Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My Tom Hanks Pride Month Memory

He doesn't know it, but Tom Hanks helped me through one of the most heartbreaking, emotionally difficult mornings of my life.  Later that day, millions of folks would be glued to TV screens watching an NBA playoff game and the now-famous police chase of a white Bronco driven by O.J. Simpson.  For me and an army of entertainment press booked in The Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, the early morning kicked off a work day -- a day of interviews for the FORREST GUMP press junket.  FORREST GUMP, a big Paramount feature starring Tom Hanks.
I was scheduled to interview Tom Hanks around 10:30 that morning.  I'd read the novel, I'd heard high praise for the movie from publicists in New York City who worked for rival film companies.  I definitely wanted to interview Tom Hanks, a man who has been one of my favorite actors ever since I was a devoted fan of BOSOM BUDDIES, his ABC sitcom back in 1980.  I jumped at the offer to participate in the FORREST GUMP junket.  I'd do the interview for the weekend morning show on local WNBC. I was a regular on the show from its September 1992 premiere until I quit.  You probably know this already if you've read my posts frequently.  Let's just say that my experience working for a few executives in the WNBC news departments was rocky for me.  At that time, the station had yet to fully embrace diversity and inclusion.  In October 1992, I went out on a date with a courteous young white Southern Baptist gentleman named Richard.  He asked me out.  Initially, I had no interest in going out but I figured, "What the heck. It's just brunch at a café.  I can be done in two hours."  That first date changed my life. It started my first romantic relationship.  We had brunch and I stayed with him until the day he died.

This was during the extremely dark and politically turbulent days of the AIDS crisis.  Richard had a good job and thought he was in good health -- until Christmas week of 1992.  At first we thought he had the flu. A few days later, I sensed something worse was happening.  I got him to the hospital.  Come the New Year, he'd been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.  He'd been laid off from work.  I became his main caregiver in New York and kept in touch constantly with his wonderful relatives down South.  My situation at WNBC had been so frustrating that I planned to quit in early December.  But, when Richard took ill, I needed the job and part-time income to help me pay the rent and care for him.

A few days before I had to fly out to L.A. for the junket, Richard had some medical problems. I had to get him to the hospital again.  I was going to cancel my junket plans but he was adamant.  "Go do your work.  Don't worry about me.  My doctor is here.  Go do your work, he said."  His doctor called me with news that she was quite sure he'd be fine when I got back from L.A.  She also told me not to worry.

Tom Hanks' work was special to Richard and me.  We had a great date night at a preview screening of SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE.  He held my hand and got tears in his eyes when Hanks won his Best Actor Oscar for PHILADELPHIA.

I knew a few other men in the TV newsroom who were also gay and confided in them that my partner had been diagnosed.  They all urged me not to tell management, to keep quiet about it.  I replied, "I'm in good health, thank Heaven. It's my partner who's sick."  They said, "Nevertheless, management could still find a way to not need you anymore."  I wasn't under contract so I put stock in what those newsroom veterans told me.  On the TODAY Show, Katie Couric had the freedom to talk about her late husband's battle with colon cancer.  She could do segments on what she'd learned about the illness, segments that could help others.  I could not do TV news segments on what I'd learned as an AIDS caregiver and pass that information on to others who may have been in the same situation.  And I wanted to.  I know others were in a similar caregiver situation.

That's how things were then.

I was in my Four Seasons hotel room, going over my notes for the FORREST GUMP on-camera interviews I'd be doing.  A half hour before I was to head upstairs to see Mr. Hanks, my phone rang.  It was Richard's doctor calling from New York.  She began with "Don't panic."  He had not been responding to medication the way she'd hoped.  She felt I needed to call his parents.  There was not much more she could do aside from making him as comfortable as possible.

Time just seemed to stop. I went numb.  That was a call I prayed I'd never have to make but knew I, one day, probably would.  I called his mother.  She was calm and focused.  She said she'd take care of alerting the other family members.  Then, as always, she asked how I was. I hung up an then prepared to cancel my interviews and catch the next flight I could back to New York after explaining why I had to pull out of the junket suddenly.  The phone rang again.  Again, it was Richard's doctor.

"Richard ordered me to tell you to do your work.  Do not come back until you've done your work.  He's serious about that."

I had to stop crying, pull myself together, gather my notes, make sure I looked presentable and go to Tom Hanks' interview room.  I would ask a question about PHILADELPHIA, a question to address the discrimination gay people endured.  I'd ask it for Richard.  I'd ask it because my news director boss refused to air my taped interview of Harvey Fierstein, a good interview in which he was promoting MRS. DOUBTFIRE.  He refused to air it because, in his words, "I have a problem with him being openly gay."  He said that in a New York City TV newsroom.

My head felt foggy when I entered Tom Hanks' room and I was so heartbroken I felt I as if I was walking in slow motion.  Tom Hanks, standing and displaying a big smile said, "Bobby Rivers! I remember watching you on VH1!"  His enthusiasm, his graciousness, his warm greeting instantly snapped me out of my emotional pain and focused me on the work to be done.  I got through that interview day thanks to Mr. Hanks.

My PHILADELPHIA-related question to Tom Hanks is in this reel (the phone number you'll see is out of service):
Tom Hanks went on to tell me that he wouldn't have been surprised if he never again played the guy who fell in love with Meg Ryan had he been gay and came out in his Oscar acceptance speech.

But he did go on to play that guy again.  In 1998's YOU'VE GOT MAIL.

I did the interviews and flew back that night.  I got to Richard's beside at the hospital.  One of his first questions was "How'd you do with Tom Hanks?"  Richard's parents were there.  He and I had some precious time together.  He even broke me up laughing.  Richard passed away peacefully the afternoon of June 20th, 1994.  Tom Hanks won his second Best Actor Oscar for FORREST GUMP.
In January 1995, when I'd made enough to pay off Richard's funeral expenses, I mailed the check and wrote my brief letter to my WNBC boss giving him my two weeks' notice.  I saw Tom Hanks again,  unexpectedly, when I was having absolute joy with a small, ragtag camera crew. We worked on a local cable show and happened to shooting near the red carpet function for THE GREEN MILE. We were taping the red carpet activity for extra footage on our show but we never expected to see Tom Hanks while our camera was rolling.  He was sporting a beard for CAST AWAY shoots.
It's Pride Month.  Never take your freedoms for granted.  Never let anyone treat you like a second class citizen.  Help others when you can.  Happy Pride Month.

And thanks again, Mr. Hanks.  Thanks so very, very much.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Black and Gay on Broadway

I have a question for you.  Currently, there are two plays in revival on Broadway that focus on the gay male experience in America at different times in our previous century.  Both revivals met with high praise from critics.  The groundbreaking Mart Crowley play, THE BOYS IN THE BAND, premiered off-Broadway in 1968.  That was a year before the June death of Judy Garland followed by the Stonewall Uprising in which NYC's gay community got loud and physical in Greenwich Village with its anger at years of police harassment.  The Gay Liberation movement followed.  William Friedkin directed a good 1970 screen adaptation of THE BOYS IN BAND.
That play is on Broadway now with a cast that includes actors popular from stage and TV, actors who are openly gay and constantly employed.  One is Jim Parsons, hugely popular for playing Sheldon Cooper on the long-running hit CBS sitcom, THE BIG BANG THEORY.
To be gay, to be an openly gay male in show business, and to get regular employment still on stage and on network TV, that was unheard of in the closeted days of 1968 when THE BOYS IN THE BAND premiered.  So was same-sex marriage.

Tony Kushner's brilliant ANGELS IN AMERICA is in revival on Broadway.  I saw this play when it opened in 1993.  Wow.  It burns an impression into your heart and mind.  This play premiered when we were in the dark days of the AIDS crisis, a crisis that was like a Medieval plague on modern times.  AIDS is central in the play.  AIDS ravaged America's black community.  I lost several black friends to AIDS -- a salon hairstylist (who introduced me to Leslie Uggams), an audio engineer, an aspiring playwright, a music publicist, Broadway dancer/actor Gregg Burge, and a travel agent for MTV/VH1 Networks.  AIDS claimed the lives of African American tennis champion Arthur Ashe and trailblazing ABC News journalist Max Robinson, the first African American to anchor the network's evening news.

It's 2018 and my question is about Black gay men as lead characters in Broadway plays  -- or, rather, the lack of them.  Add Latino/Hispanic men in there too.  As I wrote, I saw the original ANGELS IN AMERICA production on Broadway.  In addition to that, I've seen other plays with lead characters who are gay males. Some of those plays are Terrence McNally's THE LISBON TRAVIATA and LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION!, Larry Kramer's THE NORMAL HEART (about the AIDS crisis), Harvey Fierstein's TORCH SONG TRILOGY and the musical version of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES with a script by playwright Harvey Fierstein.

 
Back in the 1970s when I'd gone away to college and THE BOYS IN THE BAND was re-released in theaters, I got to see it.  I loved the one black character, Bernard.  He was dapper, sophisticated and he looked like he was on his way to meet his agent for lunch at the Russian Tea Room.  He was significant to me.  In those days, the black gay male image I'd see in movies and in episodes of cop shows on TV was usually a drag queen working as a drag queen, or a drag queen working as a hooker, or a drag queen who got busted for shoplifting.
In the mid 1990s when I was watching a performance of LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! on Broadway, it hit me that I had never seen a play in which an African American gay male was a lead character.  We were never the architect, the lawyer, the playwright, the classical musician, the doctor, the reporter or the professional who has the summer house on Fire Island.  We're always in supporting roles mainly to give emotional support to and say inspirational things to the white gay male lead character.

Can you think of any Broadway play about gay characters in which an African American male was a lead character?  Please let me know what it is. Oh...and plays in which the black gay male character is not a drag queen.  No that there's anything wrong with that. But I've seen white writers present us as drag queens several times already.

Based on the plays I've seen plus the current revivals of THE BOYS IN THE BAND and ANGELS IN AMERICA, it seems that the stories of gay male life presented on Broadway have been and still are predominantly driven by upscale white male characters.

Happy Pride Month.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Happy Birthday, Sir Paul McCartney

Because he's an international star who has been famous for most of his life, we expected that the business demands of his fame, and maybe traffic, would make him late by about 30 minutes.  We were all set up for him in the London studio and we prepared to wait in a relaxed manner.  Then we looked at the door and saw someone approaching.  The rock music icon whom we thought would arrive understandably about 30 minutes had arrived about 20 minutes early.  Alone. Without entourage and with lovely manners.  Paul McCartney, now Sir Paul McCartney, was absolutely gracious to every single person in our crew.  We did the exclusive interview in a London studio with an outstanding British TV crew.  As much as I recall this extraordinary opportunity in Spring 1989, a one-on-one interview, I recall Paul McCartney's kindness to every single person in the studio.
Happy Birthday, Sir Paul McCartney.  Thank you for writing some of the happiest, most most beautiful, most harmonious and most memorable popular songs ever composed.

In 1989, during my three wonderful years as a VH1 veejay and talk show host, VH1 flew me from New York to London to conduct this exclusive interview.  If you're a hardcore McCartney fan, I hope you find some of it enjoyable and that you learn a couple of things about him you'd never heard in previous interviews.  Remember, we did this in the late 1980s.  Here is my VH1 special with singer, songwriter, composer, musician and former member of The Beatles --- Sir Paul McCartney.

Part 1
Part 2


Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

 Part 7

 Part 8

A note about diversity and inclusion, hot topics in today's entertainment industry.  I did not have an agent when I booked my VH1 job and became the network's first African American to have his own prime time weeknight celebrity talk show. My contract ended in 1990.  After that, and with this show among my credits, I pitched myself to be an entertainment contributor on CBS SUNDAY.  I pitched for years but I could never get a meeting or an audition.  I accepted job offers from local TV morning news shows in New York City, but executives didn't feel I had the skills to cover entertainment on a regular basis or to do film reviews on a regular basis in the studio.  I quit my WNBC TV job after three years because my boss told me that, although my work was good and I was very popular with viewers, I would remain local.  I had no chance of moving up to NBC network exposure.  Agents continued to reject me for representation saying, "I wouldn't know what to do with you."  I had to make my own luck. I did not have the same job opportunities as a Billy Bush, Tom Bergeron, Rosie O'Donnell (my former co-worker) or Mo Rocca.

I am not the only person of color who experienced that inequality.  There is still a great need today for race & gender inclusion.


Sunday, June 17, 2018

My Dad the Betty Hutton Fan

I was lucky to have the parents that I did growing up in a very humble 2-bedroom, 1 bathroom house in South Central L.A.  There was no shortage of books and records in our house.  On our living room bookshelf were works by these authors:  Shakespeare, Sinclair Lewis, James Baldwin, Ray Bradbury, Harold Robbins, Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, Peyton Place by Grace Metalious and stories by Ernest Hemingway.  Mom and Dad had 78s, those old record that came before 45s and long play albums that spun on the turntable at 33 1/3.  My record player handled those speeds. On weekends and during summer vacations, I loved playing Mom and Dad's old 78s.  Mom had a lot of the big band 1940s records.  Dad was into bee-bop jazz.  There was one record I loved.  A cute, upbeat vocal called "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian, Chief."  Betty Hutton had sung that to success on the charts.  It was a hit record that became closely associated with the Paramount Pictures musical comedy star of the 1940s and early 50s.
One day when I was in the brink of starting middle school (we called it "junior high school" then), I casually mentioned to Mom that I loved her old record of "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian, Chief."  Mom, with a very Thelma Ritter expression on her face, replied, "That's not mine.  That's your father's.  He had all those Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie jazz records and then he had this thing for Betty Hutton. I could never figure that out. He loved Betty Hutton."

I knew what Mom meant.  Dad was a WWII veteran who served overseas in the segregated troops.  He got the home I grew up in thanks to the G.I. Loan. In his youth, he was a weightlifter.  Dad was brawny, burly man few words. He was polite but not exactly amusing and gregarious the way Mom was.  I took after Mom.  But I took after Dad in a love for Betty Hutton's work.  Here she is singing the song that became a hit from her movie THE STORK CLUB (1945).
Our parents, I'm the oldest of three, divorced when I was a nervous bookworm of a high school freshman.  The relationship between Dad and me grew more fractured and frayed.  Mom refused to ask for alimony.  She only wanted child support for us three kids.  But Dad couldn't keep up those payments.  He relocated to Canada for years.  I had college and a TV career on my mind. I was positive that I could get work in TV and make enough money to pick up the financial slack, to help out our divorced working mom.

Time passed.  Dad and I had not seen each other in 25 years.  There had been an occasional exchange of cards and letters, but we had not been face to face in a long, long time.  That changed in the late 1990s when I flew out to see him.  He'd moved to Seattle and was divorced from his second wife.  My reunion with dad was a bit awkward.  I love to hug and be hugged. Dad still wasn't the physically demonstrative type but he stretched out his arms as if under a hypnotic spell because hugging seemed to be the customary thing to do in such an occasion.  I could see discomfort in his eyes.  I extended my arms and walked over to hug him but we both looked like that robot on LOST IN SPACE when he started announcing, "Danger, Will Robinson!"  Four arms just flailing about.  Eventually we settled down and started to talk.  Our conversation kicked off with a disappointment.  Dad tried to flatter me.  Keep in mind our visit was during some vacation time I'd taken from work.  I'd been working for a few years on Fox5's live local weekday morning show called GOOD DAY NEW YORK.  Dad said he'd been watching me on TV.  But he was in Seattle.  I pressed him on how he was seeing me.  Did a relative send me VHS copies of me?  "No," he replied.  "I watch you late at night some times with all those comedians."

Dad had been watching Byron Allen on his late night syndicated show. Not me.  I left our reunion frustrated.  He was still a man of few words.  I was still with my "little boy" feeling that I'd never have Dad's full attention, a fact I'd just have to accept.  At least, we had reunited.

In 2000, I was working on a live Lifetime TV show, an hour-long magazine show produced by ABC News.  I was the Friday movie reviewer and entertainment editor.  I got a call one day from my cousin that Dad had been seriously ill but was on the mend.  I hadn't talked to Dad in quite some time, but I called as soon as I could.  Not only was Dad on the mend -- but he was chatty!  Never in my life had I known Dad to be so talkative and bright-sounding on the phone.  He was thrilled to hear from me.

It gets better.  He said "I've been watching you on Lifetime TV!"  I had not told Dad about that job, but he found out about it and watched me every Friday.  Our frayed and fractured relationship had healed. We talked. We laughed.  The very last words he heard from me were a response to something he'd said.  My words were "I love you too, Dad."

He died six months later in his sleep in the middle of a week.  The last TV appearance of mine he saw was my Lifetime TV segment.  On that day, I talked about a new video release.  It was the long unavailable classic MGM musical from 1950, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN -- starring Betty Hutton.  I'm positive the last time Dad saw me on TV, I made him smile when I showed Betty Hutton singing a show biz anthem that means a lot to me now.  Our story had a happy ending.  Happy Father's Day.


Saturday, June 16, 2018

SET IT UP for love on Netflix

I'm a classic film advocate who loves a good romantic comedy.  Whether it's Claudette Colbert or Ginger Rogers as runaway brides, Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in screwball tales of re-marriage, Rosalind Russell as the over-achiever career woman who falls in love with man she hired as her secretary,  Barbara Stanwyck as the con artist who falls for the guy she intended to scam, Doris Day and Rock Hudson or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as bickering rivals who fall in love...there are times when my heart needs to be lifted by an enjoyable romantic comedy.  After hours of watching soul-numbing national and international news reports, I craved something festive for Friday night viewing.  I gave SET IT UP on Netflix a try.
Never heard of it?  That's because it's new.  I'd just heard of it myself that afternoon on a film review show I streamed on my laptop.  Amy Nicholson, the guest critic on 89.3 KPCC radio's "FilmWeek," a Friday film review hour on AIRTALK hosted by Larry Mantle, had lovely things to say about SET IT UP.  So did another critic.  Amy Nicholson really tossed verbal roses at Zoey Deutch, the leading lady.  She compared her to Rosalind Russell.  I'd say she was more of a Meg Ryan type with a colorful splash of Tina Fey.  However, like Rosalind Russell, Zoey Deutch makes you smile and she wins your heart with her talent.

Two young New Yorkers work in the same midtown Manhattan deluxe office building as assistants to high maintenance bosses.  The assistants are practically nannies and party planners for these bosses, working so late on a regular basis that they have no social lives of their own.  The two assistants meet in a stressful situation, get the know each other and then hatch a plot.  Since each handles a boss' schedule, they will manipulate their schedules so that the bosses happen to meet and eventually start dating.  That way, maybe the two dating bosses will mellow out, ease up on their hyper office demands and give the assistants the ability to actually leave work a reasonable hour and have a social life.

Yes, the two will fall for each other after they've manipulated their bosses into a love connection.  Of course, they'll discover a serious glitch in their arranged love connection.
There's dialogue that would've given Hollywood censors heart attacks back in the day.  If you see it, be prepared to hear lines like "I can wake you with my penis," "I want to f**k this pizza" and "I'm sorry I was so cunty to you," delivered innocently.

Lucy Liu hits the right note as the high maintenance sports journalism publication boss who uses a bullhorn to proclaim orders in the office.  Taye Diggs is the other boss, a business whiz and a macho jerk in need of repetitive slaps like the kind Jack Nicholson gave Faye Dunaway near the end of CHINATOWN.
On the big screen, romantic comedies seem to have become a lost art in the last few years.  SET IT UP was made for Netflix and the two lead actors as harried assistants have something that I've missed in recent romantic comedy lead actors -- charm.  They have charm and warmth and chemistry.

This is not a romantic comedy that one can put on the same high shelf with classic films like THE AWFUL TRUTH, THE PALM BEACH STORY, THE LADY EVE, MIDNIGHT, THE MORE THE MERRIER, PILLOW TALK and ANNIE HALL.  But it definitely satisfies in that category we used to call a good "date night" movie.

This is the first feature film directed by Claire Scanlon.  Please, Hollywood, please give her more romantic comedy screenplays to direct.  The lead actors are Zoey Deutch as Harper and the handsome Glen Powell as Charlie.  Powell was excellent as astronaut John Glenn in the movie HIDDEN FIGURES.

SET IT UP is easy entertainment and it's easy on the eye.  I used to work near where the office is located.  I've seen Manhattan areas used as exterior locations in SET IT UP countless times in the 20 years I lived in New York.  Director Scanlon took areas that have been shot before and made them look new again with different angles and smooth editing.  She gave Manhattan a fresh look.  She gives us a fresh, modern romantic comedy.
I loved that Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs were the ulcer-causing bosses.  Those were race unimportant roles. However, ten years ago or more, they would've automatically gone to white actors.  Charlie, the assistant, is dating a self-absorbed high fashion model.  She's Puerto Rican.  Charlie's best friend is his roommate.  And the best friend is gay.  Openly gay.  No slave to fashion.  Just a cool regular guy who teaches middle school in the Bronx and loves his work.  This refreshing gay male image warmed my heart.  Duncan, the gay roommate, is played by Pete Davidson from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.  Like Oscar Levant with Gene Kelly in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, Duncan is a devoted buddy who can deliver a killer wisecrack.

As did classic romantic comedies and musical comedies of Hollywood's Golden Age, SET IT UP gives us supporting characters who may have just one comedy scene but these funny characters just about steal that one scene they have.  In this, we have a very funny Tituss Burgess as the building maintenance engineer.  The shirtless man in the elevator, the waiter who never gets a tip from cash-challenged Harper and the lady at the jewelry store ... those were bright and funny bit parts played memorably.  Those are the kind of parts I've longed to do in movies.

Katie Silberman wrote the script.  There's a rooftop engagement party scene.  The fiancée gives a short speech that's a little piece of unexpected heaven.  What she reveals to her guests is so true about the nature of love -- and we get a sweet reminder of it at the end of SET IT UP.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Meryl Streep & Jodie Foster Clean House

I do not mean domestic chores in that title.  In the Meryl Streep movie, her character roots out crimes in the White House.  In the Jodie Foster movie, her character saves a young woman being held hostage by a psychotic killer in a big creepy house,  I've been a Meryl Streep fan ever since she had major role in the NBC's 1978 mini-series HOLOCAUST followed by films such as THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN and KRAMER VS. KRAMER, both released in 1979.  She's got three Oscars and about a hundred Oscar nominations to her credit.  With all that, she is at her absolute best in Steven Spielberg's THE POST co-starring Tom Hanks.  This 2017 newspaper drama, based on a true story, brought her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. But of course.
Jodie Foster won her second Best Actress Oscar for Jonathan Demme's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.  Recently, I watched that 1991 crime thriller on HBO.  Man, what a performance Jodie Foster gives.  It's so gripping, so focused, so full of complexity and intelligence.
Both female lead characters are in a similar gender situation in which their strength and intelligence and courage -- their brass ovaries, if you will -- are vital even though some men in their immediate workplace environment may not realize it.
First of all, I wish more people had gone to see THE POST.  I felt it was one of last year's best films.  I have a buddy named Charles P. Pierce, a whip-smart and insightful politics and sports journalist who writes for Esquire.  Charlie's got over 100,000 followers on Twitter.  He and I were on the same dorm floor in college.  Charlie hung out many times in my dorm room and I hung out in his.  I saw then that he had the fire for political journalism in his bones. One of the most popular new films with students on campus was Alan Pakula's ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.  Young movie goers headed to see that 1976 drama, based on a true story we'd lived through, as enthusiastically as todays young audiences flock to see new movies from the Marvel Comics franchise of superheroes.  Enrollment in Journalism Schools increased thanks to the popularity of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.  The drama at The Washington Post that we see in Spielberg's THE POST happens before the drama we see in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.

Before I go on to the similarities shared by the two female lead characters, let me tell you that Charlie Pierce went into journalism to do the serious, hard, gritty work -- the kind you see in both movies.  Back in 1976, a lot of other guys on campus went into journalism really because they wanted to be more Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman than reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Meryl Streep plays Katherine Graham, the first woman publisher of a major U.S. newspaper.  But her Washington Post is behind The New York Times.  The New York City competition broke a major story about the Pentagon Papers -- shady business going on in Nixon's White House -- while The Washington Post was covering celebrity weddings.

Katherine inherited the job. She loves the paper, employees at work like her, but she really has not found her voice in the job.  Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, is the ballsy editor who wants to beat The New York Times.  As Katherine and Ben dig in it becomes obvious that Nixon is corrupt.  They are threatened with prison time if they keep doing their work as journalists.
As they get closer to the heat of Nixon's fire, Katherine finds her voice as the publisher.  She will tell us that "News is the first rough draft of history."
Jodie Foster as Agent Clarice Starling.  When we meet her, she's in the male-dominated FBI training program.  She's a cadet, an outstanding trainee.  She's constantly surrounded by men.  In the office, in the elevator, in the hallway and when she walks down the row of convicts to meet Dr. Hannibal Lecter.  Clarice is always in the up close view of the male gaze.   Just like Clarice, Katherine Graham is also surrounded by, outnumbered by men in her work situations. Sometimes we see that she's the only woman in the room -- and the men do not listen to her even though she's the boss.  They talk at her or around her, but they do not actually listen to her and consider her opinion.  This will change.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee is to Katherine Graham in THE POST what Dr. Lecter is to Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.  Both men respect the woman.  They see her intelligence.  They see that she is the gender outsider.  They push her to take her power up a notch and uncover the crime.  They push her to take on the monster in the house who is breaking the law, whether the house is a big creepy one that has a woman being held hostage underground...or the White House where the Constitution is being abused.

Notice those similarities.  Women find their power, their voice in a male-dominated workplace in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and THE POST.  These two fine films are worth a look -- another look if you've already seen them.

Monday, June 11, 2018

No Color in Field of Film Critics

I could have saved these good folks so much time and money.  A new study from the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism concludes that film reviewers and critics are predominantly white and male.  As Claude Rains' character proclaims in CASABLANCA, "...I'm shocked, shocked...!"  I have been occupationally aware of and frustrated by that fact since the 1990s.  And I'm not the only person of color who is, especially those of us in TV.  We've been overlooked by the producers of the film review presentations we've seen on network TV morning news shows and on syndicated shows with film critic duos.  What is the subtext TV has intended with its questionable, decades-long lack of diversity in the field of film reviewers?  Is it an ignorance, a basic bigotry along the lines of the longtime Hollywood jive that "Black stories don't make money," "Black films don't sell overseas," "There are no parts for Latino actors" and "Women can't direct big action movies"? Is the subtext that people of color don't care about films and don't have the skills to review them?  Is the message that the field of film critics is exclusive to mostly white males because, regardless of age and experience, they're really the only ones who have the power and privilege to talk about movies?  Or is it simply an unconscious bias?  I lived in New York City for over 20 years and if there's one area in my Manhattan TV career in which I felt a definite color barrier, it was in the field of film reviewing.  Millions of us grew up watching film critics every week on TV in the 1980s...men such as Gene Shalit on NBC...
 ...the late Joel Siegel on GOOD MORNING AMERICA, Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert on their syndicated show. Later there was the film review duo of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz.  (I started my TV career as a weekly film critic on the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee. I was reviewing films and doing celeb interviews in 1981, the same year Ben Lyons was born.)
David Edelstein became the film critic seen regularly on the CBS SUNDAY MORING show...
 ...and Chris Connolly now talks films as Entertainment Anchor for ABC News.
 I've been to many, many movie screenings in New York City.  I have seen plenty of African American and Latino male and female film critics.  We've talked and discussed the frustration of not getting TV opportunities to review films on a regular basis.  We're saved for "politically correct" occasional bookings like to give recommendations of movies to watch for Black History Month or race topics like Blaxploitation Films or Slavery or to discuss a particular famous black show biz celebrity.  But for the general movie talk, whether new films or old, we're excluded.

In 1993, I was an in-studio film critic on the WNBC live weekend morning news show.  I did three weekends as a film critic, starting with a review of PHILADELPHIA.  I was flattered because the show's news anchor complimented my writing on the air.  However, the news director pulled me from that spot and replaced me with film critic Pia Lindstrom (daughter of actress Ingrid Bergman).  Pia liked my work and had no idea why she was assigned to do weekend duty, but I felt that race was the subtext for the switch.  Years later, after I'd quit that job, I was contacted by Al Roker to meet regarding a possible weekend film review/interview show.  I'd be a member of a trio.  The other two coming to meet were veteran critic Jeffrey Lyons and the wonder Alison Bailes.  We met.  Weeks passed and I didn't get a follow-up, so I figured the project Al was producing didn't get a greenlight.  Then one Saturday, I turned on the TV and there was the show -- with Jeffrey Lyons, Alison Bailes and the third member was Jeffrey's son, Ben Lyons.

I felt some resistance in 2000 when ABC News needed a film critic for a new weekday show on Lifetime TV.  The resistance, I discovered, was because it was assumed I didn't know anything about films.  The execs had never bothered to view my demo reel. I pushed and I got the job.
Shows like the one Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz hosted in 2008, I never heard about auditions for those film review shows.  I wonder how many men and women of color did.  Ben Mankiewicz is now the senior film host on TCM, one of my favorite networks.
 Our exclusion, if you will, has carried over to movie channels it seems. Remember when AMC was American Movie Classics and showed only old movies?  All the hosts were white males.  TCM (Turner Classic Movies) has five hosts -- Ben Mankiewicz, Eddie Muller, Alicia Malone, Dave Karger and occasionally Leonard Maltin. Five white hosts.  This year, TCM saluted African American filmmakers on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  But there was no African American as guest host or guest co-host.

This lack of a level playing field in film criticism and commentary effects the news being highlighted or ignored.  Here's a short piece I posted months before Oscar nominations came out.  I talk about Viola Davis and opportunities for actresses of color in relation to the Oscars:
Chris Connelly and PEOPLE's Jess Cagle (both white fellows) were on ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA live as the Oscar nominations were announced.  Connelly and Cagle mentioned that Meryl Streep had received another record-breaking Oscar nomination.  No one mentioned that Viola Davis had just made Oscar history.  Her third nomination, received for FENCES, had just made her the most Oscar-nominated black actress in all Hollywood history.  That was not mentioned -- and Viola Davis starred on the hit ABC series, HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER.  Not only that, but the 20-year record for the most Oscar-nominated black actress in Hollywood history had been held by Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg who had nominations for THE COLOR PURPLE and GHOST.  She won for 1990's GHOST.  Whoopi's on ABC's weekday talk show, THE VIEW.

Recently, HBO repeated its documentary SPIELBERG.  I watched it again. It's good.  However, my one complaint about this 2017 doc from executive producer Susan Lacy (who gave us the wonderful AMERICAN MASTERS shows on PBS) is that there are six film critics and one film historian seen in SPIELBERG...and they're all white.  Not one black male or female film critic or historian provides commentary -- and THE COLOR PURPLE gets a sizable segment in Lacy's documentary.

We need to take on a "Time's Up" attitude and call out our experiences and anger over this inequality. There must be diversity in the arts ... and in the conversation about the arts.  If we're not getting equal opportunities, we need to make that known.  I did not seek to become a famous film critic like a Roger Ebert but I did hope that my being seen as a film critic locally or nationally would help open the door for other talent of color who could do it even better. I get so outdone that well-paid white guys in newspapers and on TV are the ones telling me why I need to see 12 YEARS A SLAVE, THE HELP, THE BUTLER, HUSTLE & FLOW, DO THE RIGHT THING and THE COLOR PURPLE.  I grew up in South Central L.A.  I've sat at bus stops waiting for a bus in Compton. Do you think David Edelstein, Rex Reed or Chris Connelly have? Then why can't I be on TV or quoted in a magazine with a review of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON?

Wesley Morris is a slim, handsome African American journalist in her early 40s.  He now writes for The New York Times.  In 2012, when he wrote for The Boston Globe, he won the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism.  African American journalist Hilton Als writes for The New York magazine.  He won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for theater and film criticism.  I've seen Rex Reed on CBS telling viewers that he hated GET OUT.  I've never seen those two black gentlemen giving soundbites about films on a news show and neither one of them gives a comment in SPIELBERG.

We've gone from the years of Siskel & Ebert to the modern days of Rotten Tomatoes.  The lack of diversity still exists.  Last year, when Tiffany Haddish accepted an award from the New York Film Critics for her performance in GIRLS TRIP, she mentioned that the only critics she'd ever seen on TV when she was growing up were Siskel & Ebert.  So she wasn't aware that black and Latino critics exist.  There's still equality work to be done.  The results of that USC study were not news to me.

That's how I feel.  And that's why I greatly appreciate L.A. radio station KPCC 89.3 and its daytime host, Larry Mantle.  Every Friday, Larry hosts a hour of movie reviews during his AirTalk weekday show.  That movie hour is called "FilmWeek" and Larry constantly presents race and gender diversity in his panels of guest critics.  He books excellent film journalists such as Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times, Tim Cogshell and Claudia Puig, head of the L.A. Film Critics Association.  Larry Mantle's "FilmWeek" gives the kind of diversity in film reviews and commentary that network TV news has overlooked for decades. Stream his show or hear it on the website.  Here's the link: scpr.org.  Follow Larry's show on Twitter -- @ AirTalk.

Here's a demo reel that TV producers got when I pitched myself to cover film entertainment.




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