Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mom and AUNTIE MAME

"Life is banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!" ~Rosalind Russell as Auntie Mame.

I just got off the phone with my mother.  Movies are so much a part of our conversation, especially now that she's in convalescent care.  We laughed a lot.  I told I'd had such a hectic weekend that I could use a drink at the moment.  Mom said, "Like a beer?"  I replied, "No, honey, I need something stronger -- like an Auntie Mame drink."  My mother let out a big hearty, high belly laugh.  It made her sound like she was strong enough to strut out of that joint, carrying her own suitcase as she did. She knew exactly what I meant when I referred to the 1958 film version of Russell's Broadway triumph.
When I was in grade school, that film played on local L.A. television one weekend night.  It was the KHJ/Channel 9 "Million Dollar Movie."  That night I discovered my mother loved Rosalind Russell. My late dad usually controlled the TV.   Instead of a network western or a cop show,  Mom kept the TV on the station that is now KCAL while Dad relaxed in his armchair.  Auntie Mame was so lively, so fun, so festive.  Even when she stood still, she seemed to be in motion.  Like Lucy Ricardo only more sophisticated and elegant.  That hooked my little kid interest.  The movie seemed colorful.  This was back in the day when pretty much all of us in the neighborhood had a black and white TV set.  Way back in the day.  No color and you had to get up and walk over to the TV set to change the channel.  Today, my young nephews would call that "pre-historic."  I had never seen my mother laugh so hard at a movie.  She laughed at Auntie Mame the way I laughed at cartoons.  Her laughter was infectious.  What a fun night that was.  Dad and me laughing at Mom laughing at Auntie Mame wearing noisy jewelry backstage before an entrance.
Mom got laugh hiccups watching Mame and her best girlfriend, serious stage actress Vera Charles, go at it.  Mame and Vera made my mother laugh so hard that she cried.
Then she cried touched by the sentiment of Mame's little nephew, Patrick, loving her when life broke her heart making her feel useless, unimportant and alone.
Last year at this time, I didn't feel like I had a laugh left in my soul.  The Recession made me feel useless, unimportant and alone.  There had been friction between my mother and me for quite some time.  Her criticisms of my life and career were as cutting as they seemed to be irrational.  They were sharp little unrelenting stabs to the heart.  And they didn't stop when I was so broke, so unemployed that I lost my New York City home.  I unloaded my belongings and moved into the spare room of a buddy's place in San Francisco.  It was a place to live and there was a strong possibility of a part time minimum wage job in his office.  When I got to San Francisco, that job possibility disappeared.  I spent nine months trying to find something -- anything.  Job hunting there was like walking in the city, a constant uphill experience.  I left San Francisco to move in with my dear younger brother and attempt to start over yet again.  I was here with him and his family when we almost lost our mother the day after Christmas.  Our sister got her to the hospital right in time. Mom was in bad shape. Her legs were disabled.  If I ever got a memoir book deal like Tom Bergeron, Rosie O'Donnell, the original MTV veejays or even Clay Aiken of American Idol fame, I'll write the details.  I will tell you that our mother had some serious health issues.  There's been sweet recovery in more than one area.  A long-undetected physical condition had affected her behavior.  It made her reclusive and mean.  Stricken with that condition, she refused to let me live with her in her house.  So I went to San Francisco.  When doctor's cleared the condition up, it was as if she'd been freed from a bad magic spell.  She's in her 80s and still infirm but there's so much clarity and kindness about her now.  She's like she was when I was a kid.  She's given me great advice, great support, she really listens to me, she shares her true feelings and she makes me laugh a lot.  My mother is my #1 fan and fully believes that I will be back in the TV workforce soon.  I think I've become a better son to her since her health crisis.  I'm more attentive...and kinder.  She's way more special to me than all my belongings and material goods that I was forced to give to the nearby Salvation Army.  Last year, life knocked us both down.  This year, Mom and I have been helping each other back up.

Just being able to share a belly laugh with Mom today for a few minutes on a long distance phone call was like an early Christmas gift.  Especially considering how close to death she was the day after Christmas last year.  Auntie Mame was right.  Life is a banquet.  Even if we don't get a full plate, we can still savor and appreciate a small portion of it.  That small portion is better than nothing at all.  Know what I mean?  Cheers.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Notes on THE MASTER

There is some magnificent acting in The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood).  First of all, there's Joaquin Phoenix as the hard-drinking and physically abusive WWII Navy veteran, Freddie Quell.  This guy is frayed.  Something eclipsed his heart and the stuff he drinks isn't doing a thing for his emotional stability.  He will drink just about anything as long as it burns.  The movie opens when he's still a sailor in the Pacific and we see him basically castrating a tree.  He climbed up a tree and whacked off two big coconuts.  That sure looked symbolic to me.
There's romantic deprivation on the island.  These seamen need sexual relief.  If this was a musical, the sailors would've sung "There Is Nothing Like A Dame" here.  The story continues as brilliant Phoenix gives us some of the most memorable posture and body language of any original human movie character we've met on the big screen this year.
You almost expect Freddie Quell to break out into a solo of "I'm a Little Teapot."
Not since Best Actor Academy Award winner Yul Brynner in 1956's The King and I  has an actor gotten so much mileage out of aggressively walking around with arms akimbo.
And then there's Philip Seymour Hoffman as the equally hard-drinking but way more sophisticated guy who is The Master, the founder and leader of a cult-like group that hints at Scientology.  Hoffman is extraordinary as the co-dependent, charismatic charlatan.
I had this thought during Hoffman's last five minutes in the film:  Not that we need it, but if there was a big screen remake of Gypsy, he should play Rose's boyfriend, Herbie.  Think the "You'll Never Get Away From Me" number.  Then there's gifted, wide-eyed Amy Adams as the iron butterfly, Mrs. Lancaster Dodd, wife and master of The Master.
The angry, loveless drifter latches on to The Master's philosophy with dark devotion.  He'll beat up anybody, any skeptic who criticizes The Master or questions his credibility.
Master Dodd takes to mentally unsteady Freddie like a son.  Mrs. Dodd is wary.  Yes, the acting is brilliant -- and when this drama ends, you say to yourself, "What the hell was that all about?"  This is intellectual fare.  An art film, if you will.  Did you ever see the Preston Sturges 1941 classic, Sullivan's Travels?  This new Paul Thomas Anderson feature made me think of the comment Veronica Lake as The Girl makes about art films in that 1941 screwball comedy:  "There's nothing like a deep dish movie to drive you out in the open."
I'm not telling you more about The Master in case you want to see it.  I will tell you that, after I sat through it, I really needed to see something like Sullivan's Travels or The King and I.  Something less highbrow, something more understandable, something that seemed to have a definite point.  I went to see Argo.  Loved it.  I'm not quite sure what point director/writer Anderson was trying to make in Freddie's  friendship with Lancaster Dodd, but I think the sight of Freddie whacking off those two large hanging coconuts in the beginning of The Master was a big clue.  And the acting was great.  Did you see it?







Thursday, October 25, 2012

Half of PROMETHEUS

After we wrapped our TV pilot shoot one weekend this month in New York City, I geared up for my return stand-by trip back here to Northern California.  I had to fly out of Newark, NJ to O'Hare in Chicago.  In Chicago, I'd catch a flight to San Francisco.  The United plane for the Newark to Chicago flight was beautiful and roomy.  The deluxe entertainment system looked new.  One of the movies available was Ridley Scott's Prometheus.  I didn't get to see it on the big screen this year.  My brother did.  He dug it.  He's a sci-fi and fantasy geek.  My sister-in-law's review was "Meh."  As the excellent and groundbreaking Alien is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi horror films, I had to seize the in-flight opportunity to see if the 2012 release was a prequel to the Alien story.  The opening of the movie was proof that, as I've blogged before, young actors need to study classic films if they are serious about their craft.  Watching those films made before the 1980s is part of their homework.  Prometheus starts with Michael Fassbender as the android David intently focused on a classic film.  Old movies made it into the future and into deep space.  The one being watched is director David Lean's 1962 gem, Lawrence of Arabia.
The android will replicate the vocal cadence, the physical mannerisms and the look of Peter O'Toole as Lawrence.  (O'Toole on the left in the pic below.  Android on the right.)
When I took acting classes at TVI Studios in New York City for a couple of years, I was stunned at how many of the young students didn't care about classic films even though the teachers -- many of whom were local casting directors -- stressed the importance of watching them.  The actors paid more attention to current movies and American Idol.  That's not enough. If you're a young male actor and you got an audition for the role of the android, think about this:  How do you successfully, skillfully play a character imitating Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia if you haven't seen the film?  You can't just YouTube interviews and clips of O'Toole.  The Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia is different from the O'Toole as The Lion in Winter and the O'Toole in The Ruling Class, the musical remake of Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Stuntman, Becket and My Favorite Year.  Michael Fassbender obviously did his actor homework.  For sci-fi fans, we know that if an android copies the behavior of a fictional character in some form of entertainment instead of imitating behavior of a real person, there's bound to be trouble and tragedy.
If you've spent time in a big city or trendy neighborhood Starbucks, you know how irritating hipsters can be.  In several locations I've been to, if the hipsters weren't busy giving you service with a sneer behind the counter, they considered Starbucks to be their personal office space as they held tables hostage with all their laptops and other paraphernalia.  The only thing more annoying than hipsters in Starbucks is hipsters in outer space -- which is exactly the element I couldn't stand about Prometheus.  If that young space team is our future, we need to stop procreating immediately.  Tie your tubes.  Wear a body condom.  What ever happened to intelligent earthlings who followed orders in movies like MGM's Forbidden Planet?  This team lands on a strange, mysterious planet and the men act like they're  middle school brats at lunchtime.
When a ship commander, concerned about the air quality, orders them not to remove their helmets, one alpha male hip-stronaut disobeys orders and removes his helmet.  Thus, bringing a touch of Williamsburg Brooklyn into a galaxy far, far away.  Seriously?
So, let me get this right:  They land on a strange, dark, creepy planet.  There's no live being on it.  They find skeletons on the ground.  A commander radios the order for crew to keep their protective headgear on...but Johnny Rockets says "Screw that.  I'm young, butch and have a bad-ass haircut!"  To me, that is the male equivalent to a woman asking a total stranger to watch her purse while she uses the restroom in a bus terminal.  It's just not going to end well.  And shouldn't because of that absolutely clueless behavior.  Later, the group's motto seems to be "Scream, freak out, endanger your fellow workers by bringing contaminated objects into the mother ship.  Oh...and try to get laid while your millions of miles away from Earth on a risky and complicated scientific expedition."
The Skipper, Gilligan and all the sailors in McHale's Navy would have been a better, smarter, more disciplined male crew than this one.  A female member gets impregnated with an alien creature.  After she performs surgery on herself to get rid of the octopus-like fetus and save the lives of others onboard the spacecraft, the United pilot had begun our descent into Chicago.  I didn't see the rest of Prometheus.  I had to change planes.
What I did see of Prometheus was visually rich and highly stylized.  Ridley Scott has a great eye for the design of a film with sets, costumes, lighting and special effects.
But, script-wise, I sorely missed the professionalism and maturity of Ripley's crew in Alien.  The Prometheus dudes shouldn't have been on a futuristic scientific exploration in space.  They should've been hunting for dinner items and cooking utensils on Survivor.
Those hipsters were all wrong for that kind of project.  Like having Chris Brown as the opening act for a Melissa Etheridge concert.  They should not have been booked for it.
I'll catch up with the end of Prometheus eventually.  But I did like Michael Fassbender's Peter O'Toole-ing as the android David.  Fine work.  Very well-played.
I wonder how he'd do in the elegant crime caper comedy role O'Toole had opposite Audrey Hepburn in William Wyler's How To Steal A Million.  Just a thought.











Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bobby Rivers on Films

I once spent a half hour with Spartacus.  What a stimulating experience that was!
Let me explain.  I got my own prime time half hour talk show on VH1 in the late 1980s.  My sole guest for my premiere edition was the legendary star of Spartacus, actor Kirk Douglas.  I absolutely, positively, totally loved doing that show with that crew.  I did most of my own research.  We didn't use cue cards or teleprompter.  I was so lucky to have had the opportunity to interview Kirk Douglas and other top talent in the arts.
Films are my passion.  Especially classic films.  Talking to those who act in, direct and write movies is my idea of heaven on earth.  Talking about movies excites me.  I also love hosting and acting on camera.  I've been really lucky to book national TV work.
I write "really lucky" because -- as some of you friends of mine know -- I've not had broadcast representation for most of my career.  Agents who handle TV hosts, reporters and contributors repeatedly turned me down for representation or signed me with little or no activity thereafter.  I was with one top NYC broadcast agent for two years.  Not a single audition or meeting.  Four weeks before our contract expired, he called to say that he had a job lead for me.  It was, and I wrote this down, "a sports anchor job somewhere in the Deep South."  I kid you not.  That's all the Deep South needed -- me on local TV saying "Hello, Dixie! I've got two words for y' all tonight -- Ice Capades!"  Another broadcast agent approached me, signed me, then unexpectedly dropped me claiming, "I can't get you work.  You're getting older and you're not a celebrity...like Fred Willard."  Two months after that, without an agent, I signed a contract to host Top 5 on Food Network.  The show aired weekly on Food Network for six years.  In 2008, when Top 5 aired Monday-Friday mornings in repeats, a very middle-aged veteran New York City agent contacted me to come in for a meeting "a week from today." I'd snail mailed my headshot/resumé and emailed a link to my demo reel.  A week later, she opened our afternoon meeting by asking me if I'd ever done any TV hosting.  All of these broadcast agent encounters caused me to make that "Lisa Shay face" known to all who watch Suburgatory on ABC.
That's Lisa on right, holding the pink notebook and staring in disbelief next to her friend, Tessa.  I really went "Lisa Shay face" back in 1999 when that agent wanted to pitch me for a sports anchor job on a local TV news program below the Mason-Dixon Line.
That's Lisa on the left with the Rubik's cube on her desk.  Behind her sits Dalia.  Dalia is to Lisa what those broadcast agents were to me. So, booking TV work has been a formidable task for me during most of my career because I usually didn't have anyone helping me get auditions and non-sports anchor job meetings.  "I wouldn't know what to do with you," "I don't handle New York talent," "Have you ever done entertainment reports?" -- I've heard them all from broadcast agents and TV news producers. I tried to get an entertainment contributor spot on CBS Sunday Morning or Good Morning America.  No luck.  I tried to get auditions for the kind of game shows you saw Tom Bergeron or Drew Carey host.  No luck.  I wanted to host another talk show like the one I did on VH1.  No luck.  See what I mean?  Seeking TV work on your own, without the luxury of representation, isn't easy.  I'd openly weep with joy if I could've made in 2012 so far what Honey Boo Boo makes per episode on The Learning Channel.  But I didn't give up.

Then...a drop of rain on this mean desert of unemployment I've been stuck on for well over a couple of years.  A producer in New York who is a fan of my work felt I should be considered to host a film-related talk show pilot.  In the spring, I auditioned via Skype from here in the 'burbs of Northern California.  It was my first audition via Skype.  It felt very George Jetson.  Things progressed.  There were some major monkey wrenches hurled into the production but we all worked through and around them.  There was no budget.  I wouldn't be paid for the pilot shoot.  The producer couldn't even afford to fly me out and book me a hotel room for the Manhattan shoot.  But I was so hungry for the opportunity and I believe so much in our project that I got to New York City twice and Los Angeles once thanks to stand-by tickets from my fabulous flight attendant cousin.  Friends were kind enough to let me stay at their places  during my short stays in town.  We wrapped the pilot on Sunday, Oct. 14th.  I am extremely proud of it and ever so grateful to the entire crew.  What an honor it was to have producers not only acknowledge but appreciate my film I.Q. and interview skills.  They also appreciated how I hustled to be a part of the project.  I couldn't have done it without the help of family, friends...and without a lot of faith.  Especially in myself.  We all have to wait a few weeks for executives to make a decision on our pilot.  I pray it gets picked up.  We are over a decade into the 21st Century.  It's high time for TV's field of film show hosts, movie reviewers and interviewers to be more racially diverse.  Don't you agree?  Thanks and wish me luck with the pilot.









Tuesday, October 23, 2012

On Ben Affleck's ARGO

If you love movies, really love movies without a being a snob about them, I highly recommend that you see Argo.  When I write "without being a snob about them," I mean that you can and do embrace a trio of films like Fritz Lang's silent 1927 German expressionist science-fiction classic, Metropolis,  Cocteau's 1946 French classic, Beauty and the Beast, and 1948's Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.  In one way, this new thriller directed by and starring Ben Affleck is a little valentine to the power of Hollywood movies to entertain, to inspire, to resurrect your spirit and to get you through dark moments in life.  Argo is based on a true story.  The two important words are "based on." That means it's not a documentary.  The essence of the story are conveyed with the boring parts cut out and some other alterations made for the sake of giving you an entertaining movie experience.  I think some folks forget that.  In the October 11-17 issue of Time Out New York magazine, Joshua Rothkopf regards it as a "slight, true-life tale of covert intelligence with a happy ending."  A happy ending is exactly why I wanted to see this film.  Affleck's movie dramatizes the 1980 CIA-Canadian secret operation rescue of six American diplomats held hostage in an anti-Yankee Iran.  I remember when this was a major national news headline.  Tony Mendez (Affleck) poses as a Canadian filmmaker planning to shoot a sci-fi thriller called "Argo." He wants to use Iran as a location. The film will have positive Middle Eastern images.  The American diplomats must pretend to be Canadians on his movie location production team.  They're forced to become actors.
Besides the valentine to Hollywood movie-making, the bigger heart of this Mission: Impossible great escape story is about caring for one's fellow man and woman.  Argo shares a spiritual bond with the Oscar nominated screenplay for 1936's superb screwball comedy made during the Great Depression, My Man Godfrey.

Tony Mendez in Argo:  "I'm responsible."

Irene Bullock to Godfrey in My Man Godfrey:  "Because you're my responsibility and someone has to take care of you."
Ben Affleck's new thriller and director Gregory La Cava's comedy classic starring William Powell and Carole Lombard are basically about about the same thing -- responsibility to others having hard times.  Powell played the homeless forgotten man that a ditzy, lovable socialite turns into the family butler.  Responsibility is the spine of the story.  Listen to the excellent commentary on the Criterion Collection DVD of My Man Godfrey.  It addresses responsibility in the comedy. Notice that Tony mentions the same issue in Argo.  He feels committed to those hostages.  He is the kind of friend you'd hope to have in a crisis.  So are his two buddies in Hollywood played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin.
As a film director, Ben Affleck guided Amy Ryan to an Oscar nomination for Gone Baby Gone (2008) and Jeremy Renner to an Oscar nomination for The Town (2010).  Joshua Rothkopf also wrote this in Time Out New York:  "No performances stand-out, which is a shame given Affleck's track record with actors."  I disagree.  I would not be surprised if Oscar winner Alan Arkin gets another Best Supporting Actor nomination for his crusty mensch of a Hollywood producer.  Goodman also did great work.  The Argo art direction gives insight into characters and it's fun film literature.  When Mendez pitches his rescue idea to John Chambers (Goodman), they're in a restaurant decorated with movie posters.
One poster advertises one of my favorite films of 1979 -- the under-appreciated senior citizen crime caper, Going In Style, written and directed by Martin Brest.  It starred Art Carney, famed acting coach Lee Strasberg and -- giving the best performance of his film career -- George Burns as a brass balls New York City bank robber in Brest's very original drama.  The Goodman, Arkin and Affleck characters will be similar to the ad line in that movie poster:  "Meet three guys with an outrageous plan to beat the system..."
When we meet Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel, he's in a tuxedo preparing to be honored at an awards show.  In the living room of his big elegant home, we see a framed movie poster for Did you hear the one about The Traveling Saleslady? starring Phyllis Diller.
This lets us know that Lester is in the business for the love of the game.  He takes the business seriously.  He doesn't take his Hollywood image seriously.  He's an acclaimed producer, a bullshit artist and a regular guy.  He's like the Jeffrey Cordova actor/director character in Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon who sings his anthem, "That's Entertainment."  Lester cares about others too.  Notice the look on his face when he sees network news footage of American hostages being abused.  That reaction alone shows why veteran actor Alan Arkin has three Oscar nominations to his credit.  Plus, he gets to steal scenes with lines like "If I'm going to make a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit."
Trust me on this -- Alan Arkin and John Goodman give stand-out performances in Argo.
Bryan Cranston is solid as the CIA boss.  I also liked the ensemble work Affleck got out of the actors as the diplomats in hostage.  A generous star/director, he shares the spotlight.
I especially liked Scoot McNairy as the pessimistic Joe Stafford, a slim man with a caterpillar mustache  and box-shaped eyeglasses.  He teeters on the brink of a meltdown.
He nailed the early 1980s look.  Scoot McNairy is a good actor with a cool name.
Argo is worth the price of a ticket.  It's well-acted, cleverly written and an exciting movie that has tension, surprise, heart and laughs thanks to Affleck's smart direction.  It's a very human story.  And I liked Affleck as Tony Mendez.  Not only is he fighting to be responsible to his fellow Americans, he's an estranged husband and father re-evaluating the quality of his responsibility to his family as he heads into a potentially life-threatening situation.  Where did he get the inspiration for his outrageous plot that saved lives?  From a science-fiction action movie his little boy was watching -- a sequel to 1968's Planet of the Apes.  That sequel is not a critically praised Hollywood classic like a Citizen Kane or On The Waterfront, but that sci-fi entertainment inspired a rescue that saved the lives of six Americans.  I love that.  I understand that.  I had a near-death experience when I was in grade school.  The sequels in a 1930s MGM action/adventure franchise that aired weekend afternoons on local Los Angeles TV saved my life.  But that's another story.
This Recession plagues us like the Great Depression in the My Man Godfrey days of the 1930s.  It's reduced millions to "forgotten man" status.  Veterans of our current wars have come back to America to face unemployment, lack of benefits and -- in far too many cases -- homelessness.  Homes have been foreclosed on soldiers currently serving.  Where is Washington's responsibility to our veterans?  I think many of us long-term unemployed Americans had a rescue fantasy that Washington, DC would feel responsible and come to our aid.  Our nation's capital  today could use some politicians with that Tony Mendez quality.  Frankly, it could use a lot of politicians with his golden quality.  The core of Argo, what it says about responsibility, is strong and relevant.  Ben Affleck directed a winner.  I predict an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture of 2012.  Argo is just the kind of satisfying entertainment I wanted to see on a Saturday at the movies.  And did.  Adrienne Barbeau has a brief role as the actress cast as the fake film's Gallactic Witch.










Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why Mongo Mattered: Alex Karras

I think I fell in love with him the moment he punched out a horse.

The news came yesterday that NFL player-turned-actor Alex Karras died at age 77.  I cannot count the number of times he made me laugh as Mongo in the wonderfully irreverent Mel Brooks western, Blazing Saddles.  "Mongo only pawn in game of life."
It's not unusual for professional athletes to leave the playing field or the court and exercise some acting skills.  It was unusual to see a pro athlete become such a versatile, natural and brave actor.  He was the perfect Mongo -- a musclebound numbskull.
He was straight as Mongo in Blazing Saddles...gay as the burly bodyguard in Victor/Victoria...he embraced racial diversity on TV's, Webster...and he was great on the gridiron for the Detroit Lions.  His big bear of a bodyguard to the James Garner tough guy in Victor/Victoria was a breakthrough and a role that is still relevant and refreshing today.  First of all, that Blake Edwards film is one of the last truly terrific screwball comedies.  I feel it ranks right up there with the best of Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch from Hollywood's golden era of the 1930s and early '40s.  That gender bender story is my favorite Julie Andrews film.  Victor/Victoria came out when gay images were evolving in America and in American entertainment.  Those new images were kicking aside shame and moving up from the "sissy" victim, substitute gal pal and social deviant characters that were constantly seen.  (Remember when singer John Davidson played a psychotic drag queen killer on ABC's The Streets of San Francisco?  He killed and dressed as Carol Channing.)  America had to realize that masculinity wasn't the sole turf of heterosexual males.  Enter Alex Karras as "Squash" Bernstein in Victor/Victoria.  What a totally cool character!  He was to James Garner what William Demarest was to Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve.  The protector, the sidekick, the regular guy.  But with a twist.
At the gym, "Squash" knows boxers who are gay.  This was a 1982 movie.  Last week, Puerto Rico's Orlando Cruz -- who represented Puerto Rico in the 2000 Olympics -- became the first openly gay boxer in professional sports.  I tried to sit through another episode of NBC's freshman sitcom, The New Normal.  I couldn't make it. It's too shrill.  I can't connect to those gay men -- and I'm in the union.  I'm heterosexually-challenged.  The characters are busy being so hyper-trendy, hip, snarky, cute, upscale and fabulous-fabulous-fabulous that it's draining.  I felt like saying to the TV screen, "OK, I get it.  You're gay.  There should be marriage equality.  Let's move on.  Stop beating it into us with a velvet hammer."  I grew up in South L.A.  I worked and lived for ten years in Milwaukee.  Midwest gay men I knew were carpenters, landscapers, supermarket managers, factory workers, sons of farmers, nightclub bouncers and Coast Guards.  Like Karras' character, they were just regular working class guys who happened to be gay.  They were guys you could count on.  Guys who pitched in to help someone in need regardless of your age, looks, body type, income, clothing and neighborhood.  "Squash" Bernstein, bodyguard to his straight buddy, is still refreshing now compared to the gay male characters introduced to us this TV season on The New Normal and Partners.  He's my kind o' guy.
And how many former NFL stars would've been brave enough to get in bed with another man and have a cocktail?  Karras did that with Robert Preston in Victor/Victoria.
The sitcom, Webster, gave Karras the opportunity to act with Susan Clark, his real-life wife.  Emmanuel Lewis was Webster, the child adopted by a former football star.  This show was a great big bear hug of racial diversity and golden family values.
Webster was a hit sitcom.  Blazing Saddles, Victor/Victoria and Porky's were box office hits the actor could include on his resumé.  Alex Karras leaves behind some very entertaining work.  Entertaining -- and still significant.  Thank you, Mr. Karras.

This coming weekend, I'll be away to shoot the main part and final portion of a TV pilot.  This project has been in the works for months.  As some of you know, my life -- like the lives of too many other Americans -- was drastically and severely changed by the Recession when I got laid off from work.  Let's just say that I've been out of a job for so long that steady employment is now on my Bucket List.  Seriously, it's been a rocky couple of years --- humiliating and humbling yet also enlightening.  I've been blessed with great help from family and friends.  I've received constant motivation to "keep the faith."  I pray this TV project gets picked up so I can return to the work force and kick unemployment to the curb.  But I also pray it gets picked up because I believe in this arts-related project I'm co-hosting.  I'm blessed with a great production crew.  This was an unexpected opportunity that came my way.  It's a great ray of hope.  Say one for me.  I'll blog at you again in about a week or so.  Thanks so much for your time and attention.



Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Overlooked by Oscars: Debbie Reynolds

From Hollywood's golden era when major studios groomed top talent under contracts, Debbie Reynolds is one of the last of the A-list movie musical queens.  She made hard work look easy while she added so much sunshine to 1952's classic musical, Singin' in the Rain.  When Shirley MacLaine was originally mentioned for the lead, Debbie campaigned and landed the lead role in the grand MGM version of a big Broadway hit.  The Unsinkable Molly Brown crystallized the essence of Debbie Reynolds.  She did the role and earned her one and only Academy Award nomination as Best Actress of 1964.
Although they mostly make you smile and laugh, musicals are strenuous exercise.  Debbie was up for Hollywood gold thanks to her work in this movie.  She should've also been up for Olympic gold for the "He's My Friend" number alone.  It's a triathlon with a downbeat.  She acts.  She sings.  She dances.  She does gymnastic moves in formal evening wear and heels.  Pilates class ain't got nothin' on what Debbie did in that number!
Because she lit up so many musicals and comedies with her All-American Girl personality, her solid dramatic depth seemed to escape many critics. Young Debbie Reynolds held her own as the Catholic daughter of a working class Bronx family whose wedding may be more than her folks can afford.  She stood out showing great sensitivity in The Catered Affair opposite veteran pros Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine, screenplay by Gore Vidal.
She had the right touch of steeliness and cynicism as the tough New York City showgirl who finds love in The Rat Race opposite Tony Curtis as a musician from Milwaukee.
Her dramatic range expanded as the disillusioned 1930s Hollywood teacher whose career dreams are hamstrung by her ties and responsibility to a troubled, emotionally unhinged friend in What's The Matter With Helen?  Debbie really understood this character and played all her dark corners, deftly matching her Oscar winning co-star Shelley Winters.  This 1971 psychological thriller was poorly marketed when released.  Many movie-goers missed one of Debbie Reynolds' finest and most challenging dramatic performances.
And there's the movie that should've brought Debbie her second Oscar nomination for Best Actress:  Mother.  She is just flat-out brilliant in this critically acclaimed mother-son comedy co-starring, directed and written by Albert Brooks.  She is that blunt, independent, aggravating but loving Beatrice.  I'm glad Doris Day passed on the role when Brooks offered it to her.  I love Doris but Debbie was perfectly cast in this wise 1996 comedy.
I saw so much of myself and my mother in this movie.  My mom has had this penchant for purchasing big portions of obscure brands of food like Mrs Henderson did.  I understood exactly what her grown son was going through when she pulled a huge brick of cheese out of the refrigerator so she could make him a snack.  I've gotten that maternal look.
This is another performance young acting students seeking a career in movies and TV should watch.  Debbie's mastery of screen acting technique is at its peak in Mother.  Watch how she reacts to things.  Her timing, her pacing, her phrasing, her look -- it's all different here.  This is an original character and marvelous character acting.
Only Debbie danced onscreen with Gene Kelly (Singin' in the Rain), Fred Astaire (The Pleasure of His Company) Bob Fosse and Gower Champion (Give a Girl a Break).  Only Debbie used an Oscar as a nutcracker in a movie (1954's Susan Slept Here).
We know that she and the late Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor made headlines the way Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie did decades later.  Debbie and Eddie were married.  Eddie had an affair with Elizabeth and left Debbie to marry her.
Taylor too divorced Eddie Fisher. She and Debbie became great, close friends.  She visited Elizabeth Taylor in the hospital days before the legend passed away.
You know that Debbie is the mother of actress, novelist and screenwriter, Carrie Fisher.
Since the 1970s, Debbie Reynolds spent a lot of her time and money for Hollywood preservation, giving a home to movie costumes and other memorabilia from the classic movie studio days.  She displayed some of her collection and discussed her passionate Hollywood preservation work on Oprah's globally famous daytime talk show.
Oprah Winfrey, like Debbie, was an Oscar nominee for acting.  She was born two years after Singin' in the Rain was released.  Oprah received an honorary Academy Award.  Like Elizabeth Taylor,  Debbie was a former MGM movie star who pitched right in to give benefit help during the early dark days of the AIDS crisis.  With all that in consideration -- all the love the unsinkable entertainer has given to Hollywood and to her fans -- I say that Debbie Reynolds deserves her own honorary Oscar from the Academy.





Billy Wilder DVD Double Feature

Fred MacMurray.  Man, there was an actor who deserves more attention than he gets from classic film enthusiasts.  We baby boomers loved him ...