Saturday, June 30, 2012

On "Sullivan's Travels" (1941)

"There's a lot to be said for making people laugh.  Did you know that's all some people have?  It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cock-eyed caravan.  Boy." ~Successful young Hollywood movie director John L. Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels.
We can tell from the opening credits that this will be a special presentation from Paramount Pictures.  The opening credits suggest a gift being unwrapped.  To me, that's what this film is.  The title illustration let's us know that we're in for a road picture, a journey of discovery.  It has a bit of a nod to Dave Fleisher's much-ignored 1939 feature length animated Paramount musical, Gulliver's Travels, loosely based on the literary classic.  Preston Sturges opened the door for filmmakers like Billy Wilder and Woody Allen.  After seeing his Paramount screenplays directed by someone else, he secured the freedom to direct his own screenplay.  No one directed the words of Preston Sturges better than Preston Sturges.  His directorial skills have influenced the Coen Brothers (watch The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Clint Eastwood and Lawrence Kasdan.  On CNN in 2006, Eastwood told Larry King that he viewed the work of Sturges before shooting his Oscar nominated Flags of Our Fathers.  The same points about war heroes, patriotism and marketing that Eastwood makes dramatically in that film, Sturges looked at comically in Hail the Conquering Hero.  In 1991's Grand Canyon, Kasdan has Steve Martin as a shallow Hollywood filmmaker who wants to upgrade to something significant like Sullivan's Travels.  I first saw this film on KTLA TV when I was a kid in Southern California.  Channel 5 had a large Paramount film library and that local station frequently showed this film.  Not just the wordplay and dialogue dazzled me through the years, so did its content.  Sullivan's Travels has violence, greed, news of a suicide, abject poverty, chain gangs, prison abuse, amnesia and a grisly railroad death.  Yet it's one of the funniest and best original comedies that ever came out of Old Hollywood.  Joel McCrea is the rich Hollywood director who's tired of making comedies and wants to direct a serious, symbolic drama based on the socially conscious new novel O Brother, Where Art Thou?  On his journey, he meets a sweet girl played by Veronica Lake. ("There's always a girl in the picture.")  They will fall in love.
If you haven't seen this film, rent it or look for it on TCM (Turner Classic Movies).  If you have seen this classic, I don't have to explain what happens in it.  You know.  So let me tell how it's become even more special to me.  Today, now that I'm no longer a kid, it brings tears to my eyes.  I cry because of its heart and its humanity.  In this screwball comedy, there's a sequence of about six minutes that has no dialogue.  Sullivan, with warnings from his wise butler who knew poverty, sets out disguised as a hobo to see and feel how the other half lives.  The poor folks.  He's a rich guy.  The son of rich a guy.
Accompanied by The Girl, also dressed as a vagrant, they enter the world of the poor and the homeless.  No words, just the subtle music score in that six minute sequence.  Sturges gives the viewer credit to see, like the two lead characters do, that poverty does not discriminate.  It accepts any race, any age.  Man, woman...or child.  Religion doesn't seem to offer any comfort.  A Caucasian preacher delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon to a congregation of the homeless and hopeless.  You just know they're being verbally hammered with messages of guilt and shame.  There's no smiling face to be seen.  Penniless, the Hollywood imposters quit this life when they're so hungry they look in a trash can for food.  "Sully" later continues solo on his experimental journey and things get darker.  He's now lost, without memory, without identification and in a Kansas chain gang.  The prisoners get to see a movie.  In a local African-American church.  This preacher is warm and welcoming.  He encourages his congregation to be friendly.
This is the opposite from the preacher seen earlier.  Again, the races are mixed.  There are people who have known and probably know poverty.  Notice the joyful spirit in that church when a funny Disney cartoon is shown.  Laughter sooths their broken souls.  This is where John L. Sullivan makes the great discovery of his journey.  He learns that what he thought he wanted, he really didn't want.  What he thought he needed to do, he really didn't need to do.  The clueless privileged man now has a clue.
There's just something so golden and compassionate about Sturges in this film.  He likes people.  He cares for people.  He wants to give us hope.  The Coen Brothers have been influenced by his filmmaking but does their acclaimed work have that same spirit?  Think of Fargo and No Country for Old Men.  Sturges gives generous mentions to other directors, Capra and Lubitsch.  In my life journey, I wanted to leave California and make a name for myself in New York City.  I admit I long dreamed of getting an Emmy nomination -- local or national -- for my television work.  That's never happened.  Like "Sully," I wanted to do something serious on TV because making folks laugh in my work didn't feel like it was significant or getting me anywhere within the industry.  Unexpectedly, due the Recession, I got kicked down to broke-and-out-of-work millions of other working class Americans.  After 20 years of doing pretty well in New York, I lost my humble studio apartment because I had no income. I got a free one-way ticket from my wonderful airline employee cousin.  I gave most of my longtime possessions to charity organizations, and flew out West to live temporarily with a friend.  He had a spare room to offer.  On the streets, I did look at homeless people differently.  I did think to myself "There but for the grace of God..."  In these two years of jobhunting, I've often just needed a good laugh.  I'm currently living with relatives as I continue to pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over again.  And I'm living with them where my journey began.  California.  Just like John L. Sullivan, I've come back to where my personal story started.  Like him, I've learned that if I can be entertaining, that's a gift and I should use and bless it.  It's not important if I never do something dramatically Emmy-winning.  Maybe my purpose is to provide a few smiles and bring people to the art of films -- films like Sullivan's Travels.  When I saw this film on TCM a couple of months ago, what Sullivan said about this "this cock-eyed caravan" brought tears to my eyes.  It's so true.  Some of my favorite laughs in this picture?  The All-American kid with the home-made hot rod.
The two sisters, one of whom is a frilly and frisky widow.  It's a wonder Sullivan wasn't knocked over by the wind from her batting eyelashes.  He's a handsome young hobo who needs a bed for the night.  The frisky widow obliges.  We see that flirtatious Miz Zeffie would like to be in bed with him providing warmth.  Like a hot water bottle.
And there's the sharp, snappy, funny and substantial dialogue with Sullivan and his studio posse.  It's fast dialogue and good dialogue.  In Sturges world, his best writing is so good that even a bit player is a memorable, fully developed character. He liked good actors too.  He keeps the shot on them.  Not a lot of editing when they talk.  He lets their talent and energy drive the scenes.  As a director, he gets out of the way.
You catch a glimpse of Sturges himself in the movie.  After the church scene with the convicts, Sturges soon picks up the madcap Hollywood pace again with a film-within-a-film montage.  The Girl has become an actress.  Sturges stands behind her on the set when she sees exciting news that Sullivan can come back to her and Hollywood.
I love Sullivan's Travels.  It's part a part of my journey in life and I just shared why it's become more dear to me in my journey.  It blends slapstick and pathos..."but with a little sex."  Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels -- what a trip.  What a movie.  By the way, did you know Whoopi Goldberg tried to get the rights to remake this film?  I kid you not.  She told me that herself.  I didn't ask her which part she wanted to play.
Wish me luck on the jobhunt.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Today" Looks Familiar

This morning turned out to be the final one for Ann Curry on the Today show.  I didn't know it would be until I saw a multitude of messages on Twitter announcing that she'd said farewell.  I was thinking of past Today female co-hosts and it struck me that...the majority of them seems to have a similar look.  There seems to be a look that NBC News loves.  Here's what I mean.  In my youth, when I started watching that morning news show regularly, there was Jane Pauley:
Jane was replaced by Deborah Norville.  In casting terms, sort of the same "type" in television appearance as Jane.
After her short stint, Deborah Norville was replaced in the Today female host spot by Katie Couric.
After Katie Couric, there was Meredith Viera.
If Woody Allen was casting a network news version of Hannah and Her Sisters for this year, he could consider three of those women to play the siblings.  This morning was the last day of morning duty for the woman who replaced Meredith Viera.  Quickly, we had to say goodbye to...Ann Curry.
She does not look like she'd be a "sister" to those other four.  Ann Curry looks more like a stepsister.  Early this week, I discovered that NBC executives were meeting "in secret" to replace Curry on Today.  I discovered this on Twitter.  Twitter's about as "in secret" as Sofia Vergara is flat-chested.  This was followed by Tweets that NBC may replace Curry with a young woman named Savannah Guthrie.  Here's a pic of Savannah:
Is hers a look that's familiar?  Back in New York City, I was approached to work on the popular WNYW morning news program, Good Day New York. I worked on that local show from October 1995 to late spring in 1999.  If I do say so myself, my work was good.  I broke entertainment items that got picked up nationally.  I wrote and performed some funny local liveshots.  I loved that gig.  But, for what became my last year, my contract had been renewed for less money and there were no more entertainment news or liveshot segments.  New management was in place.  I had to do other things, but I still had a job.  During my time on that show, whenever someone left the staff and moved on, there was always a "bon voyage, good luck" moment in the daily staff meeting for the departing person.  There was also always a cake.  Even interns who worked on the show for only six months were presented with a big cake of appreciation.  I watched the awkward, low-budget goodbye to Ann Curry in the last five minutes of this morning's 8 o'clock hour.  If there was a GE Playhouse production of The Color Purple,  I would've cast Ann Curry as Celie based on the way she was treated this week.  Whether or not she was a ratings  blockbuster, she put in 15 years of work on that show.  Unlike Meredith Viera and Katie Couric, Ann Curry didn't get a sentimental Today video highlights montage.  She didn't get a gift.  She didn't get flowers.  She didn't get a cake.  Hell, she didn't even get a Hallmark card signed by the staff.  She said a tearful, truly heartbroken  goodbye.  She got a hearty handshake, a couple of hugs and that was it.  Yesterday, I had no idea that today would be her final one on the show.  For whatever reason, Ann didn't get to finish out the week.  They couldn't have kept her for Friday?
After all those years of service, she didn't even get a cake.  The poor dear.  Maybe she had the wrong look for NBC News execs.  I know how she feels.  When my Good Day New York contract expired in 1999, I didn't get a cake either.  Even if the network didn't feel she had the skills and charisma of Katie or Meredith, Ann Curry deserved a better, more respectful network send-off.  Flowers would've been nice.  Conan O'Brien should book her as a guest and give her some laughs.  He knows how she feels too.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Bob's Your Uncle: Stunts

Last week here at the house.

Nephew:  "Hey, Uncle Bobby.  I can do a one-handed cartwheel."

Me:          "Cool!  I can ride a horse like Barbara Stanwyck."

I posted that on Facebook.  Someone commented "Sidesaddle, of course."  Wrong.  Missy doesn't do sidesaddle.  Sam Fuller's 1957 western, Forty Guns, is proof.
When you're a cattle queen who rules an Arizona county with your own private posse of hired guns, you don't do sidesaddle.  Rent the DVD of Forty Guns and see Stanwyck call the shots.  I've got to go back to being proud of my 9-year old nephew.  I can't do a cartwheel.  But Barbara Stanwyck could.  Missy (as she was affectionately called in Hollywood), did a cartwheel during a dance routine in 1943's Lady of Burlesque.  And she did the cartwheel in this glamorous outfit designed by Edith Head.  Work it, Missy!  The screenplay was based on a best-selling comedy murder mystery novel written by famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.  As the Brits would say, "and Bob's your uncle."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Notes on Sorkin's "The Newsroom"

One thing's a given in TV today:  A new Aaron Sorkin show is going to get lot ofs entertainment press attention.  Sorkin's new show on HBO, The Newsroom, has gotten lots of entertainment press attention.  Last night, I was able to catch a repeat of the premiere episode.  Honestly, I watched because of actor Jeff Daniels as the news anchor in crisis, Will McAvoy.  I've been a Daniels fan since I saw him in Terms of Endearment as the disappointment of a husband to Debra Winger's character.  He's a fine actor, someone who qualifies for my "Overlooked by Oscars" list.  Trust me.  He's done a lot more than Dumb and Dumber.  Rent Something Wild, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Pleasantville, The Squid and the Whale and Infamous.  Daniels totally delivers as news anchorman Will McAvoy.  He's in top form on this HBO show.
Both actor and character are a seasoned presence of the show.  The same goes for the excellent Sam Waterston as the anchor's boss.  The show seems to be geared towards making points about how TV journalism needs to reclaim its soul.  It needs to return to some "old school" guts, brass balls and brass ovaries in news gathering and reporting.  Apparently, it needs to do this with "new school" faces.  Did anyone else notice how young the staff in McAvoy's network newsroom was?  I couldn't believe it.
Minority check:  It's racially mixcd.  But this group of racially mixed newsroom workers was so young and slim that it looked like a United Colors of Benetton ad in Vanity Fair.
All young. All slim.  All cute and a little quirky.  All single.  Not a married person in that network newsroom.  In midtown Manhattan.  This show needs the touch of someone Daniels worked with previously -- director/writer James L. Brooks, the man who won Oscars for writing and directing the Best Picture of 1983, Terms of Endearment.  The man who wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated film, Broadcast News.  The man who gave us that TV classic, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Yes, it's an old sitcom but it's still relevant in comparison to The Newsroom.  I've worked on TV news shows in New York City.  Lou Grant's staff looked way more realistic to me than Will McAvoy's does.
I am not against casting youth, but Sorkin cannot effectively make his point if the news team likes like it just walked in from Glee auditions.  You need seniority.  You need experience.  You need veterans with a good reputation in the business.  Also, newsrooms have people who are married.  They also have single folks who want to get laid.
One of the problems with TV newsrooms and newspapers in America is that veterans with skills, knowledge, contacts and street smarts were downsized.  Guys like Ryan Seacrest and relatives of ex-presidents, young relatives with no prior TV experience, have booked jobs as network news reporters (Billy Bush, Jenna Bush Hager, Chelsea Clinton).  Sorkin needs to season that newsroom and dial down the wide-eyed "quirky and perky" vibe those young actors have.  Daniels' character has been criticized for being uncontroversial, like a Jay Leno of news anchors.  That's the base for him to launch into rants later in the show.  Again, I love Jeff Daniels' work.  However, I would've raised the stakes on the McAvoy casting.  I'd have gone with a black actor.  If I was playing McAvoy, I'd base him on the groundbreaking but practically forgotten ABC newsman Max Robinson.  In the 1980s, Robinson was the first and -- to this day -- only black person to anchor the network evening news.  He co-anchored ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.  I spent a long day with Robinson, doing a feature on him for PM Magazine.  Max was smart, serious, righteously angry and -- to me -- a true gentleman.  He had to keep his angers within network margins so he could appeal to a national audience as the first black man in the anchor seat.  Off-camera, one sensed that Max had the fire and capability to break into a passionate rant like Howard Beale in Network.
A black man in a prime network news spotlight would have that interior motor of working towards not being controversial while trying to distinguish himself.  Think of President Obama.  Casting like that could've enabled Sorkin's script to play two registers at the same time.  It would comment on our current America with its first African-American president and it would comment on the longtime lack of diversity in network news itself.  Max Robinson died in 1988.  No black journalist has held a weeknight anchor spot on ABC, NBC or CBS since. No black comedian has a popular news-driven talk show like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and HBO's Bill Maher do.  That group of liberals is all white.  Now that we've all realized America is not "post-racial" simply because we elected a black man to the White House, bold ethnic casting could've opened the door to some juicy and controversial episodes.  I get Sorkin's message.  He's a good writer.  But the James L. Brooks looks at TV newsrooms still feel more relevant and believable to me.  He championed racial and age diversity.  And he was less preachy in making his point.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" on Pride Sunday

This is my first Gay Pride Sunday living with relatives (temporarily while I seek work) in the suburbs of California.  This afternoon, I may treat myself to a special Pride Weekend cocktail inspired by the two lead characters in Brokeback Mountain.
I call my drink "The Ennis Del Mar-tini with a Jack Twist."  I'm pretty sure it's been served in West Hollywood around this time of year.  While throngs in thongs of guys at parades this weekend all across the country demand "Equality For All," it's pretty amazing to look at the liberty that's been gained.  Especially in television.  When I was a kid, there wasn't anyone openly gay on weekly television.  Now we're stock characters -- especially on cable.  You can't swing a dead cat without hitting six queens who want to hang a spice rack in your kitchen on a home makeover show.  Seriously.  In my youth, there was no Nate Berkus giving us home tips on television and telling us about his new boyfriend.
Wonderful Jane Lynch wins an Emmy and thanks her wife.  Equally wonderful Ellen DeGeneres wins TV viewers with her warmth on a weekday talk show.  She too talks about her wife.  It wasn't like this 20 years ago.  My two nephews absolutely love Ellen DeGeneres.  They're hoping I can resurrect my national TV career so I can, perhaps, hook them up with an introduction to her one day.  By 1972, I'd figured out why I gotten so light-headed every time I saw Robert Conrad shirtless as TV's The Wild, Wild West.
I was in fear that Mom would find me watching the breakthrough Made-for-ABC TV Movie, That Certain Summer.  There were Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen playing a gay couple living in San Francisco.  Holbrook's character was a divorced man whose teen son was arriving to visit for a few days.  He hadn't come out to his son.
That was provocative programming, sensitively done.  I tried to watch it in secret.  Today, I'm the uncle of two terrific grade school nephews.  Every week, they ask my brother and my sister-in-law if they can watch ABC's Modern Family.  Two of their favorite TV characters are Mitch and Cam (actors Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet).
Wow.  That's progress.  As I've written before, Hollywood no longer discourages straight male actors from playing openly gay characters.  Just the opposite.  Playing gay could be your ticket to Hollywood Prom Night.  William Hurt, Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, Philip Seymour Hoffman -- all Oscar winners for playing gay men.  Val Kilmer didn't get an Oscar nomination for playing a gay man but he did a fabulous job in a very progressive film.  So progressive that the studio probably didn't know how to market this crime comedy/drama called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  Val's gay character was not tragic.  He's wasn't a victim.  He wasn't a freak.  He was the tough hero.  Perry Van Shrike is one of the best private detectives in L.A.  Without him, the crime doesn't get solved.  Greta Garbo, as feminist Russian envoy Ninotchka, firmly states "Don't make an issue of my womanhood" in that sophisticated 1939 comedy.  That same vibe applies to Perry.  Don't make an issue of this cop being gay.  He can knock you down, cuff you and quote lines from Mommie Dearest at the same time.  "I Will Survive" is his cell phone ring tone.  Robert Downey Jr as the smalltime hapless crook-turned-actor discovers this when he unexpectedly winds up attached to Perry for movie research purposes.
The research gets quite real.  The new actor helps Perry in a Christmastime murder case.  He meets struggling actress Harmony Lane (a yummy Michelle Monaghan).
Kilmer and Downey shine together.  That's another progressive bit about this movie: To a degree, it becomes a gay guy/straight guy buddy picture.  This was done within a send-up of crime movies like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and a touch of L.A. Confidential.  It's brisk, it's well-acted, it's entertaining.  It was very cool and refreshing to see a no-nonsense gay guy as the hero.  The community needs Perry to fight crime.  Maybe it's not a classic crime movie like Chinatown, but it took a giant step forward in its embrace of diversity and in its originality.  Personally, I dig my fellow gay friends.  However, especially when I lived in New York, there were lots of times when I just needed to hang and relax with a straight buddy.  I didn't want to hear about Sex and the City movies, I didn't want to hear "I'm not eating carbs," and I didn't feel like making a fabulous fashion statement to go to some trendy new place where a Cosmo costs the same as a salon haircut.  I wanted laughs over some beer, barbecue and cornbread in a joint that had some jazz on the jukebox.  I miss my Great Straight Dates.  I bet Perry the Private Eye had a few of those.  As for director Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang...
...Warner Bros showed have given us a sequel to this hip 2005 release.  Keep it in mind.  It could provide 100 minutes of Pride Weekend fun viewing.  (The hospital bit with Abe Lincoln breaks me up.)  Have a great Pride Weekend.  As we demand equality, let's look at how far we've come before the parade passes by.  Also, I could not have made it on my journey thus far without the help, support and love of gay and lesbian friends, acquaintances and beloved family members.  I am so very grateful to you all.  Cheers!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Natalie Wood: Did You Know?

To me, Natalie Wood was a reason to watch a movie on television -- like West Side Story, Splendor in the Grass, Rebel Without a Cause, Gypsy, Cash McCall or Marjorie Morningstar -- and a really good reason to go to the the movies on a Saturday afternoon and totally enjoy something frivolous like The Great Race or Penelope.  She had a quality that I lit up my heart.  I loved her brunette beauty, her expressive eyes and the way she tilted her head when listening to someone.
Her films was personal emotional bookmarks for me.  Love With The Proper Stranger was the 1963 movie that made me want to move to New York to find career, love and a sense of myself.  She was Macy's clerk Angie Rossini.  Steve McQueen was jazz musician Rocky Papasano.  As a Catholic kid in Los Angeles, I understood the essential alienation, occasional hysteria and loneliness of living within the margins of religion and family. They were modern young singles burdened by old Vatican rules.  I loved how those two New Yorkers were good people who found true love after surviving some bad breaks in life.
Inside Daisy Clover was a 1965 movie Natalie Wood should've made after 1955's Rebel Without A Cause.  By that time in her career, she still looked great but she was too mature to play a teen girl like she did with James Dean and like she did opposite Warren Beatty, earning herself a 1961 Best Actress Oscar nomination for Splendor in the Grass.  But she still has a certain charisma as the tough, Depression era 1930s Santa Monica teen who's discovered by Hollywood for movie musicals.
My Dad took me to the movies one night.  We saw Inside Daisy Clover.  He let me pick the movie.  It was the last film we saw together, just father and son, before he moved out of the house when my parent's separated.  I sensed their rift was coming.  I'm sure they thought they were hiding the lovelessness and tension in the marriage, but they couldn't.  In the movie, Daisy's recording booth nervous breakdown scene expressed some feelings I had inside but didn't know how to express.  Or to whom.
Did you know that the untimely death of Natalie Wood in 1981 affected the way some news is presented and packaged today?  When I was a youngster and watching her films on the local Million Dollar Movie or a network presentation, entertainment news was not part of our daily local news platter.  There were no entertainment news shows in syndication.  In fact, entertainment news was not considered "real" journalism.  You didn't hear about what stars wore on a Red Carpet.  Celebrity news was part of the main newscast only if a star died, committed a major crime or made it to the Academy Awards race.  In fact, the Oscar nominations came out in the afternoon.  They weren't announced before sunrise in Beverly Hills.  On TV in L.A., Hollywood news came in short segments on local news and, later, on Good Morning America from folks like Rona Barrett.
There was more network and cable news coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith in 2007 than there was of superstar singer/actress Judy Garland in 1969.  I started my TV career doing film reviews and celebrity interviews for Milwaukee's ABC affiliate edition of PM Magazine.  This was a popular sydicated show in the late '70s, early '80s.  This entertainment show featured lifestyle segments, family entertainment tips and celebrity profiles.  It had its own style of writing ("Get set for a dog day afternoon at a beauty parlor for pets, coming up next" or "At-ten-tion! We'll meet a real-life Private Benjamin").  It was called a co-op show.  It was national.  Yet each station that aired the show would supply its own PM Magazine couple to introduce the features, have its own local supporting players on the show and produce two local main features per week for its particular market.  I was a weekly supporting player and occasional fill-in host.
The national office was located in San Francisco.  The execs in the national office would decide which features done by PM Magazine shows all across the country were good enough for national airing.  That's how I got my first professional national exposure.  The national office team liked my interviews of Sally Field talking about her Norma Rae success, a new actress named Meryl Streep talking about Sophie's Choice and a new actor named Ben Kingsley talking about his performance as Gandhi.  There was a regional convention for PM Magazine production staffers and our little ragtag crew attended. We hit it off with the creative team from San Francisco.  Over several cocktails after our work was done, a couple of top members from the San Francisco team confided in us that they were leaving.  They were relocating to Los Angeles to launch a new syndicated show.  A show called Entertainment Tonight.  The show premiered.  We carried it on our ABC affiliate, WISN TV in Milwaukee.  The early Entertainment Tonight shows were fluffy.  Celebrities talking about new TV shows or movies, diets and recipes and favorite things to wear.  The show, in a way, seemed like a PM Magazine spin-off that really didn't have its own identity.  Then came the shocking sudden death of Natalie Wood.  Entertainment Tonight immediately, boldly, wisely changed its format and went with updates of the Hollywood star's drowning death for the whole half hour.  That was ET's bar mitzvah show.  Not only did it find its own voice, identity and rhythm, its newfound popularity made entertainment news a serious player.  ET's new identity was truly crystallized when a former PM Magazine co-host from Los Angeles was brought in fulltime.  Mary Hart was the perfect host for Entertainment Tonight.  Unlike the previous hosts, she popped.  The camera loved her.  So did viewers.  And stars.
As a former PM Magazine host, Mary knew that style of writing, the way to deliver it and the way the stories were produced.  Soon, that style of writing and story production seeped into your local newscast.  Then, of course, came E! and shows like Access Hollywood.  They followed that pioneer show, Entertainment Tonight.  The pioneer show found its trendsetting identity when covering the death of Natalie Wood soon after its premiere in 1981.  Besides Mary Hart, other PM Magazine hosts across the country were Leeza Gibbons, Steve Doocy (later of Fox News), Mike Jerrick (also later of Fox News) and Matt Lauer.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Ninotchka": Garbo Got Wilder

I know I am not the only classic film fan who wonders "What the hell kind o' magic potion was in the Hollywood water of 1938 that enabled screenwriters to come up with so many pictures for production that would become gems of 1939?"  One of those pictures is Ninotchka.  This is the movie in which "Garbo Laughs!"  After years of playing serious vamps and suffering women, Garbo's first leap into a champagne cocktail of a comedy deservedly got her Best Actress Academy Award nomination. The film was nominated for Best Picture of 1939.  It was directed by Ernest Lubitsch.  It has the "Lubitsch touch," as Billy Wilder would say.  To me, it also has the Wilder touch.  He and Charles Brackett did the screenplay.  Ninotchka is a no-nonsense Russian special envoy sent on a mission to Paris.  Capitalistic Paris.  Three of her male comrades were sent there on a mission but fell under the spell of Paris and forgot their strict Soviet Union way of behaving.  Retrieving some Russian jewels is also part of the mission.  Ninotchka has her work cut out for her.  Especially with playboy León (Melvyn Douglas) giving her directions.
When she warns, "Don't make an issue of my womanhood," we know that the chilly Russian will be defrosted in France by the end of the movie.  Garbo's nickname was "The Swedish Sphinx" because she was so mysterious, fascinating and reclusive.  She was not at all the Red Carpet type.  She did her work and hated publicity.  She loved her privacy.  "I want to be alone" was her trademark phrase.  That doesn't mean she lacked a sense of humor.  When it's debated whether or not she had one, I feel this film performance is proof that she did.  She's very funny in it and obviously gets the humor of the script.  My favorite scenes are when Ninotchka arrives and realizes why her comrades loved the French hotel's room service when ordering cigarettes, the restaurant scene in which León tries to tell her a joke and the nightclub scene where she has her first taste of champagne.  I also love the "pitch" scene.  León gets Ninotchka to his apartment at night.  They're on the floor in the living room.  He's pitching woo to her the best way he can, but he can't crack that beautiful Soviet exterior.  It's formal.

León:           "Ninotchka, do you like me just a little bit?"
Ninotchka:   "Your general appearance is not distasteful."
Ninotchka:    "And what do you do for mankind?"
León:            "For mankind, not a thing.  For womankind, the record is not so bleak."

Here's where the Wilder touch comes in.  This seemingly innocent and throw-away dialogue gets me every time.

Ninotchka:    "I was a sergeant in the Third Calvary Brigade.  Would you like to see my wound?"
León:             "I'd love to!"

At college, in my foreign literature classes, I learned that "wound" was old European slang for...vagina.  That line must have rocked when Ninotchka played overseas.  Only Wilder could get away with that kind of thing in the days of the Hollywood production codes.  Just like in The Major and the Minor with all those horny teen cadets thinking Ginger Rogers is a teen girl and trying to make out with her by a huge phallic symbol of a cannon.  Just like all of Some Like It Hot.  I love Lubitsch.  I love Wilder.  I love Ninotchka.
One last thing.  You know how the Academy Awards now lets 10 films qualify for Best Picture but, this year, there were only 9 nominees?  Here are some of the other Hollywood films released in 1939:  Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, The Women, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Only Angels Have Wings, The Roaring Twenties, Dark Victory, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Golden Boy, The Privates Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Gunga Din, Of Mice and Men, Midnight (another comedy screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett), Stagecoach, the animated Gulliver's Travels, Bachelor Mother, The Rains Came, Destry Rides Again and Gone With The Wind.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bob's Your Uncle: In the Land of Oz

It's hard to face to the fact I'm a member of the last generation to wait with sheer joy for that annual network TV airing of that 1939 original movie musical fantasy, The Wizard of Oz.  It was always around Easter time and on a Sunday, usually in CBS prime time special broadcast.  The special was a family event.  Mom would make cookies or brownies and we'd all be together watching TV in the living room.  Every year, we kids of pre-cable television waited eagerly for Judy Garland to be Dorothy Gale once again on a poor Kansas farm.  She'd sing us "Over the Rainbow," be carried into the Land of Oz and have quite the adventure making new friends and a major foe before finding The Wizard.
The movie had action, adventure, love, laughs and one of the most brilliant original film scores in a Hollywood movie musical.  Just as brilliant were the performances and the lessons about life that it taught youngster and grown-up alike.  Because of the Recession, I wound up as financially depressed as Uncle Henry and Auntie Em's farm.  Temporarily, like millions of other Americans, I'm living with relatives as I attempt to repair my condition with a fervent job hunt.  What's the good part about this bad patch of unemployment and no income that hit me?  Bonding with family and being able to watch my two totally cool young nephews grow.  What a thrill and a blessing.  And a surprise.  No one can surprise you like a relative.  Recently, The Wizard of Oz aired uncut and without commercial interruption on cable's Turner Classic Movies.  My nephews have never seen that classic film.  I asked them if they wanted to watch it with me.  They politely declined.  They didn't want to watch The Wizard of Oz...
...because they were going to be downstairs with Mom and Dad watching Kevin James as Paul Blart:  Mall Cop.
On the outside, I flashed my old VH1 veejay smile to my brother's kids and said, "OK.  Have fun."
On the inside, I was reacting like this:
Like Shelley Duvall in The Shining.  Yes, it's a new generation.  Cable television, computer games, Netflix...and Paul Blart:  Mall Cop.  Uncle Bobby has his work cut out for him.  Like Cam on Modern Family.  My oldest nephew is 11.  When I was his age, I could lip sync all of Gwen Verdon's numbers in Damn Yankees thanks to frequent airings as "The Million Dollar Movie" on KHJ TV, local Channel 9 in Southern California.
I was the only kid on my block in South Central Los Angeles who could do that, too.  Even though Dad constantly told me to keep the lip sync fact to myself, I'm sure that -- deep down -- he was really impressed.  I had embraced the fine arts.  It may take time, but I'm still determined to introduced my nephews to classic films.  One last thing:  Remember those unfriendly trees in The Wizard of Oz that got so mean to Dorothy because "She was hungry!" and wanted an apple?
I'd like to see those big trees in The Lord of the Rings walk over and slap the crap out o' those cranky apple trees in The Wizard of Oz.  Seriously.  The nerve of that plant life!

Oscar Buzz for TILL

 I'm on Twitter and, in the last three weeks, there's been Oscar buzz from a few established movie critics. The buzz was that Cate B...