Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Angela Lansbury directed by Hal Prince

THE PAJAMA GAME marked his first time as a Broadway producer -- and the hits just kept on coming. An enormous amount of theatre history was in that one man. I heard a KNX AM radio reporter begin the news item with "He was a Prince who became a King of Broadway." We'd have to agree with that. Hal Prince died this week at age 91. As a producer and/or director, even a partial list of his credits is stunning: THE PAJAMA GAME, DAMN YANKEES, WEST SIDE STORY, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, CABARET, COMPANY, FOLLIES, EVITA, SWEENEY TODD and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. I've spent quite a bit of money seeing Hal Prince shows on Broadway with their original casts or in revival. Every single penny of the ticket price was well spent. In the 1960s, Broadway gave multi-talented Angela Lansbury the stardom that Hollywood oddly had not. A number of big name female stars had been mentioned as possibilities to take on the lead role in MAME, the 1966 Broadway musical version of the hit Broadway comedy AUNTIE MAME which then became a hit film starring Rosalind Russell, the actress who originated the role on Broadway. MAME was not a Hal Prince show, by the way. Lansbury said her name was at the bottom of the list. She was eager for employment at the time. She got the part. MAME premiered and, the next day, the show was one of the hottest tickets in town. Angela Lansbury had reinvented herself and she was the new toast of Broadway.
She had been under contract to MGM, the famous Hollywood studio which was the Tiffany of movie musicals. She makes her screen debut in the psychological thriller GASLIGHT (1944) and gets an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She establishes her dramatic chops with her first assignment. She plays a sweet, emotionally abused singer in THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945) and gets her second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She co-stars with Judy Garland in THE HARVEY GIRLS (1945), an original screen musical, and her singing voice is dubbed. When Lansbury's MGM days were done, she scored a third Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress thanks to her chilling brilliance as the manipulative political mother in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1963). MGM never utilized Angela Lansbury's musical talents and her delicious comedy skills.  That was a huge oversight for a Hollywood studio that prided itself on making the best musicals in town.

I saw Angela Lansbury in Hal Prince's SWEENEY TODD with its score by Stephen Sondheim. I just about clapped my hands raw giving her a standing ovation when standing ovations were not a nightly occurrence. She was extraordinary, comical and conniving as Mrs. Lovett.
Over the weekend, I re-watched a 1970 movie that's a favorite of mine. It's a nasty little modern-day fairy tale starring Angela Lansbury in the most glamorous, the sexiest and the most wickedly funny role she'd ever been given in a film. She's opposite Michael York two years before we saw him in CABARET with Liza Minnelli. I watched this dark 1970 comedy and, yet again, said to myself "Hollywood studios really dropped the ball not giving Angela Lansbury comedy and musical comedy roles" followed by "Hal Prince did a good job with his first film."

1970's SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE, starring Angela Lansbury and Michael York, was directed by Hal Prince. He directed two film in his lifetime. This was first. And his best.
We're in Bavarian countryside, a location where residents strive to shake off the shadows of the late Adolf Hitler and World War Two. People are cheerful and pleasant in lederhosen and drinking beer. In the woods, strolls a young and handsome man named Konrad. He can charm you with his smile. Konrad is the kind of young man who would see a pretty little butterfly in the woods, catch it...and then toss it into a nearby spider's web. He is a poor young man fascinated with the Bavarian castle in the distance. He wants to live it that castle and will do whatever it takes to do so. The castle is occupied by the glacially elegant and widowed Countess von Ornstein. The Countess will do whatever it takes to keep from being low on funds again, like in the days when those Nazis "kept inviting themselves for lunch." Like Konrad, she too is an opportunist.

How can Konrad scheme to become one of her servants? How can the Countess scheme to get backrubs from Konrad without making her two children suspicious. How can she bring more money into her castle account?  I'm surprised that Hal Prince's SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE doesn't have a bigger cult following. Here's a faded trailer from its initial theatrical release.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE (1970). Look for that Hal Prince feature film directorial debut on Amazon. Hal Prince -- Broadway producer, director and filmmaker.

One more thing. You probably saw Angela Lansbury in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. If you never heard her as MAME, here's a cut from the original Broadway cast album. She introduced this tune by Jerry Herman. It's since become a standard we hear every year at Christmastime.


Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Revisit a Disney Classic

With all the heartbreaking and infuriating national news headlines of the day, I felt like I needed something to refresh and reboot my spirits. I turned to some Disney entertainment. I know that a current Disney hit is THE LION KING at movie theaters. That's the live-action remake of the animated Disney classic in 1994 that introduced us to animal flatulence onscreen. But I wanted a Disney classic, something that took me back to my childhood. Something colorful. Something without flatulence. I watched Disney's 1959 hit, SLEEPING BEAUTY. Oh my goodness. I had not seen it all the way through in decades. I was absolutely riveted as if I was a youngster watching it on a huge Southern California drive-in movie screen with my parents. The color and scope were sumptuous. The artwork for Maleficent, the villain, was gorgeous and frightening.
Disney's SLEEPING BEAUTY was directed by Clyde Geronimi and based on one of the stories written by Frenchman Charles Perrault in the 1600s.  The young and dear beauty's name is Aurora. She has three fairy godmothers who keep their magical powers a secret. Aurora meets a handsome unmarried prince in the woods. The animated woodland creatures are charming.
Maleficent is pure animated evil so she does not want to see Aurora happy in any way, shape of form. And when she turned into a colossal dragon...Wow! What an exciting sequence as the prince battles her.
Losing myself in this classic work of Disney imagination was just the tonic my spirits needed. Today, we can see there's a push to give us edgy, hip humor in modern animated features. Heck, I admit I've done that myself in performance a number of times over the years. I personally learned that trying to be too hip, too edgy can oddly date the material and give it a short shelf life. Making the work imaginative, entertaining and giving it a soul -- that's where the artistry lies. That's what Disney did at its best.
I have a thick, wonderful book of international literature that a family friend gave me when I was in college. It has a few stories by Hans Christian Andersen in it. They're stories that were new to me.  I've been a devoted Disney fan ever since I was in grade school. Today, I wish Disney studio readers would delve into international fairy tales, like the untouched ones by Hans Christian Andersen, and give us fresh works based on old storybook tales instead of cranking out live-action remakes of its animated classics.
Disney's 1959 production, SLEEPING BEAUTY, kept me wide awake, happy and entertained last night. I needed that. Do yourself a favor. Revisit a Disney classic. I think you'll enjoy it.

Monday, July 29, 2019

My Quentin Tarantino Question

Movie critics are loving the new Quentin Tarantino film. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD takes place in 1969 when things were changing.  I like Tarantino's work. Some of it. I do admit that I felt certain muscles in my butt area tighten when I saw him play a character who freely dropped the N-word in conversation. I dig his obvious appreciation for and inspirations from classic films. Those same muscles in my butt area would tighten again when white critics exalted him for some edgy originality he borrowed from Black directors such as Melvin Van Peebles of SWEET SWEETBACK and WATERMELON MAN and Ivan Dixon of THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR. Quentin Tarantino is one lucky white dude. Look at Oscar night in 2013. He won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay -- for DJANGO UNCHAINED. Django was a lead character introduced in a 1966 Italian western called DJANGO. He was played by Franco Nero a year before Hollywood audiences saw him as the incredibly handsome Lancelot in Warner Bros. CAMELOT. Nero appeared as Django again in another Italian western. But when Quentin re-imagined the Django story, set it in America and made him a tough, no-nonsense Black man, Quentin won an Oscar for his *original* screenplay. Did William Roberts get a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for 1960's THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN? No. Because the Academy knew it was a Wild West remake of 1954's SEVEN SAMURAI directed and co-written by Akira Kurosawa. But things have changed. I want to see Tarantino's new film. It's set in the Los Angeles of my youth.
I grew up in South Central L.A.  I was a teen there in 1969. I was home listening to KMPC on my transistor radio one day. Gary Owens of the NBC hit comedy series, ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN, was a weekday DJ on KMPC-AM.  When the host broke in with a bulletin about a Hollywood death. I turned the volume up to hear what star from Old Hollywood had died. But, when the show cut over to a reporter to deliver the news, you could hear in his voice that he was shaken. The new young and very pregnant VALLEY OF THE DOLLS star, Sharon Tate, had been murdered. There were other fatalities at the gruesome crime scene. The Manson Clan also killed the sunny, carefree, welcoming, open-door vibe of the predominantly white Southern California that you saw reflected in pop culture. People now purchased locks for their doors.                                                                                                      
My favorite summer vacation pastime was going to the movies -- especially in Hollywood. When I saw movies at The Egyptian, Grauman's Chinese Theatre or The Pantages, I was not the only Black person on Hollywood Blvd. There were also Black people onscreen. THE LEARNING TREE, directed by Gordon Parks was a popular Warner Bros. release in 1969.
100 RIFLES starring Burt Reynolds, Raquel Welch and Jim Brown did quite well at the box office.
Rupert Crosse, a marvelous actor who'd graduated from indie films, co-starred with Steve McQueen in THE REIVERS. For his performance, late Mr. Crosse made history as the first Black man to be an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actor.
Louis Armstrong, a jazz great in America and Europe since the 1920s, got applause when he appeared onscreen with Barbra Streisand in HELLO, DOLLY! He was not in the Broadway show. Like several top vocalists of the day, he'd recorded the title tune. His cover was a Billboard hit that topped The Beatles on the charts. That's why he was cast for the cameo in the 1969 movie.
The 60s was the first decade in which you saw Black people in lead roles on TV shows -- and they were not playing maids or butlers.  Popular network shows in 1969 were JULIA starring Diahann Carroll...
 … THE MOD SQUAD on ABC....
… and ROOM 222 from James L. Brooks right before to left to help create a new sitcom called THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. ROOM 222 was a smart series about a high school in L.A.
In the music department, we were listening to Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Fifth Dimension, Isaac Hayes, Lou Rawls and many more.
With all that diversity happening in 1969, here's my question: Why don't I see African American actors in the trailer for Quentin Tarantino's ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD? When Quentin re-imagined 1969 Hollywood, did he remove the smog and the Black people?  I realize this is just the trailer. If you have seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, let me know if there are any Black actors in principal or supporting roles.  Click onto this link to see the trailer:

https://youtu.be/ELeMaP8EPAA.

For one year in New York City, I served on the Screen Actors Guild Diversity Board. Our goal was to check for and push for more racial inclusion.  One new TV show we discussed fervently was a new ABC series in 2011 called PAN AM. It was about 4 young, lovely stewardesses in New York City in 1963.  All four were white. We kind of expected that.  However, in the street scenes set in Greenwich Village or midtown Manhattan, you didn't even see Black background actors as pedestrians. That was just wrong. This lack of Black folks was evident in the first three episodes. What really irked us was a scene in the busy New York airport terminal. We counted four Black background characters. One was carrying luggage, one was shining shoes and the other two were a couple in African garb.
One of the stewardesses on the cancelled series was played by Margot Robbie, now seen as the late Sharon Tate in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Here's a featurette about it.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

For Laurel & Hardy Fans

Hollywood, especially the Hollywood of the last 20 years, seems fascinated with actors in biopics like a cheerleader is fascinated with a Super Bowl champion quarterback. Look at some of the actors who have won Oscars since 2000 for playing real life characters onscreen -- Hilary Swank, Adrian Brody, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sean Penn, Sandra Bullock, Helen Mirren, Marion Cotillard, Cate Blanchett, Jamie Foxx, Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis and Rami Malek. A recent biopic about an internationally famous Hollywood comedy screen team did not get any Oscar attention from the Academy, nor did it get much attention at the box office. However, that doesn't mean it's a weak film. Just the opposite. It's got surprises and it's worth your time. The 2018 release is STAN & OLLIE. Yes, it's about Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Laurel & Hardy made their first appearance as a team in a silent film short released in 1927. Ten years later, they were on top in Hollywood and starring in feature films. They remained a team through stage and TV appearances in the 1950s. Hardy died in 1957. After his death, Laurel chose never to work with another partner and went into retirement.  The main surprise of STAN & OLLIE is the exceptional lead performances by John C. Reilly as burly Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as slim Stan Laurel. Not only did they make me laugh and touch my heart, there were times when they were absolutely uncanny.  You felt like you were actually watching a clip from a 1930s Laurel & Hardy comedy feature. The actors' physicality and timing as the comedy team were brilliant.
The story opens in 1953 when the two are embarked on a physically draining music hall tour in England and Ireland. As far as travel and hotel arrangements and promotion for their shows, you'd never guess they were an iconic Hollywood comedy team. They have to tote their own luggage and use pay phones. Audience size is small. They never, ever threw any star tantrums but you will feel that each, at least, deserved a hotel suite with room service. Things will improve along that line during the tour, Oliver's health will start to fail, there will be some friction between them, a reconciliation and a packed house. A bit of the friction is rooted in ZENOBIA, the 1939 feature film comedy Oliver Hardy made without Stan Laurel. Stan wasn't in it because of his contractual problems with producer Hal Roach. Harry Langdon, also a comedy star from the silent screen era, was cast along with Hardy. Zenobia was the name of a circus elephant.
I loved that the film taught me something about Stan the man and "Babe," Stan's nickname for Oliver. I didn't know that Stan wrote so much of their material and that Babe had a tendency to play the racehorses too much. For years, starting in 1927, they were featured in Hal Roach productions. STAN & OLLIE shows conflict they had with Roach contractually. We see the business of show business and the discipline it takes to get in front of the cameras and be funny when the way you're treated as talent behind the scenes is no laughing matter. We flashback to 1937 when the duo was filming its hit feature, WAY OUT WEST.
I'd seen entertainment news pieces on the extensive make-up sessions John C. Reilly underwent to look like Oliver Hardy. I wish some entertainment news contributors on TV had mentioned that the final product turned out to be such a fine film with surprise, heart, humor and affection coupled with good acting.
Another thing that tickled me about STAN & OLLIE was their wives. They're portrayed as two devoted women who appear to cordially loathe each other. Their sophisticated squabbling practically makes them another comedy team. The wives are a hoot.
If you're a Laurel & Hardy film, this sweet biopic is worth a look.




Friday, July 26, 2019

A Norma Desmond Moment

Billy Wilder's 1950 masterpiece, SUNSET BLVD.  Gloria Swanson, who herself had been a big star in the silent film era, delivered a great and memorable performance as Norma Desmond, a wealthy and faded film star. Norma was a Hollywood queen in the silent film era. Not so much when technology caused a movie-making revolution that kicked off the sound era. Norma is a formidable cat in the Hollywood jungle who is stalking on-screen stardom one more time. She had a mysterious chauffeur named Max and into her life comes a handsome, young, cynical and broke screenwriter named Joe Gillis (played by William Holden). He needs to hit the studios to seek work but two men are out to repossess his car. Billy Wilder's film is a story that could only have happened in Hollywood versus New York City where actors and playwrights can get around via subway.  In Los Angeles, an automobile is a necessity for folks in the movie business. Three characters now live together in an aging Hollywood mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Each has been driven to a point of irresponsible behavior that involves a car. The chauffeur has a back story, the screenwriter's car is repossessed and the studio that young Norma helped make famous may now want her car instead of her. Welcome to SUNSET BLVD.  The film brought Gloria Swanson her third Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
The rich and forgotten film star of yesteryear draws the unemployed screenwriter into her lair to help her pen her comeback script. He gets money and other things for this. Norma has a monstrous ego but he sees the vulnerability in her. He knows how the business has passed her by and he sees how she dwells in her movie star past.
Joe tries over and over again to talk some sense into her head but that's like duck hunting with a rake. She plans to play a Biblical vamp in her comeback film, which she is co-writing. As her grip on reality gets looser, Joe Gillis snaps:  "Norma, you're a woman of 50, now grow up. There's nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25."
Later, Norma makes her descent into madness, believing that she's about to do a scene from SALOME for her famous director. She says, "All right, Mr. DeMille.  I'm ready for my close-up."
That was faded silent screen star Norma Desmond at 50.  To show you how women have staged their own revolution in images of age -- here are recent party photos of singer/actress Jennifer Lopez in an original designed by Donatella Versace. JLo celebrated her 50th birthday this week.
If Norma Desmond looked like that and dressed like that when she descended her Hollywood staircase, she'd have been the talk of the town the next day -- and her phone would've been ringing off the hook with requests for interviews.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

New Film from Director Kasi Lemmons

I stand by my opinion on the talent of actress/director Kasi Lemmons. If she was a white guy like Ben Affleck, Quentin Tarantino and Jon Favreau -- all men who have acted in and directed feature films -- she would have been on glossy entertainment magazine covers in 1997 and top Hollywood agencies would have booked her for meetings to discuss future film opportunities. She would've been a guest on network morning news programs. If you've seen 1991's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, you've seen Kasi Lemmons. She played the FBI cadet training academy best buddy to Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster).
Before I tell you about the new film from director/screenwriter Kasi Lemmons, let me remind you about the first feature film she directed. It's the complex, hypnotical and beautifully photographed story of a middle class African-American family in Louisiana. The dapper father is a doctor. A snapshot would show a family that's done well for itself. The story opens with this voiceover: "The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old." Reviews for 1997's EVE'S BAYOU were like love letters. It should have received Oscar nominations. But it didn't. EVE'S BAYOU starred Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield and Diahann Carroll.
You need to see this movie.  It is a stunning directorial debut for a new filmmaker.

In 2018, EVE'S BAYOU was added to the prestigious National Film Registry for its "cultural, historic and aesthetic importance." Some of the other films added along with it last year were:

REBECCA, directed by Alfred Hitchcock
THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, directed by Orson Welles
LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN
HUD
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
Disney's animated CINDERELLA.

In its theatrical release, EVE'S BAYOU deserved a lot more promotion. I bet Kasi Lemmons, being a Black independent filmmaker -- and a woman -- got a minimal marketing budget. She should've gotten entertainment news TV attention like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon got for their GOOD WILL HUNTING screenplay for her directorial debut and her film's stellar reviews.

In 2007, director Kasi Lemmons gave us the highly entertaining and touching TALK TO ME, one of those films that makes you say "How can it be that Don Cheadle has only one Oscar nomination in his credits?" In TALK TO ME, Lemmons introduced us to the largely overlooked true story of radio star Ralph "Petey" Greene. Before Howard Stern, there was Petey Greene. He was an ex-con who talked his way into an on-air host job at a Washington, DC station. His outspoken, outrageous, rebellious and refreshing humor in the 1960s took a radio station from bargain basement ratings and put it on the main floor. He took his humor from radio to TV and was such a hit, he was booked to be a guest on the TONIGHT Show hosted by Johnny Carson in New York City. Petey became a social activist and helped calm the community when fires broke out upon hearing the news of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.
Don Cheadle is an absolute hoot as this hot mess of a guy who becomes a hot radio star. TALK TO ME also features Martin Sheen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson and Cedric the Entertainer.

Director Kasi Lemmons now gives us Black American history in HARRIET, the story of Harriet Tubman. She's the heroic woman who helped liberate hundreds of enslaved people through the Underground Railroad. Actress Cynthia Erivo, Tony winner for her performance in the revival of Broadway's THE COLOR PURPLE musical, stars as Harriet Tubman.

Click onto this link to see a trailer for HARRIET:

https://youtu.be/GqoEs4cG6Uw.

HARRIET is the kind of project that a top Hollywood studio should have done in the 1970s as a major release starring Ruby Dee or Cicely Tyson after her Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1972's SOUNDER. Alas, Hollywood studios did not greenlight projects like HARRIET for Black actresses in those days. Cicely Tyson's one and only Oscar nomination was for SOUNDER. After that, TV gave her more opportunities that Hollywood did. She played Harriet Tubman in the 1978 network TV special, A WOMAN CALLED MOSES. Brava, Kasi Lemmons, and thank you.






Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Bette Davis at the Beginning

This is for serious classic film fans because I'm about the drag you way down memory lane again with a look at a major Hollywood star. In my family, I'm a second generation Bette Davis fan. When Mom had free time and there was an old Bette Davis film or a new made-for-TV Bette Davis feature on television, she'd be glued to it the way teens today are glued to their Smartphones. I still remember the sunny late afternoon when our local CBS affiliate in L.A. was airing the 1950 classic, ALL ABOUT EVE. I was in junior high -- which is now called middle school. The opening credits started. I was going to turn to the channel in search of cartoons until Mom said, "You need to watch this."  So, I did. With Mom.  I learned that Bette Davis was significant, a powerhouse of an actress who could not be ignored.
If you're a Bette Davis fan, you know that her artistry and stardom shot up like a skyrocket during her contract years at Warner Bros. which started in the 1930s. She was so serious about her craft that she took the studio to court in order to get better roles. The studio had assigned her some real hunks o' cheese in those early years.  However, even in those 2nd or 3rd rate vehicles, she popped with a 1st rate screen electricity and talent. One example: 1932's THE CABIN IN THE COTTON. I started my professional broadcast career with an FM rock radio reporter job in Milwaukee. One of my first assignments was to get a couple of soundbites from La Davis when she was in town to promote 1978's DEATH ON THE NILE. In one soundbite we played on 93 QFM, I asked her to do one of her favorite movie lines. It was from THE CABIN IN THE COTTON in which she played a flirty, self-absorbed Southern plantation belle who says to one suitor, "I'd love to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair." She did the line for me and did it with a good-natured, camp edge.

For RKO, she played the slutty waitress, Mildred Rogers, in 1934's OF HUMAN BONDAGE. That's when Hollywood really started to take notice that this young actress was a volcano in pumps. She exploded on the screen in that role. For Warner Bros., her role as the alcoholic actress in 1935's DANGEROUS earned her the first of ten Best Actress Oscar nominations and her first Oscar victory. In 1936, Davis, Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart starred in THE PETRIFIED FOREST. Bogart's work as the gangster on the run in this would become one of his classics. Bogart and fellow Warner Bros. employee Bette Davis would appear in MARKED WOMAN (1936), KID GALAHAD (1937) and one of Davis' brightest gems, DARK VICTORY (1939).

I recently found a short movie, 1 hour and 10 minutes long, from 1931. The movie is THE BAD SISTER and starred an actress named Sidney Fox as the bad sister. She's not bad like Veda in MILDRED PIERCE. She's just flirty smalltown Ohio girl who wishes she could have a New York City kind of life. She lives with her family. She wants to have breakfast in bed. The housekeeper basically tells her to get real and go downstairs to eat pancakes with the rest of the family. She innocently bats her eyelashes at local lads. One turns out to be a sophisticated con artist.

So why did I watch this light drama with a long-forgotten leading lady? Because the supporting actress who played the shy sister to the flirty one was a screen newcomer named -- Bette Davis. She makes her screen debut in the Universal Pictures release and you spot in the first scene. She's setting the table for breakfast while the flirty sister is still upstairs in bed.

Two things hold your interest:  1. You're watching future screen legend Bette Davis give a flat performance in her 1931 screen debut. You would never think she's the same woman who blazed onscreen in OF HUMAN BONDAGE just three years later followed by JEZEBEL (1939), THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939), THE LETTER (1940), THE LITTLE FOXES (1941), IN THIS OUR LIFE (1942) and NOW, VOYAGER (1942) … to name a few.

Universal didn't feel Bette Davis has screen sizzle in THE BAD SISTER. That wasn't entirely her fault. Lord knows she didn't get any help from the hair and make-up team. Her eyebrows were a bit on the caterpillar side, like those on lonely Charlotte Vale in the first 20 minutes of NOW, VOYAGER. The shy sister looks down-right dowdy. Davis has one tender scene in which her character puts her diary in the fireplace to burn after her annoying little brother has read it. Overall, the forgotten Sidney Fox pulls attention from future 2-time Best Actress Oscar winner, Bette Davis.
2. The next thing that holds your interest is another screen newcomer as the attractive con artist. He's played by -- Humphrey Bogart. As bland as Bette was in her first scene, Bogart's charisma registers as soon as he drives up for his first scene. Here's another future Hollywood screen legend. THE BAD SISTER marked only his fourth big screen role and he's already fluid, at ease and confident in screen acting technique. It took Bette another year of hard work and experimentation before she created "Bette Davis." When she found her inner fire and turned it up, she was a Hollywood force. Bogart seemed to have had that special spark from the get-go.
The first screen role for Bette Davis and the fourth screen role for Humphrey Bogart. Two future legendary Hollywood players at the beginning of their game. That's what makes 1931's THE BAD SISTER worth a look.


Monday, July 22, 2019

Tom Hanks Will Make My Day

This Thanksgiving, we will be able to see Tom Hanks once again play a biographical character.  I loved him as astronaut Jim Lovell in APOLLO 13, as Walt Disney in SAVING MR. BANKS, as airline pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger in SULLY and as newspaperman Ben Bradlee in THE POST. After we eat our turkey dinners, we can see him play the late and beloved children's TV host, Fred Rogers, in A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. Doesn't this seem like the most perfect casting we've heard about in years? If you've read my blog posts occasionally, you know that Tom Hanks holds quite a special place in my heart and has ever since I saw him in drag every week on ABC TV. I proudly admit that I saw every single episode of BOSOM BUDDIES, his 1980 sitcom that had a SOME LIKE IT HOT angle. Two male friends were in a such a desperate situation that they were forced to dress as women. In Billy Wilder's SOME LIKE IT HOT, it was to keep from getting killed by a 1920s gangster. In BOSOM BUDDIES, it was to find affordable housing while they started their careers at an advertising agency.
My Aunt Ruby had the very same hairdo Hanks did on that TV series.

One of things that's made me a devoted Tom Hanks fan is that, from his TV sitcom to his Oscar winning film career, his work has not only entertained me. It's made me feel less lonely. It's also enlightened and illuminated me -- taught me things about history, about the world around me, provoked me and inspired me. During my TV career in New York City, I had four encounters with Mr. Hanks, all work-related, and every one terrific. One encounter with Tom Hanks soothed my soul at a moment when I wanted to cry and rage at life because of news I'd just received on the phone from Manhattan. This was when I was in a Beverly Hills hotel preparing to interview Tom Hanks during the press junket for FORREST GUMP (1994).
I wish I could be in the press junket for A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, if there is a press junket for it. I watched the trailer this morning. My first reaction was "Wow! He pushed himself." That's a compliment. I once read that Hanks has a tremendous fear of singing in front of people. The trailer opens with him as Fred Rogers making his TV entrance and singing his theme song to the audience. I'd love to ask Hanks about that in an interview.
Less than 30 seconds later, the trailer put a lump in my throat and made me cry. It brought up a memory from late spring 1994.  After he sings, Mr. Rogers meets a young gentleman interviewer on the TV set. The way that Mr. Rogers warmly greets him, the way he extends his hand, is exactly the way Tom Hanks greeted me when I walked into his suite, emotionally devastated, to interview him about FORREST GUMP. Shortly before I flew out for the junket, my partner was having a little problem in his chest area. He was an AIDS patient who'd been diagnosed early in 1993. We lived together in my studio apartment in Chelsea. I got him to Mt. Sinai on a weekday to see his doctor about the chest discomfort. His wonderful doctor told us both that, he's surely be ready to go back home with me with I returned from the press junket. Just to be on the safe side, she wanted him to stay through the weekend for some tests. There was nothing to worry about.

Then something changed while I was out of town. She called my hotel room. "Don't panic," she began in a most compassionate tone, "but Richard's body is not responding to medications as it should. We've done all we can do. I think you need to call his parents. I'm so sorry."

We finished our conversation. I prayed to Heaven for strength before I called his loving, helpful mother in Tennessee to tell her. I was about to call the airline for the next flight to New York and reschedule my return trip due to emergency. I'd leave without doing the press interviews.

The phone rang again. It was Richard's doctor again. "I told him I called you," she said. "He told me to call you again. He does not want you to fly back without having done your work. He's adamant about that. He wants you to do your work. Don't ask me how I know, but I feel in my heart that nothing drastic will happen before you get here. He has a few days."  She was correct in her hunch. Richard's parents, his grandparents and I were near when he passed away.

Tom Hanks had won an Oscar for PHILADELPHIA in which he played a man with AIDS fighting for his civil rights in court. The young man I loved, the person I was caregiver to, had AIDS. I felt restricted about mentioning it in the workplace because, at that time, coming out could still cost you your job. I needed the TV job I had then to take care of us both and pay the rent.

Inside, I was shattered. I had to focus on my questions. I prayed I'd be good and conduct a smart interview. I walked into Tom Hanks' room. He stood up, smiled, and approached me with such a warmth that it instantly calmed me down and cracked through my heartache. He'd recognized me from my previous job, at VH1. He made me smile. He made me comfortable. He liked my questions. He was a helper. He helped me pull it together, to focus, and to get through that painful morning. He doesn't know this. One day, I hope he does. Here's the trailer.
With this performance, Tom Hanks continues to support the talent of female filmmakers. Penny Marshall directed him in BIG (1988) and A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992).  Nora Ephron directed him in SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (1993) and YOU'VE GOT MAIL (1998).  A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD was directed by Marielle Heller. She directed Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant to Oscar nominations for 2018's CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Ms. Heller should've been in the Oscar buzz for Best Director and Best Film.
Tom Hanks will definitely make my day when I see his new film.  Thanks, Mr. Hanks.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Deneuve & Depardieu at the Disco

Yesterday morning, I read that Ethan Hawke starred in a film with veteran French star, Catherine Deneuve. Called THE TRUTH, the foreign feature will open the prestigious Venice Film Festival later this year. Two French greats are in it. Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche play mother and daughter. The mother, Fabienne, is a grand luminary of French cinema. When her memoirs are published, the merde hits the fan. Her married daughter returns to Paris from New York where she lives with her American husband (played by Hawke).
Catherine Deneuve continues to captivate. I fell under her spell when I was a boy and local Channel 9/KHJ TV in Los Angeles aired the 1964 French musical, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, one Friday night. Deneuve starred in that candy-colored yet bittersweet story.
Her elegant beauty and talent dazzled me again in her films such as THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (1967), BELLE de JOUR (1967), the fairy tale DONKEY SKIN (1970) …  
                                 
 … THE LAST METRO (1980), THE HUNGER (1983) and INDOCHINE (1992).

Her comedy released here in 2011 called POTICHE did not get much notice. Nonetheless, when I attended the preview screening for critics in New York City, I definitely was not the only person laughing and delightfully amused. This feminist comedy was a charmer. In addition to that, POTICHE put Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu together on a disco dance floor. What's not to love? Click onto the link below to hear my short take on POTICHE:

www.podomatic.com/podcasts/bobbyrivers/episodes/2011-03-26T12_26_48-07_00.

Did you listen? Now, here's a subtitled trailer to watch. I'm still surprised we haven't seen an American version of this French comedy yet.





Thursday, July 18, 2019

MADAME Directed by Amanda Sthers

A wealthy American couple lives in Paris. They reside in a manor. Walls in the living room are painted an old money green, like a longtime Beverly Hills cocktail lounge once alive with stars but now draws tourists because of its history. Toni Collette and Harvey Keitel star as the Americans in Paris. The wife is throwing a swanky dinner party and panics when she realizes she'll have thirteen guests. She is superstitious about a 13th guest possibly bringing bad luck -- like Judas at the Last Supper. She orders one of her maids to do extra duty. Maria, who's been with the couple for 10 years, will be given a quick fashion makeover by her boss and emerge as of the guests. She will sit next to madame at the dinner table and pass herself off as a woman from Madrid who's related to nobility. Maria does not think this idea will work and she's initially reluctant to do it because she is pear-shaped. The comedy/romance is called MADAME. Maria the maid is played deliciously by Rossy de Palma, a charismatic actress known to fans of classic Pedro Almodóvar films. She's the dark-haired lady with the prominent proboscis.
Maria, neither 20something nor slim, gets dressed for the dinner ruse. She winds up sitting next to an attractive British aristocrat instead of next to her female boss. He and Maria hit it off. In fact, she's the real spark of life and freshness at the table. Without revealing her occupation, she is her true self and enthusiastically starts talking about Hugh Grant movies and his scandal with a prostitute. Then she tells a couple of jokes. She melts the aspic of privilege that seems to encase the other guests. The British aristocrat is taken with her. As he will later say, "...she beguiles me." He believes she really is related to Spanish nobility and a romance ensues.  He takes her to the movies, to dinner and for a ride in his sportscar. Madame gets jealous. She is jealous and irritated that her maid and she are now seen as equals. The romance has worked her last good nerve. "How could the maid inspire such feelings?," she rants. Her husband suggests she just get over it by dismissing the servant. The wealthy wife snaps back, "I can't fire her. She knows the house like clockwork...She knows the color of our underwear."

Madame is determined to break up the romance. It's like she has become a Judas in the life of kind, lovable maid.
This movie, directed and written by Amanda Sthers, came out in 2018. I never heard about it. I found a VARIETY review that found it to be a "subpar" comedy of manners with good performances -- especially from Rossy de Palma ("always a treat to watch") and Toni Collette.

I agree about those two performances. I'll also admit that there are tropes in this upper class/lower class comedy we've seen in Merchant Ivory films and imported programs on PBS. But Rossy de Palma won me over as soon as she professed to be worried because she's pear-shaped. I loved her vibrant scene at the dinner table. I loved seeing the maid being treated like a first class citizen. Rossy de Palma's performance kept me interested in this 90-minute feature.
Is it a great film like 1939's THE RULES OF THE GAME by Renoir or Buñuel's 1962 classic, THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL? No. Nor did I expect it to be. It was, however, entertaining and I needed some entertainment. After watching last night's news of Trump speaking at another one of his rallies, I left like Brian, the British writer, in the German beer garden during the "Tomorrow Belongs To Me" number in CABARET.

Yes, there are stereotypes in MADAME. Critics were lukewarm to the movie. However, critics raved about Woody Allen's MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011). I watched that recently and felt like I'd already seen it. The lead actor, Owen Wilson in this one, was stuttering and stammering like Woody Allen. The romance that seems to have become "a dead shark," the mentions of great literature, the loser who proves to know more than the show-off intellectual, the love of Cole Porter -- I felt like Woody Allen gave us leftovers from his other films, placed them on fancy lettuce surrounded by slices of new cheese of a silver platter, and the critics ate it up. To me, MADAME felt fresher. Have we ever seen a story like this in one of the many Hollywood films about a black maid who works for rich white folks here in America? Nope.
With almost every other film at the cineplex being a new sequel in a Marvel Comics Universe franchise or an overly promoted Disney retread of an animated classic, seeing some real people with middle-aged bodies have romantic encounters gave me hope. Again, I was entertained. Also, I like supporting the work of female directors. If you can't find MADAME from Amanda Sthers on cable's STARZ, it's on Amazon Prime.

If you've never seen Rossy de Palma in a Pedro Almodóvar film, check out his LAW OF DESIRE (1987), WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (1988) or KIKA (1993) to start.

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