Monday, April 25, 2016

Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon & Me

ELVIS & NIXON is the name of their new movie.  A trim 90-minute comedy that takes place mostly in The White House, it's a "what if" movie based on the actual meeting of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon.  Michael Shannon is not an actor you'd think of right away to play the latter day rock 'n' roll superstar, but he's fascinating to watch.  He takes a different approach to playing Elvis Presley, different from what other actors have done, and he brings you something fresh.  Also, he's funny.  We don't often to get laugh when watching a Michael Shannon performance but, in this movie, we do.
As for Kevin Spacey, he's a pro at making us laugh while he's played intimidating bosses.  This performance is no exception.  He's a hoot as Richard Nixon.
One of the big stars of this project is someone we don't see.  This comedy could've easily become too broad, like a sketch on a TV comedy show.  But it doesn't.  There's always a sense of humanity and heartache in the situations of Elvis Presley and President Nixon.  You can connect to the characters in a real-life way.  I'd give a big round of applause to Liza Johnson, the director of ELVIS & NIXON.  Add her name to the list of Women In Film that Hollywood should recognize.
I interviewed Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey recently.  We talked their approach to playing two very famous American men who were at opposite ends of the popularity scale.  Also, Kevin Spacey tells me how a performance by Jack Lemmon in a Billy Wilder classic helped him win one of his two Oscars.  Before you play the interview, here's a short clip from ELVIS & NIXON.  The two men are making house notes.  One residence being The White House.

Here's my interview.  By the way, Michael Shannon opens on Broadway in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT co-starring Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne on April 27th.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


This film should not work. But it does and it's fun.  Two internationally famous men at opposite ends of the popularity scale had a brief meeting in the White House.  President Nixon met with rock superstar, Elvis Presley.  The photo of them shaking hands a few days before Christmas in 1970 became a must-see pic of American pop culture in that decade. An imagining of what occurred during that meeting serves as the basis for ELVIS & NIXON.  Two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey stars as President Nixon.  Michael Shannon, seen recently in the sci-fi chase movie MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, is a most unlikely choice to play Elvis.  He looks more like an early David Letterman type than a 1970s Elvis.  But in this new movie, he plays Elvis and he's a winner in the part.  What a totally cool surprise!  Shannon hits a high note with just the right pitch as the rock 'n' roll legend.
Elvis Presley has been good for a couple of actors.  Kurt Russell was terrific as Elvis in a 1979 TV mini-series biography directed by John Carpenter.  Shelley Winters co-starred as Elvis' mother.  In 1990, critics loved Elvis, the ABC TV series based on the rock star's early years with actor Michael St. Gerard getting fabulous reviews as Presley.  But TV audiences just didn't take to the show and it was pulled about about 10 episodes.  With hair and make-up, both actors did resembles Elvis Presley.  Kurt Russell even sounded like him.  Michael Shannon doesn't resemble Elvis Presley and doesn't try to imitate his throaty speaking voice.  What he does do is bring you into Elvis' heart and sensitivity.  He plays Elvis as a world-famous entertainer with just enough ego to feel that the President of the United States should make time to see him.  He knows he's like catnip to the ladies.
He knows that Elvis the Star is a creation that's made him rich and famous.  It's not Elvis the real person, the man that his closest friends like Jerry Schilling know.  Jerry's the character in the left corner of the elevator photo up top.  He was a member of Elvis' Memphis inner circle.  He serves as a producer for the movie and he's played in the movie by British actor Alex Pettyfer.

Elvis is concerned about the direction of America, an America still involved with the Vietnam War and one having student protests on college campuses.  Elvis, like a movie cowboy, wants to help clean things up. He basically wants President Nixon to deputized him, if you will, and give him a badge.  What I loved most about Shannon's performance is that he gave you a look inside Elvis' broken heart and also played Elvis' extreme loopy rock star behavior as it was completely logical.

President Richard Nixon has been played onscreen previously.  Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella got Oscar nominations for playing him in drama.  Dan Hedaya played him for laughs in the satire, Dick.  Kevin Spacey plays him for laughs here.  In this film, he's the strict and not exactly photogenic Republican president and not popular with young Americans the way Elvis is.  This Nixon is cranky, jealous, a little confused and ultimately impressed with the star whose presence could make the president seem a bit groovy with the kids.
Big praise goes to director Liza Johnson.  She's got the comedy gift.  She kept the tone disciplined and rooted in true human feelings.  Keep in mind these two men live in a couple of the country's most famous homes -- one lives in The White House and the other lives in Graceland U.S.A.  One of my favorite scenes in AMADEUS (Oscar winner, Best Picture of 1984), is when Jeffrey Jones as the clueless Emperor Jones tells the young genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, that his new composition has "too many notes" adding that there are only so many notes that the ear can hear.  It was the reaction looks on the faces of the emperor's companions listening to his sheer idiocy that broke the audience up with laughter.  Liza Johnson has the same touch Milos Forman displayed in that scene.  She displays it, with a dab of Preston Sturges, in all of ELVIS & NIXON.  Here's a trailer.

I've been a Michael Shannon fan for a few years now.  Especially when I saw his lead role in the indie drama, BUG, in 2006.  His is a face that seems to have been molded specifically for drama.  If you saw his Best Supporting Actor Oscar-nominated performance in 2008's REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and if you watched him as the 1920s Prohibition era federal agent on the HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE, you know what I mean.  In his meaty supporting and lead roles, rarely has delivered scenes with a comedy tone that made us laugh.  Michael Shannon made me laugh in ELVIS & NIXON.  He's quite good.  So is Spacey, an actor who's had way more comedy assignments onscreen that Shannon has.   The movie is really just about that odd meeting, one that disrupts the White House schedule.  There's a B-story about Jerry Schilling's love life and how it might suffer because he constantly has to be Elvis' wrangler.  It's an underwritten part of the script but it's so minor that it doesn't get in that way of the odd couple situation played by Shannon and Spacey.
I hope Hollywood takes notice of director Liza Johnson.  ELVIS & NIXON could've come off like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch that grew tiresome after 60 minutes.  But it didn't.  She gave us a breezy, entertaining, funny movie and a new look at the rich talents of Michael Shannon.

ELVIS & NIXON runs about 90 minutes long and it opens on April 22nd.  That's the day Nixon died in 1994.  Coincidence?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


I took a chance on a foreign film on Netflix and I loved it.  I want to share it with you.  It's a subtitled Mexican film that, for English speaking audiences, is called 4 MOONS.  The Mexican title is CUATRO LUNAS.  The movie is a quartet of stories about love, disappointments and acceptance.  We see non-heterosexual males in various age categories in the stories.
There are two young men in college.  They're friends who discover they have more intimate feelings for each other than just being college buddies.  We see a couple that has been together for about ten years.  These two urban professionals present the perfect picture of a happy gay male relationship.
But there's tension.  Tiny cracks are forming in that perfect picture.  They're forming and getting bigger very quickly.
One takes immediate action to repair those cracks.  In another story, we see a bookworm type of Catholic schoolkid who develops a crush on his male cousin.  The sweet, shy bookworm is cruelly outed.  And we see the story of a senior intellectual, a married man, who's lusting after a handsome young man who seems angry at the man merely because he's old.
When I read a description of the stories, especially with the older gent having the hots for the hot young man, I was going to pass on watching the movie.  I felt like I'd seen those stories already in American films and I knew what to expect.  Well, this is not an American film and 4 MOONS gives us something different.  It's a difference worth watching.  Here's a trailer.

Sergio Tovar Velarde directed and co-wrote this 2014 film.  What drew me to it was how recognizable characters and situations were.  I saw some of my young adulthood in the story about the two college friends.  I understood their situation, the feelings and the heartbreak.  The Catholic schoolboy's confessional scene in church made me think "Been there, done that."  There's also heart in this movie -- heart and compassion, wit and surprise.  The director has a cast of very good actors to tell his stories.  In each story, you see that the male is brave to be honest at some point about his sexuality.  He's brave because there's the risk of rejection from family, church and society.  There's a physical risk.  There's also the risk of self-loathing and loneliness.  It's obvious that the director/writer cares about people.  He cares about the people in his film.  I think you'll care about them too.

There is male nudity in this film.  Front and back nudity.  You will see two men making love.  You will have to read the movie because it's subtitled.  If you can handle that, look for this good movie on Netflix.  4 MOONS runs about 1 hour and 50 minutes.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016


I always get a kick out of watching some obscure movie late at night and getting hooked may be low budget and obscure, but it's surprisingly good.  I had that experience last week with an undercover reporter drama called BEHIND LOCKED DOORS.  This crisp 1948 crime story is only about 1 hour long and it moves.  It's entertaining, it has energy and style.  There's noir-ish quality to its black and white cinematography.   The top thing that caught my interest was when I read that actor Richard Carlson was the star.  When I was a kid, his was a familiar face on TV shows.  Also, he was known to us kids because he was in very popular 1950s horror movies that aired frequently on local TV.  One of his best roles was in The Little Foxes, directed by William Wyler.  He's the young man who stands up to the intimidating Regina Giddens, played by Bette Davis, and courts her innocent daughter.  I liked Richard Carlson.  He had looks, class, charm and he could act.  You see that in Behind Locked Doors.  He's so cool as the private investigator.
The other thing that grabbed me was that this drama is the last film Lucille Bremer made before she decided to leave movie-making, marry and have a successful life as a businesswoman.

Behind Locked Doors has a plot that may have seemed familiar to some moviegoers when they saw Sam Fuller's 1963 thriller, Shock Corridor.  In 1948's Behind Locked Doors, a newspaper reporter (played by a non-dancing Lucille Bremer), is hot on the story of a corrupt judge who's on the run.  She believes he's hiding out in a mental institution and dodging the law by pretending to be crazy.  She hires a private eye to pose as her husband and become an institution patient so he can bust the crime from the inside.  Yes, there are shady staff members running the asylum.  And, yes, the private eye falls for the gorgeous reporter.

In Shock Corridor, a journalist hungry to win a Pulitzer Prize gets himself committed to mental institution and pretends to be crazy so he can solve an odd murder case from the inside.

For hardcore classic film fans, you look at Behind Locked Doors as being "Six Degrees of An A-List MGM Musical."  Four of the actors were in top MGM musicals.  Richard Carlson, at far right in the black and white photo, played opposite Judy Garland Presenting Lily Mars (1943).

Lucille Bremer (to the left in the color photo) and Judy Garland played sisters in Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), produced by Arthur Freed. Bremer and Garland shared screen time again in Freed's Till the Clouds Roll By.  Formerly a Radio City Rockette who went on to dance in a hit Broadway musical and was reportedly discovered by Arthur Freed, Lucille Bremer was Fred Astaire's lovely, graceful dance partner in Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and the all-star Ziegfeld Follies (1945).

Douglas Fowley was one of those versatile character actors you saw but probably didn't know by name.  In MGM's excellent WWII drama, Battleground, he's the G.I. whose dentures slip.  In the musical Singin' in the Rain (1952), he's the high-strung director trying to get silent screen star Lina Lamont to speak into the new 1920s technology called a microphone.
In the first scene of The Band Wagon (1953), he's the auctioneer who tries to get a bid on the movie top hat once worn by former screen star Tony Hunter as played by Fred Astaire.
In the above photo from Behind Locked Doors, you see Richard Carlson (left), Douglas Fowley (rear middle) and Lucille Bremer (right).  Fowley's a heavy in Behind Locked Doors.
This movie was directed by Oscar "Budd" Boetticher, a man who got rich performances out of Randolph Scott in 1950s westerns.  Later in the Behind Locked Doors story, you see a nurse.  That bit part is done by the very recognizable Kathleen Freeman.  Freeman also had a stand-out small role in Singin' in the Rain as Phoebe Dinsmore, diction coach to Lina Lamont.
If you're familiar with the history of MGM, you know it was the Tiffany of Hollywood musicals.  No studio did them better the 1930s and 40s, the heyday of deluxe Hollywood musicals.  Arthur Freed productions were such gems that he had what came to be called "the Freed Unit," utilizing master craftspeople in the production of movie musicals.  Meet Me in St. Louis, Yolanda and the Thief, Ziegfeld Follies, Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon were Arthur Freed productions.  So were The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Arms, Cabin in the Sky, For Me and My Gal, Easter Parade, On the Town, Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat (1951), An American in Paris (Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1951) and Gigi (Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1958).
Freed was also an acclaimed song lyricist.  MGM's Singin' in the Rain is practically a tribute to him.  Just about all the songs in it are from the Arthur Freed music catalog.  Some of those Freed songs were "Make 'Em Laugh,"  "Good Morning,"  "You Were Meant For Me,"  "Fit As a Fiddle," "Broadway Rhythm" and the title tune, "Singin' in the Rain." Freed could also sing.  At the end of the Halloween section of Meet Me in St. Louis when actor Leon Ames as the head of the Smith Family sings in the living room, his "You and I" vocal was dubbed by producer Arthur Freed.  Freed was singing another one of his compositions.

As for Behind Locked Doors, keep it in mind.  It's a brisk little crime drama. Try YouTube.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


It's a sunny but disappointingly cold Tuesday in New York.  It's disappointing because there are gusty wind chills in the current weather reports and this is opening day for the Yankees.  There's just something wrong about having to wear a parka while you're at the ballpark for a spring game.  I'm indoors and I listened to today's FRESH AIR hosted by Terry Gross on NPR (National Public Radio). In the last 10 minutes of the hour-long show, after the book review segment, there was a truly sweet send-off for a longtime staffer named Dorothy.  Dorothy is retiring.  Terry mentioned that one of Dorothy's many qualities was that she had no patience for anything "pretentious."  Another was that Dorothy had an audio clip from the 1987 satire HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE, a very funny and low-budget indie feature from actor, director and writer Robert Townsend.  He's pure gold as the aspiring black actor determined to get a break and break through color barriers in Hollywood.
Terry Gross played the clip of articulate and educated black actors submitted to audition for stereotypical ethnic roles.  In this current age of "Oscars So White" and racial diversity issues in the film business, Hollywood Shuffle deserves a second look and some major re-appreciation.
Terry apparently has loved hearing that audio clip for many years around the production office. Here's a trailer for 1987's Hollywood Shuffle.
I interviewed filmmaker Robert Townsend on VH1 when he was promoting that comedy.  If you know my career and my blog posts, you know that I'm proud to have been the first black talent to get his own weeknight prime time talk celebrity talk show on VH1.  I was host and writer.  Some of my guests were Kirk Douglas, Norman Mailer, Dominick Dunne, Anne Rice, Paul McCartney, Carlos Santana, The Smothers Brothers, Marlo Thomas, Alan Rickman, John Cleese, Michael Caine, Meryl Streep, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Liza Minnelli, Gregory Hines, Whoopi Goldberg, Spike Lee, James L. Brooks, Patrick Swayze, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Dolly Parton and Fay Wray, star of the original 1933 King Kong.

I didn't have an agent before I got that national show and I didn't have one during its run.  I got an agent after my 3-year contract with VH1 was completed in 1990.  My first agent was with the New York City office of a top East Coast/West Coast agency.  Even though my talk show host work got me excellent reviews and coverage in The New York Times, People magazine and TV Guide, my agent submitted me to audition to play a low-level black crook in the sequel to Weekend at Bernie's.  Rather than explain the role, I'll show you a clip.  I was submitted to play the shorter of the two crooks -- the one in the red jacket rolling dice and trying to perform voodoo on Bernie's corpse in the men's room of a Times Square porno theater.
 The casting call specifically sought two black actors for those two roles.  The script I got the audition had the two characters trying to perform that voodoo with a bucket o' fried chicken on the side.  Seriously.

My 1990 occupational life imitated art -- the art of Robert Townsend's 1987 film, Hollywood Shuffle.  Just like the funny audition sequence in the movie, that one from which Dorothy pulled the audio clip, my audition was for a Caucasian trio.  I've had great luck in my career.  One such great piece of luck was that I did not get that part in Weekend at Bernie's 2.

Here's another short clip from Hollywood Shuffle.  It's now out on Blu-ray thanks to Olive Films.  You can find it on

To hear the Terry Gross Fresh Air broadcast from today, April 5th, look for *Programs* at the bottom of the home page, click on to it and look for "Fresh Air" after to go to

Friday, April 1, 2016

Judy Garland, Just Right for A STAR IS BORN

George Cukor's masterful 1954 remake of A STAR IS BORN.  This marked the triumphant screen comeback of Judy Garland after a film absence following her 1950 heave-ho from MGM after 15 years of service.  The star of The Wizard of Oz, For Me and My Gal, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Clock, Easter Parade and Summer Stock was the heavyweight Hollywood studio's top female triple threat entertainer.  She could sing, she could dance and she could act.  A Star Is Born, a Warner Bros. production, tapped into the actress' dramatic depth and talent to a degree that MGM hadn't.  Cukor combined big Technicolor musical numbers and a hard dark edge that showed what could be glamorous and grotesque about Hollywood stardom. The heartbreaking musical drama, which was just as good if not better than the classic original, brought Judy Garland a very well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
It was her second time playing Esther Blodgett, the sweet young lady who becomes movie star Vicki Lester after being discovered by the fading and alcoholic movie star, Norman Maine.  Those two will fall in love.  Garland did an abridged radio play version of the 1937 film in 1942.  Like the original movie, there were no songs in it.  Actor Walter Pidgeon starred as Norman Maine.  That was around the time moviegoers saw Judy sing and dance with Gene Kelly in For Me and My Gal.  She was MGM's top young musical star.  The George Cukor remake not only brought Garland an Oscar nomination, James Mason got a Best Actor nomination for his brilliant performance as Norman Maine, Esther's mentor and the love of her life who will become "The Man That Got Away."
For Garland's version of the movie, Esther -- unlike in the famous 1937 original -- was now a singer with a band who's discovered by movie star Maine.  Her quick thinking saves him from public humiliation and bad publicity during a Hollywood benefit gala.  He tracks her down to an after hours club where she's singing with all her heart and soul for just herself and the boys in the band.  He's dazzled by her star quality, a quality she doesn't realize that she has.

During this year's February salute to the Oscars by airing movies that were Oscar winners and Oscar nominees, TCM aired 1954's A Star Is Born in which Judy Garland introduced the Best Song Oscar nominee, "The Man That Got Away."  A TCM viewer wrote on Twitter that Garland was too old for the role. Garland was 31 in 1953 when she making Cukor's A Star Is Born.

Name three female Hollywood stars in their 20s who could've matched Garland's legendary singing power, her acting skills and dancing ability in the role of Vicki Lester.  Go ahead.  Name two.  Name one.                                 
As much as I love him as the veteran host and film historian on TCM, even Robert Osborne made that same comment about Judy's age once to a guest co-host.
Here's what you should know:  Janet Gaynor was a major star of the silent era and had success in the sound era.  One of those successes was William Wellman's A STAR IS BORN.  In the original, Esther Blodgett leaves some dream-crushing relatives in Heartland America and, with the encouragement of her loving grandmother, heads to Hollywood to pursue her dreams.  She meets boozy Norman Maine at a Hollywood party where she's the hired help and serving food.  He discovers her, they fall in love, they marry and her film career eclipses his as he continues to drink.  Gaynor was already an Oscar winner for two of her silent film classics.  A Star Is Born brought her another Best Actress Oscar nomination.  Co-star Fredric March got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work as Norman Maine.

You say that Judy was too old to play Vicki Lester in A Star Is Born because she was 31? one says that about Janet Gaynor.  She was 30 when she made the original A Star Is Born.  And no one says that about Barbra Streisand.  She'd already won a Best Actress Oscar for 1968's Funny Girl when she remade A Star Is Born with a rock music beat.  Streisand was 33 when she made the 1976 version, co-starring Kris Kristofferson.
Barbra Streisand was the oldest actress to play Esther.  She won an Oscar for this film.  Not in the acting category.  She co-wrote the movie's "Evergreen," winner of the Oscar for Best Song.

Judy Garland's voice had grown richer and fuller since her departure from MGM.  Her rendition of "The Man That Got Away" is riveting, galvanizing and truly phenomenal -- as is the rest of her performance.  Her real life age was just fine for that role.
So the next time a guy makes that remark about Judy's age, tell him that she and Janet Gaynor, the original Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester, were about the same age -- and they were both younger than the third Esther, Barbra Streisand.

Thank you.
Judy Garland is the TCM Star of the Month for April.  Her films will be in the spotlight every Friday on Turner Classic Movies.  A Star Is Born airs April 29th.

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...