Friday, May 31, 2019

Words Count in These Features You May Have Missed

Muscle-bound superheroes in action fantasies have such profitable popularity in cineplexes that it can be hard for smaller films to squeeze in for some attention. Folks can miss entertaining smaller films due to being dazzled by caped characters and special effects. I've got recommendations for your weekend home entertainment. These are features you may have missed in their original release. Let's start with a revenge comedy starring and directed by Jason Bateman.  It's called BAD WORDS.
Did you see the current feel-good news story about the historic win in the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee? There were 8 winners. BAD WORDS takes us into a similar competition.

When I saw the trailer for BAD WORDS, I was positive I'd hate the movie. Why? Bateman's grown-up character was verbally insulting in the presence of a child. I had to see the movie because I was slated to review it on TV. I saw it with a friend. We both liked it a lot. Jason Bateman got big belly laughs from us. BAD WORDS is rude, crude, funny and heartfelt. It's a surprising and witty revenge story that employs a spelling bee championship as its mode of revenge.
A middle-aged man and a little boy with a big I.Q. are both contestants in the same national spelling bee. They're booked in the same economy hotel on the same floor. Bateman's character finds a legal right for competition entry. He has a love-starved female reporter pal who helped him with that. Obnoxious Guy Trilby (Bateman) calls to mind Ebenezer Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL or Jack Nicholson's romance novelist character in AS GOOD AS IT GETS. He pushes people away with his rude attitude because there's a pain inside he doesn't want to reveal. Little Chaitanya, played by Rohand Chand, is his rival and the object of his sharpest verbal zingers. You're stunned at Guy's juvenile behavior towards the conservative and competitive 10-year old. Karma will balance things out. Guy eventually gets his comeuppance for that behavior.
Director Bateman skillfully shows his 40-year old character change and grow. The revelations of the hurt behind his eyes and other changes are subtle and simple. Bateman and his young co-star are good together. Kathryn Hahn is a hilarious hot mess as the smart, love-starved reporter. This movie is about the power of words, the strength we give them and what we choose to do with them. It's also about moving on with one's life. A sweet emotional depth comes through in this 90-minute comedy. Give 2013's BAD WORDS a try.

Go back to the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee in a fascinating 2002 documentary called SPELLBOUND. We meet 8 kids who made it to the competition which will put them in a national TV and print spotlight. This feature, like BAD WORDS, runs about 90 minutes. It packs an unexpected punch because it's not just about correct spelling and making it to that big contest. It becomes a look at social class, race, manners, privilege and the press. There's a Black girl from a tough low-income neighborhood who is about as sweet and polite as she can be. There's a Caucasian boy from an upscale family who got on my nerves when he kept acting like a Jerry Lewis character from the early 1950s. Both kids qualify for the competition. Guess which kid gets press attention.
I grew up in South Central L.A. My parents divorced during my high school years. I attended a high school in Watts just a few years after the nationally-covered Watts Riots of the 1960s. In high school, proving my love of classic films, I got myself on a movie trivia TV quiz show taped in Hollywood. It was a syndicated TV show with celebrity guests on every show. I had two celebrity teammates, Phyllis Diller and Hugh O'Brian.  I was the show's first Black contestant. Also, its youngest at the time. I was the first Black winner on THE MOVIE GAME. This all happened over a summer vacation in 1970. Mom drove me to the studio and sat in the audience. She saw me win. The episode aired months later when school was back in session. My classmates, teachers, neighbors and grandparents in New Jersey got to see it.

I didn't get any press attention for it at all. There was no mention in a local newspaper. Mom remarked to a family friend, "If he had robbed a liquor store, he'd be in the paper."

In SPELLBOUND, the single working mother of the studious Black girl who qualified for the competition makes an on-camera remark of similar sentiment. Her child was overlooked by the press. That moment pierced my heart. SPELLBOUND got an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary of 2002.

He's suave, subtle and successful. He's portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson. Yes, you read that correctly. The Broadway and film veteran delivers a  smooth performance with the luxury of playing a different type of character in a 2009 indie drama written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia. The film is called MOTHER AND CHILD. The Tony Awards will be handed out in June and Annette Bening is a nominee for Best Lead Actress. Bening is a lead actress in this drama, another feature that shows us the power of words.
In Southern California, we meet the complicated middle-aged married woman who was an unwed mother in her teen years. She gave the baby up for adoption. Her husband coaxes her to write a letter to her unknown daughter and leave it with the Catholic agency that arranged the adoption. Bening plays this married woman. Naomi Watts plays the emotionally guarded lawyer who writes a letter to her biological mother and leaves it with the adoption agency. Kerry Washington stars as the young wife who can't get pregnant. She and her husband want to adopt a baby.  Samuel L. Jackson plays the lawyer's boss. Cherry Jones is a blessing as the nun at the Catholic adoption bureau. She's never had a child. She's not a mother. She is a modern-day nun who's a nurturing force in the intersection of these three non-virgin women.
Maybe it does get a tad melodramatic here and there in its 2 hours. I can deal with that thanks to excellent actors in fine form playing out a story of life questions and mature feelings that need to be acknowledged. I was moved. Again...the power of words. I recommend MOTHER AND CHILD.

Enjoy your home entertainment.





Thursday, May 30, 2019

Film Criticism Is Still a Boys Club?

Before I express how new findings on the lack of gender inclusion in film criticism have ticked me off again, let me promote the fact that director/producer/writer Ava DuVernay will own this weekend. Her new work, WHEN THEY SEE US, lands on Netflix May 31st. It takes us into the lives of the Black and Latino teens tagged by U.S. media as "The Central Park Five." Allegedly, they raped and beat a white female jogger in Central Park and did serious prison time for it. However, the press pretty much left out the words "allegedly" and "alleged" while covering the story, a story that made international headlines. In 2002, a known rapist/killer confessed to the crime. The Central Park Five, now grown men, were free. New York City never apologized. Neither did Donald Trump who, in 1989, took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the execution of the Black and Latino teens. Ava DuVernay directed and co-wrote this mini-series.
The Washington Post review calls it "a powerful, overdue telling of the injustices endured by the Central Park Five."

Critic Carla Renata wrote: "WHEN THEY SEE is excruciatingly hard to watch, but necessary. Hard to watch because it is yet another instance in which people of color in this country are continually victimized, polarized and disrespected....The cast is beyond stellar, but two performances permeated my mind well after the credits rolled -- Niecy Nash as Delores Wise and Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise."

Follow Carla Renata on Twitter @ TheCurvyCritic. Here's a trailer for WHEN THEY SEE US.

On Saturday, June 1st, Ava DuVernay is back on TCM in her current co-host spot with Ben Mankiewicz as they present "The Essentials." This weekend's pick from Ava is the 1961 classic WEST SIDE STORY. See Ava present it on TCM at 8p ET on Saturday.

I love WEST SIDE STORY. To me, the film is a work of art. True, neither Natalie Wood nor George Chakiris, both cast to play Puerto Ricans, were Latino but they were right for this project at that time. They help deliver what the film wants to say. If you watch it on Saturday, pay close attention to the blunt racism from the cop, Lieutenant Schrank (played by Simon Oakland). He's anti-immigrant and feels his police badge gives him the right to be racist towards Puerto Ricans. WEST SIDE STORY was released during the Civil Rights movement. Today, elements of it still feel timely.

In her closing cohost segment when she and Ben presented Vincente Minnelli's 1943 musical CABIN IN THE SKY, they addressed the outstanding Black talent in the film. Not just Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Ava also acknowledged the talented dancers, bit players and background actors. All of them would be frustrated by Hollywood's limitations when it came to hiring people of color and giving them upscale assignments to equal their skills. If you saw the superb Ken Burns documentary called JAZZ, you learned that Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were musical geniuses of the 1920s who'd toured in Europe by the 1930s. Hollywood didn't start to treat them with that kind of respect until the 1950s. Ethel Waters had been a recording star since the 1920s and a Broadway star since the 1930s. She was in the original 1940s Broadway cast of CABIN IN THE SKY. After she recreated her Broadway role in the 1943 film adaptation, Hollywood didn't have another script opportunity for her until 1949's PINKY.

DuVernay mentioned that she's attended events to see talented white women like Cate Blanchett who got way more opportunities than extremely talented women of color. I know what she means. Rita Moreno is an example. Ms. Moreno won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for WEST SIDE STORY and then didn't have any Hollywood work for the next seven years. She turned to TV for steady employment and income. So did other women of color who got one Oscar nomination. Women such as Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Angela Bassett, Rosie Perez, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe and Jennifer Hudson all have one Oscar nomination to their credits (so far). They too turned to TV for employment after that nomination because there were no Hollywood script offers. Viola Davis needed to turn to prime time TV after she got her historic second Oscar nomination. When Viola Davis received her third Oscar nomination, for FENCES, that made her the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in all Hollywood history.

Compare that to the rich Jennifer Lawrence, a talented white actress in her 20s, who has won a Best Actress Oscar and has a total of four Oscar nominations to her credit. She gets opportunities that actresses of color do not.

What Ava DuVernay said also applies to people of color in the film criticism and entertainment reporter business. It applies to female film critics.

A recent study sponsored by the CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF WOMEN IN TELEVISION AND FILM found that "men comprise 66% and women 34% of film reviewers working for print, broadcast and online outlets in the U.S."

This aggravates me because, as a Black man, I know how that exclusion feels. It's high time we call people out on it. I started my professional broadcast TV career as a weekly film critic and entertainment contributor on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate in 1980. I did that for four years until I got a job offer from New York City. I reviewed movies on-camera on the ABC affiliate and I also did print reviews for local publications. In New York City, from 1987 to 1990, I was a daily veejay on VH1 and had my own weeknight celebrity talk show. In the 1990s, I accepted offers from local NYC morning news programs to be a regular contributor. I always felt an invisible wall go up when I wanted to do film reviews. Keep in mind that, from my youth in Los Angeles to my many years in New York, I never saw a person of color on national TV as a weekly film critic. Never.

From 1993 to 2006, I consistently got these questions from white broadcast producers and executives when I sought to do film reviews:

a) Do you know anything about movies?
b) Have you ever done any entertainment pieces?

None of them had ever looked at my demo reel or read my resume/bio before asking me those questions. Here's a short look at some of my work before the year 2000 when I got an entertainment editor spot on an ABC News network production.
I pushed and pushed to get an audition for the ABC News job as a film reviewer in 2000. There was reluctance to give me a shot.  A network producer asked "Do you know anything about movies?" I pushed my way into the job. Here's a clip.
What pissed me off about that question is that white network producers and TV executives did not see me, a Black man, as someone who'd have knowledge of new and classic films. Those opportunities did not come my way easily and frequently in New York City. Ben Lyons, the young son of movie critic Jeff Lyons, got a national TV job as half a movie critic duo. He and Ben Mankiewicz were on the 2008 syndicated weekly show, AT THE MOVIES. It was another film review show with two white men. I could never score an audition for a gig like that. Ben Lyons was born when I was the weekly film critic on WISN TV in Milwaukee.

In my New York years, I saw and met many men and women of color who were film critics and they expressed the same frustrations. Film criticism, especially on TV news programs and syndicated shows, seemed to be the exclusive province of white males regardless of their experience and knowledge.  TV producers and executives knew that we Black critics existed and they knew we were available for hiring but they only tapped us to come on TV and talk for these occasions:

a) Black History Month
b) When a Black celebrity died or got jail time
c) To discuss diversity issues.

I did a pilot for a film review/interview show back in 2012. I was booked and auditions were held for my Black cohost. A top PBS station was interested in seeing our pilot. I auditioned with a Black woman who not only reviewed film but taught film at Vassar. She was absolutely fabulous.  I wanted her as my cohost. However, the TV exec who wanted to see our project said that we had to have a male duo. I fought him on that point. I said,  "Name how many Black women you've ever seen on TV as film critics." We tried to make a racial breakthrough in film criticism on TV with that pilot, but then we crashed into a wall of sexism.

Our pilot project did not get picked up.

In the late 90s, I had a local nighttime cable talk show in New York.  One episode was devoted to film talk. I told my producer that I wanted race and gender diversity in my group of film critics. And I got it. It can be done. Here's an example.

People of color and women of all colors need to find the names of those who do the hiring. Find the names of those producers or executives who hire and book film critics/entertainment reporters to be on the air. Ask them why their hires and why their bookings are so, if you will, segregated.

I will close by high recommending a radio show that champions race and gender diversity every Friday. The NPR-related station is KPCC out of Southern California. It's a news/talk station that has a weekday show called AIRTALK with a terrific host named Larry Mantle. The last hour of every Friday show is called FilmWeek. This hour starts at 11:00am PST. It is one hour of lively knowledgeable, non-snarky film reviews and discussions with noted male, female, Caucasian, Black, Latino, Asian-American film critics. It is thrilling to hear and it is proof of what I wrote earlier -- it can be done.

FilmWeek usually airs live on Fridays at 11am California time. Due to special programming, it will air at Noon only on Friday, May 31st.

You can find AIRTALK with FilmWeek hosted by Larry Mantle on the KPCC website. Just go here:
www.scpr.org.

Representation matters.


Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Mom, Confetti and Elton John

Los Angeles. The early 1970s. My younger sister is in her Catholic high school years. I have movie soundtracks, Broadway original cast albums and Motown albums in the my record collection. Betsy has albums by Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Diamond and Elton John. Betsy, my sister, hears about the upcoming Elton John concert at The Forum in Inglewood. She and one of her best friends from school want to go to the Elton John concert at The Forum. Teen girl squeals of joy were heard when they get tickets to the concert.
I didn't go. When Betsy got home from the show, I heard these words announced in our living room: "Wow! What a concert! That was so much fun. Look! I've got confetti in my hair!"

Those peppy words came not from my sister, not from her classmate friend, but from our mother who purchased the tickets on the condition that the girls would be chaperoned -- and she would be the chaperone. Mom purchased three tickets. I am positive my sister was the only girl in her high school class who went to a rock concert...with her mother.

I have a special place in my heart for Elton John music. I loved hearing his music come from my sister's record player. In 1976, when I was fresh out of Marquette University in Milwaukee, I landed my first professional job in what had been my major, Broadcast Arts. I read news on a popular local FM rock station and I felt exactly like the young and naive journalist following a rock band on tour in the 2000 film ALMOST FAMOUS. That film is as precious as gold to me. It brings back memories of happiness, heartbreak, confusion and career goals inside the satiny wrapping of 1970s rock.  I knew a girl like Penny Lane, the character Kate Hudson played so radiantly.  In ALMOST FAMOUS, I consider the tour bus scene while Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" plays to be a true classic movie scene.
Another thing I love about ALMOST FAMOUS is Frances McDormand as the formidable, free-thinking, no-nonsense, devoted, single working mother.  If you saw the movie, remember how the mother confronts the oldest daughter with the Simon & Garfunkel album? She goes mom-cop for a moment to uncover if those two young guys on the record LP cover are slipping drug references into their lyrics.

I lived a variation of that moment in South Central L.A. when our single working mother held up the same album and asked my sister what the deal was with that singing duo.  "Aren't these those 'Hello, Darkness, my old friend' singers?"
I wasn't hit with that kind of contemporary music drama from mama. I got "Robert, can you please turn FUNNY GIRL down? Mother's on the phone!"

Back to the concert night in the early 1970s. Mom was so animated and she did, indeed, have confetti in her hair. She loved the Elton John concert. Betsy was standing next to her. She also loved the concert but she wasn't smiling. Instead, she looked like the teen version of Bea Arthur as MAUDE.
Such was the expression on her face.

When I got Betsy alone, she said that the concert was wonderful. She and her classmate were thrilled to be there. However, Mom would sing along to some songs -- and she did not know the lyrics.

"Mom kept singing 'Get back, funky cat' instead of "Get back, honky cat.' And she sang out loud."

This made my sister want to put a brown paper bag over her head like she was Sylvester the Cat, Jr. in the vintage Warner Bros. cartoons.

Over the weekend, there was a TV segment on ROCKETMAN, the biopic about Elton John that has critics raving. I was at my sister's apartment when the segment aired and asked her, "Do you remember going to an Elton John concert when we were kids?"

"Yes," she and firmly and immediately. "Mom went with me. She stood up and sang 'Get back, funky cat' instead of 'Get back, honky cat.'"

Once again, my sister had that Bea Arthur as MAUDE expression on her face. After all these years.

I am still giggling.

ROCKETMAN, the Elton John biopic, opens nationwide this coming Friday. Here's a trailer.

Go see it. Take a relative -- and some confetti.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

I Loved FOSSE/VERDON

Actress/Producer Michelle Williams has four Oscar nominations to her credit. One of those was in the Best Actress category for playing Marilyn Monroe in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN.
The story focused on the time the late Hollywood screen legend was in London to shoot THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL co-starring and directed by Laurence Olivier.
Now, Williams has dazzled us for weeks with a riveting, revealing performance as a Broadway star who once worked as a dance coach to Marilyn Monroe when she was shooting the musical comedy, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. Gwen Verdon had worked in front of and behind the Hollywood cameras before Broadway put her in the spotlight where she became a show-stopping star. Here's Gwen Verdon as dance coach in rehearsals with Marilyn Monroe for GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. Both women have now been portrayed by actress Michelle Williams.
On Broadway and in the film version of Broadway's DAMN YANKEES, Verdon was choreographed by and danced with Bob Fosse. Offstage, they married, they collaborated, they fought, they collaborated, they separated and they collaborated.

If Michelle Williams does not get Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her performance on FOSSE/VERDON, there will be riots in the streets of West Hollywood. She's absolutely sensational in a TV mini-series that also gives us juicy, intelligent work from Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse and Norbert Leo Butz as writer Paddy Chayefsky.

The hit revival of CHICAGO is still running on Broadway. The revival opened in 1996. In FOSSE/VERDON, we learn that Gwen Verdon was not only the star of the original production but also the engine of the whole vehicle.

With the conclusion of FOSSE/VERDON airing this week, I just wanted to give some space to celebrating the talents of both artists.

DAMN YANKEES was a big hit for Gwen Verdon. She was the witch who was well over 100 years  old and transformed into a hot baby by her old devil boss. Lola will vamp men into behaving badly so her boss can have another soul for down below.  Lola, pretending to be a Dominican beauty pageant winner, tries to vamp a wholesome baseball phenom by singing "Whatever Lola Wants." This is from the 1958 Warner Bros. adaptation of DAMN YANKEES directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen. Choreography by Bob Fosse. Click on this link and watch the number featuring Gwen Verdon with Tab Hunter.

https://youtu.be/6kjQmgm0r4g.

Like Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse had movie credits before he became a heavyweight on Broadway.  In the early 1940s, Rosalind Russell scored with the comedy MY SISTER EILEEN. The film earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. In the 50s, an original screen musical remake was done with the same title. From the 1955 musical, here's Bob Fosse in a bow tie with the terrific Tommy Rall. They're two of Eileen's suitors. Fosse did the choreography.
One of Gwen Verdon's biggest Broadway hits was SWEET CHARITY. Universal released the film version starring Shirley MacLaine. The movie version gave Bob Fosse his first opportunity to direct a film. During summer vacation, Mom let me take the bus to Hollywood Blvd to see it. I think society and dark news of the times worked against Fosse's first film, a colorful musical with a "chin up-carry on" hopeful ending. SWEET CHARITY opened a year after American was paralyzed with grief yet again when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and, two months later, presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were shot and killed. Fellini's 1957 masterpiece THE NIGHTS OF CABIRIA was the basis for the Broadway musical comedy, SWEET CHARITY. However, unlike the classic Fellini film, the female lead character was changed from tender-hearted, uneducated prostitute in Rome to a tender-hearted, high school educated Times Square dance hall hostess. The same movie season of SWEET CHARITY's release, moviegoers were paying the see the young, not-too-smart male prostitute in MIDNIGHT COWBOY. MIDNIGHT COWBOY, THE STERILE CUCKOO starring Liza Minnelli and THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? starring Jane Fonda and EASY RIDER were dramas with a vibe that connected to movie audiences. SWEET CHARITY took about $20 million to make and made less than $10 million at the box office.

What I loved most about SWEET CHARITY was the Bob Fosse choreography coupled with how Fosse opened up the action with his staging and direction of some sequences. Not many folks talk about this number, but I love what the director/choreographer did with the "I'm a Brass Band" number. Here's Shirley MacLaine in Fosse's 1969 film.

Fosse's next film would be -- 1972's CABARET. It was a big hit with critics and a big hit with moviegoers. Bob Fosse would win the Oscar for Best Director.






Saturday, May 25, 2019

A Sigourney Weaver Double Feature

If you have time over a weekend and you're up for a DVD double feature with the same star appearing in both classic films, I've got a tip for you. The star is Sigourney Weaver and there's a message of perseverance in Weaver's real-life story.  The first pick is one of the true classics in the canon of films directed by Woody Allen.  Diane Keaton won the Best Actress Oscar for her luminous and loopy performance in the romantic comedy, 1977's  ANNIE HALL.  Allen won Oscars for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. ANNIE HALL won the Best Picture Oscar over THE GOODBYE GIRL, JULIA, THE TURNING POINT and STAR WARS at the 1978 ceremonies. We loved following the nervous relationship ups and downs of neurotic New York comedian Alvy Singer and the Wisconsin native/aspiring singer Annie Hall.
In the lovely, poignant final five minutes of the story, we see the former sweethearts grab a bite and share laughs discussing old times in a diner across from Lincoln Center.
They'd run into each other outside a revival movie theater. She was with a new boyfriend. He was with a new girlfriend. The new girlfriend doesn't get one word of dialogue, nor does she get a close-up or medium shot. Alvy's tall new girlfriend in a trenchcoat is seen in a wide shot.
If you stay through all of the closing credits, near the end of them you see that Alvy's new girlfriend was an actress named …. Sigourney Weaver.

Her next major nationwide movie was released on May 25, 1979.  It was... ALIEN. She had close-ups, medium shots, wide shots, all sorts of shots and she shot to movie stardom thanks to this innovative, influential sci-fi horror thriller that told us "In space no one can hear you scream."

I was fresh into my radio/TV career as an entertainment reporter at that time. Entertainment reporters frequently received press releases about projects on a studio's slate. Some projects got made as reported. Some didn't. For instance, 20th Century Fox announced that Jane Fonda would play the late nuclear facility whistleblower Karen Silkwood. Well...Fox did make SILKWOOD but it starred Meryl Streep.  Also, Fox announced a film adaptation of the popular stage vehicle A COUPLA WHITE CHICKS SITTING AROUND TALKING to star Jill Clayburgh. It never got made. There was the blurb that Paul Newman would star in a sci-fi thriller called ALIEN. Newman was red hot then and could ask for a $1 million salary. Fox apparently saved money by making the sci-fi movie with non-stars and spending big money on the production aspects and a spine-tingling new movie monster.  We loved Paul Newman, but weren't we thrilled with the way ALIEN turned out? ALIEN gave us my favorite action movie hero -- Sigourney Weaver as brilliant, brave, tough and maternal Ellen Ripley, warrant officer aboard the Nostromo.
I've been extremely fortunate to interview Sigourney Weaver three times during my TV career. She was a terrific guest on my old VH1 talk show. I wanted to confirm something from her in one interview. I'd heard that one of her drama class professors at Yale told her to consider another career because she clearly had no talent. Sigourney Weaver confirmed to me it did indeed happen. His bluntness stunned her so that she could not respond. She said that she just sputtered something under her breath and walked away, deeply hurt.

She was basically an extra in one shot in ANNIE HALL. However, in her next film -- a star was born. With an intelligence and skill that enables her to go smoothly from warrior roles like her role as Ellen Ripley to wacky comedies like GALAXY QUEST and GHOSTBUSTERS, she has won our hearts with her range and talent in films and on Broadway.

Sigourney Weaver has three Oscar nominations to her credit. She was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for ALIENS, the 1986 big hit sequel to ALIEN. She was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for the biopic GORILLAS IN THE MIST: THE DIAN FOSSEY STORY and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for the comedy WORKING GIRL. Weaver made Hollywood history by getting those last two nominations in the same year.

I wonder if her former drama class professor at Yale saw those movies and read about her Oscar nominations? I am glad his cutting remarks did not cause her to take his advice.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Randall Park Is An Actor, Not a Location

Some great entertainment news I read one day in 2014 was the actor Randall Park landed the dad role in ABC's upcoming new sitcom. FRESH OFF THE BOAT made its debut in 2015. This was big TV news because it would be the first sitcom in 20 years to follow the lives and adventures of an Asian-American family. The previous one, 1994's ALL-AMERICAN GIRL starring comedian/actress Margaret Cho, flopped. I feel it flopped because executives basically turned the scripts into ALL-AMERICAN WHITE GIRL instead of letting the characters ring true from Cho's life which inspired it. FRESH OFF THE BOAT is lightly based on the memoirs of hipster chef Eddie Huang. The series took the name of Huang's book. My appreciation for Randall Park's talent was cemented in 2011.  I lived in San Francisco that year and noticed him in TV commercials. A lot of the finest acting you see on TV is in the commercials. Some of the hardest work actors do can be in commercials. I've done commercial acting assignments and I've spent 12-hour shoot days working on a one-minute commercial. When I saw Randall Park as a young husband buying a new car, I instantly recognized him from other commercials, episodes of TV shows and movies such as LARRY CROWNE starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. Randall Park is a talented, versatile and handsome actor.
Now let me jump over to James Franco and Seth Rogen. In a James Franco comedy, there's often an undercurrent of him having a sexual fluidity and a total openness to a bromance. We eagerly wait for the energy of his sexual fluidity to cause the dam to burst, especially when he's opposite Seth Rogen. Rogen usually plays a dude who may think he's a schlub but he isn't in the eyes of the Franco character. Franco is a handsome, trim bear chaser who has a major crush on an unaware bear -- and that bear is Rogen.  Franco digs a dude who's got some meat on his bones and some fur on his frame. Give another look at the two of them in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. Listen to how Franco's best buddies in the sci-fi apocalypse horror/comedy THIS IS THE END (2013) discuss whether or not he's ever had a same-sex encounter. Rogen is in that one too. Did you ever see James Franco and Seth Rogen lampoon Kanye West music in their Bound 2 music video? They are both on a motorcycle. It's like a bear bromance valentine. Look it up on YouTube.
It was announced that THE INTERVIEW, a TV satire and action/comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen, would be opening. I wanted to see it. I did see it. Then came big drama from North Korea. Franco played sort of an "Inside Edition"-type syndicated celebrity interview show host.  Rogen plays his burdened producer trying to make the show a bit more respectable. The producer wants the show to do something that actually smacks of serious, investigative journalism. It turns out that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a fan of the show and likes the self-absorbed host. The host arranges for a trip overseas to interview the North Korean leader. Hilarity and foreign intrigue ensue.

In real life, stern North Korea found out about the movie and wasn't laughing. Remember back in December 2014 when networks reported that, if we paid to see THE INTERVIEW, North Korea would track us down on its GPS and shoot nuclear missiles at us while we purchased popcorn at the snack bar? This was a lead story several times on ABC's World News Tonight. Every time the ABC evening news anchor read a story about THE INTERVIEW, he mentioned that the movie starred James Franco and Seth Rogen. A future ABC star was also in the cast as a feared political leader.

No ABC news anchor who did the story in the evening or the morning ever mentioned that Randall Park was a) in the movie as Kim Jong-un and b) would be seen as the dad in a few months when FRESH OFF THE BOAT made its prime time sitcom debut on ABC.  Again, this would be the first network sitcom in 20 years to focus on an Asian-American family.
This irritated me. Not only did ABC news overlook the ethnic actor who'd soon make history joining the ABC comedy family, they overlooked the actor who stole the picture from James Franco and Seth Rogen. He's fabulously funny playing the leader as a dictator who has daddy issues, hungers for male bonding and has a soft spot in his heart for Katy Perry tunes.
Ever since 2015, Randall Park and Constance Wu have been two of my favorite sitcom characters with their portrayals of the over-achieving suburban parents on FRESH OFF THE BOAT. However, GOOD MORNING AMERICA has never given this racially groundbreaking sitcom and cast nearly the same amount of attention it gave the ROSEANNE reboot or updates on THE BACHELOR and THE BACHELORETTE. Randall Park and Constance Wu should have Emmy nominations to their credits now for FRESH OFF THE BOAT.
Randall Park, James Franco and Seth Rogen star in THE INTERVIEW and the controversial comedy is now on Netflix. At the end of May, Park will be seen as the leading man in a new romantic comedy called ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE. His leading lady is Ali Wong. Here's the trailer.

I will definitely be seeing ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE. More power to you, Randall Park.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

My L.A. Life vs ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

I was a child of the turbulent, tragic and terrific 1960s. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, South Central Los Angeles to be specific, and I loved growing up there. I've had a passion for films, new and classic, that started early in my grade school years. To be a film geek in the city where Hollywood is located was absolutely fabulous. Hollywood Boulevard was like a Yellow Brick Road to me because of elegant movie theaters, record stores and independent bookstores with well-stocked cinema arts sections. In the 60s, Mom surprised me with a ticket to see FUNNY GIRL at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd. when I was in middle school or, as we called it then, junior high. Sitting in the mezzanine of The Egyptian to see FUNNY GIRL was sensational.
I've established that I was a Black kid in L.A. who loved movies and loved seeing movies in Hollywood. Other Black folks took in films on Hollywood Blvd. or in nearby Westwood too.  I attended a high school in Watts.  Verbum Dei High, a Catholic school, had a Black and Mexican-American student body then. We didn't have a big fine arts budget at the school, so teachers took advantage of special student group rates to see prestigious films. Our English Lit. classes got on buses for field trips from Watts to Hollywood or Westwood to see FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS and Paramount's popular 1968 version of Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET directed by Franco Zeffirelli.
When Mom and Dad wanted to see a movie by themselves, not with us three kids in the backseat of the Plymouth for another Rivers Family Night at the Drive-In, they'd head to Hollywood to see subtitled foreign films -- especially if they starred Sophia Loren.
Sidney Poitier was a top Hollywood star in the 60s. He'd won the Best Actor Oscar for LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963). His TO SIR WITH LOVE was a 1967 hit. His GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER (1967) and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) were also box office hits. The later two were two of the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture. IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won.
When we went to see Sidney Poitier movies, people of all colors were in the audiences. When IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture in the April 1968 telecast, the Oscars ceremony had been postponed for the first time in its history. The reason was our national mourning and the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was assassinated that month. Several big Hollywood stars had attended Dr. King's 1963 March on Washington for civil rights. Two months after that Oscars show and the killing of Dr. King, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a presidential candidate, would be assassinated in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel, home of the Coconut Grove nightclub, a famous spot where Hollywood's top stars went for dining and entertainment.

On local TV news, the Black community was excited to see a sharp, smart young sportscaster named Stan Duke on our Southern California CBS affiliate. You didn't see Black folks at the desks of local TV news teams in those days. Duke was a groundbreaker. Unfortunately. he got into serious trouble a few years after his debut. However, before there was sportscaster Bryant Gumble on our local NBC station, there was Stan Duke. In the 60s, there were integrated audiences waiting in line with tickets to see ABC's THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE. The network music variety show had great performers and famous guest hosts -- like Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Joan Crawford. It was taped at the ABC Palace Theater in Hollywood. My family and I spent some time on the 20th Century Fox lot. Radio station KMPC had a contest that I entered. I was one of the winners and the prize was a family pass to a special weekend preview screening of FANTASTIC VOYAGE on the Fox lot.

On weeknight network TV, our family loved a new series about a Los Angeles high school. Watch the opening credits of ROOM 222, an ABC show that premiered in 1969.
Today, in Entertainment Weekly, I read that critics are calling the new Quentin Tarantino film a "profound masterpiece." In that particular article, I noticed the raves came from a predominantly white group of movie critics.  Quentin takes us to my hometown, Los Angeles, in 1969. He takes us to the Hollywood Blvd I recall fondly from my youth. In my high school years, I spent much summer vacation time there going to movies, bookstores, record stores and the Hamburger Hamlet.

Look at this trailer for Quentin Tarantino's ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. I watched it and had the same exact question I did while watching the 2013 film from the Coen Brothers, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. That movie was set in New York City's Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961.  My question was -- Where are the Black people?

Click onto this link and watch the trailer for the movie:  https://youtu.be/ELeMaP8EPAA.

There are more Black people in the opening credits to that 1969 ABC TV series than I saw in the trailer to ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, a Quentin Tarantino movie set it Los Angeles in 1969.  I'm not just talking about actors with speaking parts in the talented cast of that trailer. I was also looking at the background actors. The extras.  The Tarantino trailer tells me that Black people disappeared from the streets of Hollywood in 1969.

Maybe I'm being too sensitive.

I want to read reviews of Quentin's new film from some critics of color. If you've seen it, let me know how it is.  The online site called ThePlaylist quotes Leonardo DiCaprio, star of the film, as saying Tarantino's new feature is "really a love letter to the outsiders of the industry. It's a film about coming home. It's a love letter to this industry we're so fortunate to work in."



Monday, May 20, 2019

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 in theaters May 21st and 22nd.  Wow. Has it been 30 years already? I remember vividly the first time I saw it. There was a screening for critics and it was held in the Brill Building. This was one of the most comfortable screening rooms in Manhattan, located in the theater district. I was working on VH1 at the time. I had my own prime time weeknight celebrity talk show. I needed to see the film because I'd be talking about it in my veejay segments and interviewing a couple of its stars.
As usual, when I attended a press screening, I enter and give a nod to every other Black person I see whenever I'd see them. I'd been to many screenings where I'd been the only one. When I strolled into the Brill Building screening room -- early enough to get a good seat -- my jaw went slack as I spotted and nodded to another Black person present. She was seated in the last row with friends. It was Oprah. I took an aisle seat in the middle. The screening room was packed by the time the movie started. Rex Reed sat in the row in front me. The late Joel Siegel of GOOD MORNING AMERICA sat right behind me and sobbed loudly throughout the funeral scenes. I am sure we all left that screening room knowing that moviegoers would love STEEL MAGNOLIAS.
Olympia Dukakis was a totally cool guest on my show. On the show, she told us that she was a hardcore fan of The Grateful Dead. When she was cast in STEEL MAGNOLIAS, she'd won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing to Italian mother in 1987's MOONSTRUCK starring Cher. Just like Beulah Bondi opposite Thomas Mitchell in MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937) and Angela Lansbury opposite Laurence Harvey in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), Olympia was one those actresses who played a movie mother to an actor who, in real life, was less than 7 years in the same age category as she. Olympia Dukakis played a mom to leading man Dustin Hoffman in JOHN AND MARY (1969). She was only 6 years older than Hoffman. Dukakis got the role in MOONSTRUCK after the film's director, Norman Jewison, saw her on Broadway in a play directed by Mike Nichols. The comedy play, SOCIAL SECURITY, starred Marlo Thomas, Ron Silver and Joanna Gleason. Yes, Olympia Dukakis played a mom in that too.

One of the things we love most about 1989's STEEL MAGNOLIAS is watching Olympia Dukakis as Clairee hurl hilarious wisecracks at the always-cranky Ouiser played by Shirley MacLaine. Olympia Dukakis worked with Shirley MacLaine's brother, Warren Beatty, way back when her film career was so new that she was basically a background actor. In the 1964 mental health drama called LILITH, starring Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg, look for Olympia in a few shots as one of the patients in the mental institution. She's one of the extras in the bridge scene with Beatty.

Sally Field has been a hero, inspiration and a role model to me since the 1970s. I feel like I grew up with her. I was a devoted fan of her sitcom work. I watched her as GIDGET, THE FLYING NUN and THE GIRL WITH SOMETHING EXTRA. It made me angry that critics seemed to overlook her impressive work in made-for-TV dramatic movies on ABC. She was not taken seriously.  I cheered when she slammed across that galvanizing performance as a schizophrenic named SYBIL. With her work as the young woman suffering from multiple personalities, SYBIL was a 1976 NBC mini-series that had everybody talking about Sally Field's stunning portayal. Then came her landmark film career.

Sally Field, a native of Southern California, proved to have the right stuff for playing Southern women. Playing Southern women earned her two Oscars for Best Actress -- NORMA RAE (1979) and PLACES IN THE HEART (1984).

Shirley MacLaine was a marvelous guest on my VH1 show. We started gabbing in the green room and continued on the set. She got her Best Actress Oscar for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983), a classic written and directed by James L. Brooks. Here's a clip of Shirley and me talking about the James L. Brooks experience.
Shirley went on to tell me that the accent she had planed to use for Aurora Greenway in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT is the accent she later used for Ouiser in STEEL MAGNOLIAS.
Herbert Ross directed STEEL MAGNOLIAS. Previously, he'd directed MacLaine to a Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1977's THE TURNING POINT. Herbert Ross also directed Barbra Streisand in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT (1970) and FUNNY LADY (1975), George Burns to an Oscar victory for THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1975) and plus Marsha Mason, Quinn Cummings and Richard Dreyfuss to Oscar nominations for THE GOODBYE GIRL (1977). Dreyfuss won Best Actor.

Reportedly, Herbert Ross initially was quite a bit rough on newcomer Julia Roberts. When it looked as though her self-confidence was shaken, the veterans formed a supportive sisterhood circle around her. Julia Roberts got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for STEEL MAGNOLIAS. Her next release would be PRETTY WOMAN. That film brought her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress of 1990. PRETTY WOMAN's popularity and box office take were huge and made Julia Roberts one of the biggest, brightest new stars in Hollywood. Julia Roberts won the Best Actress Oscar for ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000). There's now a musical version of PRETTY WOMAN on Broadway.

I saw STEEL MAGNOLIAS in New York City before its film adaptation. I loved it. Robert Harling wrote the play. Onstage, it has an all-female cast. There's no man in it at all. Just like 1939's THE WOMEN which was also based on a hit play. Harling wrote the screenplay. For the film adaptation, he opened up the action of his story and he added men -- just like MGM's 1956 remake of THE WOMEN, called THE OPPOSITE SEX, added men. After the movie success of his STEEL MAGNOLIAS, Robert Harling went on to write screenplays for the comedy SOAPDISH (1991) and THE FIRST WIVES CLUB (1996). You can see him onscreen in STEEL MAGNOLIAS as a minister.

For ticket and showtime info on the special STEEL MAGNOLIAS screenings this week, go here:
www.fathomevents.com.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

See Tom Hardy LOCKE It

He's that terrifically talented British actor with the pillowy lips who has a remarkable skill for playing characters who are "mad, bad and dangerous to know," to quote what Lady Caroline Lamb once said about Lord Byron.  Tom Hardy beat down some personal demons to distinguish himself as an actor. He has impressed critics in the U.K. and America with his performances.          
I suppose that the largest American audience will know Hardy from his work as Bane in the 2012 Batman thriller, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES...
 ...and 2015's MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.
Hardy snagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 2015's THE REVENANT starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
This is a heads-up blog post that one of Tom Hardy's best screen performances is now on Netflix. A young friend of mine who is passionate about film, knowledgeable about film and a mighty fine entertainment news contributor raved about this performance to me back in 2013. She was not the only entertainment journalist who this Hardy performance. Because of my friend's enthusiasm, I made a  point to see the movie. I whole-heartedly agreed with her.  Tom Hardy was amazing in it.  LOCKE is a British production, an independent feature, that runs only 85 minutes.

Are you familiar with THE HUMAN VOICE starring Ingrid Bergman? It was a 1966 ABC TV special in which Ingrid Bergman plays a woman talking on the phone to her lover. Her lover is on the brink of marrying another woman. THE HUMAN VOICE was a one hour special, with network commercial breaks, featuring Ingrid Bergman in an outstanding solo performance as a woman having a breakdown. Based on a play, it's a long and passionate monologue. Bergman is the only person seen in the production.  Sophia Loren did a version of it decades later.  Sophia Loren's 2014 production, HUMAN VOICE, was set in 1950s Italy and aired on cable's TCM (Turner Classic Movies). Loren played Angela, an older woman on the phone to her lover who is leaving her for another woman.

LOCKE is the male equivalent to THE HUMAN VOICE. Ivan Locke has a good construction business and a family life. He's soon to become a father again -- but the woman having his baby is not his loving wife. He is driving alone in his car and talking on the phone. He's trying the deal with this crisis in his personal life and serious calls about his business that need his attention. Tom Hardy is fascinating to watch and he holds your attention throughout the whole story.

It takes a strong, gifted actor to pull off something like that. Tom Hardy is such an actor.

If a weekend approaches and you'll have time for a Tom Hardy double feature, I recommend his riveting performance as one of those "mad, bad and dangerous to know" characters. He plays a real-life notorious British convict in 2008's BRONSON. He's a British criminal who robbed a post office and got a 7-year sentence. However, because he was such a violent guy, he made history when he wound up in solitary confinement for over 20 years, longer than any previous criminal. His name isn't Bronson. That's his "stage name," if you will.  Criminal Michael Peterson always wanted to be famous so he takes on the name Charles Bronson. It's the same name as the American star in the DEATH WISH movies of the 1970s.

BRONSON is raw and randy. In prison, his violent outbursts continue, he's naked a lot, he comes to embrace the arts and eventually we'll see him in clown make-up. This is a different kind of prison biopic. Usually, I'm not drawn to films like BRONSON but Tom Hardy is the bad and the beautiful as this convict.  You can't take your eyes off him.

There are crude but funny moments in this film. For instance, there's there one in which the hyper, loud convict sticks his bare butt out at a guard in his cell and orders him to apply Vaseline to it. At first, the guard is confused. As one would be.

The BRONSON soundtrack includes music by Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and a vocal by Doris Day.

LOCKE is currently on Netflix. BRONSON is not. Now go marvel at the talent of Tom Hardy.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Vincente Minnelli's CABIN IN THE SKY

If there was any director at MGM in the 1940s and 50s who could have been considered a Civil Rights activist in his way, that director was Vincente Minnelli. He included Black people into the filmmaking mix, he gave Black moviegoers sophisticated images to see when they were sorely needed and he put Black performers in the spotlight. Look at THE CLOCK, THE PIRATE, THE BAND WAGON, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. This all started with the very first film he directed, the movie version of the Broadway musical fable hit, CABIN IN THE SKY. His 1943 fantasy release was a production of the prestigious Freed Unit.  Producer/songwriter Arthur Freed produced most of the biggest gems in MGM's crown of musicals. Some of the most famous Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire musicals came from the Freed Unit. Minnelli had an unmistakable, imaginative artistic style and that style makes its debut in CABIN IN THE SKY. For the film, Ethel Waters reprised her female lead role. She was the star of the Broadway musical. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, extremely popular at the time thanks to being a regular on Jack Benny's national radio sitcom, and young singer Lena Horne were added. They were not in the Broadway cast. Horne was making the transition from fine vocalist with a band to film roles. For all the Black people in the film, this was an A-list booking.  The fantasy was Man's Struggle with Good vs. Evil. Will Joe give up gambling and be a regular church-goers like his faithful and spiritual wife? Or will that scrumptious vamp Georgia Brown lead him to temptation where he can be snatched up by Lucifer?
My mother guided me to see CABIN IN THE SKY one night when it was on TV during my high school years. I grew up in South Central L.A. and this was during the racially turbulent, racially progressive 1960s. My passion for new movies and classic films was already in bloom by then. I knew of CABIN IN THE SKY. I knew that Ethel Waters, like Ethel Merman, had become a Broadway musical star in the 1930s. Jazz greats Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were also in the cast. Mom and Dad had music by them in our record collection at home. The same applied to Lena Horne records. We had her albums. Watching her special guest appearances on network music variety shows was like a religious obligation in our household. Mom and Dad also had a hardcover copy of a Lena Horne biography that was popular at that time. An enjoyable read, it was nowhere near as revealing, surprising, fascinating and extensively research as the biography my friend James Gavin wrote. STORMY WEATHER: THE LIFE OF LENA HORNE came out in 2010.
Jim found out that that the oft-told tale of Lena's movie numbers in future MGM musicals being cut out when the films played down South was more legend than truth. One theater did it but the the practice was not widespread. However, both books did touch on Lena's artistic frustration while under contract to MGM.
I was aware of these famous and trailblazing Black artists before I saw the movie. When I saw the CABIN IN THE SKY for the first time, I was exhilarated and angry. I was surprised at how quietly angry I was. I was just a kid in high school. But I was aware of Hollywood segregation and actors like Lena Horne being told "You're so talented, we just don't know what to do with you." Here's Lena outfitted in CABIN IN THE SKY attire while chatting with director Vincente Minnelli (left) and actor Melvyn Douglas (right.)
When I heard Ethel Waters sing the title tune, her voice was like a symphony orchestra unto itself. Her voice was so heavenly, it put tears in my eyes. The first song in the movie, sung in a church service, gave us an example of the Minnelli style. Black folks are seated in the pews as "Little Black Sheep" is sung and some good news is whispered from person to person. The camera shows the folks and we watch as the news is passed winding up at Ethel Waters and Butterfly McQueen seated in back. These Black folks looked clean-cut and stylish. This was extremely refreshing for Black moviegoers after years of degrading blackface numbers from Busby Berkeley in numerous Hollywood musicals. The nightclub sequence starting outside Jim Henry's Paradise took my breath away. Black folks are outside, casually conversing. They start to walk into the club. But they don't just walk. Minnelli, establishing another one his elegant hallmarks, has choreographed each walk. Each person or couple that strolls into the joint has a different cadence to the Duke Ellington music riff. Minnelli is letting us Black folks be our fabulous selves as they strut in for some nightlife. When they get inside ... bam! It's rhythmic excitement in a scene packed with couples -- excitement like in the dance at the gym almost 20 years later in WEST SIDE STORY.
Inside, folks were dancing like they did at the historic Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. We viewers got one dazzling number right after another -- Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, John Bubbles (the original Sportin' Life in Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS) , Ethel Waters.  They, and the extras as dancers and other nightclub patrons, all look dapper and attractive. One of the things that hit me the most about this sequence was that the Black folks resembled the photos of smartly-dressed friends and relatives from the 1940s in my parents' family scrapbook. I could connect happily to those classic movie images. I did. Here's Ethel Waters on the CABIN IN THE SKY set with Duke Ellington and Vincente Minnelli.
Why was I elated and bothered? Because Ethel Waters would not have another film role for seven years. She'd play an illiterate backwoods maid in Elia Kazan's 1949 race drama, PINKY, and she'd get an Oscar nomination for her performance. It would be 1959 before musical genius composer Duke Ellington would be tapped to score a film. He did 1959's ANATOMY OF A MURDER and got an Oscar nomination for 1961's PARIS BLUES. Many of those talented Black background actors would appear in other films but their names would not be added to the credits. Despite being at the Tiffany of Hollywood studios for musicals and looking absolutely glamorous as she sang in them, Lena Horne would be frustrated and limited at MGM. Her singing was terrific. But Lena was never permitted to have dialogue scenes with white actors who were her fellow players in deluxe Freed Unit musicals. Lena Horne never got to do lines and/or sing with a Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra or Ann Miller. She had the support and respect of Freed Unit top shelf talent like Vincente Minnelli, music arranger Kay Thompson and influential hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff but Hollywood, on the whole, was still racially narrow-minded in executive offices. To give an example of how limited and under-utilized gorgeous Lena Horne was at MGM, think of Dooley Wilson as Sam in 1942's CASABLANCA from Warner Bros. Wilson had key scene individual scenes with Humphrey Bogart and an important one Ingrid Bergman. Wilson had scenes with both stars together. Lena never got to do such integrated onscreen work with white MGM stars.

The fact that tremendously talented Black people were overlooked, limited and treated like second class citizens in Hollywood made me angry after I saw CABIN IN THE SKY. Mom approved of my anger. It fueled my career choices. As a film critic on national TV, as a celebrity talk show host on national TV and as an entertainment reporter, I was determined to land the kind of work denied Black people in my youth. In my work, I would seek to bring attention to others who didn't get equal opportunities. That's the impact CABIN IN THE SKY had on me.

In 1983, Lena Horne took her acclaimed, Tony-winning one-woman Broadway show on tour. I was working in Milwaukee on TV when she played there. I attended her press conference. I met the legendary Lena Horne and she offered my mother a job. She not only offered Mom a job, but when Ms. Horne was on the next leg of her tour, she flew Mom out first class and put her up in a hotel suite. I'll put the rest of that story in a book. Mom and I were both noticed by Lena Horne.

If you've never seem CABIN IN THE SKY, see it. This musical is rich with Black talent and the style of director Vincente Minnelli.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Noah Wyle on THE RED LINE

I was watching Sunday night TV a few weeks ago. A new limited series drama was making its premiere. Honestly, I had not intended to watch it but there was nothing else on that I wanted to see. I just left the channel where it was. I am very glad I did. There was a performance in the show of such emotional rawness and realness that I could not look away. My attention had been grabbed, my heart and soul were moved. I did not go to the kitchen for a snack. I got off social media. I paid full attention like we used to in the old days before Twitter, Facebook and remote controls. If you want to experience a powerful and poignant performance, you must see Noah Wyle in THE RED LINE. This series, co-produced by Ava DuVernay, airs on CBS. I believe the final chapters air this coming Sunday. You can also see it on Amazon Prime Video.  Noah Wyle was quite popular Dr. John Carter on NBC's hit hospital drama, ER, back in the day.  In THE RED LINE, he plays a Chicago high school teacher whose husband is a hospital doctor.
The couple has an adopted Black daughter. The happiness of their home is cruelly disrupted in the first twenty minutes of the premiere episode when the doctor is killed during crime activity. He had stopped into a convenience store to buy milk. Watch this short news piece.
Noah Wyle's portrayal of a middle-aged gay dad who is suddenly a widower has such nuance and depth and truth that I not only felt he was someone I knew personally, he made me heartsore with his accurate projection of sensitive, aching feelings I've had. He did this occasionally with just a weary, wounded look. He didn't even need dialogue. All the complex emotions were right there in his eyes. His husband's murder instantly becomes a top story in Chicago news. LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter advocates get involved. With the loss of her Black dad, the daughter now yearns to meet her birth mother. The daughter is a high school student.

There are racial conflicts, intersections, police and politicians, shocks and surprises. Aliyah Royale stands out as the loving and understandably troubled adopted daughter. This is another strong performance. Previously, Aliyah was a contestant on PROJECT RUNWAY.
THE RED LINE is well-written, very well-cast and handsomely photographed. A few episodes were directed by Kevin Hooks. Hooks is now a veteran TV director. You may remember him from his acting days. When he was a kid, he played the son opposite Cicely Tyson and Paul Sounder in the 1972 classic, SOUNDER.

THE RED LINE is a good production. Again, I highly praise and highly recommend the performance by Noah Wyle. His working class character is a more dimensional, more complicated gay man than we usually see now in episodic television. There's one sequence that takes place at a gala Chicago LGBTQ event. Teacher Daniel Calder (Noah Wyle) is asked to attend and speak. He's still absorbed by grief. He enters the ballroom and sees a Queer Eye-like group posing for photographers. Each member of the Queer Eye-like group is wearing a suit that's a bright color seen in the gay rights rainbow flag. There was a double look of loss in the teacher's eyes. There was his loss as a widower and the new feeling of loss within his community as a middle-aged widower. How does he now fit in with younger gay guys wearing festive rainbow suits and being fabulous? As a gay man who was a widower in my 40s, I knew exactly how he felt. The speech Daniel Calder gives later in the sequence left me limp. Noah Wyle had me in tears. He broke my heart with the naked pain of his character, a man who tries to hold it all together. This gay man is a "kitchen sink" character and that is refreshing to see. I could connect to him.

Bravo, Noah Wyle. Bravo. Your work on THE RED LINE is excellent.  It's one of the best performances I've seen on network television this year.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Doris Day and a Song I Love

I bet I'm not alone in this. Hearing that Doris Day died was like getting the news that a beloved relative had passed away. She made me smile for most of my life. I first discovered her movies on local Channel 9 in my Los Angeles youth. To come home from school and find CALAMITY JANE, LULLABY OF BROADWAY, TEA FOR TWO, APRIL IN PARIS, MY DREAM IS YOURS or THE PAJAMA GAME on TV was all I needed to be in a state of total happiness. Just Doris Day -- and an after school snack. Such was some of my 1960s boyhood.
In 2005 back in New York City, I was putting together some new demo reels. My editor was a young Eastern European dude who, in the 1980s, was a little boy with his family behind the Iron Curtain. One of my pieces for my local morning TV news show years had a clip of Doris Day singing in one of her Warner Bros musicals. As soon as my editor saw her face appear on the monitor, he broke out into a huge smile. Behind the Iron Curtain, they could get Doris Day movies on TV. He said that the sound of her singing and the sight of her face always made him so happy when he was a youngster. Doris Day gave the same rush of joy to a Czech kid behind the Iron Curtain that she gave to a Black kid in South Central Los Angeles.
Did you ever see the 1954 remake of A STAR IS BORN? The remake screenplay by Moss Hart was well-tailored for the talents of Judy Garland. For the 1954 version directed by George Cukor, Esther Blodgett was the singer with a big band before she's discovered by Hollywood forces and her named is changed to Vicki Lester. A big star had been slated to make a musical for a major studio but there was some sort of a contractual snag. The studio takes a chance on Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester. She makes her movie debut and … a star is born.

Doris Day was like a real-life version of that 1954 Vicki Lester. She was a singer with a well-known band. Warner Brothers took a chance on her when Betty Hutton reportedly was unavailable, enabling Doris to make her big screen debut in 1948. Within five years, Doris had shot up to being one of the top stars on the Warner Bros. lot. She'll make CALAMITY JANE. The original musical comedy, a western, will have her acting, dancing and singing new songs written for her. She'll introduce a new song, "Secret Love," that will be a hit record and win the Oscar for Best Song. Doris Day's name will appear on the big screen before the title in the opening credits.
After 1953's CALAMITY JANE, Doris Day took her All-American, sunny image and played its dark side. She should've been a Best Actress Oscar nominee for her dramatic work in the 1955 musical biopic, LOVE ME OR LEAVE. James Cagney, her leading man, was in awe of Day's natural dramatic acting ability and praised it highly in his autobiography. He made two films with her, one comedy and one drama. He urged her to never take acting lessons the studio. He told her to continue using her natural instincts. He felt that, if Warner Bros. put her through its acting classes, she'd become like a Pringles potato chip. She'd have the same look and style as the other actress put through the process. She never took any acting classes. Doris Day played singer Ruth Etting opposite Cagney.  In the movie, the ambitious singer gets hooked up with a known hood who can help get her to where she wants to go. She can be feminine. She can also be as tough as he is. She followed it with another dramatic part. The played the tourist wife and mother whose sunny disposition darkens with despair when something sinister happens to her little boy during the overseas vacation. Hitchcock's 1956 remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH was a thriller in which Doris introduced a new song -- "Que Sera, Sera" -- and played a wife who reclaims her voice in a husband-dominated marriage.  Doris' emotional breakdown scene in which the wife is told her son has been kidnapped was further proof of her impressive dramatic skills. "Que Sera, Sera" won the Oscar for Best Song.

There was such high regard, respect and affection for Doris Day's talent that she was cast as the leading lady opposite veteran male stars who were in classic films of 1939. James Stewart, James Cagney, Clark Gable, Cary Grant and David Niven were amongst her co-stars. LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME should've brought Doris Day an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

During my VH1 years, in the late 80s into 1990, I gained a fresh awareness of what a special and often under-rated performer Doris Day was. At the same time was tops at the box office, she was also tops on the Billboard charts, adding hit records to her accomplishments. This is a feat that, in the 80s/90s, pop divas such as Madonna, Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez couldn't match. Doris was a wonderful singer, a good dancer and her acting ability got her an Oscar nomination (for PILLOW TALK). Oscar winners like Cher and Jennifer Hudson could not pull off being triple threats like that. Doris Day and Gene Nelson were a sharp dance team in her 1950s musicals.
In her acting, Doris Day seemed to know instinctively know the layers and dimensions of a good script and how to play it. YOUNG AT HEART is a remake of the hit Warner Bros. 1938 drama, FOUR DAUGHTERS. We see what seems to be the picture of the ideal 1950s suburban family, but there's darkness at the edges and some emotional dissonance in the marital lives of the three close sisters. Doris' character doesn't marry the lucky and privileged composer who falls for her. She marries his down and out singer/songwriter buddy (Frank Sinatra) who turns out to be the perfect man for her. If she can only convince him of that. Doris introduces another new song. It's called "There's a Rising Moon for Every Falling Star."

This is my favorite Doris Day vocal. It's not as popular as her hit songs as CALAMITY JANE and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH but I love it. Through the years, as I grew up, got older, had my heart broken again and again, I would turn to this song to turn that light of hope back on in my heart. Here it is.

That Doris Day vocal will continue to turn on a light in my heart.



America in My Youth

I was a little boy when President John F. Kennedy was a living voice and in office. During his presidency, I became a transfer student. I ...