Sunday, October 30, 2016

On Theresa Harris

She was shapely, lovely and talented.  But Theresa Harris was an African American actress in the Hollywood days of the 1930s and 40s.  That meant, like Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers, she get mostly maid roles.  There was an occasional exception, like when she played the women's prison buddy to Jean Harlow's heart o' gold tootsie in HOLD YOUR MAN (1932).  Harris played the maid to Bette Davis' headstrong Southern belle character in JEZEBEL.  I love the glossy treatment she got at Paramount in the 1940 musical comedy, BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN.  This was an extension of Jack Benny's hit radio show persona that included regulars from his show such as Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and Phil Harris.  Anderson, a pretty fine hoofer, does a deluxe song and dance number with Theresa Harris in a swanky apartment setting.
Before that, Theresa Harris had one of her best screen assignments as the best friend to Barbara Stanwyck's ambitious character in 1933's BABY FACE.

She's not credited but definitely recognizable in a serious music scene with Stanwyck in 1936's BANJO ON MY KNEE co-starring Joel McCrea.  Theresa Harris, in that riverfront scene, sings "St. Louis Blues."  Later in this 1936 comedy/drama with music, you'll see song and dance numbers performed by Barbara Stanwyck and Buddy Ebsen, both of whom would be TV stars in the 1960s.

Harris worked during the Hollywood Production Code, a code which seemed to limit black actors to servant characters.  Even in the servant role opportunities, it seemed they could be limited.  Theresa Harris worked with director William Wyler and star Bette Davis in JEZEBEL, a 1938 Warner Brothers release.  The same studio released the big romantic drama, SARATOGA TRUNK, in 1945.  Based on the Edna Ferber novel of the same name, it starred Ingrid Bergman as the Creole beauty from a down-on-its-luck aristocratic family and Gary Cooper as a dashing Texas gambler.  Instead of giving the sizeable role of the Haitian maid opposite Ingrid Bergman to Theresa Harris, the role was given to the white British actress who'd played the narrator/housekeeper in WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939), Queen Elizabeth THE SEA HAWK (1940) and went on to play one of the Catholic nuns in BLACK NARCISSUS (1947).

Warner Bros. slapped some dark make-up on Flora Robson, put a bandana on her head and let her play the Haitian maid.  Flora Robson got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing a black woman in SARATOGA TRUNK.  And she was about as black as a bar of Ivory soap.

BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST was recently on TCM.  That's one of the MGM biopics that brought Greer Garson an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.  The movie is in Technicolor.  I was watching this 1941 movie and heard a familiar voice coming from the maid character.  She sounded like Theresa Harris but she looked...different.  As Cleo the maid, Theresa Harris looked...well...darker.
I asked my Twitter buddy @sreggie if he'd ever seen 1941's BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST.  He's a serious Theresa Harris fan.  I wrote him why I was asking.  He replied that perhaps it was just the Technicolor.  I left it at that.
BUT...later in the month...TCM aired the Esther Williams musical comedy NEPTUNE'S DAUGHTER.  That 1949 movie was also shot in Technicolor and it also featured Theresa Harris as the maid.  When I saw her in scenes with Esther Williams and Betty Garrett, I quickly grabbed my cell phone and snapped these pics:

OK, c'mon.  That wasn't just Technicolor in the Greer Garson movie.  Greer looks like Greer.  Theresa Harris looks like she's doing BLOSSOMS IN THE COAL DUST.  I think they made her up to look darker.  But why?!?!?

If someone knows the behind-the-scenes scoop to BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST, please share it with me.  The Greer Garson drama and the Esther Williams musical comedy are both available on DVD.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

I'm Ready for LOVING

Joel Edgerton.  Man, what a good actor he is and how I loved interviewing him when the under-promoted and under-appreciated sci-fi thriller MIDNIGHT SPECIAL opened.  I wasn't too keen on the how director Baz Luhrmann overstuffed his 2013 version of THE GREAT GATSBY starring Leonardo Di Caprio in the lead role.  Luhrmann's sort of "size queen" style of direction got in the way of the story.  However, I would have campaigned to get Joel Edgerton a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the rich and brutish bigot, Tom Buchanan.  Before that, Joel Edgerton made me laugh in the British comedy that became a hit Broadway musical comedy.  He played Charlie, the young man who inherits a failing shoe factory he doesn't want.  But a local transvestite cabaret performer helps him turn the factory's business around with...KINKY BOOTS.  That's the name of the original movie and the Broadway show.  In KINKY BOOTS, THE GREAT GATSBY and MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, we see three distinct and different performances from this actor.
Friday morning, Joel Edgerton and his LOVING co-star, Ruth Negga, were guests in the third hour of TODAY on NBC.  The hosts had seen the film.  One host was not aware of the landmark Supreme Court ruling that put the Lovings in the American history books. Edgerton, an Australian, knew all about it.
My parents made me aware of the story but the time I'd started middle school.  My parents adored singer/actress Lena Horne.  My love of classic films had already started way back then.  I was fascinated to learn that Lena Horne was married to a major figure in MGM's acclaimed Freed Unit that made many of the studio's A-list musicals.  She was married to musician, arranger, composer and conductor Lennie Hayton.  He was white.  You see his name in the opening credits of THE HARVEY GIRLS and THE PIRATE starring Judy Garland plus ON THE TOWN and SINGIN' IN THE RAIN starring Gene Kelly.  Lena and Lennie both worked at MGM in Hollywood in the 1940s
I read in a book Mom and Dad had that Lena and Lennie married in Paris.  To adolescent me, that seemed so romantic, so sophisticated.
Then Mom said that it was probably easier for them to get married in Paris because interracial marriage was still illegal in several American states when they were married.

"Illegal?," I thought.  "Does she a crime?"

That was indeed what Mom meant.  It was then my parents taught me about Mr. & Mrs. Loving, an interracial couple that served jail time for falling in love and getting married.  This was in the 1950s.  Not the 1850s.  The 1950s.  The Lovings took their case to the Supreme Court and, in the 1960s, interracial marriage became legal all across the U.S.A.

Mom said a number of times, "You could just tell how much that man loved her by the way he looked at her."  I saw these photos in my youth back home in Los Angeles.  They still touch my heart.

Here's a trailer from the film about Richard and Mildred Loving.  The film is called LOVING.

LOVING opens next month.  I will definitely go to see this one as soon as I can.  Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, also wrote and directed LOVING.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Vanity Fair on Viola Davis

The prestigious publication, VANITY FAIR, writes: "Viola Davis just made a bold move to cement her 2017 Oscar chances."
Viola Davis has the lead female role, the role of the wife and mother, in the upcoming film adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning dramatic play, FENCES.  However, according to VANITY FAIR writer Joanna Robinson, " a strategic move, Davis has decided to go after the best supporting actress Academy Award in order to ensure she finally gets to take home that Oscar."
A website called The Playlist confirms that Ms. Davis has been submitted in the Best Supporting Actress category for the 2017 SAG Awards for her role in the film opposite Denzel Washington.  Originally, it was believed she would campaign for Best Actress.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis won 2010 Tony Awards for their lead role performances in the Broadway revival of the hit play.  Washington directed the film version which opens Christmas Day.

Back to the VANITY FAIR article.  In the rest of it, Joanna Robinson handicaps what other actresses will be Oscar contenders and in which category -- Best or Best Supporting.  She also makes the accurate note that just about all the black women who have won Oscars have won in the Best Supporting Actress category.  This goes back to the first ever black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND to the next black woman who won the Oscar in the same category 50 years later, Whoopi Goldberg for GHOST.   Jennifer Hudson, Mo'Nique, Octavia Spencer and Lupita Nyong'o also took home Hollywood gold for Best Supporting Actress.  Halle Berry is still the only black woman who won the Oscar for Best Actress.  That was for the 2001 film, MONSTER'S BALL.

Robinson left out the fact that if Viola Davis gets an Oscar nomination, she will make Hollywood history.  She will be the first black actress to have more than two Oscar nominations to her credit.  Right now, she's tied with Whoopi Goldberg at two.  Whoopi was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for THE COLOR PURPLE and she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for GHOST.  Viola Davis was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for DOUBT and a Best Actress Oscar nominee for THE HELP.

This underscores the need for diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities in Hollywood, a need that received critical national attention after the second consecutive "Oscars So White" controversy when the Oscar nominations were announced early this year.   Historically, Black and Latina actresses such as Cicely Tyson, Alfre Woodard, Angela Bassett, Diahann Carroll, Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe and Rita Moreno went to TV for employment after earning Oscar nominations because there were no other good Hollywood script offers.  This month in an interview on TCM (Turner Classic Movies), Rita Moreno revealed that she didn't get major screen work for about seven years after her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for WEST SIDE STORY.  Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis also turned to TV when Hollywood had no other good quality scripts for them after Oscar nominations.  Both have won Emmys.  Compare the number of Oscar nominations for all the above mentioned black actresses compared to those of white actresses who had more opportunities -- actresses such as Cate Blanchett (7),  Julianne Moore (5), Amy Adams (5), Julia Roberts (4) and relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence (4).

I didn't see the FENCES Broadway revival.  However, I did see the original Broadway production starring James Earl Jones and Mary Alice.  The role later played by Viola Davis is definitely the female lead.  So why a possible Best Supporting nomination?  That's Hollywood.  Think back to 1973's PAPER MOON.  Little Tatum O'Neal won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar even though the movie was based on a novel called ADDIE PRAY and she played Addie.  She was the lead character. Denzel Washington got the first of his six Oscar nominations for playing slain South African civil rights activist Stephen Biko.  The 1987 movie CRY FREEDOM was about Biko, who fought apartheid in the 1970s, and his friendship with white journalist Donald Woods. The screenplay was based on two books,  one of which was titled BIKO.

Denzel was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.  Even though he's the main character.  Again, that's Hollywood.

All that said, I repeat my prediction:  Viola Davis will be the first black actress to have more than two Oscar nominations to her credit.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

From Joan Fontaine to Tyler Perry

On this day in history, Oct. 22nd.  The late Oscar-winner Joan Fontaine was born on this day in history.  Her classic films make up a list that includes Alfred Hitchcock's REBECCA and SUSPICION (Best Actress of 1941 Oscar), JANE EYRE, THE CONSTANT NYMPH, IVY, FRENCHMAN'S CREEK and LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN.
Did you know that Joan Fontaine received racial hate mail?  In the glossy 1957 release from 20th Century Fox, ISLAND IN THE SUN, she's part of an ensemble cast that included James Mason, Stephen Boyd and Joan Collins.  Fontaine's romantic lead in this modern drama was Harry Belafonte.  Also in the cast was Dorothy Dandridge whose previous big release, 1954's CARMEN JONES, made her the first black woman to be an Oscar nominee for Best Actress.  Fontaine got racial hate mail for daring to be young, handsome Harry Belafonte's leading lady.  That is just a sin and a shame, as my mother would say.  Brava to Joan Fontaine for taking the role.  She and Harry Belafonte were quite good together too.
On October 22nd in 1999, THE BEST MAN opened.  This was a good entertaining movie with black lead actors and actresses. Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long and Terrence Howard star.  It was written and directed by Malcolm D. Lee, a filmmaker related to Spike Lee.  Terrence Howard is in the middle of the photo.
An author's first novel gets picked by Oprah's Book Club and starts to hit the best-seller lists.  His girlfriend wants more a commitment. He's the best man at a friend's wedding.  The writer and his friends hang out before the wedding and go sort of " The Breakfast Club" discussing feelings and such.  It's a bright, enjoyable movie.  Click onto this link to see a trailer:

I reviewed THE BEST MAN on national TV.  OK, not to sound pompous, but I am very proud of the fact that I've been one of the few black people to be a weekly movie critic/film historian on a network program.  As I've written before, the field of film critics on local and network TV shows has been a predominantly white boys club.  I was proud to talk about THE BEST MAN.  It's not a great film but it was great to see a lead black character who was a novelist.  It was also great to see him get together with his other black male buddies and get real talking about their problems and life in general.  They talked it all out.  No gunfire, no killings, no cop cars pulling up.

Terrence Howard would go on his lead role in that 1999 film to get an Best Actor Oscar nomination for 2005's HUSTLE & FLOW.  He now stars on the hot TV series, EMPIRE.

Tyler Perry's new movie, BOO! A MADEA HALLOWEEN, opened this weekend.  Click onto this link to see a trailer:

Have I seen Tyler Perry as Madea movies?  Yes.  Have I laughed? A lot.  As a movie critic on TV, Tyler Perry frustrated me occupationally.  And I wasn't the only one.  His early movies got no attention for the well-known white critics in print and on TV.  Most of us black and Latino folks who wanted to review films on TV had a tough time breaking through that color wall in broadcast newsrooms.  We'd get called up for TV duty in February because it was Black History Month.  But, after that, the paying upscale gigs of reviewing movies like THE HELP, THE BUTLER and 12 YEARS A SLAVE went to guys like Rex Reed.
Tyler Perry stopped making his films available for preview for the critics because the white dudes passed on reviewing them.  But we black and brown folks would have attended the previews!  Nonetheless, we understood.

Now Tyler Perry is a multi-millionaire actor/filmmaker who has done to the field of Caucasian critics what Michael Jackson did to MTV when black artists got scant exposure in the slate of music videos.  Then Michael Jackson became so huge and so globally famous that MTV looked out-of-touch not to give his groundbreaking music videos airtime.

This morning, I felt like a Tyler Perry character who would've clutched her pearls and shouted with glee, "Noxzeema, girl, get in here!  Glenn Kenny done reviewed the new Tyler Perry movie in the Arts & Crafts section of The New York Times!  Hallelu-yer!"

Yes.  BOO! A MADEA HALLOWEEN was reviewed in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and in Great Britain's The Guardian.

Which brings me back to THE BEST MAN, Terrence Howard and a review he got on NPR and on CBS SUNDAY MORNING from David Edelstein.  It shows that white film journalists had pretty much overlooked black programming, films and actors.  Howard had a key supporting role as a music student opposite Richard Dreyfuss in 1995's MR. HOLLAND'S OPUS.  In TV biopics from 1992 to 2001, he played one of The Jackson Five in a mini-series on The Jacksons, he played young boxing champ Muhammad Ali and he played Ralph Abernathy.  Abernathy was a Civil Rights leader and one of Dr. Martin Luther King's best friends.  Howard played Ralph Abernathy in TV biopic about Dr. King set in the early days of King's Civil Rights movement.  Howard had a very important role in the  2000 summertime hit comedy, BIG MOMMA'S HOUSE starring Martin Lawrence.

But when David Edelstein gave him a rave review for HUSTLE & FLOW, he must not have known all that.  He hailed Terrence as a new actor who was... "like a young Samuel L. Jackson."

This is why I push for diversity and inclusion.  Hope you liked those film facts for this day in history.  See you at the movies.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Billy Wilder's STALAG 17

"Nobody has ever escaped from Stalag 17.  Not alive anyway."  So declares a Nazi colonel.

Billy Wilder's STALAG 17.  This is the World War 2 prison camp drama that brought William Holden the Oscar for Best Actor of 1953.  He'd previously been nominated for Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD. and would be one of the top Hollywood actors of the 1950s.  Holden pretty much owned the 1950s at the box office.
In this war story, American soldiers are held in a German prison camp called "Stalag 17."  Life in the camp is terrible.  Comfort is a rare, make that non-existent thing.  The Christmas season approaches. The Nazi colonel, in the yuletide spirit, tells the prisoners that they'll be deloused for the holidays. Two prisoners attempt an escape.  They're killed.  Suspicion grows among the other prisoners that one of them is in cahoots with the Nazi guards and gave them a heads-up on the escape in exchange for goods like cigarettes and liquor.  Some prisoners suspect that Sgt. J.J. Seftin, played by Holden, is "...the American squealing on Americans."
Seftin is a hard-boiled character.  His suspicious fellow prisoners make life tougher for him for a while, but he's a hard-boiled innocent character. Even though he says "This is everybody for himself," he can be trusted. He didn't ratted on his fellow airmen but he's determined to find out who did.

Have you seen this film lately?  I hadn't seen this Billy Wilder movie in years.  It's not one that gets a lot of mention like his other classics DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SUNSET BLVD., SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT and the restored ACE IN THE HOLE.  However, it's worth a look.  I recently watched it twice.

Here's what occurred to me:  STALAG 17 was filmed and released when the entertainment industry was still wounded and bleeding from the blacklisting of the McCarthy era.  Hollywood careers were severely crippled or died due to the witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Friendships ended because of the witch hunts and informing.  The committee was created to investigate disloyalty to the U.S.A.  It hunted down people suspected of having Communist ties.  Senator McCarthy and his sideman, the ruthless Roy Cohn, also went after homosexuals.  (It was recently reported in a documentary for FRONTLINE on PBS that Roy Cohn was the mentor to young Donald Trump.)

To me, STALAG 17 is Billy Wilder's statement on suspicion in the McCarthy era.  In his story, there's danger in Americans turning on each other because of suspicion with no actual proof.  They become tools and future victims of the real villains.  STALAG 17 is a Wilder slap in the face to informers.
There's underground tunnel action in STALAG 17 just like there was in the 1950 British WW2 prison camp drama, THE WOODEN HORSE, a film that surely had a major influence on the two men who wrote the screenplay for the 1963 hit, THE GREAT ESCAPE directed by John Sturges.

Wilder had a knack for being able to direct other directors in acting roles.  Look at SUNSET BLVD.  He directed Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton in that masterpiece.  In STALAG 17, Wilder has fellow foreign-born director Otto Preminger playing the Nazi colonel.
There are some classic Wilder touches in STALAG 17.  There's an "I'm Spartacus"-type moment, only without words, in the prison yard after one American has thrown something at the Nazi colonel.  Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck as "Animal" and Harry Shapiro recreate the roles they originated on Broadway.  As with THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, Wilder took a Broadway play and put his own stamp on the film adaptation.  "Animal" and Harry Shapiro are great comic relief.

When I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, Gil Stratton was the gold standard for TV sportscasters in Southern California.  He had a highly-recognizable voice, like Vin Scully and, also like Scully, a warm personality combined with top class work as a sports reporter.  I was surprised one day to learn that sportscaster Gil Stratton had a movie career before his long, acclaimed run on local Los Angeles TV news.  Gil Stratton danced with Judy Garland in GIRL CRAZY, he rode with Marlon Brando as a member of the motorcycle gang in THE WILD ONE and he played the best buddy to Holden's character and the narrator of STALAG 17.

One prisoner gets a letter with some awkward news from home.  He responds, "I believe it."

Come Christmastime, the prisoners have a holiday dance party.  There are no women, so they have to dance with each other.  "Animal" has a thing for Betty Grable, one of the biggest Hollywood musical stars of the 1940s.  A vivacious blonde babe of a singer, dancer and actress, Grable was also famous for her legs.  They made her a #1 pin-up girl for G.I.s during WW2.

Harry Shapiro puts out-of-it "Animal" in the holiday mood but donning a blonde item on his head to give his buddy a hint of Grable.  Funny dancing ensues.
Did you see SOME LIKE IT HOT?  There's a slick "Nobody's perfect"-type moment during the dance.  Pay attention to the "I believe it" prisoner with Harry Shapiro.

Billy Wilder's STALAG 17.  It's about suspicion and loyalty.  And it's very, very good.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


According to The Los Angeles Times, the new independent film from Barry Jenkins "is a stunning portrait of young, black gay life."  Its longtime critic Kenneth Turan wrote:  MOONLIGHT is magic.  So intimate you feel like you're trespassing on its characters souls, so transcendent it's made visual and emotional poetry out of intensely painful experience..."
That glowing review of MOONLIGHT is one of several rave reviews I've read for this film.  If you're on Twitter, you can read the rest of the review by following @latimesent and find it in The Los Angeles Times Entertainment timeline.
The movie takes us to the tough streets of Miami in the 1980s.  One of its characters is Juan, a drug dealer, played by the exceptional Mahershala Ali.  His name may not be familiar but you'll say "Oh, that guy!" when you see his face.  He got an Emmy nomination for his excellent work on HOUSE OF CARDS starring Kevin Spacey.  He delivered the best performance in this year's FREE STATE OF JONES starring Matthew McConaughey.

I'm eager to see this film.  Being black and gay can make you feel like a double outsiders.  You're excluded in areas of society because of race.  Then family and other members of your race can exclude you because your gay. can be excluded within your own gay community because of being black.  Back in the day of newspaper and early online personal ads, "GWM Seeks Same" was code for "Blacks Need Not Apply."  "GWM" stood for "Gay White Male."  But that's another topic and I don't want to take the attention off MOONLIGHT.

Click on this link and watch trailer for the acclaimed new movie that I definitely will go to see:

MOONLIGHT opens October 21st.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Laughs, Loss and Harry Connick Jr

Love me some Harry Connick Jr!  Have you seen his breezy, new daytime entertainment talk show?  His sense of New Orleans fun and love of folks is fused into the weekday program.  No surprise that it's called HARRY.  I'd love to be in the audience for a taping of his daytime show.  And I'd love to be there with a dear friend of mine whom I thought was dead.  A friend I introduced to Harry back in the 1980s when I was a VH1 veejay.
I watched Harry this week as the sudden replacement for the suddenly dumped Billy Bush on the TODAY Show.  Billy Bush had recently moved to Manhattan to host the 3rd hour of the network morning program.  I guessed you heard about what happened.  Harry, whose show is a product of NBC/Universal, was a mighty fine guest host.  He has a hoot giving TODAY anchor Tamron Hall a pop quiz about his career highlights.
Way back in the late 80s, when I was a daily veejay and talk show host on VH1, one of my favorite spots was on the weekend.  I hosted a shift called SUNDAY BRUNCH.  Harry was a guest on my "Sunday Brunch" show.  The crew and I loved him.  He was seen in heavy rotation on the network thanks to the romantic comedy hit, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY.  Harry's on the soundtrack and he performed one of the songs in a music video that was quite popular with viewers.  When he made appearances on other VH1 programs, he'd pop over and break me up laughing on my show.

Dig this.  One time, I said to him on the air that guys like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra started out as popular singers, then became movie actors and went on to win Oscars for their performances.  I asked him if he was interested in acting -- and he said that he was not!!!

He's since done major roles in movies, he was the leading man in the revival of a hit Broadway musical comedy and he racked up many appearances on TV.  Now he has his own daytime show.

Back in my VH1 days, Harry proved to be so delightful when he stopped by to chat on my SUNDAY BRUNCH, that the network had a viewer contest.  Ten lucky couples, if chosen, would be flown to New York City for a special "Sunday Brunch" with Harry Connick Jr and me.  The viewers and I would have an exclusive brunch in a Manhattan restaurant and Harry would be at the piano for a special Sunday brunch performance.  It was great.

One couple, two friends, came in from New Orleans.  Maurice was a local artist, a sculptor whose work was highly regarded in the area.  Maurice and I became fast friends.  A year later, I went down to New Orleans for Jazz Fest.  I stayed with Maurice and we hooked up with Harry at the festival.

In 2005, I was extremely worried about Maurice went Hurricane Katrina hit. When the hurricane had vanished, I could not get in contact with him for days.  One online source implied that he'd died and was last seen getting senior citizens to safety.  I contacted a newspaper and two local TV stations to see if anyone could get me definite word on Maurice, a popular local artisit.  No luck.  I feared the worst.

A few years later, thanks to Facebook, I heard from Maurice.  To me, it was a miracle.  He'd survived Hurricane Katrina.  He wasn't dead.  But he'd lost everything to the storm.  His home, his personal possessions, everything.  Furniture, photos, phone numbers, everything.  He lost everything...but his life.  Life is funny.  By the time I got that wonderful news that he was alive, I'd lost my home too.  Through the years of making a modest wage in my future TV & radio jobs, I'd taken care of my terminally ill partner and my long-divorced single mother who lived alone.  I'd assumed and paid off the mortgage on her house.  When the Recession hit, I was hit hard as were millions of other Americans.  I was on a national radio show that was cancelled.  I was unemployed for about a year.  I got another job and was laid off from that one just three months later.

Eventually, I was so broke that I lost my once-affordable studio apartment.  It was no longer affordable in a city with skyrocketing rents.  In 2011, I lost my apartment and nearly everything in it.  When I heard from Maurice, a relative had taken me in. A most humbling experience.  I emailed Maurice a photo of us with Harry Connick Jr taken at Jazz Fest.  Maurice's copy was lost to Hurricane Katrina.

Maurice and I both experienced loss and had to start over.  I'd love to be in Harry's TV audience...and that's why I'd love for Maurice to be with me.  And it would be so cool if the three of us could be in a photo again -- one for Maurice to keep.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Love Me Some Helen Mirren

To me, Helen Mirren was not just THE QUEEN on screen.  This fascinating veteran actress is regal off screen as well.
Dame Helen rocks the November 2016 cover of Elle.  It's the magazine's "Women In Hollywood Issue."  How great to see a mature woman grace the cover of a classy magazine.
I have a tip on a Helen Mirren movie to watch.  It's a crime story, a love story and it has the kind of unconventional, dysfunction characters you've come to expect from Lee Daniels.  He's the man who produced and directed the movie PRECIOUS and gave us that hot TV series EMPIRE.

The independent movie is called SHADOWBOXER.  Helen Mirren plays Rose, a hired assassin. 
She's one of the best in the business.  Cuba Gooding Jr plays a fellow contract killer.  He's her lover -- and her stepson.  (If you just said, "Ewww...that's creepy!," think of the classic movie MILDRED PIERCE starring Joan Crawford.  Remember Mildred's daughter, Veda?  And that was a 1945 Hollywood movie.) Rose is diagnosed with cancer yet she's determined to carry out her last assignment.
There are other non-mainstream characters in this thriller.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays doctor.  Comedienne Mo'Nique went dramatic in this film as the doctor's nurse.  The nurse has a drug problem and she's in love with the doctor.
This performance is like a terrific Mo'Nique preview for the Oscar-winning dramatic skills she slammed across as the bad mother in PRECIOUS, the Lee Daniels film that brought her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress of 2009.  Singer Macy Gray is also in the film.  She also scores.  Just like in the film TRAINING DAY, Macy Gray is so real you can practically smell the burning hair from her hotcomb.  This is as good a hired assassin movie as PRIZZI'S HONOR with Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner, but it boasts some fine acting and some surprises.  Who knew that comedian and sitcom star Mo'Nique had those dramatic chops?
Birth and death. Love and betrayal.  They're in SHADOWBOXER.  There's also plenty of full frontal male nudity with the male being Stephen Dorff as the mobster kingpin.  So, you may not want to watch this with your maiden aunt.  Even though she might be impressed with Mr. Dorff.

Helen Mirren did this film before she made THE QUEEN, the movie that got her the Best Actress of 2006 Academy Award.  Dame Helen is brilliant in SHADOWBOXER.  And she was not first choice for the role.

Lee Daniels offered the part to singer/actress Diana Ross -- but she turned it down.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Hattie & Rita: Trailblazing Women on TCM

Hattie McDaniel and Rita Moreno.  Both were trailblazing women in onscreen performances that earned them an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  On Tuesday night, October 18th, you can see them work on TCM.  Rita Moreno will converse with actress, producer, director, film historian and all-around totally cool dame Illeana Douglas for this month's fascinating look at Trailblazing Women in Film.  If you don't get to watch TCM, you can still see these two films as they are available on DVD.  Both films have a strong core of racial inequality in their story lines.  Let's start with the pair that pairs Hattie McDaniel again with GONE WITH THE WIND co-star, Olivia de Havilland.  The movie is called IN THIS OUR LIFE.  This 1942 drama starred Bette Davis as a bad sister and de Havilland as her good sister.  The bad sister is out to steal her good sister's man.  Underneath that relative bitchiness is a modern-day statement on race.  The career of Hattie McDaniel was also a modern-day statement on race.
The films in which Hattie McDaniel and Olivia de Havilland both appeared show the breakthrough talent, career achievement and career limitations of McDaniel as a gifted black actress in old Hollywood during the days of the Production Code and before the Civil Rights movement.
Hattie McDaniel was one of the most charismatic actresses in Hollywood of the 1930s & 40s.  Even in bit parts in movies starring Carole Lombard and Mae West, movies in Hattie had only one or two lines, she stood out.  Your eye went to her when she had bigger than bit parts opposite Hollywood heavyweights such as Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert and James Cagney.  In GONE WITH THE WIND, you've got to admit that Vivien Leigh gave a riveting performance as Scarlett O'Hara. She dominated the screen.  However, the only actor in the cast who can pull focus from Vivien Leigh in a scene is Hattie McDaniel as "Mammy," the all-wise house servant in that Civil War epic.  For 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American nominated for an Oscar and the first to win it.  Ethel Waters would be the second African American nominated for an Oscar.  She too would be in the Best Supporting Actress competition, nominated for 1949's PINKY.

If you've seen GONE WITH THE WIND, remember the heartbreaking staircase scene with Hattie McDaniel and Olivia de Havilland?  I'm sure that's the scene that got Hattie the Oscar.  It looks simple onscreen, but it's very complicated.  It looks to be just two grief-stricken women walking up a long staircase as one woman tells the other of all the recent tragedies that befell the household in which she works.  But Hattie has a lot of dialogue in that scene and her character must be emotionally heavy as she delivers it.  The two actresses have specific marks to hit as they ascend the staircase, marks to hit for the technical aspects such as lighting and camera angles.  Hattie McDaniel deserved that Oscar.

But Hattie McDaniel was black.  Would a top Hollywood studio give her a script based on the life of humanitarian, educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, a woman who was an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt?
No.  She played maids again and again.  Her other films that also featured Olivia de Havilland highlight her range and limited opportunities due to race.  In 1941's historical western, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, one of the several films in which de Havilland was leading lady to Errol Flynn, the two actresses have a funny scene together. McDaniel is a maid and de Havilland is the woman who loves Calvary commander George Custer. The two actresses again have nice chemistry together.  1942's modern day comedy THE MALE ANIMAL irritates me in the thankless, stereotypical maid role given to Hattie.  The movie stars Olivia de Havilland, Henry Fonda, Jack Carson and Joan Leslie.  The only one in the cast who's won an Oscar is Hattie McDaniel.  However, when all five of those stars are in a scene, she has short lines like "Yes'm, I'll get the door."  She's the maid to de Havilland's character.  The script did nothing to utilize Hattie's Oscar winning skills or her chemistry with de Havilland.  That same year, 1942, came the drama IN THIS OUR LIFE.  This film gave the black actress her best role since GONE WITH THE WIND.  She's a modern day maid and a single working mother.  She's Minerva, the housekeeper for the two sisters.
Minerva has a grown son, a serious student has who made his mother proud.  He has a day job and goes to school at night.  He wants to become a lawyer.  The bad sister, played by Bette, get a few drinks in her, gets behind the wheel, then causes a hit-and-run fatality.  She blames the crime on Minerva's innocent son.  He's jailed.
This may sound like soap opera but remember the Susan Smith national news story of 1995?  She's the white woman, a mother of two, who claimed that her two children had been kidnapped by a black man who carjacked her vehicle. The country believed her and sought the man -- until it was discovered she'd liked and killed her own children.  Hattie's scene with Olivia is strong.  There's no slavery in America, like in GONE WITH THE WIND, but black people are still not equals. Pay attention to the opening shots of the film.  There's activity on a loading dock.  At one point, the screen appears divided in the middle. We see white male workers on top. The black men are underneath.  Minerva knows the cost of being black.  She knows how serious it is to claim that a white person is lying. But she's a hardworking mother who loves her son.

The script to that John Huston film brought something new and significant to the black maid role in a 1940s Hollywood movie.

In 1943's THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS, Hattie McDaniel and Olivia de Havilland don't have a scene together but they are both stand-outs in this all-star musical comedy from Warner Brothers.  It's a wartime feature meant to showcase the studio's stars appearing as themselves and putting on a show.  Olivia de Havilland does a lively jitterbug number with Ida Lupino.  Hattie is a hit singing "Ice Cold Katie" in a 1940s swing number with a military angle.  It's one of the best numbers in the movie.

The next and last time Hattie got a significant musical assignment in a movie was in a 1946 Disney movie.  She was a mammy again.  A plantation mammy singing the upbeat tune, "Sooner or Later," as she cooked in the kitchen.  In that movie too, she displayed major charisma and a solid screen acting skills.

Rita Moreno proved that she could do more than play fiery Latina roles.  We see her in 1952's MGM classic SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and as Tuptin in 1956's THE KING AND I.  She does a knock-out send-up of Marilyn Monroe in the 1956 comedy THE LIEUTENANT WORE SKIRTS.  Then came the successful movie version of the hit Broadway musical drama, WEST SIDE STORY.  She played Anita in this reworking of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with rival gangs in a racial turf war in urban Manhattan.  It's whites versus the Puerto Ricans.
WEST SIDE STORY was the big winner on Oscar, taking a number of awards including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress.  Rita Moreno was the first Puerto Rican actress to win an Oscar for playing a Puerto Rican character.  She lights up the screen with all that talent -- she's funny, serious, she sings and she dances.
But just like with Hattie McDaniel, other Hollywood scripts with roles for her as good as the one that earned her an Oscar were not plentiful.  She turned to television and to Broadway.

You know Dorothy Dandridge was also a trailblazer.  She was the first black woman to be nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award.  She was up against Judy Garland for 1954's A STAR IS BORN and Grace Kelly in THE COUNTRY GIRL for her performance as CARMEN JONES, an all-black musical update of the opera CARMEN by Bizet.  Dorothy Dandridge burns up the screen in CARMEN JONES.  Although she slammed across a performance that made Oscar history with her nomination and she was one gorgeous, talented actress, she was black.  The next big offer she got, I read, was to play Tuptim in THE KING AND I.  Dandridge passed on the supporting role and it went to Rita Moreno.  Dandridge's next lead role in a major Hollywood film was also her last film.  Again, she displayed solid dramatic skills, glamour and charisma in another musical drama.  She had the lead in 1959's PORGY AND BESS.  Think about it.  A breakthrough performance that made her a Best Actress of 1954 Oscar nominee, then no lead role in another Hollywood film until 1959 because of the color barrier.

Like Hattie McDaniel, Rita won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress -- and it was the only Oscar nomination she and Hattie received.  With all that talent.  I'd love to see Rita get a really juicy movie script that puts her again in the running for some Hollywood gold.

IN THIS OUR LIFE airs at 8p Eastern on TCM on Tuesday, Oct. 18th followed by WEST SIDE STORY.


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...