Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Notes on NETWORK

I'm sure I'm not the only person who wishes that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky was alive today to witness our White House situation.  A millionaire of the WALL STREET "Greed is good" 1980s era becomes a 21st Century network reality TV game show host, runs for the presidency with no previous political office experience...and wins.  He is now President of the United States.  What would Paddy Chayefsky, the man who wrote 1976's NETWORK, have to say about this turns of events?  I had not started my professional TV career when NETWORK came out.  But I do vividly recall being absorbed and fascinated by this surreal satire of network television.  It was so stunning and provocative that I saw it more than once.  And each time I saw it, the movie audience was packed.  And shocked.  Remember, this came out when TV was quite different -- and quite innocent compared to how it is today.  The first thing that shocked and fascinated us in NETWORK was that TV news anchor Howard Beale announced on his show that he'd commit suicide and co-workers in the control room really weren't paying that much attention to this poor soul having a nervous breakdown.
NETWORK tapped into how corporations were gobbling up America.  Look at the senior three networks today.  They're now attached to film companies.  The parent company of ABC is Disney, NBC is tied to Universal, and CBS is attached to Paramount.  The network morning news shows used to have film critics every Friday review new domestic and foreign film releases.  They don't have film critics anymore.  They publicize corporate film releases whether they're good or bland.  We see the network morning shows heavily promote whatever product the attached film company has released or has in production.
If you look at NETWORK today -- and you should -- it's as if the soulless and powerful network executive, Diana Christensen, won.  The Best Actress Oscar went to Faye Dunaway for that performance.  She manipulates Howard Beale's madness into big ratings for the low-rated newscast which means increased revenue for the corporation.  She gets the green light to pitch new shows.  At that time, America still got comfort in variety shows and sitcoms like spin-offs from THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.  Diana wants "angry shows."  She wants "a show developed based on the activities of a terrorist group" and "a homosexual soap opera."  This was well before the days of TV  shows like COPS and other reality TV shows, before Rodney King footage, before people starting TV careers and becoming celebrities because they were in the O.J. Simpson trial aired on live TV and before we got Donald Trump as host of NBC's THE APPRENTICE.  Faye Dunaway deserved that Oscar.  NETWORK's Diana Christensen opened the door for the likes of TV star Donald Trump.
Today, it seems like millions of Americans can identify with and feel the same way as Howard Beale:  "I'm as mad as hell...and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
Every time I saw NETWORK in a movie theater, the audience howled with laughter that his revamped network news show now had a studio audience that applauded.  Have you seen the 8:00 hour of GOOD MORNING AMERICA on ABC?  There's a studio audience that now applauds and cheers when it's time for Lara Spencer to read pop culture news.

I watched the Oscars the night that the late Peter Finch was announced as Best Actor for NETWORK.  I watched with some Caucasian co-workers in Milwaukee.  A couple were stunned and looked each other in amazement.  Why?  Because Peter Finch's widow accepted the Oscar and gave a lovely acceptance speech for her late love.

She was a gorgeous and gracious black woman.  A couple of voices in the room said, "Who is that accepting the Oscar for him?"  When she announced that she was Mrs. Finch, their jaws dropped.

NETWORK.  A classic.  And it's still painfully relevant.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

JOHN WICK 2 Promo

It's a weekend morning.  While answering emails, reading a few articles and doing some light cleaning in the apartment, I had Turner Classic Movies on in the background.  Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster took their macho to the wild west for GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL.  But the guy with the biggest gun seems to be actor John Ireland.  Even when he's not wearing a holster.  I think Madeline Kahn said it best in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN:  "Woof!"  What a gifted actor that John Ireland.  And what a good western.

Now on to another gun-totin' movie character.  A couple of years ago, a young lady friend urged me to see Keanu Reeves as JOHN WICK.  I really had no desire to sit through a movie with possibly a mostly monosyllabic performance from the star of POINT BREAK and SPEED.  She kept urging me to see it.  So, I gave in and I saw it.  I was totally and pleasantly surprised.  It was such a hip, fresh and original action movie with Keanu in fine form as a tender-hearted yet tough-as-nails guy named John Wick.  John's marriage was a sweet New York love story.  His wife gives him a puppy.  He's a hitman shooting it out with Russian thugs.  And that's all I'm going to tell you about the plot.
However, I will add that the puppy love angle was an inspired touch in the screenplay.  JOHN WICK is worth renting.
Keanu has just turned 50 when that action thriller was released.  This weekend, Keanu as back in action as the hitman in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2.  I want to see it.  I saw this eye-catching poster for the movie.
I bet you anything that its art director is a fan of and was inspired by classic films.  That poster for JOHN WICK may remind classic film fans of this shot from a Harold Lloyd silent film comedy from the 1920s.  I saw that Harold Lloyd photo in movie books I owned many years ago.
Pardon me for not knowing that name of that Harold Lloyd comedy.  If you do, please let me know.  I love how knowledge of classic film history can help one in a current job situation.  That's been my experience for a good portion of my TV career.







Friday, February 10, 2017

Rich Work in THE CROWN

The warm and wonderful John Lithgow won a Screen Actors Guild award for his performance in THE CROWN.  I watched the first season of that Netflix series on a Saturday before I voted.  I binge-watched the entire first season again the following day.  I was hooked from the first scene in the first episode of THE CROWN. This is all based on palace facts and world history.
And one of the most superb performances in that show rich with remarkable acting was given by John Lithgow.  Yes, I voted for him.  I highly recommend you give THE CROWN a try if you have time over the weekend.  If you had to cast an actor to play the legendary Sir Winston Churchill, John Lithgow might not be the first actor you'd think of casting.  After you see him as Churchill in THE CROWN, you'll be hard pressed to think of someone who could have played the role better.
He's absolutely extraordinary.  His physical carriage, his vocal work, his internal work as a man aware of his own legend and fights to keep it alive and relevant is marvelous.  If John Lithgow had delivered this performance in a film, he'd have received an Oscar nomination for sure.  He probably would've won the Oscar.  The episode in which Churchill sits while having his portrait painted --- wow!  What an episode and what great work from Lithgow.  Churchill defeated the Nazis.  But he could not defeat the humiliating advances of old age waging a war, bit by bit, on his body.

Helen Mirren won a Best Actress Oscar for playing THE QUEEN.  The real life Queen Elizabeth II reached a major milestone this month.  She celebrated her Sapphire Jubilee.  It was 65 years to the day since the Queen acceded to the throne following the death of her father, George VI, in 1952.
THE CROWN opens with George VI.  He's dressed for a royal event.  He's got a hacking couch.  He coughs up a bit of spittle.  There's blood in it.  He continues to smoke like a chimney.  He's not the only royal who smokes like a chimney in this series.  We see the excellent Claire Foy as the young queen before she became the queen.  It's fascinating stuff.  Some of the most fascinating stuff is seeing how devotion and allegiance to The Crown mean continuing traditions -- even if those traditions now seem archaic in a modern world.  Honoring The Crown also demands some rather brutal, severe cutting of family ties.  You'll see how The Crown on her head affected her bed, her relationship with her lusty husband, Prince Philip (very well-played by the tall, lean Matt Smith) and her sister.  The big eye-opener is the amount of education she had before she was crowned.  You may say to yourself, "What?!?!  I had a better scholastic education at that age but I had a part time retail job as a clerk in a shopping mall.  She was about the begin her reign as Queen of England!"

It's really good.  What you'll love about it is that The Royals are shown as the flesh and blood mortals behind all that pomp and circumstance.  These are people who had insecurities, jealousies, sex lives and family squabbles.  Despite all the exterior signs of luxury and upper class life, behind closed doors some of them can definitely display an unmistakable touch of the gutter.  Here's a trailer.

"Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown."   ~Shakespeare's HENRY IV

You will see how true that line is when you watch this engrossing British import.  Enjoy John Lithgow's brilliance in THE CROWN on Netflix.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

LGBT Love from BLACK-ISH

It's a hit sitcom on ABC and it's one of my favorite TV shows.  It's BLACK-ISH.  Last night, there was a Dre and Rainbow moment of love for those of us who wave the rainbow flag.
Dre and Rainbow (Mr. and Mrs. Johnson) needed a specially-designed cake.  They found a bakery that could fill their request.  However, they left the store and did not give it their business when the clerk told them the shop makes any specialty cake -- except cakes for gay weddings.  Dre and Rainbow, an upscale African American husband and wife with four kids, left the store and refused to spend their hard-earned money at a homophobic shop.  Dig it! A short and understated yet strong moment.  Thank you, BLACK-ISH writers and cast.  The cast is headed by ANTHONY ANDERSON and TRACEE ELLIS ROSS as one of the most charismatic, interesting and funniest sitcom couples to hit network TV in years.
So, this got me thinking about a possible story line for a BLACK-ISH episode.  What if the oldest son, the lovable and often clueless geek, strikes up a tight and innocent friendship with a black male high school classmate who happens to be openly gay.  Maybe something at the school provokes a student protest in which they both plan to participate. Dre Jr and his friend bond because the friend brought the principles of non-violent protest to the group demanding a change.

But Papa Dre, who is gay-friendly, gets knotted up at a gay friendship now involving one of his kids.  He's has to -- and he will -- learn another lesson in acceptance.
With that story line, Dre could tell us in a voice-over about the vital, important black people who added to our culture, who added to our black history -- and happened to be gay.  People like Bayard Rustin.  He was called "The Architect of the March on Washington."  He was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's top advisor and introduced him to Gandhi's principles of non-violent protest.  Bayard Rustin spoke at the historic 1963 March on Washington, he stood behind Dr. King as he spoke at the March on Washington, he organized the March on Washington.



Add to the mix other gay African Americans of major significance --  such writers Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and A RAISIN IN THE SUN playwright Lorraine Hansberry.


There was civil rights activist, feminist and writer Audre Lorde.  Jazz lyricist  and arranger Billy Strayhorn collaborated with Duke Ellington to compose some of the greatest music of Ellington's career.  One such composition was "Take the A Train."

You get the idea.

If you are a BLACK-ISH writer and you are reading this....THANK YOU FOR YOUR FUNNY, TOUCHING, RELEVANT WORK!  I know that writing is not easy -- especially writing for episodic television.  I've been a fan of BLACK-ISH since its premiere episode.  I grew up in South Central L.A. watching shows like ROOM 222, SANFORD AND SON, JULIA, GOOD TIMES, THE JEFFERSONS, THE FLIP WILSON SHOW.  To see a current show about a black family that touches on feelings and experiences I've had, a show that stars an actor who grew up where I did...wow.  I am extremely grateful and proud.



Tuesday, February 7, 2017

With THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT

I thank Heaven for the opportunities I've had to meet extraordinary people during my TV.  Many were people that I never dreamed I'd see in person much less engage in conversation.  One such surprising example happened at a New York City dinner party in the mid 1980s..  I cannot for the life of me remember what we had to eat.  I do vividly recall that I was seated next to a chatty and colorful  Sylvia Miles.  The character actress played the middle-aged blonde Manhattan hooker who hustles the clueless hustler Joe Buck in the film classic, MIDNIGHT COWBOY.  Sylvia's perfectly vulgar portrayal brought her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress of 1969.  When dinner ended, we all left to go outside and find our modes of transportation home.  I was on the sidewalk with my hand up to hail a cab.  On the street, there were more folks wanting cabs than there were cabs available.  Finally, one was headed towards me.  I noticed that an older gentleman was a few feet away from me.  He'd been one of the other dinner guests at our table.  He was also hailing a cab.  His ascot seemed to flow down to his kneecaps.  He wore his large, unique hat with a distinct √©lan.  I timidly asked if I could give him a lift.  He gratefully and graciously accepted my offer.
It was Quentin Crisp. Yes, the famous and flamboyant British writer and storyteller who became a gay icon.  One of his his books was his 1968 autobiography called THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT.
I introduced myself and told him we were both at that long table for the same dinner party.   I called him "Mr. Crisp."  He told me to call him "Quentin." He, with his distinct vocal cadence, smiled and talked about how much he loved dinner parties and meeting new people.  He loved New York City.  As he spoke, I was absolutely stunned.  I was stunned that I was with him in the backseat of a New York taxi and all I could think was -- "Damn!  Actor John Hurt was brilliant.  He did Quentin to a T on television in THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT!"
Actor John Hurt.  Last month, just one day after I'd seen him as a priest opposite Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in JACKIE (for which Portman is now an Oscar nominee), I heard the radio report that Sir John Hurt had died of cancer at age 77.  What a marvelous actor he was.  He became the person he played.  I first noticed him in 1978's MIDNIGHT EXPRESS.  That harrowing Turkish prison escape tale is based on the true story of my longtime buddy from college, Billy Hayes.  Hurt played one of Billy's fellow prisoners and, for his work, Hurt was an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actor of 1978.

Billy loved John Hurt.  The only thing about he didn't love -- but totally understood as an actor's preparation -- was that Hurt didn't shower frequently as part of his process for bringing truth to the character.

Then next year, 1979, John Hurt just about scared the black off me in a movie theater when he became a human egg at a spacecraft dinner table and suddenly, shockingly hatched an evil ALIEN.  What an amazing list of big screen credits John Hurt had:  MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, ALIEN, 1966's A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, THE ELEPHANT MAN, SCANDAL, and his role as Mr. Ollivander in the HARRY POTTER movies.  Hurt wasn't highbrow either, which is probably why we loved him so much.  He breaks me up as Jesus in Mel Brooks HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART 1.  He's Jesus and Mel plays the waiter at the Last Supper.  At a time when most actors were still shying away from playing openly gay characters in movies, Hurt played one in a comedy crime story.  The 1982 film is called PARTNERS.  Hurt plays the shy gay cop assigned to work an undercover case with a very macho hetero police detective played by Ryan O'Neal.  They have to pose as a couple while they investigate some murders in West Hollywood.  After the news of Hurt's death, someone wrote in an obituary, "He never gave a bad performance."  Amen, on that.  He was worth watching even in a lame cop buddy vehicle like PARTNERS.
And he was brilliant on television as THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT in 1975.
As for the real Quentin Crisp, when our taxi arrived at his destination, he turned to me and asked "Would you like some money for this?"  I said, "Oh, no.  This is on me."

The Naked Civil Servant replied, "Thank you, dear boy.  That's very kind.  Good-bye."



Monday, February 6, 2017

Gaga Was Good and So Was the Game

I can't lie.  I thought Atlanta was going to win the Super Bowl last night.  What an exciting match.  The first Super Bowl game ever to go into overtime because the score was tied.  At halftime,  the score was 28 to 3 with Atlanta in the lead.  Then there was a musical extravaganza halftime show.  Then it was "Houston, we have a comeback."  The Patriots rallied.   The game was tied.  Then overtime.   Then the Patriots won 34 to 28.  I hadn't been so stunned since CRASH took the Oscar for Best Picture over BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Thrilling game. Great halftime show.
Today on GOOD MORNING AMERICA, an entertainment contributor weighed in on Lady Gaga's Super Bowl halftime show.  Forgive me for not remembering the gent's name.  This was between 7:30 and 7:45am.  He's a classy, silver-haired gent.  Sharp guy.  Good contributor.  He wanted something provocative from Lady Gaga.  Some political gut-punch moment.  Something more.  Mikael Wood of The Los Angeles Times pretty much felt the same way.  He wrote that her 12-minute number "lacked any edge."
Personally, I thought Gaga was flat-out fabulous.  I totally dig her.  I love watching the evolution of her.  Or, rather, the revelation of her talents.  She's gone from the outrageous costumes, such as the meat dress she wore at the MTV Video Music Awards, to a lovely and heartfelt rendition of "The Sound of Music" on last year's Oscars before she respectfully handed the show over to Julie Andrews.  I love her jazzy vocal pairings with Tony Bennett covering standards from the Great American Songbook.

We've been provoked plenty in last few weeks.  Our new President called a U.S. district who disagreed with his controversial travel ban order a "so-called judge."  That has riled both Democrats and Republicans.  In a pre-game TV interview, the President basically praised Putin again.  We recently had Women's Marches all across the country.  Madonna was anti-Trump onstage at one march. She spoke out, dropped the F-bomb on live TV news coverage and sang off-key.  Stars such as Meryl Streep and Ashton Kutcher spoke out on the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards.

We've got the Oscars coming up the end of this month.  We expect more political statements to be made during that awards show.

As an average citizen, I'm at a point now where I wake up early in the morning and I'm a bit afraid to check Twitter for messages.  Why?  Because I fear that Orange Julius Caesar took to Twitter in the pre-dawn hours and wrote something offensive that will make a foreign leader want to attack us.  The evening network news now kicks off just about every day with some White House story that makes millions of us say, What the hell?"

I was just fine with Lady Gaga opening with an all-American message of inclusion and unity and then workin' that Super Bowl stage with a medley of her hits.  It was the breather I needed from the suffocating daily political climate that our country's been in since the inauguration.  Lady Gaga is a disciplined performer who is serious about her craft and grateful for her audiences.  I don't get the criticisms from a couple of guys who wanted more.  She jumped off the stadium roof, flew through the air, danced her butt off with dozens of dancers as fireworks were shot off, she sang live and caught a glittery football.  Please.  Cut Lady Gaga a major piece o' slack and give her the respect she deserves.  Remember Mariah Carey on ABC on New Year's Eve?  She couldn't even walk and do one song live -- and she got the words wrong during the lip sync.

Lady Gaga was so good that I'm now even more eager to see how she's going to follow Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand.  It's been reported that she will take the lead female spotlight in yet another remake of A STAR IS BORN.  Bradley Cooper will co-star and direct.

I guess Hollywood couldn't deal with my idea for the remake:  a same-gender love story with Mel Gibson as an alcoholic fading action movie star ("Norman Maine") and Ryan Reynolds as the young stunt man he discovers and falls in love with as the stunt man ("Victor Lester") becomes Hollywood's new big action star.

You think Hollywood could go for a same-gender love story in a remake of an old Hollywood classic?  I wonder.







Saturday, February 4, 2017

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S Style

If I had to choose my Top 5 favorite movies starring Audrey Hepburn, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S would most definitely be in the list.  Blake Edwards directed the 1961 film and George Axelrod wrote the screenplay.  On many a lazy summer afternoon in New York City, I played the CD soundtrack with all that wonderful original music by Henry Mancini.  He won an Oscar for that tasty score.  He and Johnny Mercer won Best Song Oscars for the wistful "Moon River," tenderly introduced in the film by Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly.  She got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her rich, elegant, complicated -- and brave -- performance.
Before I make a note on a coat, wardrobe worn in the film by one of her co-stars, let me explain why I call Hepburn's performance brave.
From her Hollywood introduction in William Wyler's ROMAN HOLIDAY, the film that brought her the Best Actress of 1953 Academy Award, Audrey Hepburn established a definite image that audiences loved.  She often evolved from a social caterpillar to a butterfly or, as the overjoyed French fashion designer says in FUNNY FACE, "...a bird of paradise."  Audrey Hepburn was tops at playing the intelligent, sophisticated young woman who was attracted to the older man.  Young men sought her affection.  But she had her eye on the older guy.  The older men saw in her what the young ones overlooked.  Fred Astaire saw it as the A-list fashion photographer who sees the model possibilities in her brainy Greenwich Village bookstore clerk character.  In his camera lens he sees that she's "...a girl who has character, spirit and intelligence."  The young men were a bit too immature for her even though, at first, she may have had a yen for them.  Think of her as SABRINA, the Cinderella-like chauffeur's daughter who thought she loved irresponsible playboy David but then noticed his older, business-like and humanitarian brother Linus.  Think of the handsome young French philosophy professor she finally gets to meet in FUNNY FACE.  She wants to discuss philosophy.  He wants French kissing.  In Billy Wilder's LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, she's the young French lady, a classical cellist, who falls for the American business magnate after she does the middle-aged man a huge favor.

This dynamic in Audrey Hepburn movies was sort of a European sensibility.  Also, it enabled Audrey Hepburn to be paired with Hollywood's top established leading men.  We saw Audrey Hepburn with Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck,  William Holden, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire and Henry Fonda.  I know some narrow-minded folks feel that it's "creepy" to see fresh, young Audrey Hepburn with an older leading man.  They never pay attention to the specifics in the those screenplays.  Audrey's character is the one who's initially attracted.  She's the one surprised at her own feelings of  blossoming romance for the mature gent.  The older guy is not chasing her like he's an old dog trying to pick up a new trick. She makes the first move.

It's been written and said that Truman Capote had Marilyn Monroe in mind when he wrote his novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's.  You can see that if you've read it.  It's easy to imagine the early 1950s Monroe as the basis for Holly.  The screenplay is an adaptation that allowed Hepburn to flip the script on her lucrative Hollywood image.  In the movie, she not the smart young woman with character.  She's in danger of going pleasantly to seed.  In the movie, Hepburn is elegantly outfitted but notice the darkness behind her fabulous fashion statements as Holly.  When she gets hooked up with visiting businessmen for dinner in Manhattan and they give her "fifty dollars for the powder room," that money is not a tip for the ladies' room attendant.  Holly is being paid for sexual favors.  That's how she pays her rent.  She gets dinner.  The men get dessert.

In the Blake Edwards film, Audrey Hepburn flips her persona and bravely plays the dark side of it while still giving moviegoers the fashion eye-candy they'd come to expect in her movies.  In BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, it's the older men who want her for sexual escapades and do not see the sweetness and vulnerability in her.  It's the young man, played by George Peppard, who wants to give her true love.

Holly Golightly, like so many of us who flocked to New York City, went there to recreate herself.  That's why we go there.  It's not just to accept a job offer.  It's to have a fresh beginning, a new start, be unknown and become somebody else in a big cosmopolitan city, somebody popular who has moved on from a heartache of the past.

George Peppard's character, Paul Varjak is an aspiring writer who lives in Holly's apartment building.  He's also being paid for sex.  He's being kept by a wealthy married woman.  She's just in it for the sex.  He's like a paid employee boy-toy to her.  The married woman is played with rich bitchiness by Patricia Neal.  She keeps Paul on the down-low.  This is my favorite outfit she wears when she drops over for some horizontal recreation.


Doesn't it sort of remind you of this wardrobe we saw in Disney's animated classic, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS?  Look at the evil queen.

There you have it, my huckleberry friend.  My coat note for BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S.