Thursday, April 18, 2019

Look Again at WEST SIDE STORY

Famed veteran director Steven Spielberg is forging ahead with his plans to remake WEST SIDE STORY. He has cast his Tony and his Maria. He's also cast Riff, Officer Krupke, racist police detective Lieutenant Schrank and Rita Moreno will have a special role.  Moreno, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar the same night WEST SIDE STORY won several other Oscars including Best Picture of 1961, will play the store owner.  Now, the store owner will not be "Doc" as he is in the 1961 classic. There will be a gender change. Rita Moreno will play the store owner. Tony Kushner, the celebrated and cerebral playwright who gave us ANGELS IN AMERICA has been adapting the screenplay. The Pulitzer Prize winner also wrote the screenplay to Spielberg's LINCOLN.  It's been reported that Rita Moreno read an early draft Kushner's WEST SIDE STORY script and did some rewriters, giving him needed help in the "Latino realness" area. Spielberg's intent is to make his version more racially correct. Latino characters will play the Puerto Ricans. That is a noble intention. No, Natalie Wood was not a Latina. George Chakiris, the Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for his performance as Bernardo, is not Latino.  However, I look at the overall project and I have to say -- I feel that 1961's WEST SIDE STORY is a work of film art.  It's beloved. It's memorable. It's moving.
The modern-day take on Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET, based on a hit Broadway musical, had that special screen magic. The cast, choreography, orchestrations, cinematography -- and the story were all perfect for us. Lt. Schrank is a racist bully. We hear his derogatory comments to the Puerto Rican teens. In today's age of an American president calling Mexicans "rapists and murderers," throwing rolls of paper towels at hurricane-wrecked Puerto Ricans and demanding a wall to keep immigrant Latinos, WEST SIDE STORY still rings relevant. Keep in mind that it was released during the national friction and news-making years of our Civil Rights Movement.
I sure hope Spielberg knows what he's doing. I like Spielberg. I did wonder this: If he wanted to make something racially correct in terms of casting and something based on a hit Broadway musical, why didn't he do MISS SAIGON? That Broadway show was one of the hottest tickets in town, yet it was never adapted into a film like other hit Broadway musicals like A CHORUS LINE, CHICAGO, HAIRSPRAY, LES MISERABLES, DREAMGIRLS and INTO THE WOODS.

MISS SAIGON has love, war, racial conflict, spectacle, special effects and showtunes. Also, there would be important roles for Asian-American actors -- and they are way overdue some Hollywood spotlight. But does Spielberg listen to me? No.

WEST SIDE STORY is now available on Netflix. A few weeks ago, it was on cable and, of course, it hypnotized me again. I discovered more depth in one key, intense scene.

One teen character seems to be an outsider put in for occasional comic relief from the gang war tension. The character is called "Anybodys." She wants to be one of the Jets. Anybodys is what we used to call a tomboy. She dresses like a guy, has a short haircut and tries to adapt a tough street attitude which she never can effectively pull off. That's the part we find comical.

The Jets are constantly telling Anybodys to get lost, go home and put on a dress. She doesn't listen. Then comes the drugstore store after the gang fight that leaves Bernardo and Riff dead. Maria begs Anita to go to Doc's store with a message for Tony. But when grieving, angry Anita arrives that store, there's trouble. All the Jets are there. Anybodys is with them because she's on the side of the white guys. The Jets begins to verbally taunt and intimidate Puerto Rican Anita. Anybodys joins in with the verbal taunts and racial insults.

The verbal taunts quickly progress into something darker. Physical molestation. A sexual assault with the suggestion of it leading to gang rape.

Notice that Anita is not the only female horrified. When the attempted rape starts, Anybodys is also horrified, horrified at what she's witnessing. She backs up into a corner, against a wall, separating herself from the Jets bad activity. She's no longer trying to be one of the boys.
Anita may be of a different race but, just like Anybodys, she's also a female. Watch that scene again. Notice that Anybodys is emotionally shaken when she leaves the store.  That gives extra weight and gravity to the scene.

Anybodys was played by Susan Oakes.  WEST SIDE STORY was directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

On Jean Harlow in RED DUST

Are you a Jean Harlow fan? If so, I'm going to write something here and I write it with great respect for Ava Gardner, an actress whose work I also loved.  Ava Gardner got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1953's MOGAMBO. That adventure/romance set in Africa starred Clark Gable and was a remake of 1932's RED DUST, a hit MGM release that also starred Clark Gable with Jean Harlow in the role later refashioned for Gardner. If Ava Gardner got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for MOGAMBO, Jean Harlow should've definitely received one for RED DUST. With her look as a platinum blonde sex symbol, she truly was a Hollywood icon long before the word "icon" became overused. But she was more than just a sex symbol. Jean Harlow had screen comedy skills that enabled her to steal a scene without even trying.
When I was a boy, Jean Harlow's MGM movies aired frequently on our local Los Angeles station, KTTV. The channel was hooked up to the MGM library. If Mom saw that I was watching an old Jean Harlow movie, she'd say "She was your grandmother's favorite actress." Then she go on with a story, a story I'd always love to hear, about how her mother absolutely loved Jean Harlow -- especially when she was opposite Clark Gable. So, in way, watching a Jean Harlow movie gave me a connection to my family history.
Mom talked about Harlow as an actress. Not as a sex symbol.  However, at that time, the 1930s look was popular and there was huge interest in the late Jean Harlow. If I recall correctly, the Harlow interest was fueled by the Harold Robbins best-seller THE CARPETBAGGERS. The racy book was a roman a clef set in early Hollywood. The blonde sex symbol character Rina Marlowe had a lurid off-screen life and echoes of Jean Harlow in her rise to stardom with the help of a Howard Hughes type. Rina Marlowe = Jean Harlow. Then there was a biography about Jean Harlow that was hot best seller.  HARLOW: AN INTIMATE BIOGRAPHY by Irving Shulman had about 30 photos and was a scandalous, sensational read. My parents had great literature on bookshelf. They also had those two books. When I was in high school, a paperback copy of the Harlow biography was in a box in closet at home. Being a classic film enthusiast by then, I pulled the book out to read. Shulman's biography, I've long felt, robbed attention from Harlow's acting talent and obvious seriousness about her craft. The book's whole section about the frustrating, X-rated honeymoon night following her doomed marriage to Paul Bern (who would later commit suicide) left me, a teen, thinking "How could this 1960s writer know all this about their sexual activity when they were alone together on that night in the 1930s and, according to him, the husband threw away all the sex toys before he killed himself?" I was skeptical.

But...the damage had been done. The popularity of that book and the Hollywood resurgence of interest in Jean Harlow led to two biopics about her being made. One, a Paramount feature in color with Edith Head costumes, starred Carroll Baker. Baker had also played Rina Marlowe in Paramount's adaptation of THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964). The other was lower-budgeted black and white film starring Carol Lynley as Harlow. Judy Garland had begun rehearsals with Lynley as Harlow's mother. Lynley told me that Judy Garland did some very good work for two weeks and then she was off the project. She was replaced by Ginger Rogers. Ginger had replaced Judy in the MGM musical, THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY (1949), which reunited Ginger with Fred Astaire.  Both biopics portray Harlow as a beautiful but unfortunate Hollywood character who was used, abused. The biopics, both titled HARLOW, came out in 1965.

Los Angeles had local and network TV shows. Veteran Hollywood stars would appear on these afternoon entertainment shows, like ART LINKLETTER'S HOUSE PARTY, for interviews. On one had, you had two potboiler books and two not very accurate Hollywood biopics about "tragic blonde sex symbol" Jean Harlow.  On the other hand, people like Ginger Rogers and Rosalind Russell appeared on shows and said that Harlow was one of the kindest, sweetest people they'd ever met, a lovely young woman who went out of her way to help someone down and out, and that's why all Hollywood studios closed and went into mourning the day of her funeral. Jean Harlow's untimely death came at age 26 in 1937. She succumbed to kidney disease.

Back to RED DUST. Harlow plays Vantine and adds new luster and wit to the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold role. She's a wise-cracking, quick-thinking, motor-mouthed hooker who winds up in Saigon. Decades before Barbra Streisand was a chatty hooker in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, there was Harlow in 1932's RED DUST. Gable's no-nonsense macho man character just wants to be alone and have a drink. But life has thrown him and Vantine together -- and she won't shut up. She's trying to make small talk. Vantine winds up trying to explain to him how cheese is made. When I was kid, I watched that scene -- a scene my grandmother and mother loved -- and I laughed so hard that my sides ached. I still laugh.
When Jean Harlow's earlier films aired on TV or played at revival theaters, I'd see as many of them as I could. Her visual image and presence were electric and gave you a sweet buzz. You can understand how 1930s moviegoers must have felt. Nevertheless, when you see her as a sophisticated vamp in the 1930 drama HELL'S ANGELS and the 1931 drama THE PUBLIC ENEMY (with James Cagney), there's something a bit stiff in her acting. She breaks through that stiffness and takes off like a rocket when she's allowed to be funny in 1932's RED DUST. She's comedy gold again and finds another dimension to the Blonde Bombshell character as a member of the great cast in George Cukor's 1933 classic, DINNER AT EIGHT.

Still only in her 20s and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, she's so famous that she can lampoon her own image -- which she does delightfully in 1933's BOMBSHELL, a Hollywood-on-Hollywood comedy. Jean Harlow had three MGM releases for 1933 -- HOLD YOUR MAN co-starring Clark Gable, BOMBSHELL and DINNER AT EIGHT.
You know the famous last scene of DINNER AT EIGHT with Marie Dressler. Watch how Harlow sets her up for the laugh and never tries to pull focus. Then watch Harlow be lovably ditzy in BOMBSHELL. Years ago, I read an article by an esteemed film historian who felt that machine-gun fast dialogue delivery in comedies pretty much started with Rosalind Russell in 1940's HIS GIRL FRIDAY. Watch 1933's BOMBSHELL. There a madcap scene in Harlow as the movie star gets fed up with the studio and her freeloading relatives. Harlow shines them all off in a monologue on a staircase in her Hollywood home. She gives the monologue an over-the-speed limit delivery seemingly in one breath. It's one of her funniest scenes in a funny movie. Those performances of hers were the result of hard work, professionalism and talent.

The Oscar nominees for Best Actress of 1933 were Katharine Hepburn for MORNING GLORY, May Robson for LADY FOR A DAY and Britain's Diana Wynyard for CAVALCADE. Kate won.

After RED DUST, Jean Harlow should have been a Best Actress Oscar nominee for 1933's DINNER AT EIGHT and BOMBSHELL.  She was more than just a Hollywood sex symbol.





Monday, April 15, 2019

Listen to Jean Arthur

When I was a boy, definitely not yet a teen, I was watching television one weekday afternoon during a vacation from school.  Tom Frandsen was a local Southern California TV host. He had sort of a Brian Keith in Disney's THE PARENT TRAP look about him. The original 1961 THE PARENT TRAP starring the girl I had a crush on, Hayley Mills. Tom Frandsen was a local TV movie host. During a commercial break, he talked about the female star of the movie he was hosting on KNBC TV. He said, "I've always loved the sound of Jean Arthur's voice."  I'd already developed a desire to learn about classic films and their stars at that young age. Mom was in the living room with me and I asked "Mom, who's Jean Arthur?" I could tell by the way Mom smiled when she heard the name that Jean Arthur was a significant talent. I came to love her voice and her talent too, just like Mom and Tom Frandsen did.
Fast forward to another vacation from school. I was in my early college years. Jean Arthur made a rare guest appearance on TV.  If I recall correctly, it was THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW. For me, her appearance was like a fascinating film history class. A clip, a strong dramatic clip for Frank Capra's MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, was shown. The scene was about new Senator Jeff Smith being urged to continue doing what's right, to continue fighting for the lost cause, to fight political corruption in Washington, DC. When the clip ended, Jean Arthur commented that the film was still relevant "today." This was 1973. During the Nixon Administration and the Watergate scandal. I'd seen stars of classic films talk about their movies in a nostalgic way. But I had never heard one use the essence of a film she/he had starred in to connect to and to underline a current hard news item and social issue. Just like print work and literature by great authors, film has a literature of its own and could remain relevant no matter its age.
If you've seen 1939's MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur, you know the story.  The young senator's late father was a newspaperman, a publisher and editor who believed in a free press and was a champion of lost causes. He couldn't be bribed. He couldn't be intimidated. He took on a syndicate while defending the rights of a laborer. The newspaperman, while working at his desk, was shot in the back and killed.

Sen. Jeff Smith is fighting a political machine out to build a dam in Willet Creek, territory the Senator wants kept pristine for underprivileged kids to enjoy. A corrupt fat cat whose got some senior politicians in his pocket plans to build a Willet Creek Dam. The dam is a fraud. The political machine, which includes one senior politician who had known Jeff's father, is out to discredit and underhandedly expel the young Senator out of Washington. This political machine will physically attack the free press and use its dark weight to circulate "fake news" to give the graft machine more power. This machine will even harm children delivering newspapers that carry the true story. Senator Smith's secretary is the smart, wise and slightly cynical Clarissa Saunders. She's a highly respected Washington insider, especially well-respected by the D.C. press corps. She helps the junior senator evolve from naïve newcomer and disillusioned idealist to political warrior fighting for a lost cause. Saunders will school him in the art of the filibuster.

Today, we seem to have a dark shadow that's even larger than the one Nixon had cast over democracy and the founding principles of our nation. We have a person who wants to build one big long Willet Creek Dam to keep the underprivileged out.

Here's a scene from MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. Listen to Jean Arthur.  What she says is still relevant today.
If you have never seen this classic, I highly recommend it.  I also recommend the documentary FIVE CAME BACK. Narrated by Meryl Streep and featuring guest commentators such as Steven Spielberg, Lawrence Kasdan and Guillermo Del Toro, it documents how five classic film directors served in World War 2 and how their service impacted the kind of films they made after the war. It's a fascinating documentary I've watched on Netflix more about three times. The section on when Frank Capra, an immigrant, saw how massive the evil forces of white supremacy were and how it propelled him to use his art to fight Nazism is unforgettable.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Ben Mankiewicz Makes History on TCM

TCM, Turner Classic Movies, celebrates its 25th birthday this month. Prime time host Ben Mankiewicz will make history. He'll make history not just by doing a commendable job following in the on-air talent footsteps of the late, great original host, Robert Osborne. With the scheduled TCM Fan Dedications, we will see some rare racial inclusion and diversity in an area of TV programming. For decades, there has been a thick wall put up by TV executives that has blocked people of color from jobs as weekly film critics on news programs and syndicated film review shows. Movie critics on TV were all predominantly white males. A similar wall existed in selecting hosts for classic movie channels. Remember the old days of AMC when it was American Movie Classics? All the hosts were charming white guys. The in-studio TCM Fan Dedications will have race/gender and age diversity. Glory Hallelujah!
From the 1980s to now, truthfully, we African-Americans have not seen representations of ourselves when we watch film review segments and movie hosts on TV. We were excluded from the new film and classic film general discussion. Gene Shalit on NBC, Joel Siegel on ABC, Siskel & Ebert in syndication, David Edelstein on CBS Sunday, Leonard Maltin, Richard Roeper, Rex Reed, Jeffrey Lyons, Ben Lyons, Billy Bush... all white males. What made us Black folks in the entertainment news field grit our teeth in frustration and anger -- especially in New York City -- was that producers were aware of our existence, aware of our skills and our willingness to work on-camera, but they passed us over UNTIL February arrived. Then they'd politely ask us if we could put together segments for Black History Month for the sake of their shows looking politically correct.

The long, long lack of racial diversity implied that we African-Americans don't care about new films, unless they're Black films, and we don't care about classic films, unless they're Black films. This is wrong and racially offensive. I write that as a man who has had his own talk show, been a film reviewer and entertainment news contributor on network TV and was a contributor to ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY magazine.

Classic films are my sweet addiction. By the time I started 3rd grade in South Central L.A., Fred Astaire was my favorite classic film star. In high school, I was the youngest and first Black contestant on a syndicated film trivia quiz show called THE MOVIE GAME. My celebrity teammates were Phyllis Diller and Hugh O'Brian. I also became the show's youngest winner answering questions like "What was the name of the boat in the MGM musical HIGH SOCIETY?" and "Who was the skating star of 20th Century Fox?" I started my professional broadcast career in radio. I was the new part time reporter who got soundbites from Bette Davis, Sylvia Sidney and Maureen O'Sullivan.  I've been a TCM devotee in 1999. After 2003, I even pitched myself to TCM for employment a few times. Not for on-air work. For work in promotions, marketing or to write copy for Ben Mankiewicz. Not that he couldn't write his own, mind you. But, when he was new, some of his intros had trivia I'd already heard many times already.  I felt I could give him some new stuff, stuff I'd gotten from my VH1 talk show in the late 80s. For instance, here's a short clip from my Paul McCartney interview. I never read this classic film fact about Paul in any bio about The Beatles.
Frankly, this Fan Dedication programing will blessedly take the "TCMSoWhite" edge off the channel. The April 9th VARIETY article on "TCM at 25" listed its hosts and guest host talent.  The current foursome of hosts is a Caucasian Quartet, if you will. The 12 guest co-hosts for The Essentials were as white as a dozen eggs from Whole Foods. The Guest Programmers since 2017 have been white.  The TCM Wine Club spots are full of white folks. You don't even see any Black actors on the wine bottles. There's no Sidney Poitier Pinot Noir, no Hattie McDaniel Merlot, no Godfrey Cambridge Cabernet.

Veteran African-American broadcasters who have covered entertainment for quite some time have been keenly aware of Hollywood's "Black stories don't sell" barrier. Black filmmakers could not get projects greenlit. Black actors couldn't get work and, often, couldn't get agent representation because the industry's limited view of Black talent. And not just Black filmmakers experienced this shut out. After IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture, director Norman Jewison couldn't get funding for A SOLDIER'S STORY. Why? Because it had a predominantly Black cast and Hollywood proclaimed "Black stories don't sell." Since we Black entertainment reporters were hip to this Hollywood exclusion, we were committed to using our skills to help underdog talent get attention -- filmmakers of color, women directors and such. The problem was, we too were trying to get the same on-air opportunities that white talent constantly got. We reporters could not get auditions and agents.  Take a look at this short video of mine. By the way, all the work in this is work I got on my own -- because broadcast agents said that they wouldn't know what to do with me.
Seeing Black people with Ben Mankiewicz talk about classic films and not be limited to talking about movies within the "Black Film" category will be supremely refreshing and groundbreaking. TV does not frequently give us that opportunity. The playing field has not been level. It's time people became aware of that. Representation matters.  Happy Birthday, TCM. Good work, Ben Mankiewicz. The nights of in-studio TCM Fan Dedications start Monday, April 15th, at 8p ET.
Here's another taste of my VH1 show.





Thursday, April 11, 2019

Spike Lee's Classic at the TCM Film Festival

Spike Lee is one of America's most popular, most productive and most socially relevant American directors. He's praised and respected here in America and overseas. That does not mean, however, that he's always received equal opportunities in his homeland or gotten the awards recognition that he should have. This year, after 30 years of work, he finally received an Oscar nomination for Best Director. He didn't win Best Director but he did win for his other nomination -- in the Best Screenplay category for BLACKkKLANSMAN.  One of my jump for joy moments as I watched the Oscars a couple of months ago was when Spike won his Oscar. At last!
I've had the pleasure to talk to Spike Lee on TV a few times.  The first time was on my VH1 show in 1988. Spike was coming in to talk about his new release, SCHOOL DAZE, and I also wanted to ask him about his popular film before that, SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT.

Spike was scheduled to be at our studio on E. 28th at 2nd in Manhattan at 2:00. He'd have time to get some make-up and then sit down for our interview.  Whenever a guest needed one, our studio manager always sent a visibly numbered car service town car to pick up guests. We also gave them the number of the car. Spike lives in Brooklyn. She sent a car to his address to bring him into Manhattan to our studio for the show. Well, about 2:15, Spike had yet to arrive for the taping. Close to 2:25, he came bounding through the door, huffing and puffing and apologetic. We asked if something had happened en route or was the car late. No, the car wasn't late. It had arrived about 1:30. But something did sort of happen en route -- or lack of en route, as it were.

Spike said that the driver would let him into the car. Spike had ID and the number of the car. It got the to point where he had no more time to argue with the driver because he did not want to be late for our taping. So he made a dash to the nearest subway station and caught a train to our location.

The usually cool temper of our Irish Catholic studio manager hit a boiling point and she immediately called the car service company. She got the supervisor, the supervisor contacted the driver -- and the driver admitted to the supervisor that he would not let the short black man wearing glasses into the car.  The driver's order was to pick up "Film Director Spike Lee."

The white driver said to the supervisor, "He did not look like a film director."

The driver was ordered to report back to the main office. When he did, he was fired.

Spike, a true gent, didn't need to apologize to us. We apologized to him. During the interview, I asked if he was working on a new project. Spike replied that he'd just started shooting a new film called ... DO THE RIGHT THING.
1989's DO THE RIGHT THING was hailed here and overseas. It is now considered a classic. It got two Oscar nominations -- Danny Aiello for Best Supporting Actor and Spike Lee for Best Original Screenplay.

If you're in Hollywood for the TCM (Turner Classic Movies) Film Festival now underway, DO THE RIGHT THING screens Friday night, April 12th, at the TCL Chinese Theatre.  One of the things I loved most about the late TCM host, Robert Osborne, was his frequent invitations to artists of color to join him as Guest Programmers to select and co-host four classics they loved.  Spike was a Guest Programmer. He talked about Billy Wilder and how Charles Laughton's black and white thriller, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, inspired him in coming up with the rings worn by DO THE RIGHT THING character, Radio Raheem.
This didn't come up in Spike's Guest Programmer segments, but Spike said that the Rosie Perez dance during the opening credits of DO THE RIGHT THING was inspired by Ann-Margret's famous blue screen musical open to 1963's BYE BYE BIRDIE. He loved that opening credits sequence Ann-Margret did.

If you have 6 minutes free, here's a video of my tips and notes on a few TCM Film Festival features. There's some Black History that deserves to be mentioned.

For festival info, go here:  www.TCM.com/festival.





Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Michelle Williams of FOSSE/VERDON

DAWSON'S CREEK was a most popular TV series that made its debut in 1998 and ran for six seasons.  Michelle Williams was in the cast of that teen drama. She played Jennifer Lindley, a young female who owned her sexuality. But the forthright, naughty teen character would get punished for that because...well, that's how prime time TV is, especially when you've got sponsors and stuff -- and teen characters. Here's Michelle as Jennifer Lindley on DAWSON'S CREEK.
If you had gone up to Michelle Williams during a lunch break early in her DAWSON'S CREEK days and shown her this photo and said "The lady in pants is Broadway star Gwen Verdon. She's helping Marilyn Monroe with choreography in dance rehearsals for the 1953 movie GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. By 2019, you will have played both of these famous women in major productions," what do you think she would have said?
For, indeed, that is what has happened so far in her career. Michelle Williams got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing Marilyn Monroe.
She played her in the 2011 film, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN based on a time when the screen legend was in London to shoot 1957's THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, co-starring and directed by Laurence Olivier.
Last night on FX, we saw the premiere episode of FOSSE/VERDON, a biopic miniseries about Gwen Verdon's collaboration with and marriage to Bob Fosse. He choreographed one of her biggest Broadway hits, DAMN YANKEES. They also worked together when she repeated her Broadway star-making role in the 1958 Warner Bros. film version of the baseball fantasy musical comedy. The movie co-starred Tab Hunter.
The first episode was so revealing and juicy that I watched it twice. The second episode airs on FX next week, Tuesday. I wish I'd attended a critics screening of the whole production. It hooked my attention so thoroughly that I wish I could see the whole thing in one sitting.  Sam Rockwell plays Bob Fosse. Rockwell and Williams may seem like unusual choices to play two celebrated dancers who were two top artists of Broadway musicals, but you should watch. The two actors are terrific together. Michelle Williams should prepare herself for an Emmy nomination. She's fascinating in the role, capturing that unique throaty lilt Verdon had to her voice. She makes us realize that Tony winner Gwen Verdon has been an overlooked, influential Broadway great. I got the feeling from the first episode that the Tony-winning Broadway leading lady should've gotten billed as a co-director with Bob Fosse in the same way Stanley Donen got co-director credit with Gene Kelly on MGM's SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. Verdon was a triple threat talent. She could sing, dance and act. She was also Bob Fosse's collaborator on work that brought him an Oscar for Best Director. She should've received special thanks in the closing credits of 1972's CABARET.
Imagine that. Michelle Williams has played both Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe....
...and Broadway star Gwen Verdon.
She sure has come a long way since DAWSON'S CREEK.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Peggy Lee and a Disney Classic

Madonna, Bette Midler and others covered her hits. She was a top vocalist of the 1950s and 60s who was a frequent guest on network music variety shows. She collaborated with Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones. There's much more to her story. She was singer, actress and composer Peggy Lee, a lady who was cool, hip, elegant, sophisticated ...and talented.
Remember the 1988 hit starring Bob Hoskins, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? One of the highlights of that imaginative live action/animated feature is sexy Jessica Rabbit singing "Why Don't You Do Right"? Peggy Lee sang it back in the 1940s. Just like Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, she was a popular vocalist with a band who was tapped to try acting in Hollywood movies. Just like Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, Peggy Lee went on to become an Oscar nominee for her Hollywood acting skills. Benny Goodman was one of the hottest big band leaders and musicians of the Swing Era.  Here's Peggy Lee when she was the singer with Benny Goodman's band.
Peggy Lee should have pulled off a double play of Oscar nominations for 1955 work. I've blogged before that she was greatly overlooked. I'll repeat why here.  In the 1920s era drama, PETE KELLY'S BLUES, Peggy Lee had the role of the gifted but insecure blues singer whose unhappiness leads her to drink too much. Her boyfriend is physically abusive. When she sings the blues, it comes from a real and weary place in her heart. For her dramatic performance in PETE KELLY'S BLUES, Peggy Lee got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress of 1955.
Another 1955 release was Disney's LADY AND THE TRAMP. Please watch that delightful feature again and pay close attention to the memorable songs in it. Peggy Lee co-wrote those songs. "Bella Notte" (This Is The Night), sung during the famous spaghetti dinner date scene, "Peace on Earth," an overlooked tune that needs to be pulled out like a lovely Christmas ornament during the holidays, and the jazzy "He's a Tramp" were all co-written by Peggy Lee with Sonny Burke. Lee also performed voiceover duties for LADY AND THE TRAMP.
"Bella Notte" or "He's a Tramp" should have been an Oscar nominee for Best Song of 1955. Peggy Lee should have had Oscar nominations in two categories -- one for Best Supporting Actress and one for Best Song.

The Oscar winner for Best Song of 1955 was "Love Is a Many Splendored-Thing" from the hit melodrama movie of the same name. Decades later, the song is heard in NUTTY PROFESSOR 2: THE KLUMPS starring Eddie Murphy.

Peggy Lee's talent and creative work supplied a lot of melodic magic to that Disney classic. She helped make it a classic. Now there's some "Women in Film" history for you.





Friday, April 5, 2019

Separated at Birth: Trump Cabinet Member

John Bolton, the National Security Advisor of the United States...


… and Geppetto, the kind-hearted, lonely woodcarver and toymaker in Disney's 1940 animated classic, PINOCCHIO.


Can you see the resemblance?


Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Revisiting Tom Hanks in LARRY CROWNE

If you know me, if you've followed my blog posts for an appreciable amount of time, you know that Tom Hanks is one of my favorite actors and has been since I landed my first professional TV job -- working at the ABC TV affiliate in Milwaukee. This was back when Milwaukee was popular because of the HAPPY DAYS and LAVERNE & SHIRLEY sitcoms. Another ABC sitcom, one that introduced me to Tom Hanks and made me an immediate fan ever since its premiere episode, was BOSOM BUDDIES. I followed him from when he dressed in drag every week on that sitcom to his made-for-TV work in MAZES AND MONSTERS to his big screen work. I not only watch him for entertainment and enlightenment, I study his acting choices and on-camera technique. I learn from them. In fact, some lessons I've learned helped me book work in TV commercials and get callbacks for bit parts in TV features.  One of his early films enabled me to get a laugh on CBS Late Night. I was a semi-regular on THE PAT SAJAK SHOW. Pat asked me if I'd seen the new Tom Hanks movie and I lovingly opined, "It took one man to write the book WAR AND PEACE. It took five men to write the movie TURNER & HOOCH."
As I got older, it dawned on me that I could connect a Tom Hanks movie to certain memorable moments, major events and/or turning points in my life. Rosie O'Donnell and I worked together on VH1. She called me from location while shooting A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN and said, "Press follows me into the ladies room because Madonna decided I'm her new buddy."  One of my sweetest dates with my late partner was when we attended a preview screening of SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. I saw PHILADELHIA when my partner had been diagnosed. I was in love with a man had who AIDS. Tom Hanks does not know it but he helped me through one of the most heartbreaking days of my life when he was promoting FORREST GUMP in Los Angeles. I interviewed him one hour after my partner's doctor in Manhattan called my L.A. hotel room to let me know that I should prepare his family. He was in the hospital for a few days stay when I flew to L.A. for the press interviews. His doctor felt positive he'd be ready to return to our apartment when I returned from L.A.  She told me not to worry and have a good trip. But his condition took a sudden, unexpected turn and he was not responding to any medical treatment. "I'm afraid we've done all we can do," she said tenderly on the phone. Mr. Hanks warmth and humor helped me focus and proceed with my work before making arrangement to fly back to New York City. Years later, on a red carpet for the premiere of THE GREEN MILE, he recognized me and came over to give me a short interview. I was with a local cable show then and we didn't even expect to get him on camera. There were high-tone network press members present. My crew and I were dressed like a garage band that had just arrived out a van. Tom Hanks' recognition of me just about made us openly weep with glee and surprise. We were shooting the celebs on that red carpet to use as closing credits footage for our Christmas edition of my local show called METRO MOVIES, a guide to new films opening in town.

Last month, I caught the last hour of LARRY CROWNE on cable TV. Tom Hanks co-wrote and directed that genteel feature. Granted, it wasn't a big box office hit like FORREST GUMP or YOU'VE GOT MAIL, nonetheless it is the kind of movie that would be most satisfying Saturday night entertainment for the family or for a date night. Julia Roberts was his co-star.
Today, I watched the entire 2011 movie. Wow! I saw some of my life from that last 10 years reflected in LARRY CROWNE. He's a middle-aged single guy who lives alone and has a job that he loves. Unfortunately, he gets downsized. He's unemployed in an era that now puts job ads online and trying to get someone on the phone in person who will book you for an interview is a headache. Larry is so broke that he'll lose his home. I was so broke after I got downsized in two consecutive broadcast jobs in New York City that I could no longer afford my once-affordable studio apartment of 500 square feet. I lost my apartment, lived with a buddy in San Francisco and started nine frustrating and fruitless months of seeking employment, applying for jobs that ranged from restaurant busboy to local TV broadcaster.

A lesson I got from my first partial viewing of LARRY CROWNE still applies. Larry lives in Southern California. After he's let go, he decides to enroll in a local community college. Learning new skills will help him reinvent himself. Julia Roberts plays one of the college teachers. Twenty minutes into the film, we see her class and one of her lovably loopy students. He wants to do a class presentation on toaster waffles. When we see him for the first time, those twenty minutes into the movie, he's in a scene with the stars -- Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

He's a bit player whose name wasn't even listed in the opening credits of that 2011 comedy/romance. We know his name now because, earlier this year he joined the same club that has Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts as members. He won an Oscar for a performance. Two months ago, Rami Malek won the Best Actor Oscar for BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY.
If I have the privilege to interview Tom Hanks again, I've got to ask him about hiring that then unknown actor named Rami Malek. Watch this short video to see a little bit of me with Hanks.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

From the Director of WHITE HEAT

Director Raoul Walsh. From the silent screen era into the age of talking films, he directed some films that definitely earned the word "classic" in description. They're classic in quality., not just because they're well over 50 years old. THE ROARING TWENTIES with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT and HIGH SIERRA, both starring Bogart and Ida Lupino, and WHITE HEAT featuring one of Cagney's best and most quotable gangster performances were all directed by Walsh. KLONDIKE ANNIE starring Mae West, THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE with Cagney dancing with Rita Hayworth, GENTLEMAN JIM starring Errol Flynn and BATTLE CRY starring Tab Hunter were also in his list of directorial credits.  So was BAND OF ANGELS, a 1957 Civil War era race drama/romance starring Clark Gable, Yvonne De Carlo and Sidney Poitier a year before THE DEFIANT ONES, the film that would make him a star. Gorgeous De Carlo stars as a Southern belle who's enjoying white privilege until it's discovered that her real mother was black. Then, the light-skilled belle is booted off the plantation. She's purchased by a dashing gent and moves to his place in New Orleans where he treats her like a lady. The gent (played by Gable, of course) has an educated manservant played by Poitier. In this Walsh film, screen newcomer Poitier displays his early star quality holding his own in scenes opposite screen legend Clark Gable. This big screen, generously budgeted, Technicolor production tries to give you a little GONE WITH THE WIND flavor.
It's interesting to note that Clark Gable shared the screen with two Black actors who went on to make Oscar history. Hattie McDaniel of GONE WITH THE WIND was the first Black person to be nominated for an Oscar -- and she was the first to win. She was voted Best Supporting Actress for the 1939 Civil War epic. Sidney Poitier would be the first Black male to be nominated for an Oscar (Best Actor for 1958's THE DEFIANT ONES) and he'd be the first to win the Oscar (Best Actor for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD).  Walsh's BAND OF ANGELS may come off like some dated cornpone that makes you giggle at times. For instance, one scene shows dozens of plantation slaves gathered on a hill for a sad farewell. All of a sudden, they burst into song and sound just like the Hollywood studio chorus that sang behind Judy Garland in the "Here's What I'm Here For" number in 1954's A STAR IS BORN. That's BAND OF ANGELS.
However, Raoul Walsh's 1933 drama from 20th Century Fox called THE BOWERY does not make you giggle. If you're Black, Asian, Italian, Jewish or female, I'm sure you'll be offended by something you see or hear in the first ten minutes of this 1933 film.  The film stars Wallace Beery, George Raft, Jackie Cooper and Fay Wray. The three male stars get billed above the title. Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper had previously co-starred in the hit 1931 MGM tearjerker, THE CHAMP. They'd co-star again in MGM's 1934 adaptation of TREASURE ISLAND. In THE BOWERY, Beery pronounces words like "perfectly" as "poi-fectly" and acts as a papa bear to Cooper's character. Raft and the burly Beery (on the right in the pic below) play rivals.
The story takes place in the 1890s, called The Gay Nineties, in a section of New York City that was bustling, bawdy and beer-soaked.  THE BOWERY screens Sunday March 31st and Monday at Film Forum in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.  The film is part of a program devoted to Fay Wray and her LOST HORIZON (1937) screenwriter husband, Robert Riskin, called BOB & WRAY: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY. Riskin was not involved with writing THE BOWERY.
On Twitter, the Film Forum notice about THE BOWERY includes a short magazine review from Richard Brody of The New Yorker.  Brody mentions the racism and atavism in the authenticity of Walsh's film. Mr. Brody took sort a high tea service approach to describing the revolting aspects of the film. He serves it to you like its a dainty cucumber sandwich cut in a triangle shape with the crust removed. Let me give you some of the film's details like a bowl of chili served in a New Jersey diner.

I'm sure the Film Forum will show THE BOWERY in its entirety and uncensored -- as it should. The first shot you see in THE BOWERY is the name of a loud, busy saloon in close-up. The name of the saloon is -- "N****r Joe's," printed in big letters.

In the next ten minutes, you'll see a woman get knocked unconscious then dragged out of the saloon. There are two stereotype Jewish tailors competing for a customer on the street.  Jackie Cooper was, like little Shirley Temple, a popular child star. He'd already made Hollywood history by that time as the youngest Oscar nominee, a record he'd hold through the 1970s. Jackie Cooper, at age 9, was a Best Actor Oscar nominee for 1931's family film, SKIPPY.  In the first ten minutes of 1933's THE BOWERY, little Jackie Cooper plays the orphan street kid who uses vulgar terms referring to Chinese residents, Italian kids and he says the name of the saloon. All this business is presented with a light-hearted vibe. Fay Wray stars as the element of refinement that comes into the story and into the lives of the three Bowery males.

In the Fay Wray filmography, THE BOWERY was released the same year as her most famous film, KING KONG. That 1933 action/horror movie, one truly deserving of the word "iconic," still stands as a strong allegory for slavery and racial inequality in America while also touching on the taboo Hollywood topic of interracial romance. THE BOWERY came out six months after KING KONG.

If you go to see THE BOWERY March 31st or April 1st, be prepared. The story opens with blunt, racially offensive language and images.  For more info, click onto:  www.FilmForum.org.

When Raoul Walsh was a silent film actor, he played John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Lincoln, in D.W. Griffith's highly controversial film, 1915's THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Big Love for Lupita Nyong'o

March is Women's History Month. Can we talk about the Hollywood history that Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o is making?  In the area of diversity and inclusion, I've written in previous posts about the frustrating lack of opportunities Hollywood has had for black and brown actresses after they've scored Oscar nominations or won the award and took home that prestigious Hollywood gold. After scoring an Oscar nomination or an Oscar statuette, black actresses did not have a choice of good Hollywood script opportunities like white actresses such as Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett and Amy Adams did. Look at Hollywood history. Multi-talented Rita Moreno won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1961's WEST SIDE STORY and had no significant Hollywood script offers for seven years. Ultimately, she turned to television for steady employment. Cicely Tyson was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for her stunning dramatic work in 1972's SOUNDER. Her strong lead role offers after that nomination came from network TV. That was the gifted actress' only Oscar nomination. Diahann Carroll -- one Oscar nomination and then network TV.  Angela Bassett got one Oscar nomination -- then she went to TV. The TV series EMPIRE had roles for three black actresses who got one Oscar nomination and then went to the small screen to keep getting paid. They were Taraji P. Henson, Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, Gabourey Sidibe, Best Actress Oscar nominee for PRECIOUS and Jennifer Hudson, Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for DREAMGIRLS. Even Broadway Tony winner Viola Davis turned to TV after her first Oscar nomination. That came for DOUBT starring Meryl Streep. Davis scored a hit with the ABC crime series, HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, then did the film adaptation of FENCES. That brought Davis her second Oscar nomination. She won -- Best Supporting Actress for FENCES.  Lupita Nyong'o won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her powerful performance that gave a poetry to the pain of an enslaved young woman named Patsy in 2013's 12 YEARS A SLAVE.
Lupita won her Oscar for work in a film directed by a black filmmaker, Britain's Steve McQueen. The film's Oscar-winning screenplay came from a black writer, Milwaukee's John Ridley.  After 12 YEARS A SLAVE, she had a few lines as a flight attendant in NON-STOP, a Liam Neeson action thriller. Yes, she did land a role in 2015's STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS which should've been called STAR WARS: THE FRANCHISE AWAKENS.  But, that film of hers didn't spark the buzz or historic international box office that her following feature did. A critical and financial success, BLACK PANTHER, got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Lupita Nyong'o performed in one of the most celebrated, influential films of the year -- an Africa-centric action/fantasy co-written and directed by an African-American filmmaker, Ryan Coogler, and featuring a predominantly black cast of lead and supporting actors.
Over the weekend, social media and moviegoers went crazy over US.  Lupita had the lead female role in the new modern-day horror thriller from GET OUT Oscar-winner Jordan Peele. Us raked in $70 million at the box office. According to Entertainment Weekly, it cost $20 million to make. Moviegoers gave it the best opening ever for an original horror film and critics gave it some good reviews.  A few wrote that Lupita's performance as the haunted wife and mother deserves to bring her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.  US -- written and directed by black filmmaker, Jordan Peele.
This is exciting and historic. Lupita Nyong'o followed his Oscar win with two big hits from Black American director/writers. Lupita, Winston Duke (who plays the husband in US) and Jordan Peele were interviewed individually on NBC's TODAY Show. This is a significant fact. US is a Universal Pictures release. TODAY is an NBC/Universal production. However, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON directed by F. Gary Gray, another black filmmaker, was also a Universal Pictures release in 2015. Despite rave reviews and being number one at the box office for three consecutive summer weekends, TODAY turned its back on STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON bookings. No actors nor the director were booked for interviews. It was ignored even though Matt Lauer, then a TODAY Show superstar anchor, had a few appearances in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON as the NBC news anchor. TODAY booked actor interviews and gave promotional airtime to other Universal releases of that 2015 season -- TRAINWRECK, the Amy Schumer comedy, JURASSIC WORLD and the animated feature, MINIONS. Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning box office champ, GET OUT, was a 2017 Universal release. Jordan Peele's film brought him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, a nomination for Best Director and a nomination for Best Picture.

Jim Orr is president of Universal's domestic film distribution.  According to Variety, Orr said "Put simply, Jordan Peele is a genius. He's managed to tap into something that the domestic box office can't get enough of. People can't wait to see what he does next."                                                  

Obviously NBC/Universal's TODAY Show producers have come to realize and acknowledge the box office power and artistry of black filmmakers. Especially when those films are released by the same corporate shop that's attached to the NBC morning news program.

For decades, Hollywood said that black stories with black actors in the lead roles were not marketable and wouldn't do business at the box office. Look at the huge box office business BLACK PANTHER and US did. Look at the casts. Lupita Nyong'o has starred in two Hollywood studio releases that slap the mess out of that old Hollywood attitude like Detective Virgil Tibbs slapping the taste out that old bigot's mouth in the movie IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. Brava, Lupita!

Friday, March 22, 2019

Representation Matters, the TCM Film Festival

1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. A colossal hit with moviegoers and the Academy. It took home 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.
African-American actress Hattie McDaniel made Hollywood history with her Oscar victory. GONE WITH THE WIND screens in the 2019 TCM Film Festival in Hollywood this April. I took a look at the list of films and I have a few notes on Black History and representations of Black people in some of the festival features such as GONE WITH THE WIND...and 1961's A RAISIN IN THE SUN based on the groundbreaking Broadway play written by Lorraine Hansberry. Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee head the cast.
I'll prepare you for a blackface number in one big Technicolor musical, tell you about one of the top men at 20th Century Fox in the 1970s and remind you why the intellectual, regal, strong and complex Black characters we see in the Oscar-winning 2018 box office blockbuster, BLACK PANTHER, are extremely powerful in our Hollywood history.
Take a few minutes to watch my video and have fun at the festival.

For information on the festival, go here:  www.TCM.com/festival.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Cowboy Dreams in THE RIDER

Every week, I turn to the film reviews written by Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times to get his keen, witty and sometimes provocative opinions on new films. His deep affection for a film comes through in his reviews. Such was the case when he reviewed THE RIDER. Justin Chang's article on that contemporary western was practically a love letter. Other notable critics had the similar feelings and added THE RIDER to their "Best Films of 2018" lists. Owen Gleiberman of Variety was one of those critics. Former U.S. President Barack Obama was asked to put together his list of Best Films of 2018. Some films on Mr. Obama's list were BLACK PANTHER, BLACKkKLANSMAN, ROMA, Debra Granik's LEAVE NO TRACE, the documentary WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? and... THE RIDER. Gleiberman, by the way, criticized the Obama list for being too, shall we say, upscale. Did Owen write that same criticism about the lists from critics at The New York Times? No. THE RIDER made several "Best of" lists from top film critics in December of 2018.
I saw it last night.  Oh my Lord, what an exceptional piece of work. It's brutal yet lyrical, unadorned yet complicated and quite profound. I feel it's ultimately a tale simply told about moving on. THE RIDER, focusing on a young cowboy who has survived serious injuries from rodeo circuit riding yet wants to compete again, was directed and written by Chloé Zhao. She was born in Beijing. Zhao left China to attending a boarding school in London and then moved to Los Angeles to finish high school.

The first thing we see in close-up in THE RIDER is the pensive face of bronco rider Brady Blackburn. With the deep scars on his scalp, you'd think he was a war veteran who had come back home. He was once in a coma. He has seizures in one hand. Brady Blackburn is a devoted friend who visits Lane, a buddy and former fellow rodeo circuit cowboy. Lane suffered severe brain damage in a bullriding accident and now lives in a health care facility. He's young, just like Brady. Brady lives with his sweet autistic sister and his critical widower father.

Brady gets a job as somewhat of a horse whisperer. At the same time the young cowboy, who never graduated from high school, is breaking in horses, we see that he has the hunger to return to the rodeo circuit. It's not for glory, for applause or for stardom. It's something that he does and has done, although it's left him severely bruised and near death. He wants to get back on the horse and "Cowboy up" -- be a man, as he's been taught by his dad and the male community. Is his dream a nightmare that he refuses to realize?  How many of us have given our all to a profession or a person over and over even though what we get in return is more disappointing than fulfilling?
First-time actor Brady Jandreau plays the young, unhappy rodeo cowboy. He has a countenance to his face that reminds you of the late Heath Ledger in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Brady Jandreau draws you into to the young man's battered body and wounded heart. A memorable performance in an outstanding film.

Director/writer Chloé Zhao based the rodeo cowboy character on Brady Jandreau's real life.
Like Debra Granik's LEAVE NO TRACE, THE RIDER is a film directed by a woman that should have received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. I highly recommend this film.


Monday, March 18, 2019

A Lesson in LARRY CROWNE

Over the weekend, the network TV news reports were full of heartache and pain. We were getting updates on the tragedy and terror that befell New Zealand. Pure evil attacked Muslims as they prepared to pray in Friday services. I hate that hate touched their community.  Saturday evening, I felt that I needed to watch something else to calm me down.  I found a Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts movie playing on one of the cable channels. It was the 2011 movie, LARRY CROWNE. In this light drama/romance, Hanks played a once-successful and well-liked corporate executive whose life changes drastically when he's downsized to the unemployment line. On the road of life, he hit a major pothole. To pull himself out of it and start over, he enrolls in a community college. Julia Roberts played a teacher. Romance ensues.
Tom Hanks is my favorite working actor. When he releases a new film, I usually put that film on my immediate "must-see" list. But, I never did see LARRY CROWNE. Why? Because, just like Larry, I'd been downsized, I couldn't find a new job, my unemployment ran out, I lost my apartment and most of my belongings in it, and I embarked on a long phase of living with different friends in other areas while I tried to start my life over. This happened with LARRY CROWNE opened and I had relocated to job hunt in San Francisco and Sacramento. Of what I saw of the movie over the weekend, I knew just how Larry Crowne felt.
I missed the first hour of the movie.  For the two lead stars, LARRY CROWNE was not a big box office hit like his SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE and YOU'VE GOT MAIL or her PRETTY WOMAN and ERIN BROCKOVICH. It's not a great film, but it is quite entertaining and enjoyable. It made for the perfect Saturday evening emotional pick-me-up that I needed.

I noticed an actor in the group playing community college students. With his teacup saucer-sized expressive eyes, I noticed him working on a car and then happily darting away from under the hood when he sees that a pizza delivery guy has arrived. In a classroom scene, he's the student who has to do a class presentation on British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and, during his presentation in front of the class, he refers to notes that he wrote onto the palm of his hand. It's a small role this young actor had.

If, during a lunch break on the set of LARRY CROWNE, someone went up to that unknown actor and said "Within ten years, you will get a great part on a TV drama series and then, just like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, you will win an Oscar," what do you think he would have said?
That actor is Rami Malek.  Last month, he won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. He played late, gifted, rock star Freddie Mercury. The Queen rock band biopic has made $880 million worldwide.
The lesson? It's true what they say. There are no small parts, only small actors. The other lesson is -- don't give up. Stick with it, commit to the work and do your best. You never know what might happen. The Freddie Mercury role in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY was slated for BORAT star, Sacha Baron Cohen. But he dropped out.

Then a bit player from LARRY CROWNE got the part.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

If You're a Julia Roberts Fan

An indie drama starring Julia Roberts came out last December. It didn't cause much of a ripple with moviegoers but it got praise from some established, reputable film critics. A few days ago, one of my Twitter buddies watched the movie and wrote "Roberts is outstanding..." I just watched the anxious Christmastime family drama called BEN IS BACK. I enthusiastically agree with those critics and with my Twitter buddy, @ XanaduFitness.  I watched it on Amazon Prime. If you're a Julia Roberts fan, you need to see BEN IS BACK. She delivers one of her best and strongest performance since ERIN BROCKOVICH. As in that 2000 film for which Roberts earned a Best Actress Oscar, she plays a devoted mother in BEN IS BACK.  Ben, the oldest of her children, surprises the family with a Christmas Eve visit. Ben is a recovering drug addict.
The movie opens with a tranquil shot of a snow-covered wooded area. We see local village shops. The music score composition is solemn strings that transition into a church hymn. We're inside a church and the camera tilts down to the smiling, beaming face of Julia Roberts watching one of her girls rehearse a Christmas carol in the church choir. This is the oldest, always dependable daughter. As they pull up into the driveway of their big, comfortable, suburban home, they see Ben. Mom is overjoyed. The daughter is cautious and unsmiling. She knows that Ben can be drama. Ben is played extremely well by Lucas Hedges.  He and Julia Roberts connect so well that you fully believe the two actors are mother and son. Has Ben completely let go of his addiction? And what about her? A mother's love, at its utmost, is rather like an addiction. Can Ben's mother let go of him?
Julia Roberts has been a popular movie star since 1990 when PRETTY WOMAN was released. When she gets a really good role and absorbs the character, the charismatic actress gives off an extra energy, an extra heat that you can feel. There's a little something more vivid about her performance. I felt that watching her as ERIN BROCKOVICH. You feel it watching her as the mother in BEN IS BACK. Holly Burns (Roberts) is on her second marriage. The first marriage, to Ben's father, was not happy. Her second husband, strong and wary like Holly's oldest daughter, is played by Courtney B. Vance. This is another solid performance. When Holly sees that Ben has come home on Christmas Eve, she cheerfully says to her husband, "He's got the sparkle back in his eyes." Neal, her husband who is fully aware of Ben's past drug-related messes, tells her bluntly "If he was black, he'd be in jail by now."
Ben is a troubled soul, yet he is not without his charm. We see this in how much his little brother and sister love having him around and how much he loves their company.  I won't tell you the rest of the story.  However, Holly will see for herself how dark her son's drug life was in the suburbs. Mother and son drive into some rough and raw territory, physically and emotionally.  We will see that, although she's a wife and mother in the comfortable suburbs, she can and will go Samuel L. Jackson street tough on yo' ass as she works to keep a protective eye on her son. There's a shopping mall scene in which Holly delivers a verbal punch to someone's throat.  Here's a trailer.
BEN IS BACK, directed and written by Peter Hedges (father of actor Lucas Hedges) is an intense family drama about love, guilt, forgiveness and addiction.  Julia Roberts heads a fine cast and gives a dynamic performance. It's one of her best.

Look Again at WEST SIDE STORY

Famed veteran director Steven Spielberg is forging ahead with his plans to remake WEST SIDE STORY. He has cast his Tony and his Maria. He...