Saturday, March 30, 2013

Oh, Lord. It's John Wayne.

The love started in Catholic elementary school many years ago in South Los Angeles.  On special days, nuns would send classes into the big assembly hall.  Two nuns would wheel in the projector.  With the help of our janitor, they would thread the projector and show us....a movie.  They were usually  Biblical epics.  Gorgeous young Christian women who would rather be thrown to the lions than lose their virginity to a hot Roman officer who didn't believe in Jesus Christ.  Wicked Roman emperors who sounded like they stepped out of the chorus of My Fair Lady.  Harlots trying to lead buffed Christian men astray.   Chariot chases. People who were cured of blindness.  Dead men brought back to life.  Moses parting the Red Sea with heavenly help.  And, of course, Jesus. Back in those days, Biblical epics were the equivalent of Steven Spielberg movies for us Catholic youngsters.  There was gladiator action.  The miracles had fabulous special effects.  The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah, Quo Vadis, King of Kings -- I loved 'em all.  Actors playing Jesus always fascinated me.  No matter how Jesus was described in the Bible, regardless of the fact that he was a Jew who spent a lot of time outdoors in rugged Middle Eastern terrain...rarely did he look it.  My favorite example is Jeffrey Hunter as the King of Kings.  He should've had a guitar slung over one shoulder in that picture.  He's so Malibu Jesus.
I kept waiting for this 1961 movie Jesus to say, "Before I change your water into wine, I wrote a little song about my Father....and it goes something like this...."  Look at him.  He needed a screen credit that read, "Savior's costumes by Banana Republic."

It's a wonder he didn't show up for the Sermon on the Mount in a convertible.

Then comes The Greatest Story Ever Told directed by George Stevens.  The acclaimed filmmaker directed five of my all-time favorite films -- Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, The More the Merrier, Shane, A Place in the Sun and Giant.  His tale of the Savior was pretty much required viewing for Catholics at that time.  It had big stars in cameos and a cast of thousands.  It had miracles and epic scenes.  It had an extremely reverential and stately tone.  It also had a top example of major miscasting.  First of all, Max von Sydow was picked to play Jesus.  The Swedish actor gained international fame in foreign psychological and theological dramas directed by Ingmar Bergman.

Max von Sydow starred in The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring.  A brilliant actor.  A brilliant actor who was the color of porcelain.  He should've played rock star Edgar Winter.  But he has a saintly quality here.  With a slight Scandinavian accent.  Stevens obviously told the make-up team to hit him with some of Lena Horne's leftover Max Factor cosmetics and make von Sydow a shade that we'd nowadays call "The Mariah Carey."

Like Jeffrey Hunter's version, this Jesus also had very blue eyes.

I deeply love the great classic work of George Stevens.  But, come on.  Like he couldn't have gone to Santa Monica beach  in Southern California and found a big, strappin' young Jew with a suntan and a Screen Actors Guild card to play Jesus?  Please.

Now we get to the major Hollywood miscasting.  Who shows up to deliver one line as a Roman centurion looking at Jesus on the cross?  JOHN .... WAYNE.

Yes.  John "Stagecoach" Wayne comes on to tell us "Truly...this man was the Son o' God."

For a review, I quote the Holy Bible.  John 11:35 "Jesus wept."

My younger sister and I saw this movie together when we were Catholic school kids.  At that scene, I turned to her and said "We sound more Roman than he did."  This big budget production was not a big box office hit.  I can only imagine that some studio executive went into George Stevens' office and politely said "'ve got Chuck Heston as John the Baptist.  Good.  Claude Rains as King Herod.  Also good.  Dorothy McGuire as the Virgin Mary, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate and we've got a nice cameo for Sidney Poitier.  Then...we've got this blond Swedish actor playing Jesus, singer Pat Boone as an angel and now you want John Wayne to play a Roman guard?"


"George, you have heard him speak, haven't you?  Rosanno Brazzi is available.  He's ten years younger.  And he's from Italy.  So he can actually sound like a Roman."

"I want Duke."

"Well, alrighty then.  We'll sign The Duke.  John Wayne.  To play a Roman Centurion.  In the Crucifixion scene.  With dialogue.  Yep."

And there you have it.

You can see the results for yourself.  King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told air Easter Sunday on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).  Happy Easter.

Friday, March 29, 2013


A friend asked me to name my favorite Easter movie.  OK, I had to admit that renting Easter Parade is an annual tradition for me.  How could it not be?  My favorite two Hollywood entertainers, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, in a classic MGM musical comedy.  Plus Ann Miller.  Please.  What's not to love about that movie on Easter weekend?  I do have another favorite.  Not a musical.  Far from it.  I'm surprised it doesn't get Easter weekend showings on television because it's rich with Christian symbolism.  There's also a memorable scene with that top Easter basket treat we love to color for the kids.  Here's a line from the movie's Oscar-nominated screenplay:

"I can eat 50 eggs."

You guessed it.  The 1967 movie is Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman.  This movie was a big hit with critics and moviegoers.  It was the kind of movie that you went to see more than once and you told your friends about it.  I was in high school.  I went to see it more than once and I told my friends about it when I got to school.  Being a veteran of parochial schools, the Christian-like symbolism in its story, visuals and scene blocking were not lost on me.  Luke is sentenced to a Florida prison camp.  Being a member of a chain gang seems a pretty harsh fate for a guy whose crime was being drunk and cutting the heads off parking meters.  This is the way a decorated war veteran is treated.  His war history is important.  That means the non-conformist fought for right and freedom.  Now he's in a physical and spiritual bondage, abused by prison bosses.

Nothing these modern-day Roman conquerers do can hold Luke down or beat his spirit.  Their negativity cannot dominate and intimidate him.  Strother Martin, after years of work, strode into the Hollywood movie history books as the brutal prison camp captain.  When he has to punish Luke yet again, Captain says about him:

"What we got here is failure to communicate."

That became one of most famous movie lines spoken that decade.  It's still famous.  As for Strother Martin, he appeared briefly in another Warner Brothers classic with a famous line of movie dialogue.  Martin has about three short lines as a delivery man in George Cukors's  A Star Is Born.  He drives up with a package for movie star Vicki Lester after she sings "Someone at Last" at home for out-of-work husband, Norman Maine.  The delivery man calls Norman as "Mr. Lester" in the 1954 remake starring Judy Garland and James Mason.

The first inmate to realize Luke's unbeatable spirit is Dragline, played by George Kennedy.  At first, he's an opponent.  He will become Luke's first apostle, of sorts.  He'll follow Luke's example.  He'll be inspired by Luke's spirit.

Big, brawny Kennedy took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this performance.  He was another one who'd been paying his dues and honing his craft since the 1950s.  He did a lot of TV work. He grew from bit parts to supporting roles in films such as Lonely Are The Brave starring Kirk Douglas, The Man from the Diners' Club with Danny Kaye, Straight-Jacket with Joan Crawford, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland and Charade starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.  As Dragline in this 1967 film, he's the character his gives Luke his nickname after a card game.  Luke says, "...sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand."  After the card game comes the egg-eating event.  This all adds to what will be Luke's legend.

This tests even the belief of Dragline.  He never saw anybody eat 50 eggs.  But he sticks by Luke and helps him prepare for the challenge.

Eventually, other prisoners join Dragline in being inspired by Luke's spirit.  There's a rejuvenation.  Prison masters will be shaken by this.  Especially the one with the gun who wear the sunglasses.  Luke gains more apostles in the prison camp who follow his lead.

In one shot, as three men take hard-boiled eggs to him, they're framed like the Three Kings taking gifts to the newborn Savior.  In other shot, a prison camp meal visually echoes Christian depictions of The Last Supper with Jesus and His Apostles.

Luke is like a prison camp Messiah.

His non-conformist spirit cannot be contained or extinguished.  Not even when it seems like he's digging his own grave.

 I love the visual literature of Cool Hand Luke.  The cinematography was by Conrad Hall.  At the end of the funny and memorable egg-eating sequence, there's another allegorical camera shot that makes this a contemporary Bible story.

As a Catholic kid growing up, I saw the same exact body position on crucifixes at home and in classrooms.  Warner Brothers gained fame in the 1930s for films focusing on news headline issues such as social injustice, crime and prison abuse.  One classic example is the Best Picture of 1932-33 Oscar nominee, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang starring Paul Muni.  He was nominated for Best Actor.  Cool Hand Luke came out during the turbulent 1960s -- the Civil Rights Era, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War, race riots and student protests.  And changing attitudes towards organized religion like Catholicism.  Cool Hand Luke was relevant.  Couple that with the fact that the 1960s were golden years for Newman.  He became a global movie star.  There was The Hustler in 1961 and Hud in 1963.  He racked up more Best Actor Academy Award nominations with those performances.  Cool Hand Luke would bring him yet another one.  After this Oscar-winning hit film, he'd have another big box office winner in a couple of years called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Cool Hand Luke just is a Paul Newman film.  He was the perfect actor with the right star power and image for the part.  It's fun to look at his fellow inmates and spot others who went on to other notable work.  Dennis Hopper of Rebel Without a Cause and Giant is on the chain gang.  So is Wayne Rogers years before his TV success as a cast member on M*A*S*H with Alan Alda.  Newcomer Harry Dean Stanton, last seen on HBO's Big Love and doing a cameo in 2012's The Avengers, plays one of the prisoners.

Like a good savior, Luke teaches them how to resist temptations of the flesh.  Another funny and very memorable sequence is the brilliantly edited, comically erotic car wash scene when the convicts are doing some dusty, strenuous road work.  A local gal with a hose, a bucket and a little-bitty dress proceeds to soap up her vehicle.

In full view of the hot, half-dressed and horny chain gang.

Director Stuart Rosenberg gave us one of best bawdy scenes ever in a prison movie.

Luke will come to wonder if he's been forsaken by his Heavenly Father.  He'll feel lost.  There will be death and resurrection of spirits.  Oppression will be weakened.  An ordinary man, Luke entered the prisoners' lives, changed their lives while they were in bondage, and he'll go on to become legend.  A legend called Cool Hand Luke.  Yes, it's a prison movie but its essence works for Easter weekend.  I think you'll see what I mean.

Happy Easter.  And I bet you can't eat 50 eggs.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Equality and Rhoda Morgenstern

Inspired by this historic week of Supreme Court hearings on the issue of marriage equality, The Daily Beast posted an article online yesterday that brought TV entertainment into the discussion.  Kevin Fallon wrote the piece called "What Classic Sitcoms Taught Us About Gay Rights."  The article included clips from The Golden Girls, Designing Women, All in the Family, Gimme a Break!, The Facts of Life, Roseanne and Seinfeld.  Those were the shows mentioned in Kevin Fallon's piece.

It may not have been a moment specifically about gay rights but it was a major embrace of diversity on a classic sitcom.  Who went out on more than one date with a gay man because he was a great guy?  Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
He was the visiting brother of someone Rhoda and Mary knew. It was a sweet and funny episode.  Mary and Phyllis didn't fully know the man and figured a romance with brewing in Rhoda's life.  Another refreshing element -- he was just a regular guy who happened to be gay.  He didn't have to be "fabulous" with a hyper-gayness that whacked you on the head like a velvet hammer.  Think Jack on Will & Grace, Mario Cantone's character on Sex and the City, and the couple on NBC's The New Normal.  As they said on Seinfeld, "....not that there's anything wrong with that."  Rhoda's date was more like the gay working class men I knew in Milwaukee and Chicago.  Again, Valerie Harper made us love America's Favorite Gal Pal even more.  That was in the 1970s.
In the next decade, Tony Randall battled behind-the-scenes bigotry as he played the lead character in a  new NBC sitcom.  Love, Sidney aired from 1981 to 1983, after his successful run on The Odd Couple with Jack Klugman. We loved Randall as Felix Unger from 1970 to 1975.  Swoosie Kurtz was Randall's co-star on Love, Sidney.
The sitcom was spun from a 1981 TV movie called Sidney Shorr: A Girl's Best Friend.  Randall and Kurtz also starred in NBC TV movie.  He was a lonely gay man in 50s, financially comfortable and living alone.  He'd love to have a feeling of family in his life.  He meets a troubled, broke single mother and her little girl in New York City.  He opens his life and apartment to them.  He becomes a father figure to the little girl.
When the TV movie became a sitcom, network executives were nervous about Sidney being obviously gay.  But we viewers knew what the deal was.  When I worked on WPIX/Channel 11 in New York, I interviewed Mr. Randall in 1985 or '86.  He was terrific.  As much as you loved him on The Odd Couple, you loved him even more in person.  On our show, he was quite frank about his disappointment with the network executives.  He wanted to play Sidney as a gay New Yorker.  He felt that NBC went chicken and caved in to bigotry.  This sitcom is always overlooked today in print articles or television specials about gay images on TV.  It shouldn't be.  Randall really had brass balls to play and to want to play a gay character on a TV series at that time.  This was well before Will & Grace and Ellen starring Ellen DeGeneres in the 1990s...long before today's Modern Family.  For someone who'd been a Hollywood movie star and then a TV sitcom star, his was a very bold and brave move.

Keep in mind the arguments in the Supreme Court this week.  Now listen to this short clip of the late Tony Randall talking about Love, Sidney for the TV Academy archives.

Love, Sidney was groundbreaking, in its way.  And Rhoda Morgenstern...we love her!  Producer/Writer James L. Brooks laced so much sweet diversity into The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

For classic film fans:  We know Tony Randall from funny films.  He got his share of laughs sharing screen time with Rock Hudson and Doris Day.

He appeared in their three romantic comedies -- Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers.

He got to watch Marilyn Monroe at work.

He co-starred in her musical comedy, Let's Make Love.
Debbie Reynolds, Kim Novak and Jayne Mansfield were his leading ladies in other romantic comedies.  But one of the best movie performances Tony Randall ever gave was in a suburban drama directed by Martin Ritt (Paris Blues, Hud, The Great White Hope, Sounder, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Norma Rae).  If the Fox Movie Channel airs No Down Payment again, make a point to see it.  This 1957 movie looks at four married couples who live so close to each other in a Southern California suburb that they're practically in the same house.  Joanne Woodward, Cameron Mitchell, Barbara Rush, Jeffrey Hunter and Sheree North also star in No Down Payment.  
With religion, racism and even rape entering the marital dramas of the four couples, the movie is pretty much a soap opera.  However, it's worth watching for some good performances -- especially the one from Tony Randall as the alcoholic used car salesman and family man.

Jerry Flagg wishes he was the kind of hotshot company guy we see working with Don Draper on TV's Mad Men.  He's not.  He's frustrated and feels trapped in a suburban life where he thinks it's important to keep up an image that will impress the neighbors.

This frustration is why Jerry drinks.  Randall makes Jerry both infuriating and heartbreaking.

It's quite a good performance.  Tony Randall was quite a guy.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

I Love LOUIE on FX

I hope the food is terrific.  On May 20th, at a luncheon, the trophies will be handed out to the winners of this year's prestigious Peabody Awards.  Those highly-respected awards are given for excellence in electronic media.  Today, it was announced that one of the winners is...Louis C.K.  The actor, comedian, writer and director won for his series, Louie.  The Peabody staff called his FX sitcom a "groundbreaking comedy that defies categorization."  As a fan, I am thrilled about this Louie achievement.
I totally agree.  It does defy categorization.  It's also wickedly funny, smart, socially relevant and -- this above all -- full of heart.  That's a quality missing in some sitcoms on other networks.  There isn't heart.  There's not that revelation about something in our human condition, in our spirit.  There's more of a focus on trying to be edgy.  How many more times is the word "vagina" going to be used as the punchline in prime time?  Instead of telling you why Louie is so brilliant, I'll tell you how it's touched my soul.  His was the first character on TV or film who reflected a certain single guy alienation and longing that I felt in the post-9/11 New York.  I'm not there now but, like Louie, I love New York.  If you're an outsider, Manhattan is the place for you.  It's the original Island of Misfit Toys.
In the first episodes in the first seasons of Louie, I consistently did the DTST (Danny Thomas Spit Take) having a beverage while watching it.  He could have me howling with laughter one minute and then put tears in my eyes a couple of minutes later with some unexpected tenderness.  Do you watch Louie?  Remember the episode where he's got a huge container of sex lube in his carry-on luggage and he's trying to explain to the airport security agent that it's not a terrorist concoction?  That's before he boards a flight to a comedy gig, a flight with nauseating turbulence.  Everything that could go wrong goes wrong.  He just wants some kind of warm human connection to make him feel present and safe and special.  That happens when he gets a ride to the airport for his return trip.  That ride ...I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me.  Taking his little girls out to a diner for pancakes at the crack of dawn?  The kindly old relative who uses racially offensive words?  The episode with Joan Rivers?  I loved 'em.  I understand his inner dissonance.

When Louie and his mother argued, it reminded me of arguments with my mother back then.  I love Mom.  But, for quite some time, she acted like a graduate of the Lucy Ricardo School of Finance.  A few years before I moved from my TV career in Milwaukee to accept a gig at a New York City TV station, she moved to Milwaukee and bought a house that only she liked.  Then she quit her job.  So, while I'm new to my new job in New York City, she's having major financial drama with that house.  I assumed her mortgage and spent the next two decades paying it off.  In 2009, things got really weird for me back in Manhattan.  I felt as if I'd become invisible despite years of on-camera television work.  I'd been on a show that got cancelled the previous year.  Not only was finding new employment difficult but I could not get a broadcast agent. Veteran agents, folks well over age 35, met with me and asked me if I'd ever done any on-camera work.  One agent asked me that as she was holding my headshot/resumé.  I kid you not.  The thing was, when she asked, I was seen hosting a Food Network show that was airing nationally Monday through Friday mornings in repeats.  The show was listed on the other side of my headshot.  The headshot she was holding.

The cancelled show was a fulltime gig.  I loved it but I could've earned more had I been a dental hygienist.  I was broke, lonely and faced with the fact that I could lose my once-affordable studio apartment.  I decided that I could move in with Mom and start over.  I'd paid off her mortgage.

She didn't want me in the house.  First of all, she didn't approve of my career.  "You were meant to be  writer," she said.

"You weren't meant to be on TV," she said on the phone.  You know why I'm telling you this?"

"Because you're a broadcast agent?"

"No.  Because I'm your mother and I'll tell you the truth.  You were meant to be a writer.  You always got good grades on your term papers."

I tried to explain to my long-divorced and single mother that doing the work I was "not meant to do" is how I paid off her mortgage.  That took her to the next question.

"Are you still gay?"

"Uh...well, yeah.  It's not like a magazine subscription.  You just don't cancel it.  Mom, I was with Richard for a year and half until he died.  We weren't just roommates."

"When you were growing up, how was I supposed to know you'd be gay?"

"Ok, Mom, remember 7th grade at Mother of Sorrows?  Sister St. Mark was teaching us how to use reference books?  She gave us a homework assignment on a Friday.  We had to write a 2 page report on someone famous and list our reference books as footnotes.  I went to school Monday with an 8 page report on Edith Head.  And 4 of the pages were illustrations."

"Yes!  And you got an A.  You were meant to be a writer!"

I could relate to Louis C.K. on his sitcom.  I connected to him.  He was just a regular guy looking for a safe place to fall.  In the writing, he reflects that thing about family and romantic relationships that many of us discovered in middle-age --  often the people who are the closest to us see the least.  They miss some obvious points.  That's the human condition.  We all strive to be noticed, validated, acknowledged and appreciated.  We don't want to be invisible to those close to us, those we love, because we've become like an everyday commonplace fixture.

In the series, he takes us over bumps and potholes in a ride back from his comedy club act so that we can see the big picture.  There are so many recognizable moments in the emotional turf of that sitcom.  It reflects a world I know in a city I love.  I am so, so thrilled that he'll be able to put a Peabody Award next to his Emmy.  Bravo, Louie!  As gay-friendly as the sitcom is, he should also be honored by GLAAD one of these seasons.

By the way, I didn't move into Mom's house.  She's not living in the house now either.  Career and sexual orientation weren't the real reasons why she didn't want me in her house.  Without it between us, we drew closer together.  One of the unexpected joys during this bleak Recession that hit us both.  She now wants me to get back on television.  I'd love to -- and I'd love to do a bit part on an episode of Louie.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Supreme Court-ship and Marriage

I am listening to arguments in the Supreme Court for marriage equality.  Expect a historic week in modern American history.  This Hillary Clinton quote sums up how I feel.

Sometimes major events in life call to mind a smaller experience in your personal experiences.  That's the case with me today.  We're hearing about the Constitution, civil rights, equality and heterosexual unions.  Back in the early 1990s, I knew a fellow who was a news segment producer at one of the senior three TV networks.  He went on to become a popular print/TV political news journalist.  He and his boyfriend were very much in love.  But the handsome Italian boyfriend was technically an illegal alien. Nowadays, when the topic on the seemingly endless parade of cable news talk shows turns to illegal aliens, you get the impression that the only non-citizens here in America are very brown Mexicans.  Wrong.  The boyfriend looked like the romantic lead in a classic Fellini movie.

In order to be with the person he loved, the TV segment producer arranged for a female friend and co-worker to marry his boyfriend, thus making him a citizen and keeping him from having to leave the country.  I'm not giving away a secret.  My late partner and I were two of the several people who attended the modest wedding ceremony.  Arrangements were made so the gay man would be able to hold the hand of his significant other here in the U.S.A. come New Year's Eve.

Meanwhile...the TV segment producer worked for a straight married network newsman.  He had a wife.  And kids.  And a girlfriend on the side.  He had candy delivered to the Mrs. and the girlfriend on Valentine's Day.

The segment producer went through a lot of work and procedure to be with the man he loved.  The network news star had a much easier time being with his wife.  And, apparently, with other women.  He had the benefit of more rights as a man in a heterosexual union.

Long before making arrangements for the Constitutional Convention, our Founding Fathers could not have seen this coming.  There wasn't a Ye Olde Gay Tavern in Philadelphia where Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton could've dropped in for a quick stout and conversation with some of the patrons about their fundamental rights.

Yes.  This will be a busy, complicated and important week in our Supreme Court.

Monday, March 25, 2013

In-Flight Dining

Remember the days of getting a complimentary meal during commercial airline flights regardless of what class you happened to be seated in during the flight?  The meals were excellent in first class.  You were offered wine.  You got appetizers before your meal.  You got hot chocolate chips cookies shortly before starting your arrival descent.  But, even in coach, you had a choice of chicken, beef or fish.  Just like in the movie Airplane!

That 1980 comedy reflects a bygone era.  You don't get that free meal anymore.  Nowadays, you can buy a sandwich.  But you can't pay cash for it.  Credit or debit cards only.  This blog piece goes back to the days of in-flight dining and Pan Am airlines.

I was working for VH1 at the time.  This was in the late 1980s.  I had to tape some interviews in Los Angeles for my talk show and the company booked me on a New York to Los Angeles direct flight.  I was booked smack-dab in the middle of the coach section.  A crowded coach section.  The whole flight was crowded.

I knew that passengers, back in those days, could order special meals when they made their reservations.  I had friends who'd pre-order vegetarian plates.  I'd heard about one special meal and wondered why was it different from any other meal.  So...when I called to confirm my reservation before my flight....I asked what was in that meal for my flight.  It sounded delicious.  I requested it.  I ordered that special meal over the phone.  Quick.  Simple.  Easy.

I'd been on trips where I saw the flight attendant just deliver the special meal to the passenger who requested it because the information was on a print out with the passenger's name and seat number.

This particular Pan Am flight was delayed because we had to wait to some bad weather to clear.  And it was really packed.  When we were finally airborne, we learned that there was some kind of technical glitch with a bit of the pre-boarding information that the flight crew had received.  Nothing major.  But it affected information for the meal service that was soon to start.  That's what what stewardess told us over the intercom.

She followed that with "...will Passenger Rivers, who ordered the kosher meal, please raise your hand so we know where you are.  Passenger Rivers, who ordered the kosher meal, please raise your hand."

Slowly, I raised my African-American Catholic arm up from the middle of the coach section, leaving those who turned around for a look to make their own conclusions.  Whatever those conclusions were.

The guy seated next to me seemed like he was trying to conceal the big question mark on his face after I was handed my meal.  I said to him simply, "They do a really nice brisket."

And Pan Am did.  I love brisket.  That was one great in-flight kosher meal.

And, with that, I send you my wishes for a Good Passover.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Late Night Talk/Color TV

It was a top entertainment story of the week.  Jay Leno, host of The Tonight Show, has been ridiculing NBC executives in his opening monologues about behind-the-scenes network ratings and management drama.  NBC upper management has not found his jagged-edged jabs to be funny and asked the comedian to stop.  He didn't.  This ushered in show biz news reports that, when Leno's host contract with the network's famous show expires, he will be replaced.

In the print and TV/radio reports about the NBC late night talk show host situation -- who could be moving up and coming in or who should be considered to come in -- here are the names I've read and heard mentioned by journalists: Jimmy Fallon, Seth Myers of Saturday Night Live, Stephen Colbert, Howard Stern and Craig Ferguson.

All talented.

All talented.  All male.  All white.  Wow. This could be 1973 instead of 2013.  As a former night time national talk show host and as one who has covered show biz news, that's a story idea for an enterprising entertainment journalist.

NBC, CBS, ABC -- has a female or a person of color ever been considered to break new ground in that area of their late night programming?  And, if not, why not?  That's what I really want to know.  "Why not?"  Come on, press folks.  We're now in the 21st Century.

Here's a repost of a photo I love.  Johnny Carson, legendary host of The Tonight Show, was on vacation for a week and invited Harry Belafonte to be his fill-in host.  The year was 1968 and NBC's night time show still originated from 30 Rock studios in New York City.  Harry's very special guest one night -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Two extremely famous and accomplished black people on that one show.  I don't think we've seen two minorities host late night entertainment talk shows on any of those three networks in all the years since that rare broadcast in February 1968.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tom Cruise does Hitchcock

Tom Cruise's hair gave the performance of its career in John Woo's Mission: Impossible-2.  That Tom Cruise action sequel is a flat-out remake of an Alfred Hitchcock classic.  But, it seemed like the movie studio was hoping we wouldn't notice.  Redoing Hitchcock classics is nothing new.  There was that flop remake of Psycho starring Anne Heche in the role that got Janet Leigh an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  Disturbia was an entertaining suburban thriller starring that young actor whose name sounds like tonight's special in a French restaurant.  Shia LaBeouf took on the James Stewart role in this younger take on Hitchcock's Rear Window.

In its promotion, it was mentioned that it was new look at Rear Window.  Jodie Foster starred in a new version of a 1938 Hitchcock mystery/thriller starring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave.  Flightplan was basically The Little Lady Vanishes.  In Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, an older woman disappears on a train en route from a Germanic location.  In Flightplan, a traveler's little girl vanishes while they're in flight from Berlin. In both films, passengers claim not to have seen the female who disappeared.  The Margaret Lockwood and Jodie Foster characters prove that something's wrong.

Now we come to that Tom Cruise workout video called Mission: Impossible-2.

He can dangle from your rocks. He can ride a motorcycle.  He can spin, kick, shoot.  But can he be as good as Cary Grant?  I saw this movie in a big Manhattan cineplex with a preview audience.  I'd be reviewing the movie on a New York City television show.  I sat next to a CBS entertainment journalist who'd be reviewing it on a network news program.  About 20 minutes into the movie, I said to myself "This is a remake of Notorious!"  But no reference to the Ben Hecht screenplay for the 1946 Hitchcock film was in the opening credits.  That was very curious to me.  In TV specials about the special Hitchcock filmmaking touch, you will definitely see clips of  Rear Window and from Notorious.  That thriller/love story, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, contains some of the famed director's most iconic scenes.

If you've seen Notorious, follow me on this:  After the opening courthouse scene, we see Ingrid Bergman as sophisticated Alicia Huberman tossing a Miami cocktail party.  She's a "notorious" woman.  She likes to drink. She likes men.  Especially older men.  She's no virgin.  There's a bit of self-loathing in this free spirit.  She's known romantic disappointment.  As she says, "There's nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh."  Unlike her father, Alicia is a patriot.  He supported the swastika side.  That's why she was at court.  Mr. Huberman was on trial.  Alicia hated her father.  She loves America.  She wants to put this family darkness behind her, but she's soon to be approached to do some espionage work for Uncle Sam.  Cary Grant is the handsome stranger at her party.

Even though she's had a few too many, they go for a drive.  She's behind the wheel.  He watches her.  So does a motorcycle cop.  The cop gives chase because she's going over the speed limit.  He pulls her over. BUT...handsome Cary hands the cop identification from his pocket.  The cop salutes.  The handsome stranger is a federal agent.  The high speed chase leads Alicia to discover she's been trailed by the Feds.  She's angry.

Handsome hero. Notorious woman.  Speeding car.  Revelation.  Conflict.  Dig this scene with Tom Cruise and leading lady Thandie Newton in Mission: Impossible-2.

The CBS reporter whispered in my ear that Cruise's movie was exciting.  I whispered back, "Yeah.  I bet there's a racetrack scene coming up."  In Notorious, there's the famous scene in which Alicia, in love with the caustic federal agent, passes information to him at the racetrack.  They're being watched by the man the Feds hope to bring down.

There was, indeed, a racetrack scene with Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton while the bad guy watched.  Of course, the screenplay was tailored to suit Tom Cruise but it was basically Notorious.  The woman with a past is recruited to help smoke out a global villain by rekindling his romantic interest in her.  He loved her more than she loved him.  She falls for the hero (Tom) and, near the end, gets a poison in her system.  I like Robert Towne.  I interviewed him once on my old VH1 talk show.  He's an excellent screenwriter.  One of my Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time was written by him -- Chinatown.  But that action movie sequel script of his for director John Woo and Mr. Cruise was not an original idea.  Some screen credit should've also been given to Ben Hecht.

Oh!  And who shows up in an unbilled cameo?  Anthony Hopkins as the big boss to Tom Cruise's character.  He has a slightly snarky attitude towards the woman helping the organization because of her sexual and legal past.  Sound familiar?

Anthony Hopkins is the 2000 version of the Louis Calhern character in Notorious.

I've seen this Hitchcock classic countless times.  Ingrid Bergman won three Oscars in her acting career -- two for Best Actress and one for Best Supporting Actress.  She wasn't even nominated for Notorious and it's one of the peaks of her Hollywood film career.  For sentimental reasons, my generation always swooned at her work in Casablanca and gave it legendary status.  She is luminous as Ilsa in the 1943 movie.  However, Alicia is a much more complicated role and a bold female lead character for a 1940s film.  This was made at a time when Hollywood portrayed virginity as being a key ingredient to a woman's worth.  It was major currency in her character.  Alicia Huberman wasn't a widow.  The single woman had lovers in her past.  A strong feminist core runs through Notorious.  The Boys' Club of Federal Agents doesn't regard her as "a lady," but she's doing the hardest and most physically dangerous work in this mission.  When only the men are in the office, Paul Prescott (Calhern) makes a snide remark about her reputation.  This irritates his employee, Devlin.  Dev calls them on their chauvinism.  The Feds want to infiltrate a nest of Nazis still in operation.  One, Alex Sebastian, had a major yen for Alicia.  It wasn't mutual.  But the Feds recruit Alicia to prove her patriotism by starting a fake romance with Alex that goes as far as and includes the bedroom.  Alex had great respect for Alicia's traitor father.  Her assignment is in South America.  One more thing -- when she's not busy bangin' a Nazi, she's got to memorize all the names of his Nazi buddies who come over for dinner and secretly relay all this information back to Devlin (Cary Grant).

Alicia Huberman, the young beauty who likes liquor and older men, does her duty for the U.S.A.  She has no gun.  No protection.  She's armed with just her keen intellect and her sexuality.  She is actively engaged in her mission.  The men give orders while seated in a comfortable and safe office.  At one point, the Louis Calhern character gives more instructions to Devlin for Alicia while he's lying down on a bed and eating cheese and crackers.  Alicia is smack-dab in the middle of that nest of Nazis.  She marries Alex.

Another brilliant touch -- while on duty for the Feds, Alicia cannot drink they way she used to because it would just be too dangerous in her work as an American agent.

We always think of coffee as being the antidote for a hangover.  In Hitchcock's hands, it's the coffee that puts her out of commission more so than any cocktails ever did.  Her coffee has been laced with poison.  Devlin initially assumes she's got a hangover.  Cary Grant is at his best as a bad-ass, by-the-book agent.  On the surface, he's not very likable but Grant expertly shows us there's something inside, some emotion, that Devlin tries hard to keep hidden.  We will see that he's "...a fat-headed guy, full of pain."  Alicia is a woman he cannot keep treating like a second-class citizen.  Hitchcock's Notorious is a thriller...and a love story.  Alicia and Devlin are redeemed by love.

If you've never seen Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, do yourself a favor and rent it.  It's hard to believe this film did not bring 3-time Oscar winner Bergman a Best Actress nomination.  She's outstanding here and it's a masterful screen performance.  For classic film fans ... and for new filmmakers...there's juicy production information in the DVD commentary from the Criterion Collection.

And I love the intelligent screenplay by Ben Hecht.  Obviously, so does Robert Towne.  Notorious brought Ben Hecht an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay of 1946.

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