Wednesday, July 29, 2015

You'll Dig TIG

"I have cancer."  Tig Notaro knows all too well that life is a comedy of the absurd.  She opens a remarkable stand-up comedy set with those three words.  Three words that would be chilling to hear from a loved one.  She says them and brilliantly gets laughs with the true tale that reminded me of something show biz legend Judy Garland once said:  "Behind every another damn cloud."  The pencil-thin and whip-smart Notaro was hospitalized with a life-threatening bacteria that had inflamed her intestines.  While she's in the hospital, her mother suffers an accident that later claims her life.  Tig gets out of the hospital and is at her mother's bedside during her final hours.  She described her mother as "hilarious" and reveals that she was the source of Tig's comic sensibilities.  After her beloved mother's death, Tig discovers that she has cancer.  And how was your day?  This is what we discover in the open of Tig, a documentary look at the Grammy-nominated comedian/writer and actress.  The documentary is on Netflix.
I first learned about that raw, riveting and really funny cancer monologue Tig did from Louis C.K. raving about it.  I wasn't that familiar with her before I read Louie's praise.  Then I heard her routine played on NPR's Fresh Air.  Oh my gosh.  Genius.  Then I saw her do dramatic work in a couple of the first four episodes of Amazon's Emmy-winning Transparent.  Very impressive acting chops.

When Rosie O'Donnell and I worked together as VJs on VH1 in the late 80s, she liked my VJ bits and urged me to try stand-up comedy.  I went to see her onstage a couple of times and, frankly, I didn't think stand-up was for me.  She and I shared a small VH1 office that had only one phone (this was before cellphones) and I often heard her argue with club managers about bookings, time slots and travel plans to non-famous clubs in other parts of the country.  I saw the behind the scenes life of stand-up comedians and it is not glamorous.  It's grueling.  Besides, because I'm funny conversationally or in TV segments doesn't mean that I'll be great onstage in a comedy club.  That's a different animal.  We see that in Tig.  We hear how she came to choose comedy as a profession.  We see her travel, get onstage and bomb before she hits material that works.
Tig wants to make a living doing the kind of work she loves.  She wants to have a relationship.  She wants to have kids.  When it seems like this is all a sweet possibility, life pulls the rug right out from under her.  What does she do?  She gets back up.
It's tough to follow a routine as unique and provocative and funny as Tig's routine about her cancer diagnosis.  It's tougher on her than anyone else to follow it.  Eventually, she does find other funny things to talk about.  One of my favorites was a bit she did on Conan O'Brien's show about text messages.  She pulled her sweetheart into the bit.
Tig is a life-affirming documentary.  What gives it even more heart is the fact that she does not come off as a comedian who sucks up all the oxygen in the room and needs to be on every single minute being the jokester.  She's very dear.  We see her comedy and family roots, her joys and heartbreaks.  We see her strength and tenderness. She'd be a great parent -- like Alec Mapa in Baby Daddy, his comedy show about his journey into parenthood with his husband. If you need some inspiration to persevere, to love and and to take giant steps in your life, see Tig.

This week came news that Amazon will star Tig Notaro in a semi-autobiographical comedy series.  Tig will co-write it with Diablo Cody (Juno) and Louis C.K. will be one of the show's executive producers.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Race. Parenthood, Significance.  Bette Davis singing a Miley Cyrus hit.  Alec Mapa made me howl with  laughter. He put tears in my eyes when he talked about being a father.  In the last half of this one-hour, one-man comedy special, Mapa talks about how his adopted son has enriched his life.  That really touched my heart.  Honestly, if my late dad had ever talked about me that way in my youth, maybe there wouldn't have been a 20-year period in which we didn't see each other after he and Mom divorced.  This special aired on Showtime last month.  On social media, many viewers wrote that they cried during the section where Alec talks the journey he and his husband took into foster parenting.  Now I understand their viewer raves.  He got me too.  The comedian/actor (he was a regular on the ABC series Ugly Betty) looks fabulous and he's in top form here.
I grew up in South Central Los Angeles.  Now it's just called South L.A.  I'm older that Alec -- so old that I can remember when only black folks used terms like "booty," "ho" and "baby daddy."  Those were like code words that Caucasian didn't understand.  Nowadays, network TV entertainment reporters as blond as Norse Viking gods talk about booties and baby daddies.  I love that Alec titled his show BABY DADDY.  He reminds me so much of the world I knew growing up in L.A.  Our family lived near 120th and Central Avenue on a cul-de-sac block.  Our neighbors and friends were black, Mexican, Filipino and a few working class white folks who were scufflin' to make a buck just like my parents were.  That's what I saw on my block, in the classrooms and at Catholic masses were I often served as an altar boy.  Alec knows the 'hood.  He also knows the difficulties minorities face finding acceptance and significance in our society.  Especially in youth.  Also, this show was taped before the Supreme Court made its historic marriage equality ruling.

The hour opens with shots of a family in the morning.  A child asleep in a room that looks like a warm, fun room for a kid.  Then two parents asleep in their bed -- Alec and his husband.  Then, time to get up.  The little boy gets ready for the day.  One dad reads the newspaper, the other tries to make waffles on the waffle marker that just broke.  Alec is soon onstage in L.A. telling us about what was practically a "coming out" moment for him.  He watched the Tony Awards with his parents.  Dorothy Loudon was performing a big number from Annie.  As Alec said, "Jesus, take the wheel!"  His bit about being a parent while trying to keep the sexy spark alive with his partner of over 10 years is so funny that it'll make you want to visit the Bank of America in L.A.'s Silver Lake section.  Watch Baby Daddy and you 'll know what I mean.  His tales about sports and parenting tips from Maria Von Trapp, Auntie Mame and Mama Rose in Gypsy are fabulous.  He also talks about being introduced to the world of foster care while working on Rosie O'Donnell family-theme cruise.
About 35 minutes in, his statement "...and if they're African-American...yikes!" catches you.  And you get the golden heart that's behind his occasionally blue humor.  Let's just say that blonde little girls were more highly "prized" over little black boys when it came to foster care.  Wow. Think about images you see on TV.  I watched a local station here in NYC for weeks and was amazed at how frequently the weekday early morning local newscast had surveillance tape footage of black men committing crimes.  I was really amazed at how often that footage came from other parts of the country, not the New York area.  But it was being shown on a local newscast.  That program would end and toss to the network morning news show with several blondes as anchors, contributors, guests or news subjects who needed your help or sympathy.  Alec Mapa's Baby Daddy resonates.

If you've read my posts regularly, you know that The Great Recession went upside my head with a skillet.  I've been lucky enough to work on national TV and radio.  However, I could've made a bigger annual income as a dental hygienist.  That's the reality of the business.  I got as much work as I could, I paid off a lot of my mother's bills (including her mortgage) and I lived modestly in a once-affordable studio apartment.  Until 2011.  I was on a show that got cancelled in 2008 and then could not find any other work.  Not in TV, radio, retail or clerical.  And -- despite having over 10 years of network TV credits on my resumé, I did not have a broadcast agent to help me get new work.  Agents told me what legendary entertainer Lena Horne said Hollywood execs told her in the 1940s when she wanted to act in films: "I wouldn't know what to do with you."  That was a "liberal" way of saying "Whoa.  Black isn't marketable.  You're talented but you're black.  I couldn't get work for you."  I got my own A-list celebrity talk show on VH1, appearances on CBS Late Night, a syndicated game show host gig, a weekly film reviewer spot for ABC News on Lifetime TV, a Food Network host job and was a film reviewer/entertainment correspondent on Whoopi Goldberg's national weekday morning radio show -- all jobs I got on my own while broadcast agents said they wouldn't know what to do with me.  This is why the embrace of racial diversity is so important an issue to me.

I lost my apartment and most of my belongings in it.  I was that broke.  I wound up living with a married relative in Northern California for a couple of years.  Who called me to give me words of encouragement?  Alec Mapa.  And he made me laugh.  That call made me feel so significant at I time when I felt as welcomed as junk mail.  He made a little boy named Zion feel significant.  A little boy...from Compton.
I've been in the New York/New Jersey area since the last week of August last year.  I came out for a 2-week stay.  I'd booked two appearances as a co-host on a weekend film review/interview show.  Thanks to a series of friends who let me crash on their couches or in spare rooms, I extended my stay so I could job hunt.  Almost one year living out of one piece of carry-on luggage.  It's a blessing to have a place to stay.  It's an even bigger one to stay in a place where you know you're wanted and welcomed.  When the sweet declaration "We're very lucky to have you" is said at the end of Baby Daddy....yeah, I was crying.  Whether child or grown-up, we all want to feel significant.
Comedian/actor/writer Alec Mapa, his husband and Zion.  I wish they'd been neighbors on our block when I was a kid.  I would've LOVED to go watch the Tony Awards at their house.  If you can find Baby Daddy on the Showtime website or rent it or buy it.  Alec Mapa is funny.  He's touching.  He's excellent.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Broadway's ON THE TOWN

What a terrific Broadway show!  Saturday night was like Christmas in July to me.  Married friends took  me to see ON THE TOWN, the Tony-nominated musical comedy revival at the Lyric Theatre on W. 42nd Street.  About my two totally cool friends:  Thos Shipley, a singer/actor, played a Marine in the original Broadway cast of Miss Saigon.  His husband, Joe DeIorio, is the former mayor of Roselle Park, New Jersey.  They scored three tickets to On The Town for a stupefyingly low price.  Each one cost less than a cineplex movie ticket.  I was out on the town with two great guys seeing an equally great show, one that has some fabulous history to it.  Three young and excited sailors get off the ship in Brooklyn.  They have 24 hours leave in New York.  They want to see Manhattan sights and Manhattan ladies.  And there are ladies who want to be seen.  And kissed.
There are no stars in this production.  No one like a Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Hugh Jackman or Neil Patrick Harris.  But there are performers in this who have the right stuff to be Broadway stars.  This revival has color, verve, wit and wonderful performances by the actor/singer/dancers in the cast.  This show is heavy on dance and the numbers, based on the original choreography by the legendary taskmaster Jerome Robbins, are sensational.  The performances pop.  Each one is full of life.

About the history:  The play opened on Broadway during World War II.  It was December 1944 and the war would end in September 1945.  By the time the excellent MGM movie version starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra was shot and released in 1949, the war was over.  The original Broadway cast album was one that I rented many times from my local library when I was a middle school kid in South Central Los Angeles.
This record was one of my first introductions to the brilliant music of Leonard Bernstein.  His brilliance was matched by the song & script writing team of Adolph Green and Betty Comden.  On the original cast album, you see Comden & Green to the left of Bernstein.  Talk about talent -- in addition to writing  the show's book (script) and the show's lyrics, Comden & Green were also in the show as one of its main couples.  Can you think of a songwriting/show writing team like that today?  Comden & Green were tapped by MGM, the Tiffany studio for Hollywood musicals.  They wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of On The Town.  The also wrote the screenplays for Singin' in the Rain and It's Always Fair Weather (both starring Gene Kelly), The Band Wagon starring Fred Astaire, Bells Are Ringing (screenplay and lyrics) and Auntie Mame.   Most of the On The Town Broadway songs were dropped for the movie version but Comden & Green wrote some tasty new ones.  For instance, "Prehistoric Man."  Ann Miller and Jules Munshin took over the role of the man-hungry anthropologist and the sailer that Comden & Green played onstage.  Their song, "Carried Away" was replaced by "Prehistoric Man" which gave sensational Ann Miller one dynamite tap number.
In the movie, Betty Garrett played Hildy, the lady cabdriver who falls for shy Chip, played by Frank Sinatra.
Gene Kelly played Gabey, the sailer in search of Miss Turnstiles.  Her real name is Ivy, an All-American girl who takes classes in Carnegie Hall from some dame who uses the cash for booze.  In the film, she was played by Vera-Ellen, a top Hollywood dancer.

Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen, seen on the far right in the above photo, dance to Bernstein ballet music from the Broadway score.  The original Broadway cast made history with its multi-ethnicity.  Ivy was originally played by Japanese-American dancer/actress Sono Osato, seen in the middle of the pic below with fellow original cast members.
Next to her in the photo is Nancy Walker, the comic actress/singer who became a big hit on TV decades later playing the mother of Rhoda Morgenstern in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  She originated the role of the lady cabdriver.  By the way, Sono Osato is now 95.
Besides a Japanese-American dancer/actress as the All-American girl, there were also black actors in the cast as typical New Yorkers.  The current production is also racially mixed and it has women who look like real women.  Hildy is a full-figured cutie in this show I.  She wasn't originally and she wasn't in the movie.  But she is now and actress Alysha Umphress was perfect for the part.  She wasn't the only full-figured gal in the show who got herself a guy.  I liked that.  If you're lucky enough to see this show, you'll by treated by original music by Leonard Bernstein and you'll hear how he laid the groundwork musically for his upcoming Broadway classic, West Side Story.

One tender number made tears roll down my cheek.  The song "Some Other Time" was not used in the film but it's gone on to become popular with jazz artists.  I've listened to that song since I was in middle school.  In my adult years, I met someone and fell in love in New York City.  And he fell in love with me.  That was in 1992.  He passed away 18 months later in 1994. I've been solo ever since.  I know that my married friends are impressed with the TV career I've had.  But watching them hold hands during the show...I would've traded a national TV appearance or two to have someone who wanted to hold my hand again.  I thought about my late partner during "Some Other Time."  Funny how things take on a new meaning the older you get.  Here's Blossom Dearie singing that song with lyrics by Comden & Green.  In the play, it's sung by the ladies and the sailors as the 24 hours shore leave come to an end.
Honestly, I didn't think I'd be doing a solo this long.  Often, I have felt sorry for myself.  But last night, after that song and as we headed into the show's happy ending, I thought "Maybe it was only 18 months.  But some people don't even get that much.  There are 8 million people in New York and I found one who loved me.  And I loved him.  Wow.  What a great a wonderful town."

This show is great entertainment.  It was Tony nominee for Best Revival.
Saturday night, the audience loved On The Town.  And, frankly, what's not to love?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

MAGIC MIKE XXL, A Little Behind

MAGIC MIKE got great word of mouth during its 2012 theatrical run.  I saw it because several friends of mine raved about how entertaining it was.  I haven't heard folks talk like that about the sequel.  I saw MAGIC MIKE XXL, the follow-up starring Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello and Matthew Bomer.  Very likable actors and yummy eye candy strutting their stuff in a surprisingly tame stripper tale.  Except for men's dialogue riddled with F-bombs, this is a pretty PG movie with R language.
The script shows you that the troupe is cool with a gay vibe.  It stops at Mad Mary's, a Florida club with a solo dance contest hosted by a drag queen.  Mike and the guys good-naturedly go onstage, vie for the cash prizes and give you some Madonna "Vogue" music video realness.  In some flirty first-meet dialogue with a young lady early in the film, she claims to be a drag queen -- on the inside.  When Mike  (Channing Tatum) asks what her drag name is, she replies "Dolly Titz."  He says that his is "Clitoria Labia."  Later, at clubs packed with women wanting male stripper entertainment, the accent is on each woman being reminded that she is a queen and beautiful.  Cool with gay culture, respectful of women.  Two nice elements about Magic Mike XXL. needed more...butt.  Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello and Matthew Bomer star in this light comedy/drama about middle-aged male strippers out for one last night of showbiz glory.

We saw only ONE naked male butt in Magic Mike XXL.  We see it briefly in the first five minutes.  We saw more man-ass in The Full Monty, Steel Magnolias and episodes of True Blood during its run on HBO.

When you have a same-sex group on the same mission, you watch for the bonding and bickering.  This goes for a World War II drama like 1949's Battleground to 2011's Bridesmaids.  The guys traveling in a food truck in Magic Mike XXL are friends on a showbiz mission, and boy can they bicker.  But the bickering needed better writing.  If I wanted to hear constant "What the f**k, dude?," "Motherf***er!," and "F**k it!," I can just walk down the avenue, go to a mall or stand on a subway platform and wait for a train.  Tatum and Manganiello can handle comedy quite well.  Manganiello, who certainly carbonated lots of hormones when he played the sexy werewolf on True Blood, gets laughs as the overly-macho and well-hung Armenian who's occasionally clueless.  Bomer kept up with them in the comedy performance department.  Instead of pedestrian dialogue that goes on too long, these actors playing frustrated performers seeking gigs should've been given peppery dialogue like those wisecracking unemployed actresses in Stage Door had. That 1937 comedy/drama starred Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Ann Miller and Eve Arden.  Rent it and you'll see what I mean.

If you saw the Magic Mike XXL trailer, Manganiello has a scene in a convenience store where he puts his stripper moves to use on a Pepsi cooler.  Magic  Mike XXL needed more of that zest.  It's a highlight of the movie.  Sexy and funny.

He sees that the business has changed.  They're doing Old School 80s stuff.  The new dudes are killing it in routines based on Twilight movies.  Or, as he calls it, "vampire shit."
Michael Strahan from daytime TV's LIVE! with Kelly and Michael has one scene as a stripper at an exclusive club.  He could've been utilized so much more.  He looks excellent stripped.  He's pretty much giving a private dance to a woman who looks like one of the Weather Girls while her friends hoot and holler and carry on.  That's all he does.  Just that sexy strip and dance.  Michael Strahan is packed with personality, charisma, charm and he has a knack for comedy.  Those qualities weren't tapped in the least for this movie -- and they should've been.  He was just eye-candy in a pair of gold shorts.
Jada Pinkett Smith, Elizabeth Banks and Andie McDowell do good work playing smart women who know what they want, women who'd make good dependable friends.  Blonde Banks, an exciting actress/director skilled at both comedy and drama, appears nearly 90 minutes into the story for a short role.  She should've been used throughout more of the film.  This year, she's terrific in the biopic Love & Mercy, about the emotionally abused Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.  Banks directed the hit comedy sequel, Pitch Perfect 2  The scenes with McDowell in a big gracious Southern home on a girls' only night are fun.  The stripper dudes, led by Manganiello's character, get the women to talk about what they want, what they really really want from a man.  Manganiello's character likes real communication and hates when his buddies bury their faces in cellphones and check for messages.  "Be present," he scolds.  Still, the overall problem with the script that it gets you heated up for a big sexy beefcake dish that it never quite delivers.  One shot of a bare behind in the first five minutes.  That's it.

Magic Mike XXL.  Hot, talented actors try to take if off with a lukewarm sequel script.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ian McKellen is MR. HOLMES

I've had a man-crush on Ian McKellen for years.  I admit it.  Sitting through MR. HOLMES didn't feel like an assignment at all.  It was a pleasure. Don't expect this to do the big box office business that Jurassic World, Disney/Pixar's Inside Out, and Minions have done.  Do expect to be fascinated by Sir Ian's performance as old Sherlock Holmes.
This Sherlock Holmes is not the traditional one seen in films for decades.  He doesn't suit up like Basil Rathbone did as Holmes in a series of popular 1930s and 40s movies.
He's dapper but dresses in a different way, as he will explain.  He'll also switch up his famous Baker Street address on you.  Sir Ian plays two Sherlocks.  We see him when he was a crime-solving superstar and still in demand.  Then we see him as he is now, old and infirm in England right after World War II.  One case baffled Holmes and caused him to step into retirement.  The progression of age has jabbed at his most prized weapon -- his mind, his memory.  A dear friend during this period of life is his housekeeper's little boy.  Her son seems to have a gift for deduction like Mr. Holmes did.  He keeps the old gentleman's mind engaged.  Sherlock's body may have withered but his spirit didn't.
The boy's housekeeper mother, played by Laura Linney, is uneasy around Holmes.

Mrs. Munro is an agitated working class woman.  A widowed mother who survived the war.  Holmes is a challenge to her.  He's 93 and still quite the intimidating upscale man.
Conversation with young Roger prompts the feeble Holmes to look back on the unsolved case that made him retire.  When we look back to his middle age, he's fit and formidable.  There will be surprises and new discoveries for this lion in winter.  Memory is at play in this film as are love and loss through the years.  Holmes even gets to see himself portrayed on film.  Also, we also see how the connection of one generation to the other -- the friendship and communication -- has its own restorative power, in a way.  Holmes' care for Roger and their mutual respect is a lovely thing to see. And vital.  Last month, Sir Ian was a Grand Marshal of New York City's Gay Pride Parade.  He came out in his latter years.  He's also has great popularity with young moviegoers thanks to his roles in the blockbuster Lord of the Rings and the X-Men action/adventure movie franchises.  When he came out, he connected to, inspired and helped members of the younger generation.
He's shown the positive power that can come about when generations connect and communicate instead of one ignoring the other simple because of age.  Handsome Sir Ian looks fabulous in his mid-70s and co-star Laura Linney hit 50 looking quite lovely.
Mr. Holmes was directed by Bill Condon, the man who directed Laura Linney to an Oscar nomination for Kinsey (2004) and Sir Ian to an Oscar nomination for Gods and Monsters (2008).  In that, McKellen played movie director James Whale.  He was a Hollywood outsider.  He was a Brit and he was openly gay when hardly anyone in the Hollywood industry was openly gay.  He gave us great and groundbreaking films about outsiders in the 1930s -- Frankenstein, the sequel Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and the first full-length adaptation of the revolutionary Broadway musical drama, Show Boat.  Race, the relations between black and white people, was in its showbiz storyline  Like Gods and Monsters, we meet a talented man in the last years of his remarkable life in Mr. Holmes.  Laura Linney is American, not British.  But she plays an Englishwoman in the film which was shot in Great Britain.  I'm sure Condon could've found a British actress to play Mrs. Munro.  However, Linney is very good and...well, considering how many Brits now play Americans on our TV and in the movies, her casting is fair play in my book.

Again, Sir Ian is fascinating to watch as Mr. Holmes.  Excellent work in a stylish, entertaining film that show us a different Sherlock Holmes.  It's really the kind of production we'd see as a special PBS presentation.  But with animated features and comic book hero action movies dominating the cineplexes, the mature Mr. Holmes is a nice change of pace for big screens.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Hi Harper Lee, Bye Omar Sharif

Scott Simon of National Public Radio added this wise observation to Twitter posta about the controversial first chapter:  "Maybe there's a reason why Harper Lee never published the novel she wrote before Mockingbird.  I think it's likely the Atticus she created in Mockingbird isn't the same character at all, just same name.  Novelists do that."  Acclaimed novelist Harper Lee will be in the news this week.
Go Set A Watchman, written by Harper Lee before she wrote her internationally-beloved masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, hits bookstores Tuesday.  Jaws have already hit the floor while folks read the first chapter published online.  The revelation about the older Atticus Finch was akin to an investigative news report uncovering that Santa Clause fired his elves from the toy factory, replaced them with child labor and cheated on Mrs. Clause by hooking up at North Pole gay bars frequented by chubby chasers.

With writers, often the first thing that you write is awful and/or does not meet with enthusiastic response.  I've never had a short story or book published but I can remember the first items that I submitted for consideration back in the early 80s.  They were awful.  Sunday morning on National Public Radio, I heard a book critic rate Go Set A Watchman as "messy."  According to a July 11th Wall Street Journal article, Harper Lee's father was a segregationist who had a change of heart.  He was a young lawyer when he unsuccessfully defended two black men in court.  They were hanged for murder.  There's been speculation that her father's bad day in court coupled with the nation's attention to the murder of black teen Emmett Till in August 1955 inspired Lee to write To Kill A Mockingbird.  A huggable and well-liked Chicago teen, Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi.  Accused of whistling at a white woman, he was kidnapped and killed.  Till was beaten beyond recognition, shot, and his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River.  His body had been tied and weighted down with a heavy appliance from a cotton gin.  The two white men accused of the murder were declared not guilty after the all-white, all-male jury deliberated for one hour and seven minutes.  Later, in a magazine interview for which they were paid, the men admitted to killing 14 year-old Emmett Till.  It's been written that Rosa Parks said she thought of Emmett Till when she refused to sit in the back of the bus, a landmark moment in the Civil Rights movement.  A PBS documentary on Emmett Till can be seen on YouTube.

I agree with NPR's Scott Simon.  Did Lee want her first work published?  Has she issued a statement about it?  I'd like to know.  I read To Kill A Mockingbird again just this year.  The undeniable relevance that it has today was like a bucket of cold water to the face.  The "Black Lives Matter" protest theme will find significance and a friend in that novel.  Even the June racist murders of nine black people, shot to death by a visiting young white man as they sat in their church, made me think of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Calpurnia, the maid in the Finch home, takes one of the Finch children to her church.  There's immediate friction.  Members of the congregation are suspicious of seeing a white face enter their church.  That's a scene not in the 1962 classic film adaptation.

I feel that after Harper Lee wrote Go Set A Watchman, things changed.  Her father had changed, America was changing with the Civil Rights movement and in the attention national press was giving to racial inequality (the Till murder trial was national news).  And she was changing as an artist.  The message she wanted to convey was crystallizing more.  Also, there was probably advice from her friend, Truman Capote.  Harper Lee said that one "should write about what he knows and write truthfully."  She wrote truth in her second novel, a book that no one has ever called "messy".  For me, Atticus will remain the Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird on page and film.
International movie star Omar Sharif died at age 83.  Sharif was a major movie star in Egypt before he rode into stardom on a camel in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia.  He was a hit with Egyptian audiences in 1959's Struggle on the Nile...
....and Sharif starred in the hugely popular 1961 success, The River of Love, a modern day Egyptian version of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
Then came Hollywood attention with the 1962 British epic, Lawrence of Arabia, now considered a film classic.
Lean's famous film teamed Sharif for the first team with Peter O'Toole and brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  Then came Doctor Zhivago...

... and Funny Girl starring Barbra Streisand and directed by William Wyler.  Omar sang with Barbra as the handsome Nicky Arnstein in the musical biopic adaptation of the Broadway hit.  Nicky loves entertainer Fanny Brice but he's as addicted to gambling as she is to her show business career.                                  
Funny Girl, Doctor Zhivago  and Lawrence of Arabia were Oscar nominees for Best Picture.  Lawrence of Arabia won that Oscar.  Sharif got to act opposite another international movie star whose film career began abroad.  I loved him with Ingrid Bergman in 1964's The Yellow Rolls-Royce.  For me, a kid having a Saturday afternoon at the movies, he was a mighty fine Genghis Khan (1965).  He reunited with Peter O'Toole for 1967's The Night of the Generals, he reunited with Barbra Streisand for Funny Lady (1975) and he did some goofy comedy for the Zucker Brothers (Airplane!) in 1984's Top Secret! starring Val Kilmer.
When I was growing up, Omar Sharif was a reason to go to the movies on the weekend.  Not that I'm Egyptian but he was an ethnic actor on the Hollywood screen that, let's be real, gave us predominantly Caucasian faces.  I looked for reflections of myself and my world on the TV and movie screen.  I appreciated the talented ethnic actors who broke through.  He was fascinating to watch with his soulful dark eyes and his poise.  I always wished I could look terrific in a tux like he did.  Interviewing Mr. Sharif on my VH1 talk show in the 1980s was a huge thrill.  He was in New York City for a special event -- the expensive and loving 1988 restoration of Lawrence of Arabia was set to premiere for its re-release.  Sharif was quite excited about this.  During our interview, I threw to a clip of the movie.  He would not look at the clip while it played.  He wanted to save all his emotions for seeing it again on the big screen.  I remember that, his graciousness, and learning that his Christian named was Michael.  He became a Muslim later.  I know many of you have seen this before, but if one or two of you haven't, watch this.  It's a demo reel of my VH1 talk show.  Omar Sharif is in it talking about Peter O'Toole.
That's the reel I submitted to Turner Classic Movies years ago when I pushed to get a job at TCM working behind the scenes.  No luck.  I could never get a gig or a meeting with TCM.  But, I was extremely lucky at VH1 to have my own show and to interview such great stars.  I was in movie fan heaven during those VH1 years.

Minions made $115 million over the weekend.  Those little yellow creatures brought in some big green bucks at the box office.  I totally enjoyed myself watching Minions.  Scroll down to read my recent review. I read some reviews by film critics and I wondered if they saw the same feature.  Minions is nearly 90 minutes of brisk animated goofiness.  It's for kids.  It's for working parents who need family time with the kids and want to take them to the movies over the weekend.  Relatives with AARP cards will also dig it because of its funny 1960s references that the little Millennial kids won't get.  It references a classic number from a classic MGM musical.  The name of the hit documentary salute to MGM musicals applies to Minions -- "That's Entertainment."  A few critics reviewed Minions as if they were reviewing Birdman, Boyhood or a new drama by the Coen Brothers.   They went on about plot holes, a mediocre script and vocal actors not projecting enough charisma.   I wanted to say, "Lighten up!  It's a full-length cartoon!"  And it's fun.  And Jon Hamm did good comedy work voicing the hipster husband to the main villainess.  He did not sound like Don Draper on Mad Men at all.

The box office proves the public often has more of a clue than high-tone critics do.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Robin Williams Drives BOULEVARD

It's not that he and I were close friends.  I interviewed him four times.  I ran into him on the street a couple of times.  But, in my TV career, Robin Williams was extremely kind to me.  The first two times I interviewed him, I was working for Milwaukee's ABC affiliate.  He'd been a big ABC TV star on the sitcom Mork & Mindy. 

When I was new to New York City in 1985, having been hired by WPIX TV,  I was welcomed with a congratulatory phone call from Robin Williams.  He told me that I was talented and that I belonged there.  He gave me words of advice that I continue to hold dear to this day.  By the way, just three months before I accepted the WPIX job offer, my Vice-President boss at the Milwaukee station told me that I didn't have the talent to get to New York.  Robin's phone call meant a lot to me.

I was in a sandwich shop in Northern California last year when I saw the news bulletin that he was dead.  I went into the restroom and broke out crying.  He'd deeply touched my heart in the few encounters that we had.  And, of course, he dazzled me with his talents on the small and big screen for years and years.

Robin Williams and Kathy Baker star in BOULEVARD.  It opens in New York City on July 10th and in selected other cities on July 17th.  It should open wider.  His fans should see him play this closeted married man whose ordinary life is suddenly disrupted and unpredictable.  He's forced to face the reality of himself at age 60.
It broke my heart.  Boulevard reminds us what a versatile, gifted talent we lost in Robin Williams.  A middle-aged man falling for a young hustler has been almost overdone in indie films, but Boulevard gives us something different.                                                                                                                    
As for Kathy Baker, I've been a fan of hers since The Right Stuff back in 1983.                                                                                                                                                    
Her Boulevard performance makes it hard to believe she's never been an Oscar contender.  Robin Williams and Kathy Baker were excellent together.  Here's a trailer.
He's a quiet, simple man who works in a bank.  He's a model employee.  We see that he's very respectful of a same-sex couple needing a loan.  We sense that he wants to have more communication with the two men.  We also sense his displeasure when a co-worker makes snide comments about them. In his car and in his life, he makes a U-turn one night.  Married Nolan Mack (Williams) meets young Leo (Roberto Aguire), a male hustler on the boulevard.  He will become infatuated and try to rehabilitate Leo.  But Nolan's infatuation is not sexual.  That's a big difference here.  I've seen a number of gay indie films about an older man falling for a young handsome hustler and sex is a main objective.  With hetero couples in classic films, we've seen that in The Blue Angel (1930) and Scarlet Street (1945) and in every version of Of Human Bondage (1934, 1946 and 1964).  In Boulevard, sexual satisfaction is not a main objective.  Nolan needs intimacy, emotional intimacy and a sense of freedom to reveal his true self.  He and his wife, Joy (well-layed by Kathy Baker) sleep in separate rooms.  They're friendly and you feel that the marriage was essentially a safe place to fall, especially for him.  Their upscale marriage has  been like one long piece of beige linen.  No wrinkles.

Nolan's smile at work seems listless.  There's not a vibrancy about him.  His spirit seems to have been dulled.  You sense a sadness in him onscreen that plays on the sadness you assume the actor carried personally.  A sadness from physical challenges so heavy that it caused him to take his own life.  Nolan's fairly innocent relationship with the irresponsible street whore will cause a mess.  Will Nolan fix the mess by being honest with his wife, his brother, his father, himself?  Or did that U-turn lead to a dead end?

Robin Williams is quite moving as a man who's been asleep at the wheel of his own life.  If you took a 25 year-old to see Boulevard and, when it ended, said "Robin Williams was one of the wildest and funniest people in show business, the response would probably be "No way!"  If you had that same 25-year old then watch a classic episode of Mork & Mindy followed by the movies Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), that young adult would be awed at the range of Robin Williams.

Kathy Baker has proven her acting chops in Street Smart (1987) co-starring Williams' dear friend Christopher Reeve, Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Cider House Rules (1999) and Cold Mountain (2003).  She's done extensive work on TV such as the CBS series Picket Fences and on Medium.  Her Boulevard role may be one of the best she's had in a while.

The film was written and directed by Dito Montiel.  It runs about 90 minutes.
I miss Robin Williams.  This world needs kindness.  And he was a very kind man.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Happy Birthday, Tom Hanks

BOSOM BUDDIES. BIG. SPLASH. SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. PHILADELPHIA. FORREST GUMP. THE GREEN MILE.  CAST AWAY.  I have been a devoted Tom Hanks for a long, long time starting way back when I was just starting my professional TV career.  He made me laugh every single week he was in drag on ABC's 1980-82 sitcom Bosom Buddies.  I worked on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate, doing entertainment reports.  Our little ragtag crew at work loved getting to the office in the morning and quoting lines from the previous night's Bosom Buddies episode.  As my career progressed, some of its happiest days were those in which I spent time with Tom Hanks in person.  Not only is he a true gentleman, he gave me a sense of validation.   Tom Hanks watched me on TV more and knew more about my TV career than my last two broadcast agents did.  And they were taking 10% of my paychecks.  To the actor born on July 9th, I say most sincerely -- and gratefully -- "Happy Birthday, Tom Hanks."
I've had one romantic relationship in my life.  It stated in the fall of 1992.  In 1993, Richard and I thoroughly enjoyed the preview of a new Tom Hanks romantic comedy, Sleepless in Seattle.  In 1994,  we were so proud to see him win the Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia.  When Philadelphia opened in 1993, Richard was person with full-blown AIDS.  Needless to say, the movie connected to both of us.  I hope to write more about this for a book one day, but let me condense it for you here.  There was a promotional movie junket being held in L.A. for his upcoming movie for the summer of '94.  I worked on a local weekend NBC New York morning news show and I'd been invited to participate in the junket.  I was slated to interview Hanks, other cast members and the director.
Looking back, the day of my interview at the Four  Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills now seems so surreal.  There was my interview with one of the biggest,  most beloved stars in movies.  Late that afternoon in the hotel's hospitality suite, entertainment reporters who'd also flown in for the Forrest Gump junket gathered in awe at a TV set to watch two presentations on TV at the same time.  On a small box to the lower right hand side of the screen was the live NBA play-offs game.  The rest of the screen was taken with O.J. Simpson fleeing in a white Bronco on a freeway with L.A.P.D. cars in hot pursuit.

Then there was the phone call I got one hour before my Hanks interview.  The call was from Richard's doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.  I had to get him to the hospital a few days before I flew out.  I stayed with him.  His excellent doctor was pretty sure he just needed some observation for a while and he would be ready for me to take him home when I returned from my short business trip.  She called that morning, concerned that he was not responding to treatment.  "Don't panic," she said, "but I think you should call his parents."  When I hung up, the weight of what she'd said hit me so hard that Richard was my immediate and sole focus.  I had to be honest with the film publicity people, tell them that I could not interview Tom Hanks and that I needed to catch the next flight back to New York.  I'd have to call Richard's mother.  I gathered my thoughts, prayed for strength and guidance, prayed for Richard and then the phone rang again.  Richard's doctor called me back.  She'd talked to Richard and told him what she'd told me.  She called again to say "Richard is adamant.  He does not want you to fly back without having done your work."  She said that she felt positively in her soul that nothing critical would happen before my return.  Richard wanted me to do the Tom Hanks interview.

Richard entered and changed my life at a time when there was still great discrimination against gays.  The AIDS crisis still made headlines in the early 1990s.  Gay celebrities did not "come out" for fear of losing employment.  A few co-workers in the newsroom confidentially urged me not to tell the local management at that time that I had a partner disabled by AIDS.  A couple of top male execs in upper management were neither well-liked nor were they trusted (they're long, long gone from WNBC).  My co-workers stressed that I was part-time and not under contract.  My salary helped me take care of my partner.  But, if I came out, management might find a way of not needing my services anymore regardless of how popular I was on the show.  When the news director refused to air my taped interview of Harvey Fierstein, co-starring in Mrs. Doubtfire, because -- in his words -- "I have a problem with him being openly gay," I knew that management team definitely had a problem with diversity.  For most of the time I was making viewers laugh on that live weekend program, I was caring for a terminally ill partner off-camera.  Occupationally, I felt like someone had put a hand over my mouth when I wanted to scream for help.  But I got wonderful emotional support from his family down South.

My heart was understandably heavy when I walked into the room to interview Tom Hanks.  But he lightened it up quickly by proclaiming "It's Bobby Rivers!  The Godfather of Cable TV!"  He'd been a fan of my VH1 talk show host work in the late 80s.

In my Hanks interview, I wanted to honor Richard with a question about discrimination against gays.  I posed the question in relation to Hanks' Oscar-winning career.  The question is in this old reel on mine:
Richard loved the question.  Hanks went on to to say that he would not have been surprised had Hollywood never again cast him as the guy opposite Meg Ryan in a romantic comedy.  But...he was cast.  They reunited for You've Got Mail.  And other actors, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote 2005) and Sean Penn (Milk 2008),  followed Hanks and won Oscars for playing gay men.  As for his beard in the other footage, he surprised me on the red carpet for the Manhattan premiere of The Green Mile.  He was wrapping up Cast Away at the time.  I was host of a local cable show, one that I loved, called Metro Movies.  Our crew looked like a garage band that had just gotten out of a van.  We knew that stars would be on the red carpet and we hoped to get short Christmas greetings from some of them to use at the end of our holiday show.  I was holding the boom mic.  Tom Hanks got on the red carpet, recognized me and came over.  I am still stunned at that moment.  The crew and I almost openly wept with joy -- like teen girls getting photos with the hottest boy band in the country.  We did not expect to have a close encounter with Tom Hanks.

He won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Cast Away.  He was voted Best Actor of 2000.  A voting film critic friend of mine asked me to be her date at the awards dinner.  Hanks was there and, after the ceremony, recognized me again and came over to greet me.  At the time, I was seen as guest host on Channel 13, New York City's PBS station.  I hosted the premiere of Ken Burns' Jazz.  Tom Hanks complimented me on that work and said, "Rita and I watched you in the hotel room."  He said this in front of a table of movie critics.  It made The New York Post.

In 2008, when I was seen in Monday through Friday late morning repeats as host of Top 5 on Food Network and heard in the early mornings as a full time regular on Whoopi Goldberg's national weekday show for  Premiere Radio, I met three veteran agents in New York City.  I wanted TV  representation.  All three were with major agencies.  Two turned me down saying that they wouldn't know what to do with me.  The third opened our meeting by asking, "Have you ever done any on-camera work"?

This is why I love Tom Hanks.  He made me feel that I mattered.  Richard died in June 1994.  Just like Hanks character in the first 20 minutes of Sleepless in Seattle, I had so much rage inside because this person I loved so much was gone.  I'd grown into Hanks' character when I rented the movie a couple of years later.  If I'm lucky, one day I'll see him again and I can tell him how his performances have gotten me through some heartache.

His new political thriller opens this fall.  He's so good at what he does.  Can you get me into that Bridge of Spies movie junket?  Please!  I hope Tom Hanks has a terrific birthday.

Much Mirth in MINIONS

They're small, yellow and they speak gibberish -- just like wacky characters played by Danny Kaye or Sid Caesar.  Sometimes they sound like Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy pretending to be Martians on the  observation deck of the Empire State Building.   Minions have been around since dinosaur times.  Now it's 1968.
Let me just say it up front -- I know they are two different types of big screen entertainment, but I feel this script was better than the one for Jurassic World.  In addition to that, it made me laugh more than Inside Out, that sentimental and animated big box office hit.  Minions had me laughing out loud in the first five minutes and the laughs kept coming through this short, snappy feature.  It runs only 1 hour and 25 minutes.  Inside Out is more inventive, sophisticated and original with its use of psychology and feelings as characters.  But that psychology kept it a bit grounded and scholastic, if you will.  There wasn't quite that thrill of buoyancy and whimsy you got from classic Disney features such as Pinocchio and Peter Pan, two productions that also dealt with the light and dark of childhood as did Inside Out.  There's whimsy in Minions.  It's not out to make a psychological point, it's just out to make you laugh.  You've got three lead Minions -- Kevin, Bob and Stuart.  Three little pill-shaped yellow creatures.  A total of five eyes.  They live to be henchman for the baddest creature or person around at the time.  They mean to be bad, but they keep screwing up and doing good instead.  Here's an example:
The minions seek a bad new leader.  Without one, they're depressed.  Kevin has an idea.  He, Stuart and Bob make it to the East Coast.  They're inspired while watching television in New York City.  Baby boomers will dig that scene and confirm its accuracy.  TVs were not always flatscreens.  They were once large boxlike appliances with antennas. On TV, there's a commercial for Villain-Con ("So much fun, it's a crime.")  Appearing there will be the Number One criminal genius -- Scarlett Overkill (voiced quite festively by Sandra Bullock).  The Minions will hitch-hike to Villain-Con, meet her and become her henchman.  Where is this convention of criminals?  Florida!  Kevin, Stuart and Bob make their dream come true.  They meet Scarlett Overkill.
This feature will have the Baby Boomers laughing harder than the Millennials in the cineplex audiences.  There are visual references to Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol, The Beatles and Abbey Road and the Rankin/Bass puppets from a classic retro TV holiday special.  Remember the Snow Monster from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?  A somewhat similar creature appears in one of my favorite scenes -- a scene that broke me up laughing.  It's like Rankin/Bass meets a classic MGM musical from the 1950s.

I first laughed at the Minions in 2010's Despicable Me, another animated winner.  Gru is an evil mastermind whose cold, cruel heart is melted by a trio of orphan girls.  One of the funniest things about that movie was the almost unrecognizable and hilarious voiceover work Julie Andrews did as Gru's annoying, battle-ax of a mother.  Look sharp when the yellow trio enters Villain-Con.  You'll see Gru and his crabby mother on the main floor.  In Minions, it's Jon Hamm who's a knockout as he voices the hipster evil husband of evil Scarlett Overkill.  We followed Hamm as the dark, complex Don Draper on Mad Men.  He was terrific as that complicated advertising executive.  You've got to hear the actor as Herb Overkill.  Hamm has got the comedy gift.  He does wonderful character vocal work.

Scarlett's main goal is to go to London and steal the Queen's crown.  But... she's mean to one of the Minions.  Big mistake.  Even though she's bad, she must be stopped.
Kids 12 and under will dig Minions.  The parents and grandparents may dig it even more as it recalls the 1960s and references other pop culture.  I recommend this one for some groovy weekend family entertainment.  Minions opens Friday, July 10th.

Oscar Buzz for TILL

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