Monday, July 27, 2020

Olivia de Havilland and Black/Latinx Fans

In 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND, she played genteel Melanie Wilkes, the Southern lady of unshakeable kindness. Over the weekend, Olivia de Havilland passed away in Paris at age 104. What a life. What an actress. In addition to having won two Oscars for Best Actress, Olivia de Havilland was appointed a Dame thanks to Great Britain and she was bestowed the French Legion of Honor distinction. Olivia de Havilland won my heart when I was a little boy in Los Angeles. The 1935 adventure, CAPTAIN BLOOD, aired frequently on local KHJ TV/Channel 9. I loved the pretty lady in the movie. She was that lady in one of her several movies with Errol Flynn.
Olivia de Havilland helped me in the classroom. KHJ TV/Channel aired another of her 1935 films for Warner Brothers -- A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Mom coaxed me to watch that on TV when I was in grade school and I was glad she did. Maybe I didn't understand all the language, but the visuals were dazzling. And there was that pretty lady again -- Olivia de Havilland as Hermia. I watched that movie so many times that I could quote a few Shakespeare lines from it by the time I started middle school. Olivia de Havilland was in my first film introduction to Shakespeare.
I've been living my sister in the Minneapolis area for a couple of years. She came here for work back in the 90s and found happiness. I moved in with a few of my belongings. On her shelves, I noticed rows of DVDs. I spotted her copy of SNAKE PIT, a 1948 Fox mental health drama that brought de Havilland one of her Best Actress Oscar nominations. I'd brought with me my copy of 1949's THE HEIRESS, the 1949 Paramount costume drama that won de Havilland her second Oscar for Best Actress. Her first win came for the 1946 Paramount drama, TO EACH HIS OWN.
My sister and me -- two Black kids who grew up in South Central L.A. and, in their collections of home entertainment, possessed a classic film performance by Olivia de Havilland.

One of my favorite and most memorable party nights in Manhattan involved de Havilland. About a dozen or so of us friends got together at one's apartment in Hells Kitchen for a little birthday party with buffet dinner. Only one guest was Caucasian. They rest of us were Black or Latino. The party was early in the evening. We were all classic film fans. The host asked if we'd like to see a movie. We all agreed on one of his DVDS. We'd watch....THE HEIRESS in which her sweet character evolves from submissive to steely.

If you've seen THE HEIRESS, you will really get this: There we were, a predominantly Black/Latino audience, paying full attention to THE HEIRESS. When Olivia de Havilland, in the final scene, said "Bolt the door, Mariah," we all broke out into cheers and applause as if New York had just won the World Series. Watch this short video I did a few years ago.

Here's a trailer for William Wyler's THE HEIRESS.

My sister, my buddies at the birthday party, and me. This is why I push for more diversity and inclusion, especially on camera, in the field of film arts talk. That includes movie reviews and movie channel hosting. Would a Black film critic or movie historian be tapped to go on TV or give radio soundbites talking about Olivia de Havilland's excellent work in the films I mentioned here? Would we get the equal opportunity to talk about her wonderfulness as Maid Marian opposite Errol Flynn in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, her spirited comedy timing in THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE, her brilliant underplaying of scenes in HOLD BACK THE DAWN, her sleek and subtle yet dangerous sexiness in MY COUSIN RACHEL and her strength as the disabled woman alone in Los Angeles who outwits a band of home invaders in 1964's LADY IN A CAGE?

When it comes to movies starring Olivia de Havilland, I've only seen Black film critics and historians get tapped to talk about GONE WITH THE WIND because of Hattie McDaniel's historic Oscar winning performance and Black images in the film.
Olivia de Havilland. There was diversity in her film roles. There was diversity in her fan club. Finally, as someone who served on the New York City Screen Actors Guild board for a year, we are extremely grateful to her for the De Havilland Law of 1944. She challenged the Hollywood studio system by taking a case involving labor rights for actors to court -- and she won the landmark case.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Regis Philbin Was Fun to Watch

I grew up watching Regis Philbin. He was the sidekick to Joey Bishop when the comedian got his own late night entertainment talk show on ABC. The show was shot in Los Angeles, my hometown. I was about to start high school at the time. If I didn't have to go to school the next day, if the next was a holiday, Mom would let me stay up late. I watched Regis with Joey Bishop. We viewers knew he was Catholic. In those days, he had a face like a grown-up altar boy.  Youthful, not sexy but attractive, affable. You really felt like you knew him. Like he was neighbor or a schoolteacher in your life whose occasional exasperation would make you chuckle and whose joy about something was infectious. Just being himself was the best role Regis Philbin ever had in his long television career. The Joey Bishop Show aired in the late 1960s. Regis was fun to watch. I connected to him. I'm Catholic. I was an altar boy. I'm not sexy but attractive. I left Los Angeles, graduated from a Catholic university in Milwaukee and got my first professional TV job working for Milwaukee's ABC affiliate. One day in 1984, I got to see Regis up close when he changed a young woman's career.
ABC was promoting its upcoming new season of prime time shows in a junket for the network affiliates. This was 1984. Regis was then co-host of The Morning Show airing on WABC TV in New York City. The junket was held when portions of the country were still in the clutches of winter weather. Milwaukee was one of those cities. Understandably, those of us working at ABC affiliates that were covered with frost gladly accepted the offer to defrost and work in L.A. for a couple of days. The junket was held at the Century Plaza Hotel. I'd be back home in Los Angeles. (I'm the oldest of three siblings. Mom had been divorced since I was in high school. In a life event that seemed like sitcom material for a Laverne & Shirley in reverse episode, Mom decided to relocate the family from L.A. to Milwaukee in 1979.)

Since we had to fly out of cold weather, most of us entertainment reporters and such traveled with heavy coats and sweaters. The first day of interviews was a surprise for us all -- including those in the Southern California area. That day turned out to be unseasonably hot -- even for Los Angeles. Sunny and in the upper 90s. So the ABC Network folks hurriedly rearranged the TV taping locations, moving many of the interviews slated to be taped in hotel rooms to the patio under the shade of large umbrellas. Notices were sent to all press members alerting them to please wear comfortable, lightweight clothing if they had some. Fortunately, the Century Plaza Hotel was right across the street from a mall with department stores and clothing shops. You could dash across the street and quickly purchase a Polo shirt to wear while you interviewed John Ritter or Morgan Fairchild or Craig T. Nelson.

One local TV host was in from Oklahoma City. She was unprepared for the hot weather and had sweaters to wear. In the holding area where some of us waited in between interviews, she was friendly and made you giggle a bit. Her main worry was that she would get onto the patio and perspire heavily on camera because of the heat. Her name was Ann Abernethy. Yes, with two E's.

I usually love to hang out with the production crew. I was with a few members, waiting to go on for my next interview. Ann Abernethy had just started an interview. On camera, she was also personable and charming. As we watched on a monitor, Regis Philbin walked over and watched with us. He, too, was there to do interviews for his ABC affiliate. He paid keen attention to Abernethy's interview. When it was over and she came back into the shade and air conditioning of the holding room, Regis introduced himself and said "Come with me." She mentioned that she was scheduled to do another interview in about 10 minutes. One of the ABC reps motioned for her to go with Regis. Ann Abernethy took Regis Philbin's extended hand and went with him into the lobby for a chat. One of the production crew guys said, "Regis likes her. Something good's gonna happen."

A few months later, Ann Abernethy left Oklahoma City and became Regis Philbin's new cohost in New York City on WABC's The Morning Show. She was there for a year, fell in love, got married and started a new non-TV life in a house so huge, it looked like a house you would've seen in an episode of DYNASTY. Ann Abernethy went into the real estate business.
Philbin's next cohost was a definite brunette who'd been seen doing duties on GOOD MORNING AMERICA. Her name was Kathie Lee Johnson. She married and became Kathie Lee Gifford. And she became blonde.

Regis Philbin wasn't just fun to watch. He was a good luck charm.

One more thing. Throughout the 90s, I lived in New York City. When I watched popular shows such as FRIENDS and WILL & GRACE, shows about characters who lived in my New York City neighborhoods, there were no Black characters in the weekly cast of characters. Not as lead characters. Not as supporting characters. Even a show like the original cast of QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY, a show that patted itself on the back for its diversity, there was no gay Black man in the majority of its run trading quips with Carson Kressley. When ABC launched its American version of WHO WANTS TO BE MILLIONAIRE?, Regis was the game show's first host. We didn't see any Black contestants for weeks on the popular show. Then one night, Regis looked into camera and mentioned that very thing with his Everyman quality. He put out a call for Black folks to contact the show and audition to be contestants. This was years before Frances McDormand told Hollywood about inclusion riders during her 2018 Oscar acceptance speech for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI and before this year's admission from folks like Jon Stewart of THE DAILY SHOW and a creator of FRIENDS that more could've been done behind the scenes to bring racial inclusion and diversity into the productions on-camera and behind the scenes. I loved Regis for doing that.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The New Perry Mason

When I was a youngster, PERRY MASON was regular Saturday night TV entertainment. Mom and Dad loved that CBS courtroom drama.  Stocky, handsome Raymond Burr had the title role as the defense attorney who never lost a case for years in prime time. Burr was one of those veteran movie actors who went to TV in the 1950s and 60s. The small screen made him more famous and a brighter star than the big screen ever had.  Lucille Ball, Robert Young, Robert Stack and Buddy Ebsen were in that same category. When I heard that a new version of PERRY MASON would premiere on HBO with actor Matthew Rhys in the lead role, I wasn't all that interested -- even though Rhys is one gifted actor.
My first thought was "How does this guy from the United Kingdom keep getting roles where he plays an American?" Remember back in 2006 when he played one of the Pasadena siblings in the ABC TV series called BROTHERS & SISTERS? Sally Field starred as the mother. Then he played one of the Russian agents posing as a Yank in THE AMERICANS on cable. On the big screen, he played Chicago native Daniel Ellsberg, the man who gave the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post, in Steven Spielberg's newspaper drama, THE POST, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Well, I watched the first four episodes of PERRY MASON on HBO. Matthew Rhys is, once again, excellent. All four episodes were excellent. I watched them twice.
This series delves into the Perry Mason backstory/ In the beginning, you think it has nothing to do with the Erle Stanley Gardner characters some of us remember from the hit CBS drama. Perry is a private investigator, a clever guy but a hot mess of a man. He's unkempt. He drinks too much. He witnessed the horrors of war when he served in World War 1 on the battlefield. He admits to having had one homosexual encounter. He's in need of money.  This story takes us back to Los Angeles in the early 1930s. People are still unemployed from the Great Depression. In L.A., there's a big news story. Newspapers report that a baby has been kidnapped and murdered. There's an arrest and some shady local politics. There's also an Aimee Semple McPherson evangelist whose hordes of followers keep her in the celebrity spotlight and bring lots of cash into her church coffers. She's a controversial character who gets tied into the kidnap/murder story. Perry Mason is a private investigator working on that case.

Let me tell you this: If you loved the classic movie CHINATOWN, I think you'll totally dig this series. That same feeling of darkness and decay dwelling underneath the relentless Southern California sunshine is at play in HBO's PERRY MASON. Guilt is a driving force in these episodes. Here's a trailer.

I've been a John Lithgow fan ever since I saw him as the egotistical, backstabbing Broadway producer in 1979's ALL THAT JAZZ. Lithgow was one of my favorite guests on my VH1 prime time celebrity talk show in 1988. He was the first celebrity guest who sent me a thank you note after our show. I still have it. John Lithgow's performance as Winston Churchill in Netflix's THE CROWN left me awestruck. He was stunning. His performance as Perry Mason's boss is just as terrific.

On the classic TV series, Barbara Hale played Della Street, Perry Mason's whip-smart and trustworthy secretary. I loved her backstory in this miniseries. I loved how she was played by Juliet Rylance. On TV, you always got the feeling that Perry Mason and Della Street were the best of friends. One of the most fascinating element about the scripts in the first four episodes is that you don't think this hot mess of man who's a private investigator will have any resemblance at all to the famous Raymond Burr portrayal. But, with each episode, you realize that you are being set up to see how these 1930s characters became the ones known from the 1950s/60s TV series. Episodes were directed by Timothy Van Patten. He directed many memorable episodes of THE SOPRANOS.

Here's some Old Hollywood history for you. Did you ever see the gorgeous, statuesque actress Gail Patrick in the classic films MY MAN GODFREY (1936), STAGE DOOR (1937) and MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940)?
In the 1950s, she became a producer. She was the Executive Producer of PERRY MASON. The series ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

We Need a Bayard Rustin Biopic

His first name was pronounced BY-yard. His accomplishments were extraordinary and, during his lifetime, overlooked. Bayard Rustin was seen in the network TV news tributes to the late, great Rep. John Lewis. In the black and white archive news clip of young John Lewis giving a speech at the historic 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin can be seen standing behind him to the left, the Black man wearing the glasses.
Bayard Rustin was one of the top architects of Dr. Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington.
He was one of Dr. King's most important advisors. He was an activist, a vocal and intellectual activist. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1912. He lived with his grandparents. His grandmother was a Quaker and a member of the NAACP. Rustin was a Quaker. He took on the non-violent principles from his grandmother. He was a high school athlete and played on the football team. Rustin first actively fought segregation during his high  school years. He attended college and was involved in social issues. A gifted tenor, he moved to New York City and sang on Broadway in a show with Paul Robeson. He sang in Greenwich Village clubs. He recorded.
He was a key figure in the Civil Rights movement. The late Bayard Rustin was also an openly gay man. This is why his monumental contributions to the Civil Rights movement were unjustly overlooked and downplayed. Tell Hollywood that we are in major need of a well-done Bayard Rustin biopic.

I've got a couple of videos I want you to watch. The first one is trailer for a documentary that introduces you to the controversial, complicated and vital Civil Rights activist. The name of the documentary is BROTHER OUTSIDER: THE LIFE OF BAYARD RUSTIN.

Here's a promo for BROTHER OUTSIDER.

Now watch this 10 minute segment about Rustin. You will see Rep. John Lewis talk about how significant Rustin was to the March on Washington. Yet, despite his significance and input, he faced added discrimination because he was gay. Click onto the link below to see the 10 minute segment:

Finally, here's a 3 minute piece with the man who was Bayard Rustin's partner.

In 2013, Bayard Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Bayard Rustin made American history. Bring his legacy into the light.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Diahann Carroll Music Break

Once again, I am writing about the remarkable Diahann Carroll. The late star was born on July 17th in 1935. On her July 17th pop news segment in the second hour of GOOD MORNING AMERICA, entertainment anchor Lara Spencer acknowledged Carroll's birthday and legacy by showing a very short clip of her in an episode of DYNASTY followed by Kerry Washington and a fellow former SCANDAL castmate reenacting the same exact clip scene. Lara Spencer read a quote from Kerry Washington in which Washington graciously thanked the star of DYNASTY and, years before that, JULIA, for being a trailblazer who opened the door for other Black actresses on TV. If I had the job on GOOD MORNING AMERICA that Lara Spencer does, I would've reminded viewers that the singer/actress was a trailblazer long before DYNASTY in the 1980s.
This year's headlines about race made the issues of inequality and discrimination hot topics that are being discussed -- and have been in need of serious, deep discussion for quite some time. In the entertainment industry, more intense attention is being paid to the lack of racial diversity and inclusion in the arts. Diahann Carroll worked with the late, great Dorothy Dandridge in 1954's CARMEN JONES. That musical drama made Dorothy Dandridge the first Black woman to be an Oscar nominee for Best Actress and the first Black performer, male or female, to be an Oscar nominee in the "Best" category. However, after she made history with her dazzling performance in 1954's CARMEN JONES, Hollywood did not have another lead role script opportunity for Dorothy Dandridge until 1959's PORGY AND BESS. Diahann Carroll was also in the cast. PORGY AND BESS was Dandridge's last film. Look at CARMEN JONES today and ask yourself, "How could Hollywood not have had any other lead role offers for her after that Oscar nomination?" Such is the plight of performers of color -- a plight that white film critics and entertainment reporters never dug into and investigated. Rita Moreno was a guest on cable's TCM (Turner Classic Movies) and stated that she had no film work for seven years after she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1961's WEST SIDE STORY. Like WEST SIDE STORY, Martin Ritt's PARIS BLUES was another film that came out in 1961, a year of America's Civil Rights movement. This romantic drama has a boldness that's almost subliminal. Diahann Carroll, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward starred as four Americans in Paris.

Newman and Poitier are best friends, jazz musicians making the scene in Paris. Poitier is a music arranger/composer, a most upscale role for a Black actor at that time. Woodward and Carroll play best friends on vacation. The four Americans meet and become friends. Romance and music ensue. Louis Armstrong gets a sophisticated role as a respected jazz legend on tour. Duke Ellington received an Oscar nomination for his music score.

In the opening minutes, the camera pans the crowd in a Parisian jazz club. We see that the club is a place where interracial relationships and same-sex romances can exist in harmony. Diahann Carroll and Sidney Poitier play sweethearts. She wants to return to America after vacation and support the Civil Rights movement. He's initially reluctant. He's treated with respect in France. Poitier's character said something similar to what I often heard Dad say about when he served in World War 2. He told me that white people in France called him "Sir" before white people in America did.

Two of the most famous names in Broadway history gave us musicals that were adapted into A-list Hollywood films. Onscreen saw Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA!, Rodgers & Hammerstein's CAROUSEL, Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I, Rodgers & Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC, Rodgers & Hammerstein's FLOWER DRUG SONG and Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Two years after the death of Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers went solo and gave Broadway a timely 1962 musical called NO STRINGS. In the story, a top fashion model who's Black and from New York works and lives in Paris. She has a quality of career opportunities and income she probably would not have back in America. She meets another American visiting Paris. He's a white novelist, a Pulitzer Prize winner, who's been stalled by a severe writer's block since he arrived in France. The model challenges his writer's block. But can the freedom and acceptance of their romance in France survive if they take it back home to the States? He wants to return home to New England. They face the fact that, until America changes, they'd have no romantic future there and must part. Keep in mind this was a 1962 musical. Interracial marriage was still illegal in some American states. The Supreme Court would make it legal all across the country in June 1967. Dr. Martin Luther King's historic March on Washington for Civil Rights, which Diahann Carroll attended, would be in August 1963.

For her performance as fashion model Barbara Woodruff in NO STRINGS, Diahann Carroll became the first Black woman to win the Tony award for Best Actress in a Musical. Decades before DYNASTY on ABC, years before Diahann Carroll, like Dorothy Dandridge, got a Best Actress Oscar nomination (thanks to 1974's CLAUDINE), she was a groundbreaker on Broadway. Here's Diahann Carroll as fashion model Barbara Woodruff singing about her sweet independence abroad in Richard Rodger's NO STRINGS. The song is "Loads of Love."

Her leading man in NO STRINGS was singer/actor Richard Kiley. Kiley was in the 1953 film noir, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, and played one of the high school teachers in the hit 1955 drama, BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. Here, he and Diahann Carroll sing what became the hit song from the score of NO STRINGS. The song is "The Sweetest Sounds."

Paris. The colorful world of high fashion. The lead female character who's from New York. Romance. Showtunes. Those are elements that made FUNNY FACE, the classic 1957 film starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, such a delicious musical. But did Hollywood make a move to star Tony winner Diahann Carroll in a film version of her Broadway hit, a show that had those same elements as FUNNY FACE? No. 1962's NO STRINGS had an interracial romance. Even though the prestigious name of Richard Rodgers was attached to the project, Hollywood did not give us a deluxe movie version of a Tony-winning Broadway musical with a Black actress in the glamorous lead role.

That is a damn shame.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Some Music from My Youth

Treat your ears. It's time for a little audio cocktail. I've got a double play of music from my youth. When I was a kid, growing up on 124th Street and Central Avenue in Los Angeles, Sundays were record days in the house. We'd play albums on the stereo. All sorts of albums. Motown, movie soundtracks, Broadway original cast albums, comedy albums and jazz. Lots of jazz. Mom and Dad loved jazz. My parents introduced me to the sublime vocal stylings of the Divine Sarah -- Sarah Vaughan -- and one of Sarah's best friends -- Carmen McRae. Here are two cuts Mom loved from albums of hers that we played.  First up -- Sassy. That's what jazz folks called Sarah Vaughan.

Here is Sarah Vaughan singing "Shiny Stockings."

Now for some Carmen McRae.

Here is Carmen McRae singing "Blame It On My Youth," a song with music by Oscar Levant.

If you enjoyed them, let me know.  I hope you did.

Monday, July 6, 2020

A Louis Armstrong Music Break

The extensive and excellent Ken Burns documentary, JAZZ, rightfully positioned and presented Louis Armstrong as a supreme genius in an American music art form. Burns' 2000 documentary is really a mini-series. Trust me on this -- the hours will fly by like minutes. It's educational, enlightening, revealing and relevant. It's ripe for binge-watching. The chapter on Louis Armstrong gives him the significance some folks, especially in Hollywood, may not have realized in his early years. If you look at some of the supporting roles Hollywood gave him in the 1930s and early 40s, roles that were designed to let him do a musical number, you really would not have known that he was a jazz master who'd toured Europe by the early 1930s. In the late 40s, his film roles gradually become more sophisticated. The Martin Ritt movie, PARIS BLUES, was a 1961 romantic drama about two young best friends. They're Americans in Paris and jazz musicians in a city that appreciates jazz. Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier plays the jazzmen. Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll play the best friends on vacation. They too are Americans in Paris. They meet the jazzmen. Romance ensues. And music. Louis Armstrong gets one of the classiest acting roles of his film career as the dapper, acclaimed jazz great overseas for tour dates. Quite an elevation from the horn-playing stablehand in the Warner Bros. musical comedy, GOING PLACES (1938). Dick Powell starred as the sporting goods salesman posing as a jockey.
Louis Armstrong was much more than just a jovial guy with a gravelly voice who could play a horn. Armstrong died on July 6th, 1971 at age 69. He had hit records in the 1960s. That was back in the day when Americans still listened to the radio and vocalists got airplay. "Hello, Dolly," the title tune from the hit Broadway musical, was sung by several popular singers of the day. Armstrong did a cover of it and his recording zoomed up the Billboard charts. It sold so well that he topped The Beatles. Armstrong was not in the Broadway play with Carol Channing. But his record was such a best-seller, it got him a cameo with Barbra Streisand during the big title tune number in the 1969 movie version. Movie audiences applauded his appearance.

Armstrong's 1960s recording of "What a Wonderful World" was used in the soundtrack to GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM (1987). His record, covered by clips from the movie, was a music video I presented quite a few times during my VH1 veejay years. Armstrong's record was again popular, discovered by a new audience. It got to be so popular that, when many think of Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, that's one of the first recordings mentioned or played.

Which is why I'm giving you a Louis Armstrong Music Break. His artistry started back in the 1920s. In Ken Burns' JAZZ, music historians and experts discuss the brilliance of his 1928 recording, "West End Blues."

In 1929, he recorded "Ain't Misbehavin'."

The 1951 MGM drama called THE STRIP involved a drummer, a dancer, a murder and the nightclub scene on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. A new song made its debut in the movie. Here's one of my favorite Louis Armstrong vocals. From THE STRIP, here's "A Kiss To Build a Dream On." I'm sure his smooth rendition in the movie helped it get an Oscar nomination for Best Song.

I hope you enjoyed my music break featuring Master Louis Armstrong.

Sunday, July 5, 2020


December 1947. A new play by Tennessee Williams premieres on Broadway. The play, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, will come to be regarded as a classic. Did you know that the original Blanche DuBois in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE won the Best Actress Oscar in 1990? Jessica Tandy played Blanche DuBois in the original Broadway cast of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE opposite Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden.
Those three repeated their roles in the 1951 film version. Jessica Tandy was not a Hollywood name then and the Blanche DuBois role went to the far more famous Vivien Leigh. Leigh, a Best Actress Oscar winner for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND, won her second Best Actress Oscar for A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. In the 1980s, after some Broadway and TV success, Hollywood gave Jessica Tandy the coveted role of Daisy Werthan, a Southern Jewish widow in her 70s in Atlanta. Declared too old to drive, Miss Daisy acquires a chauffeur. A Black man named Hoke. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning and hugely popular play, we follow their relationship from 1948 to 1973. Jessica Tandy's performance in DRIVING MISS DAISY got her the Oscar for Best Actress of 1989.
The play was a two-character production written by Alfred Uhry. He based the Miss Daisy character on his grandmother. She had a chauffeur. Morgan Freeman originated the role of Hoke onstage and had the privilege to recreate his role in the film adaptation.

Alfred Uhry also wrote the screenplay.

About 10 years ago, I shot pilot for a film-related travel show. We shot the project in and around the Atlanta area over a couple of days. Those were two of the happiest days I ever had in my career. I loved every single minute of our experience. I loved our bare-bones camera and production crew. I loved my cohost. They were a joy. The focus of the show was visiting places, locations, eateries and shops that were used in movies or popular with movie crews on location. A Jewish temple seen in DRIVING MISS DAISY really does exist. I visited the temple and got a little history about it from the rabbi. Here's the segment from our pilot.

There were several pleasant surprises in our 2-day shoot. Most of those surprises came from the everyday people we interviewed. I asked each person I interviewed, "What's one of your favorite films?" One location we visited was a bed and breakfast where Morgan Freeman and a few DRIVING MISS DAISY crew people stayed while on location for one scene outside of Atlanta. Run by a gracious married couple, I walked through the main floor and, on a table, I noticed a small framed vintage photo of Confederate soldiers. The husband pointed and gently remarked "I'm related to this man here. That's why I have the photo."

His wife gave us the main interview about the place, the food and the DRIVING MISS DAISY movie crew. I finished the interview by asking "What's one of your favorite movies?"  Honestly, I expected her to say something like STEEL MAGNOLIAS.  Her answer? "Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING." She added that she felt its message was extremely important. (Ironically, millions of us felt DO THE RIGHT THING should've been a Best Picture Oscar nominee. It wasn't. DRIVING MISS DAISY was the winner.)

I posed "What's one of your favorite movies?" to the rabbi. He seemed a bit reluctant to say his answer. He sheepishly replied, "AIRPLANE."

"That's a terrific comedy and it was a box office hit!"

He said, "Yeah, but it's not exactly highbrow."

I told him "Who cares?" It's good entertainment and it still makes people laugh. He did not have to be ashamed of his answer at all.  As I was leaving, I thanked him for his time and the tour and told him that I'd heard very nice comments about him before we arrived.  I said "So, surely, you must be a great rabbi."

He said, "Thank you. And don't call me Shirley."

I loved doing that pilot. I wish PBS had picked it up.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

America's Woke Up Call

HBO Max announced it would air the 1939 classic GONE WITH THE WIND, a Civil War epic. John Ridley, the talented African American who won an Oscar for his 12 YEARS A SLAVE screenplay, complained in an article printed by the Los Angeles Times. Ridley felt GONE WITH THE WIND, major box office champ from 1939 through to reissues in the 1970s, should not be shown because of its creaky racial images. Vivien Leigh won the Best Actress Oscar for her work as the headstrong Southern belle, Scarlett O'Hara. Hattie McDaniel co-starred as Mammy and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
I can well understand. However, I feel it can be shown -- in its entirety -- with a disclaimer before the opening credits saying "This film was made in Old Hollywood days. You will see racial and stereotypes that, in no way, reflect the viewpoints of HBO." GONE WITH THE WIND was removed from the schedule. Temporarily. When it was announced that it would air preceded by a discussion on its racial images and history, I knew we'd see a Black film historian. There is no shortage of Black film critics and historians in this country. Black people who can write and talk about all kinds of films -- new releases, classic Hollywood fare and foreign films. But do you see those people on TV? No. They're available and willing to go on, but white TV producers usually only contact them when...

A.  They need recommendations for films viewers should see during Black History Month
B.  There's a diversity controversy like "Oscars So White"
C.  There has to be a discussion on racial images in films
D.  A Black celebrity has died or been thrown in jail.

Professor Jacqueline Stewart, a Chicago teacher and an excellent Sunday night host on TCM (cable's Turner Classic Movies), led the GONE WITH THE WIND discussion. Yep. She's Black.
Instead of Ridley and some other folks being mad at the late Hattie McDaniel, the woman who made history by winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, I say let us see how she made Hollywood history and why she deserved that Oscar. Move on to asking why TV news producers and syndicated film review show producers have kept the TV field of film critics segregated. It's been predominantly white male. This goes from when each network morning news program -- on CBS, ABC and NBC -- had a weekly film critic who did reviews on Friday. Then there was the famous Siskel & Ebert film review show and similar duos that followed. Black critics were overlooked or just downright ignored. Look at the fine 2017 HBO documentary called SPIELBERG. It runs an interesting 2 1/2 hours.  There are 7 film journalists giving soundbites about Steven Spielberg in that documentary. Not a one is Black. There's not even a Black film critic in the 10 minutes devoted to Spielberg's THE COLOR PURPLE. All the comments about that film are delivered through the white gaze.

I worked as a regular on local New York City morning news programs from 1992 to 1999. The first show was on WNBC. That job lasted from 1992 to 1995. The next one, on local Fox TV, lasted from 1995 to 1999. I was approached for each job. I quit each one because I felt a definite inequality of opportunities. During the first four years of my professional TV career, I was a weekly film critic on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate. I was half of a weekend film review team that aired on a local independent station.
The work got me noticed by Chicago PBS. Execs contacted me to audition to be half its new film review team when Siskel & Ebert left PBS for Disney syndication.

I went to WNBC's new project, WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK, after three great years at VH1. There, I had my own weeknight prime time talk show. I'm proud to say I got excellent reviews from the New York Times, People magazine and TV Guide.

Not only that -- VH1 flew me to London for a special one-hour interview of Paul McCartney and, on St. Patrick's Day in 1989 while I was in L.A. taping for VH1, Lucille Ball invited me to her home that evening for cocktails. Of course, I went.

I accepted the part-time WNBC offer because, when I met with execs, it was mentioned that I could do weekend film reviews in the studio. This appealed to me. I grew up in Los Angeles. Neither in L.A. or in New York City, had I ever seen a reflection of myself in film reviewers on TV. I wanted to do reviews to show that Black people could do them. I hoped I could help open a door for others.

The day before the show premiered, the Caucasian producer said "I don't think you have the skills to do film reviews." I would do lifestyle features and be the funny man-on-the-streets. I challenged my Caucasian producer. I fought to do film reviews. I would've had an easier time getting a permit to open a Hooters in Vatican City. I did movie reviews on three consecutive weekends. Even though one of the anchors complimented me on the writing and viewpoints on the air, the news director forbid me to do any more reviews. No reason given. He aired my taped interview of Robin Williams who was promoting his new film, 1993's MRS. DOUBTFIRE. The news director refused to air my taped interview of Robin Williams' co-star, Tony-winning playwright and actor, Harvey Fierstein. His reason was this: "I have a problem with him being openly gay." A TV news executive in New York City said that. Not a local TV news exec in Biloxi, Mississippi. I relayed his statement to Harvey. Harvey was once a guest on my VH1 talk show.

The WNBC news director called me in for a January 1995 meeting. He wanted me for another year on the show. He said that my work was very good and I was very popular with viewers. However, I would only be a part-time WNBC News employee. Only on weekends. I'd never graduate to full-time and I would never move up to doing segments for the network edition of WEEKEND TODAY. And I would no longer be under contract. I gave him my two weeks notice. I walked away from a hit show.

To put this in perspective, Billy Bush was hired by WNBC local news in 2001. He had no prior TV experience. He'd been a rock morning radio DJ in Washington, DC. He did lifestyles features on WNBC local news. Four months after his local news debut, he was doing segments on TODAY with Matt Lauer. Two years later, he'd been added to NBC's ACCESS HOLLYWOOD. In the summer of 2010, college student Cody Gifford, the son of Kathie Lee Gifford, did weekly film reviews on TODAY. He was on summer vacation and had taken a film course in his previous semester. I had more credentials and experience on my resume than Billy and Cody did. But it seems they had ... le privilege du blanc.

At local Fox5's GOOD DAY NEW YORK, the situation was sunnier. I had weekday exposure. I did funny man-on-the-street live segments. Several items revealed in my celebrity interviews were picked up my national press. I was told that my work was good and I was popular with viewers. But in 1998, new management had renewed my contract -- for $10,000 less. In 1999, I was told I was wanted for another year. Without a raise. I decided to move on.

ABC News hired me in 2000 to be the weekly film reviewer/historian on its live, hour-long Lifetime TV production called LIFETIME LIVE. I was hired after I pushed for an audition. Why did I push? Because the white producer kept asking "Does he know anything about movies?" I got the job. The show lasted one year. I loved that job. I wrote, researched and performed an 8-minute segment live every Friday without TelePrompTer. And I wrote reviews for the show's website. Besides the reviews of 2 new theatrical releases and a DVD release, it was my idea to recommend a strong performance by an actress in a classic film as a "Women in Film" history spot considering it was Lifetime TV.

For this network job, I got $500 a week and, as the ABC News rep said, "...not a penny more." $500 a week -- before taxes. Yes, I loved my network TV job even though I could've made more money wearing a paper hat and working behind the counter in a fast food franchise.

I heard that CNN was seeking an entertainment reporter in 2002. I contacted the producer. He asked if I'd ever done entertainment reports. I was no longer interested in the job. I pitched myself to CBS SUNDAY MORNING from the 1990s to 2004 to be an entertainment contributor. I never got a response. Oh. About pitching myself. I got myself the following jobs:

VH1 veejay/talk show host
CBS Late Night semi-regular on THE PAT SAJAK SHOW
PBS New York, Host
Food Network, TOP 5 Host
The Whoopi Goldberg Morning Show on PREMIERE RADIO, Entertainment contributor

I got myself those jobs because -- during all that time -- broadcast agents (who were all white) turned me down for representation. They usually said, "I wouldn't know what to do with you."

That, in a way, ties back to why a lot of us African Americans wanted to be entertainment contributors. We knew the systemic racial barriers Black/Latinx talent hit in the entertainment industry. The Hollywood Credo was "Black stories don't sell." Because top studios wouldn't green light stories with predominantly Black casts, there weren't as many work opportunities for Black actors and filmmakers. If there wasn't work for Black talent, agents would say "They're not gonna bring me in a big 10% like a Reese Witherspoon or a Robert Downey Jr. So why bother representing them?" If you get Netflix, go there and watch the first 10 minutes of a Chelsea Handler special. It's called HELLO, PRIVILEGE? IT'S ME, CHELSEA. In her opening segment, she tells how easy it was for her to get show biz representation. Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart tell her how they could not. They had to ask their white friends who had agents if they could help hook them up with a meeting for one. I saw John Leguizamo in a PBS special talk about having that same experience.

If a Black filmmaker made a film that got a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, that's terrific news. However, it doesn't mean Hollywood will give him/her the juicy marketing budget that it would give a white filmmaker. THAT'S where we Black entertainment contributors and talk show hosts come in. We know how that game goes. We want to spotlight Black/Latinx talent so folks will see the work and the directors/actors can get more work. if their film does mild business at the box office, that gives Hollywood a chance to recycle its tired, discriminatory "Black stories don't sell" philosophy. Unfortunately, when pitching features on up and coming Black/Latinx talent, Black entertainment contributors have to punch through white bosses saying "I don't know who these people are. Why should we do a story on them?" and publicists not giving Black entertainment journalists equal opportunities on the red carpet. After stars have chatted with white entertainment reporters, I've seen publicists whiz their stars past the Black reporters on the red carpet so quickly that the stars experienced G-force. People of color in entertainment press, be they focused on Hollywood or Broadway, have often been treated like second class citizens. My WNBC news show producer nixed my opportunities to do live in-studio interviews of actress Pam Grier, singer Dianne Reeves and singer Patti LaBelle. She felt they were "not our audience" and viewers wouldn't be interested.

In the second month after the 1992 premiere of WNBC's WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK, I was assigned to cover a Madonna press event. Unexpectedly, I got soundbites from her.

Katie Couric left me a voicemail message at work congratulating on my piece. The TODAY Show contributor couldn't get anything at all from Madonna. As the months rolled by, I'd run into Katie in the 30 Rock commissary grabbing a bite. One time, she came over to me and complimented me on my work. She'd seen my VH1 talk show. She praised me on my talent followed by "Why isn't your career bigger than it is?" Bless her heart. I'm sure she thought the playing field was level. By the way, there's a major difference between "Why isn't your career bigger than it is"? and "Why isn't your career bigger than it is? What can I do to help?"

Our lives were suddenly, drastically changed by the coronavirus pandemic. During our health lockdown, the murder of George Floyd brought the national virus of racism to a fever pitch. "Black Lives Matter" became a global chant in protest marches. Then companies got "woke." They started embracing the "Black Lives Matter" statement. In entertainment, TV shows stopped streaming episodes that had white actors in blackface. I had no idea so many modern shows had blackface moments. White actors who'd been doing the voiceovers for Black characters in animated shows stepped away from their jobs to allow actual people of color to do the voiceovers. Last month, Jon Stewart said that he could've done more to have racial diversity in his THE DAILY SHOW staff. I love that show.  Nevertheless, over 10 years ago, I always noticed Jon's writing team was practically all-white each time it went onstage to accept Emmy awards. Last month, the co-creator of FRIENDS revealed she could've done more to bring diversity into its cast. Hello! Oprah brought up the all-whiteness of FRIENDS when she had the cast on her show in the 1990s.
In 2009, I saw Disney's THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. How I loved seeing Disney's first African American princess. The story was delightful and the animation gorgeous. Then Princess Tiana was gone. I wondered if she'd entered an animated witness protection program for some reason. In 2013, Disney's FROZEN comes out and it's all about Princess Elsa. Blonde Princess Elsa gets a FROZEN sequel, she gets a star spot in Disney on Ice and she gets a Broadway musical based on FROZEN. One Halloween on GOOD MORNING AMERICA, did Robin Roberts dress up like Tiana from THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG? No. They put a long platinum blonde wig on Robin's head and made her dress up like that frigid white girl.

Another Oscar-wining box office champ starred Hattie McDaniel and caused a controversy. Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH is a 1946 live action/animated musical fantasy about life on a plantation. Hattie plays the plantation cook. She's friends with storyteller Uncle Remus. They perform a song together after he introduces the Best Song Oscar winner, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." For decades, that song had been the Disney company signature tune. No more. Today, Disney hides that feature. You cannot see it on Disney sites. Still, its Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland still had the SONG OF THE SOUTH plantation character images from the movie. The chants of "Black Lives Matter" forced Disney to get "woke." Finally, Princess Tiana will make a comeback. The Splash Mountain ride will be renovated with a THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG theme. Here's some Hollywood history. Hattie McDaniel was the first Black woman to be nominated for and to win an Oscar. The first Black man to receive an Oscar was actor James Baskett. He was presented an honorary Oscar for his portrayal of Uncle Remus in Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH.
This 2020 wave of "woke"-ness tells me that folks and companies who considered themselves to be quite liberal had not really embraced racial inclusion and equal opportunities -- and they knew it. They treated Race like it was a Jehovah's Witness knocking at the door early on a Saturday morning. They pretended to not be home and peeked at it through the Venetian blinds until it went away.

Today, they've been forced to open the door.

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...