Monday, September 18, 2017

Michael K. Williams, Groundbreaking Actor

When he was on HBO's THE WIRE, his electricity as an actor sent a jolt of pleasure right through you.  He was so good.  We regular viewers were talking about his mean streets character, Omar Little.  As writer Julie Miller of VANITY FAIR would agree, Omar was a "complicated badass."  Her August 22nd feature on Williams is titled "Michael K. Williams Has a Story You Need to Read to Believe."
I'll not spoil the surprises of that current VANITY FAIR piece.  But I just wanted to point out something that occurred to me.  Omar Little was not only a street tough power figure, he was gay.
Omar was not the typical gay character we've seen on TV.  Williams did another series.  I proudly admit that I binge-watched the first season of SundanceTV's HAP AND LEONARD. Twice.   I loved those 1980s country characters created by novelist Joe Lansdale.  This crime series is fresh, witty and socially relevant.  James Purefoy plays the pacifist, Hap Collins.  He opposed the Vietnam War.  His loyal and blunt best friend, Leonard Pine, is a tough-as-nails Vietnam veteran with a heart o' gold under all that gruffness.  Leonard protects Hap and himself.  His short-fuse temper can make you laugh.  Oh...and Leonard the Vietnam vet is gay.
Again, Williams gives us another image of a gay man that we haven't seen much of on television.  He wasn't the the fabulous and always fashion-conscious big city young gay man who's quick with the witty comebacks.  He's a working class gay male.  HAP AND LEONARD also looks at something the network TV rarely did once gay characters became plentiful and acceptable.  The SundanceTV series looks at the straight/gay male best friend relationship.  I love that.

Early this year, he was in the cast of the ABC mini-series, WHEN WE RISE.  This docudrama was about the history of America's LGBT community fighting for its rights and fighting discrimination.  Williams played the real life character, Ken Jones.  Jones was in San Francisco fighting against AIDS bigotry and he worked to make the gay rights movement more diverse.  WHEN WE RISE went from the Stonewall Riots in 1969 through to the AIDS epidemic that started in the 1980s.  Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker and Rachel Griffiths co-starred.
In a CBS SUNDAY interview over the weekend, Oscar-nominated and BAFTA Award-winning actor, Jake Gyllenhaal, said that he was cautioned against taking on the role he did in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, the 2005 film that brought him the Oscar nomination and the BAFTA Award.  He was cautioned because he'd be playing a man in love with another man and playing a gay character could halt his career.  It didn't.

African American actor Michael K. Williams has played three distinct gay characters on series television.  I cannot think of another Black actor who can match that.  Michael K. Williams is a groundbreaking actor.

When GLAAD hands out its awards and honors at its next gala, it should polish one up for Michael K. Williams.





 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

mother! starring Jennifer Lawrence

Yes, the title is in lower case letters -- as if it was written by e.e. cummings.  Jennifer Lawrence.  One talented young actress.  She's got 4 Oscar nominations to her credit.  She won the Best Actress Oscar for 2012's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  And she's only 27.  Her new film is an intense, often incomprehensible psychological thriller in which her character has no name.  She is simply...mother.  I saw the film.  The first thing you need to know is that this is NOT a first date film for a Saturday night.  In fact, when I left the theater, I thought to myself, "I am so glad I did not take a date to see that movie."
I like Jennifer Lawrence.  But, to be honest, I went to see it because I love Javier Bardem and Michelle Pfeiffer.  Bardem plays the acclaimed writer husband.
Pfeiffer plays the wife of a fan who just shows up and becomes an annoying house guest.  The wife, like her husband, also wears out her welcome.  That's the character.  Personally, I am thrilled that Michelle Pfeiffer has time to do movies again.  She almost steals the film from Jennifer Lawrence and she's only in half of it.  When I saw it, the audience loved Pfeiffer -- but it didn't love the film.  The wife's husband is played very well by Ed Harris.  Oh.  No one has a name in this movie.  It's "mother," "Him" (the husband) "Man" (Ed Harris), "Woman" (Michelle Pfeiffer) and so on.

Man smokes in the house when Mother has politely asked him not to smoke.  Woman goes into rooms she's been told are private and touches items she was asked not to touch.

This is the kind of story that could not have happened in Compton, California or in a Harlem townhouse.  Had Mother been a Black or Latina woman, she'd have gone upside the heads of that overbearing couple with a skillet in the first act.  In the second act, she'd have said "Oh, hell, no!" as she grabbed her keys, purse, phone and caught a cab to the nearest police precinct.

Lawrence is shot constantly in tight close-up. Within the first five minutes, we sense a dissonance in her situation.  She's young and lovely.  The first clue that something will go wrong is that she and her writer husband live alone in a huge house in the woods that she's renovating.  A house in a remote location. There's no visible evidence of neighbors or other nearby buildings.  You don't even see a drive-way.  Think of all the horror movies since the 1930s FRANKENSTEIN features that had a big, secluded house or castle and a monstrous entity on the loose.

When the husband enters the close-ups with the wife, he always seems to avert her direct gaze.  The acclaimed writer has had a stretch of writer's block.  We get the feeling that he blames it on her.  She keeps taking some kind of medicine.  Is she sick or is she pregnant?  But he seems to avoid having sex with her.  Is he closeted gay or just WTF is going on?

You might think it's going to be a ROSEMARY'S BABY kind of thriller because the ad echoes the poster for Polanski's 1968 classic starring Mia Farrow.

Remember the 2000 thriller WHAT LIES BENEATH?  This is sort of WHAT LIES BENEATH THE FLOORBOARDS.  Then, when dozens of people keep charging into her house uninvited and proceed to eat, drink, telephone, renovate, sleep or whatever...it's like WHAT LIES BENEATH meets the famous  stateroom scene with Groucho Marx in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.
She orders folks out but no one listens to her.  They only listen to the husband.  When she discovers that she's pregnant, the husband's has a surge in writing creativity and all seems idyllic.  Then the movie gets hallucinogenic and brutal.  You also keep wondering if there's a dying body beneath the floorboards.

Is this a statement on the artist as narcissist? A statement on how a woman's freedom and rights are marginalized?  Is this a statement on Catholicism -- zeroing in on the Communion ritual in which we Catholics are told the wafer we're eating represents the body and blood of Christ?  The last act and most visually surreal one of MOTHER! has just about everything but that Pushmi-Pullyu from the old movie musical DR. DOOLITTLE in it.

I kept wondering "How freakin' huge is this white girl's house?!?!?"  There's practically half a Third World nation in her living room.

MOTHER!  Visually fascinating but I don't know what the heck this allegory is trying to say.  But, man, I sure did love Michelle Pfeiffer in this Darren Aronofsky film.
For a good psychological thriller you can follow, rent GET OUT ...or 1968's ROSEMARY'S BABY.







Wednesday, September 13, 2017

I Will Miss Mike Hodge

He was President of our New York chapter of SAG-AFTRA.  I've been a proud union member since the 1980s.  I grew even prouder when Mike Hodge was our president.  He got things done.  For one year, I had the privilege to serve on the New York City board with him.  To me, Mike was an excellent president and he was also an excellent actor with Broadway, film and TV credits.  He was also one of the kindest people I knew in New York City during a rough period in my life.
As it did millions of others, the Great Recession hit me with a brutal punch.  Money I'd saved from my modest income as a TV host & entertainment contributor had gone to help my mother with her house.  I was knocked down by layoffs in two jobs within two years.  I could not get work.  I could not get representation to help me get work.  I lost my apartment and most of the belongings in it.  Come the end of 2011, I was living with relatives outside of Sacramento, praying for work and guidance.  I had no job, no checking account, no credit card and no unemployment.  I was interviewing for jobs via Skype.  Until my computer blew out.  Mike Hodge kept in touch with me and told me not to give up.
While outside of Sacramento, I got an August 2014 invite to be a guest film reviewer & historian on a cable show taping in New York City.  I accepted.  My terrific flight attendant cousin got me a free stand-by ticket.  I'd be in Manhattan for two weeks, staying at a friends' apartment and stretching a little cash of my own plus $100 from my mom.  Two weeks in New York were a chance to wear out my shoe leather and hunt for employment.  Which I did.  When the two weeks were nearly up, another friend invited me to crash on a couch for a few weeks more and continue my hunt. Then another friend offered me a couch.  Here and there, I started to get a few days of work.

Mike Hodge sent me a text message and when I told him about my luck sleeping on spare couches in friends' NYC apartment, he texted back "I love life, don't you?"

I texted, "It feels miraculous."

Hodge replied, "And that's what life is."

During my long, long stay, he invited me over to the SAG-AFTRA offices right across from Lincoln Center and he took me to lunch.

He had total empathy for my rough patch.  He'd been through a similar one himself.  He really opened up about that to me.  He was generous with his time, his sage advice, his compassion and humor.

He continued to stay in touch and to tell to me I "offer a very rare skill set" as a TV performer and writer.  He'd followed my career.  Mike Hodge made me feel very significant in his life.  He was like a big brother who always gave me hope.  As a union member, I knew full well to my soul that President Mike Hodge had my back.  He was a force as a unionist.

I gasped in shock early Monday morning when I got on Twitter to see news headlines and found the report that he'd died suddenly at age 70.

I shall miss him so very, very much.  Mike Hodge was a remarkable, gentle man.





Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Our Podcast Chat about Kirk Douglas

I still give thanks and count my blessings that I had a national talk show on TV -- and my first and only guest for the premiere edition was Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas.  Yes, Spartacus himself!  Kirk Douglas was a model of Old School Hollywood class and graciousness when he arrived to tape my 1988 show.  He not only arrived on time.  He was early.  Very early.
Spartacus threw our little ragtag VH1 TV crew into a bit of a brief tizzy.
I give my friend Keith Price the backstory on our podcast.  Then I give you a list of films starring Kirk Douglas that I highly recommend you watch to see Douglas in peak performance.  I also mention a rare romantic comedy that Douglas did.  He did it with Mitzi Gaynor.
The mention of marvelous Mitzi Gaynor prompted Keith to tell about the time he interviewed that star of 20th Century Fox's deluxe 1958 adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Broadway musical hit, SOUTH PACIFIC.

Mitzi had worked with Ethel Merman and Marilyn Monroe in the Fox's 1954 deluxe musical, Irving Berlin's THERE'S NOT BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS.
 Mitzi had Merman stories for Keith.

OK.  Hopefully, now you want to hear our podcast segment.  If so, go here:  https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/mochaa/episodes/2017-09-02T13_04_11-07_00.

Talking about life and classic movies with Keith is too much fun.

Friday, September 8, 2017

A TCM Noir Alley Note

Eddie Muller is a popular new host on TCM.  He's seen on Sunday mornings as the host of TCM's Noir Alley.  As you can probably guess, his weekend show is devoted to those gritty black and white dramas called film noir.  Eddie Muller is seen in a short TCM feature called "Rebels Without a Code" in which he details characteristics and details of classics in the film genre.  One movie he highlights is the 1949 trucker drama, THIEVES' HIGHWAY directed by Jules Dassin.  You can always count on film noir for having street-wise dames.
Muller is a San Francisco writer and film historian.  In his TCM Noir Alley, he focuses on one sizzling scene in THIEVES' HIGHWAY.  The film starred Valentina Cortese and the under-appreciated Richard Conte.
The film noir genre peaked after the war.  It knew how to detour around the prissy Hollywood Production Code rules and show a darker, more realistic world.  Muller loves the scene in which Cortese plays tic-tac-toe with her finger on the bare chest of Richard Conte.  It's erotically charged displays and a bolder, more mature sexuality than Hollywood studio films before World War 2 did.
Here's some trivia for you.  A Paramount comedy released in 1948 beat 1949's THIEVES' HIGHWAY.  The comedy is called MISS TATLOCK'S MILLIONS.
John Lund (the leading man in Billy Wilder's A FOREIGN AFFAIR starring Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur) plays a Hollywood stunt man for Ray Milland.  Barry Fitzgerald plays the guy who sees that he bears a striking resemblance to a long lost heir in Southern California.  He hires the stunt man to pretend to be the found heir so his sweet, innocent heiress sister can claim her fortune instead of it going to greedy, freeloading relatives.  The heir is...well, sort of a happy-go-lucky idiot.  The kind of character that Jerry Lewis would've been assigned by Paramount in a few years.  Wanda Hendrix plays the sweet heiress sister.  Of course, the stunt man falls for her while pretending to be her eccentric brother.  She had a habit of doing some finger business on the lunatic brother's bare chest that would delight him like he was a toddler.  She does it to the stunt man and he gets an erotic jolt.
She does it more than once.  When she does it to him at the beach, he has to make a mad dash for the water.  Sort of the equivalent of taking a cold shower.

And there you have it.  The bare chest play in Fox's 1949 film noir thriller, THIEVES' HIGHWAY, is memorable.  But it wasn't the first time it was done in a movie.  Paramount had bare chest play in the 1948 screwball comedy, MISS TATLOCK'S MILLIONS. Tell that piece of movie trivia to TCM's Eddie Muller.















Thursday, September 7, 2017

Congratulations, Whoopi

I was working with her on radio when she got the news from Barbara Walters.  Whoopi Goldberg was hired as the new co-host on THE VIEW.  In New York City, Whoopi had been tapped to have her own live weekday morning radio show to air in about 16 cities to start.  WAKE UP WITH WHOOPI made its debut on Premiere Radio back in 2006.  Whoopi was one of my first guests on my old VH1 prime time celebrity talk show back in the last 80s.  Incidentally, she was the first guest to notice that I worked without a TelePrompTer and without an earpiece.  No cue cards.  Just some notes I'd typed up myself and the rest was in my head.  She remembered me and, years later, brought me on to her radio show to be the weekly entertainment contributor and film reviewer.  And I could make her laugh.  During the two years of that show, she got great attention in NYC from the network morning news shows and was invited to be a guest on a couple of them.  The radio air time led to TV face time for her.  She was hired on THE VIEW.
She's been a terrific addition to the show.  Let's face it -- Hollywood has not fully utilized her exceptional acting talents.  Keep in mind that, for 20 years, she made Hollywood history as the most Oscar-nominated Black actress.  She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1990's GHOST.  Before that, she was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for 1985's THE COLOR PURPLE.  Wow.  Her brilliant performance in that really holds up.  Now, Oscar winner Viola Davis holds the record with three Oscar nominations.  She's the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in Hollywood history.  Both Whoopi and Viola turned to TV because good Hollywood script offers were skimpy.
Not that I'm a performer of Whoopi's stature and gifts, but it sure was a blessing to sit next to and work with someone who has shared experiences of knowing that the playing field is not level for us people of color in the entertainment industry seeking work and representation.  We had some juicy talks.  Her road has been filled with bumps and potholes.  To this day, I am grateful to her for bringing me into her workspace knowing that I could do the job.  She wanted someone who knew classic films.  As she does.  Whereas white producers of network and local news programs always asked me if I knew anything about movies, she didn't ask.  She'd been my talk show guest.  She was aware. She got Premiere Radio to double my salary.

Because of Whoopi, I was making $500 a week.  To start.  And I had the surreal experience of going to work and sitting next to an international show biz icon.  I was invited to her home.  I saw her Oscar.  The oddest thing about working with Whoopi?  Well, let me put it like this:  If there was a reality TV competition show called "Celebrity Silent But Deadlies," she'd win.

She's celebrating her 10th anniversary on THE VIEW.  Excellent!  I hope the exposure from THE VIEW coupled with the national conversations about diversity and equality in the arts have knocked some sense into Hollywood's head.  I hope she's getting good script offers again.

Oh!  About Whoopi knowing classic films.  She attended the Oscars and, as soon as I saw her on the red carpet, I squealed with glee.  I recognized her dress as being a replica of the Edith Head creation for Bette Davis to wear in the famous "Fasten your seat belts" party scene in ALL ABOUT EVE.
Ryan Seacrest was interviewing Whoopi but he didn't recognize the famous Hollywood design at all.
Whoopi had to explain her dress to him.  I guess Ryan Seacrest just doesn't know good Head.

Whoopi has many memorable moments to her credit during her 10 years on THE VIEW.  One of my favorites came early in her run.  It was 2009 or 2010.  THE VIEW has having its Halloween show and there was a Halloween edition fashion show.  Whoopi was dressed as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and sat in a wheelchair.

During the Halloween fashion show, she nodded off in her chair.  It's a little moment, but you could see Joy Behar nudge her to wake up.  She had an early morning live radio  show called WAKE UP WITH WHOOPI.  She nodded off during THE VIEW.  I love show biz.  I love Whoopi Goldberg.

For reminders of Whoopi's excellence and versatility as an actress, rent and watch her two Oscar-nominated performances plus THE LONG WALK HOME (1990), SOAPDISH (1991), THE PLAYER (1992), CORRINA, CORRINA (1994) and GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI (1996).  And I highly recommend the production that started her ascent to stardom -- WHOOPI GOLDBERG: DIRECT FROM BROADWAY (1985).  It highlights the one-woman show that Mike Nichols saw and loved.  He was very instrumental in her career success.  She loved him dearly.



Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Jerry Lewis Tributes

Today, I logged onto Twitter and saw an article posted from The New York Times.  The article was tweeted as follows: "Here are 10 films that demonstrate the breadth of Jerry Lewis's talents as an actor, comedian, and director."  It's neither the first nor the only tribute to Jerry Lewis I've seen in print since the news of his death broke.
Something about this really irks me.  I'm reminded of a line that screenwriter Joe Gillis, the murdered narrator in Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD. says as his dead body is being pulled out of a Hollywood swimming pool:  "Funny, how gentle people get with you once you're dead."
Late last year, an interview Jerry Lewis gave for The Hollywood Reporter went viral.  Lewis appeared, frankly, old and difficult.  He was being monosyllabic in his answers.  The 7-minute interview video was described as "awkward and awful" and a "trainwreck."  Some folks commented on social media that Jerry was always "a jerk."
Today, however, he's a genius.  Now America realizes why he was a filmmaker revered and honored by the French.

This is a cycle I wish we would reverse itself now that we have benefit of social media.  Instead of folks writing detailed tribute blog pieces and print articles on an entertainer who has just died, I wish such pieces would be written while the person is still alive and perhaps really be in need of the attention and appreciation.

Robert Osborne, the late TCM host and Hollywood journalist, said something about Marilyn Monroe that was so achingly true.  When Billy Wilder's SOME LIKE IT HOT came out, a film now considered to be one of the best classic comedies of all time, all the raves went to Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.  Lemmon scored a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance.  Marilyn Monroe didn't get bad reviews, she was just overlooked by the entertainment press as an actress.  She was seen more as The Sex Symbol.  The Blonde.  She never got an Oscar nomination in her short lifetime and career.  But try to imagine SOME LIKE IT HOT without her.  Look at all the books and articles praising her unappreciated talent that came out after her untimely death.  She truly is a Hollywood icon who still gets national news attention whenever a previously unseen set of photos of her is discovered.
Comedy is hard work.  Musical comedy is even harder.  She was brilliant at both and made them look effortless.  She had magnificent comic timing.  Look at two 1953 comedies in which a young female entertainer in New York City is out to land a husband.  There's the clunky black and white romantic comedy, THE MOON IS BLUE and there's the colorful musical comedy GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES.
Maggie McNamara was a good actress but her pert and proper character in THE MOON IS BLUE irritates me.  I find her cold, calculating, selfish and -- with a lady-like exterior -- she's aggressively using her virginity as a marketing tool to hook a middle-aged man who will marry and take care of her.  Monroe as Lorelei Lee in GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES is honest, dumb like a fox, and the most loyal friend a girl could have.  Broadway greats Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon talked about performing the choreography of Jack Cole.  His dance moves were complicated, original and fabulous.  Monroe, not a trained dancer like Verdon and Rivera, performs Jack Cole choreography as she sings "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" as if she was born to do it in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES.  And, as a vocalist, she had a great way with a jazz number.  She sings, she dances, she does some excellent and memorable comedy work in that film.  Who got an Oscar nomination for Best Actress?  Maggie McNamara for THE MOON IS BLUE.  Watch both those movies over a weekend.  Then tell me which lead female you would have nominated for Best Actress.

Imagine if some of those lovely articles praising the unappreciated talents of Marilyn Monroe had been printed for her to read when she was alive.

Days before Jerry Lewis died, I'd written a blog post called "Comedies You'd See Again" dated August 13, 2017.  In it, I wrote that if you asked film critics and film enthusiasts what 10 classic films they would that take to watch during a 2-week vacation, no one would've mentioned a Jerry Lewis comedy.  Film snobs would've mentioned deep-dish dramas like CRIES AND WHISPERS, THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, TOKYO STORY and SANSHO THE BAILIFF.  Even if one of those folks had seen Lewis' THE NUTTY PROFESSOR or THE LADIES MAN twice as many times as he'd seen those classic dramas, he would not have put the Lewis films on the list for fear of not seeming intellectual and cultured.  That's just my opinion.  And I've been guilty of that myself.

I was stunned by the extraordinary NAPOLEON, Abel Gance's 1927 silent film from France.  It runs about 5 1/2 hours.  I've paid to see it twice.  I've seen NAPOLEON DYNAMITE about 20 times on DVD.  When times were rough for me, NAPOLEON DYNAMITE could always make me laugh.

I think you get my point.  Let's appreciate people while we still have them in our lives.  Even if they've been difficult.  Maybe they're being difficult because they don't feel appreciated for the hard work they've done.

Filmmaker/actor Jerry Lewis died on August 20th.