Saturday, October 12, 2019

America in My Youth

I was a little boy when President John F. Kennedy was a living voice and in office. During his presidency, I became a transfer student. I started elementary school at St. Leo's, a Catholic school and church on Imperial Highway in South Central Los Angeles. After a couple of years, Mom switched me over to George Washington Carver Elementary, a public school on East 120th Street. Getting there was a shorter walk for me. I was a latchkey kid. At St. Leo's, there were drawings of famous saints on the classroom walls. There were also photographs of President Kennedy, America's first Catholic commander-in-chief. I loved seeing him on TV news and in the newspaper. I loved his youthful appeal, his zest and his vitality.
Ours was a black Catholic family and my parents were solid JFK supporters. One thing I realized, even at that young age, was the respect President Kennedy had for the press corps. In addition to that, President and Mrs. Kennedy, had great respect for other cultures and the fine arts. When he spoke, he gave us hope.


This week, during a rally in Minneapolis, Donald Trump spoke. He currently resides in the White House. As he addressed the crowd, he criticized political opponents in a most vulgar way -- a way that makes one wonder if he's an American president or a high school bully who will drop out and never attend a college. With press in attendance -- by the way, he calls our American press corps "the enemy of the people" -- he said this about former Vice President Joe Biden: "He was only a good vice president because he understood how to kiss Barack Obama's ass."

A clip of that statement aired on MSNBC.

I want you to hear words I heard from a president when I was a youngster. This is what America had. Here are 4 and a half minutes of President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address.

Wake up, America.



Monday, October 7, 2019

Actress Juanita Moore Deserved More

The popular 1959 remake, IMITATION OF LIFE, aired on TV recently and I watched it. I had not seen it uncut and commercial free in four years. Douglas Sirk directed it, based on a hit 1934 film of the same name. Claudette Colbert starred in the black and white original. Lana Turner starred in the updated Eastman color remake.
If you're familiar with the movie, you know that it's a race drama. In both versions, we see two single working mothers, one is white and the other is black. The black woman becomes the maid/friend to the white woman. Each one has a little girl. The black woman's little girl is light-skinned like her absent father -- so light-skinned that she can pass for white. And she wants to pass for white. She wants the freedom and privileges that being white bring in American society. All four females live together in New York City where the white mother's career will ascend. She'll become rich and famous. The black mother will remain a maid and beloved friend, still working for and living with the white mother. This holds forth in both versions of the film. In the original version, Claudette Colbert's character gets rich and famous in the packaged food industry. In the remake, Lana Turner's character finds success and stardom on Broadway. Each mama will have drama as her daughter grows up.
For her performance as Annie Johnson, the maid/mother, Juanita Moore entered Hollywood history books as the 4th black woman to get an Oscar nomination. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. I dare your heart not to be moved watching her portrayal. Annie's devotion to her daughter is so deep, matched by her desire for Sara Jane to be truthful about her race, that each time Sarah Jane Johnson proclaims she's really white and each time she rejects her black mother, the denials act like a terminal virus that slowly but eventually claims Annie's life. Juanita Moore deserved that nomination. Also in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar category for that year was Susan Kohner as the grown light-skinned Sarah Jane. Kohner's parents were Mexican actress Lupita Tovar and Jewish film producer Paul Kohner.

Sirk's IMITATION OF LIFE has a lot of fans who are younger than I and Caucasian. When they talk about the film, one thing I notice is they always mention how heartbreaking and stinging the racial conflict of the story is. I agree. But rarely do they mention the original version. In the original version, the grown light-skinned daughter was memorably played by the beautiful, talented Fredi Washington, an actress who truly was a light-skinned black woman. The irony was that Hollywood executives -- in real life, not an imitation of it -- told Washington that if she passed for white, they could get her the quality of roles that went to actresses like Constance Bennett and Joan Crawford in the 1930s. But Fredi Washington refused to deny that she was a black woman, so Hollywood had no other opportunities for her. She did stage work in New York. Louise Beavers portrayed the maid/mother in the 1934 version. If the Best Supporting Actress category had existed at that time, Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington should've been nominees in that category for their dramatic performances. Beavers continued to work steadily in Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s, always in a maid role.
As I watched Sirk's IMITATION OF LIFE again, I was awed to a deeper degree by the excellence of Juanita Moore. Then I got angry. Juanita Moore, like the recently departed Diahann Carroll, was another in a list of black/Latina actresses who got an Oscar nomination and then had to turn to TV for steady employment because Hollywood had no other good script offers. Cicely Tyson and Oscar winner Rita Moreno are also on that list.

IMDb stands for Internet Movie Database. Juanita Moore was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for 1959's IMITATION OF LIFE. Diahann Carroll was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for 1974's CLAUDINE. Carroll was the first black woman to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. The 1962 musical was Richard Rodgers' NO STRINGS. The interracial love story about two Americans in Paris also got Tony nominations for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Costume Design. Hollywood never made a film version like it had of other Broadway musicals that featured the music of Richard Rodgers. Carroll was a trailblazer with her lead role on the NBC sitcom, JULIA, before her film role in CLAUDINE.

Go to the IMDb website, search the names Diahann Carroll and Juanita Moore. Go into Filmography and then into Actress. Notice the lack of major film roles after the movies that brought them Oscar nominations. The bulk of their work after their Oscar nominations is on TV. Juanita Moore should've had several other good film roles after her IMITATION OF LIFE performance. Her smart and sad portrayal of a woman whom society always pushes back into a supporting role as a caretaker shows how racial discrimination eats at the soul.

There's another strong performance in Sirk's IMITATION OF LIFE and it's one that rarely gets mentioned. I really noticed it more in my recent viewing. Karin Dicker as 8-year-old Sarah Jane really bites into her role and effectively communicates the girl's racial anger and jealousy. Sirk does something very interesting and almost subliminal with little Sarah Jane. When she compares herself to the white mother's little girl, her playmate, and she rages "I'm white! I'm just as white as she is" a couple of times -- one being with a Christmas tree in the background -- Sirk has half of her face in light, the other half is in shadow.

There's one small scene that stood out to me more this time around. The two mothers have been in each other's life and sharing the same home since the white mother was a struggling print model seeking magazine ad work. Now she's a celebrated Broadway star who has grown from sophisticated light plays to a strong, kitchen sink drama dealing with race issues. In real life, after all those years, she finds out the Annie has been an active member of social organizations and a positive force in her community. The impressed and surprised actress remarks, "I never knew." Annie sweetly yet frankly replies, "You never asked." Annie knew more about her than she knew about Annie. Annie knew more about the actress' credits than she knew about Annie's. How many white friends of black friends have asked them about their lives? How many have seriously asked their black friends about restrictions to freedom and equal opportunities they've experienced because of their race?

 

Thank you, Douglas Sirk, for a good remake. Thank you, Juanita Moore for an unforgettable performance. Hollywood was lucky to have you -- and didn't realize it.

For the Internet Movie Database, go here to  www.imdb.com.


Sunday, October 6, 2019

On SET FIRE TO THE STARS

If I used an elevator pitch style to recommend this story of two writers as a DVD rental, I'd say "It's like MY FAVORITE YEAR meets SIDEWAYS only it's a drama based on a real-life story about a famous writer and photographed in black and white." The 2014 release is SET FIRE TO THE STARS. The known Hollywood star in it is Elijah Wood and he's the reason why I watched it the first time. I wanted to review it on a film review show that aired on national cable TV at the time. I suppose that THE LORD OF THE RINGS and all its sequel/prequel adventures featuring Elijah Wood as Frodo contain his most famous film role. I'm a big Wood fan in and outside of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I love his willingness occasionally to seek out roles in productions that may not be mass market movie hits that sell lots of popcorn at the concession stands like those fantasy adventures did. They may not attract millions of viewers, but those roles challenge him as an actor.  EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED is an example. That film had him as the young Jewish guy out to find the woman who saved his grandfather. His grandfather was in a Ukrainian village during World War 2, a village overtaken by Nazis. I loved Wood in the American version of the Australian TV series, WILFRED. In that, he played a lovable yet depressed guy who, for reasons unexplained, sees his neighbor's dog as a grown man in a dog suit -- and they talk to each other. The dog is randy and rude but exactly what the young man needs to shake him out of his depression. SET FIRE TO THE STARS has what's been added to the list of my favorite Elijah Wood performances.  "How much trouble can one poet be?" The man Wood plays in this drama will learn the answer to his question when he becomes chaperone, wrangler and guardian to the hard-drinking Dylan Thomas during a speaking engagement in New York and Connecticut.
We go back in time to New York City in 1950. Elijah Wood plays the nervous aspiring poet John M. Brinnin. He's a Harvard graduate who bring in his idol, Dylan Thomas, for a week-long speaking engagement. Says Brinnin about the Welsh poet, "I believe him to be the purest lyrical poet in the English speaking world." But after Thomas hits a Manhattan apartment party like a hyper sheepdog in a fine china shop, Brinnin realizes he's got some heavy duty on his hands as a week-long caretaker to the famous poet. Brinnin chats with Thomas and tells him he needs to behave in his hotel room. He tells Thomas this as the poet relaxes in a bathtub with water up to his chest. Dylan Thomas was in the bathtub fully-dressed as Brinnin spoke to him.

See what I mean about a similarity to MY FAVORITE YEAR? In that film, a young comedy writer works on a network TV comedy show in the 1950s. His movie idol, the boozing and charming ladies' man/ageing action movie hero, is booked on the show and he's the young writer's responsibility. The actor is still charismatic, still unreliable. But the two men have a need for each other in a certain situation. In SIDEWAYS, two grown male friends appreciate good wines and a road trip as one's wedding approaches. There will be a disruption and the two men will need each other in a certain situation.
In SET FIRE TO THE STARS, Dylan Thomas is portrayed by the attractive, talented and burly actor, Celyn Jones (pronounced Kellin). He co-wrote the screenplay with first time director, Andy Goddard. The movie was shot in 18 days. When it was released in 2014, I watched it twice in the same weekend because of the magnetism between the two male leads. It's as if they artistically fell in love with each other and used that emotion to inform their performances. The aspiring poet, taxed by trying to keep Dylan Thomas from drinking and wrecking things, is attached to him because he wants to learn the secret to his gift. There's a rowboat scene in which hellraiser Thomas challenges boyish Brinnin and blurts "It's about feeling something." Celyn Jones shows us the lyrical poet in the man, the vulgar side that erupts when confronted with pomposity and the heartbroken, vulnerable, irresponsible man-child who cries out "I'm a drunk!"
The movie has a 1950s jazz score. The black and white cinematography is perfect for this story and its look at a bygone New York City. There's a minimal richness to the art direction and the set decoration. The look of the set and the looks of the character actors as diners are perfect. This was a praiseworthy accomplishment. Not only was SET FIRE TO THE STARS shot in just 18 days, it was shot entirely overseas in Wales. Celyn Jones is a native of Wales in the United Kingdom. Wood had been in Wales shooting a previous project when he got the SET FIRE TO THE STARS script.
When this film opened in New York City, I think it played at one arthouse theater in the Greenwich Village section. Elijah Wood was a guest on THE VIEW around that time but the ladies didn't mention SET FIRE TO THE STARS at all. They mentioned another project of his. I do believe that, if the film had received more attention from entertainment reporters and movie-goers, actor Celyn Jones would've received Hollywood script offers. He's quite good. I'd love to see more of him. Had he been around back in the day, Celyn Jones would've been working with classic film directors such as David Lean, William Wyler and Fred Zinnemann. I'd pitch him for one of those big budget adventures from Steven Spielberg or Patty Jenkins so he gets introduced to a large nationwide audience.
There's a dinner party scene in SET FIRE TO THE STARS that borders on the Edward Albee-ish. Think WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? The actress seen as the wife, Shirley, is Shirley Henderson. She scored in another film based on the true events in the lives of real people. It too is a fine film. In 2018's STAN & OLLIE, we see Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the latter-day Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Their loving wives, who constantly bicker with each other, are practically a comedy team themselves in the movie with their verbal tennis match of zingers. Shirley Henderson was a hoot as Mrs. Oliver Hardy.

SET FIRE TO THE STARS is a 95-minute biographical drama and a directorial debut that has some good things going for it. I watched it over the weekend and loved it for a third time. You can rent it on YouTube and Amazon Prime.











Friday, October 4, 2019

Elegant, Extraordinary Diahann Carroll

For a lot of us African Americans of a certain age, the news that singer/actress Diahann Carroll passed away hit us as if we'd just learned that a beloved senior family member had died. The place she held in our hearts was that special. Diahann Carroll died at age 84. Tributes on social media were immediate. I listened to the news of her passing on radio newscasts out of Los Angeles. The news reports and comments from entertainment contributors all mentioned Ms. Carroll's landmark role on the trailblazing TV sitcom, JULIA, on NBC in the 1960s. Her addition to the cast of ABC's hit prime time series, DYNASTY, was also mentioned. There was much more to her great career than those two TV shows.
Diahann Carroll was an African American trailblazer who worked with other African American trailblazers. Let me highlight some of her other credits.
By the time she was teetering on the brink of turning 21, Diahann Carroll has shared screen time with Dorothy Dandridge in the 1954 musical drama, CARMEN JONES.  Dandridge was the first Black person, male or female, to receive an Oscar nomination in the "Best" category. The first two Black performers to get Oscar nominations were Hattie McDaniel, winner for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND, and Ethel Waters for 1949's PINKY. Both women were nominees for Best Supporting Actress. Dandridge was nominated for Best Actress. (In the above CARMEN JONES photo, you see Dandridge in the pink, Pearl Bailey in the middle and Carroll on the right.) Diahann Carroll worked again with Dorothy Dandridge in her last Hollywood film, PORGY AND BESS, a 1959 adaptation of the classic stage musical. The film co-starred Sidney Poitier, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis, Jr.

GOODBYE AGAIN is a 1961 love story starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Perkins. Just like an earlier film starring Ingrid Bergman, 1942's CASABLANCA, this is a film that's sweetly subversive in its presentation of Black images. Just like Dooley Wilson in CASABLANCA, Diahann Carroll played a singer in a sophisticated overseas nightclub. The oft-told tale is that Lena Horne's numbers in 1940s MGM musicals were inserted into the action in such a way that they could be edited out when the movies played in America's Southern states. As James Gavin painstakingly documented in his Lena Horne biography, STORMY WEATHER: THE LIFE OF LENA HORNE, the actual removal of her numbers was more legend than fact. However, it is obvious that the glamorous Black singer/actress was never granted the opportunity in her A-list MGM musicals of the 1940s to do scenes with MGM's white, fellow A-list musical stars. Lena Horne never did dialogue opposite Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland or Fred Astaire. In CASABLANCA, Dooley Wilson as Sam is half of an important 2-character scene -- one scene with Ingrid Bergman and one with Humphrey Bogart. In another scene, the two lovers (Bergman and Bogart) are having a bottle of champagne ... and invite Sam to join them. In most Hollywood films of that era, the Black person would've been a servant who poured the champagne and then went back into the kitchen. In CASABLANCA, Sam is a friend.

In GOODBYE AGAIN, Perkins plays a young man having a complicated romance in Paris. He enjoys the number by the elegant singer and she joins him at his table for a drink. I loved Anthony Perkins and Diahann Carroll together.

Diahann Carroll's other 1961 film release was PARIS BLUES. Sidney Poitier, the first Black man nominated for an Oscar and the first to win the Best Actor Oscar prize (for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD), was Diahann Carroll's leading man and romantic interest onscreen -- and off, for a time. In America, the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. PARIS BLUES may be a little light on story, but it's blessedly heavy on positive Black images and inclusion. Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll are the four leads. Newman and Poitier play best friends, jazz musicians in Paris. Poitier's character is a composer/arranger -- like a Billy Strayhorn. The other two Americans in Paris, played by Woodward and Carroll, are best friends who worked and saved their money for a vacation in Europe. The two ladies meet the two jazz musicians and love ensues. That's pretty much the plot. The race situation in America gives an added dimension to the Poitier/Carroll storyline. Connie (Diahann Carroll) feels things are changing in America. She wants to be part of the movement. Eddie (Sidney Poitier) is wary. He reminded me of my father who told me several times that, when he served in the segregated Army of World War 2, the first white people who ever called him "Sir" were people of France and Great Britain.
I remember being a little boy and watching PARIS BLUES with my parents. They grew up seeing Black people in movies be limited to playing servants, slaves and Congo warriors. To see a stylish, educated, employed Black American couple as sweethearts in Paris was hugely significant to them. And when Paul Newman tosses a classy flirt to Diahann Carroll in an opening scene -- Wow! That was major for 1961.
Diahann Carroll made history on Broadway years before she made history on TV's JULIA. Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame, wrote the score for a modern-day musical drama. At the heart of NO STRINGS was an interracial romance. Again, Diahann Carroll played an American in Paris. She's a native New Yorker who has broken through a color barrier to be a high fashion model working in Paris. Another American in Paris is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist whose artistic flow is temporarily blocked. He's white. He and the model meet and fall in love. But can their interracial romance survive if they return to early 1960s America when interracial marriage was still illegal in several states? Actor/singer Richard Kiley (seen in the films BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET) was Carroll's leading man. The book was written by Samuel A. Taylor, the man who wrote SABRINA FAIR. That play was turned into the 1954 film, SABRINA, starring Audrey Hepburn.

Diahann Carroll beautifully introduced "The Sweetest Sounds" in NO STRINGS.
In 1962, her Broadway role was a non-stereotypical one for a Black woman. She was the first African American woman to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
Hollywood snapped up the rights to other musicals that boasted the Richard Rodgers name and made them into major movie musicals: Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA! (1955), Rodgers & Hammerstein's CAROUSEL (1956), Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I (1956), Rodgers & Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC (1958), Rodgers & Hammerstein's FLOWER DRUM SONG (1961) and Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965).

Hollywood did nothing with the Richard Rodgers 1962 Tony winner, NO STRINGS. Shame on Hollywood.

In 1968, Diahann Carroll made history with the premiere of JULIA on NBC. A Black woman was the lead character on the sitcom. She was not a domestic. She was a registered nurse, a single working mother. Her husband died serving in the Vietnam War. That character looked familiar to me. Our mother was a registered nurse who wore the same kind of outfit, including the starched white cap, that Julia wore to work. During its three seasons, Julia's cousin appeared in a few episodes. Cousin Sara was played by Diahann Carroll's dear friend, the equally extraordinary and groundbreaking Diana Sands. Sands was in the original Broadway cast of A RAISIN IN THE SUN (and the film version), she starred in a revival of George Bernard Shaw's SAINT JOAN, the first Black actress to take on the lead role, and she was Doris in the original Broadway production of THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT.

Diana Sands was slated to play the lead role in 1974's CLAUDINE when she was stricken with cancer. She asked Diahann Carroll to take over the lead for her. Diahann did, opposite the second Black man who was an Oscar nominee for Best Actor, James Earl Jones. CLAUDINE, a movie about Black urban family life, is so authentic you can practically smell the burnt hair on Claudine's hotcomb. For her performance, Ms. Carroll became the fourth Black woman in Hollywood history to get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

 After she won the Tony Award for NO STRINGS in 1962, she sang at a birthday party for President John F. Kennedy. In 1963, she participated in Dr. Martin Luther King's historic March on Washington. Here she is marching with James Garner and a bearded Paul Newman.
In 1997, Diahann Carroll slammed across a terrific performance as the fortune teller in EVE'S BAYOU, the remarkable directorial debut of Kasi Lemmons. The Black female filmmaker had played the best buddy to Jodie Foster's character in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
There you have it. The lady made history other than JULIA and DYNASTY on TV. Diahann Carroll was a fabulous example, a role model, a talented woman who was elegant and earthy, a combination of grit and grace and a product of a show biz era in which performers proudly perfected a sense of glamour and charm. She was a regal beauty who enriched our Black History on Broadway, on film and on TV.







Thursday, October 3, 2019

See MORRIS FROM AMERICA

I love me some Craig Robinson I have ever since I saw him as the strict nightclub doorman in the 2007 comedy, KNOCKED UP. He reminds me of every classmate who was buddy of mine back in high school in South Central L.A. Robinson, like those classmates, always got belly laughs from me. I laughed watching him in the movies PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE and the apocalypse sci-fi comedy, THIS IS THE END. You may have watched him regularly as Darryl on the NBC sitcom, THE OFFICE. Did you know that Craig Robinson can speak German? I didn't either. He speaks German on Netflix in MORRIS FROM AMERICA.
Craig Robinson is a big huggable papa bear of a guy. That quality serves him well in MORRIS FROM AMERICA. He's a widower father raising a 13 year old son named Morris. When we first see them, they're at home. Dad is trying to teach son some new rap beats. Morris listens attentively but he thinks the beat is too slow. They bicker in a friendly fashion with dad dropping some R-rated words. Then they go out for ice cream. As they talk about the flavors, they're walking in what appears to be an outside mall area. But it doesn't look like a recognizable city area. As the camera pulls back for a wide shot, we see that they're not in the U.S.

They live in Heidelberg, Germany. Morris has a tutor who teaches him German. He attends youth center programs where -- you guessed it -- he's the only Black kid present. However, the white German boys play basketball and know about rap music. Morris' youth center isn't presenting just light fun fare. His instructor quotes the philosophies of Marcus Aurelius. As Morris learns how to speak German and gets an upscale education at the center, Morris gets frustrated when he has to punch through some stereotypes about Black American youth.
MORRIS FROM AMERICA is a 90-minute coming of age drama that gives comedian Craig Robinson the opportunity to display his skill at playing more serious scenes than we're accustomed to seeing him do. He still makes you smile and there's still that Craig Robinson personality we love. However, we also see that Curtis Gentry, his character, is a man who deeply misses his late wife and continues to wear his wedding ring. Despite his dropping some occasional 4-letter words, he's a devoted dad whose son is the top priority in his life.

Dad brags about his amateur rap skills in the Bronx back in the day. He states, "I had sick flow" about his freestyle rap. Morris wants to rap and he does. He raps about hooking up for wild sex. Dad criticizes Morris when he reads his lyrics because he knows Morris has never had any wild sex. What I liked about that scene is that Curtis was essentially telling his aspiring artist son to write what he knows. Make his voice authentic instead of ripping off what he's heard from others.

Morris becomes infatuated with a pretty German girl in his youth center program. He's the obvious fish-out-of-water, so there's a scoop of your standard American high school comedies about pecking order and first crushes sprinkled with a little BLAZING SADDLES. Katrin, the German girl, stuns Morris with some questions about Black boys. "Teach me how to be charming," he says to his tutor when he longs to be accepted by Katrin. Katrin will lead him into teen temptation.

Things get complicated, Morris disobeys Dad when Dad's out of town and Morris gets stranded in another city. The situation could've been worse. Morris always has that little "Jiminy Cricket" voice in his head that keeps him from doing all the questionable things the other kids do.
It's a different and entertaining story of an African American single papa bear and his young cub. If you're a Craig Robinson fan, I recommend this. He's impressive with dramatic material.

The performances are good. Chad Hartigan, an Irish-American filmmaker, wrote and directed this feature. MORRIS IN AMERICA premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. How did Curtis and Morris wind up in Germany? You'll find out. Robinson's tender and fatherly monologue in the car scene near the end of the story is a winner. I loved that scene.

Kids say the darndest things. Sometimes in German. Check out Craig Robinson and Markees Christmas as father and son in MORRIS FROM AMERICA available on Netflix.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Casting the JOKER

I have an extremely talented comedian/actor buddy back in New York. His name is Anthony DeVito. This week, he tweeted "Once again I feel like an alien as white guys of all ages around me are going apeshit over the Joker movie."
Do I want to see JOKER? Yes. I admit it. I want to see it because I've been a fan of Joaquin Phoenix performances for quite a few years now. This goes back to his work in Ron Howard's 1997 film, INVENTING THE ABBOTTS. His range as an actor, his immersion into a character, fascinates me. If you want to get an idea of his range, rent GLADIATOR -- the 2000 film that brought Russell Crowe his Best Actor Oscar -- and follow that with WALK THE LINE. I have watched Joaquin Phoenix play Johnny Cash in that biopic at least a dozen times.   THE MASTER was what you'd call "an arthouse film," not one that could give an action-adventure franchise film a run for its money at the box office. That may be, but I sat through THE MASTER twice, dazzled by Joaquin Phoenix's performance as the emotionally dented WWII veteran who becomes engrossed in the teachings and leader of a new religious movement.
He got Oscar nominations for GLADIATOR, WALK THE LINE and THE MASTER.

Initially, I didn't have a tingling urge to see JOKER solely because I need a break from the steady diet of comic book-based adventures we get now at the movies. The franchises seem to have overtaken half the screens at the cineplex. But the excellent reviews Phoenix has gotten from several film critics whose opinions I respect ignited my interest.

From what I've read, JOKER is a backstory. It shows us the character's evolution from troubled young man to psycho villain. JOKER is a character created for a comic book. He's been played by only one  non-white male. Latino Cesar Romero, one of the most versatile actors of Old Hollywood, played The Joker in the 1960s on the popular BATMAN TV series on ABC and in a movie version of the TV series. In later films, the Joker was played by Jack Nicholson and the late Heath Ledger.

In the trailer, I noticed that Phoenix's psychologically tattered character is verbally pushed back, rejected by two Black women -- one on a bus, the other in an office. Then, he's kissing a third Black woman. I wonder where that relationship goes. Here's a trailer.


Another actor whose work I totally dig is Michael Peña. I wish he got as much attention and promotion as Joaquin Phoenix does. Peña had roles in five films that got Oscar nominations for Best Picture -- MILLION DOLLAR BABY, CRASH, BABEL, AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE MARTIAN. This talented Mexican-American actor also starred in a biopic, playing the lead character, but the entertainment press didn't give CESAR CHAVEZ anywhere near the attention it gave WALK THE LINE with the Joaquin as Johnny Cash. Here's Michael Peña.


Here's my question. If an ethnic actor, like Michael Peña, played JOKER, and played him as the son of an immigrant, a son who, like his father, was mistreated by society because of his race, how would comic book fans and critics respond to that? Think of Joker hearing "Go back where you came from" and seeing immigrant kids in cages on TV news as he continues to be treated like a second class citizen. Think of what being a racial outcast could give to the texture of that comic book character's backstory. Would it be interesting to see? Feel free to leave me a comment.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

A Morning with Mitzi Gaynor

This is a programming note about one of my longtime favorite entertainers. I've blogged before that, in our African American Catholic home back in South Central Los Angeles, any and every day that brought us a new Mitzi Gaynor music variety special on CBS was practically a Holy Day of Obligation as far as our mother was concerned. She adored Mitzi Gaynor. Mom introduced me to her work before I ever saw one of her sensational CBS special. The MGM musical, LES GIRLS, starred Gene Kelly as a showman/director who toured Europe with his trio of fabulous female singers and dancer called "Les Girls." Mitzi played a member of the trio. When the 1957 musical aired one Saturday night on NBC, Mom was Commander of the TV that night and LES GIRLS was what we were watching. I am not complaining. I loved LES GIRLS and picked up the love of Mitzi Gaynor from Mom. (There's Mitzi on the left.)
Mitzi had a knock-out dance number when Gene Kelly. The number was a send-up of Marlon Brando as he was leading a motorcycle gang in 1953's THE WILD ONE. George Cukor directed LES GIRLS. The musical had an original score by Cole Porter.

She lit up movie screens in ANYTHING GOES with Bing Crosby and Donald O'Connor, THE JOKER IS WILD with Frank Sinatra, LES GIRLS, THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS with Ethel Merman and Marilyn Monroe, Rodgers & Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC, HAPPY ANNIVERSARY with David Niven and SURPRISE PACKAGE with Noel Coward. And Mitzi Gaynor wearing Bob Mackie originals in her CBS specials -- now THAT'S entertainment. Yes, I've been a fan a long, long time. I even saw her onstage once in her one-woman show. Not only was it great fun, it was a lesson in show biz artistry.

Mitzi Gaynor made a sold-out, packed audience feel as if we were all in her living room watching her perform at a party. Her ability to connect with that quality of intimacy and warmth was amazing to experience. When I lived in New York City in the Chelsea section of town, early in October following the September 11th attacks, I rented SOUTH PACIFIC from my nearby video store. Hearing her sing "A Cockeyed Optimist" helped my spirits to refresh and resurrect. She made me feel as though it was alright to smile again.

If you too are a Mitzi Gaynor fan, make a note on your SmartPhone of whatever. She will be profiled this coming weekend on the CBS SUNDAY MORNING news magazine show. That's Sunday, October 6th, on CBS. The program starts at 9am ET.

America in My Youth

I was a little boy when President John F. Kennedy was a living voice and in office. During his presidency, I became a transfer student. I ...