Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Sisterhood in THE POST and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

On BLACK HOLLYWOOD: THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Monday, October 29, 2018

Maurice DuBois Feature on CBS SUNDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.CBSSundayMorning.com.








Sunday, October 28, 2018

Bing Crosby in THE COUNTRY GIRL

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Bravo, Bradley, on A STAR IS BORN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://youtu.be/838aCpFNpjA.








Thursday, October 18, 2018

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT on Criterion

Norman Jewison, how I love his works.  He's a fine director and, via his films, a social activist.  One of his most popular films, one shot through his lens of social activism, gets the deluxe Criterion Collection treatment come January. Jewison has given us hip entertainment such as THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and MOONSTRUCK featuring Oscar-winning turns by Cher and Olympia Dukakis. He's given us films that reflected social issues such as A SOLDIER'S STORY, THE HURRICANE and his race drama/murder mystery IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. That film took the Oscar for Best Picture of 1976 and Rod Steiger, who starred as the police chief in a small and racially hostile Southern town, won the Oscar for Best Actor.  In order to solve the murder of an important white married man, the police chief is forced to work with a black detective from Philadelphia played by Sidney Poitier.
The 1960s was not an easy decade to endure. America hit extreme and fantastic heights, such as landing a man on the moon in 1969, and it had to pick herself up from the paralyzing national grief when President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in 1963.  That year alone saw Dr. Martin Luther King's historic Civil Rights March on Washington in the summer. Black people were demanding equal opportunities -- the right to vote, the right to an education, fair housing. A month after the march, four little girls were killed in a racist bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama.  Two months later, on November 22nd, President Kennedy was assassinated.  It was a decade of riots and rock concerts. There were the Watts Riots in South Central L.A. that made national headlines when I was a little boy and growing up in South Central L.A.  There was peace, love, rock 'n' roll at a 3-day event in New York called the Woodstock Music Festival.  In between Watts and Woodstock came this Norman Jewison drama.
Sidney Poitier starred in IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  By that time, he'd made history as the first black actor to win the Oscar for Best Actor.  That was for his performance in a heartwarming, small-budgeted comedy that did big business at the box office.  In 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD, he played the handyman on the road in Arizona who winds up building a chapel for a small group of immigrant Eastern European nuns.
Initially, it's been reported, Poitier did not want to go down South to shoot IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. He and Harry Belafonte had attended the March on Washington. They were friends with Dr. King and active in the Civil Rights cause. He and Belafonte had been harassed down South during Civil Rights activity and he didn't want to put up with that again. Jewison assured him that he'd take care of things, especially lodging.  Many upscale hotels in the South were segregated and would not accept black guests.

In the 1960s, after his Oscar win, Sidney Poitier made Hollywood history by becoming the first black performer to be a top box office star. People, black and white, went to see movies because Sidney Poitier was in them.  When the Oscar nominations for films of 1967 came out, Poitier made history again.  He wasn't nominated -- although IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT boasts one of his best screen performances -- but he starred in two of the five nominees for Best Picture.  They were GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.

An interracial romance and engagement are at the heart of GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER. Today, that film, famous for the final screen pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, may seem sweet and sentimental. But, like IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, it also touched on some real racial inequality in America. When the movie was in production, interracial marriage was still illegal in several American states. The Supreme Court had not yet passed Loving v. Virginia.

1967's IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was awarded its Oscars in 1968.  That year, for the first and only time in all its history, the Oscars telecast was postponed and re-scheduled out of respect due to the nationally-televised funeral and national grief after Dr. Martin Luther King's untimely death. He was shot and killed by a racist assassin on April 4th.  The Oscars telecast had been originally scheduled for April 8th.

Fifty years later, in an era of Black Lives Matter and the KKK activity in Charlottesville, VA last year, Norman Jewison's IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT still touches a socially relevant nerve.

The most famous scene in the film is the slap scene.  In movie theaters -- walk-ins and drive-ins -- black folks cheered at this scene as if our home team had just scored a grand slam to win the World Series.  It wasn't just Detective Virgil Tibbs slapping the taste out that bigot's mouth, it was black America standing up and slapping racism in the face.  That scene represented how black Americans felt.

Watch the scene and then read my bit of black film history about it.


You have the modern-day plantation owner, if you will, who still sees things in terms of Master and Slave. He's the Master until Detective Tibbs slaps him back.  The white local police chief and the black butler witness this.

The butler was played by veteran multi-talented actor Jester Hairston.  Mr. Hairston acted, directed stage productions, sang and composed gospel music.  In the movie LILIES OF THE FIELD, one of the most audience-pleasing scenes is the one in which Homer (Poitier) teaches a simple gospel song to the foreign nuns.  The song is called "Amen" and it became quite popular. A few years later, we Catholic school kids would be singing it in weekday and Sunday masses.
"Amen" was written by Jester Hairston -- and he dubbed Sidney Poitier's singing voice in LILIES OF THE FIELD.

Jester Hairston played Tom Robinson's father in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and he's also in LADY SINGS THE BLUES, FINIAN'S RAINBOW and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. He can be spotted in earlier Hollywood classics such as 1941's SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS and 1942's IN THIS OUR LIFE starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland.  Jester Hairston was a regular on the TV sitcom called AMEN that ran on NBC from 1986 to 1991.

The Criterion Collection releases its edition of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT on January 29th.
www.Criterion.com.



Sunday, October 14, 2018

My Milwaukee Boss Was Wrong

By the time I was starting middle school, or junior high as we called it back then, I knew what profession I wanted to pursue.  I wanted to work in television.  I wanted to work on television in New York City, like Jack Paar and Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson.  I wanted to entertain, to host, and I wanted to interview people from various fields of the arts. I didn't know exactly how I would get from 124th and Central Avenue in South Central L.A. to New York City. But I knew deep in my soul that I'd get there.  That's the degree of faith I had in making my dream come true.
The 1954 remake of A STAR IS BORN is one of my all-time favorite films.  I love the performances, the screenplay, the awesome singing of Judy Garland and the direction of George Cukor.  A scene that always touches my heart and one that reveals the heart of the lead male character played by James Mason. Norman Maine secretly watched the unknown girl singer with a band belt out a torch sing in an after hours club.  It's a jam session.  Just her and the boys in the band.  But her galvanizing performance shows us -- and him -- that she is far more talented that she realizes.  It's her dream to, one day, have a hit record.  Norman Maine, the big Hollywood star, tenderly and sincerely tells her that the dream isn't big enough.  He motivates her to take a chance and quit the band. He offers help. He tells her, "Don't settle for the little dream. Go on to the big one."
Isn't that something many of us long for?  That one person who will believe in us and see something in us no one else ever did.  We long for someone who will believe in us as much as we believe in ourselves.

My TV executive boss when I worked at the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee was no Norman Maine.

I attended college in Milwaukee and stayed there after my graduation.  My plan was to see if I could land local broadcast work and then have some experience on my resume so I could move on to a bigger market and eventually make it to New York.

I started at the weekly movie critic and lifestyles contributor on Milwaukee's edition of PM MAGAZINE.  Two years into that job, I starting getting national exposure with some of the celebrity interview features I did thanks to being invited to press junkets in New York City and Los Angeles. The PM MAGAZINE headquarters felt they were good enough for national airing on the syndicated show.  On PM MAGAZINE back then, in the early 80s, that made me the first black person seen nationally doing celebrity interviews.  One week brought me lots of national exposure.  It was the PM MAGAZINE countdown to the Oscars week.  I'd interviewed these talents who got Oscar nominations for 1982 work: Meryl Streep for SOPHIE'S CHOICE, Jessica Lange for TOOTSIE and FRANCES, Ben Kingsley for GANDHI and director Richard Attenborough for GANDHI.

In 1984, I left PM MAGAZINE and started full-time work on a new local project at the same station. I'd be co-host and associate producer of a live hour-long weekday magazine show with a studio audience.  We had a small, ragtag crew and the whole experience was terrific.  What a great crew. My co-host and I hit it off the moment we met. In those days, celebrities would be in Milwaukee on tour and also in nearby Chicago.  So, for Milwaukee, we were lucky enough to book some known live guests. Also, I still did the movie junkets which enabled us to have some big star presence on the show thanks to my taped interviews.

The show did well in its midday timeslot.  We were proud of our show.  Then, for some reason, the Vice President in charge of Programming decided to move it one hour later. We struggled some in that new timeslot but we kept doing our best and we continued to get good guests.  I was building up my resume.

I had vacation time coming.  I put in to take a week off in December.  It would be the week before Christmas because Christmas would be on a Tuesday.  We'd be pre-empted for a network special on Christmas Eve.  I'd have an extended holiday.  For that vacation, I didn't plan to fly off anywhere.  I wanted to take the train to Chicago and take in some theater.  Which I did.

I caught a Wednesday matinee of Angela Lansbury's brilliance in SWEENEY TODD, grabbed a bite and then caught the train back to Milwaukee. When I arrived, about 90 minutes later, I hit a pay phone in the train station to check my answering machine for messages before I headed to my apartment.

I had about 25 messages.  23 of them were our show's wonderful executive producer saying, "Bobby, it's Mary.  Where are you? Please call me."  The urgency in her voice tipped me that something was in critical condition.  I called her from the train station.

Our show had been cancelled by the V.P. of Programming.  He cancelled it that day, Wednesday, and told the staff that Friday's live show would be our final broadcast.  Fortunately, I had not flown out of town.  I'd be on the set for Thursday and Friday.  The next week, we were replaced with reruns of Angie Dickinson as POLICE WOMAN.

Merry Christmas, 1984.

My contract expired in June 1985.  In January, to keep our canceled crew busy until other contracts expired, we were assigned to do a local special on winter entertainment for families.  Our executive producer, whom I loved working with, told me that I still had money on my clothing allowance per my contract. If I needed a heavier coat for our outdoor shoots, get one with my clothing allowance. But, she warned, the VP was being a jerk about that money -- which my co-host and I were rightfully due per our contracts.

I went to his office and met with him.  Stan was his name. He bickered about the money for a coat but I said exactly what the executive producer told me to say and he gave in.  Then he added that, although my contract expired in June, he would not hold me to it if I found another job.  He'd let me go.

Then he added this:  "I know you want to work in New York City.  But, frankly, I don't think you have the talent."  I said nothing back.  I couldn't believe he said that to me, especially after I'd done good work there for years, after I'd gotten our local station national attention with my PM MAGAZINE features and especially after he put us out a work just a few days before Christmas. I turned and walked out of his office, speechless and angry, with my clothing allowance.

That was January 1985.  This is from June 1985.

There I was in front of Lincoln Center in New York City. A week or two after I left Stan's office, I sent some of the celebrity interview features -- that ones that had been picked up for PM MAGAZINE national airing -- to a New York City station.  I was flown out for a couple of meetings. Then the VP of Programming at WPIX/Channel 11 in New York City offered me employment and asked if I could be available to be on the air during the May ratings.  I said, "Yes."

I'll never forget the look on Stan's face when I told him I'd be leaving in April before the expiration of my contract. I'd be leaving because I got a TV job offer from New York City.

Don't give up on your dreams even when someone shoots them down.  Just pick them up again.  Three years after I did that local WPIX segment in front of Lincoln Center, I had a new job.  I was hosting my own prime time celebrity talk show on VH1.  A national talk show. In New York City.







Friday, October 12, 2018

Look at Mahershala Ali

The tall, talented, majestic Mahershala Ali has some Hollywood gold. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for MOONLIGHT.  He played the street-tough Florida drug dealer who becomes a tender-hearted father figure to a gentle little boy who's an object of homophobic insults. Viola Davis would win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for FENCES, the film adaptation of the acclaimed August Wilson play. Some TV viewers and critics may have complained about the length of the Oscars telecast -- those complaints are now an annual Oscars tradition -- but much history was made that night.  Mahershala Ali and Viola Fences won their Oscars for performances in films directed by African American males.  Denzel Washington, Davis' co-star in the film and in a Tony-winning Broadway revival, also directed FENCES.  Barry Jenkins directed and co-wrote MOONLIGHT.  More history?  Mahershala Ali accomplished something I don't think any other black actor has done since Sidney Poitier back in the 1960s.
Poitier starred in two of the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture of 1967 -- IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER. The winner was IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  Mahershala Ali starred in two of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture of 2016 -- HIDDEN FIGURES and MOONLIGHT. The winner was  LA LA LAND MOONLIGHT.
 In the entertaining, enlightening, and informative biopic HIDDEN FIGURES, Mahershala Ali and Taraji P. Henson had lovely charm and chemistry together.  She played the brilliant mathematician who brings race and gender diversity and inclusion to NASA as its working to send astronaut John Glenn into space for a historic first.  In the 1960s, segregation existed in America -- even within the scientific walls of NASA. The Civil Rights Movement was underway.  Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) a widowed single working mother, meets and falls in love with National Guard Lt. Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). They will wed before John Glenn's Friendship 7 flight.  Katherine Goble Johnson calculated the trajectories for the space launch. This black woman's monumental contribution was kept out of our American history books for decades. Not anymore.

Taraji P. Henson has one Oscar nomination to her credit.  I feel she should have racked up her second Oscar nomination in the Best Actress category for HIDDEN FIGURES. But that didn't happen, dammit.

I've mentioned before that Taraji P. Henson is one of those Black/Latinx actress who should've had an armful of script offers after her Oscar nomination, but had to turn to TV for steady employment. Just like Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis and Rita Moreno.  Now hugely popular on EMPIRE, that hit series has given work to other black actresses who got one Oscar nomination besides Taraji. We've seen Jennifer Hudson (Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for DREAMGIRLS) and Gabourey Sidibe (Best Actress Oscar nominee for PRECIOUS).

I noticed that 2008's THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON has been playing on one of cable's STARZ channel. This is the film that brought Taraji P. Henson her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The airings of it this month may be cross-promotion in a way.  Not for her. For screenwriter Eric Roth.  He wrote the BUTTON screenplay (which seems like a remake of his 1994 FORREST GUMP screenplay) and he wrote the screenplay for the newest remake of A STAR IS BORN, out now with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the lead roles.

If you saw THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, Taraji P. Henson plays the uneducated, kind-hearted black maid who adopts the odd looking white baby left on a staircase where she works.  The location is The South right after World War I.  The maid is to Benjamin Button exactly what Sally Field's character was to Forrest Gump.

In the first 20 minutes of the film, we see that the maid has a sweetheart. The black gentleman caller is played by...you guessed it....Mahershala Ali.  The charm and charisma the  two actors displayed in HIDDEN FIGURES was not the first time they'd displayed it.

Mahershala Ali is back down South for the upcoming new film, GREEN BOOK. He plays a classical pianist who must travel through the Jim Crow South for an engagement.  GREEN BOOK was inspired by an actual safety booklet published for years for African American motorists who had to travel through the South. My dad had a copy.  GREEN BOOK, as you've probably figured, is about America's race relations. There's already Oscar buzz about this movie.
Come January, Mahershala Ali will be on HBO for a new season of TRUE DETECTIVE and he may hear that's he's being seen in another Oscar nominee for Best Picture.

Monday, October 8, 2018

A Bradley/Barbra Review Question

The newest incarnation of the classic Hollywood tale, A STAR IS BORN, now lights up movie screens.  The 1937 original and the 1954 musical remake, displaying Judy Garland's powerful dramatic skills, were Hollywood-on-Hollywood tales.  The 1976 hit remake with the unlikely duo of Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson transferred the drama from Hollywood studios to rock concerts.  The current version, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, is also set in the world of rock music.
I love A STAR IS BORN.  The 1954 remake is one of my Top 5 favorite films of all time.  So, I've been anxious to read the reviews for this new version.  I happen to be a Lady Gaga fan and I've been rooting for her.  Well, overall, the reviews have been terrific.  I read a couple that threw in the word "masterpiece."  Much praise has gone to Bradley Cooper.  He plays the alcoholic male star who redeems himself by discovering a talented female newcomer, believing in her and guiding her to make her show biz dreams come true. Not only is he the male lead opposite Lady Gaga, he directed the film and directed Gaga to some very good reviews for her feature film debut.  On GOOD MORNING AMERICA, anchors Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan were sincerely in awe of Cooper's directorial debut.  Strahan commented that he couldn't believe it was Cooper's first time directing because he delivered such a polished, moving film.  On Twitter, actor Josh Gad wrote "Bradley Cooper is not only one of the finest stars around but now a bonafide director."  Entertainment reporter Dave Karger, now in the Caucasian quartet of hosts on cable's Turner Classic Movies, had Bradley Cooper as a guest on TCM to co-host the Oct. 7th airing of the 1954 A STAR IS BORN.  Karger gave viewers the vibe that Cooper should expect an Oscar nomination for Best Director and for Best Song.
For the first version, stars Janet Gaynor and Fredric March were in the Oscar race for Best Actress and Best Actor.  The same goes for Judy Garland and James Mason in the 1954 remake.  The 1976 remake received no Oscar nominations in the acting category but Barbra Streisand won a Best Song Oscar for co-writing "Evergreen," the hit love song from her version of A STAR IS BORN.
We will see if Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga get Oscar nominations for acting -- and/or Oscar nominations for Best Song. They both contributed to the film's new tunes.

My question is -- Did Barbra Streisand get this kind of praise when she starred in and gave us 1983's YENTL, her first time out as a film director?  That was 1983, when I was working in Milwaukee and just starting my TV career.  Streisand, by that time, had won a Best Actress Oscar for 1968's FUNNY GIRL and her Best Song Oscar for A STAR IS BORN.  I took a longtime friend as my guest to a preview screening of YENTL.  We were extremely impressed with and moved by Streisand's directorial debut.  And that was back when it was rare for a woman to be director of a major Hollywood release. At the end of YENTL, my friend Janet and I looked at each other and said, "That was really good!"

I added, "If Brian De Palma had directed that, critics would've highly praised it as a turning point in his career."

I can't recall male critics back then showering accolades on Barbra Streisand for her directorial debut the way male critics have today on Bradley Cooper.
Robert Redford directed 1980's ORDINARY PEOPLE. He won the Oscar for Best Director and the film won Best Picture.  Kevin Costner starred in and directed 1990's DANCES WITH WOLVES. He won the Oscar for Best Director and the film won Best Picture.  Mel Gibson starred in and directed 1995's BRAVEHEART. He won the Oscar for Best Director and the film won Best Picture.

Director/Actress Barbra Streisand followed YENTL with 1991's THE PRINCE OF TIDES, a hit film she starred in and also directed.  THE PRINCE OF TIDES got 7 Oscar nominations including Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Picture.

With YENTL, Barbra Streisand joined "The Ida Lupino Club." She was a celebrated actress who became a film director and continued to act.  Others such as Penny Marshall and Jodie Foster are also in the club.

I'm pretty sure that Barbra Streisand has directed more actors to Oscar nominations than any other American female filmmaker:

Amy Irving, Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for YENTL
Nick Nolte, Best Actor Oscar nominee for THE PRINCE OF TIDES
Kate Nelligan, Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for THE PRINCE OF TIDES
Lauren Bacall, Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for THE MIRROR HAS TWO FACES.

Barbra Streisand has never been an Oscar nominee for Best Director.  If you've never seen YENTL, it's worth a look.  I hope to see the new A STAR IS BORN this week.  I'll let you know how it is.





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