Monday, October 16, 2017

Angela Lansbury, Happy Birthday!

She got three Oscar nominations for outstanding dramatic performances.  She became a top star of Broadway musicals.  She was the star of one of TV's longest-running hit series.  Let's wish an enthusiastic "Happy Birthday!" to Angela Lansbury.  Dame Angela is 92 today.
I am so glad that the Academy had the wisdom and class to award her an honorary Oscar in 2014 for decades of memorable screen performances.  Her excellence stood out in her film debut, so much so that it brought her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  The film was MGM's psychological thriller, GASLIGHT, the 1944 drama directed by George Cukor.  Star Ingrid Bergman won her first Best Actress Oscar for it.  Lansbury, who had a style and bearing that her seem older than she was, played the saucy maid who was quite ready to please the master of house in any room she could when his Mrs. was away.
She got another Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing a dear but doomed young lady in MGM's 1945 drama, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY.
Her third Oscar nomination was again in the Best Supporting Actress category.  She played the malevolent mother in the 1962 political thriller, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.  She burns up in the screen with her brilliance in that role.  To show you what I meant about her having a style and bearing that made her seem older than she was, she played the mother to Laurence Harvey's character in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.  In real life, there was only a three year gap in their ages.
Angela Lansbury and her mother each appeared in a Judy Garland MGM movie.  Lansbury's mother, Moyna MacGill, says not a word and gets laughs in a funny scene set in a diner.  The film is Vincente Minnelli's 1945 love story, THE CLOCK.  This wartime story starred Judy Garland in her first dramatic film and Robert Walker.  The two stars, Keenan Wynn and Moyna MacGill are in the diner scene.  Wynn is a harmless drunk on his verbal soapbox about society and MacGill is a lady eating at the counter who gets a quick flirt from the drunk.

Lansbury was a supporting actress in Judy Garland's Oscar winning 1946 musical western, THE HARVEY GIRLS.  Angela played the "bad girl" saloon singer and manager rival to Judy's "good girl".  Lansbury looks glamorous and has a number, but MGM dubbed her voice.
MGM dubbed her voice in another movie.  In the 1946 all-star musical, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, featuring just about all the A-list MGM musical talent, Lansbury had an English musical hall number.  Reportedly, she pushed producer Arthur Freed to let her sing the number and be heard with her own voice.  Freed let British-born Angela Lansbury do her own singing for that one assignment.

For a Hollywood studio that was famous for being the Tiffany of movie musicals, MGM really dropped the ball on utilizing Angela Lansbury's musical skills.

Broadway would let those skills of hers shine in its hit musical, MAME, the musical version of the hit Broadway and movie comedy, AUNTIE MAME.  This 1966 musical revived, revitalized and renewed Angela Lansbury's career.  She became the brightest star on Broadway, the songs from the shows were being recorded by a top pop singers of the day like Eydie Gorme and Johnny Mathis.  Also, thousands of Angela Lansbury's movie fans were probably surprised to discover that she could sing and dance.  My late mother was one.  She was a big Lansbury fan who loved her work in movies like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, ALL FALL DOWN, DEAR HEART and DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS.  Mom bought the MAME original Broadway cast album.

Mom had no argument from me when she put a record full of show tunes on the hi-fi.  Here's a sample of the Lansbury musical talent that MGM and other Hollywood studios overlooked.

The rest is Broadway history.

And can you believe that, starring in the mid 1980s, she would get about a dozen Emmy nominations for Best Actress on MURDER, SHE WROTE...but she never won?  Angela Lansbury should get a special lifetime achievement Emmy.  In my humble opinion.

I saw Dame Angela on stage in Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD.  She was extraordinary.  Come this Christmas Day, Angela Lansbury will be seen in the big, new Disney movie musical, MARY POPPINS RETURNS.









Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Capra Double Feature

Over the summer, I blogged about how fascinated and moved I was by a documentary on Netflix.  It's called FIVE CAME BACK and I urge every true classic film fan to see it. We're taken back to the 1930s when five directors were tops in their Hollywood field.  We're drawn into World War 2.  All five are known for giving us some of Hollywood's most beloved and acclaimed classics -- even if one was not beloved and acclaimed when first it was released.  The directors are John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra.  In the early 1930s, Hitler started his evil, bigoted plan to devour Europe.  The discrimination against Jews in the workplace and in schools was a gathering storm that would be assisted by Nazi stormtroopers.  Eventually, millions of Jews would be exterminated in concentration camps.  There was no TV with 24-hour news coverage in the 1930s.  Americans got their news via newspapers, radio and in newsreel presentations that preceded the main features when Americans went to the movies.  Americans, on the whole, were unaware of the extent of Hitler's horrors.  Nor were they aware of how huge his Third Reich army was.  Hard to believe today but there was an Isolationist Movement in the U.S. at that time.  Some politicians, and aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, felt that America shouldn't get involved.  Just let Europe handle that Hitler situation.  Meanwhile, Nazis were holding rallies in New York City.  William Wyler had Jewish relatives in Europe.  Frank Capra saw a 1935 documentary/promo for Hitler and his army called TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and it terrified him to the bone.  He realized America had to get involved.  This was Capra, the Italian immigrant who gave us wonderful films, uplifting movies such as MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, LOST HORIZON, YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, the Oscar winning granddaddy of screwball comedies.  It starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.
The five directors enlisted and served during World War 2.  They were tapped by the government to make documentaries and short features that would help the war effort, motivate young men to enlist.  The five also witnessed the carnage of war, sights that Americans had not been seeing.  They changed that.  They filmed it.  They were in active duty.  Wyler hated the racism that African American soldiers endured in America before they were shipped overseas to fight for democracy.  Stevens and Capra, two men who gave us delightful comedies, saw first-hand the massive, demonic work of Hitler's regime.  All five came back from the war changed men and changed filmmakers.  Stevens never again made light films like the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic musical, SWING TIME, or WOMAN OF THE YEAR and THE MORE THE MERRIER.  Capra, returned a decorated veteran who had to reintroduce himself to Hollywood.  He made IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  It flopped with critics and the movie-going public.  Today, it's a beloved classic that gets an annual NBC network airing during the Christmas holiday season.

The documentary is 3-hours long and I've watched it 4 times.  It's that good.  You will learn so much about the directors, filmmaking and American history.  Here's Frank Capra (right) in uniform working on one of his WW2 assignments.
This week, Donald Trump pretty much threatened NBC from the White House.  He seems to approve only news reports about him that are flattering.  NBC News reported something that wasn't so flattering.  He tweeted:  "With all the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!"

That tweet's attitude violates the First Amendment in our nation's Bill of Rights.

Frank Capra movies were sentimental and enjoyable.  He loved the working class.  I call him "The Charles Dickens of Old Hollywood" because of the way he cared about the common man.  He also had a keen eye for the political abuse of power and corrupt men slicing away freedom of speech.

With that in mind, I recommend two Frank Capra classics.  They are old movies but they may feel achingly relevant today.  The first one is... 1939's MR. SMITH GOES TO WATCHING starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur.  I wish I could air this in prime time right now on network television.
James Stewart plays the new young Senator who takes on a political machine with the help of a once cynical, smart-as-a-whip Washington aide played by Jean Arthur.  His honesty melts her cynicism and warms her heart as he wages his David v Goliath political battle for fairness.

The other Frank Capra film I recommend is 1941's MEET JOHN DOE starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper.  The movies opens with the words "free press" being drilled off a building front and replaced with the name of the new owners.  She's the smart-as-a-whip newspaper reporter for the paper experiencing some brutal layoffs.  She concocts a story that will keep her from being unemployed and be hot for newspaper sales.  She's an ambitious single woman who takes care of relatives with her income.  Her newspaper story involves finding a John Doe to keep it going.  In comes Gary Cooper as a hobo.  His story and John Doe gain wide popularity.  She and the hobo have had some financial luck.  But he winds up getting speeches to read on national radio from the paper's publisher.  The reporter and the hobo come to realize that the wealthy publisher,  her new boss, has fascist leanings and wants to control the press.

John Doe is willing to risk his life for the truth, for the chance to expose greed and corporate corruption.  The reporter is on his side.

And there you have it.  One Frank Capra classic from 1939.  The other is from 1941.  Both have elements that will feel timely and relevant today in 2017, in my opinion.  Be sure to check out FIVE CAME BACK on Netflix and narrated by Meryl Streep.  It shows the awesome light and dark power of film and how it can change lives.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

On GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER

This movie was quite popular with moviegoers and critics when it came out.  At the time, Sidney Poitier, one of its stars, was the first Black actor in Hollywood history who'd gotten opportunities that made him a top box office draw.  The 1960s was his decade.  He cracked the Hollywood color barrier as the first Black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor.  He won for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD.  It was his second nomination.  He became the first Black man ever to receive an Oscar nomination.  That was in the Best Actor category thanks to his performance as the bad-ass escaped convict in 1958's THE DEFIANT ONES.  Two of Poitier's biggest box office hits were both released in 1967 and both were in the field of five Oscar nominees for Best Picture.  They were IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, which won the Oscar, and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  In that film, Poitier joined two Hollywood legends who, starting at MGM with 1942's WOMAN OF THE YEAR, became a celebrated screen team in several movies and a close, intimate team off-screen from the making of that 1942 comedy until one's death in 1967.  It was the team of Hollywood greats Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.  Their characters got married in WOMAN OF THE YEAR.  They played a married couple in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  Tracy was a New York City newspaper columnist in WOMAN OF THE YEAR.  In GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, he's the owner of a San Francisco newspaper known for taking on social issues.
Hepburn, as the wife, runs an art gallery.  Like her husband, she's intellectual and liberal-minded.  They're liberal beliefs are put to the test when their loving daughter comes home and announces that she's engaged to be married.  The man she's engaged to is...African American.  In real life, Hepburn was famous in Hollywood for being the liberal-minded, intellectual, independent feminist.  Her roles in WOMAN OF THE YEAR, ADAM'S RIB and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER (all with Spencer Tracy) seemed to be extensions of her off-camera self.  Couple that with the decades-long Hollywood buzz of her secret love affair with Tracy.

They were beloved in the Hollywood community.  Young, new actors were in awe of Tracy's skill.  Young, new actresses were adopting Hepburn as a role model.  Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn would be in the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscar race for GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  His nomination would come posthumously.  Cast, crew and Hollywood insiders knew that Tracy struggled with health issues during the making of the film.  They knew it would probably be his last movie.  And it was.  When the husband reaffirms and professes his love for his wife in the final moments, that is a touching and heartbreaking scene on two different levels.  We felt it was the husband talking to his wife and an ailing Spence talking to his Kate.
People may see this film as somewhat sentimental today, but I watched the whole thing again recently.  I had not seen it in quite a while.  There's a heart and muscle to it that folks may have come to overlook through the years.

Did you see the recent film LOVING?  That's the 2016 biopic story about Mildred and Richard Loving.  He was the white man who fell in love with a black woman.   They were arrested in the 1950s for getting married.  Interracial marriage was illegal in several American states.  They took their case to the Supreme Court.  Loving v Virginia was the landmark civil rights decision in 1967 that made interracial marriage legal in all the United States.  1967 was the same year GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER was released.
The more I see GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, the more I appreciate it.  Let's face it.  Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy never could've made a film like this at MGM in the 1940s.  The Hollywood color barriers were higher and thicker then.  Most African American actors were seen as maids, mammies, butler or porters.  Very few were seen in upscale professions and in roles in which they shared scenes with white stars as equals in society.

In GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, the newspaper owner husband has deep reservations at first about the daughter's wanting to wed an African American, accomplished though the man may be.  Poitier's doctor is a widely respected and published one.  When the daughter and her fiancĂ© have dinner and drinks with another couple, the couple expresses its appreciation for the tough social causes her father's newspaper took on.  I'd forgotten about that short but key scene.  When Matt (Tracy) has a knee-jerk reaction to his daughter's marriage plans, it causes friction.  When Christina (Hepburn) reminds him that they taught their daughter that black, brown and other people of color were just as good as white people, they didn't add -- "but just don't marry one."  She supports their daughter, Joanna.

Dr. John Prentice (Poitier) has parents in Los Angeles who fly up to San Francisco to meet the fiancĂ©e, her parents, and to have dinner.  They have no idea she's white until they land at the airport and meet her.  John's dad, like Joanna's dad, has reservations.  The two mothers are in sympathy with each other.

You might tend to think that Matt's crustiness may come from a little prejudice.  I don't think so.  I think it comes from fatherly fear.  He's the owner of a newspaper that apparently gave voice to the disenfranchised.  Like people today who realize that America did not immediately become "post-racial" when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, Matt's paper has surely had to report international headlines of the decade such as the killing of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington, the racist murder of four little girls in an Alabama church bombing and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  And The Lovings had gone to the Supreme Court to challenge America's laws against interracial marriage.  Matt says to Joanna and John that a multitude of people will be "shocked, offended and appalled" at their union.

He hates the dark elements still at play in our Land of the Free.  He's afraid for Joanna and for John.  But, as the family friend and Catholic priest tells Matt, "They'll change this stinking world."
In 1968, when this 1967 release won Oscars, the Oscars ceremony was postponed for the first and only time in its history because of the recent racist killing of Dr. Martin Luther King.  America was in mourning.  Dr. King's funeral was a live network news telecast.  Sidney Poitier was a friend of Dr. King's and a civil rights activist.

As for Dr. John Prentice, we tend to forget that the marriage will be his second one.  He was married for about five years.  His wife and son were killed in an accident.  For nearly ten years, he was a widower who racked up an impressive list of credentials -- probably becoming an over-achiever in his profession to deal with his grief and numb the pain of being a childless widower.  We can tell from the way the parents react that the first wife was Black.
Katharine Houghton, Kate Hepburn's real life niece, plays the daughter in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  It's a good, charming performance and it really works because Joanna seems so much like her mother in attitude, tone and style.  Joanna kisses John when they get to her parents' house and prepare for dinner.  Again, this was a 1967 film.  British pop star/actress Petula Clark made entertainment headlines in 1968 when she defied NBC executive orders and touched Harry Belafonte on her NBC special while they performed an ant-war ballad.  NBC brass was against interracial touching.  Petula Clark took his arm during the number.  She was the show's executive producer and did what she bloody well wanted as a response to network ignorance.  The number and the touch remained in the special.  Harry Belafonte, like Poitier, was also a friend of Dr. King's.  Early that same year, 1968, Harry Belafonte was guest host for a week on the TONIGHT Show while Johnny Carson was on vacation.  Against the wishes of NBC network executives, he booked Dr. Martin Luther King as a guest for one show that week.  It was a wonderful appearance.  But NBC brass initially felt that the Nobel Peace Prize recipient was a political "radical" whose appearance would cost NBC some sponsors.  Not a single sponsor was lost due to the appearance of Dr. King.

Yes, there is sentimentality and Hollywood legend at play in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  But, considering the backdrop of American history the year it came out and the night it won Oscars, it was pretty bold for its time.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Fonda & Redford Reunited

A 2-time Best Actress Oscar winner who's disrupting age, she's almost 80.  Jane Fonda looks chic and sophisticated getting laughs with Lily Tomlin on the Netflix sitcom, GRACE AND FRANKIE.  He went from in front of the camera to behind the camera and won an Oscar for Best Director.  The movie was ORDINARY PEOPLE which also won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1980.  He's Robert Redford, now in his early 80s.  These two top Hollywood stars have appeared in three films together.  In the first one, Neil Simon's BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, they played newlyweds in New York City.  That romantic comedy came out in 1967.  Now they play seniors in small town Colorado.  She's a widow.  He's a widower.  They've lived across the street from each other for a long time but they've been strangers.  She changes that.  She wants him to share her bed.  But don't get the wrong idea about this movie.  It's not AARP BOOTY CALL.
Jane Fonda and Robert Redford have reunited to star in OUR SOULS AT NIGHT, a production now on Netflix.  This movie about two lonely senior citizens felt so fresh and so honest.  I loved it.  I'm sure I'll be watching it again.  The two stars still have chemistry and deliver sharp, smart performances.  They're also pros whose work should be studied by young aspiring actors.  These two know the power of being still in a scene.  Being still and listening.  Being still and thinking.  Fonda plays Addie.  Redford plays Louis.  There's a scene in which Addie and Louis are motoring back to town after a sweet overnight getaway.  He's driving.  The song "I Want a Sunday Kind of Love" plays on the radio.  Addie, quite content scoots over closer to him.  You have to see it.  The two actors don't need words.  They make that scene delicious.
The story gets right to business.  We can tell what each lead character is like and where they are emotionally by their homes.  He lives alone.  He sits in a favorite easy chair and does a crossword puzzle.  He has an "old school" TV set.  Not a flat screen.  There are VHS tapes on his shelves.  He has a rotary phone and an address book with addresses and phone number handwritten into it.

He's working on a crossword puzzle at night when she calls and establishes that, in all the years of them being neighbors and alone, they've never gotten to know each other.  She wants to come over and ask him to consider sleeping with her.  She's lonely.  Having someone next to her might help her sleep.  "Nights are the hardest," she says.  Addie is forthright and adventurous, like the character Jane Fonda played in BAREFOOT IN THE PARK.  Louis is reserved and needs to be coaxed into stepping outside his usual groove, just like the character Robert Redford played in BAREFOOT IN THE PARK.
These two working class characters are so believable and warm.  Not to get too personal here, but I know exactly how Addie feels.  My partner passed away in 1994.  He was a wonderful man.  I loved him a lot.  I have been romantically interested in several fellows in the years since he died, but the romantic interest was never mutual.  I've been a solo act for way too long.  I agree with Addie. Nights are the hardest.

In bed, Addie and Louis become friends.  They discuss the joys, heartbreaks and mistakes of their marriages.  They help each other navigate through some still choppy waters in relationships with a grown child.  They get intimate.  Here's a look at OUR SOULS AT NIGHT.
Louis regularly meets a group of older buddies for coffee.  This is a nice touch.   It's not a bunch of old ladies gossiping.  It's guys doing the gossiping.  Bruce Dern, who starred opposite of Jane Fonda in 1978's COMING HOME, is one of the guys -- and the main gossip.  Iain Armitage plays Addie's grandson.  What a lovable child actor and performance.  He's a down to earth kid with good manners.

I read for OUR SOULS AT NIGHT.  Those reviews were right.  I so enjoyed this feature -- and I loved seeing that Jane Fonda and Robert Redford are still in top form.  I highly recommend OUR SOULS AT NIGHT.  Jane Fonda was an Emmy nominee this year for her lead performance on Netflix's GRACE AND FRANKIE sitcom.  She was a knockout on the red carpet.
See what I mean?  Here's Jane Fonda in 2017.
Whatever you think a woman of her age has looked like in the past, Fonda has disrupted that image.
By the way, her 1967 comedy with Redford, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, is also on Netflix now.


Monday, October 9, 2017

On CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND

Wow.  Did 40 years just zoom by that quickly -- like an alien spacecraft in his movie?  The 40th anniversary edition of Steven Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is now out on Blu-ray.  I know this will sound a bit trite, but it really does seem like just yesterday it was 1977 and I was in a movie theater to experience the new Steven Spielberg movie for the first time.  I would pull my wallet out at the box office to see it again and again.  This is the adventure he gave us after scaring us out of the water with JAWS in 1975.  CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, just like his previous film, was a box office blockbuster that thrilled us and touched our hearts.  He went from showing us something horrible in the deep blue sea to showing us something magnificent from outer space.
Once again, Spielberg directed actor Richard Dreyfuss in a lead role.  I feel that, had this 1977 sci-fi classic been made just ten years later, the role of Roy would've gone to Tom Hanks.
If you catch SPIELBERG, the new documentary about the filmmaker that recently premiered on HBO, he tells us his childhood experience that inspired him to write CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.  The experience involved his father.  Spielberg's parents were divorced and his relationship with his dad was quite fractured.  Only briefly, does Spielberg talk about the great directors from Hollywood's golden age who influenced him in his teen years.  David Lean was one.  John Ford made a very heavy impression on him and I would've liked to hear him talk more about Ford.  The 1956 dark western drama, John Ford's THE SEARCHERS, had visuals that would influence more than one Spielberg movie.  A character framed in a doorway and the iconic landscape of Monument Valley are trademark John Ford shots and were even before THE SEARCHERS.

Look at these shots from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

I have a question for you.  I love Melinda Dillon's faithful, heartbroken single mother character.  She's heartbroken because her little boy has disappeared, taken by some illuminated and supernatural force.  She's driven by her love and determination to get him back no matter how impossible that task may be.
She and Roy, a married family man, bond in their belief that there's something out there...something in the skies that has made contact with Earth.  They experience a moment so deeply spiritual, so life-changing and so extraordinary that they kiss.  It's not a kiss of lust and passion.  It comes from a spiritual connection of wonder.  They're like two apostles who just witnessed the miracle of Easter Sunday.  They see the arrival of life from another planet.  Her little boy will be safely and happily returned.

My question is this:  If Spielberg made that film today, could the Melinda Dillon character work as a gay single father whose partner died, leaving him to raise their child alone?  That would be a touch of our modern times.  What do you think?  And I would keep the kiss.  It's important and says more than half a page of dialogue could.

Melinda Dillon.  What a good actress.  One of the best of 1970s and 80s films.  Her poignant work in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND got her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  She was also excellent in the Woody Guthrie biopic BOUND FOR GLORY (1976), as the mother in A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) and as the emotionally troubled sister in THE PRINCE OF TIDES (1991).



Sunday, October 8, 2017

SPIELBERG documentary on HBO

I have blogged numerous times about my frustration with the decades-long lack of racial diversity in the field of film critics and movie historians that are presented to us on network TV news programs and syndicated entertainment news programs. SPIELBERG, the documentary that premiered on HBO last night, unintentionally underscores my point.  Ironic because, however critics may feel about the filmmaker, you can't deny that his works -- and even his family man home life -- embrace diversity and inclusion.  I have been a Steven Spielberg fan ever since I was in high school.  I am now in the AARP category.  I vividly recall seeing DUEL when it was a 1971 ABC Movie of the Week.  Here in America, the man versus truck thriller was a made-for-TV movie.  Overseas, it was a theatrical release. (That's something you don't learn in the documentary).  The next day at school -- in the Watts section of South Central L.A. -- a few of us guys in homeroom and during lunch were buzzing about this new young director dude named Steven Spielberg.  He was just a few years older than we were.
So, I remember when summer was a relaxed season for new Hollywood releases and TV shows.  In the summer, you saw the repeats of shows that you missed in the fall because you had to do homework and such.  Summer vacation was for TV repeats and often for networks airing pilots of shows that didn't get picked up.  One that stood out to me was YOU'RE GONNA LOVE IT HERE.  This was a comedy pilot starring...Ethel Merman.  She played a larger and louder than life character named Lolly.  Merman also sang the show's theme song.  Summer movies were mostly light.  Fall was for the possible Oscar contenders to be released.  Spielberg's JAWS changed the Hollywood box office game in 1975.  The book had a been a best-seller.  Young moviegoers lined up to see JAWS again and again.  It was like an amusement park thrill ride.  The tremendous financial success of the film many felt would be a flop started the Hollywood shark feeding frenzy for other action-packed movies to be released in the summer.  JAWS gave rise to the Top 5 Box Office reports on how well movies did over the weekend.
I also remember all the entertainment reporters and film critics I saw on TV in those days ... and now.  The director of SPIELBERG is Susan Lacy who wonderfully gave us the AMERICAN MASTERS documentary specials we saw on PBS.  I've met Ms. Lacy.  When AMERICAN MASTERS: LUCILLE BALL premiered, I was a guest host on New York City's PBS station to talk about the time the comedy legend invited me to her home -- and to urge viewers to pledge to PBS/Channel 13.

As one would expect, friends and film critics talk about the uniqueness of Steven Spielberg in the documentary.  There were six film critics seen on-camera in it -- Janet Maslin, David Edelstein, A.O. Scott, J. Hoberman, Gene Shalit, Todd McCarthy -- and a film historian.  All white folks.  Not that a white journalist can't review a film about African American life or one that stars African American actors.  However, just like I noticed on New York City TV back in 1985 when it came out, there wasn't one black film critic in the HBO doc talking about THE COLOR PURPLE.  From 1985 to 2017.
Steve Spielberg and actress/wife Kate Capshaw have more black people in their family than you see in the half dozen film critics giving comments on his career and work in the HBO documentary.  You will see for yourself when you see footage of Spielberg's sweet home life and his kids.

The documentary runs 2 and half hours.  For me, it flew by because -- as I mentioned -- I'm a big Spielberg fan and he rarely does interviews on TV.  As they probably did for him, classic films helped sooth my heart when I was in middle school and our parents divorced.  I was a good kid, a lonely bookworm who didn't know how to express his loneliness.  I didn't see my father about 20 years.  Characters in classic and new movies voiced what I had no language for.  Spielberg's youth were underscored with loneliness that a love for classic films healed.  I was politely jealous of Spielberg in my youth.  I wish I had his access to opportunities. A guy like young Spielberg could sneak onto a Hollywood studio lot and talk his way into a job.  The same with young actor Steve Guttenberg who, the story goes, claimed he knew someone on a Hollywood lot and that moxie led to auditions.  The late Garry Shandling got a gig as a writer for the SANFORD AND SON sitcom.  Like Spielberg, I was on the cusp of my teen years when I knew that film was my passion. I wanted to be on camera in films or on camera talking about them and talking to the folks who made them.  But, unlike Spielberg, a black or Mexican-American guy from South Central L.A. could not sneak off a Universal tour bus, hide and later talk his way into a job at the studio.  A young black guy in South Central L.A. could not go over to NBC Burbank and get a gig writing for SANFORD AND SON, even though the sitcom was placed in South Central L.A. and focused on black life.  Garry Shandling would have better luck getting that gig.

We young males of color who were just as passionate about film as Steven Spielberg had already learned that, for us, the playing field was not level.

I would love to interview him, of course.  I've met him but I've never interviewed him.  Steven Spielberg has reminded me of two movies characters.  During my VH1 years, I had the great opportunity to tape a half hour interview of genius voice actor Mel Blanc in his Hollywood home.  Off-camera, Blanc was blunt in telling me how much he disliked the young, talented but bratty Steven Spielberg.  As you know, Blanc was the famous voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and several other classic cartoon characters.  Spielberg, a producer on 1988's WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, wanted Blanc to do cartoon voice work.  But he wanted Blanc to audition.  Mel Blanc was furious.  He was world-famous for doing cartoon voices before Spielberg had grown pubic hair.  Blanc reminded me that 1985's THE COLOR PURPLE got 11 Oscar nominations including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Picture.  But not for Best Director.  Blanc, who gave me a fabulous interview, said that Spielberg would have to embrace his roots and learn humility before Hollywood gave him an Oscar.  Think of THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL when the veteran film director tells producer Jonathan Shields (played by Kirk Douglas) that he would need "humility" if he wanted to take over the production and replace him.  That's what a good director needs.  Humility.  When the high-powered producer takes over as director, he comes to realize the veteran director he fired was absolutely right about the humility.
I thought of that watching the documentary.  Especially the strong, heartbreaking section about 1993's SCHINDLER'S LIST, winners of Oscars for Best Picture...and Best Director.
The other character Spielberg reminds me of is the top Hollywood producer that Joel McCrea plays in the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy classic, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS.  He's known for pleasing millions of moviegoers with his comedies.  His films are mass market entertainment.  But he yearns to make a movie with a serious message about the stark realities of life.  Then the rich producer winds us suffering a short case of amnesia far away from Hollywood and experiences the stark realities of life in the poor South without his wallet and identification.

Some critics still carp that Spielberg gives us mostly popcorn movies, mass market entertainment.  But it's that kind of entertainment I always sought when I had a heavy heart.  I didn't rent Ingmar Bergman's CRIES AND WHISPERS.

At the loopy happy ending of SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, the rich producer is on his way back to Hollywood with a new outlook about his work.  What he says is what some of those pretentious critics should realize when they disrespect Spielberg's body of entertainment:

"There's a lot to be said for making people laugh.  Did you know that that's all some people have?  It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

I have years of movie critic work on TV and in print to my credits.  If I was one of the critics in the SPIELBERG doc, I would've mentioned that reference from SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS in regards to why Spielberg matters.  Look for repeats of the documentary on HBO.


Angela Lansbury, Happy Birthday!

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