Friday, October 30, 2015

Stars of ASH VS EVIL DEAD

Horror and humor, goofiness and gore. Starz has that Halloween night at 9:00 in the premiere episode of ASH vs EVIL DEAD.  This show is not the kind of fare I tend to turn on.  But, when I watched the premiere episode, I could see why it has so many fans here and abroad.  I watched it twice because the middle-aged Michigan monster hunter who uses a chainsaw for a hand and his two sidekicks made me laugh that much.
When Ashley Williams, called "Ash," goes to work, he wears an employee badge that says "stockboy."  That gives you a clue as to where he is in his life.  And in the store.  Nonetheless, Pablo (played wonderfully for Puerto Rican New Yorker Ray Santiago) looks up to Ash in their adventures fighting the evil dead.
I first met the flawless Lucy Lawless in the 90s when I was a regular on Fox5's Good Day New York morning news program.  She was my in-studio guest for a live interview. We loved Lucy. She was in her Xena the Warrior Princess fame days then.  I vividly recall  how down to earth and gracious she was to all her fans who worked at Channel 5.  She acted more like a really cool neighbor than a major TV star.  She'll be in episodes of Ash vs Evil Dead and I got to interview her again.  The TV star had not changed.  What a lovely person she is.  Her character is out to kick some Ash.  She seeks revenge for something that happened years ago.  With co-star Jill Marie Jones, we discussed the strong female characters.  Lucy's character seeks revenge.  Jill plays a Michigan police detective who thinks she's seeing supernatural creatures when she's off duty.  These female roles are different from the women in 1950s horror movies -- shapely babes who screamed, fainted and needed to be rescued.  If they were good girls, that is.  Bad girls (meaning they were easy lays in bullet bras) were usually evaporated by space aliens or devoured by gigantic insects.  Here are Lucy Lawless and Jill Marie Jones.
Ash is a middle-aged hot mess.  And that is exactly why we totally dig this often clueless dude with one hand and dentures who still feels that he's a chick magnet.  Actor Bruce Campbell has been playing Ash since 1981.  Now, in this series, he plays him as the overweight monster hunter that he is.  Campbell has grown into the character.  The older, somewhat boneheaded Ash is a rich character for a horror comedy.  Campbell plays the macho immaturity so well.  Ash has a chainsaw and a healthy ego.  How healthy?  As he dresses to go out, he puts one o' these in his pocket --
Yes. He went there.

As one 50+, overweight man talking about another --- bravo, Ash!  You rock.  Here's my interview of Bruce Campbell.  For the premiere episode, he was once again directed by Sam Raimi, his longtime friend who also directed the big hit Spider-Man movies.
Also making me laugh in this premiere are the deadpan expressions and wisecracks from Dana DeLorenzo as Kelly.  Kelly and Pablo are great supporting pals.                                                                      
I pray this Starz series turns Ray Santiago into a breakout TV star.  A charismatic actor, I watched him and wondered if he was ever submitted to audition for the Spider-Man role. His Pablo hair is fabulous.  It's all about that hair.  I had the great opportunity to meet Ray Santiago.  What a classy, charming and talented young man.  I asked him what agency represents his hair.  He laughed a lot and told me that he's the agent.  When he got to L.A. ten years ago, agents turned him down and told him he'd never get work with his look. Now there's a billboard promoting Ash vs Evil Dead above Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood and Ray Santiago is on it.  Here's a trailer for the action-packed premiere.
Ash and the demon doll in the store's toy section.  That was creepy with a touch of slapstick.  I loved it.  Happy Halloween.



Sunday, October 25, 2015

Julianne Moore Helps FREEHELD

This probably would've attracted a wider audience had it been a made-for-TV movie.  The film is a drama based on real life people in a real life case.  It's called FREEHELD and focuses on a dying lesbian in New Jersey fighting for the right to leave money to her domestic partner.  Early this year, we saw Julianne Moore win a well-deserved Oscar for Still Alice, the indie film in which she played a 50-year old New York City university professor diagnosed with Alzheimer's Diseases. We see the vital, sophisticated wife and mother slowly empty out.  In Freeheld, Moore plays a New Jersey police officer who doesn't tell fellow officers that she's gay.  The story happens about ten or twelve years ago.  There was no same-sex marriage law in place nationally.  Laurel Hester, an outstanding and ambitious cop, is determined to move up in her profession.
Just being a woman makes her desire to get a promotion a challenge.  She's also a gay woman.  She's asked out on a date by a woman she meets during a leisure time recreational sports match.  Stacie is played by Ellen Page.
Stacee doesn't know that Laurel is a cop which makes for a chuckle during a tense moment during their first date.  Stacie is quite likable and on the shy side.  She's more out that Laurel and has trouble fitting into Laurel's serious, no-nonsense, closeted life as a cop.  Moore is very good as Officer Hester but we just saw Moore play a character with a disease last year in a film with a better script.  As the cop, she has a sort of a Farrah Fawcett Charlie's Angels hairdo.  But she does not have that Revlon look some female cops have on TV shows.  I saw a prime time cop show recently with a female cop trying to keep a poor soul from shooting herself on a subway car.  In the close-up, the cop had flawless daytime make-up and a fabulous short haircut.  Her uniform was flattering and showed off her curves.  Moore's cop is not making a fashion statement.  She's there to cuff some criminals with her partner.  She can handle a gun. She walks like a lawman in a classic western about to have a shootout with some bad guys -- and win.  Laurel and Stacie apply for domestic partnership and get a house together.
Laurel starts coming out and that causes a slight rift with her male partner, played by Michael Shannon.   He's loyal but pissed that she didn't tell him she was gay.  There's a closeted male cop on the force and a straight cop who makes homophobic comments out loud.  When Laurel is stricken with terminal cancer, she wants her pension benefits to be transferred to Stacie.  Problems arise because they're a same-sex couple.  Hester pleads her case as her health declines.
This is an indie film with a modest budget.  The movie is based on a 2007 documentary.  Moore's performance is excellent.  Page's character was a little too on the Sad Sack side -- a problem that was not the Page's.  It was written that way.  There is one scene where Stacie really gets to show some pizazz and that's when she's rotating tires.  She wants a garage job working on cars.  The screenplay is mostly average.  That's odd because it was written by Ron Nyswaner.  He got an Oscar nomination for writing the AIDS drama, Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks and and he should've gotten another one for his screenplay to 2006's The Painted Veil starring Ed Norton and Naomi Watts.

In a curious bit a casting, Steve Carell plays the self-described loud-mouthed, assertive, Jewish gay activist who's out to make the dying cop's story a major one in order to shine a big light on the need for marriage equality.  Initially, Hester resists.  She just wants justice for the woman she loves.  Carell's character is written as though moviegoers in Heartland American seeing this film would not quite get that fact that he's a gay New York Jewish man -- named Steven Goldstein.  Yes, he announces it.  But then he also wears a violet colored yarmulke on his head.  He tells his office workers that he needs more Entenmann's donuts.  Still not obvious enough?  In one brief scene, he's on the phone in his fabulous kitchen.  For some reason, there was a need to have a big honkin' lit menorah right smack dab on his kitchen counter to remind us that Steven Goldstein is Jewish.  Had this film been made in the 1980s, he would shown up at one of the ailing officer's hearings with protest signs in big brown bags from Bloomingdale's.
There's a scene in which Stacie steps up to the mic at one of Laurel's hearings to address the panel of men blocking Laurel's pension wishes.  The cop's health has severely declined.  This was a chance for the movie character to make a touching speech.  However, it's a rather mediocre, awkward address.  A disappointing piece of writing.  A movie audience needed that speech to be moving and focused and passionate.

In a category of films with a lesbian couple as the main figures, this cannot hold a candle to the rich, complicated, witty and wonderful, The Kids Are All Right starring Julianne Moore and Annette Bening.  Moore and Page are good with Moore getting the better role and Page doing the best she can.  But, for the big screen and despite all its good intentions, the writing doesn't quite make it in Freeheld.  It has that TV formula feel.  That's why I do believe this release would've fared better as a made-for-TV movie.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Eatin' with Heaton

"Pop it in your mouth.  You're good."  You'll hear that from a popular TV sitcom mom.  Patricia Heaton is now in the Food Network roster of daytime on-air talent.
Her show, PATRICIA HEATON PARTIES, premieres at noon on Saturday, October 24th.
When we see her as the overwhelmed Midwestern mom  on ABC's The Middle, her kitchen is more a minefield than a source of culinary delights.
I watched Heaton make Cleveland Stuffed Potatoes and Sloppy Joe Pockets.  Nothing fancy, but they'd please guests at a party in Milwaukee or Santa Monica, California.  Heaton fixed Sloppy Joe Pockets and Cleveland Stuffed Potatoes for a football party.  Why Cleveland?  That's her hometown and her father was a sportswriter.  Think of her other sitcom hit, Everybody Love Raymond starring Ray Romano as a sports columnist.

Heaton has a breezy, engaging presence that works well for Food Network.  She entertains friends from The Middle.  It was refreshing to see someone prepare foods that we too could fix -- foods within a reasonable budget and without all the competition and spectacle that's overtaken some of the network's programs.  The Guy Fieri era ushered in a phase in which personalities took focus over the food.  A sort of Las Vegas showiness came into the Food Network product.  Visually, it was dazzling for TV.  But, when you go to someone's place to relax and eat nowadays as we strive to recover from The Great Recession, we don't want a lot of razzle dazzle and complicated production.  We don't want to have to dress up for little bitty portions on big-ass plates.  We just want to eat hearty food, have fun and wear casual clothing.  Heaton's show seems to get that.
I admit, those Sloppy Joe Pockets did look mighty tasty to me.  I'd download that recipe.  However, I would make mine bigger.  I want to give my guests a mouthful.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Black To The Future: Film, TV & the L.A. Times

Chris Rock will make showbiz history as the only cast member of POOTIE TANG to host the Oscars more than once.  It was announced that, early next year, the comedian/actor returns to host the Academy Awards show -- or, as some of us call it, "Hollywood Prom Night."  I bet Rock's second time around will be better than his first.
With calls for racial and gender diversity making big news in the entertainment industry this year, it'll be interesting to see how how he lampoons that in his host act.  Did you see his comedy film, last year's Top Five?  It has lots of laughs and plenty of bite.  In his satire, Rock plays an comedian out to make the transition to serious actor like the late Robin Williams did. He has to deal with critics, family, an industry that seriously needs to embrace racial diversity and a fiancee who wants to use their wedding for reality show ratings and TV fame.  Top Five has laughs that are just so wrong and makes social points that are just so right.  Especially the part about black performers striving to get some equal opportunities in film and TV.  Equal opportunities and attention.
October 21, 2015 was Back To The Future day.  NBC's Today Show paid more attention to that 30 year old popular time travel comedy than it did to this year's huge box office hit, Straight Outta Compton.  In August, I wrote in a post about this.  NBC is attached to Universal.  Today did features on three Universal releases over the summer -- Jurassic World, the animated Minions and the Amy Schumer comedy, Trainwreck.  Then came Universal's rap music biopic, Straight Outta Compton.  It was number one at the box office for three -- THREE consecutive weekends.  Did we see in-studio celeb interviews of cast members or a profile of the director on Today?  No.  Did Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Carson Daly, Willie Geist and Al Roker dress up like this shot from the movie?
No.  But the network morning show dragged us on hoverboard down memory lane for Back To The Future segments.
Back To The Future, by the way, was a Universal Pictures release.  Why couldn't Straight Outta Compton get some love from Today?  It's part of the NBC company -- a Universal production.  How many times in Hollywood history has a black filmmaker directed a major studio release that was number one at the box office for three consecutive weekends?  Was there no one on the Today production staff to mention that? I'd have pitched booking director F. Gary Gray as an in-studio guest.

Black gay and bi-sexual actors got attention this week in The Los Angeles Times.  An October 19th article by Tre'velle Anderson called "In their own words, actors on being black and (openly) gay in Hollywood" is worth reading.  In the article, actress Dalila Ali Rajah said this about casting:  "People go with what they know and a lot of the people who are in casting and positions of power at networks, their world vision is surrounded by by a lot of white people.  For them, New York looks white.  Look at 'Friends,' which never had a black person for most of its run..."

She's got a point there.  But it's less people in casting -- especially the women -- and more the men who are producers and agents, in my opinion.  Rent the excellent 2012 documentary CASTING BY to see how the late, great Marion Dougherty championed racial diversity in casting.  Other women in casting did too.  A female casting director gave me a part in an episode of The Sopranos.  In the script, the reporter was described as "a young, willowy blonde."  The casting director had seen my audition for another part a year earlier, remembered my audition and thought outside the box in casting.  I'm in the Season 3 episode, "Employee of the Month."

When I was a regular on Fox5's Good Day New York, we had a new executive producer for a spell.  A very nice, very Caucasian guy named Mike.  He was offered an opportunity for me to do one of my remote broadcasts with a celebrity. I could've done live segments with...Chris Rock.  This was around the time he had a comedy show on HBO and was in Lethal Weapon 4.  Mike told me honestly about it.  He turned down the chance for me to be live with Chris Rock on Good Day New York because he didn't know who Chris Rock was.  And he was our executive producer.  To make it up to me, he booked me a live interview with a celebrity whose work he knew.  Remember Body by Jake?
I had to interview him.  The minutes flew by like hours.  He was one of most annoying, arrogant  boneheads I've ever been seen with on television.

Let's get to something I saw referenced accurately in Chris Rock's Top Five and an issue I raised in a live special broadcast on KNX Radio, an all news radio station in Los Angeles connected to CBS.  I've been a Screen Actors Guild member since 1988.  I've taken meetings with agents from 1988 to 2008.  Most agents -- especially broadcast/TV agents in top companies -- turned me down for representation claiming they wouldn't know what to do with me.  For the record, I was daily national talent on VH1 from 1987 to 1990.  I had my own celebrity talk show, a show that got a rave review in The New York Times and got my photo on the front page of the paper's Sunday Arts & Leisure section.  But agents turned me down.  It wasn't that they didn't know what to do with me.  It's that black performers were not seen as "marketable."  And if the black talent can't get work, agents cannot get a 10% of the talent's paycheck.  BUT...as I discovered...if TV host or acting opportunities come across the agent's desk, we minority performers would not get submitted for auditions unless the script says "black" or "Latino," etc. I've been a network TV celebrity talk show host.  I've done some acting.  If there was a role in a TV episode for an actor to play a witty, articulate and knowledgable celebrity talk show host, I would not get submitted for the role unless the words "race unimportant" were included in the casting info.  Otherwise, agents would see that casting call and immediately think "white male actor."  Why? Because as the actress said in the L.A. Times article, "their world vision is surrounded by a lot of white people." Listen to Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner in Casting By reveal how Marion Dougherty forced him to expand his vision and consider Danny Glover for the role he planned to give to Brian Dennehy. Black actors, gay and straight, are marketable if agents submit them for roles that can be played by any race.  Don't wait to specifically see the words "Latino," "African-American" or "Asian" before submitting actors/TV hosts of color.

I've had meetings in major agencies in New York and L.A. over the years.  From 1988 to 2008, I have seen only one African-American agent who represented actors.  Only one.  Joan Fields was at William Morris in 1990 and left that same year,  I believe.  In the agencies or departments that handle broadcast hosts such as myself, I've never seen a black agent.  So...when my liberal white buddies ask me why I'm not making money like a Carson Daly, Tom Bergeron, Billy Bush or Rosie O'Donnell with all my credits, it's because I do not get the same TV & radio opportunities they get.  I don't hear about the auditions they do or get the meetings they do.  I've got to hustle up my own stuff.  In Top Five, Rock's character is represented by the only black agent in a major Manhattan agency.  And he has to get info from the Latino dudes who work on the agency's maintenance staff. Kevin Hart played the agent.

That scene broke me up.  I had meetings at three agencies in 2008.  It never fails.  The black or Latino person working at the reception desk knows my work, can tell you where I've worked and is a fan of my work.  Then I meet the Caucasian agent and I'm asked, "Have you  ever done any on-camera TV hosting?"  That happened in 2008 when I met with an agent.  At the time, a weekly show I hosted on Food Network was in its sixth year of airing.

If there were more people of color working as agents in the top New York City and Los Angeles agencies, that would be a great help in the much-needed racial and sexual orientation diversity in casting opportunities. The lack of color in the area of theatrical/broadcast agents is a story just aching for a good investigative entertainment reporter to cover.  When I raised that point on KNX radio early this year, one of the guests enthusiastically agreed.  He was the head of a Hispanic Arts organization.  I grew up in L.A.  It is ripe with Mexican-American talent.  But, as the gentleman on KNX said, white agents rarely travel outside of their Hollywood or Beverly Hills comfort zone to attend indie theater and such in L.A. neighborhoods where that talent performs.

The part of Anthony on Designing Women was not written to be a black character.  Nor was Annalise on How To Get Away With Murder.  Nor was the older detective that Danny Glover played in Lethal Weapon.  Nor was the local reporter I played on The Sopranos.  In each case, someone thought outside the box and took a chance on pitching a black performer.  And none of those people who did the pitching was an agent.  Look up that article in The Los Angeles Times.  When black actors are told they're not marketable because of sexual orientation, I bet they were told that by white agents.  I also bet that Harvey Fierstein, Ellen DeGeneres, Andy Cohen and Neil Patrick Harris don't hear that from their agents.

We need more agents of color in top agencies.  And some of these TV news program producers need to widen their vision too.

Here's a trailer from Rock's Top Five.  Keep it in mind as a weekend rental.

If you want to see some of my stuff, go here: Facebook.com/BobbyRiversTV.




Sunday, October 18, 2015

Look in the SARATOGA TRUNK

White actors playing black people, Whoopi Goldberg, a film professor in Kansas, me, this year's Confederate flag controversy and a 1940s Oscar-nominated love story from Warner Brothers starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.  All that I will tie together in this blog post.  First of all, the 1945 Warner Bros. movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper is SARATOGA TRUNK.  It airs at 2pm Eastern/11am Pacific on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) Monday, Oct. 19th.  Bergman plays a clever Creole beauty who returns home to New Orleans.  She plans to marry a rich man, gain respectability and get revenge for the way her mother was humiliated by in-laws.  She falls for a handsome gambler played by Cooper.
The Creole beauty has a maid.  The rather stern yet devoted black maid is played by white British actress, Flora Robson.
If you're a classic film fan, you've seen Flora Robson before.  She acts as the housekeeper and narrator in William Wyler's 1939 classic, WUTHERING HEIGHTS.
She played one of the British nuns in 1947's BLACK NARCISSUS.
She got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing that black maid in Saratoga Trunk.  Hers was the only Oscar nomination the film got.
Here's what I want to know and I ask this with all due respect to the fine acting talents and distinguished career of Flora Robson:  If the part of that maid was so well-written that it was able to bring an actress an Oscar nomination, why didn't the studio put a real black woman in the role?  If the studio didn't want to offer it to groundbreaking Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel of 1939's Gone With The Wind, then what about lovely and talented Theresa Harris?  Harris played the best friend to Barbara Stanwyck's character in the pre-code drama, BABY FACE (1933).

Harris played the maid to Bette Davis' southern belle character in William Wyler's JEZEBEL (1938).
Jezebel also airs Monday, Oct. 19th on TCM.  It airs at 6pm Eastern/3pm Pacific.

Theresa Harris played a maid opposite Marlene Dietrich in 1941's THE FLAME OF NEW ORLEANS.
But the black maid in New Orleans in Saratoga Trunk is played by white Flora Robson in dark make-up.

One night, I watched IFC and saw the scorchingly brilliant 2004 satire, C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA.  This wickedly funny look at race in America was directed and written by Kevin Willmott, a film professor at the University of Kansas.  It's a mock-documentary, the kind of mockumentary that critics would describe as "Ken Burns-meets-Spike Lee."  C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is a British documentary about the history of our country and it's a documentary that airs on a San Francisco station.  But, our country is place in which the South won the Civil War.  Everything is a satire in this feature -- the local TV station promos, the commercials, the sound bites, the old movie clips...everything.  And all that extraordinary originality in this 90-minute alternate history program is from Kevin Willmott.

If Quentin Tarantino had made this feature, he'd have been hailed as "genius" and, I'm sure, he'd have racked up another Oscar nomination or two.  C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is far more original than Django Unchained, his film based on a character in a 1966 foreign western called Django.  Italian actor Franco Nero played Django in the 1960s and Tarantino gave him a cameo appearance in 2012's Django Unchained.  I still don't understand how a movie based on another movie could get the director/writer an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  But that's just me.  I'll keep writing my screenplay -- Cool Hand Luke Unchained -- and pray for the same Oscar luck Tarantino had.

Willmott's attention to detail will thrill classic film devotees.  His version of a D.W.Griffith silent film to 1940s films in which white British actors play black characters in America's Deep South to TV shows like Cops are so accurate in look, style and tone that you'll be awestruck.  Willmott's writing can be extremely funny, shocking, poignant and, above all, make a solid point.  As this was the year of national controversy over the Confederate flag, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is a DVD that should be watched and re-appreciated.  Willmott's feature is a Spike Lee presentation that garnered great reviews.  It is a relevant piece of work -- especially today.
I worked with Whoopi Goldberg as a regular on her syndicated weekday morning radio show from 2006 to 2008.  I urged her to watch the DVD because I pitched that we call Kevin Willmott and have him do a phone interview.  I reviewed movies and did other entertainment reports on her Premiere Radio show. Unfortunately, Whoopi wasn't enthusiastic about Willmott's feature and had no interest in a phone call.                                                                                                                                                          

I'd still like to talk to him.  There is brilliance in his mockumentary.  I think you'll agree with me.  Another reason I was eager to interview him on Whoopi's national radio show -- in the history of network and syndicated television here in America, you rarely see black film critics.  Network morning news programs have not given the country the idea that either film critics who are black or film professors who are black exist in America.  Kevin Willmott has "university film professor" on his resumé.

By the way, Flora Robson did not win the Academy Award for Saratoga Trunk.  When she was nominated, the Oscar went to Anne Baxter for The Razor's Edge.
  






Friday, October 16, 2015

Colin Hanks Goes to Tower Records

Colin Hanks takes a spin as a documentary director.  The subject of ALL THINGS MUST PASS is Tower Records.  Tom Hanks must be a proud papa indeed.  His son directed a truly interesting and surprising trip down music's memory lane.  But it's not just a look at the history of one of my favorite L.A. and New York City hangouts.  All Things Must Pass also works as a bittersweet look at what America seems to have lost in the workplace.  A group of misfits finds a place where their talents and individual personalities pop.  They're not perfect people but they're perfect for that business.  They love going to work and they love their boss.  He loves them back.  Those misfits are his family.  This all plays out when The Beach Boys and The Beatles are the kings of record sales and goes into the days of Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and cable's new MTV.  A small record store business, one that started with a boss who cared for the unique personalties that made up his staff, grew over time and became worth one billion dollars by 1999.
I dare you to look at this original Tower Records staff back in the day and not think of Cameron Crowe's wonderful valentine to rock music of that era, Almost Famous.  This Tower Records staff was a great shop team, a team appreciated for its good work.
Five years after 1999, when corporate characters got involved and changed the whole vibe of their workplace, that beloved business filed for bankruptcy.
The sweet rebel who was the brainchild of this business is Russ Solomon.  He was a visionary with a heart. Thank goodness he woke up with a major hangover in San Francisco after a great date and needed a greasy breakfast so he could drive back to Sacramento.  You get the rest of that story in All Things Must Pass.  Here's a trailer.
The section about the Tower Records party, when the business was a huge success across the country, is memorable.  I will not give it away.  Just pay attention to the story about the unemployed, down-on-his-luck guy who got invited to that party.
Tower Records started in a Sacramento that seemed culturally arid.  Director/actor Colin Hanks and his Oscar-winning dad hail from that area.  I bet young Tom Hanks spent a lot of time at the Sacramento Tower Records.  During my VH1 years, I did frequent taping in Los Angeles.  I'd fly from New York to L.A. and the company usually put me up in a West Hollywood hotel.  Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard was a regular stop for me.  I loved that place.  I loved the New York City locations.  You saw the Lincoln Center Tower Records store in one of Woody Allen's best movies.  Remember the record store scene in Hannah and Her Sisters where the Woody Allen and Dianne Wiest characters run into each other and humorously recall a disastrous blind date they once had?  That lovely, key scene in Allen's classic was shot in the Lincoln Center Tower Records store.
The staffers at Tower Records worked for Russ Solomon for well over a decade.  I totally understood how they felt.  They were working but it didn't feel like work.  I've been lucky.  I had a job like that.  The job was working as a veejay and talk show host on VH1.  Yes, I was glad when Friday rolled around so I could have a weekend off.  But, I never ever dreaded a Monday morning.  I was eager to get back to work and reunite with my terrific floor crew in the studio.  Years later when new management came in and said stuff like "Our research shows...," we knew the end was near.  We knew there would be corporate layoffs and changes.  The days of spotlighting the music and the artists -- artists from music, screen, stage and literature -- were drawing to a close.  I interviewed the following artists on VH1 in the late 1980s:  Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, Carlos Santana, Joan Baez, Kirk Douglas, Michael Caine, Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Carrie Fisher, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Allen Ginsberg, Fran Lebowitz, Dominick Dunne and Norman Mailer.  I'm proud to say that Tom Hanks was a fan of my VH1 work. That kind of VH1 programming and guest list all changed when new management took over.  I could relate to the tender feelings of Solomon's original team.

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records has exactly the kind of brisk vibe it needs.  It fits the store and the characters involved.  Big thanks to Colin Hanks.
When Tower Records existed in the Lincoln Center area of Manhattan's upper west side, it was a very short walk from a revival movie theater.  The Regency.  I loved that theater.  So did many other New Yorkers.  You see The Regency in Hannah and Her Sisters just as you did the record store.  The revival movie house no longer exists. But, if it did, Colin Hanks' All Things Must Pass would be a good second feature to put on a double bill with Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous.  They both have the same heart and music.

All Things Must Pass is not just record store nostalgia peppered with sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll.  It also presents a look at America's appreciation and respect for its talented working class, a time that also seems to be a bygone era.  You'll wish that more company heads today possessed the vision, took the chances and had the loyalty to employees that Russ Solomon had.  When he started, some folks thought he'd surely flop.  Instead, his stores and even the design of them became popular parts of our pop culture.  This is a fascinating documentary from first-time director Colin Hanks and it's in theaters now.










Tuesday, October 6, 2015

See TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL

In his Hollywood heyday, actor Tab Hunter was described as "6 feet of rugged manhood."  The description was accurate.  No wonder the teen fan girls swooned over him in the 1950s.  Tab Hunter was one gorgeous hunk o' man.        
Under contract to Warner Brothers, he was ripe movie star material.  He got a role in a war drama, a role James Dean and Paul Newman also tested for.  He had hit records.  He sang opposite Jane Powell in a special CBS TV adaptation of Meet Me in St. Louis, the classic MGM musical that starred Judy Garland.  Tab Hunter's boy-next-door face graced magazine covers. He shared movie screen time with A-list actresses such as Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Natalie Wood, Dorothy Malone and Sophia Loren.                                                                                          
Not bad for a guy who was an introverted, shy, Catholic kid.  Off-screen, the public had no idea that actor Anthony Perkins was Hunter's boyfriend.  Publicity photos in fan magazines showed Hunter with a girlfriend.  We hear from her in the documentary.
That's just part of the story we learn in TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL.  It's a very interesting, revealing, heartbreaking and heartwarming celebrity documentary.  It's tastefully done.  The archive footage is really good.  Hunter, still handsome in his 80s, speaks honestly and openly about surviving the Hollywood studio system as a gay man.  Society and the entertainment industry were different when he was a top star.
Today, there are dozens of openly gay performers making money on TV.  Network news anchors, network morning show hosts, daytime TV hosts, prime time TV show actors and reality show celebrities.  William Hurt, Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, Charlize Theron and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman won Oscars for playing gay characters.  Today's freedom to be gay or to play a gay character must not be taken lightly by our younger generation.  That personal and artistic freedom was denied a previous generation like Tab Hunter's.  Rumors of being gay in 1950s Hollywood could kill a promising career.  When Rosie O'Donnell and I were VH1 veejays in the late 1980s, she advised me against coming out publicly for fear it would cripple my chances to get future employment in TV.  That's the way things were.  The 1990s saw major changes start to happen.  Before his career hit big, he'd gotten busted by the cops for being at a Hollywood party.  The crime?  Same-sex dancing. Yes.  Gay couples dancing together was illegal then and homosexuality was considered a mental disease.  The actor felt the sting of discrimination when he dated other men.  Tab Hunter Confidential is very insightful.  His story is still relevant.
Back then, Hollywood movie studios were still big businesses ruled by studio heads.  Images were manufactured for actors under contract and the actors were protected by the studios.  Hunter's movie name was inspired by his love for horses, as you'll learn. Hunter was more talented than people knew.  He worked in stables and was quite a horseman.  He was a good ice skater.  He worked hard to grow from one-dimensional heartthrob movie star into a commendable actor of depth in a competitive business.  Did you ever see Fear Strikes Out, the 1957 baseball drama biopic about Jimmy Piersall, the Boston Red Sox player who suffered a nervous breakdown?  Wait till you get to that section of the documentary.

By the time I was twelve, I had already memorized all the numbers and large sections of dialogue from the Warner Bros. movie version of the Broadway musical comedy hit, Damn Yankees.  The studio purchased that property for Tab.  With his All-American good looks, the part of the shy, young baseball phenom fit him like a glove.  And Tab Hunter got to perform choreography by Bob  Fosse!  Damn Yankees, co-starring Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston, was one of my favorite films to show up frequently on local Channel 9's Million Dollar Movie in L.A. when I was a kid.  I loved that movie.  I still do. It makes me happy.  Tab Hunter was so totally cool -- and cute -- as Joe Hardy.   
Tab's complicated parents, the brother he adored, the Catholic church that disappointed him, the studio that made him, the tabloids, the heartbreaks and the tender romances.  They're all here in Tab Hunter Confidential directed by Jeffrey Schwarz.
Tab Hunter Confidential is one of the best Tab Hunter features I've ever seen -- and, ironically, it's a documentary that touches on the Hollywood homophobia that kept him from becoming the even bigger star that he deserved to be.  The late Rock Hudson, also gay and a major movie star, got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his dramatic work in 1956's Giant, showed a gift for modern-day screwball comedy in box office hits co-starring Doris Day (Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, Send Me No Flowers), and he was worthy of a second Oscar nomination for his fine work in the 1966 science-fiction social drama, Seconds.  Hudson was luckier than Hunter, script-wise.  NBC should've starred the mature Hunter in a crime-solving mystery series like James Garner's The Rockford Files and Rock Hudson's McMillan & Wife which ran from 1971 to 1977.  But, according to the documentary, Hunter was sort of a sacrificial lamb when an item about his gay personal life was given to a tawdry but influential gossip publication.

Classic film fans will get a sure-fire kick out of seeing some of the folks who appear and talk about the Tab Hunter they know.  You'll see Rona Barrett (before Entertainment Tonight, there was network entertainment reporter Rona Barrett), Robert Wagner, Don Murray (Marilyn Monroe's leading man in Bus Stop), Mother Dolores Hart (the former film actress Dolores Hart of Where The Boys Are who left Hollywood at the height of her popularity to become a nun), Darryl Hickman (Leave Her to Heaven) and Terry Moore (Mighty Joe Young and Peyton Place).

I've liked Tab Hunter for many years.  There were quite a few things I didn't know about him that are in this documentary.  At the end, Tab Hunter Confidential made me like him a whole lot more.  I love that he found a fulfilling life away from the Hollywood spotlight.  Tab Hunter Confidential opens October 16th in New York City.  Later, it will expand to Los Angeles and other selected cities.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Robert De Niro is THE INTERN

Nancy Meyers wrote and directed THE INTERN.  I do not mean this as a jab.  Her comedies are great in-flight movies.  They are.  You have a flight that's three hours or more.  A Nancy Meyers light comedy will make a couple of hours glide by.  She's not giving you Chinatown, Network or The Piano.  She may have directed a movie called It's Complicated, but her films aren't. They're packed with fabulous retail eye-candy and architecture porn.  You're assured a happy ending and enjoyable performances.  Her comedies make good date movies and, I bet, a couple of them are guilty pleasure pastimes for guys.  Back in 2003, I was at a cineplex in Manhattan's Chelsea section.  A big burly Latino dude, the kind of guy who would've been cast as a prison guard on HBO's Oz, turned to his lady friend and said, "What was the name of that movie we saw that I like so much?"  She answered, "Something's Gotta Give." A Nancy Meyers comedy starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson.  Meyers directed Keaton to a Best Actress Oscar nomination.  I dig that movie too.  And I still feel that the late Eli Wallach should've received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his tasty turn as a Hollywood veteran in Nancy Meyers' The Holiday.  He stole the 2006 movie with his wise and witty performance.  The Intern is another Robert De Niro "sweater comedy."  He's not the tough guy of mean streets like in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas.  He's wearing more suburban attire and playing against his tough screen image, like he did in the comedy, Meet the Parents.  De Niro is a friendly AARP papa figure in this film.
People in Nancy Meyers comedies have fabulous bedrooms and living rooms.  Minority moviegoers, such as myself, can look at characters in Nancy Meyers features and say, "Damn.  White folks live really well -- even when they ain't workin'."  Their homes look ready to be photographed for a glossy catalogue of home furnishings.  Their kitchens have refrigerators the size of the monolith in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Robert De Niro plays the very likable Ben, a retired 70 year old gent who gets a job as an intern.  Retirement bores him.  He's a widower. He lives alone.  He has more ties in his closet that I saw in some Banana Republic stores.  And, yes, he has a nice bedroom.
Ben is smooth.  Like two fingers of top shelf Scotch.  He doesn't butt in to one's affairs to fix things.  But fix things, he can.  Anne Hathaway stars as Jules.  She's the sweetly fussy and somewhat overwhelmed head of an online fashion company.  Jules is a bit skeptical of Ben, but she embraces age diversity in the workplace.  You know immediately that the intern will make his boss' life better -- at work and at home.  You know that the younger employees will come to dig Ben a lot.  Meyers, in her comedies, shows that folks 50 and over can be hip versus hip replacement.  The Intern is no exception.  Ben is mentally sharp, he's experienced, he's classy, he gives excellent advice and he's sexy to an older female fellow employee, played by the always delicious Rene Russo.                                              
De Niro even goes a little Taxi Driver as he shuttles his young co-worker buddies.
In the early 1940s, this would've been a comedy starring Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn as the older gent who turns out to be somewhat of a Cupid.  Think of the Arthur and Coburn chemistry in The Devil and Miss Jones  and The More the Merrier.  
This film is slightly The Devil Wears Prada 2 with the assistant now a boss herself, still struggling with her confidence while trying to balance work and home life.  There's some discord in Jules' marriage to her stay-at-home dad husband.  Papa figure Ben will help.

Can a female in New York balance an upscale career and a marriage?  Well, the 1942 Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy comedy, Woman of the Year, showed that it's absolutely do-able.  So, theme-wise, this isn't anything new.  However, Meyers wraps a nice little tale of young women's empowerment up in some beige tissue paper and puts it in a decorative beige bag with a copy of AARP Magazine.  There is a gentle moment  with Ben and Jules -- he's watching a classic movie musical on TV -- that made my eyes a little misty.  I knew exactly what he, a widower, was feeling in that scene.  I've been there.  The Intern is not a great film that would whip noted critics into an Oscar buzz frenzy.  But there's something to be said for likable, courteous movie characters making you smile and taking you to a happy ending nowadays.

Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway work well together.  The Intern has its humor and charm.  A nice pastime, a perfect in-flight movie.

Notes from Alice Faye and Don Ameche

If you're a fan of the late, great queen of Broadway...that legendary belter, Ethel Merman, then be sure to watch Turner Classic Movies ...