Friday, September 25, 2020

Some Delicious Meryl Streep

I'm not blogging as frequently as I have because the format was changed and I cannot stand it. The legacy format, which made postings much simpler, is no longer accessible and cries for its return seem to have fallen upon deaf ears and unseeing eyes in the Help & Feeback office. However, today I rewatched one of my favorite Meryl Streep performances. She played the famous chef/author/TV instructor Julia Child in JULIE & JULIA written and directed by Nora Ephron. I love this movie.
I've been enamored with Streep since the 1970s. I've had the sensational opportunities to interview her on TV a couple of times and to sit next to her at an awards luncheon. During that luncheon, Meryl Streep had me practically guffawing with laughter at her asides and observations. Yes. The Oscar-winning star of the Holocaust drama, SOPHIE'S CHOICE, is one of the funniest show biz people I've ever met in my life. Back in the 80s, I read an interview of her in a Screen Actors Guild publication. She cited Marlon Brando as a great influence on her craft. That is no surprise. She also mentioned Lucille Ball. That may have come as a surprise to some -- but not really when you look at Streep's comedy timing and physicality in DEATH BECOMES HER, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE and POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE. Add several moments of JULIE & JULIA to that list. (The Julie, played by Amy Adams, is a sincere fan who cooks recipes from the Julia Child cookbook and then blogged her results and experiences.) In the movie, you have two women of different decades who find a greater sense of themselves while eating and cooking and writing. Streep captures the funny, nasal little trill we loved in Julia Child's voice as she passionately taught us how to cook on PBS TV. One ingredient I adore about Ephron's screenplay is how she made marriage to the one you truly love to be like a great meal followed by a fabulous dessert. Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci play the married couple.
There's a scene with two tall women that, to me, is absolutely delicious. I watch it. I savor it. I smile. I love it more and more every time I see it. Jane Lynch plays Julia's delightful sister. The two tall women reunite, have lunch in a nice restaurant and discuss such things as growing up in Pasadena and the miracle of marvelous cheese. It's a lovely scene.
A delicious performance from Meryl Streep. Nora Ephron directed her to one of her numerous Best Actress Oscar nominations in JULIE & JULIA, a movie that makes me smile -- and hungry -- every time I watch it.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Salma Hayek in a Killer Role

Back in 2006, I was the weekly film critic entertainment contibutor on Whoopi Goldberg's national weekday early morning radio show. It was a live broadcast out of New York City. During that time, I saw a movie that got a little bitty amount of publicity. You know how John Travolta has gained an amount of fame for making clunker movies that are so bad, instead of saying they were released, you want to say they escaped? Well, this movie seemed to be dropkicked into that category. In New York City, it played for two weeks at an arthouse theater down in the Village. The movie has a film noir flavor. Overall, is this film as fully delicious as DOUBLE INDEMNITY or BODY HEAT? No. Still, what grabbed me by the collar and held my attention was the feverishly sexy, lethal beauty performance delivered by Salma Hayek.
LONELY HEARTS, a brief 2006 release, stars John Travolta, James Gandolfini and Scott Caan as detectives. The detectives have a certain drama going on in their work relationship while on the trail of two serial killers. The killers are the real-life crazy couple we saw portrayed in the fine 1970 black and white crime thriller, THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, starring Shirley Stoler as Martha Beck and Tony Lo Bianco as Ray Fernandez. Beck and Fernandez are given a different interpretation here. This was the movie that made me realize Jared Leto had some serious acting chops. He'd go on to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2013's DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. Salma Hayek's blistering boldness, her manipulative psychotic sexiness as Martha, sets the screen on fire. LONELY HEARTS came and went quickly in very few theaters. You can stream it now on YouTube or Amazon. If you're a Salma Hayek fan, check out this film and let me know what you think. Go on YouTube and look for LONELY HEARTS trailers that give you a grittier taste of the movie.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Meryl Streep Night

I know the clips you'll see might be ancient to some, but please bear with me. I grew up in South Central L.A., the oldest of three kids in a working class Black family. Dad was a hard-working postal clerk for the city main post office in downtown Los Angeles. Mom was an excellent registered nurse. By today's standards, both were essential workers. We lived in the curfew area during the Watts Riots of the 1960s, an uprising that made national headlines. Years later, I graduated from a parochial high school in Watts. I was not the guy who society would've picked to interview and have lunch with one of the greatest American actresses in modern history. But I did interview her. I did have lunch with her. And each wonderful encounter took me to a different level of my career. The actress is Meryl Streep. If you get cable's TCM (Turner Classic Movies), she will be the featured artist Monday night, September 21st, starting at 8p Eastern/5p Pacific.

The four movies being shown are A CRY IN THE DARK (1988), THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN (1981), POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990) and KRAMER vs KRAMER (1979). I fell under the spell of Meryl Streep in a downtown Milwaukee screening room. The opening shot of her as the complicated, loving young mother in KRAMER vs KRAMER, cinematography by Nestor Almendros, made me gasp a little. I felt the new actress' presence.  I felt the character's pain. I was there to see the movie so I could review it. After graduating from Marquette University, I'd landed my first professional TV job. I worked on Milwaukee's ABC TV affiliate, the first Black person in the city's history to be a weekly film reviewer on a local TV station. I did those reviews on Milwaukee's edition of a syndicated show called PM MAGAZINE. I was a part-time employee.

In 1982, Meryl Streep was holding a mini-movie promotion session one Sunday afternoon in a New York City hotel. She was granting 10 television interviews to talk about her new film, SOPHIE'S CHOICE. Granting only 10 interviews was not a diva move on her part. She was pregnant with her first child and experiencing occasional nausea. Her reduced scheduled was totally understandable. I was selected to fly to New York City and be one of the 10. My interview aired as lead national story on PM MAGAZINE, my wonderful boss promoted me to fulltime status and that was the beginning of the doing the kind of work that got me a New York City job offer in 1985. For me, Meryl Streep was a good luck charm. That same year, PM MAGAZINE also aired my interviews of Ben Kingsley, star of GANDHI and Jessica Lange, star of TOOTSIE. Streep, Kingsley and Lange all won Oscars for those films.

I arrived in New York City in 1985 and did two years on a local TV station. Then I got a great offer from VH1. In 1988, my second year on VH1, the network made me the first Black person to get his own weeknight prime time celebrity talk show. A half-hour vehicle. I loved it. In my premiere week, one guest for one whole show was -- Meryl Streep. Her new film was A CRY IN THE DARK. Not A DINGO ATE MY BABY --- A CRY IN THE DARK. By then, she was a cinema sensation, acclaimed for her dramatic work and the owner of two Oscars. I asked her what it is about acting that sparked her passion. Here's a clip.

Actress/singer Liza Minnelli was a huge influence on Streep's acting style when she saw Minnelli on Broadway in a musical directed by Martin Scorsese. Minnelli played a fading film star attempting a comeback in Las Vegas. The 1977 musical was called THE ACT. I asked Meryl Streep about that. Here's another clip.

When publicist saw me interviewing Meryl Streep for a half-hour on VH1, I had no problem booking other A-list guest for our show. Again, she was a good luck charm. Streep couldn't come to our studio because of her schedule. She granted me a half-hour during her A CRY IN THE DARK junket.

One of the Meryl Streep film airing will be POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE. I read the Carrie Fisher novel, her first book, within a weekend. It's that good. She was already famous as Princess Leia from STAR WARS. Carrie should've been given a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination because she practically rewrote the story for film while keeping all the characters from the novel and Suzanne Vale's basic rehab and Hollywood comeback tale. And Carrie Fisher expanded the role of the veteran movie star mother who is only in about ten pages of the book, a minor character. Carrie went more into her relationship with her veteran movie star mother, Debbie Reynolds, when she wrote the screenplay. Because the screenplay was different from the novel, Carrie wanted to call it HOLLYWOOD AND VINE. Director Mike Nichols told her, wisely, to stick with the original title. Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds were both guests on the VH1 show that prompted execs to give me my own show. They're both in this reel talking about POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE. Take a look.

Shirley MacLaine was a guest on my 1988 show. She had just started rehearsals for POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE and raved about how "fascinating" Meryl Streep was. She also charmingly confirmed that she was slated to star in MGM's deluxe 1964 musical, THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN. However, there was a contractual glitch and Debbie Reynolds went after the role. On the show, MacLaine told me that Debbie contacted her and said that the MGM musicals era was coming to an end for her, but Shirley would go on to other good roles. Which was true. MacLaine won the Best Actress Oscar for 1983's TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. MacLaine added that it was "karma" for her to be playing Doris Mann, the role based on Debbie Reynolds, the role Debbie Reynolds wanted to play, in POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE.

My third encounter with Meryl Streep was at a New York City film awards luncheon in 1999. I was booked to host and present a Star of the Decade award to Streep. I was in my fourth year as a regular on the local weekday morning show GOOD DAY NEW YORK. I'd done some good work. Several items I broke in my celebrity interviews got picked up by national press. However, new management had been installed and, for 1999, my contract had been renewed -- for $10,000 less. Take it or leave it. I was not making a "TV star" salary to begin with --but I took it because I was paying my rent and the mortgage on our divorced single mom's new house. I was humiliated by the pay cut. I took a part time job to help me keep paying Mom's bills. When I got to the luncheon, I discovered I'd been seated right next to Meryl Streep for lunch. I was nervous about just walking over and sitting down next to door. I wouldn't do it. The two men who booked me for the event walked with me over to the table so I could be introduced before sitting.

Meryl Streep looked at me, smile and said "Where do I know you from?" I sheepishly mentioned our first interview. When I mentioned the second, the VH1 show, she enthusiastically responded "That's it! You asked some pretty good questions there, young man."

I'd been complimented by the goddess of all that is good about screen acting -- Meryl Streep. Not only that, during lunch, she chatted with me as if we were old college buddies. She was hysterically funny. 

My contract was up again. The station wanted to renew for another year. With no raise. I decided to walk away. The executives may not have felt my work was special, but Meryl Streep did. Her compliment gave me the courage to walk away, positive that I could do better for myself. I never, ever regretted that choice.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Dorothy Dandridge Still Matters

She was the first African American to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The movie was the 1954 musical drama, CARMEN JONES. She did not win, but Dorothy Dandridge totally deserved that Oscar nomination. If you get cable TCM (Turner Classic Movies), you can see her performance in that film on September 13th at 8p Eastern/5p Pacific. Dorothy Dandridge is the TCM Star of the Month. The discussion and presentation of her work begins that night. She was talented, serious about her craft and blocked by Hollywood racism. When I was a kid in Los Angeles, my parents talked about Dorothy Dandridge a lot. They were in awe of her talent. They'd say was that "the Dandridge girls" were constantly studying and taking classes to improve their skills. By the time she got her Oscar nomination, Dorothy was a Hollywood veteran.
In the 1937 Marx Bros. comedy, A DAY AT THE RACES, Dorothy and her sister can be spotted in the "All God's Children Got Rhythm" musical number. In the 1941 Fox musical comedy, SUN VALLEY SERENADE, she's a knockout singing and dancing "Chattanooga Choo Choo" with the Nichols Brothers, one of whom she married. In the 1941 wartime desert drama, SUNDOWN, she had one of her earliest roles as an African. She's lovely as the African princess. Early in the film, Dandridge was scenes opposite the star of the film, glamorous Gene Tierney. Dandridge has a bit part as a wife and mother saying goodbye to her soldier husband in the World War 2 drama from 1944, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY. Hattie McDaniel, the first Black person to win an Oscar (for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND) has a supporting role in the film.

In featurettes about Dorothy Dandridge that air on TV, I notice a similar tone in them. We're reminded how gorgeous she was, how talented she was, how great a groundbreaker she was when she got her Oscar nomination and how restricted her career was afterwards because of Hollywood discrimination. That tone is accurate. However, they seem to end with an attitude of "As we celebrate her legacy, aren't we glad that old Hollywood inequality is gone?" I say, "Is it?" After her 1954 breakthrough in Fox's CARMEN JONES, she didn't have another sizable role in a Hollywood studio film until Fox's 1957 romantic drama, ISLAND IN THE SUN. As in CARMEN JONES, she has scenes with Harry Belafonte but she is not the leading lead in the movie. It's an ensemble piece. Dandridge was not billed above Joan Fontaine who played the romantic interest to Belafonte. Fontaine, by the way, received her share of racial hate mail for daring to play a sophisticated woman who gazes romantically at a handsome, sophisticated Black man. Go to Netflix and hear Harry Belafonte talk about it in the 2018 docu-series THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US.
The next lead star role Dorothy Dandridge had in a Hollywood film shot in Hollywood was in 1959's PORGY AND BESS. Like 1954's CARMEN JONES, it was a musical drama directed by Otto Preminger. PORGY AND BESS was Dandridge's last film. All sorts of legal red tape keep PORGY AND BESS from being aired on TV. But I've seen it about a half dozen times. Yes, there are some racial stereotypes and tropes in the story that the actors work hard to crack -- the loyal Christian Black man, the oversexed Black buck, the wanton woman and such. Nevertheless, what makes make gasp each time I see it is the undeniable star quality and talent of gorgeous Dorothy Dandridge. Damn Hollywood's racial exclusion. Dandridge died in 1965 at age 42.

In the cast of PORGY AND BESS were Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Brock Peters, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll.

I've written before about the lack of equal opportunities for people of color -- especially film actresses. I've noted how many received one Oscar nomination -- maybe even won the Oscar -- and had to turn to TV for steady employment because Hollywood had no other good opportunities. 1961. Rita Moreno was a standout in the Tennessee Williams drama, SUMMER AND SMOKE, and in the musical, WEST SIDE STORY. That classic musical brought her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Then, as she revealed when she was guest on TCM, she didn't movie work for about seven years. No Hollywood offers after she won the Oscar. She eventually went to TV. Black actresses Cicely Tyson, Beah Richards, Diahann Carroll, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodward, Whoopi Goldberg, Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe and Viola Davis all went to TV for steady employment after getting Oscar nominations. Notice I wrote "Black" not "African American." That's because the Black British actress, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, was floored by the lack of film work offers after her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 1996's SECRETS & LIES. She booked a CBS TV series.

Think about it. Rita Moreno won her Oscar for 1961's WEST SIDE STORY. Cicely Tyson got her one Oscar nomination for 1972's SOUNDER. Whoopi Goldberg won her Oscar for 1990's GHOST and has had over a decade of steady employment on ABC TV. After her second Oscar nomination, for 2011's THE HELP, Viola Davis turned to ABC TV because Hollywood had no film scripts for her.

For 20 years, Whoopi Goldberg, whose first Oscar nomination came for 1985's THE COLOR PURPLE, was the most Oscar nominated Black actress in history. With just two nominations. The talented and Caucasian Jennifer Lawrence is only 30. She has one Oscar and four nominations to her credit. Gifted Amy Adams has six nominations to her credit. Both she and Jennifer Lawrence got more good film script opportunities than Black and Latina actresses. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are now the most Oscar-nominated Black actresses with three each.

Halle Berry slammed across one of finest performances as the late Dorothy Dandridge in HBO's 1999 biopic, INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE. For her dramatic grit in the 2001 film, MONSTER'S BALL, Halle Berry was a groundbreaker as the first Black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress. She is the only Black woman who has won the Oscar for Best Actress.

This week I read in VARIETY that Halle Berry wanted but did not get a 007 spin-off for her Jinx character from 2002's DIE ANOTHER DAY James Bond adventure. MGM would not finance an $80 million action thriller for a Black female lead.

Also this week, on Sept. 10th, came a report on a new study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The study says that Black women were "missing" from a third of 2019's top grossing films. The absence of Latina and Asian women was even greater.

Why haven't entertainment journalists been investigating the modern-day lack of equal opportunities? Why didn't they ask top studio execs why they felt Black stories and Black actors were not marketable? Why haven't entertainment journalists contacted the top talent agencies to see if any of their agents are Black? Why haven't they asked top agents if if they represent Black talent and if they push for their clients of color to get equal opportunities? Why weren't prestigious film critics writing about these issues in their columns or delving into them in their news program segments? On Netflix, I watched the Chelsea Handler special called HELLO, PRIVILEGE. IT'S ME, CHELSEA. In it, Chelsea heads out to see how her career has benefitted from white privilege. In the first 10 minutes, she talks to Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish. Both of them mention how, when they were working hard in comedy clubs, they had to ask their white buddies for help getting an agent. Their white performer friends had agents and they didn't. I experienced and did the same exact thing. Even when I was on Food Network Mondays thru Fridays every week and doing weekday early morning live national radio with Whoopi Goldberg from 2006 to 2008, broadcast agents turned me down saying "I wouldn't know what to do with you."

Dorothy Dandridge did not get the number of starring roles she deserved. She was blocked by Hollywood color barriers, barriers that still existed as the second decade of the 21st Century began. The playing field has yet to be leveled. The legacy of Dorothy Dandridge still matters.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Belafonte's SIT-IN on NBC

This was such a historical week in network television that my parents let me stay up late on a school night to see some of it. The famous host of NBC's TONIGHT Show, Johnny Carson, was on vacation for a week. He let Harry Belafonte sit-in as his guest host for that week in February 1968. In a racially turbulent and politically intense decade, a famous Black entertainer was segregating the field of nighttime hosts on network TV -- at least, for that one week. Top name show biz talent appeared with Belafonte. He also booked presidential hopeful, Senator Robert F. Kennedy. In addition to Bobby Kennedy, Harry Belafonte book his dear friend and fellow civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Again, this was a week in February 1968. In April that same year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. In June that same year, Sen. Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed. Yes. It was a racially turbulent and politically intense decade. Also in 1968, Belafonte was the special guest on Petula Clark's NBC music/variety special. Network execs had forbidden her to touch Belafonte during their duet. The network executives were afraid they'd lose sponsors if there was interracial touching. Petula Clark was executive producer of the special. She did what she bloody well wanted. Pet defied NBC execs. She sang with and touched Harry Belafonte.

Writer/producer Joan Walsh and director Yoruba Richen revisit that historic week in a new documentary called THE SIT-IN. I am extremely proud to have helped those two extraordinary women a bit in the production of it. Watch the trailer:

When Johnny Carson died in 2005, a longtime film critic and entertainment reporter did an obituary feature on local and network NBC. He pretty much credited Carson with booking and conducting the Dr. Martin Luther King interview. That error put a major knot in my neck because I remember watching Belafonte with Dr. King on the TONIGHT Show when I was a kid in South Central L.A. That Caucasian journalist had overlooked some major Black history that occurred right there in 30 Rock in 1968. And no one corrected him.

If you see THE SIT-IN, you'll see me give a soundbite or two in the documentary. Here's the backstory as to how I became involved with the wonderful Joan Walsh: I had written blog posts about the fact that Harry Belafonte hosted the TONIGHT Show for a week in 1968 and he was the one who went up against network brass opposition to book Dr. King as a guest. NBC execs were afraid they'd lose sponsors if Dr. King sat down and started talking about civil rights. After my three years as a veejay and talk show host on VH1 -- three of the happiest years of my career -- a fellow former VH1 employee introduced me to Chiz Schultz. Chiz was aware of my VH1 work. We met, hit it off like old neighborhood buddies, and had dinner. Chiz was on the TONIGHT Show production team the week Belafonte hosted. That week was the beginning of their long, beautiful friendship. Chiz left the late night NBC show.  He went on to co-produce the 1970 film, ANGEL LEVINE, starring Harry Belafonte and Zero Mostel. Chiz was also a producer of 1984's A SOLDIER'S STORY which was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1984. He's in the list of producers for Spike Lee's current film airing on Netflix, DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS.

In 1991, I asked to be a guest host a few times on CNBC's early live Saturday night hour-long talk show. I asked Chiz Schultz to come on for one appearance to talk about working with Harry Belafonte that memorable NBC week. He was a terrific guest and confirmed that NBC execs considered Dr. King, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, to be "too radical." Joan Walsh went online and found a blogpost I wrote about about on TONIGHT. She contacted me. I gave this info to Joan, she took the ball and ran with it to make a touchdown.

I was contacted by WNBC local news execs to round-out the early morning trio of a new show, WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK. I was there from its premiere episode in September 1992 to January 1995. I quit because one Caucasian producer felt I didn't have "the skills" to do film reviews and cover entertainment on a regular basis. (I wanted to do weekly film  reviews because Black people are rarely seen doing film reviews on TV -- and I did weekly film reviews on the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee in the early 80s. As for covering entertainment, I had my own talk show on VH1 and I'd been a guest host on CNBC.) The news director, at that time, told me that my work was excellent and I was popular with viewers. But, I would only be a part-time employee, never full-time, and I would not advance to NBC network exposure. I'd only be local on weekends. The day he told me that, I gave my two weeks notice. As a Black person there, I felt I was not subject to equal opportunities. I walked away from a hit show.

Seeing Harry Belafonte sit-in for Johnny Carson made a tremendous impact on me when I was a kid. THE SIT-IN airs on MSNBC Saturday, September 12th at 10p Eastern/9p Central. If you can, please watch. With deep gratitude, I thought of the door Harry Belafonte opened when I had my own prime time celebrity talk show on VH1 in 1988. I was the first Black talent to get his own weeknight talk show on VH1. Here's what I did:


 I grew in Los Angeles, specifically South Central L.A. which was way more racially diverse than portrayed in local media at the time. Our f...