Thursday, June 25, 2020

She Made A RAISIN IN THE SUN History

Let us praise the late, legendary Lorraine Hansberry. She made history in three areas -- three big areas -- that do not get the attention they deserve. Especially during Pride month on TV.
As you know, playwright Lorraine Hansberry was the first African American woman to write a play that was produced and performed on Broadway. The play was A RAISIN IN THE SUN. The story dealt with modern-day segregation in the Chicago area as we focused on an extended working class family that dreams of owning a home in a better neighborhood. A home with a front yard and a backyard. The title of the play came from a line in a poem by Langston Hughes. The poem is "Harlem."  Hansberry was 29 when A RAISIN IN THE SUN opened on Broadway in March 1959.
In the cast were Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, Lou Gossett Jr and John Fiedler.
Those members of the original cast repeated their roles in 1961 film version from Columbia Pictures. It's pretty rare when original members of the cast of a Broadway hit get to recreate their performances for a Hollywood studio film adaptation. What's even more rare was seeing the name of a Black person under the words "Screenplay By."

In the Old Hollywood history of talking films, movies released by major Hollywood studios after 1927's THE JAZZ SINGER from Warner Bros., Black writers did not get equal opportunities. In 1939, the same year GONE WITH THE WIND was released, RKO gave the public a blessedly short, sentimental tale of pre-Civil War days called WAY DOWN SOUTH. The movie runs about 65 minutes and was made as a vehicle for a boy singer named Bobby Breen. The kid really did have a beautiful voice. With his natural, down-to-earth manner, he should've been in Warner Bros. features with Pat O'Brien or James Cagney as a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who possessed a sweet voice, ripe for radio popularity. Breen plays the son of beloved plantation master in WAY DOWN SOUTH. All the Black people who work on the plantation sing and dance, basically, because master has never and never will sell any of them. Black veteran actor Clarence Muse plays a butler in the big house. Muse co-wrote the WAY DOWN SOUTH screenplay with -- Langston Hughes. I kid you not. Their names are onscreen in the opening credits as writers. That was 1939.

You never saw the name of a Black woman onscreen in credits as a writer -- until 1961.
Lorraine Hansberry wrote the play. Lorraine Hansberry wrote the screenplay. To me, that is major Black History and Women's History.

During Pride month a couple of years ago, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) aired films with an LGBTQ connection. That June, we saw films starring gay actors and films based on works by gay playwrights such as Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and Harvey Fierstein. We saw the movies WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and TORCH SONG TRILOGY. I watched to see if there would be any Black representation. There wasn't. And there could have been.

Lorraine Hansberry was young, gifted, Black...and a lesbian. An out lesbian. To see Lorraine Hansberry's name on the big screen under the words "Screenplay By" in a top Hollywood studio release was a first. It's Black History, Women's History and LGBTQ History.

Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart is an excellent documentary on the late, great playwright/screenwriter and activist done for AMERICAN MASTERS on PBS. It's streaming free for Pride month. To see it, go to this link and then scroll down:

Here's a trailer for the documentary.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020


This is the classic foreign comedy that was remade by director Blake Edwards and became a 1982 box office smash bringing its star, Julie Andrews (Mrs. Blake Edwards), another Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Before I write about the 1930s movie, let me tell you that you'll appreciate it more if you've seen these three other classic films: THE RED SHOES (1948), Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS (1946) and CASABLANCA (1942). Now let's visit the original 1933 version of VICTOR AND VICTORIA.
There are some mighty fine classic film available from Check out that website when you have time.

KINO MARQUEE is an outlet of the company and, in these pandemic days, has Virtual Cinemas. I'll give you a link for that info at the end of this post. Kino Marquee has released "gorgeous restorations" of three foreign films for Pride month. These three films are being promoted as "Pioneers of Queer Cinema." The Virtual Cinema event for the NY Film Forum slated to start on July 3rd is -- 1933's VICTOR AND VICTORIA. It's a musical comedy in German with English subtitles. Kino Marquee didn't exaggerate. It is a gorgeous restoration.

It's an entertaining movie you should see if you're a classic film enthusiast.  First of all, it gives you a greater appreciation for the Blake Edwards remake. His version is even more inspired than we first realized. I consider 1982's VICTOR/VICTORIA to be a screwball comedy classic. Truly, it's an example of a remake outshining the original to which it's fairly faithful.

If 1933's VICTOR AND VICTORIA seems more light-hearted than some 1920s/early 30s German films you've seen, it was made in Germany during the waning days of the Weimar Republic. In other words, it was made before Hitler took control.

Like Julie Andrews in the remake, Susanne (Renate Müller) is an aspiring singer making the audition rounds. She's young, sweet and possesses a good voice. But she's having no luck. She's out of work and broke. She meets a middle-aged actor who's also making the rounds and also in need of work. He's a bit of a ham actor, yet he's a sweetheart of a show biz veteran. He knows the business and attempt to cheer Susanne up. "Everyone starts at the bottom," he says. He adds, some of it in song, "Dear child, just don't give up. One day in spring, luck will call at your door." Susanne wants to be "a star without any equal."

Blake's remake came out in the 1980s when gay America was coming out of the closet, not just in society but in popular entertainment whether in disco music via performers like Sylvester and The Village People or in movies like MAKING LOVE, PERSONAL BEST and SILKWOOD. There was also the out-of-work actor gender-bender hit, TOOTSIE. In 1981, Tony Randall played a gay widower in the unjustly forgotten NBC sitcom called LOVE, SIDNEY.

In the German VICTOR AND VICTORIA, the middle-aged actor who who befriends Susanne is heterosexual. He's a straight guy who occasionally did drag onstage for laughs as a lady of Spain. Making him gay in the 1982 remake (and played wonderfully by Robert Preston) opened up the story for more observations on sexual roles, gender images and sexuality.

At a Berlin cabaret one night, the older actor, Fritz, coaxes Susanne to do his lady in Spain drag routine. She does. The audiences love it -- and there's an agent in the audience. Unexpectedly, doing that routine was just the break she needed. However, the agent thinks she's really a young man who does great drag. She and the older actor friend keep her gender a secret because she's getting great bookings and they're making money. The secret is also kept in the Julie Andrews version co-starring James Garner.
Susanne gets star billing as a revue headliner. Taking seats one night in the front row is Robert with his snooty blonde date. The Robert character was Americanized and played by James Garner in the remake. In the original, Susanne -- while still pretending to be a male -- is smitten with Robert. Robert is played by Adolf Wohlbrück. He was a dark, dashing, debonair and talented actor who got out of Germany and changed his name to ... Anton Walbrook.  
He went on to success in British classics. Most notably, he was Boris Lermontov, the head of the ballet company, in 1948's THE RED SHOES.

It's a damn good thing he got out of Germany. Walbrook was half-Jewish and gay. Take a look at this trailer.

In the original, Fritz has a crush on a chorus girl who has a crush on "Victor." She looks at Susanne onstage in drag and sighs, "Such a wonderful boy."  That chorus girl character is not in the remake. But Blake Edwards gave us one of the most refreshing and welcomed openly gay characters in a Hollywood film. He's "Squash" Bernstein, the tough and lovable bear of a bodyguard to the James Garner character. He's not just a bodyguard. They're friends. Rarely did -- or does -- Hollywood give us a straight/gay male friendship. Bernstein was played delightfully by former NFL star, Alex Karras.

1933's VICTOR AND VICTORIA was written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel. Starting his career in the silent film era, he was an actor and a director. He directed a couple of MGM releases for 1939. One was a Joan Crawford turkey called ICE FOLLIES OF 1939. Reinhold Schünzel had a key supporting role in the classic Alfred Hitchcock film, NOTORIOUS, starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. Schünzel played the Nazi dinner guest who almost drank the poisoned coffee.

He acted in a bold 1919 silent film, also made in Germany. DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS is about two men, classical musicians, who fall in love with each other. A blackmailer, who seems to be in the closet, casts a cold shadow over the relationship. Schünzel played the blackmailer. Starring as an openly gay man in love was actor Conrad Veidt. By the way, you see same-sex couples dancing in this 1919 foreign film. There's a bit of a similar plot in the groundbreaking 1961 British film, VICTIM, starring Dirk Bogarde. Conrad Veidt would become known to millions of moviegoers as the main villain, the Nazi Major Strasser, in CASABLANCA.

Veidt played a respectable homosexual and, off-screen, he was married to a Jew. He had to get the hell out of Germany too. And there you have it.

For more information on the PIONEERS OF QUEER CINEMA Virtual Cinema presentation of 1933's VICTOR AND VICTORIA, click onto this link:

Monday, June 22, 2020

I'm a Fred Astaire and Pan Fan

One of the most terrific trios of talent brought together for work in Hollywood musicals was Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Hermes Pan. Pan not only became close, longtime friend to Astaire, he was Astaire's top choreographer and collaborator. If you believe in reincarnation, you'd surely feel he and Fred were partners in a previous life. For two men who were unrelated, they looked like they were brothers.
Whereas Gene Kelly had an affinity for the ballet, Astaire had ballet training in his youth but preferred Black music and a swing/jazz beat. So did the man Astaire referred to in his autobiography as "Pan." Hermes Pan. The Tennessee-born son of Greek immigrant dad and a Latina mom. He moved to New York City with his family when he was 14. I heard from a Debbie Reynolds friend that Pan loved Harlem. He, Astaire and Rogers were Broadway veterans before they worked together in Hollywood.
Hermes Pan choreographed the dance numbers in the classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers RKO musicals of the 1930s. Astaire, Rogers and Pan teamed up to make original movie musicals such as TOP HAT, FOLLOW THE FLEET, SWING TIME and SHALL WE DANCE -- all with new songs and new dance numbers. He choreographed numbers for Fox musicals in the 1940s and went from behind the camera to in front of it dancing with Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth. Here's Astaire and Rogers dancing to a song they introduced, "Pick Yourself Up," in their 1936 classic, SWING TIME. Music by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields.

Here's a clip of Hermes Pan with Betty Grable in Fox's 1942 feature, FOOTLIGHT SERENADE.

FOLLOW THE FLEET (1936) had an original score by Irving Berlin. Here, Astaire and Rogers dance to "Let's Face the Music and Dance," a number that was visually referenced in 1981's PENNIES FROM HEAVEN and 2017's THE SHAPE OF WATER.

Fred Astaire and Hermes Pan are in 1968's FINIAN'S RAINBOW. That film marked Astaire's last appearance in a big screen musical. Pan did the choreography. The two appear together briefly during "When The Idle Poor Become The Idle Rich," a number sung and danced by Astaire with chorus dancers. Astaire as Finian sits in a barber's chair when we see them.
The two men danced together only in one film, a 1940 Paramount musical called SECOND CHORUS. Astaire plays a swing band musician and vocalist who, of course, can dance. Johnny Mercer co-wrote the songs. Paulette Goddard was the leading lady -- and she partnered with Astaire for "I Ain't Hep To That Step But I'll Dig It."

There was another song and dance number. Astaire's partner was -- Hermes Pan! But "Me and the Ghost Upstairs" was deleted from the final print. Here's the deleted number with Pan dancing under a sheet as the ghost. Notice the women's shoes Hermes Pan is wearing. Click onto this link to see it:

In my opinion, that deleted number shows us that we should revise a popular old quote.  The updated revision should be:  "Ginger Rogers -- and Hermes Pan -- did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels."

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Bravo, Kevin Willmott!

I still say that Whoopi Goldberg should've listened to me and interviewed him on her radio show. In New York City, back in 2006, Whoopi Goldberg debuted in her own live weekday morning radio show called Wake Up with Whoopi. The Premiere Radio production aired in several cities across the country. When I had my own prime time weeknight celebrity talk show on VH1, called Watch Bobby Rivers, Whoopi was one of my first guests. She was promoting her 1988 film, CLARA'S HEART. She liked my work. Also, she noticed that I did the half-hour show without a TelePrompTer, without cue cards and without an earpiece. When she got her radio show, she wanted a Black person who could be a weekly contributor doing film reviews and other entertainment news. She contacted me and I got the job. I am still grateful to her for that gig. During that time, I saw a mockumentary that was so fiercely funny, so blistering and brilliant, that I had to know more about its maker. The writer and director was a professor of film at the University of Kansas. An African American talent, his name -- Kevin Willmott. I feel now as I did when I watched that DVD. His mockumentary, C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA, should have received an Oscar nomination. The writing, the direction, the cinematography and the acting in it are that good.  The mockumentary is about alternate history. We see a modern day America, but an America as it would be had the Confederacy won the Civil War. We see this through the eyes of a British film crew shooting a documentary here in the USA for PBS television. The "documentary," the TV channels, commercials and all the station ID's are done as if we live in the Confederate States of America.  This mockumentary is ... well, imagine a Ken Burns-type project having been done by Dave Chappelle.
Kevin Willmott's knowledge of classic films made me gasp. The way he inverted D. W. Griffith's 1915 film, BIRTH OF A NATION, with Abraham Lincoln needing to flee via the Underground Railway was genius. The same applies to his look at a Hollywood film in the years soon after Hattie McDaniel won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND.

Hattie McDaniel was the first person nominated for an Oscar for playing a Black person. The third was Ethel Waters for playing the illiterate grandmother and domestic down South in 1949's PINKY, a race drama directed by Elia Kazan. The second person to get an Oscar nomination for playing a Black person was a white British actress named Flora Robson. Robson had played Queen Elizabeth in two historical dramas and she played the sad, old housekeeper who tells us the tragic love story of 1939's WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Warner Bros. covered Robson with dark make-up and slapped a pair of hoop earrings on her to have her play the stern Haitian maid to Ingrid Bergman's character in the romantic costume drama, SARATOGA TRUNK, a 1945 film co-starring Gary Cooper.

Flora Robson got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing the dark Haitian maid. Kevin Willmott obviously is aware of that fact when you see a "clip" from a 1940s classic in his mockumentary. Click onto the link for a look at the mockumentary's trailer:

The way Willmott skewers modern-day racism is hilarious, politically incorrect and probably more relevant today than when it was released in 2004. I watched it then contacted Willmott via email. I introduced myself, told him I worked on-air with Whoopi Goldberg and wanted to pitch him enthusiastically to her. I wanted her to do a phone interview with him about C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA if he was interested. He absolutely was. I pitched him to Whoopi. I'd given her a DVD of the mockumentary. Unfortunately and surprisingly, she was not interested. I stressed that I felt Willmott would move on to even bigger work. Whoopi just wasn't interested. I got back to Kevin Willmott with the disappointing news. He was extremely gracious to me for pitching him. A real gent, that Kevin Willmott. And a real talent. He did, indeed, move on to even bigger work.

Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee won Oscars for their adapted screenplay to 2018's BlacKkKlansman. The film was a nominee for Best Picture.
The current collaboration, DA 5 BLOODS, is now on Netflix. It's received some mighty fine reviews and Oscar buzz for actor Delroy Lindo's performance. Here's a trailer.

This week came the news that Kevin Willmott is at work on a screenplay for a biopic on the late tennis great, Arthur Ashe. Ashe won the U.S. Open during the racially turbulent Civil Rights era of the 1960s. He was an activist for Civil Rights and AIDS awareness. He succumbed to AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993. He'd retired from tennis in 1980. The film has the full support of the Arthur Ashe estate. Bravo, Kevin Willmott!

Friday, June 12, 2020


On HBO Max, viewers can see some of the same classic films usually seen uncut and commercial free on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). The 1939 classic, GONE WITH THE WIND, was in the slate of films to be aired but it's been pulled temporarily because of the Old Hollywood images of Black people in that Civil War epic. The lead character is the headstrong Southern belle, Scarlett O'Hara, played by Vivien Leigh.
Two female stars in the film won Oscars. Vivien Leigh won the Best Actress Oscar and Hattie McDaniel took the Best Supporting Actress award for her performance as "Mammy." To me, Leigh is riveting in the role and commands the screen with her every scene. The only person in the cast who can pull focus away from her is Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel is that strong and charismatic a presence and an actress. She was the first Black performer nominated for an Oscar -- and the first to win.
The recent protests over the murder of George Floyd coupled with the much-needed conversation on systemic racism being a hot topic, HBO Max temporarily yanked the 1939 classic. Also, an item in the Los Angeles Times written by Oscar winner John Ridley. He wrote that the film, based on a best-selling novel of the same name, "glorifies the antebellum South" and "romanticizes the Confederacy..."

John Ridley, the Oscar winner who wrote the article in the Los Angeles Times, is an African American screenwriter. He won his Oscar for 12 YEARS  A SLAVE.  Ridley directed a strong documentary about the violence that erupted in Los Angeles due to no white cops being punished for beating Rodney King. The documentary, LET IT FALL, is on Netflix and it airs on ABC June 16th in prime time.

Ridley feels that GONE WITH THE WIND should be removed from the HBO Max slate. I understand his anger, but I don't feel it should be removed. It could be aired with a disclaimer that appears before the film's opening credits, a disclaimer saying "The film you're about to see was made in Old Hollywood and contains outdated race/gender images and racial stereotypes that in no way reflect the viewpoints of HBO." Something like that.

Which brings me to this HBO Max item. GONE WITH THE WIND will return with a discussion that puts it in historical Hollywood context. I bet you they'll be lining up Black critics or film historians for that chat.

If that happens, the situation could shine a light on an area of racial inequality in the arts. The lack of Black people seen as film critics or film historians on a regular basis. Going back to the 1980s, the field of film critics and hosts on film channels has been predominantly white. In New York City alone there are plenty of Black people who can talk and write about new movies and classic films. However, we are usually only contacted for airtime when...

A)  It's Black History Month
B)  There's a diversity controversy like "Oscars So White"
C)  A discussion about Black images in a film needs to be held
D)  A Black celebrity dies or gets jail time.

Other than that, we are not part of the general film discussion. We're not asked to discuss the new Tom Hanks, Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep movie. We're not asked to discuss Hitchcock, Billy Wilder or Martin Scorsese. We are overlooked or downright ignored. Did you see the 2017 HBO documentary called SPIELBERG? It's a good documentary that runs about 2 1/2 hours. There are 7 film critics/historians seen in that feature. Not a one is Black. There's wasn't even a Black film critic giving soundbites in the ten minutes devoted to Steven Spielberg's production of THE COLOR PURPLE.

When 12 YEARS A SLAVE opened in New York, I saw an ad for it in the newspaper. The ad had about a half dozen rave review quotes from critics. I was familiar with all those critics. Not one quote was from a Black critic. That was back in 2013. A current article in TIME magazine, available online, is "People Really Do Get Their Civil Rights History From Movies Like The Help. The Problem With That Is Clear." What should be added is that the reviews of such films in major publications are done by white critics. We get reviews of movies about Black life in Civil Rights era stories written through the white gaze.

We need to move on from 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND and start bringing Black/Latinx critics into the film arts conversation. The overall conversation. That goes for Broadway too.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Yes, Black Lives Matter

It's in response to the vicious murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, an unarmed and compliant black man handcuffed and suffocated by a white cop, and the international protests that sprung up demanding an end to the racism. He was not the first black man who made headlines by being unarmed and killed by armed white cops. That tragedy happened around the same time a white woman named "Amy Cooper" was breaking Central Park leash law rules in New York City. When a young black man who's a member of the city's Audubon Society asked her to put her dog on a leash, she got on her cell phone and called the cops with the lie that an African American man was threatening her life. This, like the murder of George Floyd, was caught on camera thanks to a cell phone. So was the racial hate killing of jogger Ahmaud Aubrey, an unarmed young black man trapped like a rabbit by racist gun-carrying white men in trucks. Millions of us Black folks felt "See? THIS is why we say 'Black Lives Matter'." This month, movies that could enlighten viewers to racism are streaming for free. Movies such as the recent and excellent prison drama, JUST MERCY, a 2019 Warner Bros release starring Michael B. Jordan  and Jamie Foxx. It's based on a true story and a book of the same name.
The Twitter account for Los Angeles Magazine, @ LAmag, posted "JUST MERCY is streaming for free on VOD all June. It's just one of our recs this week:" The list starts with JUST MERCY. The description of the film includes a quote from white critic, Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post. The next recommendation is Spike Lee's MALCOLM X. The description of that film includes a quote from white critic, A.O. Scott of the New York Times. The next two recommendations, 13th, a scorching documentary from Ava DuVernay, and I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, a powerful documentary about author/activist James Baldwin, also have quotes from white critics. There are more features on the list.
I appreciate the list. However, this would've been the perfect time to quote some Black film critics of which there are many in America.

To see more features proving that Black Lives Matter, you can go to

The paywall there has been lifted so we can see Julie Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST and more Black films  for free. Criterion has established a fund to support organizations fighting racism in America, starting with a $25,000 initial contribution. I love the Criterion Collection.

However, I've noticed that African American film critics or historians are tapped mostly to do commentaries for films by Black filmmakers or address Black images. When it comes to classics by directors such as Ernest Lubitsch, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Billy Wilder, Vincente Minnelli, Hitchcock, Truffaut and Fellini, commentaries are done mostly by white critics. We are not blended into the overall film discussion. Did Mia Mask, an African American professor of film studies at Vassar, get to talk about all of George Stevens' wonderful Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical, SWING TIME? No. She talks only about the "Bojangles of Harlem" number.  If Criterion invited me to do commentary for Vincente Minnelli work, could I talk about MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL? Or would I be limited to just CABIN IN THE SKY because I'm Black and that musical had an all-Black cast?

Racism, systemic racism, is not solely white cops beating and killing unarmed Black people. It's exclusion in housing and the workplace. It's not having equal opportunities and being treated like a second class citizen. It's your accomplishments not given the same regard as a white person's accomplishments. And then there's the frustration that comes when a few of your white friends, who consider themselves to be socially aware liberals, think that the playing field is level because they know you and you always seems to be employed.

I had an encounter with white Seattle cops during which my contained anger eclipsed my initial fear. I was on vacation. I had just come out of a coffee shop where I'd been reading a newspaper, eating a bagel and having coffee -- AND I'd chatted with the clerk behind the counter. I got an itemized receipt. I was walking back to the Four Seasons Hotel where I'd been staying for the weekend while I visited my dad.  On me and in my shoulder bag, I had my employee photo ID from Fox5 TV in New York City. I also had my passport, my plane ticket and my hotel room key. All of that was not enough. Three cop cars pulled up alongside me. Two cops questioned me, even after I produced photo ID, because "a Black man with a newspaper" had robbed a bank 10 minutes earlier. Two other cops came up to my hotel room later.

I've had an "Amy Cooper"-ish experience. A young blonde production assistant had two refrigerator-sized bodyguards escort me off the GOOD MORNING AMERICA set during a commercial break, claiming that I had "sandbagged" my way on-camera. I was on-camera because she asked me to be, as a few audience members witnessed. When I spoke up for myself to the bodyguards and when a few of the tourists in the audience verbally came to my defense, the bodyguards weren't listening. It was a white woman's word against mine. I was ordered and escorted out of the building. The irony is -- I worked for ABC News at the time. On a different show. I got an apology six months later.

Katie Couric loves Broadway musicals. She saw the 2008 revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC. In her book, THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT, she wrote about seeing it and the impact of the song "Carefully Taught." She'd never really paid attention to it before and described it as "prescient." Here's the song as performed in the 1958 film adaptation.

When I was a middle school kid in South Central Los Angeles, we kids knew what that song was saying. We were children of the Civil Rights era. The SOUTH PACIFIC soundtrack was in our classroom and it was played sometimes on Fridays during music period. On my block in neighbors' homes, you could find a Rodgers & Hammerstein soundtrack mixed in with a family's Motown records. Why? Because we all knew that Rodgers & Hammerstein's best work musically shouted down bigotry and intolerance. And the music was great.

The TODAY Show had a special edition for its 50th anniversary in 2002. Katie was on it. Talents who worked on other networks but had once worked on TODAY made guest appearances for that special show. People like Barbara Walters and actress Florence Henderson. Henderson had been a contributor in TODAY's early years. One visual that jumped out at me during the anniversary show's "group photos" was that Bryant Gumble and Al Roker were the only two Black people who'd worked on the show. In half a century. I can tell you they were not the only ones who wanted to work on TODAY. I tried unsuccessfully to land a gig as a TODAY Show entertainment contributor.

Did Katie Couric noticed the minimal amount of Black talent on TODAY? Did she say anything about it? Did she think Gumble and Roker were the only two Black people in the country who wanted to work on the show?

Full disclosure. Katie was nice to me when I worked in 30 Rock for a then new show called WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK. It was a live, local weekend edition of TODAY. It premiered in September 1992 and I was approached to be a member of the show's original trio. For me, it was a part time job and I was paid as such. In the second month of the show, I managed to get some soundbites from Madonna at a downtown press event. Katie called me from her office to congratulate me because the TODAY contributor covering the event didn't have the same luck. Katie claimed to have been a fan of my 1988-89 prime time celebrity talk show on VH1.
I quit the WNBC show in January 1995 after my boss told me that, although my work was good and I was popular with viewers, I'd only be part-time, never full-time, and I would have no chance of moving up to doing features for the network edition of TODAY. My exposure would only be local, only on weekends and I would not be offered a contract. So I gave notice. I quit because I felt I was not getting the same opportunities as the white employees with national TV credits got. Like Matt Lauer. When the WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK show premiered, he was half of the anchor duo. I was hired to be the film reviewer/entertainment contributor. When we premiered, my news director boss changed my duties to "man on the street" covering community events like street fairs, church bazaars and such. No film reviews. I would, however, get to do an occasional celebrity interview. I was angry about this, but I needed the part-time.

Katie would see me occasionally in the building and say she thought I was as funny and talented wondered why my career wasn't bigger than it was. I would just smile. Those exchanges taught me that there's a big difference between "Why isn't your career bigger than it is? and "Why isn't your career bigger than it is? What can I do to help?"

Check those lists and watch some of the films, if you have time. Paramount Pictures is offering free rentals of SELMA for the rest of June. David Oyelowo is amazing as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in it. Many, including myself, expected to hear Ava DuVernay's name announced in the Oscar category for Best Director. It was not. SELMA was a nominee for Best Picture, but she was not nominated for Best Director and he was not nominated for Best Actor. The story broke this week that some Paramount executives and Academy members were angry because cast members wore T-shirts with "I Can't Breathe" on them to the New York City premiere. The cast and director did that in response to the recent death of New Yorker Eric Garner. Those were his last words as cops got him in a choke hold for selling cigarettes out of a pack. Loose cigarettes.

Now we can rent the 2014 film for free because another unarmed Black man was suffocated by a cop and his last words were also "I can't breathe." I wonder how those studio execs and Academy members feel now.

Thursday, June 4, 2020


Athletic, handsome and with a warm personality that always stood out onscreen, Russ Tamblyn did himself proud in some classic Hollywood films. Some of those films are GUN CRAZY, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, PEYTON PLACE (which put him in the Oscar nominee category of Best Supporting Actor) and 1963's THE HAUNTING. I'll bet you'll agree with me that his most famous role was "Riff" in WEST SIDE STORY. Riff was the leader of The Jets, a gang of white teens who hated The Sharks, a gang of Puerto Rican teens,

Mr. Tamblyn wrote this yesterday on Twitter:

"I was born in '34. I've watched how this country treats black people for more than 80 years. Not much has changed. If COVID wasn't still out here, I'd be on the streets protesting and putting my body in the way of police every chance I got. PROTEST ON! #BlackLivesMatter"
That made me smile. With all the heartbreak yesterday because of the horrible and unjust way that George Floyd died -- coupled with the anger over the reform that never seems to come after innocent, unarmed black people are killed or threatened -- that  made me smile.

WEST SIDE STORY is on Netflix this month.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Marilyn Monroe, Compare and Contrast

Marilyn Monroe, born on June 1st in Los Angeles. I have been fascinated with her ever since I was a kid watching her movies on TV. Critics in her day overlooked her versatility and focused more on her sex symbol status, but I saw her as a gifted actress who could make me belly laugh while watching GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE. Comedy is hard work. Musical comedy is even harder. Monroe made both look easy.
Marilyn Monroe had the gift and that gift was evident even early in her bit parts before she became an international movie star. Look at the men she acted opposite. She went from Groucho Marx (LOVE HAPPY) to Laurence Olivier (THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL) to Clark Gable (THE MISFITS). She's not eclipsed by their star power. She holds your attention as she works. Her sexiness was natural manufactured. She mixed it with a genuine warmth and delicious wit.
Monroe appeared in a drama with Barbara Stanwyck, 1952's CLASH BY NIGHT. Let me use Stanwyck performances to show Monroe's versatility.  Barbara Stanwyck was a master at playing the light and dark of the ambitious woman who was often outwitted the guys by being the smartest one in the room. Look at her as the unselfish, all-sacrificing mother determined to give her daughter a better life than she had in STELLA DALLAS. Then watch her as the Manhattan women's magazine writer who wants a raise and pretends to be a new mom as she concocts a Martha Stewart-like holiday article in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT. She's the married woman who'd like to see her husband dead so she could collect on some big insurance money in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. She hooks a man into helping her hatch her lethal plan. In the screwball comedy, THE LADY EVE, she's a card shark who plans to cheat a young millionaire out of some big money, but her plans change when she falls in love with him.
See Marilyn Monroe as Rose Loomis, the wanton wife in 1953's NIAGARA. Here the Fox contract player Monroe is ascending to stardom. NIAGARA is a noir thriller in lush color. It's the kind of story that would've been a black and white neo-realistic Italian film about dangerous obsession. Rose is the young and lusty wife of an emotionally disturbed war veteran with a rather hang-dog face. He's gripped by fits of jealousy. Rose has a handsome, young lover on the side. They're making plans to run away together. Monroe makes Rose's sexuality like Niagara Falls itself. It's a force that can't be lessened and contained. This disturbs the dangerous husband even more.

In 1955, Billy Wilder's THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH presents Marilyn Monroe in a star vehicle comedy based on a Broadway hit. Again, she's with a middle-aged man with a rather hang-dog face. He's married. But not to her. His wife and little boy have escaped the New York summer heat for a month and are away at camp. Monroe is The Girl Upstairs, a not exactly booksmart but totally lovable model and TV commercial actress. He daydreams of having an affair with her but he doesn't. He's too faithful to his wife. She tenderly jealous of the wife. She likes him. She reveals that what she really finds exciting is not the handsome macho man. She tells him she's drawn to the guy who's "kind of nervous and shy and perspiring a sort of sense that he's gentle and kind and worried. That he'll be tender with you...That's what's really exciting." Her Sugar Kane will share the same sentiments after having late night supper with "Junior" in Billy Wilder's SOME LIKE IT HOT.

Marilyn Monroe was a stand-out at playing the showgirl and then getting deeper into the persona, playing the light and dark of it. There's her scene-stealing brief role as Miss Casswell in the 1950 classic, ALL ABOUT EVE. Theatre critic Addison De Witt (George Sanders) brings Miss Casswell to Margo Channing's party and introduces her as "a graduate of the Copacabana school of the dramatic arts." Follow that with Monroe's dumb-like-a-fox showgirl headliner role in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. Watch her as the patriotic American showgirl engaged in a game of comical sexual politics with a blustery and horny Eastern European regent in 1911. There are dramatic undertones. She overhears the regent's teen son plot with the Germany embassy. World War I will begin in 1914. This is 1957's THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL. She's a divorced and disillusioned showgirl in her last completed film, 1961's THE MISFITS written by Monroe's husband at the time, playwright Arthur Miller.

She was not a trained dancer like a Cyd Charisse or Leslie Caron, still Gene Kelly had high praise for Marilyn Monroe's work in dance numbers. He felt she moved like a dancer. Kelly had a cameo in Monroe's 1960 comedy with musical numbers, LET'S MAKE LOVE.

That brings me to her terrific performance in 1953's GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. The word "iconic" gets tossed around a lot nowadays. Nevertheless, her "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number is truly iconic. We saw how it was imitated by Madonna in the 1980s for her "Material Girl" music video. To me, Monroe gave an Oscar-nomination worthy performance in this 1953 delight. She didn't get one, but she should have. Her role as Lorelei Lee was originally mentioned for Fox's queen of the 1940s, Betty Grable. Grable, a Monroe buddy, co-starred with Marilyn in 1953's HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, a comedy which utilized Monroe's talent for physical comedy.

Fox's GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES was based on the 1949 Broadway hit musical that put Carol Channing on the map. She played Lorelei Lee in the Broadway musical which was set in the 1920s. The movie fast forwarded the action to modern day. The story was adapted to fit its two stars, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Monroe's Lorelei Lee is a loyal best friend and a one-man gal.

For the movie, Broadway/film choreographer Jack Cole was hired. Cole danced with and choreographed Rita Hayworth numbers in TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT and GILDA. Many of his best numbers were heavy on jazz. The number's in Fox's GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES had a jazz flavor. Here is Carol Channing introducing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in the original Broadway cast production.

Here it is in the movie version with the song given a 1950's jazz arrangement and stylish, witty choreography from Jack Cole. His dance assistant who coached Monroe was Gwen Verdon.

Yes, Sir. Marilyn Monroe did some hard work -- singing, dancing and acting -- and make it all look easy in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. I still feel she should've been a Best Actress Oscar nominee for that brilliant 1953 musical comedy performance. The nominees were:

Leslie Caron, LILI
Ava Gardner, MOGAMBO
Maggie McNamara, THE MOON IS BLUE
Audrey Hepburn, ROMAN HOLIDAY (winner).

Marilyn Monroe was never nominated for an Oscar. Carol Channing was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for 1967's THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLE.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Remarkable Raúl Juliá

I am not ashamed to admit this.  When I was new to New York City, I paid to see KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN several times during its theatrical release. I was mesmerized by the artistry of actor Raúl Juliá. His performance as the macho political rebel in a Latin American prison, sharing the cell with a drag queen, had a sweet, intense impact on my spirit -- like having my soul illuminated and transformed by seeing the vision of a saint. One of my longtime friends can attest to that. I took him with me once to see it and he fully understood why I felt the way I did as we were leaving the theater.
If you've never seen Raúl Juliá and William Hurt in KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, you need to make a "must-see" appointment with the DVD.
Raúl Juliá was an extraordinary actor who possessed a magnetism that made one let out a little gasp in his presence. I know from personal experience. When I worked for WPIX TV/Channel 11 in New York City, he came into our offices to be interviewed on our local weekday afternoon arts and community affairs show. I was not the only one in the office who gasped and blissfully stared as he walked by with his big, charming self. The next time I gasped was at VH1 as he walked onto the set to be a guest on my talk show.
May is drawing to a close. I just wanted to let you know that PBS is streaming some of its American Masters show in May. One of them is Raúl Juliá: The World's a Stage.  PBS is absolutely correct in calling it "a warm and revealing portrait" of the charismatic, intelligent and passionate actor who went from Puerto Rico to the Broadway stage to a classic film performance. What a wonderful presentation it is -- and what a tragedy that illness took Raul from us way too soon. He added a great light to the world around him.

To see that American Masters portrait -- and others -- click onto this link:

By the way, you'll see some of my work in it. I'm proud to tell you that American Masters included a clip from my VH1 interview. The actor spoke about 1985's KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN directed by Hector Babenco.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Tennis Great Althea Gibson

She was absolutely amazing. With her family, she moved from South Carolina to Harlem in New York City when she was a toddler. It was in Harlem where she grew to love playing sports -- especially tennis. Althea Gibson would go on to make sports history and break through a racial barrier in professional tennis.
Future African American tennis greats such as Arthur Ashe and the Williams Sisters -- Venus and Serena -- would benefit from Althea Gibson's breakthrough. She was the first African American tennis player to compete at both the U.S. National Championships and Wimbledon. Gibson accomplished that in the early 1950s. Later in the 1950s, she won titles at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

Take a look at this short PBS American Masters promo.

The gifted sports champ was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame and the International Tennis Hall of Fame.     
Hollywood gave her a short role in major movie starring John Wayne and William Holden. The 1959 release was called THE HORSE SOLDIERS. The story was set during the Civil War. The accomplished and internationally celebrated sports star played -- a plantation maid.

Did you know she could sing too?  She cut a jazz album in the late 1950s called Althea Gibson Sings. Let's take a music break right now with the tennis great singing "Because of You."

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Revisiting IN THIS OUR LIFE (1942)

An irresponsible white woman commits a crime, a crime that causes the death of a little girl. The woman blames the crime on a young black man. The innocent young black man is jailed immediately by the police. IN THIS OUR LIFE is a 1942 melodrama from Warner Bros. that starred Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel. At a time when Hollywood studios were still blithely giving moviegoers musicals with some numbers done in blackface and movies in which black actors were regularly cast as domestics of minimal education -- if they had any at all -- IN THIS OUR LIFE was a drama with sharp jabs at racism in modern-day America. However, for all the many years that I've read reviews and comments about this film directed by John Huston, I never read any mention of the undercurrent of racism in the story, an undercurrent that was pretty bold for a film of that time. Did Caucasian film reviewers and film fans just not notice it? Did they feel it was a minor point? Olivia de Havilland plays the good sister. Bette Davis plays the bad sister, truly a bitch on wheels who's known for driving too fast.
The two sisters live in Virginia. Their family had been in the tobacco business and has a comfortable life. There was some financial drama in the family. The movie's melodrama starts to percolate in the first 20 minutes when the bad sister snatches away the man the good sister is soon to marry. The siblings have traditional boy names -- Bette is Stanley Timberlake and Olivia is Roy Timberlake. Hattie McDaniel, in a supporting role, plays the Timberlake family maid, Minerva Clay. I've written before that this role, although small, is the best role McDaniel had soon after her historic Oscar win for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND which also co-starred Olivia de Havilland. In Huston's film, McDaniel is a modern-day, single working mother who worries about her responsible, studious son. He's getting the education that she never did. Nevertheless all black people have a never-ending fight for equality in the Land of the Free. The role of Minerva Clay is an important one. McDaniel was the first black performer nominated for an Oscar and the first to win. After her Oscar victory, she continued to work -- but her work came within a racially segregated and restricted Hollywood studio system. Her talents and screen charisma were never fully utilized. IN THIS OUR LIFE stars two Oscar winners -- Bette Davis, Best Actress Oscar winner for DANGEROUS (1935) and JEZEBEL (1938) and Hattie McDaniel, Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). You wouldn't know that McDaniel was a recent Oscar winner considering how far down she's billed in the opening credits.
Huston's opening shot of IN THIS OUR LIFE visually establishes the racial inequality that will be at play in the story. There's a wide show of a loading dock. Black men are seen below the deck of it and white men are above them. It's a brief but significant establishing shot. Then we see an older gentleman, Mr. Timberlake, walking on a sidewalk. Up comes the well-groomed Parry Clay, son of Minerva Clay, on a bicycle to deliver a lengthy verbal message to Mr. Timberlake. Parry delivers it thoroughly, as if he's an executive's secretary in a midtown Manhattan firm. Making his film debut as Parry is Ernest Anderson. Anderson received his Bachelor's degree in Drama and Speech from Northwestern University in Illinois and then headed to Hollywood.

In her youth, my aunt back in Los Angeles took piano lessons from the mother of the Nicholas Brothers. Aunt Barbara told me Mrs. Nicholas said that her boys could do a terrific dance number for a 20th Century Fox musical -- but they weren't allowed to eat in the studio's commissary.

Ernest Anderson was discovered working as a waiter in the Warner Bros. commissary. He was discovered by Bette Davis. Parry Clay works and studies so he can put himself through law school. 1930s and 40s Hollywood handicapped African American actors with having to perform servant/domestic roles with a certain dialect -- instead of saying "Yes, sir. It sure is hot today" they'd have to say "Yassuh! It sho' izz hot today!" Reportedly, Bette Davis stressed to director John Huston that she did not want Anderson to do that dialect. Anderson did not want to do that dialect, a dialect that frequently made black filmgoers -- like my parents -- cringe in those days. Although Davis, ever the character actress, felt she was too old to play the bad sister and that the screenplay diluted the racial and sexual intensity of the novel, Bette Davis was quite proud that Ernest Anderson's Parry Clay was "performed as an educated person."

In the open of the film, we learn from Mr. Timberlake that Parry Clay is at "the head of his class" in school. His mother is understandably proud of him. Roy, the good sister, helped get Parry a job in a store. It's a weekly job. She visits him one day and asks if he splurged on anything for himself with his first paycheck. He splurged on a reference book about law. Roy's warm interest and enthusiasm are evident. She had no idea Parry wanted to become a lawyer. Parry's mother, Minerva, is proud yet she's also concerned. Says Parry, she's "afraid for a colored boy to have too much ambition." Parry is aware of white privilege. That's why he wants an education. He knows he has to work harder because of his color. Also evident is Roy's respect and support for Parry. That scene with Olivia de Havilland and Ernest Anderson is a sweet one.
The main friction in the screenplay by Howard Koch is that the devious sister who likes swing music, cocktails and fast cars stole the good sister's fiancé -- and married him. The humiliated good sister then becomes friendly with the bad sister's former boyfriend. He was as surprised by Stanley's sudden elopement to Roy's fiancé as Roy was. Uncle William Fitzroy, who basically swindled the Timberlake family out of some of its money, loves Stanley (Bette Davis) but hates her jilted lawyer boyfriend. He hates Craig (played by George Brent) because he cares about "civil liberties." Craig is working on slum clearance. Roy (Olivia de Havilland) sees a dejected Craig in the park one day. She calls him on his feeling sorry for himself with his opportunities whereas Parry has less opportunities in society and is a fine example of self-motivation. Craig winds up giving Parry some work in his law office.

I bet the novel of the same name funneled a lot of racist attitude through the Uncle William character. That racism and his inappropriate feelings for the wild sister led to the story being too diluted for Davis' liking. How inappropriate was Uncle William? Let me put it this way: He would've criticized Evelyn Mulwray in CHINATOWN for not sending her dad a Father's Day card.

The bad sister is now a widow and tries to vamp her ex-boyfriend again. He stands her up as she waits in a local bar where she's had too much to drink. She drives off in a snit and, as usual, drives to fast. She hits a mother and her little girl. The mother is severely injured. The little girl dies. It's a hit and run crime. Stanley heads home, parks the car, and tells police that Parry must've done it after she told him to take the car and have it washed.

The serious scene that Olivia de Havilland has with Hattie McDaniel is only a 2-minute scene but it carries a lot of weight. First of all, de Havilland was a white Hollywood star who had a tremendous rapport and chemistry with McDaniel onscreen. Their heartbreaking staircase scene in GONE WITH THE WIND assured Hattie McDaniel that Oscar. They appeared together in the historical action film, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941) and the satirical comedy THE MALE ANIMAL (1942). The scene where Roy hears from Minerva that Parry was studying and didn't have the keys to the Timberlake car is important. Cops just whisked Parry away because it was a white woman's word over his. Actress McDaniel, too, was not required to speak with a stereotypical dialect. Minerva is a modern-day black mother afraid for her child in a pre-Civil Rights era. The scene shows that racial oppression did not end when the Civil War did in GONE WITH THE WIND. Roy sees Minerva as someone more significant than "just a maid." She believes her. She believes Parry. She will be strong enough to do the right thing and speak up. In the scene, McDaniel again shows her dramatic depth as an actress, a depth that Hollywood pretty much ignored throughout the 1940s. She deserved, but did not get, other substantial roles good enough to bring her another Oscar nomination.

Later, there's a key scene with Bette Davis and Ernest Anderson. Stanley, with Craig the jilted lawyer, visit Parry in the jailhouse. Stanley tries to coax Parry to go along with her lie. When Roy confronts her sister with what Minerva said about Parry's whereabouts and innocence, she snaps back "They always lie for each other."  IN THIS OUR LIFE is a melodrama. It's also a racial drama. We saw network news video of a white woman in Central Park who did not have her dog on a leash. It's the Central Park law to have dogs on leashes. A young African American man of the New York City Audubon Society videotaped her and asked her to please put her dog on a leash. She retaliated by calling the police to tell them "that an African American man is threatening my life." A white woman not following the law and accusing an innocent black man of a crime. That's today's news. Here's a trailer for the 1942 film.

In my previous blog post, I wrote about Ryan Murphy's HOLLYWOOD. In its final two episodes. Queen Latifah plays Hattie McDaniel. Murphy's revised history, blended in with actual history, proposes "What if Old Hollywood had given equal opportunities to people of color and had not forced gay actors to lead closeted lives?" What Latifah as McDaniel says in Episode 7 about Hollywood racism is strong stuff delivered with a touch of wistful disappointment. At the time, McDaniel had been seen as a plantation cook singing with Uncle Remus in Disney's huge 1946 musical/fantasy hit, SONG OF THE SOUTH. One great "What if" comes in the HOLLYWOOD storyline played by Patti LuPone. She's the wife of a powerful Hollywood studio head. He has a heart attack. She becomes head of the studio. She green lights a sophisticated movie starring actresses of color. She hires a black, gay screenwriter. HOLLYWOOD is set in the late 1940s.  With that in mind, I feel that if Bette Davis had been the head of a Hollywood studio, there were have been better opportunities for actors of color.  She discovered and supported Ernest Anderson for the making of IN THIS OUR LIFE. They were reunited onscreen in the 1960s for the box office hit, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? When Jane Hudson buys an ice cream cone on the beach in the last ten minutes of the movie, he's the owner of the snack bar.

If I wrote a project like Murphy's HOLLYWOOD that commented on how black actors were limited by studio racial attitudes in those days, I would call it UNCREDITED. College graduate Ernest Anderson had a significant supporting role in a drama starring two top Hollywood actresses of the day -- Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. He had a good scene with each one. If he was a young white actor like Jackie Cooper, think of the other script opportunities that would've followed.

Now go to Search the name Ernest Anderson. Click on his filmography and then look at his list of roles in the Actor section. After IN THIS OUR LIFE, notice how many of his roles were "uncredited." He acted in the films but his name did not appear in the credits. Notice how many times, after receiving praise for his film debut opposite Bette Davis, that the word "uncredited" appears in his film roles of the 1940s and 50s. Notice how many of the parts he got were Train Porter, Bellhop, Houseboy or Elevator Operator.

The delightful Theresa Harris played Chico, the best friend to Barbara Stanwyck's lead character in BABY FACE (1933). She played the best buddy behind bars to Jean Harlow's character in HOLD YOUR MAN (1933). She helps the Harlow and Clark Gable characters get married at the end. She played the personal maid to Bette Davis' Southern belle character in JEZEBEL. She looked like an art deco glamour girl in a posh musical number with Eddie "Rochester" Anderson in BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN starring Jack Benny. Do the same kind of search for Theresa Harris on Look at her list of Actress roles. Notice how many times you see the word "uncredited" in her roles from the 1930s through to the 1950s.

Hattie McDaniel was the first black performer nominated for an Oscar. Next was Ethel Waters. Both were nominees in the Best Supporting Actress category. Waters played the poor grandmother in PINKY (1949). Dorothy Dandridge made history as the first black performer to be an Oscar nominee in the "Best" category. Dandridge was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for the musical drama CARMEN JONES (1954). Her song & dance number with the Nicholas Brothers is a highlight of the 1941 Fox musical comedy, SUN VALLEY SERENADE. She played a lovely African princess opposite an equally lovely Gene Tierney in SUNDOWN (1941). She had a bit part as a G.I's wife at the train station in the World War 2 drama, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY which starred Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones and Hattie McDaniel.
Do a similar search for Dorothy Dandridge on Notice how many times the word "uncredited" appears in her Actress roster of film roles.

IN THIS OUR LIFE. Yes, it's a melodrama that gave Bette Davis another Warner Bros. outing as a bad girl. Yet, underneath the bitchiness, it told 1942 movie audiences that Black Lives Matter. It's a statement about race in America that, unfortunately, does not feel out of date. You can see IN THIS OUR LIFE on Amazon Prime video.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Finishing Murphy's HOLLYWOOD

"A colored screenwriter!" bellows Ace Studios head, Ace Amberg. Ace, played with just the right amount of likeable vulgarity by Rob Reiner, had no idea that a new film on his production roster has a screenplay written by a young Black man. If you read my previous posts on Ryan Murphy's HOLLYWOOD, a miniseries on Netflix, you know that the young man is Archie, one of the male hookers who works out of the Ernie West full service gas station in Hollywood. Yes, you can get a fill-up at the gas station. You can also get a lube job in more ways than one. Ace Amberg's wife has been a satisfied customer. Her pump boy is an aspiring actor who wants to screen test for the movie that fellow pump boy, Archie, wrote. Let me repeat what I wrote in my first post on HOLLYWOOD. I adored the art direction and costume design. They gorgeously reflect the post-World War 2 Hollywood that's teetering on the brink of the 1950s. The soundtrack with the retro music cuts by Peggy Lee, Artie Shaw, Judy Garland with Johnny Mercer, The Ink Spots, Perry Como, Lee Wiley and others -- I want it! Oh, how I miss the days of being able to buy a CD soundtrack. The direction has been lively and sharp -- especially the episodes directed by Janet Mock (Ep. #4, Screen Tests and Ep. #6, Meg). New show biz faces play the young Hollywood hopefuls. However, HOLLYWOOD is ultimately and undeniably stolen by the veteran actors. Real life young hopeful actors need to watch Holland Taylor, Dylan McDermott, Joe Mantello, Mira Sorvino, Rob Reiner  and especially Patti LuPone to see how it's done.
Ryan Murphy took Hollywood history -- facts about stars, productions and the discrimination within the industry itself -- and gives it his own Murphy twist. What if people of color -- like actress Anna May Wong -- had equal opportunities? What if gay and bisexual Hollywood figures did not have to be closeted and live in fear of losing their jobs because of their sexual orientation? The intent is interesting but he does not cut deeper into the meat if his intent is to make a statement on diversity and inclusion in today's Hollywood workplace. Some business in his script just doesn't make sense. Archie Coleman, Black screenwriter, gets a green light on his script. It's based on the tragic true story of defeated Hollywood blonde, Peg Entwhistle. She couldn't get a break. She killed herself by jumping off the top of the Hollywoodland sign. Handsome and 20-something Archie, played by Broadway multi-talent Jeremy Pope, sells his script. He's meeting with studio production people. But he's still turning tricks out of the gas station. Really, Ryan Murphy? Archie has fallen in love with Rock Hudson and Rock has fallen in love with Archie. They're just about living together in Archie's place. Archie's living room is twice the size of the one our family had in our modest one-level South Central L.A. house Dad got after WW2 with help from a G.I. loan. There's an upstairs in Archie's place. He sold one screenplay and he's still turning tricks out a gas station. William Holden's out-of-work screenwriter in Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD has sold more scripts and lives in a dinky little Hollywood apartment when first we see him. He can't keep up his car payments.

Actress Anna May Wong was a big star in silent films. When the sound era came in, Hollywood pretty much treated her like a second class citizen. The Chinese-American actress was denied the opportunity to audition for the female lead in Pearl Buck's THE GOOD EARTH (1937). MGM gave the role of the peasant Chinese wife to the white European import, Luise Rainer. She won the Best Actress Oscar for it. In 1942, the powerful Hollywood studio would have a hit with WHITE CARGO, a steamy drama set in Africa. The role of beautiful Congo temptress went to ... Austrian-born actress, Hedy Lamarr covered all over in "exotic" make-up.

If you watch HOLLYWOOD, when the decision to change Archie's screenplay from PEG, the story of a disillusioned Hollywood blonde, to MEG, the story of a young Black actress trying to beat the odds, the extra info may give the HOLLYWOOD storyline of Archie and Camille (the actress) a bit more weight. Hollywood had a history of  whitewashing, if you will.
Ace, the studio head, has a mistress. She's an ageing actress fully aware that she's getting older. She's under contract to Ace's studio and she is terrifically played by Mira Sorvino. While banging her in Palm Springs, Ace suffers a heart attack. His wife, played by Patti LuPone, unexpectedly becomes head of the studio and things really change. In one office scene, Avis (LuPone) proclaims her hatred for Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH. Others agree. Avis called it "a racist piece of shit" with happy, singing slaves.  Avis now has power and must search her conscience. Her daughter, whom she can't stand, wants to be a star. But she can't act. Avis sees Camille Washington's screen test and realizes that the young "colored" girl does indeed have acting chops. In another screen test, she sees that her gas station boy toy also has acting chops. Will she green light an opportunity for Camille? Avis will get advice from...Eleanor Roosevelt. Camille will get a chance. Avis and Camille have to deal with the KKK. Camille will get a congratulatory phone call from Hattie McDaniel -- as played by Queen Latifah. Hattie, a groundbreaker, was the first Black person nominated for an Oscar and the first to win. She won Best Supporting Actress for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. Co-star Oliva de Havilland was nominated in the same category. McDaniel was highly charismatic, an actress who could sing, handle comedy and break your heart dramatically -- as she did in GONE WITH THE WIND. Her best role after her Oscar victory came in 1942's IN THIS OUR LIFE. Again, she co-starred opposite Olivia de Havilland and plays a domestic worker in a modern-day story. She's a single working mother whose hard-working, scholarly son is putting himself through law school. But racism rears its ugly head. A white woman (played by Bette Davis) commits a crime. A child is killed. She blames the crime on the maid's son and he is immediately jailed. McDaniel's, in a scene with de Havilland, anguished and giving proof of her son's innocence, makes you feel the yoke of racism she's lived under. John Huston directed the film and that's one of the best scenes in it. All of Hattie's roles after her Oscar win were supporting roles. Some roles, like in another 1942 starring Olivia de Havilland, THE MALE ANIMAL, were beneath Hattie's talents -- especially considering that she's the only star in that comedy who'd won an Oscar. The film also starred Henry Fonda, Jack Carson and Joan Leslie.

Hattie had a supporting role and a musical number in Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH. There's Hattie, her screen charisma undimmed, playing a plantation maid. She sings a song with Uncle Remus. That Disney musical/fantasy was the top grossing film of 1946. Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS was second. Wyler's THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES was third. Coming in at #8 was a charming comedy about a teen girl in the 1920s. It was called MARGIE and starred Jeanne Crain. In what is basically a bit role as the maid who answers the door, we see Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel.

Even today, Hollywood seems to pat itself on the back by telling you that Hattie McDaniel was a trailblazing, groundbreaking actress who was the first Black person to win an Oscar. However, it does not go into how it continued to restrict and limit her as an actress and, at times, treat her like a bit player when she was the only one in the cast who'd won an Oscar. Ryan Murphy's script didn't tell us that Hattie was an Oscar winner before we saw her in the form of Queen Latifah. There was no mention that she starred in Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH. We see her as a bisexual star having an affair with Tallulah Bankhead. Her congratulatory call to Camille sounds like dialogue Latifah would've had in SET IT OFF: "You show them muthafukkas!" I love Queen Latifah but she seemed miscast initally as Hattie and her first appearance was a brief role, awkwardly written.

Then came the final episode, Episode 7. The last chapter made up for the bits of dissatisfaction I felt in middle episodes. In fact, I did not expect to sit through the finale with tears streaming down my face. We are now in 1948. We know this because Oscar nominations are soon to be announced and Rosalind Russell is favored for win Best Actress for 1947's MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA. Ryan Murphy repeats the same mistake he made in his Bette Davis versus Joan Crawford miniseries in that he had a Hollywood player up at dawn to hear the Oscar nominations. In those days, nominations came out in mid afternoon. The crack o' dawn Hollywood practice started several decades later. That aside, most of the final episode takes place at the Academy Awards. Murphy's alternative history gives us an episode ripe with gratitude and redemption. Hattie McDaniel reappears to give support and advice to MEG star, Camille Washington. Queen Latifah is in fine form dramatically as Hattie telling Camille about her Academy Awards night experience, the behind the scenes hotel discrimination and her disappointment with the work Hollywood offered her afterwards. Hattie stresses to Camille that the most important thing "is being in the room."
When the camera cuts to a young Black fellow, listening to the awards telecast on radio, and wondering if he will hear any people of color make an acceptance speech, my tears started. I saw myself in that character. I remember being a little boy and my parents gleefully shouting "He did it!" when Sidney Poitier won Best Actor for LILIES OF THE FIELD, the first Black man to win the award. When one character risked Hollywood hatred and banishment for holding his boyfriend's hand, I cried again. He decided to no longer be afraid. I thought of myself in 1992, at the height of the AIDS crisis, when I was afraid to hold my partner's hand in public for fear of losing my TV job -- an on-air job that put me in the same income area as friends of mine who were high school teachers. You couldn't be Black, gay and employed in show biz it seemed.  I could afford my modest studio apartment, I'd take of my partner when he got diagnosed with AIDS and I was also paying my mom's biggest bill. She moved to a new house in 1984. I assumed the mortgage on it when I got to New York in 1985 because she had not been paying her monthly house note. I saved her house from foreclosure by assuming her mortgage. I paid it off in 2000. In 2005, I went to visit her for Christmas but she said, "I don't want you in this house if you're still gay." In the years to come, our relationship did heal. When one winner at the Oscars says "Your story's important," I thought of the time in my profession when producers and agents made me feel otherwise. I got just about all my network and local TV jobs because TV agents said "I wouldn't know what to do with you." At times, I felt that maybe I'd dreamed I had my own talk show on VH1 in the late 80s. CBS Sunday producers would never consider me to be an entertainment contributor. In 2000, I fought to get an ABC News audition to be a weekly movie reviewer and film historian on a new live national show. The producers said they were aware of my work but asked if I knew anything about movies. I got the audition. I got the job. I was doing something on national TV viewers rarely, if ever, saw Black people do. My take home pay was $330 a week but I loved the job. In 2004, I applied to be an entertainment reporter for CNN. The producer asked if I'd ever covered entertainment. What I learned later was all those white producers had never bothered to glance at my resume or my demo reel before asking those questions. I had to fight to get "in the room" just for an audition.

That last chapter really landed on my heart.

I loved the HOLLYWOOD episodes in which the Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor characters are the top power players at the studio. Oh! There's an episode in which $25,000 is needed for the production of the film to star the young African American actress. Where can the money be raised? The guys call in a favor to Ernie at the gas station. He comes through by bringing in some extra help for assignments. Two luscious babes are sent over to the Hollywood home of a woman who closely resembles -- in physical and wardrobe appearance -- Hollywood's groundbreaking 1930s and 40s movie director, Dorothy Arzner.

The final scene of the MEG episode, Episode 6, caused me to let out a very audible gasp. It worked my nerves. The beginning of Episode 7 is a doozy. The underdogs have their day in Murphy's revised history.

The finale of Ryan Murphy's HOLLYWOOD made me feel that Hattie McDaniel, Dorothy Dandridge and Anna May Wong would look down on it from Heaven and smile, smile, smile with celestial joy.

For those new to my posts, here's a sample of my VH1 talk show work.

Here's a sample of my post-VH1 TV work.

She Made A RAISIN IN THE SUN History

Let us praise the late, legendary Lorraine Hansberry. She made history in three areas -- three big areas -- that do not get the attention th...