Saturday, June 24, 2017

How to SCORE in Hollywood

When I'm able to on Fridays, I treat my ears and mind to a weekly film review hour that streams on news station KPCC out of Southern California.  It's the 11am FilmWeek hour that airs during the weekday AirTalk show hosted by Larry Mantle.  That's 11am Pacific time.  On Fridays, Larry is host to a couple or a trio of film critics who deliver passionate, informed and non-snarky movie reviews -- reviews of big Hollywood, small indie and foreign films.  The show is a treat for us film lovers.  Not only that, Larry's show opens a door that, sadly, network TV news and syndicated entertainment programs failed to do for decades.  He presents race and gender diversity in his selection of critics.  I love this show.  Recently, critics were very enthusiastic about a documentary called SCORE.  To me, a great score can be a movie's best friend.  The score itself can be a work of film art.  One of my favorites is the score to a classic many of us watched annually on TV as a prime time network TV special.  1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ has a outstanding score starting with the overture for the opening credits.  It's grand, it has sweep and it gives you a sense of wonder.
Then there's all the original, clever songs written for it.  We have the wistful "Over the Rainbow" that became Judy Garland's signature tune for the rest of her career and life plus the witty songs written for Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion.  Watch that classic again and listen to how remarkable an original score it has -- and how lushly it's arranged and orchestrated.  THE WIZARD OF OZ has music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by "Yip" Harburg.  The music score was by Herbert Stothart.
Another great score can be heard in the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, PSYCHO.  The high-pitched staccato strings in the Bernard Herrmann score give you a sense of attack and madness.  They also sound like the crazed shrieks of birds.
Think of the birds demented Norman Bates has stuffed and mounted in his room.  What a brilliant score.  As for what I wrote about the fact that a great score can be movie's best friend...think about the theme to JAWS.
Those few, low, ominous notes from John Williams and the aquatic quality to his orchestration ...so memorable.  That score was just the thing that Steven Spielberg's film needed.

SCORE, the new documentary, shows us the modern-day work that goes into creating movie music.  Take a look at the trailer.

In the 1990s, not long after TITANIC had become a surprise box office blockbuster, there was a special re-release of the 1939 movie classic, GONE WITH THE WIND.  Now there's another famous film score.  I had a date. I asked him out to see a GONE WITH THE WIND showing in New York City.  He was up for it.  He'd never seen the movie.  I'd seen it several times but was eager to see this remastered edition on a big screen with the overture, intermission music and exit music.  I did not expect the theater to be packed, but it was.  And not just with older folks.  This was a theater full of film lovers.  There was huge applause when Scarlett delivers the final line and the Max Steiner music swells up.  The audience even stayed seated through the exit music.
I mentioned that to my date as we merged into the crowd and walked up the aisle to the door.  I was so thrilled that folks stayed for the exit music.

He replied, "Yeah!  That was something.  And there was hardly any music in the whole movie."  He wasn't kidding.  He made his casual remark quite seriously.

That was our second date.  And our last.




Sunday, June 18, 2017

On THE NAMESAKE

It's Father's Day.  It's typical to see film lovers and film critics online post a list of favorite movies to watch on Father's Day.  On the list are features with great father figures such as Atticus Finch in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Robin Williams as the divorced dad who becomes MRS. DOUBTFIRE or Will Smith as the unemployed parent determined to take care of his little boy in THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS.  There's a film that moves me so much thanks to its fine direction by Mira Nair.  Couple that with the memorable performance by Irrfan Kahn as the loving immigrant father in New York who endured extreme hardships on his journey to America from Calcutta.  I paid to see this movie at a cineplex when it was new.  When the movie ended, I felt like writing a thank you note to director Mira Nair.  What a beautiful job she did with THE NAMESAKE.
As for actor Irrfan Kahn, you may not know his name but I'm sure you have seen him in other films.  He played a brute of a police inspector in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and he had a role in JURASSIC WORLD.
In the film adaptation of THE NAMESAKE, you not only see the immigrant experience but you also see a story about that moment when you, as an adult child, discover more about a parent or your parents.  We grow up seeing Mom and Dad as older people who tell us when to do our homework, when to go to bed and what time we have to be home by if we don't want to get grounded.  It doesn't occur to us that they were once young people who experienced dreams and disappointments, love and heartbreak, success and failure.  All those experiences inform the quality of their parenting and the love they give you.  In THE NAMESAKE, popular film and TV actor Kal Penn stars as the first generation American-born son who is doing pretty well for himself in New York City.  Can he carve out his own identity and also blend in some of the ethnic culture and traditions that live on in his father?  Here's a trailer for THE NAMESAKE.
Ashkoke Ganguli, so wonderfully played by Irrfan Kahn, is as much a loving film father as the ones I mentioned in the opening paragraph.  And you don't have to be of Indian background to connect to and to be touched by this tender story.  Word of mouth from friends in my neighborhood prompted me to see THE NAMESAKE in 2007 while it was still at the local cineplex.  I'm very glad I did.  Again, thank you to Mira Nair.

Happy Father's Day.









Thursday, June 15, 2017

Recasting BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S

It's possibly one of the most perfect pieces of miscasting in a 1960s Hollywood movie.  Audrey Hepburn may have been all wrong for Truman Capote's vision of Holly Golightly as she appears in his novella, but Audrey Hepburn was absolutely fabulous for millions who saw the movie adaptation.  I'm one of those millions.  I fall in love with her as Holly every time I see BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S  The opening credits sequence alone seemed to skyrocket Audrey Hepburn from film fashion plate to international fashion icon.
It's been written that Truman Capote did not approve of that movie casting.  He'd written Holly with Marilyn Monroe in mind.  BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S brought Audrey Hepburn a Best Actress of 1961 Oscar nomination.
That same year saw a much-troubled Marilyn Monroe in Arthur Miller's original screenplay drama, THE MISFITS, co-starring Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.  It would be Monroe's last completed film before her untimely death in August 1962.
I wrote an opinion on Audrey Hepburn's Holly that got mentioned on NPR about seven years ago.  I feel that Hepburn, who reportedly had initial doubts about taking on the role, challenged herself and her image by playing Holly.  Since her starring role as the princess in William Wyler's ROMAN HOLIDAY, a performance that introduced her to American audiences and earned her the Best Actress of 1953, she was the poised young lady who was attracted to mature older gentlemen instead of immature men in her own age category.  She fell for Gregory Peck as the jaded American newspaper reporter in ROMAN HOLIDAY.  Her other leading men would include Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Rex Harrison.  As Astaire's character in FUNNY FACE describes her, she's "...a girl who has character, spirit, and intelligence."

Those aren't qualities you'd apply to Holly in Capote's story.  The late TCM host, Robert Osborne, described Capote's novella Holly as someone who could be "vacant and vapid."  But the screenplay adaptation flips the script on the early Audrey Hepburn movie template.  In Blake Edwards' BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, she's the young woman who relocates to New York City to reinvent herself.  She goes from country caterpillar to big city social butterfly.  She seems to be living a fabulous hipstress life in Manhattan but it's really a rootless existence.  Although not a hooker, Holly will occasionally go horizontal as sort of a "thank you" to an older visiting businessman to took her out, bought her dinner and gave her "$50 for the powder room" and she will unwittingly pass messages from a drug lord in prison.
In BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, the older men are leading her astray and complicating her life.  It's the young man in her own age category who wants to save her from all that and give her true love, a substantial life.
So...with that in mind...if Audrey Hepburn had not played Holly Golightly, who would you have cast? I have two picks.  My first choice is a highly respected actress who was quite easy on the eye.  Martin Ritt, director of NORMA RAE, told me in an interview that she was one of the actress who was approached to play Norma Rae but passed on it.  Reportedly, she also passed on BONNIE AND CLYDE.  The actress is....Tuesday Weld.

Tuesday got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 1977's LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR.  She's great in 1965's THE CINCINNATI KID, 1968's PRETTY POISON, 1970's I WALK THE LINE and 1972's PLAY IT AS IT LAYS to name a few.  I really dig her in 1963's SOLDIER IN THE RAIN.

The above pic is from a 1961 network TV production of BUS STOP.

My second choice is an actress who reportedly retired to have a happy family life.  She made me happy seeing her on the big screen.  Just like Tuesday Weld, Pamela Tiffin was a tasty dish who also had solid acting chops.  Billy Wilder loved her way with comedy and cast her in ONE, TWO, THREE with James Cagney, a 1961 release.


She was wistful and charming in the 1962 remake of the 1940s musical STATE FAIR.  She lip synced "It Might As Well Be Spring" and played the love interest opposite Bobby Darin.  And she sizzled as the tempting teen stepdaughter wearing a bikini and dancing on a swimming pool diving board in the 1966 private eye crime thriller, HARPER, starring Paul Newman.

Tuesday Weld and Pamela Tiffin -- my two picks as a Holly Golightly if Audrey Hepburn had passed on the project.  Who would be your alternate?





















Wednesday, June 14, 2017

She Loved SPARTACUS

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) aired the beautifully restored edition of SPARTACUS recently, the 1960 epic directed by Stanley Kubrick.  Kirk Douglas starred as the rebellious slave seeking freedom for himself and fellow slaves back when the corrupt Roman Republic ruled and Julius Caesar was a young senator.  I hadn't seen this classic in a while and I watched it.  I watched it fully engaged.  I stayed off social media.  I watched it as if I was in a theater.  The surprise?  As many times as I've seen it already, I discovered more things about it I'd not noticed before.  My late father loved SPARTACUS.  He saw it when it was new.  I've never heard any TCM host mention this, but Dad always felt that SPARTACUS had strong overtones to America's history of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement which was gaining strength at the time.  Come the summer of 1963, there would be Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington for equality.  Black moviegoers could relate to the Spartacus fight for freedom.
Another thing that gripped me even more than before was the rich performance given by Jean Simmons as the woman Spartacus loves.  She's also a slave.  Romans put them together like a pair of animals expected to breed.  Slaves were sold and treated like animals.  Through her love, we will see the humanity of Spartacus and, thus, the evil of slavery.                                        
She will become his wife and share his dream of freedom.  I have been a Jean Simmons fan ever since I was a kid.  I feel that her screen excellence in her long film career deserves re-appreciation.  Remember back in 1980 when Brooke Shields had a hit with that tropical teen romance/drama, THE BLUE LAGOON?  Well, that was a remake.  The previous version was a 1949 British film starring Jean Simmons.  This was after her exotic work in 1947's outstanding BLACK NARCISSUS, and after she'd played Ophelia in 1948's HAMLET directed by and starring Laurence Olivier.  HAMLET took home Oscars for Best Actor and Best Picture.

I loved me some Elizabeth Taylor.  Yes, I did.  She won the first of her two Best Actress Oscars for her performance as the high class gorgeous call girl who speeds to a dead end when she falls in love with one of her clients.  He's a married man.  Gloria in BUTTERFIELD 8, released in 1960, was provocative role someone who'd been a child actress in family films, a teen in family films and grew up to play sexually experienced women like Maggie in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.  Taylor racked up five Best Actress Oscar nominations in her film career.

Jean Simmons got only one Best Actress Oscar nomination in her long, impressive film career.  She was robbed.  Jean Simmons blended sexuality with intellect, passion with poise, and steeliness with a sweet vulnerability.  She was a marvelous dramatic actress and a beauty.  She should have been in the Oscar race for Best Actress of 1960.  She gave a regal quality to her slave role in SPARTACUS.
That same year, she was magnificent as Sister Sharon Falconer, the beautiful evangelist who acquires a large following and attracts a lusty con man named ELMER GANTRY.  All the screen qualities I mentioned about Jean Simmons in the previous paragraph are all on display in this performance.  


You feel her sexual passion and conflict, you feel her religious fervor.  Burt Lancaster won the Best Actor Oscar for this film.  Shirley Jones won Best Supporting Actress for playing a tough-as-nails hooker who had a hot time Elmer Gantry before he became a popular preacher.
Simmons should have been up for an Oscar too.  Her one Best Actress Oscar nomination came for the 1969 marital drama, THE HAPPY ENDING.  Shirley Jones had a supporting role in that film also.


As much as I love Elizabeth Taylor...Jean Simmons was extremely worthy of some Oscar nomination attention for 1960 too.  ELMER GANTRY and SPARTACUS.  Wow.  She was great in both.  Here's a clip from ELMER GANTRY after Elmer helps the innocent Sister Sharon defend the honesty of her work when questioned by a skeptical newspaper journalist.
 See?  Jean Simmons was a terrific actress.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Pride of THE BABADOOK

I was reviewing movies on cable's Arise TV channel in 2014.  Three of the best films I saw that year were independent films directed by women.  There was LITTLE ACCIDENTS directed and written by Sara Colangelo.  I had associated actress Elizabeth Banks solely with TV sitcoms until I saw her dramatic work in LITTLE ACCIDENTS.  There's a major coal mining accident in a small American town.  Then the disappearance of a teen boy brings together the only miner who survived the disaster and Elizabeth Banks as the wife of a wealthy coal mine executive.  It's a good drama.  I loved the terrific and highly original feminist vampire movie, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT.  Just because there's a love story in this black and white thriller don't think it lacks chills.  She's a ruthless vampire in Iran.  The story is set in Iran but the film was shot 30 miles outside Bakersfield, California.  Directed and written by Ana Lily Amipour, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT has wit and it's funnier if you've seen Universal's 1931 classic, DRACULA, starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning.  Jennifer Kent directed THE BABADOOK, another 2014 film that I loved.
William Friedkin, director of THE EXORCIST, took to Twitter and wrote a rave tweet about THE BABADOOK.  I saw this goose bumps-raising thriller and absolutely agreed with him.  There's a widow, still grief-stricken at the death of her husband, and their timid little boy who believes a monster may be under the bed after she reads him the story of...THE BABADOOK.
Did reading this story release a boogie man force into the house as the mother's grief skids into paranoia?  The little boy's suddenly erratic behavior makes him seem possessed.  Strange things are happening in the basement.
 Is this all the work of...THE BABADOOK?
For the answer, you must find and watch Jennifer Kent's THE BABADOOK.  In fact, I highly recommend that you do watch this Australian thriller she directed and wrote.  It's excellent.  In an odd happening of our modern day, the scary looking character in the top hat is very popular this Gay Pride Month.  In fact, The Bababook has become an LGBT icon according to Jessica Roy in The Los Angeles Times this weekend.  Being an LGBT icon means that Mr. Babadook had to undergo a bit of a wardrobe makeover.
Leave it to my people to make The Babadook look festive for Pride Month.

The film historian in me wanted you to know that Mr. Babadook was inspired by another character and a famous character actor who thrilled moviegoers in the silent screen era.  He was Lon Chaney, called "The Man of a Thousand Faces" because of the array of characters he played in his masterful make-up such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera.  Yes, the gifted actor did his own make-up.  One of his features is a lost film directed by Tod Browning, the man who gave us DRACULA and FREAKS in the 1930s.  This 1927 lost film is called LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT.  There may be a grave robber on the loose.  This sinister looking character may be the grave robber.  Here's Lon Chaney as "The Hypnotist" in stills from 1927's LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT.

See the resemblance?  Now you see how classic cinema history blended into new items in our LGBT history.  Happy Pride Month.








Thursday, June 8, 2017

Her Vision Helped LETHAL WEAPON

This woman's creative talent contributed greatly to some American film classics.  She should have received a special achievement Oscar.  Top actors and directors wanted her to get such an honor.  I saw ABC News entertainment reporter Chris Connelly interview three stars of the very popular LETHAL WEAPON movie franchise on GOOD MORNING AMERICA.  Mel Gibson, Danny Glover and Rene Russo were warm and lively as they chatted with him in L.A.  Connelly stressed the terrific chemistry that Danny Glover, as the middle-aged family man cop, had with Mel Gibson.  Their chemistry in the first LETHAL WEAPON film, released in 1987, helped it become a big box office champ.  I loved Danny Glover as the big papa bear detective.
Their chemistry definitely pulled me back to the box office a second time to see it.
I've written about this before, but I'll bring it up again because the story behind LETHAL WEAPON's casting is a high mark in the area of diversity/inclusion in casting and in the area of women in film.  The field of casting directors in film, if you look at movie credits, appears to be a female-dominated field.  Personally, the frustration I've felt in my career from narrow-minded males has many times been dissolved by forward-thinking female casting directors who pushed for me to be seen.  Here's an example.  When I met with a top agent in New York City for the first time, fresh off three successful years as a veejay/talk show host on VH1, I said that I was extremely interested in auditioning for supporting roles in comedy vehicles.  I said that I wanted to play parts like the one Bill Murray did in TOOTSIE.  The white male agent replied, "But that wasn't a role for a black actor."  In the 1990s, I did two bit parts on THE SOPRANOS.  In both episodes, I played TV news reporters.  The female casting director contacted me and said that nothing in the script said the news reporter had to be played only by a white male.  I tested.  I got the part.  And THAT'S what we people of color in show biz need to give us a helping hand.

Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Glenn Close...those are some of the folks who made show biz breakthroughs because of casting director Marion Dougherty.  Another person was Danny Glover.
LETHAL WEAPON director Richard Donner was honored in Los Angeles this week.  That's how ABC's Chris Connelly got the idea to corral that star trio for an interview. Richard Donner's director film credits also include SUPERMAN starring Christopher Reeve, THE GOONIES and MAVERICK starring Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster.
I interviewed Donner back in the 90s and asked him about Marion Dougherty and he had enthusiastic praise for her.  Donner considers himself to quite the Hollywood  liberal and admitted to me he was about to sign Brian Dennehy for the role of the middle-aged detective in his LETHAL WEAPON buddy cop action film.  Then casting director Marion Dougherty contacted Donner to see Danny Glover.  Donner revealed that his first comment was, "But he's black" to which she replied, "Nothing in the script says the character can't be played by a black actor."  Donner said that was a lightbulb "Aha" moment for him and that, as a liberal,  he could've kicked himself for not thinking outside the box on his own.

The success of LETHAL WEAPON inspired Hollywood to do more interracial casting/auditioning.  This was major.  And Marion Dougherty kicked the career of the talented actor/social activist Danny Glover way up the ladder.  Also, because Danny Glover is African-American, other black actors got work when LETHAL WEAPON sequels were made that showed his character's family.

I highly recommend watching the 90-minute documentary about Marion Dougherty called CASTING BY.  I saw it on HBO back in 2013.  Marion Dougherty was a great creative force in the film business and her vision did indeed help LETHAL WEAPON.  She was a trailblazer in the Women In Film category.  Here's a trailer.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Majesty of Prince

NPR (National Public Radio) had a weekly Code Switch team and podcast.  It's a race and culture outlet heard on weekday NPR in the mornings.  OK, let's just real here.  Code Switch is like a radio Rosetta Stone for white NPR listeners.  It hips them to what black people are talking about and the new words we use while talking about it.  Code Switch is needed.  Have you ever heard "This American Life" hosted by Ira Glass?  That show is whiter than mayonnaise.  If he wrote porn, it would open like this:  "She was naked on the bed with her knees up as if waiting for a gynecological exam.  He looked at her.  He was reminded of sections in Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum.  He too was naked.  And oh, so tumescent."   I do listen to NPR and it does cry out for some urban flavor.  Back in April, Code Switch had a feature called "Everybody Has A Prince Story (Or Should).  Here Are Ours."
My little story happened in the late 1980s during my years as a daily VH1 veejay and weeknight celebrity talk show host.  The Grammys were held in New York at Radio City and I was given two tickets.  And I had to rent a tux because it was formal.

Prince performed in the show.  Need I tell you that he was extraordinary and commanded the stage with his musical majesty?
I believe the awards show had ended and folks were filing out to head to after-parties.  I had to use the restroom.  I entered the restroom and it looked like a Vanity Fair photo opportunity.  It was an attractive men's room and the color scheme for all us gents in it was black and white.  At each urinal stood a man we saw in a tuxedo with his back to us.  Other men waiting in line were also in tuxedos.

The tone in the large, clean Radio City men's room was respectable.  There were comments are the brilliance of the performances and remarks about the stars.  No one was loud.  All of a sudden, the men's room door forcefully opened -- like saloon doors being pushed open by a young, upstart gunslinger in an old movie western.  Prince entered.  He was all in purple.  Hooded purple.  With a matching cape.  It certainly pulled focus from all the black and white of our tuxedos.  The design of his outfit was very similar to the outfit young Katharine Hepburn wore in the 1933 movie, CHRISTOPHER STRONG.
Prince strutted into the men's room with a serious expression, looked around and sort of cased the joint.  Like a young, upstart gunslinger in an old movie western.  A gunslinger wearing a purple outfit with a hood and a cape.  And Prince wasn't exactly tall.  However, his charisma sucked up all the oxygen in the men's room for a moment.  I was standing next to sportscaster Ahmad Rashad.  Both our eyes were fixed on him.  We'd gone slack-jawed as we waited to see what his next move would be.  In fact, all eyes in the men's room were on him.  He was Prince.  A music star of mega-wattage.

Well...he dramatically turned and exited, flanked by tuxedo-wearing bodyguards, it seemed.  The cape fluttered a bit with his whip-fast turn. He was not about to stand in a line and wait for an available urinal.  Although the sight of tux, tux, tux, purple cape and hood, tux, tux, tux would have been fabulous.

Only Prince could strut into a New York City men's room dressed like he was about to be shot out of a circus cannon and make the all-male crowd go just about speechless in awe.  He was just too much for mere mortals.  I was so lucky to be standing near that men's room door.