Sunday, June 30, 2013


I got to see the second episode of Devious Maids.  Just like the premiere episode, it was great fun to watch and I like the smart way it serves up entertainment with a soap opera format that also has a dash of tart social commentary.  As I wrote before, it's delightfully subversive and well-acted. Eva Longoria and Marc Cherry are the producers.
Tonight, we learn that one of the young maids is a fan of classic films.  She likes James Cagney.  She likes Hitchcock movies.  Her favorites are Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest and, especially, Rear Window.   That is a brilliant writer's choice because the maid wants to go into fashion design as a career.  She would be paying close attention to the suspense -- and to the Grace Kelly fashions designed by Edith Head.

That was a brilliant touch.  I grew up in South Los Angeles and I graduated from a high school in Watts.  When I had part-time jobs in predominantly white companies, most folks would be surprised to hear that I, too, could carry on a conversation about classic films -- domestic and foreign.  Today, there's nothing that would really give you the impression that minorities embrace classic films.  When AMC was a movie channel, most of the hosts were white guys.  Whoopi Goldberg was a special guest host.  The two hosts on Turner Classic Movies are non-minorities.  In the shrunken field of movie critics on TV news programs, that's still pretty much a Caucasian Boys' Club.  A young Latina familiar with films made by Hitchcock, Raoul Walsh and Billy Wilder made my heart take wing.  That was a wonderful character detail.  It may seem like a small detail but it's very significant culturally.  It shatters a stereotype. A disagreement she has with her mother about dating and social class echoes talks my parents gave me back in South L.A. when I was growing up.  That's an example the tart dash of social commentary Devious Maids gives you.

As far as giving good role to mature actresses, Devious Maids deserves big applause.  Again,  Susan Lucci shows solid chops in comedy mode.  She makes you laugh as the Beverly Hills mom.  It's exactly the kind of character and performance that lit up many a screwball comedy back in the 1930s and early 40s.  Rebecca Wisocky has really got the gift.  In my previous blog, I wrote that Judy Reyes has that Thelma Ritter quality -- like Thelma in Rear Window and All About Eve with Bette Davis.  Ms. Wisocky, with her former Ziegfeld Girl-like carriage, has that Eve Arden charisma here.  Directors like Lubitsch, Wilder, Minnelli, Hawks and Curtiz would've kept Rebecca quite busy with film work.
She'd have made a great Vera Charles, the best friend to Auntie Mame.  If you've never seen that comedy classic starring Rosalind Russell, rent it soon for lots of laughs.
I mention these actresses from Hollywood's Golden Era for a reason.  Irene Dunne was a glamorous 40 when she delivered one of her best screen performances.  Love Affair, the film remade for the first time as An Affair to Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, put Dunne in the Oscar race for Best Actress of 1939.  In her late 30s/early 40s, Jean Arthur was doing some of her best work as the leading lady/love interest in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington with James Stewart, Only Angels Have Wings and The Talk of the Town (both with Cary Grant) plus The More the Merrier, a romantic comedy that earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.  Rosalind Russell, the lady in red in the above pic, was about 50 when she gave that energetic, madcap performance as Auntie Mame, a performance that put her in the Best Actress Oscar race.  Thelma Ritter made her film debut when she was in her mid 40s.  After Miracle on 34th Street, she went on to other films and racked up a total of six Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress.  Bette Davis was in her early 40s when she landed the plum role of Broadway legend Margo Channing in All About Eve.  She gave it a legendary performance.

Nowadays, Hollywood wants to give a woman her AARP card as soon as she turns 29.  Cheers to Devious Maids for giving good work to seasoned actresses.  That's the way it should be.

My favorite tart moment of tonight's episode:  "Page 43."  That just said it all.  So true. So very true.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

2 Films with German Flavor

As I've written, three of the happiest years of my career were spent working at VH1.  There, I felt free to be myself as a performer, more so there than at any place I'd previously worked.  I remember one historical event on one day in 1989 in the studio.  A few of us on the crew gathered at a television to watch network news coverage.  The Berlin Wall was falling.  One of the members of our studio crew, the make-up woman, was a young German blonde we lovingly called "Schatze," like the Lauren Bacall character in the 1953 movie How To Marry a Millionaire.  All we could say was "Wow" as we watched the screen.  Schatze couldn't even say that.  She was wide-eyed and speechless.

I've got a couple of films for you to consider renting over the weekend.  The first one takes us to Germany in 1984.  We're in East Berlin.  The movie opens in a sterile, severe government office.  There is no decoration.  And no chat.  Oppression.  Intimidation.  Fear.  An ordinary citizen who doesn't have the rights we here in America too often take for granted.  This is the beginning of The Lives of Others, the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film of 2006.  See the excellent work by Ulrich Mühe in this political thriller that's also a very human drama.  He plays a top agent in the Stasi, the secret police.  He monitors people.  Everyone lives under the large shadow of surveillance.

Suppose you didn't have the freedom of speech.  Freedom of the press.  Or freedom to express yourself artistically.  It's like the blacklisting of the Senator Joe McCarthy era that strangled Hollywood and Broadway artists in the 1950s.  Sydney Pollack's The Way We Were, Martin Ritt's The Front and George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck take on that period of the Communist witch hunt. In this subtitled drama, we have a controversial playwright, his actress lover, a blacklisted director, a suicide and political censorship.  I'll keep from revealing too much.  I've seen The Lives of Others three times and each viewing held me with the way it peels back layers to get to a core of the secret policeman's being.  He monitors the playwright.  With detached emotion and political seriousness, he listen to all talk.  He listens to all lovemaking.  But, as he listens to this alleged enemy of the state, he hears a life of passion and beauty and honesty.

Stasi will do anything to spy on people -- from following citizens, to giving gifts to neighbors who inform. to tampering with mail. to using sexual intimidation. To the state, the playwright's typewriter is as dangerous as an assault rifle.  He must hide his work.

This powerful story is fueled by Mühe's performance.  It's truly compelling.  You hate him, then you come to care about what happens to him.  He takes you on an emotional journey.  Ulrich Mühe himself was a theater actor who was under Stasi surveillance.  He had a great spiritual connection to the story.  He died of cancer about six months after The Lives of Others won the Oscar.  He left us with a great performance.

Follow that with some rock music from someone who recalls the fall of the Berlin Wall.  See Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  When this year's Academy Awards show producers announced that they'd be saluting modern movie musicals, I assumed they'd ignore this one.  And I was right!  The salute was basically a Les Misérables infomercial done live onstage.  Hedwig is a transsexual punk rocker from East Berlin.  Male to female transsexual.  The punk rocker went Renée Richards, not Chaz Bono.
As a young man in Germany, she listened to the musical voices of the "American masters" -- like Toni Tennille and Debby Boone.  Life wasn't always easy for Hedwig:  "Our apartment was so small that mother made me play in the oven."  But Hedwig will survive and make music in America.  She'll tour with her band in local diners.  I know how she felt.  I did the same thing doing live remotes for local morning news programs in the 1990s.  Only, I didn't sing.  Hedwig is a trouper even though a former boyfriend/bandmate stole some of her songs and became a star.

A new world opened to Hedwig (formerly Hansel) when an American G.I. introduced the young German to Gummy Bears.
Hansel liked his candy.

I saw this show when it was a hit off-Broadway production.  John Cameron Mitchell stars as Hedwig and directed the film adaptation.  He co-wrote the screenplay based on his 1998 stage show.  This twisted movie is flat-out fabulous and so is he.

Here's a taste of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The Korean electric guitarist in pink behind Hedwig is actress Sook-Yin Lee.  If Woody Allen was in his heyday like when he was making Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose and Alice, he should be giving choice roles to her.  One of the funniest performances of 2006 was the one she gave as the frustrated Sofia, a couples counselor in the sexually bold, provocative and emotionally rich comedy, Shortbus.  Also directed by Mitchell, it's one of my favorite films about New Yorkers trying to connect in a post 9/11 Manhattan.  Sook-Yin Lee is a gifted comic actress who should be working a lot here in America.  Indie director John Cameron Mitchell should be as highly regarded here as he was in France, Brazil and Greece when Shortbus screened.  

 Mitchell was seen this year on HBO's Girls.  He also directed Nicole Kidman to a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the indie drama, Rabbit Hole  (2010).
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is slated to go uptown for its Broadway premiere starring Neil Patrick Harris next year.  Check out James Cameron Mitchell in the role.

And don't forget about The Lives of Others.  Auf wiedersehen.

Friday, June 28, 2013

For the Book Club

I'm starting a new chapter, literally.

"I was reading a book the other day..."  ~Jean Harlow as Kitty Packard in Dinner at Eight  (1933)
In the 1930s, no one could play a brassy platinum blonde with a heart of gold better than Jean Harlow.  She was the top sex symbol of her day.  I think the high intensity sex symbol superstar wattage of her all-too-brief film career and life eclipsed the fact that she was also one of that decade's best screen comic actresses.  She's rarely mentioned along with the top screwball comediennes of Hollywood's golden era, but she should be.

Years before George Cukor directed Judy Holliday to a Best Actress of 1950 Oscar victory for bringing her classic dumb blonde Broadway performance to the big screen in Born Yesterday, he directed Harlow in one of her best performances in a film that was also that screen adaptation of a Broadway play.  Tailored to showcase a bunch of stars under contract to MGM, she looks like an art deco living doll as she plays the bimbo wife of a shady businessman.  She wants to move up into high class society and be genteel, even though you know she'd politely send back the gazpacho in a restaurant saying, "Oh, waiter, this soup is cold."  She hates her husband's shadiness and we love her for that.  She's not perfect but she'd never pick on someone having hard times.   He would.

Kitty's determined to shake the gutter off her pumps and become a lady.  And becoming a lady means getting invited to the special Park Avenue Dinner at Eight.  Here's a scene I love where the clueless cutie tries to fit in with a renowned veteran Broadway actress.

I hope Kitty Packard would like my book.  I've been invited to write one for ASD Publishing, an independent publisher.  I'll give you new ways of looking at old films so you can see how relevant some of these classics still are to modern times.  I'll also tell you how important classics have been to me, helping me along in my life and broadcast career, helping me to make some racial breakthroughs from L.A. to New York City.

If you visit the company's website, click onto the Our Authors section, scroll down and you'll see my big head.  Wish me luck as I work to prove I've got a bit of ..."the write stuff."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

On James Gandolfini

Funeral services were held today in New York City for James Gandolfini, the actor who deserved all the accolades he got for his portrayal of mobster and family man Tony Soprano in HBO's groundbreaking series, The Sopranos.  Are you a fan of classic film stars?  With his commitment and skill and honesty in his work, hard work that he made seem simple, Gandolfini was like a Spencer Tracy of prime time television.
It's funny about fame.  I'm looking at photos of the funeral service that were posted on a network news website.  Others who were also in the cast of The Sopranos gathered to pay respects to the late Gandolfini.  This definitely will be a lead story in tonight's national entertainment news.  Not just nationally.  It'll be a lead story outside of America too.

Four of the the best days of my entire career involved work on that series.  I had a bit part in two very good episodes and, before each taping my small acting roles, I assembled with everyone else for a table read of the entire script.  When Gandolfini became internationally famous as Tony Soprano, my mind frequently went back that first table read.  My mind went right back to that reading again this morning when I saw those photos of the funeral service.

My first Under 5 came in the show's first season.  An "Under 5" is a role that has no more than five lines.  TV viewers had never heard of The Sopranos because it had yet to premiere on HBO when we had that first table read.  If you know New York City, we were booked to do the read-through one weekday evening in the SoHo area.  I lived in Chelsea so I walked over the location at Prince and Broadway, right across the street from a Dean & DeLuca store.  There was a group of actors standing on a corner and chatting.  I recognized Gandolfini and Michael Imperioli from my neighborhood.  I lived near casting offices and a couple of talent agencies.  I'd see them a lot on my way to auditions.  They were practically part of the community.  Chelsea was still wonderfully working class in the early and mid-1990s.  Some actors in that HBO cast were folks I'd seen a lot on the streets, walking around and going about their business without being bothered.  When the room was open for our session, I realized that the actors chatting on the corner outside were also there for the table reading.

Those same folks who were just hanging out on the corner of Prince and Broadway, waiting to go in for a 6:00 table read, those same folks who weren't getting a second glance from pedestrians who walked by them, had no idea they were on the brink of fame.  Two years later, they wouldn't have that anonymity in public.  Today, they're stars at a fellow star's funeral.  The effects of fame and the changes it brings.

Gandolfini was a seriously good actor.  Sometimes, I think his stardom as Tony Sopranos eclipsed his film work.  He was an actor who could become another character, totally non-Tony Soprano, with an adjustment to his physical carriage and a different cadence to his recognizable and unexpectedly high voice.  He was a big bear of a guy.  Before he spoke, you kind of expected a Lee Marvin-esque voice to come out.  What did come out was different and he knew how to play that instrument to great effect.  Watch him in the Coen Brothers black and white film, The Man Who Wasn't There, as "Big Dave"...

....and as Winston, the gay hit man looking to meet a nice guy in The Mexican starring Julia Roberts...

...and for proof of his solid comedy skills, rent In The Loop, a political satire about the business of war.
I really dig the two movies he did with John Travolta.  Gandolfini was the doofy L.A. thug in Get Shorty...
...and one of the New York detectives working on a murder case in Lonely Hearts.
He was a knock-out in God of Carnage on Broadway.  I was lucky enough to see him in that comedy about class and manners.
I had a Broadway limited-run wish for James Gandolfini.  At the heart of the play I wanted to see him do is a story about freedom from tyranny and getting smart to the fact that one's rights are being abused. I wanted to see Gandolfini play the other side of the mobster persona.  Play the comedy side and make a point while doing so in a revival of Born Yesterday.  The rich crooked boyfriend of a dumb blonde ex-chorus girl keeps her entertained with material things, but he's slowly taken away her personal rights and bullies her.  While they're staying in Washington, DC, where we will buy a congressman's favor, she gets wise and comes to her own Declaration of Independence.  Broderick Crawford played uncouth Harry in the film.  Judy Holliday repeated her star-making Broadway role in the film and won the Best Actress of 1950 Academy Award.

I'd have loved to see James Gandolfini play Harry.

Gandolfini left us with the some good work -- and not just in The Sopranos.


 I grew in Los Angeles, specifically South Central L.A. which was way more racially diverse than portrayed in local media at the time. Our f...