Sunday, January 17, 2016

Happy Birthday, James Earl Jones

Hard to believe that this huge talent of Broadway, television and film has only one Oscar nomination to his credit.  That Best Actor Oscar nomination came when he repeated his Broadway success in the film adaptation of THE GREAT WHITE HOPE.
Inspired by the story of American boxer Jack Johnson, a heavyweight champ during the Jim Crow era, Jones played an in-your-face black champ who challenged the white establishment of the boxing business and caused further controversy because he was in love with a white woman.  The story took place in the early 1900s.  The movie came out the first year after the turbulent 1960s, the peak decade of the civil rights era.  Jane Alexander repeated her Broadway role and was also in the Oscar race for this film.
Before that, young James Earl Jones had a small role as a military jet pilot in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.   This coming Thursday, there's a live reading of the script at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  I didn't see any black actors in the cast promo photo for Thursday's reading, but James Earl Jones was definitely in the 1964 Kubrick classic.
After his Best Actor Oscar nomination for 1970's The Great White Hope, millions of moviegoers knew him as the actor who gave the distinctive voice to Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy and the voice to Mufasa in Disney's The Lion King. There was his wonderful supporting role in Field of Dreams opposite Kevin Costner, he did TV roles and more Broadway.  Last year, Mr. Jones starred in a revival of The Gin Game co-starring the equally sublime Cicely Tyson.

James Earl Jones was the first actor in a film to play a black President of the United States.  The film was based on a best-selling novel written by Irving Wallace.  Here's some movie trivia.  If you watch Mia Farrow as Rosemary in the classic occult mystery thriller, 1968's Rosemary's Baby, you will see her character reading the book.  Rosemary's Baby was a Paramount Pictures release and so was the 1972 film adaptation of The Man.
In this drama, James Earl Jones headed a cast that included Hollywood veterans who'd been making films since the 1930s.  Lew Ayres, Burgess Meredith, Patric Knowles (best remembered as Lindsay in the movie Auntie Mame) and even Jack Benny are in The Man.  William Windom and Martin Balsam co-star.  Barbara Rush, a most under-appreciated actress, scores as an elegant racist and Washington socialite.  This isn't one of James Earl Jones' more widely-known roles.  However, he is brilliant in it.  One scene that gets me every time is when his character, Douglass Dilman, realizes that he is now President of the United States.  A cocktail glass.  A tremor.  Genius, economical and memorable acting from Jones in that scene.
The script references the racist murder of four little girls in a 1963 Birmingham, Alabama church bombing and the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Pay attention to the credits and notice what renowned TV visionary wrote the screenplay.  The Man was originally budgeted as a made-for-TV movie but it did get a theatrical release for a time.  It was definitely shown on TV.  You'll notice that it does look like a TV movie.  Some footage that's supposed to be the Washington, DC area is really Inglewood, California.  I know because I grew up in L.A. at that time.  Nevertheless, in this, the last year of President Obama's administration, The Man does have relevance and a directness that's bolder than what we get in some network TV features today.

The Man runs only about 90 minutes.  It's worth a look, if you have the time.  I saw James Earl Jones in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning play, Fences, back in the late 1980s.  It was one electric night of excellent Broadway theatre.  The audience was packed and I'll never forget the roof-raising cheers and applause James Earl Jones got for his performance.  And the long standing ovation. I thought the audience was going to carry him aloft through the streets of Manhattan like he was Cleopatra.  What a shame that Hollywood never gave a green light for a film version of Fences so he could've repeated his extraordinary performance.  In 2012, James Earl Jones received a special career achievement Oscar from the Academy.
Watch his 1972 feature.  Notice you rarely hear the words "Democrat" or "Republican" in the dialogue.

Go to YouTube and search THE MAN JAMES EARL JONES 1972.  While the film is still there, take time to experience his craft as the first black President of the United States.

Happy 85th Birthday, Mr. James Earl Jones.  You are...THE MAN.

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