Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Look Again at ALIENS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's just my average guy opinion.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Leonard Bernstein's Centennial

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

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

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Marvelous Mitzi Gaynor in SOUTH PACIFIC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.fathomevents.com.








Thursday, August 16, 2018

Phenomenal Aretha Franklin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Jazz Great, Morgana King

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

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




Monday, August 13, 2018

What a SAUSAGE PARTY

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

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

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

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





Saturday, August 4, 2018

A Killer DVD Double Feature

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

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

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

Enjoy the DVD double feature.


Friday, August 3, 2018

On Asian-American Actors and Woody Allen

My previous two posts focused on Asian-American actors.  This post will make it three.  Spielberg's blockbuster hit, JURASSIC PARK, is on TV right now.  When this movie was just opening, I worked on WNBC's local weekend morning news show.  I got cast member B.D. Wong to come in for a live, in-studio interview.  He and I went to the same gym back in those days and he lived in my neighborhood.  I asked him to be on the show.  During the interview, I commented that the Spielberg sci-fi thriller would be dinosaur-big at the box office and would probably inspire a sequel.  I asked him if he'd be interested in repeating his scientist role in a sequel.  He said, "Yes," but he was not in the next JURASSIC PARK thriller.  No one wrote a part for him.  That's an example of Asian-Americans being underrepresented in film, in my opinion.  Look at 1993's JURASSIC PARK again.  If it was not for B.D. Wong's scientist character, there would not have been any modern-day dinosaurs.  He was a Dr. Frankenstein, if you will.  A vital character who scientifically engineered the rebooting of dinosaurs.  But a few JURASSIC PARK sequels went by before someone had the idea to bring B.D. back in for another appearance.
When I was in high school, I went to summer camp.  I'd gone to summer camp in my elementary school years and hated it.  I didn't want to be in the San Bernardino mountains.  I wanted to be home, indoors, with a cold drink and watching classic Warner Bros. cartoons.  The high school camp experience was the exact opposite.  It was a late 1960s camp experience called "Camp Brotherhood Anytown."  The National Conference of Christians and Jews sponsored this camp to bring Southern California kids of different races and backgrounds together to dialogue in that politically turbulent decade.  A few of us guys from the same high school in Watts attended.  We met kids white kids who lived in the Beverly Hills and Brentwood areas.  Kids who'd been to Europe.  Some of us black teens had never been out of California.  After we talked and heard about their high school experiences compared to ours in South Central L.A, the thing that hit us in the face like a bucket of cold mountain creek water was the access they had to scholarships, financial aid and extra-curricular school activities that we'd never even heard of -- and they came from financially upscale suburban households.  The differences weren't just racial.  The differences between the haves and have-nots were especially stunning to us.  Those white teens from upscale families had privileges they didn't even realize.

One the fellow campers I met and kept in touch with was a dancer, an Asian-American high school student named Cherylene Lee.  She was a show biz kid so, of course, I loved chatting with her.  When we all returned from camp, she was planning to audition for a musical slated to play the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the L.A. Music Center.  Cherylene had a movie to her credit.  She was in FLOWER DRUM SONG, Universal's film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway hit musical comedy.  In this number, Cherylene was littlest one in the trio of kids.
In a current edition of The Hollywood Reporter, there's a major article about CRAZY RICH ASIANS.  It's "CRAZY RICH ASIANS:  The Stakes Are High for 'Crazy Rich Asians' -- And That's the Point."  The columnist wrote that before CRAZY RICH ASIANS, opening this month, 1993's THE JOY LUCK CLUB was the only Hollywood studio movie to feature an entirely Asian-American ensemble.

What about 1961's FLOWER DRUM SONG?  Oscar winner Miyoshi Umeki repeated her Broadway leading lady role.  She'd won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her dramatic performance in 1957's SAYONARA.  She'd add a hit sitcom to her credits thanks to ABC's THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER.  FLOWER DRUM SONG also featured the versatile and vivacious Nancy Kwan, handsome actor James Shigeta and fabulous comic actor Jack Soo (years later, a member of the BARNEY MILLER hit sitcom ensemble on ABC.)


In our talks and letters, what was a main topic between Cherylene and me in our teen years?  Diversity in show biz.  She knew I wanted to go into TV and, if possible, film.  We both hoped there would be respectable work opportunities for two young people of color.  We knew then, in the late 1960s, that there were color barriers in show business.

Is there work for people of color in Film and TV?  That topic is still active today.  Recently, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in Los Angeles released findings -- disappointing findings -- on the current state of Hollywood's embrace of diversity and inclusion. In areas of Underserved Groups in Films, Films Without Any Characters and Percentage of Speaking Characters, the Asian-American community is last under woman, characters with disabilities, LGBT characters, Black and Latino characters.  That is why CRAZY RICH ASIANS is such a big deal.  People who have been overlooked will be getting close-ups on the big screen come August 15th.
If we people of color had been hired by network TV news shows and syndicated film review programs to be film critics, we would have raised these diversity and inclusion issues years ago. We notice those things and we tend to call them out because we know how it feels to be passed over and ignored.  For a fairly recent example of how Asian-Americans were underrepresented in a film, watch Woody Allen's Oscar winning 2013 film, BLUE JASMINE.  Cate Blanchett deserved the Oscar she won for Best Actress.  Sally Hawkins deserved her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  However...BLUE JASMINE is a film that takes place in and was shot on location in San Francisco.  I lived in San Francisco around that time in some of the very neighborhoods seen in the film.  You know what I saw every single day in San Francisco?  Lots and lots of Asian people.  Everywhere.  I saw them and interacted with them.  San Francisco has Asian-American people like McDonald's has buns and burger patties.

Now watch BLUE JASMINE.  There's not one single role done by an Asian-American actor.  I was dumbfounded.  The characters played by Peter Sarsgaard and Louis C.K., and the dentist played by Michael Stuhlbarg could have been played by Asian-American actors.  And, if they had been, BLUE JASMINE would've had a more accurate representation and feel of the San Francisco so many of us know.  To a degree, with his characters played by Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Cannavale coupled with the way they played them, Woody Allen shipped the 1970s/80s Brooklyn vibe of his previous New York City-based films to San Francisco.

BLUE JASMINE is on Netflix.  Check it out and see what I mean.  And, again, I wish all the best the cast of CRAZY RICH ASIANS.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Go see CRAZY RICH ASIANS

Hollywood pays attention to box office receipts.  We people of color need to have each other's backs and help each other out, especially considering the recent reports on inclusion that were released.  CRAZY RICH ASIANS, a big budget Hollywood romantic comedy with a predominantly Asian-American cast, opens this month.  Members of the cast grace the current cover of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER.  The lead actress is Constance Wu, whom I absolutely adore as the over-achieving suburban mom on the ABC sitcom, FRESH OFF THE BOAT.  I want this movie to hit her career with a great, big, beautiful bolt of electricity.
Rarely do we get a major Hollywood release featuring a large Asian-American cast of actors.  I cannot wait to see CRAZY RICH ASIANS.
For about three years now, diversity has been a Hollywood hot point.  Long story short, the playing field has not been level for people of color seeking Hollywood employment.  And, I might add as an insider, it has not been level for people of color in the TV industry either.  Film is my passion.  However, after my VH1 years as a celebrity talk show host, the biggest and thickest color wall I hit when I worked in the local and network New York City news arena from 1992 to 2000, was when I wanted to do film reviews on a regular basis. There was always resistance from white execs in the news department.  I arrived in New York City in 1985 with four years of regular film reviewer TV and print credits on my resume.  In fact, it was some of that film review work that got me my first New York City job offer that blessedly yanked me away from Milwaukee's ABC affiliate.  But, white TV execs in New York City news departments were quicker to let Cody Gifford, a college guy who'd taken a film course in his previous semester, do weekly film reviews on TODAY (which he did as his proud mom, Kathie Lee, watched) than let an experienced person of color have the same opportunity. And I was not the only Black, Latino or Asian-American film reviewer frustrated by the lack of equal opportunities on TV.

Last month, July 16th, Tre'velle Anderson of The Los Angeles Times did an excellent and much needed report on the lack of race and gender diversity in the field of film critics.  In a video, we see 14 crticis of color speak out on the need for inclusion in their field.  And those were just critics of color in just L.A. alone!  Imagine if the many frustrated minority critics I've seen over the years at screenings in New York City were interviewed too.

Yesterday, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reported that despite the hard push of former Motion Picture Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs to get more racial diversity into its membership, despite "Oscars So White," despite Frances McDormand telling people that they that can request "inclusion riders" to insure race/gender equality in production teams -- something McDormand stated in her Oscar acceptance speech early this year --  despite all that... the needle has not moved much in a favorable direction for inclusion.  People of color, women, the LGBT community and the disabled continue to be served slim pieces of the pie. White guys still get the big slices.

I strongly feel that diversity and inclusion are sorely, critically needed in those executive branches populated by the folks who do the hiring, do the programming and are the people who can green light a project.  That's where we need the race and gender diversity -- whether it's a Hollywood studio office, a top talent agency boardroom, a network TV news department or a movie channel.  We also need our liberal buddies -- the ones who are constantly employed -- to look around, to really look around, notice that the playing field is not level and call out the inequality.

In the meantime, we need to help each other out.  Support CRAZY RICH ASIANS when it opens August 15th.  Give it some box office love and power.
Also support SORRY TO BOTHER YOU from Boots Riley, BLINDSPOTTING...and Spike Lee's newest also opening in August, BLACKkKLANSMAN.

Comedy Queen Ellen Cleghorne

NBC and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE just were not ready for the comedy and acting brilliance of Ellen Cleghorne .  There's a current interview ...