Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Angelina Gam

Angelina Jolie is always one of the biggest, most dazzling stars on a show business red carpet.  Her red carpet appearances with Brad Pitt are sometimes more memorable than her films.  Sunday is a perfect example.  The next day, there was more talk about her leg than there was about her movie, The Tourist.  Angelina was, as usual, charismatic and camera-ready.  The way she stood outside on the Oscars red carpet made her look like she was about to launch into a sexy chorus of "I'm a Little Teapot."
She repeated that stance onstage as she presented one of the Academy Awards.
All the while, I kept staring at her and thinking "What does her leg poked out like that remind me of?"  Then it occurred to me.  If she had put a lampshade on her head, she would have looked exactly like that lamp in the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story.  Am I right?
Angelina Jolie needed Darren McGavin as Mr. Parker up there clutching an Oscar, looking at her gam and exclaiming, "It's a major award.  I won it!"  In fact, come this 2012 holiday season, Angelina should wear that dress again, stand just like that, and host a special cable TV presentation of A Christmas Story. With a lampshade on her head for full effect. That could be ever so festive.  Don't you think?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On Billy Crystal and Oscar Stuff

I admit it.  I did cringe at part of the opening movie spoof montage Billy Crystal did for the Oscars telecast.  He did what I was hoping he would not do -- his imitation of the late Sammy Davis, Jr.  Crystal got big laughs doing that characterization on Saturday Night Live in the mid-80s.  But audiences have grown up since then.  Sammy died in 1990.  Some young Oscar viewers, some young entertainment reporters, probably don't even know that Billy Crystal was a regular on SNL at one time.  Crystal did an old TV comedy bit in a new century and, to many viewers, it came off like "blackface."  They were offended.  This made me wonder if Crystal had any African American friends in his writing team who could say, "Hey, Billy, you may not want to do that Sammy bit  -- especially since it leads right into your spoof of The Help, a movie about racism that sparked controversy about racial images."  The Oscars show, in a way, was a salute to Hollywood of the 1920s.  A silent film won the Best Picture Oscar and a white male star performed on camera in blackface.  Like Al Jolson did.  Crystal would've been fine without the Sammy bit.  Not a wise choice for today's audience.  It made him seem a tad dated.
In a sharp Los Angeles Times article entitled "Oscar's aging audience:  Time to shake up the Academy?," Patrick Goldstein accurately cuts to the core of what went wrong and what needs to be considered in Hollywood for advancements in diversity.  Goldstein wrote that executive offices are "bereft of people of color."  To that, I add the lack of black film critics and movie hosts seen on TV.  The network morning news shows never had a black person doing weekly film reviews.  We're still pretty obscure every year when those shows have movie critics and contributors in place to predict and comment on the annual announcement of the Oscar nominations.  Black talent is prevalent on TV news in the sports and weather segments but rarely seen doing film and stage reviews.  Does this imply we don't know anything about the fine arts?  That we don't care about them?  I've reviewed films on local and network TV.  As you can see if you read my previous blog, "Black Talent, Hollywood Gold," Elvis Mitchell and I are not the only African Americans who can talk about movies.  Hollywood needs to know that, to see that.

There's another area that sorely needs more racial diversity for Film/TV performers on both coasts:  Representation.  I have at least 10 years of national TV work to my credits.  Almost all of that work I got without an agent.  For over 20 years, I've been in the TV business.  I have had meetings in top agencies and some not-so-top agencies while seeking a broadcast agent.  In all that time, in all those offices in New York and LA, I've seen only two black people who were talent agents.  And both were gone from their agencies a year later.  Did you ever see a black agent on Entourage?  Nope.  When top film/TV stars attend fabulous functions with their high-powered agents and you see their picture in a magazine, is the agent usually black?  Nope.  Trust me on this, being a minority and trying to land your own work, auditions and meetings without the benefit of an agent is a heavy load to carry.  That's in addition to trying to crash through color walls.  I did a good pilot for a TV game show back in 1992.  Later, I found out that executives were concerned.  Not with my performance which, the crew told me, was very good. Executives wondered if America would accept a black TV game show host.  Yep.  The color thing.  This is the stuff a Rosie O'Donnell, Carson Daly, Mo Rocca or a Billy Bush don't have to deal with.  They won't hear, "You're talented but you're Caucasian.  Will TV viewers accept you?"  It's also the stuff a lot of my white liberal friends and acquaintances don't seem to get.  They see discrimination in a movie like The Help but they think it's all a level and fair playing field here "up North." Especially in the entertainment business.

I don't want to make this "all about me" but I'll share a personal story to give you an idea of how that lack of racial diversity in our business can wear your spirit down.  I hosted two talk shows on VH1 in the late 80s.  I was the first black person to get his own prime time talk show on VH1.  I got solid reviews from The New York Times, TV Guide and People Magazine for my work.  Here are some of the guests who were on my VH1 shows:  Kirk Douglas, Norman Mailer, Meryl Streep, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Liza Minnelli, Hume Cronyn & Jessica Tandy, Alan Rickman, John Cleese, writer/directors James L. Brooks and Spike Lee, Phil Collins, Carlos Santana, Joan Baez, Dolly Parton, Studs Terkel, Dominick Dunne, Anne Rice, Smokey Robinson, Gregory Hines, Sally Field, Marlo Thomas, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and original King Kong star, Fay Wray.  VH1 flew me to London for an exclusive hour-long interview of Paul McCartney.  Broadcast agents in New York City were still turning me down saying "I wouldn't know what to do with you."  In 1991, the year after my VH1 contract expired, I met with a Manhattan broadcast agent named Conrad Shadlen.  A lovely man, he's since gone on to his heavenly reward.  Conrad said he'd have problems placing me. However, he said, "If you did weather, I could get you a job on a news show in a heartbeat."  See what I mean?  I've had a heavy load to carry in my broadcast career.  I never had another opportunity to host a national TV talk show after my VH1 years.  Considering that most of my broadcast career has been without an agent, I've been pretty lucky to get the work I did.  But think about what actors like Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard and Louis Gossett must go through being black and trying to get another script, another opportunity, as good as the one that got them each an Oscar nomination years ago.  I was invited to meet with an agent at a top NYC agency back in 2008.  At the time, I was seen on Food Network Mondays through Fridays hosting a show called Top 5.  The show was in repeats.  In the mornings, I was on national radio with Whoopi Goldberg as a regular on her weekday show for Premiere Radio.  (Yes, Whoopi Goldberg had a morning radio show before she did The View.)  That agent did not say "I wouldn't know what to do with you."  She asked if I'd ever done any on-camera work.  I kid you not.  I still could use a little help.  More equality is needed as much offscreen as it is onscreen.  The more it's embraced in the entertainment industry, the more the fine arts win.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Viva Viola Davis!

She didn't win the Oscar last night, but Viola Davis made Oscar history this year.  In  my previous blog, "Black Talent, Hollywood Gold," I gave Hollywood a couple of movie ideas for Viola.  The two-time Oscar nominee has no film projects in development according to IMDb.com (Internet Movie Database).  NO film projects in development.  Jennifer Aniston has four.  My first idea was to star Viola in a film adaptation of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning August Wilson play, Fences.  She starred in the acclaimed, award-winning 2010 Broadway revival with Oscar winner Denzel Washington.
Here was another idea:  She could also play the fierce, fabulous and famous 1950s/60s singer, Dinah Washington.  She had an extravagant life and died young.  Hollywood loves a bio pic.  Playing a real-life character seems to guarantee a good actor an invite to Hollywood Prom Night.  What did Meryl Streep win her Oscar for last night?  For playing a real life character!  British milk snatcher, Margaret Thatcher.  Colin Firth, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, Forest Whitaker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jamie Foxx and Helen Mirren all won Oscars for bio pics.  Cast Viola Davis as the singer America called "The Queen," Dinah Washington.
I came up with another idea today.  Hollywood really loves action pics.  Especially during the summer vacation months.  Hook Viola Davis up with a Warner Bros. meeting about one of that studio's hits from 1973.  A hit that had a sequel.  Remake it, update it.  Let Viola Davis git down and kick butt busting drug rings as that U.S. Special Agent called Cleopatra Jones.  Yes, the very same crime fighter who was "10 Miles of Bad Road for Every Hood in Town."  This screen hero was originally played by the late Tamara Dobson.  Viola Davis could have some summer release action movie fun with that role.  She'd do it some justice.
Cleopatra Jones could handle big thugs with a karate kick or a gun.  She was no-jive.
If I worked on the script for that remake, I'd write in a cameo for Antonio Fargas.  He played "Doodlebug Simkins" in the original version.  We love Antonio Fargas.
Hollywood may not be able to come up with some movie project ideas for Viola Davis, but I sure as hell can.  With all her extraordinary talent and she has no film projects listed in development today?  That's just wrong. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Black Talent, Hollywood Gold

The Academy Awards.  Hollywood prom night.  Who's going home with the Hollywood gold?

Some members of the entertainment press jockeying for face time with stars on the red carpet at tonight's Oscars may be concentrating more on "Who are you wearing?" than history.  But history could be made.  Will Viola Davis become the second black woman to win the Best Actress Academy Award?  Halle Berry was the first.  Viola is now the second black woman to have more than one Oscar nomination to her credit.  Whoopi Goldberg was the first.  Both have a nomination in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress category.  Meryl Streep could make history as the third woman to win a Best Actress Oscar for a performance in a film directed by a woman.  There was Holly Hunter's win for The Piano directed by Jane Campion and Charlize Theron's Oscar for Monster directed by Patty Jenkins.  As The Iron Lady, she was directed by Phyllida Lloyd.  Meryl Streep has been nominated twice in the Best Actress Academy Award category for a performance directed by a woman.  She was in the Oscar race for Julie & Julia directed by Nora Ephron.  That's a golden nugget for Women In Film history.  Brava, Meryl.   In this year's Oscar race, no Hollywood film sparked so much passionate criticism and dialogue as The Help with its topic of race. The Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer nominations, to me, are well-deserved.  The criticisms the movie started about Hollywood racial images onscreen and racial diversity offscreen are also well-deserved.
Viola Davis is a terrific, versatile actress.  She's made Oscar history with this second nomination alone.  She has no film projects in development, according to IMDb.com.  Jennifer Aniston has four.  Katherine Heigl has four.  Adam Sandler has nine.  Seriously?  That's why the criticisms shot at Hollywood on the lack of opportunities for minority actors are accurate.  In its way, The Help helped.  Fences, the drama by legendary playwright August Wilson, won the Tony Award for Best Play.  James Earl Jones won the Tony for Best Actor.  It won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The 2010 Broadway revival scored 10 Tony nominations.  It starred Viola Davis and Denzel Washington.
Hey, Hollywood, why can't we get Ms. Davis to star in a film adaptation of that award-winning Broadway drama?  There's an idea for you.  As we can tell from the annual list of actors nominated for Oscars, Hollywood loves a bio pic.  Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Edith Piaf and members of Britain's Royal Family have gotten actors invited to Hollywood Prom Night thanks to their big screen biography performances.  Here's another idea:  Viola Davis as larger-than-life singer Dinah Washington. 
I'd love to see Viola Davis as the fierce and fabulous singer they called "The Queen."  Think about it.  Hollywood also loves summer action flicks.  Here's another idea for Viola.  Hollywood, you like summer action flicks.  If you make something like Air Force One, let Viola do the Glenn Close part.  Let her play the Vice President.
If I was back on TV doing film commentary and reviews again, I'd mention all that.  There's long been a need for racial diversity on television in the film critics area too.  Many viewers grew up seeing Siskel & Ebert, Gene Shalit and Joel Siegel review movies on network morning news programs and syndicated TV shows.  CBS Sunday Morning has David Edelstein. Jeffrey Lyons and his son, Ben, have reviewed movies on national TV.  Black film critics are rarely seen on TV and we're over a decade into the 21st century. Our exclusion in the film reviewer/historian and movie host category bothers me.  A lot of us can do that work, you know.  I know I can.  Elvis Mitchell is not the only black person in America who can talk about movies.  I like Elvis, but he's not the only one.  He's often just the only one Anglo network TV producers let you see.  So, I want you to meet some folks.  When it was announced that PBS would premiere Roger Ebert Presents 'At The Movies,' I was thrilled.  Initial reports told us that long-haired film critic Elvis Mitchell and Omar Moore would be regulars.  Omar Moore deserves TV airtime.  He's a fine writer and has great film smarts. He's also comfortable on camera.
The first publicity photo that accompanied the press release announcement of the show had a racially diverse group.  I loved it!
Then something curious and unexplained happened.  Elvis had left the building.  Mr. Mitchell was no longer with the show.  Mr. Moore was still with the show but not seen in the new publicity pics.  Blonde Christy Lemire and her new co-host, a young fellow with a name something like Ignatz Ratzkywatzky, were the leads.  Omar seemed downgraded to background actor.  The original publicity photo was racially diverse.  The new publicity pic was oddly...uni-color.
Ebert is one of my favorite film critics.  Those two young hosts were very capable but the sudden lack of color in the new promotional pics broke my heart.  Omar Moore should be on TV more.  89.3 KPCC talk radio in Los Angeles has a fast, provocative, entertaining, smart and non-snarky Friday film review show called "FilmWeek" on AirTalk.  Tim Cogshell is a frequent film critic guest.  He brings it.  He knows his films -- domestic and foreign.  "FilmWeek" is a very good news talk show.  It's even better when Tim Cogshell is in the mix with other movie critics on it.
Wesley Morris is well-known to people in the Boston area.  He writes for the Boston Globe and has several film review segments on local and national television to his credit.
For "Take no prisoners" film journalism, you can always count on the tough and talented Armond White.  Starting in the 90s, his reviews in the New York Press became weekly required reading for me.  Bold, brainy and a big unpredictable force to contend with in the New York Film Critics Circle, he's another black person who also happens to be a film critic.
And there you have it.  As Hollywood could make improvements in racial images and diversity in casting, television could do the same in showing Hollywood -- and the movie-going public -- that minorities also know quite a bit about current and classic films.  Enjoy the Oscars tonight.  Who are you wearing?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

I Hope for '69 Again

I have no idea what to expect in Sunday's Academy Awards telecast.  In a way, I wish it would start like the Grammys did -- a short prayer, one good upbeat song and then get right to the first award.  But it won't.  Billy Crystal is back as host.  He'll probably do some silent movie bits, maybe get that dog from The Artist, have some poop-in-pastry shtick inspired by The Help, dress in drag like one of the Bridesmaids and make a joke about the fact that theater lost its name when Kodak when bankrupt.  If the Academy brought back Billy Crystal,  why couldn't it go all the way and have production numbers choreographed by Debbie Allen?  Remember the year she had breakdancing Driving Miss Daisy characters?  Her numbers often had moments that were just so wrong they were right.

Also, the Academy seemed to go really bi-polar this year.  In the 1930s & 40s, there were ten nominees for Best Picture.  Then the field was reduced to five.  Last year, it was back up to ten.  This year, we've got nine nominees for Best Picture.  Instead of adding a critically acclaimed tenth like Jane Eyre or the last Harry Potter movie, they cut it off at nine.  One of them is a movie a lot of critics didn't like -- the Tom Hanks Sept. 11th drama, Extremely Loud & Glengarry Glenn Close.  Or whatever the heck it's called.  Then there's the Best Song category.  Did you know that back in the 1930s & 40s there were ten nominees in that category too?  Then it was reduced to five.  In the last few years, we've had less than five nominees because of really confusing Academy rules.  This year, we've got only TWO Best Song nominees.  Only two.  And, last I heard, they will not be performed during the telecast.  But they'll let Billy Crystal sing.  For all the years we had five nominated songs, we had to hear all five of them sung on the telecast.  That included sixteen Oscar shows with songs by Randy Newman.  He lost sixteen times.  Why?  BECAUSE ALL HIS SONGS SOUND THE FREAKIN' SAME!!!!  And we had to sit through each one.  Johnny Mercer gave us "Blues in the Night," "Accentuate the Positive," "That Old Black Magic," "Something's Gotta Give" and "Moon River."  Each a Best Song nominee.  What did Randy Newman give us?  Six rewrites of "Short People." I kept praying he'd write one called "I Wish I Was Harry Nilsson" so we could all just move on.  Finally, he won an Oscar.

The song Mary J. Blige wrote for The Help was so stirring that I sat through the closing credits to hear all of it.  Her song worked perfectly for that film.  No nomination.  Elton John wrote some sweet tunes for an animated feature called Gnomeo & Juliet. No nomination.  One of the two nominated songs this year was written by Sergio Mendes.  Yes...of Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66...the group that gave us some classic albums in the 1960s & 70s.  He can't sing on the Oscars but Billy Crystal can.  Don't get me started.

I have no great expectations for this weekend's Oscar show.  I can't make any predictions.  However, here's what I'm really hoping for:  A repeat of what happened in 1969.  That was the year Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl...
...and Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter...
...tied for the Best Actress Academy Award of 1968, the first tie ever in the Actress category.  Kate was famous for never attending the Oscars® ceremony, but screen newcomer Streisand was there for that very historic night.
I wish that would happen Sunday for the two friends who previously acted opposite each other and got nominated for their performances in Doubt.  Meryl Streep was the Best Actress contender for her turn as the strict nun and Viola Davis was in the Best Supporting Actress category as the conflicted mother of the first black student at a New York parochial school in the 1960s.
Both are now opposite each other in the Best Actress Oscar race.  Yes, this weekend I wish 1969 Academy Awards history would repeat itself.  Let Meryl's stunning work as The Iron Lady tie with Viola's brilliance as The Help.  They're both deserving.

Friday, February 24, 2012

and Bob's your uncle

Early one Saturday evening, the oldest of my two groovy nephews and I were being lazy in the family room here at my brother's house.  We were watching some animated action show on a cartoon network.  My nephew's 11.  He made a comment about the way one superhero was drawn.  He thought it was very 1980s.  I looked at the superhero.

Me:     "Wow."

Him:   "What?"

Me:      "He's got a really big chin, that guy.  Kind of like Jay Leno."

Him:   "Uncle Bobby, I don't know who Jay Leno is."

Me:     "Good."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Jeremy Lin Scores

October 15, 1993.  The New York Daily News.  From the article, "NBC big gaffes out loud:  Aidid remark causes a furor" --


"...an NBC producer called a Somali warlord 'an educated jungle bunny' during a news meeting."


I'll not reprint the producer's name but the story continued "___ said of Aidid: 'He's an educated jungle bunny and the rest of the jungle bunnies are not like this at all.  They're illiterates."  The executive producer admitted what he said, stating that he was "using a phrase that exists in many people's minds in the United States."  The newspaper report, written by Corky Siemaszko and A.J. Benza, added that black NBC employees "exploded with indignation" after learning of the NBC Nightly News producer's remarks about Mohamed Farrah Aidid.  I thought of that story when I read online that ESPN sports coverage of Knicks star, Jeremy Lin, a sensational Chinese-American athlete...
...included this graphic on the sports network.  What the heck were they thinking?!?!  This is just so wrong.
When I saw that, my jaw dropped down to the top of my sneakers.  I thought the same thing I did when I read that Daily News article in the paper -- how can you be in the news profession and say or write that?  How can you, as a journalist, say or write something so racially offensive like that and then expect me to trust the images and views of people you present in your reports?  Another thing really bothered me.  I'm not a hardcore journalist but I am a veteran of local TV news programs.  To put something like that ignorant sports news graphic on the air is not the result of two guys doing a Wayne's World show out of their basement.  That has to be written, typed into a control room machine and a producer gives a cue as to when to put it up on the TV screen.  If the sports anchor reads that copy on the air, it's been typed into a TelePrompTer.  In other words, a supervisor had to have seen it.  If I was the producer of that sportscast and saw the "Chink in the armor" copy, I'd have deleted it and immediately called the person who wrote it into my office.  It never would've been seen on the air.

Today, I read a great and accurate column by Leonard Pitts Jr.  It was on The National Memo website (www.nationalmemo.com).
The article is called "Attn. Young Blacks:  There's A Message For You In This 'Lin-Sanity.'"  I wanted to cheer after I read it...cheer like I was watching Jeremy Lin burn up a basketball court.  Pitts writes "There is a word for expecting things from people based on the racial, religious, gender or cultural box you have put them into.  The word is 'stereotyping,' a form of mental laziness in which people believe they can know who and what you are simply by seeing you.'  He adds that, just as Asians are "supposed" to excel in engineering and chemistry versus sports, we black men are "supposed" to be gangsta thugs who are promiscuous and athletic -- not men who did well in school and know something about the fine arts.  That made me think of my own career.  When I worked in the programming entertainment environment in the 1980s -- like on the old PM Magazine show and VH1 -- my knowledge of film and other entertainment was utilized, promoted and rewarded.  Oddly, not so much when I worked in news.  Full disclosure:  I worked on WNBC in the early 90s.  I quit because I felt it hadn't quite embraced racial diversity.  That NBC news article came out during my time there at 30 Rock.  After fighting for the chance to be a movie critic, I did do a few film review segments on WNBC's local weekend morning news program.  Under contract, I was usually assigned a lot of "wacky" outdoor remote segments.  The producer said she didn't think I had "the skills" to do film reviews.  It was then I realized she'd never read my resumé.  The first four years of my TV career were spent as a weekly film critic.  In fact, I was contacted by Chicago PBS to audition to replace either Siskel or Ebert when they left WTTW for Disney syndication.  My boss didn't know about that.  She didn't know about my VH1 celebrity talk show.  She worked in news yet she had not done her homework.  She just assumed I lacked fine arts knowledge.

The producer of the next local news show I worked for hadn't read my resumé or watched my demo reel either.  I didn't get to do film reviews there but the overall situation was more enjoyable than my WNBC one.  I did get to do weekly film reviews for one of my favorite gigs ever.  I was the entertainment editor on a joint ABC News/Lifetime Television network production, a live afternoon magazine show called Lifetime Live.  I loved that job.  However, it took a noted TV columnist to help me get considered for the job.  The producers knew me from local TV but questioned whether or not I knew anything about movies.  Again, execs had not read my resumé or looked at my demo reel.  I told the ABC News producer that I spent the first four years of my TV career as a weekly film critic.  On WISN, the ABC TV affiliate in Milwaukee.  That work got me hired in New York.  Then I asked how I'm perceived by network news folks who kept saying "I know your work" but really didn't.  She honestly replied, "You're seen as the funny guy who does local liveshots."  I proved to her I did more than that.

This is why I relate to what Leonard Pitts Jr wrote.  Those TV news producers, each from a different show, saw me being funny in assigned local liveshots and assumed that was all I did.  Think about it.  Why don't we see black and Latino talent on network TV reviewing movies, discussing Oscar nominations and doing regular reports on the Broadway scene?  There are many minority reporters who can cover film and stage.  I saw them at movie screenings for the press and at Broadway shows in New York City.  Is the reason they're not tapped for TV exposure because we're not "supposed" to know about fine arts?  This Jeremy Lin story has, once again, made me wonder how journalists and executives in TV news see us minorities.  Pitts touches on how we minorities shackle ourselves with stereotypes -- like taking on thug identity or saying that to speak properly is "acting white."  He brings up valid points.  Look for his article online.  It's worth reading.  All in all, Jeremy Lin is forcing folks in the media to shake the chains off their brains.  That's a great thing.

As for the NBC network news producer who used that racially offensive term, I did not print his name because he died last year.  He left NBC weeks after that story.  He wasn't fired.  He got an offer from another network news program.  Then he went to become a network news consultant.  He was greatly revered in his profession and praised when he died.  There was no mention of how he offended black NBC employees in 1993.  In a way, his obits reminded me of the line from John Ford's 1962 western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Carrie Fisher: Where's Her Star?

"Instant gratification takes too long." ~Meryl Streep as actress Suzanne Vale in Postcards From The Edge.
 This 1990 comedy is one of my favorite Hollywood-on-Hollywood films with one of my favorite Meryl Streep performances.  She's the middle-aged actress fresh out of detox who's still treated like a child by her aging former queen-of-movie musicals mother.  Not since Lana Turner's Georgia Lorrison in Vincente Minnelli's 1952 classic, The Bad and the Beautiful, has Hollywood offspring displayed such fabulous female co-dependent behavior. Mike Nichols directed Streep to another Best Actress Oscar nomination.  The screenplay was written by another actress -- Carrie Fisher.  Carrie picked me up once in New York City.  Literally.  She was one of my wonderful guests when I just started hosting talk shows on VH1 in the late 1980s.  I was slimmer then.  Carrie, after we'd finished our taping, claimed she could pick me up.  Before I could finish saying, "No way!," she'd already done it.  I was off the ground for a second or two, lifted by Princess Leia, and someone snapped a Polaroid of that moment.  I still have the Polaroid.  The interview, by the way, was terrific.  Carrie was promoting her first novel, Postcards from the Edge.  That book truly did make me laugh out loud.  I felt like I had known Suzanne Vale for years.  She was like a former high school classmate to me.  Yes, I'm a hardcore Carrie Fisher fan.  Occasionally, back then in the late 80s and early 90s, I felt like I needed therapy.  But I couldn't afford it.  So I read Carrie Fisher novels instead.  I didn't always discover a solution to my problems but they sure made my problems seem funny when I recognized similar quirks in her characters.  Her writing rings true.  One of my other favorite guests on VH1 was Carrie's famous mother, Debbie Reynolds.  She was a top MGM movie star by the time half the guys on my floor crew were born.  They loved her.  Debbie came on and killed.  She talked about her book, MGM, Madonna and her lack or orgasms during her first Hollywood marriage.  She was too damn funny.  And motherly.
Debbie strode onto our VH1 set, heading towards me with a million dollar smile and sweetly noted, "Darling, you're going to need a junior."  As she entered, she'd scoped the entire set and, with human computer-like accuracy, spotted exactly what lighting adjustments needed to be made.  Politely, but definitely, she told the young crew members how to make the lighting on me better before we started rolling.  She'd spent decades toiling on Hollywood soundstages.  She knew her light.  They did what she requested.  I never looked better thanks to Debbie Reynolds.  I taped another interview for my half-hour show after we wrapped with Debbie.  Debbie didn't leave the studio.  She stuck around and watched me tape my next interview.  The next one was with a young actress who'd starred  in three big Oscar-winning hit movies of the 1980s.  But she wasn't a very fun guest.  She seemed phony.  The crew didn't like her.  Debbie didn't like her.  However, Debbie stood a distance behind her during the interview, out of camera range, and motioned for me to cheat my head out a certain way to keep the light good on my face.  I thought of that very moment when I saw Shirley MacLaine as Suzanne's movie star mom motion for Suzanne to remove her denim jacket while singing at the "Welcome Home from Rehab" party mom had tossed for her.
 When I interviewed Carrie, plans were underway to film her book.  Mike Nichols wanted actress Lee Remick for the role of the unsinkable Doris Mann.  Carrie confirmed that her mother, Debbie, was campaigning to do the role.  It went to Shirley MacLaine.  When I interviewed Shirley on my VH1 show, she confirmed that she was slated to star in The Unsinkable Molly Brown for MGM but Debbie got the role -- and an Oscar nomination -- for that lavish musical.  Shirley playfully added that it was karma.  Why am I blogging all this?  On Wednesday, Feb. 22nd, Jennifer Aniston gets a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Carrie doesn't have one.  Come on!  Rachel from Friends gets a star but Princess Leia from Star Wars doesn't?  How can that be?  OK, I know those stars can be purchased.  Carrie deserves a purchase.  First of all, remember the colossal international box office and pop culture impact the original Stars Wars trilogy made?  Phenomenal!  Carrie's Princess Leia became an iconic movie character.  With an iconic movie hairdo to match.
Decades later, that hairdo is still instantly recognizable.
That Star Wars hairdo made its debut in the 1970s.  Rachel's 'do on Friends came along in the 1990s.  And what are the names of Aniston's three international box office blockbusters with action figure marketing tie-ins?  I forget.  If you want to experience how seriously talented and creative Carrie Fisher is, read the book Postcards from the Edge and then see the movie.  She pretty much wrote a whole new product.  Suzanne's mother is not a prominent character in the novel.  Doris is only on about ten pages or less of the book.  The movie version expands the mother/daughter story.  Not long after my Debbie Reynolds interview, I had to do some VH1 taping in L.A.  While there, I was invited to have dinner with the co-writer of Debbie's new book and his partner, an executive with our L.A. corporate offices.  They'd recently read the first draft of Carrie's screenplay, which she titled Hollywood & Vine because it was quite different from Postcards from the Edge.  The characters were the same from her book but her screenplay adaptation varied in story and tone.  Nichols wisely had her retain the book's title.  The writing partner said, "There's a staircase scene that's not in the book."  They both raved about how good that scene was on paper.  Carrie based it on a real argument she'd once had with her mother.  That staircase scene became of the best and most quotable scenes in the movie.  It's the storm before the calm.  Two women, two actresses with their addictions at the ready, are having it out.  Suzanne conceals pills.  Doris, the over-protective mother and Hollywood warhorse, grips a breakfast shake laced with vodka.  She bellows "It twirled up!" when contradicting the story about her dress at Suzanne's teen birthday party. What an excellent scene, brilliantly played by MacLaine and Streep.
This may not be grand drama like Sophie's Choice or Out of Africa but Carrie Fisher gave Streep a great "kitchen sink" character to inhabit.  Suzanne's a non-big star, working class actress in L.A.  Streep got that Southern California thing just right.  Vocally, physically, attitude-wise.  And I felt like I understood the spine of the character.  There's a scene where she's dangling from a fake ledge trying to make sense out of emotional chaos while working in a business of make-believe.  I totally understood how she felt.  Fisher provided Streep with one of those roles that utilized and revealed her comedy skills.
Meryl Streep was nominated for Best Actress.  Shirley MacLaine should've been nominated for Best Supporting Actress.  Carrie Fisher should've been nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.  She wrote some marvelous scenes.  That fake ledge dangling movie-within-a-movie- sequence, the staircase mother/daughter showdown and the voicover looping scene.  Suzanne, in recovery, reunites with the director whose movie she was making when she overdosed.  Gene Hackman played the no-nonsense director.  He sees the specialness in Suzanne that she rarely sees in herself.  When she wistfully comments, "...I don't want life to imitate art.  I want life to be art," it always puts a few tears in my eyes.  Beautiful scene. So poignant.  Carrie Fisher is a wonderful writer.  Memorable dialogue.  Memorable characters.  A wickedly funny and touching story showing us the family ties that bind in Hollywood.  Carrie Fisher's first screenplay was a winner.
Here's some trivia for you:  Meryl Streep had a scene in Postcards from the Edge with a popular TV game show host.  He had a talk show at the time and, in one scene, Suzanne was a guest on that talk show.  Do you know who it is?  Pat Sajak.  During his CBS late night stint,  he got to act opposite La Streep.  Unfortunately, the scene wound up on the cutting room floor.
Debbie Reynolds got the part Shirley MacLaine wanted in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.  Shirley MacLaine got the part Debbie Reynolds wanted in Postcards from the Edge.  Debbie and Shirley were scheduled to interview each other one morning on the Today show but they got bumped due to breaking news of the Northridge California earthquake of 1994.  I brought that up to Shirley in a future interview. She replied same as before, "Ha!  Karma!"

As for Debbie's daughter -- performances in the original Star Wars trilogy, Hannah and Her Sisters, When Harry Met Sally and Shampoo...her under-appreciated screenplay  for Postcards from the Edge based on her novel of the same name...and surviving life as the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and singing star Eddie Fisher.  If Jennifer Aniston rates a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, then certainly Carrie Fisher does too.  She's Hollywood royalty.

Oh.  One more thing about Debbie from my 1988 talk show interview:  I asked her what MGM would've done with Madonna had she been a pop star in Debbie's heyday and placed under studio contract.  Her immediate response was that MGM professionals would've assigned Madonna a vocal coach to improve her singing and someone to teach her how to lower her speaking voice.  In TV interviews promoting her performance as Evita in 1996, I heard Madonna say that she worked with a vocal coach to improve her singing for that film role and she also lowered her speaking voice.  And there you have it.  Help us, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Help us get Carrie Fisher a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  May the Force be with you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

My Ash Wednesday Wish

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.  We Catholics go to church and have our foreheads marked with holy soot to remind us that "dust we are and dust we shall be."  It kicks off our season of Lent, the official countdown to Easter Sunday.  We leave our foreheads like that for hours too.  We don't clean the ashes off right away.  After you've left church, you can spot other members of the Catholic club just by looking at the forehead.
I've spent most of my life as a Catholic.  I was baptised, confirmed, served as an altar boy and did many years in parochial schools being taught by nuns and priests.  Some of our customs I love -- like midnight mass ringing in Christmas Day, the music of it, the spirit of hope and renewal in Easter Sunday masses, the artifacts that were part of my Catholic culture...like rosaries, scapulas, holy cards and holy water.  But the church's archaic views can make me crazy.  The ones rooted in shame, guilt and discrimination.  It really makes me crazy when those musty old views stretch over in the world of politics causing me to wonder whatever happened to America's separation of Church and State.  The Vatican does not approve of gays and marriage equality.  Please.  Enough already.  How can that predominantly male religious corporation proclaim that gays are unacceptable when it makes its guys in the company go to work dressed like this?
Come on, now.  Would you wear something like that to a Knicks game?  Or headed to the local pub for a beer?  Or to a barbecue?  And the big boss in Vatican City -- the one who's really opposed to gays -- occasionally goes to work dressed like this.
I doubt he wears that on Casual Fridays.  I know you're The Pope, but...seriously.  Could you honestly look at yourself in the mirror wearing that outfit and say to your holy self, "I look butch"?  Jesus kept it simple.  No capes.  However, you and many conservative Christian politicans cannot accept respectable same-sex couples...people who are committed to each other, who live in peace and do unto others as they would have others do unto them.  You have the gay community verbally ostracized and shamed by grown men who wear purple cloaks and fuschia-colored beanies on the job.  Seriously?
I myself am heterosexually-challenged.  In fact, I'm about as straight as a Slinky®.  And I wouldn't even wear that purple/fuschia color combination to a gay bar in Honolulu.  It would be too...too much.  Someone needs to tell the Vatican that Michelangelo was gay.  That brilliant painter made the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel look like this --


Had he been a conservative heterosexual painter, it could look like this.

So, here's my Ash Wednesday wish that could quiet or tone down the haters:  I wish that on Ash Wednesday, forty days before we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, a purple mark would appear on the forehead of every single American over 21 who has ever had a same-sex encounter of mutual consent.  It wouldn't be soot like the ashes we Catholics receive in church.  It would be a mark on and in the skin that appears on the forehead.  It couldn't be wiped off.  And it would appear just for the 24 hours of that day.  A big purple dot smack dab in the middle of the forehead.  Just like with the ashes, you'd could spot the members of another club thanks to a visible dot the same color as that cape the Pope is wearing.  There could be many surprise discoveries.  As TV host Wendy Williams would say, "How you doin'?"  That might take the "i-n" off some  intolerance.

My late partner, Richard, was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS just four months after our first date.  My church didn't offer much, if any, solace.  It didn't approve of our relationship.  That hurt.  But I committed to Richard.  To the best of my ability, I wanted to keep him from being scared and alone.  I vowed to myself to stay by him and help him.  I gave him the care I would've wanted had I been in his situation.  And he appreciated it.  He was one of the kindest people I've ever known.  He changed my life in our 18 months together.  Richard died in June 1994.  Spiritually, our relationship brought me closer to God, to the essential spirit I believe Heaven to be, than any sacrament I've received as a Catholic.  It wasn't an easy relationship, mostly because of his illness.  It had its horrors.  But my spirit felt so alive with him.  I wanted to be of service.  I felt like the line Jack Nicholson's character says in As Good As It Gets: "You make me want to be a better man."  It insults me when people think a same-sex relationship exists solely below the belt.  Even though he was terminally ill, when he had the energy for it, Richard would go out and do things for others in need, for those who couldn't get out of bed.  What could be more Christian than that?  Had he lived, he'd be a great husband.

Monday, February 20, 2012

To Sir, with Love: Happy Birthday, Mr. Poitier

Sidney Poitier and James Garner lookin' fierce on the frontier in Duel in Diablo.  That may not be a memorable western like Shane, High Noon, The Searchers or the Clint Eastwood westerns of the 1970s, but it's memorable in our Rivers Family history.  When my brother, the youngest and most fidgety of us three siblings, was old enough to sit through a movie in a walk-in versus a drive-in theater, the first movie we saw together as a family was Duel in Diablo starring Academy Award winner, Sidney Poitier.  What a thrill!
To this very day, one of my favorite things in life to do is to go to the movies on a rainy weekend afternoon. On a rainy Saturday, we all went to an ornate L.A. movie theater.  The five of us -- Mom, Dad, my sister, my brother and I -- sat on comfortable red-cushioned seats and watched Sidney Poitier on the big screen.  In our home, Sidney Poitier was a reason to go to the movies, whether they played at a drive-in or a walk-in theater.  One thing I always noticed when we went to his movies:  There weren't just blacks folks in the other cars or the other theater seats.  White folks also went to see The Defiant Ones, Paris Blues, Lilies of the Field, Duel at Diablo, A Patch of Blue and To Sir, with Love.  When I was a kid growing up in South Central Los Angeles, a child of the Civil Rights era, seeing Sidney Poitier onscreen made me feel significant.  I think he made my parents feel the same.  He was a box office star.  We supported him.  We knew his struggles.  We all sat around a black and white television and gasped with joy when his name was read as 1963's Best Actor for Lilies of the Field.  Honestly, I think he was better as Detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night, the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1967.  But Sidney's Academy Award triumph was not just for that hit comedy/drama, Lilies of the Field.  It was for that plus No Way Out, Blackboard Jungle, A Raisin in the Sun and The Defiant Ones.  It was for being a fine Broadway actor who kicked a giant hole in Hollywood's color barrier.  Not only was his being the first black man to win Best Actor historic, so was Anne Bancroft's ecstatic reaction when she read his name.  (You can find that clip on YouTube.)
In the 1960s, some network TV executives were racially unenlightened.  They did not want white and black entertainers to touch each other beyond a handshake.  Harry Belafonte, Petula Clark and Mitzi Gaynor had to deal with this nonsense.  Anne Bancroft kissed Sidney congratulations on live network television.  One of my favorite and least talked about Poitier performances is as the American in Paris Blues.  Martin Ritt's tale of two jazz men in Paris and the ladies they meet starred Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman...
 ...Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll.  This 1961 film is still hip.  If I was picked to be a Guest Programmer with Robert Osborne for one night on Turner Classic Movies, this is one of the films I'd present.  You see the faces of more black people in the first fifteen minutes of this 1961 movie than you did in the first two hour-long episodes of ABC's Pan Am, a show set in New York in 1963.  And I don't just mean black people with dialogue.  That includes background actors on the ABC series.  Set in...New York.
Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward as girlfriends vacationing in Paris.  Diahann, looking trés chic in her first scene, gets a flirt from...Paul Newman.  THAT was major for the early 60s.
Sidney and Diahann do wind up dating and debate whether or not things are really changing racially back home in America.  Are they really free in the Land of the Free?  Paris Blues is still worth seeing.  
It's also the first film that treated jazz genius Louis Armstrong with the dignity he deserved.  Martin Ritt cast him as jazz legend "Wild Man" Moore, a sophisticated artist with a huge international fan base.  It's the best film role Armstrong was ever given.
Box office favorite Sidney Poiter starred in two big hits that were two of the five Oscar® nominees for Best Picture of 1967: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? co-starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn...
and Norman Jewison's Best Picture Oscar winner, In the Heat of the Night co-starring Rod Steiger.
Steiger won Best Actor for that film.  Poitier wasn't nominated for either 1967 movie, but his work as Det. Virgil Tibbs is classic Sidney.  That movie meant ever more to me as I got older.  I've gotten that racially charged "too articulate" criticism from white men and I've dealt with the attitude that I was too "uppity", meaning that I was educated and wanted equal treatment.  The sudden slap Det. Tibbs delivered was a slap that spoke for us all.  In this day, when President Barack Obama has been called things like "the food stamp president," it still speaks for us.  When George Lucas reports that Hollywood wouldn't give him a green light to produce and promote a true tale of black World War II heroes because African American stories with black actors aren't "marketable," it still speaks to us.  When Don Imus can call black female Rutgers University athletes "nappy-headed hos" on MSNBC, get in trouble and come back with a new multi-million dollar national broadcast gig while entertainment press reports on the lack of racial diversity in TV & Hollywood casting, it still speaks to us.  When no network morning news show ever had a black film critic on staff who could review movies and tell us that Sidney would be receiving an honorary Oscar in 2002 for lifetime achievement, it still speaks to us.
Today is Sidney Poitier's 85th birthday.  I am so grateful to him for making me -- then and now -- feel significant.

Angela Lansbury, Happy Birthday!

She got three Oscar nominations for outstanding dramatic performances.  She became a top star of Broadway musicals.  She was the star of one...