Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Significant Sigourney Weaver

I have long been fascinated with the film career of Sigourney Weaver.  It's a fascination that was obvious when I had the extreme pleasure of interviewing her for one entire edition of my old VH1 talk show.  It's one I attempted to talk about during an audition for WNET/Channel 13, the PBS station in New York City.  I'll explain later in this blog post.
Sigourney Weaver's Ripley is one of my all-time favorite movie heroes.  Brave, straightforward, whip smart, trustworthy, compassionate, complicated.  What a significant character!  This is someone you want in your corner during a crisis.  One afternoon when my two nephews, both under the age of 13, said to a playmate that "girls can't be heroes in movies," Uncle Bobby shouted out "Wrong!"  Ripley in Alien was one example.  Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz was another.  Personally, I think it would be very healthy indeed if more American males had females in their group of beloved heroes.  I love Ripley.
Here's the thing that fascinates me about Weaver's film career:  Her first film role, the first time we saw her onscreen in a major release, she had no dialogue, no close-up and appeared in the last five minutes of the film.  The film went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture of 1977.  It was Annie Hall.  Diane Keaton won the Oscar for Best Actress.  Sigourney Weaver played the new girlfriend to Allen's character when Annie Hall has a friendly encounter with her former boyfriend at the revival movie theater in Manhattan.  Weaver is the tall lady in the trenchcoat.

The unknown actress' next major studio release was a 1979 science-fiction thriller from 20th Century Fox.  Not only would Alien be a colossal success at the box office, it would make her a star.  That was 1979 and just two years earlier, she was an extra with no dialogue in a Woody Allen comedy.

I've been a TV performer for a long time, starting my professional TV career in the fall of 1979 as the weekly film critic on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate.  Before that, I was on morning radio in the 1970s, the news reader half of a morning FM rock radio team.  I read entertainment news.  I'd received a brochure from Fox promoting projects in its filmmaking slate.  At that time, there were plans to star Jane Fonda in the Karen Silkwood story (a character later played by Meryl Streep), Fonda and Jill Clayburgh were mentioned to star in a film version of the popular off-Broadway play A Coupla White Chicks Siting Around Talking, and Paul Newman would be the star of a sci-fi thriller called Alien.

That, as we saw, changed.  Newman was a major star at the time.  "In space no one can hear you scream" became to promotional phrase for Alien.  Another thing -- in space there can be gender and racial equality.  That was evident in Alien.  I loved seeing a racially and sexually mixed crew in 1979.  The women weren't merely cheerleaders for the heroic men.

Production-wise, Paul Newman would've needed a big salary.  Casting non-stars would mean more money to hire other actors and more money for other areas of production.  H.R. Giger was practically a star himself with his now-famous production designs for the futuristic film.  As Hollywood's Frankenstein did in the early 1930s, Alien upped the game of horror movies with innovative filmmaking and a new monster that would become part of pop culture and scare the pants off us.  There was a touch of eerie eroticism mixed in with the horror.  Some of the alien objects looked...gynecological.

Remember when Ash looked like the bullseye of an outer space bukkake?

A good friend and New York City PBS executive pushed to have me as a guest host when WNET presented American Masters: Lucille Ball.  He felt it would be great to have me on for its pledge night presentation because the station needed more African-American male presence (there was only one black male host), I'd done celebrity interviews on network TV for years and I'd spent one hour with Lucille Ball in her house in 1989.  I loved being on the show.  However, it was evident when one of the fulltime hosts introduced me that he'd not read the notes.  He didn't know I'd had a national talk show and that I'd spent one hour with Lucy, which was why I was on to talk about my experience for the PBS pledge night.  This was the beginning of a sort of wacky relationship with local PBS.

I was asked to come back and co-host the premiere of the outstanding Ken Burns: Jazz documentary.  This was a very popular show.  Our broadcast was repeated one day, the same day as the New York Film Critics Circle Awards dinnner.  I'd been invited to the dinner by a film critic.  Tom Hanks was one of the winners -- and he was present.  After the awards ceremony, this happened:

Reported in the New York Post on January 17, 2001.  Tom Hanks spotted me in the crowd, game me a hug and mentioned that he'd seen me on Ch. 13 while he was in his hotel room.  We hugged while my date, a Daily News reporter, happily watched and listened and waited to get a statement from Hanks about his win for Cast Away.

Click on the article to read it.  My PBS buddy who booked me on the Lucille Ball night was thrilled to see that article.  We both thought it would give me leverage to be considered for other Ch. 13 projects.  I sent over my demo reel and resumé.  But I never got any response from anyone else at the station regarding the Tom Hanks New York Post item and my resumé stuff.  Nonetheless, I was lucky enough to be asked back to do some more pledge night hosting.  By the way, I did send a Channel 13 tote bag over to Tom Hanks' hotel room, as promised.

A few years later, WNET/Ch. 13 contacted me to audition.  It needed a weekend movie host.  Perfect!  The PBS station would be airing popular films on Saturday nights plus a new show called Reel 13.  My producer/director for the audition was a guy I'd worked with before on some of the pledge drive nights.

Here comes the Sigourney Weaver connection:  My audition was an intro and a closing to a showing of Woody Allen's  Annie Hall.  I was to read from the TelePrompTer and also ad lib something about the movie. In the intro, I ad libbed that viewers should pay attention to the closing scene in front of a movie theater. I'd tell them more about one cast member when I returned at the end of the movie.  For the closing, I mentioned that Sigourney Weaver was Alvy Singer's new girlfriend at the end for a few seconds in that wide shot and her name was near the end of the closing credits.  I said that two years later, Alien came out and made her a star.  I added that Sigourney auditioned to play one of Alvy's other girlfriends in Annie Hall -- one that can't understand why he's afraid of a lobster -- before she was given the bit part she got.  My director said, "Cut!"  He "cut" because he hadn't seen any information on that in his notes.

I said that Weaver gave me that information when she was my only guest one night on my VH1 talk show.  She and I talked about  Annie Hall.  I had a copy of our show at home.

The director didn't know I'd had my own talk show, which ... yet again ...made me wonder if anyone at Channel 13/PBS had ever looked at the resumé materials I'd submitted.

I really wanted that gig because, as I've written previously, it's rare to see black talent hosting upscale movie presentations and/or doing film reviews on weekly television.  I didn't get the job.  They hired film historian Neal Gabler instead.  See?  My wacky relationship with Ch. 13/PBS in New York City.

The last time I interviewed Sigourney Weaver, she was promoting Death and the Maiden.  I interviewed her for WNBC's Weekend Today in New York.  We talked her new movie and about how significant Ripley in the Alien franchise is to us moviegoers.  Again like Frankenstein in the 1930s, Alien was a groundbreaking sci-fi horror film with a sequel that was just as good -- if not a little better -- than the famous original.  Aliens (1986) brought Sigourney Weaver a Best Actress Oscar nomination.  We also talked about the drama teacher at Yale who told her that she had no acting talent and should consider another profession.

I hope that teacher heard Sigourney Weaver went on to make Hollywood history as one of the few women to be nominated for two Oscars in the same year.  For 1988, she was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for the comedy Working Girl and a Best Actress nominee for the biopic drama, Gorillas in the Mist.  Weaver told me she used some of the anger that she had towards that Yale Drama teacher as emotional juice while playing scenes with Ben Kingsley in Death and the Maiden.

At a recent film festival, Weaver talked about her Ripley character and said "...there's more story to tell.."  She feels that could be more adventures.  She added "People have a connection with her because of her moral compass and because somehow she's so consistent.  She can't help but want to preserve humanity."

That is so true.

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