Tuesday, March 1, 2016

My Notes on the Oscars and ABC

I write this as former ABC News talent who talked about movies every week on national TV.  Films are my passion. I love classic Hollywood film history and I love watching the Oscars.  I love those moments that made us gasp with glee -- like Sidney Poitier winning the Best Actor Oscar, Halle Berry winning for Best Actress -- and gasp with surprise -- like Ingrid Bergman announcing the Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand had tied for Best Actress.  I love those unexpected heartwarming and heartbreaking moments -- like Lady Gaga's reverence and affection when she beautifully sang "The Sound of Music" last year and then handed the spotlight over to the star of The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews.  The sweet sentiment of that was so heartwarming.  Sunday night, when Gaga sang a Best Song nominee, "Til It Happens To You," I was glued to the TV screen.  It's from a documentary about campus sexual assaults.  When the curtain parted and young adults, female and male survivors of sexual assaults, appeared and stood powerfully by Lady Gaga as she sang, I admit that tears started rolling down my face.  Such a moving moment, one that got a well-deserved standing ovation.  There have also been plenty of Oscar "What the heck?" moments -- like co-host James Franco coming out in drag and Neil Patrick Harris doing a host bit in his underwear to poke a Michael Keaton scene from Birdman.  That was more an arthouse film than a mainstream, nation-wide hit movie like Maleficent starring Angelia Jolie...so many viewers probably didn't get Harris' visual gag.

Sunday night's Oscar telecast came on with social tension, the tension of racial exclusion and the lack of equal opportunities within the entertainment industry system of hiring and marketing.  And not just for actors.  This goes for the tradespeople too -- editors, cinematographers, costume designers, directors and such.  The Academy became a symbol of this lack of diversity but the real problem is within the branches of the entertainment industry that help put together the work that gave birth to the idea of the Academy Awards.  Those branches are the studios and the talent agencies.

Host Chris Rock took on the "Oscars So White" controversy in his opening monologue and added America's race issues like "Black Lives Matter" into his performance.  CBS and NPR film critic David Edelstein called it a "touchstone" monologue that made some excellent points. I agree.  All the points he needed to make were made in the opening monologue.  The issues needed to be raised.  They've infected Hollywood for a long time.  There needs to be diversity in the film arts.  The art of film itself can promote and inspire diversity in the world.

If I was on the Oscars' telecast production team, what ideas would I have pitched for this year's show? What would I have added to the red carpet coverage had I been hired?

Honor Oscars Past with the presentation of Oscars Present.  For example, showing a clip of Broadway, film and ABC hit sitcom star Miyoshi Umeki (The Courtship of Eddie's Father) winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1957's SAYONARA...a film about racial acceptance and embracing diversity...
...and then introduce award presenters such as George Takei and BD Wong (Jurassic Park and 2015's Jurassic World) or Ming-Na Wen of 1993's THE JOY LUCK CLUB and the ABC series AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.
Another example.  They could've is shown an Oscar moment clip of 2-time Oscar winner and Mexican-born actor Anthony Quinn plus the Best Supporting Actress Oscar victory for WEST SIDE STORY star, Rita Moreno and then introduce a new Oscar presenter such as Michael Peña.  This young Mexican-American dude is one seriously good and versatile actor with an impressive list of credits.  He was in Clint Eastwood's MILLION DOLLAR BABY, the movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2004.  He had a key role in CRASH, the movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2005.
Actor Michael Keaton starred in last year's Best Picture Oscar winner, BIRDMAN and this year's Best Picture Oscar winner, SPOTLIGHT.  Michael Peña is able to point to work in two consecutive Best Picture Oscar winners before Keaton.

Peña is very funny in AMERICAN HUSTLE, another Best Picture Oscar nominee on his resumé. He starred in the 2014 biopic CESAR CHAVEZ with actress America Ferrera, former star of the hit ABC sitcom, UGLY BETTY.  Peña played a member of Matt Damon's space crew in THE MARTIAN.

With that role, Michael Peña added his talents to yet another movie that was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture.  I would've booked Michael Peña and America Ferrera as presenters and introduced him as an actor in four Best Picture Oscar nominees, two of which won the Oscar consecutively.  Here are Peña and Ferrera in Cesar Chavez, the bio of the famed labor organizer and civil rights activist in California.
I loved seeing Lou Gossett on Sunday night's Oscars.  I watched him on ABC's red carpet coverage one hour before the awards telecast.  February is Black History Month and that was an opportunity to blend some black history into the Oscars talk.  Mr. Gossett worked with the late, great playwright Lorraine Hansberry.  She was the young, gifted and black woman who wrote the groundbreaking 1950s Broadway hit, A RAISIN IN THE SUN.  Gossett, along with fellow cast members Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, recreated his role in the 1961 film version.  Gossett was the first black actor to take home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  As for this year's diversity issue, Gossett won his Oscar for a role that was originally slated for a white actor.  The movie was 1982's AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN.  When I interviewed Lou Gossett in his Malibu home a couple of years ago, he told me that producers wanted Scott Glenn (Urban Cowboy, The Right Stuff, The Silence of the Lambs).  Gossett got the role and got an Oscar.  He also told me that winning the award didn't really change his career.  It was still a struggle to get other juicy film roles because of the studio system of hiring in Hollywood.  This is something Viola Davis mentioned.  Gossett was also in the acclaimed TV ratings champ, ROOTS.  That ABC mini-series made broadcast history.
 In our on-camera interview, Gossett told me a great stories about Marilyn Monroe. They were students together at the Actors Studio and she asked him to be her scene partner.  He saw her do scenes from Tennessee Williams classics in the class.  He told me that, had she lived, Monroe definitely would have been an Oscar winner for dramatic work.  Also, I asked him who should play Lorraine Hansberry if the life of the civil rights and gay rights advocate playwright was turned into a biopic.  His immediate answer was "Taraji P. Henson."

 I wish I could've worked on the "In Memoriam" segment.  The death of Abe Vigoda made national headlines.  In the video package of the people who passed, we saw of clip of the late Alex Rocco saying a line as Moe Greene in THE GODFATHER.  I would've followed that with Abe Vigoda doing a line as Tessio in the same classic film.  Mr. Vigoda, who went on to years of ABC sitcom fame on the BARNEY MILLER New York City cop series, was not in the memorial segment.  He should've been.  You know who else should've been included?  World famous Hollywood novelist, Jackie Collins.  She was a tremendous Hollywood insider.  Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Poitier were two of her best friends.  She loved Hollywood and helped launch careers of such actors as Sandra Bullock with the TV adaptations of her novels.  One of her screenplays helped Joan Collins, her actress sister, land the role that made her a bigger star than movies ever had -- the role of Alexis on the hit ABC series, DYNASTY.  The kind of diversity that actors of color want from the Hollywood system now had long been a staple of the best-selling Jackie Collins novels.  She embraced diversity.  Jackie purposely wrote strong, vivid black and Latino characters into her novels -- classy characters that male and female actors of color could've auditioned to play had the novels been adapted into movies.   Jackie knew the game and knew that a major way for minority actors to get cast in roles was to make them obviously present on the page.  You had to be blunt for clueless Hollywood executives and agents until they got hip to the modern art of color blind casting, the kind you see on TV in Shonda Rhimes productions.  Jackie was very dear and a great help to me at times in my career from my VH1 days in the late 1980s up to last summer.  I spent an hour with her just a couple of months before her death shocked us all.  We fans had no idea she'd secretly been battling breast cancer.

Novelist, screenwriter, producer and occasional actress Jackie Collins showed more love for Hollywood than Kirk Kerkorian did, in my opinion.  He made the "In Memoriam" segment.  Overall, the memorial packages seen at the end of the year on TCM are usually better.  I have a feeling the TCM production team putting it together remembers more golden era folks who may have passed than the Oscar team does.  The Oscars package also left out Dickie Moore, a very popular and busy child/teen actor of the 1930s & 40s who grew up and was the longtime husband of Jane Powell. Moore was also a longtime spokesman for AFTRA.  Also left out the Oscars package was Joan Leslie.  Onscreen she starred opposite Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper in Sergeant York (the film that brought him the Best Actor Oscar for 1941) and James Cagney in the musical biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy (the film that brought him the Best Actor Oscar for 1942).  She was Fred Astaire's leading lady and dance partner in The Sky's the Limit.  Both Dickie Moore and Joan Leslie acted opposite Gary Cooper in Sergeant York, which was also nominated for Best Picture.

Before Sergeant York, Dick Moore was in the entertaining Our Gang comedy shorts of the 1930s that many of us baby boomers grew up watching on TV right along with Saturday morning cartoons.

I would've given a tip o' the hat to the new generation.  Two of most remarkable and memorable performances in 2015 films came from juvenile actors who played youngsters surviving horrors in their childhoods.  I would've had the audience give a hand to the extraordinary work done by Abraham Attah in BEASTS OF NO NATION (opposite Idris Elba) and little Jacob Tremblay in ROOM (opposite Brie Larson) when they came on as presenters.  They did their difficult roles brilliantly.  They were on as presenters.  The movies they did were not mainstream popular cineplex fare -- like Jurassic World and Trainwreck -- so the TV audience needed to know those two kids' significance and what brought them to the Hollywood Prom Night awards party.
 Jodie Foster would've been invited by me to be a presenter.  She grew from successful child actress into a 2-time Best Actress Oscar and has become a fine director (Little Man Tate, Home For The Holidays and episodes of TV's Orange Is The New Black).

On Sunday night, there were some sophisticated and substantial Oscar acceptance speeches from the actors and the director.  The speeches were not laundry lists of managers, publicists, hairstylists and agents. Leo DiCaprio, Best Actress Brie Larson and Best Supporting Actor Mark Rylance were most gracious and composed accepting their Oscars.  The control room needs to chill with musically cuing the top winners to wrap it up.  Alejandro Iñarritu was making an intelligent, wise point about racial acceptance and the arts when he accepted his Best Director Oscar for THE REVENANT.  The music piped in and, to me, made the control room look bad.  Wisely, the volume on the "bum's rush in melody" music was lowered as Inarritu continued his inspirational speech.
One of the biggest frustrations in the diversity issue is that actors and production craftspeople of color are invisible when it comes to equal opportunities in employment.  I'll put it like this:  If a movie was being made about Hollywood and there was a major scene at the Oscars with parts for the Oscars telecast director in the control room, the winner for Best Director making an acceptance speech and a network morning news show talent in a backstage green room asking a publicist if he can get a short interview for his show with the Best Director winner afterwards, a majority of white male actors would be submitted to audition for those roles.  Very few -- if any -- women would be submitted to play the director making an Oscar acceptance speech.  That kind of "tribal" thinking that Iñarritu referred to in his acceptance speech is what needs to change.

I would've made minority actors visible as presenters, honored minority talent that broke through race/color barriers in Hollywood history with clips of Oscars Past, respectfully acknowledged members of Old Hollywood, welcomed fine work done by members of film's new generation and noted work some stars had done on ABC as ABC is the network that presented the Oscars.

In 2000, I was the entertainment editor on the weekday hour-long magazine show, LIFETIME LIVE.  I reviewed movies and gave film history every Friday on that ABC News production which aired on Lifetime TV.  The show lasted almost one year.  Although I wanted to, I was not asked to do more entertainment reports for ABC on other shows after the cancellation.  Here's a trailer from a thriller that opens in May.  MONEY MONSTER stars George Clooney and Julia Roberts.  It was directed by Jodie Foster.

To see my celebrity interviews and film-related features, plus some personal comments on the need for diversity in film and TV, visit my YouTube page and click on the videos:

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