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 fiancĂ©e 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.

Monday, June 11, 2018

No Color in Field of Film Critics

I could have saved these good folks so much time and money.  A new study from the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism concludes that film reviewers and critics are predominantly white and male.  As Claude Rains' character proclaims in CASABLANCA, "...I'm shocked, shocked...!"  I have been occupationally aware of and frustrated by that fact since the 1990s.  And I'm not the only person of color who is, especially those of us in TV.  We've been overlooked by the producers of the film review presentations we've seen on network TV morning news shows and on syndicated shows with film critic duos.  What is the subtext TV has intended with its questionable, decades-long lack of diversity in the field of film reviewers?  Is it an ignorance, a basic bigotry along the lines of the longtime Hollywood jive that "Black stories don't make money," "Black films don't sell overseas," "There are no parts for Latino actors" and "Women can't direct big action movies"? Is the subtext that people of color don't care about films and don't have the skills to review them?  Is the message that the field of film critics is exclusive to mostly white males because, regardless of age and experience, they're really the only ones who have the power and privilege to talk about movies?  Or is it simply an unconscious bias?  I lived in New York City for over 20 years and if there's one area in my Manhattan TV career in which I felt a definite color barrier, it was in the field of film reviewing.  Millions of us grew up watching film critics every week on TV in the 1980s...men such as Gene Shalit on NBC...
 ...the late Joel Siegel on GOOD MORNING AMERICA, Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert on their syndicated show. Later there was the film review duo of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz.  (I started my TV career as a weekly film critic on the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee. I was reviewing films and doing celeb interviews in 1981, the same year Ben Lyons was born.)
David Edelstein became the film critic seen regularly on the CBS SUNDAY MORING show...
 ...and Chris Connolly now talks films as Entertainment Anchor for ABC News.
 I've been to many, many movie screenings in New York City.  I have seen plenty of African American and Latino male and female film critics.  We've talked and discussed the frustration of not getting TV opportunities to review films on a regular basis.  We're saved for "politically correct" occasional bookings like to give recommendations of movies to watch for Black History Month or race topics like Blaxploitation Films or Slavery or to discuss a particular famous black show biz celebrity.  But for the general movie talk, whether new films or old, we're excluded.

In 1993, I was an in-studio film critic on the WNBC live weekend morning news show.  I did three weekends as a film critic, starting with a review of PHILADELPHIA.  I was flattered because the show's news anchor complimented my writing on the air.  However, the news director pulled me from that spot and replaced me with film critic Pia Lindstrom (daughter of actress Ingrid Bergman).  Pia liked my work and had no idea why she was assigned to do weekend duty, but I felt that race was the subtext for the switch.  Years later, after I'd quit that job, I was contacted by Al Roker to meet regarding a possible weekend film review/interview show.  I'd be a member of a trio.  The other two coming to meet were veteran critic Jeffrey Lyons and the wonder Alison Bailes.  We met.  Weeks passed and I didn't get a follow-up, so I figured the project Al was producing didn't get a greenlight.  Then one Saturday, I turned on the TV and there was the show -- with Jeffrey Lyons, Alison Bailes and the third member was Jeffrey's son, Ben Lyons.

I felt some resistance in 2000 when ABC News needed a film critic for a new weekday show on Lifetime TV.  The resistance, I discovered, was because it was assumed I didn't know anything about films.  The execs had never bothered to view my demo reel. I pushed and I got the job.
Shows like the one Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz hosted in 2008, I never heard about auditions for those film review shows.  I wonder how many men and women of color did.  Ben Mankiewicz is now the senior film host on TCM, one of my favorite networks.
 Our exclusion, if you will, has carried over to movie channels it seems. Remember when AMC was American Movie Classics and showed only old movies?  All the hosts were white males.  TCM (Turner Classic Movies) has five hosts -- Ben Mankiewicz, Eddie Muller, Alicia Malone, Dave Karger and occasionally Leonard Maltin. Five white hosts.  This year, TCM saluted African American filmmakers on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  But there was no African American as guest host or guest co-host.

This lack of a level playing field in film criticism and commentary effects the news being highlighted or ignored.  Here's a short piece I posted months before Oscar nominations came out.  I talk about Viola Davis and opportunities for actresses of color in relation to the Oscars:
Chris Connelly and PEOPLE's Jess Cagle (both white fellows) were on ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA live as the Oscar nominations were announced.  Connelly and Cagle mentioned that Meryl Streep had received another record-breaking Oscar nomination.  No one mentioned that Viola Davis had just made Oscar history.  Her third nomination, received for FENCES, had just made her the most Oscar-nominated black actress in all Hollywood history.  That was not mentioned -- and Viola Davis starred on the hit ABC series, HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER.  Not only that, but the 20-year record for the most Oscar-nominated black actress in Hollywood history had been held by Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg who had nominations for THE COLOR PURPLE and GHOST.  She won for 1990's GHOST.  Whoopi's on ABC's weekday talk show, THE VIEW.

Recently, HBO repeated its documentary SPIELBERG.  I watched it again. It's good.  However, my one complaint about this 2017 doc from executive producer Susan Lacy (who gave us the wonderful AMERICAN MASTERS shows on PBS) is that there are six film critics and one film historian seen in SPIELBERG...and they're all white.  Not one black male or female film critic or historian provides commentary -- and THE COLOR PURPLE gets a sizable segment in Lacy's documentary.

We need to take on a "Time's Up" attitude and call out our experiences and anger over this inequality. There must be diversity in the arts ... and in the conversation about the arts.  If we're not getting equal opportunities, we need to make that known.  I did not seek to become a famous film critic like a Roger Ebert but I did hope that my being seen as a film critic locally or nationally would help open the door for other talent of color who could do it even better. I get so outdone that well-paid white guys in newspapers and on TV are the ones telling me why I need to see 12 YEARS A SLAVE, THE HELP, THE BUTLER, HUSTLE & FLOW, DO THE RIGHT THING and THE COLOR PURPLE.  I grew up in South Central L.A.  I've sat at bus stops waiting for a bus in Compton. Do you think David Edelstein, Rex Reed or Chris Connelly have? Then why can't I be on TV or quoted in a magazine with a review of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON?

Wesley Morris is a slim, handsome African American journalist in her early 40s.  He now writes for The New York Times.  In 2012, when he wrote for The Boston Globe, he won the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism.  African American journalist Hilton Als writes for The New York magazine.  He won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for theater and film criticism.  I've seen Rex Reed on CBS telling viewers that he hated GET OUT.  I've never seen those two black gentlemen giving soundbites about films on a news show and neither one of them gives a comment in SPIELBERG.

We've gone from the years of Siskel & Ebert to the modern days of Rotten Tomatoes.  The lack of diversity still exists.  Last year, when Tiffany Haddish accepted an award from the New York Film Critics for her performance in GIRLS TRIP, she mentioned that the only critics she'd ever seen on TV when she was growing up were Siskel & Ebert.  So she wasn't aware that black and Latino critics exist.  There's still equality work to be done.  The results of that USC study were not news to me.

That's how I feel.  And that's why I greatly appreciate L.A. radio station KPCC 89.3 and its daytime host, Larry Mantle.  Every Friday, Larry hosts a hour of movie reviews during his AirTalk weekday show.  That movie hour is called "FilmWeek" and Larry constantly presents race and gender diversity in his panels of guest critics.  He books excellent film journalists such as Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times, Tim Cogshell and Claudia Puig, head of the L.A. Film Critics Association.  Larry Mantle's "FilmWeek" gives the kind of diversity in film reviews and commentary that network TV news has overlooked for decades. Stream his show or hear it on the website.  Here's the link: scpr.org.  Follow Larry's show on Twitter -- @ AirTalk.

Here's a demo reel that TV producers got when I pitched myself to cover film entertainment.




Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Strange But True Story from Spike Lee

I have got to see this new Spike Lee movie.  His incendiary new work got high praise at this year's Cannes Film Festival.  Spike Lee's BLACKkKLANSMAN  hits screens this coming August.  This coming August will also mark a dark anniversary in our modern history.  Last August we witnessed violence and a march for white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia.  That incident is recalled in Spike's in a section of the director/writer's upcoming release.
By the way, the film brought Spike a Grand Priz prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Here's the story:  We got to Colorado Springs in the 1970s.  An African American police detective sees a recruiting ad for the Ku Klux Klan.  It is his job to investigate any subversive activity that could negatively influence the city.  The KKK is subversive activity.  He calls the phone number listed and describes himself as a "pure Aryan white man" who is sick and tired of minorities.

He's invited the join the Klan.
Dig it! Yes, this is based on a true story.  Ron Stallworth, a highly decorated member of the police force, wrote his memoir -- a memoir entitled BLACK KLANSMAN.  My buddy Scott Simon interviewed Mr. Stallworth today on the NPR Saturday morning show, Weekend Edition.  If you're on Twitter, follow @ NPRWeekend.  Scroll down its timeline and you'll come to the Ron Stallworth interview.  Or you can go to NPR.org.

When you get to the NPR website, look up top for "programs & podcasts."  Click into that section and find Weekend Edition Saturday.  Scott Simon's "How a Black Detective Infiltrated the KKK" interview piece is there.  It is seriously worth hearing Ron Stallworth connect those events of 1978 to last year's racist activity in Charlottesville and the President's response to it.  Remember that Trump said that some of the individuals marching for white supremacy were "very fine people."  Ron Stallworth's NPR interview is frighteningly relevant to today's political climate.

Not that Oscars and Oscar nominations are everything -- some of the finest, most memorable classic films, actors and directors never won an Oscar or never even got a nomination.

But...with the accolades Spike Lee's film got from film critics at the Cannes Film Festival...maybe Spike's on his way to getting an Oscar nomination.  He's one of those acclaimed filmmakers who has never been nominated for Best Director.

Friday, June 8, 2018

We'll Miss Anthony Bourdain

The news reported that he took his own life.  For the millions of us who loved watching his shows, that news was like a gut punch in the dark.  We didn't see it coming.  World traveler, writer, chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain gave us such a warm, robust, engaged personality on TV -- a cool intelligent guy who took interest in everybody and everything.  Especially food.  TV can be a very beguiling medium.  A person being him or herself weekly on a national show that you watch on a regular basis can begin to feel like a buddy, someone you know.  That's because you see the face and hear the voice in your living room or kitchen or office.  That person, in a way, becomes a part of your life even though you never met.  That's how I felt about Anthony Bourdain.
He was a great host and gave us an image we needed to see and imitate.  He paid attention to things and people.  Ordinary people.  Not just famous people.  He listened with zeal.  He didn't do like some folks at a swanky cocktail party and start to sway slightly like a metronome as you spoke to see if someone more fascinating than you had just entered the room.  He embraced and respected other cultures and respected people of other colors and classes.  He could write and tell a terrific story.  He made this great big world seem like a global village.  Personally, I loved the regular spotlights he gave to overlooked ethnic communities in my hometown, Los Angeles.  With his likable hipness and his look of a seasoned rock star who'd been wise with his money, he was the kind of guy that guys wanted to hang out with for drinks, maybe a cigar and some fabulous conversation.  But, again, what I totally loved about him was that he could take that rock star charisma of his, go to a foreign land or an under-the-radar working class eatery in America's "parts unknown" (the name of his show) and make an ordinary person feel like he was that person's biggest fan.  He made that person seem like the rock star.  You weren't invisible to him.  He connected.  And he spoke up for the little guy.  He was an activist.  We need more of that.
Anthony Bourdain showed the power, joy and surprise of opening up to diversity, inclusion and getting a good taste of someone else's culture and life.

There were so many nights when I watched his shows because my heart was heavy and I needed something to lift my spirits.  If you've read my posts on an occasional basis you know that the last few years for me have been occupationally and finally rough due to the Great Recession.  Between 2008 and 2011, I was knocked flat by two job layoffs.  I lost work.  I lost my apartment.  I feel like I've been living like a gypsy ever since. Different friends and, currently, a wonderful relative, took me in for generous amounts of time and gave me spare room space.  I haven't had a steady job since those lay-offs, but I've hustled up some part time gigs.

In the TV arena, not landing a new job and the frequent frustration I had of broadcast agents rejecting me for representation started to weigh me down.  Our mom passed away last spring and I've always felt guilty that I didn't become a bigger TV talent -- not for the sake of ego and fame, mind you, but because I could have given her more comfortable life than I was able to had I made an income like network news anchors, game show hosts or reality TV stars.  For Mom, I did the best I could. We grew very close in her last five years.  I kept my housing situation and long employment hidden from her.  I told her I was getting by -- that I was freelancing.

So...with the distress of extended employment, the awkwardness of not having my own place, and the alienation no romantic attachment since the late 90s... I'd start to wonder if any of my work and presence had made an impact. When I feel depression advancing, I punch it back as best I can.  And depression has advanced a lot since spring of last year.  I felt invisible, lonely, unwanted...and that probably made me vulnerable to depression.  I'm positive I can turns things around for myself eventually.
I would watch Anthony Bourdain host PARTS UNKNOWN and I always wished I could meet him.  He made me smile.  He entertained me, he educated me. He was an award-winning success. He was working on TV, the kind of work I love doing and pray I can do once again.  He made me wish I had a life like his.

That is, until today.  Success is not a remedy for everything.  The biggest "parts unknown" were those rocky, rough and wounded places in his heart.  That poor man.  Heaven rest his soul.  He was quite a guy.  I will miss Anthony Bourdain.

NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELIFE (available 24 hours a day):
1-800-273-8255

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

From Garland to Gaga, A STAR IS BORN

Folks first saw William Wellman's A STAR IS BORN in 1937.  The stars were Janet Gaynor and Fredric March.  When I was a kid watching TV shows about classic films, I learned that two dramatic scenes in the 1937 Hollywood-on-Hollywood love story were a couple of the most famous scenes in a classic film.  There was also the film's famous last line.  Then I learned that the 1954 remake, now a musical drama marking the sensational screen comeback of Judy Garland, was a rare case of a remake being just as good if not better than the acclaimed original. It's one of the best Hollywood films of the 1950s.  Garland, opposite the also outstanding James Mason, was at the height of her vocal and previously untapped dramatic powers.  For those of us into Oscars history, we know that Judy Garland was the favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actress of 1954 for A STAR IS BORN.  In an upset, the Oscar went to Grace Kelly for THE COUNTRY GIRL.  Kelly was really good.  But Judy should have won.
I like the Barbra Streisand 1976 rock music remake of A STAR IS BORN with Kris Kristofferson.  I like it. But I absolutely love Judy's version.  It's on my Top 10 favorite films of all-time list.
In the first two versions, we saw Norman Maine.  He's a Hollywood movie star who's popularity has started to slide at the box office mainly due to his drinking.  He sees and discovers a show biz hopeful, a young woman whose sincerity and warmth bring out the gentleman in him.  He sees in this anonymous performer more talent that she probably sees in herself.  He has faith in her.  He helps her get a break. During this, they start to fall in love.  Her break clicks.  As her star begins to rise, his continues to fall because of his drinking.  She's now a big star and she's willing to sacrifice her career to help the man she loves battle his alcoholism.
The newest remake with music gives us Lady Gaga with Bradley Cooper.  Cooper also directed this new version.  I pray that the finished product is as good as the trailer.  I dig it!

Director George Cukor gave the 1954 remake a deeper emotional darkness and grittiness.  Society had changed since Wellman's original 1937 version, attitudes had changed, and Cukor gave it a tone of the times.  He also gave the film a specific production design color motif, rich and symbolic, that seems to have influenced Cooper's remake. For Cukor's A STAR IS BORN, Sam Leavitt was cinematographer.  George Hoynigen-Huene was the special color design advisor.

As the non-famous bandsinger, Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) is wearing or in front of blue. That seems to become the color of the non-famous performer.  Norman Maine, the actor, finds her in an after hours club with the band.  The joint is closed and their having a jam session.  Esther sings "The Man That Got Away" and, as she sings, there's a rose blush color behind her.  In that number, we see what Norman Maine sees -- she has star quality.  She's galvanizing and majestic and full of feeling.  She's a great singer.  And she doesn't realize it.

The movie star surprises her with his appearance.  He takes her to the parking lot and tells her "You're a great singer" and that she's wasting her time with the band. She's flabbergasted.  It's taken her a long time to get that gig.  But he feels that she's meant for something bigger.
Notice that, as he tells her she's a great singer, red street lights flicker above her head signifying the approach of stardom for her.  With honorable intentions, he drives her to where she's staying and gives her advice.  She saved him from making a drunken fool of himself in public at a benefit where she was performing with the band.  He wants to know more about this singer.
He helps her get a job as a contract player at the studio where he works. Her name is changed to Vicki Lester.  A Broadway musical star, scheduled to do a movie, has contractual problems.  Norman coaxes the studio head to take a chance on an unknown singer employed on the studio lot -- Vicki Lester.  When we see Vicki's big number in the film, she's against a backdrop of red flowers.  Her film debut will be a hit. She's on her way to stardom and fame.
When Vicki and Norman marry, they're both wearing brown.  They're civilians, giving a justice of the peace their real names. Later, the studio drops Norman while Vicki's the biggest star on the lot. His drinking increases, gets ugly and takes a dark emotional toll on the marriage.  In a dressing room breakdown, as she reveals all her heartbreak to her boss. She's been shooting a big bright musical number for her new movie.  In the colors of her costume, we see that Vicki tries to balance the demands of fame (red) and be a devoted wife (brown) at the same time.
I'm eager to see the production design in this modern new version of A STAR IS BORN.  I'm rooting for Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.  Their film opens this October.  If you've never seen Judy Garland introduce "The Man That Got Away" in the first musical remake of A STAR IS BORN, treat yourself and watch this clip.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Love for Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Three of the best and brightest days of my entire TV career where the days when I had Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds as guests on my VH1 talk show back in the late 1980s.  Carrie was one on show.  Debbie made two appearances. All three appearances drew big laughs and affection from the entire floor crew.  After Debbie had taped her second appearance with me, she hung around.  She stayed in the studio and stood behind one of my cameramen to watch me interview my next guest.  She didn't like my next guest.  She felt she was a cold fish.  The crew felt the same way.  So did I. Debbie was exactly like Shirley MacLaine as Doris Mann in the POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE party sequence when she coaxes her actress daughter, Suzanne Vale, to sing a song for the guests.  I guess that's absolutely no surprise since Doris Mann was based on Debbie Reynolds in a screenplay written by Carrie Fisher.  The screenplay was based on Carrie's novel of the same name.  Now Debbie's son and Carrie's beloved brother has written a book.  He calls it a "love letter" and a "thank you note."
I have got to get his book.  I found out about it by reading a May 30th question and answer interview with Todd Fisher that Jamie Blynn conducted for usmagazine.com in the magazine's entertainment section.  His poignant answers made me misty-eyed.  If his answers did that -- like his answers about his final moments with his movie star mom after Carrie's untimely passing -- then his book will probably have me sobbing.
The title of the Todd Fisher memoir is MY GIRLS:  A LIFETIME with CARRIE AND DEBBIE.  It hits bookstores this month.
Debbie Reynolds had won a special place in my heart ever since I was a little boy and saw her on local TV in the movie SUSAN SLEPT HERE.  There were so many Saturday afternoons in my youth when I used my student discount card and enjoyed a Debbie Reynolds movie as a weekend matinee, movies of hers that don't often get mentioned but movies that gave me a lot of enjoyment as I sat in that air conditioned theater with some popcorn and a soda.  Movies like GOODBYE, CHARLIE and THE SINGING NUN...DIVORCE, AMERICAN STYLE and HOW SWEET IT IS.  When Mom surprised me with a reserved seat ticket to see THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN one Saturday afternoon at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, that was like an early Christmas Day.

I still feel that Debbie Reynolds was a terrifically talented yet under-appreciated Hollywood star.  She truly was a triple threat actress. She sang, she danced, and she could really act when given a chance to exercise her dramatic muscles.  Take another look at the steeliness of her New York City dance hall character in THE RAT RACE (1960) and the frustration of her Hollywood could-have-been character in WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971).  Debbie Reynolds should have been a Best Actress Oscar nominee for the wise, witty Albert Brooks comedy/drama MOTHER (1996) and, around that time, Hollywood should have honored Debbie with a special Oscar.  She worked tirelessly for decades to preserve Hollywood history acquiring classic costumes and props were museum-worthy.  She was Hollywood's top ambassador and she worked tirelessly to help others.  As Ruta Lee said at Debbie's memorial, Debbie gave and raised money to help the less fortunate.  She'd always say "You can never go wrong asking for something to help someone else."

As for Carrie, she was more than her internationally famous Princess Leia character from STAR WARS.  She should've gotten a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE. She was brilliant writer with a crackling, devastating wit that made her novels and memoirs such fabulous and rich brain food. She was a terrific singer.  I wish she had recorded an album. And how we loved hearing about her colorful relationships with her always devoted mother and her not-so-devoted father, singer Eddie Fisher.

Carrie, wow...how I miss her.  Her quote "Take your broken heart, turn it into art" is very dear to me.

I've said it before and I'll say it again:  If a movie like TERMS OF ENDEARMENT about the often bumpy but close relationship of a mother and daughter in show business opened and, in the last act, the actress daughter unexpectedly died and the actress mother died the following day, seemingly of a broken heart, critics would have written snarky reviews tagging the movie as overly sentimental with an ending that was too hard to believe.

But it really happened in the life and love story of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.  That's Hollywood.

I wish Todd Fisher a great big success with his book.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Robert F. Kennedy Remembered on Sunday

This is a quick programming note, if you will.  It's June now.  In April of this year, we reflected on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  This month, we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.  1968 was a mean year, a year that robbed us of two American men who gave hope to and fought for the poor and disenfranchised.  Senator Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency when he was shot and killed.  The care and compassion he had for under-privileged African Americans, for black people treated like second class citizens, had an energy you could feel in his presence.  It vibrated.  It touched your soul.  That's the feeling I got when I was a school kid running joyfully behind his convertible, running with a mass of other South Central L.A. residents eager to see him when he came to speak at a park in Watts near my high school.  Seeing him in person was an image that burned itself into my heart and memory and remains vivid.  He was dead two days later.
The life and times of Robert F. Kennedy will be a feature tomorrow, June 3rd, on CBS SUNDAY MORNING hosted by Jane Pauley.  Senator Kennedy's first child, Kathleen Kennedy, will be interviewed.  CBS SUNDAY airs at 9am Eastern.  Check your local listings.
Sunday night on MSNBC, the life of Robert F. Kennedy will be the subject of HEADLINERS.  This MSNBC show airs at 9p Eastern.  Again, check your local listings.

If you can, watch the shows.  See the man.  Listen to his words.  Think about what America could have had in the White House.  Compare it all to what we have now.

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 differ...