Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Dash of Diversity on TCM

I've written previously about the lack of race and gender diversity in the decades-long field of film critics on network morning news programs and syndicated film review shows.  When the network morning news programs had a Friday film review segment, each network had a white male critic.  The syndicated film review shows had pairs of white males from the iconic team of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert to Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons.  If you're a classic film fan and remember when AMC was American Movie Classics before the change in format and the advent of fine original programming like MAD MEN, you saw white males as the regular, daily hosts.  I've been a hardcore TCM fan since the 1999 and the appearance of a black guest solo host on TCM has been a rare sight.  That is why I joyously gasped last night when I saw the groundbreaking African American film director Julie Dash deliver her first segment as a guest host.  I didn't even know she'd be on TCM as a host for its "Golden Years" spotlight salute to films about senior citizens.  Ms. Dash introduced a classic that's one of my favorites, the extraordinary and heartbreaking MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937).  How fabulous to that diversity in the booking of a TCM guest host.
I've been on the road job-hunting, so I don't get to watch TCM as much as I used to -- but I do watch each and every time I can.  Did TCM promote that director Julie Dash would be a guest host and I missed seeing those promos?  Dash directed 1991's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, a landmark drama that has been restored and plays tonight (Wednesday, Dec. 7th) at Film Forum in New York City:
With DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, Julie Dash became the only black female director to have a film included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.  It is a film that heavily influenced BeyoncĂ©'s "Lemonade" music video album.  The restoration of Dash's film -- and how Hollywood's racial myopia shut her out of consideration to direct other features -- got recent major attention in major publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Rolling Stone magazine.  I recommend hearing Julie Dash's recent interview on "The Takeaway," a show heard on WNYC radio:
We people of color look for reflections of ourselves and our experiences on film and TV.  We have not seen reflections of ourselves in the field of film critics on TV.  We see white men telling us why we should see DO THE RIGHT THING, THE COLOR PURPLE, THE HELP, THE BUTLER and now MOONLIGHT and LOVING.  On TV, you tend to wonder of executives know that we people of color watch, pay attention to, have knowledge of and were influenced by classic films -- domestic and foreign.  We are present for specialized programming like salutes to Black History Month and such.  You will see a black person as a guest co-host.  But we are rarely seen as solo hosts during the mainstream programming.  That is all frustrating.  I'll give you personal examples.

I made my first ever TV appearance as the youngest and first black contestant on a syndicated film trivia game show called THE MOVIE GAME.  I was a high school student in Watts in South Central L.A. at the time. The show was shot in Hollywood.  I had Hugh O'Brian and Phyllis Diller on my team for the special teen edition of the show.  I won.  We beat my opponent and his teammates -- David Janssen and Dyan Cannon.

In New York City, in the late 80s, I was the first black person to get a prime time celebrity talk show, a show that got an excellent review in The New York Times and put my photo on the front page of its "Arts & Leisure" section.  After my VH1 years, in the early 90s, my wonderful TV commercial agent was frustrated because she could not get me into the auditions that AMC was having for new classic film hosts.  Some of the guests on my VH1 talk show were Kirk Douglas, Don Ameche, Fay Wray, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.  They were all stars of classic films.  But AMC wouldn't book me for an audition.  But it booked another one of my agent's clients -- a very handsome blue-eyed guy who never had his own celebrity talk show on national TV.

There was a reflection of myself on TCM last night.  Seeing director Julie Dash as a solo guest host was a "Hallelujah!" moment for me.  Thank you, TCM.

Other films airing on TCM this month for its spotlight on "The Golden Years" will be the 1952 Vittorio De Sica gem, UMBERTO D.  Have tissues handy for this tale of a elderly man on a pension whose only companion is a little dog.
...and GOING IN STYLE.  Beloved comedian George Burns won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Neil Simon's THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1975).  He'd done a lot of TV, including a hit sitcom with his late wife and comedy partner, Gracie Allen.  But he hadn't been onscreen in a film since 1939.  Burns deserved another Oscar nomination for the under-appreciated 1979 crime caper, GOING IN STYLE.
This film boasts the best acting performance of George Burns' film career.  And it's a drama.  Burns is formidable and unsentimental in his portrayal of a senior citizen bank robber.  He used old photos of Gracie in one heartbreaking scene that shows the humiliations of old age.  Art Carney and famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg co-star.

If you want to see Bette Davis disguised as a hippie and riding on the back of motorcycle, tune in on December 27th.  Bette Davis reunites with her co-star from 1956's A CATERED AFFAIR, Ernest Borgnine, to play AARP-aged bank robbers in BUNNY O'HARE.  (When I had just started my broadcast career, one of the first stars I interviewed was Bette Davis.  A short radio interview, we talked about A CATERED AFFAIR -- while she had a mouthful of cheese cubes.)  Her 1971 feature was pretty much a modestly-budgeted drive-in movie that came out after the huge success of BONNIE AND CLYDE.  Today's generation of classic film fans is probably unaware of the triple play BONNIE AND CLYDE pulled off.  It was a top box office hit that got top Oscar nominations, it was a crime story that triggered a major fashion trend based on the Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway wardrobes, and the soundtrack was tops on the Billboard charts.  1967's BONNIE AND CLYDE inspired a film genre in those days.  BUNNY O'HARE was made when Bette Davis had started delivering excellent performances in made-for-TV movies.  There was more work for her on TV than in films.  This film is still worth watching.  You see a scaled back Bette Davis wearing sort of a Henry Fonda "On Golden Pond" hat.  Bette has some good moments as a poor widow at odds with her bank.   Her urgent pay phone call to one of her annoying grown kids as the bank levels her house is good Davis.  Some of the movie is loopy but she gives her part a fine working class reality.  BUNNY O'HARE is a road movie.  That means self-discovery and finding out that the new person on your journey could be one of the best friends you've ever had.
I hope Julie Dash is the host for each spotlight on "The Golden Years."  They air Tuesday nights this month at 8p ET on TCM.

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