Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Nominate Spike Lee for a Best Director Oscar

Infiltrate Hate. Did you see the Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman? It's based on a true story, which may seem hard to believe when you see it. It's now on DVD. Ron Stallworth, who was interviewed by Scott Simon on NPR earlier this year, was a police detective in a Colorado city in the 1970s. He's African American. The intelligent, ambitious, young black cop infiltrated the KKK. He even got a membership card. Stallworth started his infiltration on the phone. He didn't "sound black," so the KKK representative couldn't tell he was having a phone conversation about white supremacy with a black man. There's a local Colorado branch planning race war violence. With the help of a Jewish fellow police officer, Stallworth goes undercover. Both cops come in direct contact with national KKK leader David Duke. Both come in contact with racism within the police force. The source material for this gripping, powerful film is the 2014 memoir, Black Klansman, by Ron Stallworth.
A black man in Colorado winds up being the police bodyguard to visiting KKK leader David Duke. You have to see how this happened.  There are two forces at play. There's the White Power of the Klan and there's the Black Power movement emerging because a new generation is ready to beat down decades of racial oppression and violence from the White Power movement.
This White Supremacy action has not all been hooded and in the dark. It was highlighted as heroic in D.W. Griffith's famous and infamous 1915 box office hit, THE BIRTH OF A NATION. In Griffith's widely popular epic film were offensive black images and stereotypes that still infuriate today. And that film was an early Hollywood blockbuster. Dr. William Shockley was an American physicist who won a 1956 Nobel Prize for Physics.  Dr. Shockley shattered his reputation later when he publicly made the racist claims that the Negro is genetically, intellectually inferior to the white man. There was Brown v Board of Education. The Supreme Court had to declare school segregation unconstitutional. These facts come up in BlacKkKlansman.                                

In his long and internationally celebrated film career, director Spike Lee has never, ever been nominated for the Best Director Oscar.  If he does not get a Best Director Oscar nomination for BlacKkKlansman, there is seriously something wrong with the Academy. This is one of the top films of 2018 and one of the best films of his career.

And you did read that correctly.  Spike Lee directed DO THE RIGHT THING (1989), JUNGLE FEVER (1991), MALCOLM X (1992), the documentary 4 LITTLE GIRLS (1997), SUMMER OF SAM (1999), and INSIDE MAN (2006)…to name of few of his joints (productions). He's directed actors to Oscar nominations -- Denzel Washington for MALCOLM X and Danny Aiello for DO THE RIGHT THING. He's acted in films he directed and co-wrote -- SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT, DO THE RIGHT THING and MALCOLM X, for example.

But unlike actor/directors such as Woody Allen, Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson, Spike Lee has never, ever received an Oscar nomination for Best Director. The Academy bestowed him with an honorary Oscar.

You'll be disturbed to feel that the racist poison the cops try to stop in the 1970s has surfaced and spilled out again in modern-day America. In the movie, we know that it's not like DR. STRANGELOVE, FAIL-SAFE or SEVEN DAYS IN MAY. It's not a case of "it could happen here." The last ten minutes slap us hard in the face with the grim American reality that it did happen here just a year ago. Spike Lee holds a mirror up to this age of "Make America Great Again."
John David Washington, with his fierce full moon-shaped Afro, plays Ron Stallworth. John David is the son of Denzel Washington.  John David did his daddy proud. Adam Driver should be in the Oscar race for his performance as Flip Zimmerman, the Jewish cop who goes undercover with Stallworth. I cannot think of another actor who could've played that good role better than Adam Driver did. He is like the lovable and versatile Greenberg, a member of the Polish acting company in the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch classic, TO BE OR NOT TO BE. The troupe of players in the WW2 comedy outwits an audience of Nazis. In the theatre lobby, Greenberg is surrounded by the harshest critics he could ever face. He's surrounded by Nazis. The actor outwits and escapes them by performing Shylock's speech from Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. The Nazis are clueless to Shakespeare. Flip Zimmerman, like Greenberg, is surrounded by some of his harshest critics -- Jew-hating klansmen who don't realize he's really a Jew. The cop has to be an actor, totally in the moment, to outwit them and escape their circle of evil. Flip pretends to be Ron Stallworth and meets to fill out his application for klan membership.

BlacKkKlansman should get the following Oscar nominations come January:
Spike Lee for Best Director
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Picture
Adam Driver for Best Supporting Actor.
Spike Lee co-wrote the screenplay with the amazingly talented Kevin Willmott.  Willmott, also a black man, is a professor of film at the University of Kansas. He wrote and directed a mockumentary about race that is just genius and wickedly, brilliantly funny.  It's a 2004 production called C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA.

It's an account of alternate history if the South had won the Civil War. This "documentary" is done by a British TV crew and aired on a Northern California PBS-like station.  Everything -- station IDs, local commercials, classic film clips, interviews -- everything is done is if we live in the Confederate States of America.  It's like if Woody Allen's ZELIG meets the Key & Peele and Dave Chappelle comedy shows we saw on cable's Comedy Central. Classic film fans will marvel at Willmott's twist on film history and his knowledge of it.  In this mockumentary is a scene from a silent D.W. Griffith film in which we see Abraham Lincoln, in blackface, caught trying to flee on the Underground Railway.  It looks exactly like actual footage from Griffith's THE BIRTH OF A NATION. There's a classic 1940s film in which an obviously British and white actor is in blackface seriously playing a Southern plantation butler. It's laughable.

However, in the mid 1940s, after she'd played Queen Elizabeth I followed by the housekeeper/narrator in William Wyler's WUTHERING HEIGHTS, ivory white British film actress Flora Robson was covered in dark make-up and played the side-eye giving, formidable Haitian maid in the Warner Bros. romantic drama, SARATOGA TRUNK, starring Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper.  Hollywood gave Caucasian Flora Robson a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing a dark-skinned Haitian maid.  Writer/director/film professor Kevin Willmott knows his film history.

C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA had me laughing so hard my sides hurt.  The reviews for it were terrific.  When I worked on-air with Whoopi Goldberg on her national weekday morning radio show out of New York City (from 2006 to 2008), I got a DVD copy, gave it to her, and enthusiastically suggested we do a phone interview of Kevin Willmott for a segment on the show. I'd contacted him, highly praised his work, and asked if he'd be open to doing an interview if she agreed to it.  He was most gracious, very grateful and quite open to the idea of an interview.

For some reason, Whoopi was not as enthusiastic as I was.  I was frustrated and disappointed that I couldn't give him some national exposure in 2006/2007 and introduce listeners to this gifted black talent.

Whoopi's radio show got canceled.  Kevin Willmott went on to co-write screenplays with Spike Lee. His BlacKkKlansman was recognized, praised and honored at the Cannes Film Festival this year.  Screenwriter Kevin Willmott could wind up getting an Oscar nomination early next year.

I wonder if Whoopi has seen the movie. She should. You should too.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Josh Groban, So Good as THE GOOD COP

Have you heard him sing?  Oh, my Sweet Baby Jesus. He's got the gift. If we were in the 1940s and 50s when Hollywood studios still reigned and gave us movies starring performers they had under contract, Josh Groban would've been snatched up in a heartbeat by a major studio like MGM, Paramount or 20th Century Fox. He'd have been cast in some original musicals and top songwriters of the day would've have written new tunes for him to introduce the way they wrote new tunes for Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. He would've introduced songs that would become new entries in the Great American Songbook of standards.  He's that good.  Netflix now really makes me sad the old classic Hollywood studio system no longer exists to make Josh Groban a star. Why? Because a new series on Netflix stars Josh Groban and it's a winner.  It's not a musical. It does, however, display his smooth, solid acting chops and appealing character. Crimes are solved in a smart, sophisticated series called THE GOOD COP.  Josh plays the good cop.  He wears glasses and affordable business attire. He looks like your typical bookworm. He plays by the rules. Always.
The same cannot be said of his roommate. His roommate was a cop who got into a little trouble and had to do some time behind bars. This older cop is the father to Groban's young cop.  Tony Danza, in mighty fine form, plays the hipster dad who wishes his obsessive son would loosen up a bit.  But, deep down, dad is quite proud of his brainy cop son.  They live together in a borough outside of Manhattan. Just a couple of working class men -- solving murders.  If THE GOOD COP had been a traditional network TV series back in the days of TWIN PEAKS, MOONLIGHTING, HILL STREET BLUES and NORTHERN EXPOSURE, it would have been a hit.  It's inventive, original, funny, well-played and very entertaining.  It's hip without trying to be hip. It's has a jazzy score, atypical for a cop series but perfect for the tone of this show. It fits the characters.
 Here's a taste of the different kind of crimefighting team you'll see on THE GOOD COP.
The third episode features actor John Carroll Lynch as an ex-boxer framed for murder.  You've seen John Carroll Lynch a lot but may not know his name the way you know a Tom Hanks or George Clooney.  Lynch played the husband opposite Frances McDormand in FARGO, he was the large and intimidating suspect in ZODIAC and he creeped you out as Twisty the Clown on TV's AMERICAN HORROR STORY.

I was drinking coffee, home alone on a Saturday night, as I watched the episode. I did a forceful DTST (Danny Thomas Spit Take) with a mouthful of coffee, belly laughing at an unexpected entrance the big ex-boxer made to get some advice from the cop dad.

That episode took me back to when I had fun staying in on a Saturday night to watch some good TV shows. This is an excellent vehicle for Josh Groban. Veteran TV actor Tony Danza delivers again.  There's nice chemistry between the two lead actors. Oh! And the open of the first episode is wonderful. Beautifully written. The whole dynamic in the relationship between father and son is realized as we see them in a car at a stoplight that's out of order. I hope this show gets an order for more episodes.  It's on Netflix. I totally dig THE GOOD COP.

Friday, November 9, 2018

We Love Michelle Obama

BECOMING, the Michelle Obama memoir, comes out this Tuesday. I'm sure it's already a best seller. You've probably heard that, in it, she wrote that she cannot forgive Donald Trump for putting her family's safety at risk with his whole birther movement.  That was his constant, disrespectful assertion that President Obama was not a true American. That he was African. (Fast forward in your mind and think about when he called Africa a "shithole country" in January.)  He demanded to see President Obama's birth certificate.  Mrs. Obama wrote that Trump's whole birther claim was "crazy and mean-spirited, of course, its underlying bigotry and xenophobia hardly concealed. But it was also dangerous, deliberately meant to stir up the wingnuts and kooks. What if someone with an unstable mind loaded a gun and drove to Washington? What if that person went looking for our girls?"

I cannot blame Michelle Obama one bit for having those feelings. Look at the Trump-fan kook who recently got caught sending mail bombs to broadcast and political Trump critics.
I'm a TV veteran. Several times, as a performer, I've had to sign a contract. Every single contract had the standard morals clause. That clause basically says that you, the talent, will behave yourself in public and not do anything that would embarrass the production or otherwise raise a stink. When Trump started that racially offensive birther business, he was host of THE APPRENTICE on NBC.  I thought for sure that the network would put that fire out immediately and/or suspend him. No. He kept at it. Tweeting his birther mess. Saying in TV interviews. All the while, we black folks are getting angrier and angrier at his white privilege disrespect of President Barack Obama.  Trump lied about President Obama and the network fed his reality TV game show host ego even more.

Did Trump not have a standard morals clause in a contract? Or did network executives not care about the feelings of Black Americans?

Yes, NBC later fired Trump after he called Mexicans "rapists and murderers." To me, that was a cosmetic move.  NBC had spent nearly $2 billion to purchase Telemundo, Spanish-language television.  Who were the people who wanted to slap the orange off of Donald Trump for that racist comment about Mexicans? Telemundo viewers.

Trump still got star treatment as he entered the presidential race.  Remember how TV critics across the board slammed Matt Lauer for a lightweight town hall interview of candidate Trump? Lauer grilled Tom Cruise harder than he did Donald Trump.  That gave me the feeling that Trump was the NBC/Universal candidate.  The Access Hollywood tape scandal? I think aging frat boy Billy Bush was fired for not protecting Trump. Billy, whom I've worked with, was hired by local WNBC News in 2001 with absolutely no TV experience and no journalism background. He was a rock morning radio DJ who was quite comfortable telling you that he was related to not just one...BUT TWO...U.S. presidents. He went network four months after his local debut. He started doing pieces on TODAY. Within a few years, in a move that seemed like a modern-day gender bender version of ALL ABOUT EVE. he was hired as a contributor on ACCESS HOLLYWOOD and eventually replaced the older male host.

My point? NBC likes the GOP.

Before the election, I had dinner with a very upscale white buddy of mine in New York City. He's been making a fabulous income for years and considers himself to be liberal. But he wasn't going to vote for Hillary.  He considered the reality TV game show host the lesser of two evils. He giggled at the "silly" birther thing.  I switched to the non-giggle lane with him in the passenger seat.  I explained seriously why the birther thing made us black people livid.  He didn't really get the racist undertones of what Trump was doing. He just saw him as the goofy rich white guy with the weird hair. I brought up the Central Park Five and how Trump called for the execution of five black/Latino teens, unjustly sent to prison, who were later found to be innocent. He hadn't really paid attention to that. He'd felt that Trump would be good for the country. I felt that network TV news was ignoring the red flags of what he was saying.

It came down to this.  Trump's Obama disrespect and the nasty things he said about Mexicans... that really had nothing to do with my very upscale white buddy's life.

But now he's been forced to get "woke."  Charlottesville. Putin. Kavanaugh. Mass shootings vs the NRA. Trump's constant lying and his assault on freedom of the press. Racism. Anti-Semitism.

Did Trump have a moral clause in an NBC contract in his years hosting The Apprentice? Why did news get dazzled by the orange smoke of his celebrityhood and not do the work of calling him out on his lies and racial offensiveness?  News should've paid attention to how angry we black folks were at Trump's birther bullshit. His racial disrespect for The Obamas was a major red flag and now he's also disrespecting the press. Yes. News should've paid attention to the anger of us black folks. To borrow a line Claudette Colbert did in 1942's THE PALM BEACH STORY, we knew Trump's birther business was "just an overture to the opera that's coming."
There you have it. A few thoughts from me. I can't wait to read BECOMING by Michelle Obama.




Thursday, November 8, 2018

The First Amendment and Films I Recommend

This is another week of heartache and national grief.  This morning, we awoke to the news that there has been another mass shooting in America. People were killed in a popular social center bar/nightclub in Thousand Oaks, California.  I grew up in Southern California.  In my youth, I knew Thousand Oaks to be a quiet, arid community. Apparently nothing had changed in all the decades since -- until now. The country music bar and grill in Thousand Oaks was frequented by college students. On KNX Radio out of L.A., I heard a Thousand Oaks resident cry and say that her community had always been "a safe haven." This is the worst mass shooting in America -- in 11 days.  We haven't yet dried all our tears from the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, a crime motivated by anti-Semitism. November 9th, by the way, marks the dark anniversary of Kristallnacht, a wave of hate against Jews in 1930s Germany.

Heaven help us.  Something...something has to be done to stop this.  Our national leader does not seem to care about this.  Mass shootings are becoming as American as apple pie, yet he remains loyal to the NRA.

About our leader -- did you see yesterday's press conference?  He mocked Republicans who lost in the midterms, claiming that they lost because they were not loyal enough to him. He verbally insulted and bullied reporters. The White House pulled the press pass of CNN reporter, Jim Acosta. A black female reporter asked Trump about declaring himself to be a "nationalist," which he did in a rally. She asked the important question about the racist undertone that being white and calling one's self a "nationalist" may have. He interrupted and accused her of asking him a "racist question."  Remember that he's the man who called Mexicans "rapists and murderers."
Today, veteran network reporters are commenting on how yesterday's presidential behavior was far worse than anything experienced when Nixon and Reagan were grilled with extremely tough press questions that held them accountable. And those presidents never had a press pass pulled.  Yesterday's pulling of a national reporter's press pass was something shockingly new. And this happened from a president who took office without prior political experience. He was the egomaniac real estate millionaire who became a popular reality game show host on network TV.
In the 1980s, Steven Spielberg's THE POST would have caused a lot of buzz and, I feel, it would have done quite well at the box office. But today, movie screens have been dominated by follow-ups featuring comic book superheroes.  I paid to see THE POST in 2017. The audience applauded during it and at the end.  I watched it twice this week on HBO.

Donald Trump seems to have the same regard for our Constitution that he would have for a fast food restaurant napkin.  Yesterday's press conference was him wiping his greasy fingers on the First Amendment.  The Marvel Comics characters have made enough money.  See something about non-caped characters.  Real life people at work, in journalism, who did the hard work even when threated with imprisonment.  They stood up for Freedom of the Press. They stood up for the Constitution.

See Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as newspaper co-workers who realized they had to set aside the fluff celebrity pieces and acknowledge that American liberties were at stake.  Watch THE POST, a very fine and very important film that did not get nearly that amount of moviegoer love that it should have.
As the drama in THE POST ends, we see burglars break in at The Watergate Hotel.  The Washington Post was faced with another political crime from the same White House administration, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, in the same decade. To Nixon, the press was his "enemy."

After you watch THE POST, see Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in Alan J. Pakula's 1976 classic, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. This movie opens where THE POST ends.
In both of these true stories, we see women and men who did the hard, the unglamorous and grueling work of a free press.  I happen to feel that a free press is a sharp golden sword in our great democracy.  The current administration wants to dull that blade.

THE POST and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.  These films are relevant and timely. They remind you that our freedom of the press is vital and that it is at stake.  Yesterday's White House press conference alone was visual proof of that.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Jeff Goldblum on CBS SUNDAY MORNING

The 1980s was a great decade to land in New York City for TV work.  That's what I did. I was hired by WPIX TV/Channel 11 to relocate from Milwaukee to Manhattan. I'd be doing entertainment features on local TV. Celebrity interviews and such. I'd be at WPIX for two years and then I'd get an offer to national exposure as a daily veejay and talk show host on VH1.  Back in those days, you could pass a lot of celebrities on the streets of New York City. Or see them in a supermarket or hardware store or diner.  If you interviewed them once -- and the interview was good -- they'd remember you if you were scheduled to interview them again for another project. For me, Jeff Goldblum was a celebrity who remembered me back then. I was flattered. If you're a Jeff Goldblum fan, he'll be profiled on CBS SUNDAY MORNING on November 4th.
I've had a couple of interview opportunities with Jeff Goldblum in the 1980s and a couple of casual encounters.  Each single one was fun -- like the fun some of us used to have when we were kids watching Saturday morning cartoons on TV while eating a bowl of Trix cereal.
He's a tall, slim, jazzy bird of character who's been around and noticeable for a long time.  In the first 20 minutes of the 1974 revenge drama, DEATH WISH, starring Charles Bronson, you'll see Goldblum as one of the criminals who terrorizes Hope Lange as the wife opposite Charles Bronson as the NYC architect.  In 1974, Goldblum had one line -- one wacky line -- and managed to stand out in the Woody Allen classic, ANNIE HALL. In 1980, network TV tried to make him a star opposite Ben Vereen in the private eye duo series, TEN SPEED AND BROWN SHOE. It was canceled. But Jeff Goldblum's role as the People Magazine writer in the hit 1983 movie, THE BIG CHILL, really clicked with the public. It was around that time I interviewed him for the first time. Then I'd run into him at New York publicity parties when he was dating and then newlywedded to actress and fabulous feminist Geena Davis.  They seemed to be the perfect couple.  For one thing, they were almost the same height.
 Jeff Goldblum congratulated when I got the VH1 gig.  He knew I'd moved up from local to national TV work.  For VH1, I made many trips from New York to L.A. to tape segments for my talk show. On one return trip, I was reserved in business class from L.A. back to New York.  The flight was fully booked. When I reached my aisle seat, I heard a warm "Hey, Bobby." My seatmate would be a smiling Jeff Goldblum.

This was the first time in my life I'd ever sat next to a celebrity on a flight. I knew that many stars prized their privacy, so I made sure not to get all giddy and be an interruption.

Well, Jeff Goldblum chatted like we were old high school buddies. He chatted about VH1. He chatted about the in-flight meal. He chatted about the groovy music he was listening to on his Walkman and he shared his earpieces so I could hear some of it.  He'd been cast in a new upcoming Robert Altman feature. He was soon to start rehearsals and he had his script with him. So he asked me to run lines with him to prepare for Altman's BEYOND THERAPY.

Jeff Goldblum was one of the chattiest men I'd ever sat next to on a flight, a bus, a subway, or any other kind of mass transportation.

Remember the I LOVE LUCY episode where The Ricardos and The Mertzes are on the flight back from Europe to New York? Lucy Ricardo has a 25 pound piece of cheese wrapped in a baby blanket. She thinks kids fly free and she's trying to pass the cheese off as a baby so Ricky won't have to pay extra. Lucy's seatmate, a mom holding a real baby, keeps trying to engage Lucy in conversation and get a peek at her infant. After a few minutes, Lucy pretends to be asleep.

I did that same exact thing to Jeff Goldblum somewhere over Colorado.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of interviewing and being up close to movie stars.  I never thought that one would talk my ears off while I was strapped in to my seat.
I must add that, as cool as he seems to be onscreen and in interviews, he was that cool sitting next to me in flight.  I just needed a few minutes of quiet. I really dig Jeff Goldblum and have ever since our first meeting. I hope we meet again. Watch him on CBS SUNDAY MORNING.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Rebel Wilson Weighs In

The British comic actress apparently has a new movie coming out and it's a romantic comedy. Just yesterday, I blogged that white entertainment journalists and TV hosts can and do often overlook the accomplishments of black actors, actresses and filmmakers. In the previous blog, which is about Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, I point out how I watched two high profile white entertainment press members on live network TV cover the Oscar nominations yet not give one single mention to the huge Hollywood history Viola Davis had just made when she was announced as a nominee. Well, it has happened again.  This morning, I read the Huffington Post online article about full-figured British star, Rebel Wilson.  Her new movie is called ISN'T IT ROMANTIC?  When Rebel was a guest on the festive daytime TV talk show, ELLEN, Rebel said, "I'm proud to be the first-ever plus-sized girl to be the star of a romantic comedy."
 I thought, "Really? Does Queen Latifah know about this?"

To me, Rebel Wilson's comment to Ellen DeGeneres was not exacty -- to use the title of one of Rebel's hit comedies -- PITCH PERFECT.
Queen Latifah is, by no means, skinny. She got the handsome guy in the race/gender bender romantic comedy called LAST HOLIDAY. This was a 2006 American remake of a lovely classic British film that starred the great Sir Alec Guinness.  Like Guinness in the more subdued original, she's a person who decides to really live her life when she's told she has a terminal illness and only weeks to live. I highly recommend the 1950 British original. It's an absolute gem, funny and touching.  LL Cool J was Queen's leading man in the remake.
Just last week on TV, I saw Queen Latifah in the light 2010 romantic comedy, JUST WRIGHT co-starring Common. He shoots and she scores in that basketball-centered romantic story.
Before she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, comedian/actress Mo'Nique starred in the 2006 romantic comedy called PHAT GIRLZ.  In it, Mo'Nique played a plus-sized aspiring fashion designer and department store employee. Her lead character may be insecure about her weight but she needn't be. She'll get the handsome guy at the end. Here's a PHAT GIRLZ shot with Mo'Nique on the right.

And what about Ricki Lake in the 1988 John Waters' hit, HAIRSPRAY?

I think you get my point. This is why I frequently write about the accomplishments of black artists in the entertainment industry. Our history can often be overlooked. I like bringing attention to it.

Here's a trailer for Rebel Wilson's ISN'T IT ROMANTIC? It opens in a couple of months.







Thursday, November 1, 2018

Octavia Spencer, Black History and GREEN BOOK

You know how I love to champion major breakthroughs in the field of diversity and inclusion for people of color in the film/TV industry.  Even today, our history and accomplishments can be totally overlooked by high profile white entertainment journalists.  I don't write that in a mean-spirited way. It's just a fact that I've noticed on network TV.  Here's an example involving two white gentlemen whose work I like.  In January 2017 on ABC's Good Morning America, less than five minutes before the live announcement of Oscar nominations, ABC entertainment news anchor Chris Connelly and People Magazine editor in chief Jess Cagle were on the show's daily anchors. Connelly mentioned that he was eager to see if black actors would get nominations because the "Oscars So White" controversy was still hot from the previous year.  The nominations came out.  I let loose a loud cheer in this apartment for Viola Davis. Her first Oscar nomination was for DOUBT. Her second was for Best Actress for THE HELP, co-starring Octavia Spencer. Octavia won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for THE HELP.
That January 2017 morning, Viola Davis got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for FENCES. That is why I cheered. She had just become the most Oscar nominated black actress in all Hollywood history.  It was Viola's third nomination.  I have been an Oscars history geek ever since I was in high school. Also, I'm proud to have years of national TV, radio and print entertainment reviewer/interviewer credits under my veteran belt. So, watching the Oscar nominations be announced every year is like a religion to me.

Neither Chris Connelly nor Jess Cagle said that Viola Davis had just made Oscar history. They overlooked the Denzel Washington history that same morning. He was a Best Actor Oscar nominee for FENCES. The 2-time Oscar winner had received his 7th nomination. The next year, he's continue his reign as the most Oscar-nominated black actor in Hollywood history with an 8th nomination.

Chris Connelly and Jess Cagle also missed the history that Denzel Washington was the first black actor to receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination for a performance in a film he directed -- a film that also got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  Washington was one of the film's producers and he received an Oscar nomination in the Best Picture producer category.  He also directed his co-star to her record-breaking, history-making third Oscar nomination.

The two guest entertainment journalists missed all that history about Viola Davis when they discussed the Oscar nominations live on ABC's Good Morning America.

By the way, ABC is the network that airs the hit prime time legal drama series, How To Get Away With Murder starring...Viola Davis.  Chris and Jess didn't mention that either.  Viola Davis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for FENCES.

Yes, I have pitched myself for years to work for ABC on its morning show. I never got a response.
Oscar winner Octavia Spencer went on to receive two more Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations -- for HIDDEN FIGURES and THE SHAPE OF WATER.  Octavia Spencer is now tied with Viola Davis.  They are the two most Oscar-nominated black actresses in Hollywood history.  They have three nominations and one win each.

The movie GREEN BOOK opens this month. It's already generated solid reviews and Oscar buzz in Best Picture category.  This film is based on a true story and a real-life travel guide that helped African American motorists travel safely through the Jim Crow South. Mahershala Ali, Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for MOONLIGHT, stars with Viggo Mortensen.
If GREEN BOOK does get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, Octavia Spencer could make Oscar history again. She's one of the film's executive producers. Brava, Octavia!


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Sisterhood in THE POST and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

Two movies. You may not think it, but they have more in common than just two extraordinary actresses in the lead roles.  The movies have a sisterhood. In both films, there is a big house and in that house, a man is doing very bad things. He must be exposed. He must be stopped. In both films, a woman will be the hero. In Steven Spielberg's journalism drama, based on a true story millions of us baby boomers remember, is THE POST.  I feel like I've grown up with Meryl Streep.  I've been a devoted fan since she started her film career in the late 1970s and went on to wow audiences as the most Oscar nominated performer in all Hollywood history.  With that said, her work in THE POST is peak Streep. Two people are dealing with a current U.S president who feels that a free press is the enemy of the people.  The two people are Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, and his boss, Washington Post publisher Kay Graham, played by Meryl Streep.  Graham is the first woman publisher of a major American newspaper. Her beloved husband was in the publisher position.  It went to her after his death.  The controversial Vietnam War wages on.  Young American men are dying. It's a war we cannot win. The truth of all this has been kept from the American public. The New York Times scoops the story of a government cover-up and the Washington Post is forced to dig in and give newspaper some competition.  Insecure Graham has been focused on lifestyle features, like covering a White House wedding. Bradlee wants to do harder, serious journalism. The Pentagon Papers reports will be one of the hottest, most controversial stories of the decade.
Bradlee is a gracefully macho character, a sophisticated man with many connections. When first we see Katherine "Kay" Graham, she's not yet comfortable in the skin of her publisher position. Keep in mind that, during this era, women still hungered for equal opportunities and equal respect. Kay is forced to prove herself at a most critical time in American history and a most critical time in the history of America's free press. There was a White House administration in place that would exclude members of the press from doing its work unless it wrote flattering things about the administration.
Meryl got one of her 86 Oscar nominations for Best Actress for THE POST. She deserved it.  Jodie Foster won her second Best Actress Oscar for the crime thriller, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, directed by Jonathan Demme.

Within the late four days, I saw both films on HBO channels.  In both films, we see female characters striving to prove themselves while constantly under the strict male gaze and while often being the only woman in a room full of men.
Look at the brilliant FBI cadet Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Notice the frequency of tight close-ups of men observing her in a competitive work situation.  Whether law enforcement co-workers or dangerous convicts behind bars or the creepy villain holding a woman hostage in a well, Starling is often the only female in the shot.
Now look at Kay Graham in THE POST. She's an intelligent, poised woman but she has not yet found her voice as the boss.  The first scene with Bradlee and Graham (Hanks and Streep) is a breakfast meeting in a swanky restaurant.  Kay walks in, hands filled with a briefcase and a load of paperwork. She spots Ben seated at a table. As she walks over to him, she clumsily knocks over a restaurant chair and apologizes to people seated at other tables.
She is the only woman in room. No gentlemen, and there are quite a few, offer to help her pick up her dropped items. Ben does not stand up politely as she approaches his table. She's outnumbered by men who do not notice her.
Notice the times Kay enters a room, like the board meeting with the bankers, and she's the only woman. Notice they really don't listen to her. She doesn't walk with them, she walks behind them.

This will change as Kay finds her voice, grows some brass ovaries and reports on an irresponsible president instead of concentrating on celebrity lifestyle reports.

Ben knows Kay has this strength in her. In their restaurant meeting, she's passive and he's dominant. You'd think he was the boss. He's a green light. She's a yellow light. He keeps going. She halts. She progresses at a reduced speed. He challenges, irritates and motivates her to be the publisher, to make the hard decisions, to be the leader. He tells her how much she has at stake. He tells her the truth.

In Spielberg's THE POST, Ben Bradlee is to Kay Graham what Dr. Lecter is to Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.  He irritates and motivates Clarice Starling. He tells her the truth. He knows what she has at stake.

Both men respect the intelligence and accelerate the drive of a woman who can overcome a bad force in a big house.  For Clarice, it's a killer in a shabby house of horrors. For Mrs. Graham, it's a president in the White House violating the Constitution of the United States. Both men, Ben Bradlee and Dr. Lecter, help a woman distinguish herself.

I understood and connected to Meryl Streep at Kay Graham.  When Ben Bradlee tells his wife that Kay has decided to publish, even though the government may threaten her with jail time, the wife calls Kay "brave."  Ben scoffs at the word. But, his loving wife reminds him that he's a man, a man of privilege. If he's fired, he can easily get another job. But Kay is the first woman in a job that she never planned to have.

As a black person in America and in a few workplaces, I've had to prove himself and very often work twice as hard to make half as much as a white guy with a smaller resume, I understood the invisibility that Kay felt early in THE POST. I know what it was like to not feel good enough, to not feel that my opinion mattered, to feel that executives were looking past me.  When that's been your reality for a long time, it takes some newfound muscle and speed to break that barrier.  I saw THE POST in a New York City theater. When Kay finds her voice and, faced with a bunch of mansplaining businessmen in her dining room at night, shuts them up by declaring, "My decision stands, and I'm going to bed," I wasn't the only one who cheered and broke out into applause. The whole audience did.

Check your HBO listings or check them out on DVD. I highly recommended the feminist sisterhood in both Steven Spielberg's THE POST and Jonathan Demme's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. And if I owned a retro movie theater, I'd put two films about the same newspaper on a double bill -- THE POST and the story that followed, Alan Pakula's ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. The same newspaper, the same editor and publisher, the same U.S. president.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

On BLACK HOLLYWOOD: THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US

I could not and would not budge from my computer screen. The installment of this BBC series that I saw was thoroughly and totally gripping in its history and observations. Will BBC America air it? I pray it will.  BLACK HOLLYWOOD: THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US needs to be seen. Black British and American artists talk about their lives and the thick, high color walls they've had to crash through in the name of diversity and inclusion.  You see American stars speak freely and honestly.  Stars such as Diahann Carroll, actress/director Debbie Allen, actress/director Kasi Lemmons, Laurence Fishburne, Robert Townsend, Don Cheadle and Harry Belafonte.
Oscar nominee, Broadway and TV star Diahann Carroll was once romantically involved with Sidney Poitier. She talks about watching Poitier accept his Oscar during their romance.
You will also see stellar British artists not widely known here in the States but who should be. Two are the dapper 100 year old actor Earl Cameron and the sensational Sir Lenny Henry.
From the historic Best Supporting Actress Oscar victory of Hattie McDaniel for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND to the Best Original Screenplay Oscar victory of Jordan Peele for 2017's GET OUT, we hear how black talent in Britain and the U.S. had to run through an obstacle course of racism and racial stereotypes.

Search for this show online.  If you can find video, please watch it.  Now let me tell you stories about filmmaker Spike Lee that will complement stories you'll hear about his filmmaking struggles with white Hollywood executives if you watch this BBC special.

I've interviewed Spike a couple of times in my TV career.  The first time was when I was on VH1 every day for three years in the late 80s.  Spike was scheduled to be in downtown New York City studio to tape an interview for my show. He burst through the studio door about 20 minutes late, perspiring and apologizing profusely.  Our studio manager asked if traffic was bad or something because we'd sent a town car to his apartment address in Brooklyn to pick him up.

Spike took the subway and, went he got off, made a mad dash to our studios because he was late.  The town car had arrived and was waiting outside his building.  But the driver refused to let him in the car.  Why?

The driver felt that Spike Lee did not look like a real movie director and his schedule had him picking up a film director named Spike Lee.  Spike had no time to argue and validate himself so he just raced off to a subway train from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Our studio manager called the car service, the car service manager called the car driver, the driver admitted what he'd said and admitted that he did not let the short black man into his car. The driver was fired that very day.

Spike and I did the interview. We talked about the success of SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT.  I asked if he was working on a new film.  He was.  He was in production on DO THE RIGHT THING, now considered a film classic.

I've written before that director Norman Jewison had a frustrating time raising Hollywood studio money to make A SOLDIER'S STORY, the film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning stage drama, A SOLDIER'S PLAY. Jewison's IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT had won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Actor (Rod Steiger) of 1967.  He followed that with deluxe, big budget films such as the Steve McQueen & Faye Dunaway hit, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, and the musicals JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. But when Jewison went to Hollywood studios for money to make A SOLDIER'S STORY, there was none. Why? He was told that black stories didn't sell. And he wanted to shoot a story with a predominantly black cast and no popular white star as the hero. Jewison offered to work for way less money than usual. He was determined to get his movie made. He got it made.  The cast included Howard Rollins Jr., Robert Townsend and David Alan Grier.
Denzel Washington had a key role and Adolph Caesar got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The plot is a murder mystery involving the segregated U.S. troops during WW2.  Jewison's A SOLDIER'S STORY was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1984.
 Fast forward to 1992. MALCOLM X.
Spike Lee's MALCOLM X starring Denzel Washington is one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. Denzel Washington gets a Best Actor Oscar nomination for it. But, the Hollywood studio did not want Spike to direct it.  Norman Jewison was tapped and offered $100 million for a budget. Jewison felt a black director, Spike Lee, should helm such a project. So..Hollywood reluctantly gave the big project to Spike … with a reduced budget of $30 million. And despite all the praise the movie got, the studio did not campaign for Lee to get a Best Director Oscar nomination. You will hear about this in BLACK HOLLYWOOD: THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US.

Spike Lee has never received an Oscar nomination for Best Director.

The struggle for black artists to tell their stories, to get their stories told accurately and the struggle for equal opportunities continues today on both sides of the pond.  Here's something that's long made me so angry that I could grind my molars into dust:  Just as difficult as it's been for black actors and filmmakers to break through those color walls to get their projects made, it's just as difficult for us black people who cover entertainment to get the same opportunities as white film critics and TV hosts so we can put a much needed spotlight on the work of artists of color.  On national American TV for decades, the field of film critics, talk show hosts and movie channel hosts has been predominantly white male. It's lacked race and gender diversity.

I'm still proud that the New York Times, People Magazine and TV Guide gave me high marks on my VH1 celebrity talk show in the late 80s. I'm proud that I was the first black person to have his own prime time weeknight celebrity talk show on VH1. After VH1, I was never offered another national talk show host opportunity. But, in the early 90s when I signed with my first agent, I was offered auditions for film and TV roles. The characters were thugs, convicts and numbskull urban homeboys. Just like in Robert Townsend's 1987 satire, HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE.

Back in 2016, young director Damien Chazelle was getting fabulous reviews for his musical, LA LA LAND.  He was booked as a special guest co-host one night on TCM to present classic films he loved and to promote LA LA LAND. White film critics were tossing love notes to Damien Chazelle about LA LA LAND, their reviews printed on huge posters in theater lobbies.

Black/Latino film critics were all abuzz on Twitter about a film they'd screened in film festivals. They were declaring Barry Jenkins' MOONLIGHT a must-see.  I never heard one mention of that film or its young black director/screenwriter on TCM even though he's a huge fan of classic foreign films. His MOONLIGHT, like LA LA LAND, was gathering great reviews.

Remember what happened? The Oscar for Best Picture went to  LA LA LAND  MOONLIGHT, directed and co-written by Barry Jenkins.  My point is that we're still struggling to not be overlooked and to be included.  Barry Jenkins is also interviewed in this BBC series.

Again, search online for BLACK HOLLYWOOD: THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US.  The struggle is real.  Thanks a million to my Twitter pal, Lorna Cooper, for bringing this fine BBC series to my attention. Now here's proof that I had a VH1 talk show.

To top this off, here's my interview of Spike Lee when he was promoting one of his best and most blistering works, the 1997 documentary entitled 4 LITTLE GIRLS. I had this piece written, edited and ready two weeks before its scheduled air date on the Fox local weekday morning show, GOOD DAY NEW YORK. I was a weekly contributor on the show for four years.

In the promo for the show that aired in commercial breaks on the channel the day before this piece ran, there was no mention of this Spike Lee interview. There was no other major celebrity segment the show that day.  However, the promo highlighted a weight loss segment and one about getting extra coupon discounts at the supermarket. See what I mean? The struggle to be seen and heard, the struggle to keep our stories visible is real.  Here's the Spike Lee feature.





Monday, October 29, 2018

Maurice DuBois Feature on CBS SUNDAY

One day I was online reading news articles in The Los Angeles Times.  I like to keep up with what's happening in my hometown. While I was reading, I had the TV on and a 1930s musical was playing in the background on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). A blackface number came on in the movie and I thought to myself, "I'm so glad Old Hollywood got out of that phase."  At the same time, Megyn Kelly was live on NBC being absolutely clueless about white people doing blackface for Halloween fun. She's a journalist who had her own live weekday network TV show.  A reported $69 million contract came with that job. And she, in her late 40s, pretty much said that she didn't understand why people were offended by blackface because it was ok when she was a kid.  As you can well imagine, this caused an uproar so fierce that, despite her teary apology the next day, her show got cancelled by the end of the week.

Maurice DuBois of CBS did a piece on blackface that aired on CBS SUNDAY. It's a very good, very informative feature that I recommend viewing if you go to the website.  I'll give you that link at the end of the post.

I've read newspaper articles about Old Hollywood blackface. Most of them had photos of two great performers who appeared in blackface in 1930s musicals. They are young Judy Garland and Fred Astaire.  Maurice's piece has clips of Garland and Astaire and he pointed them out in his voiceover. Also mentioned was Bing Crosby as he did the "Abraham" number in the 1942 musical, HOLIDAY INN.  As much as I liked Bing, he really needed to get the memo about blackface.

If I was producing Maurice's piece on blackface, I would not have used the footage of Garland and Astaire because, for one thing, they've been used a few times already.

There are several other Hollywood stars who appeared in blackface during Hollywood studio years. You'd be surprised at a few. In old movies, I've seen blackface done by:

Eddie Cantor in ROMAN SCANDALS (1933)
Shirley Temple in THE LITTLEST REBEL (1935)
Irene Dunne in SHOW BOAT (1936)
The Marx Brothers in A DAY AT THE RACES (1937)
Eleanor Powell in HONOLULU (1939)
James Stewart in IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD (1939)
Bing Crosby in HOLIDAY INN (1942)
Bing Crosby in DIXIE (1943)
Bing Crosby in HERE COME THE WAVES (1944)
Betty Grable in THE DOLLY SISTERS (1945)
Betty Hutton in THE PERILS OF PAULINE (1947)
William Holden in FATHER IS A BACHELOR (1950)
Doris Day in I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (1951)
Donald O'Connor and Janet Leigh in WALKING MY BABY BACK HOME (1953).

With Fred Astaire in the classic 1936 musical, SWING TIME, he plays a dancer doing a salute to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. As noted in Astaire's 1950s autobiography, dancer Bill Robinson was an idol of his when he was a teen and working on Broadway with his sister, Adele. Fred Astaire became friends and Bill Robinson. Robinson taught young Astaire how to shoot pool. In that SWING TIME dance number, "Bojangles of Harlem," Astaire's dark make-up is not the charcoal black make-up you saw on Al Jolson. It's lighter. And no nappy wig and exaggerated white lips. We see Astaire's own hair and lips. Astaire meant the 1936 song and dance as a tribute. However, in later years, he fully understood the sensitivity and never did "blackface" again.

As for Garland, she was a minor. A child actress under the age of 17 and under contract to a powerful Hollywood studio. She did what the middle-aged male executives at MGM told her to do, she wore why they told her to wear and she even ate what they told her to eat because they felt she was talented but too chubby. Her blackface numbers were done for director/choreographer Busby Berkeley, a director who was not one of her favorites.  There was friction between them. Instead of focusing on Garland in blackface in her juvenile years, I'd look at the frequency of blackface numbers and demeaning black images in Busby Berkeley movies. Eddie Cantor did blackface for Berkeley in 1933's ROMAN SCANDALS. In 1939's BABES IN ARMS, Berkeley had bunch of teen performers blacked up and doing a minstrel number. Not just young Judy Garland. It's Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and a dozen or so other young players. Busby Berkeley put Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in an even bigger minstrel number in 1941's BABES ON BROADWAY. Judy wasn't the problem. Busby Berkeley was, along with the way Hollywood studios at the time portrayed black people.

In the 1960s, Judy Garland was one of the many celebrities who supported Dr. Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington. Not long after the March on Washington, American was rocked by the racial hate crime that killed four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama. A church was bombed and four little black girls were killed. The day after that crime, Judy Garland held a press conference to raise money for victims of the church bombing. With her were friends Carolyn Jones (seated far left) and June Allyson (in the middle). Notice the crime headline on the newspaper in front of Judy.  This was around the time when the singing star had THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW, a Sunday night music variety show on CBS.
In the Maurice DuBois feature, he's visibly irritated when he's shown a clip of Al Jolson in the historic THE JAZZ SINGER. The film started a revolution in technology. Hollywood went from the silent era to the sound era with THE JAZZ SINGER and much of that sound was Jolson singing in blackface.  If Maurice was noticeably agitated seeing the clip from 1927's THE JAZZ SINGER, he would have tried to set that entire screening room on fire if he'd been shown Al Jolson in the "Goin' To Heaven on a Mule" number from the 1934 Warner Bros. musical, WONDER BAR.  The number was created by...Busby Berkeley. Jolson and dozens of chorus singers are all in blackface. This is a 10-minute production number in a glossy, art deco Warner Bros. musical.  The opening line of the verse before Jolson slides into the chorus of the song is "Ever since I was a little pickaninny..." When the poor black man gets to the Pearly Gates, he's thrilled to see that Heaven has Pork Chop Orchard and a Possum Pie Grove. You can pick pork chops right off the trees. And there are dice games, a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln and Heaven's own version of Harlem with a nightclub. In the nightclub floor show, the chorus girls have props. Each holds a 6-foot tall replica of a watermelon wedge.  Every single man, woman and child in "Goin' To Heaven on a Mule" is in charcoal black make-up with exaggerated white lips.

Busby Berkeley created a stunningly racist production number for Al Jolson. 1934's WONDER BAR, in its entirety, is available on DVD.  When white classic film enthusiasts discuss and praise the truly revolutionary way Busby Berkeley directed, staged and shot musical numbers for movies such as 1933's 42nd STREET, FOOTLIGHT PARADE and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, the numerous offensive visual images of black people in his early musicals are never mentioned.  However, they are too obvious to miss.  I happened to see the "Goin' To Heaven on a Mule" number in WONDER BAR when I was in middle school.  I was already a classic film fan by then and, when I saw that this old musical was airing on a local independent station in L.A one afternoon, I watched. It was fun until that number.  Even at that young age, my jaw dropped at the monumental bad taste of it.  Did you ever see the Mel Brooks movie, THE PRODUCERS? I looked exactly like a Broadway audience member watching the "Springtime for Hitler" number. And I was only about 12.

1993.  Whoopi Goldberg was romantically involved with Ted Danson. They appeared at a Friar's Club celebrity roast, which they assumed was private and off the record, and Ted did a monologue in blackface. The old-fashioned kind. Charcoal black make-up and exaggerated white lips. A photo leaked. It became an embarrassing and hot national entertainment news story. Blackface was not ok.

Megyn Kelly would have been about 25 at that time. How could she have been so clueless about blackface last week? Maybe that ignorance was her white privilege. To see the Maurice DuBois feature, "Unmasking the Racist History of Blackface," from CBS Sunday, go here:

www.CBSSundayMorning.com.








Sunday, October 28, 2018

Bing Crosby in THE COUNTRY GIRL

Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Diana Ross,  Barbra Streisand and Cher are some the recording stars who had hit records and got major radio airplay then added Oscar nominations for acting to their accomplishments. These successful pop singer and Oscar facts are getting entertainment news mentions now because Lady Gaga, as Barbra Streisand did for her remake of A STAR IS BORN, could get an Oscar nomination in the Best Song category for her current, well-received remake of A STAR IS BORN.  Streisand won Best Actress, her first Oscar, for 1968's FUNNY GIRL and her second came for co-writing "Evergreen," the love song from 1976's A STAR IS BORN starring, of course, Barbra Streisand. Every singer who racked up hit records and an Oscar nomination for acting follows on ground broken by Bing Crosby.
We are soon to enter the season in which we'll hear a lot of Bing.  His 1954 hit film, WHITE CHRISTMAS, gets plenty of holiday season airing on TV.  We baby boomers can remember when Bing Crosby holiday specials on network TV were popular family fare.  On YouTube, a clip from one of those specials has become a retro classic -- the most unlikely duo of Bing Crosby and David Bowie in 1977 singing "Little Drummer Boy."
Today, the generation that came after baby boomers may know Bing Crosby from singing "White Christmas," but they may have overlooked what an enormously successful and influential recording star he was. He was such a popular singer on network radio that Hollywood came calling. Crosby became one of Paramount's biggest stars starting in the early 1930s.  Moviegoers loved his breezy, warm personality in entertaining musical comedies.  Top songwriters wrote new tunes for him to introduce and many of those songs became standards in our Great American Songbook.  In the 1940s, he did the hit "Road" movie comedies with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. He made two musicals with Fred Astaire.  In the first, HOLIDAY INN (1942), he introduced a song that brought Irving Berlin the Oscar for Best Song. Bing Crosby's recording of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" made record sales history.  He reprised the song in the next movie with did with Astaire, 1946's BLUE SKIES, another movie chock full o' Irving Berlin songs. In a 1950s radio interview, Astaire mentioned that he and Bing were in discussions to reteam for another Irving Berlin movie musical called WHITE CHRISTMAS. However, Astaire's dear wife took ill and, sadly, the illness was terminal. Understandably, he bowed out of the project.  Donald O'Connor was mentioned as a replacement. The role ultimately went to Danny Kaye, who was perfect opposite Bing in that fun and festive Technicolor musical.

1954 was a fabulous movie year for Crosby.  WHITE CHRISTMAS was one of Paramount's biggest box office hits of the year.  The Oscar winner's other 1954 film was the black and white drama, THE COUNTRY GIRL, co-starring Grace Kelly and William Holden.  Nowadays, this strong drama seems to be mostly famous for being the movie that robbed Judy Garland of the Best Actress Oscar for her tremendous performance in the first remake of A STAR IS BORN. Grace Kelly won.
Bing Crosby was a Best Actor Oscar nominee for THE COUNTRY GIRL. This marked his last of three Oscar nominations, all in the Best Actor category. He won for his work as the priest, Father O'Malley, in 1944's GOING MY WAY. He made Oscar history for playing the same character and getting another Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in 1945's THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S, a follow-up to GOING MY WAY. Bing's performance in THE COUNTRY GIRL is my favorite of his film performances. He's powerful in it and he absolutely deserved that Oscar nomination.  Just like A STAR IS BORN with Judy Garland, Paramount's adaptation of THE COUNTRY GIRL allowed a singing star famous for sunny Hollywood musical comedies to exercise dramatic muscles playing the dark side of being a star. Judy Garland as Vicki Lester, new Hollywood star, falls in love with the star who discovered her. They marry. But his alcoholism and fading Hollywood career cause the marriage to fray even though she still loves him. Occasional dark feelings of hate, jealousy and self-loathing start to wear out the fabric of their love story.  In THE COUNTRY GIRL, Crosby plays a former Broadway and recording star who, like Crosby, had a breezy, warm image. A tragedy occurred in his marriage. His grief and guilt crippled his career. He's now a co-dependent, manipulative, low income alcoholic who hides his anger behind an easy-going image. His marriage has frayed. His lovely, young wife has morphed a drab, strict nursemaid trying to keep him off the bottle.  He has a chance to be a star again when a top director/writer seeks him for the lead role in a new musical bound for Broadway. Can he overcome his co-dependency and drinking to revive his career and his marriage?

Crosby is raw and revealing in this role, going from successful to pathetic to mean to moving.  THE COUNTRY GIRL had something else in common with 1954's A STAR IS BORN.  Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin wrote new songs for Judy Garland to introduce in her acclaimed remake.  One, "The Man That Got Away," was an Oscar nominee for Best Song. It should have won, but it didn't. (See Garland sing in it my previous blog post.)  Arlen and Gershwin also wrote new songs for Crosby to sing in THE COUNTRY GIRL and one is a beauty that fits the tone and emotional journey of the film like a velvet glove. For Frank Elgin (Crosby) it was a hit record that also marked the most horrible day of his life. In flashback, we see the broken down Elgin recall the recording session that happy day before tragedy struck. Here's "The Search Is Through."
 While I'm at it, here's a trailer for THE COUNTRY GIRL, adapted from the Broadway play.
For Bing's other 1954 film, WHITE CHRISTMAS, Irving Berlin wrote a new song for Bing to introduce with Rosemary Clooney. "Count Your Blessings" brought Irving Berlin another Oscar nomination.  That song, too, was nominated in the Best Song category along with Arlen & Gershwin's "The Man That Got Away" from A STAR IS BORN.

Both lost to "Three Coins in the Fountain" from the movie of the same name.

Two years later, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly reteamed for the colorful MGM musical comedy HIGH SOCIETY with songs by Cole Porter. The 1956 musical remake of 1940's THE PHILADELPHIA STORY co-starred Frank Sinatra, Celeste Holm and Louis Armstrong.  Bing and Grace took on the roles previously played by Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as they introduced the song, "True Love." It brought Cole Porter an Oscar nomination for Best Song.

To see singer/actor Bing Crosby at his film acting best, watch THE COUNTRY GIRL.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Bravo, Bradley, on A STAR IS BORN

The original A STAR IS BORN hit screens in 1937.  At the heart of the Hollywood-on-Hollywood tale is a love story.  When I was a kid watching network TV shows about classic films, I learned that A STAR IS BORN had produced two famous scenes -- one has a humiliating disruption at the Academy Awards and the other is a heartbreaking scene of sacrifice at the Pacific Ocean. A STAR IS BORN also gave films a famous final line of dialogue. Those three elements were repeated in the faithful and masterful 1954 remake which added songs for the spectacular screen comeback of Judy Garland in the star role opposite James Mason under the direction of George Cukor. It was a rare case of a remake being just as good if not better than the classic original.  Then came the 1976 non-classic and mostly hollow remake starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. The hollowness was due to new industry forces, not the talented stars. Movie-making had changed. New characters with big egos and little movie-making experience were now Hollywood producers. Streisand looked like a singing feminist C.P.A. who got booked to play Coachella. Her song, "Evergreen," was nice and so were the candles in the bathtub scene. In that remake, the action was moved from Hollywood soundstages to the modern-day rock scene with outdoor concerts.  This new version, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, puts us in the modern-day rock scene like the previous incarnation did.  But it's not hollow. It has substance. There are two love stories at work in this version -- the one between the alcoholic country rock singer and the sweet rising star he's discovered is the first love story.  The other is the love Bradley Cooper had for this project and his fellow cast members.  His remake is of its time.  I don't feel it's a modern-day classic, but his directorial debut is quite strong. So is his performance as Jackson Maine, the self-destructive rock artist. As a director who also stars in the film, Cooper shares the spotlight.  The performance Lady Gaga gives under his direction is most impressive.  In individual scenes and together, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper have scenes of emotional honesty that put tears in my eyes.  Just as Streisand did with her remake, Lady Gaga could get an Oscar nomination for Best Song.
Today's version has a screenplay by Eric Roth, the man who wrote the FORREST GUMP screenplay and, to a degree, rewrote it as THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON.  All the previous screenplays are acknowledged in the credits -- the 1937, the 1954 and the 1976 screenwriters get credits. The first thing that touched me the most in this version and made me gasp with delight in the movie theater is how many touches in this movie are little valentines to the Judy Garland remake. I'll point them out.
In the opening, we see Lady Gaga as Ally.  The first two versions had a show biz hopeful named Esther Blodgett who will be discovered by Norman Maine, a famous but troublesome Hollywood actor (troublesome because of his drinking). The Hollywood studio that signs Esther to a standard contract will change her name to Vicki Lester. Vicki Lester will shoot to Hollywood stardom.  Barbra Streisand was Esther Hoffman.  Lady Gaga is Ally. We see her toiling in the food service business with an absolute jerk of a boss. She leaves work, walks down an alley singing to herself as the title A STAR IS BORN slow appears on the screen in large red letters -- large red letters just like in the Judy Garland version. Ally is singing the verse to "Over the Rainbow."
After a concert, drunk Jackson Maine is being driven in his limo. He's up for another drink.  In the Hollywood area, he's recognized and wanders into the Bleu Bleu Room.  It's a gay bar having a drag performer night.  The Bleu Bleu Room is the name of the nightclub where Norman Maine (James Mason) finds Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), the girl singer with a band who saves him from disgracing himself onstage in an all-star Hollywood benefit. In the Bleu Bleu club, he discovers that she has no idea of how truly talented she really is. In the after-hours joint, singing for herself and the boys in the band, Norman Maine sees that her show biz dream isn't big enough. She's a great singer who should be making movies instead of touring with a band.
What I loved about Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine entering the Bleu Bleu Room was no wide-eyed astonished "Whoa! I'm in a gay bar!?!" macho hetero male reaction. He's relaxed. He feels safe. He has a drink and enjoys the show. The non-drag queen onstage is the food service lady with the jerk boss. The drag queens love her because she's got real talent.  Ally sings "La Vie en Rose," wows the crowd and has a moment when she sees Jackson Maine. He has a moment too and goes backstage to meet her.  She's attracted to him but, like Esther in the earlier versions, notices that the charming man drinks too much.  When Judy Garland sings "The Man That Got Away," she's before a backdrop that's a rose blush while she's in a navy blue dress with Peter Pan collars. This is the imaginative color motif Cukor brought to his remake. Red signified fame, blue stood for the anonymous performer or ordinary person and brown was for the star as "civilian" offstage, as in married life.  The rose blush behind Esther as she sings signifies that fame is on its way.  Ally is onstage before a red curtain as she sings "La Vie en Rose."

When Norman Maine tells the dumbfounded Esther that she's a great singer, the camera shot has her framed so that red neon city lights in the background flicker above her head.  She will be a star.  The 3-color motif of Cukor's remake inspired the cinematography of Cooper's remake.

Andrew Dice Clay plays Ally's father. He is in this version what Tommy Noonan was, to a degree, in Garland's version.  Ally isn't on the road in a bus with the boys in the band. She's got her single dad and their home is constantly filled with his male co-workers. They're all car service drivers constantly talking about famed vocalists such as Frank Sinatra. Like Tommy Noonan as Esther's confidante/music arranger and pianist, Ally's father believes in her talent but thinks Jackson Maine is just making a pass.

Sam Elliott as Bobby has some very emotionally raw scenes as Jackson Maine's longtime road manager who's also a family member. He is what Charles Bickford as the Hollywood studio head was in Garland's 1954 version. The head of the studio comes to hold Esther's talent and devotion very dear in his heart and he's grateful that Norman Maine discovered her.  The studio head has known Norman for 20 years -- and he watched him drink for 20 years.  That applies to Elliott's character in this A STAR IS BORN.  There's a scene where the Sam Elliott and Bradley Cooper characters are in a car in a driveway.  Jackson Maine, who's hit bottom and has sought help with his addictions, tearfully reveals some truths about himself to Bobby as he gets out of the car. He could get an Oscar nomination for that scene alone.

Rafi Gavron plays Rez, the record company executive who handles Ally and suggests that she change her hair to blonde, which she does not do.  Think of how the Hollywood studio slapped a blonde wig onto Esther (Garland) and gave her a latex nose device plus overly glamorous make-up.  All of this Norman Maine removed and returned Esther to her true self for her screen test in Cukor's A STAR IS BORN. Rez is the equivalent to the cynical studio publicist played by Jack Carson the 1954 remake and even by Lionel Stander in the 1937 original. (I've blocked much of the Streisand version out of my mind.) If you saw the 1954 version, remember when Norman Maine, fresh out of rehab, is publicly humiliated by publicist Matt Libby and Maine says, "Good work, Libby. Always wait till they're down then kick them"?  That's how Rez is in this version.

Despite all the F-bombs and the brief nudity, there is still heart and poignancy in this 2018 remake. I'm not a prude, but there's one big missed opportunities for memorable, tender dialogue.  One of my favorite scenes in the original and first remake is the terrace scene with Norman and Esther after the sneak preview of her film debut.  It's beautifully done by Fredric March and Janet Gaynor in the original. It's also beautifully done by James Mason and Judy Garland in the first remake.  The alcoholic fading star has fallen in love with his discovery. He's helped make her dream bigger. Now he must move on because he doesn't want to ruin her life they way he's ruined his. But she's fallen in love with him too. The revelation comes in the terrace love scene.  In Cooper's remake, the terrace scene has "fuckin'" as an adverb or adjective too many times.  A line like "You're a fuckin' star now" can't compare to the graceful dialogue in the first two versions. James Mason's Norman Maine tenderly takes his discovery onto the terrace after her sensational preview screening.  They're at the studio party afterwards. He holds her hand, points to the gorgeous nighttime Hollywood panorama and proceeds to both congratulate and caution her:  "It's all yours, Esther.  And I don't mean just the Cadillacs and the swimming pools. It's all yours. In more ways than one.  Don't let it change you. Don't let it take over your life. You're very dear."  See what I mean?  Screenwriter Eric Roth should've made his scene more like the one Moss Hart wrote for the 1954 remake. Less F-bombs.

In the original, Esther wants to be a film actress. She becomes one. In the two remakes, Esther is a singer who gets discovered.  In this version, Jackson Maine is thrilled by Ally's talent as a songwriter in addition to her singing. Here, after she secures some major attention when Jackson brings the unknown talent onto the stage with him for a number, she gets a record deal, cuts an album and gets a musical guest spot on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. But she's allowed herself to be altered by corporate executives. Onstage with Jackson, there was a Bonnie Raitt, if you will, earthiness to her singing and her songwriting. Now she's a redhead (red = fame) and dressed like Britney Spears with unnecessary back-up dancers.  She's another pop diva in a sexy outfit singing about a sexy guy. She's a hit, but Jackson wants her to return to the way she was … the way he saw her in the drag queen dressing room without her make-up.

The famous Oscar speech disruption scene has been moved to the Grammys, like in the Streisand version.  Here, we get another valentine to the Garland version.  Ally has red hair and she wears a gold dress, as Garland does in her final scene to proclaim the famous last line of the film, "This is Mrs. Norman Maine."
Earlier, as Esther, now Oscar winner Vicki Lester, shoots a jazzy production number for another sunny musical, she's immersed in the dark side of the Hollywood dream. She loves Norman but his drinking and unemployment are taking an emotional toll on their marriage. The colors of her costume represent the balance she tries to keep of her three identities Esther Blodgett (blue) Vicki Lester (red) and Mrs. Norman Maine (brown).
In the last act, we see a lot of Jackson trying to kick his addictions while dealing with jealousy over Ally's rise to stardom and his hunger to see her return to her roots.  Cooper gives a soulful performance. We see all of Jackson's vulnerability, pain and love in his eyes. In the first two versions, we know that Maine drinks but we aren't really told why. We do see the show biz jolts that wound his ego and make him drink. Also, we don't know about his life before stardom. In this remake, we learn all about Jackson Maine's unhappy upbringing and when he started drinking. We learn that in detail. However, A STAR IS BORN is foremost about the woman who becomes a star and gets more than she ever dreamed of, more happiness and more heartache. We watch to see if she'll survive the light and dark of her dream come true. The last act veers and becomes more Jackson's story. Moss Hart's screenplay for the Garland remake/comeback stayed focused on a theme that George Cukor embraced. Cukor gave us stories about a dreamer and showed us how the dreamer handles life after the dream comes true.  Look at his A STAR IS BORN or A DOUBLE LIFE with Ronald Colman as the stage actor who finally gets to play Othello, IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU with Judy Holliday as reality TV celebrity Gladys Glover, Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray as the young newlyweds who thought saying "I do" automatically meant happily ever after and now seek a divorce in THE MARRYING KIND and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle, determined to move from raggedy to regal in MY FAIR LADY.  Bradley Cooper is new at directing and hasn't settled on themes yet. This is his first film.

In this A STAR IS BORN, we don't get the Oscars scene and we don't get the famous Pacific Ocean sacrifice scene.  But, like in Cukor's version, the last scene takes place in the Shrine Auditorium.  The 1954 version comes full circle. It opens with a scene onstage at The Shrine and it ends with a scene onstage at The Shrine.

Cooper's version ends with Ally, back to her original self and now a widow, singing a number after she introduces herself to the audience. She should've worn a gold gown here and the camera should have stayed on Ally for the entire number the way Cukor kept the camera on Judy Garland as she dynamically sang "The Man That Got Away." Gaga was compelling enough to hold your attention and her song, "I'll Never Love Again," is a powerful number.  The original was directed by William Wellman. Cooper's remake can't eclipse Cukor's stunning 1954 remake but it sure does eclipse the 1976 remake directed by Frank Pierson.

Lady Gaga is the first woman to take the female lead role in A STAR IS BORN without already being an established film star.  Janet Gaynor was the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress. That came for her sterling work in silent screen classics. A STAR IS BORN brought another Best Actress Oscar nomination. Judy Garland had reigned as queen of the MGM musicals through the 1940s after her star-making performance in 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ. Her musical and dramatic skills in 1954's A STAR IS BORN brought her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Barbra Streisand had a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in 1968's FUNNY GIRL by the time she played Esther in 1976's A STAR IS BORN. Gaga makes her big screen debut in this A STAR IS BORN.  She's at the same age Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland were when they made A STAR IS BORN. Early 30s. Barbra was a couple of years older.

Overall, this film is entertaining and touching. Especially the marvelous first hour of it.  Congratulations, Bradley Cooper. Your film could've been called A DIRECTOR IS BORN.
The Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Lady Gaga A STAR IS BORN remakes were all released by Warner Brothers.  Jon Peters is credited as a producer in the 1976 and 2018 films.  Click on the link to see a short trailer for Barbra Streisand version:

https://youtu.be/838aCpFNpjA.








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