Friday, September 25, 2020
Sunday, September 20, 2020
Saturday, September 19, 2020
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.
Wednesday, September 9, 2020
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.
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.
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
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:
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