Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Thank You, Filmmaker John Singleton

He was a gift. He was an artist who gave dignity onscreen to South Central L.A. He first did that in his groundbreaking 1991 drama, Boyz N The Hood. Based on his life experiences as a youth in South Central L.A., he made history with his film. He was a graduate of USC. He didn't attend graduate film school. Instead, he charged right into the filmmaking business directing his own film based on his own screenplay. Hollywood offered him $100,000 to walk away from the project and let a more experienced male direct it. Singleton did not walk away. He made his film, his film made money and it got a 20-minute ovation at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. For Boyz N The Hood, John Singleton became the first African American to be an Oscar nominee for Best Director. At age 24, he also made history as the youngest person in Oscar history to be a nominee for Best Director.
He grew up in South Central L.A. So did I. We were of different generations. I'm a product of a previous one. My happiest family outings were when we got into our green Plymouth and went to the drive-in movies. I remember the Century Drive-In in Inglewood when it had a standard sized screen. Then it close for a while and re-opened with a Cinerama screen. We saw movies like Wyler's THE BIG COUNTRY, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in McCLINTOCK! and PATTON starring George C. Scott there.  Young John Singleton could see the Century Drive-In screen from his family's apartment. By then, features had gone from A to B and C quality movies, but they were still movies.

When I was growing up in South Central L.A., after I graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and when I got my first professional broadcast job (thanks to a tip and a great recommendation from my Film Journalism professor) radio, TV and Film and millions of audience members had mainly two images of South Central Los Angeles -- the Watts Riots of the 1960s and the NBC sitcom, SANFORD & SON, which focused on characters in South Central L.A.

Based on images projected on TV and film, you would not have known our community was full of people who were passionate about the arts, spent a lot of time in libraries, went to see good quality films and dreamed of making good quality films. This angered me. There was more to my community than what people were seeing.
I was working in New York City when Boyz N The Hood opened. I went with a buddy to see it during its opening week. The Manhattan theater was packed. The crowd was attentive. The film moved me to such an extent that I could feel my skin tingling. It was the kind of joy you'd expect to feel in church when hearing of a miracle. On the big screen, I was seeing streets that I knew. Streets I'd walked on and rode down with my parents to go to church, the supermarket, the movies, to visit my grandmother and my cousin and to see friends. I was seeing the neighborhoods of my youth, the community and people in my hometown be reflected onscreen with dignity and humanity and truth. He represented us with characters who had dimension. He showed the extraordinary qualities of ordinary people in South Central L.A. The characters were of a different, younger generation but I saw some of my dad in the dad Laurence Fishburne played and some of my mom in the mom Angela Bassett played. Singleton's excellent story was one I understood. I felt proud, privileged and blessed to be in that audience. Boyz N The Hood is a masterpiece. In my opinion, you can place it on the same shelf with Trauffaut's THE 400 BLOWS and De Sica's BICYCLE THIEVES.
John Singleton changed Hollywood stereotypes. He changed Hollywood's image of what Black artists could do in films. He understood that representation matters. With a few feature films, he opened the door much wider so that future artists could enter.  No Black person in TV and/or Film has an easy go of it -- no matter if that person projects a breezy on-air image or not. The off-camera playing field is not level. We often have to work twice as hard to make half as much as white talent, to get equal opportunities and to present ourselves in a dignified light. Young Steven Spielberg loved film. He was in his late teens, sat on a tram for a Hollywood studio tour, got off the tram and hid in a men's room. Then, reportedly, talked himself into the studio offices and into a job at Universal. At age 23, Spielberg was directing veteran Hollywood star Joan Crawford in a prime time network TV production for Universal.  A Black or Latino teen could not do the same thing, sneaking off a Hollywood studio tour bus and into some studio offices to land a job. Security would've been on a Black or Latino teen in a heartbeat.  Singleton, without equal opportunities and early support, steadied his vision. It was unblinking. He did not hand over the directorial duties to someone else. He told his stories with his voice.

When I was a kid, folks at that time were watching SANFORD & SON, as I mentioned. Today, I feel that John Singleton's work opened the door for a sitcom such as BLACK-ISH and for some of the grittier topics that sitcom handles. Laurence Fishburne, the father in Boyz N The Hood, plays the grandfather on BLACK-ISH. He's also an executive producer of the show.  Singleton doesn't leave behind a long list of feature films he directed, not like Spike Lee, Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino. But the films he did direct are significant. And look at the talent in them -- Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Tupac Shakur, Samuel L. Jackson, Regina King, Taraji P. Henson, Mo'Nique, Cuba Gooding Jr., Janet Jackson and Maya Angelou. John Singleton was a trailblazer who opened the door for African American directors Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Dee Rees and F. Gary Gray.

BOYZ N THE HOOD, POETIC JUSTICE, BABY BOY and the under-appreciated historical drama, ROSEWOOD. John Singleton, at 51, died way too soon. But look at the new ground he broke as a director, screenwriter and a film/TV producer. He lifted us higher and into the light. He gave us a masterpiece of a film in his directorial debut. That is his shining legacy. Let us honor it. Thank you, John Singleton.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Enjoy THE DEATH OF STALIN

This is a 2017 feature that I found airing on cable last weekend. I was not familiar with it, but I wanted to see if it was a documentary or a drama played out by actors. It is not a documentary. It is played out by actors. However, I was not prepared to get belly laughs from it. Who would with that title? Remember the dark comedy of Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE? This feature has that same kind of vibe. It is about the death of Stalin, his funeral and the grab for power after the Russian dictator's death in 1953.  THE DEATH OF STALIN provides a buffet of scenes that are just so wrong that they're right. This movie is a must-see for Steve Buscemi fans. Why? Because...are you sitting down? Steve Buscemi stars as Nikita Khrushchev. Yes, Steve FARGO Buscemi. No, he does not attempt a Russian accent. He sounds just like he always does which broke me up laughing. In fact, just about no one attempts a Russian accent in this political satire. The American actors sound American and the English actors sound like they all fell out a British crime thriller that had Michael Caine in a special guest role. If you write a lead movie character whose philosophy is this: "When the Lord closes a door, he opens a window. When he closes a door and closes a window, he turns on the gas," there is no better actor to play that hangdog character than Steve Buscemi. THE DEATH OF STALIN is funny and frightening.
These men are petty, jealous and dangerous. Dangerous because they're top political figures hungry for power and control. Nikita is tightly-wound, constantly frustrated and bellowing lines like "What the barreling f**k are you talking about"? while one official turns to another asks "Are you wearing a corset?"  The annoying Russian official wearing a corset is played by Jeffrey Tambor.
He's a major drain as he poses for new photographs and wants more highlights on his cheekbones. His photo session reminded me of many years ago when I was new in my TV career. I did a movie junket interview of macho man director Oliver Stone in the 1980s.

Marlene Dietrich making 1934's THE SCARLET EMPRESS for Paramount Pictures in Hollywood did not fuss over her lighting half as much as Oliver Stone did for that 6-minute press junket interview of mine -- and, of the two of us on-camera, he was the butch heterosexual.

Here's a trailer for THE DEATH OF STALIN.

Twenty minutes into this biting and brisk satire, it made me think of VEEP, the Julia Louis-Dreyfus political comedy series on HBO, and a 2009 indie comedy I loved called IN THE LOOP.  That political satire starred James Gandolfini and Steve Coogan.

After the first time I watched THE DEATH OF STALIN on cable's The Movie Channel, I learned that the person who wrote and directed IN THE LOOP and the person who created VEEP are the same person who wrote and directed THE DEATH OF STALIN. Armando Iannucci has a distinct style.  I like it. Yes, I did watch it again on cable because I really needed the laughs.  However, THE DEATH OF STALIN is a bit unnerving. With the current state of our politics, you wonder if some similar lunacy from power-hungry, irresponsible males is possible right now in our nation's capitol.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

David Winters Was "Cool" in WEST SIDE STORY

I wish he was with us today to comment on the current WEST SIDE STORY remake news from Disney executives. This week, we lost a multi-talented veteran of Broadway and film. We baby boomers may not have known his name when we watched his performance over and over again in the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1961, but we knew his face and we were dazzled by his dancing. David Winters was one of The Jets in the film adaptation of WEST SIDE STORY. He was the one called A-Rab. You see him here in the short-sleeved scarlet shirt.
The dancer/actor and choreographer died this week at age 80.

From my Marquette University days when a bunch of other guys on my dorm floor and I gathered in the TV room to see WEST SIDE STORY on CBS, to the recent years when I'd see it at revival theaters in New York City, David Winters' solo bit when A-Rab "chills out" in the "Cool" number always gets a laugh of appreciation from the crowd. We totally dig that moment after he's told "Cool it, A-Rab. Cool it! Cool it!"
David Winters had a long, accomplished career.  He was in the original Broadway cast of GYPSY starring Ethel Merman and the original Broadway cast of WEST SIDE STORY. After making the film version, he choreographed for film musicals. He did the choreography for VIVA LAS VEGAS starring Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret. He added TV director and producer to his credits while continuing to contribute to films. He did more work with Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret plus work with Bob Hope, Raquel Welch, Nancy Sinatra, Tom Jones, Lucille Ball, Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand for her 1976 version of A STAR IS BORN.

David Winters wrote his autobiography. His book is entitled TOUGH GUYS DO DANCE.

Mike DiStasio is a Boston area radio talent who goes by the handle "The Hollywood Kid." He does celebrity interviews that, although they do not get national attention, are some of the warmest and most engaging celebrity interviews I've heard. He interviewed David Winters last year and it was a most winning, most informative interview. Mike brought up the planned Steven Spielberg remake of WEST SIDE STORY. Winters, a true gent, revealed he'd read the first draft of the new script for WEST SIDE STORY. He gently admitted "It wasn't very good."

Months later, news came out the Rita Moreno apparently shared his opinion. She read the screenplay by acclaimed Broadway playwright Tony Kushner, the man who wrote the AIDS drama, ANGELS IN AMERICA, and the screenplay to Spielberg's LINCOLN. Rita "fixed" the script and rewrote some lines with more authentic Latino flavor. She won her Oscar for her brilliance in the 1961 original and she has a guest role in the Spielberg remake. Go to Twitter and find The Hollywood Kid -- @ MikeDiStasio. He's reposted his David Winters interview.

As for the current news from Disney regarding the remake, here goes.  The Disney corporate masters are attached to Spielberg's WEST SIDE STORY remake. Reportedly, Disney execs are concerned about possible cigarette smoking onscreen in the movie. Apparently, Disney executives feel that cigarette-smoking would not be appropriate for young rival New York City gang members who engage in lethal knife fights.
That's right. The Jets and The Sharks should not pick up the same bad habit that Walt Disney had.


As the late, great Anna Russell used to say:  "I'm not making this up, you know."





Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Happy Birthday, Mr. Shakespeare

It's April 23rd and, on this day, we celebrate the birth of The Bard. History has it that William Shakespeare was born on this day in 1564 and died on April 23rd in 1616.  My first introduction to the work of Shakespeare occurred on 124th and Central Avenue in South Central Los Angeles, close to Compton. That's where our working class African-American family lived. My parents, my younger sister and brother and me in a modest house on a cul-de-sac block. Dad was a clerk at the city's main post office in downtown L.A.  Mom was a registered nurse who worked in a noted hospital and wore a white uniform with a starched matching cap, matching white regulation shoes and white stockings that always made her legs look like they were about to be deep fried. In our house, we had bookshelves and a cabinet for record albums. My first introduction to William Shakespeare came from Dad. He had a record set with this face on the cover.
One of Dad's favorite movies was 1948's HAMLET starring Laurence Olivier and directed by Laurence Olivier. He directed himself to a Best Actor Oscar victory and his HAMLET took home the Oscar for Best Picture.
My father purchased the special multi-record set of excerpts from Olivier's 1948 film.  HAMLET shared cabinet space with Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other records Dad owned. I'd play HAMLET on my record player. I was too young to understand the Olde English language at first, but I still enjoyed hearing it and discovering where the famous line "To be or not to be" originated.

My next introduction came from my mother. An old movie was about to air on local TV and Mom suggested I watch it. The movie was the 1935 Warner Bros. production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. I'd seen James Cagney on TV as a tough guy in the crime dramas THE PUBLIC ENEMY and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES. Now he was a Bottom in a forest with fairies. He was delightful as Bottom, the weaver who's transformed in an enchanted forest when he sleeps.
         
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM was magical to me and just as much fun to watch as THE WIZARD OF OZ, Walt Disney features or the sci-fi thriller FORBIDDEN PLANET (which is loosely based on Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST).  I was caught up in the fantasy and beauty of the film. Perhaps, then, I didn't understand all of Shakespeare's language but the music of it, the gleam of the film and the cleverness of the cast performances held my interest.


In the years to come, those fine arts introductions from Mom and Dad would serve me well in school. Mom and Dad had these books on our shelves in our home:

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis
Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan
The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale
Another Country by James Baldwin
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins
I Kid You Not by Jack Paar
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata.

There were others. There were books that had short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and James Thurber. This book was my personal favorite. It was a gift from Santa Claus when I was in grade school. It was the greatest Christmas gift from Santa that I ever got.
I love that my parents were the first people to introduce me to Shakespeare -- and other works in the fine arts.




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.

Notes on STEEL MAGNOLIAS

Happy Anniversary, STEEL MAGNOLIAS. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the full-of-female power box office hit will get special screenings i...