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.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Mike Judge Tried to Warn Us

Monday is Memorial Day. Because we're now underway in a long holiday weekend, you may have time to rent a movie or two. Maybe see a movie that you missed when it was released theatrically. Well, in the case of IDIOCRACY, millions of moviegoers missed it. This futuristic comedy satire came from director and co-writer Mike Judge, For TV, Judge created the animated shows BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD, aired on MTV, and KING OF THE HILL, aired on Fox. In 2006, I started two surreal years in my broadcast career. Although she did not publicize it much, Whoopi Goldberg had her own national weekday morning radio show out of New York City. Whoopi, back in 1988, was one of my first guests on my VH1 talk show. She wanted someone in her on-air team who could review new films, new TV shows and be knowledgeable enough to talk about classic movies. Fortunately for me, Whoopi remembered me from VH1 and she arranged for my on-air audition. I got the job. I heard about IDIOCRACY and wanted to see it. Then I heard that major U.S. businesses like Costco and Starbucks were so peeved at the way they were portrayed 500 years into the future that 20th Century Fox basically shelved the movie. It went to DVD.  Luke Wilson played the somewhat clueless Army corporal selected for a secret military experiment involving suspended animation. This corporal is selected because he is somewhat clueless. The Army needed an individual who was "most average." Since no female Army soldier was dumb enough to get into that contraption and go along with this experiment, a prostitute was hired. Her name is Rita and she was played by the fabulous Maya Rudolph.
 Rita is just about the most conservatively dressed hooker you've ever seen in a film. She's practically wearing culottes. Terry Crews stars as the former national sports TV celebrity who's now President of the United States.
There's a glitch in the experiment. Joe, the Army corporal, and Rita, the hooker, wind up 500 years in the future. America has changed. Or has it? See IDIOCRACY. That future is now. Here's a trailer. The comedy runs 85 minutes.

I repeat: Mike Judge tried to warn us. Here's a clip.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

More of Murphy's HOLLYWOOD

Patti LuPone as a powerful Hollywood wife getting sexually satisfied by a pay-for-play aspiring young actor who glances past her to the Oscars on display that her Hollywood studio boss has won. You just know that the sight of those golden statuettes is what brings him to climax. This is one of many sexual scenes we see in Episodes 2 and 3 of Ryan Murphy's HOLLYWOOD miniseries now available on Netflix. I blogged my feelings for the premiere episode. I love it and I loved its production values. It boasted some fine acting, especially by veterans Patti LuPone and Dylan McDermott. This is Hollywood history a la Murphy. He takes Hollywood facts, does not put them in any particular chronological order and does his own revision on the history, we believe, to make a comment on social issues today within the entertainment industry. In HOLLYWOOD, he mainly gives us a view of how things could have been in the Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s if there had been equal opportunities for people of color and if gay and bisexual men could have been free to be themselves instead of closeted. In the first episode we meet Jack Castello,  a handsome vet home from World War 2. He's married. He wants to be a star. But he's not even getting work as an extra. His wife works as a waitress. He gets recruited by a larger-than-life Hollywood switch-hitter who runs a full service gas station in Hollywood. It's a front for sexual escapades. The gas station attendants are handsome guys who get in the cars with some clients and give them sexual delights for pay. Jack is initially timid about taking the job -- a job which requires him to go off with female and male clients -- but the money is good. He gets caught up with his bills and his first client, a powerful Hollywood wife, could help him get screen test. Jack meets Archie, a handsome young Black man who has written a screenplay. Archie joins the full service gas station crew and drives off with a shy guy named Roy Fitzgerald. But Archie won't take money for his sex with Roy, whose name will be changed to Rock Hudson. He likes Roy. At the end of the first episode, Jack gets in a little trouble with the law.
In Episode 2, we meet Hollywood star Anna May Wong. Wong, a Chinese American, was one of the biggest stars of the silent screen era. She worked in the 1930, when films had sound, but she was not as big a star. She wanted the lead female role in MGM's THE GOOD EARTH, based on the Pearl Buck novel of the same name. The studio would not consider her for the role of the poor Chinese wife in the prestigious 1937 production. The role went to white European actress Luise Rainer. Rainer won her second consecutive Oscar for Best Actress. This is all true. Incidentally, MGM would film another story based on a Pearl Buck novel. 1944's DRAGON SEED also had a young Chinese wife as the lead female role. That part went to -- Katharine Hepburn. We meet Ryan Murphy creation, Raymond Ainsley. Played by Darren Criss, he's an aspiring film director at Ace Studios who wants to make a film with Anna May Wong. He comes out about being half-Filipino. Hollywood assumes he's white. His girlfriend is Black. She's Camille Washington, played by Laura Harrier. 

To recap: Jack Castello wants to be a star. Archie wants to sell his screenplay. Raymond wants to direct a film. These guys are having active sex lives. So much so that, instead of HOLLYWOOD, this miniseries could've been called PHALLUS IN WONDERLAND. Mind you, I have nothing against sex and nudity. But, after a while, I did wonder if Murphy really had a focused, sharpened story to tell or if he just wanted to titillate us with the sex and nudity. I still haven't seen Jack display what could be "star quality" or impressive acting talent. Nonetheless, he gets a screen test for TAP ROOTS. That was a 1948 Civil War era drama starring Susan Hayward. Then Roy Fitzgerald, now Rock Hudson, gets an audition for a bit part in a Barbara Stanwyck movie -- 1955's THE VIOLENT MEN (see how Murphy jumps forward and backward in time in the same scene?). Hudson also feels forced to sexually service his slithery, insulting and lascivious gay agent, very well-played by Jim Parsons. And Roy/Rock falls in love with Archie who is now getting so much work at the full service station that his presence is requested by his boss at one of the notorious George Cukor parties. It was Hollywood lore that the famed director had special Sunday brunch poor parties. These parties were special because the guest list was men only and skinny-dipping ensued. His dinner parties, so it goes, also had guests known for active hormones -- such as Tallulah Bankhead and Vivien Leigh. In one scene, we see Bankhead holding court at the dinner table by telling an anecdote about Errol Flynn. What she says is a quote I'd read from Tallulah Bankhead when I was in college in the 1970s. In the original quote, the name was Montgomery Clift, not Errol Flynn. Which makes more sense. The actress who played Vivien Leigh in that scene -- from Episode 3 -- didn't look as much like Vivien Leigh as I do. She came off more like Karen from WILL & GRACE pretending to be Vivien Leigh. This whole sequence seems to be a set-up for more sex. The gas station boy-toys arrive at Cukor's house. Archie is one of them. Noel Coward takes a lusty interest in Archie. Roy/Rock is present too and gets jealous of Noel Coward hitting on his boyfriend.

I'll use Archie as to illustrate my main problem with Episodes 2 and 3. Remember the Billy Wilder classic, SUNSET BLVD? William Holden played the broke, out of work screenwriter, Joe Gilles. Joe had written more than one screenplay. When we first we see him, he's been working on a screenplay at the typewriter. He's got ideas to pitch to a producer at Paramount. It's just that he's broke and he can't get a job. He's so financially desperate that, when he meets Norma Desmond, he hatches an idea to make some fast cash as her script doctor. She's a faded and wealthy Hollywood star. Joe winds up becoming the kept man of an older woman/former silent screen star.

Archie is a young Black man in late 1940s Hollywood who has written a screenplay. Why isn't he working on another one? Why isn't he jotting down ideas? Does he have any other written work or ideas to pitch? He's paying more attention to sex than to his craft. A Black person at that time -- even now -- would have to work twice as hard as white talent to get half the attention. Archie needs more than one script idea to offer. There's a lot of talk about wanting to be "a star" in those three episodes. None of these young hopefuls talk about wanting to be a professional first ...and if stardom happens, it happens. The one who seems to be putting the most work into her acting is Camille. Unfortunately, she's restricted in bit parts as maids -- and the Hollywood power men want her to play the parts in an exaggerated style with a stereotypical speech pattern. She could not say, "I'll get the door for you, Miss." She'd have to make big eyes and say "I'll git de do' for you, Miss." This is what Hollywood did to Black actors in the 30s and 40s. Let's see if Camille can break through the way Dorothy Dandridge did in the 1950s.

Just like in the premiere episode, the performances in episodes 2 and 3 that stood out to me the most were the ones delivered by veterans -- Patti LuPone, Dylan McDermott and Holland Taylor.  A big round of applause goes to Michelle Krusiec as the proud, elegant and disappointed Anna May Wong. She's excellent. Click onto the link below to see a trailer:

As far as the gay male aspect, I wish Ryan Murphy had taken a less traditional, less "West Hollywood" approach. I wish he'd given us something based on a fresh story. Ever heard of 1940s actor William Eythe? He was a handsome and talented actor at 20th Century Fox who probably got scripts that Tyrone Power wasn't able to do. Eythe was very good in THE OX-BOW INCIDENT with Henry Fonda and A ROYAL SCANDAL with Tallulah Bankhead. My favorite performance of his comes in THE SONG OF BERNADETTE opposite Jennifer Jones. Jones won the Oscar for Best Actress of 1943 for her work in it. She played the peasant French girl who had visions of the Immaculate Conception, joined a convent, died young and was later canonized by the Catholic Church at St. Bernadette of Lourdes. Eythe played the poor fellow villager who loves her yet realizes she's meant for something greater than a life in their village. William Eythe was gay and the love of his life was another popular actor on the Fox lot. The studio arranged for Eythe to be seen on dates with actresses and eventually maneuvered him into an arranged marriage of convenience. Eythe drank. By 1950, he got a divorce, quit films and lived the rest of his life with the man he loved.

Something like that might have had more weight than the George Cukor boys-only pool parties. In my opinion. Let's see what the other episodes bring.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

My Wish for Rita Moreno

I bought and have been reading RITA MORENO: A MEMOIR. It is, like the lady herself, absolutely fabulous and enlightening.
I'm sure you know this already. Rita Moreno, the legend divine, completed shooting her role in the upcoming Steven Spielberg version of WEST SIDE STORY. Rita Moreno starred in the original screen adaptation, Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1961.
That wonderful film is so beloved that many people, myself included, regard it as a cherished friend. It holds that special a place in our hearts. Moreno played Anita in the 1961 film and won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her stunning musical and dramatic performance. Her co-star and dance partner, George Chakiris, won for Best Supporting Actor.

Recently, I saw her Skype in for an interview on the CBS daytime talk show, THE TALK. She was sensational. She was lit up with excitement about the opportunity to have acted in -- and helped produce -- Spielberg's upcoming version. Remember the character, "Doc," the storeowner in the 1961 film? He's Tony's friend. He stops the Jets when he sees that they're molesting Anita. Well, Spielberg changed Doc to a female character and we will see Rita Moreno as the storeowner. When we can see it. We've seen production photos from Spielberg's shoot. We read that the new WEST SIDE STORY would open this December.

Then the pandemic hit.

When I saw Rita Moreno on the CBS show enthusiastically tell us how well Steven Spielberg treated her on the set, especially on her last day of filming, I had this wish:
I wish that Rita Moreno's performance will be so strong that she will get another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress -- and make history as the first person (I think) to win an Oscar for acting in a film's original version and get a nomination for acting in its remake.  That's my wish.

Love me some Rita Moreno. She has been an inspiration and a motivation to me ever since I was in high school. I'm lucky. I got to hold her hands and tell her that in person one day in 2000. We were backstage at the Kaufman Astoria Studios.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

HOLLYWOOD Black & White

In my previous post, I wrote how I felt about the first episode of Ryan Murphy's HOLLYWOOD miniseries now airing on Netflix. In it, he uses Hollywood history and does a Murphy twist on it. Folks may have been able to cut up and carry on in Old Hollywood in such a way that made scandalous behavior seem commonplace but, for all its looseness, it was still restricted. In the 1940s and 50s, Black actors could go only so far. They were denied equal opportunities. Gay and bisexual actors had to live their sexual lives in the shadows and have secret loves. Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift could not be openly gay and employed like actors today.  In my post, I wondered if Murphy would stick were the standard vintage Hollywood stories we know -- like the story of Hattie McDaniel being the first Black person nominated for an Oscar and the first to win. Or the story of Rock Hudson. In episodes I've yet to see, Queen Latifah plays Hattie McDaniel.
The Hattie McDaniel story fascinates me. She absolutely deserved that Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. McDaniel could do drama, comedy and musical comedy. Look at her musical performance with Paul Robeson and Irene Dunne in 1936's SHOW BOAT and her lively number in Disney's 1946 hit, SONG OF THE SOUTH (if you can find it). She had definite screen charisma and could hold her own in a scene opposite top Hollywood stars such as  Shirley Temple, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable and James Cagney. However, even after her groundbreaking Oscar victory, Hollywood studios still treated her like a bit player. Look at the credits billing and the cast of the 1942 Warner Bros comedy, THE MALE ANIMAL. The stars are Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, Jack Carson, Joan Leslie and, as the maid, Hattie McDaniel. Of those cast members, Hattie is the only one who'd won an Oscar by that time. Yet, she has traditional Black maid lines like "Yes'm. I'll get the door." The same applies to the sweet 1946 Fox comedy, MARGIE, starring Jeanne Crain. Margie is a teen in the 1920s. Hattie McDaniel, again, is the Oscar-winning actor in the cast. She plays the maid who answers the door.  In 1949, Jeanne Crain -- a white actress -- would play a light-skinned Black woman in the race drama, PINKY, and get a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

Wednesday afternoon, May 13th, a Warner Bros romantic drama airs on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). It doesn't get a lot of mention when folks discuss the films of its two leading stars -- Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman -- however, it's interesting to watch. You get a sense of how the studio system regarded Black actors. The first Black performer nominated for an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel for the 1939 classic, GONE WITH THE WIND. The next Black performer to get an Oscar nomination was Ethel Waters for her dramatic performance as the poor, uneducated grandmother to Jeanne Crain's light-skinned nursing school character in 1949's PINKY.
Both McDaniel and Waters were nominees in the Best Supporting Actress category.

In between GONE WITH THE WIND and PINKY, there was another performer who got an Oscar nomination for playing a Black character. A white British actress who had played England's Queen Elizabeth in two films and starred as one of the nuns in 1946's BLACK NARCISSUS, was covered with dark make-up and played a Black Haitian maid in SARATOGA TRUNK.

The actress, Flora Robson, got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance.

I wonder if Ryan Murphy knows this Hollywood fact.

If the role of the Black maid was good enough to bring an actress an Oscar nomination, why didn't Warner Bros give the role to a Black actress? By 1950, four actors had received Oscar nominations for playing Black characters. The actors were Hattie McDaniel, Flora Robson, Jeanne Crain and Ethel Waters. Only two of them were Black.

SARATOGA TRUNK airs on TCM at 4:15p ET on Wednesday, May 13th. Now I'm gonna go watch more episodes of Ryan Murphy's HOLLYWOOD.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Murphy's HOLLYWOOD, Ep. 1

Ryan Murphy certainly has received lots of attention on Twitter for his new Netflix mini-series. He takes us to Hollywood in the late 1940s and gives us a look at how big screen images from the West Coast dream factory known as Hollywood could have been different if gay and bisexual had not been forced to live the sexual area of their lives in the shadows and if people of color had received equal opportunities. Last night, I watched the first episode of Ryan Murphy's HOLLYWOOD. As it's a Ryan Murphy creation, I feel that I must watch it or else my Gay Card will be revoked. I loved the first episode. It hit me like a tall, tasty glass of lemonade -- with a shot of Grey Goose vodka in it. There was good acting. Some snappy writing. The production design dazzled me. The person or persons who did the wardrobes must have hit every single vintage shop in the Hollywood area. The costumes were on point. Visually, the color palette in the art design is rich, vibrant and accurate. For me, the soundtrack was from Heaven. Vocals by Perry Como and Peggy Lee. Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine." The retro music selections made me wish stores like Tower Records were still aplenty so I could've purchased a CD of the HOLLYWOOD soundtrack and a portable CD player so I could hear it over and over again. The first episode whets your appetite for future installments that could delve into the politics of sex and race in Old Hollywood in order to make a comment on the industry today.
If you were of my generation, a classic Hollywood film enthusiast and you were a gay youth, there are certain things that were familiar to you.  You read Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, you knew that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford could not stand each other. You learned that high profile actors who were not openly gay did some of their best work opposite Elizabeth Taylor. The two actors were Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift. You knew that Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel was the first Black person nominated for an Oscar and that Dorothy Dandridge was the first Black woman ever to nab an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. And you read that Scotty Bowers was a handsome Marine who served in World War 2 and, after he served, became a gentleman pimp in Hollywood. He arranged discreet same-sex hook-ups out of a gas station. His clients were Hollywood stars. My generation isn't the only one that knew those items. Murphy's did too. In fact, you'd have been taught them in a university course called "Gay 101." If you'd never heard of Scotty Bowers and you saw the first episode of HOLLYWOOD, you might have just said "Wow. That kind o' thing really happened?" Bowers died last year, well into his 90s. According to his 2012 memoirs, Full Service, he was an attendant at a gas station on the corner of Hollywood Blvd and Van Ness after the war. Actor Walter Pidgeon drove in, took a gander at Bowers and wanted the gas station attendant to do more than just fill 'er up and check his oil. They went back to Pidgeon's place for a lovely afternoon that included nude swimming. Enterprising Bowers, by his account, hit on the idea of helping handsome down-and-out buddies make some cash by entertaining closeted show biz types. The matchmaking office would be the gas station. When the Bowers book came out, some folks slapped it down because the names mentioned in it were mostly deceased stars who could not confirm or deny their association. Some of the stars named were Spencer Tracy, Leon Ames, Cole Porter, George Cukor, Cary Grant, Randolph Scott and Rock Hudson. I myself was critical of the book and Bowers. Then I saw him in a 2017 documentary and my attitude softened. What softened it was hearing that Bowers acted like an agent. If he took anything at all for his matchmaking, it was no more than 10%. The Bowers-like character in first episode of HOLLYWOOD sends the hunky attendants out on drive-away sexual assignments, clients pay him and he splits the take with the hired boy-toy 50-50. Another thing, Bowers kept in touch with some of his former employees through the decades. When they were well into their AARP years, he checked to make sure they weren't broke and lonely. His occupation may have been socially unsavory, but Scotty Bowers' heart was in the right place.

In a Ryan Murphy creation, one that takes us back to glory days of Hollywood, his revised history can recreate the tone of an era yet some details lack accuracy. In his mini-series about the Joan Crawford v. Bette Davis feud during the making of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, he had Crawford (Jessica Lange) up at the crack of dawn to hear the Oscar nominations. In the 1960s, and for a couple of decades to come, the Oscars were held in April and the nominations were announced in mid-afternoon. In HOLLYWOOD, the first episode, we meet handsome Jack Castello (David Corenswet), back from WW2, married and longing to be a movie star. He's in a group of eager, starving actors waiting outside the gate of a top Hollywood studio in hopes of being picked for a day of employment as "background actors." In those days -- and even when I got my Screen Actors Guild card in 1988 -- they were still called "extras." "Background actors" is the modern-day term. Jack waits at the Hollywood studio gate with his nebbish-y buddy who tells him that Billy Wilder is lensing a new Bing Crosby musical co-starring Joan Fontaine. Wilder's movie was the 1948 Paramount release, THE EMPEROR WALTZ. The soundtrack vocal that plays over this scene as the casting director approaches the gate to select background actors is Perry Como singing "Catch a Falling Star." That hit Como record came out in 1957.
Jack's wife is a waitress. She's working. He's not and he can't get a bank loan. Dejected, he goes to bar for a drink. While drowning his sorrows, a nattily attired and macho middle-aged character buys him a drink. Ernie is a larger than life Hollywood survivor who's a member of the Forrest Tucker club. He's well-endowed and proud of it. Dylan McDermott is a hoot in this role, knocking out one of the most energetic performances I've ever seen him give. Yes, the same Dylan McDermott who played Shelby's husband in STEEL MAGNOLIAS. Ernie breaks down the facts of Hollywood life to Jack and coaxes Jack to join his "special service" gas station team. Jack's first assignment is a wealthy Hollywood wife. She was a silent screen star but, when sound came in, Hollywood execs felt she came off too "Jewish." In a Beverly Hills hotel room, she tells Jack that her financially thriving but sexless marriage is a reason why "I'm paying for company." Patti LuPone is expectedly delicious in this role. She's given some Broadway-esque dialogue to say that sounds like a lead-in to a musical anthem of self-survival like Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here." She gives us a glimpse of heartbreak and loneliness behind the eyes of her lusty character. Before the ex-silent screen star and the Hollywood hopeful go horizontal, she says to him "Make me feel like I matter."

Jack chickens out when he encounters his first male client -- songwriter Cole Porter. (This would've been a perfect place for the soundtrack to play either "Love For Sale" or Ethel Merman's recording of "You're the Top," both Cole Porter hits.) Again, Ernie has to hip him to the facts of Hollywood life. As many were in those days, Ernie is a smoker. Occasionally, he coughs. In a production like this, you sense that such a cough will be the cough of doom.
Jack, who has yet to show us that he's got the stuff to be a movie star, decides to take a walk on the wild side. This means going to costume shop, getting a policeman's uniform and going to a gay male porno movie theater where he poses as a cop. He locks eyes with a handsome young Black man there and pretends to bust him. The young Black man thinks he's being taken to a police station. Jack takes his to Schwab's drugstore. In a way, it really doesn't make sense but it sets us up to learn that the African American Archie, well-played by charismatic Broadway actor Jeremy Pope, is an aspiring screenwriter. Jack brings Archie to Ernie. Ernie digs Archie and makes him a new member of the full service team. Archie hooks up with a shy guy named Roy Fitzgerald. Roy will later become famous as Rock Hudson.

Episode 1 ends with gas station pump boy Jack snared in a work-related crisis.

I'm really keen on seeing if Ryan Murphy sticks with his "Gay 101" knowledge of Old Hollywood or if he digs deeper to reference facts not commonly known. Facts about the politics of sex and race within the old Hollywood studio system. In her youth, my aunt took piano lesson in Los Angeles from the mother of the famous Nicholas Brothers. A few months ago, my aunt and I chatted about that. She said that Mrs. Nicholas commented on her extraordinarily talented sons. "They could do a great dance number for a 20th Century Fox movie," Mrs. Nicholas said, "but they couldn't eat in the studio commissary." Here's a clip of the Nicholas Brothers in the 1943 Fox musical, STORMY WEATHER. This number received high praise from screen legend, Fred Astaire.

But they couldn't eat in the studio commissary.

Ryan Murphy's HOLLYWOOD is on Netflix.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Brian Dennehy in DRIVEWAYS

Young director Andrew Ahn has delivered a lovely, modest piece of work. It's a movie that features a performance from veteran actor Brian Dennehy who passed away recently at age 81. The film is titled DRIVEWAYS and paired Dennehy with the remarkable Hong Chau. She plays the single working mother overwhelmed by but handling a serious family matter. A heartbreaking one. She does this while keeping an eye on her lovable, soon to be 9, little boy. If you made it through a long, brutal winter, you know that feeling you get when taking a walk in the spring and you see green breaking through again on trees? You get the sweet sensation that warmth and color are coming back. That surge of joy to the heart is what you may feel watching DRIVEWAYS. Dennehy is obviously in the winter of his years here as he gives one of his final screen performances. He's physically slower. He appears slightly infirm due to age. This isn't the big bear Brian Dennehy of SILVERADO, F/X, TOMMY BOY and COCOON or Broadway's DEATH OF A SALESMAN. However, his talent is still sharp and true.
Hong Chau is an actress who doesn't get nearly the attention she deserves. She's a New Orleans native whose parents fled Vietnam in the 1970s. Hong Chau was marvelous in the sci-fi social satire, DOWNSIZING, a 2017 drama starring Matt Damon. It was cowritten and directed by Alexander Payne. Like a movie from the 1950s, DOWNSIZING commented on society by presenting characters in a community where people have been willingly shrunk to five inches tall.  They do this for a more comfortable life and to ease the world's over-population. The message of the movie is a good one. But, like a 1950s sci fi movie with shrunken characters, it should've run about 1 hour and 45 minutes instead of 2 hours and 15 minutes. It dawdled too long on the extensive shrinking process. The fire and soul of the movie really enter when Hong Chau does as the blunt, no-nonsense Vietnam war refugee. She's on a relentless quest to help others and be of service in the world. She's disabled. She has only one leg. That does not deter her. She is, to use an overused phrase, a force of nature. I prayed that Hong Chau would get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for that performance. She didn't, but she was definitely deserving of one. Last year, Hong Chau was seen on the HBO production, WATCHMEN, as Lady Trieu.
In DRIVEWAYS, Hong Chau stars as Kathy, a devoted and emotionally taxed working mom who hails from Michigan. She handles medical transcriptions. Because she works online, this gives her the flexibility to make a road trip with her son. She has her laptop and she can work on the road. Kathy's older sister died. Her sister lived alone in a house and, apparently, she had grown reclusive over the years. She developed a serious problem with hoarding that Kathy didn't know about. The two sisters had not visited each other in quite some time. Some emotional distance existed between them. The hoarding proves to be a shock to Kathy and Cody, her little boy. Kathy must deal with clearing out the house and preparing it to go on the market. She's heartbroken because some of her history is mixed in with her late sister's belongings. The cleaning out is like being forced to discard some of her own life, her own history. Del is the retiree next door. He seems to be a crusty old coot. Kathy, understandably, is wary when first she meets him because his initial contact was with Cody. All is fine. Cody likes Del. Eventually so does Kathy because he treated her sister with next door neighbor kindness.

We watch a warm, gentle friendship bloom between Del and Cody. Del lets Cody experience life at his own pace. Cody is relaxed and open with Del. Del is grateful for the companionship. It's something fresh and new, different from his usual weekly activity of playing bingo with other seniors.  Not much really happens in DRIVEWAYS. We see that it's about loss, letting go and moving on. The little boy and senior citizen widower friendship may remind you of the wonderful animated feature, UP. But DRIVEWAYS is different. It reaffirms that keeping in touch and reminding loved ones that they are loved are great gifts we must never forget to give.

Brian Dennehy is excellent in DRIVEWAYS. His final scenes in this movie are beautiful. Beautiful, poignant acting. No special effects. No car chases or fancy costumes Just a man sitting on a front porch and talking to a little boy about life.  Young Lucas Jaye is endearing as Cody.
DRIVEWAYS is available to stream staring May 7th. It runs about 85 minutes.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020


This is one absurd little black comedy. A French import, it's subtitled. There's the old saying, "The clothes make the man." In DEERSKIN, the clothes make the man...crazy. Psychotic, if you will. Remember THE ARTIST, the black and white Oscar winner for Best Picture of 2011? It's brawny and handsome French leading man, Jean Dujardin, took home the Oscar for Best Actor. Then we didn't hear much from him in connection to Hollywood films. A big man who is obviously most comfortable in his own skin, and actor skilled at delivering sophisticated drama and goofy comedy performances, it seemed to me that his Hollywood reps dropped the ball on utilizing his skills for American audiences. After THE ARTIST, he should've had an American film and TV exposure to make him as visible as Jon Hamm or Daniel Craig. He is a top star in France.  THE ARTIST, like the classic musical SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, takes place in the Hollywood of the 1920s when it was the brink of a historic revolution in technology. Sound had come to films. The silent era was over. Movie-making and movie careers would be instantly and drastically changed. Dujardin played the arrogant, selfish and highly popular silent screen star whose career may not survive the transition. He must learn humility, reinvent himself as a man and an artist. Besides being in black and white, THE ARTIST is mostly silent like films of the 1920s. Dujardin is exceptional. He deserved that Oscar.  DEERSKIN is not as satisfying. It's a different kind of film. However, it does remind you that Dujardin is quite a presence onscreen. He's a good actor.
 In DEERSKIN, Dujardin again plays a member of the film industry. Or so he claims.

In DEERSKIN, he's a middle-aged man who's recently divorced. For some reason, he's obsessed with owning a vintage deerskin jacket. He purchases one and desires to be the only person who wears it. He wishes no one else in the world wore a jacket. Just him. The film opens with a few folks vowing to never again wear a jacket as the discard the jackets they own. He's purchased the jacket. He's basically broke and heads to a little alpine village inn. His masculinity is now on the wrong road. He's a big irresponsible macho shithead who hears the jacket talking to him when he's alone in his room/ Yes, the jacket speaks to him. At the nearby bar, he's having a drink and spins this tale that he's a filmmaker working on a project. The young slacker female bartender buys him a drink and buys his story. Her dream is to be a film editor. She wanted to re-edit PULP FICTION. She gets him money while he gets even more irresponsible and starts stealing people's jackets. Those people also believe he's an indie filmmaker. The deerskin makes him, in a way, a movie director who is a crazed hunter in lunatic fringe. Here's a clip.

DEERSKIN, in its last act, provides you a big "What in the hell just happened?!?!?" moment.

It's interesting to watch the dynamic between Georges, the fake director, the young female bartender. She's not as gullible as he may think. In her way, she knows how to get a project funded and on its feet. She knows what a film needs. When it comes to filmmaking, the female is smarter than the macho monster director. Unlike the 1920s actor Jean Dujardin played in THE ARTIST, the alleged modern-day movie director in DEERSKIN lacks humility. Also, he demented. He believes he owns a talking jacket. He lies to the editor but she gives him a fabulous deerskin gift to complement his jacket. They are collaborators. In this weird tale of masculinity gone awry, we just hope Georges won't flip out and lock her in the trunk of car the way he did other people's jackets. DEERSKIN was written and directed by Quentin Dupieux.

For information on where you can see DEERSKIN, click onto this link:

If you never saw Jean Dujardin as THE ARTIST, do so. He's worth watching in it.

Oscar Buzz for TILL

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