Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Lincoln Center Love for Astaire and Rogers

Never underestimate the power of the fine arts and the power that artists can have on our lives.  I've not revealed this to some close relatives, but it is true.  Before I started the 5th grade, I had been slapped, spat upon, whipped with a belt while I was totally naked, and someone had peed in my face.  That last one was a rather comical.  I was a latchkey kid.  Mom was a registered nurse. There were times when she and Dad, who also worked, might have to be out and would leave me in charge of my younger sister and our newborn baby brother.  So Mom, like a drill sergeant, taught me how to diaper the baby.  One time, as I removed the soiled diaper, my little baby brother sprang an energetic leak.  But, also before I started the 5th grade, I had discovered the artistry of Fred Astaire and the extreme joy of seeing him dance.
My love of classic films started very early in my life when I saw them on television.  I still remember the weekend afternoon day when I first was dazzled by Fred Astaire.  I was in the living room with Dad.  He was watching one of his idols -- famed golfer Sam Snead.  During the golf game telecast, a severe and sudden thunderstorm broke out bringing an early end to the match and the telecast.  The local channel aired back-up programming.  It put on an old RKO musical, FLYING DOWN TO RIO.  I saw Fred Astaire in a solo dance number and that was it.  I was hooked.  When he danced with Ginger and their foreheads touched whitle dancing "The Carioca," my spirits lit up like a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza.  A few weeks later, that same station aired TOP HAT.  How'd I feel as I watched it?  To sample lyrics from one of the classic's original songs introduced by Mr. Astaire, "Heaven...I'm in Heaven..."
Throughout all the pains and humiliations of my life, in my childhood and today, a Fred Astaire musical number could always, always heal my heart and turn light back on in my soul.  Always.  Fred Astaire danced me into an interest in, an embrace of and a passion for the fine arts.
If you're in New York or if you're headed there for the weekend, keep this in mind.  Keep it in mind especially if you love the musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  The Film Society of Lincoln Center salutes Astaire and Rogers starting this Friday.  There will be a three-day complete retrospective dedicated to their brilliance.  This goes from their RKO musicals of the 1930s in black and white to their MGM reunion in Technicolor in the late 1940s.  For more information, go to this website:

Here's the kind of screen magic that repeatedly healed my broken heart, made me smile and gave me the spirit to pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the "Pick Yourself Up" number in SWING TIME (1936).

Their dancing was not like what America sees on ABC's DANCING WITH THE STARS.  Fred and Ginger weren't dancing for a mirror ball trophy.  They were actors who danced in character.  Their numbers were a revelation of character and they advanced the emotions of the scene.  In the "Pick Yourself Up" number, the Manhattan dance instructor has no idea that the well-dressed man who hopes to ask her out is really a professional dancer.  He's determined to prove he's on the level by getting her re-hired.  So, the number shows that they'd be perfect partners and it's also an audition piece for employment.

In Ginger Rogers, Astaire did have a perfect partner for those times.  They changed the game of the Hollywood musicals with their 1930s original film musicals scored by Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. In other film assignments that didn't co-star Astaire, Ginger Rogers proved to be one of the top comedy actresses of her day in such films as Billy Wilder's THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, in TOM, DICK AND HARRY, in ROXIE HART, BACHELOR MOTHER, STAGE DOOR, LUCKY PARTNERS and VIVACIOUS LADY.  Ironically, the two greats of Hollywood musicals each got one Oscar nomination in their long careers and those nominations came for work in dramatic films.  In the 1970s, Astaire was up for Best Supporting Actor for wearing a trademark tux and getting dirty in the box office blockbuster all-star disaster thriller, THE TOWERING INFERNO.  Ginger Rogers won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for a solid, truthful performance as a strong-willed, loyal, white collar career woman named KITTY FOYLE (1940), a movie with a definite feminist vibe.

There's a popular quote that "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire, except backwards and in high heels."  Was Ginger a multi-talented movie star?  Yes.  Did she deserve equal billing, equal pay and equal benefits?  Absolutely.  Did she do everything Fred did?  Not exactly.  Ginger never lifted and twirled Fred.

CAREFREE (1938) showcases Ginger's comedy chops and it boasts another original score by Irving Berlin.  At a country club dinner dance, popular radio personality Ginger coaxes stuffy psychiatrist Fred to get up and dance "The Yam."
And another thing.  Fred Astaire was nearly 40 when he did "The Yam" with that knockout ending.  When he and Ginger reteamed for THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY, a 1949 MGM musical, he was nearly 50.  Astaire was extraordinary.
The Lincoln Center retrospective on the legendary Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers screen partnership starts Friday, July 13th.  Treat yourself.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Tab Hunter and the Nature of Love

A movie star died.  1950's Warner Brothers movie star Tab Hunter died just a few days shy of his 87th birthday.  Teen girls would scream at the sight of his big, blond beefcake presence.  He was handsome.  He became a very good actor.  He had to learn how to emotionally and spiritually balance stardom with his off-screen life because he was gay man.  Onscreen, he was doing love scenes with luscious beauties such as Sophia Loren, Natalie Wood and Linda Darnell.
One of his boyfriends was actor Anthony Perkins who gained international fame as Norman Bates in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, PSYCHO.  A few years ago, a big and brawny straight buddy of mine (a fellow classic film fan) urged me to see the documentary TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL.  He said "Dude, if I love him, you will love him even more after seeing that documentary."  He was right. Hunter is so warm, so honest and forthcoming in that doc. He talked about his past boyfriends and his current longtime partner.  Besides the very interesting look at Hollywood's sexual politics and repression when he was a 1950s movie star, you get the sense that he was a great boyfriend to have.  He went for content and character, not just looks.  Check out Netflix for TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL.
I was a child of the 60s when television was still pretty much in its infancy.  A TV was usually a big heavy box of lights and wires that you put in the living room.  There were only three networks to watch -- ABC, NBC, CBS -- you had your local network affiliates and a few independent stations. There were no cable channels, no VHS or DVR capabilities.  If you missed a network show, you waited until it was repeated.  Color TV was rare.  There was no remote control.  You had to get up and walk over to the TV set to change the channels and adjust the volumes.  We paid attention to the shows as they aired. There was no live tweeting during a telecast which, in my opinion, is often like texting while driving.  You're not paying full attention to what's happening before you.  With less technology, we paid more attention. But, I digress.

It's now KCAL.  But, when I was a kid, it was KHJ TV/Channel 9.  This independent local Southern California station was attached to the Warner Bros. film library.  Channel 9 carried "The Million Dollar Movie" format.  One film would air at the same time at night during one week and then get a couple of airings on Saturday and Sunday, if I recall correctly.  To me, Tab was terrific with Sophia Loren in Sidney Lumet's THAT KIND OF WOMAN, in THE PLEASURE OF HIS COMPANY with Debbie Reynolds and Fred Astaire, in the fabulously unconventional John Waters' movies with Divine and he was very good as "The Boy Next Door" in a CBS production of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.  But I dig Tab most in a baseball musical.

When I was in elementary school and on summer vacation, I lived for "The Million Dollar Movie" airings of the Warner Bros. musical comedy, DAMN YANKEES.  Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston repeated their hit Broadway show roles in the film version.  The lead role of the mysterious star athlete who helps the Yankees become champs went to Tab Hunter.  Perfect casting.  He was that wholesome, All American team player.
It's a fantasy musical, a modern spin on the Faust tale.  When we meet Joe Boyd and his wife, he's a middle-aged man with a pot belly.  The wife cannot pull him away from the TV during baseball season.  Joe doesn't realize it, but he makes deal with the Devil to be a young man again so he can play for the Yankees.  Middle-aged Joe Boyd disappears and he's magically turned into a hot new unknown player eager to try out for the Yankees.  He gets signed.  Young Joe returns to his unsuspecting wife (who doesn't recognize him) and the polite, handsome young man rents her spare room.  Joe is so pure of heart that it frustrates the Devil (played by Ray Walston).  The Devil has planned to screw Joe over and see the team fail and....well, you get it.  So, the Devil sends for his ace vamp, Lola, played by the delicious Gwen Verdon.  Lola has ruined men's lives for centuries and figures Joe will be a quick, easy job. But she's wrong.  He is still faithful to his wife.

When you get older, you see different things in movies you've loved for a long time.  Here's what I mean about Tab Hunter and the Nature of Love.  It refers to DAMN YANKEES.  Lola is a hot babe. She pretends to be a Dominican beauty pageant winner.  But young loves his middle-aged Mrs. who wears a simple  house dress and glasses.

There's a sweet and sexy undercurrent, when you think about it, in the scenes of Joe Hardy, baseball star, with Mrs. Meg Boyd.  I didn't pick up on this when I was a kid watching DAMN YANKEES. Meg sees Joe as a clean-cut, sweet young man who's a great baseball player.  He sees the woman who's been and still is the love of his life.  And now, with his youth restored, so is his sexual energy.  There is a sexual chemistry between them but Meg doesn't realize it.  She may feel she's just an ordinary housewife whose husband has mysteriously disappeared for a time but Joe can reveal in his eyes that he has a physical yearning for her, his wife.  He desires Meg, not the shapely vamp, Lola.  Meg is what his heart wants.  That is the nature of love.  When it's the real thing, the attraction is not just about age and physical beauty.  There's something else.  Something sincere, substantial and special.

Here's one of the numbers that made me love this musical time and time again thanks to "The Million Dollar Movie" on KHJ.  Tab Hunter and Gwen Verdon as Joe and Lola are in the locker room after a game for "Whatever Lola Wants."
A big glass of Hawaiian Punch or Kool-Aid, a bag of Laura Scudder's potato chips and DAMN YANKEES on TV.  That was total summertime fun for me when I was a kid in South Central L.A.  Tab Hunter -- he made my heart happy.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Black Films, White Critics in 2018

Films are my passion.  They have been ever since I was a kid.  I mean that.  When I was in the 6th grade, I could tell you the names of five musicals starring Fred Astaire.  When our family went to the drive-in, seeing reflections of myself onscreen was always significant.  Seeing films that starred Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Diahann Carroll or Cicely Tyson wasn't just entertainment.  We felt that seeing them was our duty.  Three films centered on black stories open this season and they've gotten rave reviews from critics.  I am so excited to see these movies.  I'm also excited to see if this season brings about changes in the segregated field of film critics we've seen since the 1980s.  More on that later.  First up, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU got terrific reviews from critics in national publications, the kind of reviews that lead to Oscar buzz.  Actor Lakeith Stanfield, seen in the Oscar-winning GET OUT, stars in this movie written and directed by Boots Riley.
Stanfield is Cassius Green.  (Say it fast and it sounds like "Cash Is Green.")
He's in Oakland and learns what millions of black men in American have learned.  There is a class division.  A black man with talent, imagination and perseverance can be stuck for years at minimum wage while a white guy with a teaspoonful of talent can wind up making a 6-figure salary seemingly overnight.  From what I can gather in reviews I've read, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is a social commentary that makes you laugh in the same way Paddy Chayefsky's NETWORK did.  It's rooted in reality.  Click onto this link to see a trailer:

Another film with a story set in Oakland is BLINDSPOTTING.  It stars Daveed Diggs who graduated from Broadway's revolutionary HAMILTON to the cast of ABC's hit sitcom BLACK-ISH.  Diggs also co-wrote the screenplay.  Think of recent news stories about unarmed young black men who have been shot multiple times and killed by police.  Then think of white males who shot and killed several people in an Annapolis newspaper office, in a Florida high school, in a Colorado movie theater, in a church and were taken in custody unharmed.  Film critics Peter Debruge of VARIETY and Stephen Whitty tell us to put BLINDSPOTTING on the must-see list.  It opens in select cities on July 20.  Click onto this link to see a trailer:

Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman got big applause and praise at this year's Cannes Film Festival.  It opens in August.  This is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black detective who went undercover and infiltrated the KKK.  He was interviewed by Scott Simon on NPR last month and he feels his 1979 story is intensely relevant now in the Trump era.  (The interview with Scott Simon on NPR is worth hearing.)  Spike Lee co-wrote the screenplay with the brilliant University of Kansas film professor and filmmaker, Kevin Willmott.  Here's a trailer for BlacKkKlansman, winner of the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix Award.
Spike Lee has never been an Oscar nominee for Best Director. Not for DO THE RIGHT THING. Not for MALCOLM X. Maybe his upcoming release will change that.

From two years, from 2006 to 2008, I was a regular on Whoopi Goldberg's live weekday morning radio show.  Our studio was in midtown Manhattan and the show was in 16 cities across the nation. I was the weekly film review and entertainment contributor.  I contacted Kevin Willmott after I saw the DVD release of his blazingly brilliant 2004 mockumentary called C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA.  It should have brought him an Oscar nomination.  Think Woody Allen's ZELIG with a touch of BLAZING SADDLES with a lot of American history and film history.  I urged Whoopi to watch it.  I wanted Kevin Willmott to do a radio interview during one of our shows.  For some reason, Whoopi nixed the idea when I passionately pitched it to her.  She was chilly to giving him airtime. I don't know why.

That mockumentary is worth a look now -- especially with Trump in office.  Because of the excellent reviews that Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott have received for BLACKKKLANSMAN, I am interested to see how Whoopi reacts now to Kevin's work.

About critics. My first professional TV job was film reviewer.  I reviewed new movies every week on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate and I was the first African American in that city's history to do so.  I was a movie critic on WISN TV for four years and, on a local indie station, I was half of a duo on a half-hour film review show. This is the early 80s.  On national TV, all the film critics on TV news programs were white males. ABC, NBC and CBS gave us white males.  Joel Siegel and Gene Shalit.  On PBS, after Siskel & Ebert departed for Buena Vista syndication, the new film review couples were Jeffrey Lyons, Michael Medved, Neal Gabler and Rex Reed.  Men as white as Cool Whip.  Then Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons (son of Jeffrey Lyons) had their syndicated film review show.  Two more white males.  Caucasian Peter Travers of ROLLING STONE magazine has a film talk show that airs on some ABC stations. It's called POPCORN WITH PETER TRAVERS.  Today, we see Chris Connelly on ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA and David Edelstein on CBS SUNDAY.  White guys.  This is from the early 1980s to this month.  Chris Connelly and David Edelstein talked about films in segments that aired around the 4th of July.

I lived in New York for 25 years and never saw one black person on a regular basis as a film critic for a local station.  Sandy Kenyon was on local ABC and Neil Rosen was on cable's NY1.  Kathie Lee Gifford's son, Cody, reviewed films every week on TODAY in 2016 because he'd recently taken a film course in college.  He was 20.  I worked at WNBC in 1993 and wanted to review movies. The weekend news show producer didn't feel I had the skills to do it.

I am not the only black person in New York City who pushed and pushed for a regular spot on a TV news program as a film reviewer but could not crack the apparent color wall.  Nothing against those critics, but the executives who do the hiring seemed determined to keep the film arts discussion limited to a field of Caucasian male viewpoints.

Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg was the first person in New York to offer me work as a film reviewer.  Why?  Because she'd been a guest on my late 1980s VH1 talk show and she was aware of my film knowledge.  She was also aware that the playing field has not been level in the areas of onscreen entertainment news and movie channel hosting.

News show executives will bring us black contributors in to discuss black-related topics such as Blaxploitation films, classic films to see during Black History Month, or films relative to a specific black artist.  But when it comes to a mainstream conversation about superhero franchise sequels or new films from Scorcese, Spielberg and Meryl Streep, we are never seen in the on camera conversation.  From the early 1980s to 2018.

Early in his acting/directing film career, Tyler Perry stopped making his news available for screenings in New York City?  Why? Because the white critics were not attending and not writing about them.  This frustrated us black reviewers but we understood.  The absence of black critics seen on TV was so prevalent that Tyler Perry didn't even think we existed back in 2005 and 2006.  Just like years, Tiffany Haddish won an award from the New York Film Critics Circle for her GIRLS TRIP performance.  In her funny acceptance speech, she mentioned that she only seen two movie critics on TV in her lifetime -- Siskel & Ebert.  Can you imagine if she'd been able to see a black film critic on TV back in the 1990s?  A lot of us were around then in New York City alone.  Tiffany grew up where I did -- in South Central L.A.  She did not see a reflection of herself reviewing movies.  Neither did I.

David Edelstein reviewed STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON in August 2015.  No offense, but do you think David Edelstein has ever walked through Compton after dusk or sat alone on a bench in Compton waiting for a local bus?  I have.  I grew up just a few blocks away from Compton.  Rex Reed hated GET OUT.  He didn't think it was as good as THE STEPFORD WIVES.  I've been acquainted with Rex since the 1980s.  I've seen him and chatted with him at several New York City movie screenings.  At one screening, he told me he'd just gotten back for four weeks vacation in the south of France.

I have never, ever. ever ... in my entire life... known a black or Latino person who had four consecutive weeks of vacation time at a job. Ever.  But Rex Reed did -- and Rex Reed was quoted in national publications telling folks of all colors why we needed to see 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

Last year, HBO premiered SPIELBERG, a documentary directed by Susan Lacy.  There were six film critics and one film historian seen in the HBO documentary. Not a one was African American.  All seven people were white.  And one of the Spielberg films that got a lengthy discussion was THE COLOR PURPLE.

There needs to be diversity and inclusion in the field of film critics.  It cannot continue to be driven by a predominantly white male perspective.  Also, I deeply feel that some bookish white male film critics are mainly writing for other bookish white male film critics.  Not for the masses.  Not for working class people of color.  I mentioned movie channels.  On TCM, there are now four regular hosts -- Ben Mankiewicz, Eddie Muller, Dave Karger and Alicia Malone.  On a semi-regular basis, Leonard Maltin is the host of Disney feature nights.  Five hosts.  All Caucasian.  In 2018.

With those three summer releases hitting the screen, let's see if the light of inclusion turns on in the heads of network TV news producers who book film critics.  Let's see if that light gets turned on in the heads of other TV producers who hire and book talent to talk about movies.  If it doesn't seem to get turned on, I say "Time's Up."  Let's get on social media and write that we want race/gender inclusion and diversity in the field of film reviewers and TV hosts.

I'll see you at the movies.

Friday, July 6, 2018

For Summer Reading, Try FORREST GUMP

Man, how I would love to interview best-selling novelist Winston Groom.  In the spring of 1994, I was on the road with a two-man WNBC local TV news camera crew.  We had to go to an out of-Manhattan street fair or community bake sale or some other outdoor event from which I'd do live segments for the weekend morning news program.  On the way back, the cameraman was driving.  The audio guy was in the front passenger seat and I sat in the back of the van.  The audio guy would break out into an infectious giggle while reading a paperback book.  The cameraman and I had to know what he was reading.  He told us that he'd been at a garage sale in his neighborhood and he bought a book for a quarter.  He didn't know anything about the book but the price was right and he liked to have some reading material for periods of down time during the work day.  The book was FORREST GUMP by Winston Groom.
I told him I'd heard about the book thanks to entertainment reports that Tom Hanks would be playing the lead role in a film version.  Our audio guy said that he's started reading it the day before and could not put it down.  The following week, I checked the book out from my local library.  Just like the audio guy, I'd break out laughing and I could not put the book down. I read it within three days.

I've been a devoted Tom Hanks fan since his ABC TV sitcom days in the early 80s.  I'm in awe of his range and skill.  However, while reading the novel, I was curious to see how Hanks would play a big musclebound and seemingly well-endowed idiot savant Southern football player with a crew-cut.  I've written in a previous blog that if the movie FORREST GUMP was being cast today, based on his physical description in Winston Groom's book, the top candidate for the role would be John Cena.

The screenplay by Eric Roth takes Forrest and other main characters and sweetens them, if you will.  The movie is poignant, honey-flavored and sentimental.  The book has the tart tang of vinegar with the zest of lemon squeezed into it.  In the book, Forrest has several adventures and not just on the playing field.  He becomes a soldier, an astronaut for NASA, he encounters shady politicians and, in one of my favorite chapters, he gets Hollywood work.  He's in a low-budget sci-fi movie starring a cranky, gorgeous and nearly naked starlet named Raquel Welch.  In the book, Forrest has an active sex life.  He 6' 6" and not exactly pure.  He's got an edge to him that keeps you turning the pages.

His girlfriend, Jenny, is a 1960s free spirit who loves to have sex.  With Forrest and men.  His mother is a annoying old bat who selfishly clings to him and constantly whines.  Although he doesn't do well on scholastic tests, he's a savant who has an astonishing series of adventures.  Some of the funny, outrageous complications in Forrest's life cause him to say -- "Bein' an idiot is no box o' chocolates."

In the film, that line was sweetened to "Life is like a box o' chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."
The mother in the movie version is flipped.  She's loving, unselfish and devoted to getting her special needs son the scholastic respect and attention he deserves.  She is not a rich Southern woman.  If sex is the only currency she has in negotiations to get a better life for her son, she will use that.  Sally Field is excellent as Mama Gump.  In real life, Sally Field and Tom Hanks are in the same age category and both graduated to Oscar winning performances in dramas after having started their national careers in lead roles on ABC sitcoms.
Thanks to the box office bonanza FORREST GUMP struck with moviegoers, the 1980s book became a best-seller again.  I've often wondered how people who loved the movie felt when they read the book.  I also wonder what kind of response Winston Groom got from folks who saw the movie first and then read his novel.  If you loved the movie, you'll discover a different Forrest if you read the book.  But I totally feel you will also enjoy it.  Winston Groom wrote a funny and delightfully twisted adventure with a memorable lead character.

If you're interested in screenwriting, read the book.  See how the characters were retained yet changed for the film version, a film that became a major money-maker and a top Oscar winner (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay).  Compare that to, say, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.  That screenplay, based on a short story, masterfully and brilliantly opened up the story while remaining very faithful to the original material and its tone.
The movie FORREST GUMP opened nationally on July 6, 1994.  Screenwriter Eric Roth went on to write THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, which is basically a remake of his FORREST GUMP screenplay with Brad Pitt and Taraji P. Benson in variations on the Forrest and Mama Gump film roles.  I'm eagerly awaiting his upcoming film.  Eric Roth did the screenplay for the new remake of A STAR IS BORN opening in October.  It stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the story first seen in 1937, then seen with music added in the critically acclaimed 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason, then remade yet again -- this time with rock music -- starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976.

There you have it.  A summer reading book tip.  FORREST GUMP by Winston Groom.  If you read it, let me know what you think.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

On Milos Forman and RAGTIME (1981)

Serious film fans are in for a treat come the afternoon of July 7th.  TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, will have a special screening -- the director's cut of AMADEUS.  The late Milos Forman directed AMADEUS, based on the acclaimed play by Peter Shaffer.  I saw the play on Broadway.  What a fascinating work.  The movie opened up the story beautifully and brilliantly.  Genius vs Mediocrity.  Creation vs the Creator.  The play was fascinating.  The film adaptation lit up my soul.  The film won Oscars for Best Director and Best Actor (the excellent F. Murray Abraham) and for Best Picture.
At that time in society, the arts were stimulating our hearts and minds with products that examined that almost razor-thin difference between someone who's been blessed with the gift of stardom and someone who's got all the talent and training to be a star but didn't quite hit that mark in the public's heart.  Look at the dancers who were good enough to be in the chorus but not good enough to be stars in the story of A CHORUS LINE.  Look at the star ballerina and her best friend who left the dance world and became a housewife in the movie THE TURNING POINT starring Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine.  There's the element of that in the tale of young Mozart and his rival, Salieri, a composer who has the musical skills but lacks "that little something extra" that actor Norman Maine sees in band singer Esther Blodgett in 1954's A STAR IS BORN with Judy Garland and James Mason.

Forman's AMADEUS (1984) is a treat for the eye, the ear and the mind.

I've seen AMADEUS more than once.   Right now, I want to recommend a Forman film that I'd seen only once until this week.  I saw RAGTIME in its early theatrical release.  I saw it this week, before the 4th of July and during this, frankly, frightening time in our democratic American history.  Wow.  This film holds up and deserves a look.  RAGTIME is based on the novel of the same name.
I was riveted to how relevant and timely the film feels in this modern age of Trump -- and RAGTIME takes place in the early 1900s.  A wealthy bigot, a black man who can play classical piano and is complimented by the wealthy bigot on being "articulate," a Black Lives Matter vibe after an innocent black person dies at the hands of white guards, the cult of celebrity, immigration, and lethal gun violence in a public place of entertainment.
If you have a chance, give this American story a look.  For me, it was a reminder that the powerfully talented and handsome Howard Rollins, Jr. died way too soon. His performance as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker brought him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. After RAGTIME, he did the lead role in the 1984 Best Picture Oscar nominee, A SOLDIER'S STORY.  Television viewers saw him in the Sidney Poitier detective role in the TV series adaptation of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  Rollins died of AIDS in 1996.  He was only 46.
The film also stars Mary Steenburgen, Jeff Daniels, Debbie Allen, Mandy Patinkin, Norman Mailer and Elizabeth McGovern.  RAGTIME also reminds you of how effective Fran Drescher can be in a dramatic role.  She plays the wife of Mandy Patinkin's character.  In the gang of black radicals tired of New York's segregation and racism, you'll see newcomer Samuel L. Jackson.

Also in 1981's RAGTIME are two veterans of the Warner Brothers gangster movies of the 1930s, the kind of movies that put the studio on the map.  They are Pat O'Brien and James Cagney.  Cagney still had the magic.  You cannot take your eyes off him.  He holds the screen as the police commissioner.
One of my favorite Warner Bros. gangster classics is 1938's ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES starring James Cagney and Pat O'Brien.

Milos Forman, a wonderful filmmaker and an immigrant whose parents succumbed to Nazi evil, made a film in 1981 that rings true today.  He saw the fences in this Land of the Free, fences that must be removed or knocked down. He saw those limitations to freedom whether the limitations were artistic, political, social or racial.  Look at ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEXT, AMADEUS, THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT or HAIR.  And look at RAGTIME.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Starz Has More POWER

I had some great luck just a few years ago when a good buddy of mine had a problem catching a flight back from L.A. to New York City.  She was taping entertainment reports and there was snafu with her flight.  She was rebooked to a later one.  She called me and asked if I could substitute for her at a junket for a new series on Starz called POWER.  I was in town and available to pinch hit for her at the Manhattan junket.  Not only that, I'd seen the first season and I really dug it. The story of a role model New York City family man and society figure who's really a drug crime lord hooked me immediately.  It's a juicy, sexy crime series.
In the seasons since I conducted those interviews, the show has found its voice and gotten richer.  Its audience has grown.  POWER has some immensely talented people in front off and behind the cameras.  However, just like HBO's excellent OZ and THE WIRE, it doesn't get noticed by the folks who give out the Emmys.  The TV Academy.  Did you watch OZ and THE WIRE?  Not a single one of the actors in either cast ever got an Emmy nomination.  And there was some damn good acting on those shows.  Well, the same goes for POWER.  As of yet, not a single Emmy nomination has graced any member of its talented cast.  Its new season begins Sunday night at 8:00, July 1st.  Because of that, I thought I'd post those interviews I did.  In addition to being talented, the actors were very polite.  As we know in our modern times, courtesy is not exactly common anymore.  I appreciated their politeness.
Omari Hardwick plays "Ghost" and Lela Loren is Angela.  I met them when they were promoting the show's Season #2.  He's a true gentleman and she has a very interesting story about the career she might have had if acting had not attracted her.  They give Emmy-nomination worthy performances.
Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson is an executive producer on the show and he's also in the cast.  Joseph Sikora plays Tommy.  Sikora should be doing film roles for Scorcese and Spielberg. If you've seen the series, you might agree with me.  He's terrific as a hood in this series.  He too deserves an Emmy nomination.
I have much, much praise and respect -- and gratitude -- for Courtney Kemp, creator of POWER.  I'm grateful that she created such fresh, strong and complicated characters for actors of color to play.  She is a trailblazer and groundbreaker in television production.  Her previous writing credits include THE BERNIE MAC SHOW and THE GOOD WIFE.

There you have it.  I loved doing those interviews for Season #2.  Season #5 of POWER stars Sunday night, July 1st, at 8:00 on STARZ.  I wish them all a most successful new season.  And some Emmy nominations.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

For the Love of Art, PACKED IN A TRUNK

Art, love, sexual freedom, a shady lawyer, women's history, family devotion.  A fascinating story.  Please, if you have Netflix, you must see the documentary called PACKED IN A TRUNK: THE LOST ART OF EDITH LAKE WILKINSON.  It's only 1 hour and 20 minutes long. The time flies by because this search into the life of a late, overlooked painter is so interesting and driven by the love of a relative.  The relative is also a visual artist, a married lesbian mom with a big son who loves basketball.  She's Emmy winner, director/writer Jane Anderson, a woman so dear she'll make you wish she was a member of your family.  Edith Lake Wilkinson was Jane's great-aunt.  Aunt Edith was a lesbian too at a time when American women -- straight or gay -- had limited freedom in society compared to men.  Edith Lake Wilkinson was committed to a mental health institution.  That was a dark gray fate for someone whose colorful work was absolutely gorgeous.  Her paintings made me gasp in awe.
Her style is modern.  Her colors are vibrant, fluid, alive, rich.  She's someone MGM director Vincente Minnelli should have made a film about.  Why?  Minnelli had a great eye for the visual.  He adored color.  He respected and revered artists and their uneasy journeys to add beauty to the world.  Look at his Vincent van Gogh biopic, LUST FOR LIFE, starring Kirk Douglas.  Look at his musical, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, starring Gene Kelly as a struggling young painter in Paris who's been inspired by the greats such as Utrillo and Lautrec.

Works by Aunt Edith were found packed away in a trunk.  Jane gives us family history.  The story of Edith Lake Wilkinson, painter, goes back to New York City in the early 1900s.  We learn about her life and creativity on East 23rd Street, on West 117th Street, in Harlem and in Provincetown, Massachusetts were artists were free to express their same-sex attractions in a Cape Cod community.

But even there, women were limited.  They were only allowed to sell their paintings one day a week.  The men could sell their work more days a week.

So did she ever make her artistic dreams come true?  What was the state of her relationship with the woman constantly referred to as her "friend"?  And how did Edith wind up in an institution at a fairly young age?  I won't tell you.  I really want you to see Jane's documentary, directed with care and wit by Michelle Boyaner.
I will tell you that the Edith Lake Wilkinson story is so compelling and relevant that it could inspire a good screenplay for excellent actresses such as Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Laurie Metcalf, Ruth Negga and Meryl Streep.

Watch this trailer for PACKED IN A TRUNK:
One of filmmaking's earliest directors was a woman.  Alice Guy-Blaché in France.  For decades, her name was omitted when male film historians talked or wrote about silent era filmmakers.  However, I once read that she originated some special effects in those turn of the century years that Hollywood's D.W. Griffith "borrowed" when making his famous films around 1915.  I thought about that watching PACKED IN A TRUNK.  I think male painters "borrowed" from Edith.
The revelations that come near the end -- Wow.  Three women in a room talking.  I found this way more interesting and surprising than a couple of comic book superhero action movie sequels I've seen.

We all want to be validated.  We all want to be remembered, seen and regarded as significant.  Edith Lake Wilkinson gave life more beauty than it gave her.  She was not treated well.  She was forgotten. I'm sure many of us, at some time, have felt forgotten especially by loved ones.  We feel like we've been boxed up and placed on a distant shelf in their minds.  We grow heartsore waiting for that box to be opened again, for the contents to be seen.  To have a devoted loved one, many years later, work to bring attention, respect and validation to this gifted woman who became a forgotten artist....that is a wonderful love story.  See the documentary.  Give your eyes the gift of seeing her work. Make someone feel significant.  Love freely and embrace the arts.

Check out the website for more information:

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My Tom Hanks Pride Month Memory

He doesn't know it, but Tom Hanks helped me through one of the most heartbreaking, emotionally difficult mornings of my life.  Later that day, millions of folks would be glued to TV screens watching an NBA playoff game and the now-famous police chase of a white Bronco driven by O.J. Simpson.  For me and an army of entertainment press booked in The Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, the early morning kicked off a work day -- a day of interviews for the FORREST GUMP press junket.  FORREST GUMP, a big Paramount feature starring Tom Hanks.
I was scheduled to interview Tom Hanks around 10:30 that morning.  I'd read the novel, I'd heard high praise for the movie from publicists in New York City who worked for rival film companies.  I definitely wanted to interview Tom Hanks, a man who has been one of my favorite actors ever since I was a devoted fan of BOSOM BUDDIES, his ABC sitcom back in 1980.  I jumped at the offer to participate in the FORREST GUMP junket.  I'd do the interview for the weekend morning show on local WNBC. I was a regular on the show from its September 1992 premiere until I quit.  You probably know this already if you've read my posts frequently.  Let's just say that my experience working for a few executives in the WNBC news departments was rocky for me.  At that time, the station had yet to fully embrace diversity and inclusion.  In October 1992, I went out on a date with a courteous young white Southern Baptist gentleman named Richard.  He asked me out.  Initially, I had no interest in going out but I figured, "What the heck. It's just brunch at a café.  I can be done in two hours."  That first date changed my life. It started my first romantic relationship.  We had brunch and I stayed with him until the day he died.

This was during the extremely dark and politically turbulent days of the AIDS crisis.  Richard had a good job and thought he was in good health -- until Christmas week of 1992.  At first we thought he had the flu. A few days later, I sensed something worse was happening.  I got him to the hospital.  Come the New Year, he'd been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.  He'd been laid off from work.  I became his main caregiver in New York and kept in touch constantly with his wonderful relatives down South.  My situation at WNBC had been so frustrating that I planned to quit in early December.  But, when Richard took ill, I needed the job and part-time income to help me pay the rent and care for him.

A few days before I had to fly out to L.A. for the junket, Richard had some medical problems. I had to get him to the hospital again.  I was going to cancel my junket plans but he was adamant.  "Go do your work.  Don't worry about me.  My doctor is here.  Go do your work, he said."  His doctor called me with news that she was quite sure he'd be fine when I got back from L.A.  She also told me not to worry.

Tom Hanks' work was special to Richard and me.  We had a great date night at a preview screening of SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE.  He held my hand and got tears in his eyes when Hanks won his Best Actor Oscar for PHILADELPHIA.

I knew a few other men in the TV newsroom who were also gay and confided in them that my partner had been diagnosed.  They all urged me not to tell management, to keep quiet about it.  I replied, "I'm in good health, thank Heaven. It's my partner who's sick."  They said, "Nevertheless, management could still find a way to not need you anymore."  I wasn't under contract so I put stock in what those newsroom veterans told me.  On the TODAY Show, Katie Couric had the freedom to talk about her late husband's battle with colon cancer.  She could do segments on what she'd learned about the illness, segments that could help others.  I could not do TV news segments on what I'd learned as an AIDS caregiver and pass that information on to others who may have been in the same situation.  And I wanted to.  I know others were in a similar caregiver situation.

That's how things were then.

I was in my Four Seasons hotel room, going over my notes for the FORREST GUMP on-camera interviews I'd be doing.  A half hour before I was to head upstairs to see Mr. Hanks, my phone rang.  It was Richard's doctor calling from New York.  She began with "Don't panic."  He had not been responding to medication the way she'd hoped.  She felt I needed to call his parents.  There was not much more she could do aside from making him as comfortable as possible.

Time just seemed to stop. I went numb.  That was a call I prayed I'd never have to make but knew I, one day, probably would.  I called his mother.  She was calm and focused.  She said she'd take care of alerting the other family members.  Then, as always, she asked how I was. I hung up an then prepared to cancel my interviews and catch the next flight I could back to New York after explaining why I had to pull out of the junket suddenly.  The phone rang again.  Again, it was Richard's doctor.

"Richard ordered me to tell you to do your work.  Do not come back until you've done your work.  He's serious about that."

I had to stop crying, pull myself together, gather my notes, make sure I looked presentable and go to Tom Hanks' interview room.  I would ask a question about PHILADELPHIA, a question to address the discrimination gay people endured.  I'd ask it for Richard.  I'd ask it because my news director boss refused to air my taped interview of Harvey Fierstein, a good interview in which he was promoting MRS. DOUBTFIRE.  He refused to air it because, in his words, "I have a problem with him being openly gay."  He said that in a New York City TV newsroom.

My head felt foggy when I entered Tom Hanks' room and I was so heartbroken I felt I as if I was walking in slow motion.  Tom Hanks, standing and displaying a big smile said, "Bobby Rivers! I remember watching you on VH1!"  His enthusiasm, his graciousness, his warm greeting instantly snapped me out of my emotional pain and focused me on the work to be done.  I got through that interview day thanks to Mr. Hanks.

My PHILADELPHIA-related question to Tom Hanks is in this reel (the phone number you'll see is out of service):
Tom Hanks went on to tell me that he wouldn't have been surprised if he never again played the guy who fell in love with Meg Ryan had he been gay and came out in his Oscar acceptance speech.

But he did go on to play that guy again.  In 1998's YOU'VE GOT MAIL.

I did the interviews and flew back that night.  I got to Richard's beside at the hospital.  One of his first questions was "How'd you do with Tom Hanks?"  Richard's parents were there.  He and I had some precious time together.  He even broke me up laughing.  Richard passed away peacefully the afternoon of June 20th, 1994.  Tom Hanks won his second Best Actor Oscar for FORREST GUMP.
In January 1995, when I'd made enough to pay off Richard's funeral expenses, I mailed the check and wrote my brief letter to my WNBC boss giving him my two weeks' notice.  I saw Tom Hanks again,  unexpectedly, when I was having absolute joy with a small, ragtag camera crew. We worked on a local cable show and happened to shooting near the red carpet function for THE GREEN MILE. We were taping the red carpet activity for extra footage on our show but we never expected to see Tom Hanks while our camera was rolling.  He was sporting a beard for CAST AWAY shoots.
It's Pride Month.  Never take your freedoms for granted.  Never let anyone treat you like a second class citizen.  Help others when you can.  Happy Pride Month.

And thanks again, Mr. Hanks.  Thanks so very, very much.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Black and Gay on Broadway

I have a question for you.  Currently, there are two plays in revival on Broadway that focus on the gay male experience in America at different times in our previous century.  Both revivals met with high praise from critics.  The groundbreaking Mart Crowley play, THE BOYS IN THE BAND, premiered off-Broadway in 1968.  That was a year before the June death of Judy Garland followed by the Stonewall Uprising in which NYC's gay community got loud and physical in Greenwich Village with its anger at years of police harassment.  The Gay Liberation movement followed.  William Friedkin directed a good 1970 screen adaptation of THE BOYS IN BAND.
That play is on Broadway now with a cast that includes actors popular from stage and TV, actors who are openly gay and constantly employed.  One is Jim Parsons, hugely popular for playing Sheldon Cooper on the long-running hit CBS sitcom, THE BIG BANG THEORY.
To be gay, to be an openly gay male in show business, and to get regular employment still on stage and on network TV, that was unheard of in the closeted days of 1968 when THE BOYS IN THE BAND premiered.  So was same-sex marriage.

Tony Kushner's brilliant ANGELS IN AMERICA is in revival on Broadway.  I saw this play when it opened in 1993.  Wow.  It burns an impression into your heart and mind.  This play premiered when we were in the dark days of the AIDS crisis, a crisis that was like a Medieval plague on modern times.  AIDS is central in the play.  AIDS ravaged America's black community.  I lost several black friends to AIDS -- a salon hairstylist (who introduced me to Leslie Uggams), an audio engineer, an aspiring playwright, a music publicist, Broadway dancer/actor Gregg Burge, and a travel agent for MTV/VH1 Networks.  AIDS claimed the lives of African American tennis champion Arthur Ashe and trailblazing ABC News journalist Max Robinson, the first African American to anchor the network's evening news.

It's 2018 and my question is about Black gay men as lead characters in Broadway plays  -- or, rather, the lack of them.  Add Latino/Hispanic men in there too.  As I wrote, I saw the original ANGELS IN AMERICA production on Broadway.  In addition to that, I've seen other plays with lead characters who are gay males. Some of those plays are Terrence McNally's THE LISBON TRAVIATA and LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION!, Larry Kramer's THE NORMAL HEART (about the AIDS crisis), Harvey Fierstein's TORCH SONG TRILOGY and the musical version of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES with a script by playwright Harvey Fierstein.

Back in the 1970s when I'd gone away to college and THE BOYS IN THE BAND was re-released in theaters, I got to see it.  I loved the one black character, Bernard.  He was dapper, sophisticated and he looked like he was on his way to meet his agent for lunch at the Russian Tea Room.  He was significant to me.  In those days, the black gay male image I'd see in movies and in episodes of cop shows on TV was usually a drag queen working as a drag queen, or a drag queen working as a hooker, or a drag queen who got busted for shoplifting.
In the mid 1990s when I was watching a performance of LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! on Broadway, it hit me that I had never seen a play in which an African American gay male was a lead character.  We were never the architect, the lawyer, the playwright, the classical musician, the doctor, the reporter or the professional who has the summer house on Fire Island.  We're always in supporting roles mainly to give emotional support to and say inspirational things to the white gay male lead character.

Can you think of any Broadway play about gay characters in which an African American male was a lead character?  Please let me know what it is. Oh...and plays in which the black gay male character is not a drag queen.  No that there's anything wrong with that. But I've seen white writers present us as drag queens several times already.

Based on the plays I've seen plus the current revivals of THE BOYS IN THE BAND and ANGELS IN AMERICA, it seems that the stories of gay male life presented on Broadway have been and still are predominantly driven by upscale white male characters.

Happy Pride Month.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Happy Birthday, Sir Paul McCartney

Because he's an international star who has been famous for most of his life, we expected that the business demands of his fame, and maybe traffic, would make him late by about 30 minutes.  We were all set up for him in the London studio and we prepared to wait in a relaxed manner.  Then we looked at the door and saw someone approaching.  The rock music icon whom we thought would arrive understandably about 30 minutes had arrived about 20 minutes early.  Alone. Without entourage and with lovely manners.  Paul McCartney, now Sir Paul McCartney, was absolutely gracious to every single person in our crew.  We did the exclusive interview in a London studio with an outstanding British TV crew.  As much as I recall this extraordinary opportunity in Spring 1989, a one-on-one interview, I recall Paul McCartney's kindness to every single person in the studio.
Happy Birthday, Sir Paul McCartney.  Thank you for writing some of the happiest, most most beautiful, most harmonious and most memorable popular songs ever composed.

In 1989, during my three wonderful years as a VH1 veejay and talk show host, VH1 flew me from New York to London to conduct this exclusive interview.  If you're a hardcore McCartney fan, I hope you find some of it enjoyable and that you learn a couple of things about him you'd never heard in previous interviews.  Remember, we did this in the late 1980s.  Here is my VH1 special with singer, songwriter, composer, musician and former member of The Beatles --- Sir Paul McCartney.

Part 1
Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

 Part 7

 Part 8

A note about diversity and inclusion, hot topics in today's entertainment industry.  I did not have an agent when I booked my VH1 job and became the network's first African American to have his own prime time weeknight celebrity talk show. My contract ended in 1990.  After that, and with this show among my credits, I pitched myself to be an entertainment contributor on CBS SUNDAY.  I pitched for years but I could never get a meeting or an audition.  I accepted job offers from local TV morning news shows in New York City, but executives didn't feel I had the skills to cover entertainment on a regular basis or to do film reviews on a regular basis in the studio.  I quit my WNBC TV job after three years because my boss told me that, although my work was good and I was very popular with viewers, I would remain local.  I had no chance of moving up to NBC network exposure.  Agents continued to reject me for representation saying, "I wouldn't know what to do with you."  I had to make my own luck. I did not have the same job opportunities as a Billy Bush, Tom Bergeron, Rosie O'Donnell (my former co-worker) or Mo Rocca.

I am not the only person of color who experienced that inequality.  There is still a great need today for race & gender inclusion.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

My Dad the Betty Hutton Fan

I was lucky to have the parents that I did growing up in a very humble 2-bedroom, 1 bathroom house in South Central L.A.  There was no shortage of books and records in our house.  On our living room bookshelf were works by these authors:  Shakespeare, Sinclair Lewis, James Baldwin, Ray Bradbury, Harold Robbins, Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, Peyton Place by Grace Metalious and stories by Ernest Hemingway.  Mom and Dad had 78s, those old record that came before 45s and long play albums that spun on the turntable at 33 1/3.  My record player handled those speeds. On weekends and during summer vacations, I loved playing Mom and Dad's old 78s.  Mom had a lot of the big band 1940s records.  Dad was into bee-bop jazz.  There was one record I loved.  A cute, upbeat vocal called "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian, Chief."  Betty Hutton had sung that to success on the charts.  It was a hit record that became closely associated with the Paramount Pictures musical comedy star of the 1940s and early 50s.
One day when I was in the brink of starting middle school (we called it "junior high school" then), I casually mentioned to Mom that I loved her old record of "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian, Chief."  Mom, with a very Thelma Ritter expression on her face, replied, "That's not mine.  That's your father's.  He had all those Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie jazz records and then he had this thing for Betty Hutton. I could never figure that out. He loved Betty Hutton."

I knew what Mom meant.  Dad was a WWII veteran who served overseas in the segregated troops.  He got the home I grew up in thanks to the G.I. Loan. In his youth, he was a weightlifter.  Dad was brawny, burly man few words. He was polite but not exactly amusing and gregarious the way Mom was.  I took after Mom.  But I took after Dad in a love for Betty Hutton's work.  Here she is singing the song that became a hit from her movie THE STORK CLUB (1945).
Our parents, I'm the oldest of three, divorced when I was a nervous bookworm of a high school freshman.  The relationship between Dad and me grew more fractured and frayed.  Mom refused to ask for alimony.  She only wanted child support for us three kids.  But Dad couldn't keep up those payments.  He relocated to Canada for years.  I had college and a TV career on my mind. I was positive that I could get work in TV and make enough money to pick up the financial slack, to help out our divorced working mom.

Time passed.  Dad and I had not seen each other in 25 years.  There had been an occasional exchange of cards and letters, but we had not been face to face in a long, long time.  That changed in the late 1990s when I flew out to see him.  He'd moved to Seattle and was divorced from his second wife.  My reunion with dad was a bit awkward.  I love to hug and be hugged. Dad still wasn't the physically demonstrative type but he stretched out his arms as if under a hypnotic spell because hugging seemed to be the customary thing to do in such an occasion.  I could see discomfort in his eyes.  I extended my arms and walked over to hug him but we both looked like that robot on LOST IN SPACE when he started announcing, "Danger, Will Robinson!"  Four arms just flailing about.  Eventually we settled down and started to talk.  Our conversation kicked off with a disappointment.  Dad tried to flatter me.  Keep in mind our visit was during some vacation time I'd taken from work.  I'd been working for a few years on Fox5's live local weekday morning show called GOOD DAY NEW YORK.  Dad said he'd been watching me on TV.  But he was in Seattle.  I pressed him on how he was seeing me.  Did a relative send me VHS copies of me?  "No," he replied.  "I watch you late at night some times with all those comedians."

Dad had been watching Byron Allen on his late night syndicated show. Not me.  I left our reunion frustrated.  He was still a man of few words.  I was still with my "little boy" feeling that I'd never have Dad's full attention, a fact I'd just have to accept.  At least, we had reunited.

In 2000, I was working on a live Lifetime TV show, an hour-long magazine show produced by ABC News.  I was the Friday movie reviewer and entertainment editor.  I got a call one day from my cousin that Dad had been seriously ill but was on the mend.  I hadn't talked to Dad in quite some time, but I called as soon as I could.  Not only was Dad on the mend -- but he was chatty!  Never in my life had I known Dad to be so talkative and bright-sounding on the phone.  He was thrilled to hear from me.

It gets better.  He said "I've been watching you on Lifetime TV!"  I had not told Dad about that job, but he found out about it and watched me every Friday.  Our frayed and fractured relationship had healed. We talked. We laughed.  The very last words he heard from me were a response to something he'd said.  My words were "I love you too, Dad."

He died six months later in his sleep in the middle of a week.  The last TV appearance of mine he saw was my Lifetime TV segment.  On that day, I talked about a new video release.  It was the long unavailable classic MGM musical from 1950, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN -- starring Betty Hutton.  I'm positive the last time Dad saw me on TV, I made him smile when I showed Betty Hutton singing a show biz anthem that means a lot to me now.  Our story had a happy ending.  Happy Father's Day.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

SET IT UP for love on Netflix

I'm a classic film advocate who loves a good romantic comedy.  Whether it's Claudette Colbert or Ginger Rogers as runaway brides, Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in screwball tales of re-marriage, Rosalind Russell as the over-achiever career woman who falls in love with man she hired as her secretary,  Barbara Stanwyck as the con artist who falls for the guy she intended to scam, Doris Day and Rock Hudson or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as bickering rivals who fall in love...there are times when my heart needs to be lifted by an enjoyable romantic comedy.  After hours of watching soul-numbing national and international news reports, I craved something festive for Friday night viewing.  I gave SET IT UP on Netflix a try.
Never heard of it?  That's because it's new.  I'd just heard of it myself that afternoon on a film review show I streamed on my laptop.  Amy Nicholson, the guest critic on 89.3 KPCC radio's "FilmWeek," a Friday film review hour on AIRTALK hosted by Larry Mantle, had lovely things to say about SET IT UP.  So did another critic.  Amy Nicholson really tossed verbal roses at Zoey Deutch, the leading lady.  She compared her to Rosalind Russell.  I'd say she was more of a Meg Ryan type with a colorful splash of Tina Fey.  However, like Rosalind Russell, Zoey Deutch makes you smile and she wins your heart with her talent.

Two young New Yorkers work in the same midtown Manhattan deluxe office building as assistants to high maintenance bosses.  The assistants are practically nannies and party planners for these bosses, working so late on a regular basis that they have no social lives of their own.  The two assistants meet in a stressful situation, get the know each other and then hatch a plot.  Since each handles a boss' schedule, they will manipulate their schedules so that the bosses happen to meet and eventually start dating.  That way, maybe the two dating bosses will mellow out, ease up on their hyper office demands and give the assistants the ability to actually leave work a reasonable hour and have a social life.

Yes, the two will fall for each other after they've manipulated their bosses into a love connection.  Of course, they'll discover a serious glitch in their arranged love connection.
There's dialogue that would've given Hollywood censors heart attacks back in the day.  If you see it, be prepared to hear lines like "I can wake you with my penis," "I want to f**k this pizza" and "I'm sorry I was so cunty to you," delivered innocently.

Lucy Liu hits the right note as the high maintenance sports journalism publication boss who uses a bullhorn to proclaim orders in the office.  Taye Diggs is the other boss, a business whiz and a macho jerk in need of repetitive slaps like the kind Jack Nicholson gave Faye Dunaway near the end of CHINATOWN.
On the big screen, romantic comedies seem to have become a lost art in the last few years.  SET IT UP was made for Netflix and the two lead actors as harried assistants have something that I've missed in recent romantic comedy lead actors -- charm.  They have charm and warmth and chemistry.

This is not a romantic comedy that one can put on the same high shelf with classic films like THE AWFUL TRUTH, THE PALM BEACH STORY, THE LADY EVE, MIDNIGHT, THE MORE THE MERRIER, PILLOW TALK and ANNIE HALL.  But it definitely satisfies in that category we used to call a good "date night" movie.

This is the first feature film directed by Claire Scanlon.  Please, Hollywood, please give her more romantic comedy screenplays to direct.  The lead actors are Zoey Deutch as Harper and the handsome Glen Powell as Charlie.  Powell was excellent as astronaut John Glenn in the movie HIDDEN FIGURES.

SET IT UP is easy entertainment and it's easy on the eye.  I used to work near where the office is located.  I've seen Manhattan areas used as exterior locations in SET IT UP countless times in the 20 years I lived in New York.  Director Scanlon took areas that have been shot before and made them look new again with different angles and smooth editing.  She gave Manhattan a fresh look.  She gives us a fresh, modern romantic comedy.
I loved that Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs were the ulcer-causing bosses.  Those were race unimportant roles. However, ten years ago or more, they would've automatically gone to white actors.  Charlie, the assistant, is dating a self-absorbed high fashion model.  She's Puerto Rican.  Charlie's best friend is his roommate.  And the best friend is gay.  Openly gay.  No slave to fashion.  Just a cool regular guy who teaches middle school in the Bronx and loves his work.  This refreshing gay male image warmed my heart.  Duncan, the gay roommate, is played by Pete Davidson from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.  Like Oscar Levant with Gene Kelly in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, Duncan is a devoted buddy who can deliver a killer wisecrack.

As did classic romantic comedies and musical comedies of Hollywood's Golden Age, SET IT UP gives us supporting characters who may have just one comedy scene but these funny characters just about steal that one scene they have.  In this, we have a very funny Tituss Burgess as the building maintenance engineer.  The shirtless man in the elevator, the waiter who never gets a tip from cash-challenged Harper and the lady at the jewelry store ... those were bright and funny bit parts played memorably.  Those are the kind of parts I've longed to do in movies.

Katie Silberman wrote the script.  There's a rooftop engagement party scene.  The fiancée gives a short speech that's a little piece of unexpected heaven.  What she reveals to her guests is so true about the nature of love -- and we get a sweet reminder of it at the end of SET IT UP.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Meryl Streep & Jodie Foster Clean House

I do not mean domestic chores in that title.  In the Meryl Streep movie, her character roots out crimes in the White House.  In the Jodie Foster movie, her character saves a young woman being held hostage by a psychotic killer in a big creepy house,  I've been a Meryl Streep fan ever since she had major role in the NBC's 1978 mini-series HOLOCAUST followed by films such as THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN and KRAMER VS. KRAMER, both released in 1979.  She's got three Oscars and about a hundred Oscar nominations to her credit.  With all that, she is at her absolute best in Steven Spielberg's THE POST co-starring Tom Hanks.  This 2017 newspaper drama, based on a true story, brought her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. But of course.
Jodie Foster won her second Best Actress Oscar for Jonathan Demme's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.  Recently, I watched that 1991 crime thriller on HBO.  Man, what a performance Jodie Foster gives.  It's so gripping, so focused, so full of complexity and intelligence.
Both female lead characters are in a similar gender situation in which their strength and intelligence and courage -- their brass ovaries, if you will -- are vital even though some men in their immediate workplace environment may not realize it.
First of all, I wish more people had gone to see THE POST.  I felt it was one of last year's best films.  I have a buddy named Charles P. Pierce, a whip-smart and insightful politics and sports journalist who writes for Esquire.  Charlie's got over 100,000 followers on Twitter.  He and I were on the same dorm floor in college.  Charlie hung out many times in my dorm room and I hung out in his.  I saw then that he had the fire for political journalism in his bones. One of the most popular new films with students on campus was Alan Pakula's ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.  Young movie goers headed to see that 1976 drama, based on a true story we'd lived through, as enthusiastically as todays young audiences flock to see new movies from the Marvel Comics franchise of superheroes.  Enrollment in Journalism Schools increased thanks to the popularity of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.  The drama at The Washington Post that we see in Spielberg's THE POST happens before the drama we see in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.

Before I go on to the similarities shared by the two female lead characters, let me tell you that Charlie Pierce went into journalism to do the serious, hard, gritty work -- the kind you see in both movies.  Back in 1976, a lot of other guys on campus went into journalism really because they wanted to be more Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman than reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Meryl Streep plays Katherine Graham, the first woman publisher of a major U.S. newspaper.  But her Washington Post is behind The New York Times.  The New York City competition broke a major story about the Pentagon Papers -- shady business going on in Nixon's White House -- while The Washington Post was covering celebrity weddings.

Katherine inherited the job. She loves the paper, employees at work like her, but she really has not found her voice in the job.  Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, is the ballsy editor who wants to beat The New York Times.  As Katherine and Ben dig in it becomes obvious that Nixon is corrupt.  They are threatened with prison time if they keep doing their work as journalists.
As they get closer to the heat of Nixon's fire, Katherine finds her voice as the publisher.  She will tell us that "News is the first rough draft of history."
Jodie Foster as Agent Clarice Starling.  When we meet her, she's in the male-dominated FBI training program.  She's a cadet, an outstanding trainee.  She's constantly surrounded by men.  In the office, in the elevator, in the hallway and when she walks down the row of convicts to meet Dr. Hannibal Lecter.  Clarice is always in the up close view of the male gaze.   Just like Clarice, Katherine Graham is also surrounded by, outnumbered by men in her work situations. Sometimes we see that she's the only woman in the room -- and the men do not listen to her even though she's the boss.  They talk at her or around her, but they do not actually listen to her and consider her opinion.  This will change.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee is to Katherine Graham in THE POST what Dr. Lecter is to Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.  Both men respect the woman.  They see her intelligence.  They see that she is the gender outsider.  They push her to take her power up a notch and uncover the crime.  They push her to take on the monster in the house who is breaking the law, whether the house is a big creepy one that has a woman being held hostage underground...or the White House where the Constitution is being abused.

Notice those similarities.  Women find their power, their voice in a male-dominated workplace in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and THE POST.  These two fine films are worth a look -- another look if you've already seen them.

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