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.





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 s...