Monday, July 30, 2018

Spielberg and WEST SIDE STORY

I have a question about the new Steve Spielberg project.  If you keep up with entertainment news, I'm sure you've heard he plans to remake the movie musical classic, WEST SIDE STORY.  This is one of the most beloved movie musicals that ever came out of Hollywood.  It won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1961.  Rita Moreno won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and George Chakiris won for Best Supporting Actor.  The late great Leonard Bernstein composed the music for the Broadway show.  His memorable music adds to the beauty of the film.
You know that the story was a modern-day version of Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET set in New York City.  We see rival teen gangs and racism give the story a jolt.  Watch the movie again.  The Puerto Ricans feel the cuts and jabs of racism. They feel it in housing and employment.  They have to deal with a racist cop.  Tony, who left the gang of white teens, has reformed and now wants a peaceful life.  He falls in love with Puerto Rican Maria and she falls in love with him.  Keep in mind that the movie came out when America's Civil Rights movement was underway.  Black people were demanding racial tolerance and equal rights in the U.S.A.  Interracial marriage was still illegal in several American states when moviegoers were paying to see Tony and Maria as the star-crossed lovers in WEST SIDE STORY.  This movie musical came out at the perfect time.  It had an urgent social relevance coupled with wonderful show tunes and dance numbers.  I love WEST SIDE STORY.  I have a certain reverence for that film.
So why is Steven Spielberg so hot to remake it?  I am a solid Spielberg fan and have been ever since I was a teen and saw his made-for-TV film, DUEL. on ABC in 1971.  But why does he need to remake WEST SIDE STORY?  His desire to have racially correct casting is noble.  The original film star, Natalie Wood who played Maria, was not Latina.  Oscar winner George Chakiris is Greek and he played the leader of the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang.  As I wrote, Spielberg's intent is noble.  However...let's look at hit Broadway musicals of modern times that made it to the big screen:

EVITA:  1996 starring Madonna
CHICAGO:  2002 Oscar winner for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones)
DREAMGIRLS:  2006, Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Hudson)
LES MISÉRABLES:  2012, Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway)

Absent is that huge Broadway musical hit that, oddly, never got a screen adaptation.  1991's MISS SAIGON, a musical drama love story set in 1970s Saigon during the Vietnam War.  Based on Puccini's opera, MADAME BUTTERFLY, MISS SAIGON has love, war, racial conflict and lots of special effects.  It's a spectacle.  That's right up Spielberg's alley! In 2017, there was a limited engagement Broadway revival of it.  Here's a taste of the MISS SAIGON stage experience.
Why doesn't Steven Spielberg give us a film adaptation of MISS SAIGON?  It's got starring and supporting roles for Asian-American actors and singers.  Asian-Americans are in major need of representation in Hollywood.  Even in modern times, roles that should have gone to Asian-American actors were "whitewashed" and given to white actors.  Spielberg could score a home run for giving movie-goers some Asian-American acting and musical talent in a big budget Hollywood film version of a play that was an international hit.  But...that's just my opinion.

In late August, we celebrate the centennial of Leonard Bernstein's birth.  I bet we hear more then about the WEST SIDE STORY movie remake plans.  In other movie news, a movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's long-running Broadway musical hit, CATS, will hit the big screen.  A film adaptation starts production this coming November.  The cast of CATS onscreen will include Sir Ian McKellen, James Corden, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and Taylor Swift.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Another Note on Minnelli's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

It's a lazy Sunday afternoon and, once again, the movie magic of director Vincente Minnelli hypnotized me into watching AN AMERICAN IN PARIS on TCM (Turner Classic Movies).  New TCM addition, Australia's own Alicia Malone, was the movie host and told us that "It won the Os-cah for Best Pic-cha of 1951."  AN AMERICAN IN PARIS stars Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.
When the movie ended, Ms. Malone noted that LA LA LAND was heavily influenced by the gorgeous, imaginative "An American in Paris" 17-minute ballet number that closes out Minnelli's movie to a happy ending.  She told us that the ballet was choreographed by Gene Kelly.
You can definitely see the influence in some of the art design and set decoration for the final number in 2016's LA LA LAND starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone seen in the photo below.  They're two good actors who are not known for their dancing skills like Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron were.
Kelly himself was greatly impressed with and artistically inspired by a British drama containing a ballet number that ran about 10 minutes or a little more in the middle of the film.  It's important to the film and drives the story.  The movie, a true classic, is 1948's THE RED SHOES directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  The ballet of The Red Shoes is stunning and very cinematic, like Kelly's choreography for Gershwin's An American in Paris.  Both ballets were designed for film with its powerful luxury of editing and special effects.
Besides a celebrated ballet number, what does AN AMERICAN IN PARIS also have in common with 1948's THE RED SHOES?  A principal male dancer in the ballet number is also the person who choreographed the ballet.
Robert Helpmann plays Ivan.  Ivan was the partner to new ballet sensation Vicky Page played by Moira Shearer.  What a talent Robert Helpmann was!

He was a member of Anna Pavlova's dance company -- Pavlova, the legendary Russian ballerina.  Helpmann did other movies.  He played the Soviet boyfriend to Katharine Hepburn's Russian military character in the clunky comedy, THE IRON PETTICOAT.  Kate's leading man was Bob Hope.  Yes, an early 1950s comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope.

In the 1960s, Robert Helpmann was seen by lots of kids in a much better and beloved movie.  He played the Child Catcher, the villain, in the 1968 musical fantasy CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG.

There you have it.  A little information about two terrific ballet numbers in classic films choreographed by two terrific male dancers.  See those classic films if you have time.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

By Sinclair Lewis

We went to the Vermont Drive-In, one of the four drive-ins we usually frequented back then for a family night at the movies .  As usual, Dad and Mom were in the front seat.  My little sister and I were in the back seat, wearing our pajamas under our street clothes.  We'd be sleepyheads when we got home after midnight from the movies.  Having our PJs underneath our clothes made our getting ready for bed a quick change, like a Gypsy Rose Lee moment in her strip act.  I vividly recall when we went to see ELMER GANTRY.  Burt Lancaster had the lead role and, in a tight close-up, his head filled that entire huge Vermont Drive-In movie screen.  I, of course, was way too young to grasp all the maturity of the film.  But, little Catholic that I was, I did know that it was making a statement on religion.  ELMER GANTRY made a statement on how Christianity can be abused for fame, fear, control, profit and even more personal desires.
The preacher, Elmer Gantry, was a con man.  The film was based on a 1927 novel by Sinclair Lewis.  I've seen it several times as I grew up over the years.  It's still one of my favorite films.
Back in the late 90s, I found a copy of BABBITT at my local library and check it out for summer reading.  It's another novel by Sinclair Lewis.  I couldn't put it down.  The hollowness of pursuing a traditional middle-class life and the ultimate uselessness of conformity were so sharply portrayed by Lewis that BABBITT earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.

A couple of days ago, a good friend of mine photographed the back cover blurb on the Penguin Classics issue of the Sinclair Lewis novel, IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE.  Here is some of what was written:
"Vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected ... He was an actor of genius."
A vain, outlandish, anti-immigrant, tear-mongering demagogue runs for President of the United States -- and wins.  Sinclair Lewis's chilling 1935 bestseller is the story of Buzz Windrip, who promises poor, angry voters that he will make America proud and prosperous once more, but takes the country down a far darker path.  As the new regime slides into authoritarianism, newspaper editor Doremus Jessop can't believe it will last -- but is he right?  This cautionary tale of liberal complacency in the face of populist tyranny shows it really can happen here.
I miss the Old Hollywood, the Hollywood of my youth, when important books by noted authors were adapted into smart and entertaining socially conscious films that the public went to see.  Come September, when the fluffy, fun summer films conclude their run and make way for the more mature offerings of the fall, I wish there was a good, stinging adaptation of IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE ready to hit movie screens all across the country.

I think I may buy myself a copy of the book for summer reading.  IT CANT HAPPEN HERE ... a 1935 bestseller.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Power of the Press Double Feature

It was early August in 1974.  A sunny, hot weekday in South Central Los Angeles.  I was home, on summer vacation, and stood in our living room watching the special news telecast that had interrupted regular programming on CBS.  I was a teenager and thought to myself regarding White House activity, "It can't get any stranger than this."  President Richard M. Nixon was on live TV announcing his resignation to the nation.  Because of the Watergate scandal and the steely determination of investigative journalists at The Washington Post, we Americans learned that Nixon had violated our trust and had disrespected the Constitution.  That day we also realized -- at least I did -- how lucky we are to live in a country that has a free press.  This milestone in American history and in American journalism was played out in the hit movie, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as newspaper reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
This fine film, directed by Alan J. Pakula, was so powerful and so popular with young movie-goers that enrollment in journalism classes in colleges increased.
Look at where we are today.  We're living out the dark side of the old American statement on this being a land of opportunity:  "Any kid can grow up to be president."  Look at the kid who grew up and became our current president.  Like a character created in a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, he's a womanizing millionaire with no military service or prior political experience to his credit.  He seemed to be an idol of white yuppie males back in the 80s.  His celebrity status increased when a top network made him the host of a hit reality game show.  As a TV celebrity. he constantly proclaimed off the set that Barack Obama, American's first black President of the United States, was not a true American and he demanded to see the president's birth certificate.   He was dropped from the show for making derogatory remarks in public about Mexicans.  His next job?  He was elected President of the United States.  Now, in a politically disturbing bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he gives many of us the queasy feeling that he's complicit in wanting to turn the U.S.A. into the U.S.S.A.

Personally, I think we were better off when he was a reality TV game show host.

If you're a member of the press and you have some free time this coming weekend, here's my double feature movie tip for you.  First, watch THE POST, directed by Steven Spielberg.  It stars Tom Hanks, as Ben Bradlee, the ballsy editor of The Washington Post and Meryl Streep as Kay Graham, publisher of the newspaper.  As first, Kay seems insecure in her duties. She's in a business in which she's only the only woman present and she's surrounded by men who don't listen to her.  When the Pentagon Papers story breaks, she will find her voice -- and grow some brass ovaries. She'll be a great partner for Bradlee.

We're now in an age in which most of the movies that bring in big bucks at the box office have caped characters who zoom through the air in action fantasies.  THE POST should have brought in big money and influenced young movie-goers the way ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN did.  It's got Spielberg, Hanks and Streep in peak form in a story that's urgent and relevant today.  Watch this 2017 film and keep in mind that this story happened before the Watergate scandal broke.  Here's a trailer.
As Kay Graham says in THE POST, news is "...the first rough draft of history."

After THE POST, watch ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.  This story also takes us to the offices of The Washington Post.  We'll see Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee in this one.  (He got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for it.  He's good.  However, Hanks delivered a more accurate portrayal of Bradlee in carriage, attitude and cadence of speech.  But he didn't get nominated.)  This story occurs after The Washington Post established itself as a serious contender in the world of newspaper journalism with its reports on the Pentagon Papers.  Here's a trailer for the 1976 film.
Now watch this scene from ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and think of all the investigative work that the journalists did.  It was done back in the day before cable news and a 24-hour news cycle.  It was done before we had laptops, Wikipedia, Google, cellphones, text messages and social media.  Reporters used rotary phones, pay phones, they did painstaking research in a library and they used typewriters.  Look at what they accomplished for democracy.


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Lincoln Center Love for Astaire and Rogers

Never underestimate the power of the fine arts and the power that artists can have on our lives.  I've not revealed this to some close relatives, but it is true.  Before I started the 5th grade, I had been slapped, spat upon, whipped with a belt while I was totally naked, and someone had peed in my face.  That last one was a rather comical.  I was a latchkey kid.  Mom was a registered nurse. There were times when she and Dad, who also worked, might have to be out and would leave me in charge of my younger sister and our newborn baby brother.  So Mom, like a drill sergeant, taught me how to diaper the baby.  One time, as I removed the soiled diaper, my little baby brother sprang an energetic leak.  But, also before I started the 5th grade, I had discovered the artistry of Fred Astaire and the extreme joy of seeing him dance.
My love of classic films started very early in my life when I saw them on television.  I still remember the weekend afternoon day when I first was dazzled by Fred Astaire.  I was in the living room with Dad.  He was watching one of his idols -- famed golfer Sam Snead.  During the golf game telecast, a severe and sudden thunderstorm broke out bringing an early end to the match and the telecast.  The local channel aired back-up programming.  It put on an old RKO musical, FLYING DOWN TO RIO.  I saw Fred Astaire in a solo dance number and that was it.  I was hooked.  When he danced with Ginger and their foreheads touched whitle dancing "The Carioca," my spirits lit up like a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza.  A few weeks later, that same station aired TOP HAT.  How'd I feel as I watched it?  To sample lyrics from one of the classic's original songs introduced by Mr. Astaire, "Heaven...I'm in Heaven..."
Throughout all the pains and humiliations of my life, in my childhood and today, a Fred Astaire musical number could always, always heal my heart and turn light back on in my soul.  Always.  Fred Astaire danced me into an interest in, an embrace of and a passion for the fine arts.
If you're in New York or if you're headed there for the weekend, keep this in mind.  Keep it in mind especially if you love the musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  The Film Society of Lincoln Center salutes Astaire and Rogers starting this Friday.  There will be a three-day complete retrospective dedicated to their brilliance.  This goes from their RKO musicals of the 1930s in black and white to their MGM reunion in Technicolor in the late 1940s.  For more information, go to this website:

Here's the kind of screen magic that repeatedly healed my broken heart, made me smile and gave me the spirit to pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the "Pick Yourself Up" number in SWING TIME (1936).

Their dancing was not like what America sees on ABC's DANCING WITH THE STARS.  Fred and Ginger weren't dancing for a mirror ball trophy.  They were actors who danced in character.  Their numbers were a revelation of character and they advanced the emotions of the scene.  In the "Pick Yourself Up" number, the Manhattan dance instructor has no idea that the well-dressed man who hopes to ask her out is really a professional dancer.  He's determined to prove he's on the level by getting her re-hired.  So, the number shows that they'd be perfect partners and it's also an audition piece for employment.

In Ginger Rogers, Astaire did have a perfect partner for those times.  They changed the game of the Hollywood musicals with their 1930s original film musicals scored by Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. In other film assignments that didn't co-star Astaire, Ginger Rogers proved to be one of the top comedy actresses of her day in such films as Billy Wilder's THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, in TOM, DICK AND HARRY, in ROXIE HART, BACHELOR MOTHER, STAGE DOOR, LUCKY PARTNERS and VIVACIOUS LADY.  Ironically, the two greats of Hollywood musicals each got one Oscar nomination in their long careers and those nominations came for work in dramatic films.  In the 1970s, Astaire was up for Best Supporting Actor for wearing a trademark tux and getting dirty in the box office blockbuster all-star disaster thriller, THE TOWERING INFERNO.  Ginger Rogers won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for a solid, truthful performance as a strong-willed, loyal, white collar career woman named KITTY FOYLE (1940), a movie with a definite feminist vibe.

There's a popular quote that "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire, except backwards and in high heels."  Was Ginger a multi-talented movie star?  Yes.  Did she deserve equal billing, equal pay and equal benefits?  Absolutely.  Did she do everything Fred did?  Not exactly.  Ginger never lifted and twirled Fred.

CAREFREE (1938) showcases Ginger's comedy chops and it boasts another original score by Irving Berlin.  At a country club dinner dance, popular radio personality Ginger coaxes stuffy psychiatrist Fred to get up and dance "The Yam."
And another thing.  Fred Astaire was nearly 40 when he did "The Yam" with that knockout ending.  When he and Ginger reteamed for THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY, a 1949 MGM musical, he was nearly 50.  Astaire was extraordinary.
The Lincoln Center retrospective on the legendary Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers screen partnership starts Friday, July 13th.  Treat yourself.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Tab Hunter and the Nature of Love

A movie star died.  1950's Warner Brothers movie star Tab Hunter died just a few days shy of his 87th birthday.  Teen girls would scream at the sight of his big, blond beefcake presence.  He was handsome.  He became a very good actor.  He had to learn how to emotionally and spiritually balance stardom with his off-screen life because he was gay man.  Onscreen, he was doing love scenes with luscious beauties such as Sophia Loren, Natalie Wood and Linda Darnell.
One of his boyfriends was actor Anthony Perkins who gained international fame as Norman Bates in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, PSYCHO.  A few years ago, a big and brawny straight buddy of mine (a fellow classic film fan) urged me to see the documentary TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL.  He said "Dude, if I love him, you will love him even more after seeing that documentary."  He was right. Hunter is so warm, so honest and forthcoming in that doc. He talked about his past boyfriends and his current longtime partner.  Besides the very interesting look at Hollywood's sexual politics and repression when he was a 1950s movie star, you get the sense that he was a great boyfriend to have.  He went for content and character, not just looks.  Check out Netflix for TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL.
I was a child of the 60s when television was still pretty much in its infancy.  A TV was usually a big heavy box of lights and wires that you put in the living room.  There were only three networks to watch -- ABC, NBC, CBS -- you had your local network affiliates and a few independent stations. There were no cable channels, no VHS or DVR capabilities.  If you missed a network show, you waited until it was repeated.  Color TV was rare.  There was no remote control.  You had to get up and walk over to the TV set to change the channels and adjust the volumes.  We paid attention to the shows as they aired. There was no live tweeting during a telecast which, in my opinion, is often like texting while driving.  You're not paying full attention to what's happening before you.  With less technology, we paid more attention. But, I digress.

It's now KCAL.  But, when I was a kid, it was KHJ TV/Channel 9.  This independent local Southern California station was attached to the Warner Bros. film library.  Channel 9 carried "The Million Dollar Movie" format.  One film would air at the same time at night during one week and then get a couple of airings on Saturday and Sunday, if I recall correctly.  To me, Tab was terrific with Sophia Loren in Sidney Lumet's THAT KIND OF WOMAN, in THE PLEASURE OF HIS COMPANY with Debbie Reynolds and Fred Astaire, in the fabulously unconventional John Waters' movies with Divine and he was very good as "The Boy Next Door" in a CBS production of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.  But I dig Tab most in a baseball musical.

When I was in elementary school and on summer vacation, I lived for "The Million Dollar Movie" airings of the Warner Bros. musical comedy, DAMN YANKEES.  Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston repeated their hit Broadway show roles in the film version.  The lead role of the mysterious star athlete who helps the Yankees become champs went to Tab Hunter.  Perfect casting.  He was that wholesome, All American team player.
It's a fantasy musical, a modern spin on the Faust tale.  When we meet Joe Boyd and his wife, he's a middle-aged man with a pot belly.  The wife cannot pull him away from the TV during baseball season.  Joe doesn't realize it, but he makes deal with the Devil to be a young man again so he can play for the Yankees.  Middle-aged Joe Boyd disappears and he's magically turned into a hot new unknown player eager to try out for the Yankees.  He gets signed.  Young Joe returns to his unsuspecting wife (who doesn't recognize him) and the polite, handsome young man rents her spare room.  Joe is so pure of heart that it frustrates the Devil (played by Ray Walston).  The Devil has planned to screw Joe over and see the team fail and....well, you get it.  So, the Devil sends for his ace vamp, Lola, played by the delicious Gwen Verdon.  Lola has ruined men's lives for centuries and figures Joe will be a quick, easy job. But she's wrong.  He is still faithful to his wife.

When you get older, you see different things in movies you've loved for a long time.  Here's what I mean about Tab Hunter and the Nature of Love.  It refers to DAMN YANKEES.  Lola is a hot babe. She pretends to be a Dominican beauty pageant winner.  But young loves his middle-aged Mrs. who wears a simple  house dress and glasses.

There's a sweet and sexy undercurrent, when you think about it, in the scenes of Joe Hardy, baseball star, with Mrs. Meg Boyd.  I didn't pick up on this when I was a kid watching DAMN YANKEES. Meg sees Joe as a clean-cut, sweet young man who's a great baseball player.  He sees the woman who's been and still is the love of his life.  And now, with his youth restored, so is his sexual energy.  There is a sexual chemistry between them but Meg doesn't realize it.  She may feel she's just an ordinary housewife whose husband has mysteriously disappeared for a time but Joe can reveal in his eyes that he has a physical yearning for her, his wife.  He desires Meg, not the shapely vamp, Lola.  Meg is what his heart wants.  That is the nature of love.  When it's the real thing, the attraction is not just about age and physical beauty.  There's something else.  Something sincere, substantial and special.

Here's one of the numbers that made me love this musical time and time again thanks to "The Million Dollar Movie" on KHJ.  Tab Hunter and Gwen Verdon as Joe and Lola are in the locker room after a game for "Whatever Lola Wants."
A big glass of Hawaiian Punch or Kool-Aid, a bag of Laura Scudder's potato chips and DAMN YANKEES on TV.  That was total summertime fun for me when I was a kid in South Central L.A.  Tab Hunter -- he made my heart happy.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Black Films, White Critics in 2018

Films are my passion.  They have been ever since I was a kid.  I mean that.  When I was in the 6th grade, I could tell you the names of five musicals starring Fred Astaire.  When our family went to the drive-in, seeing reflections of myself onscreen was always significant.  Seeing films that starred Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Diahann Carroll or Cicely Tyson wasn't just entertainment.  We felt that seeing them was our duty.  Three films centered on black stories open this season and they've gotten rave reviews from critics.  I am so excited to see these movies.  I'm also excited to see if this season brings about changes in the segregated field of film critics we've seen since the 1980s.  More on that later.  First up, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU got terrific reviews from critics in national publications, the kind of reviews that lead to Oscar buzz.  Actor Lakeith Stanfield, seen in the Oscar-winning GET OUT, stars in this movie written and directed by Boots Riley.
Stanfield is Cassius Green.  (Say it fast and it sounds like "Cash Is Green.")
He's in Oakland and learns what millions of black men in American have learned.  There is a class division.  A black man with talent, imagination and perseverance can be stuck for years at minimum wage while a white guy with a teaspoonful of talent can wind up making a 6-figure salary seemingly overnight.  From what I can gather in reviews I've read, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is a social commentary that makes you laugh in the same way Paddy Chayefsky's NETWORK did.  It's rooted in reality.  Click onto this link to see a trailer:

Another film with a story set in Oakland is BLINDSPOTTING.  It stars Daveed Diggs who graduated from Broadway's revolutionary HAMILTON to the cast of ABC's hit sitcom BLACK-ISH.  Diggs also co-wrote the screenplay.  Think of recent news stories about unarmed young black men who have been shot multiple times and killed by police.  Then think of white males who shot and killed several people in an Annapolis newspaper office, in a Florida high school, in a Colorado movie theater, in a church and were taken in custody unharmed.  Film critics Peter Debruge of VARIETY and Stephen Whitty tell us to put BLINDSPOTTING on the must-see list.  It opens in select cities on July 20.  Click onto this link to see a trailer:

Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman got big applause and praise at this year's Cannes Film Festival.  It opens in August.  This is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black detective who went undercover and infiltrated the KKK.  He was interviewed by Scott Simon on NPR last month and he feels his 1979 story is intensely relevant now in the Trump era.  (The interview with Scott Simon on NPR is worth hearing.)  Spike Lee co-wrote the screenplay with the brilliant University of Kansas film professor and filmmaker, Kevin Willmott.  Here's a trailer for BlacKkKlansman, winner of the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix Award.
Spike Lee has never been an Oscar nominee for Best Director. Not for DO THE RIGHT THING. Not for MALCOLM X. Maybe his upcoming release will change that.

From two years, from 2006 to 2008, I was a regular on Whoopi Goldberg's live weekday morning radio show.  Our studio was in midtown Manhattan and the show was in 16 cities across the nation. I was the weekly film review and entertainment contributor.  I contacted Kevin Willmott after I saw the DVD release of his blazingly brilliant 2004 mockumentary called C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA.  It should have brought him an Oscar nomination.  Think Woody Allen's ZELIG with a touch of BLAZING SADDLES with a lot of American history and film history.  I urged Whoopi to watch it.  I wanted Kevin Willmott to do a radio interview during one of our shows.  For some reason, Whoopi nixed the idea when I passionately pitched it to her.  She was chilly to giving him airtime. I don't know why.

That mockumentary is worth a look now -- especially with Trump in office.  Because of the excellent reviews that Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott have received for BLACKKKLANSMAN, I am interested to see how Whoopi reacts now to Kevin's work.

About critics. My first professional TV job was film reviewer.  I reviewed new movies every week on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate and I was the first African American in that city's history to do so.  I was a movie critic on WISN TV for four years and, on a local indie station, I was half of a duo on a half-hour film review show. This is the early 80s.  On national TV, all the film critics on TV news programs were white males. ABC, NBC and CBS gave us white males.  Joel Siegel and Gene Shalit.  On PBS, after Siskel & Ebert departed for Buena Vista syndication, the new film review couples were Jeffrey Lyons, Michael Medved, Neal Gabler and Rex Reed.  Men as white as Cool Whip.  Then Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons (son of Jeffrey Lyons) had their syndicated film review show.  Two more white males.  Caucasian Peter Travers of ROLLING STONE magazine has a film talk show that airs on some ABC stations. It's called POPCORN WITH PETER TRAVERS.  Today, we see Chris Connelly on ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA and David Edelstein on CBS SUNDAY.  White guys.  This is from the early 1980s to this month.  Chris Connelly and David Edelstein talked about films in segments that aired around the 4th of July.

I lived in New York for 25 years and never saw one black person on a regular basis as a film critic for a local station.  Sandy Kenyon was on local ABC and Neil Rosen was on cable's NY1.  Kathie Lee Gifford's son, Cody, reviewed films every week on TODAY in 2016 because he'd recently taken a film course in college.  He was 20.  I worked at WNBC in 1993 and wanted to review movies. The weekend news show producer didn't feel I had the skills to do it.

I am not the only black person in New York City who pushed and pushed for a regular spot on a TV news program as a film reviewer but could not crack the apparent color wall.  Nothing against those critics, but the executives who do the hiring seemed determined to keep the film arts discussion limited to a field of Caucasian male viewpoints.

Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg was the first person in New York to offer me work as a film reviewer.  Why?  Because she'd been a guest on my late 1980s VH1 talk show and she was aware of my film knowledge.  She was also aware that the playing field has not been level in the areas of onscreen entertainment news and movie channel hosting.

News show executives will bring us black contributors in to discuss black-related topics such as Blaxploitation films, classic films to see during Black History Month, or films relative to a specific black artist.  But when it comes to a mainstream conversation about superhero franchise sequels or new films from Scorcese, Spielberg and Meryl Streep, we are never seen in the on camera conversation.  From the early 1980s to 2018.

Early in his acting/directing film career, Tyler Perry stopped making his news available for screenings in New York City?  Why? Because the white critics were not attending and not writing about them.  This frustrated us black reviewers but we understood.  The absence of black critics seen on TV was so prevalent that Tyler Perry didn't even think we existed back in 2005 and 2006.  Just like years, Tiffany Haddish won an award from the New York Film Critics Circle for her GIRLS TRIP performance.  In her funny acceptance speech, she mentioned that she only seen two movie critics on TV in her lifetime -- Siskel & Ebert.  Can you imagine if she'd been able to see a black film critic on TV back in the 1990s?  A lot of us were around then in New York City alone.  Tiffany grew up where I did -- in South Central L.A.  She did not see a reflection of herself reviewing movies.  Neither did I.

David Edelstein reviewed STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON in August 2015.  No offense, but do you think David Edelstein has ever walked through Compton after dusk or sat alone on a bench in Compton waiting for a local bus?  I have.  I grew up just a few blocks away from Compton.  Rex Reed hated GET OUT.  He didn't think it was as good as THE STEPFORD WIVES.  I've been acquainted with Rex since the 1980s.  I've seen him and chatted with him at several New York City movie screenings.  At one screening, he told me he'd just gotten back for four weeks vacation in the south of France.

I have never, ever. ever ... in my entire life... known a black or Latino person who had four consecutive weeks of vacation time at a job. Ever.  But Rex Reed did -- and Rex Reed was quoted in national publications telling folks of all colors why we needed to see 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

Last year, HBO premiered SPIELBERG, a documentary directed by Susan Lacy.  There were six film critics and one film historian seen in the HBO documentary. Not a one was African American.  All seven people were white.  And one of the Spielberg films that got a lengthy discussion was THE COLOR PURPLE.

There needs to be diversity and inclusion in the field of film critics.  It cannot continue to be driven by a predominantly white male perspective.  Also, I deeply feel that some bookish white male film critics are mainly writing for other bookish white male film critics.  Not for the masses.  Not for working class people of color.  I mentioned movie channels.  On TCM, there are now four regular hosts -- Ben Mankiewicz, Eddie Muller, Dave Karger and Alicia Malone.  On a semi-regular basis, Leonard Maltin is the host of Disney feature nights.  Five hosts.  All Caucasian.  In 2018.

With those three summer releases hitting the screen, let's see if the light of inclusion turns on in the heads of network TV news producers who book film critics.  Let's see if that light gets turned on in the heads of other TV producers who hire and book talent to talk about movies.  If it doesn't seem to get turned on, I say "Time's Up."  Let's get on social media and write that we want race/gender inclusion and diversity in the field of film reviewers and TV hosts.

I'll see you at the movies.

Friday, July 6, 2018

For Summer Reading, Try FORREST GUMP

Man, how I would love to interview best-selling novelist Winston Groom.  In the spring of 1994, I was on the road with a two-man WNBC local TV news camera crew.  We had to go to an out of-Manhattan street fair or community bake sale or some other outdoor event from which I'd do live segments for the weekend morning news program.  On the way back, the cameraman was driving.  The audio guy was in the front passenger seat and I sat in the back of the van.  The audio guy would break out into an infectious giggle while reading a paperback book.  The cameraman and I had to know what he was reading.  He told us that he'd been at a garage sale in his neighborhood and he bought a book for a quarter.  He didn't know anything about the book but the price was right and he liked to have some reading material for periods of down time during the work day.  The book was FORREST GUMP by Winston Groom.
I told him I'd heard about the book thanks to entertainment reports that Tom Hanks would be playing the lead role in a film version.  Our audio guy said that he's started reading it the day before and could not put it down.  The following week, I checked the book out from my local library.  Just like the audio guy, I'd break out laughing and I could not put the book down. I read it within three days.

I've been a devoted Tom Hanks fan since his ABC TV sitcom days in the early 80s.  I'm in awe of his range and skill.  However, while reading the novel, I was curious to see how Hanks would play a big musclebound and seemingly well-endowed idiot savant Southern football player with a crew-cut.  I've written in a previous blog that if the movie FORREST GUMP was being cast today, based on his physical description in Winston Groom's book, the top candidate for the role would be John Cena.

The screenplay by Eric Roth takes Forrest and other main characters and sweetens them, if you will.  The movie is poignant, honey-flavored and sentimental.  The book has the tart tang of vinegar with the zest of lemon squeezed into it.  In the book, Forrest has several adventures and not just on the playing field.  He becomes a soldier, an astronaut for NASA, he encounters shady politicians and, in one of my favorite chapters, he gets Hollywood work.  He's in a low-budget sci-fi movie starring a cranky, gorgeous and nearly naked starlet named Raquel Welch.  In the book, Forrest has an active sex life.  He 6' 6" and not exactly pure.  He's got an edge to him that keeps you turning the pages.

His girlfriend, Jenny, is a 1960s free spirit who loves to have sex.  With Forrest and men.  His mother is a annoying old bat who selfishly clings to him and constantly whines.  Although he doesn't do well on scholastic tests, he's a savant who has an astonishing series of adventures.  Some of the funny, outrageous complications in Forrest's life cause him to say -- "Bein' an idiot is no box o' chocolates."

In the film, that line was sweetened to "Life is like a box o' chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."
The mother in the movie version is flipped.  She's loving, unselfish and devoted to getting her special needs son the scholastic respect and attention he deserves.  She is not a rich Southern woman.  If sex is the only currency she has in negotiations to get a better life for her son, she will use that.  Sally Field is excellent as Mama Gump.  In real life, Sally Field and Tom Hanks are in the same age category and both graduated to Oscar winning performances in dramas after having started their national careers in lead roles on ABC sitcoms.
Thanks to the box office bonanza FORREST GUMP struck with moviegoers, the 1980s book became a best-seller again.  I've often wondered how people who loved the movie felt when they read the book.  I also wonder what kind of response Winston Groom got from folks who saw the movie first and then read his novel.  If you loved the movie, you'll discover a different Forrest if you read the book.  But I totally feel you will also enjoy it.  Winston Groom wrote a funny and delightfully twisted adventure with a memorable lead character.

If you're interested in screenwriting, read the book.  See how the characters were retained yet changed for the film version, a film that became a major money-maker and a top Oscar winner (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay).  Compare that to, say, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.  That screenplay, based on a short story, masterfully and brilliantly opened up the story while remaining very faithful to the original material and its tone.
The movie FORREST GUMP opened nationally on July 6, 1994.  Screenwriter Eric Roth went on to write THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, which is basically a remake of his FORREST GUMP screenplay with Brad Pitt and Taraji P. Benson in variations on the Forrest and Mama Gump film roles.  I'm eagerly awaiting his upcoming film.  Eric Roth did the screenplay for the new remake of A STAR IS BORN opening in October.  It stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the story first seen in 1937, then seen with music added in the critically acclaimed 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason, then remade yet again -- this time with rock music -- starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976.

There you have it.  A summer reading book tip.  FORREST GUMP by Winston Groom.  If you read it, let me know what you think.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

On Milos Forman and RAGTIME (1981)

Serious film fans are in for a treat come the afternoon of July 7th.  TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, will have a special screening -- the director's cut of AMADEUS.  The late Milos Forman directed AMADEUS, based on the acclaimed play by Peter Shaffer.  I saw the play on Broadway.  What a fascinating work.  The movie opened up the story beautifully and brilliantly.  Genius vs Mediocrity.  Creation vs the Creator.  The play was fascinating.  The film adaptation lit up my soul.  The film won Oscars for Best Director and Best Actor (the excellent F. Murray Abraham) and for Best Picture.
At that time in society, the arts were stimulating our hearts and minds with products that examined that almost razor-thin difference between someone who's been blessed with the gift of stardom and someone who's got all the talent and training to be a star but didn't quite hit that mark in the public's heart.  Look at the dancers who were good enough to be in the chorus but not good enough to be stars in the story of A CHORUS LINE.  Look at the star ballerina and her best friend who left the dance world and became a housewife in the movie THE TURNING POINT starring Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine.  There's the element of that in the tale of young Mozart and his rival, Salieri, a composer who has the musical skills but lacks "that little something extra" that actor Norman Maine sees in band singer Esther Blodgett in 1954's A STAR IS BORN with Judy Garland and James Mason.

Forman's AMADEUS (1984) is a treat for the eye, the ear and the mind.

I've seen AMADEUS more than once.   Right now, I want to recommend a Forman film that I'd seen only once until this week.  I saw RAGTIME in its early theatrical release.  I saw it this week, before the 4th of July and during this, frankly, frightening time in our democratic American history.  Wow.  This film holds up and deserves a look.  RAGTIME is based on the novel of the same name.
I was riveted to how relevant and timely the film feels in this modern age of Trump -- and RAGTIME takes place in the early 1900s.  A wealthy bigot, a black man who can play classical piano and is complimented by the wealthy bigot on being "articulate," a Black Lives Matter vibe after an innocent black person dies at the hands of white guards, the cult of celebrity, immigration, and lethal gun violence in a public place of entertainment.
If you have a chance, give this American story a look.  For me, it was a reminder that the powerfully talented and handsome Howard Rollins, Jr. died way too soon. His performance as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker brought him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. After RAGTIME, he did the lead role in the 1984 Best Picture Oscar nominee, A SOLDIER'S STORY.  Television viewers saw him in the Sidney Poitier detective role in the TV series adaptation of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  Rollins died of AIDS in 1996.  He was only 46.
The film also stars Mary Steenburgen, Jeff Daniels, Debbie Allen, Mandy Patinkin, Norman Mailer and Elizabeth McGovern.  RAGTIME also reminds you of how effective Fran Drescher can be in a dramatic role.  She plays the wife of Mandy Patinkin's character.  In the gang of black radicals tired of New York's segregation and racism, you'll see newcomer Samuel L. Jackson.

Also in 1981's RAGTIME are two veterans of the Warner Brothers gangster movies of the 1930s, the kind of movies that put the studio on the map.  They are Pat O'Brien and James Cagney.  Cagney still had the magic.  You cannot take your eyes off him.  He holds the screen as the police commissioner.
One of my favorite Warner Bros. gangster classics is 1938's ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES starring James Cagney and Pat O'Brien.

Milos Forman, a wonderful filmmaker and an immigrant whose parents succumbed to Nazi evil, made a film in 1981 that rings true today.  He saw the fences in this Land of the Free, fences that must be removed or knocked down. He saw those limitations to freedom whether the limitations were artistic, political, social or racial.  Look at ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEXT, AMADEUS, THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT or HAIR.  And look at RAGTIME.


 I grew in Los Angeles, specifically South Central L.A. which was way more racially diverse than portrayed in local media at the time. Our f...