Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Bit of THE BLUE BIRD (1940)

This is the Shirley Temple fantasy movie that could've been called I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD FLOPS.  That's just what it did with critics and moviegoers.  If you're a classic film enthusiast, you probably know that MGM sought to borrow 20th Century Fox's top star, Shirley Temple, to play Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ.  Temple was the right age for Dorothy, as she is in the book.  But Fox would not loan out its star.  Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Temple was a major Hollywood star before she was 10.  She brought in big money for Fox.  Her look, her screen image, truly became the icon for the Hollywood child star.  She acted, she danced, and she sang.  She introduced songs that went on to become standards played and sung by top jazz artists.  But newcomer Judy Garland, although technically a few years too old for the role, had the extraordinary singing voice that Shirley Temple didn't and she, as an actress, had a soulfulness and depth that little Shirley didn't.  Judy Garland became Hollywood's newest teen star with THE WIZARD OF OZ and it started her on her way to becoming a Hollywood legend.  20th Century Fox came up with a Technicolor fantasy for Shirley Temple, one with household pets taking human form and accompany her on a spiritual journey somewhere over the Eastern European rainbow.  THE BLUE BIRD was based on a 1908 play by Maurice Maeterlinck.  Bothersome little Mytyl and her younger brother Tyltyl are peasant kids who live with their peasant parents in the woods.  Mytyl wants to find the Blue Bird of Happiness she tells her mother about.  When she and her brother are asleep, a fairy appears and takes them on a journey to find the Blue Bird of Happiness.
This hunk o' celluloid cheese didn't work in 1940.  It didn't work in 1976 when George Cukor directed a remake starring Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Jane Fonda and Cicely Tyson.  The remake is, in so many ways, brilliantly bad.  It demands you watch it with a couple of gay male buddies and pitchers of Margaritas.  I remember reading newspaper reports about behind the scenes difficulties.  The main one being that no one seemed to listen to Cicely Tyson when she kept telling Mr. Cukor that he could not put her in the same lighting he was giving Taylor and Fonda because she was several shades darker than Taylor and Fonda, two Caucasian movie stars.  Cicely, of course, was right.  Cicely Tyson played the cat.

Elizabeth Taylor has four roles in the fantasy.  Her best costume is when she plays Light.  Taylor's first scene is --- are you ready? -- as the peasant Mother.  Elizabeth Taylor as a peasant woman making gruel for her kids.  In lederhosen territory.  That is when you knock back the first Margarita.  She should've gotten an Oscar nomination for that instead of BUTTERFIELD 8.  This film probably marks one of the few times Elizabeth Taylor was ever seen doing any kind of kitchen work in her adult life.
Another scene that requires a Margarita is Elizabeth Taylor as Witch and Ava Gardner as Luxury.  Ava looks like she was glued onto the saddle of the horse she's riding and the expression on her face says "That check better be on my agent's desk tomorrow" coupled with "When the hell is lunch?"
In the 1940 version, there is one sequence that fascinates me.  The fairy takes the two youngster to the Land of Unborn Souls.  They're all waiting for their turns to head to earth and be born.  There's sort of a Grecian temple set design and dozens of white kids in togas are playing, lounging or creating.  This film has an all-white cast.  Shirley goes up to one adolescent fellow who's mixing liquids with his chemistry set.  She tells her that he's inventing anesthetic drugs so people can have broken limbs operated on without pain.  Mytyl (Shirley) enthusiastically replies, "Do hurry and get yourself born."
There's a toddler girl who tries to sneak onto the Ship to Earth but she's politely told yet again that it's not her time yet.  She sneaked onto the ship twice before, was found, and quickly returned to the temple. She's probably Miscarriage.

There's a slim, tall boy leaning again a column and looking forlorn.  He tells Mytyl what he knows about life on Earth.  "There's too much unhappiness...So many are born into slavery...That's what I'm going to fight."

Mytyl (Shirley) cheerfully tells him he should look forward to being born so he can help.  With a grim expression, he predicts "They'll destroy me."

Every time I see that scene in 1940's THE BLUE BIRD, I always feels that it would have had an even stronger emotional punch if the part had been played by a black teen actor.  It's a small but substantial role that could've made a jarring yet accurate social statement, one that definitely would've resonated when looking back on the film come the end of the 1960s, a decade of the turbulent Civil Rights Movement.  And it would've been the best part of the movie.  An African-American teen actor as Studious Boy (played by Gene Reynolds) would have been a bold, strong, dramatic casting decision for that good bit part -- in my opinion.

Here's a taste of THE BLUE BIRD.  I'm going to go watch THE WIZARD OF OZ again.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

About EMMYS 2018

There were some golden moments -- one involved a surviving cast member of THE GOLDEN GIRLS -- and the show ended on time.  Unlike the Oscars, the Emmys telecast didn't go over three hours.  However, I do hope that the writers, producers and director all recorded the Emmys show and will watch in real time like we viewers had to do last night.  That way, they can see for themselves why the telecast mostly sucked.  The opening musical number satirizing networks' lack of diversity in shows and casting was pretty ho-hum and eventually unfortunate.  Unfortunate because there were so few winners of color that CBS star James Corden, when he got up to be a presenter, requested the show be called "Emmys So White."
The absolutely terrific Regina King won and Emmy.  So did Thandie Newton.  But, at a certain point in the show, we saw more black people in the In Memoriam package that we did making acceptance speeches.
The hosts were Colin Jost and Michael Che from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.  The Emmys aired on NBC.  Later in the show, Che did a taped comedy feature called "Reparation Emmys."  THAT was funny.  He took an Emmy and presented it to black actors who were overlooked by the TV academy decades ago.  We saw Marla Gibbs, Jimmie Walker, Jaleel White and the inimitable John Witherspoon.  That piece should have opened the show instead of the lame "We Solved It" diversity crisis number.

Betty White made a special guest appearance.  She looked marvelous, a radiant 96.  Henry Winkler was the show's first winner and his Emmy was very well-deserved.  The role of the Southern California acting class teacher on HBO's BARRY is the best one he's had in decades.  The teacher has no idea one of his new students is a hired killer.  The problem with the Emmys was evident during Winkler's acceptance speech.  The actor became a huge TV star on HAPPY DAYS back in the 1970s.  He'd never won an Emmy.  He had about 40 seconds to make an acceptance speech after a much too-long and moderately funny opening monologue by the SNL host couple.  Time should've been whacked off that monologue in rehearsals and allotted to the night's first winner.  Winkler's acceptance speech and the love he got from the audience was a show highlight.

About love … the peak memorable moment of last night's show was true love and the live marriage proposal made by Emmy winner Glenn Weiss during his acceptance speech.  Glenn is pretty much the annual director of the Oscars and the Tony Awards. The audience went wild with applause.  A fabulous unexpected moment.  The girlfriend loved it too. She didn't see it coming either.
I had several fun days working with Glenn Weiss back in the early 90s.  After my contract with VH1 expired, one of the gigs I booked was as host of a relationship game show called BEDROOM BUDDIES, directed by Glenn Weiss.  Think THE NEWLYWED GAME only, on our show, couples didn't have to be married. It's a long, loopy story but I wound up getting that job thanks to Broadway Tony winner and film/TV actress Joanna Gleason.  The show was a 4-week summer replacement late night game show.  The four weeks were a test to see if we'd get picked up for syndication.

We didn't.  Everyone on the crew, except for the show's executive producer/creator, knew that it wouldn't get picked up because it was cheesier than a Wisconsin fondue.  We knew that critics would hate it.  Which they did.  One TV critic wrote "Not since Chernobyl..." They hated the suggestive contest questions about the couples' love lives.  Our game show was a spin-off from one called STUDS which had bachelors looking for love.

Critics hated the show but the experience of working with Glenn Weiss, the writers and the rest of that crew was one of the most fun work experiences I ever had in my career.  I loved every single day.  Our motto was, "Let's do our best, keep a good sense of humor, then take the money and run."

Mazel Tov, Glenn Weiss.  You deserve happiness.

Other than that -- the Emmy comedy bits with Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, two comedy performers I totally dig, all fell flat over and over again.  Will Ferrell....why was he there?  His bit was funny … only to Will Ferrell.

My biggest disappointment with last night's Emmys?  Sandra Oh didn't win an Outstanding Actress award.

We didn't hear any Emmy winner say "It's an honor just to be nominated," nevertheless I'm positive that's how many of them felt.  Oscar winner Sally Field has been on network TV promoting the publication of her memoir, IN PIECES.  I've been lucky enough to interview her three times on TV.  The first piece I ever did that aired nationally was a 6-minute interview of Sally Field when she was promoting her 1981 comedy film, BACK ROADS. She'd won her first Oscar by then.  In 1988, she was a wonderful guest on my prime time VH1 talk show.  When I worked on WNBC local news, I interviewed her when she was promoting 1994's FORREST GUMP.

I have never, ever been nominated for either a local or national Emmy in my entire career.  If I was to hear my name in years to come as an Emmy nominee, I'd probably break out crying and I truly would feel that it's an honor just to be nominated.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Dorothy Dandridge as CARMEN JONES (1954)

This fiery, sexy performance by the late, great Dorothy Dandridge made Hollywood history.  The Best Actress of 1954 Oscar race became one of the most famous in that award's history.  Judy Garland was the favorite to win for her magnificent screen comeback in the first remake of A STAR IS BORN, one that made the unknown performer a singer with a band who gets discovered and discovers the dark side of Hollywood fame while starring in sunny musicals. Garland's main competition was new Hollywood Golden Girl, Grace Kelly, a sophisticated lady who went drab and dramatic in THE COUNTRY GIRL.  Dorothy Dandridge broke through the Hollywood color barrier and became the first black woman to be an Oscar nominee for Best Actress thanks to her work in the musical drama, CARMEN JONES directed by Otto Preminger.  Dorothy Dandridge worked hard at her craft. She was a serious student in classes and truly had star quality.  But Hollywood was restricted back then.  Black actors could move up only so far.  Even the most talented would not get equal opportunities and respect.
Dandridge deserved to be in that Best Actress category.  She burns up the screen with charisma, sex appeal, glamour...and talent.  This story is a modern day take on Bizet's opera CARMEN.  We'd seen the tale of the doomed temptress before and she's a character who seems to work when viewed through different racial lenses.  Rita Hayworth, then at the height of her Hollywood stardom, was Latina and so was her Carmen in the 1948 Technicolor melodrama, THE LOVES OF CARMEN set in 19th century Spain.  Rita Hayworth is at her vivacious best as the lusty gypsy romanced by a young, naïve soldier (played by Glenn Ford.)  Next came Dorothy.
CARMEN JONES is modern day with modern day soldiers and updated original lyrics to Bizet's operatic melodies.  CARMEN JONES has an all-Black cast that includes Diahann Carroll, Pearl Bailey and Brock Peters.  Harry Belafonte was Dorothy's leading man.

Dandridge could sing but she was not an operatic singer so her singing is dubbed by Marilyn Horne.  Dandridge was a Hollywood veteran by that time.  She, like other Black actresses, had played maids and went uncredited in some roles she did.  You can spot her with her sister in the Marx Brothers comedy, A DAY AT THE RACES (1937).  She's in the "All God's Children Got Rhythm" swing number set in the black folks section of town.  She's an African princess opposite another screen beauty, Gene Tierney, in 1941's SUNDOWN.  Also in 1941, she had a musical number with the Nicholas Brothers in 20th Century Fox's SUN VALLEY SERENADE.
I've written before that, if Hollywood had not been so racially unenlightened, Dorothy Dandridge should have been able to play characters like Lana Turner did -- gorgeous young women who were restless, not content to settle for the traditional married life without having a taste of something better. Maybe a bite of some sweet forbidden fruit just to see how it tastes.  And she should've played the gorgeous young woman at war with herself until she wins the battle and finds self-esteem and independence.  Think of the Lana Turner characters in ZIEGFELD GIRL, JOHNNY EAGER, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.  It would've been great to see Dorothy do those kind of roles.

High praise George Cukor had for Judy Garland's acting skill during production of A STAR IS BORN made me think of Dorothy Dandridge in CARMEN JONES.  Pay attention the next time you see that Otto Preminger musical.  In A STAR IS BORN, Judy Garland introduces the blues song "The Man That Got Away" and it's one of the most dynamic, thrilling numbers in Hollywood movie musical history.  It's a long number. It runs at four and a half minutes.  Garland sings this torch song in one continuous take.  Not a single cut or edit.  She's onscreen in a wide shot for the entire performance.  Cukor said that it takes a strong actress to carry a scene that long without a cut.  Garland was a sensational, soul-touching singer and a strong actress.  Also, she didn't lip sync.  She sang along to her playback full out and often topped it in volume.

Dandridge was the third woman in Hollywood history to be nominated for an Oscar.  The first was Hattie McDaniel for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND.  Hattie won for Best Supporting Actress.  Singer/actress Ethel Waters was nominated in the same category for the 1949 race drama, PINKY.  Both actresses were hefty women cast as domestics, uneducated but wise women, outfitted in sexless and plain dresses.  In Dandridge's Carmen, we see a talented woman slapping white Hollywood in the face with the realization that a black actress can be just as sexy and alluring as a Rita Hayworth, a Lana Turner and an Ava Gardner.  Her Carmen is not only sexy, she's smart.  There's an intelligence in Dandridge's performance that's always at play.  As she teases and tempts the soldiers on the base, we see that her Carmen is a shrewd captain in the Battle of the Sexes.  She constantly advances.  She understands the politics of sex.  For her, sex is not just pleasure. It's also power.  She's honest about her sexuality and realizes that it may be the sole currency a black woman alone has in life.  She may not know where she's going, but she's determined to chart her own course.  In this performance, Dorothy Dandridge challenged previous images of black women presented onscreen by white Hollywood.  Within her work and within the Hollywood studio system, for the time she was given, she was a rebel.

Dorothy Dandridge, whose career was painfully crippled after her groundbreaking Oscar nomination because of her race, was also a strong actress.  Watch her musical numbers.  Maybe because this project sported an all-Black cast, it didn't get the budget the "usual" musicals got.  For someone who was a screen beauty, there's never a close-up glamour shot in any of Dandridge's numbers, not like you'd traditionally see in movie musical songs being done by an Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Dorothy Lamour, Doris Day or Ava Gardner and Judy Garland at MGM.  Although her talents were under-utilized at MGM because of her race, singer Lena Horne did get glamorous close-ups in her musical numbers.  Dandridge in CARMEN JONES is in shots for a long time singing and -- like Garland belting out "The Man That Got Away" -- she can hold the scene without a cut or edit.
She and Judy Garland both lost the Oscar.  Grace Kelly won for THE COUNTRY GIRL.

Dorothy Dandridge reminded people of her impressive acting talent, her true movie star glamour and undeniable screen charisma in another Otto Preminger musical drama, 1959's PORGY AND BESS co-starring Sidney Poitier.  It was her next Hollywood leading lady script offer for a film shot in Hollywood after her 1954 breakthrough performance.  1954 to 1959.  And it was her last film role. Racism robbed us of more great work from the gifted star Lena Horne lovingly called "our Marilyn Monroe."

CARMEN JONES airs on cable's TCM (Turner Classic Movies) at 8p Eastern on Tuesday, September 18th.  CARMEN JONES airs as part of TCM's month-long salute to the Black Experience On Film.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

About Claudette Colbert

The Best Actress Oscar winner, a delicious French-American dish of sophistication, wit and talent, was born on this day in history.  She won her Best Actress Oscar for Frank Capra's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, often called the Granddaddy of Screwball Comedies.  Her co-star, Clark Gable, took the Oscar for Best Actor.  Capra won for Best Director and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT took the Oscar for Best Picture of 1934.  If IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is the Granddaddy of Screwball Comedies then Claudette Colbert was the original runaway bride.  She'd be followed by future actresses in comedies who also played runaway brides -- actresses from Ginger Rogers to Sally Field and Julia Roberts.
That film was made for Columbia Pictures.  But from the very early 1930s through the 1940s, Claudette Colbert established herself as one of the most glamorous and flexible film actresses at Paramount.  For that studio, she was an art deco CLEOPATRA in De Mille's historical 1934 epic, she was the love interest opposite Broadway's George M. Cohan in his only major studio release as a leading man. Paramount's 1932 comedy, THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT, made decades before Kevin Kline played DAVE, was a comedy about an entertainer who looks exactly like the President of the United States and is called into action to pretend he's the president. Colbert and Fred MacMurray tried to dodge the Salem Witch Hunts in 1937's MAID OF SALEM, she's an intrepid lady newspaper reporter dodging bullets in war-torn Spain with Ray Milland in 1940's ARISE, MY LOVE and she's the American chorus girl/singer stranded and broke in Paris in the fabulous and under-appreciated 1939 comedy gem, MIDNIGHT, a hip twist on the Cinderella tale.  She's very good as the military nurse doing her duty overseas right after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1943's SO PROUDLY WE HAIL, a movie about American women in uniform.
I could add several others but I cannot leave out another one of her comedy peaks.  It's one of my favorites.  She's terrific with Joel McCrea in the 1942 Preston Sturges classic, THE PALM BEACH STORY.

She had more hits and got more good reviews going into the 1950s.  Classic film devotees know that Colbert was originally slated to play Margo Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 classic, ALL ABOUT EVE.  She reportedly sprained her back and had to withdraw from the project.  Bette Davis, who was in a career lull at the time, was sent the script -- and the rest is film history.  Davis worked under contract to Warner Bros. for about 16 years and won two Best Actress Oscars during her time at that studio.  However, when the screen legend died, all the obits on TV news programs began with a clip of Bette Davis in Fox's ALL ABOUT EVE as the Broadway diva ordering her party guests to "Fasten your's going to be a bumpy night."
ALL ABOUT EVE was a 20th Century Fox production.  I wanted to write a few quick notes about Claudette Colbert and that film.  It broke her heart to lose the Margo Channing role.  In 1950, moviegoers saw Claudette Colbert in a WW2 drama based on a true life story.  THREE CAME HOME was a victory for her.  It has one of Colbert's best dramatic outings.  It's about female prisoners of war in the Pacific.
In styling and attitude and carriage, Claudette Colbert and Bette Davis were vastly different Hollywood stars.  In the 1930s, she was Cleopatra.  In the 1930s, Bette Davis was Queen Elizabeth.  Claudette Colbert was a master at making a beer seem like a champagne cocktail the way she played comedies for Capra, Lubitsch, Capra, Mitchell Leisen and Preston Sturges.  I read articles by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the man who won Oscars for directing and writing ALL ABOUT EVE, that there would have been "fire and ice" approaches to playing Margo from those two stars.  Bette gave us the fire. He added that some folks incorrectly assumed Davis based her Margo on Broadway legend Tallulah Bankhead.  One of Bankhead's greatest Broadway successes was in THE LITTLE FOXES.  Davis did Tallulah's lead role in the film version.  Tallulah played Margo Channing in an abbreviated 1952 radio version of ALL ABOUT EVE.

Mankiewicz stated that, had Claudette Colbert played Margo, folks would've assumed she was imitating Ilka Chase.  Chase was also a successful Broadway actress.  She originated the Sylvia Fowler role on Broadway in THE WOMEN, the role that Rosalind Russell did in the film version and made memorable with own special energy and comedy style.

Look at ALL ABOUT EVE again.  Anne Baxter, as the duplicitous Eve, is out to replicate her idol, Broadway's great Margo Channing.  She weasels her way into her kind idol's life and then sets out to replace her on Broadway and in the bedroom.  As the wonderful Thelma Ritter as Margo's friend/housekeeper Birdie warns:  ".... she's studying you, like you was a play or a book or a set of blueprints.  How you walk, talk, eat, think, sleep."

With that said, look at how Anne Baxter is styled compared to how Bette Davis looks as Margo.  Does Baxter look like a younger copy of Davis' Margo?  Or does, in the way she's styled, resemble more a Claudette Colbert type? This is nothing again the performances, it's just a note on the look.  Maybe Baxter's look was already set when the crew thought Colbert was in --- then the injury took her out and Davis was a last-minute replacement.  A true duplicate of the Bette Davis Margo would've been more of a 1940s Lizabeth Scott or Lauren Bacall, in my opinion.  What do you think?
Now think about the end of ALL ABOUT EVE with that final shot.  Karma will bite Eve Harrington in the backside via an upstart ingenue her calls herself "Phoebe" and cons her way into Eve Harrington's hotel room and her life after Eve becomes Broadway's newest sensation.  If Claudette Colbert had played Margo, Anne Baxter's look would have been a duplicate and Phoebe's look would have been a triplicate.

As for Ilka Chase … both Hollywood stars worked with her.  Ilka Chase played the caring, generous cousin to Bette Davis' Charlotte Vale character in NOW, VOYAGER.  Ilka Chase and Claudette Colbert played sisters in the Paramount's 1943 romantic comedy NO TIME FOR LOVE co-starring Fred MacMurray.

Claudette Colbert's last onscreen hit performance was delivered in a made-for-TV film.  She landed the highly coveted role in the 1987 drama, THE TWO MRS. GRENVILLES.  Yes, 1987.  Based on a Dominick Dunne best-seller, she's the wealthy mother of the chorus girl who married and -- she believes -- murdered her son.  Ann-Margret played the detestable daughter-in-law.  THE TWO MRS. GRENVILLES is available on Warner Archive DVD.

From the Best Actress of 1934 Oscar win to a hit NBC TV mini-series in 1987 that brought her Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.  What a long and successful she had.  Claudette Colbert died in 1996 at age 92.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Jim Carrey is KIDDING

The comedian/actor has received high praise for his new performance that premieres tonight.  He plays a beloved children's TV show host -- like Mister Rogers -- whose life is hit with some dark, devastating events.  The off-camera life of the man famously known as Mr. Pickles is falling apart.  Entertainment Weekly printed that "Jim Carrey does his best work in years in dramedy KIDDING."
The first half-hour of this ten- episode drama/comedy airs tonight.  Six of the ten episodes were directed by Michel Gondry.  He's the man who drew a strong performance out of Carrey in the 2004 film ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND.  KIDDING airs on Showtime.
Rolling Stone wrote "Jim Carrey makes a triumphant return to TV with a moving, lived-in performance..."  Remember that Carrey was a cast regular on the IN LIVING COLOR comedy sketch series on TV back in the 1990s.  The Hollywood Reporter said "Carrey is superb as a man who, like Fred Rogers himself, really is that nice on and off set."
I want to see KIDDING because I'm always fascinated to see comedians flip the coin of their image, their brand persona, and play the dramatic side of the story.  Way back when I gave in to a dear friend's constant urging and started this blog, one of my early pieces was about my wonderful encounter with a then-unknown Jim Carrey.  This was when I new to New York City television and had just started my two years of work on WPIX TV/Channel 11.  We had a weekday local magazine show.  On it, I did occasional celebrity interviews.  Lauren Hutton was scheduled.  I'd interviewed her during my previous job and she remembered me when I went to greet her in the greenroom.  She pulled me aside and ask for a small favor before we started taping.  There was a guy in her new comedy, ONCE BITTEN, and she felt he was meant for stardom.  He'd tagged along with her for a couple of her press appointments.  She asked if he could go on with her for the interview so viewers could be introduced to him.  The guy was Jim Carrey.  This was a supremely gracious gesture from the woman who was the star of the film.

I had no problem with adding this unknown to the interview segment.  Jim Carrey went on with Lauren Hutton...and killed.  Warm, quick-witted, a charismatic dude with elastic facial muscles.  The camera guys were laughing.  When you break up the camera crew, you've struck gold.  This funny, fresh-faced, polite new actor had won us over -- well, just about all of us.  Our stuffy producer remarked, "He's silly.  He'll never get anyplace."  Five years later, he debuted on a new Fox TV comedy series called IN LIVING COLOR.

We were so grateful to Lauren Hutton that day at WPIX TV.  Few folks recall her 1985 vampire comedy, ONCE BITTEN.  But ten years later, Jim Carrey would be one of the biggest movie comedy stars in Hollywood.  Millions of moviegoers remember 1994's box office blockbusters ACE VENTURA, THE MASK and DUMB AND DUMBER followed by THE CABLE GUY and LIAR LIAR.

When Carrey goes dramatic, he's extremely effective.  His work in 1998's prescient film, THE TRUMAN SHOW, was one of my favorite performances in a film of that year.  (If you had predicted in 1998 that we'd one day have a president who was a former reality TV show host with no previous political experience, we'd have doubled over laughing.  Watch THE TRUMAN SHOW now and think of America's current state.)

Early in his career, Jim Carrey showed his ease and skill with dramatic material.  Did you ever see the 1992 TV movie called DOING TIME ON MAPLE DRIVE?  We see the dysfunctions, heartbreaks, secrets and lies of an upscale white family.  One son drinks, another attempts suicide because he's a closeted gay.  Carrey played the son with the drinking problem.  He delivered a stand-out performance.

Early in 2009, Sundance premiered a new Jim Carrey film.  Based on a true story, it took a poke at the attitude of the George W. Bush administration.  I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS has a bold, provocative, funny and praiseworthy performance from Carrey.  But the film seemed to have been shelved.  Odd, considering the tremendous and profitable movie stardom Carrey had achieved.  Two years later, Ewan McGregor -- Carrey's co-star in I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS -- was on GOOD MORNING AMERICA promoting another project and he was asked when his film with Carrey was going to be released nationwide.  McGregor didn't know.

I saw it on DVD.  I can't recall it playing in any New York City theaters and I can't recall any big promotion for it.  I saw it on cable a couple of times a few months ago.  I watched it a couple of times because I'm that impressed with it.  Especially Carrey's commitment to his character.

I think the film was withheld because, like with the cop buddy/crime thriller KISS KISS BANG BANG with Val Kilmer as a gay L.A. detective, the lead male character is a tough, street smart, openly gay man who is no one's victim.  Carrey plays a Virginia Beach cop and family man leading a pretty traditional life -- except when he realizes that he's gay.  He's also discovered something about his childhood.  A lie that made him an outsider and put a hole in his heart.  Well, he comes out of the closet, gets a divorce, relocates to Miami and gets a boyfriend.  Then comes another realization --being gay is expensive.  The former cop becomes a con man to keep his boyfriend looking good and to keep sending money to the ex-wife and their little girl.  By the way, he and the sweet ex-wife remained friends and speak often on the phone.

He winds up in prison, where he runs another racket, and falls in love with a fellow inmate named Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).  What I love about Carrey's performance is that he took elements of what his fan base loved in his comedy films such as LIAR LIAR and showed the dramatic side of the antics, the side driven by heartbreak.  It's a sexually frank, unpredictable role and Carrey has definite chemistry with the gifted, versatile Ewan McGregor.  I never thought I'd swoon at a men's prison cell scene with Johnny Mathis singing "Chances Are" being played as background music.
I think Jim Carrey as an assertive, romantic top who schemes, steals and breaks out of prison for the man he loves unnerved some white hetero males in Hollywood marketing departments.  I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS shows some good, solid acting work from Jim Carrey.  You'll laugh, but he plays it all seriously which is the way to play it in this vehicle.  He never sacrifices the wounded humanity of the character to insert some "Jim Carrey" verbal or physical sight gags.

I'm eager to see him exercise his elastic dramatic muscles in KIDDING.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Black Film Critics Come to TCM

September is an overdue and breakthrough month on TCM (Turner Classic Movies).  Black film critics will be on Tuesdays and Thursdays to present "The Black Experience On Film."  I talk about this in my current podcast episode.  I explain why this TCM special event is overdue by reminding you of the 1980s when NBC, CBS and ABC network morning shows each had a weekly film critic.  Siskel & Ebert gave us film reviews on a new syndicated show called AT THE MOVIES. Pairs of critics replaced them on SNEAK PREVIEWS. Today, the CBS MORNING SHOW has film critic David Edelstein.  What do all those critics have in common?  All white males.  Did TV executives who book and hire think black film critics didn't exist?  Let's just say that opportunities were not and have not been equal, so much so that Rotten Tomatoes made recent New York Times news with the announcement that it added 200 critics to help repair its lack of race/gender inclusion.  Rotten Tomatoes was 82% white male. It's time to let diversity march in.
This month, TCM's "Black Experience On Film" includes airings of A SOLDIER'S STORY (1984) and A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961), two films based on hit plays.
In the podcast, I'll tell you about the wall director Norman Jewison had to punch through to get his film, a story with a predominantly black cast, made.  I'll tell you how black playwright Lorraine Hansberry was groundbreaking on Broadway and with the Hollywood studio adaptation of her hit play.  Members of her original Broadway cast -- Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Lou Gossett. Jr., Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands -- recreated their roles in the screen version.

Members of the AAFCA, the African American Film Critics Association, will be on TCM for the "Black Experience On Film" nights.  These are critics you rarely see on national television.  In fact, this month may mark the first time many TV viewers see black female film critics.  The Los Angeles Times is the only outlet I can think of that reports on what awards the African American Film Critics Association gives out annually.  And don't think that the AAFCA only honors black actors.  It gave acting awards to JK Simmons for WHIPLASH (he later won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor of 2014) and Frances McDormand for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (she later won the Oscar for Best Actress of 2017).

The one awkward programming element I see in this special event is that the TCM "Black Experience On Film" spotlight premieres on Sept. 4th, hours after the TCM daytime airing of HOLIDAY INN, a major 1942 Paramount musical with several characters in a blackface production number saluting Abraham Lincoln ("...who was it set the darkies free? Abraham! Abraham!") and sung by Bing Crosby. In blackface. HOLIDAY INN should've been scheduled for another day.

Films are my passion.  I took Film Journalism courses at Marquette University. After graduation, I was the first black film critic seen on Milwaukee TV.  I did that for four years, plus celebrity interviews. I got hired away by New York City in 1985.  I had my own talk show on VH1.  That terrific opportunity was in the late 80s. In 1992, I started years of work on local and network TV news shows in New York City.

From 1992 to 2006, white broadcast executives frequently asked me "Do you know anything about movies?" and "Have you ever done any entertainment news pieces?" when I pushed for auditions and equal opportunities.  It was always frustrating to feel that my skills and history had been overlooked. That's why I keep pushing for race/gender diversity and inclusion.  I explain more in the podcast episode.  Also, I do feel that we black TCM fans have been starved for representations of ourselves in its host segments over the last couple of years. We have the knowledge and interest to participate in the general classic film conversation.

Please watch members of the African American Film Critics Association on TCM this month.  It is important that they're seen. Now here's some of my stuff to help underline points I make in the podcast.  I'll start with clips from my VH1 host years.

Meryl Streep told me how seeing Liza Minnelli in a 1977 Broadway musical directed by Martin Scorcese changed her approach to acting.

VH1 flew me to London to interview Paul McCartney.

Here are samples of my network and local TV program work from the 1990s to 2000.

To hear my podcast, just go here and scroll down to "Fall Colors on Turner Classic Movies":

Remember to check out the Lorraine Hansberry documentary that premiered on the PBS American Masters program early this year.  Look for it online.  It's called LORRAINE HANSBERRY: SIGHTED EYES/FEELING HEART.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Check Out Billy Wilder's AVANTI! (1972)

Hollywood had changed. Society had changed. The production codes and censorship that limited movie storytelling when Billy Wilder started his directorial career at Paramount Pictures were gone.  In the 1970s, his films didn't meet with the stunning critical and award-winning success of his 1950 to 1960 period (SUNSET BOULEVARD to THE APARTMENT), but his 1970s period still gave us some Wilder work that, I feel, is worth watching.  Today, I watched Billy Wilder's AVANTI!  This is definitely a romantic comedy that Wilder could not have made back in the 1950s.  We see bare breasts and Jack Lemmon's bare bottom.  A comedy classic? No.  A very good and entertaining comedy?  Yes.  This current age of Hollywood movies seems to be one that has lost its way in the art of making romantic comedies that would be great date movies.  AVANTI! has Wilder touches that I love, touches that put a big smile on my face.  The movie stars Juliet Mills and Jack Lemmon.
"I'm short, fat and unattractive."  That's the way British Pamela Piggott describes herself during a phone call in Italy.  She may very well be to some.  However, American businessman Wendell Armbruster, Jr., also in Italy, is falling in love with her.
There can be a touch of cynicism in Billy Wilder's world -- look at how he feels about the insurance business in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE APARTMENT and THE FORTUNE COOKIE.  He gave us the first "media circus" of journalism in ACE IN THE HOLE.  But there's also his sly, subversive and sophisticated humanity.  That's what I love most.  He sees the emotional high price Hollywood puts on women to maintain youth and beauty.  Look at SUNSET BOULEVARD and 1978's FEDORA.  For all its touting principles of Christianity, Wilder was condemned by the Catholic Church for showing that even a hooker is worthy of true love and possibly marriage.  Look at his KISS ME, STUPID and IRMA LA DOUCE.  In THE APARTMENT, he gave us a young woman who attempts suicide at Christmastime because of her humiliating affair with a married man.  Wilder makes us see that she's one of the most lovable, endearing characters in a 1960 movie. We root for her to have a happy ending.  And, to use a modern term, is there any character more "sexually fluid" than the sweet, screwball millionaire played by Joe E. Brown in SOME LIKE IT HOT?  Wilder had an affection for society's kind-hearted outsiders and misfits.

I won't go into detail about all the plot of AVANTI! I will give you the basics.  Lemmon plays the American businessman who has to travel to Naples to claim his Baltimore millionaire father's body.  Dad died in a car accident during a month-long vacation.  Come to find out, the woman who died with him in the accident was his long-time mistress.  Her daughter, played by Juliet Mills, is in Italy to claim her mother's body.

Pamela, the totally charming daughter, has had an unhappy love affair. She reveals to strait-laced Wendell that she tried to kill over-eating.

Pamela has a healthy appetite.  She eats with pleasure and without.  She is very comfortable in her own skin.  So comfortable that she goes skinny-dipping in Italy, a freedom that rattles Wendell.

I saw this movie when I was just starting college.  By then, I was already a hardcore Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon fan.  I thought that I was too young, too unsophisticated in cinema art to see what some critics were seeing because they described Pamela as overweight.  I saw absolutely nothing overweight about Juliet Mills.  She looked just fine to me.  Today, I think perhaps that's a point Wilder was making.  In the American male gaze, Pamela is seen as being 20 lbs. overweight.  To the Italian males, she's sexy and they pursue her while she's eating a few ice cream cones.

Especially in close-ups, Wilder shoots the Juliet Mills Pamela character as if she's a bouquet of lovely spring flowers.  This is 1972.  Fast forward a few decades and think of a plump female lead character like Renee Zellweger's BRIDGET JONES of 2001, 2004 and 2016.  In Billy Wilder's AVANTI!, the "short, fat" Pamela is never portrayed as physically and socially awkward.  Neither her full figure nor any article of her clothing is the sight gag.  There's no fat-shaming in Wilder's direction. Pamela -- like her dear, late mother -- will become the object of affection.  In 2018, I found this female character and image refreshing.  Click onto this link to see a trailer.

If you watch it, there's an in-joke of sorts that made me chuckle.  The lead role in COOL HAND LUKE was offered to Jack Lemmon.  Lemmon didn't think he was right for the role of Luke but the script was so good, that he decided to produce the film, starring Paul Newman, through his production company.  I visited Chris Lemmon, the actor's son, at his home in Connecticut. He gave me that info on his dad being offered the lead role in that 1967 hit film.  In AVANTI, while standing up in a bathtub, Jack Lemmon does a twist on COOL HAND LUKE's most famous movie line.

There are revelations and complications.  About ten minutes could have been chopped off one of the subplots but the excess doesn't feel heavy and repetitive like in some modern comedies starring Jason Segel such as THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT and FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL.  I think that's because Billy Wilder had the gift of adding lively, funny supporting and bit players in his films.  Here, one stand-out in that category is Clive Revill is Carlo Carlucci, the hotel director.

Watching Jack Lemmon at work with Billy Wilder material, seeing his conservative and uptight American character slowly shed his inhibitions and open his heart to a most unlikely romance with a woman who doesn't fit into the American image of beauty is a beautiful thing.  Check out AVANTI!  There are laughs and some lovely moments in it.  Afterwards, have a nice meal.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Look Again at ALIENS

Sigourney Weaver as Officer Ripley is my favorite action movie hero.  In the science fiction movie category, ALIENS -- like 1935's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN -- is a rare case of the sequel being just as good, if not better, than its excellent and groundbreaking original.  ALIENS brought Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.                  
For a long time, a supporting character in ALIENS has made me think of NBC in our current age of a former NBC reality show host now living in the White House and running the country.  The character is a corporate weasel, very well played by Paul Reiser, named Burke.  Ripley would like to punch Burke all the way to another planet.
She realizes that this corporate lackey is responsible for alien creatures being loose to kill and multiply.  Financial greed fueled his irresponsibility.  Remember those nasty alien facehuggers that attached on a human's face and made the person a host for a new alien?  Burke is behind a couple of facehuggers being onboard in the sequel.  In 1979's ALIEN, Ripley saw the horror in store if those creatures are not killed.  Burke says:
"Look, those two specimens are worth millions to the bio-weapons division.  Now, if you're smart, we can both come out of it as heroes and we'll be set up for life."
Ripley responds:
 "You're crazy, Burke, you know that?  You really think that you can get a dangerous organism like that past ICC quarantine?"
 We see what happens to the crew -- and to Burke.

I've been doing TV work a long, long time.  In a standard TV performer contract, there's a morals clause.  This basically says that you will behave yourself and not do anything that will tarnish the reputation of the TV product and/or station.  You've probably heard about the standard morals clause.  Back in 1994, I had to do a liveshot covering a low-budget traveling circus up from Florida. I was to interview some of the circus folks on our local WNBC weekend morning show.  One stone-faced, tattooed character called "Uncle Grumpy" had a huge pig in his act.  While Uncle Grumpy, the pig and I were on live local TV, the pig started squealing to high heaven after Uncle Grumpy suddenly whacked the pig on the butt with a stick.  I jumped back and said, "Jeez!  He sounds like Ned Beatty in DELIVERANCE!"

My cameraman started laughing. So did the audio guy.  In my earpiece, I could hear laughter in the control room.  The show's anchor in the studio was laughing too.

Not one single person complained about my wisecrack.  Not one. No call of complaint came in to the WNBC switchboard.  But my boss, the WNBC news director, was livid about what I said that he threatened to fire me, citing the morals clause of my contract.

Fast forward to Donald Trump, host of NBC's THE APPRENTICE and CELEBRITY APPRENTICE.  When he was network talent, he repeatedly made news claiming that President Barack Obama was not a real American.  He demanded to see the President's birth certificate.  We African-Americans were furious with that disrespect and its undercurrent of racism.  I heard no mention of a morals clause and he certainly wasn't threatened with suspension or termination.  When he accused Mexicans of being murders and rapists that was another uproar.  As well it should have been.  He got fired because of that.  But remember this:  NBC had purchased Telemundo for nearly $2 billion.  Telemundo viewers were furious with Trump's comments about Mexicans.  NBC had to protect its extremely expensive investment and let Trump go.  It was a network move for cosmetic purposes, I felt.  He was no longer the host of THE APPRENTICE but he was still given star treatment by the network.

Personally, Donald Trump's constant and loud disrespect for President Barack Obama was a red flag.  But NBC let the host of THE APPRENTICE get away with it because he was good for ratings and revenue.  Then that red flag got redder when he insulted Mexicans.  Then he went into politics.

Look at the Trump presidency today.  He's called accomplished African Americans people of low IQs.  He called Africa a "shithole" country.  He pretty much complimented the KKK after the racist attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia.  There are immigrant Hispanic children, separated from their parents, in detention cages. He's given little compassion to hurricane-ravished Puerto Rico.  His disrespect for Sen. John McCain was unforgiveable.  His disrespected the Vietnam veteran in life, saying that he wasn't a hero because he got caught by the enemy.  He disrespected him again by not flying the White House flag at half staff after the Senator succumbed to brain cancer.

He's called America's free press "the enemy of the people."  He trashes the very network that gave him a TV reality game show that made him a TV star and calls the network's journalism department "fake news."  It's like NBC created a monster and the monster turned on its creator.

Watch ALIENS again.  The NBC exec or execs who hired Trump, made him a TV star and never used the morals clause to address his constant public disrespect for President Obama remind me of Burke in ALIENS.  Burke put his corporate lust for a financial percentage above doing the right thing.

That's just my average guy opinion.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Leonard Bernstein's Centennial

It's Saturday, August 25th.  The late, great composer Leonard Bernstein was born 100 years ago today.  The skies are overcast, light rain is falling and I had planned to cover up and take a walk outside.  That is, until I discovered that HBO is airing WEST SIDE STORY.  The Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1961 with Oscars also going to Rita Moreno for Best Supporting Actress and George Chakiris for Best Supporting Actor.  Based on the Broadway hit of the same name, this is one of my all-time favorite movie musical adaptations with that wonderful music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
I've seen WEST SIDE STORY in revival theaters on a big screen and it always left me in awe.  If it was playing on a wide screen at a local theater right now, I'd pay full price to see it.  Visually, musically, the acting, the dancing, the direction, editing and other production values all make it a cinematic work of art.  I was a little boy when it was released nation-wide but I can still recall how popular it was.  Songs from the score such as "Tonight," "Maria," and "Something's Coming" were covered by top vocalists are getting lots of radio airplay.  The soundtrack was popular.  The times were right for its release.  We were in the turbulent, critical, early years of the Civil Rights movement.  Racial discord and white privilege run through the film's storyline.  Think of the white police lieutenant who bluntly states that he can get away with his racist comments because he's got a badge and the Puerto Ricans have nothing.  The cop doesn't care about brown immigrants.  The lovers, Tony and Maria, are separated when he is shot and killed by a rival gang member.  Tony quit his position as leader of the white gang to seek a new, non-violent life.  In loving Maria, he embraces racial harmony.  In the same decade not long after WEST SIDE STORY had won 10 Oscars, we would lose non-violent leaders we loved to a bullet from an assassin's gun.  President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King.  Again, WEST SIDE STORY was released in 1961.
Fast forward to today.  A year ago, our fellow Americans were devastated.  A severe hurricane crippled Puerto Rico.  Electricity was out for months.  Puerto Ricans needed food, medical attention and other services.  Trump paid Puerto Rico little attention.  When he finally did fly over to speak to local politicians while press cameras were rolling, one of the first things he did was remind Puerto Rico that it owes us money.  Then, in casual wear, he tossed out rolls of paper towels to a crowd of Puerto Ricans as if the damage had been a minor leak from a washing machine in a basement.  He did not help at all in the clean-up or feeding effort.  He's not been back to Puerto Rico since.
With that in mind...enjoy the "America" number, still a showstopper, from WEST SIDE STORY.  Catch the great rhythm of Leonard Bernstein's memorable music -- and pay attention to how timely the Sondheim lyrics are in this age of Trump.

Never underestimate the power of the fine arts.  Thank you, Leonard Bernstein.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Marvelous Mitzi Gaynor in SOUTH PACIFIC

Our late mother absolutely loved Mitzi Gaynor.  In our Black Catholic household in South Central Los Angeles, watching the Mitzi Gaynor music variety specials on CBS was practically a religious obligation -- like attending mass on Christmas and Easter Sunday.  I picked up the love from Mom and had a definite crush on Mitzi Gaynor by the time I started high school.  In those years, ABC would air film versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musicals as prime time holiday specials.  The films were THE KING AND I, CAROUSEL and SOUTH PACIFIC.  Mitzi made several films at 20th Century Fox.  SOUTH PACIFIC is her best Fox musical and her best Fox film.
It's a deluxe production, beautifully shot and orchestrated, and a musical that richly utilizes her singing, her wholesome All-American personality, her dancing ability and her fabulous figure.          
It also gives her a screenplay that has dramatic depth and a razor-sharp social issue.  Unlike the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and 40s, this was a musical that -- like the Broadway play -- took aim at racial prejudice in wartime.
 All this is done with a memorable score by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
SOUTH PACIFIC airs on big screens nationally this weekend.  I'll give you a link to click onto for more information.  I've seen SOUTH PACIFIC on a big screen during a revival engagement  It's a treat for the eyes.  My one criticism is that director Joshua Logan overdid it with the yellow tints.  With all the lush natural splendor of the tropical location where the film was shot, he really didn't need a tinted lens to make scenes look dreamier.

I recommend it for weekend entertainment because, in America's current political climate, this 1958 wide screen Hollywood studio musical has renewed relevance.  When I was a kid and watched it on TV, I understood what it said about racial prejudice.  I was a black child of the Civil Rights era and I had a full understanding of Rodgers & Hammerstein's song, "Carefully Taught." One year ago, this very summer, we witnessed the terror and tragedy of KKK supporters and other racists marching through Charlottesville, Virginia.  There's still a lesson to be learned from "Carefully Taught."
SOUTH PACIFIC takes place during World War 2 when Japan was an enemy.  A tough question for the audience to face and answer is -- are we all killing for democracy, to keep people free, or are some soldiers from the Land of the Free using a righteous war as an excuse to kill people of a different race and hide their bigotry behind GI uniforms?  The main characters are all at war with themselves emotionally while doing their bit in the war effort while stationed in the South Pacific.  Even Nurse Nellie Forbush with her "girl next door" sunny demeanor has an inner conflict.

Here comes another recommendation -- one for the use of local libraries.

The N-word, rape, love, war, American values and the embrace of an Asian culture.  That's all in "Our Heroine," the short story in James A. Michener's TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC.  We meet Nellie Forbush, the young lady from Little Rock, Arkansas in this story.  It's a story that became a big basis for the Broadway musical, SOUTH PACIFIC. Michener's book and the 1949 Broadway musical starring Mary Martin both won a Pulitzer Prize.  I checked out the book from my local library.

In "Our Heroine," Nellie falls in love with a man who is not an American.  She meets him in the South Pacific.  He's not white like the men she knew in Little Rock.  He once loved a dark-skinned woman who died.  Nellie has an inner monologue in the short story, brilliantly written, in which she calls out her own racism, a racism that's been taught to her.  Asian people are tolerable, she was taught, because they're so light-skinned they almost look white.  But anyone darker than Asian is "a nigger."  She keeps repeating the N-word to herself over and over again with a machine-gun like rapidity.  For Nellie, repetition is like an exorcism, calling out her demon of bigotry.

In the movie, Mitzi Gaynor plays a strong, independent, lovable Rodgers & Hammerstein lead female character of substance.  Like Anna in THE KING AND I and like Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (also a Fox musical based on a Broadway hit that starred Mary Martin), Nellie is a woman who takes an active part to challenge intolerance whether it's within her environment or within herself.

The movie SOUTH PACIFIC was made when Hollywood was still operating within production codes.  It couldn't be as direct as the short story but it could make a strong point about race and the irony of WW2.  My late father was a WW2 veteran.  He fought for freedom when America's troops were segregated.

I rented the deluxe DVD edition of SOUTH PACIFIC.  It has some juicy extras.  Mitzi Gaynor's screen tests are extras.  She's bright and bubbly in her first one.  In her second, she shows a dramatic sensitivity and an awareness that makes me think she probably read the provocative source material, the short story, in between the first audition and the callback.

I lived in New York City's Chelsea district, below West 23rd Street, for twenty years.  I loved it.  One crystal blue morning, I had my windows wide open because the breeze was so delicious.  I heard a low flying plane and then, less than half a minute later, I heard what I thought was a sonic boom from that low flying plane.  It was a sonic boom.  It was September 11th and that was the first plane that crash into a World Trade Center tower.

We New Yorkers, we Americans, were paralyzed with grief and horror for days.  A few weeks later, when we attempted to get on with our lives again, knowing that our lives had been changed forever by that evil, I rented a DVD from my neighborhood video store.  I rented SOUTH PACIFIC.  I just had to hear a song, a number, that I'd loved since my youth back home in L.A.

I needed to hear Mitzi Gaynor sing "A Cockeyed Optimist."  Her lovely, lilting voice made me smile.  It healed my heart.  It reminded me that beauty and kindness still exist in the world -- and it's our duty to make sure that they do.  For more information on SOUTH PACIFIC showtimes and locations for August 26th, go here:

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Phenomenal Aretha Franklin

That voice, the lightning bolt power of that voice, was like the Eighth Wonder of the World.  When I was a schoolboy back in South Central Los Angeles during the politically turbulent 1960s, the first time I heard her sing "Respect" on local radio, I had goosepimples.  My soul felt instantly illuminated.  I'd achieved super-consciousness.  Her voice was invincible and invincible was also how she made me feel.  That was a feeling we needed in the Civil Rights era.  She was unapologetically Black and, with her clarion call of a voice, lifted up our community to feel the same way.
Of course, I had to dash over to the local record store (called The House of Aisha) four blocks away from our house and buy the 45.  I'd eventually buy another one because I wore the first copy out.
She was called The Queen of Soul...but, to me, she seemed to be more than a queen. She was a Goddess with magical powers in that voice.  It was raw.  It was real.

"Respect," "Chain of Fools," "Natural Woman," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Since You've Been Gone," "Rock Steady"....
I bought her records, her albums, listened to her on the radio and I watched her TV appearances. Oh, and I let my backbone slip dancin' to her music!  We all did.  Also, I was lucky enough to see her perform live onstage more than once.  She was dynamic and unforgettable.  Her work, through all my years, was a part of my life.  When I started my TV career, working as an entertainment news contributor, I had to review 1980's THE BLUE BROTHERS movie.  It was a fun comedy.  But, honestly, I didn't feel that it really came to life until Aretha Franklin appeared as a diner waitress and threw down singin' "Think."  Lawd, have mercy!
When I was a VH1 veejay in the late 80s, I was thrilled to present her music videos "Freeway of Love" and her duet with George Michael, "I Knew You Were Waiting."

She was an expert musician and a smart singer.  She could adapt her style for the changing times to make her work stand out in the 80s the way it did in the 60s. She'd continue to do that.

A lot will be written about her today and through the weekend.  There will be special tributes and pieces with writing far, far superior to time.  Nevertheless, I wanted to write a little something -- and share one of my favorite examples of how Aretha Franklin could go into areas outside of the rhythm and blues workshop to embrace a tune and make it her own.

To me, Aretha not only took you to church with the majesty of her gospel-fueled voice, she was a great actress.  A great actress who did not technically act in films the way other sings who won Oscar nominations for their performances did -- singers like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Doris Day, Bing Crosby, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross, to name a few.  Nevertheless, like those fellow vocalists, Aretha Franklin realized that a good song is a monologue.  It tells a story. It has an emotional life.  She gave each song that life.

Remember how fanboy happy Frank Sinatra was as a presenter on the Academy Awards right after Aretha Franklin had sung the Best Song Oscar nominee, "Funny Girl," from the 1968 movie FUNNY GIRL starring Barbra Streisand?

Betty Hutton, one of the top Hollywood musical comedy stars of the 1940s to early 50s, had one of her biggest hits with the 1947 film, THE PERILS OF PAULINE.  In that film, Hutton introduced a Frank Loesser tune that got an Oscar nomination for Best Song.  Here's the Aretha Franklin rendition of "I Wish I Didn't Love You So" from 1947's THE PERILS OF PAULINE.

Aretha Franklin was friends with and was a Civil Rights activist with Dr. Martin Luther King when we Black Americans were demanding respect -- demanding the right to vote, the right to an education, the right to housing and the right to equal opportunities in the workplace.  When Dr. King voiced opposition to the Vietnam War, money from donors started to decrease rapidly.  Aretha sang to raise funds for Dr. King.  She sang at Dr. King's funeral after his voice was stilled by a racist assassin's bullet in 1968.  Decades later, in 2009, she sang at the inauguration of America's first Black president, Barack Obama.  What a life.  What a legend. Aretha Franklin was peerless and fearless.  May she rest in peace.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Jazz Great, Morgana King

When I was growing up on 124th and Central Avenue in South Central L.A., Sundays were always music days in our household.  Mom and Dad would play albums on the family hi-fi in the living room.  The artists I grew up hearing on our Jazz Sundays were Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Joe Williams, Chet Baker, Dinah Washington, Lena Horne and Morgana King.
Today, many folks are probably more likely to mention Michael Bublé or Diana Krall when asked to name jazz singers.  King was not a mainstream jazz singer.  She was not mentioned as widely as the artists I listed in the opening paragraph but she was greatly respected within the jazz community.  The millions of moviegoers who saw Morgana King as Mama Corleone in THE GODFATHER didn't know that she had an exquisite jazz voice.
News broke today that the acclaimed jazz singer passed away at age 87.  She was stricken with a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma according to a report in The Washington Post.  Her death was kept private news apparently.  She died in March but her passing was just recently made public by a longtime dear friend who posted a tender farewell to her on Facebook.
Morgana King died in Palm Springs, California.  If you didn't know that "Mama Corleone" was an extraordinary jazz singer, just play this:

Here's another cut from the great Morgana King.  Her rendition of "A Taste of Honey" is classic.  This was frequently played on the Rivers Family stereo.  It is a delicious treat for the ears.  Treat yourself and listen.

Monday, August 13, 2018


How was your weekend?  Mine got pretty animated after Saturday night transformed into the post-midnight early Sunday hours.  There I was, about 3 o'clock in the morning, watching some fruit get his sexual groove on with friends and strangers at a wild, passionate, totally uninhibited, unusual and delightfully vulgar orgy.  All the characters in states of loud sexual ecstasy were supermarkets items. Yes.  Supermarket items.  Fruits, vegetables, meats, buns, a box of grits, a taco shell and condiments.  You name it, it was getting humped.  The animated feature with potty-mouthed supermarket items is 2016's SAUSAGE PARTY.  I couldn't sleep, found it on Netflix, and giggled like an 8th grader for its 90 minutes that ends with a filthy yet fascinating food orgy with products hooking up sexually with same shelf and opposite shelf items.  One of the main characters, a neurotic wiener who falls for a bun named Brenda, is voiced by Seth Rogen.  Other character voices are supplied by Salma Hayek, Jonah Hill, James Franco and Kristen Wiig.
At the end of this feature -- which does have some storyline cleverness -- I found myself saying, "He is one brilliant, versatile actor."
SAUSAGE PARTY is something you could watch for counter-culture entertainment on the 4th of July.  Folks are shopping for their July 4th cookouts and such. The story opens when the large supermarket is closed, dawn is breaking and all the supermarket food items are about to sing their daily upbeat morning song.  It's a song of hope and thanks to the gods.  They're excited that they may be purchased and taken to a Garden of Eden-like paradise in the Great Beyond.  The Great Beyond is that place on the other side of the supermarket doors.
They have no idea that their fate is to be peeled, sliced, boiled, grilled, microwaved, squirted and eaten.  Up till then, they only thing they feared was their expiration dates.  When the real truth is learned, they must fight for survival and then embrace the lives they have, while they have them, without prejudice and conservative attitudes.  SAUSAGE PARTY is clever and memorable not in an innocent Disney or Pixar way, but in a way that gives you fast-paced, sexy anarchy.  Like a subversive 1940s Tex Avery working without Hollywood production codes in this 21st Century.
Now...about the " brilliant, versatile actor" comment I made.

Did you see AMERICAN HISTORY X, the 1998 Oscar-nominated film about a young neo-Nazi skinhead who winds up in prison?  Did you see the rich and under-appreciated 2006 adaptation of Somerset Maugham's THE PAINTED VEIL set in 1920s London and China?  Did you see THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL and the Best Picture of 2014 Oscar winner, BIRDMAN?

It wasn't until I was reading the closing credits did I see that the voice of the Woody Allen-esque bagel in SAUSAGE PARTY was done by the actor who gave a distinct character performance in each one of those four films I named.

Sammy the Bagel was voiced by …. Edward Norton.  Ed Norton starred in and co-produced THE PAINTED VEIL.  It made my list of the Top Ten Films of 2006.  This is quality of big, mature, well-written and well-acted film Hollywood used to give us back in the day.  If you've never seen it -- and you're an Ed Norton fan -- make it a weekend must-see.
He's an amazing actor.  Ed Norton's vocal work as a bagel alone is a reason to sit through SAUSAGE PARTY.  Well...that and seeing a lesbian taco get lucky.  And a box of grits in a 3-way.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

A Killer DVD Double Feature

I have another DVD double feature movie tip for you.  Like the other double feature tips I've posted, this pair of classics also has something in common.  The first one is an Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece that altered certain formats in Hollywood filmmaking, scared the bejesus out of a nation of moviegoers, influenced a future generation of horror/slasher film directors and was detailed in cinema studies textbooks for its editing and cinematography.  Director Francois Truffaut considered it a work of art.  The movie is, of course, PSYCHO starring Anthony Perkins as twisted Norman Bates, manager of the Bates Motel, and Janet Leigh as doomed bank secretary Marion Crane.
In the story of PSYCHO, we learn about a boy who was raised by his widowed mother after his father's death.  We learn that the main character killed his mother and her lover.  There's a house and in that house is a physically abusive monster of an unmarried man.  The man character gets psychiatric attention.  These same elements exist in another film, another film that also has excellent screenplay.  Only, in this movie, we come to care about the killer who gets psychiatric attention. We come to know the warm, heartbroken, human side of this imbalanced character.  We see his ability to love, protect, teach and to have tolerance for others.  The movie is 1996's SLING BLADE.  Billy Bob Thornton played mentally disabled Karl Childers.  Thornton also directed the film and wrote the screenplay.
Lucas Black played Frank, the sweet and forlorn boy.  He's now in the cast of NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, a popular TV series on CBS.

Billy Bob Thornton won an Oscar for his screenplay and was an Oscar nominee for Best Actor.  For 1960's PSYCHO, screenwriter Joseph Stefano wrote one of the best, most memorable screenplays of the 1960s -- or any other decade -- but did not get an Oscar nomination.  Mr. Stefano should have been an Oscar nominee.  His script is challenging.  It broke a Hollywood mold in killing off the leading lady in the first hour.  As for his dialogue, it is at once revealing, unsettling and witty.  For example, when Norman Bates says, "I don't hate my mother.  I hate what she's become," that is one of the most brilliant lines of self-loathing ever written for a Hollywood film.  I get a chill when he says "My hobby is stuffing things."  And I always giggle when Norman casually remarks, "I hate the smell of dampness, don't you?  It's such a -- I don't know -- creepy smell" before he changes the linen in the motel rooms.
People don't seem to remember and talk about SLING BLADE as much as they do Hitchcock's PSYCHO.  Billy Bob Thornton's independent film was quite popular when it opened.  The late Elizabeth Taylor loved it and helped get the word out about it via syndicated entertainment news columns in newspapers.  To be honest, that's why I went to see it when it opened.  SLING BLADE touched me.  I consider it a classic.  When I was young Frank's age, I was so in need of a father figure too.  Frank confided feelings to Karl that I had in my heart but never told anyone.  I didn't know who I could tell when I was his age.  SLING BLADE put tears from that ancient heartache in my eyes.  What a moving screenplay.

Today, moviegoers remember Billy Bob Thornton from MONSTER'S BALL, the comedy BAD SANTA and the TV series version of FARGO.  I wish his SLING BLADE would be re-appreciated.  As an actor, he disappeared into that role, playing a unique Southern character who gave you a hint of Boo Radley from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
Another thing about SLING BLADE.  The late John Ritter was a beloved TV sitcom actor who found fame on the THREE'S COMPANY series.  In SLING BLADE, we see his dramatic acting depth.  The gentle, paternal and gay schoolteacher he played in SLING BLADE is a beautiful performance and one of the dearest gay male characters ever written for an American film.

Enjoy the DVD double feature.

A Bit of THE BLUE BIRD (1940)

This is the Shirley Temple fantasy movie that could've been called I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD FLOPS.  That's just what it did with cr...