Thursday, May 24, 2018

A HAIR Cut for NBC?

This was the rock musical of the late 1960s that caused a great big controversy when it hit Broadway.  Folks either hated it -- like Leonard Bernstein and Betty Comden -- or they loved it -- like lots and lots of young theatre goers.  HAIR reflected and commented on the turbulent political times, changing social attitudes and the free-spirited youth movement with its R-rated lyrics and its now-famous group nude scene.  So, after a day of news about Trump pulling out of a summit meeting in Korea, we got news of another live upcoming musical production on NBC, the network that started the Orange One on his move from self-absorbed, conservative TV celebrity to self-absorbed, conservative president.  NBC gave us live TV productions of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, PETER PAN, THE WIZ, HAIRSPRAY and the excellent telecast of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR starring John Legend. Now on the NBC schedule for spring of next year -- HAIR.
Yes...HAIR.  With the R-rated song lyrics and the group nude scene.  HAIR was successfully transferred to film with an exuberant 1979 adaptation directed by the late, great Milos Forman.  Treat Williams, Annie Golden (of TV's ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), John Savage and Beverly D'Angelo starred.
I'm going out on a limb here, but I'll assume that NBC will cut and sanitize HAIR to be a network 2019 presentation.  I've seen HAIR onstage.  It's an unconventional rock musical that makes a point.  Will NBC let viewers experience "Sodomy" in prime time?  That's one of the songs in the original Broadway production.  It's also in the film version.

Another song from the original Broadway production is..."Colored Spade."  Click onto the link and listen:

There's a song you'll never hear covered by Michael Bublé.

And then there's the cast nude scene.
If NBC will take the curl out of HAIR, will it still work?  Why not go with something that would not have to be edited and censored? Something like the Broadway musical version of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, Jerry Herman's musical version of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, THE PAJAMA GAME, PURLIE or THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN?  Or Lea Michele in FUNNY GIRL?  That last one could be a live TV production for closeted gay men to come out by.

HAIR also gave us the songs "Good Morning Starshine," "Aquarius," and "Let The Sunshine In." They did well on the pop charts covered by top vocalists and groups of the day.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Talented Chris Pine

Hearing the latest news about that guy some Americans elected into the White House was enough to make me scream.  So I turned the channel to see if there was something else that could calm me down.  WONDER WOMAN was on HBO.  Perfect.  That hit movie was so entertaining and so well-cast.  If you've seen it, the scene in which Diana is taken into the London department store and tries on a few unflattering and uncomfortable outfits always makes me laugh.  The movie had the kind of fun scenes that Old Hollywood used to give us on a regular basis.  Director Patty Jenkins, who directed Charlize Theron to a Best Actress Oscar win for MONSTER, did a great job with WONDER WOMAN.  I loved the chemistry between Gal Gadot as Diana, the hero, and Chris Pine as Steve.  They believed in their characters and in the story -- a key ingredient in making the action/fantasy work.  I first noticed Chris Pine when he played young Captain Kirk in the STAR TREK movies.  I'm sure I'm not the only person who thought, "Damn! He is one handsome dude!"
While I watched some of WONDER WOMAN today, it thoroughly confirmed the rightness of my opinion that, if we were in the 1930s and 40s days of Old Hollywood, Chris Pine would be a very busy leading man in movies.  And he'd be introducing original songs by top songwriters the way Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Dick Powell did.
Buddies of mine in New York, guys who aren't hardcore fans of musicals the way I am, saw INTO THE WOODS because they were doing entertainment reports on the movie.  They contacted me enthusiastically praising the work of Chris Pine as The Prince.  And the main thing they all said was, "Wait till you hear him sing!"  Even though Meryl Streep is in the movie, and got another one of her annual Oscar nominations for her performance, the storybook movie is pretty much stolen by Chris Pine as the comically self-absorbed and charmingly horny Prince.  Here's a scene with Pine and, as The Baker's Wife, Emily Blunt.  Click onto the link.

In Old Hollywood studio days, he'd have been offered another musical immediately after that 2014 release.  Also, Chris Pine is not "just another pretty face."  He's got a classic movie star face.  It's a face so fine that he could easily coast on those good looks for a time and get attention.  But he doesn't coast.  He's got solid acting skills.  The modern-day western and Recession Era cops and robbers drama, HELL OR HIGH WATER, was one of my favorite films of 2016.  A very scruffy Pine played one of the two bank robbers.  I said on National Public Radio a week before the Oscars telecast of 2017 that I wished HELL OR HIGH WATER had made it into the Best Picture Oscar race.  Take a look at the trailer.
Crackle TV is under the Sony corporate umbrella.  A few years ago, back in Manhattan, Crackle TV held a promotional morning event in a theater.  Clips of its new season were shown onscreen.  There was good press turnout for this event.  (Also, complimentary food and beverages were available in the lobby.)  One of the shows was a loopy new animated comedy series called SUPER MANSION about a group of dysfunctional superheroes.  Pine does voice work on the series.

When the onscreen presentation ended and press folks were standing up to gather their things and head up the aisles to the exit, a montage of outtakes from the SUPER MANSION voiceover session started.

People stopped leaving.  Why?  Because Chris Pine was so hysterically funny ad libbing different voices and lines of dialogue.  He was like Robin William in his MORK AND MINDY years funny.  Chris Pine made the crowd break up laughing and his outtakes got applause.  So, in addition to other musicals, why isn't he getting top comedy script offers?

Hollywood may not be giving you the message but, believe me.  Chris Pine is one terrifically talented actor.  And handsome.

Monday, May 21, 2018

What Would Harvey Milk Have Said About That?

MILK.  It was another of the many times I gave thanks to SAG-AFTRA, my union.  As a member, I was lucky enough to get an invite to a preview screening of MILK, the 2008 biopic starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the slain openly gay San Francisco politician.  Harvey Milk, one of America's top gay activists, was elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors.  He and the city's Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed in San Francisco City Hall in 1978.  They were shot by a disgruntled former member of their Board of Supervisors. This hate crime, this assassination is in the movie, MILK.  Victor Garber (right) co-starred with Penn as Mayor Moscone.
My first professional broadcast job, after I graduated from college in Milwaukee, was on radio.  I was the new morning news reader for an FM rock radio station in that same city.  I read news reports about Harvey Milk's activism and the public campaign of former Miss Oklahoma pageant winner/singer Anita Bryant.  Bryant, in those days, was a very popular singer who got lots of national TV exposure singing in commercials as the pitchperson for Florida orange juice. Then she waged her Christian campaign to ban gay people from working as teachers on Florida schools.  If you're too young to remember those days, you can well imagine how much network news coverage she got in her opposition to Harvey Milk.  Then one day on the air, I read the bulletin that Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone had been shot and killed.
This was back in the day when there were no openly gay people working regularly on TV.  There were no openly gay network news anchors, daytime talk show hosts and no gay fashion consultants doing network red carpet coverage at the Oscars.  There were no openly gay actors on TV playing straight men (HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER) and no straight men playing openly gay men (MODERN FAMILY) and there surely weren't any drag queens competing in network singing talent competition shows (AMERICAN IDOL this season).  And no one back in the 1970s ever dreamed that a straight actor could play a gay character in a major movie and win an Oscar for the performance.

I was gay but not publicly out in my early radio days.  Why?  For fear of losing that job...a job I really needed.  Come 2008, I was publicly out.  I was on national radio in New York City working with Whoopi Goldberg.  Our crew, including Whoopi, participated in an AIDS Walk New York.  On Whoopi's show, I told how the GMHC (Gay Men's Health Crisis) fundraiser is very dear to my heart because, in the early 90s when my late partner was diagnosed, the GMHC gave me great counseling in how to be a better caregiver in those dark days of the disease.

The Recession hit -- and I was hit hard.  Twice.  Whoopi's radio show was cancelled. A bunch of us were out of work.  It took me a little over a year to find a new job -- and then that job went belly-up with layoffs.

Hard times forced me into a spot of needing to accept a friend's invite to live with him in San Francisco and attempt to start over.  I lived in San Francisco for most of 2011.  I lived in his apartment which was about a 15-minute walk from City Hall. In fact, we could see City Hall from our window.  I'd gaze at the beautiful building and think about the gay history of Harvey Milk.
I pitched myself to local TV stations for work.  Before doing so, I did what I usually do before pitching my services to a TV station.  I watched the station to get a feel for its tone, the diversity and style of its on-air team and overall quality.  I do this homework to see where I could fit in.

Here's what hit me in the face like a big splash of ice water.  There was no openly gay reporter or contributor doing features on local San Francisco Bay Area television.  San Francisco.  The home of Castro Street.  The place where Harvey Milk started his forceful gay activism.  A city The Village People sang about.  Not that there weren't gay people working at the stations. I met one lovely gent who did a weekly restaurant segment on a station's news programs.

But, in June -- which is Gay Pride Month -- there was no openly gay contributor on a Bay Area local TV news station reporting on Gay Pride Month issues and activities.  Again, this was 2011.  How would Harvey Milk have felt about that?  He fought hard for our visibility and equality.  But there was no one openly gay and bringing LGBT visibility via features for a newscast in his city.  We had gay contributors do features on AIDS prevention and Gay Price Month events for the popular all-news local cable station NY1 (New York One) back in New York.

So, I pitched myself to stations like KRON to be a contributor covering LGBT issues and events. I pitched myself as such to other local Bay Area stations.  No luck.

However, I did get meetings so I could pitch myself.  Some executives were aware of my national gigs on Food Network and VH1.  That was nice. I did get any of the "Have you ever done TV work?" ignorance that I'd gotten two years before when I met with agents and network news producers in Manhattan.

I wonder if that's changed on local TV in the Bay Area since I lived there in 2011.  Is there someone openly gay doing informative and helpful features on the LGBTQ community?  I'd like to know.

By the way, if you never saw Sean Penn's Best Actor Oscar-winning performance in MILK... you should.  An outstanding film and an outstanding performance.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

A Royal Weddding, a Touch of Sidney Poitier

A lovely couple, a lovely ceremony and a most beautiful bride.  I was wide awake well before the crack of dawn to watch live network news coverage of the Royal Wedding.  I admit that I've been thrilled for him ever since they announced their engagement.  And Meghan Markle makes my heart take wing.  Harry is one lucky bloke.  The actress/humanitarian and fellow Los Angeleno brings some radiant light and fresh air to the Royal Family.  They are a modern picture of equality, inclusion and love in the monarchy.
I did not expect to be as touched by the events of the ceremony as I was.  But, when I saw Doria Ragland, Meghan Markle's mother, with her in the backseat of the burgundy Rolls-Royce on their way from the hotel to the chapel, I got tears in eyes.  Can you just imagine the extreme joy in that sweet woman's heart?  In California, did she ever in her wildest dreams think that her daughter's engagement would lead to Ms. Ragland having tea with the Queen of England and attending a wedding ceremony that would be an international live telecast? Wow. Now she is known as....the mother of the Duchess of Sussex.
About the touch of Sidney Poitier:  When Prince Harry and Meghan walked out of the church and onto the entrance as the newlywed Duke and Duchess of Sussex, they kissed and we got another song from that wonderful choir.  During the ceremony, the choir sang "Stand By Me."  Outside, before the Duke and Duchess took to the carriage ride, the choir sang "Amen."  I never thought I'd hear that spiritual sung at a Royal Wedding.
A lot of us in the baby boomer category remember it as the song sung by Sidney Poitier's character in LILIES OF THE FIELD, the feel-good comedy/drama that brought Sidney Poitier the Oscar for Best Actor of 1963.
"Amen" was written by actor, singer, songwriter Jester Hairston.  The dubbed singing voice you heard come out of Sidney Poitier is another Jester Hairston credit. He did that singing.
Jester Hairston and Sidney Poitier appeared together in the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1967, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  Jester Hairston played the butler, standing in between Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier.
He's in the famous scene where Sidney as Detective Virgil Tibbs slaps the saliva out that racist white man's mouth.

The multi-talented Jester Hairston was also a regular in the long-running NBC sitcom, AMEN, starring Sherman Hemsley. It aired from 1986 to 1991.

There you have it. There was a touch of Sidney Poitier film classics in today's absolutely gorgeous and heartwarming Royal Wedding.  Cheers to the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Leslie Uggams Blind Again for DEADPOOL 2

The top reason why I wanted to see DEADPOOL a couple of years ago is because I read so many comments on Twitter from moviegoers saying how much they loved the blind black lady in the movie with Ryan Reynolds.  Then I read one tweet with the message that the actress was Leslie Uggams.  "Leslie Uggams!" I said out loud.  Yes, Leslie Uggams.  The groundbreaking African American singer/actress who, thanks to Mom and Dad, I'd followed on TV ever since I was in elementary school.  When I finally got around to seeing DEADPOOL, I saw that the folks on Twitter were absolutely correct. Leslie Uggams rocked that role of Blind Al.
On Monday, I let out a "Wow!" when I saw her in a shot on ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA.  Six of the DEADPOOL 2 cast members were present for a live in-studio group appearance to promote the opening of the sequel.  I assumed that Ryan Reynolds would be present, but no announcement had been made that Leslie Uggams was also in the bunch.  There is some golden TV and Broadway history in her bio.  It's Black History.
Personally, as a TV veteran, I don't like when the celebs are in a group like that for an interview -- especially on a live network morning show where time is limited and you have to make room for a cooking segment.  With a group of six, like the DEADPOOL 2 group on Monday, you have to ask a general question that will get short answers or do something gimmicky like give them pads and pens and ask, "If you were really a superhero who could fly, what color would you cape be?"  Then you let the celebrities write down answers and hold them up to the camera.  Ryan Reynolds and Josh Brolin gave individual verbal answers. So did a couple of the new young stars.  Leslie Uggams didn't get a direct question and no major mention was made of her previous credits.
Before I give you some background about Ms. Uggams, here's a trailer for DEADPOOL 2.  Watch the volume.  There's naughty language in it.
Back in the early 1960s, when Leslie Uggams was a talented girl and American was still grappling with Civil Rights, she was the only black talent on a very popular Friday night NBC show hosted by the influential musician and record producer, Mitch Miller.  The music variety show was called SING ALONG WITH MITCH and she was a regular talent on the show.  Keep in mind it was rare then for a black person to get a network guest appearance.  Mitch gave Leslie a regular gig.  And this was during a decade when network TV execs did not want black and white artists touching each other in a friendly way for fear of losing sponsors.  NBC execs considered Dr. Martin Luther King a radical and didn't want him on the TONIGHT SHOW with guest host Harry Belafonte.  Harry overruled them and Dr. King did appear.  NBC ordered Petula Clark not to touch Harry Belafonte as they sang a duet on her NBC special.  She defied NBC brass and held Harry's arm as they sang.  Both those NBC shows happened in 1968 alone. No sponsors were lost.  Leslie Uggams was a TV trailblazer who broke through a color barrier in the early 1960s.  With her full, thrilling voice and down-to-earth sophistication, she was Must-See TV in our South Central L.A. community.  She made us proud.

Years later, she was the second African American woman to win the Tony for Best Actress in a Broadway musical.  The play about a young woman in South Carolina who's determined not to be a maid -- determined to have a show business career and persevere through the Great Depression, World War II and into the dawn of the Civil Rights era was called HALLELUJAH, BABY!  Here's Leslie Uggams performing on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.
1967's HALLELUJAH, BABY! should have been made into a Hollywood movie.  But this was the 1960s. Hollywood studios couldn't take that story and change the lead female character into a spunky white girl played by Julie Andrews or Ann-Margret.  Diahann Carroll, the first African American woman to win the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical, should've also done a Hollywood version of her Tony-winning performance.  She starred in NO STRINGS, a 1962 musical with a score by the famed Richard Rodgers.  Richard Kiley was her leading man.  Diahann Carroll played a Harlem native who is a high fashion model living and working in Paris.  She has more racial freedom there.  She meets a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who's sort of drifting through France.  A fellow American in Paris, he's white and has writer's block. He starts to come out of his creative slump when he meets and falls in love with the high fashion model.  But can those two take their interracial romance back to the States the way things are there in those turbulent early years of the Civil Rights movement?

Paris, high fashion, beautiful music by Richard Rodgers -- this could've also made a good movie.  I recall reading an entertainment news item about NO STRINGS in THE HERALD EXAMINER when I was a youngster.  There was brief Hollywood interest in making a movie version -- if the Diahann Carroll character could be changed from black to Asian.  It never got made.

Go to YouTube and play "The Sweetest Sounds" from the NO STRINGS original Broadway cast recording.  That's the gorgeous love song Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley introduced in the musical.

Leslie Uggams was also a major character in the historic 1977 network mini-series that became a cultural landmark and a ratings champ -- ROOTS based on the book by Alex Haley.  It aired on ABC.

My friend Keith Price said that maybe the GOOD MORNING AMERICA team of segment producers is so young that the members don't know about Leslie's ABC connection.  I think they're probably so young, they don't even know about Ryan Reynolds' ABC connection.  Remember his sitcom TWO GUYS, A GIRL AND A PIZZA PLACE in the late 90s?

Oh. Ms. Uggams is also seen on the hit Fox TV series, EMPIRE.

There you have it. Some Black History, Broadway History and some background on Leslie Uggams before millions of DEADPOLL fans have come to know her as Blind Al.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Always Relevant Rita Moreno

There is so much history and talent contained in that remarkable package known as Rita Moreno.  She's excelled on TV.  In fact, I still feel it was a crime she never got an Emmy nomination for her years of great acting on the HBO prison series, OZ.  Her Sister Peter Marie, the Catholic nun who was the prison's drug counselor and psychologist, was one of the boldest, most original female characters I'd seen on TV in years.  She's done Broadway.  Did you that Rita Moreno was the female lead in the play from groundbreaking playwright Lorraine Hansberry that followed Hansberry's A RAISIN IN THE SUN?  And we all continue to be dazzled by Moreno's Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winning performance in WEST SIDE STORY.  She also participated in the historic March on Washington in 1963 headed by Dr. Martin Luther King.  She continues to be an activist, pushing for more equal opportunities, more inclusion for people of color in the entertainment industry.  Over the weekend, She was on National Public Radio.  Rita Moreno was relevant and right on during that WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY interview.
If you've read my blog posts, you already know that Rita Moreno has been a role model to me ever since I was in high school because of her activism and because she refused to be stereotyped and limited in work opportunities.  When you hear her interview, and you should, listen to her tell why she didn't work for seven years after she won her Oscar.  Listen to the kind of roles she was offered.  Then you'll know why she went to TV shows like THE ELECTRIC COMPANY and THE ROCKFORD FILES.  That part really hit me.
As I told my friend Keith Price in a podcast, on the other side of the coin that showed disrespect for women is racism.  When women said that they kept quiet on harassment they experienced for fear of losing their jobs and income, I knew EXACTLY what they meant and how they felt.

When I felt that I was not getting the same opportunities that white males when far less experience got in the same TV workplace, when I wanted to know why my pay was way below theirs...I was told to keep quiet for fear of losing the job I had.

Agents turned me down for representation even when I was on national TV.  Why?  Because black talent was not seen as marketable or in high demand.

Enough of that crap.  People of color are marketable. We are watchable. We can play characters, have on-camera jobs that respectfully reflect our community, our skills, and the world we know.

"Me Too," "Times Up" and the Frances McDormand Oscar night announcement about "inclusion riders" uncorked a big bottle of strong conversation that needed to be poured out.

You've got to hear the Rita Moreno interview segment.  At the top of the NPR page, look for *programs & podcasts*.  Click onto that, scroll down to WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY.  Click onto WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY and look for "Rita Moreno To "My Gente': Be Proud Of Who You Are, And Don't Give Up".  Go here to get started:

Ms. Moreno said that she was positive she'd get a few good script offers after she won the Oscar.  I was positive I'd get an entertainment talk show host offer after my VH1 years.  I never did.  I got offered auditions to play characters such as half of the thug duo in WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S 2.  Two black thugs in New York City performing voodoo on a corpse in a ratty Times Square movie theater men's room with a boombox and a bucket of fried chicken.  That was the audition scene. That scene is in the 1993 movie. I kid you not.  I'll post some of my VH1 work... but, more importantly, go listen to Rita Moreno. She rocks and she's still relevant. Also, she is comedy gold on the bright, Latino-flavored reboot of Norman Lear's ONE DAY AT A TIME sitcom.
The ONE DAY AT A TIME reboot is on Netflix.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Hot Lips vs Helen Hayes, a 1970 Oscar Race

What a podcast party!  I was absolutely thrilled and honored when Nathaniel Rogers, a classic film enthusiast writer and podcaster I follow on Twitter, asked me to be a panelists in one of his Oscar history podcasts.  I immediately emailed a "YES!" response.  I've written several blog posts detailing my frustration that African Americans and other people of color have been ignored for decades in the classic film discussion -- especially on television.  We're rarely, if ever, seen as hosts of classic films on TV nor are we tapped to talk about classic film history on TV unless the topic is specifically black.  Let's face it.  The white guys are asked to talk about CASABLANCA, CITIZEN KANE, SOME LIKE IT HOT, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and ALL ABOUT EVE.  We black folks could contribute to the discussion, but we're not invited. We're saved for topics like "Blaxploitation Movies," "Slavery in Cinema" or "Classic Films to Rent for Martin Luther King Jr Day."  I was asked to discuss if the Academy got it right in the Best Supporting Actress of 1970 Oscar race.  Four of the nominees were in films that were three of the five nominees for Best Picture of 1970.  There was Karen Black in FIVE EASY PIECES...
 ...Sally Kellerman in MASH, the hit movie that inspired a long-running sitcom of the same name...
 ...Helen Hayes in AIRPORT ...
...and Maureen Stapleton in AIRPORT.
 It's easy to see how and how much of that in-flight cheese platter inspired the hit comedy take-off, AIRPLANE!

FIVE EASY PIECES, MASH and, hard to believe, AIRPORT were nominated for Best Picture of 1970.  The other two nominees were LOVE STORY and PATTON.  PATTON won the Oscar.

Last but so not least in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar category is Lee Grant as a lady of white privilege in the under-seen and under-appreciated Hal Ashby race/class satire, THE LANDLORD.
Want to hear the podcast?  It's pretty cool and informative with a festive moment or two.  Also, I had the opportunity to talk about the late, great Diana Sands.  She was also in THE LANDLORD.
She was a sensational Broadway actress whose film career was cut short by cancer.
Please go here to read about our Best Supporting Actress of 1970 Smackdown and to hear the podcast:

Sunday, May 13, 2018


Remember when MOLLY SHANNON played the awkward but spunky Catholic high school girl on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE?  I loved that character.  I knew girls like that when I was in Catholic school and they provided some colorful memories of my plaid-ridden parochial school years.
Before the excellent Laurie Metcalf got a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing the overworked, judgmental but loving Sacramento mother of a Catholic high school girl who calls herself LADY BIRD, Molly Shannon also played a mother in the beige working class Sacramento suburbs.  She has a grown son who has come to visit.  The movie is OTHER PEOPLE.
Shannon will be seen on HBO come May 19th doing some comic coverage with Will Ferrell of the Royal Wedding.  Between SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and that upcoming HBO appearance, she has knocked out a couple of dramatic home runs in independent films.  One of them, the strongest one, has just hit Netflix.  Here's a short video I did with high praise for OTHER PEOPLE.

Here's a clip.  Go over the Netflix if you're able and check out this Molly Shannon performance.

Friday, May 11, 2018

A Taste of Billy Wilder's THE FORTUNE COOKIE

When fans speak or write their praise of the late, great Billy Wilder, the films of his that usually get mentioned are THE APARTMENT, SOME LIKE IT HOT, SUNSET BLVD. and DOUBLE INDEMNITY.  A film that doesn't get a much mention is his socially sharp 1966 comedy THE FORTUNE COOKIE.  It's one of my favorite Billy Wilder movies and it's another one of his films that has a big twist of Lemmon.  Jack Lemmon.  THE FORTUNE COOKIE is, in movie history, famous for giving us the first teaming of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.  Matthau won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his terrific performance as the slick, crooked brother-in-law lawyer called "Whiplash Willie" to Lemmon's injured TV cameraman character, Harry Hinkle.
Lemmon played a CBS TV cameraman shooting on the field shooting a game for a live telecast.  He gets accidentally tackled by one of the star players for the Cleveland Browns.  The poor cameraman has to spend some time in the hospital.  The football star feels terrible about the accident and visits him I\in the hospital.  The brother-in-law lawyer smells money and suckers the cameraman into pretending he's severely injured and into using a wheelchair that he really does not need so they can scam the insurance company for a hefty amount of money.  We look at scruples in the workplace via the screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.

Harry is single, a divorced man who still carries a torch for his ex-wife, a sexually generous blonde with ambitions of being a nightclub singer.  Poor Harry never realized that she was a selfish user just like Willie.  Willie secretly recruits her into his insurance scheme.  She'll connive her way back into Harry's heart so he'll fall in line and do as Willie orders.  She'll do this for a share of the money. The insurance company has two private eyes observing the injured cameraman.

To me, this is a Billy Wilder Civil Rights era comedy.  It's another Wilder film that makes a strong observation about something, something that is not the main action of the narrative but certainly gives it some juicy added texture.

Look at SUNSET BLVD.  That is a show biz tragedy that could have only happened in L.A.  Los Angeles is car culture and, in the 1950s, Hollywood players in any area of the business needed a car like they needed legs.  In New York City, you have can a life and career without a car.  Look at the theater folks in ALL ABOUT EVE.  Manhattan had subways, taxis and busses to transport you.  L.A. didn't have a subway system.  SUNSET BLVD. opens with cop cars speeding up Sunset Boulevard, sirens blaring, at about 5:00 in the morning.  We will meet three main characters.  Each one will be driven to a point of irrational or irresponsible behavior because of a car.  Struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis is behind on his car payments. He'll speed away from two guys sent to repossess his car and hide it in a stranger's garage.  He'll meet Max, a once-famous silent screen director who is now a Hollywood butler and chauffeur.  He became a chauffeur after he had a breakdown and couldn't bear to be away from a woman he loved. A married woman.  That woman is the rich and faded silent screen star, Norma Desmond.  Max discovered her, directed her and made her a silent screen star in the 1920s.  Norma Desmond is now 50.  When Paramount Studios calls, she thinks she's being contacted to make a comeback.  No.  The studio wants to rent her antique car that Max drives.  This will flip her out.

A car brings those three characters together -- and a car will cause each one some major humiliation in Hollywood.

THE FORTUNE COOKIE came out three years after America watched the day-long live network news telecasts of Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington.  Remember when people like ABC News' George Stephanopoulos said that maybe American had become "post-racial" because we elected Barack Obama president?  Barack Obama served for two terms but we definitely learned that America had not become "post-racial."  We're really seeing it with this current presidency.  There's still a need for racial tolerance and equality.  THE FORTUNE COOKIE subtly shows that racism was not exclusive to the Deep South.  Racism lurked up North in offices and homes in cities considered to be Liberal.

Harry the cameraman was accidentally tackled by Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson.  The cameraman is white.  The football star is black.  Luther is a handsome, young and dapper athlete and a gentleman.  He looks like he could leave the football field and has success in the broadcast field as a TV host.  As a favor to his injured buddy, he drives to the airport to pick up Harry's ex-wife when she flies into town.  He's black and driving.  Sandy, the ex-wife, assumes that he's a hired chauffeur.
Pay attention.  Little things like that while the Harry and "Boom Boom" friendship gets tighter are key.  Racism will be the thing to ignite Harry's rage and force him to do the right thing.  Harry is a TV sports cameraman who supports a level playing field.
I love this Wilder comedy.  I love the almost subliminal way he leveled the playing field.  In Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s, whenever you saw New York City office saw white people as the office workers.  Black actors were maids, butlers, janitors, railroad porters and such.  Look at New York City office scenes in CHRISTMAS IN JULY (1940), LAURA (1944), THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (1947), ADAM'S RIB (1949) and THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (1959).  Notice the number of black people -- men and women in business attire -- who work for Consolidate Life on C.C. Baxter's floor in THE APARTMENT (1960).  C.C. Baxter has albums by Ella Fitzgerald at home in his record collection.  We see it.  When Fran Kubelik meets Mr. Sheldrake for a drink, notice the warm greetings she gets from the Asian workers in the restaurant. It's a mutual feeling.  But, to Mr. Sheldrake, they're practically invisible.  Mr. Baxter and Miss Kubelik embrace diversity.

So does Harry Hinkle in THE FORTUNE COOKIE.  And I think the insurance company in THE FORTUNE COOKIE is Consolidated Life -- the company that C.C. Baxter worked for in THE APARTMENT.
Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson was played by Ron Rich, a man who was very easy on the eye but...bless his actor who was, at best, adequate.  He's very personable but I watch the movie now and wonder what a black actor of more range we know today like a Blair Underwood or Ving Rhames could've done with the part.  I'm sure Ving Rhames would've  jumped at the chance to do it.  He loved Jack Lemmon.

So did I.  And I loved Billy Wilder.  There you have it -- a taste of Billy Wilder's THE FORTUNE COOKIE.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Again, I Say That TCM Needs Color

HOLIDAY INN. When introducing that Oscar-winning 1942 musical packed with songs by Irving Berlin, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz cautioned us that it includes a blackface number performed by Bing Crosby. He did that intro on Easter Sunday.  As was the late Robert Osborne, Ben has been verbally critical the stereotypical Mickey Rooney bit as an Asian neighbor in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S.  In more than one host segment, Ben has mentioned the importance of racial tolerance.  After Easter, he did so when he and TCM Guest Programmer Drew Scott, the Canadian host of the cable home renovation show, PROPERTY BROTHERS, introduced TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
Eddie Muller is the popular host of TCM's "Noir Alley" seen on Sunday mornings.  When talking about MGM's 1950 crime thriller, MYSTERY STREET, he focused on the fabulous Ricardo Montalban in the lead role as a Mexican-American detective using forensics to solve a murder mystery.  Montalban was a Mexican-American actor.  Muller praised MGM for casting Montalban in the role as a Hispanic character when the studio could've easily made the lead character a white male and had him played by someone like Van Johnson.  Last Sunday on the show, Muller said that if he could go back in time, he'd have Montalban play the Mexican-American lead male character in Orson Welles' classic TOUCH OF EVIL (1958).  Charlton Heston played the part.  I agree with Muller.

I think you know where I'm going with this.  The last time I saw an African American guest solo host on TCM was December of 2016.  Groundbreaking DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST film director Julie Dash hosted and she rocked.
Last year, TCM hired New Yorker Tiffany Vazquez as its first Latinx host.  She was knowledgeable, warm, and -- to me -- a mighty fine weekend host.  But TCM did not renew her contract, apparently, after just one year.  Latina Tiffany Vazquez was replaced this a white woman -- Australian Alicia Malone.

I know hipster Eddie Muller means well, but does he realize that TCM management did what he praised MGM for not doing when it cast the lead role in MYSTERY STREET?  TCM now has four full time hosts -- four Caucasian full time hosts.  Ben Mankiewicz, Eddie Muller, Dave Karger and Alicia Malone.  We haven't seen a black Guest Programmer so far this year.  In January, the prime time salute to African American filmmakers on the Martin Luther King holiday was Ben Mankiewicz.  Solo.  No African American guest co-host.

Just a couple of weeks ago, TCM held its successful annual film festival in Hollywood.  I was thrilled to see a lot of black folks in attendance in photos posted on Twitter.  But we black viewers have not seen much representation of ourselves in TCM segments since December 2016.  As I've written before...rarely are we the monthly Guest Programmer.  When "The Essentials" was a Saturday night prime time show hosted by Alec Baldwin, there never was an African American talent opposite Baldwin to co-host a film.

Many of us grew up seeing white men do the weekly film reviews on network morning news shows.  When Siskel & Ebert's popularity as a film review team become iconic, that opened the door for future film review duos on syndicated shows.  Again, they were all white males.  Ben Mankiewicz was one of those men.  Well-paid white guys telling me why I needed to see THE COLOR PURPLE, BOYZ N THE HOOD, THE HELP and 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  I started my TV career as a weekly film critic on the Milwaukee ABC affiliate.  I was on that channel, I did print reviews and, on an independent channel in Milwaukee, I was half of a film review team in the early 80s.  Little did my terrific partner and I know that we were breaking new race and gender ground in the area of film review teams on TV.
After my VH1 talk show host years, I was tapped to be on local news programs in New York City.  I always felt a wall go up when I sought to do film reviews in the studio at the desk.  I hit this wall all through the 90s.  I took it personally -- until I met and started talking to other black film critics in Manhattan.  And there were -- are -- plenty.  We all encountered friction when we wanted to do mainstream movie reviews on TV on a regular basis.  BUT...we were always contacted enthusiastically to go on the air when it was "politically correct."  And that was always for specialized segments -- like films to watch during Black History Month or films to check out regarding a specific topic reflecting  African Americans like the Civil Rights Era, slavery and Blaxploitation movies.  But when a new Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese, Mike Nichols, Wes Anderson or Pedro Almod√≥var film came out, or a new movie starring Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks came out, we were not included in the film review discussion.

I loved how Robert Osborne included black talent in the classic film discussion on TCM -- artists like director Charles Burnett, Spike Lee and Diahann Carroll.  

Remember when AMC was American Movie Classics and had hosts introducing the old movies?  Think of AMC as it was then.  How many of its hosts who talked about classic films were African American?  Think of all the film critics you've seen regularly on news programs and syndicated shows.  How many of them were African American?  It wasn't that we were not interested in the work or that we didn't have the skills.  We could not get into the auditions for those jobs.

If you say, "Bobby, YOU should be on TCM," that's very flattering.  But I am sure it won't happen.  TCM has been aware of me since 1999 when a TCM exec was in our Fox5 studio and watched my live -- and very lively -- interview of Tony Curtis on our GOOD DAY NEW YORK show.  How I loved being with Tony Curtis.  The screen legend was promoting his special interview with Robert Osborne premiering that week.  Back in 2007 when I worked on live morning radio with Whoopi Goldberg, TCM's Darcy Hettrich contacted me personally to help her book Whoopi as a Guest Programmer.  Darcy asked if I could put her in touch with Whoopi's management to make the request.  I told Darcy that the answer would be "yes" and I'd let her know the next morning what four films Whoopi wanted to introduce with Robert Osborne.  

In the studio, I sat so close to Whoopi that we could have held hands during our on-air segments.  Whoopi's answer was "Yes!" and three of her film selections that I emailed to Darcy Hettrich were Cocteau's exquisite 1946 foreign classic BEAUTY AND THE BEAST along with FUNNY GIRL and THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?

By the way, Whoopi and I met in the late 80s when she was a guest on my VH1 talk show.  She contacted and hired me to be a regular on her weekday live national morning radio show because she specifically wanted a black contributor who knew classic films and could review new ones.  Whoopi Goldberg realized that "Representation Matters."  I am still grateful to her.  And she knew my history. Her radio bosses asked if I knew anything about movies. I pushed for a 2006 audition and sent her bosses this short reel of mine.
Representation Matters to me too and on those occasions when I've been allowed to talk movies on TV with guest, I pushed for gender/race diversity.
It's 2018.  American had its first black president in the White House and he served for two terms.  Two films that made international box office history this year are BLACK PANTHER and the current hit, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.  THE BLACK PANTHER gave us a black hero as the lead character and showed Africa as a continent rich with culture, knowledge, power and style. This was so refreshing and so significant just a few days after Trump had referred to Africa as...well, let's just say he put it in the same category as a latrine.  THE BLACK PANTHER was not only terrific action/adventure movie entertainment, it had a healing quality.  Millions of black kids who did not usually see reflections of themselves and the people they know in the movies felt gloriously represented.  They felt significant.                                                                              

I've been a devoted TCM viewer since 1999.  The one thing I'd like to stress to TCM management is that the films in its library come in black and white and color.  Not just white.

The same applies to its audience.  Representation Matters.

One last thing: Last June, for Pride Month, openly gay host Dave Karger presented a TCM Spotlight on LGBT images.  With a guest co-host, he presented films featuring actors who were gay or films that had gay images.  That sort of thing.  As a gay man myself, I watched Karger's special month to see if there would be any African American representation.  There wasn't.  Karger also spotlighted films based on works by gay playwrights -- playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.

He could have also shown A RAISIN IN THE SUN based on the groundbreaking Broadway play written by the African American playwright and lesbian activist, Lorraine Hansberry.  Hansberry also wrote the screenplay for the 1961 film version starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett, Jr. -- stars of the original Broadway cast.  Not many black women were writing Hollywood screenplays in the 1960s.  THAT was major -- and gay history.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Vicki Lester 1954 vs LA LA LAND

It was one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history.  Judy Garland, who'd been off the screen for four years, wowed critics with a spectacular screen comeback in the kind of music drama she'd never been assigned in her famous MGM years.  She starred in the first musical remake of A STAR IS BORN, a film that expertly combined the bright Technicolor and romance of musicals she'd made famous with dark elements of excess, self-destruction, self-loathing and sacrifice.  Vicki Lester is now a singer with a band.  She'll be discovered by alcoholic Norman Maine, a big movie star whose star is falling as he enables hers to ascend.  They will fall in love.  Hollywood will fall in love with her. So will the public.  Hollywood will reject him because of his drinking.  Loving her will be his redemption.  She believes her love can make him stop drinking.  In short, the 1954 remake of A STAR IS BORN shows the high and lows of stardom.  Director George Cukor focuses on the dreamer and what happens after her dream comes true.  Her dream was to have a hit record. Norman Maine sincerely tells her that "the dream isn't big enough." He adds, "Don't settle for the little dream. Go on to the big one."  And we get some great got original music -- most notably, "The Man That Got Away."  The Best Song Oscar nominee became one of Garland's signature tunes for the rest of her life.
Today's critics raved that LA LA LAND was great musical.  It got 14 Oscar nominations.  More Oscar nominations than THE WIZARD OF OZ, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, THE BAND WAGON, THE KING AND I, WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC.  I've seen LA LA LAND more than once yet I can't remember the words to a single song in it. I love Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.  However, the first time I saw it, I felt like the odd man out for disagreeing with the critical raves.  It was nice to look at and the musical numbers were creatively shot, but the whole thing was like a really pretty Christmas gift box displayed in a Macy's window.  It was pleasing to the eye but there was nothing inside.  In fact, when it ended the first time I saw it, an older woman in the audience said in an Ethel Merman-like voice, "That's it?!?!  Well, it's no FUNNY GIRL."  She's right.  The millennial musical was no FUNNY GIRL.  But it got 14 Oscar nominations.

Gosling and Stone played two young show biz hopefuls living in Los Angeles who meet and have a romantic attraction.  She works behind the counter at a coffeeshop and goes to some humiliating auditions.  Vicki Lester (Garland) will also have a coffee & fast food service gig to pay the rent before she gets a big break, thanks to a very honorable Norman Maine (played brilliantly by Best Actor Oscar nominee, James Mason).

If you love LA LA LAND, here's what I beg you to do.  Watch Judy Garland in at least the first half hour of A STAR IS BORN.  Just like in LA LA LAND, you will see two performers in Los Angeles who meet and are romantically attracted to each other while trying to have good career luck.  Movie star Norman Maine sees that the anonymous singer with the band is far more talented than she realizes.  He'll see this when she sings "The Man That Got Away."  Notice that the number runs about 4 1/2 minutes and it's shot in one continuous take.  No edit.  Also, Garland sang along with the playback.  She didn't just lip sync.

If you stay through the rest of the film, and you should, there's the "Born In A Trunk" number.  The last act has Garland in a soundstage dressing room breakdown scene.  Vicki Lester confides to the studio head that Norman's drinking has shattered her life, but she still loves him. She has this riveting emotional scene during a short break while filming a jazzy, optimistic musical.
Judy Garland never won an Oscar in her career.  Vicki Lester won an Oscar but Judy Garland never did.  She was nominated twice.  She should have won for A STAR IS BORN.  I do not mean this disrespectfully.  However, if Emma Stone won Best Actress for LA LA LAND, then Judy Garland should have won Best Actress for A STAR IS BORN.  It's a magnificent performance that takes you on quite an emotional journey.  We watch Garland's character go from being Esther Blodgett to becoming Vicki Lester and then Mrs. Norman Maine.  And that singing voice....absolutely amazing.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Detail in Denzel Washington Movies

He's won two of them.  He's been nominated for more Oscars than any other African American actor in all Hollywood history. With his Best Actor nomination early this year for ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ., Denzel Washington had racked his 8th nomination.  With the sensational reviews he got a few days ago for his lead performance in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's THE ICEMAN COMETH, he's probably in store to rack up another Tony nomination too.
Directed by George C. Wolfe, it's playing on W. 45th Street at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre.  Go here for ticket information:

The CBS SUNDAY news program had a nice interview feature on Mr. Washington today.  It was taped onstage at the theatre.  He talked, of course, about his new Broadway show and about the early days of his career.  During the piece, there was clip of PHILADELPHIA, the 1993 film in which he played a homophobic lawyer who represents an AIDS-stricken unemployed lawyer fighting for his civil rights in the Philadelphia.  The bigotry of homophobia cost him his job.
I noticed a detail in two Denzel Washington movies and both details involve leaders in the Civil Rights Movement.
When Denzel's character meets the ailing Tom Hanks character for the first time, you see the black lawyer tense up when the white man in need of legal help states that he has AIDS.  When you see the black lawyer quickly end their introductory handshake, there's a framed photo of Dr. Martin Luther King seen on the office wall in the shot in between the two characters -- and Dr. King seems to be gazing at the AIDS victim.  That detail tells us that the black lawyer will be tested. If he adheres to the principals of Dr. King, he will have to step out of his own narrow-minded feelings about gay people and do the bigger work.  He'll have to fight for the mistreated man's civil rights.  As Dr. King would have.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. is a 2017 film drama that put Denzel in legal action again.  Here, he's quite different.  The story is set in Los Angeles.  He's middle-aged, on the chunky side, in need of a haircut, in need of a new wardrobe and he takes the bus because he can't afford a car.
He's also a brilliant and idealistic defense lawyer.  He has a different personal rhythm and behavior. We assume it's autism because there's a slight touch of the RAIN MAN about his personality.  However, he's like a walking law library and his skills are needed.  A sleek, high profile law firm is keen on adding his services to its roster but Roman's roots are in activism.  He's got a small, cluttered apartment that he can barely afford.  He's romantically unattached.  When he's at home and working, we saw above him a framed photo on the wall.  It's a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King's most trusted advisor -- the brilliant, cultured, outspoken man who was called "The Architect of the March on Washington."  That man, who stood behind Dr. King when he delivered the now historic "I Have a Dream" speech was the black and openly gay Bayard Rustin.

Rustin was an outsider within a large group of outsiders.  This was back in the day when men could get arrested for simply being in a gay bar.  He was gay and black. Roman will be an outsider in a room of outsiders when the middle-aged activist is put down by young black activists because he's "old school."  There's no "love interest" for Denzel in this movie but there is a lovely woman who goes out with him and is greatly attracted to the true light within him.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. has one of my now favorite Denzel Washington performances.  He's more vulnerable here than he's come to be over the years. His characters have flaws that are dramatic, serious, nothing to laugh at -- think THE HURRICANE, FENCES, FLIGHT, TRAINING DAY.  He's a no-nonsense hero in THE EQUALIZER.  In ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ., there's a touch of doofiness about his character that makes him warm and inviting.  Roman eventually will experience melodramatic, heartbreaking incidents.  He'll get spruced up and beaten up.  But, before then, it's refreshing to see something about a Denzel Washington character that "lightens up" a bit, if you know what I mean.

I thought the framed photo of Bayard Rustin in Roman's humble apartment was a most interesting and an inspired touch.

Oh!  One thing that was not mentioned in the CBS SUNDAY feature.  Well, two things.  There was no mention of his Oscar history as Hollywood's most Oscar-nominated black actor.  And there was no mention that David Morse, another terrific veteran actor, joins Denzel Washington in the cast of THE ICEMAN COMETH.  David Morse and Denzel Washington were co-stars on the hit NBC series, ST. ELSEWHERE, back in the 1980s.

 ST. ELSEWHERE marked the first and only time Denzel Washington worked with Howie Mandel.

A HAIR Cut for NBC?

This was the rock musical of the late 1960s that caused a great big controversy when it hit Broadway.  Folks either hated it -- like Leonard...