Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Oprah's First Book Club Star

It happened this week in history. September 17th should be a Holy Day of Obligation in America's publishing business. On that day, top publishing houses should require its agents and other representatives to light candles and give thanks and reverence to Oprah Winfrey. For, on September 17th in 1996, Oprah launched "Oprah's Book Club" on her worldwide daytime TV show. An unknown or little-known author could become a literary star overnight if Oprah the Great announced your name and your book's title. An established author could gain millions of new readers. Getting the Oprah Book Club seal of approval could be a wondrous thing for your writing career and your book sales -- if you didn't mind a seal of approval coming from a woman with a huge national audience of females. In New York City, I heard buzz from three buddies of mine about a new novel called THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen. They called it a "must-read." Later, Oprah felt the same way about Jonathan Franzen's novel. Hallelujah! Unfortunately, Franzen felt her book club was female fluff and didn't need her attention. She politely nixed him and picked another book by another author. The heads of Franzen's agent and editor must have exploded like the heads of the angry space creatures who suddenly hear Slim Whitman singing in the movie MARS ATTACKS! Franzen came to his senses a few years later and appeared on her massively influential daytime show. Oprah's Book Club got women and men of all ages, colors, shapes and sexual preferences reading and buying books. And discussing them.
Oprah first book club selection was THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN by Jacquelyn Mitchard. It was adapted into a 1999 movie of the same name starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Whoopi Goldberg and Treat Williams.
In 1998, Jacquelyn Mitchard was promoting her second novel, THE MOST WANTED.  When I heard she was available to be on our Fox5 weekday morning TV news program, GOOD DAY NEW YORK, I enthusiastically pushed to do the interview. I'd read her novel. I loved that one of the characters in her book had a fondness for the 1963 comedy/drama movie, SOLDIER IN THE RAIN, starring Steve McQueen, Jackie Gleason and Tuesday Weld.
I have a fondness for writers. I loved interviewing Jackie Mitchard and I want to share that live TV segment with you. Here I am with the author who kicked off Oprah's Book Club.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Laughs from THE BREAKER UPPERERS

I read a brief item about this 2018 comedy on Twitter. The tweet read that THE BREAKER UPPERERS was ultimately a comedy valentine to independent women and it was a very funny New Zealand film that clocks in at only about 1 hour and 20 minutes on Netflix. Well, I found it and decided to give it a try. THE BREAKER UPPERERS broke me up laughing in the opening scene. Off-camera, we hear a woman sobbing like Doris Day when she realized she'd been romantically scammed in PILLOW TALK. We're looking at two female cops watch the sobbing woman who has learned from the officers that her relationship is over. The man in her life is gone.
The female cops leave and get into their car. Once in, we discover they are not really police officers at all. Jen and Mel are best friends who run a break-up business. People who want out of their relationships, but don't have the guts to do it themselves, hire Jen and Mel to concoct a devious but effective way to do it for them. Sure, what they do seems mean. But Jen sees it as removing a tree that's blocking out the sun -- and doing it without physical harm. Jen is straight. Mel is bi-sexual. Neither is in a relationship. Neither is really happy with her life as it is. Something feels missing. Jen hooks up with a guy she met on Tinder. They're having sex. It seems to be one of the rare times he's felt confident enough to remove his undershirt during sex. She frankly tells him she's imagining he's someone else.

In the first scene, when we see a montage of the clients who want to end their relationships, that background music is Vivaldi -- just like in the divorce classic KRAMER VS. KRAMER. Jen and Mel are like private eyes in reverse. Instead of trying to track someone down, they don different outfits and identities to chase disappointing sweethearts away.
Things are going pretty well with the business until Mel's conscience starts to get the better of her and one hunky young client finds her attractive.

Remember the British sitcom ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS with those two irresponsible best friends who lived for cocktails and designer clothing? There's an ounce of that in THE BREAKER UPPERERS with a splash of NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE. Here's a trailer.

For American viewers, the only recognizable face in that cast is the actor who played the Tinder guy with body issues. If you get HBO and watched the daffy sitcom, FLIGHT OFTHE CONCHORDS, you'll recognize the tall and bespectacled Jemaine Clement.

If this was an American comedy with two males in the lead roles, like a comedy produced by Judd Apatow, a bunch of the laughs would be broader and ad libbed scenes that would've been better as DVD extras would've been put into the movie adding an unnecessary 20 minutes to push towards a 2 hour and 10 minutes running time. This New Zealand feature runs on dry wit and keeps the story trim. It may not be a great comedy like a SOME LIKE IT HOT, TOOTSIE, DR. STRANGELOVE or THE LADY EVE, but this tale of deception, duplicity, true feelings and friendship is good entertainment. I laughed a lot and, even though each one is a hot mess, I loved the two lead characters. It was fun watching those two women move on from cynicism. I plan to watch it again on Netflix.

Madeleine Sami plays Mel. Jackie van Beek plays Jen. Both actresses wrote the screenplay. Both women directed THE BREAKER UPPERERS.




Sunday, September 15, 2019

Thank you, AMERICAN MASTERS PBS

My previous blog post urged you watch the AMERICAN MASTERS documentary on the late, great actor Raúl Juliá. It was RAUL JULIA: THE WORLD'S A STAGE and it premiered that Friday night, September 13th. I wrote about how seeing his work moved me to my very soul. Not only moved it, set it on fire. In 1988, when I had my own celebrity talk show on VH1, I was humbled and honored to set close to him in the studio and have him as a guest on my prime time show. He was terrific. Classy, witty, interesting, sexy and thankful. Just like other Latino and Black artists who were guests on my show -- Ricardo Montalban, Whoopi Goldberg, Smokey Robinson, Gregory Hines, Carlos Santana -- he knew that for me to have such a national TV show was a giant step that many people may not have realized. I was getting the same quality of guests that you saw the white male hosts on national TV get. Hosts such as Dick Cavett, Charlie Rose, Johnny Carson and David Letterman. I had a great reverence for artists such as Raúl Juliá. He passionately punched a wide hole in the race/color wall in the entertainment industry. He did it with his talent. He, and those other artists of color I mentioned, made it wider so that others, like myself, could follow.  Raúl Juliá was an actor and humanitarian who was definitely ahead of his time. He died way too soon.
At the end of my blog post, I added a demo reel of my VH1 talk show because there was a clip of Raúl Juliá in it and I am very proud of that.
I was watching the premiere of the AMERICAN MASTERS special on Friday night while visiting my sister in the Minneapolis area. All of a sudden, I gasped. I heard a quote that sounded familiar. Then I heard my voice.

That clip of Raúl Juliá from my VH1 talk show had been included in the AMERICAN MASTERS documentary. I did not expect that. My skin tingled, my heart glowed, my eyes filled with tears of pride. I still have a deep reverence for him.
I wrote of my grateful surprise on Twitter. I got a sweet response from one of the show's producers. Producer/Director Ben DeJesus wrote that my clip "was a very important moment in the story we told. Thank you!"

To see someone attach the word "important" to work that I've done … wow. Just … wow.  He gave this Black Catholic dude from South Central L.A. a very early Christmas gift.  Thank you, Ben.

Check out my previous blog post.

See the AMERICAN MASTER PBS documentary on the remarkable Raúl Juliá.  Click onto this link:  pbs.org/rauljulia.











Friday, September 13, 2019

Raúl Juliá Remembered Tonight on PBS

I have a longtime dear friend who can confirm this. I relocated to accept a TV job in New York City in 1985. That year, KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN opened at a movie theater in midtown. I saw it one afternoon. That was my first viewing. KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, especially the unforgettable performance by Raúl Juliá, just about made my soul experience an axial shift towards a new light. Something in me was illuminated. I am not ashamed to admit that I paid to see it again about five more times. A friend from my college years in the Midwest who became my roommate for a year in Brooklyn was my guest for a sixth viewing. He had to know what I found so fascinating about the film. He saw it -- and then he knew. Raúl moved him too.
It's Friday, September 13th, and AMERICAN MASTERS on PBS puts the late, great actor in the spotlight tonight at 9:00/8:00 Central.  You need to see it. Cancer stole Raúl Juliá away from us but, Lord, Raúl did leave some brilliant work behind for us to see.
This very week is an anniversary week for me. In 1988, the was the week my prime time VH1 talk show, WATCH BOBBY RIVERS, premiered. It was a half-hour program. My sole guest for the premiere show was Kirk Douglas. Raúl Juliá was also a guest during my show's run. I'd been in his presence before when I worked at another TV station in New York City and he came in for an interview. He had a charisma and a presence that was like an invigorating force field. As my guest on VH1, he was warm, gracious, appealing, playful and grateful. I was honored, humbled and proud to have him as a guest. He'd blasted a big hole through barriers of race and color.  I know many of you have seen this demo reel of mine already. But I want to share it again because Raúl Juliá is in it -- and I want you to see the PBS documentary about him tonight. On my show, I asked him about KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN.
In the story of two cellmates in a Latin American prison, William Hurt (above) played the jailed drag queen who is fascinated with old movies and top female movie stars. Raúl Juliá played the very macho political dissident. Hurt won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance. The film got Oscar nominations for Best Picture of 1985 and Best Director.

Here is a short preview of tonight's PBS presentation about the artist. He was extraordinary.




Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Lorraine Hansberry and Hollywood

Recently, I watched the 1961 film adaptation of A RAISIN IN THE SUN on cable's TCM (Turner Classic Movies). Members of the original Broadway cast repeated their roles for the Columbia Pictures release. Actors from the 1959 Broadway production were Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Claudia McNeil, Louis Gossett Jr., Ivan Dixon and John Fielder.
This modern-day drama, focused on an extended family on the South Side of Chicago, was the first play from an African American female playwright to be produced on Broadway. The playwright was Lorraine Hansberry, a gifted writer and social activist who succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 34 in 1965.
This is something that is rarely mentioned and rarely highlighted but it is another extremely huge achievement for Lorraine Hansberry. She not only wrote the Broadway play, she also wrote the Hollywood studio screenplay adaptation. Think about it. How many Black women in the 1960s saw their names in big bold letter on a movie screen under the word "Screen Play" during the opening credits? At that time, it was unusual for a Black woman to get the lead female role in a notable Hollywood production. Hansberry got a screenwriter credit when that field in American film was dominated by white men followed by a few white women. With that, she wrote a whole new chapter in Hollywood and Black History.

To put this accomplishment into some perspective, consider this: The late, great Dorothy Dandridge was the first Black person to be an Oscar nominee for a lead role performance. She was an Oscar nominee for Best Actress of 1954 thanks to her sensational work in the Fox musical drama, CARMEN JONES. The ignorance of Hollywood racism crippled her career. After that stunning performance, Dandridge would not get another Hollywood opportunity for a lead role until 1959's PORGY AND BESS in which she'd star opposite Sidney Poitier. Her lack of opportunities were because, although glamorous and a very good actress, she was Black. PORGY AND BESS would be her last major Hollywood film. Like Lorraine Hansberry, Dandridge's untimely death would come in 1965. She was in need of employment and only 42.

Hansberry created strong, substantial lead and supporting roles for Black actresses onstage and adapted them for a film version. I believe the Columbia Pictures production marked Ruby Dee's first lead role in a top Hollywood studio release.


When I see Ruby Dee's performance in 1961's A RAISIN IN THE SUN, it is hard to believe that her first and only Oscar nomination came for 2007's AMERICAN GANGSTER. Her role and all the other roles in that fine film came from the young, gifted and Black Lorraine Hansberry -- history-making playwright and screenwriter.  She definitely had Black Girl Magic.

Hansberry was a social activist and she was a member of the LGBTQ community. Here's a trailer for a documentary that premiered on PBS. It's essential viewing if you want to learn more about this American artist.

Monday, September 9, 2019

A Look at MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944)

He was a new director at MGM, the renowned Tiffany of Hollywood studios for movie musicals. She was a young star of MGM musicals. Under his direction, her stardom would skyrocket from popular Hollywood princess to queen of MGM musicals in the 1940s. While making their first film together, they would fall in love and later marry. She was in her early 20s, he in his early 40s. They were Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland.  
Their first film project was an original screen musical that became the studio's biggest box office hit since 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. The original musical was MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. It's a poignant and humorous tale of family love that endures through the seasons, even when a season could bring heartache and disappointment. Despite what happens, the Smith Family will be together. MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is a true classic with rich performances and memorable songs. I'd seen it many, many times on TV and even in revival theaters. However, it's greatest impact on my heart came when I saw it the first December following the Sept. 11th attacks in 2001. I watched it on DVD and sobbed throughout the entire "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" number tenderly done by Garland. That number at that time in our national history made me long for a holiday family reunion where we could bring all our imperfect selves together for a perfect Christmastime embrace, a hug that would say "I am so glad you're here, I am so glad you're a part of my life." There's extraordinary love in this ordinary American family.
Way back in the late 1980s, I was a veejay on VH1. The network was different then. Music videos were the main fare. When I introduced some of then, I noted that a number of music videos took visual inspiration from classic Hollywood musicals. Whitney Huston's videos had bits of business borrowed by an Audrey Hepburn number in FUNNY FACE and a Fred Astaire number in THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY. Paula Abdul referenced Bob Fosse's ALL THAT JAZZ in one of her videos and, in another, she danced with a cartoon character like Gene Kelly had done in ANCHORS AWEIGH. Madonna copied Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES in her "Material Girl" video.

A buddy of mine back then said that MTV and VH1 music videos had replaced movie musicals. As a former VH1 veejay, and as a lover of movie musicals, I say that music videos took inspiration from movie musicals but they did not replace them. Marketing is a main force that drives the music video. With the quick shots and edits that seem to come every :03 to :06 seconds, with the several changes of wardrobe and location or background, the main purpose is to sell the artist, present an image and sell records. When chameleon Madonna wanted to show a new image, she did it in a music video. In a movie musical, one can extend and/or present a new maturity in a star's image. The musical numbers, however, are "reveals." They are present to reveal more about the character and the character's emotions which will be important as the story progresses. In the number, a creative and skilled director -- like Vincente Minnelli -- can highlight the star's look and the star's strength as an artist.
Early in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, we see that Esther Smith has a crush on the boy next door. On a trolley ride with friends, she hopes to see him. As the ride begins, she notices he's running to jump on. She's so filled with joy that simple spoken words are not enough. She sings her feelings. Near the end of the movie, he will propose to Esther on Christmas Eve. But a major relocation for the Smith Family could separate them for a long time and dissolve the romantic relationship. On the trolley, though, all is jubilant. Notice that Minnelli frames Garland's character like she's the center of a picture postcard. Esther wears a darker jacket. The other women all wear brighter colors. Esther is the only female not wearing a hat. The large decorative hats the other ladies wear almost serve as presenting lovely Esther in the center of a colorful floral display.

Musicals are festive and fun on the big screen. In production, they are hard work. Notice Judy Garland's strength as an actress and a singer. There are no MTV-like quick cuts and edits from Minnelli. Judy sings in one continuous take for about 2 minutes before there's a cut for a different angle. Basically, she nailed a couple of hours of studio work in one continuous take. Her emotions as Esther Smith are fluid, spontaneous and, acting-wise, spot on for a girl who's thrilled she may be near the boy who makes her heartstrings go "Zing!" This is excellent singing and acting.

Here's "The Trolley Song" in Minnelli's MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, thanks to Warner Archive:

Movie musicals are an art form. Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli were masters in the art.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Terrific Tommy Rall

I remember being in a downtown Milwaukee screening room. As usual in those days, I was the only black person in the room to see the movie. I was the only black person on local TV doing film reviews. The movie was 1981's PENNIES FROM HEAVEN starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. I was the only person in the screening room -- black or white -- who happily gasped "Oh my gosh! It's Tommy Rall!" during one of the musical numbers.
Tall, handsome, dark-haired Tommy Rall was never a movie star leading man but he certainly was one of the most extraordinary dancers in classic movie musicals. You saw him dance and sing with Ann Miller in 1953's KISS ME KATE as the Broadway dancer with a yen for gambling. You saw him as one of the rowdy backwoodsmen at a barn-raising dance in 1954's SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS.
You heard the recent kerfuffle when Lara Spencer, the pop news co-host on ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA, made a couple of snarky remarks about little Prince George having ballet classes in his current back-to-school program. She had a look of disbelief on her face when reporting that Prince William said his little boy loved the ballet class. It was an odd and awkward moment of live network television considering that Lara is middle-aged, she makes a reported $3 million and she's been covering entertainment news on national TV for well over a decade. Her comment, not meant to be hurtful, seemed to imply that ballet classes are not for boys -- as if boys have neither the interest in nor the discipline for them. As if ballet dancing is not masculine.
If she saw Broadway shows such as Disney's THE LION KING, BILLY ELLIOTT or CHICAGO, if she saw movies such as WEST SIDE STORY, GUYS AND DOLLS or DIRTY DANCING, did she not know those male dancers spent many days sweating heavily in ballet classes? Or did she think they just made up the steps to the music as it went along -- like they were breakdancers in a Greenwich Village public square in the 1980s?

There's that. This week, we had to endure days of White House weather reports with maps the president drew right before class was dismissed for lunch. Today, I read that my great mate across the pond, BBC 5 Live contributor Lorna Cooper, also loves Tommy Rall.

She's inspired me to reboot and refresh our spirits with samples of the magnificent athleticism, grace and wit of Tommy Rall.

The first of Rosalind Russell's four Oscar nominations for Best Actress came for the 1942 comedy, MY SISTER EILEEN. Two sisters move from Ohio to Greenwich Village in New York City. The older protective one hopes to find success as a writer. The younger sister, Eileen, innocently attracts suitors and madcap situations. It was turned into an original 1955 movie musical, with the same name, starring Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh as the sisters. Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall played two of the guys who compete to win Eileen's heart. Rall is the taller one in the lighter-colored jacket as the two suitors challenge each other in a theater alley dance.

Here's Tommy Rall with Steve Martin and Robert Fitch dancing and lip syncing to "It's the Girl" in 1981's PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.  Rall is on the left in the trio.

Tommy Rall was in the early 50s when he did that PENNIES FROM HEAVEN number. I couldn't move like that when I was in my early 20s.  What a sensational dancer.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Poitier and Dandridge as PORGY AND BESS

Lena Horne called Dorothy Dandridge "our Marilyn Monroe." Today, Dandridge is canonized in the "groundbreaker" category as black and white folks mention that she was the first African American woman to be an Oscar nominee for Best Actress. She was nominated for CARMEN JONES, the musical drama that put her in the now legendary Best Actress fo 1954 Oscar race. Judy Garland's extraordinary screen comeback the first remake of A STAR IS BORN made her the favorite to win. The Oscar race seemed to be between Garland for A STAR IS BORN and Hollywood golden girl Grace Kelly for dressing down and looking drab in THE COUNTRY GIRL. Kelly won. The Oscar race should've been between the two women who rocked musical dramas in 1954 -- Judy Garland for A STAR IS BORN and Dorothy Dandridge for CARMEN JONES. But, let's face it, gorgeous Dorothy Dandridge was a winner just by getting that Oscar nomination. In 1954's CARMEN JONES, directed by Otto Preminger, her beauty is obvious, her talent is obvious and her star quality is undeniable. However, Hollywood had a color barrier and she was black.
After 1954's CARMEN JONES. her next lead role in a Hollywood film would be in another musical drama directed by Otto Preminger. Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier starred in the 1959 film adaptation of Broadway's PORGY AND BESS. This would be Dandridge's final Hollywood film. She'd die nearly broke in 1965 at age 42.  Here's a trailer for CARMEN JONES.

When I was a kid in Los Angeles, 1959's PORGY AND BESS aired a number of times on local KTLA/Channel 5. I saw before it got locked into a Mosler safe because of rights issues. Occasionally, you can see it in a museum screening (as I did in my adult years). It's never on TV.
In New York City at Lincoln Center, 1959's PORGY AND BESS is slated to get a rare 35mm screening on September 19th. The Technicolor musical also stars Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll and Sammy Davis, Jr.  For ticket information, click onto this link:

filmlinc.org/films/porgy-and-bess.

I had the soundtrack to that Goldwyn musical and I pretty much wore that record out. It's a luxury for the ears. The singing is wonderful and the orchestrations are lush. CARMEN JONES was a modern-day version of Bizet's opera, CARMEN. PORGY AND BESS glowed with the masterpiece music of George Gershwin. Dandridge could and did sing. However, in those two big screen assignments, her operatic singing voice was dubbed. Bobby ("Don't Worry, Be Happy") McFerrin was a guest on my VH1 talk show in the late 80s. I took my PORGY AND BESS soundtrack to work to have with me during my interview of him. McFerrin's father, Robert McFerrin, was an opera singer and he dubbed Sidney Poitier's singing voice in PORGY AND BESS. Brock Peters, later seen as Tom Robinson in 1962's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, did he own singing. Sammy Davis, Jr. is not heard on the soundtrack because he was under contract to a different record label. On the PORGY AND BESS soundtrack, Cab Calloway does all the vocals for "Sportin' Life," Davis' character.
PORGY AND BESS is not one of my favorite movie musicals because of the stereotypes of black characters. Nonetheless, I have watched it several times in awe of the amazing black talent in fine form in that film. The film has historical significance. In this Preminger film, you sense that actors were fully aware of the stereotypes and worked to crack through them with nuanced performances. I read that Sidney Poitier was conflicted about taking the role and definitely would not perform it using the old patois that Hollywood put on black actors like a yoke. Instead of saying, "That's right, sir. It sure is" we'd have to say "Das right, boss. It sho' is."
The folk opera had premiered on Broadway in 1935. By the time the film version went before the Hollywood cameras, Dorothy Dandridge had a landmark Oscar nomination to her credit and Sidney Poitier had scored a Broadway success in A RAISIN IN THE SUN, a dramatic play that was trailblazing for its black playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, and with its fresh, dimensional images of black characters in a modern-day American story. Two months before the premiere of PORGY AND BESS, Poitier would make history as the first black man to be an Oscar nominee for Best Actor thanks to his performance in 1958's THE DEFIANT ONES.

Another thing to keep in mind was that Preminger's movie was coming out when the Civil Rights movement was gaining muscle. Whereas A RAISIN IN THE SUN presented a 1950s extended black American family on the South Side of Chicago that dreamed of moving into a nice suburban home, PORGY AND BESS had characters from 1935. Bess was the sexy Jezebel floozie with a weakness for cocaine. Porgy was the good Christian man devoid of a sex life (he's disabled and can't walk), Crown (played by Brock Peters) is the big muscular and dangerous black stud. Sportin' Life is a drug pusher.

Sportin' Life wants Bess to leave South Carolina and go with him to New York City. Crown wants Bess for sex. The Christian women in town shun her because she's a floozie. Crippled Porgy, who gets around on a cart, falls in love with Bess and wants her heal her weary soul. She falls in love with him too. She is, for a time, redeemed. That is until Crown finds her alone at an island picnic and seduces her with his apparently loaf-of-French-bread-sized penis.

We're grateful to Otto Preminger (above) for casting Dorothy Dandridge in CARMEN JONES. Yet, with PORGY AND BESS, I wish the director job had gone to someone like Vincente Minnelli. Minnelli was a master of widescreen, of Technicolor and of musicals. Minnelli had exquisitely deployed the use of classic Gershwin tunes in his AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1951. He'd kicked off his directorial career with the film version of a hit Broadway musical driven by black American folk tale and characters, 1943's CABIN IN THE SKY. Minnelli displayed an affection and respect for black culture in CABIN IN THE SKY and in THE CLOCK, the World War 2 romantic drama starring his wife, Judy Garland. Notice the several upscale images of black GI's and family members in the movie's final scene at Penn Station. Rarely did Hollywood films show black and white GI's in a World War 2 movie. Then there was his casting The Nicholas Brothers in a dance number with Gene Kelly in the original screen musical, 1948's THE PIRATE. The "Be a Clown" number with Kelly and The Nicholas Brothers is a bright gem in the crown of MGM musical numbers from that decade.

There's something missing in PORGY AND BESS that's also missing in CARMEN JONES. Something you definitely saw in musicals starring Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day and SHOW BOAT's Ava Gardner. We never get a close-up of Dorothy Dandridge in any of her numbers. Why? Did Preminger not have enough money in his budget or enough time in his shooting schedule? Minnelli would have lingered on Dandridge's face the way her lingered on Garland's during her lovely, wistful introduction on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.
During PORGY AND BESS, you realize that Dorothy Dandridge's sizzling and substantial performance as CARMEN JONES was no fluke. Her screen charisma, star quality and acting talent blast through the stereotypical confines of her Bess character. She's alluring, self-loathing, loving, lost and redeemed. She's a very human Bess. You cheer for Dandridge's performance and then you want to cry. You want to cry because 1959's PORGY AND BESS was the first lead role in a Hollywood film after her groundbreaking lead role performance in 1954's CARMEN JONES. Hollywood had no opportunities for this trained singer/dancer and serious black actress after 1959. The fact of that makes you wish you could have grabbed each white male Hollywood studio boss and slapped him like he was Mrs. Mulwray in the last 15 minutes of CHINATOWN.

To see a clip that includes Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Brock Peters, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis, Jr., click onto the link below:

https://youtu.be/x2XWESUX4xE.



Monday, September 2, 2019

Labor Day 2019

I often recall three things Mom taught me when I was a little boy. She'd say "Mind your manners, eat your vegetables, and never cross a picket line." Mom was a registered nurse and proud union member. I also remember the time I said to one of the other kids on the block, "My mom's home today because she's on strike." Dad worked for the main post office in downtown Los Angeles and he, too, was proud union member. In those days, Channel 9 was KHJ-TV in the SoCal area. It was an independent station hooked up to the Warner Bros. film library. THE PAJAMA GAME, starring Doris Day and John Raitt, was frequently in the Million Dollar Movie spotlight. When Doris and the chorus sang "Seven and Half Cents" as striking factory workers, I understood what that scene meant because my parents were union members.
I'm a proud union member. My union is Screen Actors Guild, also known as SAG-AFTRA. It is a relief and a blessing to have that organization at my back. Let me give you the biggest example why. I once took a non-union TV job. It was to host a new national half-hour show on a popular cable channel. Initially, the company expected that the project would last only 13 weeks with 1 episode airing per week. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a hit and we taped 100 episodes. I didn't have on-camera duty every week but I did have voiceover recording sessions every week for post-production.

With a union job, I know that I will get paid every two weeks. With that job, I was lucky if I got paid every two months. I never knew when the paychecks were coming and, when they did, they were never for the same amount. I was professional and did the work. However, worked a year and a half for that company and never got paid every month. THIS is why I love my SAG-AFTRA union.

I absolutely loved my weekly job as entertainment editor for the ABC News live weekday production called LIFETIME LIVE. The hour-long show aired on LifetimeTV in 2000. I wish you a great Labor Day and send you off with this Labor Day movie recommendation I gave to the late, wonderful Dana Reeve on LIFETIME LIVE. Heck, it's a holiday. I'll also leave you with that Doris Day number from the 1957 Warner Bros. musical, THE PAJAMA GAME.








Saturday, August 31, 2019

Marilyn Monroe Was Robbed

Although she was not a trained dancer like Cyd Charisse or Leslie Caron, Gene Kelly was very impressed with the way Marilyn Monroe moved in her dance numbers. Kelly had a cameo in Monroe's 1960 comedy with musical numbers, LET'S MAKE LOVE. Although I cannot remember any film critics praising her voice, I purchased record albums of Marilyn Monroe vocals when I was a teen-ager.  I felt the late star had good voice and could do some sweet justice to a tune with a jazz beat. As for acting, it is a damn shame that, during her lifetime, no critics ever noted that she was one of Hollywood's best funny ladies, a screen comedienne with awesome comedy timing. Then, in a drama, she could set the screen on fire as a sizzling siren. This is why I feel Marilyn Monroe was robbed by not being in the Academy Award list of nominees for Best Actress of 1953. Monroe should have been a Best Actress nominee for the musical comedy, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES.
Here are the nominees for that year: Audrey Hepburn for ROMAN HOLIDAY (winner), Deborah Kerr for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, Leslie Caron for LILI, Ava Gardner for MOGAMBO and Maggie McNamara for THE MOON IS BLUE. Here's a trailer for THE MOON IS BLUE.

Let's look at THE MOON IS BLUE, a very talky romantic comedy directed by Otto Preminger. The male leads are Hollywood veterans William Holden and David Niven. This was during the period when Holden pretty much owned Hollywood and, after having done commendable work since 1939, had finally popped as a top star. He starred in SUNSET BLVD and BORN YESTERDAY in 1950.  For 1953, he'd take home the Best Actor Oscar for STALAG 17.

THE MOON IS BLUE got a lot of publicity because of archaic Hollywood production codes at that time. The censors objected to the words "virgin" and "mistress" in this comedy. The plot makes us wonder if the marriage-hungry maiden will be seduced by the middle-aged bachelor after she passive aggressively winds up in his Manhattan apartment during a rainstorm. THE MOON IS BLUE was based on a play, its claustrophobic stage roots show, and it's in black and white. Maggie McNamara, the poor dear, got big Hollywood buzz at the time. She's rarely talked about today. In THE MOON IS BLUE, the pert brunette looks like the kind of female who would've inspired THE STEPFORD WIVES in the 1970s. I guess McNamara's character, Patty O'Neill, came off cute and lovable in the 1950s. I find her calculating, self-absorbed and selfish.  She's a single woman in New York City who tells the bachelor "I'm an actress" and "The kind of men I want don't grow on trees." Prim and proper Patty reveals that she wants "a middle-aged man with gobs of dough." At one point of chatter with Holden's truly charming bachelor, she comments "Men are usually so bored with virgins. I'm glad you're not." We get a chance to see her at work when she's in the bachelor's apartment after having fixed him dinner. The acting role? She's seated, dressed as a medieval character, and sings in a beer commercial that airs on NBC. When first she arrives at his apartment, Patty looks like she's taking inventory. She's scouts for items that would make her domestic life comfortable. She peers in his refrigerator and highly recommends he should be eating Finnan haddie, a high-tone fish dish.

Actress Patty O'Neill uses her virginity as a marketing tool as she establishes what kind of kitchen appliances she'd want, the kind of food she'd want in her refrigerator and what she'd expect of her financially secure middle-aged husband. At no time does Patty say what she would bring to the marriage other than her virginity and cooking skills. She never says that she will love her husband, but she does say she expects to hear him say "I love you."  I cannot stand Patty O'Neill. I hope she gets the runs from her Finnan haddie.

Patty O'Neill is a single woman, "an actress" in New York City, with a desire to land herself a financially secure husband.  Lorelei Lee is a single woman, an entertainer in New York City, with a desire to land herself a financially secure husband -- and love him. Lorelei is played by Marilyn Monroe in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. She never says "I'm an actress" yet her work on stage kicks Patty's beer commercial into total obscurity. As soon as this glittery Technicolor movie starts, we see exactly why Gene Kelly was impressed with how Marilyn Monroe moved. Lorelei Lee is a showgirl with her best friend, Dorothy Shaw. She and Dorothy (Jane Russell) are nightclub headliners and they perform "I'm Just a Little Girl from Little Rock." The choreography is by Jack Cole, renowned as one of Broadway's most celebrated jazz/ethnic choreographers. He constructed numbers for Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. He also did film work in the 1940s and 50s. His choreography was neither plain nor simple. It popped and trained dancers did hard work making it pop.  Marilyn Monroe performs Jack Cole's choreography like a pro.
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES was based on a hit Broadway musical that made Carol Channing a new star. Channing was Lorelei. The story was changed and rewritten to fit the two 20th Century Fox movie stars. A couple of songs were kept from the Broadway score. Others were dropped and replaced with new ones. "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" was kept and given a hipper, jazzier arrangement. It fits Monroe like a velvet glove. Two of Marilyn's chorus boys in the number are Larry Kert who'd go on to be Tony in the original Broadway cast of WEST SIDE STORY and George Chakiris who'd go on to win an Oscar for playing Bernardo in the film version of WEST SIDE STORY.
Lorelei is a stylish, scrumptious blonde who's a bit of a scatterbrain -- except when calculating the worth of a diamond. Put a diamond in front of her and her brain becomes a NASA computer. Her sweetheart is a lovable, shy bookworm son a rich old man. Here's where we need to compare and contrast Marilyn Monroe's Lorelei Lee to Maggie McNamara's Patty O'Neill.
We never see Patty with a friend. She never even mentions a best friend. As much as Lorelei loves diamonds, there is no diamond on earth big enough to pull her away from the loyalty she has to her girlfriend Dorothy. As for Gus, the rich bookworm Danny, when Lorelei kisses him, she makes him feel like he's King of the World. When she croons "Bye-Bye, Baby" to Gus, she's telling him there'll be no other guy while she and Dorothy are on tour in Europe.
You have to be smart to play a "dumb blonde." You have to know where the laugh is in the script and how to deliver it with the perfect cluelessness and timing. Look at Judy Holliday in BORN YESTERDAY.  Monroe's blend of savvy showgirl and wide-eyed childlike innocence are great for this character. Lorelei exudes a warmth and vulnerability we never got from Patty in THE MOON IS BLUE. My late partner was 15 years younger than I and a hardcore Madonna fan. He didn't know her "Material Girl" video was imitating Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. I had the movie on VHS and gave it to him. One day, I hear him in the other room howling with laughter. He had never seen a Marilyn Monroe movie. He was replaying Lorelei's first encounter with a diamond tiara.
The comedy bit Monroe does with the little froggy-voiced boy when Lorelei gets stuck in a luxury liner porthole is right up there with the best of Lucille Ball on 1950's I LOVE LUCY.
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES was directed by Howard Hawks who also gave us ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, HIS GIRL FRIDAY and BALL OF FIRE. It was released six months after moviegoers saw Marilyn Monroe as the cheating wife of an emotionally disturbed war veteran (played by Joseph Cotton). In NIAGARA, she's lusty Rose Loomis, the younger wife who delights in knowing she's got a hot, handsome lover on the side. The two meet secretly there in the Niagara Falls vacation spot. There's one scene in which Rose is in bed and seems to be naked with only a sheet over her. Her husband is in another room. Rose has a look of sexual desire and fulfillment on her face. You know she's thinking of her lover. The sheet covering her is like a big bow gift-wrapped around a Roman candle that's ready to be lit.                       
Marilyn Monroe is memorable in this noir/thriller. Her Rose is both seductive and doomed.

Around Thanksgiving time, moviegoers would see Marilyn Monroe in another comedy --  HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE. In that bright, colorful feature, we see that the new actress zooming up to be Hollywood's top sex symbol of the decade also had a gift for physical comedy. In it, she's a gorgeous dimwit model who's sorely in need of eyeglasses. Her vision is very bad. But she doesn't wear her glasses because she feels they'll make her look like "an old maid." Without them, she's practically so blind that she walks into a wall.  Just like in GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES, she falls for a bookworm. One who wears glasses -- and gives her the confidence to wear hers. He's not a millionaire, but he wins her heart.

Recently, I watched THE MOON IS BLUE again on Amazon Prime to see how I'd feel about it. I felt the same. I found Patty to be hollow and annoying whereas Lorelei is lively and lovable. She may be a bit ditzy but she's a loyal friend and a fabulous entertainer who connects with people of different cultures and colors. She loves a guy a lets him know it.  GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES gives us a funnier romantic comedy that has more and better numbers than the beer commercial on TV in THE MOON IS BLUE. But, at the time, critics considered the late Maggie McNamara the new "serious actress."
That was McNamara's one film release for 1953. Monroe had three -- NIAGARA, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE. McNamara had played the role onstage. Monroe had done stand-out minor roles in excellent films such as THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950) and ALL ABOUT EVE (1950).

Do what I did. Watch 1953's romantic comedy THE MOON IS BLUE starring Oscar nominee Maggie McNamara. Then watch 1953's romantic musical comedy, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, starring Marilyn Monroe.  Which actress would you have nominated for the Oscar?




Thursday, August 29, 2019

Constance Wu & Women in Film

Constance Wu stars with Jennifer Lopez in a new movie drama called HUSTLERS. It opens September 13th. This movie is more than just "pole roles" for the female cast that includes Cardi B. and GOOD MORNING AMERICA's newest addition, Keke Palmer. They play pole dancers in a strip club. The movie is based on a real-life story, a story that was written up as a feature in New York Magazine. A group of strip club workers banded together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients. I hope these strippers excite the movie-going public and "make it rain" at the box office. This week, we read the USC Annenberg reports on Hollywood's under-representation of Latinos. Jennifer Lopez, who has delivered solid acting performances in SELENA (1997) and OUT OF SIGHT (1998) in addition to her hit record career, revealed that friends advised her not to take the job as a judge on AMERICAN IDOL. But, like other actresses of color who've done good work in films, she took TV work because Hollywood had no good script opportunities for her. This fall, Constance Wu returns for a 6th season on a hit ABC sitcom. She plays the mother on FRESH OFF THE BOAT.
Last year, she lit up the movie screen in the box office smash, CRAZY RICH ASIANS. The romantic comedy was a colorful eye-candy treat with a terrific cast. Back when I was a kid and the Rivers Family would pack into the Plymouth and go to the drive-in, CRAZY RICH ASIANS was the quality of film we'd have loved to see. It was totally fun, an entertaining film for the family or a great date night movie.
Neither FRESH OFF THE BOAT nor CRAZY RICH ASIANS was mentioned when GOOD MORNING AMERICA anchors tossed to Thursday's taped interview with the women of HUSTLERS. We knew Jennifer Lopez was in the group but there was no mention that the star of a hit ABC sitcom was also in the group interview for ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA this week. If I was a segment producer/writer for that show, I would have written the Constance Wu information into the anchors' scripted intro. By the way, FRESH OFF THE BOAT has rarely gotten promotion on GMA over the years. It's not received even half the GMA attention that the Roseanne Barr return to ABC sitcom duty got before Roseann got booted from her reboot.

FRESH OFF THE BOAT, based on the memoir of hip Asian-American chef/entrepreneur Eddie Huang, is the first sitcom in 20 years about Asian-American characters starring Asian-American actors. ABC gave comedian Margaret Cho a sitcom in 1994. ALL-AMERICAN GIRL was canceled within its first season. I don't blame Margaret Cho. I watched the show and it was obvious that white male TV executives drained the show of all Margaret Cho flavor and reduced the Asian-American actors to acting like standard Caucasian sitcom types.

Constance Wu is comedy gold on FRESH OFF THE BOAT as the over-achiever suburban mom who always must learn how to control herself when she tries to control the lives of her husband and kids.  Like Latinos, Asian-Americans experience under-representation in Hollywood. With that in mind, one of the GMA anchors should have mentioned Constance Wu's success in FRESH OFF THE BOAT and CRAZY RICH ASIANS. It was announced that HUSTLERS cast member Keke Palmer is the newest addition to the new 3rd hour of GMA. She joins Michael Strahan and Sara Haines.

Another noteworthy item about HUSTLERS is that it's a female-powered production. A woman journalist wrote the magazine feature that inspired the script.  Lorene Scafaria is the film's director and screenwriter. Click onto the website below to see a trailer for HUSTLERS. I hope Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez and the other women involved get lots of love from movie-goers when the film opens.

www.hustlers.movie.

Thanks for taking time to read my post.



Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Latino Representation in Hollywood

Monday morning, August 26th, I read articles in the Entertainment section of The Los Angeles Times the reported "For Latinos, underrepresentation and stereotypical portrayals remain firmly in place." This is according to information from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. I am not surprised at that news. To me, that news is -- as my late mother used to say -- "a sin and a shame." I am not surprised at the news. It hurts because, as a person of color, I feel the frustration in my bones. I have for decades. That same day, Variety quoted Jennifer Lopez when she revealed that friends urged her not to be a judge on AMERICAN IDOL They felt it would cripple her career. Said Lopez: "The truth is, I'm not getting offered a whole bunch  of movies..."
So she went to weekly TV. Just like Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg did because she wasn't getting any movie offers. Just like Oscar nominee Viola Davis did because, after her second Oscar nomination, she wasn't getting any major film offers. When she was starring on ABC's hit series, HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, Viola Davis landed the film version of FENCES. That performance brought her a third Oscar nomination. She won for Best Supporting Actress.

Back in 2017, I was listening to a film review hour on radio. The comedy HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER was opening. One of the critics politely said it was a sweet, goofy little movie that probably wouldn't do anything at the box office. I thought to myself, "Really?" The lead actor, Eugenio Derbez, may not have mainstream U.S recognition like Seth Rogen or Adam Sandler, but the Mexican actor is hugely popular with Mexican movie-goers. That film review hour is a Los Angeles broadcast and, Lord knows, there's no shortage of Mexican movie-goers in Southern California.
HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER was made for $12 million. It pulled in $60 million at the box office. By the way, the critic who felt the film would not do any business at the box office was a white critic. That reminds me, yet again, that the voices of more people of color are needed in arts criticism and appreciation.

KNX news radio in L.A. had a special 1-hour live show about Hollywood's color controversy in light of "Oscars So White." This show aired after folks were livid that STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015) and Ryan Coogler's FRUITVALE STATION (2013) failed to get top Oscar nominations after having been critically acclaimed. Underrepresentation and the need for more racial inclusion were topics on the show. A representative from a Hispanic Arts organization was on the panel. From 1990 to 2008, even when I was in shows airing Monday through Friday on national television, Broadcast/TV agents turned me down for representation. They usually said, "I wouldn't know what to do with you." One thing I noticed in all the meetings with Broadcast/TV agents I had at top agencies in New York City from 1990 t0 2008. I had seen only one African-American agent. I saw her in 1990. She was one month from departing William Morris.  All the agents I met with were white. Several knew zilch about my career because they'd never bothered to view my demo reel. However, all the Latino and Black folks who worked at the reception desks always knew my work and had watched me.  If THEY had been the agents, I would've had representation -- and job offers.

When I asked if having people of color as agents in the top entertainment agencies would help, the Hispanic Arts rep loved the question. His answer was an enthusiastic "Yes!"

The USC study found that in the top 100 Hollywood films from 2007 through 2018, only 4.5% of all speaking characters were Latino.

For your DVD entertainment, I've got recommendations that feature Latino talent. First up, one of my favorite actors. He can slam across a solid dramatic performance and then be the funny saving grace of a cheesy comedy like the 2017 film version of CHiPS based on the 1970s TV cop series that made a star of Erik Estrada. I happily spend money to see Michael Peña onscreen. When I see this Mexican-American interviewed on TV, no one ever mentions that he has acted in five Best Picture Oscar nominees: MILLION DOLLAR BABY, CRASH, BABEL, AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE MARTIAN. In addition to that, no one ever mentions his lead role performance in a 2014 biopic. Michael Peña starred in CESAR CHAVEZ, playing the famous labor organizer and civil rights activist. I grew up in L.A. during the 1960s. Chavez's name and activity were in daily newspaper and network TV news. Like Dr. King, he was important to our community. Like Dr. King, his non-violent protest got the attention and help of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. A white man telling Mexican-Americans to "go back where you came from!" is a moment from the 1960s in this biopic that makes it feel timely.  CESAR CHAVEZ was directed by Diego Luna.
America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson and John Malkovich costar. Dawson plays Dolores Huerta. Huerta, now 89, was arrested and released just last week for protesting for the rights of union workers in Fresno. Michael Peña recently starred in DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD.

There's a young, talented Latino supporting cast in the 2008 comedy, HAMLET 2. Steve Coogan stars as a failed actor who became a high school drama teacher in Tucson, Arizon. The man is absolutely clueless. What I love about this comedy is that it flipped the script on those many "white savior" classroom drama in which a Caucasian teacher has a class full of tough Black and Latino students from the 'hood and turns then into scholastic achievers. In HAMLET 2, the Mexican-American students are the ones who realize their teacher's brain is as smooth as a rock and he needs their help. They all rile the conservative parents when the teacher writes a sequel to Shakespeare's HAMLET. Jesus is a character in the sequel.  In this comedy is mighty fine work from Joseph Julia Soria, who plays the teacher's biggest headache, and Melonie Diaz. She went on to give a beautiful dramatic performance opposite Michael B. Jordan in FRUITVALE STATION. Take a look at the funny and original HAMLET 2.

In 2017, Salma Hayek starred in a short and strong social drama. BEATRIZ AT DINNER runs only 1 hour and 25 minutes but it sure packs a punch. In Los Angeles, she's a working class holistic healer and massage therapist. Her car breaks down after she finishes an appointment with a high-tone white client who lives way outside of Beatriz's neighborhood. The politically correct client invites Beatriz to stay for dinner. The client has friends who are also coming over for dinner. Beatriz gets a big serving of white privilege. They get a big serving of minority realness.

There was a crime drama in 2006 called LONELY HEARTS. Salma Hayek stole the movie. You might not have heard of this one. It starred John Travolta and James Gandolfini as detectives on the real-life "Lonely Hearts Killers" case of the 1940s. The story of the two killers, Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, was done previously in the gritty and gripping 1970 black and white indie film, THE HONEYMOON KILLERS. Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler starred.
The 2006 film, LONELY HEARTS, was pretty much shelved. It played for a couple of weeks at one arthouse theater in Greenwich Village when I was in New York City. People missed one sizzling performance from Salma Hayek as a sexy scorpion of a female. Here, we see a dark-haired Latina giving you the film noir femme fatale character. She plays Martha Beck, a psycho killer who draws a not-too-smart Ray Fernandez, played well by Jared Leto, into her web of crime, a crime that will lead to their execution. Click onto the link to see a clip from LONELY HEARTS:



Travolta and Gandolfini aren't bad. Scott Caan always comes off like he's doing an imitation of his dad, James Caan, from a 1970s movie. The real juice in this movie is the Jared Leto and Salma Hayek pairing. She will have your hormones spinning like they're in one of those giant teacups at Disneyland.

Happy viewing.





Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Remembering Martha Raye

I had a happy hangover one day thanks to Martha Raye. The revue show 4 GIRLS 4 had returned to Milwaukee in the 1970s. The four girls were Rosemary Clooney, Rose Marie, Margaret Whiting and Helen O'Connell. It played for a hit week the previous year at the city's lovely Performing Arts Center. I met Rose Marie that previous year after a press conference. After the question and answer business, there was a buffet for the press. I wound up casually chatting with Rose Marie. She liked my sense of humor, gave me some immediate career advice (I worked on local radio then) and became a mentor. By the way, her advice was spot on and we kept in touch via letters through the years. She wrote me that she had another gig and wouldn't be in the return engagement. Martha Raye would be. She added that I should get ahold of Clooney and Whiting and have dinner with them. I did -- and Martha Raye came along. A Milwaukee buddy who is now a well-known TV/Radio celeb in Milwaukee was present. Gino photographed Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting and me. After the show and after dinner, those two ladies were pooped and headed back to the hotel. Martha Raye turned to Gino and me and said, "Let's go get a nightcap." Wheee!
In the 1970s, we knew Martha Raye as the funny lady who did lots of special guest appearances on network TV shows and also did commercials for Polident. In my childhood, before I moved to Milwaukee for college and a career start after graduation, Mom told me that Martha Raye was a really good jazz singer and not just a comic entertainer. Mom said that she wore out her record of Martha singing "That Old Black Magic" back in the day and had to buy another one.
I think my generation remembers Martha Raye mostly as the funny lady with the big mouth in her later years when she was on Broadway and TV.  Many TV viewers then weren't aware of the great regard she had in the jazz community. During our nightcap, Martha Raye talked about her years at Paramount Pictures (in the 1930s) and broke us up laughing with stories about stars on the lot. She loved Harlem and was very proud to have played the Apollo Theater.

If you see what Martha Raye did in 1937's DOUBLE OF NOTHING, you see why she was a hit in Harlem. With Bing Crosby and Frances Faye, Martha jammed in the "After You" number.

Don't forget that Martha Raye, with her talent for physical comedy, was one of Charlie Chaplin's leading ladies.  In his 1947 black comedy, MONSIEUR VERDOUX, she's the new bride who doesn't know that the dapper Parisian gent she married wants to knock her off for her money. Just as he did his other wives. Here's a clip.

Mom and Dad used to listen to a Sunday afternoon jazz show on FM radio in Los Angeles when I was almost a teen. It was hosted by jazz historian Leonard Feather.  He played wonderful jazz cuts and had wonderful guests in the studio to interview live.  One day, his in-studio guests were Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. Leonard Feather asked them to name some of their favorite vocalists. Sarah said she was going to name someone listeners might be surprised to hear, but Carmen McRae would agree with her. Sarah Vaughan named Martha Raye and Carmen McRae did, indeed, agree immediately.

Mom was right. Treat yourself and listen to Martha Raye sing "Stairway to the Stars."

I'd include a couple of stories Martha Raye told me over cocktails, but they're delightfully R-rated. I'll tell you in person.



Sunday, August 25, 2019

They Star on POWER

Not that winning awards should be the goal of those who commit to doing hard work very well as actors or directors.  You do it for the love of the art. However, it is nice to be recognized with, at least, a nomination. POWER premieres its final season tonight on the Starz cable channel. This is an exciting, sophisticated, complicated urban crime thriller. I was hooked early in its first season. POWER, one of the most popular shows on the channel, starts its sixth season this week. For its previous five seasons, it has been missing from the list of Emmy nominees. This show, rich in racial inclusion, has had some tough, solid writing and a cast of actors who have delivered excellent performances. What is going on with the TV Academy?
Let's look at other Emmy oversights in the past.  Cuban immigrant Desi Arnaz wowed audiences with his conga-playing performance in the hit Broadway musical comedy TOO MANY GIRLS. He went to Hollywood to recreate his role in the film version. When he met RKO studio's leading lady for the 1940 film version, love and history would be made. Her name was Lucille Ball. They were both Hollywood actors in the 1940s. You know that Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball married and starred together on the legendary, groundbreaking 1950s sitcom, I LOVE LUCY. Desi was the show's executive producer. They became TV superstars and, in 1957, they purchased the RKO studios where they met and renamed it Desilu Productions. Desilu gave a greenlight to and produced MISSION: IMPOSSBILE and STAR TREK. Desi Arnaz was one of the most successful and trailblazing producers in American TV history in addition to starring on an internationally famous sitcom with his real-life wife. I LOVE LUCY stars Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance and William Frawley were all nominated for Emmys. Lucy won Emmys and other prestigious awards. Desi Arnaz never, ever received an Emmy nomination. Nor was he honored with a Lifetime Achievement Emmy for his contributions as actor and producer.

Remember the HBO prison series, OZ? Lord have mercy, there was some good acting on that series. From 1997 to 2003, every single episode was "Must-See TV" for me.
I still cannot believe that Rita Moreno never got an Emmy nomination for her remarkable, riveting work as Sister Peter Marie, the prison psychologist nun on duty. What a strong, original female character to play -- a nun yet -- and Rita Moreno made her memorable.  She and a cast of actors that included Chris Meloni, Lee Tergersen, JK Simmons, BD Wong, Eamonn Walker, Harold Perrineau and Dean Winters never got Emmy nominations for OZ excellence.
A few years ago, a dear friend was on assignment in Los Angeles. Because of weather, her return flight to New York was delayed. Worried that she would not be back in time to tape scheduled morning interviews with members of the POWER cast, she called and asked if I could take her place. She knew I'd seen the first season and the second season was being promoted.
Not only was it my pleasure to help her out, it was a great pleasure to meet the actors. They were warm, smart and truly grateful for the press interest in their show. Let's celebrate the start of POWER's finale season with flashback interviews from early in the show's run. Here are two terrific lead actors who have been overlooked for Emmys love -- Omari Hardwick and Lela Loren. He plays the celebrated Manhattan businessman and family man leading a double life as a ruthless drug dealer. She plays the federal prosecutor romantically involved with him.

Here is Courtney A. Kemp, the woman who created the series. She previously worked on THE BERNIE MAC SHOW and THE GOOD WIFE.


POWER, Season 6, starts August 25th at 8p Eastern on Starz.


Oprah's First Book Club Star

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