Thursday, October 23, 2014

On MIDNIGHT (1939)

For those with a passion for classic films, 1939 is a famous year.  The number of quality films Hollywood released that year is stunning even by today's standards.  In those days, there were ten nominees for Best Picture.  For 1939, there could have been fifteen or twenty.  The big Oscar winner for that year was Gone With The Wind.  Other Best Picture nominees were The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Ninotchka, Love Affair, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, Dark Victory and Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

One of my favorite classic film comedies stars Claudette Colbert as a down-on-her-luck New York chorus girl stranded in Paris.  Future Oscar winner Don Ameche stars as the temperamental cab driver who helps her out.  In this modern day, lively twist on Cinderella, the broke chorus girl from Manhattan is determined to marry a millionaire.
We know that this Depression era dame will fall for the working class cabbie.

John Barrymore is terrifically loopy as sort of a fairy godmother to the Cinderella chorus girl.  He's got a scheme that can make her financial dreams come true.
But trouble ensues at the big ball when she's just about to seal the deal.
This comedy shines.  It's better and wittier than some modern romantic comedies I've seen -- most of them starring Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Aniston or Jason Segel.

From 2011, here's my short podcast piece on 1939's Midnight directed by Mitchell Leisen:

Midnight was remade as a 1945 comedy called Masquerade in Mexico.  Dorothy Lamour took on the Cinderella role.  Mitchell Leisen also directed the remake.  Midnight is worth renting.  It's one of those 1939 films that wasn't nominated for Best Picture but sure was good enough to be in the race.
Don Ameche was a most versatile Hollywood actor.  He did comedy, musical comedy, drama, biopics...he was a talented man who knew how to keep reinventing himself.  After 1950, when movie lead roles weren't as plentiful, he displayed his comedy chops on record albums as half of the always squabbling and very funny married couple, "The Bickersons."  He starred on Broadway in Cole Porter's musical comedy, Silk Stockings, a musical version of the 1939 Greta Garbo comedy classic, Ninotchka.  He had a rich singing voice.  Fred Astaire did Ameche's part in the movie version of Silk Stockings.  

Don Ameche did a lot of TV work as an actor and a host.  In the 80s, film roles came back to him.  He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1985's Cocoon.
His last film was 1994's Corrina, Corrina starring Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta.  Don Ameche was a classy guest on my VH1 talk show in the late 1980s.  I loved interviewing him.  He told me that Claudette Colbert knew good lighting like a master technician.

By the way, some other fine films that did not get nominated for Best Picture of 1939 were Drums Along the Mohawk starring Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda, The Women, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Rains Came, Destry Rides Again, Gunga Din, Beau Geste, Intermezzo introducing American audiences to Ingrid Bergman and The Roaring Twenties starring James Cagney.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On Renee Zellweger's Face

When Jerry Maguire fell in love with her, so did I.  Renée Zellweger had that special something that makes an actress a movie star.  I loved her as the killer babe in Chicago, a musical that brought the talented screen star one of her three Oscar nominations.
Just like Roxie Hart, her infamous Chicago character, she made headlines.  Yesterday, folks on Twitter and Facebook were talking about her so much that she made Ebola seem like rival Velma Kelly in Chicago.  Renée topped the disease in popularity the way Roxie topped fellow jailbird, Velma, with her crime and courtroom trial hijinks.

We haven't heard a lot about Renée Zellweger in a couple of years, but yesterday she was a media sensation.
OK.  She does look different.  And still good.  Just like Elizabeth Taylor said on Turner Classic Movies about actor Montgomery Clift after he survived serious auto accident injuries, the face was still beautiful -- just some its delicacy was gone.  That's my opinion about Renée.  Also, whatever Ms. Zellweger decided to do to herself is her business.
This blog post is about the story itself.  Not about her face.  The story hit yesterday.  Newspaper, TV programs and social media were abuzz with Renée's new look.  She was a hot topic today on ABC's The View.

Had this all been planned for weeks in advance with the actress' publicity team?  Here's why I ask:  The story broke yesterday morning.  Last night on ABC's new sitcom, Selfie, these two characters had a comedy moment discussing that Renée Zellweger doesn't look recognizable anymore in her current photographs.
That network sitcom episode was not shot yesterday morning and then aired last night.  It was taped well over a week ago.  We heard that gag in the show the same day the Zellweger "new face" story broke.  That could not have been a coincidence.  How would the writers have known about Renée's new appearance if the story just broke yesterday morning?  I think there may have been insider info from a publicity team.  If that timely gag was in an ABC sitcom episode that aired last night, I wonder if Renée Zellweger will grant her first "new face" interview to an ABC news program.  Just a hunch from this former entertainment news reporter.  When I watched Selfie, I got a feeing that Zellweger's "new face revelation" was more a coordinated press event than a breaking news story.

What do you think?  Leave me some comments and let me know what you think.  By the way, you look fabulous.

Monday, October 20, 2014

On TV: Those Twisty Teeth

Have you seen Twisty the Clown on this season's American Horror Story?  If you saw him, you'd remember him.  He's got a set of choppers that you just can't forget.
Look at those teeth.  Aren't they scary?  That's not a clown you book for a children's birthday party.  Not unless the kids are in The Addams Family.
It's obvious that folks in the American Horror Story production team appreciate classic films.  One classic silent film provided the inspiration for Twisty the Clown.

Actor Conrad Veidt is famous to millions of classic film fans as the Nazi villain, Major Strasser in 1942's Casablanca.  Veidt starred in a number of silent films that were quite influential.  In one of them, he played a young noble whose face was surgically disfigured by order of a despotic king.  Years later and because of his disfigurement, he joins a traveling circus troupe and becomes a top act.  In 1928, Conrad Veidt starred as Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs.  Veidt's make-up made his screen character memorable.  There was an elegant horror to his disfigured face.  His face gave circus audiences a start when it popped through the curtain.  The noble is now a circus freak.
He is conflicted about his looks when true love comes into his tortured life.  He will discover that love is blind.
Veidt's face as The Man Who Laughs reportedly inspired illustrators such as Bob Kane when creating The Joker for the original Batman comic books.
In 2005, the film and Veidt's silent screen look continued to be referenced by illustrators.
In a way, Twisty the Clown's teeth have stood the cinematic test of time considering that they were inspired by a deformed smile first seen in 1928.

By the way, if you want to see a compelling performance, watch and study Conrad Veidt as The Man Who Laughs.  It's a silent film.  Today's young actors can learn a lot from Veidt's physicality in the lead role.  He poetically evokes all the feelings of this mistreated, grotesque, human man.  It is truly a film classic anchored by a great lead performance.

For another lesson in excellent physicality during a film performance, watch John Carroll Lynch in 2007's Zodiac.  Based on a true serial killer murder mystery that made national headlines, Zodiac was directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, 1999).  He gave us this year's hit, Gone Girl.  The scene you need to see is Lynch's police interrogation scene.  He plays a big, brawny, bad-tempered single man.  He knows that the police suspect that San Francisco's  Zodiac serial killer may be a gay man.  He's extremely self-conscious about his movements and mannerisms during the interrogation.  He doesn't want to move in a way that will make him appear gay.  He doesn't want his temper to get him in trouble.  He's at odds with the cops.  He's at odds with himself.

John Carroll Lynch is brilliant in that scene.  On American Horror Story, the actor plays Twisty the Clown.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

NETWORK Predicted It

I noticed a big billboard in the cineplex lobby on my way out from having seen (and loved) Birdman.  I was in the big cineplex across from Manhattan's Lincoln Center.

Remember the 1976 classic, Network, the satire with its award-winning original and prophetic screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky?  Peter Finch played aging, avuncular network news anchor, Howard Beale.  Beale's newscast is traditional and low-rated.
He has an emotional breakdown and he becomes delusional.  His delusional state gives way to rants, angry rants that are televised live on the air.  Faye Dunaway plays the soulless network executive who manipulates Beale's madness into big ratings for the company.

She introduces the change of the set and the new format for the newscast headed by Howard Beale, now the "mad prophet" of the airwaves.  Beale's new format has a studio audience.

A studio audience that laughs and applauds and cheers during the news.  Diana (Dunaway's character) has erased the line between news and programming.

I saw Network in its theatrical release.  I saw it several times, it was that good.  Movie audiences always howled with laughter at the sight of a national newscast with an applauding studio audience.  We TV viewers were still in the Walter Cronkite era then.  We still had a line between news and programming. It was slimmer than before, but it was still present.

I used to hear people talk about the news features done by Cronkite or Peter Jennings -- or the editorials by Eric Severeid and the investigative reports by journalist pitbull Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.  It's different now.  Today millions of TV viewers talk about and are devoted fans of satirical newscasts with studio audiences that laugh, applaud and cheer.  Actor/comedians are asking harder, more probing questions than some TV journalists are.  These hugely popular actor/comedians who give us the news are...Jon Stewart, the most popular host of The Daily Show...
...and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report.
I bet that, if either one of them guest anchored the CBS Evenings News for one week during November sweeps, its ratings would increase big time.  The ratings would top what CBS anchor, Scott Pelley, gets.  Just my opinion.
We look to fake newsmen to get more fulfilling news reports.  They rant in a way that touches our wounded hearts and minds in the same way Howard Beale's "I'm as mad as hell" declaration connected with his national TV viewers.  And I can understand why.  Stewart and Colbert do incisive, intelligent, provocative, bold and compassionate work.  They make you think.  They make you laugh.  And they make you cheer.  Theirs are the reports folks talk about the next day.  Theirs are the reports that get posted on Facebook and Twitter.  Just like in Network, viewers turn to a news show with a studio audience and an untraditional format.  Life has imitated art.

I thought of all that when I saw this billboard in the cineplex lobby.  It was full of rave reviews for a new political drama, directed and written by Jon Stewart.  Notice the words "the world's leading fake newscaster."

Stewart's film is called Rosewater.  It stars the wonderful Mexican actor Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También) and Shohreh Aghdashloo, of NBC's Grimm and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for 2003's House of Sand and Fog.

I wish Paddy Chayefsky had lived long enough to be a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to discuss the state of TV journalism today.  That interview would rock and folks would definitely talk about the following day.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Michael Keaton as BIRDMAN

I just saw Birdman this afternoon.  In a word -- wow.  If Michael Keaton does not get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, if the film does not get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, Hollywood heads need to be examined.  Keaton is absolutely fascinating and surprising.  He really takes you on a journey in this performance.  I'd give Michael Keaton an Oscar nomination right now for Birdman.  He did some thrilling dramatic work.  As thrilling as a superhero story with life as the special effects.
  Yes, this is the same guy who was Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice.  And Batman.
Does the world know what you're capable of?  Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has given us a masterful, highly original cinematic jazz composition about respect and validation.  Keaton plays a movie star, famous for having been a box office champion as a superhero.  His Hollywood glory days are over and he's now older.  He seeks to do something new and artistically relevant.  He takes a risk.  He's producing and acting in a play based on work by Raymond Carver.  He takes a risk and he's willing to do the hard work.  The play is in troubled, unpredictable previews before its Broadway opening.
He's had a sexual fling with one fellow cast member and punches the crap out of another.  His daughter is out of rehab, she's there with him in New York City and some rehabilitation needs to be done on their relationship.  There, too, he's willing to do the work.  He displays some magical super powers of his own.  This actor seems to be in a stage of madness, in more ways than one.  This movie is surreal and wonderful.

To a little degree, it's like an action hero version of All About Eve for guys.  Edward Norton co-stars as the annoying, talented fellow cast member.  I think Norton was doing a vocal and slight physical riff on William Hurt.  He had some Hurt mannerisms.  Norton is one of the most versatile film actors we've got.  Look at him as skinhead racist in American History X, watch him in Fight Club, see his musical comedy performance in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, watch his brilliance as the British doctor punishing his adulterous wife in the excellent and greatly overlooked remake of The Painted Veil, see his scout master role in the loopy Moonrise Kingdom, and then catch him as the pain-in-the-ass egotistical actor in Birdman.  Norton nails this new role.

I did not expect to connect to Keaton's actor as deeply as I did.  But we had a few things in common.  In the first ten minutes of the movie, when the aging performer is alone and listening to his winged alter ego, I knew exactly how Keaton's Riggan Thomson felt.  As a former VH1 celebrity talk show host and veteran network entertainment reporter, I've felt the same way when I've watched the rich Billy Bush host his show biz news programs.  Thomas was a hit in 1992.  I was a hit in 1992.  (He was on the big screen.  I was on TV screens).  He wants to be respected and validated and do some relevant new work today.  So do I.  We're both in the same age category.

I got my first taste of Keaton's quirky comic acting skills when I saw him just about steal 1982's Night Shift away from its star, Henry Winkler.  I became an immediate Michael Keaton fan.   We moviegoers liked his comedy so much that we didn't think he could pull off the darkness and emotional dissonance of 1989's Batman.  But he did.  And it was a box office blockbuster.  Now the former action hero movie star is playing a former action hero movie star.
Who knew that Keaton was capable of the more complex rawness he shows in this new black comedy?  I loved his performance as a guy trying to reconnect to family members, his career and his self-respect.  I plan to see Birdman again.  This is the best and brightest work of Michael Keaton's film career to date.  Wow.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Casey Wilson makes me laugh.  A lot.  I love the way she does physical comedy.  I love her rapid-fire pop culture references when a character she plays has a hissyfit.  I loved her on ABC's sitcom, Happy Endings.  The sitcom's promos did not lie.  That show was like Friends.  Only with black people.  She played Penny.  I totally dug Penny's friendship with Max, the Chicago bear cub who was one of the most refreshing gay male sitcom characters I'd seen in years.  That slacker was just like gay dudes I knew when I lived in Milwaukee and spent time in Chicago.  He ate carbs, he was no slave to fashion, he'd rather watch a ballgame on TV instead of a Sex and the City marathon, he found good men well over 40 to be sexy and he could name five classic movie westerns that did not have any musical numbers performed by Judy Garland or Doris Day.  He was a regular guy, a great pal, who just happened to be gay.
However, Happy Endings did not get huge ratings like Will & Grace, a straight gal/gay man sitcom that took place in a New York City where 99% of the black people who live below 23rd Street on Manhattan's west side, as Will and Grace did, somehow mysteriously disappeared.  Where were we?  We were hardly even included as background actors.

Casey Wilson premieres tonight in a new sitcom that airs on NBC.  It's called Marry Me.  She's a 32 year old woman who's been dating a man for six years.  She wants him to propose to her.

I've always felt that NBC's Will & Grace in 1998 was what Caroline in the City should've been in 1995.  But network TV was still nervous about giving viewers positive gay characters on weekly television.  If you can, watch Casey as the unmarried lady on Marry Me.  She has two gay fathers.  She explains it to you in the premiere episode.
Her fathers are played by Dan Bucatinsky (formerly of Scandal) and Tim Meadows (formerly of Saturday Night Live).

Back in 1987, NBC had a sitcom called My Two Dads.
Both men were straight but I felt that it should've really been about a straight man and a gay man raising a sweet little girl together and becoming better men because of co-parenthood.

If My Two Dads had been done that way, Marry Me could be sort of a follow-up to it.  Watch and let me know what you think.  Break a leg, Casey.