Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Johnny Cash and MY DARLING VIVIAN

 I finished rewrites for my part-time job and wanted to relax by watching something informative that's not getting lots of press. But should. I found the perfect thing. It's a 90 minute documentary, now available on Amazon Prime, called MY DARLING VIVIAN. It's about the first wife of famed singer Johnny Cash, the shy Catholic woman who bore him four daughters. Did you see the movie biopic about Johnny Cash and June Carter called WALK THE LINE? I paid to see that movie in theaters about three times. I loved the performances and I especially loved the script co-written by its director James Mangold. Seeing MY DARLING VIVIAN reminds you that movie biopics are entertainment with actors in them. They are not documentaries. In 2005's WALK THE LINE, Joaquin Phoenix played Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon won a Best Actress Oscar for playing June Carter Cash, Johnny's also famous second wife. Ginnifer Goodwin played Vivian Cash. Her Vivian was somewhat of a shrew. She was a controlling, annoying wife who seemed not to care at all about Johnny's ambitions and career. She wanted his constant, obedient attention and the financial benefits of his stardom for their house. This is not at all like the Vivian Cash you meet in this documentary. You'll understand why one daughter felt WALK THE LINE "did some damage" to her mother's memory and another daughter just refused to see it. Vivian Liberto was a very ladylike girl of Sicilian heritage in San Antonio, Texas. Her Catholic upbringing was strict, often leaving her to feel inferior. Then she met an 18 year old guy in the service and stationed in San Antonio. His name -- Johnny Cash. We see and hear excerpts from some of their many love letters. The daughters described their late mother as an "elegant" woman who "dressed beautifully" and was "exotic looking." 


The four grown daughters are Cindy, Kathy, Tara and singer Rosanne Cash. Each daughter is interviewed separately. None of them is in conflict with the others in the interviews. If anything, the siblings complement each other. MY DARLING VIVIAN is their love letter to their mother who, as one says, "faded into negative obscurity" after their parents divorced and he married June Carter.


 Johnny and Vivian Cash had a happy marriage. They married in 1954 in San Antonio and then moved to Memphis. In Memphis, they were so poor that she had a hard time purchasing groceries and had only two dresses. Come 1955, things changed. Johnny cut a record with Sam Phillips and his career was on the ascent. He and Vivian had a baby, but he had to get in his car and go on the road to other cities for music gigs. This was a new show biz practice -- going on the road. He was very concerned about leaving Vivian alone at home with a baby and she was concerned about being without Johnny.  In 1956, his TV appearances really kicked up his stardom. By the way, his song "Walk the Line" was written as a love song to Vivian. In 1958, they moved to Encino, California and that's when things started to fray in the marriage. Soon Johnny was very busy and very famous and going on the road even more. Vivian had no friends, no help in the house and four girls all under the age of 6. And Vivian still had to get accustomed to Johnny's country ways. He loved to bring stray animals home. One day, he brought home a little animal his daughters immediately loved as a pet. Then, one day, Johnny invited friends over for a barbecue. Tex Ritter, Patsy Cline and June Carter attended. His daughters were shaken when they couldn't find their pet and then discovered what was on the barbecue grill.

In 1963, Johnny Cash appeared at the Hollywood Bowl. June Carter was also on the bill. The daughters report there was friction between June and their mother. In 1965, when Cash got busted for buying pills in El Paso, things really began to come undone in the home. Rosanne said that drugs changed her dad's personality. Also, his road tours grew longer and he sometimes wouldn't keep in touch with Vivian. 

With this drama being enough for Vivian, more was on the way. She was a private, sweet person. When Johnny had a court date because of his El Paso arrest, she went to be by his side. She was photographed by newspaper reporters. She wore a dark fur coat and, with her dark Sicilian looks, it was erroneously reported that singer Johnny Cash had a Negro wife. The South went crazy. The KKK was after Johnny. A newspaper printed that she was "a Negress" and they had "four mongrelized children." Vivian got hate mail. She feared for the safety of their children. In 1966, Johnny Cash's representatives had to send out letters confirming that his wife was, indeed, Caucasian so he could get bookings in the South again.

The Johnny and Vivian Cash relationship could've inspired its own biopic. 

If you classic film fans ever saw the 1936 biopic, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, you know that Luise Rainer got one of her two Best Actress Oscars for playing the first wife of showman Florenz Ziegfeld. In the movie, Anna Held (Rainer) calls Flo to poignantly congratulate him on his second marriage. After the call, the maid asks why she divorced him if she still loved him. She tearfully replies that she thought filing for divorce would bring him back to her. The same thing applies to Vivian. She filed for divorce thinking it would make Johnny straighten up and come back to her. He didn't contest the divorce and later married June Carter. That marriage became like a mythic country music romance with June getting credit for helping him kick drugs and helping to raise their six or seven kids, four of which were Vivian's.

Vivian remarried. The girls tell us that she never stopped loving Johnny. Vivian and Johnny had a tender reunion after June passed in 2003. It's stunning how the country music scene back in the day erased Vivian from Johnny's history. This documentary is loaded with previously unseen family photos and home movies. We see that Vivian was truly elegant, beautifully dressed and exotic looking. This revealing and respectful biography was directed by Matt Riddlehoover. It's one of the best documentaries that I've seen in 2020. Here's a trailer.




Monday, December 28, 2020

About JINGLE JANGLE: A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY

This original musical fantasy is on Netflix. JINGLE JANGLE: A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY is like 10 pounds of candy canes and Christmas cookies stuffed into a 5 pound sack. It's overproduced -- and I loved every single minute of it. When I was a kid, you really didn't see Black characters in Christmas stories presented on TV during the holiday season. You saw Black artists in the holiday music variety specials but rarely in Christmas stories. For instance, back in the 70s and 80s, no one would've thought of casting big, brawny, barrel-chested James Earl Jones as the Ghost of Christmas Present in a TV production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. He'd have been perfect for that part. Well, this Netflix feature definitely changes that. JINGLE JANGLE: A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY is unabashedly, unapologetically, joyfully Black. Three of its stars are Keegan-Michael Key, Anika Noni Rose and Best Actor Oscar winner Forest Whitaker -- and they all sing. Yes, Forest Whitaker has a sweet singing voice as you'll hear in three numbers.


 Whitaker is the lead character. The story starts in modern day with Phylicia Rashad, at her loveliest, reading a Christmas story to little children. It's the story of the chipper toymaker and inventor Jeronicus Jangle who owned his own shop in the Victorian era. There's sort of a toymaker ALL ABOUT EVE element in the story. The good-hearted Jeronicus has an apprentice. The apprentice steals Jeronicus' book of inventions and one of the toymaker's most important dolls. Fast forward 30 years and we see the broke and broken Jeronicus (Forest Whitaker) who has emotionally closed himself off from the world. He doesn't smile. He doesn't respond to the saucy flirts from a middle-aged widow. This will all change when the sad inventor's whiz of a granddaughter comes into his life and brings light back into his heart and reignites his sense of invention.

 This feature is beautifully photographed and very well cast. I loved how the costumes blended Victorian era fashions with African/Black American style details. The choreography is energetic and fun as are the music numbers overall. The plot is nothing heavy. It's geared towards a happy ending. As I wrote earlier, this film is delightfully overproduced, but...let's face it. The Christmas season is not one in which we practice simplicity and Spartan behavior. It's about being big, colorful and fabulous. Christmas is a holiday in which over-production is the norm.

Little Madalen Mills as Journey, the Jangle grandchild, is a bright Christmas gift in herself. This little actress has shining star quality. She's wonderful in this film. Another gift is Lisa Davina Phillip as Ms. Johnson, the widow with a crush on the older Jeronicus. Her vamp number in his shop is a hilarious show-stopper.

We've watching Forest Whitaker every since he played one of the teen bad dudes in the 1982 comedy, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. In his real high school years, he performed in school musicals. He also studied in a conservatory. When his film career kicked in and he was booking work in serious films such as PLATOON, BIRD (in which he played jazz great Charlie Parker), CRYING GAME, PANIC ROOM and THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (his 2006 Best Actor Oscar-winning role as dictator Idi Amin), Whitaker put his musical talents on hold. It's great to see him take on a whimsical role and remind us of his musical skills.

We also get 12 inches of Ricky Martin. The singer is the speaking and singing voice of the foot-long devious Don Juan matador doll. I cannot recall Ricky Martin being as relaxed and funny in a performance as he is here. He is an absolute hoot as that vain, manipulative matador doll. 

 I wish JINGLE JANGLE: A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY was a TV feature that ABC, CBS or NBC would air annually for family viewing during the yuletide season. It's that charming an original Christmastime musical fantasy.


Friday, December 25, 2020

About PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN

 One of the sweetest experiences I ever had at a movie screening in New York City involved actress Carey Mulligan. It was a screening for film critics and several of the city's oft-quoted and high-tone critics were present. The movie was AN EDUCATION, the 2009 romantic drama directed by Lone Scherfig. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, critics were leaning forward in their seats as if watching magic happen. In a way, they were. They were leaning forward, fascinated by the charismatic new actress they were seeing for the first time. The critic I sat next time, whispered to me "She's got an Audrey Hepburn quality." The actress was Carey Mulligan. Early the following year, Lone Scherfig would learn that she'd directed Mulligan to an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Carey Mulligan was indeed a promising young woman -- and she has delivered on that promise.


 Her talent fascinates. Her range, her bold choices and her commitment to character. I feel the British-born Carey Mulligan should've received a second Oscar nomination for her performance in the excellent Depression-era Mississippi story, MUDBOUND (2017), directed by Dee Rees. One of Liza Minnelli's signature tune is "New York, New York" which she introduced in the 1977 Martin Scorsese movie of the same name. To see and hear a different and amazing jazz interpretation of that song, see Carey Mulligan as the needy Manhattan nightclub singer in Steve McQueen's SHAME (2011). 

Carey Mulligan is again compelling in the new drama called PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN directed and written by Emerald Fennell. A Brit, like Mulligan, she makes her directorial debut in this tale of revenge and sexual assault. I loved Carey Mulligan's performance. I did not love the film. The story takes place in Southern California. Like a policewoman working as a decoy to nab muggers or other criminals, Cassie goes to male-heavy bars and pretends to be drunk. The guys who offer to take her home appear to be nice guys but usually attempt to take sexual advantage of her thinking she's too drunk to care. Then -- surprise! She turns the tables on them by revealing she's totally sober and angry. Something happened to a female she knew about ten or more years ago. That something has caused Cassie to simmer with anger for all those years and the anger has now reached its boiling point. 

America went from the "Me Too" period, which was ablaze with revelations about the creepy sexual behavior towards women by Harvey Weinstein, the once-beloved Bill Cosby and NBC's former "nice guy" TODAY Show anchor Matt Lauer, into the George Floyd "Black Lives Matter" protesting the racial inequality that still exists in the country. When women starting to speak out again Weinstein and Lauer and some said they were afraid to speak up earlier for fear that they'd never work again, I said to a Black male friend of mine, "I believe them." He agreed. We'd been in work situations in which we felt we were denied equal opportunities. We were advised not to complain to human resources about the racial inequality because we might not remain employed. Assaults against women and racial discrimination were two sides of the same coin.

Cassie has a right to be angry, just like relatives of George Floyd have a right to be angry. So, nowadays, I've grown weary of strong women with a righteous anger being portrayed and referred to as a "psycho bitch" or a "stupid c**t." Cassie is called both and, eventually, seen as slightly unhinged mentally. Also, I didn't like that as she works her way down her hit list, she places a couple of women in potentially dicey sexual situations.

Cassie is 30 and lives with her clueless but loving middle class suburban parents. She works as a clerk at a coffee shop. This coffee shop is not exactly Starbucks. It's never busy. We never seen more than three customers in it. Her personality behind the counter is not exactly charming. So, as the story of revenge progresses and she's driving around town, buying champagne at a ritzy restaurants, purchasing props and disguises for some of her revenge deeds and hiring help with those dark deeds, I kept wondering "How the hell is she doing all this with a coffee shop clerk salary?" Laverne Cox plays Cassie's boss. Unfortunately, the role is little more than the "sassy Black friend" role. Cassie is whip-smart. She should've been a marketing executive who represented one of the brands of coffee served in the shop...someone who was able to afford top legal help to bring the sexual assault case to light so justice could be served. 


 The film opens with a sequence inside a bar populated by many young men. We see shots of their crotches. They talk about women and getting lucky. They're predominantly White and have that nice guy, All American look. There is one Black guy with them. They all seem to work for the same company. My initial thought was, "The Black dude may think he's in with the group, but I bet they all get promoted before he does." Cassie is constantly asked "Are you okay?" Before we found out the full details on the assault, Cassie visits a female friend played by former SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE member, Molly Shannon. The friend knows what happened all those years ago. It's a short scene but one that reminds you that Shannon has proven to be a strong dramatic actress in recent years. Her character says to angry coffee shop clerk, "Cassie, move on. Please. For all of us."

But, of course, she won't. Carey Mulligan's performance is terrific. But the movie is sour and certain situations seem totally implausible.


One of the best parts of the film was seeing her reteamed with actor Alfred Molina as one of the few men in the story who provides her a moment of emotional relief. Molina was wonderful as the father to her character in AN EDUCATION.

I mentioned the dramatic film work of former SNL cast member Molly Shannon. I recommended you see her as the needy, neurotic Southern California office worker whose lack of romantic love leads her to have an obsession with owning dogs. That comedy/drama co-stars Oscar winner Regina King and it's called YEAR OF THE DOG (2007). In OTHER PEOPLE (2016), Shannon plays a terminally ill Sacramento mother whose gay son has come in from New York City to help her after he's broken up with his boyfriend. Shannon gave a Best Actress Oscar nomination-worthy performance in that touching film..



Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Tom Hanks on Horseback

I have been an ardent Tom Hanks fan ever since I saw the premiere episode of the 1980 ABC sitcom, BOSOM BUDDIES. Seeing him in drag every week was a highlight of my night. After starring on that sitcom, he went on to become on of my favorite film actors and one of Hollywood's most popular stars. SPLASH, BIG, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN and SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE were box office winners to his credits and, coupled with his well-deserved reputation for being a true gentlemen, he became a beloved movie star. Many tagged him the new Jimmy Stewart thanks to his All-American warm appeal. I just saw the new Tom Hanks movie. It's a drama. And a western. I don't think I have ever seen Tom Hanks on horseback. But I certainly did in NEWS OF THE WORLD, a story that begins in North Texas in 1870. The Civil War is over. Ulysses S. Grant is President. As Jimmy Stewart has often been mentioned when describing the Hanks movie charm, this new film reminds me of those edgy, tough westerns Stewart made during the 1950s. Westerns in which there was a social darkness and he was not the "Mr. Nice Guy" of movies like DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Hanks plays a Civil War veteran named Captain Jeffrey Kyle Kidd. He is sort of a news anchor. As the movie opens, we see the film's title appear over a stack of newspapers on a desk. The newspapers are from various cities. Captain Kidd reads aloud stories from the papers to an eager seated audience. The audiences receives the stories as if they are that -- stories like those written by Mark Twain. To them, they're entertainment. Captain Kidd regards them as journalism that's giving the audience a world view and expanding their knowledge.


 I found myself wishing that film had been released soon after we saw Hanks as TV's Mister Rogers in 2019's A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. Why? Because some elements feel contemporary -- especially considering the temperature of the nation under the administration that leaves the White House next month. As Kidd tells his audience that he's about to read them "...the great changes that are happening out there," we see the predominantly White audience. One Black woman sits way in the back. One of the stories is about the meningitis epidemic. The audience gasped when Kidd read that the epidemic had claimed 97 lives. Kidd is a traveler. As he tells one person, "I read the news from town to town."

A little lost blonde girl is placed in his custody. She speaks German and some Native American. Her name is Johanna and she's reminiscent of the Natalie Wood character in John Ford's THE SEARCHERS. Her family was killed by Indians, the Indians took her captive for quite some time. Long enough for her to learn their ways and some of their language. Kidd becomes her protector because he knows he's in harsh Texas territory. Not just geographically harsh. He's shocked to discover the corpse of a Black person attached to a sign that reads "This is a white man's country." He's targeted by Texans who brag of having killed Mexicans and Indians. He's targeted for advocating a free press and reading news about President Grant and the proposed abolition of slavery, He protects Johanna from sexual predators and other dangers. He's determined to get her to a safe place with other immigrants of her kind. Helena Zengel plays the mysterious, brave Johanna.


Captain Kidd and little Johanna are strong characters who have a heaviness in their hearts. Will we learn what it is and can they both reach some kind of a safe place? 

A western may seem like odd movie territory for Tom Hanks but, if you're a Hanks fan, consider seeing this. He's in excellent form as the war veteran trying to move through the darkness of society and his own soul. Based on a novel of the same name, NEWS OF THE WORLD was directed and co-written by Paul Greengrass who previously directed Hanks in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.


Sunday, December 20, 2020

Top Work in MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM

 I watched the adaptation of MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM on Netflix. It's the film based on the play by August Wilson. I predict that the marvelous Viola Davis will get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The nomination will make her the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in Hollywood history. That will be her fourth nomination. If she's nominated and wins, she will be the second Black woman in all Hollywood history to take home the Oscar for Best Actress. Viola Davis goes beyond acting in this production. She is Ma Rainey -- the proud and potent Mother of the Blues. As Ma will tell you in a heartbeat, Bessie Smith learned from her. From the moment you see her, Ma Rainey's face tells you all you need to know about her. This is a tough, under-respected artist who has paid her dues and has helped pay some other people's dues. She's a bi-sexual blues singer keeping a recording date with her band. The story opens in small town Georgia and takes us to the recording session in 1927 Chicago.


 Davis gained weight, close to 200 pounds, to play the role. She's since dropped the pounds and, with the help of a trainer, got into svelte shape for her next role. She is dynamic as this woman, demanding attention and respect in her recording session while knowing her artistry will never get the respect and pay it deserves because she's Black. Viola Davis is stunning in the role. Solid work also comes from the late Chadwick Boseman as young Levee, a gifted jazzman who carries the blues and the rage of his race in his soul. Boseman could get a post-humous Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He's a memorable standout in the role. Also delivering a stellar supporting performance is veteran Black actor Glynn Turman as Toledo, the silver-haired member of the band who has his way of surviving the racism of America. Turman is now in his early 70s. He deserves major recognition. We saw him on the big screen as a high schooler in COOLEY HIGH (1975) and in the foreign film THE SERPENT'S EGG (1977) written and directed by master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. He has extensive TV credits. Turman was a regular on the hit sitcom, A DIFFERENT WORLD and later on HBO's THE WIRE. In the original 1959 Broadway cast of Lorraine Hansberry's A RAISIN IN THE SUN, Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee played Walter and Ruth Younger. Glynn Turman played the couple's little boy. Yes, Glynn Turman deserves recognition. I highly recommend you see MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM. George C. Wolfe directed it. Denzel Washington co-produced it.

Viola Davis' Oscar nominations came for DOUBT, THE HELP and FENCES. In FENCES, also an adaptation of an August Wilson play, her leading man and director was Denzel Washington, He directed her to an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress.

Here's a true happening from my life: In the mid 1990s, I was working on live local morning news program in New York City after three years of network host work on VH1and on a syndicated summer replacement late night game show. However, I still had no agent. A New York City in the Broadway theatre district contacted me and enthusiastically said she was a big fan of mine and could do big things with me. She booked me for a meeting. She booked another fellow too. I introduced myself and we chatted before our meetings. Honestly, I was surprised to see him there and surprised he didn't have representation. I'd seen him so excellent work on stage on in TV roles. He's a Black/Latino talent.

We both signed with that agent. Eight months later, she dropped us both. She said she didn't know what to do with us.


 The other fellow is actor, playwright and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson. He wrote the screenplay for MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM. And he did a damn fine job. 







Monday, December 14, 2020

Meryl Streep at THE PROM

 Discrimination grows like new corn in Indiana. A group of New York City theatre actors hears about the high school lesbian who is not allowed to bring her girlfriend to the prom. Before you know it, the group storms into an Indiana auditorium and proclaims "We're liberals from Broadway." Based on a Broadway show, THE PROM is a musical comedy with a "Live and Let Live" vibe. You know that there will be show tunes. You know that some moments will be campy. You know that there will be a happy ending. The New York City actors will put their hunger for publicity aside and truly, unselfishly do the right thing for diversity and equal rights. Meryl Streep may get he umpteenth Oscar nomination for THE PROM -- and she'll deserve it. She's at the top of her musical game here. She sings, she dances, she's an absolute hoot as the self-absorbed and delightfully clueless redheaded Broadway diva whose new show was barbecued by the critics. She starred in ELEANOR!: The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical. She and her co-star who played President Franklin D. Roosevelt, are both out of work because of the bad reviews. Her gay co-star is played by James Corden. The cast also includes Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, Keegan-Michael Key, Kerry Washington and Tracey Ullman. THE PROM was directed and co-produced by Ryan Murphy.


 I had planned on going to Netflix and watching THE PROM, but not right away. That was until I logged onto Twitter and saw about a half dozen reviews slamming James Corden for his performance as Barry Glickman. The reviews criticized the heterosexual actor for being too "over the top" in his performance as a character who's a big queen. A couple of reviewers accused him of "gayface."

I don't recall critics -- some gay, I assume -- complaining when straight actors William Hurt, Tom Hanks and Sean Penn won Best Actor Oscars for playing gay men. No one complained about straight Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson playing a gay bodyguard who really embraces his gayness when he comes totally out and goes clothes shopping in BE COOL. No one complained about straight Meryl Streep playing lesbians in Woody Allen's MANHATTAN and in THE HOURS. Gay critics had no problem with straight Eric McCormack being a gay man on the hit sitcom, WILL & GRACE. No one accused openly gay actor Neil Patrick Harris of "straightface" during all the seasons he played a very hetero, babe-chasing bachelor on the sitcom, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.

So why the vitriol for James Corden, a Broadway Tony winner and a talent who delivered a fabulous and slightly campy opening number the first year he hosted the Tony Awards? Is it because, unlike the Best Actor Oscar winners, muscle hunk Dwayne Johnson and handsome Eric McCormack, he's a chubby guy who looks like the manager at your local supermarket?

Corden did not thrust himself into THE PROM. He was cast and he was directed by Ryan Murphy. If Murphy felt he was too over-the-top, he could've pulled the actor aside, given him a few notes and then shot another take. And another thing -- have those Corden critics never seen a Ryan Murphy show? GLEE, AMERICAN HORROR STORY, POSE or FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN about the making of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? starring Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis? If you whacked a gay piƱata, a Ryan Murphy production would fall out of it. His work puts the "b" in the word "subtle." He does not let you forget he's a non-heterosexual director/producer. His brand is rather like this:


James Corden and Meryl Streep worked together in Disney's fantasy musical INTO THE WOODS, also a film adaptation of a Broadway show. Murphy reteamed them for THE PROM. To me, Corden is just fine in THE PROM. The critics who slammed him should've done some journalistic investigating and asked director/producer Ryan Murphy if he considered gay actors Nathan Lane, Tituss Burgess or Mario Cantone before they dragged Corden.

Streep pretty much steals THE PROM while graciously allowing her co-stars to shine in scenes with her. Her Dee Dee Allen is a divorced 2-time Tony winner who can't believe she's now on a bus to Indiana with her real intent to get some positive publicity after her show's disastrous reviews. Watching her check in to a budget hotel made me laugh out loud. I loved her musical numbers. I have a few decades of Streep fan devotion to my credit. Watching her as Dee Dee and then realizing this is the same actress who played the Polish Holocaust survivor in SOPHIE'S CHOICE, the Danish author who toiled the rich yet unforgiving land in OUT OF AFRICA, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in THE IRON LADY and famed TV chef Julia Child in JULIE & JULIA ...well, she's amazing. That's all I can say.

Nicole Kidman plays the longtime CHICAGO chorus girl. She does a motivational Fosse-esque number for the lesbian high schooler that's a sweet highlight. Andrew Rannells scores as the Juilliard graduate who will not let you forget that he's a Juilliard graduate. Kerry Washington shows us that she should be getting more comedy script opportunities. We've seen her skill mostly in dramas. However, she was one of the funniest SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE hosts to grace the program in a last few years. Tracey Ullman appears in a heartbreaking scene with James Corden. 

Keegan Michal-Key has a good and wise number about why we love Broadway shows and performers. He plays the the high school principal who once saw Dee Dee Allen onstage. One big highlight of THE PROM is every single scene Meryl Streep and Keegan Michael-Key have together. What unexpectedly delicious chemistry! My only fear is that Ryan Murphy will sign them to a made-for-Netflix musical version of DRIVING MISS DAISY.
 THE PROM was fun for me. It may be for you too. Here's a trailer.




Friday, December 11, 2020

Give John Boyega Lead Roles

Black British actor John Boyega has a talent much larger than his STAR WARS assignments. Don't get me wrong. He's quite good as Finn as STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. However, when an Argentinian friend and film historian urged me to see the 2017 drama DETROIT, directed by Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow, my jaw just about dropped down to my sneakers. He was stunning in Bigelow's film based on a real-life racial incident that occurred in Detroit during the summer of 1967. The film seemed to get little promotion and, thus, little attention from the movie-going public. Audiences missed a strong film, one that would probably be more appreciated now in this era of Black Lives Matter. Boyega played a private security guard who gets caught up in the turbulence of a race riot, witness the racism of white police officers and gets charged with a murder he did not commit. Bigelow shot it like a horror film with innocent people in a big house at night when a monster enters. The monster is racism. DETROIT was released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Detroit race riots. Boyega proved he can do more than action/fantasy films.

Recently on Twitter, I read rave comments about Boyega's performance in a new British production. Directed Steve McQueen, the man who gave us 12 YEARS A SLAVE, created and directed a TV anthology series. Each film focuses on the lives of West Indian immigrants dealing with race in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The anthology series is called SMALL AXE and it's available on Amazon Prime. Boyega appears in Episode 3 entitled RED, WHITE AND BLUE. The rave comments I read were accurate. Again, I was stunned by John Boyega's acting talent. 

The episode opens with a little cherub-faced Black schoolboy, in uniform, waiting outside the schoolyard to be picked up. Classes are done for the day. Two White officers approach the little boy, question him and one mentions that crimes have been committed in the neighborhood. They want to search the little boy's kit. Up walk the lad's father, dressed like and resembling SHAFT, and he's irate. He calls out for the cops to stop their search, then he takes his little boy home.

Fast forward to the little boy grown up. Leroy Logan is a young man, obviously an over-achiever in school, who's working as a forensics scientist. But being in a lab feels limiting to him. He longs to do work that can be seen publicly. Work that brings about positive change. He wants to be a British cop. This is in the era of Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" music video -- and the British police force is predominantly White. Not only is Leroy's immigrant father angry at his decision, angry at the way British cops have treated Black people, he's unjustly accused of crime by British cops and beaten so severely that he's hospitalized. This happens while Leroy is studying to be a cop and the assault on his father accelerates his drive to be on the police force. One White friend say to him "...you're well-spoken, you're clean cut, you're a stand-up bloke." He's also told "This isn't America" and reminded that there are no Black cops on the force. In training, the over-achiever Logan says that he's "...here to bring change to the organization from the inside out."

He becomes a cop and is subjected to bold-faced institutional racism from fellow male officers. As he attempts to bring out positive change, he has to deal with the racism from within the force and he's shunned on the streets by Black youths because he's a police officer. We see him steadily reach the same level of anger and fury that his father had because of racial inequality. He verbally explodes at his fellow officers. Still he stays the course. John Boyega gives a remarkable performance.

It wasn't until I was reading the end credits and saw "Consultant -- Leroy Logan" that I realized this feature was based on a real-life person and a real-life story. Logan, now retired, spent 30 years on the Metropolitan police force. He established the National Black Police Association. He's in his early 60s, the father of three children and his autobiography, CLOSING RANKS: MY LIFE AS A COP, hit British bookstores this year. Go to Amazon Prime and look for SMALL AXE. Also, check out DETROIT.

As DETROIT did, the RED, WHITE AND BLUE episode of SMALL AXE proves that John Boyega is ready for substantial lead roles. Here's a trailer.



Thursday, December 10, 2020

MANK Is Not Just About Kane

In MANK, available on Netflix, Gary Oldman excels in his performance as Hollywood screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. This feature show him as a hardcore alcoholic and a brilliant writer, more the genius behind the film classic CITIZEN KANE than Orson Welles was. He's presented as the script's sole writer. The film is in black and white and it's a Hollywood-on-Hollywood biopic. The Academy loves biopics. Look at the actors who've taken home some Hollywood gold for portraying real-life characters. From Luise Rainer as entertainer Anna Held in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936) and Spencer Tracy as Father  Flanagan in BOYS TOWN (1938) to modern times, actors such as Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Charlize Theron, Jamie Foxx, Sean Penn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cate Blanchett and Renee Zellweger have won Oscars for biopics. Gary Oldman did too. He was outstanding as Winston Churchill in 2017's DARKEST HOUR. He rates another Best Actor Oscar nomination thanks to his work in MANK. 

 To me, the film has a lot of wit and surprising timeliness for a story that takes us back to Hollywood in the 1930s. Besides being a drinker, Mankiewicz was an intellectual and a liberal who was forced to deal with Hollywood conservatives in order to stay employed. And there there was the wealthy and powerful newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst. Actress Marion Davies was his lady love. His Hearst Castle overlooking the Pacific Ocean near San Simeon was popular with Hollywood stars for its elite dinner parties and weekend getaways. It's classic film fan folklore that Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander, his minimally talented mistress, in CITIZEN KANE were based on Hearst and Davies. I heard about Marion Davies when I was a kid and asked my mother who she was. Mom replied, "She was a movie star. More talented that folks thought she was." That is exactly how she is presented in MANK. Amanda Seyfried is marvelous as Marion Davis. She's ripe for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Her Davies is warm, self-aware, loyal and smart. A good woman. Think of the movie CABARET. We see action in 1931 Berlin. Nazis are gaining power. Jews are in danger. At this same time, Louis B. Mayer, iron-fisted MGM studio head, and William Randolph Hearst aren't taking Hitler seriously when they hear news about him on the radio. Mayer wouldn't make a movie challenging the Nazis at that time because his films, especially those starring Greta Garbo, did great box office in Germany. During one dinner party, Mayer (Jewish) is not concerned at all about Hitler. Neither is Hearst. Charles Dance stars as Hearst. In one scene, he sits in a big, regal chair before a fireplace. With the flames whipping behind him, Hearst looks like he's an executive in Hades.  The two powerful men are not paying attention to Hitler but Marion Davies speaks out against him. Herman Mankiewicz shares her views and they became immediate friends.

 Amanda Seyfried resembles Madonna in her late 1980s music video "Express Yourself." That video was directed by David Fincher. The video visually recreates scenes from Fritz Lang's 1927 classic METROPOLIS. He directed THE SOCIAL NETWORK, ZODIAC and FIGHT CLUB -- films that have a "men behaving badly" element.  Fincher directed MANK in which that element is quite evident. The FIGHT CLUB line "The first rule of Fight Club is you don't talk about Fight Club" could apply to how privileged insiders feel about Hollywood and Hearst Castle. In that dinner scene, while Marion Davies and Herman Mankiewicz take Hitler as a serious threat to democracy, Mayer and Hearst are more concerned with getting a conservative elected governor of California in 1934. They favor a candidate. Mankiewicz favors that candidate's opponent. This is action we see before we get into Mankiewicz's work and conflict with Orson Welles. Hearst Castle was sort of 1930s Mar-A-Lago where no one seemed to take socially aware Marion Davies seriously and Herman Mankiewicz was a talented underdog. Hollywood writers are usually portrayed as underdogs. Think of William Holden as Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD (1950) and John Turturro as BARTON FINK (1991). In one early scene, Mankiewicz runs into the revered MGM producer, Irving Thalberg. Thalberg is with Louis B. Mayer. As Mankiewicz leaves, Thalberg describes him to Mayer as "Just a writer."

With the Hollywood and publishing players supporting a conservative for political office during the Depression, when Americans are unemployed and broke, I thought of NBC promoting Donald Trump when he was host of the network's reality game show, THE APPRENTICE. Even though he was sending out racist items on Twitter about President Obama not being a real American, tweets that irritated us African Americans, he was neither disciplined nor punished by NBC. He continued to send out racist tweets. When he became a presidential candidate, he repeatedly insulted Mexico and Mexicans. Still, NBC let him host SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE for a night. The New York Post is a pro-Trump newspaper.

That's why the liberal social awareness in MANK made me feel it was not just about CITIZEN KANE. MANK suggests that Welles, although a gifted filmmaker, may not have been as great as his legend. However, he crafted and directed his legend with the same attention he gave to directing CITIZEN KANE. When we baby boomers were kids, we were aware of the legend of CITIZEN KANE and its "boy wonder" star/director Orson Welles. At that time, we also knew him as the obese man who was roasted by TV critics for his lead role performance in a special NBC production of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, his TV spokesman work in some popular wine commercials on network TV and his talk show appearances.

At another Hearst dinner party, Mankiewicz arrives drunk and out of control. Mayer and Hearst and Davies are present. Mankiewicz has completed the CITIZEN KANE script. In an inebriated rant, he walks over to Hearst and describes Kane (Hearst) as a man who "...values power over people."

Yep. Considering the current White House resident who is leaving next month, I feel MANK is not just about CITIZEN KANE. I recommend seeing this well-made, well-acted and timely biopic. It's on Netflix.







Sunday, December 6, 2020

Gwen Verdon Was MERELY MARVELOUS

 Film great Charlie Chaplin adored her. How's that for a compliment? She was a good actress, a good singer and an extraordinary dancer who had more than one Tony Award in her possession for her Broadway artistry. She was the Southern California-born Gwen Verdon. While most of the film lovers on Twitter seemed to pounce on the Netflix arrival of MANK and follow their viewing of it with arid, overlong essays on its narrative structure, I went over to Amazon to watch a fascinating documentary about Verdon entitled MERELY MARVELOUS: THE DANCING GENIUS OF GWEN VERDON. I was captivated for the entire 1 hour and 22 minutes. Not only was she a terrific dancer, she was a great mother, a great friend and a real mensch.

She grew up in Culver City, California where she became enamored with dance when she saw Fred Astaire in one of his classic RKO musicals with Ginger Rogers. This happened when she was in the 4th grade. Verdon overcame a case of rickets. Her family was, by no means, well-off, and she married when she was underaged. Her husband, about 20 years her senior, spiraled into alcoholism. The marriage ended and she was a single, working mother. Her son, by her first marriage, is one of the folks interviewed in the documentary. By the time I was in the 4th grade in South Central Los Angeles, I was also enamored with dance when I saw Fred Astaire in classic RKO musicals. But my parents wouldn't let me take dance classes. They wanted me to engage in more traditional "boy's stuff" -- like camping. Dance classes were for girls. I didn't want to go to camp and said "No," but they kept urging me to go to summer camp when I was on the brink of 4th grade. I submitted to their wishes, went to summer camp in the San Bernardino mountains for eight days and experience proved to be nearly-fatal. I wanted to stay home where I could see the Fred Astaire RKO musicals that aired every Friday night in early prime time of KHJ TV/local Channel 9. It was an independent station then. Today, it's KCAL TV owned by CBS. It was on that very station where I also discovered the dancing genius of Gwen Verdon. DAMN YANKEES, starring Gwen Verdon and Tab Hunter, was a favorite of Channel 9's MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE line-up. When programmed, it would air every weeknight at the same time then air twice on Saturdays. It aired so frequently, that I could sing all of "Whatever Lola Wants" at recess when I was in the 5th grade. The documentary opens with Verdon as Lola, recreating her Broadway triumph in the Warner Bros. film version.

 If you saw FOSSE/VERDON, the recent TV mini-series with Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams as Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, you should see this documentary. The brilliance of Verdon's input during her professional and marital relationship with Fosse is touched upon in the TV biopic, but it's really fleshed out in the documentary. Verdon was a visionary who would've made a great director.  Early in her career, she landed work as an assistant to top choreographer Jack Cole. This was in Hollywood. Jack Cole choreographed Rita Hayworth's famous glove strip to "Put the Blame on Mame" number in GILDA (1946) and Marilyn Monroe's famous "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number in GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES (1953). For the latter, Verdon was Monroe's dance coach. Michelle Williams played both Monroe and Verdon in biopics. Even though she was not credited, Verdon's dancing was so awesome and unique that she stood out in movie musical numbers in which she was a chorus dancer. This was in her 1950s Hollywood phase. You saw her dance with the generous Betty Grable in Fox's THE FARMER TAKES A WIFE and Fox's ON THE RIVIERA with Danny Kaye. Not only did Verdon study dance, she studied anatomy to see what the dancer's body could do.

To make money to raise her first kid, she got work in nightclubs before booking the Hollywood studio work with Jack Cole. She studied how nightclub entertainers moved. She also went to burlesque joints to study how the strippers moved. All this information would serve her well later on Broadway.

I was told once by a reliable source that, had he lived, Bob Fosse was very interested in directing a new film version of GYPSY starring Liza Minnelli. He felt that the first version, starring Rosalind Russell, was too "candy box" in its look and tone. He wanted to bring out more of the story's emotional darkness and the drama that was evident in the play. Minnelli was keen on doing this. As a teen, Fosse had done dance numbers in between strip acts at a burlesque joint. Verdon has studied strippers in performance. I bet that, together, they could have delivered one helluva gritty remake of GYPSY.

 MERELY MARVELOUS: THE DANCING GENIUS OF GWEN VERDON has footage of Verdon on Broadway and on TV that you will love. In a dance number from her musical called REDHEAD, you will see why Chaplin adored her and went backstage to meet her. As a visionary, the proof of that comes in Fosse's CHICAGO, the Broadway musical that became a bigger hit in a revival that led to a film version that took the Oscar for Best Picture. During the Watergate hearings which revealed President Nixon's corruption, Verdon felt that CHICAGO -- a play about crime, political corruption and fame -- would be ripe for a musical version. CHICAGO was made into a silent film and then a 1942 comedy called ROXIE HART starring Ginger Rogers. In the documentary, Verdon talks about her idea in an archive interview.

Verdon's loving daughter, Nicole Fosse, speaks on camera as do Chita Rivera, songwriter John Kander, actor Tab Hunter and others who loved and worked with Gwen Verdon. Another one of those people is Harvey Evans. Harvey danced in the original Broadway production of WEST SIDE STORY and he's one of the Jets in the Oscar-winning 1961 film version. That's Harvey in the lower right-hand corner.

 Gwen Verdon was a major Broadway star -- from DAMN YANKEES to SWEET CHARITY to CHICAGO. With all the skill, success and fame, the story of her carpooling during a New York blizzard, something we find out in the last 10 minutes of the documentary, really makes you gasp "Wow. I wish I had known Gwen Verdon. She was marvelous off-stage as well." Here's a trailer for MERELY MARVELOUS: THE DANCING GENIUS OF GWEN VERDON.



Before Astaire Danced on the Ceiling

 In the late 1980s, I was a veejay and talk show host seen daily on the VH1 music channel. Those were three of the happiest, most fulfilling...