Thursday, February 28, 2019

A TV Spotlight on Journalism

Every Thursday in March, TCM (cable's Turner Classic Movies) will turn a spotlight on Journalism in the Movies. The slate of classic films airing in this spotlight includes IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, LIBELED LADY and HIS GIRL FRIDAY -- comedies with stars as newspaper reporters.
The dramas CITIZEN KANE, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, Billy Wilder's ACE IN THE HOLE, THE CHINA SYNDROME, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and Paddy Chayefsky's prophetic satire, NETWORK are also in the mix. This TCM spotlight on journalism starts Thursday, March 7th, at 8p ET/5p PT.
A few years ago, when I was taking an acting class, I mentioned to a classmate that I'd love to use some of Howard Beale's "I'm as mad as hell" monologue as an audition piece. I wanted to give it a different flavor and base my interpretation of network news anchor Howard Beale on a real-life network news anchor I'd once spent a few hours with for interview purposes. I was taping a feature on him for our ABC affiliate. He was the late ABC network news anchor, Max Robinson. Max was the first African American to anchor a network newscast. He broke that ground in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Max was serious about his craft and proud of being Black. He founded the National Association of Black Journalists. Max had his righteous angers and inner demons. He was complicated and helpful. He was a strong character who believed in a definite line of demarcation between news and entertainment. Max Robinson died in 1988.  His legacy and accomplishments seem to be forgotten by ABC News. In occasional clips, we will see Robinson's co-anchor, the late Peter Jennings. Jennings went on to become the solo anchor of the evening newscast. But we never see Max Robinson. His work of the late 70s/early 80s deserves to be remembered during Black History Month.

Cut to today.  ABC, CBS and NBC have weekday morning news programs and each one has an African American anchor on its team. Lester Holt, also an African American, is the anchor of the NBC Nightly News.

TCM is currently airing a commercial in between films that promotes the TCM spotlight on Journalism in the Movies. In the promo is a montage of clips from movies about journalists on the job. Clips from most of the films I mentioned in the opening paragraph are in the promo.

You don't see one single Black actor or actress in the promo as a journalist. I could not think of a Black actor who played a journalist in a classic film.  In the 1987 movie BROADCAST NEWS written and directed by James L. Brooks, there's a Black network reporter in the field when the William Hurt character makes his anchor debut in a special report. But I couldn't think of a Black actor or actress who had a lead or supporting role as a reporter in a classic film.

Hollywood needs to consider actors of color for some good, juicy journalist roles.

The special guests for the TCM spotlight are network TV newsman Anderson Cooper and Carl Bernstein, the famous newspaper journalist, with Bob Woodward, broke the Watergate scandal and was played by Dustin Hoffman in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. TCM's Ben Mankiewicz. a journalism veteran, will host.

By the way, did you see the recent Oscars telecast? I liked it without a host. The show felt like it was more focused on the art of film. We didn't have to sit through 20 minutes of a stand-up comedy monologue and some go-into-the-audience comedy bits that just added to the already long running time. I love the diversity seen in the quartet of winners in the acting categories.  Best Actor, Rami Malek, the son of Egyptian immigrants. British Olivia Colman, Best Actress. African American Regina King, Best Supporting Actress.  African American Mahershala Ali, Best Supporting Actor.  Here's the quartet of actor Oscar winners for this year.
Actors of color in that quartet of Oscar winners for 2019: 2.
People of color in the TCM quartet of on-air hosts for 2019:  0

That's something an entertainment journalist might wonder about in this age of diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry.

I hope you had a good Black History Month.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Regina King Is Hollywood Royalty

Her onscreen artistry is magnetic. In her recent victory in which she struck Hollywood gold there is evidence of a philosophy I've long held and have written about here several times -- that a gifted artist can be a young person's bridge to more fine arts and artists. Her recent victory touched my heart in a way I didn't expect it would.
Regina King has been in the acting game since the 1980s. You may remember her from the sitcom 227. Her film roles in 1991's BOYZ n the HOOD and 1993's POETIC JUSTICE, both directed by John Singleton, followed. She was a standout in JERRY MAGUIRE and I would've given her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her dramatic fierceness in RAY, the 2004 biopic starring Jamie Foxx. By 1996's JERRY MAGUIRE, Regina King had a devoted fan in me. Her talent, her versatility just zapped my senses like a shot of sweet electricity. One of my favorite Regina King performances is in the 2007 indie comedy/drama YEAR OF THE DOG. She is downright delightful as the best friend to a 40-something lonely secretary who pays more attention to dogs because men have been so disappointing. Molly Shannon, formerly of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, starred in that loopy and touching comedy. Next, it was hard for me to believe that Regina King did not get an Emmy nomination for her dynamic work as Detective Lydia Adams on the NBC cop series, SouthLAnd.  Regina King's realness in the role had such depth, you would've thought she'd actually been a detective in Los Angeles who quit the force to pursue an acting career. Det. Lydia Adams was a no-nonsense, highly respected professional. In her home life, she's primary caregiver to a needy parent. This was a well-written, dimensional role and Regina King hit it out of the park. The series ran from 2009 to 2013. Sunday night, Regina King got a standing ovation when her name was announced as winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Her proud mother was in the audience.
Regina King's mother cried.  I had tears in my eyes. I admit it. I cried during the actress' acceptance speech. I cried more than once. I was unprepared for and I was surprised by all the tender emotions her victory brought up in me. She filled me with a pride that made my skin tingle.

I grew up in Los Angeles. I'd falling madly in love with the movies, especially classic films, by the time I was learning how to read in elementary school. In high school and in college, I would write to the Academy for information and the Academy always responded. In college, my roommate and dorm floormates sweetly joshed me about getting an Academy printout of the Oscar nominees per request in the mail. In movies and on TV, I looked for representations of myself. I read A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens, not because it was assigned to me in school. I read A TALE OF TWO CITIES because of James Baldwin. The local PBS station aired an interview of the renowned Black writer. In it, he passionately expressed is love for the Charles Dickens classic. In Baldwin's face, I saw a representation of myself. He inspired me to read the Dickens classic. To this day, it is still one of my favorite books.

I grew up. I pursued a career in the entertainment industry and, throughout my career on television, I've been constantly jabbed with the reminder that American is a tale of two cities -- the haves and the have-nots. The privileged and the underprivileged. I wanted to become an actor. If I couldn't do that, I'd work on TV. I'd show that Black people could also cover entertainment and interviews celebrities as well as Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson and David Frost did. Not only that, I'd help put a spotlight on actors and filmmakers of color because they needed it. By the 1980s, a decade in which I was a talk show on national TV, I knew the frustrating color walls Black artists had to crash through in order to succeed.  Hollywood did not feel that stories about Black people, stories with Black actors in the lead roles, were marketable. Nor were screenplay adaptations of great works by Black writers.

Black filmmakers had it tougher than white filmmakers. They had to hustle to get their films made. If they got them made, they weren't given the same promotional budget that white filmmakers got. With little help to promote the product, if their film played overseas to a small audience, Hollywood used that to repeat "Black stories don't sell." We Black folks in the broadcast profession who covered entertainment news were aware of that Hollywood inequality. Many of us pushed within our own workplace to book interviews of Black talent to help with the lack of promotion. But we, too, were smacked in the face by color walls built by network Caucasity. When I worked on local TV news programs in the 90s, I was repeatedly told by white producers that Black talents, known and unknown, were not really of interest to the audience. Or, if I did interview them, the interview was not promoted in TV spots for the show. Some of those known talents were Patti LaBelle, singer Dianne Reeves, actress Pam Grier and, in 1997, Spike Lee.
When Regina King was declared winner of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, I let out a cheer in the living room. As she spoke, tears started cascading down my face. I posted a message of joy on Twitter. An African American actress had just won an Oscar for her outstanding work in film with a screenplay by an Oscar-winning African American writer/director, Barry Jenkins of MOONLIGHT, and the screenplay was the first one ever based on a book by the acclaimed African American writer, James Baldwin.

That happened during Black History Month. I could not stop crying.

Regina King mentioned the late, great James Baldwin in her acceptance speech. Charles P. Pierce, a top writer for ESQUIRE, answered my Twitter post with  "And a whole lot of youngsters are googling 'James Baldwin.' now." Charlie was on my dorm floor in college. He's fully aware of my long and deep love for the movies.

I love the work of Regina King. It thrills me to think she, in her Oscar victory, may be the bridge for some young people to the art of James Baldwin in a way that Baldwin was my bridge to the classic literature of Charles Dickens as well as Baldwin's own. Brava, Regina King!

Saturday, February 23, 2019


The reviews of GREEN BOOK from white critics were practically love letters. You just knew it was destined to be an Oscar nominee for Best Picture. Which it is. Based on a true story, the relatives of the black classical musician portrayed by the remarkable Mahershala Ali told some members of the press that the screenplay -- written by a relative of the white driver portrayed by Viggo Mortensen in the story -- was not as historically accurate as, say, some other movies that starred Viggo Mortensen.  Movies like THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS and THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING.  You know the story of the film. An accomplished African American musician in New York City books a few concert dates in the bigoted Deep South in the early 1960s. As many black folks did at the time, he consults The Green Book travel guide for getting black motorists safely through the Jim Crow South. He hires a driver, a man who happens to be a bigoted Italian who uses racial slurs before they meet.  He's so racist that, when two black laborers do a repair in his home and are offered a drink of water, he throw the glasses they used in the trash. This New York City odd couple winds up bonding on a long road trip through the segregated South.
GREEN BOOK is the feel-good movie in which director Peter Farrelly attempts to bring about racial harmony and understanding by making you laugh at a scene where a college educated black man reveals he's never had fried chicken.  This is funny because … well, you know....ALL us black folks LOVE fried chicken! The articulate musician is introduced to the joys of eating fried chicken by the lovable racist Italian. The driver is such an ethnic stereotype that he makes the Italian waiters singing "Bella Notte" to the two spaghetti-eating dogs in Disney's LADY AND THE TRAMP seem Anglo-Saxon.
With that in mind, please watch this comedy short from Seth Meyers.  Just click on the link:

Seth, Seth, Seth. If that was a short theatrical feature, I'd give it an Academy Award. Tell the writers and all the actors in it that they're absolutely fabulous.  Now let's all see what happens at the unpredictable Oscars Sunday night.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Designs of Paul Revere Williams

I've got a short, informative video that I want you to watch. Before I take you to that link, I've got a little quiz for you. Can you guess what these have in common?  The famous landmark theme building of LAX airport in Southern California.
The elegant look of The Beverly Hills Hotel.
The renowned celebrity-magnet eatery, Chasen's Restaurant in Hollywood.
Hollywood great, Barbara Stanwyck.
TV icons Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Show biz legend, Oscar-winning actor/singer Frank Sinatra.
Here's the common bond they all shared.

The first three structures benefitted from the marvelous, memorable designs of Paul Revere Williams, an African American architect in Los Angeles.  Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and Frank Sinatra were just four of the Hollywood stars who lived in residences designed by Paul Revere Williams.  He was born in 1894.

This African American architect was designing homes for top Hollywood stars when Hollywood was presenting black people onscreen as railroad porters, butlers, maids, mammies, field hands and Congo natives. If a major Hollywood studio like MGM or Paramount had a film script in which there was a short role of a sophisticated architect designing a home for a Hollywood star, a black actor would never have been considered for the part. Williams also worked on homes for Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Tyrone Power and 2-time Best Actress Oscar winner Luise Rainer.

Click onto this link to view a short video about Mr. Williams:

For more, there's a 3-minute video from the American Institute of Architects. Go to YouTube and search -- 2017 AIA Gold Medal: Paul Revere Williams, FAIA.

Also on YouTube is an informative 24-minute feature. For that one, search -- Paul Revere Williams - A Legend in Architecture.

Fascinating history, isn't it?  Mr. Williams passed away in 1980 at age 85.

To see and read more about him, go here:

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Max Robinson Made Black History

With great pride, I watched him deliver the ABC evening news. This African American man had broken through a color barrier in network TV. The television news work of journalist Max Robinson had strong significance to me when I was just starting my professional career in television. I was working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That was the same city where I'd graduated from college.  When I was growing up in Los Angeles and when I started college in Milwaukee, there were no black anchors on ABC, CBS or NBC. There were only while male journalists giving us the evening news around dinner time. I wish Max Robinson was remembered and mentioned nowadays -- especially by ABC News.  It seems like he's been placed on a back shelf in the ABC News history section. He shouldn't be. Max Robinson was the first African-American journalist to anchor a network evening newscast during the week. From the late 1970s to 1983, Mr. Robinson co-anchored ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.
One day in Milwaukee in the early 1980s, I spent a few exhausting hours with Max Robinson. The hours went from mid-daytime to nighttime. My clothing went from casual to formal wear.  Max Robinson co-anchored the ABC evening news from the Chicago bureau. I worked on-air for WISN TV, the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee. I was a contributor on the city's edition of a syndicated weeknight show called PM MAGAZINE. Robinson came to Milwaukee to do promotion for the network's evening newscast and he'd be taping spots at our station.  I was taping a lead feature on him for our show which meant that the cameraman and I had to follow him around, getting soundbites here and there while toting around some heavy equipment. TV equipment was clunkier and heavier then.

Max Robinson was tall, serious, and had a commanding presence. He was formidable. A serious journalist and a serious man. But not humorless. He was a gentleman, yet you could tell that he had his righteous angers. Some of those angers, notably, were over the network news images of black people. He wanted respect for black people on camera and off camera.
It was a long day of Milwaukee meet-and-greets, tapings and quick side interviews from local print press. At night, there was a formal reception for Max Robinson. Our station's general manager arranged for me to be there with my cameraman to get some of the reception footage. In between the daytime and nighttime shoots, Robinson went back to his hotel room to rest a bit and change. I changed into a rented tux in the men's room at work before the cameraman and I loaded into the remote truck and drove over to the reception.

I'd done an interview of Mr. Robinson at the station before he got busy with taping promos. I thought it was a good interviewer. However, as the day wore on, I noticed that he gave the same exact answers to a couple of questions to other reporters that he'd given to me.

At the reception, when there was a slight lull and folks were taking advantage of the open bar, I told Mr. Robinson that I needed to talk to him again for about five minutes. This reception was in a huge private home, the home of a TV executive who graciously showed us a room we could go into, a room that would be quiet and comfortable. Max Robinson looked slightly peeved as he sat, but he sat and he answered my new questions. My new questions were more specific and asked in a way that would force him to give me fresh material. I'll give you example. "When asked about racial equality in broadcast news, you have said this several times …. "  Then I'd ask something more specific to keep him from giving me a pat answer he'd also given to others.

That second interview was a lot better than our first. It was meatier. I was nervous about pushing him for that second sit-down. He knew I'd be following him for hours to do the feature for possible national airing from our ABC affiliate. Still, he had that gravity that could be intimidating. He was the first black person to anchor a network evening newscast.  I was the first black person to be a weekly movie critic and entertainment contributor on Milwaukee television. I took my job seriously but his position, you have to admit, had the gravity.

When I was all done and while I unclipped the microphone from his tuxedo jacket, he complimented me on asking good questions, questions that were not all easy.  "You did the work," Max Robinson said. "You did the work."

That compliment from him meant a great deal to me then -- and it still does today.
Max Robinson was a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists. He died of AIDS in 1988 at age 49.  A respected journalist and a TV trailblazer, Max Robinson should be remembered during Black History Month. He should also be remembered by ABC News where he worked on-air with Peter Jennings and Frank Reynolds.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Albert Finney Helped Me Through School

British news reported today that Albert Finney, an actor of exquisite and extraordinary range, passed away at age 82. He shall be missed and I, for one, am extremely grateful for film. We have a rich collection of his excellent performances through several decades to enjoy. In his "Jack the Lad" days as a new British actor, Albert Finney certainly was gifted in the good looks department.  You know what I mean if you've ever seen TOM JONES. He played the randy young Englishman in the screen adaptation of Henry Fielding's literary classic.  It won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1963. We Catholics were forbidden to see it.  Probably because characters in the story had sex. And enjoyed it. And the story had a happy ending. Albert Finney was a fabulous Tom Jones.
The ribald comedy brought him the first of his five Oscar nominations. Finney never won an Oscar. Reportedly, he never cared about it. He cared about the work. I think it would've been wonderful had the Academy bestowed him a lifetime achievement honorary Oscar right after his fifth nomination. It came in the Best Supporting Actor category for ERIN BROCKOVICH. I have seen ERIN BROCKOVICH a dozen times. A top reason why I've seen it numerous times is because I love Finney's performance in it as the older, underdog Southern California lawyer. He was one of the best co-stars Julia Roberts ever had. Their chemistry was a blast. The actor was an inspiration to age naturally and use it all to inform your performance. I'd love to play a role like the one he had in ERIN BROCOVICH.
In my previous blog post, about seeing WAR AND PEACE, I stressed how one art form, one artist, can be a bridge to other works of art.  Albert Finney was such an artist for me.

I entered my freshman year of high school with a love of Albert Finney movies. In my South Central L.A. youth, I'd frequently watch Channel 9, an independent local TV station with KHJ as its call letters. It's now KCAL. When I was a kid, KHJ had a Friday night movie show devoted to independent or "arthouse" features. Mom and Dad loved that program. They'd let me watch with them and that's how I was introduced to movies such as A CHILD IS WAITING, GONE ARE THE DAYS, ROOM AT THE TOP, A TASTE OF HONEY and ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO. We saw Albert Finney in THE ENTERTAINER (1960) and SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (1960). Later on TV, I saw Albert Finney in CHARLIE BUBBLES.
In CHARLIE BUBBLES, he was the leading man and the film's director. He directed cast member Liza Minnelli in her 1968 screen acting debut.
Before I started high school, I felt that Albert Finney was totally cool because of those films and the clips on TV that I'd seen of him as TOM JONES.

In high school, we had to read and study Shakespeare for English Lit. classes. I had a rough go of it at first because of the medieval English language. If Mom came home from work and I wasn't there, she wouldn't freak out. She knew I'd walked over to our nearby local library branch. The librarians knew I was the kid who loved the section of cinema books. The library also had a good selection of records that could be checked out.  I was looking through the albums and found the recording of a Shakespeare classic. It was a multi-LP set, a recording of a British production of Shakespeare's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. I saw "Albert Finney as Dogberry" on the cover.

We had just started MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING that week in school. I checked out the record, took it home, played it on my stereo and followed along in my schoolbook. Hearing the voices in performance as I followed the dialogue text in the book brought Shakespeare to life for me. Albert Finney as Dogberry made me laugh out loud in my room. His performance was my favorite. Because of him, I no longer feared The Bard. I embraced Shakespeare.

Yes. There I was, a black teen in South Central L.A., laughing at a Shakespeare comedy thanks to the artistry of Albert Finney. I went back to our local library branch to sift through the record collection, check out some LP sets and do the same with other classic plays we were studying in school. This made me want to see great plays done on stage.  I was an Albert Finney fan at a very young age. If not for him, I may not have checked out that recording of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING from our local library. His name got my attention. He was the bridge. He helped me get an A.

I think Mr. Finney would've loved that story.

Albert Finney got Best Actor Oscar nominations for --
TOM JONES (1963)
and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000).

Thursday, February 7, 2019

From Watts to WAR AND PEACE

The 1960s. Watts. The section of our long overlooked and underprivileged South Central Los Angeles community that, just a few years prior, blazed itself into the national TV and newspaper headlines with days of a racial uprising called The Watts Riots. I was in the college prep program at a Catholic all boys school called Verbum Dei High School. Not a large school. But it was a good school, one that still stands today. Verbum Dei didn't have the big budget for fine arts that schools in the white neighborhoods at that time had. So, our faculty took advantage of group rate tickets to see prestigious films in the Hollywood area as weekday field trips. This was fine by me. My fascination with films was in full bloom by the time I was 8. The films we saw were always big screen adaptations of classic works we studied in English Lit. class -- ROMEO AND JULIET, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. There was another film that we students got on the bus to go see. The book was not on our required reading list but it was in our school library. This foreign film was at least seven hours long. In its theatrical release, you had to buy a ticket to see the first half one week and then return the following week to see the second half. I was glued to every single minute of the film. I have since seen it more than once. The movie is the 1960s epic Russian production of Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE. It hit the U.S. in 1968. I'm so glad it did.
For as long and as epic in its scope as the film is, director, co-writer and actor Sergei Bondarchuk gave it a quality that connected to working class senses.  Let's face it. We were a high school class of predominantly Black and Mexican-American teen males. There was only one white guy in the entire student body and he came from a family that was scuffling to get by like ours were. We were the kind of guys that would be ripe for Uncle Sam to pick and ship for duty in Vietnam. WAR AND PEACE spoke to us.
The news gave grossly inaccurate overall images of us black people in South Central L.A. as it covered the Watts Riots. Newsreels, still shown on movie screens in those days, filmed the devastation but never mentioned what triggered the uprising. The Los Angeles Times didn't even have one black reporter on its entire staff. From some of the local and network TV news coverage, you would never have guessed that South Central L.A. had black residents who were college educated, employed, had good books by celebrated authors in their homes and frequently went to see new movies, domestic and foreign. Residents like my parents -- and we lived in the curfew area during the Watts Riots.

Especially after I saw WAR AND PEACE, I came to the realization that film journalism in print and on TV inaccurate images of what the black community liked and didn't like. The press releases reported that, just like Hollywood's GONE WITH THE WIND Scarlett O'Hara casting, there was a search of well over a year for the right actress to play Natasha. The film opened to lots of entertainment news attention and did quite well with moviegoers. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 1968.
Our high school class was told that, for our college prep program, attending the first half one week was required. If we did not want to see the last half the following week, we would not have to get on the bus for the field trip back to the Hollywood area. But a note for a parent or guardian would be necessary to get us excused.

Only one guy in the class did not return for last half. Gary broke his ankle in football practice and his mom kept him home. The rest of us were eager to see the rest of the story. Some of my classmates got off that bus from Watts sporting Afros the size of radar dishes.  The things is -- if a local TV news crew had been on Hollywood Blvd to ask pedestrians if they'd seen this new and exceptionally long WAR AND PEACE, the reporter probably would not have approached a bunch of black and Chicano teen males, some of whom looked like Colin Kaepernick with Afro fully blown. But the reporter could have. We would've had plenty to say.
I remember how jubilant one teacher was when we saw WAR AND PEACE. Father Henry said that, maybe we wouldn't read the novel, but at least one of us would check it out in the school library and try a few pages. He was right. I was one of those who did. Also, all of us returned from the movie saying to each other, "THAT's why it's funny Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons have two Russian characters named Boris & Natasha!" Boris and Natasha came from Tolstoy.

In the 1990s,while I was living and working in New York City, I found a DVD of WAR AND PEACE in my local video store. I rented it a couple of times. I had a great time watching it, but the print left something to be desired.

Some of the best news I read online last week is that Sergei Bondarchuk's WAR AND PEACE has been digitally restored and this extraordinary epic will be onscreen at New York City's Film Society Lincoln Center.  It will play February 15 to 21.  For more info, click onto this link: Also, give thanks to Janus Films and you can click onto its link here:

I would love to see WAR AND PEACE on the big screen again in mint condition.

To show you where America was culturally, WAR AND PEACE aired in prime time on ABC over four nights in 1972.  Guess what? The ratings were good. That programming would not happen today. Tolstoy would be kicked to the curb in a heartbeat to make room for THE BACHELOR.

Never underestimate the power of the fine arts. They can entertain, enlighten, change the images you have of people -- and they can be a bridge to other works of art. By the way, if you'd like to see the high school in South Central L.A. that I attended, just click onto this link:

See classic films. Use and support your local libraries. Thanks for your attention.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

NPR, Judy Garland and Black History Month

It was racially refreshing segment and one that gave me a minor tingle of jealousy.  I wished I was the guest contributor conducting the interview. One of NPR's most popular shows is FRESH AIR hosted by Terry Gross. On the February 5th show, Terry featured an interview done by a contributor named Sonari. He's a young black gentleman, a self-described child of the 80s, who is gay and loves the famous 1954 remake of A STAR IS BORN which is lit up by a spectacular big screen return of Judy Garland in the lead role. She'd been fired by her longtime home studio, MGM, in 1950.  Her third husband, Sid Luft, produced A STAR IS BORN. It was a Warner Bros. release as was the 1976 remake starring Barbra Streisand and the current one starring Lady Gaga. The reviews were love letters. Critics praised Judy Garland's work in this heartbreaking Hollywood-on-Hollywood musical drama directed by George Cukor. She played an unknown singer with a band, unaware of her extraordinary talent. She's discovered by and falls in love with a movie star whose career declines due to his drinking while hers hits the Hollywood heights.
Judy Garland got an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. James Mason, her excellent leading man, got an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin got nominated in the Best Song category for the blues number, "That Man That Got Away" which became a classic and one of Garland's signature tunes for the rest of her life and career.
Sonari interviewed Judy Garland's daughter, Lorna Luft. Lorna, an under-appreciated singer and actress, is also a good writer. Her new book is entitled A STAR IS BORN: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away.  The film had an intermission and ran about 3 hours. In what's become sad Hollywood history, Jack L. Warner, head of the studio, had about a half-hour of the movie cut out when it went from its exclusive engagement to a wide release. No one could find the missing footage. In the 1980s, the entire audio tracks of the deleted scenes and three musical numbers were found and restored. But not all of the film footage was found. George Cukor was never given a director's print of his original work.
Why was this NPR segment racially refreshing? Because a black person was given the opportunity to conduct an interview about a classic film -- and it was not a classic film about a black issue like interracial marriage, slavery, the Civil Rights Movement or the "Oscars So White" controversy. Many of us African Americans who have reviewed films, love classic films and have done celebrity interviews have to contain our irritation and frustration when we are excluded from the general discussion of classic films.

1954's A STAR IS BORN is one of my Top 5 Favorite Films of All Time. I've been obsessed with it since I was in high school.  In the early 70s, when I left South Central L.A. to attend Marquette University in Milwaukee, you could hear Judy Garland's "Born in a Trunk" number from the movie coming out of my dorm room. Why? Because it was one of the albums I brought with me from me. If you think I'm making that up about playing the A STAR IS BORN soundtrack in my dorm room, just ask my longtime buddy, writer Charles P. Pierce of Esquire Magazine. We lived on the same dorm floor. When the grand premiere of the restored A STAR IS BORN was a sold-out event at Radio City in 1983, I attended thanks to Lorna Luft. She got me a ticket after I'd interviewed her on local TV in Milwaukee.

Thank you, NPR, for letting a black person do a segment on a classic film by George Cukor. From the 80s when ABC, CBS and NBC weekday morning news programs each had a weekly white male film critic to the Siskel & Ebert years and all the pairings of white male film critics who followed them on syndicated movie review shows, to the white male hosts of AMC when it was American Movie Classics and aired only old films, to the current TCM (Turner Classic Movies) channel with its Caucasian quartet of hosts, you have to admit that the field of talent picked for the discussions of new and classic films has looked segregated.

As for the interview, Sonari was extremely enthusiastic. I feel his high-energy got bumpy to a small degree at a few moments. I wish I could've been his segment producer to help him be able to make smoother transitions and add major information. One huge item he forgot to mention was that Garland, who was the princess-turned-queen of sunny MGM musical comedies from 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ to 1950's SUMMER STOCK, got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her screen comeback. This was a dramatic film that had true love, violence, alcoholism, sacrifice, self-loathing, suicide and showtunes. She was the Hollywood favorite to win. She was so favored that a TV crew had been positioned in her hospital room on Oscar night to get her live reaction when her name was read. Garland was in the hospital because she'd just given birth to Lorna's brother, Joey. But Judy lost to Grace Kelly for THE COUNTRY GIRL, one of the biggest upsets in all Oscar history.

The 1954 film marked the second time Garland had played Vicki Lester in A STAR IS BORN. The first time was in early 1940s radio version of the original 1937 film. It was then she had the desire to remake the film as a dramatic musical. But MGM utilized her impressive dramatic skills even after her second husband, Vincente Minnelli, gave audiences a look at her emotional depth in the only drama of her 15 MGM years, the World War 2 love story, THE CLOCK (1945). She signed her contract when she was 13. By the time she was 16, she had to be at work at MGM, a Hollywood dream factory, at 6:00 AM. Think about it. She's 16, the breadwinner of her family, and she had to be at work at 6am. Lorna Luft reveals even more about that in the interview.

In a rather awkward transition that Luft handled with lovely grace, Sonari professed his love for the "Born in a Trunk" number but he was bothered by the sight of black back-up dancers singing "Swanee." Then he mentioned how he was also bothered by Garland's blackface number in a couple of her MGM musicals. The "Born in a Trunk" production number is a movie-within-a-movie segment. Vicki Lester gets her big break. A Broadway star slated to make a deluxe musical can't get out of her contract with the show. The studio head takes a chance on newcomer Vicki Lester. We, like the preview audience in the film, see Vicki's terrific screen debut. The black back-up dancers are nattily attired. Not raggedy. They're in costumes you could've put on Ben Vereen for FUNNY LADY or a Broadway musical revue. What some may not realize is that MGM would never have permitted such a scene. There is Judy Garland in a big number with black back-up dancers. Glamorous Lena Horne was at MGM in the 1940s and she was never permitted to share screen time and act opposite white stars who were also on the studio's A-list for musicals.  In TV interviews, Gene Kelly mentioned that he and director Vincente Minnelli had to argue with the studio head so that they could have black people in THE PIRATE, Gene's musical comedy with Judy Garland that has a story set in...the Caribbean. Kelly and Minnelli pressured and won the argument. Lots of black background actors got work. Kelly got to do a number with The Nicholas Brothers. But a scene like this in Judy's off-screen 1951 life would never have been allowed on the big screen. Here she is dancing with boxing great, Sugar Ray Robinson.
About Judy's blackface in MGM numbers, keep in mind those were performed when she was a minor under contract to a powerful studio. She did what she was told, she ate what she was allowed to eat, she wore what she was ordered to wear. The person who put young Garland in blackface the most was director Busby Berkeley, a musical director who seemed obsessed with blackface numbers. He put Garland, Mickey Rooney and other teens in blackface for films such as BABES IN ARMS (1939) and BABES ON BROADWAY (1941). Don't blame those actors.  Spike Lee blamed Judy and Mickey in his film BAMBOOZLED (2000). Put the blame on Berkeley. I didn't feel the blackface question from Sonari was a good fit for this interview but, in light of the recent Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam scandal during Black History Month, it did have relevance.

To underline my point about Busby Berkeley's irritating affection for blackface numbers, rent the 1934 Warner Bros. musical, WONDER BAR, starring Dick Powell and Al Jolson. Wait until you see Jolson's "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" production number designed and choreographed by Busby Berkeley. It's a long musical number ripe with offensive racial images of black people. I saw it on TV when I was in middle school and my jaw dropped down to my kneecaps.

Judy Garland wanted to join other celebrities at the March on Washington. But she had a weekly CBS prime time music variety program, THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW, and could not get away from Hollywood duty to be there.  But she did something bold and beautiful for stars at that time in the aftermath of some racist evil. The day after the murder of 4 little girls in a Birmingham church bombing, a tragedy covered in Spike Lee's gripping 4 LITTLE GIRLS documentary, Garland held a press conference with actresses June Allyson and Carolyn Jones to raise funds for survivors. Notice the headline on the newspaper in front of Judy. Lorna's sister, Liza Minnelli, stands above Judy. That racist crime happened two weeks after Dr. King's March on Washington.
Lorna Luft gave a rich, warm interview. She's bounced back from serious surgery. She sounds at peace with the world, grateful for her family history, proud of what it means to people such as our LGBTQ community and she sounds like she's reached a newfound comfort in her own skin. There was an elegant soulfulness about her in the interview. To hear her on the February 5th edition of FRESH AIR on NPR, go here and search in the shows and podcasts section:

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Diversity and A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961)

February is Black History Month. Here's some bold and impressive history that you did not hear on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). I mention the popular classic film movie channel because it relates to a film that has aired several times on TCM.  The movie is the 1961 screen version of A RAISIN IN THE SUN, a film that had actors from the original Broadway cast repeat their stage roles in the movie. Lorraine Hansberry, the late African-American dramatist, made history when her play was produced on Broadway and met with critical acclaim. It starred Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands and Lou Gossett Jr.
Back in 2017, TCM celebrated Pride Month with an accent on gay community history in Hollywood. Being a member of that community, I had a keen interest in watching this June 2017 series. Each Thursday evening, Dave Karger, one of the all-Caucasian quartet of TCM hosts, presented the TCM Spotlight on Gay Hollywood focusing on LGBT celebrities such as Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter and Anthony Perkins. The works of other artists were brought into the spotlight. Dave Karger hosted airings of classic movies based on plays from gay playwrights. We saw CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF based on the play by Tennessee Williams, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? adapted from the Edward Albee play and the movie version of Harvey Fierstein's TORCH SONG TRILOGY.

I watched each night of Dave Karger's TCM Spotlight on Gay Hollywood to see if there would be any black representation. There was not. No black representation at all. And there could have been.  Lorraine Hansberry was a playwright, a social activist and openly lesbian. I don't know if young Mr. Karger was aware of that, but A RAISIN IN THE SUN could have been included in his movie line-up for that Pride Month special series. In addition to writing the play, Lorraine Hansberry wrote the screenplay for the film released by Columbia Pictures.
THAT is rare, major history. A black woman wrote a Hollywood screenplay -- in the early 1960s.  Her screenplay was based on her landmark hit Broadway play that debuted in 1959.
To learn more about the young, gifted and black Lorraine Hansberry, a talent taken from us way too soon by cancer in 1965, there was an excellent documentary that aired on PBS a couple of years ago.  It's called LORRAINE HANSBERRY: SIGHTED EYES/FEELING HEART.

It is an absolutely fascinating documentary. Look for it online and watch it.  I was lucky enough to interview Oscar winner Lou Gossett Jr. in his L.A. home back in 2012. He knew Hansberry. He was in her play and in her film adaptation of it. I asked him who should play Lorraine Hansberry in a biopic feature film if one was made on her life and, quicker than a heartbeat, Gossett's enthusiastic reply was "Taraji P. Henson."

There you have it.  Some Black History, some LGBT history and some Hollywood history all made by the same talented black woman -- the late, great Lorraine Hansberry.

Monday, February 4, 2019

That Virginia Governor Story

I know you've heard about it. The story has been at the top of network newscasts and a major item on social media.  There was a racially offensive photo in a medical school yearbook, a photo from 1984. Back in my college years, I wrote film reviews for the student newspaper. I knew students who worked on the yearbook. One of my initial reactions to seeing the 1984  medical school yearbook photo of a young man in blackface standing next to someone in a KKK costume was "How the hell did that photo get approved to be in a yearbook?" That reaction was followed with "Did black students also attend that medical school and, if so, how did they feel seeing racially offensive photos printed as humor material in the yearbook?" Well, I watched Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's live telecast press conference over the weekend. He spoke and apologized -- and the revealed another blackface experience in his life! He put shoe polish on his face so he could look like Michael Jackson when he entered a Michael Jackson dance contest. This was also in the 80s. With his wife by his side in what we've come to expect as the "Stand By Your Man" pose from the wife of a tainted male politician, he told the press that he won the contest. I sat watching his press conference on MSNBC with the same expression on my face that Broadway audience members had seeing the "Springtime for Hitler" musical number in Mel Brooks' THE PRODUCERS.
His press conference was like watching The Hindenburg fly through an electrical storm. The governor's absolute cluelessness reminded us that we need to keep the discussion about race in progress.

In the 1990s, I loved living in the Chelsea section of New York City. I had membership at an independent video rental store called Alan's Alley. A great place with an equally great staff. Alan's Alley was like the bar in CHEERS only it didn't serve liquor. There was a young Latino of about 20 who frequented the video and worked as a clerk at the pharmacy right next door. He was a neighborhood guy many of us knew as a good, polite kid who was deeply impressed with the presidency of John F. Kennedy. He mentioned his interest in seeking a political career so he could make a difference in his community. He was also a serious film enthusiast.  In Alan's Alley, he was one of those customers who could engage in lively, smart conversation about films new or from Hollywood's golden age. He'd spoken of an upcoming film he wanted to see. Folks in the neighborhood knew me from local TV and they knew I'd lost a partner to AIDS.

For work purposes, I got a critics screening invite to the movie the young gent in Chelsea wanted to see. I was able to bring a guest to the screening. I asked him if he'd like to go with me. With deep politeness and regret, he declined my invitation. He explained that he was serious in his desire to seek a career in politics and he wanted to enter it with a clean slate. He was afraid that if someone narrow-minded saw us together at a movie, they'd think he was gay because he worked in Chelsea, a neighborhood with a thriving gay population, and he did not have a girlfriend. He was comfortable with the gay community. He just wanted to keep himself free of rumor and scandal.

I was disappointed, but not hurt. I totally understood. He was young and idealistic and, when you think about it, wise. If the Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam had possessed a similar wisdom in his college years, the mess involving that racist yearbook photo could have been dodged. And maybe he would've thought twice about putting shoe polish on his face to enter a Michael Jackson lookalike dance contest. Northam, a Democrat, said that he is sensitive to African-American issues gave the impression that his Michael Jackson dance contest moment was just for laughs.

That is something that our white friends who strongly consider themselves to be liberals need to think about and talk about before they put forth something race-related for laughs.

I had a moment on live national TV in 1991.  On CNBC. I was the guest host of a weekend evening show called TALK LIVE!  A white actor, popular for a 1960s sitcom, had been booked to be a guest in-studio. Personally, I would not have booked him because, off-camera, there seemed to be something seedy about him when I'd seen him at New York City functions.

In the studio, before the camera, and seated directly across from me, he went into old time white comedian mode and said "You and Sidney Poitier -- the only two who can't tap dance!"  He waited for a laugh. I didn't laugh. Even when he told me it was just a joke. I did not find it funny.  I don't want to type his name. I'll just post a couple of pics of him in performance on TV and in film.

I repeat. We need to keep the discussion about race, racial equality and racial respect in progress. Especially nowadays.

Oscar Buzz for TILL

 I'm on Twitter and, in the last three weeks, there's been Oscar buzz from a few established movie critics. The buzz was that Cate B...