Sunday, December 29, 2013

Shirley MacLaine in THE APARTMENT

Shirley MacLaine is the only Hollywood star to receive Kennedy Center Honors in the festivities that air tonight on CBS.  Brava, Shirley!  I have written about her a number of times on my blog site here.  I'm a longtime Shirley MacLaine fan.  I dig the big movies that got her Oscar nominations for Best Actress.  I love the ones entertainment reporters don't usually mention but, to me, they're totally cool MacLaine movies.  Movies like My Geisha, What A Way To Go! and Gambit.  When I was a kid, I'd go to the movies on a Saturday afternoon if one starred Shirley MacLaine.  I didn't care what the movie was about.  I just wanted to see her.  One of my Top 5 favorite Shirley MacLaine movies is also one of my Top 5 favorite Christmastime movies.  It's a classic.  It's Billy Wilder's The Apartment -- Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1960 and one of the films that brought her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

I like the reference made to this classic in early episodes of Mad Men on TV.  The ad guys felt it was ludicrous because, for one thing, a white person was playing an elevator operator.  That lets you know where America was socially at the time.  Billy Wilder could take something that could be sour and find something sweet in it.  He likes people.  That comes through in his work.  Compare his work to the films by the Coen Brothers.  At a time -- especially in Hollywood films -- when a young woman's virginity counted as her most valuable asset and the thing that made her respectable, he showed that a lack of virginity before marriage has nothing to do with the goodness of one's soul and the kindness in one's heart.  Those are more important.  We see that in elevator operator Fran Kubelik played by Shirley MacLaine.  Fran is lovable.  She likes C.C. Baxter, a company man who plans to get to the top.  He's played by Jack Lemmon.

You know the movie.  C. C. Baxter loans his apartment out to company executives who have a little extra-marital playtime before going home to their wives.  This is Baxter's way of playing the corporate game to move up faster.  He and his executives all work for the big boss, Mr. Sheldrake.  The big boss, who has a wife and kid, is played by Fred MacMurray.

At the swingin' Christmas party in the New York City company offices, folks drink too much and talk too much.  There's some corporate backstabbing.  Baxter is tenderly attracted to Fran.  He's unaware that Fran has been involved with Mr. Sheldrake.  She wants to break it off but she keeps falling for his line of jive.  At the Christmas party, she discovers that she's not the first woman Mr. Sheldrake has strung along for a good time.
She overdoses in Baxter's apartment.  As he nurses her back to health, they both find a redemption in each other.  A love story begins.  But she still needs to break from Mr. Sheldrake.  He's a menagerie -- part corporate shark, part horndog, part snake.
My favorite Shirley MacLaine moment in The Apartment comes when she realizes how truly and deeply she's loved by C.C. "Bud" Baxter.  Mr. Sheldrake is on the prowl again and is taking Fran out on New Year's Eve with the main intention of starting the New Year off with a bang.  At a hotel in Atlantic City.

With him, Fran Kubelik would be the Queen of Nothing.  When she realizes that Bud loves her, you see and can feel a light turned on in her soul.  She becomes radiant.  And aware.  She abdicates her throne as Queen of Nothing in the life of Mr. Sheldrake.  I love that beautifully acted moment.  Fran's spirit is renewed over the holidays.
I've loved this film for quite a long time.  I grew more deeply in love with it over the years when I lived in New York City.  This is such a New York story, full of a certain wistfulness that millions of us single folks in Manhattan felt at holiday time.  We recognize ourselves and our emotions in this Billy Wilder classic.  I've been ambitious like Bud Baxter.  I've been romantically gullible like Fran Kubelik.  Only from Billy Wilder could we get a movie with cheating husbands, corporate backstabbing and a suicide attempt -- and it's a heartwarming holiday love story that take us from Christmas to very early New Year's Day.  With one of the greatest closing lines ever ---

    "Shut up and deal" -- delivered by Shirley MacLaine.  Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Peter O'Toole Made Me Laugh

If you read some of the blurbs in social media when the sad news broke that acclaimed veteran actor Peter O'Toole had died, you'd think that his only two films were David Lean's epic, Lawrence of Arabia, the Oscar-winning classic that made the new screen actor an international star, and My Favorite Year, the marvelously funny 1980s comedy that brought the middle-aged O'Toole another of his 8 Oscar nominations for Best Actor.  The first one came for Lawrence of Arabia, Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1962.

In the 1970s, when I was a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, I was a frequent patron at the campus movie theater.  It was called The Varsity.  I saw four comedies there that made me howl with laughter.  They had the same effect on the rest of the audience too.  They were comedies for a new generation.  Two were written and directed by Mel Brooks -- The Twelve Chairs and Blazing Saddles.  One was Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort.  And there was the wickedly mad satire from Great Britain, The Ruling Class, starring Peter O'Toole.  The satire would bring O'Toole, as the 14th Earl of Gurney, another Best Actor Oscar nomination.

A film blogger on Twitter, in his appreciation for the late actor, wrote "My Favorite Year proved how adept he was at comedy."  To me, The Ruling Class proved how adept he was at comedy.  My Favorite Year confirmed it.  In this 1972 release, the story takes us to modern day Britain and its aristocracy.  A member of the House of Lords dies accidentally one night while getting his jollies during some costumed fetish behavior.  His huge estate is left to his son.  Nothing wrong with that.  However, his son is a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks he's Jesus Christ.  The son is played by Peter O'Toole.

This is a Jesus who likes to break out into a song and dance and occasionally ride a tricycle indoors.  As he says, "Dignity has nothing to do with divinity."  As if that's not enough, he treats the servants as equals.  Especially Mr. Tucker, the butler who found his late father....hanging around, if you will.  Something must be done.  The relatives must either get the estate from young Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, or cure him of his kind and Christ-like behavior.  The sweet Lady Claire has a polite chat with him.  She says, "How do you know you're God?"

He replies, "It's simple.  When I pray to Him, I find I'm talking to myself."

His casual Christian attitude obviously has broken with the family tradition. His parting words to others as he leaves the room are "Enjoy yourselves while I'm gone.  Relax.  Have sex."  Yes, this is a different Savior.  He's a Savior who can appreciate a shapely blonde.  One is recruited to help another relative get control of the estate.

Peter O'Toole goes from daffy to desperate to demonic in this film.  He's hysterically funny as the harmless madman, especially when he's Jesus breaking out into a song and dance routine.  He's an animated, bright-eyed and chatty Jesus.  Yet, O'Toole also gives you glimpses into the desperate part -- you see that this is a man grappling with a serious mental condition.  Then comes the cure which makes him fall in line with the other aristocrats like his late father.  Which personality is more socially acceptable?  Which personality helps his family and his fellow man?  Which is embraced by the aristocracy?
There are familiar faces in this twisted comedy.  Lady Claire is richly played by Coral Browne.  The actress is best-remembered as best friend Vera Charles opposite Rosalind Russell as Auntie Mame in the hit 1958 movie version of that hit Broadway comedy.  Alastair Sim, whom many feel was the best Ebenezer Scrooge with his performance in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, co-stars as a concerned clergyman.  Stern-faced and rock-jawed Harry Andrews, memorable as the abusive sergeant major in Sidney Lumet's military prison drama, The Hill, plays the whacked-out 13th Earl of Gurney.

The Ruling Class is available on the Criterion Collection DVD label.  This really is a must-see for Peter O'Toole fans.  When the cure for the schizophrenic Earl comes, so comes a change in tone in the movie.  One personality preaches love.  The other preaches fear.  It's not a beginning-to-end loopy, broad comedy like 1982's My Favorite Year.  But, trust me on this -- before Peter O'Toole's comic brilliance in My Favorite Year, there was his outrageous comedy performance in 1972's often overlooked The Ruling Class.

Watch it and keep in mind that's the same actor who played Lawrence of Arabia, Lord Jim and The Lion in Winter.  Such big screen versatility, wit and charisma will be missed.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Oscar Season Diversity Check

I have a buddy that I have known since the 1980s.  A good guy.  Of the Caucasian persuasion with a job that paid quite well.  Considers himself to be a longtime, hardcore liberal.  In 2011, we got together one night to watch the first two episodes of the highly-promoted, new ABC series, Pan Am.  It followed a quartet of young stewardesses in New York City in 1963 as they had romantic adventures in flight.
Halfway through the second episode, I started to scrunch up my face like Aunt Esther on Sanford & Son.  My liberal, upscale white buddy thought the shows were "fabulous."  I said, "Did you notice there's hardly any black people -- even as extras -- on this show?"  He hadn't.  Then it occurred to me that I'd known him for over 20 years and he'd never introduced me to another friend of his who's black.  He'd highly recommended that I read The Help and wanted to loan me his book.  Yet, when I glanced at his long list of Facebook friends, I thought "Dang.  I've seen more black folks in an Ingmar Bergman movie."  Was I his only black friend?  In the Pan Am premiere episode, I saw one couple in African garb in an airport terminal scene. Then I saw one black man carrying bags for white travelers and another black man shining shoes.  That was it.  Four background actors.  The show took place in New York in 1963.  In 1959, Lorrraine Hansberry's groundbreaking modern play about an African American family in Chicago, A Raisin in the Sun, opened on Broadway.  It got four Tony Award nominations including Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Play.  African American/lesbian playwright was the first black woman to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.  After two successful years on Broadway, the play went on tour.  Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands and Lou Gossett Jr. all repeated their original Broadway roles in the 1961 film version.  Diahann Carroll, became the first black woman to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for 1962's No Strings in which she played a top fashion model working in Paris.  In No Strings, she introduced the song "The Sweetest Sounds."  In the early 1960s, famed soprano Leontyne Price was thrilling audiences at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  In 1963, moviegoers were making the heartwarming indie comedy, Lilies of the Field, a box office hit.  The following year, it would make its star, Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor.  1963 was the same year as Dr. Martin Luther King's historic March on Washington.

But...on Pan saw only four black people in the whole show set in New York City, 1963.  And they were extras.  When we did see a black American with some dialogue, one of the stewardesses had to take a train uptown to Harlem.  As if we didn't live in Greenwich Village -- where jazz clubs thrived -- or work in midtown Manhattan, as we see in the opening scene of 1963's Love With The Proper Stranger starring Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood.  In the first scene, there's McQueen's character greeting fellow jazz musicians.  And they're black.  Vincente Minnelli's charming drama, The Clock, starred Judy Garland and Robert Walker.  It's a 1945 wartime love story.  One of the many things I love about this movie is that you see many black servicemen and families in the opening and closing scenes that take place in New York City's Penn Station.  I love that the images of black people in those scenes resemble photos of black friends and relatives in my parents' photo albums.

The movie was shot in Hollywood but Vincente Minnelli was fully aware that black people were part of the New York City scene.  You see black people in the Times Square crowd with Judy Holliday and Dean Martin, the stars of 1960's Bells Are Ringing, also directed by Vincente Minnelli.
Then came the New York as seen by Woody Allen.  Minorities weren't part of the upscale, sophisticated fabric.  On MTV, with its shows broadcast from and taped in New York City, we see racially mixed crowds of teen fans.  But when it came to Friends, a network presented a non-diverse group of hip young adults living in downtown Manhattan.  I lived for 20 years in the downtown area.  Honestly, I was surprised that we weren't seeing black, Latino and Asian-Americans as regulars in casts of shows set in multi-cultural Manhattan.  Shows like Friends, Seinfeld and Mad About You.  Hit American shows like that are shown all over the world and sent out the wrong message of racial diversity in New York City.  I was a Mad About You fan but one episode really irked me.  Helen Hunt's character and her mother went to see the Broadway musical Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk.  I saw that show three times. Loved it!  Savion Glover and DulĂ© Hill (later of TV's The West Wing and Psych) made that stage smoke with their dance skills.  Each time I saw that Broadway show, the audience was very racially mixed and very appreciative.  But, on Mad About You, when the characters went to the lobby during intermission, you saw mostly white faces as extras in that theater lobby scene.  That was nowhere near accurate.  I was in that lobby for three different intermissions in New York City.  That was not good casting of background actors.

I've blogged about this before, but here's the thing:  Are the critics and columnists -- upscale, white liberals like my buddy -- noticing this?  Are they not seeing the racial imbalance like I did when he and I watched Pan Am?  Will they raise the issue like we minority movie and TV viewers do?  NBC, CBS and ABC don't have weekly film critics on their network morning shows like they used to.  That's probably because the networks are now more closely attached to film companies like ABC with Disney and NBC with Universal.  But when we did see a lot more of movie critics on TV, that group was predominantly white.  And still is.  Last January, the morning the Oscar nominations were announced, there was no black entertainment contributor on Today, Good Morning America or CBS This Morning and not a one that night in the panel of critics discussing the Oscar nominations on The Charlie Rose Show.  And one of the big movies being talked about was the racially intense and controversial Django Unchained.  Are any entertainment reviewers noticing that?  They'd notice racial exclusion onscreen in a movie like The Help but do they notice it within their own group that gets TV attention?  Wesley Morris, when he was with The Boston Globe, won the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism.  I didn't see him on any of those shows on Oscar nomination day.
Wesley Morris was the fourth person to win the Pulitzer for 2011 film criticism.  The first was Roger Ebert.  Wesley is the first black winner.

I lived in New York for over 20 years.  It would've been great to see black, Asian or Latino reviewers doing weekly film and/or theater segments on New York City newscasts, local or network.  And there were plenty of minority entertainment reporters available to do such segments.  If movie critics and theatre critics on television were predominantly black, I think white viewers would notice and question that.  Why aren't entertainment journalists noticing we're absent from certain TV and movie scenes?  I think there's a story in there.  Or, at least, reason enough to ask a pointed question or two.

We heard a lot of news about the lack of black women in the Saturday Night Live cast.  That's one high-profile situation.  Entertainment journalists should look at the bigger diversity picture and ask sharp questions about casting, about submissions, about the number of minorities in top network management positions who could give voice to diversity issues and even to the number of top agents in the entertainment business who are minorities.  Grey's Anatomy creator, Shonda Rhimes, talked about her initial frustration while casting actors for the 2005 debut.  All she saw coming through the door was white actors who'd been submitted by agents to audition to play doctors.  She demanded diversity, the kind of diversity that was ultimately seen on the series.  I worked in New York from 1985 to 2011.  In all that time, I had appointments at several major theatrical/broadcast agencies.  I saw only one black full-time entertainment agent with a noted agency...and that was in 1990.  That was also her last year with the company.  From 1985 to 2009, all the broadcast agents I met with -- all the ones who asked if I'd ever done on-camera TV hosting and/or said they wouldn't know what to do with me as a client -- were white.  When Watch Bobby Rivers, my prime time weeknight celebrity talk show premiered on VH1 in 1988, I didn't have an agent.  I had a VH1 executive who believed in and was familiar with my work.  In New York and L.A., how many big theatrical agencies have black agents? Did we see a high-powered black agent negotiating a movie deal on episodes of HBO's Entourage?  I'm just throwing out ideas for entertainment journalists to cover.

I totally dig the work of comedian/actor Jeffrey Joseph.  He and I were once paired up for a TV commercial audition in New York City.  Jeffrey saw the new Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis.  On Facebook, Jeffrey wrote that it's about "a struggling folk singer in a 1960s New York that's devoid of people of color."  I've yet to hear or read any movie critic bring up that point.

Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the African-American legend, Odetta, performed at the 1963 March on Washington.  Dr. King called Odetta "the queen of American folk music."  The Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s gave great fuel to the folk music scene.

Inside Llewyn Davis along with 12 Years a Slave, Lee Daniel's The Butler and Gravity could be up for some top Oscars  when the nominations are announced on Thursday, January 16th.  Because of Jeffrey Joseph's comments, I want to see this new Coen Brothers film.  If Vincente Minnelli or Shonda Rhimes had directed Inside Llewyn Davis, I bet there'd be some black folks in the mix.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Bobby Rivers, KPIX TV Guest

Doing that interview on the San Francisco CBS affiliate was an early morning treat for me.  I was so honored and grateful that producers remembered me from my VH1 days and invited me to be a guest on CBS 5's Bay Sunday while I've been temporarily relocated here in Northern California.

Merry Christmas.  Happy New Year.  Happy Holidays.  If you're just logging onto my blogsite here for the first time -- and you're in the entertainment industry -- let me direct you to some of my previous work.  Like the VH1 work we chatted about in that interview. Click onto my November section and read my post about Hollywood great, Burt Lancaster.  Actor Raul Julia and I discussed Lancaster's involvement with the movie, Kiss of the Spider Woman.  Also, you'll see me interview a Burt Lancaster movie co-star and a Hollywood great in his own right, Tony Curtis.

Click onto my October section and watch Phil Collins and me on VH1.

Performing on TV and talking about films and filmmakers are my passion.  It's work that I love.  I can host live television and take phone calls.

I can do live TV and present taped features that I produced and wrote.  One of my favorite entertainment features from my WNYW/Fox 5 years in New York City was my interview of Nick Nolte.  We talked his new film, The Thin Red Line, and its director, Terrence Malick.

Doing live TV forces you to be in the moment and be spontaneous.  One of my favorite guests on WNYW's Good Day New York was a nationally celebrated nun.  Sister Wendy Beckett, a renowned art historian and PBS TV host, graced me with her presence.

Here's my demo reel.  I host, I talk to stars, I talk to ordinary people.  I loved doing it all.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Watching CHINATOWN (1974)

It's a film that truly earned the title "classic" not just because it's more than 20 years old.  If you get cable, TCM is airing Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway at 1:00 am Eastern/10:00pm Pacific tonight.  If I was asked for a list of my Top Ten Favorite Films, this Roman Polanski feature would be on the list.  I heard Martin Scorcese once describe the 1940s movie, Leave Her To Heaven, as "film noir in Technicolor."  The same applies to Chinatown.  A key character says, "You may think you know what you're dealing with but, believe me, you don't."  That statement is really the guts of this movie.  If you've seen it, you know what I mean.  If you haven't seen it, you should.  We got some good movies in the 1970s.  This was one of the best.
Los Angeles in the 1930s.  You've got well-dressed but occasionally crude J. J. "Jake" Gittes, a private investigator on a tough case, and the glacially elegant, tasteful Evelyn Mulwray, a wealthy widow.  Two alienated souls, two broken hearts and two faces that will be scarred as the murder mystery unravels.  Faye Dunaway, before her Kabuki-like mad 1980s performance as Mommie Dearest, gave two of the signature Hollywood movie performances of the 1970s delivered by an actress or actor.  She was brilliant in Network and here in Chinatown as the complicated Mrs. Mulwray.  Despite her rich exterior, there's something a little off-key about her.  Like that business with her eye that Jake notices.  He sees "something black in the green part."  She tells him "It's a flaw in the iris."

No one could have played Evelyn Mulwray better than Faye Dunaway did.  No one.  Look at her as the rural, poorly educated waitress-turned-bankrobber in 1967's Bonnie and Clyde and then look at her in Chinatown.  Both performances brought her Best Actress Oscar nominations.  Notice her different vocal work, mannerisms, motivations and physical carriage as Bonnie Parker and Evelyn Mulwray.  She made fabulous fashion statements as both characters too.  Faye could work a wardrobe.
When Mrs. Mulwray sees Jake for the first time, she's standing behind him.  He's telling his buddies an ethnic sex joke about a Chinese man.  The joke will be on Jake at the end in Chinatown.  Minority stereotypes are punctured.  The "Water bad for glass" line is genius.  What I wrote about Dunaway as Mrs. Mulwray goes for Jack Nicholson as the private eye.  No one could have played Jake Gittes better than he did.  No one.

"Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water."  That's the sentiment of Noah Cross, the corrupt multi-millionaire played perfectly by actor/director John Huston. (Huston directed The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and Prizzi's Honor.)  Cross is a powerful tycoon who has become respectable in Southern California.  Noah Cross says this:  "Of course, I'm respectable.  I'm old.  Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."
He's Evelyn's father.  He'ss like that "something black in the green part" of her life.  He's a dark Noah, a wicked modern day corporate prophet who wants to control the water in his religion of greed.  Evelyn has literally been double-Crossed in that relationship.
This year, we still felt the brutal grip of the Great Recession.  Millions of Americans who thought they were doing the right thing by being hard-working employees and responsible citizens were out of work, their savings had been drained, their unemployment benefits expired and they found it hard to find new work.  Homes were foreclosed.  But Corporate America seemed to make it harder to be a member of the middle and working class.  You needed one job for the rent money and a second job for food and clothing.  Meanwhile, we read about corporate CEOs getting millions of dollars as bonuses while we slog through some of the harshest economic times since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Chinatown feels almost fresher and more relevant today.  Noah Cross' financial practices and motivations are shady.  Working class citizens will be hit hard in the wallets.  He takes no responsibility  for any mess, any hardship that he's caused.  When an angry Jake Gittes says to Noah Cross, "What could you buy that you can't already afford?," he could be addressing some rich corporate types today who are getting richer while they cause the poor to get poorer.

I saw Chinatown for the first time within two weeks of its opening at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.  I was on vacation from school and hopped on RTD (the bus) from South Central L.A. to Hollywood.  Just knowing that Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway were the stars was reason enough to transfer on the busses to see their new movie.  However, the reviews were really good.  Also, back then, reviewers had the grace and talent to review the essence of the movie without giving too much away.  Movie-goers could pay full attention to a 2-hourlong film.  Or longer even.  Ever been on Twitter?  That kind of attention is a dying art.  Folks can't watch something for more than ten minutes without having to tweet a comment.  They tweet wisecracks.  They tweet spoilers.  I had no idea what to expect other than a complex murder mystery that carried on the grand tradition of private eye classics like Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941).

I saw an early afternoon screening on a weekday.  When the movie ended and the closing credits started to roll, that average movie audience broke out into enthusiastic applause and cheers.  I'd never been in an audience of paid ticket-holders at a Hollywood movie who broke out into that kind of applause at the end of a mature movie.  Some folks gave it a standing ovation.  Then a guy in the back shouted, "It's a movie!  They can't see you standing up!"  Nevertheless, that audience was part of the thrill of experiencing Chinatown for the first time.  A bunch of strangers in the dark became a community of attentive and appreciative fans who fully connected to that work of film art.

Chinatown.  Excellent movie.  Excellent acting.  Excellent script.  And I saw for the first time with an excellent audience.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Oprah Winfrey, Actress

I could not believe that someone, especially a television executive in New York City, made such an ignorant and blunt statement about Oprah Winfrey out loud and in a meeting with employees.  I thought about that executive's misstep yesterday when I read that Oprah got a Screen Actors Guild nomination for her impressive dramatic performance in Lee Daniels' The Butler starring Oscar winner Forest Whitaker in the title role.
Just because you work on a TV show and you're seen every week does not mean you're making big bucks.  I can attest to that.  Since 2000, a period of time in which I've had high-profile network television gigs, the highest annual salary I had for one of those network jobs was about $58,000.  As I've told friends and family, I'm a TV performer because I love it.  I could've made more money had I been a postal employee or a dental hygienist back in New York.  Just because you work on a national TV show, one that's a hit, does not mean you are getting across-the-board respect in the entertainment industry.  Oprah can tell you that.  She was treated shamefully by a Chicago entertainment industry figure when she wanted to audition for The Color Purple.  Oprah was a national TV celebrity at the time, a rising star with her own syndicated television show -- and she was treated like a no-talent unknown.  After that humiliating experience, Oprah persevered.  She eventually got the audition.  And she got the part.

The Color Purple was doing good business at the box office.  Oprah was doing interviews for the Steven Spielberg movie and promoting her daytime talk show.  She was scheduled to visit New York City.  I was new to Manhattan, having been hired by local WPIX TV.  I was a regular on the station's local weekday public affairs show.  During a production meeting, someone said to our boss, "Can we see if we can book Oprah for an interview?"  Our boss replied with her honest and stunning opinion about Ms. Winfrey.  "To me, Oprah's a buffoon," she said.  You could hear little gasps of disbelief -- mine included -- in the room.  This was especially stunning because several of us on the staff had the constantly frustrating experiences of dealing with the associate producer, a woman who was one of our boss' best friends and was -- shall we say --  intellectually-challenged.  I'm not making this up:  For the May ratings features, the associate producer once asked me if I could get an interview with George Gershwin whom she'd heard had written a piece of music called "Rap City in Blue."  Yes, she thought Gershwin was a black and a rising hip-hop music star who lived in New York.  And she was in an executive position on a New York City television show dealing with current affairs.

I'd been watching Oprah since 1984 when I lived on Prospect Avenue on the East Side of Milwaukee.  Our building could get the Chicago station that aired "A.M. Chicago" hosted by Oprah Winfrey.  That was a local show that looked like it had a weekly budget of $500.  But this new female host had a million dollar personality and charisma.  She also had talent and star quality.  The half hour went to one hour and -- oh, yes -- the name was changed to "The Oprah Winfrey Show."  And then she got a choice role in a highly-anticipated Hollywood adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel.  She'd make her film debut in a movie directed by Steven Spielberg. This was groundbreaking for a daytime TV host -- especially a black, female TV host who started her TV career doing local news in a smaller market before getting to Chicago.

A few days after that WPIX staff meeting, I was listening to some entertainment news in the office.  To a co-worker and within earshot of our boss, I said "Hey, did you hear the news?  The buffoon just got nominated for an Oscar."  That was 1986.  I knew my days on that show were numbered.  That was totally fine because in 1987 I was hired by VH1 to be network talent.

Oprah was an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress.  Her talk show increased in popularity and became a global sensation making her one of the richest people in the entertainment industry.  She received a Medal of Freedom Award from the White House, a Kennedy Center Honor and an honorary Academy Award for her humanitarian work.  Away from acting for quite a few years, she returned to the big screen as the complicated wife of The Butler.  Yesterday, that Civil Rights era drama put Oprah in the SAG Awards category for Outstanding Performance by an actress in supporting role.
Today, Oprah did not make the Golden Globes list of Best Supporting Actress nominees.  Next month, we'll see if she nabs her second Oscar nomination in that category.  Keep this in mind about the Golden Globes -- it's the same organization that gave Pia Zadora the New Star of the Year award for her performance in 1982's Butterfly.  Name two critically-acclaimed movies starring Pia Zadora released after 1982.  Name two critically-acclaimed movies starring Oprah Winfrey released after 1982.

For Best Actress in a 1996 Musical or Comedy, three of the nominees were Frances McDormand for Fargo, Debbie Reynolds for Mother and Barbra Streisand for The Mirror Has Two Faces.  The Golden Globe winner was Madonna for Evita.  Seriously.

As for my boss at WPIX TV, if Oprah Winfrey was buffoon...I guess she got the last laugh.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Fred Astaire on TCM

Fred Astaire is the Star of the Month for December on Turner Classic Movies.  TCM puts his legendary dance artistry in the spotlight every Wednesday night this month.  For me, that's a great Christmas gift before Christmas Day.  He was an incomparable artist of Broadway, screen, radio, records and television.  His work still takes my breath away.
I was working at VH1 and was preparing to tape a show when a co-worker approached me and gently said, "I have some sad news."  She told me the news that Fred Astaire had died.  Co-workers knew I loved him and would always try to work an image of him into the set decoration.  Mom called and left me a sweet message on my answering service.  She could testify that my love of Fred Astaire went back to just about the time I was learning to read in elementary school.  Seriously.  As much I loved watching cartoons, I was even happier watching famous Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930s on KHJ/Channel 9.  That was L.A.'s independent station then hooked up to the RKO movie library.  When I was a little boy, I would have gone blissfully to bed without my supper for the chance to see Top Hat on Channel 9.  If DVDs or even VHS tapes had existed back then, I would have rewound and replayed his iconic and dazzling title tune signature number in that classic so many times that my parents would've begged for mercy.

What a great, joyous and innovative art deco musical comedy Top Hat is.

The first time I saw Fred Astaire dance in a movie shown on TV, I felt like a huge Christmas tree had just been lit up in my heart.  I had that feeling every time I saw him again.  I accidentally broke Mom's living room chair trying to copy one of his routines.

It's easy to find a lot of biographical information about Astaire.  There's a profile on the TCM website.  Let me tell you how much his work still means to me personally  -- how it soothed my spirit.

I'm an uncle.  I have a nephew who is 10 years old.  Often I watch him watching television.  He's a sweet kid who has more toys in his closet now that I think my sister and I had combined in our entire childhood.  He and his brother seem to have every toy, gadget, gizmo and new computer device there is.  He's got a nice, comfortable, uncomplicated life.  By the time I was exactly his age, 10 years old, I had been spat upon because of religious bigotry against Catholics, I'd been been ordered to strip naked and was then whipped with a belt by my father before he learned how to control his temper and I'd survived a near-death experience.  I was saved from drowning.

After humiliation, alienation, fear, after tears cried from having unjustly received great pain from someone bigger than I... every time my heart was broken, I turned to a Fred Astaire musical to make me smile again.  They never failed me.  Never.  They always soothed my spirit and healed by broken heart.  That's the impact his art had on me.

In the last three years, I was hit hard by this Great Recession.  I lost my job, I lost my home and I had to part with most of my belongings in it.  The day after Christmas of 2011, I almost lost my mother.  This week, Mom and I shared a big belly laugh over the phone.  She pulled through.  My sister saved her life.  I'm living with our brother as I persevere to start over.   During the bleak times of the last few years, what put a light back in my heart?  You guessed it -- Fred Astaire musicals.

His career inspires me to this day.  Astaire challenged himself and did new things.  He's not called "athletic."  Gene Kelly is.  But look at Astaire in The Band Wagon, a sublime musical comedy.  The famous "Girl Hunt" jazz ballet with Cyd Charisse is one complicated, brilliant piece of choreography from the very athletic Michael Kidd.  He choreographed The Band Wagon and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Astaire was in his early 50s doing those dances.  Look at the emotionally intense, chaotic dance he does in The Sky's the Limit after he introduces the song that became a Johnny Mercer classic, "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)."  That is one athletic dance that he does in character.  He's a guy who's been drinking, he's angry at himself and angry at the war that's come between him and the girl he loves.  Astaire was in his early 40s then, older than Gene Kelly.  With Ginger Rogers in Shall We Dance (1937), he danced on roller skates well over a decade before Gene did.  He also danced on ice skates (in The Belle of New York).  That's one up on Gene.  His "Let's Kiss and Make Up" number for Audrey Hepburn in 1957's Funny Face defies age.  He was well into his mid 50s. His "He Loves and She Loves" dance with Audrey Hepburn, like his "Dancing in the Dark" number with Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon and like his "Never Gonna Dance" number with Ginger Rogers in Swing Time, brings a tear to my eye with its beauty and emotion.  That's what art can do. Before Gene Kelly, he took the art of film dancing to a higher level.  He opened the door for Kelly.  Both realized that the dance expressed emotion -- just like a spoken monologue does.  The dance comes about when mere words are insufficient.  He treated the songs as monologues, as revelation of characters.  He didn't just dance.  He acted.  He reacted.  Astaire expressed the emotions of the scene and his character in his dances.

I've written before that musical comedies are basically a triathlon with a downbeat.  You have to sing, dance and act.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were like Olympic champions in that regard.  Especially Astaire.  It's so ironic that they were truly icons in the history of original Hollywood musicals with their legendary teaming, yet each got only one Oscar nomination -- and it was for a non-musical role.  Ginger won the Best Actress Oscar for excellent dramatic work as the working class feminist Kitty Foyle (1940).  Fred got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for surviving The Towering Inferno (1974).  He did receive a special Oscar for his artistic contributions to film.  How I wish Hollywood had taken the hard work of musical comedies seriously and given Fred Astaire a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Top Hat, Swing Time or The Band Wagon.  Making hard work look easy and effortless was part of Astaire's genius as a musical comedy actor.

Fred Astaire also worked when his heart was breaking.  Early in my TV career, I interviewed Leslie Caron.  She and Astaire starred in Daddy Long Legs.  It's a musical remake, way better than the previous 1930s version, and Astaire's beloved wife loved the script.  She made him promise to make the film.  Phyllis Astaire, whom he married in the early 1930s, was hospitalized with cancer while he was making the 1955 release.  Leslie Caron told me that, during rehearsals, he was the ultimate professional and a true gentleman.  He would occasionally excuse himself very politely during a dance rehearsal, Caron told me, then he would go to a corner of the hall and weep.  He'd pull himself back together and continue with the rehearsals.  He was making that light-hearted musical for his wife.  When he couldn't be at her side in the hospital, his best friends David Niven and his longtime choreographer Hermes Pan would be there.  Phyllis Astaire passed away during production of Daddy Long Legs.

As I got older, that story became an inspiration to me -- especially when I lost my partner to a terminal illness in the 1990s while I had a live television job that required me to go on the air and be amusing.

I'm so glad I was a kid when Fred Astaire was still alive and doing some of his most critically-acclaimed work.  He did Emmy-winning NBC music specials in the 1960s with Barrie Chase, his last and one of his absolute best dance partners.  He embraced new music.  He honored black music.  After dancing, he did lots of straight TV acting.  He co-starred on ABC's It Takes a Thief series with Robert Wagner and was a network TV host.  He did guest appearances and commercials.  We hear Fred Astaire every holiday season as the voice of the narrator in the 1970 animated TV special, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town. He stayed classy.  He stayed active.  He didn't need to stand on a red carpet and tell us who designed his clothing.  He appreciated his privacy and his family life.

The actor/singer/dancer/choregrapher is still my all-time favorite entertainer.
To this day, he continues to heal my heart when it's broken.  He continues to inspire my career.  Through the years, there were so many times when I felt that I'd never be able to smile again.  Watching Fred Astaire proved that those feelings were wrong.  While I keep the faith and continue seeking work, I take the musical advice that Fred & Ginger danced to in my favorite of their RKO musicals.  The song is "Pick Yourself Up" from Swing Time.

Thank you, Mr. Astaire.  I couldn't have made it without you.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


NBC has a live telecast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music airing Thursday night, December 5th.  This is a big special for the network.  It will star country music star and American Idol winner Carrie Underwood as Maria and Stephen Moyer, star of HBO's True Blood, as Captain Von Trapp.  From what I've read, this telecast will be based on the original Broadway production that starred Mary Martin, one of the greatest stars of Broadway musicals, as Maria.  Mary Martin also originated the role of Nellie Forbush in the original production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific.
When we baby boomers were kids, we saw Mary Martin annually on NBC as Peter Pan.  That musical special would get a once-a-year network airing just like The Wizard of Oz did.  Mary Martin's son grew up to become a star on NBC.  TV audiences loved Larry Hagman as the astronaut on NBC's, I Dream of Jeannie.  Hagman went on to even more TV fame as J.R. on CBS' Dallas.  As for The Sound of Music, many people today probably don't realize that Julie Andrews starred in the film version of a Broadway hit.  Not only did the movie version open up the story beautifully, beginning with the breath-taking opening sequence, it was perfectly cast.  Andrews had won the 1964 Best Actress Oscar for Disney's big musical fantasy hit, Mary Poppins.  Her extraordinary voice, her acting talent, her charm, her youth and box office appeal made her a most excellent choice for Maria.  The lead role in 1965's The Sound of Music would bring Julie Andrews her second Best Actress Academy Award nomination.  It's probably her most beloved film role.
By shooting the film on location in Austria, the big screen gave us gourmet eye candy.

This movie was a box office blockbuster.  I was in Catholic school during its exclusive engagement in Hollywood and there were special group rates and showings for L. A. schools.  Especially Catholic schools. Our classes boarded a big yellow bus and hit the freeway.  You'd have thought that this movie was the equivalent of the first Easter morning after the Crucifixion.  I'd never seen the sisters so excited about an event.  Our teacher, Sister St. Mark, could not stop talking about it.  She played the soundtrack almost every Friday afternoon for music period.  We all had to learn "Do-Re-Mi" and sing it in class.  The Sound of Music starring Julie Andrews was like Woodstock for nuns.

This 20th Century Fox film was practically required viewing for all us Catholics.  I'm positive that, after the Mother Superior sings "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" to Maria and hits that big note at the end, several nuns in the movie audience wanted to jump up and shout "Play ball!"  It was that rousing.

Not only was this classic Rodgers & Hammerstein score popular in our classrooms, it was popular in my South Central Los Angeles neighborhood.  Did you ever see the 1991 movie, Boyz n the Hood? That was the community of my youth.  That's where I grew up.  Several homes on our block had at least one Rodgers & Hammerstein soundtrack mixed in with the jazz and Motown albums.  Why?  Because the great Rodgers & Hammerstein shows musically shouted down racial bigotry, religious intolerance and social class barriers.  Look at South Pacific, The King and I, and Carousel.  Our minority families connected to their message.  The Sound of Music was no exception.  The movie, Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1965, came out at a time when we needed it most.  This was just two years after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a tragedy that shocked and gripped the country with an almost inexpressible grief.  This movie, this optimistic and colorful family fare, helped us heal from the deep emotional scars of 1963.  It did not go to television until several years after it won the Oscar.  It would go back into the 20th Century Fox vaults, get re-released in later years and make even more money.

1965's The Sound of Music got its first network TV airing in 1976.
I'm curious to see what Carrie Underwood does with the dramatic aspects of Maria, the pain in her life.  The clues of that are in the music.  In a good musical, songs are not just songs.  They can be like monologues that reveal character.  The opening sequence with Julie Andrews singing the title song is now famous.  However, with her luminous voice and within that majestic panorama, we learn something important about Maria.  She sings,  "I go to the hills when my heart is lonely..." and " heart will be blessed with the sound of music..."  Where do we see her sing this?  In the hills!  Maria is a good-hearted but lonely young woman!  That is a major clue for the actor's internal approach to the character.  There's more to that number than just a lady walking past some trees.

Is convent life her true calling?  Or will she use religion as her hideout?   Has life just beaten her spirit down so much that she will seek refuge within those walls to keep from being hurt again by the outside world?  Maria is not meant to be a nun.  She's meant to be a governess.  She's meant to help children find their true voices. She's meant to be loved by a handsome widower played by Christopher Plummer.
After President Kennedy was killed, families needed to see something that reassured us of the power good has over evil.  Yes, Maria is plucky.  She's spirited.  She's singing and dancing.  She will also risk her life to protect a child, whether she's the mother of that child or not.  She will give children the love, attention, respect and peace that she may not have received herself in her childhood.  That is key.  She and Captain Von Trapp face the world's ultimate evil of the 1930s -- Hitler and his Nazi regime.  They will have the courage to get their children to safety and they will not bow down to evil.
We needed to see Captain Von Trapp rip up that Nazi flag.
Not all the songs sung in the Broadway score were sung in the film.  One song, written by Richard Rodgers, was used in the film but was not in the original Broadway score.  Next to the title tune, it's my favorite number in the film -- "Something Good" sung in shadow by Captain Von Trapp and Maria.  They've just realized that they're in love with each other.

Maria tenderly sings, "Perhaps I had a wicked childhood, perhaps I had a miserable youth.  But somewhere in that wicked, miserable past..there must have been a moment of truth..."  That is another important revelation about Maria.
I don't know if that lovely song will be added to the original Broadway production-based NBC telecast but it does provide deeper insight into Maria.  Just because she's got an optimistic exterior doesn't mean that her whole life has been happy.  Julie Andrews got it.  Let's see if Carrie Underwood gets it.

Also, Carrie Underwood is a winner from the modern TV phenomenon of auditions before a panel of judges as the new weekly variety show.  American Idol, NBC's The Voice and America's Got Talent -- they all remind me of theater critic Addison DeWitt's line in the film classic All About Eve:  "That's all television is, my dear.  Nothing but auditions."

There is some great talent on those shows.  There's also some not-so-great talent.  And there's talent that could be great if it was original.  The song "At Last" was written for a 1940s 20th Century Fox musical called Orchestra Wives.  It was first heard in that movie.  Over a decade later, Etta James gave it a different and fabulous rhythm & blues interpretation.  Since then, just about every person who sings that standard as an audition number copies Etta James.  From early Christina Aguilera to contestants on those shows I mentioned, if you hear that she or he will sing "At Last," you can bet you'll hear a replica not only of the Etta James delivery, but also her arrangement.  The same slower tempo which, by the way, was a slower tempo than its debut in the 1942 film.  Rarely does anyone ever change "At Last" up with a Latin beat or a jazz arrangement.  It's always an imitation of the 1960 Etta James recording of that 1942 hit song.  On those audition shows, we've seen many young people who are gifted with big voices.  However, they often substitute vocal gymnastics for true interpretation and real individuality.  They ignore the tale of the song.  Go to YouTube and do this:  Listen to the Ray Charles recording of "Come Rain or Come Shine" with its rhythm and blues arrangement.  Next, listen to Sarah Vaughan's sublime 1950 light jazz vocal of it.  Then listen to Judy Garland's driving Carnegie Hall concert rendition of "Come Rain or Come Shine."  She's like a voodoo priestess casting an urgent love spell.  Each version is a winner, each one has a different arrangement, each one has an artist connecting to the story of the lyrics.

Actress/singer Rebecca Luker played Maria in a Broadway revival of The Sound of Music.  Here is a master class example of how to take a famous song closely associated with another artist and make it your own by finding your own original interpretation and inner life.  She's not copying Julie Andrews.  Rebecca Luker's performance is Heaven-sent, one of inspired acting and singing.  It shimmers.  You need to hear this.
I am not a famous critic.  Lord knows I'm not a celebrated actor.  As for musicals, I wish I could sing.  And so do those who've heard me.  These are my personal observations as someone who really loves the fine arts and appreciates actors.  If you see NBC's The Sound of Music with Carrie Underwood this week, leave me your comments on it.

To me, that NBC banner looks more like an ad for St. Pauli Girl beer.

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