Monday, December 31, 2018

My Great Date

I once had an audition to be a co-host on a projected live weekday talk show similar to THE VIEW but with five openly gay male hosts instead of an all-female team like we see on the ABC program. There was no scripted material to perform at the audition.  All three producers -- two men, one woman, all heterosexual -- wanted to interview the candidates to get a sense of their personalities, wit and background. The top order for the audition was "to be yourself" and bring a resume. The two straight men liked me a lot, I could tell. They really liked the fact that I had years of live TV news show on-air experience. It was established that I lost my partner to AIDS in 1994 and have not been romantically attached since his death.  One of the men said, "You're smart You're funny. Why haven't you had a boyfriend since then? Did you ever try online dating?"
I replied, "Yes, I have tried it. But, when you're over 40 and gay, online dating is a circle of hell that Dante never wrote about. It's like hitting yourself on the head with a stick. It feels so good when you stop."
That response got a belly laugh from both straight men. The straight woman didn't laugh. Although, based on the reaction in the room, my vanity got the best of me and I was positive I'd get a callback, I did not. The audition direction was "to be yourself," but the woman felt that I wasn't gay enough. She told my agent at the time that she wanted someone who was more like Jack on WILL & GRACE. Let's think about that. Be yourself but act like a fictional character on a network TV sitcom.

A person who can testify that I was popular on TV but not popular in the local world of gay dating is my former roommate from my Milwaukee years. He's straight, white and one of the dearest friends I have. He's a wonderful guy who married an equally wonderful woman. Jay saw that I had lots of fans from my local TV work but I had very few dates simply because I was not the "hot-looking guy."  Remember THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW? Well, I always felt like Rhoda in a room full of Marys.  It was pretty much the same in New York City except for the 18 months of joy and heartbreak I had with Richard.  In New York, more than one man told me I was "cute and funny" but admitted that he was attracted to "body builder types." They wanted a Mary with muscles. Not a Rhoda with personality and a day job.

My former roommate, now happily married, called me one day.  He and the wife knew a guy who was gay and lived in Queens. Jay said, "We're not trying to fix you up, but maybe you could have coffee or something. He's a sweet guy.  His name is Mitch and here's his number."  After Jay left the phone number, he ended the message on my answering machine with "Oh, by the way, he has multiple sclerosis and a voice like a cartoon character."

It was December 2004.  For us solo people in New York, surviving the holiday season is like walking an emotional tightrope made of tinsel. Starting with Thanksgiving Day, everyone except you seems to be half of a couple. All the holiday festivity comes to a big finish on New Year's Eve night when couples kiss at the stroke of midnight, ending New Year's Eve and starting a New Year. You smile gamely as you watch couples kiss in the New Year.  In your heart, you can't wait until it's the daylight hours of January 1st when the main American goal is to sit like Jaba the Hutt on a couch eating snacks while watching parades and football games on TV.

I know a lot of guys in Manhattan who would've claimed to be too busy to make the call and have coffee with someone he didn't know. I didn't want to do that.  For work, I'd talk about a new Broadway show in previews, a show celebrating the music of The Beach Boys. It was a few days before Christmas and I was given two complimentary press tickets to see the show one night.
I called Mitch's number. I got his answering machine. He did have sort of a cartoon character voice. Like he should've done the voice for Choo-Choo on TOP CAT or played a lovable hood in a production of GUYS AND DOLLS. I called in the morning, introduced myself and left my number. I extended the offer for him to be my guest at the Broadway show the following night and to call me back if he was interested. He called back. He was interested and grateful. When I got him in person, I told him what theatre and the showtime and to meet me in the lobby. If he was late, I'd leave the ticket for him under my name at the box office. I replayed his message because … well, he did sound like Choo-Choo on TOP CAT.  His voice made me smile.
He was either late or I'd been stood up. I was in my seat. Curtain was scheduled to go up in five minutes. I was annoyed. Then, I saw a redheaded guy, each arm operating a metal crutch say "Excuse me" as he made his way into the row.  It was Mitch. I felt ashamed of myself for having been annoyed. The first words out of his mouth were an apology for being late. As soon as he was seated comfortably, the lights dimmed and the show started.

We didn't chat much at intermission. He said that his MS made him need to urinate frequently so he wanted to hit the men's room before there was a long line.

When the show ended, I was so grateful to him for showing up and he was so grateful to me for the invitation. He loved Broadway show. I asked him if I could buy him a drink and a bite to eat. I suggested a nice nearby hotel with a good bar/lounge. We could get a table close to the men's room. He loved the idea and we headed off.

Red hair, a cartoon character-like voice and multiple sclerosis. Mitch was one of the most fun dates I'd had in New York City in years. He was absolutely charming and lovably down-to-earth. Then he said something to me so sweet and so honest, that hearing it was like receiving a lovely early Christmas gift. He thanked me for the Broadway show ticket.  He said that he'd been feeling sorry for himself, especially being a gay guy with MS. He was at work and depressed because he was convinced he'd never be asked out again.  Then, he called his home machine to check for calls and he got my message.  "The same day!," he said. "The same day I was feeling sorry for myself, I get a call from you asking me out to a Broadway show."

It was an honor to be with him. He'd driven into the city and we both had the next day off.  It wasn't late. He asked if I'd like to go down to the Village and have a nightcap someplace.  I did want to go to the Village and have a nightcap but I felt it would be a major inconvenience.

"It's Christmas week, Mitch. I'd love to but you'll never find a place to park with all the people doing last-minute shopping."

He answered with a broad smile, "What are you, kiddin'? You're with me.  I get handicapped parking!"

My heart took wing. Mitch drove us down to the Village. He found a parking spot right away. We had a nightcap and more laughs before he had to head back home.

I called him the next day to thank him.  I called my flabbergasted married friends to thank them.

I admit that I've spent a lot of time after 1994 wishing that I could once again meet Mr. Right. But, a few days before Christmas in 2004, I became Mr. Right. And all it took was being brave enough to open my heart and be kind.

As for Mitch, a few months later he went on a tropical vacation cruise with friends to defrost from the New York winter. And he met someone. Come the new year, he wasn't feeling sorry for himself any more. Mitch deserved happiness. Being with him was a great date and a highlight of that year for me.

In 2019, I wish you much unexpected happiness -- and available parking.
Happy New Year.  Open your heart.  Be kind.






Sunday, December 30, 2018

On CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

When this film ended, I went away feeling absolutely positive that network morning news shows and syndicated entertainment news programs are not giving enough attention to up and coming women directors. Not nearly.  I've been a Melissa McCarthy fan ever since I saw her do a sparkling bit part in a 1999 crime comedy movie called GO. In GO, we see a Christmas season ecstasy drug sale go haywire for a financially desperate supermarket clerk in L.A. The young clerk trying to dodge being broke on Christmas was played by Sarah Polley.  Polley went on to direct Best Actress Oscar winner Julie Christie to another Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance in the 2006 drama, AWAY FROM HER. I've followed Melissa McCarthy from GO to her TV shows, her Oscar nominated performance in the comedy BRIDESMAIDS to other comedies after that. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? is a drama, a biopic focused on a critical time in a woman's life, and Melissa McCarthy is the star. Director Marielle Heller draws a solid and believable performance from McCarthy as a miserable real-life character in a film that's good, entertaining and unpretentious. Melissa McCarthy plays a broke New York City author who assumes the identity of the Broadway star played by Barbra Streisand in FUNNY GIRL.
Lee Israel committed forgery. She forged letters she claimed were written by late, great celebrities and sold them for top dollar.  The story starts in 1991 in New York City.  Had these forgeries been committed in the early 80s and had the movie been made in 1991, we probably would not have seen an actress as "Lee Israel" the real-life person. The actress may have played a tainted character based on Lee Israel so that Hollywood could have made her a heterosexual spinster who attracts a shy guy bookstore clerk instead of being a brainy, down on her luck lesbian author who drinks too much and avoids romantic relationships.  Director Marielle Heller shows Lee Israel as she was.
As someone who lived there for over 20 years, I can tell you that New York City is the original Island of Misfit Toys. Millions of us head there to be our real selves, reinvent ourselves and distinguish ourselves. Some make it with spectacular results. Even more do pretty well -- not great -- and work hard to keep working because they're just getting by.  To friends and relatives back in our hometowns in other states, hearing that we're in TV or the theatre or the publishing business sounds impressive and fabulous. The reality of our job is not that glamorous and we're not exactly making "Oprah money." In the first scene, we see Lee Israel at a workplace desk. She's in bland clothing, she has a drab haircut and she's drinking on the job. She's criticized for that and gives the other office folks near her a major piece of her mind as she knocks back the rest of her drink. Then, we follow her to a Manhattan party thrown by her top literary agent. We immediately see that Lee is a handful for the agent to deal with. Lee's latest works have not been selling. She doesn't exactly play the game like other writers. She has a temper. She's so broke that she has to sell some of the books she owns for cash to pay for her cat's hospital bill.

In an age where Madonna is considered a show biz genius of a superstar, Lee wants to write a biography of Fanny Brice. Lee won't play the game -- and she should. Her modest apartment is a mess. It's basically a restroom for her cat. Lee hates that talent and history now seem unimportant in the arts scene of the early 1990s.

After feeling humiliated at her agent's party, it's here where CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? takes on a dynamic similar to what we saw in TOOTSIE. Lee, the artist, storms into the office of her high-powered agent and confronts the agent with her unemployment woes and frustrations.  Like George (Sydney Pollack) did to actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) in TOOTSIE, the agent verbally slaps the client in the face with some hard facts that the client is his/her own worst enemy. There must be a major attitude change. This inspires the artist to come up with a deception that will keep the desperate artist in money. Eventually, the ruse will lead to a true self and a real voice to emerge.

Hollywood, for years, gave us the same image of lesbians. They were humorless and mannish.  This film flips the script on that. Lee composes letters in the voice of the late, great wit Dorothy Parker. Her letters have a Parker-esque humor and she forges the signature. She does this with Noel Coward too. So the drab-looking lesbian Lee turned out to be one of the most shining wits at the agent's sophisticated party -- but her agent never realized it.  Buyers believe Lee's cheeky and memorable letters were actually written by Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward and Fanny Brice.  Lee makes enough money to get caught up with her bills, to afford food, to take care of her cat and to buy herself more drinks. She meets a flighty middle-aged gay man, still partying like he's 25, and he becomes her accomplice. Jack Hock is good for laughs and he eats up some loneliness in Lee's life but he's as responsible as an 8th grade boy with a blowtorch.
Will Lee learn how to get out of her own way? McCarthy is very good at showing the intellectual trickster and the desperate loner behind it.  She feels that, with her talent, things should've gone better for her. Heck...millions of us did in NYC.  When Lee rants about author Tom Clancy, I laughed because I recognized myself behave the same way when I saw Billy Bush making millions on NBC with nowhere near the experience and TV resume I had while I was making $500 a week on New York City morning radio. Somehow you've got to move on. That's life on the Island of Misfit Toys.
1991 was not a long, long time ago but we see the story driven by something that seems to be a lost art today.  Typed and/or handwritten letters that were sent in the mail. Correspondence that involved postage stamps. Now we're in the age of Twitter and Instagram.  Letter writing was and is an art that needs to be resurrected. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? co-stars tall, lanky Richard E. Grant (WITHNAIL & I, L.A. STORY, GOSFORD PARK) as the irresponsible gay male pal who also needs to face some self-truths.

If Tower Records still existed, I would've dashed to one right after the movie to buy a CD of the soundtrack. It's delicious. The CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? soundtrack has selections by Blossom Dearie, Billie Holiday, Jeri Southern, Chet Baker and Marlene Dietrich.

The two former con artists, Lee and Jack, have a meeting. Their lives have changed. As they come to terms with the reality of each other, Marlene Dietrich sings "Illusions" from Billy Wilder's A FOREIGN AFFAIR in the background. An inspired choice for that scene.

McCarthy impressively handles this dramatic material and commits to playing the ugly but totally human side of the character, the side that connects us to her.  If you're a Melissa McCarthy fan, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? is worth a look.

Melissa McCarthy received a Golden Globes nomination in the Best Actress category for this drama. Richard E. Grant got a Golden Globes nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.

No woman was nominated for a Golden Globe in the Best Director Motion Picture category. Again, I say that more attention needs to be given women directors. Some promising and excellent work from women is not getting the praise and support it deserves.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Bless You, Sister Wendy Beckett

She was one of the most fascinating, knowledgeable, vivid female TV hosts in the 1990s. She was original, innovative, charismatic and a free thinker. She explained nudity in famous paintings with such a passion that it made you want to applaud the long-dead artists. She made classic artwork that was centuries old come to life with her explanations of its history.  And, yes, it was unusual to experience such passion coming from a little nun in her senior years. I loved watching art historian Sister Wendy Beckett on PBS. I loved meeting her.
At first sight, one may have that she was a nun character in an entertainment vehicle like the movies SISTER ACT or Ida Lupino's Catholic boarding school comedy, THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS. She even laughingly admitted she had a funny look. But she was absolutely serious about art history. Her knowledge and passion for her subject were contagious.
I learned that first-hand when she was booked to appear on the live weekday morning show I worked for in the 1990s.  On the Fox 5 channel, the weekday morning show is called GOOD DAY NEW YORK. Sister Wendy's booking taught me, not just a little something extra about art, but about images of black and Latinx people that white TV producers held in their minds. These images were frustrating and incorrect and they carried over into images they would project on a live news program in a big city like New York.

The executives were all white. Our show's staff of behind the scenes workers was quite racially mixed. A lot of black and Latinx employees, many of whom arrived at work in the pre-dawn hours for our morning show that started at 6:00.  Late one morning, after the show had ended, I was in an edit booth with an editor putting together a piece of mine that would air later in the week.  One of my favorite co-workers, a young black woman from Brooklyn whom I will call Loretta came in and asked if she could speak to me. Loretta always did good work. She was conscientious and was a working class woman in Brooklyn, working hard to keep rent paid in the 'hood like a lot of other folks.

Loretta had tears in her eyes.  The editor and I stopped working, asked her what was wrong and we let her speak. She began by asking me, "Do you know who Sister Wendy is?"

"Yes!," I answered. "I watch her on PBS."

Loretta let out an exhale of relief. There had been a major newspaper profile on the art historian in The New York Times. Loretta read it.  She had watched Sister Wendy's PBS show and said, "At first, I thought it was a comedy show because of how she looks. But then I realized the show was serious. Bobby, she got me so interested in art that I now go to art museums. I read the newspaper article and then got word that she's in town and available for interviews. But the producer says I can only book her if I make it a funny segment."

"A funny segment?," I said. "What do you mean."

"Well," Loretta went on, "she suggested you do the interview and say we have callers on the line. But the calls will really be prank calls from the control room with questions about sex because she talks about sex in art. Bobby, I don't want to do the segment like that. Sister Wendy has got me interested in stuff I was never interested in before."

I was seething.  So was the editor. I'm Catholic. I would never, ever have disrespected a nun. Also, that idea from someone in charge was absolutely ignorant and insulting. I told Loretta I wanted to do the interview and I would do it respectfully. We left the edit booth to meet with the white producer.

I wanted to do the interview. I refused to let it have gag phone calls.  The GOOD DAY NEW YORK executive producer at that time had booked a pet psychic. Yes, you read that correctly. The pet psychic took live calls from viewers who wanted to know how their dead pets were doing in the Afterlife. The psychic, a white lady, got 8-minutes of live TV time. More than once. She did not get any gag phone calls from the control room.

The producer who wanted to embarrass Sister Wendy for laughs revealed why she felt the 4-minute interview would need a humor jolt. "Our research," she said, "shows that black and Latino viewers don't care about the fine arts or technology."

Other nearby co-workers of color in the office stopped typing for a moment when they heard that come out of the white producer's mouth.  I gave my opinion that "their research" was wrong and insulting considering how many Black and Latino people worked in that office to get the show on the air every day.  I would do the interview and, if an occasion for levity came up naturally in it, that would be enough. The focus would be on her PBS show, her books and her love for art.

Sister Wendy, in person, reminded me of every nun that I loved dearly from my Catholic grade school days. She had only one demand -- that the segment finish in time so she could attend a nearby morning mass.  She appeared on GOOD DAY NEW YORK. Here's something unusual to write about a nun -- she killed. The crew in the studio loved her. And we had a moment of mirth.

Loretta accomplished the booking she wanted to accomplish. And she got to meet Sister Wendy. The unconventional convent resident and art historian passed away at age 88.  She brought so many of us closer to the fine arts.  Thank you and bless you, Sister Wendy.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Coming Out with Ginger Rogers

An Oscar-winning top Hollywood star helped me reveal my true sexual orientation. Rich is one of the dearest friends I have in my life.  We have been friends ever since we were in high school back in Southern California. We attended different high schools. He grew up in Long Beach and I grew up in South Central L.A. where I attended a high school in Watts. What brought Rich and me together was a summer camp experience in the San Bernardino Mountains. It was called Camp Brotherhood Anytown, a diversity project from the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The goal of this camp was to bring teens of different races, areas and income levels together and talk. This was during the turbulent 1960s.  My high school was located next to what was called "Charcoal Alley" during the Watts Riots which made national TV news and newspaper headlines.  I attended Camp Brotherhood Anytown.  I attended as one of the Christians.  A few classmates from my Catholic high school went too. Our teachers promised us a juicy number of extra credit points towards classes in our upcoming semester. I would've rather stayed home and taken the bus to see some new movies in Hollywood, but bonding in the mountains with white kids from Beverly Hills could exempt me from having to read IVANHOE for my fall semester's English Lit. class. A year after we met, Rich saw me in my first ever speaking appearance on TV.  I was the youngest (and first black) contestant on a syndicated movie trivia quiz show called THE MOVIE GAME. There was a series of tests from the TV game show's producers before I was booked as a contestant.  Some of the questions I answered correctly were as such: "Clark Gable put up the Walls of Jericho in what classic comedy?" IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.  "Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr have a famous kiss on the beach in what movie?" FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. "Name four movie stars with the last name Powell." Dick, William, Eleanor and Jane. "Ginger Rogers danced with Fred Astaire in famous musicals then won a Best Actress Academy Award for what drama?" KITTY FOYLE.
Rich saw me on THE MOVIE GAME shot in Hollywood -- and he saw me win.
THE MOVIE GAME was shot at the old Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood. Each show had two contestants. Each contestant had two celebrity teammates. The show had two co-hosts, New York transplant Sonny Fox and veteran Variety columnist Army Archerd. (They did not get along.) For a glimpse of THE MOVIE GAME, just click onto this link:

https://youtu.be/CgeSWa9DENU.

Like in an old movie, calendar pages fell and time marched on.  Rich went away to college.  I went away to college. We grew up and started our adult lives and careers.  My dream of working in New York City came true.  By 1988, I was a daily host on VH1 and I'd been given my own prime time celebrity talk show.  For the show, I occasionally had to fly to L.A. to tape VH1 segments. One evening in L.A., a few us from VH1 were on our way to have dinner and go over notes for the next day's tapings. We were in the Westwood area. We were on the sidewalk, headed for the restaurant, when who did I spot? Rich! He was with a few friends. I darted over to him, we hugged and I told him I was in town on TV business. I told him where I was staying and, if he had time, to call me there so we could have a bite or drink and catch up before I had to fly back to New York.

Rich had had girlfriends.  He never knew me to mention a girlfriend. And when old friends reunite after having not seen each other for a very long time, it's commonplace for this question to come up: "So, are you married?"

I had cleverly dodged answering that question truthfully for years. I'd say "Not yet, still looking" or "Can't find the right girl" or "I was engaged. But, a year ago, Mildred went on a pleasure cruise with friends. They unknowingly sailed into...the Bermuda Triangle. We've had no trace of them or the boat since. I try to hold on to hope but she's been gone so long. I really can't talk about it any further because the government is still investigating. I hope you understand. Please don't tell anyone."

OK. It was the 80s. I had a national TV career. I didn't have guts enough to say, "No, I'm not married. And, by the way, I'm about as straight as a Slinky."

I wanted to see Rich before I flew back to New York. I wanted to tell him the truth. Back in the day, I'd visited him in Long Beach and met his totally cool family. He'd come to South Central L.A. and met mine. My mom was crazy about him.

Rich called me at my hotel. We found time in the afternoon one day and he suggested we meet at the Beverly Center.

I arrived. I spotted him seated at a table near a frozen yogurt shop. Still tanned, still handsome, what some folks would've called his "Jewish Afro" of the 60s & 70s was shorter. We were both older. I was a little nervous. I'd come out to a couple of buddies I'd had before this meeting. I never heard from them again. Something way back in my mind flashed like a yellow traffic light, alerting me to proceed with caution.

We sat together, having a terrific chat. He told me about loopy situations in his romantic relationship with a sweet divorced woman. When he finished one funny story about his dating life, I felt the perfect moment was present for my revelation.  I started slowly and steadily.  "Rich, we've known each other a long time. Ever since we were kids. And there's something I need to tell you."

With that, I looked past him, gasped "Oh my god. It's Ginger Rogers" and dashed away from the table like I was track and field star Carl Lewis at the Olympics.

Yes. There she was, walking casually with a friend. The star of famous original movie musicals with Fred Astaire such as TOP HAT, SWING TIME and SHALL WE DANCE that elevated the art of the film musicals. The screen star was also one of that era's best screwball comedy actresses as she proved in BACHELOR MOTHER, ROXIE HART and Billy Wilder's THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR and winner of the Best Actress Oscar for the feminist drama KITTY FOYLE. There she was in person. There I was shaking her hand, introducing myself and quickly telling her how significant her work was to me as I gazed into her eyes so blue that I suddenly realized what inspired men like Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin to write love songs for Fred Astaire to sing to her.

 She was gracious, grateful and flattered. A lovely woman.
I walked back to Rich at our table in the Beverly Center mall and sat down again, with a huge smile on my face. He was smiling too. I picked up where I left off.  "Rich, there's something I need to tell you..."

"You're gay," he interrupted, his face full of warmth.

I was stunned.  "How'd you know?"

"I had a hunch. But six words just confirmed it -- 'Oh my god. It's Ginger Rogers.' I never saw you move so fast in all the years we've known each other."

Our friendship continues.  I love that guy.

And that is how I came out to one of my best friends -- with a little help from Ginger Rogers.



Monday, December 24, 2018

Notes on Singing Stars and Hollywood

My previous blog post was about Disney's MARY POPPINS RETURNS starring Emily Blunt. To sit through that movie is like watching into a deluxe confectionary with friendly and festively attired clerks waiting on you while showtunes play over the sound system. It's an original Hollywood musical.  Emily Blunt teams with Meryl Streep for the third time. First, there were in the comedy THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA.  Then came Disney's de-sexed adaptation of Sondheim's Broadway musical hit, INTO THE WOODS. Now Blunt touches down from the skies as the magical nanny first and famously played by Julie Andrews.  Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep sang Stephen Sondheim tunes in INTO THE WOODS. Streep sang her way to her annual Oscar nomination as The Witch.
I mentioned that Disney's MARY POPPINS RETURNS is an original Hollywood musical. A songwriting team was hired to compose new tunes for this fantasy film.  In the Old Hollywood days, original screen musicals were regular items from the Hollywood movie studio assembly line.  MGM was the Tiffany of studios when it came to movie musicals. It scooped up popular singers of the day, like Frank Sinatra, to make movies and widen their base of fans. Today, just about every top TV network has a talent search prime time show with unknown singers vying for stardom. Kelly Clarkson was the first AMERICAN IDOL winner. Now she's a judge on NBC's THE VOICE. Jennifer Hudson lost on AMERICAN IDOL. She went on to make her film debut in the screen version of the Broadway musical hit DREAMGIRLS. And she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for it. If that had happened in the 40s or 50s, a Hollywood studio would have immediately ordered screenwriters and composers to come up with new musical features for her. Jennifer Hudson has not starred in a movie musical since 2006's DREAMGIRLS. She's been seen as a judge and coach on NBC's THE VOICE. She's had Grammy success and Broadway success, but what about Hollywood? Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand went on to other big screen musicals after their Oscar wins. As for Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, she followed DREAM GIRLS with a big screen biopic in 2011. She starred in the drama WINNIE MANDELA opposite Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela. That movie didn't get national promotion or a nationwide theatrical release even though it starred an Oscar winner and a black gentleman who has a Best Actor Oscar nomination to his credit.
I have been totally enjoying Josh Groban as the obsessively honest NYPD detective on the Netflix series, THE GOOD COP. It's a father and son cop story with Tony Danza as his slightly tainted cop dad.  Dad did some jail time. Now he lives with his son.  I love Groban's singing. He doesn't sing on the 1-season Netflix series, but his acting is so good that a major studio back in Old Hollywood days would have signed him to a contract in heartbeat and made him movie musical star the way MGM did young Frank Sinatra.

Old Hollywood studio would've broken the law to sign Chris Pine, handsome star of HELL OR HIGH WATER and WONDER WOMAN. He's terrific eye candy, he's a versatile actor and  -- he can sing! He was one of the highlights in Disney's INTO THE WOODS as horny Prince Charming. Click onto the link and take a look.

https://youtu.be/sWbpxY_1das.

There should be some original movie musicals being prepared for Jennifer Hudson, Josh Groban, Chris Pine....and Jake Gyllenhaal. He's been on BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and he's been on Broadway. Jake Gyllenhaal got excellent notices for his lead role as the artist in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.

MGM signed a 13 year old singer to a studio contract. She went on to become an American show biz legend who knew stardom and international fame after the 1939 release, THE WIZARD OF OZ. She made the classic, an original Hollywood musical, when she was 16. In her early 20s, she starred in another original screen musical that's now considered to be a classic. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was written for her to introduce in Vincente Minnelli's MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. In the movie, her character sings the song to comfort her heartbroken little sister on Christmas Eve. They're both sad because their family may be uprooted from the home and city they love to relocate in New York City. She, the big sister, is in love with the boy next door and he with her. Here's singer/actress Judy Garland in the scene from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS introducing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

I miss seeing good singer/actors in original Hollywood musicals.  I hope you enjoyed these lyrical breaks. Merry Christmas and may the New Year be an extremely bright one for you.




Sunday, December 23, 2018

Did You See MARY POPPINS RETURNS?

It was Saturday night and I needed a Blunt.  An Emily Blunt. I'm a big fan. Emily Blunt is always worth the price of a movie ticket. She's so versatile and able to be absolutely believable and distinct in drama (SICARIO), comedy (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA) and musical comedy (INTO THE WOODS).  Today she stars in a follow-up to one of the biggest, brightest jewels in the Disney collection of classics. She's a pip as Mary Poppins.
1964's MARY POPPINS, with its combination of humans and animated characters in a pastel-colored fantasy that introduced moviegoers to Julie Andrews, got 13 Oscar nominations.  Julie Andrews won for Best Actress. "Chim Chim Cher-ee" won Best Song.  David Tomlinson played the punctual, fastidious banker dad who paid more attention to his job than he was to his two youngsters. Glynis Johns was the busy suffragette mother. Now grown Michael works for the same bank his father did. Jane is an unmarried labor organizer helping her heartbroken brother. He's a widower father, living in the family home of their youth with his three children. It's the Great Depression. He's on the brink of eviction because he's late with payments on a bank loan -- to the very bank that employs him. One more thing. It's the early 1930s and Michael now has a 1970s-type porn star moustache. Why Mary Poppins allowed him to keep that, I'll never know. Broadway wunderkind and Pulitzer Prize winner Lin-Manuel Miranda is warm and winning as Mary's lamplighter friend. You get that tingly rush of joy when you see the musical guest appearances by two stars who are in their 90s -- Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury.  Lansbury's singing sounds as good now as it did when she sang in Disney's 1991 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Meryl Streep has a delightful but totally unnecessary comedy number as the wacky redhead  cousin to Mary Poppins. Streep in this sequel is the equivalent to the Ed Wynn character in the 1964 original. The penguins are back for this follow-up. So are the pastels.
Emily Blunt has a screen gift. The actress can get more an eye-roll or a side glance reaction than others can get with five lines of dialogue.  She does not at all imitate the Julie Andrews performance. She is her one Mary Poppins, one who continues to be magical, practical and unsentimental. Like Andrews, Blunt shows that the mysterious, magical nanny may pose as being unsentimental but she has deep affection for the children, big and small. She appears when she's needed, she helps those who need help, then she leaves before she can be thanked.  She's like The Lone Ranger in skirts. Emily Blunt was the perfect choice for this role in this version. If you have youngsters in your family and need some family entertainment over the holidays, put this on your list. It's beautifully shot, reverently directed by Rob Marshall and the animation fabulous. I loved the bathtub underwater sequence. Here's a trailer.
Disney gives us something we do not often get anymore. Something that was regular fare in the Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s, 50s and into the 60s. It's a movie musical with an original score written for the film.  Back in Old Hollywood days, the major studios hired the top tunesmiths of the day to write songs to be introduced on screen by Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Alice Faye, Frank Sinatra, Betty Hutton and Doris Day.  TOP HAT, SWING TIME, SHALL WE DANCE, THE WIZARD OF OZ, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, CALAMITY JANE, GIGI and Disney's MARY POPPINS are all original screen musicals with great songs introduced by great stars.  Those scores had songs that became standards.

Hollywood gave us songs that we remembered and hummed as we left the movie theater.  That brings me to the main point of this blog post.  Did you see MARY POPPINS RETURNS?  This original Disney musical has one of the most pleasantly forgettable scores I've ever heard in a new movie. During the movie, I enjoyed the songs very much.  In fact, I think one in particular will be an Oscar nominee for Best Song.  But, when the movie was over that night and come the dawn of the next day, I could not hum a single tune from it.  I wound up humming "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Step In Time" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" from the original 1964 classic. If you saw MARY POPPINS RETURNS, could you hum any of the songs when you left the theater?

The new songs were composed by the extremely talented Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.  On Broadway, they gave us the songs for the musical version of HAIRSPRAY. Shaiman has done special material for SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and SOUTH PARK.  He arranged music for the movies WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. He's had a long association with Bette Midler. Remember when she sang "One For My Baby" to Johnny Carson on his final TONIGHT Show with guests in 1992? Marc Shaiman accompanied her on piano. Shaiman and Wittman treat the original memorable score by The Sherman Brothers with respect and you can feel how they allowed it to inspire their compositions. Shaiman's arrangements, if you listen to those romantic comedy soundtracks of the two hits movies I mentioned, reflect Shaiman's affinity for a 1940s big band sound. The sunny pop music sound of 1950s to early 60s is his sweet spot in compositions. HAIRSPRAY was a ripe assignment for him musically. He couldn't give us the heavy Black/Latinx urban music flavor in HAMILTON like Lin-Manuel Miranda did.  Extending the sound of a Disney score from the early 60s was a fine task for Shaiman because he's been extending that kind of sound for some time. And there are incidental musical passages in MARY POPPINS RETURNS, like the race to the bank scene, that sound just like his arrangements from SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. If MARY POPPINS RETURNS had been made in the early 1990s, the Meryl Streep number would've gone immediately to Bette Midler.

All the Banks children have broken hearts needing repair in MARY POPPINS RETURNS. The grown children and the three little ones. Mary Poppins comforts the little ones with a lullaby when they miss their late mother. I lost my mother last year, so this Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman tune touched my heart and put tears in my eyes. I think it has a good chance to get an Oscar nomination. Emily Blunt does a lovely delivery.

I have to admit that I looked for this song online after I saw the movie, because I couldn't remember it and I wanted to hear it again.  I tried to hum it by kept humming "Feed the Birds" from the first MARY POPPINS instead. Now I can replay and memorize it.












Saturday, December 22, 2018

Fun with BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN (1940)

I had so much fun watching an old Jack Benny movie that delighted me a lot on local TV when I was a kid.  I had not seen this clever comedy in years, but it still brought the smiles and I even appreciated it more now.  It's clever in how it transferred the extremely popular Jack Benny national radio show. Benny had a well-crafted personality on the show and a cast of regulars. He had a famous "feud" with Fred Allen, the quick wit/writer who had his own radio show. They'd whip out comedy insults about each other on their shows. In real life, they were friends.  Listeners loved their feud. Allen always poked fun at Jack Benny's famous stinginess.  Eddie "Rochester" Anderson was famous as Benny's butler. But their relationship was more like buddies than boss and servant. My mother told me black folks loved that about Benny's show. Rochester was a national radio star. She listened to the show when she was a girl.  Paramount's 1940 comedy with musical numbers is BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN. It's a cheerful, polished production that successfully brings radio personas to the big screen.
Rochester was easily the best-dressed and most well-paid black butler in Golden Age Hollywood films.  The old -- and cheap -- car that Jack had with Rochester as his driver is so dilapidated that it just about falls about after a minor fender-bender. Jack is trying to follow a very pretty young lady. (This is the meet-cute in the movie. She's a singer off to audition for a radio show and has no idea he's radio star Jack Benny) He needs to borrow Rochester's car. There's a shot of Rochester's car. It looks like the kind of modern auto Gary Cooper or Marlene Dietrich would've driven in one of their Paramount pictures. It's a shiny deluxe dandy.
Eddie "Rochester" Anderson gets two musical numbers in this feature. He was quite a nifty dancer and he dances in both of them. His second number has him in a Native American-inspired outfit. The story goes from New York City to Nevada with a sort of art deco/wild west flavor. Edith Head created the costumes. Rochester's costume for his second number is a sexy outfit that flatters his beefcake frame for his tap number.  That's later in the movie.
In the first 20 minutes, for the New York City scenes, Eddie Anderson gets to introduce a new Frank Loesser tune with Theresa Harris. Yes, the same Theresa Harris who was "Chico" with Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE and the maid to Bette Davis' Julie in JEZEBEL. She looks gorgeous in BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN. Jack finds the address of the young lady who auditioned. He has Rochester deliver candy to her apartment. He knocks on the door and it's love at first sight when the lovely maid answers. That pearly sheen of Paramount black and white features in the 1930s is on display here. Theresa Harris and Eddie Anderson get a nice long segment of meet-flirt and song and dance.  I love their sweet, jazzy duet to the song "My! My!"
The plot is a feathery one to carry the stars of the Jack Benny radio show in a western dude ranch resort adventure. He falls for a member of a sister act. Paramount's versatile and under-utilized Ellen Drew plays the love interest. Ward Bond plays a villain because --- well, he was in just about every other film made in Hollywood back then. Phil Harris, Fred Allen, Dennis Day, announcer Don Wilson and even Carmichael the Bear made the trip from radio to screen for BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN.
I loved the classy, sophisticated way the two black sweethearts -- Rochester with Theresa Harris as Josephine Templeton -- were presented in this feature directed by Mark Sandrich.

We classic films fans do not talk about or even know about Mark Sandrich they way we do another directors of top movie musicals such as Vincente Minnelli, Charles Walters and Stanley Donen.  Sandrich died young, of a heart attack in his mid-40s.  Sandrich directed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in influential classics that took original Hollywood musicals to a higher level of screen art.  He directed TOP HAT (1935) and FOLLOW THE FLEET (1936), both with original scores by Irving Berlin, and he directed Astaire and Rogers with SHALL WE DANCE (1937), boasting an original score by George and Ira Gershwin.  He also directed Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby in Irving Berlin's HOLIDAY INN, the 1942 musical that gave us the song "White Christmas."  Sandrich had the gift for musical comedy.  He scored with drama too. 1943's SO PROUDLY WE HAIL is one of my favorite WW2 dramas, a movie showing us women in wartime. It's a strong drama with Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake as military nurses overseas in intense combat zones. Lake had one of her best dramatic outings in SO PROUDLY WE HAIL and Goddard got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for it.

In 1939, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson played "Uncle Peter," one of the slaves in GONE WITH THE WIND. In 1940's BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN, he's dapper and dressed like a Manhattan professional about to be photographed for the pages of Esquire magazine.  BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN is 85 minutes of fun the old-fashioned Paramount Pictures way with refreshing images of black people for 1940.


Friday, December 21, 2018

Actress/Producer Octavia Spencer

In my previous blog post, I wrote my review of GREEN BOOK.  The film's lead actors, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, have been nominated for Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards. Quite a few movie reviewers predict the actors will also get Oscar nominations and they predict GREEN BOOK will be a nominee for Best Picture of 2018.  I'm extremely keen on seeing if Octavia Spencer will become the most Oscar-nominated black woman in Hollywood history when the Academy Award nominations are announced next month.
Octavia Spencer won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Minny in THE HELP (2011).

She went on to get Oscar nominations in that same category for HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) and THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017).

Viola Davis was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for DOUBT, a Best Actress Oscar nominee for THE HELP and she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for FENCES.


Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are currently the most Academy Award-nominated black actresses in all Hollywood history with three nominations each.  Although Octavia does not have a role in GREEN BOOK, hers is one of the first names you see in the closing credits.  Why?  She's an executive producer of the film.  Will she be up an Oscar if the film gets a Best Picture nomination on Tuesday morning, January 22nd?  I'm eager to see.
Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner both starred in the highly entertaining and greatly appreciated HIDDEN FIGURES. The two starred opposite each other in an earlier film.  It's one that, to me, shows they need to be reunited again in lead roles. They click and they have chemistry in the 2014 family drama called BLACK OR WHITE.

This feature got some enthusiastic promotion but, if I recall correctly, the movie got dwarfed at local cineplexes by big action/fantasy blockbusters.  BLACK OR WHITE is worth a look.  First, let me tell you that Kevin Costner treated me so well early in his film career.  I interviewed him during the press film junket for SILVERADO, an all-star western that newcomer Costner stole with his star quality. After our interview, he wanted to know a little bit more about me. This was 1985. You did not see a lot of black folks on junkets to conduct entertainment news interviews then.  I was new to New York City, I told him, and added that I was from South Central L.A.  Near Compton.  His face lit up.  "I know Compton.  I'm from Lynwood."  Costner relayed to me that he was from working class roots near Compton, the member of family that was just getting by like pretty much every other family in the neighborhood.

In New York City, I ran into him a couple of other times in non-interview situations and he always greeted me like we were old buddies from the neighborhood.

He's a member of an interracial family in BLACK OR WHITE.  He and Octavia plays relatives.  There was a death in the family.  He's now taking care of his granddaughter, a sweet little black girl.  He's got a nice upscale home. He's also got a drinking problem. This causes conflict with the girl's paternal grandmother, played by Octavia Spencer.

One of the things I loved about this movie was that Costner's character would drive to a black neighborhood in South L.A. and park there in a heartbreak. He was totally at ease and folks knew he was totally at ease.  This is like Costner himself.  He didn't drive into a black neighborhood alone frightened and feeling like a different colored fish out of water.  BLACK OR WHITE has a better screenplay balance than GREEN BOOK because you learn about the life of both the white and black lead characters.  One does not take a back seat to the other.  Both are in the front seat.


Andre Holland, who was later seen in the Oscar-winning MOONLIGHT, and Anthony Mackie are also in the BLACK OR WHITE cast.

If your personal motivation has been lagging lately, here's something about Octavia Spencer that may pump up your perseverance.  In 2002, she had a bit part in SPIDER-MAN starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. Octavia is in the first 20 minutes of the movie. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) enters a sports competition and Octavia Spencer has a line or two of dialogue as the check-in girl. Today, she is one of the most Oscar-nominated black actresses in Hollywood history, she's an Oscar winner, and she could be in the running for some Hollywood gold again come January 22nd.


Thursday, December 20, 2018

My Look at GREEN BOOK

GREEN BOOK is a road movie. In a road movie, be it a comedy or a drama, characters will be tested. They will learn something about each other, about themselves and about life.  That goes for the characters skipping down the Yellow Brick Road in THE WIZARD OF OZ or the two friends whose road trip takes a serious turn causing them to flee the police in THELMA AND LOUISE.  In GREEN BOOK, a classical pianist in New York City has booked a series of recital dates in the Deep South. It's the early 1960s. He's black, gay and cultured. He needs a driver to get him safely to his concert dates in the segregated and dangerous Jim Crow South. He hires a racist motor-mouthed Italian from The Bronx who's hooked up to some wise guys.  Twenty minutes into this film, you know it'll have a happy ending, a good retro soundtrack and some figures who are more stereotypes than real people. What GREEN BOOK does best of all is showcase what excellent character actors Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are.
This film was inspired by a true story.  The two lead actors play men who really existed.  I didn't know anything about Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, before I saw the film. I went to biography.com and read about him. Wow. He was a prodigy in his boyhood. When he was 18, he made his concert debut with the Boston Pops.  In his 20s, his skills were highly praised by Igor Stravinsky and Duke Ellington. He knew Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan and Harry Belafonte. None of this do we find out during the well-acted GREEN BOOK action.

GREEN BOOK was directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly. He's a popular director who has made a major lane change with this road movie.  His previous films include:

DUMB AND DUMBER
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY
SHALLOW HAL
THE HEARTBREAK KID (2007 remake)
THE THREE STOOGES
DUMB AND DUMBER TO (sequel).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with an actor or director determined to do more challenging work. But there's something about Peter Farrelly's new film that feels like a calculated Hollywood move to gain artistic respect -- and some Oscar buzz -- while also seeming to be suddenly "woke" in this age of Black Lives Matter.

I had a local live cable show in New York City back in 1998.  On one show, I had a group of black and white, male and female guests. We talked about new movies. None of the folks was a film critic. One guest comment made was that Mary in THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY was a sweetly clueless young woman who could have been played an by actress of color. It was that kind of a role. Look at the list of Peter Farrelly movies I listed. I cannot think of an actor of color having a lead role in any of his films.  Jennifer Hudson had a supporting role in THE THREE STOOGES as a nun. Sofia Vergara also had a supporting role.

GREEN BOOK gave me the feeling that Peter Farrelly wants to trumpet the fact that he's now considering actors of color for lead roles in his movies because, well, did you see the reviews and box office for STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON? Black talent is marketable after all! GREEN BOOK is a smooth ride with predictable potholes, detours and cultural collisions. It's basically a slick 1970s made-for-TV movie produced for mainstream theatrical success.  The gay element is timidly entered, like someone sticking the tip of a finger into bathtub water to see if it's too hot.  It's as if it was a TV production that wanted to let you know gay activity existed but it didn't want to delve into the issue for fear of losing a homophobic network sponsor. Director/writer Farrelly should not have been so pusillanimous in acknowledging the black musician's gayness. Addressing it squarely would've added more muscle to the storyline and made him the double outsider that he was in areas of race and sexual orientation. By the way, Hollywood needs to come up with a strong biopic screenplay about the late, great Bayard Rustin. Rustin was black and gay and the top advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The brilliant singer/activist was called "the architect of the March on Washington."  He was also called "Brother Outsider" because he was black and gay. Get that screenplay done. Give the Bayard Rustin role to Mahershala Ali.

I've read the problems that black film critics have had with GREEN BOOK. Now that I've seen it, I understand their criticisms. Black history drives the story yet it's glossed over.  The racist white driver, Tony Lip, who will become lovable by the end of the story, is the lead character and the black character literally takes a back seat to the far less accomplished and articulate white man.
It's been written that a theme of Peter Farrelly films is to depict able-bodied figures as knuckleheads (DUMB AND DUMBER) while depicting disabled characters as smarter and gifted (SHALLOW HAL and the conjoined twins in STUCK ON YOU). You can see that at play in GREEN BOOK with its portraying being black and articulate as the social disability in 1962 America.

There are screenplay elements of GREEN BOOK that irked me because it rehashed tired images of black people we've seen in TV and films of the past. The main one being that if you're an educated and cultured African-American male, you're not really black. You're an oddity. To show you the extent of Tony Lip's racism, there's scene early in the film where two black laborers are working in his kitchen. His wife offers them each a glass of water. When they leave, Tony throws the glasses into the trash because two black men had their lips on them.

But when he's on the road driving Dr. Shirley, he turns on the radio and praises the work of Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin. He introduces the black classical and jazz pianist to the music of his own people.  Later, he introduces the black man to the joys of Kentucky Fried Chicken. So, the racist man is now giving the acclaimed black artist lessons in how to be really black while the gay black artist teaches him how to write eloquent love letters home to his wife. Like something you'd see on QUEER EYE with the Queer Eye host pushing a product line of stationery and designer pens.

I was also irked by the portrayal of Italian-Americans.  If I see one more movie portray Italian New York males as "Bada Boom, Bada Bing"-type guys who eat mountain-sized portions of pasta, are enchanted by mobsters and have low IQs ("Michelangelo...he painted the Sixteen Chapel"), I'm going to scream. The way Tony ate in GREEN BOOK, I thought he was going to die of a heart attack before they made the trip back to New York.
My parents had a copy of the Green Book for Negro Motorists. We drove cross-country when I was a little boy. The Green Book was essential and in publication for decades. It was especially helpful for travelers who had to motor through the segregated South where restrooms, drinking fountains and diners were marked "Whites Only," another historical fact ignored in Farrelly's movie. Oscar winner Sidney Poitier could not get a hotel room down South in 1966 while shooting IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT because he was black. Yaphet Kotto could not get hotel room in 1969 while down South shooting William Wyler's THE LIBERATION OF L.B. JONES because he was black. The Green Book is briefly referred to in the movie. We never get a sense of its national importance and historical significance to African-Americans just like we never get full sense of Dr. Shirley's personal and occupational life. We know more about Tony the driver.

And there's the usual angle Hollywood pulls out when it wants to make a point about racism in America -- it's always worse Down South and it's so bad that any Northern racist who visits there will suddenly become liberal and lovable when face-to-face with redneck racist ignorance. You're beguiled into thinking that racism at its worst is solely a Southern import...like cotton and Mint Juleps.

It's time Hollywood changed that.  I'm sure director/screenwriter Peter Farrelly has met with many Hollywood agents in his time.  Did he ever see a black Hollywood agent who handled top talent? How many black actors were submitted to audition for lead roles in his comedies?  Did he ever consider any?  Has he ever lived with a black roommate?  Has he spent a lot of time with black friends in their neighborhoods? Does he think that, racially, the playing field is level in Hollywood?

The son of the movie's late driver, Tony Lip, contributed memories from his dad to the GREEN BOOK screenplay. After the film was released, it was discovered that musician Don Shirley has surviving relatives, none of whom was contacted during the writing and making of this movie.  Mahershala Ali didn't even know about the relatives. He has apologized to them and, in his apology, told them he was playing the material given to him. I don't fault him at all. In the movie, we learn that Don has a brother. Tony finds out that Don and his brother are estranged. We never find out why. We assume maybe because Don is gay. The surviving relatives came forward to black press and NPR with the revelation that Don had three brothers and they all kept in touch frequently.

Mahershala Ali adds another distinct and vivid portrayal to his list of credits. His posture, his carriage, his tone of voice and his reserve add depth to his characterization. He also catches the constant racial humiliation and emotional dissonance of the artist. It's all right behind the eyes. He has worked up from the slave roots of his American history yet he's made to feel like an oddity because of that. He is still treated like a second class citizen whereas Tony is not. There's a scene in which all of Don's frustration, anger, and hurt come pouring out when he and Tony are outside at night in the rain after an ugly racial incident. That's a highpoint of the film. Mahershala Ali hits you in the heart in that scene.  As for Viggo Mortensen, it is stunning that he's the same actor who played the Russian tough guy in EASTERN PROMISES and Aragon in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. He packed on 40 pounds for the part. Mortensen has the showier role and works hard to make give you moments when Tony comes through as a real person and not a stock movie stereotype. Both actors are very good together. They lift the material. They make it seem deeper and fresher than it is.

Another real-life person is depicted in GREEN BOOK. The movie opens at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City. Singer Bobby Rydell is a headliner. The next year, 1963, movie audiences would see him star opposite Ann-Margret in BYE BYE BIRDIE. As Rydell sings, a brutal fist fight breaks out at some front tables. Tony Lip is involved in the fight. I wonder if any entertainment reporter contacted Rydell to ask if that really happened.

GREEN BOOK is not a film to see for accurate and dimensional black history. It's a road movie, an "opposites attract" buddy movie designed to be a feel-good movie addressing one of America's biggest problems -- race -- in a way that makes the white guy the hero.  Not Tony Lip the driver. Peter Farrelly the director.







Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Dick Powell Was a Dog

When I was little, TV was a form of home entertainment that provided you with some exercise.  Most television sets were a large boxes of lights, wires, tubes and bulbs positioned near a wall in your living room.  To change the channel, to turn it on and off and to adjust the volume, you had to get up and walk over to the TV set to make those changes manually. There was no remote control.  Also, you had to pay attention to the show. There was no cable. There was no VHS, DVR and no DVD to rent at a later date. You could not live tweet a show while it was in progress. You really did have to give the broadcast presentation your full attention. If it was a first run and you missed it, you had to wait for the summer repeats. If it was a movie you missed, you had to keep checking your local listings or TV Guide to see when it would air again.  Those were the days of just CBS, ABC and NBC plus whatever local independent stations you had in your town.  I've had a love affair with movies ever since I was in grade school. For a guy like me, growing up in Los Angeles was a blessing. Our network affiliates and our local indie stations were attached to Hollywood studio film libraries.  Local ABC was hooked up to movies in the Universal library.  It was on local ABC/Channel 7 where I discovered that Dick Powell had been a dog.
When you got home from school and before Mom called out the dinner was ready, you could see a late afternoon weekday movie on KABC/Ch. 7.  A lot of the movies were kid-friendly Universal films such as FRANCIS, the taking mule movies starring Donald O'Connor as the only human Francis spoke to, the MA AND PA KETTLE movies and some Abbott and Costello comedies.  Another film that became one of my all-time favorite old movies to see in my childhood was the 1951 fantasy/mystery called YOU NEVER CAN TELL.  To this day, I'm positive I was not the only kid who loved that movie.  The plot is simple.  A good, loyal dog is killed. Money is involved. The good dog goes to Heaven. The top animal spirits in charge grant the dog the ability to reincarnate as a human, return to Earth and solve the murder mystery.  Dick Powell plays the reincarnated dog.  He had a fabulous young Southern lady sidekick who was a racehorse in her previous life.  I loved her festive hat. I loved the way she caught up with a bus she had just missed.
I know it's a goofy plot.  But the movie was only about 90 minutes long and, for kids, it was big fun. Cartoons, I LOVE LUCY reruns on KTTV/Ch. 11, YOU NEVER CAN TELL on KABC/Ch. 7, my record player, my transistor radio, some toys and family night at the drive-in movies …when I was a youngster, all that was Heaven on Earth.

Dick Powell is the pooch-turned-private eye in YOU NEVER CAN TELL. See it on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) Thursday, December 20th, at 9:30p ET.  I have not seen this movie in years but the sweet childhood memories of it are still dancing around in my head.  I even remember who committed the crime in it.

TV shows were already in reruns and syndication repeats when I was a boy.  From staying up with Mom and Dad to watch TV, I knew Dick Powell as a host on ABC and as a much-respected TV producer.  Then, in old movies on local TV, I saw that he had a terrific singing voice in breezy Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s.  On another independent channel, one linked to RKO, I saw that Dick Powel also played hardboiled, wisecracking private eyes.  I was fascinated with how Dick Powell reinvented himself before and after his reincarnation comedy. I remember him being on the front page of The Los Angeles Times in a photo with actor Jack Carson. The news was sad.  They both had cancer. They both died on the same day. And it was reported that they were best friends.

One of the other Universal films I used to see on KABC/Ch. 7 was a movie that showed us what a good hoofer Tony Curtis was.  Man, he could pick 'em up and lay 'em down like he was an act at The Cotton Club.  This bright musical comedy is called SO THIS IS PARIS starring Tony Curtis as one of three sailors on leave in Paris.  When celebrity mimics (like Rich Little) did imitations of Cary Grant and imitated Grant's voice as they said "Judy, Judy, Judy," I believe that piece of business was lifted from something Tony Curtis does in one of his musical numbers from 1954's SO THIS IS PARIS.  Tony Curtis, as you know, did another imitation of Cary Grant in the famous Billy Wilder comedy from 1959, the classic SOME LIKE IT HOT.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Is This Movie Friendship Better in French?

It's time for a little contrast and comparison.  Back in 2011, I went to see a movie at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco.  Before the feature, there was a coming attractions trailer for a new foreign film. The French movie LES INTOUCHABLES was a big box office hit overseas and it brought a prestigious French film award to actor Omar Sy, the black gentleman. He took the César Award for Best Actor and the movie got a César Awards nomination for Best Film.
As I watched the trailer, I had a feeling that the French release would inspire a Hollywood remake.
A wealthy man in Paris is severely disabled. A most unlikely candidate, a young man who did half a year in jail for robbery, is picked by the wealthy man for the job of being his live-in caregiver to help him get around inside and outside. Friendship ensues.

Take a look at this subtitled trailer.

Hollywood did remake it.  My hunch was right.  Is there a Best Actor award nomination in the future for almost-Oscars host Kevin Hart?  Will this American version be a big hit like the French original was in France? Is this movie friendship better in French? We shall see come the second week of January.  Retitled THE UPSIDE, comedian Kevin Hart co-stars with Bryan Cranston.

Take a look at this trailer.


If not for his old homophobic gags posted on Twitter, Kevin Hart would be next year's Oscars host.  Taking on a lead role in the American version of an acclaimed French hit maybe signals that he's willing to take on more substantial film acting roles in his career. Maybe. If he really wants to redeem his image after insulting members of the LGBTQ community in Hollywood and beyond, maybe he could check into getting an audition to play the drag queen in a movie version of the hit Broadway musical KINKY BOOTS. Maybe.  Just a thought.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Attention Josh Groban Fans

Just last month, November, I posted a blog piece about singer/actor Josh Groban on the original Netflix series called THE GOOD COP.  I logged on to watch the first episode and wound up binge-watching the first three episodes.  They were that good, that entertaining. I wrote about how much I loved Groban and Tony Danza starring as father and son cops in New York, and I added my hopes that it would get picked up for another season.
Well...my hopes were dashed. Netflix did not pick it up for another season, but the first season is still available.  I watched Episode #4 called "Will the Good Cop Bowl 300?"

I will go back and watch the other episodes because, when #4 ended, I found myself saying "Can't THE GOOD COP get scooped up and renewed on a network like NBC, CBS or ABC?  If you liked the ABC series, CASTLE, I think you'll dig THE GOOD COP.  If you're a Josh Groban fan, you must watch. He doesn't sing on this series, but you really get to see what a versatile actor he is.  He's the somewhat nerdy intellectual detective who is excellent at his job and always, always goes by the book.  His dad strayed a bit.  The hipster dad cop wound up doing time. He's out of prison and now lives with his detective son. The murder in each episode is clever. You're eager to see how the killer will be found and what else we'll learn about the father and son relationship while the crime is being solved.
In Episode #4, the A story is the murder committed in a Brooklyn bowling alley. The longtime employee is shot in the head. The B story is the detective son becoming such a champ in a tournament at the same bowling alley that victory goes to his head.

The bowling episode was directed by Rodrigo Garcia.  Back in 2009, he directed an independent film that I just had to see more than once.  First of all, it gave Samuel L. Jackson a chance to play a rather reserved, sophisticated, academic type of character. He plays a lawyer at an upscale firm in Southern California. He's having a steamy affair with another lawyer. She's played by Naomi Watts. The story centers around a middle-aged birth mother who wants to find the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was an unwed teen mother. This 2009 drama is called MOTHER AND CHILD and it has some actors in top form doing some different kind of material that lets them exercise their dramatic muscles.  In addition to Samuel L. Jackson and Naomi Watts, there's Annette Bening, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits and Cherry Jones as a very earthy and wise nun.  A woman gave a child up for adoption, a woman wants to have a child but can't, and another woman doesn't know who her biological mother is. That's MOTHER AND CHILD directed by Rodrigo Garcia.

As for THE GOOD COP, here's a taste of it.
The opening scene of the first episode is so well-played and well-written.  Father and son are in the front seat of a car stopped at a stop light.  The situation and the conversation set up the whole dynamic of the relationship and the tone of the show.  THE GOOD COP was created and written by Andy Breckman -- and I really wish it would get picked up somewhere.  By the way, Episode #3 called "Who Is the Ugly German Lady?" is fabulously funny.  John Carroll Lynch, the tall and brawny actor who played the sweet Midwest husband to Frances McDormand's cop character in FARGO, is the guest actor in that episode.
 
OK, you fellow Josh Groban fans, get over to Netflix and watch the first season of THE GOOD COP while it's still there.






Sunday, December 16, 2018

Beautiful ROMA

Mexican director and screenwriter Alfonso Cuarón has given a new film that just landed on Netflix. I watched it on Netflix and I would pay to see it on a big screen in a heartbeat. I'd love to see it once more and in a theater. The movie is ROMA, one of the best films of 2018 I've seen. Roma is the name of an upscale district in Mexico City. The year is 1970.  I was a high school teen then in South Central Los Angeles. If you know the L.A. from around that time, Roma is like a Westwood or Brentwood in Los Angeles.  Residents in those communities could afford domestic help. Women in my community worked as domestic help. Memories of Cuarón's life color this black and white film. He's got the gift. He takes ordinary events, ordinary people and presents a touching story in a most extraordinary way. The main character we follow is Cleo. She's the dark-skinned Mexican maid to an upscale light-skinned Mexican family.
There's are touches of American pop culture in their lives. On the record player, we hear Yvonne Elliman sing "I Don't Know How To Love Him" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.  Cleo has a movie date. They see MAROONED, a Hollywood thriller about astronauts starring Gene Hackman, Gregory Peck and Richard Crenna.  In the first ten minutes of ROMA, Cleo did something very sweet. I was unprepared for the sudden rush of a childhood memory to the front row of my mind, a memory that put tears in my eyes.  Our mother died last year, in June, and this will be our second Christmas without her.  I miss her so much and that's made me extra sensitive this holiday season.  When dear Cleo tucks the children in bed at night, they say a little prayer.  It was the prayer to your Guardian Angel, a prayer I learned and recited often when I was a good little Catholic schoolboy.  The scene made me recall Mom tenderly tucking me in at night when I was a youngster. The head of my bed was right next to the bedroom window. Mom would sit on the bed and say, "Let's count the stars." We'd gaze out at the Southern California nighttime sky, count the stars and look for "the man in the moon."  When Cleo gently awakens the children in the morning, I remembered Mom waking me up the same way with "Wake up, Sleepyhead. Time to get the Sandman out of your eyes."
There is drama in young Cleo's life and in this story. I won't give you all the details. I want you to experience them for yourself if you choose to watch ROMA on Netflix. I can tell you that you'll see two women of different classes united in the same state. They are both facing motherhood while the father is gone. Their lives are changed. Here's a trailer.
In the open of the story, you do sense there's a deep wrinkle in the marriage of the academic and his wife that can't be ironed out.  That brought back memories too. Memories of watching my parents' marriage tatter and rip. There were five of us. Mom, Dad, my sister and brother. There was that awkward moment when our dinner table was no longer set for five, as usual. It would only be set for four. Our lives had changed.

In happier times, my parents loved movies. Film arts lit up my heart and mind by the time I was in the 2nd grade.  For a kid who adored films, my parents were great parents to have because they had such a keen interest in films domestic and foreign.  We went to the drive-in movies  a lot.  ROMA is the kind of special film Mom and Dad would go to see at a Hollywood theater -- like a film by Fellini, De Sica, David Lean or Martin Ritt.

ROMA challenges the way we watch films nowadays. It's not an action/fantasy film driven by special effects. It's in black and white. It's subtitled. You must pay attention to the scenes and the characters and the subtlety of the director. To live tweet as you watch this would assure that you'd miss important visual information.  As for Cleo, she is one of those people who can be in your life yet be invisible. She cleans, she cooks, she carries luggage, she cares for the kids, she's constantly going up and down long staircases to do daily chores for the married couple, the children and a grandparent. She has been with this family for quite some time. The kids love her.  She's devoted to them. Yet, in a critical moment, one of the adults doesn't know Cleo's full name, her age or when she was born.

The movie opens with a visual of a diamond-shaped pattern on tile. Water washes over it. It could be water splashed up from a pool at a tropical resort. It's not. It's water from the bucket as Cleo cleans a pathway on the family's property. Notice the water motif in Cleo's story. The water in her bucket. Water puts out a fire. Water breaks. The ocean scene.

ROMA looks like it was shot in 1970. The production design is impeccable. It reminded me of areas in the L.A. of my youth, like downtown L.A. with its large, vibrant Mexican population and areas where I attended Catholic school. I had many Mexican-American classmates and teachers and fellow altar boys as I grew up in L.A.  I could see their faces in Cleo's.  ROMA is a beautiful and memorable piece of work.  I think it will be an Oscar nominee for Best Picture.

Cuarón's other films are Gravity, Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También.  Alfonso Cuarón's childhood nanny inspired the Cleo character in ROMA.  His nanny can be seen as the nanny to Diego Luna's character in Y Tu Mamá También.  His wonderful new film is dedicated to her.

The Novel Life of FORREST GUMP

The anniversary of the release of Paramount's colossal box office hit, FORREST GUMP , comes up this month. I've written about this ...