Monday, July 15, 2019

Josephine Baker Dance Break

My mother was in absolute awe of Josephine Baker. She adored her. In the 1950s,before my parents married, Josephine Baker appeared onstage in Los Angeles.  Mom couldn't get Dad interested in going with her, so Mom went by herself. She said that Baker's L.A. show was fabulous.  I always loved that story. Mom was such a fan that she didn't succumb to 1950s social attitudes that a woman must always be accompanied by a male to such functions as theatrical events. Josephine Baker was a show business legend and Mom was not about to miss seeing the black entertainer who had made history in France as a performer and as a citizen who greatly aided the French Resistance during World War II.  I'm sure you're aware of Baker's history. She was a black girl from St. Louis, Missouri who headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. She got work as a chorus dancer. At age 19, she sailed to France. Before the 1920s ended, she had become a toast of Paris and a darling of the Jazz Age with her musical act and risqué costumes. From 1927 through 1935, she starred in three French films. Starred. She was the lead actress and played characters who were wooed by white Frenchmen in tuxedos. France embraced her. French became her second language. France gave her a racial freedom she was denied in America. Hers is a fascinating story.
She was celebrated for her vivacious personality and her alluring attire. Before the word was over-used, she was true icon of French entertainment and black history.
She got a visual reference in Woody Allen's ZELIG (1983) and she's portrayed by Sonia Rolland in Allen's MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011). The elegant American-born Folies Bergére star should have had a deluxe number in one of the glossy all-star musical revues done by Paramount or MGM. We know why she wasn't. Here she is in France's 1935 film, PRINCESS TAM TAM.
What black woman was given that sort of sophisticated and lovely presentation in a casually interracial scene in a Hollywood studio movie of the 1930s?

Mom was also a Grace Kelly fan and told me why. When Josephine Baker was refused service at New York City's famed The Stork Club, a prestigious nightclub that did not welcome black customers, Baker expressed her displeasure with the segregation. Grace Kelly was at another table, witnessed what was happening and went over to support the famous Josephine Baker. The two women left the restaurant together and remained close friends until Baker's death. Baker even challenged powerful Walter Winchell when he turned a blind eye to the nightclub's segregation. Some white men didn't have the guts to challenge Winchell. But Baker did.

The international star refused to perform for segregated audiences.
Here is a quote from Josephine Baker that feels timely and relevant today:
"My people have a country of their own to go to if they choose to...Africa...but, this America belongs to them just as much as it does to any of the white race...in some ways even more so, because they gave the sweat of their brow and their blood in slavery so that many parts of America could become prosperous and recognized in the world."
Through the early 1970s, she continued to perform. Her voice had deepened and mellowed beautifully. She retained her glamour and never veered into self-parody. Her social activism continued. She thought she'd lost her audience, but her special retrospective revue in Paris in 1975 celebrating her 50 years in show business proved otherwise. It was a sold-out hit financed by two special women -- Grace Kelly, now Princess Grace of Monaco, and Jackie Onassis. The reviews for Josephine Baker were sensational.  She'd survived bumpy financial times. Overall, she was a success as an entertainer, as a mother and as a decorated citizen to took part in social issues in France and America. In her late 60s, she died peacefully in bed four days after her triumphant opening night. She was surrounded by newspapers that all had glowing reviews of her performance. What a way to go. Decorated by France for her work helping the Resistance during WWII, she was given full French military honors at her funeral.

Visit a library or bookstore and read more about Josephine Baker. In the meantime, practice your dance moves to this recording of hers that's in the MIDNIGHT IN PARIS soundtrack. Enjoy.





Saturday, July 13, 2019

Shirley MacLaine as Madame Butterfly

The former Broadway musical comedy dancer had been discovered by Hollywood, made her film debut in a Hitchcock mystery/comedy, 1955's THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, and then scored a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination for her touching performance in the 1958 Vincente Minnelli drama, SOME CAME RUNNING. Her second Best Actress Oscar nomination came for Billy Wilder's classic 1960 drama/comedy, THE APARTMENT. In that, she was radiant as the lovable New York City insurance company elevator operator whose wounded soul and broken heart are healed by a most unlikely true love. In 1962, Shirley MacLaine starred as a woman who takes to the high C's. She performs the operatic work of Puccini as Madame Butterfly in 1962's MY GEISHA. This is a movie that may not be one of the most well-known in MacLaine's canon of films. It's one that's held a special place in my heart ever since I was teetering on the brink of teen-age in South Central Los Angeles. I developed a big crush on Shirley MacLaine when I was a kid. I loved watching early Shirley be kooky in movies that aired on local TV.  Movies like 1955's ARTISTS AND MODELS with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and 1961's ALL IN A NIGHT'S WORK again with Dean Martin. In MY GEISHA, Shirley MacLaine plays a famous movie star. She's famous for comedies. Hollywood's top funny girl is married to the director of those comedies. Hollywood swoons at this marriage because, as one person remarks, it's not just a marriage, "...it's a love affair."  Shirley MacLaine is Lucy Dell, Hollywood star, and Yves Montand is Paul Robaix, her director/husband. Edward G. Robinson co-stars.
I loved Shirley MacLaine's kooky charisma in MY GEISHA when I was a boy and saw it on TV a few times. Our TV was black and white, as many were in those days. When the 80s arrived and we had VHS tapes available to rent from video stores, I fell in love with MY GEISHA all over again. I fell in love with the look and color of it. Some of this Paramount romantic comedy was shot on location in Japan.  The director of MY GEISHA was Jack Cardiff, the master British cinematographer who gave us rich, vivid, magnificent color photography in THE RED SHOES, BLACK NARCISSUS and A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. Although Cardiff is not the credited cinematographer on MY GEISHA, you just know that he collaborated in its look.

Here's the story: Lucy Dell's husband, Paul, has a new project. He's directing a movie adaptation of MADAME BUTTERFLY with Puccini's music. He wants to shoot on location in Japan and he wants to find a Japanese actress to play the lead. Lucy hates to be separated from Paul for long stretches. She pitches herself for the lead role. Paul politely tells her she'd be wrong for the role. It's a tragic love story that ends with a suicide and the part should be played by a Japanese actress. Edward G. Robinson plays their friend and producer. He knows a movie studio will give Paul a much smaller budget to shoot a movie that does not star Lucy. The studio will probably also demand he shoot in black and white and reduce his on-location time to shoot most of it on the Paramount lot instead.

Paul and his producer go to Japan. Paul holds many auditions. He meets actual geishas. Lucy goes to Japan and secretly tells the producer of her plan to surprise Paul. She knows he's having dinner with a few geisha girls. She gets dressed up like one -- full extreme make-up, wig, kimono and contact lens to hide her blue eyes -- and joins the dinner as one of the girls. Clueless Paul is fascinated with one geisha named Yoko Mori. He has no idea she's really his wife, Lucy Dell.
He gives Yoko a screen test. She gets the part. Now Lucy and the producer have to think fast. The producer tells Lucy's secret to the studio head. Now that Lucy's involved in the picture, the budget is generously increased. Paul can shoot on location and shoot in color. Meanwhile Lucy has to begin studying for her role in Japan while she pretends to be back in the U.S.A.  She'll be playing two roles at the same time -- Butterfly and Yoko Mori.
Paul deeply loves Lucy. However, he reveals that his "vanity" gets dented because he knows that Hollywood sees him as "Mr. Lucy Dell."  After the film is completed, and its world premiere is held in Japan, the studio head wants geisha Yoko Mori to reveal her true identity for a major entertainment news splash. This will make Lucy Dell's stardom burn brighter than ever.

Lucy Dell reinvents herself as an actress. Paul Robaix distinguishes himself as a director. In the marriage, there will be revelations, manipulated heartbreak and we'll see if the Hollywood "love affair" survives. Does Lucy love her career a wee bit more than she loves her husband?

This may not be the deepest of plots. However, it's the kind of movie entertainment that I needed. I found the movie last night. After a week of White House news that made me want to go full James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and cry out "You're tearing me apart!," I craved soothing movie entertainment with a talented, skilled cast, some laughs, love, fabulous Edith Head costumes, gorgeous color and a happy ending. That's what I needed -- and I got it with MY GEISHA.

What I noticed now in the movie is how much the husband and wife truly love each other. When he's away from her, he tends to be a little cranky. The crankiness suddenly vanishes as soon as hears from her. Lucy, as Yoko, knows how to fend off the constant flirtatious advances of her constant comedy co-star. He's played by Bob Cummings. Cummings, like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, was a middle-aged actor who'd been making movies since the late 1930s/early 40s, but doing a hit TV sitcom in the 1950s made him a bigger star than any Hollywood movies had.  Bob Cummings applied some of his goofy ladies' man bachelor TV sitcom persona to his MY GEISHA character.
He's like a younger version of the older TV soap opera actor who falls for new cast member "Dorothy Michaels" and serenades her in TOOTSIE. Lucy Dell's constant comedy co-star is playing Lieutenant Pinkerton in Paul's MADAME BUTTERFLY movie. (Paramount made a MADAME BUTTERFLY in 1932. Bronx-born Sylvia Sidney played Butterfly. Cary Grant played Pinkerton. And he sang.)

Japanese culture gets respectful treatment in MY GEISHA. During Paul's auditions, we see how young Japanese women have been heavily influenced by our American pop culture. After Lucy/Yoko lands the lead role, Lucy and her producer find an veteran Japanese instructor who can teach them about the art of being a geisha and introduce them to someone who can coach Lucy for her new film role.

Lucy gets an education. And so did I. At that time, American men seemed to think geishas were just party girls in kimonos who pleasantly served food and drink and then freely provided sexual favors as dessert. The older Japanese gentleman explained the true strict and intellectual art of being a geisha. He told what it entailed and what skills it required. The line would get a loving chuckle today because of material in a couple of Shirley MacLaine's future books, but Lucy pays full attention to what the older instructor says and then replies, "You couldn't teach me that in two lifetimes." Yoko Tani is lovely and wise as Lucy Dell's geisha coach.
Steve Parker is the producer of MY GEISHA and you definitely see his name in the opening credits. He was Shirley MacLaine's husband at the time. They were married for nearly 30 years and, when this film came out, they had a most non-traditional, open marriage. He lived and worked in Japan. She had an apartment in New York City and made movies in Hollywood.
About the education. Lucy Dell gets an education in the art of being a geisha and the emotional discipline that old art required.  Because of MY GEISHA, before I was 13, I could hear an aria or an overture on the radio and know it was from Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY. This Shirley MacLaine entertainment introduced me to some classical music. Because of the monologue about the life and art of the geisha, I picked up a book in my high school library and read it. Reading that book inspired me to do a term paper on the author. I got an "A" on that paper.  The book was SNOW COUNTRY, a novel by revered Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata.  It's the story of a geisha's unfulfilling love affair with a man who, today, would be called a hipster.

One form of entertainment can be a bridge to other discoveries in the fine arts.

Shirley MacLaine in MY GEISHA was just the colorful, sweet tonic I needed last night.  Yves Montand still gives my heart a glow when he says "Keep bowing, you little ham."


Friday, July 12, 2019

Ava DuVernay on GANDHI

Ava DuVernay, one of the most gifted and significant filmmakers of today, has been sharing her warm and non-intimidating classic film knowledge on TCM (Turner Classic Movies.).  I write "non-intimidating" because I've heard some male film critics and historians get on TV or radio and when they begin discussing some classic films, they sound as engaging as a college textbook. You wonder if they're trying to bring viewers and listeners into an appreciation of the film arts or if they're trying to impress their fellow high-tone male film critics and historians.  Filmmaker Ava DuVernay (of the Oscar-nominated SELMA and Netflix's blistering, brilliant WHEN THEY SEE US) is for the people and bringing them into an appreciation of the film arts.
This year, she's been the co-host of "The Essentials," a Saturday evening feature on TCM. The late Robert Osborne hosted it and invited such celebs as Carrie Fisher, Sally Field and Drew Barrymore to be cohosts. After Mr. Osborne passed away, actor Alec Baldwin hosted "The Essentials." He brought on buddies like Tina Fey and David Letterman. I like Baldwin. However, when Baldwin hosted "The Essentials," we got doses of movie trivia about the classic film shown or, in Letterman's case, we got snarky comments about some of the stars. DuVernay fully grasps the concept of "The Essentials" -- that it's a presentation of a film that's a must-see for those who are serious devotees of classic films. She not only brings her charm, wit, terrific knowledge and viewpoints, her presence alone is a race/gender inclusion that brings TCM into the 21st Century. She is an African American female director/writer who has selected films by other female directors, such as Agnes Varda, and films by people of color, such as Julie Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST and Satyajit Ray's PATHER PANCHALI, in addition to films by Vincente Minnelli and Sidney Lumet. Ava has broken national TV's decades-long practice of giving us looks at classic films mostly through the white male critic/historian/TV host gaze. Ava brings a fresh, passionate, informed and contemporary perspective. This Saturday, July 13th, Ava DuVernay and primetime TCM host Ben Mankiewicz present 1982's GANDHI starring Ben Kingsley. The biopic is about a famous social activist. The film is a call for social activism and the star's career is an example of success crashing through a Hollywood barrier of inequality.
Ava DuVernay grew up in South Central L.A. So did I -- years before she did. I grew up on 124th and Central. I attended a high school in Watts just a few years after the Watts Riots. Classmates and teachers in my school knew then I was fascinated with classic films. I never saw a Black person review movies or work on-air as a movie host on local Los Angeles TV. After I graduated from college in Milwaukee, I got a job on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate as a weekly movie critic and celebrity interviewer. I was the first Black person to do that work on local Milwaukee TV.  I got a job offer from a New York TV station in 1985 and took it.  I was in New York for 20 years and still had not seen one Black person as a weekly or semi-regular film critic on local TV or network TV.  Each network morning news show -- the ones on ABC, NBC and CBS -- had a white male movie critic doing reviews every Friday.

Some of the work that got me the New York job offer included an interview of Ben Kingsley, the screen newcomer in GANDHI. My interviews of Kingsley and GANDHI director Richard Attenborough aired nationally a week before they won Oscars for the film.

The 1982 junket, the studio's promotional weekend of press interviews, took place at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. I was invited to it.  In those days, the number of other Black correspondents doing entertainment interviews for TV was always small. We'd make a point of seeking each other out at the screenings or the post-screening dinner. After the GANDHI preview screening, I was chatting with two other Black men covering it for TV. We were all stunned by Ben Kingsley's brilliance. It didn't seem like a performance. It seemed like Mahatma Gandhi himself had resurrected. That's how remarkable Kingsley, born Krishna Pandit Bhanji, was in performance and look. One of the guys said, "If he wins Best Actor, and he should, I sure hope he can get work afterwards."
The two of us knew exactly what he meant. I was thinking the same thing. Hollywood would see Ben Kingsley as a man of color and there was an ever-increasing list of Black/Latinx actors -- mostly women -- who got one Oscar nomination, maybe even won the Oscar -- and then had to turn to TV for steady employment because Hollywood had no other good scripts for them. Hollywood had fewer opportunities for actors of color.  Ava DuVernay presented WEST SIDE STORY as one of "The Essentials." Rita Moreno won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for that Best Picture of 1961 Oscar winner. Then she did not have any film work for seven years. She had to turn to TV. The same goes for one-time Oscar nominees Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Taraji P. Henson and Gabourey Sidibe. They all went to TV. After two Oscar nominations, Viola Davis had to go to TV. After an Oscar win in her two nominations, Whoopi Goldberg had to go to TV.

The lack of opportunities for actors of color and the lack of inclusion of film critics of color have been hot issues in the entertainment industry for the last three years.

Sir Ben Kingsley won the Oscar for Best Actor. GANDHI won for Best Picture. Kingsley went on to get Oscar nominations for BUGSY (1991), SEXY BEAST (2000) and HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (2003). Bravo, Ben!
Because of the Oscar success of GANDHI -- Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director -- Columbia Pictures offered director Richard Attenborough another deal. Columbia released GANDHI. Director Richard Attenborough was free to select any project on Columbia's roster as his next film. Mr. Attenborough told me this himself.

He chose to direct the film version of the huge Broadway musical hit, A CHORUS LINE. He chose Michael Douglas to play the choreographer/director. Did you see the movie?

If Mahatma Gandhi had been alive, he would've gone on another fast to make sure something like that never, ever happened again to a hit Broadway musical.

Watch Ava DuVernay and Ben Mankiewicz present GANDHI Saturday July 13th at 8p ET/5p PT on TCM.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Renée's Judy Garland Biopic

Lord know I am a serious Judy Garland fan and have been ever since I was a little boy and Mom sat me down in front of the TV in the living room to watch THE WIZARD OF OZ. Writer Charles P. Pierce is a celebrated and sharp contributor to Esquire magazine. If you contacted him today and asked him, "What is a classic film that Bobby Rivers worships?," his immediate response would be "A STAR IS BORN with Judy Garland."  Charlie and I lived on the same dorm floor in college. He frequently heard the 1954 A STAR IS BORN soundtrack being played in my room.
Oscar winner Renée Zellweger plays the enormously talented singer/Hollywood film actress in an upcoming biopic. As much as I love Judy Garland, my initial gut-feeling is that this would be a hard sell for a big screen theatrical release. From what I have read, this film covers Garland in the last year of her life when she was not in the finest form vocally, physically or financially. She was living in London and had married for the fifth time. The superstar died in London in June 1969.
To me, Zellweger looks more like Polly Bergen from the original CAPE FEAR playing Judy Garland. I can't see millions of moviegoers heading to the box office to make this a hit biopic the way they did the mediocre but popular BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY.  But I could be wrong.  Here is the current trailer for the British biopic, JUDY, starring Renee Zellweger in the lead role:
Another thing: I don't know if any big screen or TV biopic today about Judy Garland could match or top the outstanding one presented as an ABC mini-series in 2001.  Judy Davis was so sensational as adult Judy Garland in LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND: ME AND MY SHADOWS that straight guys on New York City FM radio were raving about her performance the mornings after it aired. The feature was based on a book written by Garland's youngest daughter, Lorna Luft, and Lorna was a producer on the TV adaptation. Tammy Blanchard played young Garland as a new teen contract player on the brink of being cast in THE WIZARD OF OZ to up the laborious shoot of GIRL CRAZY, an MGM musical directed by Busby Berkeley and co-starring Mickey Rooney. Davis comes in as Judy when she's a new queen on the MGM lot about to meet Vincente Minnelli for MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and goes through her A STAR IS BORN screen comeback and Oscar nomination, her Carnegie Hall concert triumph, her CBS weekly TV variety show disappointment, her home life, marriages and motherhood.
In that mini-series, you can away with a sense of what an extraordinary entertainer and underappreciated actress Judy Garland was. You also saw that, although she was making movies which seemed to be a fun and glamorous life, by the time she was 16, she was the breadwinner of her family and putting in long hours at a factory-like studio.

Reportedly, none of her three kids -- Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft and Joe Luft -- were involved in Zellweger's production at all.  Lorna Luft's father, Sid Luft, produced Garland's magnificent artistic and critical success in the first remake of A STAR IS BORN. The original starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in 1937. She did not win, but Garland was the favorite to win for her musical/dramatic screen performance directed by George Cukor. After the film's exclusive engagement, studio head Jack L. Warner cut several scenes from the 3-hour film without the director's approval in order to make it shorter for theater showings in wide release. Many felt his cuts cost Garland the Oscar.

Lorna has written two books. Her first was ME AND MY SHADOWS: A FAMILY MEMOIR.
Her current book hit the marketplace shortly before the Lady Gaga remake of A STAR IS BORN premiered.

Lorna Luft's A STAR IS BORN: JUDY GARLAND AND THE FILM THAT GOT AWAY goes into the making, the unkind cuts and the eventual 1980s restoration of her parents' critically acclaimed 1954 film.

Judy Garland's final film was 1963's I COULD GO ON SINGING. In it, she plays a successful American singer who has booked a concert engagement at the London Palladium. While in London, she has a bittersweet reunion with the man she fell in love with years earlier. Here she is singing the title tune written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, the men who wrote "Over the Rainbow" and all the other original songs for 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ.



Tuesday, July 9, 2019

A De Sica Gem

To win awards is not the reason why we should attempt to and push ourselves to make art. It shouldn't be, in my opinion. However, it must be a lovely feeling to know that your work has been embraced, that it's made an impact. At Oscar time, if a contender says "It's an honor just to be nominated," I believe it. That said, it's hard to believe that Vittorio De Sica never received an Oscar nomination for Best Director. What a master filmmaker! My parents introduced me to his work when I was growing up in Los Angeles. One of my favorite professors introduced me to more of his work in my Film Journalism course in college. Vittorio De Sica directed BICYCLE THIEVES (1948), UMBERTO D. (1952), TWO WOMEN starring Sophia Loren (1960) and Loren did her famous striptease scene with actor Marcello Mastroianni in YESTERDAY, TODAY and TOMORROW (1963).
If you've never seen BICYCLE THIEVES, promise me you'll rectify that as soon as possible.
There's another De Sica film I love. Just like in YESTERDAY, TODAY and TOMORROW, it has characters and communities that remind me of my neighborhood in South Central L.A. when I was a kid. Working class people who were just getting by, but they did get by and they blended into each other's lives. They were lively, colorful, memorable, strong -- and overlooked by people in outer neighborhoods who had more, who had privileges. Those were people who, if they were given a plate full of good food and ate only half of the serving, would throw the remaining food away. We would save the rest for a later time. There was always someone in the family who could finish it. Food was never to be thrown away.

Overlooked, dear working class people such as those are in a lesser-known Vittorio De Sica film from 1956.  It's called THE ROOF. It's a simple film in black and white, only about 90 minutes long. There are no stars in it. Nonetheless, you'll remember the performances.  I saw THE ROOF a couple of times a few years ago. I watched it twice in the same weekend. I found it recently, soon after we celebrated Independence Day with fireworks and such. Finding THE ROOF again this month was like having Christmas in July.
A young couple has just gotten married. The sweet newlyweds are just starting out in life together yet they have so little money that they are below the poverty line.  They love each other and director De Sica loves them. The man and wife really have no home. They call upon the kindness of relatives for a place to stay. They can't even be alone together on their wedding night. Still, the light of love in their eyes never dims and neither does their hope.
There's a lot of new buildings being constructed in Rome. The husband is a construction worker. Ironically, he can help build homes but he cannot afford to have one of his own. In the outskirts of Rome, people build makeshift dwellings. That's prohibited. However, there's a law that if the dwelling has a door and a roof, people cannot be evicted from the dwelling.

The newlyweds seeks a place with a roof. Through a series of humiliations, they carry on and help comes to them. The simplest of things are like gold to this couple. This couple is like gold to me.

This film is like a warm, loving embrace you get when your spirits are tattered. THE ROOF is a De Sica gem.  If there's ever a chance you can attend a screening of this subtitled foreign film, go.

Vittorio De Sica. What a master filmmaker. He did get one Oscar nomination. It came in the Best Supporting Actor category for his performance in 1957's A FAREWELL TO ARMS.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Notes on CNN: THE MOVIES

Sunday night I watched the 2-hour CNN original presentation, THE MOVIES.  The docu-series edition took us back to the 1980s.  Yes, as usual, I was extremely curious to see if there would be any Black film critics, historians or veteran entertainment reporters giving comments. Overall, last night's edition made me feel as if I'd already seen it. A lot of the information wasn't exactly new and many of the viewpoints weren't exactly fresh.  It was not a bad presentation. It just needed jolts of something original in this CNN Originals production. The 80s was the decade that shaped, accelerated and expanded my TV career. I was working on the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee as a weekly movie critic on the city's edition of PM MAGAZINE, a popular syndicated evening program in those days. For the show, I also did celebrity interviews thanks to film promo junkets held in New York City and Los Angeles. Several of my celeb interviews were 6-minute features that PM MAGAZINE put on its national reel. This was major for me. Not only did it expand industry awareness of me, I was the first African American seen conducting several celebrity interviews on the PM MAGAZINE national reel. In 1982, as a week of "Countdown to the Oscars," PM MAGAZINE aired a number of my celebrity interviews as main features. You saw me with Meryl Streep (SOPHIE'S CHOICE), Jessica Lange (TOOTSIE and FRANCES), Ben Kingsley (GANDHI) and Richard Attenborough (director of GANDHI). They all won Hollywood gold on Oscar night. I was keen to see the Sunday night's CNN focus on films of the 80s.
Here's an example of what I mean when I say it needed some fresh information. When the hit comedy 9 TO 5 was discussed, people commented on how women's roles in society were changing and the pleasant surprise of seeing country singer/songwriter Dolly Parton take charge on-screen as a sexy, shapely, no-nonsense, professional secretary. If I was a segment producer or writer on the docu-series, I would've pitched a spotlight on Goldie Hawn. Hawn won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the 1969 comedy, CACTUS FLOWER, after having hit big with TV viewers as the ditzy blonde on the NBC sketch comedy series, LAUGH-IN. In real life, Hawn was never ditzy. In the 80s, she became a top producer and produced herself to a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the comedy 1980 comedy, PRIVATE BENJAMIN. This movie was such a big hit that PM MAGAZINE did a feature called "Real Life Private Benjamin," having found an everyday young woman who enlisted. Hawn went on to produce the movies OVERBOARD, PROTOCOL and WILDCATS. PRIVATE BENJAMIN scored a box office victory.
With 1986's WILDCATS, producer and star Goldie Hawn fulfilled me as a moviegoer than John Hughes did with his teen comedies. WILDCATS, like the highly popular John Hughes comedies, focuses on high schoolers in the Chicago area. Hawn becomes the rookie coach of the school's football team.  Keep in mind, I worked in Milwaukee and made many visits to nearby Chicago for work and entertainment.  In Hawn's high school teen comedy, I saw my world represented. The students were white, Black and Latino on the field, in the classrooms and in her home. The Hughes teen comedies lacked racial diversity. You didn't see Black students. During the SIXTEEN CANDLES junket, I gently brought up to the late Mr. Hughes that it would be cool to see some Black kids in his comedies.  I never, ever heard white film critics bring up that point of racial exclusion in the casting of John Hughes movies. But I noticed it and mentioned it. By the way, I hated his portrayal of an Asian teen with his Long Duk Dong character in SIXTEEN CANDLES. That was like if he had added a not-too-bright Black teen foreign exchange student and called him "Buckwheat." You take FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF with its cast of white characters. I'll take Goldie Hawns' WILDCATS with its racially diverse cast that included two screen newcomers on the high school football team -- Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes.
What about Penny Marshall having followed in the footsteps of actress-turned-director Ida Lupino? The former ABC sitcom star directed fellow former ABC sitcom star Tom Hanks to his first Oscar nomination. He was a Best Actor Oscar nominee for 1988's BIG, directed by Penny Marshall. With 1989's A DRY WHITE SEASON, director Euzhan Palcy became the first Black female filmmaker to direct an actor to an Oscar nomination. For his performance in A DRY WHITE SEASON, Marlon Brando was an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actor.

See what I mean? Last night's edition could've given us some new juice. Here's a little side-note tidbit for you. One of the commentators in Sunday's CNN: THE MOVIES said that Steven Spielberg's E.T. the EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL should have won the Best Picture Oscar instead of GANDHI. On my old VH1 talk show, I did a one-on-one interview of the late, great vocal actor Mel Blanc. I interviewed him in his home just two months before he passed away. Mel Blanc treated me like we were old pals. Off-camera, he was blunt about his dislike of young Steven Spielberg. Spielberg had insulted Blanc by asking him to audition before doing some cartoon voices in 1988's WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. Blanc also told me that young Spielberg would hire older skilled veterans on his productions and not ask for their input. He just wanted them to follow his orders. I thought of what the veteran director said to angry producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. Mel Blanc said that Steven Spielberg needed to learn humility as a director and Hollywood would not give him the Oscar until he did.
Spielberg won his first Oscar for 1993's SCHINDLER'S LIST.

Finally, Black people commenting on films. I watched the first half hour of CNN: THE MOVIES and did not see one Black critic, historian or fan comment on the movies of Spielberg, Sidney Lumet, Lawrence Kasdan or James L. Brooks. Forty minutes into the special, when the topic was Eddie Murphy movies, bam! We saw four Black people talking about Eddie Murphy. One of them was the late director/writer John Singleton whose classic BOYZ N THE HOOD  was greatly influenced by John Ford classics.

It was great to see the four African Americans but it wasn't exactly inspired casting, if you know what I mean. It was sort of expected. Like in the pre-Vanessa Williams era when we watched the Miss America pageant on network TV. If there was a Black contestant, you just knew she'd only walk away with the Miss Congeniality trophy.  If white guys like actor Alec Baldwin and Sean Baker, the director of 2015's TANGERINE, can comment on white actors and black films, let us do the same thing. We can.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Another Note on WEST SIDE STORY (1961)

There's a sweet and surprising communion that can occur when group of total strangers come together as one with a reverence for and an appreciation of the film arts.  This communion can result in a moment that makes the audience as memorable as the film itself. For me, one example that comes to mind quickly is the first time I saw CHINATOWN. This was long before social media and spoilers. It was the week the film opened at famous Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood. I was on summer vacation from school in L.A. and asked Mom if I could take the bus to the movies one afternoon. I caught a weekday matinee showing of the new movie starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. When CHINATOWN ended and the closing credits started rolling, we all sat there in awe. Had we all just been stunned by a film that brilliant? Then people broke out into enthusiastic applause and some people gave it a standing ovation -- until a guy in a back row shouted, "It's a movie! They can't see you standing up!" Nevertheless, that was a great and memorable response from a weekday afternoon audience in Hollywood. I was in the middle of another memorable movie audience years later when I lived in Milwaukee. This audience was seated for a local revival theater showing of WEST SIDE STORY.
The Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee was a landmark movie palace a short walk from my East Side apartment. I was a frequent patron. The staff knew my face. The Oriental was a revival theatre showing old classics and some modern films. It was always fun to stop by the theatre and pick up a schedule to see what double bills or long single features were scheduled for the weeks to come. The Oriental had WEST SIDE STORY scheduled for one weekend in December. As fate would have it, when that weekend approached, the country recently had been shocked and saddened by the accidental death and funeral of actress Natalie Wood. I was a hardcore Natalie Wood fan. I'd watch her movies on TV. I'd take my student discount card and go see her new movie on a Saturday if I could. THE GREAT RACE, PENELOPE, INSIDE DAISY CLOVER -- I didn't care of critics liked the movie or not. If it starred radiant and lovely Natalie Wood, that was good enough for me. LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER starring Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen made me want to live in New York City. She held a special place in my heart.
Millions of us love WEST SIDE STORY. We love it over and over again. Personally, I feel it's a work of film art. That December afternoon in Milwaukee, the Oriental Theatre was packed for the showing of WEST SIDE STORY. The recent death of Natalie Wood had surely brought many other fellow baby boomers out to see it. WEST SIDE STORY, a plea for racial tolerance released during strength-gathering days of America's Civil Rights movement, was a cultural part of our youth.

The film's heartbreaking final scene. Maria holds Tony as he lay dying, struck down by the bullet of a gang member. When the racist police detective arrives at the crime scene and walks over to Tony's body, Maria screams "Don't you touch him!" She proceeds to call out both gangs on their racial hate, the white gang that killed her brother and the Puerto Rico gang that killed Tony with their rivalry. She calls out the anger in herself too because she now has hate formed suddenly because the man she loved is dead.

At that scene, you could hear practically the entire movie audience sobbing. We sobbed at the untimely death of Tony. We sobbed at the untimely death of actress Natalie Wood.

WEST SIDE STORY does not open with credits. The credits came at the end with an imaginative Saul Bass presentation befitting the Manhattan city street story. There's a beautifully arranged and orchestrated closing instrumental medley.

During those closing credits, no one got up and filed out. People stayed in their theatre seats and treated the closing credits with a reverence, as if we were all in church. I believe that Milwaukee audience was paying respects to the memory of Natalie Wood.

WEST SIDE STORY was on cable TV a couple of months ago, uncut and commercial free. Yes. I lost myself in it once more.  You have it admit. That dance open with the Jets and the Sharks is one of the best opening sequences ever seen in a classic American movie musical.
When Maria goes to the dance at the gym, we see the innocent girl appropriately dressed in a virginal white dress.  She will lock eyes with Tony and it will be love at first sight in this modern day retelling of ROMEO AND JULIET.
A couple of months ago as I watched it on TV, a strong aspect of the visual stood out to me. Before, it really hadn't. I just took it as costume design. When we see Maria, she's in virginal white and delicate colors.  In her final scene, with her dress and the shawl over her head, she's in the same colors her gang leader brother, Bernardo, wears in the opening dance number/street brawl. Her simple necklace with a tiny crucifix on it accentuates her inner conflict as the Catholic girl angrily clutches a gun and points it at the rival gang members.

WEST SIDE STORY. I could watch it again and again. I'll never forget the reverence and affection of the Milwaukee that December afternoon in 1981.






Josephine Baker Dance Break

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