Saturday, August 19, 2017

Katie Couric, Let's Talk Race

I still feel that she was one of the best and sharpest journalists NBC ever had in its history to cover politics.  That's why I was extremely flattered and surprised when Katie Couric was one of the first people to pay me a compliment on my work.  I was an on-air regular on a new WNBC local Saturday and Sunday morning live news program called WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK.  It premiered in September 1992.  The following month, I had done a piece on what it was like to cover a Madonna press event in downtown Manhattan.  Madonna showed up, but didn't do interviews and some national TV show producers were irritated.  I was determined to get at least one word from Madonna in my WNBC microphone.  After the piece aired, I checked my voicemail and heard "Nice hustling on the Madonna piece there, Bobby Rivers."  It was a message from Katie Couric, then a morning star on TODAY.
I've written before that I was approached to be on the WNBC show.  This was two years after my three happy years at VH1 had come to a contractual end.  WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK initially contacted me to do entertainment interviews and film reviews.  That appealed to me greatly.  Especially the film reviews opportunity.  In the history of TV, as I've mentioned, the field of film critics on newscasts and syndicated entertainment shows lacked racial diversity.  The day before our show premiered, I was told by a long-gone WNBC boss that I would do funny live segments in the field presenting things-to-do around town instead.  I'd be at street fairs and shopping malls instead of in the studio at the desk doing film reviews and entertainment interviews.  I was under contract and I stayed on the show, unhappy with this change in my duties.  Frankly, I felt racial inequality.  Even after the well-received Madonna piece, I was back at shopping malls and street fairs.  I did get to do occasional celeb interviews but only after I really had to challenge the WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK producer, someone who said "I don't know if you have the skills to do them."

In October 1993, if I recall correctly, there was a big unflattering story in New York's The Daily News about NBC News management.  A network news staffer, it was reported in the article, raised a major complaint when a network news producer, a white man, referred to Somalian military leaders as "educated jungle bunnies" during a prep meeting for the evening's newscast.  The producer who made the racial slur was contacted by the newspaper columnists, admitted what he said and did not apologize for his statement.  He was neither fired nor suspended.  Can you imagine if that New York Daily News article had come out nowadays in this age of social media?

WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK became a hit local show.  I quit the show in early 1995.  I was told that, although my work was good and I was popular with viewers, I would only be a part time employee on the weekend show. I would be on the show but no longer under contract.  I would not be moving up to full time work on WNBC and I most certainly would not be moving up to network exposure.  That's why I gave my 2-weeks notice.

I got other work in TV.  In 2002, I watched the 50th anniversary of TODAY.  It was a wonderful show.  But it really hit me at the end when all the on-air talent past and present was gathered, that there were only TWO African-American talents working on TODAY in its first 50 years -- Bryant Gumble and Al Roker.  Only two in 50 years.
Katie Couric wrote about race in this fine book she wrote in 2011:
On about page 100, she wrote about seeing the Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC, a classic musical that addresses racial prejudice in a World War 2 setting and love story.  Katie felt the impact of the song "Carefully Taught."  I wrote about that song in an earlier blog post this month called THE WISDOM OF RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN.

The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia -- with neo-Nazis and KKK members on the march -- were like a punch in the gut to Katie as she watched news footage.  Katie said:  "It's become the symbol of where we are as Americans in 2017, and it breaks my heart...Perhaps Charlottesville will serve as a wake-up call, that hate groups need to be taken seriously and that fair-minded people need to speak up..."

Am I surprised the events at Charlottesville happened?  No.  I grew in South Central L.A. during the Watts Riots.  I attended high school in Watts.  I saw how the rebellion was covered.  The damage was documented but not the racial disrespect and agitation that sparked it.  During my first professional broadcast job, in Milwaukee after I graduated from Marquette University, I would get anonymous hate mail with the N-word and swastikas in the letters.  I'm a Black American.  I know personally that the this country I love is still infected with a virus of racism.  And not just below the Mason-Dixon line.

When Katie was at NBC and the "educated jungle bunnies" story broke, did she realize how disgusted we employees of color were to read that?  Did she notice that TODAY hired only two Black talents in a 50-year period?  When Donald Trump, an NBC TV host, frequently and disrespectfully claimed that President Obama was not a real citizen, did she know how angry that made us Black Americans?  Does she know that when Teabaggers and Trump shouted "Time to Make America Great Again" that we minorities knew that was code for "Make America White Again"?
Before Charlottesville and in her network TV career, did she think the playing field was level?  She's a fair-minded person.  Did she speak up?  I would LOVE to talk race with Katie Couric for about 20 minutes on a podcast.  I've got a studio available that's a short walk from Radio City in the theater district.

Here's some of the work I did on VH1 before I was approached and hired by WNBC:
Here's the Madonna piece I did in the second month of WNBC's WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK:




Friday, August 18, 2017

THE IMPOSTORS by Stanley Tucci

Are you a fan of classic Hollywood films from the 1930s and 40s?  Do you like those madcap movies by Preston Sturges?  Screwball comedies by directors such as Howard Hawks (BRINGING UP BABY, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES) and William Wellman (NOTHING SACRED, ROXIE HART)?  Then you may dig this shipboard comedy written and directed by Stanley Tucci.  The public didn't flock to see it in 1998.  On network TV, I enthusiastically recommended its DVD release.  When I saw this comedy, I laughed a lot.  I was really in need of laughs and this delivered.  It's a handsome package, a screwball comedy that takes place mostly on a luxury liner in the 1930s.  It has the spirit of those old Hollywood favorites.  But this was a screwball comedy with sophistication that came out when frat boy comedies starring Adam Sandler like HAPPY GILMORE and BIG DADDY were popular at the box office.  I watched THE IMPOSTORS on Netflix this week and laughed even more.  Once again, I needed those laughs.  It won my heart from the very beginning with an opening sequence done like a silent film.  Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt showed that they had the gift for physical comedy in THE IMPOSTORS.
Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt play down-on-their luck New York City actors.  Tucci and Platt work so well together you'd think they were an established screen comedy team like Bing Crosby & Bob Hope or Laurel & Hardy.  The two unemployed actors are on the run from a mean, liquor-soaked ham of a Shakespearean Broadway star and the cops.  They hide out in a big basket totally clueless that the basket will be cargo on a luxury liner soon to set sail.
On board there's mistaken identity, a man with a bomb, international ladies of intrigue, lonely people, lovers, a champion athlete....and the big, physically abusive Broadway star they insulted in public.  The stowaway actors must think quickly and pretend to be ship stewards in order to keep from being arrested and to keep the man with the bomb from blowing up the ship.
One of the coolest things about this sweetly silly comedy is that it's packed with the familiar faces of actors you know from TV and indie dramas.  There's Dana Ivey.  There's Richard Jenkins who played the dead father on HBO's SIX FEET UNDER and went on to get a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his terrific work in the very relevant 2007 indie film, THE VISITOR, about a university professor who befriends an illegal immigrant.  There Allison Janney, Isabella Rossellini, Campbell Scott, Steve Buscemi, Alfred Molina and Michael Emerson.  A few years later, Emerson would hit big on the ABC TV series, LOST.
It is obvious that the whole cast had fun making this movie.  The scene in which Oliver Platt looks like a big blonde Rosie O'Donnell made me do a loud snort laugh.

If you appreciate the style of screwball comedies, try THE IMPOSTORS written and directed by Stanley Tucci.  It's fun, light weekend entertainment.  We've seen Stanley Tucci's dramatic and comedy talents in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA and JULIE & JULIA (both with Meryl Streep),  THE LOVELY BONES (2009 Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), EASY A and THE HUNGER GAMES. This was the second film Stanley Tucci directed after his critically acclaimed BIG NIGHT (1996).

Remember back in the 1980s, before we knew his name, when he was the sexy undershirt guy in the Levi 501s commercial?




Thursday, August 17, 2017

Overlooked by Oscars, Alfred Molina

He's currently an Emmy nominee.  Hallelujah!  He deserves that nomination for his excellent performance as an unappreciated film director in Hollywood.  In the TV mini-series, FEUD:  BETTE AND JOAN, versatile Alfred Molina played Robert Aldrich.  He was man who directed WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?  In this TV mini-series, we see that Aldrich really had his hands full on that movie project.  He was working with two Oscar-winning veteran movie queens who were no longer young and no longer getting good scripts.  If a juicy script did come along, they were on it like a junkyard dog that found some uneaten T-bone steak.  Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were two heavy pieces of furniture to deal with, but they realized that they needed this low-budget psychological horror tale of two rival sisters to resuscitate their careers.  Aldrich, serious about his craft, was treated badly.  Jack L. Warner, head of Warner Brothers, gave Aldrich the WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? duties but bluntly told him that he was not a director of note like John Huston, William Wyler or George Cukor.  He was more bargain basement than main floor.  A lot of us could relate to the humiliation and determination in Molina's portrayal of Aldrich.  The low-budget movie became a huge box office smash and brought Bette Davis an Oscar nomination.  Aldrich would go on to make other big hits such as HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE also with Bette Davis, THE DIRTY DOZEN and 1974's THE LONGEST YARD starring Burt Reynolds.
I am so glad Molina got that Emmy nomination as the director who, like the two aging stars, was desperate for a success.  He was marvelous and so truthful in FEUD. He did a great job.
I've been an Alfred Molina for years and you probably have been too.  But when the heck will Hollywood wake up and give him an Oscar nomination?  He's never been nominated.  Let me give you a few of his film performances that I feel were Oscar nomination worthy:

PRICK UP YOUR EARS (1987).
Molina is flat-out fabulous as Kenneth Halliwell, the reserved and not-as-handsome half of a gay male couple.  Halliwell is treated as beige while his celebrated, handsome partner is the colorful and charismatic celebrity, Joe Orton.  PRICK UP YOUR EARS is a true tale.  This was a gay relationship in the 1960s when being gay was pretty much illegal.  Both lusty Joe Orton, very well played by Gary Oldman, and jealous Kenneth Halliwell dream of becoming writers.  Orton, we see, gets popular in public restrooms and as a playwright.  Orton's play, ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE, was a sensation.  It was made into a 1970 British film.  Halliwell was not such a sensation.  He almost becomes like a servant to his successful boyfriend.  Orton's prolific career was brief -- due to the fact that he was bludgeoned to death.  Click here to see a trailer:  https://youtu.be/GpYSqJZosEU.

FRIDA (2002).
Salma Hayek got an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in this film directed by Julie Taymor.  It's a screen biopic on the life of artist Frida Kahlo.  A severe physical injury and a rocky marriage were the pressures that formed her original art and made it stand out like a diamond.  Alfred Molina stands out as Frida's husband, Diego Rivera, also a larger-than-life artist.
AN EDUCATION (2009).
Another film directed by a woman, Lone Scherfig, and another film in which a woman director guided her lead performer to a Oscar nomination for Best Actress.  Carey Mulligan is radiant in this coming-of-age story about a teen girl in suburban London.  Her home life is sweetly bland but she has bright plans for her life, plans that include Oxford University.  A charming but older man drives into her life.  We'll see how she handles this new arrival.
Alfred Molina was absolutely delightful as her loving dad who is serious about her education.  That performance just popped onscreen, as did Carey Mulligan's.

LOVE IS STRANGE (2014).
Alfred Molina and John Lithgow starred in one of my picks for the Top 10 Films of 2014.  First of all, the fact that this film received an R-rating is absurd and shows how outdated and conservative the ratings board is.  A gay senior citizen says a 4-letter word in a bar.  LOVE IS STRANGE, a touching drama, deserved nothing more severe than a PG-13 rating.  Molina is wonderful as George, the music teacher.  George and Ben, a New York City couple, have been together for decades.  Laws  have changed and now they can be married.  It's a most happy family occasion.

However, the Great Recession hits and affects them.  There's job loss and they lose their home.  They are forced to separate for individual lodging with friends or relatives.  Social attitudes, family attitudes, the economy and age affect their long commitment to each other and test their love.  Their love always passes the test.
This is definitely another performance that should have brought Alfred Molina an Oscar nomination.  He's remarkable.  If you know classic films, LOVE IS STRANGE has poignant echoes of the 1937 tearjerker, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW directed by Leo McCarey.  You fully believe that Alfred Molina and John Lithgow are a very dear, old married couple in a changing New York City.
There you have it.  Watch just those four film performances and, I bet, you'll agree with me that Alfred Molina is long overdue an Oscar nomination.









Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Meeting Julie Newmar

Some years ago, a good buddy of mine from my Milwaukee years was coming to New York City for a short holiday.  He contacted me ahead of time and invited me to be his guest at the Saturday matinee of a Broadway show.  After the show, we wanted a quick cocktail and dropped into a nearby deluxe hotel.  I suggested the hotel because I'd been to its bar/restaurant.  We were laughing, chatting, sipping cocktails and having a bite to eat when I noticed a long and lovely pair of lady legs stretched out from under a nearby table.  The legs seemed to stretch from out theater district location in New York City all the way to Chicago.  I followed the legs up to the face of the owner.  Sitting alone, with a Playbill to a Broadway show, and having a beverage was....Julie Newmar.  Yes, Catwoman herself.  That feline and fabulous dancer/actress seen in a couple of MGM's crown jewel musicals.
Greg, my buddy, knew something was up because my eyes got the size of teacup saucers.  Our waitress had come to the our table with our food order.

"You see that lady seated alone at that table?"

"Yes," the waitress replied.  "She's very nice.  She just ordered some appetizers too."

"Great.  We know her.  Please put her order, drink included, on my tab.  Seriously."  I was treating Greg.  I was going to treat Julie Newmar too.  The waitress smiled broadly and took care of it.  I think she loved delivering the message.

"Greg," I leaned in and said in low voice, "it's Julie Newmar.  Catwoman.  Look over.  Don't stare.  Be subtle."

He gave a nonchalant glance over my shoulder and then did an Ethel Mertz-like gasp.  "Oh my god! It is her!" he said a hushed voice.  Catwoman from the 1960s BATMAN series on ABC starring Adam West.

The order was delivered.  We watched the waitress point over to us.  We waved and smiled at Julie Newmar.  She waved and smiled back at us. Mouthed a sincere "thank you" and then she ate.

After she finished eating....SHE CAME OVER TO OUR TABLE TO THANK US AGAIN!

We, of course, were giddy and invited her to sit down with us.  She did.  We could tell that she was honestly touched.  "How did you know it was me?"

Practically in unison, Greg and I gushed, "We loved you as Catwoman on BATMAN!"

She let out a sweet, throaty laugh.  I said, "And you did some great dancing at MGM.  I loved you in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS and THE BAND WAGON in 'The Girl Hunt' number.  Did Sydney Guilaroff do your hair in those two movies?"


She went slack-jawed and answered, "Yes!  How did you know that Guilaroff did my hair?"

I replied, "I'm gay, middle-aged and I've got no life."

Julie Newmar laughed again.  She was a most charming guest at our table for a few wonderful minutes.  We chatted about her movies and her TV sitcom work.


I can't recall what Broadway show Greg and I had seen.  But I remember having laughs with him and we both remember the wonderful, unexpected company of Julie Newmar at our table late that Saturday afternoon.

And what a senior babe!  She looked sensational.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

History Lessons via Judy Garland

When I was a kid in South Central LA, one of the most eagerly-awaited days of the year was the annual Sunday when CBS had a special prime time broadcast of THE WIZARD OF OZ.  Keep in mind that this was years before cable TV, DVDs and such.  The evening of the annual network airing of THE WIZARD OF OZ was like Christmas to me.  It was a magical night of family viewing.
Our local station KTTV/Channel 11 had access to a lot of films in the MGM library.  KTTV aired a lot of the Judy Garland MGM musicals, except for THE WIZARD OF OZ.  So, when I was a kid, I'd come home from school or come in from playing outside on the weekends and I'd see Judy Garland when she was a kid who made movies with Mickey Rooney.
Another local station was KHJ/Channel 9.  The call letters are now KCAL.  On Friday nights, KHJ aired movies that were mostly indie films for mature viewers.  Movies like DAVID AND LISA, GONE ARE THE DAYS with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, 1957's THE BACHELOR PARTY and ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO.  One feature had an all-star cast.  It was an Oscar winner and a longer film. The first half aired one night.  The second half aired the following Friday.  In the station's promos, I heard that Judy Garland was in the movie.  Of course, I wanted to stay up on Friday night to see it.
Mom and Dad told me that this was the older Judy Garland. Not like in her early MGM musicals with Mickey Rooney.  This was Judy Garland when she was a grown-up.  She wouldn't be singing and dancing.  This was a serious film.  A drama.  But they suggested that I see it and they would be watching it too.  They told me that some of what I would see would shock and scare me.  The scariest thing would be that it really happened.
My parents in South Central L.A. used the film JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG and my love for Judy Garland to teach me a history lesson.  They wanted me to be aware of a crime that should never, ever happen again. Never again.  This was before I started middle school.  In the 1961 drama, Nazi offers are held accountable for the Holocaust, for the mass exterminations of Jews during the WW2 years.  In the film, we see actual news reel footage shot inside the concentration camps when the Allies arrived.
Judy Garland played Irene Hoffman, woman who had been accused of being a traitor to Germany because she had befriended an old Jewish man.  She was accused of that alleged crime when she was 16 -- about the same age Garland was in real life when we saw her as Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ.  Irene is now a married woman called upon to testify in the Nuremberg trials and recount that horrible time.  I attended a parochial high school in Watts.  There, teachers showed us a documentary that taught me more about the Holocaust and World War 2.

I am still grateful to my parents for using a classic film with a classic film star as a tool to make me aware of a very important history lesson.

Monday, August 14, 2017

On Halle Berry

Blow out the candles and make a wish, Halle Berry.  Make a wish for good Hollywood scripts to come your way.  Today, the gorgeous Hollywood history maker turns 51.  I feel that one of her biggest breakthroughs after years on on-camera work came when she had the opportunity to play the late, great Dorothy Dandridge in a biopic for HBO.  Dorothy Dandridge broke through Hollywood's color barrier and became the first Black woman nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.  Her well-deserved nomination came for 1954's musical drama, CARMEN JONES co-starring Harry Belafonte.  The favorite to win was Judy Garland for her sensational screen comeback in the 1954 remake of A STAR IS BORN.  Judy and Dorothy lost to Grace Kelly for THE COUNTRY GIRL.  Despite her sizzling, charismatic, Oscar-nominated performance in 20th Century Fox's CARMEN JONES, the lovely and talented Dorothy Dandridge did not get another top Hollywood lead role opportunity until 1959's PORGY AND BESS.  Her lack of opportunities were because of her race.  PORGY AND BESS was her last film.  Halle Berry won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for 1999's INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE.  For her dramatic performance in 2001's MONSTER'S BALL, Halle Berry won the Oscar for Best Actress.
That was Halle Berry's first and, so far, only Oscar nomination.  She was the first and, so far, only Black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress.
Viola Davis is now the most Oscar-nominated African American actress in Hollywood history.  She has three nominations to her credit.  This year, she won Best Supporting Actress for FENCES.

Whoopi Goldberg and Octavia Spencer are now tied with two Oscar nominations to their credit.  Whoopi won Best Supporting Actress for GHOST and Octavia Spencer won Best Supporting Actress for THE HELP.

No African American actress in Hollywood history has more than three Oscar nominations.  No African American woman other than Halle Berry has taken home the prize for Best Actress.

As I've written before, talented white actresses are lucky because they've had more opportunities from Hollywood. 26-year old Jennifer Lawrence has one Best Actress Oscar and four Oscar nominations to her credit.  Amy Adams has five Oscar nominations.  Julia Roberts has four nominations and one Best Actress Oscar win -- like Jennifer Lawrence.  Yep.  Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lawrence had more opportunities and Oscar-nomination luck than Black actresses who got one Oscar nomination and then turned to TV for work because Hollywood offered no script opportunities  -- Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Diahann Carroll and Taraji P. Henson are some of those actresses.

Halle Berry worked with a woman director to make what I feel is her best film after her historic Oscar win.  She plays a middle-class suburban widow with children.  David Duchovny played the charitable, loving husband who meets an untimely death early in the film.  Benicio Del Toro plays the husband's best friend, a recovering junkie who tries to help the widow.  She's pretty much paralyzed with grief.  She had her prejudices towards the friend.  Susanne Bier directed 2007's THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE.
If you're a Benecio Del Toro fan -- like I am -- this is a must-see movie.  He's excellent in it. Ironically, the weekend THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE opened, the West Coast was devastated by a huge, destructive fire that topped the national headlines.  In that long portion of Southern California, folks were more concerned with protecting their homes than heading to the cineplex to see a movie.  THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE sort of got lost in the fire itself.

Susanne Bier's film is worth a look.  Halle Berry does a fine job as the troubled suburban mother.  And she was the perfect choice to play Dorothy Dandridge.  She deserved those awards.  It's a crime that the extremely talented Dorothy Dandridge had such a limited film career because of Hollywood's lame racial attitudes.

Let's wish Halle Berry a very Happy Birthday -- and let's wish her good Hollywood scripts and steady employment.  She deserves both.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Comedies You'd See Again

Are you familiar with the weekday NPR interview show, FRESH AIR, hosted by Terry Gross?  It seems you can always get booked as a guest on her show if your product includes one or more of the following three items: 1)  Non-mainstream sex 2)  Some history of Nazi Germany and 3) Anything or anyone connected to Judd Apatow.  If you had a relative who was a WWII vet and fought Nazis, got married and had a son who became a bachelor high school principal who loved to dress up in drag when going out on gay dates out of town and if Judd Apatow based a movie character on that vet's drag queen son, you'd be Terry Gross' special guest for one whole entire hour.
In my Twitter feed, I noticed a post from UPROXX called "Judd Apatow explains why great comedies like AIRPLANE! aren't honorable to critics."  I am one of those people who just about split his sides laughing at AIRPLANE!

Apatow produced THE BIG SICK, one of my favorite films of this year.  I wrote a recent blog post about that touching, smart romantic comedy.  Honestly, I laughed, I cried, I loved it.  And, during it, I realized how much I missed good romantic comedies -- good comedies in general.  Apatow is one talented man.  However, a few of his productions have element sof maybe why critics are so ho-hum about comedies.  They drag on like the drunken buddy who keeps repeating the same story.  FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, KNOCKED UP and THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT made me laugh yet I did feel each had a good 15 minutes that could've been cut out to make the comedy tighter.  Those 15 minutes just repeated business about the lead male character we already new.  I was a background actor for THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT.  It shot in San Francisco.  I had a great time.  I watched one scene be improvised on the spot to highlight a star's comedy buddy.  The scene is the movie but it's not at all necessary.  THE BIG SICK is much better.

I thought of other comedies that were just as good, if not better than AIRPLANE! as I read Apatow's comments:  ANNIE HALL, TOOTSIE, the under-appreciated QUICK CHANGE with Bill Murray and Geena Davis.
Apatow gives his reason why studios aren't green-lighting more character-driven comedies that appeal to adult women and men and not just frat boys.  The article reminded me of those many lists of Top 5 or Top 10 on Facebook and Twitter.  If you asked "What 10 classic films would you take with you to watch on a 2-week vacation?," a lot of critics (mostly men) and acquaintances of critics would list 10 deep dish movies.  Classics like Ingmar Bergman's CRIES AND WHISPERS and THE SEVENTH SEAL, Buñuel's THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, Bresson's DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST or Schlöndorff's THE TIN DRUM.  I've seen those kinds of lists and read the responses.  Rarely, if ever, does anyone include mainstream, highly entertaining, well-regarded comedies.  I was guilty of that once.  I was going to include my list of Top 10 Favorite Films I'd Take to Watch on Vacation...and I was going to list Abel Gance's 1927 silent film NAPOLEON.  It is a historical masterpiece.  Every time I saw it, I was lucky enough to see it on a big screen during a special engagement.  However, I have seen that 1927 French masterpiece four times in my entire life.
I've seen NAPOLEON DYNAMITE four times in one month alone.  I have rented NAPOLEON DYNAMITE on DVD so many times that I have memorized large chucks of dialogue from that 2004 indie comedy.  How many times have I seen NAPOLEON DYNAMITE?  I don't know exactly but the number is surely in the double digits.
That's the honest truth.  It would've been dishonest of me to list 1927's NAPOLEON.  I would've put it a list to impress the critics and the critics' high falutin friends.  Critics should come out of the closet about comedies.  I belly laugh at W.C. Fields in IT'S A GIFT and Jerry Lewis as THE BELLBOY and THE LADIES MAN.  TOOTSIE still breaks me up.  And if Jessica Lange got an Oscar for Tootsie, Marilyn Monroe should've definitely received an Oscar nomination for SOME LIKE IT HOT or her musical comedy brilliance in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES.

So, if you were spending next week on vacation in a nice tropic spot and took 5 comedies with you, what would they be?

P.S.  If you saw NAPOLEON DYNAMITE and you left the theater or clicked off the DVD as soon as the closing credits started, then you haven't seen how it really ends.  There's one more fabulous scene.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Wisdom of Rodgers & Hammerstein

I shared this about my South Central L.A. boyhood with a Broadway actress in her dressing room one night.  A friend, who represented her, had taken me to see a 1990s revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I.  I grew up loving the movie version, watching it on TV every chance I got, and I loved listening to the movie soundtrack album.  Our house was like just about every other house on our block.  Our record collection had great jazz, Motown albums and at least one soundtrack to a classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.  Why?  Well, come on.  Their music was gorgeous.  In addition to that, they used their music and the stories to shout down bigotry and intolerance.  Our Black people were familiar with bigotry and intolerance.  After I told the Broadway star how moved I was by her show, she smiled and replied that she wasn't sure if she wanted to do revival at first because the libretto seemed dated. I emphatically told her how important works of art like THE KING AND I are.
America was in the midst of culture wars at that time.  I told her, "Anna is not a privileged white woman giving orders with a superior attitude.  She embraces cultural diversity and she has respect for different races. 'Getting To Know You' is very important.  'Getting to know you, Getting to know all about you.  Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me.'"  People of color are not invisible, second class citizens to her.  They become a part of her special world.  Her young son learns from his widowed mother's embrace of another culture and her humility.
When NBC network TV host Donald Trump consistently disrespected President Barack Obama verbally by claiming Mr. Obama, our first Black president, was not a real American and demanded to see his birth certificate, I was offended.  When he got on Twitter and wrote disrespectful things about President Obama, I was offended.  I was also offended that Donald Trump had never apologized to The Central Park Five, Black and Latino teens sent to prison for years and -- as we learned -- wrongfully accused of assault and rape.  He'd called for their execution.  And I was offended by the insensitive things the NBC entertainment TV host said about Mexicans.

To me, those actions of his were all red flags.

The TV host was elected to the White House, supported by citizens who held up signs reading "Time To Take Our Country Back."

This weekend, white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia.  One anti-nationalist reportedly was killed.  There's video of some marching and shouting "Heil, Trump!"  David Duke, a nationally known former KKK leader, attended the Charlottesville march and, on camera, said "We are determined to take our country back.  We're going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump..."

We saw Nazi flags in America.  Just like the one Baron von Trapp tears down and rips up in Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
When I saw news photos of the white nationalists carrying lit torches in the Friday night Charlottesville rally, one thing that hit me was how young the faces were. Young men who could be new in college. How did ones so young come to that?  I agree with the wisdom of Rodgers & Hammerstein.  From the 1958 film version of their Broadway hit, SOUTH PACIFIC, a World War 2 love story that deals with racial prejudice, here's their song "Carefully Taught."
Be like Rodgers & Hammerstein.  Shout down bigotry and intolerance.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Notes on IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967)

Films have been my passion ever since I was in grade school.  Family members and childhood friends will attest to that.  When I was in high school, I would take my little transistor radio with me on the day the Oscar nominations were announced.  Back then, the nominations were announced early in the afternoon Pacific Time, not in the pre-dawn hours as they are now.  I have some notes on the Oscar winner for Best Picture and Best Actor of 1967.  The movie was IN THE HEAT OF NIGHT, a murder mystery and race drama starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger (Oscar winner).  It was directed by Norman Jewison.  I write my notes as someone who remembers that time.  I was a high school student in Watts, the South Central L.A. community still healing from days of the Watts Riots that started on August 11, 1965.  Police agitation and racial inequality were elements in that rebellion.  My notes are in response to an article I just read on Twitter from a British site I like and read regularly -- GUARDIAN FILM.  On August 10th, it posted an article that included some comments about Jewison's IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.
One of the other five films nominated for Best Picture was BONNIE AND CLYDE.  The GUARDIAN FILM article is called "Bored of blockbusters?  Why Hollywood needs another Bonnie and Clyde moment."  The article, written by Danny Leigh, can probably also be found if you log onto theguardian.com/film.
BONNIE AND CLYDE was released in August 1967.  Because this is a special anniversary year of its release, that's why its stars, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, appeared on the Oscars earlier this year to present the award for Best Picture of 2016.  The winner was MOONLIGHT, not LA LA LAND.  And the mistake was not theirs.  The responsible party was so busy live-tweeting his selfies with celebrities backstage that he was not paying attention to his job.  He handed the stars the wrong envelope. To me, this was proof that live-tweeting can be in the same lane as texting while driving.  You're not paying full attention to what's in progress in front of you.
Columnist Danny Leigh wrote that BONNIE AND CLYDE, based on the true story of two 1930s gun-toting bank robbers, was a "transformative crime movie."  No argument from me on that point.  The movie challenged the dying production code with its shoot-out violence.  Beatty, producer and star, was making a statement.  He wanted the gunfire volume to be louder and jarring.  Like what George Stevens did in SHANE.  Where conservative Hollywood monitors hated about the screen violence from the two young characters financially kicked to the curb by The Great Depression at a time when banks were foreclosing on homes, young working class American men were being drafted into the Vietnam War.  A young generation saw the war and heard similar gunfire every day on the network evening news.  The ratings board was upset with the make-believe violence onscreen, meanwhile the 1960s was a most turbulent and tragically violent decade in real life.  President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed while in office.  The Vietnam War was extremely unpopular and had divided a nation.  I was a high school kid who was afraid that war would drag on and I'd be drafted.  Uncle Sam seemed to favor scooping up black and brown males from low-income communities for service.

Jack L. Warner was still the head of Warner Brothers and the only one of the big Hollywood movie studio bosses who still had his position.  He didn't have any faith and BONNIE AND CLYDE and wanted to release it to drive-in movie theaters, according to Beatty.  That struck me as ironic because, in its heyday, Warner Brothers was famous for gangster movies and crime stories starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson as machine gun-toting hoodlums.

BONNIE AND CLYDE opened.  What stuffy male critics didn't get, young moviegoers did.  The movie scored an out-of-the park home run with three bases loaded.  It was a big box office hit, the soundtrack was a hit on the Billboard charts with selections getting some radio airplay, and the costumes by Theadora Van Runkle -- especially those designed for Faye Dunaway -- triggered a fashion trend that I recall seeing in Los Angeles department stores.  Then, the controversial movie that Jack L. Warner had little love for, got 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Estelle Parson, winner), two for Best Supporting Actor and Best Director.

In his article, Danny Leigh reports that a noted white male film journalist categorized the success of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT as "...somewhere between irrelevance and obstacle."  He called it a "safe" movie.

We black moviegoers didn't see IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT as "safe." We saw it as rebellious, especially in one famous scene.  Keep in mind that Sidney Poitier, a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, was present at the 1963 March on Washington.  He was up there on the platform during Dr. King's now-famous "I Have a Dream" speech.  In 1964, Poitier made history when he won the Best Actor Oscar for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD.  Nonetheless, he was reluctant to do IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT because it would film down South.  He and Harry Belafonte had been racially harassed down South during their Civil Rights activism.  Poitier accepted the role but faced racial discrimination from hotels.  Deluxe hotels would not book black guests.  Jewison had to take care securing lodging for Mr. Poitier.  President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1964 which basically allowed black Americans the freedom to vote.  But interracial marriage was still illegal in several American states.  That would change in 1967 thanks to a Supreme Court ruling.

When Detective Tibbs gets slapped by that racist white man and he slaps him back -- that moment took us black folks to church!  That was a significant movie moment full of symbolic social relevance for us African Americans.
In the scene after that one, the town mayor -- also a racist -- casually remarks to the police chief Steiger played that the previous police chief would've shot the black detective dead for that slap and claimed self-defense.  Think of national news stories within the last few years here in U.S. in which an unarmed black man was shot and killed by a non-black cop who claimed "I feared for my life."

The live telecast in which IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture aired later than scheduled.  The Academy Awards, for the first and only time in Oscar history, had been postponed.  The Oscars had been postponed out of national respect for the recent funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King.  The Civil Rights leader had been shot and killed on April 4th, 1968.  The Oscar show, originally scheduled for April 8th, was held April 10th instead.

I'd disagree with Peter Biskind if he feels that IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is "irrelevant."  The nominees for Best Picture of 1967 were:
BONNIE AND CLYDE
THE GRADUATE
GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
DOCTOR DOOLITTLE

Besides being passionate about film art, I'm also a veteran entertainment news reporter and film reviewer who worked on network TV and contributed to ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY Magazine.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

See Some Prime Sidney Poitier

You may want to set whatever TV recording devices you have for Thursday, August 10th.  TCM, cable's Turner Classic Movies, has its annual Summer Under The Stars month underway.  Each day and night in August salutes one star.  Sensational Sidney Poitier gets the spotlight on August 10th.  He is the first Black American male to receive an Oscar nomination (Best Actor for 1958's THE DEFIANT ONES) and the first Black male to win the Oscar (Best Actor for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD).
Sidney Poitier was also the first Black actor be a definite top Box Office draw.  This was in the 1960s.  Keep in mind that he starred in two of the big hits of 1967 and those hits were in the running of the five films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  They were GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  The winner was IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.

Mr. Poitier was awarded a special lifetime achievement Oscar the same night in 2002 Denzel Washington won his Best Actor Oscar (for TRAINING DAY) and Halle Berry made history as the first African American woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress (for MONSTER'S BALL).  Halle Berry remains the only Black woman who has won the Oscar for Best Actress.

I grew up on Sidney Poitier movies.  To me, a big surprise is that he was never nominated for another Oscar after his LILIES OF THE FIELD victory.  He went on to do even better work with more complex roles.  Rod Steiger won Best Actor for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  I feel Poitier was worthy of a Best Actor Oscar nomination for that one also.

There is a little-seen 1971 dramatic film that many feel displays one of the best performances of Sidney Poitier's movie career.  I'm one of those people.  The movie is called BROTHER JOHN and it airs at 6:00am Eastern time Thursday.  So set your machines to record early Thursday morning.  Poitier is Brother John.  He's a mysterious Black man who arrives in a Southern town for his sister's funeral.  Is John Kane, a man troubled by the social unrest he sees, an outside agitator in a town having labor disputes or is he a celestial visitor?  It's an interesting film in the Sidney Poitier canon.

At 4:00pm Eastern time, there's BUCK AND THE PREACHER.  This is a western starring Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.  Poitier also directed the film.  On Broadway, Sidney Poitier co-starred with Ruby Dee in the groundbreaking play, A RAISIN IN THE SUN.  They repeated their husband and wife roles in the 1961 film adaptation.  They played family members in the 1950 race drama, NO WAY OUT, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.  They're husband and wife in Martin Ritt's 1957 drama, EDGE OF THE CITY.

Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee are a married couple in his post-Civil War western, BUCK AND THE PREACHER.  Ruby Dee got one Oscar nomination in her long career.  She was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for 2007's AMERICAN GANGSTER.  That amazing performance should not have been Ruby Dee's first and only Oscar nomination.  Buck's wife realizes that, yes, the Civil War is over and Black people have been freed.  But they're not really free. Racism still has roots in America.  She wants to leave.
Sidney Poitier directed Ruby Dee to a performance that, in my heart, was worthy of consideration for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.  Watch her in BUCK AND THE PREACHER. Ms. Dee is a stand-out.  She should've also had a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her sublime and sexy comedy work in 1963's GONE ARE THE DAYS, an adaptation of a civil rights era satirical play written by and co-starring her husband, Ossie Davis.  The play was called PURLIE VICTORIOUS, named for the traveling preacher Ossie Davis played.  It was made into a hit Broadway musical entitled PURLIE.

I've written before about Hollywood's lack of opportunities for actresses of color.  In interviews, Black actresses have revealed that they turned to TV after getting an Oscar nomination because, after they won or didn't win the Oscar, Hollywood had no more scripts for them.  I worked with Whoopi Goldberg, sitting next to her and doing national morning radio for two years.  She told me the same thing.  Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Marianne Jean-Baptiste (1996's SECRETS & LIES), Rita Moreno, Taraji P. Henson, Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis are some of the Oscar-nominated minority actresses who turned to TV for employment because Hollywood hadn't gotten the movie-industry memo on diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities.  For 20 years, Whoopi Goldberg held the record as the Black actress with the most nominations in Oscar history.  She has two nominations.  She was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for 1985's THE COLOR PURPLE.  She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1990's GHOST.

Whoopi's 1991 record was broken last year, in 2016, when Viola Davis got her third Oscar nomination.  She won Best Supporting Actress for FENCES and Viola is now the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in Hollywood history.  With just 3 Oscar nominations.  Octavia Spencer (THE HELP and HIDDEN FIGURES) now matches Whoopi Goldberg with two Oscar nominations.  The talented Jennifer Lawrence, still only in her 20s, has four Oscar nominations to her credit.  She also had more script opportunities than those veteran actresses of color did.

Ruby Dee did a lot of great work on TV.  And in films.

Sidney Poitier's film career up to and including the 50th anniversary of the release of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT reflects the progress and frustrating lack of progress in America's race relations and equal opportunities.  LILIES OF THE FIELD was a feel-good film released a couple of months after Dr. Martin Luther King's historic March on Washington (which activist friends Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee attended).  LILIES OF THE FIELD was an indie film that was modestly shot and had a low 6-figure budget.  It made over $2 million at the box office.  I think Sidney's Oscar was for that film plus fine work in BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, NO WAY OUT, THE DEFIANT ONES, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, PARIS BLUES and PRESSURE POINT.

When he won his Oscar, there were no African Americans working as film critics in top publications.  I grew up in Los Angeles.  Back then, The Los Angeles Times didn't even have a Black reporter on its staff.  When IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was a big Oscar winner, there were no Black reporters covering entertainment on TV.
Remember when AMC was American Movie Classics and aired only classic films before it switched over and started presenting acclaimed original programming such as MAD MEN and BREAKING BAD?  AMC never had a Black person as one of its regular hosts.  In the 1990s, when it had auditions for a new host for its final phase of classic film airing, my agent was extremely frustrated because the company wouldn't book me an audition.  But it booked another one of her clients.  A very handsome, blue-eyed guy about whom, she said, "He's nice but he didn't have his own talk show and have Kirk Douglas as his first guest like you did."

In 2002, when Sidney Poitier accepted his Honorary Oscar, we still saw no Black film critic doing regular reviews on a network morning news program (when each show had one) and there was no Black reviewer as half of the film critic teams on syndicated TV shows.  Film critics and classic movie hosts. Those two fields on TV have lacked in overall racial diversity.  We saw mostly Caucasian males talking about films, directors and stars portraying Black life in America.
But...we did go on to see young Wesley Morris, then of The Boston Globe and now of The New York Times, become the first Black journalist to win the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism. That was in 2012.  We had two terms of President Barack Obama.  President Obama honored Sidney Poitier.  We've seen Viola Davis and Denzel Washington wins Oscars and make history.  She is the most Oscar-nominated Black actress with 3 nominations.  He is the most Oscar-nominated Black actor with 7 nominations.

As for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, in this age of "Black Lives Matter," that 50-year old murder mystery/race drama still has deep social relevance.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, A PATCH OF BLUE, THE DEFIANT ONES and  TO SIR, WITH LOVE are also in the August 10th line-up saluting screen legend Sidney Poitier.  Check out TCM.com for more details.