Thursday, January 30, 2020

About DESTRY RIDES AGAIN

"Law and order!" That's what he believes in -- and he believes in attaining it "without guns." This post is about a James Stewart classic that does not get as much mention as THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO nowadays. But it should. Jimmy Stewart hits a bullseye in it. The 1939 comedy/drama western is DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. His leading lady is Marlene Dietrich.
I know that Stewart and Dietrich reteamed in 1951 for NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY. However, if I had a revival theater, I'd put this western on a double bill with MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. Deputy Tom Destry and Senator Jefferson Smith have major elements in common. Both men are trying to do the right thing as a public servant. Both are new to their jobs.  Both have to deal with a corrupt politician. Both young men had fathers who were shot in the back and killed. Both Tom Destry and Senator Jefferson Smith are looked up to by an impressionable little boy.

This is the classic movie that rejuvenated Marlene Dietrich's career. Moviegoers got a little tired of her being an alluring, exotic, elegantly-attired European vamp as she had been throughout the 1930s. Times and styles were changing. She's a con artist saloon singer in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, very popular with the rowdy men of Bottleneck. That's the name of the wild west town. In the first half hour of the film, Dietrich sings a song and then has a knock-down, drag out fight with one of the town's wives. Frenchy, the saloon singer, conned the woman's husband out of his pants. This hair-pulling, messy brawl covers quite a bit of floor space in the saloon as the men cheer. When Deputy Destry comes in and puts an end to the fight by dousing both women with a bucket of water, Dietrich ended her box office popularity drought. That brawl was a memorable, All-American movie scene.
The always-dependable Jack Carson played a member of the Washington, DC press corps in Frank Capra's MR. SMITH  GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939). He's one of the guys who hips the young junior senator to the shady deals that are being pulled. In DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, he's the hothead seated next to Destry when his stagecoach arrives in town. Bottleneck's crooked mayor and his cronies have just appointed the town drunk as the new sheriff. The amiable drunk knows he's useless so he brings in Tom Destry to be his deputy. Tall, lanky, mild-mannered Tom Destry has a habit of telling a very short story to make a point. Each little tale is like a fable with a moral. He doesn't carry guns. He doesn't believe in it -- especially considering what happened to his father. But this doesn't mean he can't use a gun or handle himself in a fight. The hothead who rode into town with him refers to him as a "lady-fingered deputy" because of his non-aggressive manner. Frenchy also thinks Destry will be a pushover and no threat to the crooks who keep money in her pocket. We'll see that Destry is a sharpshooter. And when one man works his last good nerve, Destry hauls off and punches the pores off that man's face.  In DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, Dietrich introduces a second song that became one of her signature tunes in her celebrated stage shows -- "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have." Here's a trailer.
Bottleneck needs to be tamed. We know Destry can tame it. Watch how he slyly sizes up the men and the situation in the saloon soon after he arrives to begin his duties. He knows what they're thinking and he knows what they're not thinking. Destry will tame Bottleneck -- and hot-tempered Frenchy.
There's a lot of gunplay in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN -- from men and women. George Marshall directed 1939's DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. Compare it George Stevens' 1953 classic western drama, SHANE. Jean Arthur played the frontier wife who says "We'd all be much better off if there wasn't a single gun left in this valley -- including yours."

In DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, when bad guy Kent (played with sexy smoothness by Brian Donlevy) and his henchman try to take over a homestead by shooting at its residents to force them off the property, the frontier housewife/mother grabs a rifle and starts shooting back. In the sheriff's office. there's a little boy who has taken to Destry and looks up to him. He's also fascinated with guns and wants to shoot like most of the men in town do. Notice that he picks up and holds a rifle as he talks to Destry. Notice how deftly Destry removes the rifle from the kid's hands as he casually converses. In the final scene of the film, notice how that same kid now emulates his role model, Tom Destry.  "Law and order," maintaining law and order "without guns" and not taking the law into one's own hands. That's what Deputy Tom Destry stands for in this western, a western that has laughs and substance. Destry changes the gun culture in Bottleneck. He only uses his guns when he has to protect innocent people in a crisis. This Universal Pictures release was released in December 1939, two months after Columbia's MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON.
If you see DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, Mel Brooks' BLAZING SADDLES will be even funnier. Madeline Kahn's character is a send-up of the Marlene Dietrich saloon vamp. Kahn obvioulsy studied the "source material" before giving us that fabulous lampoon of Frenchy. Madeline Kahn was a brilliant screen comedy actress. DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, lively entertainment that boasts Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich at their best, gets the prestigious Criterion Collection treatment this April.


Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Carolyn Jones in THE BACHELOR PARTY

The role that seems to have brought her the biggest amount well-deserved fame was her Goth hipster portrayal of Morticia in the 1960s ABC TV sitcom adaptation of THE ADDAMS FAMILY. When I was a kid, that show was "must-see TV" mainly because of her. Carolyn Jones had a look and talent I found absolutely fascinating -- even when I was just a movie geek youngster. I watched her on that TV series. I always noticed her in old movies that aired on television. Whether the part was big -- like her excellent performance as the jaded theatrical agent in 1959's CAREER -- or small -- like her part as the kooky, stone-faced dogwalker in 1955's THE TENDER TRAP -- Carolyn Jones always stood out. Like Bette Davis, she had big eyes that the camera loved. Also, like Bette Davis, she was so committed to each character she played that you could not help but remember her when the film was over, even if she only had a few lines in the film. I loved her as a brunette. However, Jones worked in three top hair colors on film. In 1952's THE TURNING POINT, starring William Holden, she's in an uncredited role as the floozie blonde "lady friend from Florida" questioned in a commission hearing dealing with organized crime.. In Billy Wilder's THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, she's a desperately horny redheaded hospital nurse who throws herself on the middle-aged married man in one of his daydreams. She's a brunette in 1957's THE BACHELOR PARTY, a drama written by Paddy Chayefsky. It's a modern-day New York City drama. Her downtown, sexy bohemian character isn't given a name. She's The Existentialist. Carolyn Jones is only onscreen for about 7 minutes in THE BACHELOR PARTY. However, she was so damn good in those few minutes that the performance brought her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
The movie is adapted from a TV play, also written by Chayefsky, and you can see its roots in the film. There are long scenes of dialogue in a contained space such as a room in an apartment or a space in an office. A group of men, co-workers, go out on a wild night bachelor party. One of the fellows is getting married. As they drink, revelations come out and truths about each other are realized. The main fellow is Charlie, played by Don Murray (previously the young rodeo dude to Marilyn Monroe's chanteuse in BUS STOP). He's a bookkeeper by day. He attends night school. His wife has just learned she's pregnant. He worries that a baby will restrict his night school education and that will handicap him from moving up to accountant. Jack Warden plays the hotshot guy who will handle the bachelor party. He just wants to get laid. He's single. One of the guys was so promising in college that friends felt maybe he could become America's first Catholic president. (Keep in mind this was 1957. A few years before John F. Kennedy made that history in the 1960s). As for the groom -- I think if Chayefsky wrote that character in between 1971's THE HOSPITAL and 1976's NETWORK, he would've made him a closeted gay man.

The groom-to-be is nervous about the marriage. He feels his parents pushed him into the relationship. He still lives with a parent. The woman he's to marry is a widow. He's not sure he really loves her. He intimates that he's never been with a woman and the thought of a wedding night scares him. E.G. Marshall and Nancy Marchand are also in the cast.
At the single man's urging, the party group gets on a subway to head downtown to meet some babes. They encounter a sleek Greenwich Village type on her way to a party. She's The Existentialist. She immediately sizes up the guys. They head off to a bar. Later Charlie, the bookkeeper, goes back to the party and sees The Existentialist. He's attracted to her.
She's seated on the staircase, holding court in a way, talking in a non-stop clip and dropping intellectual references here and there with insouciant mentions of her rent payment problems and the loser men she attracts. It's fascinating talk but it all seems like a well-rehearsed monologue from someone with a mask on top of camouflage. Like she's basically someone who doesn't feel as fabulous and sophisticated as she appears to be. We sense she is in Manhattan to reinvent herself -- and did -- yet she is still lonely and tries not to show it. That is a real New York story. I've been there myself.

I saw this movie on TV when I was in high school. One moment that stayed with me was the look of desperation and heartbreak that broke through in her eyes when she's alone with Charlie after all the fancy talk and she says "Just say you love me." For all her hipster chic and posturing, she's a subject in search of a verb.
I watched THE BACHELOR PARTY again recently. I hadn't seen it in years. Carolyn Jones earned that Oscar nomination. Being older, I connected to the beauty and truth of her performance even more. I have a feeling that Hollywood loved Carolyn Jones and also noticed her remarkable talent no matter how big or small the role. Journalist Michael Musto, a longtime buddy of mine, interviewed her and confirmed she was quite close to landing the role of Alma in 1953's FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. Unfortunately, a bout of pneumonia took her out of the running. The role -- and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress -- went to Donna Reed.

Catch these films for proof that there are no small parts -- if you're a talented, skilled actor like Carolyn Jones was. You'll stand out.  See her in 1953's HOUSE OF WAX, 1956's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, 1958's KING CREOLE with Elvis Presley, 1959's A HOLE IN THE HEAD with Frank Sinatra and -- my favorite film performance of hers -- 1959's CAREER starring Anthony Franciosa, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine.

Cancer robbed us of a fine, versatile actress. She died at age 53.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

On JUST MERCY

This new movie is about fighting hopelessness -- the hopelessness that is the enemy of justice. It's based on a true story that started in the late 1980s in Alabama. JUST MERCY is based on the New York Times bestseller of the same name by Bryan Stevenson. Today, Mr. Stevenson gets to see himself portrayed on the big screen by Michael B. Jordan. Not a bad bit of casting at all. In fact, I read that Stevenson told the actor, "Don't try to look exactly like me. Keep your BLACK PANTHER body." If you want to go out and see a good movie this weekend, consider seeing JUST MERCY. It is definitely worth the price of the ticket.
Jamie Foxx stars as the innocent man on death row. He was accused and convicted of murdering a young white woman. He was placed on death row before had a trial. We have seen this kind of a prison and courtroom drama before with someone unjustly accused of a crime and a newcomer to the legal profession taking of the tough task of making sure that justice is served. But this story gives you a different vibe. Instead of telling you that the system is broken, which you already know, it tells you that the system isn't broken. It's rigged that way on purpose to break certain groups of people. One such person from an outcast group is Walter McMillan played by Jamie Foxx.
Stevenson is a Harvard law graduate in Alabama to help fight for the poor who cannot afford proper and reliable legal representation. His mother worries about him being in Alabama where inequality seems to breed. Stevenson, a lawyer, is forced to submit to a strip search before seeing a client. He looks into the case of McMillan and is struck by the sloppy evidence. He meets with the hopeless McMillan. Then he meets with McMillan's wife, other family members and family friends who all gather in her house. The wife knows in her soul her husband did not murder that girl. He had a brief affair with a white woman and you can imagine how news of that went over in Alabama. When Stevenson asks why she still defends her husband, she replies "He's the father of our children" and she knows he's innocent. It turns out that McMillan was doing something else in another part of town when the crime was committed. Stevenson asks the group in the house if anyone can place McMillan at his activity at that time. About a dozen black witnesses raise their hands. Now we're really interested.
JUST MERCY reminded me of a time I did jury duty on a long, complicated court case in New York City. When one of the lawyers came into the jury room to address us, he said, "You've all seen the statue of Lady Justice. Please remember that Justice is blind."

He left and the woman sitting right next to me sighed, "Wow."  She was Puerto Rican from the Bronx, as she later told me. She explained why she sighed, "Wow."

"I never noticed that she was blind," she said. "All I noticed was that the scales weren't level."
That court case was in the late 1990s. I never forgot my fellow juror and what she said. Here's a trailer for JUST MERCY:

Jamie Foxx was a guest on GOOD MORNING AMERICA to promote this film and his appearance made me want to see it.  Foxx is a star. Like Tom Hanks, Sally Field and Robin Williams, he's one of those actors who graduated from TV sitcom work to winning an Oscar for a dramatic performance. He could've easily spent the time talking about his career and new movie. However, he graciously and generously chose to praise the acting talent and commitment of his co-star, Michael B. Jordan.  Foxx was right. Jordan, one of the film's producers, gives a passionate and nuanced performance.

As for Jamie Foxx, this is one of his best performances since his Best Actor Oscar-winning turn as Ray Charles in 2004's RAY. Brie Larson plays Stevenson's legal defense partner. There's a gripping performance by an actor named Rob Morgan as the death row prisoner, Herb. Herb is a Vietnam veteran with a severe case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. His PTSD was never brought up in his trial. There's a fragility about this poor man. Justice did not serve Herb. The scene of his execution as Ella Fitzgerald's recording of "That Old Rugged Cross" plays in the background is powerful and heartbreaking. A memorable scene.
JUST MERCY runs about 2 hours 10 minutes. I recommend it.




Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Academy and Women Directors

The skills of women directors have gotten actors and films in the running for top prizes on Hollywood Prom Night since the early 1930s. Yes, I mean the night the Academy Awards are presented. Ruth Chatterton, excellent as the middle-aged wife desperately trying to cling to her youth in William Wyler's DODSWORTH (1936), was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for 1930's SARAH AND SON. She was the first actor nominated for a performance in a film directed by a woman. SARAH AND SON was directed by trailblazing director Dorothy Arzner.
Since then, a number of women have directed performers and films to Academy recognition. For example:

Randa Haines directed Marlee Matlin (Best Actress winner), William Hurt and Piper Laurie to Oscar nominations for CHILDREN OF A LESSER. The film was a nominee for Best Picture of 1986.
Penny Marshall directed Robert De Niro to an Oscar nomination for AWAKENINGS. The film was a nominee for Best Picture of 1990.
Barbra Streisand directed Nick Nolte and Kate Nelligan to Oscar nominations for THE PRINCE OF TIDES. The film was a nominee for Best Picture of 1991.
Lone Scherfig directed Carey Mulligan to an Oscar nomination for AN EDUCATION. The film was a nominee for Best Picture of 2009.
Ava DuVernay directed SELMA. The film was a nominee for Best Picture of 2014.
In Oscars history, five women have been nominated for Best Director. The above five women who directed Best Picture Oscar nominees are not in that list of five. The women nominated for Best Director in Oscars history are Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow and Greta Gerwig.

Bigelow was nominated -- and won -- for THE HURT LOCKER. It also won the Best Picture prize. Bigelow did not get nominated for her second Best Picture nominee, 2012's ZERO DARK THIRTY. Gerwig was nominated for 2017's LADY BIRD, a Best Picture nominee. She did not get nominated for her second Best Picture nominee, LITTLE WOMEN.
Mel Gibson directed two Best Picture Oscar nominees -- BRAVEHEART (1995) and HACKSAW RIDGE (2016). Gibson got a Best Director Oscar nomination for each film.

This month, Greta Gerwig's LITTLE WOMEN is an Oscar nominee for Best Picture. Cast members Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are Oscar nominees. Tom Hanks is an Oscar nominee for A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD directed by Marielle Heller. Cynthia Erivo is an Oscar nominee for HARRIET, directed by Kasi Lemmons.

But no woman got nominated for Best Director this year.

On Twitter, I saw the TIME magazine article "Why do the Oscars keep shutting women out of Best Director? This one Academy rule explains it." Eliana Dockterman wrote the enlightening article.

The main snag seems to be a lack of diversity in the Academy branch that chooses who gets a nomination. As the magazine journalist wrote, "There just aren't that many women choosing the nominees" and the directors' branch selects the director nominees.

As a longtime film and film history enthusiast, plus having 30 plus years of entertainment news reporting/TV interviewer/host work in my credits, I assumed that was the case. The branch of directors is still, it seems, predominantly a Caucasian boys' club. Couple this with Academy rules that can frustrate women directors. In order to be on the branch, you must have two director credits and those films must "reflect the high standards of the Academy."

This is why I, for years and years, have wanted to scream like John the Baptist, a voice in the wilderness. I've wanted to scream "Network and local TV need to bring on movie critics of color on a regular basis! Not just when it's Black History Month!" We people of color on TV who've reviewed films and filed entertainment reports have a razor-sharp awareness of the barriers faced by marginalized talents in the entertainment industry. We've been there. In my years on local and network TV news programs, I constantly faced resistance when I wanted to interview new Black/Latinx actors and women directors. The executive response was "No one knows who they are." That was the very damn reason why I wanted to give them airtime! We Black/Latino performers may be getting national exposure, but we often have to hit up our white buddies for a recommendation on representation. Agents had a history of not signing talent of color because white performers got work that paid bigger money and brought in a bigger commission. So we Black/Latino folks often have to network in order to line up our next gig and attract an agent. Actors of color and women directors may have a current project that's met with critical acclaim but they will not get the huge promotional budget that white actors/veteran filmmakers get. So they truly, madly, deeply appreciate attention from the press because it could help them line up a second project.

In 1999, I hosted a local New York City cable show called METRO MOVIES. I loved that show and the humble crew. Our main objective was to spotlight up and coming indie filmmakers. One day the staff received a huge thank-you basket of muffins and other edibles. It was from director Kimberly Peirce in gratitude for giving her airtime to talk about her film, BOYS DON'T CRY. She said that she was not getting attention from mainstream outlets like the morning news programs. At that time. Eventually, word spread and its star, Hilary Swank, won the Oscar for Best Actress.

One of the times I interviewed Mel Gibson was when he was promoting 1997's CONSPIRACY THEORY. By then, he owned a Best Director Oscar for BRAVEHEART. I brought up the fact that women who directed Best Picture nominees -- as he did -- didn't all have his luck and get nominated for Best Director. I mentioned the multiple nominations for THE PRINCE OF TIDES, including Best Picture, but Barbra Streisand was shut out for Best Director.

I asked him if the Academy should be consider a rule change. My proposed change was -- the films that get nominated for Best Picture also come with a nomination for Best Director.

Mel replied, "No. It's fine the way it is."

What do you think about my rules change idea? If a film gets an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, its director automatically becomes a nominee for Best Director. Do you think that would help level the playing field a bit more?

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Betty Hutton in INCENDIARY BLONDE

This is a post about my favorite Betty Hutton movie and how it relates to her 1950 MGM hit, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. It involves a Hollywood story I'd read a number of times over the decades. When I was kid -- way back before VHS, DVDs and cable TV -- local TV stations often filled up airtime by showing old movies. This was terrific in Southern California because a few of the stations were hooked up to movie studio libraries. I grew up having seen many classics that have yet to make it to DVD. One of those movies was the loosely-based 1945 biopic with music, INCENDIARY BLONDE. It was the tale of the flashy, popular 1920s New York City nightclub owner/performer Texas Guinan. She became famous for her brassy greeting to customers, "Hello, suckers!" She was played briefly by Phyllis Diller in 1961's SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. In the 80s, there was talk of Bette Midler starring in a Texas Guinan biopic. Initially, Paramount had Barbara Stanwyck in mind to play Guinan until someone suggested adding musical numbers and styling it for one of Paramount's other big new stars, Betty Hutton. Hutton had come to Hollywood from Broadway. She'd also been a singer with a band. She seemed to crystallize the fresh vibe of the 1940s. She was a high-energy blonde babe who could belt out a tune and make you laugh. She could also act. In my youth, I grew up sitting in front of the TV in our living room and laughing hours away watching her romantically chase Eddie Bracken in 1942's THE FLEET'S IN (her film debut) and again with Bracken in the Preston Sturges screwball comedy, 1944's THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK, as pregnant Trudy Kockenlocker.
INCENDIARY BLONDE gave Betty Hutton the deluxe Paramount Pictures glamour treatment in Technicolor with gorgeous outfits by Edith Head. There were funny moments in it. But, overall, it's the bittersweet tale of two star-crossed lovers. The story opens with Texas Guinan's funeral. Two friends of hers, mourners, comfort each other and recall her humble beginnings. We flashback and see her story from spunky tomboy who leaves home to get work in a rodeo show to help her family, to getting a spot in a Broadway show, to getting her own nightclub and becoming the toast of Broadway. There's also the handsome show manager who hires her. Very well-played by Arturo de Cordova, he falls in love with her eventually but doesn't want to marry her. We'll find out why.
In her black and white comedies, Hutton was given bouncy swing tunes to introduce. In THE FLEET'S IN (seen above with Eddie Bracken, Dorothy Lamour and fellow screen newcomer William Holden) she does "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry." In 1944's AND THE ANGELS SING, she belts out "His Rocking Horse Ran Away" and in 1945's THE STORK CLUB, there was "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief" which became one of Hutton's hit records. My dad, a brawny WWII vet who was a big Betty Hutton fan, had a record of that in our collection at home. Just like Judy Garland, a top star at MGM in the 40s, Hutton was a top star at Paramount in the 40s who introduced tunes written for her. She too was a vocalist whose records got radio play.
INCENDIARY BLONDE showed that Hutton could be quite effective with dramatic scenes. She was a crowd-pleaser in upbeat rhythm numbers. However, when a director got her to bring the emotions in and bring a softness out, she was like velvet. An example is her luscious rendition of "It Had To Be You" in INCENDIARY BLONDE. That was another one of her hit records. Her reprise of it in the final poignant moments of INCENDIARY BLONDE, as she's tearful in mink and walking off alone into a starless cold night, will touch your heart..

1945's INCENDIARY BLONDE was a success for singer/actress Betty Hutton. It displayed her musical and acting range. Now zoom ahead to 1949. MGM is trying to get ANNIE GET YOUR GUN made with Judy Garland. Unfortunately, although only in her 20s, she's emotionally and physically exhausted from having been a hard-working contract player in that dream factory of a studio since she was 13. She was back from a sanitarium stay and really needed about another two weeks to get up to the task of that grueling musical. Things weren't going well. She was dropped -- and replaced with Betty Hutton on loan from Paramount. The story I'd often read was that Dore Schary, a head of production at MGM, had to screen a copy of Betty Hutton's 1947 comedy/drama musical, THE PERILS OF PAULINE, to see if she'd be right for the role of Annie.

I never bought that story. Hutton was, like Garland, a major Hollywood star known for musical comedies. Every quality you needed for an actress to have for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN is evident in INCENDIARY BLONDE. She's a tomboy in cowgirl attire singing "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" in the first ten minutes, she's in a rodeo show, she had a tender romance, became a singing and dancing Broadway star, and does a dreamy rendition of "It Had To Be You." Why would he need to screen THE PERILS OF PAULINE? What other top female musical star at a big studio would've been as perfect to replace Judy? Columbia had Rita Hayworth. She was great but wrong for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. And she was not a singer. Deanna Durbin at Universal? Wrong for it. Betty Grable at Fox? Good, but also wrong for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. Warner Bros didn't have a big female musical star in the 40s. Doris Day would be in place for the 1950s and do her own version of sorts, the original screen musical CALAMITY JANE. MGM had June Allyson, Betty Garrett and Jane Powell. All talented but none quite special enough a star to carry that project with her name above the title. Betty Hutton would be the obvious consideration. In fact, she wanted Paramount to buy the property for her. The studio, however, was outbid by MGM, the Tiffany of studios for Hollywood musicals.

Ethel Merman scored another Broadway triumph in Irving Berlin's ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, the musical that gave her the show biz anthem, "There's No Business Like Show Business." Ethel brought in Broadway audiences. Butt, in the 40s, she wasn't a movie star like Judy Garland or Betty Hutton. Think of Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD (1950). When down on his luck screenwriter, Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, gets a script pitch meeting with a Paramount producer named Sheldrake. As the broke screenwriter pitches his idea, the producers says "We're always looking for a Betty Hutton. Do you see it as a Betty Hutton?"

Betty Hutton was a star. There was no need to double check by screening THE PERILS OF PAULINE. Also, Hutton would've felt landing the role would be a bit of karmic justice. In 1940, Merman starred in the Cole Porter Broadway musical, PANAMA HATTIE. Betty Hutton was a featured player in it and, reportedly, had two numbers that wowed audiences in pre-Broadway tryouts. Diva Merman had the numbers cut and left Hutton with one number near the end of the last act. Hutton's understudy was June Allyson. When done with PANAMA HATTIE, dejected Hutton headed for Hollywood. Her screen debut in 1942's THE FLEET'S IN was an out of the park home run.

In the 1990s, I worked on a local weekend live news program called WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK on WNBC. One morning, I did a liveshot from the Manhattan site of an upcoming charity event. A socialite involved with it would be my guest to tell viewers about it. She was most gracious when we met before we went on air. Her last name was Clark. As I shook her hand and looked at her, I asked "Were you Merman's best friend? Were you in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN?"
The fact that this Black guy from a local TV news show knew that she was Benay Venuta warmed her up to me even more. She was in the Broadway show and the movie as Dolly.. We did our bit on the air and then I wanted dish about Betty Hutton replacing Garland.

Benay Venuta told me she was at a Hollywood party. Director Charles Walters and production head Dore Schary were discussing the footage Judy had shot up to that point for the movie. Both agreed that she just was not up to her usual performance level and would have to be replaced -- because it was too expensive a project. Benay said, "I called Betty and told her 'If you want it, you'd better start going after it.'" She did.

The property was repackaged for Hutton. She starred in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN and it was one of MGM's biggest box office hits of 1950. Also in 1950, she sang and danced with Fred Astaire in the musical comedy, LET'S DANCE. In his autobiography, Astaire cited that movie as one of his personal favorites. Hutton went on to do trapeze acts as the leading lady in De Mille's THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. It won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1952.

Oh! As for the actor who played Sheldrake in Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD., that was actor Fred Clark. He was married to Benay Venuta. Enjoy Betty Hutton in INCENDIARY BLONDE if you have a chance to see it.



Sunday, January 19, 2020

About A FALL FROM GRACE

The new movie mentioned is on Netflix. A dear friend of mine, one of the most courteous dudes I know, wrote on social media recently: "This Tyler Perry Fall From Grace might be one of the worst movies I've ever seen." I have known this gentleman for about 10 years and he always, always has a kind word to say. To read a strict comment like that from him was like...well, it was like getting mooned by a Quaker. It was so memorably unexpected.
Of course, it made me want to go to Netflix and check out the production for myself. The courtroom drama/murder mystery, A FALL FROM GRACE, was produced, written and directed by Tyler Perry. It has three things you can always count on seeing in a Tyler Perry original movie -- suffering black women, a handsome but triflin' black man, and wigs. Grace Waters has been charged with murder. The murder of her handsome but triflin' younger husband. She confessed to the crime. However, no one has found the dead body. Even Grace is baffled by this because she pushed the body downstairs to the basement herself. Grace is in lock-up. Her hairdo looks as if she has just been struck by lightning. Her young lawyer-in-training doesn't feel that Grace should sign the plea deal. She senses there's more to the story. The badly-written story. She gets Grace, still a very Christian woman, to talk. In flashbacks, we see how she met the young man who claimed to be a globe-trotting photographer. In voiceovers, we see how he flirted with her, courted her and took her on a first date to dinner -- in a diner. IN...A...DINER. They are drinking white wine in a place that's on the same level with a Denny's. Behind them are white couples in booths eating diner food. The wine probably came from a bottle with a screw-off top. That should've been Grace's first clue to run away. The second was his hair. BrotherMan looked like an extra from Kid & Play's HOUSE PARTY in 1990.
As to what happens later on, I won't go into detail. I will tell you that Tyler Perry, solo writer, has written for his specific audience. That audience will be happy to know A FALL FROM GRACE gives viewers that "Oh, no, she did not just go upside his head with a skillet" moment.

I know this is an unusual move, but I am going to use a clip from a classic Monty Python comedy film to describe one standout element of this Tyler Perry crime thriller. Here's a clip from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL.

Only in a Tyler Perry script can a character be bashed in the head several times with a baseball bat and it's just a flesh wound.

Tyler Perry is in the movie as a verbally abusive boss who screams in his office for a female employee to bring him coffee. Phylicia Rashad stars as the best friend to Grace. The legendary Cicely Tyson is in it for about ten minutes. She's sort of a Boo Radley character who lives in the best friend's big house. Here's a trailer for A FALL FROM GRACE. There are moments when you know that Mr. Perry is trying to give you a Hitchcock VERTIGO feeling (there's business with a necklace) but the movie ultimately winds up being like a sketch from the comedy series Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele had on Comedy Central.

Tyler Perry's A FALL FROM GRACE. It's all about the wigs.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Starring Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis

To me, Hollywood never celebrated Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis as enthusiastically as it should have. That married couple truly was a dynamic duo of Broadway, film and television. Ruby Dee was one of those  extremely talented Black actresses who got one Oscar nomination yet should've received more -- and more quality scripts from Hollywood. Included in that list of actresses are Cicely Tyson, Alfre Woodard, Angela Bassett, Taraji P. Henson and the late Diahann Carroll and the late Beah Richards. All those women turned to TV for steady employment after their Oscar nominations. Ruby Dee starred in the original Broadway cast of the groundbreaking play, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, from playwright Lorraine Hansberry. She and the other members of the original cast recreated their roles in the 1961 film adaptation from Columbia Pictures. Another giant step forward in the area of Black Hollywood History is seen in the opening credits: "Screen Play By Lorraine Hansberry." The playwright wrote the screenplay. How many times had we seen a film released by a top Hollywood studio and the opening credits had the name of a Black woman underneath the words "Screen Play By"? THAT was major and it's a fact I rarely hear mentioned on TV when it's shown. Ruby Dee had been doing films roles since 1950. She repeated her Broadway success with co-star Sidney Poitier in the 1961 movie adaptation. She followed the film version of A RAISIN IN THE SUN with a lot of TV work and other film roles. She and husband Ossie Davis shine in two Spike Lee films -- DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) and JUNGLE FEVER (1991). Look at A RAISIN IN THE SUN today.
Ruby Dee gave an Oscar nomination-worthy performance as the Chicago-area wife dealing with racial discrimination and her husband's irresponsibility due to racial frustration. Her one Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, came late in her career thanks to AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007). Hollywood never fully utilized the talents of Ruby Dee. That was solely because of race and Hollywood's lack of equal opportunities. Here's an example: The 1963 classic, HUD, starring Paul Newman and Patricia Neal. My parents loved that movie. Patricia Neal deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actress. In the novel, the earthy housekeeper played by Neal was a Black woman. If Hollywood had not been so racially restricted in those days, can you imagine Ruby Dee in the role opposite Paul Newman? Wow. They would've been sensational together in HUD.

On TV shows and in films, we could always count on Ruby Dee to deliver a top quality dramatic performance. Did you know that she could be a knock-out in a comedy role just like a Judy Holliday? She and Ossie Davis starred on Broadway in a civil rights comedy written by Ossie Davis. PURLIE VICTORIOUS premiered in 1961. Purlie is a clever, young, self-ordained preacher down South who wants to "make civil rights out of civil wrongs." He proclaims, "...freedom is my business!" While on his subversive mission in the Jim Crow south, he meets the sweet, unassuming, slightly ditzy and very luscious Lutiebelle Jenkins. He declares she is "absolute Ethiopian perfection." Lutiebelle may be able to help him in his plans to shake up life on the cotton plantation owned by Colonel Cotchipee. The colonel hates all this talk about integration -- especially when the talk comes from his college-educated son, Charlie.
PURLIE VICTORIOUS was made into a 1963 indie film. On the screen, in the opening credits, we saw "Screen Play by Ossie Davis," based on his play. Original Broadway cast members recreated their roles in the movie. Ossie Davis was Purlie, Ruby Dee was Lutiebell. The cast also included Godfrey Cambridge, Beah Richards and -- in his film debut -- Alan Alda as Charlie Cotchipee. The movie opened in September 1963, a month after Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee participated onstage in Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington and stood on the podium during his "I Have a Dream" speech.  Here's a photo of the Broadway cast backstage -- with Dr. Martin Luther King.
In December 1963, Ossie Davis made another giant step for in Black Hollywood History. The epic Otto Preminger drama, THE CARDINAL, opened. It's the story of a priest who is elevated to cardinal. As we flashback to his early years as a priest, we see that he had to deal with abortion, fascism and racial bigotry. Ossie Davis played a fellow priest. Many American moviegoers were probably unaware that we Black Catholics do exist in America. The movie got 6 Oscar nominations.

The Ossie Davis play, PURLIE VICTORIOUS, was adapted in a 1970 Broadway musical comedy. He co-wrote the book for the play. Cleavon Little and Melba Moore won Tony Awards for taking on the roles originated by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Melba wowed audiences singing "I Got Love" and the play, titled PURLIE!, was a Tony nominee for Best Musical.


Did Hollywood turn this hit Broadway musical comedy into a big screen movie? No.

Remember how Viola Davis played the lead female role in the film version of FENCES but won the Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category? (Being in that category was a shrewd strategic move that surely clinched her Oscar victory.)  Well, there should've been a campaign to get Ruby Dee a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her 1963 comedy performance. In my opinion. Here are the women who were nominated:  Margaret Rutherford for THE V.I.P.s, Lila Skala for LILIES OF THE FIELD, Diane Cilento for TOM JONES, Dame Edith Evans for TOM JONES and JOYCE REDMAN for TOM JONES. All comedy performances. Rutherford won for getting laughs as a bumbling broke Duchess in the airport love drama starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Hollywood should've offered Ruby Dee other good comedy roles.
Judge for yourself. If you have 95 minutes free, watch the 1963 comedy, PURLIE VICTORIOUS (later retitled GONE ARE THE DAYS), from actor, playwright and screenwriter Ossie Davis. Just click onto the link. I was introduced to this comedy during my grade school years in South Central L.A. It played one Friday night on Channel 9, then an independent station on Southern California TV. My parents belly-laughed with such animation at Godfrey Cambridge that watching them made me laugh. It's one reason why PURLIE VICTORIOUS holds a special place in my heart. Now click onto the link:

https://youtu.be/wj6dH82LXQE.

Have a great Martin Luther King Day weekend.


Friday, January 17, 2020

About THE IRISHMAN

The hit man Robert De Niro plays in Martin Scorsese's THE IRISHMAN says, "You don't know how fast time goes by until you get there." That is so painfully true. Think about it. We're in the first month of 2020. Twenty years ago, we didn't have cell phones and social media. We used rotary phones. We left messages on answering machines. We mailed letters and Christmas cards. We didn't have gay marriage equality. We'd never had a black president of the United States. We purchased newspapers just about every day. Men didn't use their phones to take photos of their own genitalia. That all came into our lives in the last 20 years. Didn't those years pass quickly? I watched THE IRISHMAN last night. The movie runs 3 hours and 30 minutes. Wow. What a movie. Those hours whizzed by like the bullets shot out of the hitman's gun.
It's a crime story. We go back to the 1950s. There are mob hits a plenty. De Niro plays a killer. I know that a few folks on social media remarked, "Gee...gangsters in another crime story. What a stretch for Martin Scorsese." Yes, he has given us crime, murder and men beating the crap out of somebody in TAXI DRIVER, GOODFELLAS, CASINO, GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE DEPARTED. But the crime scene for Scorsese is what the western was for John Ford. It's the genre where his vision and message have taken root and grown more than any other. A few months ago, a buddy of mine commented that actor Joe Pesci, coaxed out of retirement by Scorsese, was terrific in the movie. I second that emotion. Pesci gives his performance sort a cool jazz beat. He plays Russell Bufalino, the crime figure who mentors Frank Sheeran (De Niro) in the world of organized crime. As time and crime go by, Sheeran will become friends with labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Pesci's performance is master class quality. That's work new actors should watch and study for inspiration.

I wrote that Joe Pesci gives his understated performance sort of a cool jazz beat. If THE IRISHMAN was a record, it would be a jazz blues album. The film takes on a melancholy, a tone of the blues. Aging is not kind. Sometimes the thing that betrays you the most is your own body has it gets older. As you get older, you are forced to consider what your words and deeds have brought into your life -- and what they've taken away.

Director Martin Scorsese's THE IRISHMAN has De Niro, Pesci, Pacino and Harvey Keitel. They are all in top form. There were times when Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa reminded me of Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice in 1990's comic strip-inspired DICK TRACY.

THE IRISHMAN is on Netflix. It's in the Oscar race for Best Picture and Best Director. Joe Pesci and Al Pacino are both the Best Supporting Actor Oscar category. Yes, it's a long movie -- a long movie that I will definitely be watching again. THE IRISHMAN is already a Scorsese classic.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

About FRUITVALE STATION (2013)

I remember the news stories that covered Bay Area protests over the death of 22-year old Oscar Grant. Grant's story, up to and including his death when he and his girlfriend were on their way to New Year's Eve festivities in San Francisco, is covered in the 2013 independent film, FRUITVALE STATION. I also remember the large movie posters full of rave reviews from top film critics. The movie starred a big screen newcomer named Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant and recent Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as his mother. Jordan today is a popular new star who'd be sought for comments on a red carpet by entertainment press. He deserves the spotlight. The young man is a very good actor. He's serious about his craft.
Fortunately, the blockbuster domestic and overseas box office success of the 2018 action adventure/fantasy BLACK PANTHER widened awareness of his talents.
For me, experiencing the impact of a film with fellow members of a paid audience have often been as thrilling, as memorable as the film itself. This goes from my nights of sitting in the back seat of the family car when the Rivers Family attended a double-feature at the drive-in during my Los Angeles youth to sitting in a movie theater audience in Hollywood or New York City. I had an experience like that in San Francisco in 2013. I was in San Francisco, apartment-sitting for a friend. I went to see FRUITVALE STATION one afternoon. As I wrote, I was familiar with the news story. I was unfamiliar with Michael B. Jordan. I was drawn to the movie by the excellent reviews.
I was seated in the cineplex theater. In walked a group of five giggling white girls of about college age. In the middle of my quiet prayer that they not sit near me, the sat in the row right in front of me. My revised prayer was that they would not be giggling and chatty during the movie.  At the end of the movie, they were sniffling and crying. I was sniffling and crying. We all looked at each other as we left the theater, moved deeply by the film that held our attention for 90 minutes. There we were, strangers bonded together by the power of good film and bonded by seeing a story that really happened where we were -- in the modern-day Bay Area. Now that Michael B. Jordan is one of our new stars, folks should revisit FRUITVALE STATION. Here's a trailer. Click onto the link:

https://youtu.be/tkDr6RmQnOU.


I left the theater feeling that Octavia Spencer deserved a second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. To me, she was even better as the mother in FRUITVALE STATION than she was as a maid in THE HELP. In the opening scene of the film, there's visual information that tells you the basic thing you need to know about Oscar Grant's character. Look at the way he treats a needy animal. Grant has done time. He's now determined to turn his life towards the light, be a better son, a better dad and a better partner to his girlfriend, Sophina. Click onto the link to see a clip. There's strong language in it:

https://youtu.be/A6ZOCb2gaqs.

In a flashback scene, we see incarcerated Oscar Grant get a visit from his mother.  Click onto the link to see the clip featuring Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer:

https://youtu.be/QRACf_ehgis.

FRUITVALE STATION and BLACK PANTHER were both directed by Ryan Coogler. FRUITVALE STATION was hailed at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and highly praised by American film critics. However, come Oscar nomination time, it was totally -- and surprisingly -- overlooked. I believe the Academy's lack of attention to FRUITVALE STATION was an element that sparked the discussion of diversity in Oscars consideration. The movie is worth a look.
African American filmmaker Ryan Coogler (left) directed and wrote FRUITVALE STATION. His 2018 movie, BLACK PANTHER, was a multi-million dollar box office powerhouse that made Hollywood history. 2013's FRUITVALE STATION was his directorial debut. Dig it.



Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Zellweger & Davis as JUDY

As expected, Renée Zellweger is in the Best Actress Oscar race for portraying the latter-day Judy Garland in JUDY. She does her own singing as Judy Garland. She plays the performer during what were the last six months of her life. She was 46, newly married again, and had been booked to perform dates at a posh nightclub in London. She needed the money. The year was 1969. I know that critics raved about Zellweger's performance. Recently, she won a Golden Globe in the Best Actress category for her biopic work. However, to me -- and I don't mean this harshly -- she looked more like a 1950s Polly Bergen in CAPE FEAR: THE MUSICAL.
 Zellweger did give it her all. She worked her trademark squint for all its worth.

Now, I just want you to see something else. Back in the 1990s, I interviewed Judy Garland's daughter, Lorna Luft, on live TV. Lorna had written a good biography about her youth with her famous mother and famous father, Sid Luft. Luft was the executive producer of Garland's sensational Hollywood comeback film, the 1954 musical remake of A STAR IS BORN. She was the favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar for it. She lost to Grace Kelly for THE COUNTRY GIRL, a now legendary Oscar upset. Sid Luft managed her through some of her best major concert dates here and abroad. He was the third of her five husbands. At the time I interviewed Lorna, it was announced that she'd produce a miniseries biopic based on her book for ABC TV.
The big question was -- who would play her mom? She found the right person -- actress Judy Davis. Davis played Garland from her meeting with director Vincente Minnelli (future 2nd husband and father of Liza) to discuss MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS through to her 4th marriage in the 1960s. The reviews were more like love letters. I was a guest on a local morning radio show the day after it aired. Davis was so phenomenal that the straight guys who hosted the show were talking about her. They'd watched it too.

After a now-historic concert success at Carnegie Hall and an Oscar nomination for her dramatic role in JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, Garland signed a big money contract with CBS in Hollywood for her own Sunday night weekly variety show. Among her many fans was President John F. "Jack" Kennedy. She'd visited him at the White House. Norman Jewison was on the production team. Years later, the director highly praised her talent, saying that she was whip-smart and took a keen interest in every aspect of the production. However, the network guys never treated her with the respect she deserved. Plus, the two men who were her managers embezzled millions from her contract and paid her what should have been their commission. One of them, David Begelman, would go on to make entertainment news headlines with an embezzlement and check forging scandal in the 1970s. Judy Garland was an international show biz legend dealing with the male executive branch at CBS. Here's an example of why I feel that Judy Davis' Emmy-winning 2001 performance is still the topper:

That's from one of the best TV biopics I've ever seen. Garland was played by two actresses. Tammy Blanchard played teen Judy, a new contract player at MGM. (Blanchard's resemblance was uncanny). Then Davis entered as young adult Judy, now a top star on the MGM lot. If you've never seen LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND: ME AND MY SHADOWS, find it and give it a look. Here's a color photo of Garland at a gala event with President Kennedy and a black and white photo of her next to President Kennedy at the White House with Carol Burnett and Danny Kaye.

Trivia: Alison Pill played young Lorna Luft in the biopic. She and Judy Davis would play daughter and mother again in the 2012 Woody Allen comedy, TO ROME WITH LOVE.  Here's Judy Garland singing "The Man That Got Away" in 1954's A STAR IS BORN. She and the song brought Oscar nominations to the film.



Monday, January 13, 2020

GMA Needs Oscar Talk Color

I have watched GOOD MORNING AMERICA for a long, long time. I watched when the Oscar nominations were announced and GMA's weekly film critic, Joel Siegel, was in studio live to do post-nomination analysis. In those days, each network -- ABC, NBC and CBS -- had a weekly film critic on its weekday morning news program. We also had syndicated weekend film review shows with two critics doing reviews. This goes back to the 80s/90s and there was no racial diversity in the line-up of critics. They were all white dudes. Society and times have changed. Now, diversity is an issue that deserves attention. So here's the thing -- and I write this as someone who has rarely seen a reflection of himself on national TV in the area of film critics: Again, I watched a white entertainment news journalist on GOOD MORNING AMERICA bring up the lack of racial diversity in the list of Oscar nominated actors. yet there was no Black/Latinx entertainment news contributor as a guest in that segment. And I do not mean to slam today's guests, ABC Entertainment News anchor Chris Connelly and VARIETY's Elizabeth Wagmeister. She's the journalist who said "...not a ton of diversity" referring to our Oscar-nominated actors. But can't GOOD MORNING AMERICA book a Black/Latinx entertainment news veteran to be in place for the Oscar nominations discussion and add a different outlook with some history? Can't GMA have a person of color as a guest when Chris Connelly brings up the Hollywood diversity issue?
The morning Viola Davis was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in FENCES, Chris Connelly and fellow Caucasian entertainment news journalist, Jess Cagle, were live on GMA for the Oscar nominations. "Oscars So White" was mentioned. Both gentlemen gushed over the umpteenth Oscar nomination Meryl Streep received. NO ONE mentioned that Viola Davis had just become the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in Hollywood history by receiving her 3rd nomination which came for her performance in 2016's FENCES. I cheered in my living room when I heard Viola's name announced that morning. For 20 years, the most Oscar-nominated Black actress had been Whoopi Goldberg with her Best Actress Oscar nomination for THE COLOR PURPLE and her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for 1990's GHOST. Both Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis are stars -- on ABC programs (THE VIEW and HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER).

Today's actor nominations show that Oscar Loves Biopics. Check out the Best Actress category. Cynthia Erivo, Charlize Theron and Renee Zellweger got nominated for playing real-life characters. Jonathan Pryce, Best Actor nominee, and Best Supporting Actor nominees Tom Hanks and Anthony Hopkins also played real-life characters.

Think of actors who've won an Oscar for playing a real life character. There's Nicole Kidman for THE HOURS, Philip Seymour Hoffman in CAPOTE, Sean Penn in MILK, Julia Roberts in ERIN BROCKOVICH, Jamie Foxx in RAY, Forest Whitaker in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, Cate Blanchett in THE AVIATOR, Marion Cotillard in LA VIE EN ROSE, Christian Bale in THE FIGHTER, Mahershala Ali in GREEN BOOK , Meryl Streel in THE IRON LADY and Rami Malek in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. (There are others.)
For HARRIET, Cythia Erivo becomes the 3rd actor directed by a Black woman to an Oscar nomination. Euzhan Palcy directed Marlon Brando to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 1989's A DRY WHITE SEASON, Dee Rees directed Mary J. Blige to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 2017's MUDBOUND. Female African American director Kasi Lemmons directed HARRIET. Previously an actress, Lemmons played the FBI cadet training best friend to Jodie Foster's character in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

5 males who directed a Best Picture nominee were nominated for Best Director today. Greta Gerwig, who directed a Best Picture nominee, was not nominated for Best Director. This puts her in a category with trailblazing director Kathryn Bigelow. Bigelow was a Best Director nominee (and won) for THE HURT LOCKER, which was also nominated for Best Picture (and won). Her following film, ZERO DARK THIRTY, was nominated for Best Picture. But it did not bring her a second Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Greta Gerwig's LADY BIRD was a nominee for Best Picture and she was nominated for Best Director of 2017. Today, her LITTLE WOMEN was nominated for Best Picture. She, however, did not get a second Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Mel Gibson directed two Best Picture Oscar nominees -- BRAVEHEART and HACKSAW RIDGE. Each brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Director.

2019 was a landmark year of solid work from female directors: Lorene Scafaria: HUSTLERS, Lulu Wang: THE FAREWELL, Greta Gerwig: LITTLE WOMEN, Olivia Wilde: BOOKSMART, Kasi Lemmons: HARRIET, Melina Matsoukas: QUEEN & SLIM, and Marielle Heller: A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.

But the Academy didn't seen to notice.

Those are some points that I, a person of color, would've mentioned had I been a guest on GMA for the Oscars talk. Full disclosure: I was hired by ABC News to be the weekly entertainment editor on an ABC News weekday live hour-long show called LIFETIME LIVE. The ABC production aired on Lifetime in 2000. I did film reviews and gave film history with an accent on accomplishments of women in film. The show lasted only one year. I was very interested in doing entertainment news contributor work on GOOD MORNING AMERICA. I made a pitch -- but the interest was not mutual.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Thank You, Brad Pitt

This is something that has caught my eye for about five years now. It always makes me smile when I'm sitting in a movie theater and reading a film's credits. I never hear entertainment news reporters address this, but I certainly would if I had the opportunity to interview the actor. Are you aware of how many times Brad Pitt has been a top producer on a project that puts a light on marginalized people -- especially people of color? Thank you, thank you, thank you, Brad Pitt. Before I get to listing some of those projects, let me tell that I recently saw Quentin Tarantino's ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. I resisted seeing it when it first opened. I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I was a child of the 60s whose favorite pastime was going to the movies. A big thrill for me was when I could get on the bus, use my RTD transfers and see movies on Hollywood Boulevard during summer vacation. I vividly recall listening to the radio the day the news bulletin broke about a celebrity death. The DJ said there'd been a Hollywood death and I listened, assuming an elder entertainer, a star from the 1930s or 40s, had passed away. Then the radio show cut to a reporter. You could hear in the timbre of the radio reporter's voice that he'd been horrified. He broke in with the news bulletin that there had been a gruesome Hollywood murder. It was the Manson Clan evil and one murder victim was rising star, the very pregnant Sharon Tate. I remember the shock wave that sent an immediate, cold jolt through the Pacific Coast, open door policy in some Southern California life. I did not want to see those Hollywood murders revisited and recreated in a big new movie. Well, they weren't. For me, personally, that was a relief. About Brad Pitt's performance in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, if he gets an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, he absolutely deserves it. He slams across a solid character performance as a Hollywood stuntman/caretaker of the 1950s/60s era. I've been watching his movies since his man-candy cowboy role in 1991's THELMA & LOUISE. Pitt is in peak performance in this 1960s Hollywood tale.
He captures the character. He captures the tone of the era. Every guy should have a buddy like Cliff Booth in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Click on the link to see a trailer:

https://youtu.be/ELeMaP8EPAA.

In the Spike Lee film, BLACKkKLANSMAN, based on a true story, black undercover police officer Ron Stallworth says "With the right white man, we can do anything." That line broke me up laughing because it's often so damn true. In a very good way for some filmmakers, Brad Pitt has been the right white man.

On Netflix, there's a Chelsea Handler special called HELLO PRIVILEGE. IT'S ME, CHELSEA. In this documentary special, the comedian travels to various locations to see if white privilege does indeed keep black folks from moving quickly up the social and economic ladder. If you watch just the first 10 minutes, you will see her interview two fellow comedians -- Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish. Those two tell Chelsea something that has been a constant through most of my TV career. When they were watching their white show biz buddies get agents and great audition opportunities, they were not getting the same representation attention and audition opportunities. They asked their white friends for recommendations on agents. In my broadcast TV and radio career, I did the same thing from when I had my own primetime celebrity talk show on VH1 in the late 80s to 2002 when I booked myself a job hosting a Food Network show that was so popular it aired weekly for six years.

In other words, the playing field has never been level and any help received from a white buddy with some pull is greatly appreciated.

Brad Pitt was a top producer on these films:

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

SELMA (2014)
  
MOONLIGHT (2016)

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018)

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (2019).

If you saw and loved PARASITE, I recommend you see THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO. That Bay Area independent film shows something that I've experienced. It shows that gentrification is like a cultural and emotional rape that displaces working class people of color. THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO is one of the truly golden, unsung indie films of last year that boasts wonderful new Black talent (Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Falls) and has beloved, veteran Black talent (Danny Glover). Here's a trailer.

Yeah. One more time, I just want to say "Thank you, Brad Pitt. Thanks for the attention and thanks for the help."



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...