Friday, February 28, 2020

MOONLIGHT in Black History Month

Now that another Black History Month is coming to a close, I want to highlight some Hollywood history that was made just a few years ago. This week, three years ago at the Academy Awards, it was announced that LA LA LAND MOONLIGHT was the true Oscar winner for Best Picture of 2016.
You remember the moment that caused a nationwide gasp amongst film fans who watch the annual awards telecast. Barry Jenkins, a black filmmaker and writer, had directed a passionate, lyrical independent feature about growing up black and gay. Jenkins directed Mahershala Ali to an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the imperfect, tough streetwise man who becomes gentle, compassionate father figure.
Barry Jenkins and his friend/writing partner Tarell Alvin McCraney won Oscars for their screenplay. To me, there was something richly symbolic for Black History Month in the ultimate surprise announcement that MOONLIGHT was the Best Picture Oscar winner instead of the, if you will, privileged Hollywood favorite, LA LA LAND.

LA LA LAND, a modern-day original movie musical, made young director/writer Damien Chazelle the new "It" show biz sensation. The reviews from mostly Caucasian critics were like love letters.  Being that I'm a hardcore lover of movie musicals, a love that began when when I saw a Fred Astaire RKO musical on local TV when I was in elementary school, I was eager to see this LA LA LAND. Chazelle was getting mentions and interview time on network morning show.  Cable's TCM (Turner Classic Movies) even had Damien Chazelle as a guest programmer one night with host Ben Mankiewicz. Chazelle introduced four classic films that he selected. He, of course, also chatted about his romantic musical, LA LA LAND. This was during a period in which African American guests hosts had become scarce on TCM. Not like the heyday of the late Robert Osborne's always racially inclusive reign as the sole host on the cable channel. Chazelle is white. At that time, there was no black representation in the line-up of hosts. Today, there is.

While LA LA LAND and director Damien Chazelle were basking in the love from critics, network TV programs and social media, I noticed another filmmaker getting attention and great praise from black folks on Twitter. Black Twitter was tweeting about a new indie film from Barry Jenkins who, like the LA LA LAND director, was also in his 30s and a filmmaker. I read from Black Twitter that a film called MOONLIGHT touched beautifully on the black gay male experience. But LA LA LAND was getting all the attention at that time.  MOONLIGHT, like many of us black people, had to work twice as hard to get half as much notice. Black History Month was born to champion history that was often overlooked and ignored by mainstream America. Some factions even tried to erase our history. Barry Jenkins was making history with MOONLIGHT and its history was, at first, being overlooked.
Then the buzz for Barry's film began to build. Jenkins, like Chazelle, is a fan of classic films. Especially classic foreign films. Jenkins' MOONLIGHT never got a mention on TCM like LA LA LAND starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone did.
Then came the Big Backstage Mistake on Oscar night. A Hollywood cheer went up went up when Faye Dunaway with Warren Beatty announced LA LA LAND as the Best Picture Oscar winner. As the LA LA LAND posse rushed onstage to make a victorious speech, it was discovered that something had gone hugely wrong. Dunaway and Beatty made a mistake -- but it was not their fault. The male representative from PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC had not been focused on doing his one job. His job was to safeguard the case containing envelopes with winners' names and give envelopes to the correct people to open onstage. Instead of paying attention to his one critical job, he was busy live-tweeting his backstage encounters with the stars. He handed a star the wrong envelope. This proved that live-tweeting is in the same lane as texting while driving. When you're live-tweeting a show or texting while driving, you are not giving your full attention to what's in progress before you.

Black History won out over privileged White Male Irresponsibility. Yep, that MOONLIGHT Oscar victory felt very symbolic to me.  Barry Jenkins co-wrote and directed MOONLIGHT, the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 2016. He's a fine person to recognize during Black History Month.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

A Criterion Collection Question

As a longtime classic film enthusiast, you could find me in a state of pure rapture if I was in my humble studio apartment back in Manhattan watching a Criterion Collection DVD. I didn't just watch the classic film. I'd watch the film and then play it again. The second viewing would be with the commentary audio up -- if there was a commentary. When I reviewed the 2012 Oscar winning film, ARGO, a Criterion Collection commentary had increased my classic film knowledge. I made a point that ARGO, like the 1936 screwball comedy MY MAN GODFREY, had a theme of responsibility to others running through it. I was in San Francisco recently, visiting my best friend, and he clicked onto his Criterion account to browse for a film we might watch. As he scrolled, I noticed a familiar face. Mia Mask has being a film professor at Vassar in her credits. This African American woman knows her stuff. I'm a witness because she and I auditioned together for a project back in 2012. She auditioned to be my partner on a film review/interview show being pitched to some prestigious TV outlets. This would've been a breakthrough program -- film reviews done on a weekly TV show by two black film critics. Something you never saw on TV in the 20th Century, it would've been novel for the new 21st Century too. Unfortunately, the show did not get picked up after 5 years of being pitched. I was thrilled to see Mia Mask on Criterion. She gave commentary on the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic 1936 musical, SWING TIME.
She talked specifically about Astaire's homage to his dance idol, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the film's "Bojangles of Harlem" number.  The number was done, technically, in blackface but not the severe blackface seen in Al Jolson numbers. There was no coarse wig, no exaggerated white lips and Astaire's make-up was not coal black. Mia, in another commentary, discussed the significance of Sidney Poitier.

Here's the question I have. I don't subscribe to Criterion and I have not heard many of the recent commentaries. Perhaps you've heard more than I have. Does Criterion have black guests giving commentaries on films by Charles Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, George Cukor, Billy Wilder, Welles, Lean, Fellini and De Sica? Or do black contributors just get invited to talk about black images, black stars and black filmmakers?
I'd like to see us African American classic film enthusiasts entered into a wider discussion. A dear buddy of mine, Ed Sikov, has written several books about films. He wrote a terrific book about Billy Wilder (above pic). Ed also did commentary on a DVD of Wilder's SUNSET BLVD. Ed and I grabbed a bite one night and I remarked about the auto madness the drives action in the movie. You have three characters brought together and each one driven to a moment of irresponsibility because of a car. Broke screenwriter Joe Gillis speeds off in his car to dodge bill collectors who want to repossess it. He hides his car in Norma's garage. Max tells us the stunningly co-dependent reason why he's Norma Desmond's chauffeur. Faded film star Norma Desmond goes  crazy when the realizes that the Hollywood studio where she once reigned wanted to see her, not for a film role, but to borrow her antique car for a Bing Crosby movie being shot.
 Would I be invited to make that observation in a commentary?

The 1939 western, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, makes it to Criterion this spring. Starring James Stewart, it has similarities to his other 1939 classic, Frank Capra's MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. Deputy Tom Destry and Senator Jefferson Smith are young men, new at their jobs and determined to do the right thing as a public servant. Both have to confront a corrupt politician. Both had good fathers who were shot in the back and killed.  Are black contributors invited to make a commentary observation such as that?
TOOTSIE is in the Criterion Collection. I attended the 1982 critics screening of that Sydney Pollack classic in New York City and, early in my TV career, got some of my first national exposure when my interviews of cast members aired. Here's some TOOTSIE trivia:  Suzanne Somers was eager to play the part Jessica Lange did. Somers felt the role would distance her from her TV sitcom image on THREE'S COMPANY. In the first 10 minutes of the movie, Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey plays piano at his surprise birthday party. The tune he plays is a song he co-wrote with Bette Midler called "Shoot the Breeze." Hoffman and Midler performed it on her 1977 NBC music variety special. Hoffman told me he wanted it to be the love song for TOOTSIE. Director Pollack nixed the idea and went with "It Might Be You" sung by Stephen Bishop. In the party scene on the terrace where Michael Dorsey flirts with soap star Julie Nichols and she throws her drink in his face -- well, Jessica Lange did that in real life, she told me. She did it to … Bob Fosse.
It seems as though white contributors talking about films on TV or in commentaries are considered to discuss, say, Elia Kazan's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, Terrence Malick's TREE OF LIFE and Gordon Parks' THE LEARNING TREE. We black folks are only tapped to talk about THE LEARNING TREE, written and directed by a black filmmaker.  Time to change that, don't you think?

By the way, I scrolled down the Criterion website today -- and I was extremely honored. A bit of my work is on it. I'm in the 2010 Stephen Soderbergh documentary about the late Spalding Gray titled AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE. When I got a call from Soderbergh's office asking for permission to use a clip from my VH1 talk show interview of Spalding Gray, I thought I was being pranked by one of my friends. I'm proud to say it was no prank.

Check out the collection yourself. Here's the website:  Criterion.com.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

More THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US

About five posts down from this one is my "See THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US" review. It's a documentary series from Great Britain that focuses on Black actors and filmmakers, here and in the U.K., as they tell us about how they've persevered tell their stories and to get work not weighed down by stereotypical images. The first hour was very interesting and revealing. I just finished the second hour. That one is even more so. In honest and insightful interviews, we see Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jr., the late John Singleton, Robert Townsend, director Kasi Lemmons and Debbie Allen and Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg. Whoopi opens up about making THE COLOR PURPLE with director Steven Spielberg.
The second hour opens with talents telling how the work of Spike Lee has had a great impact on their lives and the way American viewed Black people. I've written before that, after decades of watching classic film presentations and network classic film channels, it irritated me that we never saw Black people hired as regular hosts. It was as if we didn't know anything about classic Hollywood and foreign films. Spike Lee is a fan of classic MGM musicals such as SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. The first hour of THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US showed how they influenced one of his films. The second episode of THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US opens with the opening credits of DO THE RIGHT THING. Rosie Perez does that fierce dance to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." Spike's inspiration for that opening came from Ann-Margret solo onscreen singing the open to BYE BYE BIRDIE. He said so in a radio interview.
Because of Hollywood notions from white executives of the kind of roles Black actors should play, we learn that the Cuba Gooding Jr didn't work for about six years after starring in the excellent and substantial BOYZ N THE HOOD. Laurence Fishburne had a major role in the critically acclaimed APOCALYPSE NOW and then couldn't get any auditions. Fishburne, who then booked a comedy role as Cowboy Curtis on the weekend TV kiddie show, PEE WEE'S PLAYHOUSE, tells his touching account of meeting a talented teen named John Singleton.
Director Kasi Lemmons and Debbie Allen give us deeper insights on the hard work of trying to get stories made about Black people and to tell them through the Black gaze -- not a Caucasian Hollywood exec gaze. Director Taylor Hackford -- who is white -- tells a story about pitching the Ray Charles biopic he directed. RAY brought Jamie Foxx the Oscar for Best Actor of 2004. You've got to hear Taylor Hackford's story.

Keep in mind that Norman Jewison, whose IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967, wanted to direct a film version of the Pulitzer Prize winning play, A SOLDIER'S PLAY. He was stunned at the Hollywood studio resistance that greeted him. Executives told him "Black stories don't sell." He worked for way less than his usual fee so he could raise money to make it. Make it, he did. Retitled A SOLDIER'S STORY for the big screen, it got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture of 1984. Jewison 's credits include FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR starring Steve McQueen, THE CINCINNATI KID, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and MOONSTRUCK.

Robert Townsend was in A SOLDIER'S STORY. He talks about that and making the brilliant satire, HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE. His account of the real-life drama he and Eddie Murphy had dealing Caucasian Hollywood execs and lawyers over the X-rated language in Murphy's comedy concert, RAW, filmed and directed by Townsend, is like a Murphy comedy monologue in itself.
You know that I had a talk show on VH1 in the late 80s. Some of my guests were Norman Mailer, Dominick Dunne, Anne Rice, Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Meryl Streep, Joan Baez, Carlos Santana, Raul Julia, Phil Collins, Alan Rickman, John Cleese, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Paul McCartney, Whoopi Goldberg and Spike Lee. After my three great years on VH1 concluded, I signed with my first agent. I wanted another national talk show opportunity and I wanted to audition for good supporting roles in comedies -- like what my VH1 co-worker, Rosie O'Donnell, did in A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN and SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. My white agent submitted me to audition for the role of Thug #1 in WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S II. In the script pages I got, the sequel called for two black thugs to perform voodoo with a boombox, some dice and a bucket of fried chicken on a corpse in the men's room of Times Square porno movie theater. At the audition were the white screenwriter, the white director and the white producer. The character in the red jacket is the one I was submitted to play. Here's a clip from the 1993 movie:

Stereotypical Casting. The struggle is real, folks. The struggle is real. I cordially left that agent within a year. I highly recommend episode 2 of THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US now available on Netfflix.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Ralph Fiennes Is Very Funny

It was a cold, overcast day in Manhattan. That, I recall. My buddy, Mike Sargent, and I were meeting to see a film being screened for movie critics. The screening was in a posh, private screening room in midtown near Carnegie Hall. A new Wes Anderson movie was being screening, so Mike and I figured we'd be the only black folks in the room. We were. And we were glad to have been there because we both were charmed by and loved THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. This film has a snap and a screwball comedy verve reminiscent of a Preston Sturges or Ernest Lubitsch. Mike hosted a weekend half-hour film review/interview show on cable. To me, Mike's show was a trailblazer. I personally contacted TV columnists I knew in New York City to pay attention and perhaps write a short mention of it in their columns. Or a not so short mention. Mike Sargent is a big, tall, black, huggable straight guy who's been a film critic guest on PBS shows. He loves film arts. His modest apartment is like a DVD rental store. He and I reviewed THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL on his show. Two African American men -- one big straight dude and a shorter gay guy -- both expressed their hope that Ralph Fiennes would get a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his surprisingly hilarious performance in Wes Anderson's 2014 film. He didn't. But he should have.
If you've been used to seeing Ralph Fiennes do exceptional work in deep-dish dramas such as SCHINDLER'S LIST, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, THE CONSTANT GARDNER and THE ENGLISH PATIENT plus play Voldemort in the HARRY POTTER adventures, his performance is THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is a revelation and an unexpected treat -- like get money back that you loaned to a relative. The movie takes us to Europe in the 1930s and a place where people were not made to feel like oddballs for displaying good manners. Fiennes plays the sexually fluid and sublimely sophisticated concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel. It's a deluxe ski resort. About his bedroom tastes, he happens to prefer older women. Not older like Mrs. Robinson in THE GRADUATE. More like Old Rose in TITANIC. He's also sort of a mentor to and extremely devoted to a new lobby employee. This new lobby boy is a gentle immigrant. The concierge will protect him from advancing fascist forces while he himself deals with being wrongfully suspected of murder.
 We should all have a friend like Gustave H., concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel.
It's whimsical and melancholy. It leaves you wishing that such people as Gustave and such places as the Grand Budapest Hotel could be allowed to exist in the world without accusations and bigotry.
The cast includes Tilda Swinton, Jude Law, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham and Saoirse Ronan. A fabulous standout is new actor Tony Revolori as Zero, the lobby boy. Revolori is a Chicano actor from Southern California.

Fiennes was also a comedy highlight in 2016's HAIL, CAESAR from the Coen Brothers. In that 1950s set Hollywood-on-Hollywood satire, he played the tweedy director assigned to turn a sow's ear actor into a silk purse. A top Hollywood studio has put its popular cowboy star in a drawing room drama with characters sounding like they're at a Noel Coward dinner party. Hobie Doyle is not a tuxedo-wearing star. He's your basic beans and biscuits guy. The director has quite a studio-assigned chore on his hands starting with trying to teach Hobie how to speak elegantly. Here's clip from HAIL, CAESAR featuring Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich.

If you need a few laughs this weekend, consider some Ralph Fiennes action.

About my friend, Mike Sargent, and his half-hour film review/interview show. When his show was available on DirecTV, I kept trying to get him some publicity because there'd not been another show like his. Here was a big, brawny, heterosexual black male film critic hosting his own film review/interview show. On every edition, he had two guest critics. One always had to be female. Often both were female. This was refreshing because the field of film critics seen on TV has been predominantly male. His show practiced gender diversity. Not only that, he regularly spotlighted women directors and LGBTQ filmmakers. Tell me -- how many times have you seen a show like that on weekly television? And the TV journalists ignored it.

It was a darn good show -- while it lasted. I'm proud to have been on it.




Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Feb. 12th TV Tip for Classic Laughs

If you're into classic films from Hollywood's golden age and if you get the TCM (Turner Classic Movies) cable channel, let me tell you about the line-up for Wednesday, Feb. 12th. And pardon my vanity while I do. Airing at 8pm ET/5pm PT is the Ernst Lubitsch comedy, TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Long before recent Oscar winner JOJO RABBIT spoofed Nazis, Lubitsch did it here.
This 1942 comedy had a big impact on Mel Brooks. He borrowed a line for his comedy, THE PRODUCERS ("Heil myself"). In the 80s, Mel even starred in a remake. The original starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard.
Following that at 10pm ET/7pm PT is another comedy classic -- MY MAN GODFREY (1936). This is a Depression Era comedy. I studied and read about MY MAN GODFREY in my film classes when I was in college. It's a screwball comedy with a statement about responsibility -- in this case, a responsibility the rich have to help the poor.
                                                                                  
MY MAN GODFREY starred Carole Lombard and William Powell. Have you ever seen the 1950s remake that starred June Allyson and David Niven? No? Good.

The two films  following MY MAN GODFREY are ONE WAY PASSAGE (1932) and ALWAYS IN MY HEART (1942). Both are romantic stories starring Kay Francis.

Here comes the vanity.

I wrote the scripts for the TCM host to read that night for those four films. Will all the words that I wrote actually come out of his mouth? I can't say. I was nowhere near the set when he taped his intros. I hope to hear most of what I wrote because, frankly, I think I wrote some darn good stuff. I'll just have to keep my fingers crossed. From my stuff, folks could learn a new thing or two about the Mel Brooks remake when the original TO BE OR NOT BE concludes. The writing assignment was a great opportunity to put my film knowledge to use.

Whatever happens -- I already got paid. And the check cleared. Watch if you can and enjoy the movies.

Monday, February 10, 2020

She's a WILD ROSE

If you're like me, you have no plans this coming Valentine's Day weekend. That means, you might be up for an entertaining movie to watch at home. I've got a recommendation for you. This movie is about a kick-ass dame in Scotland. It shows us two things we may not have known:  1. There are country music fans in Scotland and 2. There are black people in Scotland. The name of this lively movie is WILD ROSE and Jessie Buckley gives out with an energetic, charismatic performance as the young Scottish woman who did a year behind bars and now wants to hit some Glasgow bars where she can get onstage and wail some country tunes. Her dream is to get to Nashville. Yes, her name is Rose -- Rose-Lynn Harlan. Jessie Buckley is terrific in this role.
She wants sing in Nashville. She definitely has talent. But how is she going to get to Nashville from Scotland? Technically, she's an ex-felon -- an ex-felon with two little kids. Her mother has been caring for the kids. Rose gets a job as a housekeeper for a well-to-do couple with two sweet kids. The mom takes an interest in Rose, especially after she happens to hear her sing. She wants to help Rose make her dream come true. However, Rose has kept mum on her jail time. She's also kept mum about being a mom.

Rose's mom feels that she needs to let her Nashville dream go, be responsible to her own kids and settle down. The closer Rose gets to having a big break, and she gets excitingly close, things get complicated. As for her country music, Rose always says that country music is just "three chords and the truth." Her mother asks what it is she wants to say in her music. The wonderful Julie Walters plays Rose's mother. There's good country music and good acting in this movie.  Here's a trailer. WILD ROSE runs about 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Jessie Buckley isn't known here in the States. She's an Irish actress. Man, is she good in this movie. WILD ROSE is a 2018 film. If Hollywood producers were preparing a Janis Joplin biopic, I would not be surprised if a casting director urged them to audition Jessie Buckley for the part. She's a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I'm sure she could nail the American accent.

When Rose's mother hits her with the "What is it you want to say in your music?," that moment hit my heart. Whatever our particular talent, our own art is, finding what to say, finding an individual voice is so important. This year, I'm taking a chance at writing again. My late mother's mantra in my teen years seemed to be "You were meant to be a writer, You were meant to be a writer." She hated the fact that I performed on TV. Even though most of my income from TV went to pay her bills -- such as her monthly house payment after I assumed her mortgage when she relocated -- she hated the fact of my TV career. I can't say that she hated my TV work -- because she wouldn't watch it. Back in the late 80s, when I was the firt black talent to get his own prime time celebrity talk show on VH1, Mom refused to get cable and watch me. Because she intended for me to be a writer.

The truth is, I was a lonely kid. A good student, a polite guy and a lonely kid. Writing is lonely. I didn't want to be lonelier. I wanted to perform, to be with people.

During my New York years, I did some writing. I submitted and my work was always politely rejected. Back in 2009, I was out Barnes and Noble with a buddy. We were just hanging out. He worked for Hachette Publishing in Manhattan. I was browsing through the newly released memoirs of DANCING WIH THE STARS host, Tom Bergeron. Our TV careers have crossed paths.

As we left the bookstore, I casually made this remark to him about Tom Bergeron's book: "We're about the same age and we've worked for some of the same people. I read some of his book. We were the same age as kids when we decided we wanted careers in TV. He grew up in a big, comfortable suburban house in New England. I grew up in a smaller house in South Central L.A., just four short blocks from one of the deadly fires in the Watts Riots."

He relayed that story to an editor he knew at Hachette and gave her my home number. She called me and graciously said she was familiar with my TV career. She asked me to consider writing. Tell my stories. This was when the Great Recession was hooking its claws into us. I'd been working on Whoopi Goldberg's radio show, but it got canceled. I was out of work. I took the editor's invitation, hunkered down and did some writing. I wrote a few David Sedaris-esque chapters, sent copies to my buddy and sent them to the editor. He CCd to me his email enthusiastically urging her to read my stories. He added that he'd known me for years and did not know a lot of the stuff he read in my chapters. If I say so myself, my writing had humor and honesty. The Hachette editor had done a book with comedian/former host of THE VIEW, Sherri Shepherd. She sent me a copy of Sherri's book. The editor had my number, my email address, my apartement address.

I never heard from her again after her initial phone call. She never even emailed a short message acknowledging receipt of my stories. That was a colossal disappointment. A year later, I was so broke and still unemployed that I lost my apartment and most of my belongings in it. I spent a number of years living with different friends and sleeping on their spare couches or in their spare rooms as I hustled to rejoin the workforce.  I now have a steady part time job and I'm living with my sister. Our mom passed in 2017. In the last five years of her life, she and I grew closer than ever. And she changed her mind about me performing on-camera. "People need entertainment, honey," she said. "There's a lot of broken hearts out there."

It took me quite some time to bounce back from the Hachette disappointment. But I'm going to give writing another shot. Wish me luck.  And don't forget about WILD ROSE starring Jessie Buckley and Julie Walters. It's available on YouTube and Amazon Prime.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Kevin Costner Needed HAIR LOVE

If you have not seen the short animated feature called HAIR LOVE, a few minutes of gorgeous joy are missing from your life. When I first saw it last year, I thought "This has GOT to win an Oscar." Matthew A. Cherry has given us lovely valentine to African American fatherhood and daughters. Thank you, Matthew Cherry.
Do yourself a favor now and watch HAIR LOVE from Sony Pictures Animation.

There was a movie back in 2015 that most folks ignored at the box office. It had no special effects. No caped superheroes. No car chases. Just average Southern California people dealing with loss, heartbreak, social class and race. Black and white folks. And they're related. This movie starred Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer. We see Octavia after she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for THE HELP and before she and Costner were reunited for HIDDEN FIGURES.
The first film Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer made together was 2015's BLACK OR WHITE. At the end, I found myself wishing that someone would come up with a quality script that would have Costner and Spencer as a married couple. Those two actors hit a cool groove together onscreen in BLACK OR WHITE. The movie is not bad. It's satisfactory. Their chemistry, however, is above average and kept me watching. Watch this trailer and you will see why I feel Kevin Costner's character needed to see HAIR LOVE.

There you have it. Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer were giving us MIXED-ish years before MIXED-ish became an ABC sitcom. Have a good day -- and take care of the hair.




Friday, February 7, 2020

See THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US

You need to see this series about diversity  and the long, long attempts by black talents to break through the high and thick color barriers in the entertainment industry. This struggle is not just here in the U.S. You'll hear from talent in Great Britain too. Now on Netflix, the name of the series is THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US. Artists in it who tell their stories and give their comments include Harry Belafonte, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne, Don Cheadle, director/actress Kasi Lemmons, director/writer Barry Jenkins, John Boyega and the late Diahann Carroll and John Singleton. I'm pretty sure this series premiered in Great Britain last year. A buddy in London sent me a clip and I was eager to see the whole show. You'll see a representation of British talent giving comments. Earl Cameron, who did some breakthrough British film work, is now 102. The celebrities you'll see in the first hour are candid and revealing. This is history you need to hear.
Look at the 20 current Oscar nominated actors. Last year, there were marvelous film performances from Eddie Murphy, Da'Vine Joy Randolph and Wesley Snipes in the warm and wise comedy biopic, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME.  
                                                       
     
In the Southern California horror thriller, US, there was a powerful dual role performance from Lupita Nyong'o. In CLEMENCY, Alfre Woodward is riveting as the prison warden dealing with men on death row and a marriage that losing its life. One black person is nominated -- Cynthia Erivo for HARRIET, the story of American hero Harriet Tubman and directed by Kasi Lemmons.

To get work, to get seen, to break stereotypes and be included. We are trying to make changes and be part of the conversation -- not just be talked about.  As I write this, I'm watching GOOD MORNING AMERICA. It's Friday. The Oscars are Sunday. ABC's entertainment news anchor, Chris Connelly, just did a segment covering a new study on diversity on screen and behind the camera. He interviewed Cynthia Erivo, the lone black actor up for an Oscar. I don't mean this as a slam against Connelly. However, this is the 3rd year in a row I've seen him, a white gentlemen, talk about Hollywood diversity, or the lack thereof, at Oscar time. In the past, he did not mention some major Black History made in Oscar nominations. It's my opinion that there should be a black/Latino veteran entertainment news contributor with him at Oscar time to add some extra substance, awareness and color to his diversity segments.

The Hollywood credo was "Black Stories Don't Sell." Black filmmakers were disadvantaged by it. That credo also handicapped black actors seeking agents. If black actors were not sought for work as much as white actors were, agents were unenthusiastic about signing black talent -- figuring they could make a larger 10% commission off a white film/TV performer. It's been a struggle for black actors and filmmakers to keep their history, their stories, their skills from being overlooked, ignored or treated as disposable. Today, it's imperative we defy all that and tell our own stories. Here's a look at THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US. The first hour takes us from Hattie McDaniel winning a breakthrough Oscar for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND to the colossal box office success of BLACK PANTHER.

The first episode is one-hour long and Harry Belafonte opens it with his sage observations about race in the Hollywood system. He praises the late Joan Fontaine (above) who played his love interest in the 1957 20th Century Fox film, ISLAND IN THE SUN. Fontaine, an Oscar winning star, got racial hate mail for showing a romantic interest in Belafonte onscreen.

Diahann Carroll gets candid about her affair with Sidney Poitier.

Director Norman Jewison. He's not it but this info is relevant. His IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967. He want to a film version of the Pulitzer Prize winning play, A SOLDIER'S PLAY to be retitled A SOLDIER'S STORY for film. Hollywood studios turned Jewison down saying "Black stories don't sell" and his project had a predominantly black cast. He worked for way less than his usual fee and got the money to shoot it. (Jewison also directed THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR). Robert Townsend was in the 1984 military drama movie and he talks about it.
Back in 1997, after an interview, I asked Spike Lee if he'd like to direct something like BATMAN. He said, "I'd love to direct a BATMAN movie. But Warner Bros. would never let me." Keep that in mind when you hear the actors talk about working with Spike and making 1992's MALCOLM X for Warner Bros.

The memorable Oscars moment when we all discovered that the real winner of the Best Picture Oscar was  LA LA LAND MOONLIGHT was, in a way, symbolic. Damien Chazelle, the young writer and director of LA LA LAND, was the new "It" guy of movies. Critics were raving about his musical. Meanwhile,  I noticed that Black Twitter had started buzzing and praising a new indie film called MOONLIGHT. The buzz and praise began to build thanks to black/Latino critics whose names were not in large newspaper ads next to rave review quotes about LA LA LAND. Black Barry Jenkins, co-writer/director of MOONLIGHT, was not getting the TV exposure that white filmmaker Damien Chazelle got. Then came Oscar night.

MOONLIGHT snatched the Oscar for Best Picture of 2016. Barry Jenkins is another filmmaker who was told black stories don't sell.

THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US -- enlightening, infuriating, accurate. Check it out on Netflix.



Thursday, February 6, 2020

Kirk Douglas Made My Day

Movies starring Kirk Douglas were a memorable part of my youth as I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. My all-time favorite family pastime was when we packed into dad's big Plymouth and went to the drive-in movies. To me, from the time I was learning how to read in school, seeing movies at the drive-in was always a magical experience. And a bargain. Two movies plus a cartoon and coming attractions for a low ticket price. Kids under 12 got in free. Mom and Dad were Kirk Douglas fans. We saw him in Disney's "squid pro quo" adventure, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.
If I was too young to understand the maturity the film's action, I was thrilled to see the movie and I could tell if it was important by the way my parents reacted to it. Kirk Douglas movies, at the drive-in and on TV, were entertainment and an education. My parents were the first -- and still the only -- people who said that SPARTACUS had relevance to the Civil Rights movement.
We saw it when the movement was in full action. Spartacus is a slave leading a revolt again oppression and bigotry. He and his followers are treated as equals or as humans. They're treated like animals. In the relationship of Spartacus and his wife, we discover their humanity. With America's history of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, my parents were absolutely correct. We also went to the drive-in to see TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN. I didn't understand that one when I was a kid, but it sure was cool to watch. Mom and Dad talked about SEVEN DAYS IN MAY a lot after we saw it. They found that political thriller fascinating.
Mom coaxed my sister, our little brother and me to watch a Kirk Douglas movie with her when it aired on network TV. The movie was LUST FOR LIFE. That was my introduction to the biography and art of Vincent van Gogh. It sparked enough interest in me to seek out picture books with van Gogh paintings at our neighborhood library.

On TV, I was a thoroughly happy kid watching Kirk Douglas in YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, DETECTIVE STORY and, especially, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. Man, how I love that 1952 Vincente Minnelli Hollywood-on-Hollywood film with Douglas as a gifted yet manipulative movie producer.
I was also keen on THE BIG CARNIVAL. Billy Wilder's prescient journalism smackdown aired on local L.A. television a lot. It was a public domain feature that had been retitled. It was a flop with critics and movie audiences when released in 1951. Now remastered, restored and considered a classic, it's available with its original title -- ACE IN THE HOLE. 


In college, I came to appreciate Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY and Douglas' modern-day western, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. I was captivated at how Douglas could pull off almost primitive masculine outbursts and also express tender, vulnerable emotions. Look at the jealous. unsympathetic outbursts that ruin his marriage in William Wyler's DETECTIVE STORY. Look at how he plays his relationship with the overly macho Gauguin in Minnelli's LUST FOR LIFE like a gay male marriage that he's desperately trying to hold together. Douglas plays the relationship (opposite brawny Anthony Quinn) as if they're in a romantic domestic partnership.
September 12, 1988 was an extremely special Monday for me. I had my own half-hour weeknight celebrity entertainment talk show on VH1. It was a prime time Monday through Friday show that premiered on September 12th.

My first and only guest for the premiere edition was Kirk Douglas. We'd taped it the previous week. The taping day was wonderful and nerve-wracking. Kirk Douglas showed up early. Two days early at our studios on West 57th Street across from CBS. He was schedule for noon on Thursday. He arrived for noon on Tuesday. We had just done a lighting and sound check on the set and were about to break for lunch, when I got a call from the receptionist in the lobby. She whispered into the phone "Can you hear me? Kirk Douglas is here. Alone. In the lobby." I said, "He's not booked until Thursday." She replied, "You want me to tell Spartacus to go home?"

Of course not. I dashed into the studio. Told our great crew that Spartacus was early and in the lobby. They all postponed lunch and prepared to tape my show with Kirk Douglas. My love and knowledge of his films and co-stars carried me through as we also discussed his book, THE RAGMAN'S SON. When I got to the lobby to greet him, I saw that he was indeed solo. No publicist. No entourage. He had his itinerary and showed it to me. I realized his mistake -- which I never told him was a mistake. He mistook a handwritten "Th" for a "Tu" and, thus, figured he was due Tuesday. He was gracious, charming and complimented that our young crew was aware of his old movies. He had Old Hollywood class and charisma. You could tell he was quite at ease with his Hollywood legend status.

Here's a clip of him on my VH1 show talking about his son, Michael Douglas.

Here's a short reel with another clip of Kirk Douglas from our VH1 interview. He's up after Norman Mailer.

I never forget how lucky I was to work on VH1. Three of the best years of my career. I was never, ever offered another national talk show host opportunity. And I really wanted another talk show host opportunity.  I loved that VH1 job and the crew. I will always cherish my time with Kirk Douglas.

One more thing. Kirk Douglas starred in a 1979 comedy western called THE VILLAIN. Ann-Margret and Arnold Schwarzenegger co-starred. It's not one of Douglas' better efforts. He plays a bank robber and the movie basically is a stretched out version of a Warner Bros. Yosemite Sam cartoon. But, one hour into the story, the film is completely stolen by Paul Lynde on horseback as a Native American Indian Chief called Nervous Elk. I live to hear Nervous Elk, on horseback, say "White woman is crazy."

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

I Feel Like Nicholson in CHINATOWN

I told myself that I wouldn't, but I watched anyway. I grew up in a house with parents who urged me to pay attention to current events. That included watching the State of the Union address -- even when the president represented the opposite party. Mom and Dad were Democrats. I am too. Last night, I was a livid American as I watched.
To see a Presidential Medal of Freedom be bestowed upon radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, was an insult to Lady Liberty. There are audio clips of him making racist comments on his show, making racially offensive comments about Barack Obama and Mexicans and mocking the physically disabled actor, Michael J. Fox. And there's more. Furthermore, I can't take any more of Sen. Mitch McConnell praising and supporting the millionaire former reality TV game show host currently living in the White House. I was on summer vacation from school decades ago and watched President Nixon resign on live network television. The shadiness of this current administration, its abuse of power, makes Nixon's seem like Tracy Flick's high school election campaign in the 1999 satire, ELECTION.

All those politicians on the Hill who are in the Cult of the Orange One -- and the Orange One himself -- make me feel like the 1930s private investigator J.J. Gittes in CHINATOWN when he grills the wealthy and corrupt California businessman Noah Cross with "Why are you doing it? What can you buy that you couldn't already afford?"



Monday, February 3, 2020

THE OSCAR Has Cheese to Please

This all-star Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie is brilliantly bad. Something that should be on a double bill with SNAKES ON A PLANE or VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. I'm talking about the 1966 drama, THE OSCAR, starring the handsome and underappreciated Stephen Boyd as a ruthless actor nominated for an Oscar. He uses and abuses friends and Hollywood industry figures so he can win the Oscar. No actor in THE OSCAR got an Academy Award nomination for the film -- but Edith Head got a well-deserved nomination for the fabulous fashions she designed for Jill St. John, Elke Sommer and Eleanor Parker, among others, to wear. I saw THE OSCAR at the movies when it was new. I was in middle school and a Stephen Boyd fan. 1959's BEN-HUR got 11 Oscar nominations. I still feel today that should have received 12. Stephen Boyd should've been in the Best Supporting Actor category for his "loved HUR, hated him" performance as Ben-Hur's former best friend-turned rival. By then, my deep film love was known in the family. I entered a local radio contest and I was one of the winners. I won tickets for family members and me to attend a sneak preview screening on the 20th Century Fox lot of the sci-fi fantasy thriller, FANTASTIC VOYAGE starring Stephen Boyd and Raquel Welch. I still have the 8x10 autographed photo of Raquel Welch that I got. Mom, my sister, our little brother and I had big fun on the Fox lot seeing FANTASTIC VOYAGE. On a Saturday afternoon, Mom let me go to the movies alone to see THE OSCAR. She drove me to the local theater and told me she'd pick me up after the show. If we'd had a middle school newspaper, and I'd have written reviews for it, I would've given THE OSCAR two out of four stars. A line in my review would've been "Oy. Two hours of my life that I could've spent in my room doing homework. This movie is a colorful waste of time. And talent." Since then, I have seen it several times -- mostly during the week heading into the Oscars telecast on network TV. It's so bad, it's good for laughs at pre-Oscars festivities.
Not only that. I'd memorized some of the cheesy dialogue. Tony Bennett (yes, THAT Tony Bennett) made his film acting debut in THE OSCAR. The 1966 potboiler also marks the last acting role Bennett ever did in a film. He plays Hymie Kelly, the former best friend of Frankie Fane, asshole actor. Hymie, at the Oscars, flashes back to the real story of how Frankie clawed his way to the top from working in low bars and getting in trouble with the law.  There's history in THE OSCAR. The story happens when the Oscars were still held in Santa Monica. Later, they moved to downtown L.A. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. My favorite line of bad dialogue was spoken by Bennett. In the late 80s, he was a guest on VH1. I had to meet him. My parents had his albums, I grew up loving his records, and I just had to shake his hand. I broke him up laughing when I did my imitation of him as Hymie Kelly in his big dramatic scene saying "She died under the knife! She died having your baby!"
Elke Sommer plays the woman who believes she can change and redeem Frankie. Her hairstyles must have inspired future Southern mothers of little girls they'd enter into pageant competition. We would see similar hairdos styled on the heads of 10-year old girls named Amber and Tiffani.
I wasn't kidding about the all-star cast in this movie. THE OSCAR stars Steven Boyd, Elke Sommer, Eleanor Parker, Jill St. John, Edie Adams, Ernest Borgnine, Joseph Cotten, Milton Berle, Merle Oberon, Peter Lawford and Walter Brennan. This movie was a Joseph E. Levine production. Levine was a guy who believed that "sex sells." His movies usually had sex and this one was no exception. There's sex, broken hearts, some good acting and a cowpie of a script. The Oscars are this coming Sunday. Now for a clip from the brilliantly bad 1966 movie I'll be watching later this week before Sunday. Here's Stephen Boyd with Jean Hale.

The screenplay was co-written by Harlan Ellison.

There's a current article about THE OSCAR in The New Yorker magazine. The movie's now available on home video and comedian/actor Patton Oswalt viewed it for the article entitled "The Return of THE OSCAR, an Unseeable, Unwatchable Flop."
Well... it was a flop. It's not a good movie. But it's so chock full of Hollywood cheese that it is watchable. It's a camp classic. It's not great, yet it sure is memorable. Especially that final scene.

THE OSCAR is now available here:  www.kinolorber.com.


Sunday, February 2, 2020

About QUEEN & SLIM

This post is, in a way, a bookend to my previous one. The post previous one is about the groundbreaking African American playwright and screenwriter, Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry, a Civil Rights activist and a lesbian, wrote the 1961 screenplay adaptation of her hit play. For a black person, especially a black woman, to get an onscreen card in the opening credits that had her name -- and her name alone -- under the words "Screen Play By" was a huge and historic achievement in a production from a top Hollywood studio. This weekend, I saw the 2019 drama QUEEN & SLIM, released by Universal. The credits roll at the end of the movie. There is a single card onscreen that reads "Screenplay By Lena Waithe." Another huge achievement from another talented black lesbian writer in a production from a top Hollywood studio. QUEEN & SLIM was directed by Melina Matsoukas. What an impressive job she did. QUEEN & SLIM is her first feature-length film.
Someone might describe this as a "Black Lives Matter" movie, but it's more than that. BOYZ N THE HOOD, the 1991 classic from director John Singleton took place in the modern-day South Central Los Angeles, where I grew up. Nonetheless, at its heart, BOYZ N THE HOOD is a modern-day equivalent of a classic John Ford western -- a western like THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE.  In QUEEN & SLIM, we meet two young African American adults on an achingly innocent first date in a diner. As he escorts her home, they're pulled over by a white cop. Slim is a responsible young man. Almost pleasantly boring. He doesn't drink. There's no drug substance in his car. No weapon. Just a pocketknife in the glove compartment. Queen, by the way, is a lawyer. The cop gets increasingly aggressive as he questions Slim and orders him out of the car. The situation turns ugly. The cop ignores Queen who identifies herself as an attorney and requests his badge number and name. Things get uglier. Two shots are fired. She's wounded. The cop is dead. This is a first date that would make folks swear off Tinder forever.

The two black characters must flee and this becomes a road movie. On the road from Ohio to Florida, they will find family dysfunction, violence, disappointment, support and love. They will discover things about themselves and each other. This story could've been a classic western with a more psychological depth than the standard old Hollywood westerns. Think of William Wellman's THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, Fred Zinnemann's HIGH NOON and Martin Ritt's HOMBRE.  It could've also been a film set in an earlier decade while also being an ode to a certain genre -- like Arthur Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE in 1967. Penn's hit film about two real-life Depression-era outlaws was a Warner Bros. release. In the 1930s, Warner Bros. was the king studio for gangster movies and other "crime doesn't pay" stories. James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart all had machine gun duty in some 1930s Depression era films from Warner Bros.  Lena Waithe's screenplay is tough, tender, smart, relevant and, at times, funny. The direction is economical and intelligent. Two young black people are on the run in a car. They feel hunted and trapped. Yet notice how often they appear to be free. Theirs is often the only vehicle on the road -- the long, long road. Melina Matsoukas doesn't fill the frame with excess. She lets space exist around people and between people.
The opening scene is one of wit and revelation. Queen and Slim sit facing each other at a diner table. They've just received their orders. She makes an exasperated face as he folds his hand and says a rather long silent grace before his meal. She claims to be an atheist. We learn that Tinder brought them together. She's understandably a bit tense and critical because of work. A client of hers was executed. She abhors the death penalty. She points out to him that he ordered scrambled eggs but got them over easy instead. She wants the waitress to correct it. He casually lets it go because he's acquainted with the waitress. He knows she's working hard to raise four kids and has an alcoholic husband. He likes the diner because he supports black-owned businesses. Queen and Slim are played by Jodie Turner-Smith and (from GET OUT) Daniel Kaluuya. Here's a trailer.
Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers band member, has a supporting role in this film. He's very good as a sympathetic friend to the pair on the run. He was also very good as the homophobic and verbally abusive gay conversion therapy staff member in the 2018 film, BOY ERASED. As for Waithe's screenwriting wit, there's one scene that really broke me up. The two are early in their getaway journey. They stop at a fast food joint and give a mouthy little boy some cash so he'll buy them some food. He can keep the change. A minor accident occurs. It's a scene that adds another bite of racial significance to the story while also giving you a flavor of BONNIE AND CLYDE meets SANFORD AND SON.

Writer, actress, producer Lena Waithe has got the gift. So does QUEEN & SLIM director Melina Matsoukas. QUEEN & SLIM is tense, moving, well-acted entertainment.


MOONLIGHT in Black History Month

Now that another Black History Month is coming to a close, I want to highlight some Hollywood history that was made just a few years ago. Th...