Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ava DuVernay Deserves Better

Yes, here's another one of my rants about the lack of gender and race diversity in the field of film journalism we've had over the decades.  Couple that with how some Hollywood history was overlooked when reviews were written recently about A WRINKLE IN TIME's remarkable director, Ava DuVernay.  Let me tell you right up front that I grew up in South Central L.A.  I believe she did too. We're of different generations but, I'm sure, some of the same things applied.  Back in those days when Sidney Poitier was a top box office star and the Oscars ceremony had relocated from Santa Monica to downtown's L.A. Music Center, you did not see black people on TV doing film reviews.  Black folks were not film critics in publications like THE LOS ANGELES TIMES.  Only white broadcasters and white writers held those jobs.  I was a film geek.  When I was a student at Verbum Dei High School in Watts, I pretty much pushed myself into audition consideration to be a contestant on a classic film trivia TV quiz show called THE MOVIE GAME.  I made the cut.  It shot in Hollywood.  I was the first African American contestant and, at the time, the youngest.  Mom sat in the audience.  She watched me become the show's youngest and first African American winner.  However, for someone to grow up in South Central L.A. with dreams of making films that would be released by a top Hollywood studio...well, that was pretty much an impossible dream.  The odds were against you.  The odds were against me going to New York City and getting my own prime time celebrity talk show on national TV.  But I did it.  And Ava DuVernay made a fantasy film that was released by Disney.  Brava, Ava!
The late, great Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert saw greatness in Ava DuVernay.  I first heard of her through him.  Watch the moving documentary about him, LIFE ITSELF (2014).  Ava appears in it.  Several film critics appear in.  Not a one is black.  Late last year, HBO premiered SPIELBERG, a documentary about Steven Spielberg.  About a half dozen film critics appear in that.  Not a one is black.  Remember when AMC was American Movie Classics and host presented classic films?  All the regular hosts were white males.  Turner Classic Movies now has four hosts.  Four white hosts.

There same frustrations African American filmmakers have felt when Hollywood declared "Black films aren't marketable and don't make money overseas" has been and is felt by those of us who worked the entertainment news side and pushed to do reports on filmmakers and actors of color who were not getting mainstream attention.  We also hit a color wall.  We pushed to do film reviews in the studio but were denied the opportunities.  So...predominantly white guys on network TV news programs and syndicated entertainment news shows told us why we should see THE COLOR PURPLE, BOYZ N THE HOOD, THE HELP, THE BUTLER and 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  I ran into Rex Reed at a News York City film screening.  He saw 12 YEARS A SLAVE and then went on a 4-week paid vacation overseas.  In my entire life, I have never known a black person who got 4 consecutive weeks of paid vacation. By the way, Rex did not understand and hated GET OUT.

Back in the 80s and 90s when weekend box office receipts became part of the local and network news reports, we'd hear about the Top 5 movies at the weekend box office.  To be in the Top 3 was an admirable achievement.

Black history was made in 2015.  F. Gary Gray, a black director, gave us the critically acclaimed STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON.  Not only did respected national critics rave about this film, it was number one at the box office for three consecutive weeks.  A film from Universal directed by a black director.  AND... it was making money overseas.  However, the TODAY Show on NBC/Universal, gave way more attention to TRAINWRECK, JURASSIC WORLD and the animated MINIONS, all three also from Universal.  Stars visited for studio interviews. The TODAY Show had no features on STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON and never even mentioned the Black Hollywood history it made at the box office.  And Matt Lauer, then with TODAY, is seen in Universal's STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON.  After my VH1 years, when I worked at WNBC and did entertainment reports on a local news program, publicists still remembered me from VH1 and offered me clients to interview in studio.  I was offered in-studio interviews of three performers -- singer Dianne Reeves, singer Patti LaBelle and actress Pam Grier.  My white executive producer declined the invites saying, "They're not our audience." I soon realized that was the same as "Black films don't sell overseas."  Our news anchor, however, did get to book a live in-studio interview of Pia Zadora.

January 2017.  Chris Connelly and Jess Cagle, two very nice white gentlemen who are entertainment journalists with high profile jobs, were on GOOD MORNING AMERICA awaiting the Oscar nominations to be announced. They wondered if black actors would be in the running because of the "Oscars So White" issue. Viola Davis was announced as a Best Supporting Actress nominee for FENCES.  Neither Jess nor Chris knew or mentioned that Viola Davis had just become the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in all 89 years of Oscar history. It was her third nomination. Jess and Chris talked about Meryl Streep.  My point -- our Black History in the Hollywood industry should be acknowledged.

This year. director/writer Ryan Coogler rocked Hollywood with his box office blockbuster, BLACK PANTHER.  A film with a predominantly black cast that was written and directed by a black man was number one at the box office and has hit the $1 billion mark in worldwide box office.  Coogler's Marvel Comics-based action/adventure has become a pop culture phenomenon.
Last week --- just last week -- A WRINKLE IN TIME opened.  Ava DuVernay directed this female-driven inspirational fantasy starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. A 12-year old black girl is the lead character in the film.  Little black girls all over the country can see themselves in the lead character in a major motion picture.  THAT is major.
When I was a kid, I won tickets to see a preview of the sci-fi fantasy thriller FANTASTIC VOYAGE.  Mom, my sister and I saw on the 20th Century Fox lot.  Mainstream American may not have known it but I knew that Raquel Welch is Mexican-American.  Our next door neighbors were Mexican-American.  I had Chicano classmates, teachers, priests and friends.  Raquel Welch represented the world that I knew -- and she played a scientist in the movie!  That was so cool and so significant to young me.  Just like seeing Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte on the big screen.

History was made at the box office last weekend.  I cannot remember in my lifetime of hearing entertainment news reports when the Number One and Number Two films at the weekend box office were directed by African American filmmakers.  And one of them is a woman!  BLACK PANTHER came in tops again, followed by A WRINKLE IN TIME.  This was a major achievement for Women In Film and Black History in Hollywood.  However, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER called Ava's number 2 spot a "disappointment" because she didn't top BLACK PANTHER.  I read a couple of lackluster reviews from middle-aged white male critics who apparently watched A WRINKLE IN TIME through the prism of middle-aged white manhood.

There was no consideration for of acknowledgment of the fact that young black and Latina girls all over the country might be looking at the same film with wonder and delight.  Until last weekend, those girls have seen Cineplex screens dominated by white male superheroes.  In fact, A WRINKLE IN TIME could be a film that inspires some of them to seek a career in the film business.  Ava's film could be delighting future directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, actresses -- and film journalists.  In short, it could inspire their dreams the way a fantasy film like FANTASTIC VOYAGE did mine.

In the late 80s, Raquel Welch was a most fabulous guest on my VH1 talk show.

This is a reason why the field of film critics is in great need of some race and gender diversity.  I wish I was on a TV show where I could say the things I've put in this blog post.

In Academy Awards history, a few women have directed films that got nominated for Best Picture.  An even fewer number of those women got a Best Director nomination for directing the movie in the Oscar nominee category for Best Picture.  Ava DuVernay directed SELMA.  She did not get an Oscar nomination for Best Director -- which she deserved -- but it was nominated for Best Picture of 2014.

Ava DuVernay, I believe, is the only African American woman who directed a film that was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture.  Black History, Women In Film History, Hollywood History.

Ava DuVernay is one of the very few African American women who directed a film that was in the Top 3 of the weekend box office.  Black History, Women In Film History, Hollywood History.

But for her fantasy film to come in at No. 2, in the eyes of some white film journalists, is a disappointment.  Given the long, long, long history of racial exclusion and the lack of equal opportunities in Hollywood, they should be praising the fact that she got the movie made instead of writing that it made "only" $33 million. In its first weekend.

I have not seen Ava DuVernay's A WRINKLE IN TIME but I plan to.  I am proud of her -- and very proud that she's from South Central L.A.  I feel some of the recent print reviews about her new film ignored the historical big picture.  Ms. DuVernay deserves more respect for her accomplishments.  Just my opinion.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Defiant Friend, Doris Day

I have been a Doris Day fan ever since I was kid.  Her old movies were shown frequently on local TV and AM radio stations were still playing her records.  In my VH1 veejay years of the late 80s, it really hit me what a phenomenon in the entertainment business she was.  Doris Day, as you probably know, was a hit vocalist during the World War 2 years.  She sang with a band.  Then she did popular radio show appearances.  Then Hollywood gave her a big break in 1948.  Reportedly, Warner Bros had planned ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS as a vehicle for Betty Hutton.  Hutton, at the time, was a top Paramount star.  Well, Warner Bros. didn't get Hutton and took a chance on singer Doris Day, a talent who could sing and dance yet never had any acting training.  Well, she proved to be a natural in the last category.  Day became a big, new star on the Warner Bros. lot.
She was on the studio's assembly line of musicals.  Not all of them became true classics like a MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN or THE BAND WAGON, but they were entertaining.  One thing to notice now is what a really good dancer Doris Day was. Look at her dancing with Gene Nelson in TEA FOR TWO (1950) and LULLABY OF BROADWAY (1951).  She was a newcomer in 1948.  By 1953,  her name was above the title for the original musical western, CALAMITY JANE. That has another display of her solid dancing skills.  Also, she introduced "My Secret Love."  Another hit record for her and a tune that won the Oscar for Best Song.  It seems to have been Doris Day's destiny to be a top Hollywood movie star.
With her spunky, independent girl next door image as a starter, she advanced to more serious fare that showed her impressive dramatic talent.  She had serious scenes with Frank Sinatra in YOUNG AT HEART, she should've nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as an ambitious, manipulate singer (Ruth Etting) in the drama biopic LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME co-starring James Cagney and there's her dramatic work as the mother of a little boy who's been kidnapped during a family vacation overseas in Hitchcock's THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. That gave her another future Best Song Oscar winner to introduce.  "Que Será, Será" became Day's signature tune.
By the 1960s, thanks to her bright romantic comedies with Rock Hudson (PILLOW TALK brought her a Best Actress Oscar nomination), she had truly become a Hollywood movie icon,  Icon is a word greatly overused today but, in her case, it applied.  Doris Day's image symbolized a certain kind of bright entertainment to audiences all over the world.

Doris Day was a triple threat Hollywood star -- like Judy Garland.  Doris Day could sing, dance and act.  Both were Oscar nominees in the Best Actress category.  It's not such a practice anymore but, when Doris was making movies like THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, TEACHER'S PET, PILLOW TALK and PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES ... she sang title tunes written for the film and/or songs written for her to perform in the story.  Doris Day had hit records on the Billboard charts and made hit movies that made her a Top Ten box office star.  In VH1 days, pop superstars like Madonna and Cher couldn't quite pull that same achievement off to the extent that Doris Day did.  And there's a hip embrace of diversity and inclusion in her biography.  Her girlhood idol and inspiration to sing was Ella Fitzgerald. In the 1950s, he widowed father remarried.  His new wife was a Black woman.  Doris, in her memoir, told that she had a blast at that wedding reception.  I bet the studio wanted her to keep hush-hush about that.  Years later, a couple of tongues were wagging that she was having an affair with...Sly Stone of Sly & the Family Stone.  They weren't having an affair.  He was meeting with Doris Day for permission to record a cover of "Que Será, Será."

Doris Day went on to star in a hit CBS sitcom.

Now... about her defiance.  The early years of the AIDS crisis were dark, brutal years in which anger and ignorance reigned.  There was anger from our gay community at the Reagan Administration for not acknowledging the epidemic and doing something to fight it.  As far as the ignorance, AIDS was the new leprosy.  People did not want to touch you if they knew you were HIV positive.  NEW YORK MAGAZINE had a major article in which it was noted that expensive people who were regulars as posh East Side Manhattan restaurants stopped being regulars.  Why?  They assumed that all male waiters were gay, all gay men had the AIDS virus and they could transmit it to you by touching your food plate and silverware.  That's how some educated people thought and reacted.  The 1980s were like Medieval times.  A book publicist friend of mine who worked for a top publishing house in New York City had seen some of this ignorance play out at swanky cocktail parties.  He noticed that people would get visibly nervous if someone gay or even assumed to be gay simply sneezed.

Compassion and education -- and medical attention -- were needed.  To me, female Oscar nominees charged forward with the quality of compassion that, well...frankly, President Reagan did not.  There was, of course, 2-time Best Actress Oscar winner Elizabeth Taylor.  There was also another woman who'd been Rock Hudson's leading lady -- Doris Day.

Rock Hudson, after his big movie star days had lessened. went on to years of success and more popularity on NBC in the 1970s.  In 1984, he was added to the cast of DYNASTY.  There, a change in his appearance had been noticed. Reportedly, one actress did not want to do a love scene with him.
Hudson, who'd kept private about being a gay man, had been diagnosed with AIDS and the revelation of his illness in the news gave a famous face to the disease.

After her CBS sitcom years, Doris Day had a chat show that she taped where she lived.  In the Carmel, California area.  She did an episode with her longtime friend and famous co-star, the now-ailing Rock Hudson.  Whereas some folks in America were so misinformed that they thought that simply being up close to a person with AIDS could infect them, there was Doris Day to make you feel like a coward.  We saw the defiance and strength of her sunny disposition image in those dark years when she hugged and kissed her terminally ill friend in public.  Cameras were rolling.  I'm sure Hollywood knew about Hudson's condition before it was made public.  A fellow you'll see giving a short soundbite in this piece is Doris' noted record producer son, the late Terry Melcher. Rock Hudson died in 1985 at age 59.
I've long been a fan of Doris Day movies and records.  But this defiance and sweet devotion of hers in public to a plague-stricken friend always made me love her even more.  It was an example of how we all should behave.

Friday, March 9, 2018

I Really Miss Robert Osborne

He was one of the best hosts on national television.  Notice I didn't write "movie channel" hosts.  He was the host on TCM.  However, Robert Osborne was one of the best hosts in any sector of programming be it movie channel, game show, talk show or PBS informational-type show. Robert Osborne was the perfect host for and symbol of TCM.  He appealed to all ages.  He appealed to classic film fans who just reached voting age.  He appealed to those who hold AARP cards.  Mr. Osborne died on March 6, 2017.  His host duties on TCM had lessened several months before his death due to health issues but his presence was, and continues to be, felt.
I became a TCM viewer in 1999 and I'm still a faithful, if somewhat disappointed, viewer. I was a Robert Osborne fan before his TCM years.  I watched him when he was a journalist for THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER who did segments on the CBS weekday morning news program.  Robert Osborne spotlighted the often unrecognized achievements of African Americans in Hollywood. He was a champion of diversity and inclusion.
Charles Burnett received an Honorary Oscar a few months ago.  He made independent films in and about the area in which I grew up -- South Central Los Angeles.  The first time I ever saw Mr. Burnett interviewed was in 2009 when he sat down to be a co-host with Robert Osborne on TCM.  Osborne frequently brought on African American talent to join the classic film conversation.  I am not the only Black TCM fan who deeply appreciated that.  Check my previous blog post. For decades, African Americans have been excluded from the TV field of film critics and movie historians on news and syndicated entertainment information shows. We're usually tapped for film talk when it's "politically correct " for something specialized like a Black History Month.  But when it comes to talk about a new Meryl Streep release or classics made by Wyler, Minnelli, Cukor, Capra, Kubrick, Kurosawa or Fellini... we're not included.  That lack of inclusion gives off the vibe that "Well, Black folks don't know about those films."  Wrong.

I'm sure you can tell where I'm going with this.  In the time that Robert Osborne has been gone from TCM, I have seen less representation of African Americans in TCM segments that air in between films.  Rarely have we been guest hosts or guest programmers in the last couple of years.  There's no Black contributor on the red carpet for TCM Film Festival.  I started to wonder if TCM upper management knows that Black folks watch the channel.  In late December last year, musician Michael Feinstein was a guest host.  He presented THE DOLLY SISTERS, a 1940s Fox musical.  Feinstein cheerfully told us to be prepared for the surreal "Powder, Lipstick and Rogue" number.  I was thinking that he should also prepare us for "The Darktown Strutters' Ball" number with poor Betty Grable and June Haver in blackface and dressed as pickaninnies.  The following month, there was poor William Holden in blackface for a musical number at the open of FATHER IS A BACHELOR (1950).  Then there was a white man rubbing a black man's head for good luck in 1932's THE SPORTS PARADE starring Joel McCrea.  That how Hollywood was then. But times have changed.

This coming April marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  It also marks the 50th anniversary of the first and only time the Oscars ceremony telecast was postponed.  Gregory Peck announced the Academy's 1968 postponement.  Dr. King's untimely, tragic death and funeral occurred around the same time the Oscars had been scheduled to air.  When the Oscars were held, the winner for Best Picture was a film that starred a friend of Dr. King's -- one who attended the now-famous March on Washington.  IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, a murder mystery and racial drama starring Sidney Poitier, won for Best Picture and Best Actor (Rod Steiger).

This month, history was made at the Oscars.  Jordan Peele became the first African American to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  GET OUT was Peele's directorial debut.  Like Orson Welles with CITIZEN KANE, Peele was an Oscar nominee for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.  Also like CITIZEN KANE, his GET OUT was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor.
Dee Rees made history as the first African American woman to get an Oscar nomination in the screenplay category.  She directed and co-wrote MUDBOUND.  She also made history as the first Black American woman director to direct an actor to an Oscar nomination.  Mary J. Blige was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for MUDBOUND.

BLACK PANTHER, written and directed by African American Ryan Coogler and starring a predominantly Black cast, is a hot Hollywood box office blockbuster.  Ava DuVernay, one of the top Black women directors in the business currently, has A WRINKLE IN TIME in theaters.

In 2017, African American writer and director Barry Jenkins directed what turned out to be the real Oscar winner for Best Picture of the Year, MOONLIGHT.  Viola Davis, Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for FENCES, reigned as the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in all Oscar history.  She has three nominations.
 This year, Octavia Spencer tied with Viola Davis when she earned her third Oscar nomination.

50 years after the release of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, diversity in Hollywood is still an issue. So much so, that one of the applause-worthy highlights of this year's ceremony was Oscar winner Frances McDormand telling us all about the "inclusion rider."  She's been making movies for 35 years and just learned that there's now an agreement that can be signed assuring that a project will gender and race diversity in front of and behind the cameras.  Think about it.  The lack of diversity and inclusion was so severe that a contract had to be created to break through that barrier.  Thank you so much for that news, Frances McDormand.  The Best Director Oscar nominees list was a dream of race, gender and age diversity with Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele and (winner) Mexico's Guillermo del Toro.

TCM has had a monthly Guest Programmer night.  Before we meet the guest programmer, an intro video plays with a montage of previous guest programmers.  None of the African American talents that sat with Robert Osborne has a moment in that montage.  There's no Black representation.  Nothing against the folks we do see -- like Michael J. Fox, Conan O'Brien, singer Chris Isaak, Bill Hader and Cher.  But what about the African American stars we saw with Robert Osborne as guest programmers -- like Spike Lee, Kareem Adbul-Jabbar, Oscar nominee Diahann Carroll and Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg? Alec Baldwin hosted "The Essentials" on Saturdays.  Baldwin never had an African American talent as a guest co-host.
Drew Scott, Canadian TV personality, was the March 8th Guest Programmer with senior host, Ben Mankiewicz.  One of the film's Scott selected to air was TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  Back in October 2014, remember who the guest host was for TCM's month-long salute to Africa featuring films shot in and about Africa with Black actors as Africans? Fellow Canadian Alex Trebek. Drew Scott is the host of a cable show about home renovation.        
During the intro, Drew Scott and Ben Mankiewicz mentioned how achingly relevant the message of racial tolerance in 1962's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD still is today and how the problem of racism still exists.  That was nice. But I was irked.  In January, TCM saluted African American filmmakers on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  But there was no African American guest co-host with Ben Mankiewicz.  He was solo introducing films by African Americans.  In last April's TCM Film Festival, there was the special 50th anniversary screening of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. Sidney Poitier, Lee Grant, director Norman Jewison and producer Walter Mirisch attended.  Ben Mankiewicz, on the red carpet, asked Mirisch a great question about the enduring relevance of the film's racial messages in this current age of "Black Lives Matter."  But there was no Black contributor on the TCM red carpet to complement Ben's question with a follow-up or a personal observation.  I was a kid and saw IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT with Mom and Dad and my younger sister and brother.  No Black person who saw that movie in a theater will ever forget how the audience erupted and cheered when Detective Virgil Tibbs slapped the taste out that racist white man's mouth.  For us, at the time, that was a slap at the racism in the country that we and leaders like Dr. King were fighting.

This month, TCM added two new hosts.  Its host roster is now Ben Mankiewicz...
 ....Eddie Muller......
 .....Dave Karger and Alicia Malone.
They're all good, talented people.  But there was more racial diversity in a 1930s comedy short starring The Little Rascals.
If we don't see any Black TCM fans sipping wine with Eddie Muller in TCM Wine Club spots, if we rarely see African American talent now as Guest Programmers, if there's no African American contributor on the red carpet for TCM Film Festival and if there's no African American host, how should we African American TCM viewers feel about that in 2018?  Let me put it like this. What if beloved screen legend Sidney Poitier visited the TCM studio for an interview with Ben Mankiewicz.  Suppose a network TV news crew from, say, CBS SUNDAY was present to do a feature on it.  If Mr. Poitier said "Ben, I'm a great fan of TCM.  But I must ask -- why don't you have a Black host?," how awkward a question would that be for Ben and for TCM Public Relations?  That's my disappointment.  That's why I really miss Robert Osborne.  He always seemed to understand that "Representation Matters." He kept our history and contributions alive.  He kept us in the picture.

Trust me on this -- I am not the only African American who loves classic films.  And I am not the only one who would appreciate seeing more African American representation in the discussion about films, new and classic, on TV.

For you to watch later, if you have time, here's my live 1999 interview of screen legend Tony Curtis.  I worked for Fox5's GOOD DAY NEW YORK and Mr. Curtis came to promote his special appearance on TCM.  A TCM executive was in the studio with us and watched our interview.
Here's some of the VH1 show that I had the privilege to host.
One final thing:  Last year, Dave Karger was guest host for June.  That's Gay Pride month.  Karger hosted a month-long look at Gay Hollywood with a focus on LGBT talent in front of and behind the cameras.  I watched, very interested to see if there would be some Black representation.  There was not.  But there could have been.  I would've aired the 1961 screen adaptation of A RAISIN IN THE SUN, starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Lou Gossett, Jr. and other members of the original Broadway cast.  The screenplay was written by the woman who wrote the groundbreaking play -- playwright/activist and the openly lesbian artist, Lorraine Hansberry.  You can learn about this in the fascinating new documentary that premiered on PBS, LORRAINE HANSBERRY: SIGHTED EYES/FEELING HEART.
Chiz Schultz (a lovely man who took me to dinner once) produced the documentary.  Chiz was also a producer on Norman Jewison's A SOLDIER'S STORY, an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1984. 

Thanks for your time and enjoy your weekend. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Color and the Classic Film Conversation

Jubilant and proud.  That is how I felt went Jordan Peele's name was announced as the Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay.  GET OUT, a brilliant and blistering social horror thriller about modern-day racism, made Jordan Peele the first African American in all 90 years of Academy Awards history to win the Oscar in that category.  I think the late James Baldwin would have loved the stinging, accurate boldness of GET OUT.
Jordan Peele was also in the Best Director category -- along with Greta Gerwig for LADY BIRD, Paul Thomas Anderson for PHANTOM THREAD, Christopher Nolan for DUNKIRK and Mexican director Guillermo del Toro for THE SHAPE OF WATER (winner).  I also loved the race, gender and age diversity in that category this year.  THE SHAPE OF WATER also won for Best Picture.
If you see THE SHAPE OF WATER, it has strong visual references to Charles Laughton as THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939).  It also has moments from 1940s Fox musicals starring Betty Grable and Alice Faye.  In fact, a Best Song Oscar winner, "You'll Never Know" is an important song in THE SHAPE OF WATER.  Alice Faye introduced that song in HELLO, FRISCO, HELLO (1943).  It's the same song you hear in the opening scene of Scorcese's ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974).  The tune is important to the mute lady and the merman in THE SHAPE OF WATER.
THE SHAPE OF WATER was greatly influenced by visuals and costuming in 1954's low-budget, popular black and white film, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.  A set for one scene copies the "Let's Face the Music and Dance" art deco set in 1936's FOLLOW THE FLEET, a classic musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Jordan Peele has said that the films ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE STEPFORD WIVES, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER inspired him as he wrote GET OUT.

The point is -- we people of color know something about classic films.  We watched them. We studied them. We were inspired by them. We should be added to the conversation on TV whether as entertainment reporters or as movie hosts.  Remember the old days of AMC when it was American Movie Classics?  There were fine hosts on the channel then but the only black host was Whoopi Goldberg for a special limited engagement.  And she was there because she's an Oscar winner.  The other hosts were all white males.

In the group of film critics/movie historians that we've seen on national TV news programs and syndicated film review shows, the members were Gene Shalit (NBC), Gene Siskel (CBS), Joel Siegel (ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA), Siskel & Ebert in syndication, Ebert & Roeper in syndication, Jeff Lyons, Leonard Maltin, Ben Mankiewicz & Ben Lyons in syndication, Rex Reed, Chris Connelly (now on GOOD MORNING AMERICA) and David Edelstein (CBS SUNDAY).

All white males telling me why I needed to see films like THE COLOR PURPLE, MALCOLM X, THE HELP, 12 YEARS A SLAVE and FENCES.  A few months ago, Tiffany Haddish was a tremendous hit at the New York Film Critics Circle awards when she won Best Supporting Actress for her comedy film, GIRLS TRIP.  In her acceptance speech, she said that she didn't know so many film critics existed.  The only ones she ever saw were Siskel & Ebert on TV.

She and I are of two different generations.  Yet, we both grew up only seeing mostly white male film critics and movie historians on TV.  Neither of us saw any racial diversity in that TV field nor any representation of ourselves and the world we know.  We were left out of the conversation by people in programming, people who -- like characters in GET OUT -- considered themselves to be sophisticated liberals.

"Time's up." Time for a change.  More on this later.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Here Comes Mr. Jordan Peele

It's the big day in Hollywood.  Oscar Sunday.  I've been such a hardcore film fan for just about most of my life.  For me, the night the Oscars are handed out ranks right up there with Christmas morning.  I'm all tingly waiting for it.  This year, I'm extra excited because of the African American and other history having been made in nominations.  Director Dee Rees, whose MUDBOUND should be one of the Best Picture nominees, is the first Black American woman director who has directed a castmember to an Oscar nomination.  Mary J. Blige is up for Best Supporting Actress.  Dee Rees has made history as the first African American woman to get an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.  Dee's gorgeous wife must be beaming with pride.  I'm watching ABC's red carpet pre-Oscars coverage.  Entertainment anchor Chris Connelly and news anchor Paula Faris talked about the Best Director category.  Jordan Peele is in that category for his hit horror thriller about modern-day racism, GET OUT.
Connelly and Faris mentioned that, if Jordan Peele wins, he would make history as the first African American to win the Oscar for Best Director.

I'm know Paula Faris meant well and I'm sure she was ad libbing when she said that Peele's GET OUT was "...a pioneering moment.  This was his debut film too.  So, where do you go from there?"

1941's CITIZEN KANE was the first film written and directed by Orson Welles.  Just like Orson Welles, Jordan Peele got Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay and his film got a nomination for Best Picture.  Also like CITIZEN KANE, GET OUT earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.  Orson Welles got the Oscar nomination for playing CITIZEN KANE.  Jordan Peele directed Daniel Kaluuya to a Best Actor Oscar nomination for GET OUT.
So...."where do you go from there?"

Orson Welles went on to give us THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942) ....
 ...and TOUCH OF EVIL (1958).

Two other classics amongst other films that he directed after CITIZEN KANE.

I think Jordan Peele will be just fine.  I'm a huge fan.  I'll be cheering for him during tonight's Oscars.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Going For The Hollywood Gold

The Oscars® air Sunday, March 4th.  They'll be on earlier, by the way.  If you're in the New York area, they'll start at 8pm (Eastern).  That's 7pm if you're in the Midwest and 5pm if you're on the West Coast where the awards action is. ABC has the Oscars telecast.  ABC late night host, Jimmy Kimmel, returns to host the Oscars again.  My friend, Keith Price, and I recorded a new podcast for Oscar weekend.  Check to see if it's posted at  For Hollywood's Big Weekend, I'm reposting some Oscar-related interviews I've done.  Let me start with a short clip from my VH1 days.  Shirley MacLaine was a fabulous guest on my talk show.  The veteran Hollywood actress and star of such classics as Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT, Vincente Minnelli's SOME CAME RUNNING, Hitchcock's THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, THE TURNING POINT with Anne Bancroft and BEING THERE was an Oscar winner when she sat with me.
Shirley MacLaine has received 5 Oscar nominations for Best Actress.  She won for 1983's poignant mother/daughter comedy, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT written and directed by James L. Brooks.
To me, Shirley should've also been nominated for POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990) and BERNIE (2011).

The accent Shirley used in STEEL MAGNOLIAS (1989) was the one she intended to use in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.  Here's the story.
Nick Nolte got Best Actor Oscar nominations for THE PRINCE OF TIDES (1991) and AFFLICTION (1997).  He didn't get a nomination for 1998's THE THIN RED LINE. But it was nominated for Best Picture and the reclusive Terrence Malick was nominated for Best Director.

I talked to Nolte about his military character role and I asked for an Oscar-related prediction about his director, Terrence Malick.
Actor Michael Shannon fascinates me.  I love talking to him.  He's such a unique, versatile and forthcoming actor.  I first interviewed him after he'd played the father of a little boy with supernatural powers who's being pursued by government and religious forces.  2016's MIDNIGHT SPECIAL was like a Bible story.  Shannon is now in Best Picture Oscar nominee, THE SHAPE OF WATER.
I first noticed Michael Shannon in 2006's WORLD TRADE CENTER.  He and another future Oscar nominee had bit parts in that movie.  I asked him about his first Oscar nomination.  It came in the Best Supporting Actor category for 2008's REVOLUTIONARY ROAD.
I will end with a montage reel that has Oscar winners (Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks) and a legendary recipient of a lifetime achievement Oscar (Kirk Douglas).  Enjoy.
The phone number at the beginning of this video has long been out of service.

Happy Oscars weekend.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

An Alien Moment for Judge Reinhold

The 1980s turned out to be very good for him.  Although he became known as the self-gratification guy, you have to hand it to him that he delivered the comedy goods in the popular teen comedy film, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH.  Actor Judge Reinhold proved to be a good straight man for Eddie Murphy in the hit BEVERLY HILLS COP buddy movies and RUTHLESS PEOPLE, starring Bette Midler and Danny DeVito also made folks laugh and did pretty well at the box office.
I interviewed Judge Reinhold during a movie junket promoting one of the BEVERLY HILLS COP sequels.  He told me about an audition he had in Hollywood early in his career.  This was before the FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH success.                                                                             

This particular audition session was taking a long time with each actor who went in to test for the casting people.  The session was running long, there were several actors waiting to audition and Judge Reinhold was at the end of the line.  He was the last actor seated to go in and audition.

The second to last actor -- the one before Judge --- went in for his audition.  Judge said that he kept hearing these shrieks of laughter coming from the other side of the closed door in the audition room.  And the session seemed to go on for a while considering that the audition copy did not have pages and pages of dialogue.

The door opened.  He could still hear laughter coming from the audition room.  Judge was the last person scheduled to audition.

And he had to follow an unknown comic actor named Robin Williams to audition for the role of an outer space visitor named Mork who would appear in an episode of the hit ABC sitcom, HAPPY DAYS.
That episode aired February 28, 1978.  The rest is sitcom history.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Heaven Bless Film Director Ryan Coogler

FRUITVAIL STATION.  Ryan Coogler directed that independent film, based on a true life story, and his production was hailed at the Cannes Film Festival.  I saw it at a movie theater in San Francisco.  The story takes place in the Bay Area and the title comes from the name of a mass transit stop where a young, unarmed black man was unjustly shot by police.  The killing of 22-year old Oscar Grant was major news in San Francisco.  Protests followed.  Actor Michael B. Jordan was powerful and touching as Oscar Grant.
In addition to the high praise and enthusiasm for the film, the cast and the director at the Cannes Film Festival, critics here in America also raved about the film.  I saw it at the AMC Van Ness in San Francisco.  A few minutes before the feature started, about five young and giggling young white women came in and sat two rows in front of me.  I thought, "Oh, Lord. This ain't a SEX AND THE CITY sequel. It's a serious film about a young black man's life and senseless death."  I should not have been so judgmental.  As the movie was ending, I had something in common with those young white ladies two rows in front of me -- we were all sniffling and crying.
I've mentioned this on my podcast and here in blog posts:  Octavia Spencer, who had won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for THE HELP, should have received her second Oscar nomination for playing Oscar Grant's mother in FRUITVALE STATION.  And another thing I've mentioned in my podcast with my friend Keith Price -- since the Academy has returned to allowing 10 films to be nominated for Best Picture, it should give us 10 films.  Ever since that rule went back into effect a few years ago (most of us grew up with the 5-Best Picture nominee rule), we have never gotten 10 films.  This year, we have 9 Best Picture nominees.  MUDBOUND by Dee Rees should be the 10th.  FRUITVALE STATION should have been a Best Picture nominee.  I felt that its exclusion, the fact that it was one of the best films of 2013 yet received not one single Oscar nomination, gave fuel to the "Oscars So White" hashtag.  And I don't feel that those two films I mentioned should've been Best Picture nominees simply because they were directed by African American filmmakers. Two smart horror thrillers, Ana Lily Amipour's A GIRL WALK HOMES ALONE AT NIGHT (2014) and Jennifer Kent's THE BABDOOK (2014), Cary Fukunaga's JANE EYRE (2011) and Fukunaga's BEASTS OF NO NATION (2015) were also solid films that deserved to be in Best Picture nomination category, but weren't.  You should see FRUITVALE STATION.
Ryan Coogler's BLACK PANTHER starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett plus Oscar winners Lupita Nyong'o and Forest Whitaker opens soon.  I am so excited to see this action/adventure from the Marvel Comics universe.  A black director and a predominantly black cast in a big budget Hollywood studio release.  This is not typical for Hollywood.  Not typical abd extremely refreshing.  It's about damn time.  To put this in film history perspective, remember IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger?  Norman Jewison directed that race drama/murder mystery.  It won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967.

But...despite that Oscar win...Jewison could not find a studio to back him financially when he wanted to make 1984's A SOLDIER'S STORY.  Why?  Because it had a predominantly black cast and a script by a black writer.  Charles Fuller wrote the screenplay based on his stage play.
The play won Fuller a Pulitzer Prize.  But Hollywood studios didn't feel that stories about black life with a predominantly black cast were marketable.  Jewison offered to work for way less money than he usually did.  Jewison followed IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT with THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.  He believed in A SOLDIER'S STORY and eventually he got it made.  The film version brought Fuller an Oscar nomination for his screenplay and the film itself was a nominee for Best Picture of 1984.  Howard Rollins, Adolph Caesar, David Alan Grier, Robert Townsend and screen newcomer Denzel Washington starred in Jewison's film.
As far as marketability, ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA stepped up to the plate for BLACK PANTHER.  Marvel Comics is under the Disney umbrella and Disney is ABC's parent company.  Every day this week, Robin Roberts and the GMA team welcome members of the BLACK PANTHER cast during the second hour of the show.  You may say, "Heck, that's the way it should be.  They should promote a production from the same parent company studio."  Things aren't always the way they should be in film and TV equality.

The critically acclaimed STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, a film many critics felt should've been a Best Picture Oscar nominee, was #1 at the box office for three consecutive weekends.  That was surely a first for an African American director.  The director was F. Gary Gray and the hit biopic was a Universal Studios release.  TODAY, the network morning show on NBC/Universal, gave no promotion to STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON even though Matt Lauer (with the show back then) is seen several times in the movie.  TODAY gave attention to Universal's other 2015 releases -- TRAINWRECK, JURASSIC WORLD and MINIONS.  TODAY pretty much ignored STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON.  I am so full of gratitude to see each BLACK PANTHER guest segment this week on GOOD MORNING AMERICA.  Representation matters.
Hollywood responds to money.  Let's see how Ryan Coogler's action/adventure starring a predominantly black cast in a film that shows a culturally rich and advanced Africa does at the box office.  Wow.  Positive images of black people and positive images of a continent that Trump, just a few weeks ago, reportedly referred to as a "shit-hole country."  Ryan Coogler's BLACK PANTHER could not be more perfectly timed. We are so proud of him.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Happy Birthday, Franco Zeffirelli

A suave Italian filmmaker.  A rich visual style seems to have been a trademark of his work.  That an often unconventional casting.  For all her years of stardom, Hollywood never paired Elizabeth Taylor with The Bard.  But, under Franco Zeffirelli's direction, Elizabeth Taylor tackled some Shakespeare with her then-husband, Richard Burton.  He was a pro at playing Shakespeare onstage.  During their internationally famous marriage, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had a go at Shakespeare in Franco Zeffirelli's 1967 film, THE TAMING OF THE SHREW.
Mel Gibson put down his LETHAL WEAPON to put on medieval attire and play HAMLET for Zeffirelli in a 1990 film co-starring Glenn Close.
The filmmaker also gave us the 1979 remake of the MGM classic, THE CHAMP.  His version starred Jon Voight, Faye Dunaway and a very young Ricky Schroeder taking on a kid role made famous by Jackie Cooper.
That was followed by the very popular tale of teen romance, 1981's ENDLESS LOVE starring former child model-turned-very good actress Brooke Shields.
Franco Zeffirelli really hit the box office jackpot with his 1968 adaptation of Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET.  These were the caped characters that young moviegoers were paying to see back then.  Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey played the star-crossed teen lovers.  Zeffirelli's film was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1968.

Even the film's soundtrack was a hit.
Music legend Paul McCartney told me about another idea for unconventional casting that director Franco Zeffirelli had.
And there you have it.  Some Beatles trivia blended into birthday greetings for Franco Zeffirelli.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Frances McDormand is Mildred Fierce

The name of the revenge and guilt drama is THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI.  Frances McDormand, who's been one of my favorite actors since the 1980s, had the lead role/  She gets it in her teeth like a hungry terrier who just dashed onto a piece of roast beef that you dropped off the dinner table.Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, one of the toughest mothers we've seen onscreen in quite some time.  She will cuss you out or kick you in the crotch in a heartbeat.  Her anger is understandable.  Her daughter was raped and murdered.  Seven months later, there's been no progress in the investigation to catch the criminal.  She buys ad space on three billboards in a row on a town highway and her messages blame the ineffectual police department.  It seems to be an open secret within the local police force that Officer Jason Dixon, played terrifically by Sam Rockwell, is a racist.  He may seem like he's reforming because he's saying terms like "African Americans" instead of using the N-word, but the townsfolk and fellow cops know what the real deal is.  Mildred gets harassed by men in town when her billboards make local headlines, but Mildred fights back.  She's in vigilante mode.
This movie was in limited release at the same allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against Harvey Weinstein plus noted network broadcasters started to explode across the news landscape.  Personally, I wondered if any of the women speaking up had ever given Weinstein a swift kneecap to the balls the way Frances would have.  She had a forceful, effective way of making a man realize that "No means No."
Did you see THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI?  I know they are two different kids of stories but in the arena of a woman challenging a male force that's breaking the law and there's been a death, I feel that Spielberg's THE POST has a smoother screenplay.  Meryl Streep plays Kay Graham, publisher of THE WASHINGTON POST newspaper at a time when President Nixon is violating the Constitution and his harassing the free press while young American men die in the Vietnam War, a war the U.S. can't win.  Spielberg's THE POST is based on a true story.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI has the look, feel and tone of Coen Brothers movie -- and it stars an actress who is married to one of the Coen Brothers.  But it's not a Coen Brothers movie. It was written and directed by British Martin McDonagh.
I won't tell you anything more about the movie.  I saw it first and foremost because it stars Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell.  They deserved the Oscar nominations that they got for it.  However, I did wonder if the story would have had a more sharpness and sting had the Mildred been played by a black actress such as Alfre Woodward, Angela Bassett or Taraji P. Henson.  Also, some moviegoers have had a problem with the racist police offer played by Sam Rockwell.  I can see why.  He seemed to be redeemed and likeable halfway through the story.  But is he really?  Think about that end of the movie, if you've seen it.  Here's a trailer. Be prepared for adult, blunt language.
I loved the performances, yet I was kind of cold on the movie.  I kept thinking of the Coen Brothers, whose work may have heavily influenced the director, and something a neighbor said to me years ago when we were in our local video store looking for DVDs to rent.  The store had a Preston Sturges classic playing on the in-store TV.  My neighbor, who is not in the entertainment business, and I started chatting about the old movie -- SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS.  I casually remarked how you can see the Preston Sturges influence on the Coen Brothers in their films THE HUDSUCKER PROXY and especially in O BROTHER, WHERE ARE THOU?, a film that takes its title from something important in 1941's SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS.

My neighbor replied, "Yeah, the only difference is...the Coen Brothers don't like people."  He added that Preston Sturges loved people and that comes through in his classics.  I've come to agree with that neighbor of mine.  The Coen Brothers make good movies but there's a chilliness to them.  I felt that kind of chilliness in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI.  Chilliness and plot holes.  The ferocious, brass ovaries performance of Frances McDormand is the fire that holds our attention.  Rockwell, one of the best actors on the indie film scene, has been long overdue an Oscar nomination.  He's delivered some solid, versatile performances for years.  Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson and Peter Dinklage co-star.

Let me know what you thought of THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI.

Ava DuVernay Deserves Better

Yes, here's another one of my rants about the lack of gender and race diversity in the field of film journalism we've had over the d...