snafu with her flight.  She was rebooked to a later one.  She called me and asked if I could substitute for her at a junket for a new series on Starz called POWER.  I was in town and available to pinch hit for her at the Manhattan junket.  Not only that, I'd seen the first season and I really dug it. The story of a role model New York City family man and society figure who's really a drug crime lord hooked me immediately.  It's a juicy, sexy crime series.
In the seasons since I conducted those interviews, the show has found its voice and gotten richer.  Its audience has grown.  POWER has some immensely talented people in front off and behind the cameras.  However, just like HBO's excellent OZ and THE WIRE, it doesn't get noticed by the folks who give out the Emmys.  The TV Academy.  Did you watch OZ and THE WIRE?  Not a single one of the actors in either cast ever got an Emmy nomination.  And there was some damn good acting on those shows.  Well, the same goes for POWER.  As of yet, not a single Emmy nomination has graced any member of its talented cast.  Its new season begins Sunday night at 8:00, July 1st.  Because of that, I thought I'd post those interviews I did.  In addition to being talented, the actors were very polite.  As we know in our modern times, courtesy is not exactly common anymore.  I appreciated their politeness.
Omari Hardwick plays "Ghost" and Lela Loren is Angela.  I met them when they were promoting the show's Season #2.  He's a true gentleman and she has a very interesting story about the career she might have had if acting had not attracted her.  They give Emmy-nomination worthy performances.
Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson is an executive producer on the show and he's also in the cast.  Joseph Sikora plays Tommy.  Sikora should be doing film roles for Scorcese and Spielberg. If you've seen the series, you might agree with me.  He's terrific as a hood in this series.  He too deserves an Emmy nomination.
I have much, much praise and respect -- and gratitude -- for Courtney Kemp, creator of POWER.  I'm grateful that she created such fresh, strong and complicated characters for actors of color to play.  She is a trailblazer and groundbreaker in television production.  Her previous writing credits include THE BERNIE MAC SHOW and THE GOOD WIFE.

There you have it.  I loved doing those interviews for Season #2.  Season #5 of POWER stars Sunday night, July 1st, at 8:00 on STARZ.  I wish them all a most successful new season.  And some Emmy nominations.


Saturday, June 23, 2018

For the Love of Art, PACKED IN A TRUNK

Art, love, sexual freedom, a shady lawyer, women's history, family devotion.  A fascinating story.  Please, if you have Netflix, you must see the documentary called PACKED IN A TRUNK: THE LOST ART OF EDITH LAKE WILKINSON.  It's only 1 hour and 20 minutes long. The time flies by because this search into the life of a late, overlooked painter is so interesting and driven by the love of a relative.  The relative is also a visual artist, a married lesbian mom with a big son who loves basketball.  She's Emmy winner, director/writer Jane Anderson, a woman so dear she'll make you wish she was a member of your family.  Edith Lake Wilkinson was Jane's great-aunt.  Aunt Edith was a lesbian too at a time when American women -- straight or gay -- had limited freedom in society compared to men.  Edith Lake Wilkinson was committed to a mental health institution.  That was a dark gray fate for someone whose colorful work was absolutely gorgeous.  Her paintings made me gasp in awe.
Her style is modern.  Her colors are vibrant, fluid, alive, rich.  She's someone MGM director Vincente Minnelli should have made a film about.  Why?  Minnelli had a great eye for the visual.  He adored color.  He respected and revered artists and their uneasy journeys to add beauty to the world.  Look at his Vincent van Gogh biopic, LUST FOR LIFE, starring Kirk Douglas.  Look at his musical, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, starring Gene Kelly as a struggling young painter in Paris who's been inspired by the greats such as Utrillo and Lautrec.

Works by Aunt Edith were found packed away in a trunk.  Jane gives us family history.  The story of Edith Lake Wilkinson, painter, goes back to New York City in the early 1900s.  We learn about her life and creativity on East 23rd Street, on West 117th Street, in Harlem and in Provincetown, Massachusetts were artists were free to express their same-sex attractions in a Cape Cod community.

But even there, women were limited.  They were only allowed to sell their paintings one day a week.  The men could sell their work more days a week.

So did she ever make her artistic dreams come true?  What was the state of her relationship with the woman constantly referred to as her "friend"?  And how did Edith wind up in an institution at a fairly young age?  I won't tell you.  I really want you to see Jane's documentary, directed with care and wit by Michelle Boyaner.
I will tell you that the Edith Lake Wilkinson story is so compelling and relevant that it could inspire a good screenplay for excellent actresses such as Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Laurie Metcalf, Ruth Negga and Meryl Streep.

Watch this trailer for PACKED IN A TRUNK:
One of filmmaking's earliest directors was a woman.  Alice Guy-Blaché in France.  For decades, her name was omitted when male film historians talked or wrote about silent era filmmakers.  However, I once read that she originated some special effects in those turn of the century years that Hollywood's D.W. Griffith "borrowed" when making his famous films around 1915.  I thought about that watching PACKED IN A TRUNK.  I think male painters "borrowed" from Edith.
The revelations that come near the end -- Wow.  Three women in a room talking.  I found this way more interesting and surprising than a couple of comic book superhero action movie sequels I've seen.

We all want to be validated.  We all want to be remembered, seen and regarded as significant.  Edith Lake Wilkinson gave life more beauty than it gave her.  She was not treated well.  She was forgotten. I'm sure many of us, at some time, have felt forgotten especially by loved ones.  We feel like we've been boxed up and placed on a distant shelf in their minds.  We grow heartsore waiting for that box to be opened again, for the contents to be seen.  To have a devoted loved one, many years later, work to bring attention, respect and validation to this gifted woman who became a forgotten artist....that is a wonderful love story.  See the documentary.  Give your eyes the gift of seeing her work. Make someone feel significant.  Love freely and embrace the arts.

Check out the website for more information:  EdithLakeWilkinson.com.



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