Wednesday, October 30, 2019

About DOLEMITE IS MY NAME

The reviews I read for Eddie Murphy's performance as the late Rudy Ray Moore were almost like thank-you notes. They were full of gratitude and appreciation. The reviews did not exaggerate. Eddie Murphy is so good in DOLEMITE IS MY NAME and the low-budget biopic is so entertaining that I watched it twice. This movie works in delightful ways that are almost subversive. You almost don't realize that this story set in the black community of my Los Angeles youth gives you fresh images of black people in working class L.A. In this "Me Too" era, we see that women can be totally naked in a work-related situation and be treated with respect by her male co-workers. We see a valentine to embracing diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry. We see that black people read film reviews in newspapers and entertainment news publications. We'll see a black man pay back all the folks who loaned him money. I love me some DOLEMITE IS MY NAME starring Eddie Murphy at the top of his game.
 If you are unfamiliar with Rudy Ray Moore, you need to know that you will hear salty language that starts in the opening minute of the story. I was a child of the 60s in South Central Los Angeles. Everybody in the 'hood knew the work of Rudy Ray Moore. His comedy albums were "adults only" and his album covers were equally naughty.
Did you see LA LA LAND? Emma Stone played the aspiring actress who works at a coffeeshop in Los Angeles. She has a meltdown because she's been auditioning for six years but nothing has clicked yet for her show biz career. White girl. In her 20s. DOLEMITE IS MY NAME takes us to the black community in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Rudy Ray Moore is now middle-aged with a pot belly and a bald spot. He's not young, he's not handsome, he's not white, he's not sophisticated. Still, he has not given up on his show biz dreams. When first we see him, he is hustling to get his 45 played on a local radio station. Rudy manages a local record store. At night, he moonlights as an emcee in a neighborhood nightclub.  Rudy may drop lots of 4-letter words when he talks but don't let that give you a narrow-minded image of him. He's an honorable man, a street smart guy with a heart o' gold. Gratitude and appreciation are part of his spirit along with his gift for bawdy humor. While grabbing a bite with his three buddies (played fabulously by Mike Epps, Craig Robinson and Tituss Burgess), he gets verbally slapped in the face with the reality of his current status. Hurt, he leaves the diner. One of the buddies runs after him to apologize. Rudy says, "Hey, man, how'd my life get so damn small?"

In biopics of white 1950s rock stars, we saw them get musical inspiration from black music and black musicians. Here, we see a black man get inspiration from a member of his own race and community. He gets inspiration from a neighborhood wino who frequently drops into the record shop. He may be a bum to society. However, he's got knowledge to offer. He inspires Rudy. Rudy reinvents himself with a harmless pimp persona onstage -- complete with wig and sporty outfit -- and does ribald nursery rhymes for adults only in his emcee bits. Rudy is a hit. With the help of his three amigos, he cuts a grassroots comedy album as his new persona, Dolemite. Those raunchy and funny albums are a hit with the L.A. black folks in Crenshaw, South Central and Baldwin Hills.  His comedy albums are too blue to play on radio like comedy cuts from Flip Wilson, George Carlin or -- as his aunt would say -- "that sweet Bill Cosby," but he's making money. Rudy and the three buddies grab a bite again. To celebrate, he wants to treat them to a movie. One of the guys had been talking about THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Another mentions that he wants to see SHAFT IN AFRICA. Rudy suggests THE FRONT PAGE because he read the reviews that called it one of the funniest films now playing. The four go to see the Billy Wilder 1970s remake of a 1931 movie.

This scene rocks. I grew up in L.A. I went to see THE FRONT PAGE when it played because it was directed by Billy Wilder. I saw it at a theatre in Inglewood. Whereas TV, radio, The Los Angeles Times, The Herald Examiner, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter never hired black critics and seemed to assume black moviegoers had no awareness of filmmakers like Billy Wilder, here was a black comedian who wants to see a new Billy Wilder movie because the reviews he read were good. The movie audience is packed. The four are the only black folks in the audience.  I felt like I knew Rudy's three friends. The scene reflected movie experiences I had when I was a kid. In theaters or at school, I'd hear my friends say "How come there ain't no black kids dancing in those BEACH PARTY or Elvis Presley movies?"

Rudy's three friends had no idea what THE FRONT PAGE was about and they noticed that no black folks were in it. Rudy realized the power of film. His next goal was to make a movie.

He goes on the road doing comedy dates as Dolemite. At one club, he sees a woman at a low point in her life. After his show, he talks to her. Her name is Lady Reed. She's a single working mother who broke free from an abusive relationship. Rudy sees something special in her that nobody else ever did. He makes Lady Reed part of his comedy act. What a performance Da'Vine Joy Randolph delivers as Lady Reed. Her character goes from wounded and cynical, to hopeless, to business-like, to unexpectedly happy in DOLEMITE IS MY NAME. Da'Vine Joy Randolph lights up the screen.

Rudy and his pals spot a black actor in a booth at a strip club. Rudy approaches him to pitch the Dolemite movie. The actor turns out to pretentious and disinterested. He immediately chuckles and tells them that he has an agent, he has an entertainment lawyer, and he's been "directed by Roland Polanski." The actor played an elevator operator in ROSEMARY'S BABY. Persuasive Rudy offers the actor that chance to direct the movie. Bingo. That appeals to the actor's vanity.  As the pretentious director, Wesley Snipes reminds us that he's got comedy skills. Giving his character a splash of late 1960s Sammy Davis Jr., it's Wesley Snipe's best comedy performance since 1995's TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING! JULIE NEWMAR.
You may feel it's a bit like BOWFINGER and ED WOOD. You will laugh. You will love seeing Rudy, his three male buddies and Lady Reed actually get their independent movie project done. They are black, they are middle-aged, one of the guys is gay and there's a full-figured woman. They are everything Hollywood does not want. This group will stick to its dream.
DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is not just a funny biopic. It's about perseverance, diversity, inclusion and representation. Is Toney (Tituss Burgess) treated like an outcast for being gay? No. He works for Rudy in the record store. Rudy confides in him. He makes Toney the accountant on the movie project because he keeps accurate books right down to the penny and he's dependable. Lady Reed has never seen a woman who looked like her on a movie screen. Click onto this link to see a trailer:

https://youtu.be/gLZk03rXpVc.

Rudy and Lady Reed are both single. There's no romance between them, yet he has affection and respect for her. With his help, her life will be in a much better place at the end than it was when they met. Although Rudy Ray Moore's Kung fu blaxploitation movie got lousy reviews from the white critics, his low-budget DOLEMITE indie movie did better at the box office than Billy Wilder's remake of THE FRONT PAGE did. DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is a funny and heartwarming R-rated biopic that I'll be watching again. I need the laughs.






Thursday, October 24, 2019

Bingewatch HAP AND LEONARD

I have written before that HAP AND LEONARD, which aired on Sundance TV back in 2016, is one of the best TV series I'd seen since our new century began in 2000. That's not embellishment. That's a fact. It did not get renewed after its third season. It should have been renewed. In addition to that, it should've received way more attention than it got from entertainment reporters and LGBTQ organizations such as GLAAD. GLAAD annually honors performers who are members of the LGBTQ community as well as straight allies This series was a great ally. Author Joe R. Lansdale, the man who created the characters in a series of novels, definitely deserved an award of gratitude for giving us a fresh, original, Black and gay character. Leonard, vigorously played by Michael K. Williams, hit the prime time TV landscape like a punch from Mike Tyson in his prime. Leonard is a Black, openly gay Vietnam veteran. And he's a Republican. You don't want to mess with him. He will open a large can o' whip-ass on you in  heartbeat. He will do that, too, if you mess with his longtime best friend, a white heterosexual pacifist called Hap. Hap did time in prison for opposing the draft during the Vietnam War.  Hap and Leonard are loyal friends. They love each other. They have each other's back. They know each other's basic heartbreak. James Purefoy is perfectly cast as Hap. It's a subtle, sensitive yet strong performance. Hap is measured. Leonard is explosive. The two lead actors complement each other so well they seem to be one unit. HAP AND LEONARD is an exciting crime thriller that takes us down South. The series is not only exciting, there's humor and -- for a show set in the 1980s -- there's a lot of drama that is achingly relevant today.
HAP AND LEONARD is a smart series that resonates in our current times of Black Lives Matter, Charlottesville, LGBTQ rights, Black Republicans on the Hill coming to terms with today's Caucasian Republican president comparing himself to a "lynching" victim in a tweet regarding the impeachment inquiry, and it resonates with why we take a knee with Colin Kaepernick.

Each season had only six episodes. Perfect for binge-watching. I planned to watch the first two episodes of the first season when it premiered and review those two episodes. I was immediately hooked. Not only that, I texted a couple of buddies and urged them to watch the show. I'm sure you remember Christina Hendricks as the shapely, sophisticated and smart character on MAD MEN. You've got to see her in the first season of HAP AND LEONARD. The crime story was called "swamp noir." I agree. With that in mind, she was absolutely the femme fatale on the hunt for a sunken treasure -- like a backwoods Barbara Stanwyck. She's ambitious and dealing with the big boys. When her character, Trudy, says "I keep thinking it'll get easier, but then I'll remember that's not how the world works," she brings you into her complicated character. You don't agree with everything Trudy does, but you understand why she does it. Henricks rocked that role, a role that allowed her to show her acting versatility.
The academy members who hand out Golden Globes and Emmys also overlooked HAP AND LEONARD. No nominations at all for that well-acted, well-written series. I know they are two different kinds of shows but HAP AND LEONARD should've received the amount of Emmy attention that RuPaul's DRAG RACE and MODERN FAMILY did. Both shows reflect gay images. So did HAP AND LEONARD -- in a refreshingly non-traditional, significant way.
And then there's actor Michael K. Williams as Leonard. GLAAD, the Oscars people and the Emmys people award and honor straight white actors for playing gay characters. We've gone through decades of white and African American actors being reluctant to commit to playing gay characters. Especially Black actors. Remember the film version of the Broadway drama SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION? Will Smith went after the lead role in the 1993 movie to graduate from being a sitcom actor. He worked opposite Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing. However, he would not commit to the same-sex kiss which was key to advancing the action in an important scene. His fakeness in that scene stood out in a big way on the big screen. When I saw it in New York City, moviegoers audibly grumbled in dissatisfaction. Michael K. Williams has played openly gay characters in three network TV productions. He played Omar, who was gay and kissed another man, on HBO's acclaimed series THE WIRE. He played a real-life gay activist in ABC's production of WHEN WE RISE. It chronicled the U.S. gay rights movements starting with the 1969 Stonewall Revolt. He's the openly gay Vietnam vet on HAP AND LEONARD.

GLAAD should bestow actor Michael K. Williams with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
HAP AND LEONARD, all three seasons, is available for binge-watching on Netflix.



Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Cameron Douglas Interviewed

His father is the Oscar-winning film actor and producer, Michael Douglas. His grandfather is the Hollywood screen legend, Kirk Douglas. Cameron Douglas, born into what some would call Hollywood royalty, has survived some brutally rough life. He was hooked on cocaine and heroin. He had a gun and might have killed someone out of desperation caused by drugs. Fortunately, he didn't. He did time in federal prison and was on suicide watch. He wrote about this in a new memoir. His famous father thought he'd get a call one day telling him that his son, Cameron, was dead. Cameron was interviewed in a one-hour ABC News special that aired last night. Veteran journalist Diane Sawyer conducted the exclusive interview.
If I was her producer for the show, I would've argued with our corporate masters about one specific clip. Because of Cameron's celebrated family history, I expected to see clips of grandfather's famous films. A news program can show clips from classic films. It doesn't have to pay for them because it's a news program. Remember in the heyday of INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO when James Lipton would interview stars who acted in celebrated older films? He rarely showed clips. That's because his show was considered programming/entertainment and he would've had to pay for use of older clips. That kind of money was not in his budget.

In the first 10 minutes of the news special, when Diane Sawyer had established the extremely dangerous road Cameron Douglas had been traveling down since his teen years, we see footage of Kirk Douglas. Film footage. One movie clip is shown with the audio up. Kirk is singing and playing an accordion. Then there's a clip of Kirk Douglas in an archive interview singing the same song. It's positioned as if that musical movie scene is as famous as the "I'm Spartacus" scene from SPARTACUS, a scene of him as Vincent van Gogh in LUST FOR LIFE or his angry outburst at the military irresponsibility in Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY. Kirk's musical moment with an accordion was entertaining but not as famous as those other scenes. The accordion scene was from a 1954 release -- 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.  It's a Disney film.

Disney is the parent company of ABC News.  I would've argued that clip's placement that early in the hour because it seemed like -- after establishing ex-con Cameron Douglas could have been killed or died of a drug overdose -- there had to be a blatant plug for Disney Classics. There was a corporate selfishness about its placement there. An insensitivity.  Later in the hour we did see clips of Kirk Douglas in SPARTACUS, PATHS OF GLORY and GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL. But none got the audio time that 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA did.
This is just my opinion as a viewer. I haven't had a steady, weekly job in years. I have worked in TV. I had my own VH1 talk show and Kirk Douglas was my sole guest for the premiere episode back in the 80s. I've interviewed Michael Douglas a couple of times. At a party in New York City, I met and chatted with another Kirk Douglas son -- the one who later died of drug overdose. All three treated me like a gentleman. I would've placed the clip from the 1954 Disney movie later in the hour, during a lighter section when Cameron told of a funny comment from grandfather Kirk. That is, if corporate masters forced us to use the clip.

DANCING WITH THE STARS recently had a 2-hour salute to Disney night. GOOD MORNING AMERICA now has two distinct personalities. The first hour is news. The second hour is practically a music variety show, heavy on the Disney product promotion, with a studio audience that applauds. I wish Disney would pull back from plugging itself in news features. To keep its dignity, if you will.
Michael Douglas was in the last half of the interview. It was very touching. Congratulations on being clean and calm now, Cameron. Big blessings to you and your family.


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Wilde Man Dorian Gray

This post is about a film that featured actor Hurd Hatfield. He had a long career with some noteworthy films in his list of credits. His most famous performance was his lead role in MGM's 1945 release, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. Based on the classic novel by Oscar Wilde, the lead role went to Hatfield quite early in his film career. His other film credits included 1944's DRAGON SEED starring Katharine Hepburn, 1948's JOAN OF ARC starring Ingrid Bergman, KING OF KINGS (1961), EL CID (1961), THE BOSTON STRANGLER (1968) and CRIMES OF THE HEART (1986). Hurd had a handsome, lean, rather aristocratic face that served him well in playing Dorian Gray. It could seem at once ethereal and eerie. When I was a kid, I loved seeing THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY on local TV because it gave me such a creepy feeling. It wasn't a monster movie. It wasn't a science-fiction movie. But glacially elegant Dorian Gray definitely was unnatural, unearthly, wicked and almost like a vampire. He never aged.
As I got older, I came to appreciate the movie much, much more. It stars Hurd Hatfield, George Sanders, Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury and Peter Lawford. One of the biggest stars involved with the 1945 production of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY is not seen at all in the MGM movie.
He's veteran cinematographer Harry Stradling. What he does with the black and white cinematography is rich and psychologically revealing. It enhances the story and the characters. The movie was on TCM one day over the summer and I watched it. I was fascinated by the dark beauty of it. The old movie totally drew me in again so powerfully that I logged off social media in order to give it my full attention. In my youth, I noticed that Hatfield did not move as much as other characters did. There was a stillness to him. Dorian Gray drew people to him. Watching it again, I noticed more of Stradling's art as cinematographer. It you watch it, notice that characters such as the ladies played by Donna Reed and Angela Lansbury are fully lit facially. They get lovely close-ups. Then notice Hurd Hatfield's impassive face in his close-ups. Half his face is lit, the other half is in shadow. If he was moving around as much as the other players were, you couldn't get that lighting effect on his face. That half lit, half dark effect is excellent. It's perfect for Dorian Gray. Also, when I was a youngster, I thought that Hatfield's face was flat. Nothing happening. I didn't mind because the story was so spooky. I was wrong about the actor. Hatfield is like Jane Greer playing the femme fatale character in the 1947 film noir classic, OUT OF THE PAST. The face is impassive as crime is being committed, but there's a lot going on in the eyes. Hurd Hatfield gave a fine performance.
There's one sequence that is chilling and, artistically, beautiful. The man who painted Dorian Gray's picture 20 years earlier goes to the attic to see it. He is a good man. Dorian has evil deeds on his soul. The door is closed and the lighting brings out a similarity to the sign of the cross in the carved design of the door. Dorian's face will be half in light, half in shadow. A lamp will swing back and forth causing changes in light and shadow. This is a film that utilizes the psychological impact of black and white and saves vivid color for a shocking special effect.

1945's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY has performances and production values worthy of your attention, if you're one who appreciates the art of classic films. The film brought Angela Lansbury an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Harry Stradling's film credits included 1938's PYGMALION, EASTER PARADE, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, A FACE IN THE CROWD, GUYS AND DOLLS, AUNTIE MAME, MY FAIR LADY and FUNNY GIRL. Harry Stradling won an Oscar for his cinematography on THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY.






Sunday, October 20, 2019

Judy Garland on SHOWTIME

What an extraordinary talent. What a complicated life. This documentary is one of the best TV productions about singer/actress and show biz legend Judy Garland that I've ever seen. The other is the Emmy-winning mini-series biopic that aired on ABC in 2001. Actress Judy Davis was sensational as Garland in LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND: ME AND MY SHADOWS. That TV biopic and the documentary that premiered on Showtime over the weekend have something in common. The biopic was produced by and based on a memoir written by Lorna Luft, Garland's middle child and second daughter. Judy had three kids. SID & JUDY is based on memoir writings of Sid Luft, Lorna's father and Garland's third husband. They were married 13 years in a union that was the longest of her five marriages. Sid Luft was stepfather to Liza Minnelli, Garland's daughter from her marriage to Oscar-winning film director Vincente Minnelli. Luft produced one of Hollywood best films of the 1950s, the 1954 remake of A STAR IS BORN which marked his wife's spectacular screen comeback in a film that earned her a very well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination. Sid & Judy, that Hollywood husband and wife team, gave us a great film that the studio, at the time, did not fully appreciate.
SID & JUDY is a must-see for Garland fans. It should also be viewed by those who have in interest in the classic film era to learn how the male-dominated studio system worked. Let's face it. Women, actresses, were often treated like second class citizens. It's a wonder the Judy Garland didn't sing a number brilliantly, take her bows, then go backstage and kneecap male executives in the balls. You really get that feeling during the section about her time at CBS doing a Sunday night variety show that aired opposite the NBC ratings powerhouse, BONANZA.

In this post, I want to give you a few of my notes on the documentary. Catch repeats of it on Showtime, if you can. There's no dull moment in this look at the romance, marriage, business partnership and break-up of Judy Garland and Sid Luft.
In SID & JUDY, we see family photos of young Judy we've not seen in other specials. We see her, with her two older sisters, as kids in their native Minnesota before the family relocated to Southern California. With actor Jon Hamm as Sid Luft acting as narrator, we're told that her father was a sweet, kind, funny man whom Judy adored. He was her protector. He was also closeted and when his true nature came out, it put a strain on the marriage in times quite different from the way they are today. We see how it affected the marriage and Judy's birth. She wasn't really wanted by the mother. But, at age 7, she gave out with a big and charismatic singing voice. Mom was then able to package the three sisters as a vaudeville act. Notice the photo of Frank and Ethel Gumm. (Garland was born Frances Gumm.) Judy had her dad's eyes. They were warm and tender. Her mother's eye were hard.  In a clip from a Barbara Walters interview, Garland described her mom as "mean" and a "stage mother." The mother wanted to be a star.

When Judy was 13, she got signed by MGM studio after bosses heard her sing. Two months later, her beloved dad passed away. She was then a juvenile working in a Hollywood dream factory, under the strict orders and some irresponsible behavior of middle-aged men. She was also the breadwinner of her family. Her relationship with her mother would be severely broken. At age 16, Judy started production on THE WIZARD OF OZ. The 1939 classic would begin her rise to being one of MGM's most profitable stars. Through the 1940s, she'd be the studio's triple threat queen of musicals with her skills as a singer, dancer and actress. In the 1940s, before she was 29, she had starred in more movie musicals than future Best Actress Oscar winners Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli have in their entire film careers.

The section on Garland's celebrated A STAR IS BORN remake shows how strong and magnetic an actress she was, how her singing gifts had ripened in the four years since she was dropped by MGM after 15 tears of work and how shabbily artists can be treated by the corporate mentality of the entertainment industry. The reviews for the movie were practically love letters. There was immediate Oscar buzz for Judy and co-star, James Mason. The film, an artistic high point for director George Cukor, came in at 3 hours. After its exclusive engagement, it opened wide. Theater owners complained they couldn't make as much money with a 3-hour movie as they could with a shorter film shown three or more times a day. The studio cut 40 minutes out of the film without approval from the filmmakers. Cukor never got a director's cut of it. Nor did producer Sid Luft and star Judy Garland. The studio ruined the artistic vision of the film. Garland lost the Oscar. She and Sid lost money. Today, cineplexes show comic book-based action/fantasy franchise films that run nearly three hours. Cineplex owners don't ask the studios to re-edit them and reduce the running time.

Garland's chemical dependency started in her teen years at MGM. She took the medication per the studio's orders. Sid tells of her extreme post-partum depression after Lorna's birth, her abortion before that birth, her attempts to kick her addiction and her near-fatal weight gain. There was a period when she was quite large. It turned out not to be fat, it was bloat. Her liver was 4 times its normal size and she needed immediate hospitalization. It was feared she'd slip into a coma or, upon recovery, be semi-invalid. Neither happened. She recovered after several quarts of fluid were medially extracted from her body. For all their fights, Sid was her much-needed cop. He could narc out her secret pill stashes. He kept a constant check on her. He taught the kids, especially Lorna, how to do the same.

The CBS chapter is stupefying, more so than the documentary reveals, and its revelations are great. The early 1960s put Judy on top again. There was her historic Carnegie Hall concert in 1961. She was in the Oscar race again. Her dramatic performance as a Nazi survivor in JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961) put her in the Best Supporting Actress category. Her second Oscar nomination isn't mentioned in the documentary. Nor is the fact that Arthur Laurents, the man who wrote the script to the Broadway hit, GYPSY, told NPR that he and others wanted Judy Garland to play the mother in the 1962 film version. But Jack L. Warner, the studio head who cut the 40 minutes out of 1954's A STAR IS BORN, said "No." He felt that Judy was "15 pounds too heavy" to play the middle-aged stage mother role originated on Broadway by Ethel Merman. Laurents was livid and felt Warner's reason made no sense. As he told NPR, "So we wound up with Rosalind Russell in two-tone shoes" with her singing voice dubbed.

After your learn about her parents' marriage and Judy's relationship with her mother, you can only imagine the acting depth she could've brought to the role of Rose in GYPSY.

At the time of her famous Carnegie Hall concert, Garland was now being managed by Freddie Fields and David Begelman. I believe they were previously with William Morris, the agency that had repped Judy. Sid Luft, in the narration, describes Fields as "cunning, driven." He calls Begelman a "bullshit artist." It's 1963 and Judy signs a $24 million contract with CBS for her own Sunday night music variety show. This is when Judy Garland would be at odds with toxic masculinity and, I believe, homophobia. Fields and Begelman drove a wedge in the marriage and manipulated her into letting them handle her career and getting her out of Sid's control. And protection. She and Sid separated.

Sid Luft was a big, brawny roughneck. In the doc, you see a photo of young Sid in boxing trunks and you know he's a street-smart tough guy. I'm sure that's why the marriage lasted 13 years. There are clips of Judy's CBS show and you can see that performers loved being with her and she loved having them on the show. The funny outtake of her song duet with Martha Raye is priceless -- especially considering that Martha Raye's second husband, musician David Rose, divorced her in 1941 and married Judy Garland later that same year. He became Judy's first ex-husband. Her second would be MGM director Vincente Minnelli. George Schlatter -- later of the iconic ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN comedy series on NBC -- and Norman Jewison -- future director of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, A SOLDIER'S STORY and MOONSTRUCK -- were both producers on the show. Both praised Garland. Schlatter, in the doc, says that folks were sure Garland wouldn't show up. He said that she not only showed up, "she kicked ass." Jewison, in other interviews, was in awe of her talent. He said that she had great ideas and took an interest in every single aspect of the production. But she didn't get respect from CBS head, James Aubrey. Jewison didn't like him. I don't think Schlatter liked him either. One exec, who didn't like Aubrey, felt that his formula for programming was "broads, bosoms and fun." Aubrey wanted comedy skits and such on THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW.

Some of her early shows have bits that make you squirm. Like when singer Steve Lawrence teased her relentlessly about how fat she used to be -- especially now that we know the fat was the bloat of a severe liver ailment. There's also comedian Jerry Van Dyke making jokes about her legendary tardiness. Male network execs would not have dared tried to pull disrespectful crap like that on Barbra Streisand in any of her specials a few years later. By the way, the now-famous duet of Judy Garland and Broadway newcomer Barbra Streisand was Jewison's idea.

I have a feeling that the disrespect from CBS head James Aubrey may have been rooted in a homophobia, an attitude that her Sunday night show would bring "queers" to CBS prime time. I got that feeling from Lorna Luft's book and the TV biopic made of it. THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW got really good near the end of its run when she took control, dropped the comedy sketches, and did what she did best. Sing. The show gave her some freedom she was denied at MGM. One of her best numbers showed her happily singin' and swingin' and surrounded by black musicians. She did a medley with Count Basie and his orchestra. She sang and held hands with Lena Horne. After the 1963 assassination and funeral of her friend and fan, President John F. Kennedy, she wanted to do a song in tribute to him. Aubrey wasn't keen on the idea, reportedly. She did the number, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and it was stirring.

As for managers Freddie Fields and David Begelman, Sid Luft discovered they'd been embezzling Judy's 1963 funds. Basically, they were giving her a commission and they were pocketing huge sums of her money. They had maneuvered Sid out of the picture. This embezzlement should have been a Hollywood red flag as large as a queen size bedsheet. The following info is not in the documentary but it was once in the entertainment news headlines. Sid was right to call Begelman a "bullshit artist."

David Begelman caused a major Hollywood scandal of the 1970s. In 1973, he was named president of Columbia Pictures. He quit in 1978 after it was discovered that he'd been forging checks. He'd forged a $10,000 check to actor Cliff Robertson and another big one to film director Martin Ritt. It was found that he'd forged a total of $40,000 plus a reported $23,000 in padded expenses. The embezzlement of Judy Garland's funds in 1963 was just the beginning. Those two managers, Fields and Begelman, bilked a woman who was a middle-aged working mother determined to take care of her three loving kids. And she was an international star. They even took a new Cadillac Garland had no idea she'd been given as payment for an appearance/performance she did on another network.

David Begelman shot and killed himself in 1995. Sid Luft passed away at age 89 in 2005.

With previously unseen family photos, home movie clips, concert photos plus dialogue audio from personal Garland tape recordings, this documentary gives you some fresh Garland material. It also contains two excellent performances. Jon Hamm's vocal work as Sid Luft hits a bullseye. He's terrific. He gives it the shading of an old 1950s Hollywood brawler looking back on his often rocky life with someone he loved very much. In a way, Judy was Sid's addiction. Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Judy Garland and reads from letters and notes Judy gave to Sid. Leigh nails the wistfulness, the middle-aged wry humor and the flashes of anger. Again, I enthusiastically recommend Showtime's SID & JUDY for Judy Garland and Hollywood history fans.

Renee Zellweger, judging from the reviews, seems destined for a Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing Garland in 1969, the last year of her life. The indie film is called JUDY. Lorna Luft has a new book available. It's about her parents' abused masterpiece which was later restored. The book is A STAR IS BORN: JUDY GARLAND AND THE FILM THAT GOT AWAY.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

We Will Miss Rep. Elijah Cummings

A Maryland Democrat and the House Oversight Committee Chairman. President and Mrs. Obama sent a loving condolence message calling him "steely and compassionate." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said "I'm devastated by the loss" adding that he "always strove to reach across the aisle." On Twitter she wrote this about today's news that Rep. Elijah Cummings, her dear friend, passed away at age 68: "Elijah was our North Star. He was a leader of towering character and integrity..."
Congress and America have lost a hero. Rep. Cummings was one of the last remaining giants on Capitol Hill. A mighty and vital voice that called out to keep our democracy intact and to bring justice to the disenfranchised. Remember his forceful disgust on July 7th at the way immigrant Mexican children in cages were denied simple privileges for personal hygiene -- here in America? His righteous anger was voiced with grace and clarity. He responded to Trump's insults about Baltimore with dignity. Rest in peace and power, Rep. Elijah Cummings. Your service was magnificent.

In June, Rep. Elijah Cummings said this:

"200 to 300 years from now, people will look back on this moment and they will ask the question, 'What did you do?'...I may be dancing with angels when all of this is corrected, but I've got to tell you, we must fight for our democracy."
That important question he posed -- "What did you do?" in relation to keeping our democracy intact.

On this day in history, Oct. 17th in 1939, Frank Capra's MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON premiered in Washington, D.C. James Stewart starred as the naïve junior Senator whose moral conscience gets beaten down by political corruption. Jean Arthur stars as the political insider who knows of the graft machine at play, is frustrated along with members of the press at the inability to stop it, and she knows how Capitol Hill operates -- more so than Senator Smith does. His honesty and fairness, his care for the little guy, melt her cynicism and warm her heart. When he's been beaten down, she motivates him to stand back up and fight. She motivates him to refuel his moral conscience by reminding him how important it is. Watch this clip from Capra's classic. Listen to Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) and notice that she poses the same question Rep. Elijah Cummings did.


We need more people like Clarissa Saunders and the late Rep. Elijah Cummings to motivate us to act with "plain, decent, everyday, common rightness."

By the way, this day in history was also the birthday of actress Jean Arthur, one of the best film actresses of her generation.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

America in My Youth

I was a little boy when President John F. Kennedy was a living voice and in office. During his presidency, I became a transfer student. I started elementary school at St. Leo's, a Catholic school and church on Imperial Highway in South Central Los Angeles. After a couple of years, Mom switched me over to George Washington Carver Elementary, a public school on East 120th Street. Getting there was a shorter walk for me. I was a latchkey kid. At St. Leo's, there were drawings of famous saints on the classroom walls. There were also photographs of President Kennedy, America's first Catholic commander-in-chief. I loved seeing him on TV news and in the newspaper. I loved his youthful appeal, his zest and his vitality.
Ours was a black Catholic family and my parents were solid JFK supporters. One thing I realized, even at that young age, was the respect President Kennedy had for the press corps. In addition to that, President and Mrs. Kennedy, had great respect for other cultures and the fine arts. When he spoke, he gave us hope.


This week, during a rally in Minneapolis, Donald Trump spoke. He currently resides in the White House. As he addressed the crowd, he criticized political opponents in a most vulgar way -- a way that makes one wonder if he's an American president or a high school bully who will drop out and never attend a college. With press in attendance -- by the way, he calls our American press corps "the enemy of the people" -- he said this about former Vice President Joe Biden: "He was only a good vice president because he understood how to kiss Barack Obama's ass."

A clip of that statement aired on MSNBC.

I want you to hear words I heard from a president when I was a youngster. This is what America had. Here are 4 and a half minutes of President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address.

Wake up, America.



Monday, October 7, 2019

Actress Juanita Moore Deserved More

The popular 1959 remake, IMITATION OF LIFE, aired on TV recently and I watched it. I had not seen it uncut and commercial free in four years. Douglas Sirk directed it, based on a hit 1934 film of the same name. Claudette Colbert starred in the black and white original. Lana Turner starred in the updated Eastman color remake.
If you're familiar with the movie, you know that it's a race drama. In both versions, we see two single working mothers, one is white and the other is black. The black woman becomes the maid/friend to the white woman. Each one has a little girl. The black woman's little girl is light-skinned like her absent father -- so light-skinned that she can pass for white. And she wants to pass for white. She wants the freedom and privileges that being white bring in American society. All four females live together in New York City where the white mother's career will ascend. She'll become rich and famous. The black mother will remain a maid and beloved friend, still working for and living with the white mother. This holds forth in both versions of the film. In the original version, Claudette Colbert's character gets rich and famous in the packaged food industry. In the remake, Lana Turner's character finds success and stardom on Broadway. Each mama will have drama as her daughter grows up.
For her performance as Annie Johnson, the maid/mother, Juanita Moore entered Hollywood history books as the 4th black woman to get an Oscar nomination. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. I dare your heart not to be moved watching her portrayal. Annie's devotion to her daughter is so deep, matched by her desire for Sara Jane to be truthful about her race, that each time Sarah Jane Johnson proclaims she's really white and each time she rejects her black mother, the denials act like a terminal virus that slowly but eventually claims Annie's life. Juanita Moore deserved that nomination. Also in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar category for that year was Susan Kohner as the grown light-skinned Sarah Jane. Kohner's parents were Mexican actress Lupita Tovar and Jewish film producer Paul Kohner.

Sirk's IMITATION OF LIFE has a lot of fans who are younger than I and Caucasian. When they talk about the film, one thing I notice is they always mention how heartbreaking and stinging the racial conflict of the story is. I agree. But rarely do they mention the original version. In the original version, the grown light-skinned daughter was memorably played by the beautiful, talented Fredi Washington, an actress who truly was a light-skinned black woman. The irony was that Hollywood executives -- in real life, not an imitation of it -- told Washington that if she passed for white, they could get her the quality of roles that went to actresses like Constance Bennett and Joan Crawford in the 1930s. But Fredi Washington refused to deny that she was a black woman, so Hollywood had no other opportunities for her. She did stage work in New York. Louise Beavers portrayed the maid/mother in the 1934 version. If the Best Supporting Actress category had existed at that time, Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington should've been nominees in that category for their dramatic performances. Beavers continued to work steadily in Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s, always in a maid role.
As I watched Sirk's IMITATION OF LIFE again, I was awed to a deeper degree by the excellence of Juanita Moore. Then I got angry. Juanita Moore, like the recently departed Diahann Carroll, was another in a list of black/Latina actresses who got an Oscar nomination and then had to turn to TV for steady employment because Hollywood had no other good script offers. Cicely Tyson and Oscar winner Rita Moreno are also on that list.

IMDb stands for Internet Movie Database. Juanita Moore was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for 1959's IMITATION OF LIFE. Diahann Carroll was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for 1974's CLAUDINE. Carroll was the first black woman to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. The 1962 musical was Richard Rodgers' NO STRINGS. The interracial love story about two Americans in Paris also got Tony nominations for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Costume Design. Hollywood never made a film version like it had of other Broadway musicals that featured the music of Richard Rodgers. Carroll was a trailblazer with her lead role on the NBC sitcom, JULIA, before her film role in CLAUDINE.

Go to the IMDb website, search the names Diahann Carroll and Juanita Moore. Go into Filmography and then into Actress. Notice the lack of major film roles after the movies that brought them Oscar nominations. The bulk of their work after their Oscar nominations is on TV. Juanita Moore should've had several other good film roles after her IMITATION OF LIFE performance. Her smart and sad portrayal of a woman whom society always pushes back into a supporting role as a caretaker shows how racial discrimination eats at the soul.

There's another strong performance in Sirk's IMITATION OF LIFE and it's one that rarely gets mentioned. I really noticed it more in my recent viewing. Karin Dicker as 8-year-old Sarah Jane really bites into her role and effectively communicates the girl's racial anger and jealousy. Sirk does something very interesting and almost subliminal with little Sarah Jane. When she compares herself to the white mother's little girl, her playmate, and she rages "I'm white! I'm just as white as she is" a couple of times -- one being with a Christmas tree in the background -- Sirk has half of her face in light, the other half is in shadow.

There's one small scene that stood out to me more this time around. The two mothers have been in each other's life and sharing the same home since the white mother was a struggling print model seeking magazine ad work. Now she's a celebrated Broadway star who has grown from sophisticated light plays to a strong, kitchen sink drama dealing with race issues. In real life, after all those years, she finds out the Annie has been an active member of social organizations and a positive force in her community. The impressed and surprised actress remarks, "I never knew." Annie sweetly yet frankly replies, "You never asked." Annie knew more about her than she knew about Annie. Annie knew more about the actress' credits than she knew about Annie's. How many white friends of black friends have asked them about their lives? How many have seriously asked their black friends about restrictions to freedom and equal opportunities they've experienced because of their race?

 

Thank you, Douglas Sirk, for a good remake. Thank you, Juanita Moore for an unforgettable performance. Hollywood was lucky to have you -- and didn't realize it.

For the Internet Movie Database, go here to  www.imdb.com.


Sunday, October 6, 2019

On SET FIRE TO THE STARS

If I used an elevator pitch style to recommend this story of two writers as a DVD rental, I'd say "It's like MY FAVORITE YEAR meets SIDEWAYS only it's a drama based on a real-life story about a famous writer and photographed in black and white." The 2014 release is SET FIRE TO THE STARS. The known Hollywood star in it is Elijah Wood and he's the reason why I watched it the first time. I wanted to review it on a film review show that aired on national cable TV at the time. I suppose that THE LORD OF THE RINGS and all its sequel/prequel adventures featuring Elijah Wood as Frodo contain his most famous film role. I'm a big Wood fan in and outside of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I love his willingness occasionally to seek out roles in productions that may not be mass market movie hits that sell lots of popcorn at the concession stands like those fantasy adventures did. They may not attract millions of viewers, but those roles challenge him as an actor.  EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED is an example. That film had him as the young Jewish guy out to find the woman who saved his grandfather. His grandfather was in a Ukrainian village during World War 2, a village overtaken by Nazis. I loved Wood in the American version of the Australian TV series, WILFRED. In that, he played a lovable yet depressed guy who, for reasons unexplained, sees his neighbor's dog as a grown man in a dog suit -- and they talk to each other. The dog is randy and rude but exactly what the young man needs to shake him out of his depression. SET FIRE TO THE STARS has what's been added to the list of my favorite Elijah Wood performances.  "How much trouble can one poet be?" The man Wood plays in this drama will learn the answer to his question when he becomes chaperone, wrangler and guardian to the hard-drinking Dylan Thomas during a speaking engagement in New York and Connecticut.
We go back in time to New York City in 1950. Elijah Wood plays the nervous aspiring poet John M. Brinnin. He's a Harvard graduate who bring in his idol, Dylan Thomas, for a week-long speaking engagement. Says Brinnin about the Welsh poet, "I believe him to be the purest lyrical poet in the English speaking world." But after Thomas hits a Manhattan apartment party like a hyper sheepdog in a fine china shop, Brinnin realizes he's got some heavy duty on his hands as a week-long caretaker to the famous poet. Brinnin chats with Thomas and tells him he needs to behave in his hotel room. He tells Thomas this as the poet relaxes in a bathtub with water up to his chest. Dylan Thomas was in the bathtub fully-dressed as Brinnin spoke to him.

See what I mean about a similarity to MY FAVORITE YEAR? In that film, a young comedy writer works on a network TV comedy show in the 1950s. His movie idol, the boozing and charming ladies' man/ageing action movie hero, is booked on the show and he's the young writer's responsibility. The actor is still charismatic, still unreliable. But the two men have a need for each other in a certain situation. In SIDEWAYS, two grown male friends appreciate good wines and a road trip as one's wedding approaches. There will be a disruption and the two men will need each other in a certain situation.
In SET FIRE TO THE STARS, Dylan Thomas is portrayed by the attractive, talented and burly actor, Celyn Jones (pronounced Kellin). He co-wrote the screenplay with first time director, Andy Goddard. The movie was shot in 18 days. When it was released in 2014, I watched it twice in the same weekend because of the magnetism between the two male leads. It's as if they artistically fell in love with each other and used that emotion to inform their performances. The aspiring poet, taxed by trying to keep Dylan Thomas from drinking and wrecking things, is attached to him because he wants to learn the secret to his gift. There's a rowboat scene in which hellraiser Thomas challenges boyish Brinnin and blurts "It's about feeling something." Celyn Jones shows us the lyrical poet in the man, the vulgar side that erupts when confronted with pomposity and the heartbroken, vulnerable, irresponsible man-child who cries out "I'm a drunk!"
The movie has a 1950s jazz score. The black and white cinematography is perfect for this story and its look at a bygone New York City. There's a minimal richness to the art direction and the set decoration. The look of the set and the looks of the character actors as diners are perfect. This was a praiseworthy accomplishment. Not only was SET FIRE TO THE STARS shot in just 18 days, it was shot entirely overseas in Wales. Celyn Jones is a native of Wales in the United Kingdom. Wood had been in Wales shooting a previous project when he got the SET FIRE TO THE STARS script.
When this film opened in New York City, I think it played at one arthouse theater in the Greenwich Village section. Elijah Wood was a guest on THE VIEW around that time but the ladies didn't mention SET FIRE TO THE STARS at all. They mentioned another project of his. I do believe that, if the film had received more attention from entertainment reporters and movie-goers, actor Celyn Jones would've received Hollywood script offers. He's quite good. I'd love to see more of him. Had he been around back in the day, Celyn Jones would've been working with classic film directors such as David Lean, William Wyler and Fred Zinnemann. I'd pitch him for one of those big budget adventures from Steven Spielberg or Patty Jenkins so he gets introduced to a large nationwide audience.
There's a dinner party scene in SET FIRE TO THE STARS that borders on the Edward Albee-ish. Think WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? The actress seen as the wife, Shirley, is Shirley Henderson. She scored in another film based on the true events in the lives of real people. It too is a fine film. In 2018's STAN & OLLIE, we see Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the latter-day Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Their loving wives, who constantly bicker with each other, are practically a comedy team themselves in the movie with their verbal tennis match of zingers. Shirley Henderson was a hoot as Mrs. Oliver Hardy.

SET FIRE TO THE STARS is a 95-minute biographical drama and a directorial debut that has some good things going for it. I watched it over the weekend and loved it for a third time. You can rent it on YouTube and Amazon Prime.











Friday, October 4, 2019

Elegant, Extraordinary Diahann Carroll

For a lot of us African Americans of a certain age, the news that singer/actress Diahann Carroll passed away hit us as if we'd just learned that a beloved senior family member had died. The place she held in our hearts was that special. Diahann Carroll died at age 84. Tributes on social media were immediate. I listened to the news of her passing on radio newscasts out of Los Angeles. The news reports and comments from entertainment contributors all mentioned Ms. Carroll's landmark role on the trailblazing TV sitcom, JULIA, on NBC in the 1960s. Her addition to the cast of ABC's hit prime time series, DYNASTY, was also mentioned. There was much more to her great career than those two TV shows.
Diahann Carroll was an African American trailblazer who worked with other African American trailblazers. Let me highlight some of her other credits.
By the time she was teetering on the brink of turning 21, Diahann Carroll has shared screen time with Dorothy Dandridge in the 1954 musical drama, CARMEN JONES.  Dandridge was the first Black person, male or female, to receive an Oscar nomination in the "Best" category. The first two Black performers to get Oscar nominations were Hattie McDaniel, winner for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND, and Ethel Waters for 1949's PINKY. Both women were nominees for Best Supporting Actress. Dandridge was nominated for Best Actress. (In the above CARMEN JONES photo, you see Dandridge in the pink, Pearl Bailey in the middle and Carroll on the right.) Diahann Carroll worked again with Dorothy Dandridge in her last Hollywood film, PORGY AND BESS, a 1959 adaptation of the classic stage musical. The film co-starred Sidney Poitier, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis, Jr.

GOODBYE AGAIN is a 1961 love story starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Perkins. Just like an earlier film starring Ingrid Bergman, 1942's CASABLANCA, this is a film that's sweetly subversive in its presentation of Black images. Just like Dooley Wilson in CASABLANCA, Diahann Carroll played a singer in a sophisticated overseas nightclub. The oft-told tale is that Lena Horne's numbers in 1940s MGM musicals were inserted into the action in such a way that they could be edited out when the movies played in America's Southern states. As James Gavin painstakingly documented in his Lena Horne biography, STORMY WEATHER: THE LIFE OF LENA HORNE, the actual removal of her numbers was more legend than fact. However, it is obvious that the glamorous Black singer/actress was never granted the opportunity in her A-list MGM musicals of the 1940s to do scenes with MGM's white, fellow A-list musical stars. Lena Horne never did dialogue opposite Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland or Fred Astaire. In CASABLANCA, Dooley Wilson as Sam is half of an important 2-character scene -- one scene with Ingrid Bergman and one with Humphrey Bogart. In another scene, the two lovers (Bergman and Bogart) are having a bottle of champagne ... and invite Sam to join them. In most Hollywood films of that era, the Black person would've been a servant who poured the champagne and then went back into the kitchen. In CASABLANCA, Sam is a friend.

In GOODBYE AGAIN, Perkins plays a young man having a complicated romance in Paris. He enjoys the number by the elegant singer and she joins him at his table for a drink. I loved Anthony Perkins and Diahann Carroll together.

Diahann Carroll's other 1961 film release was PARIS BLUES. Sidney Poitier, the first Black man nominated for an Oscar and the first to win the Best Actor Oscar prize (for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD), was Diahann Carroll's leading man and romantic interest onscreen -- and off, for a time. In America, the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. PARIS BLUES may be a little light on story, but it's blessedly heavy on positive Black images and inclusion. Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll are the four leads. Newman and Poitier play best friends, jazz musicians in Paris. Poitier's character is a composer/arranger -- like a Billy Strayhorn. The other two Americans in Paris, played by Woodward and Carroll, are best friends who worked and saved their money for a vacation in Europe. The two ladies meet the two jazz musicians and love ensues. That's pretty much the plot. The race situation in America gives an added dimension to the Poitier/Carroll storyline. Connie (Diahann Carroll) feels things are changing in America. She wants to be part of the movement. Eddie (Sidney Poitier) is wary. He reminded me of my father who told me several times that, when he served in the segregated Army of World War 2, the first white people who ever called him "Sir" were people of France and Great Britain.
I remember being a little boy and watching PARIS BLUES with my parents. They grew up seeing Black people in movies be limited to playing servants, slaves and Congo warriors. To see a stylish, educated, employed Black American couple as sweethearts in Paris was hugely significant to them. And when Paul Newman tosses a classy flirt to Diahann Carroll in an opening scene -- Wow! That was major for 1961.
Diahann Carroll made history on Broadway years before she made history on TV's JULIA. Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame, wrote the score for a modern-day musical drama. At the heart of NO STRINGS was an interracial romance. Again, Diahann Carroll played an American in Paris. She's a native New Yorker who has broken through a color barrier to be a high fashion model working in Paris. Another American in Paris is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist whose artistic flow is temporarily blocked. He's white. He and the model meet and fall in love. But can their interracial romance survive if they return to early 1960s America when interracial marriage was still illegal in several states? Actor/singer Richard Kiley (seen in the films BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET) was Carroll's leading man. The book was written by Samuel A. Taylor, the man who wrote SABRINA FAIR. That play was turned into the 1954 film, SABRINA, starring Audrey Hepburn.

Diahann Carroll beautifully introduced "The Sweetest Sounds" in NO STRINGS.
In 1962, her Broadway role was a non-stereotypical one for a Black woman. She was the first African American woman to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
Hollywood snapped up the rights to other musicals that boasted the Richard Rodgers name and made them into major movie musicals: Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA! (1955), Rodgers & Hammerstein's CAROUSEL (1956), Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I (1956), Rodgers & Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC (1958), Rodgers & Hammerstein's FLOWER DRUM SONG (1961) and Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965).

Hollywood did nothing with the Richard Rodgers 1962 Tony winner, NO STRINGS. Shame on Hollywood.

In 1968, Diahann Carroll made history with the premiere of JULIA on NBC. A Black woman was the lead character on the sitcom. She was not a domestic. She was a registered nurse, a single working mother. Her husband died serving in the Vietnam War. That character looked familiar to me. Our mother was a registered nurse who wore the same kind of outfit, including the starched white cap, that Julia wore to work. During its three seasons, Julia's cousin appeared in a few episodes. Cousin Sara was played by Diahann Carroll's dear friend, the equally extraordinary and groundbreaking Diana Sands. Sands was in the original Broadway cast of A RAISIN IN THE SUN (and the film version), she starred in a revival of George Bernard Shaw's SAINT JOAN, the first Black actress to take on the lead role, and she was Doris in the original Broadway production of THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT.

Diana Sands was slated to play the lead role in 1974's CLAUDINE when she was stricken with cancer. She asked Diahann Carroll to take over the lead for her. Diahann did, opposite the second Black man who was an Oscar nominee for Best Actor, James Earl Jones. CLAUDINE, a movie about Black urban family life, is so authentic you can practically smell the burnt hair on Claudine's hotcomb. For her performance, Ms. Carroll became the fourth Black woman in Hollywood history to get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

 After she won the Tony Award for NO STRINGS in 1962, she sang at a birthday party for President John F. Kennedy. In 1963, she participated in Dr. Martin Luther King's historic March on Washington. Here she is marching with James Garner and a bearded Paul Newman.
In 1997, Diahann Carroll slammed across a terrific performance as the fortune teller in EVE'S BAYOU, the remarkable directorial debut of Kasi Lemmons. The Black female filmmaker had played the best buddy to Jodie Foster's character in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
There you have it. The lady made history other than JULIA and DYNASTY on TV. Diahann Carroll was a fabulous example, a role model, a talented woman who was elegant and earthy, a combination of grit and grace and a product of a show biz era in which performers proudly perfected a sense of glamour and charm. She was a regal beauty who enriched our Black History on Broadway, on film and on TV.







Thursday, October 3, 2019

See MORRIS FROM AMERICA

I love me some Craig Robinson I have ever since I saw him as the strict nightclub doorman in the 2007 comedy, KNOCKED UP. He reminds me of every classmate who was buddy of mine back in high school in South Central L.A. Robinson, like those classmates, always got belly laughs from me. I laughed watching him in the movies PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE and the apocalypse sci-fi comedy, THIS IS THE END. You may have watched him regularly as Darryl on the NBC sitcom, THE OFFICE. Did you know that Craig Robinson can speak German? I didn't either. He speaks German on Netflix in MORRIS FROM AMERICA.
Craig Robinson is a big huggable papa bear of a guy. That quality serves him well in MORRIS FROM AMERICA. He's a widower father raising a 13 year old son named Morris. When we first see them, they're at home. Dad is trying to teach son some new rap beats. Morris listens attentively but he thinks the beat is too slow. They bicker in a friendly fashion with dad dropping some R-rated words. Then they go out for ice cream. As they talk about the flavors, they're walking in what appears to be an outside mall area. But it doesn't look like a recognizable city area. As the camera pulls back for a wide shot, we see that they're not in the U.S.

They live in Heidelberg, Germany. Morris has a tutor who teaches him German. He attends youth center programs where -- you guessed it -- he's the only Black kid present. However, the white German boys play basketball and know about rap music. Morris' youth center isn't presenting just light fun fare. His instructor quotes the philosophies of Marcus Aurelius. As Morris learns how to speak German and gets an upscale education at the center, Morris gets frustrated when he has to punch through some stereotypes about Black American youth.
MORRIS FROM AMERICA is a 90-minute coming of age drama that gives comedian Craig Robinson the opportunity to display his skill at playing more serious scenes than we're accustomed to seeing him do. He still makes you smile and there's still that Craig Robinson personality we love. However, we also see that Curtis Gentry, his character, is a man who deeply misses his late wife and continues to wear his wedding ring. Despite his dropping some occasional 4-letter words, he's a devoted dad whose son is the top priority in his life.

Dad brags about his amateur rap skills in the Bronx back in the day. He states, "I had sick flow" about his freestyle rap. Morris wants to rap and he does. He raps about hooking up for wild sex. Dad criticizes Morris when he reads his lyrics because he knows Morris has never had any wild sex. What I liked about that scene is that Curtis was essentially telling his aspiring artist son to write what he knows. Make his voice authentic instead of ripping off what he's heard from others.

Morris becomes infatuated with a pretty German girl in his youth center program. He's the obvious fish-out-of-water, so there's a scoop of your standard American high school comedies about pecking order and first crushes sprinkled with a little BLAZING SADDLES. Katrin, the German girl, stuns Morris with some questions about Black boys. "Teach me how to be charming," he says to his tutor when he longs to be accepted by Katrin. Katrin will lead him into teen temptation.

Things get complicated, Morris disobeys Dad when Dad's out of town and Morris gets stranded in another city. The situation could've been worse. Morris always has that little "Jiminy Cricket" voice in his head that keeps him from doing all the questionable things the other kids do.
It's a different and entertaining story of an African American single papa bear and his young cub. If you're a Craig Robinson fan, I recommend this. He's impressive with dramatic material.

The performances are good. Chad Hartigan, an Irish-American filmmaker, wrote and directed this feature. MORRIS IN AMERICA premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. How did Curtis and Morris wind up in Germany? You'll find out. Robinson's tender and fatherly monologue in the car scene near the end of the story is a winner. I loved that scene.

Kids say the darndest things. Sometimes in German. Check out Craig Robinson and Markees Christmas as father and son in MORRIS FROM AMERICA available on Netflix.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Casting the JOKER

I have an extremely talented comedian/actor buddy back in New York. His name is Anthony DeVito. This week, he tweeted "Once again I feel like an alien as white guys of all ages around me are going apeshit over the Joker movie."
Do I want to see JOKER? Yes. I admit it. I want to see it because I've been a fan of Joaquin Phoenix performances for quite a few years now. This goes back to his work in Ron Howard's 1997 film, INVENTING THE ABBOTTS. His range as an actor, his immersion into a character, fascinates me. If you want to get an idea of his range, rent GLADIATOR -- the 2000 film that brought Russell Crowe his Best Actor Oscar -- and follow that with WALK THE LINE. I have watched Joaquin Phoenix play Johnny Cash in that biopic at least a dozen times.   THE MASTER was what you'd call "an arthouse film," not one that could give an action-adventure franchise film a run for its money at the box office. That may be, but I sat through THE MASTER twice, dazzled by Joaquin Phoenix's performance as the emotionally dented WWII veteran who becomes engrossed in the teachings and leader of a new religious movement.
He got Oscar nominations for GLADIATOR, WALK THE LINE and THE MASTER.

Initially, I didn't have a tingling urge to see JOKER solely because I need a break from the steady diet of comic book-based adventures we get now at the movies. The franchises seem to have overtaken half the screens at the cineplex. But the excellent reviews Phoenix has gotten from several film critics whose opinions I respect ignited my interest.

From what I've read, JOKER is a backstory. It shows us the character's evolution from troubled young man to psycho villain. JOKER is a character created for a comic book. He's been played by only one  non-white male. Latino Cesar Romero, one of the most versatile actors of Old Hollywood, played The Joker in the 1960s on the popular BATMAN TV series on ABC and in a movie version of the TV series. In later films, the Joker was played by Jack Nicholson and the late Heath Ledger.

In the trailer, I noticed that Phoenix's psychologically tattered character is verbally pushed back, rejected by two Black women -- one on a bus, the other in an office. Then, he's kissing a third Black woman. I wonder where that relationship goes. Here's a trailer.


Another actor whose work I totally dig is Michael Peña. I wish he got as much attention and promotion as Joaquin Phoenix does. Peña had roles in five films that got Oscar nominations for Best Picture -- MILLION DOLLAR BABY, CRASH, BABEL, AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE MARTIAN. This talented Mexican-American actor also starred in a biopic, playing the lead character, but the entertainment press didn't give CESAR CHAVEZ anywhere near the attention it gave WALK THE LINE with the Joaquin as Johnny Cash. Here's Michael Peña.


Here's my question. If an ethnic actor, like Michael Peña, played JOKER, and played him as the son of an immigrant, a son who, like his father, was mistreated by society because of his race, how would comic book fans and critics respond to that? Think of Joker hearing "Go back where you came from" and seeing immigrant kids in cages on TV news as he continues to be treated like a second class citizen. Think of what being a racial outcast could give to the texture of that comic book character's backstory. Would it be interesting to see? Feel free to leave me a comment.

We Love Chris Meloni

When I lived in New York City while I worked on local and network TV, I saw actor Chris Meloni frequently at the gym. I won't divulge th...