Tuesday, April 17, 2018

She Directed TALK TO ME

You know may not know her name but I'm sure millions of moviegoers remember her face.  Did you see 1991's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?  In that classic, Jodie Foster played the outstanding FBI cadet, Clarice Starling.  In the academy and in the field as she's on the case to capture a serial killer, she is constantly surrounded by men. She's often the only woman in the room, under the male gaze, and she works to prove her extraordinary smarts.  In the academy while she's training, there's one fellow female cadet who is Clarice's good buddy.  Her buddy was played by African American actress, Kasi Lemmons.  (Her first name is pronounced "Casey.")
Well...just like Jodie Foster...Kasi went on to become a film director after THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.  I thought of her work recently.  This month marked the 50th year since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was shot and killed on April 4th, 1968, in Memphis.  Kasi Lemmons directed a very good, very funny biopic that accurately incorporates turbulence of that tragic day into the story.  I have seen her 2007 movie, TALK TO ME, a few times.  Each time I watch it, I say to myself, "Seriously?  Don Cheadle has only one Oscar nomination to his credit?  Oh, that is a major oversight."  Cheadle is one gifted and versatile actor.  He should've been a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for playing a cold-blooded hood in 1995's DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, a crime thriller starring Denzel Washington.  I know that Denzel is the most Oscar-nominated Black actor in Oscar history with 8 nominations and 2 wins to his credit.  But, unlike Denzel, Don Cheadle shows a fabulous flexibility when it comes to doing comedy and even musical scenes.  Look at Don Cheadle as the part-time porn star in BOOGIE NIGHTS. He makes you laugh with his vulnerability in that role.  He was terrific dancing as Sammy Davis, Jr. in the HBO biopic, THE RAT PACK.  He was amazing as Mile Davis in MILES AHEAD, touching in the Best Picture Oscar winner CRASH and he deserved his Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing the African hotel manager during military atrocities and genocide horrors in HOTEL RWANDA.

Director Kasi Lemmons has him pull out his comic acting skills for TALK TO ME.  In the film, he plays the real-life Washington, DC radio personality Ralph "Petey" Greene.  Before there was a Howard Stern getting national attention, there was outrageous, outspoken and hilarious Petey Greene on radio in DC.  Petey was so popular with his call-in program that he was booked to be a guest on the TONIGHT Show with Johnny Carson.  Petey was a hot mess of an ex-con who took that radio station from the basement to the top floor in ratings.
TALK TO ME co-stars Martin Sheen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson and Cedric the Entertainer.  Yes, it is very funny. And then comes the horrible news of April 4th.  Radio host Petey Greene helped curbed some of the destructive uprisings that broke out in anger in the Black community.  From then on, social activism became a part of his life.  This movie is a must-see for Don Cheadle fans.  He's on his A-game in it.
TALK TO ME was not the first film directed by Kasi Lemmons.  Her first film was the impressive and fascinating EVE'S BAYOU.  This 1997 drama focuses on a Black middle class Louisiana family in the 1950s or early 60s.  We can tell that this Black family is comfortable. The father, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is a doctor and their house has more than one bathroom.  They weren't rich, but for Black folks, they were doing pretty well.  One of the two daughters witnesses something in their youth that fractures family feelings. We wait to see if the truth will be revealed.  One of the things that strikes you about EVE'S BAYOU is the gorgeous production design of it and the fluidity of Kasi Lemmons' direction.  Joining Samuel L. Jackson are Lynn Whitfield and Diahann Carroll.
If EVE'S BAYOU had been the directorial debut of a white male like a Ron Howard or Quentin Tarantino. he would have been booked for a bunch of Hollywood meetings to discuss future feature opportunities.  This indie film is that good.  I saw it last week on cable's Encore channel.  Check for it or rent it.

Actress/director Kasi Lemmons.  Add her to the list of women filmmakers.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Rita Moreno, Ricardo Montalban, MYSTERY STREET

She is Queen of All That Is Good in Show Business.  That's how I feel about WEST SIDE STORY Oscar winner, Rita Moreno.  She has triumphed in film, on Broadway and on TV.  (Don't get me started on the fact that she was NEVER an Emmy nominee for her extraordinary work as Sister Pete, the nun psychiatrist on the HBO prison series, OZ.)  On March 29th, I watched the live feed on Facebook of Rita Moreno being interviewed by a contributor for THE LOS ANGELES TIMES.  This was for the paper's "Ask LA Times" regular online feature.  Something Rita Moreno said in that interview reminded me of something Ricardo Montalban and I discussed when he was a great guest on my VH1 talk show in 1988.  Ms. Moreno mentioned Mr. Montalban in her comments, by the way.  The topic was diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry.  Rita Moreno can be seen currently on the excellent reboot of Norman Lear's sitcom, ONE DAY AT A TIME.  The family is now Latino, modern-day social issues are dealt with and Moreno steals every scene she has.
Early in her film career, she talked to Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban about equal opportunities for Latinos.  He said that the door is "ajar."  It needed to be opened wider.
In 1988, Ricardo Montalban visited my show to promote his work in a new follow-up to THE NAKED GUN, the nutty detective movies starring Leslie Nielsen.  I was extremely lucky to have that show.  For me, a classic film advocate, the opportunity to interviews stars from Hollywood's golden age was a dream come true.  Also, when those stars realized that I knew their work, studied it and had a serious interest in it, they were very giving in their interviews.  My floor crew, mostly young, loved Montalban from FANTASY ISLAND and the movie STAR TREK: THE WRATH OF KHAN.  I had seen Montalban's movies from his MGM years and beyond.  On TV, I'd watched his movies in which he danced with Cyd Charisse and Esther Williams in musical comedies. I also watched his impressive acting in war movies, action features, crime thrillers, love stories, westerns, historical epics -- Montalban did it all before having a TV hit with FANTASY ISLAND.

In the interview on-air and in between our on-camera segments, what was the main thing that we two men of color from different generations talked about?  Diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry.  Mr. Montalban was one of those veteran performers who gave me a huge compliment.  He said that he was proud of me for having that show...because he knew what the odds were against me having a show like that.  Montalban said his community needed to take tips from our black community and get more vocal about the lack of equal show biz opportunities.  This was in 1988.

Rita Moreno expressed that same exact sentiment in her L.A. TIMES interview last month.

Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were, I'm grateful to say, were part of my everyday life growing up in L.A.  My hometown was rich and ripe Mexican-American talent and stories.  But the only TV show about a lead character who was Mexican was CHICO AND THE MAN (1974).  The next that I can recall was the George Lopez sitcom in 2002.  I noticed and was bothered by that lack of representation on network television.

So, what does this all have to do with a 1950 crime story called MYSTERY STREET?  Before forensics became popular to solve crimes on TV like in the CSI franchise on CBS and, years earlier, on QUINCY, M.E., the hit NBC series starring Jack Klugman from 1976 to 1983, there was the movie MYSTERY STREET starring Ricardo Montalban.  Montalban played the cop who uses forensics to solve a murder mystery in Boston.  It's not a famous MGM movie but a movie that's been one of my Ricardo Montalban favorites for years.  He plays a Hispanic detective in it.  He's Lt. Pete Morales.
I once read a newspaper article than had an item about popular veteran actor Gilbert Roland.  Like Montalban, he was also Mexican and also worked not to be boxed into Hollywood's "Latin Lover" image.  Roland was awesome.  He went from starring in 1920s silent films to later Hollywood movies such as SHE DONE HIM WRONG with Mae West, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL with Kirk Douglas, THE FURIES with Barbara Stanwyck and the widescreen 1956 Best Picture Oscar winner, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.

In the 1950s or early 60s, film actor Gilbert Roland was frustrated by Hollywood when he pitched a detective series for TV in which he'd have a lead role as a Mexican-American detective.  The diversity and inclusion door was not even "ajar" then. Only white guys like Robert Taylor were the stars on a TV detective series.

MGM's TOPPER, THE THIN MAN and DR. KILDARE lead characters were adapted into TV series form.  I still feel that MYSTERY STREET could've been spun off into a solid TV series in the 1950s,  60s or 70s.  Det. Peter Morales could've used forensics to help him solve crimes every week on TV.  What great representation that would've been for Hispanic/Latino viewers.  Here's a clip featuring Ricardo Montalban in MYSTERY STREET.

MYSTERY STREET airs occasionally on TCM.  I bet you can find it on Amazon.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Muller, Mankiewicz and Minorities

MYSTERY STREET, a 1950 MGM crime thriller starring Ricardo Montalban as a Mexican-American police detective aired on TCM Sunday morning, April 15th.  It aired on TCM's Sunday morning Noir Alley hosted by Eddie Muller.  He's the writer/host who presents film noir classics and other crime thrillers.  Muller's hipster intro was extremely well-meant but it came off slightly like something that could be lampooned in a Christopher Guest mockumentary about a movie channel network that shows old Hollywood classics and strives to make them relevant to today's audiences while coming off like a production made within old Hollywood attitudes.
This relates to something I've noted previously as a veteran network TV/print entertainment news contributor and film reviewer and talk show host who has had to kick open some diversity doors for employment consideration.  As we saw less of Robert Osborne in host segments before he passed away, we also saw less African American presence.  Mr. Osborne presented African American talents as guest co-hosts and Guest Programmers on a regular basis.
Ben Mankiewicz is now the senior host.  We have Ben Mankiewicz, Eddie Muller, David Karger, Alicia Malone and occasional Leonard Maltin as hosts.  Ben brings up the importance of racial equality and acceptance.  He mentioned it last April in red carpet questions for the 50th anniversary screening of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. Before BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S aired one day, Ben addressed the offensive Asian racial stereotype in Mickey Rooney's performance.  On Easter Sunday, while introducing HOLIDAY INN, Ben cautioned us that Bing Crosby was in blackface for one big number.  In January on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day, Ben was the solo host for the prime time salute to African American filmmakers. No black guest co-host was with him.

Although TCM doesn't promote it the way it does its Sunday morning's Noir Alley, Saturday mornings now feature Tarzan adventures at 10a ET. I've watched for four consecutive Saturdays.  You know what Hollywood was like in the 1930s when it was making those jungle adventures starring Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. Black actors weren't given upscale roles. Each one of those four Tarzan movies I saw had a greedy white dude the Africans called "Bwana" who treated them like Congo slaves and killed several of them because they didn't want to carry his European luggage on their heads through the jungle. The other African natives were seen as deadly "savages."  No TCM host gives a disclaimer on those films before they air like Ben did with HOLIDAY INN.

Eddie Muller introduced MYSTERY STREET and highlighted that forensics play a big part in  the 1950 film.  This was made years before forensics, he said with an air of hipster snark, became prevalent on CSI franchises on network TV such as "...CSI: PEORIA."

I listed the group of hosts now seen on TCM.  What do the CSI casts have that the TCM host quartet doesn't?  People of color.  Eddie Muller has never had any people of color in any of his several TCM WINE CLUB spots.  In fact, if you really observe TCM -- a network I still love -- its segments for TCM product and its intros with talk about classic films are predominantly white and driven by a white narrative.  Look at the spots for the TCM Wine Club, the TCM Back Lot and the TCM tour buses.  Black guest co-hosts, guest solo hosts and monthly Guest Programmers have been rare since 2016.

Eddie Muller also highlighted the praiseworthy racial diversity of MYSTERY NIGHT.  Montalban's character, he accurately told us, could have easily been a white guy played by someone like Van Johnson.  But Ricardo Montalban played him and the detective was Mexican-American.

This was ironic because, for one year, TCM had its first Latinx host.  Tiffany Vazquez was the knowledgeable and lovely weekend host.  Last year, she was in a TCM promotional "Let's Movie" commercial with Muller and Mankiewicz. Her contract was not renewed.  New Yorker Tiffany Vazquez was replaced with....a white woman.  Australian Alicia Malone.
So...when diversity and inclusion in the film/TV industry are hot topics and Frances McDormand's mention of "inclusion riders" in her Oscar acceptance speech this year gave more muscle to the inclusion campaign, TCM dropped its only minority host.  Meanwhile, the current Caucasian hosts mention the importance of diversity in their host segments.

It's like if Christopher Guest made a mockumentary about a classic movie channel and had someone playing a TV news reporter interviewing its on-air talent.  All five hosts are assembled on a studio host set for a group interview.  All five are white and they sincerely discuss the need for racial diversity and equal opportunities.  They comment on how Hollywood has grown in its presentation of racial images.

And in the background, as they're saying all that, we see a black janitor mopping the floor.

The 2018 TCM Film Festival takes place in Hollywood later this month.  Let's see if, beginning with this year's festival, there's some inclusion in the "Let's Movie" narrative.  Cicely Tyson will be honored by TCM during the festival.  If she's interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz and if she happened to say, "I'm a big TCM fan.  I've watched it for years. But how come you don't have a black host?,"  what would be his answer?  Would nearby TCM Public Relations reps break out into a nervous flop sweat like the Albert Brooks reporter anchoring the evening newscast in BROADCAST NEWS?

Ben loves sports. If he went to a baseball or a basketball game or watched NFL action on TV and noticed that Black players were no longer playing, no longer on the field, wouldn't he say something? Would he express that something was wrong on the playing field?  Well, look at the field of film critics on network morning news shows and in syndicated shows with film critic teams.  Look the movie hosts on national TV from the old days when cable's AMC was still American Movie Classics and aired old movies.  That field of film critics and movie hosts from 1980 to 2018...did you notice there were no people of color?  Did you notice that the playing field wasn't level?

Representation matters.

Thursday, April 12, 2018


I'm watching THE VIEW, it's Thursday, and I just saw a promo for tomorrow's big announcement.  The announcement will be -- the list of contestants for this year's upcoming season of DANCING WITH THE STARS.  To me, it feels like that show featuring stars we've never heard of has been on for decades.  This season will have a special hook.  All the contestants will be athletes.  I've heard that Tonya Harding will be in the line-up for DANCING WITH THE STARS 2018.
Other than Tonya, I bet that the rest of the contestants will be a few athletes who can represent what have become the producers' favorite -- or make that, usual -- categories in DWTS contestants:
Someone openly gay or transgender, a hunky black athlete from the NFL, a black woman with a big personality, an AARP senior, someone disabled and someone with a Disney film or TV connection.
As May is a very important month in TV ratings, it would be a ratings knockout if DANCING WITH THE STARS had Tonya Harding up against a returning Nancy Kerrigan. But that won't happen, I'm sure.  But wouldn't we tune in to see that visual guilty pleasure?
GOOD MORNING AMERICA will have folks in place for the announcement tomorrow morning, Friday the 13th.  Let's see how many of those categories are filled by athletes who want to grab life by the mirrored disco balls.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

On the Oscars Telecast, 1968

Sidney Poitier was one of the top box office stars at that time -- and the first Black actor in Hollywood history who ever was a top box office star.  I was new in high school but I already had a few years of serious new and classic film love under my belt.  By the time April started, the Oscar nominations were out and Sidney Poitier starred in two of the top films nominated.
No Black person who saw IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT at a drive-in or walk-in movie theater will forget the collective "Whoa!" from the audience when Mr. Poitier, as Detective Virgil Tibbs, slapped the taste out that racist white man's mouth after he, in a sense of white superiority, had slapped Det. Tibbs.  That slap represented our national slap in the face of racism.  Sidney Poitier represented us and that slap, during the Civil Rights decade, represented how we African Americans felt.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was still a living voice, a controversial and vital living voice, the first day of April.  He got a mention in the other hit film starring Sidney Poitier.  GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER starred Mr. Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

On April 5th, folks our South Central L.A. community went to work and school with a solemn quietness not usually associated with a Friday morning.  At school, students and teachers didn't talk much.  We were grief-stricken. I attended a Catholic all-boys high school in Watts.  Our student body was led in early morning prayer for Dr. King.  The Father Robinson, our principal, announced that classes would end for the day at 10am in case the assassination of Dr. King sparked turbulence in the community.  We were dismissed early for the weekend and told to go directly home.

Dr. Martin Luther King's life -- and death -- had an impact on people in the Hollywood industry.  Many entertainers loved his work and attended his historic 1963 March on Washington.  The corporate branch of Hollywood itself needed to embrace his message of  equality.  Here are my memories of how Dr. King's untimely death affected the 1968 Academy Awards telecast.

Monday, April 2, 2018

A Great Month for William Holden Fans

When I was just starting elementary school back in Los Angeles, I learned one thing about show business -- if William Holden was starring in a new film, we'd be going to the drive-in movies.  I'd sit happily in the back seat of the Plymouth with my little sister.  Both of us would have our pajamas on underneath our street clothes.  Our film fan parents would be in the front seat. Mom and Dad loved William Holden.  They really didn't care what the critics said.  If Holden was onscreen, that was a good enough reason for them to go the movies and do their own review.  That's what you call star power -- and William Holden's star power really beamed at full capacity starting about 1950.  I'm proud to report that I picked up the love for William Holden from Mom and Dad.  The talented, handsome, intelligent and gracious film actor is in the TCM (Turner Classic Movies) prime time spotlight every Monday this month.  This year marks the centennial of the late star's birth.  Very late in tonight's line-up are two of my favorite William Holden movies.  They're films I always loved seeing on TV if they aired when I got home from school or during my summer vacations.  The first one I write about is a comedy with musical numbers.  It's the movie that gave us the beautiful Johnny Mercer classic song, "I Remember You."  It's a movie I'd put on a double bill with Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD.  The movie with the Johnny Mercer songs is 1942's THE FLEET'S IN.
This was obviously a movie made to entertain wartime audiences and probably also entertain the troops.  The plot is paper thin.  A bunch of sailors on leave make a bet that their shy, handsome bookworm sailor buddy can't kiss the ice princess singer who headlines at a swanky San Francisco nightclub.  She's called "The Countess" and she's well-played by Dorothy Lamour.
Lamour looks luscious.  For that matter, so does young and fresh-faced William Holden.  This movie was one of the first ten he made in which he had a speaking part.  The Countess has a roommate who's also a performer at the club.  As the comic sidekick roommate -- and making a big, brassy impression with her first film role -- we see Betty Hutton.  This was her first movie...and the first time we saw her teamed with Eddie Bracken.  They'd go on to make the 1944 Preston Sturges classic, THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK.  For THE FLEET'S IN, Betty belts out "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry."  Dorothy Lamour does a silky rendition of "I Remember You."  Helen O'Connell, vocalist for Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra, does their hit song, "Tangerine."
Did you ever see that brilliantly bad movie, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS?  If you did, you remember the friction between Broadway diva Helen Lawson and newcomer Neely O'Hara.  That friction was based on the real-life situation between Ethel Merman and Betty Hutton.  Merman was in rehearsals for the new 1940 Cole Porter show, PANAMA HATTIE.  A newcomer named Betty Hutton had a couple of number in the show was getting great buzz in the out-of-town tryouts.  Reportedly, Merman had Hutton's numbers cut on opening night.  Heartbroken Hutton went to Hollywood where, in time, she'd star in the film version of one of Merman's biggest Broadway hits, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1950).  Betty really wanted the part originated by Merman in the Irving Berlin musical. THE FLEET'S IN launched Hutton's rise to Hollywood stardom.
"I Remember You" is one of my favorite songs of all time.  I have two good friends who are jazz singers and they both have a book of songs co-written by Johnny Mercer.  Even though that song is now a standard and one of his most popular, it wasn't in the book.  Why?  Well...here's the story:  When Johnny wrote "I Remember You," he wrote it with someone in mind and heart.  He'd fallen deeply in love with Judy Garland, but she was engaged to and married David Rose.  Mercer was also married.  Mrs. Mercer knew about the affair and, reportedly, was a bit sensitive about that song.  Mercer and Judy would work together on the MGM musical, THE HARVEY GIRLS (1946).  He'd win a Best Song Oscar for it. ("On the Atchison, Topeka and the Sante Fe")
So...why would I put THE FLEET'S IN on a double bill with Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD.?  In the first 15 minutes of the movie, we see Holden as the broke screenwriter in a pitch meeting with a bald Paramount producer named Sheldrake.  Joe Gillis (Holden) is desperately pitching ideas for scripts because he's desperate for income.  His car is about to be repossessed.  Sheldrake asks, "Do you have anything for Betty Hutton?  We're always interested in a Betty Hutton."  The brassy blonde babe who made her 1942 big screen bow with Holden in THE FLEET'S IN was one of the top stars on the Paramount lot come 1950.

A good buddy and mine who also digs classic films and tales of old Hollywood once said, "William Holden owned the 1950s."  I agree. Think about the Best Actress Oscar race for that year alone.  Gloria Swanson was up for SUNSET BLVD. and so was Judy Holliday for BORN YESTERDAY.   Holden was the leading man in both films.  Both were nominees for Best Picture.  Holden would take home a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Billy Wilder's STALAG 17.

Also in the 1950s, he'd make a cameo appearance in one of the funniest I LOVE LUCY episodes.  The Ricardos and the Mertzes were in Hollywood.  Lucy Ricardo has a very close encounter with movie star William Holden at the famed celebrity-heavy Brown Derby restaurant. The Lucille Ball and Bill Holden association goes back to a 1949 comedy that always tickles me.  It's called MISS GRANT TAKES RICHMOND.
This is a low budget, big fun comedy with Lucy as the worst student in a secretarial school.  She's Miss Grant.  He's Mr. Richmond, the guy who hires her to work for his realty company.  But the realty company turns out to really be a front for a bookmaking operation.  Folks place bets on horse races.  Hijinks ensue.  For me, this movie was fun to watch because it sailed on the energy of Lucille Ball and William Holden.  It's cool to see it now because, in 1949, Lucille Ball's film career was warm but not hot.  The same applied to Holden.  But, when they reteamed a few years later for I LOVE LUCY, they'd both become two of the hottest stars in Hollywood.

The TCM salute to William Holden starts tonight at 8p ET with GOLDEN BOY co-starring Barbara Stanwyck followed by EXECUTIVE SUITE, also co-starring Barbara Stanwyck, at 10p ET.  A couple of other Holden movie play after that.  Then...THE FLEET'S IN at 3:30am ET followed by MISS GRANT TAKES RICHMOND at 5:15am ET.  That's all tonight, April 2nd, on TCM.  Enjoy.

From THE FLEET'S IN, here is "I Remember You" sung by George Michael.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Easter Alert for Fellow Black TCM Fans

Happy Easter! May your spirit feel reborn and refreshed.  May a big basket of tasty goodness be waiting for you to enjoy.  As you know, I am passionate about diversity and inclusion in the entertainment business -- films and television.  I've been a devoted TCM fan since 1999.  However, there have been times in the last couple of years when TCM has been like that good buddy to whom you occasionally must say, "Duh! Seriously?"  I felt that way early Saturday when I watched the network.  Saturdays are now TARZAN day at 10a ET.
Today was the third consecutive Saturday I saw Congo natives carrying some white British guy's luggage on their heads while they called him "Bwana."  Some were shot and killed because they didn't want to carry his luggage on their heads.  Others were tossed off a high mountain cliff like ragdolls by wild gorillas.  The other Congo natives were bad.  Basically, African images came in two categories -- slaves or savages.  And some of those greedy white hunters worked Tarzan's last good nerve too.

Are there any black execs in the TCM programming room?  They've got 4 TCM hosts -- senior host Ben Mankiewicz, Eddie Muller, Dave Karger and Alicia Malone.  There are 5 hosts if you count the occasionally seen Disney expert, Leonard Maltin.  All Caucasian.      

Ben Mankiewicz is a lovely, lovely man whose work I have enjoyed for years. You can always count on Ben Mankiewicz to bring up the importance of racial equality.  He did that in April of last year on the TCM Film Festival red carpet in Hollywood when the race drama/murder mystery IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT received a 50th anniversary screening with star Sidney Poitier and Lee, director Norman Jewison, and producer Walter Mirisch in attendance.  Ben posed a question on the red carpet about the relevance of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT today in this age of "Black Lives Matter."  Ben warned folks that BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S contained Mickey Rooney's ethnic stereotype performance as an Asian upstairs neighbor.  I wish pianist/singer Michael Feinstein had taken a tip from Ben Mankiewicz late last December when he was guest host.  Feinstein introduced THE DOLLY SISTERS starring Betty Grable and June Haver.  He told the audience to look for the lavish, surreal costumes in the "Lipstick, Powder and Rouge" number.

I sat on my couch and thought, "You should prepare them for "The Darktown Strutters' Ball." That production number had shapely showgirls and poor Betty Grable all in blackface.  And Betty was not only in blackface, she was dressed as a pickaninny. So was June Haver.  You need to warn folks about stuff like that.  There have been other blackface numbers seen in other classic movies that have aired since THE DOLLY SISTERS.

In a way, the TCM host group is like a 1930s Hollywood movie that has lead characters talking about the importance of racial equality -- but the movie has an all-white cast.  There's no black representation in segments in between the movies.  We didn't even see a black guest co-host in prime time on Dr. Martin Luther King Day a few months ago when TCM salute African American filmmakers.

I love Bing Crosby musical comedies and his powerful dramatic skills, as in 1954's THE COUNTRY GIRL, just knock me out.  However, as much as Bing loved and respected Black music and artists, Bing was late getting the memo to "Nix the blackface numbers."
On Easter Sunday night, TCM follows the 8p ET airing of Irving Berlin's EASTER PARADE starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland with Irving Berlin's HOLIDAY INN starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby.  Bing sings "Easter Parade" in this movie and introduced a new song called "White Christmas." It would win the Oscar for Best Song and become one of Bing's signature tunes.  This was made back when George Washington's birthday and Abraham Lincoln's birthday was separate federal holidays and not rolled into one Presidents' Day the way they are now.  For Abe's birthday, Bing slaps on the blackface to sing "Abraham."  In it, Louise Beavers, as the Holiday Inn maid, sings a line about the man "...who helped to set the darkies free."

So be prepared.  While Bing sings, poor Marjorie Reynolds is also in blackface -- and dressed as a pickaninny.

Here's a note about the classic MGM musical:
There is a terrific Black female dancer in EASTER PARADE.  Unfortunately, she didn't get to dance. She played the maid to Ann Miller's character.  Jeni LeGon was her name.  As did many Black female actresses in Hollywood during that time, she played a lot of maids. Her color limited the amount and quality of work she got in Hollywood.  She did get to dance in a few films.  In 1935's HOORAY FOR LOVE, she danced with the famous Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
Jeni LeGon had a knockout of a tap number in 1937's fantasy musical ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN starring Eddie Cantor.  She had sweet little number with Betty Hutton in 1952's SOMEBODY LOVES ME.

Hollywood frustrated Jeni LeGon.  She relocated to Canada in 1969 and, there, she became a highly respected and popular dance teacher/coach.  She died in 2012 at age 96.

Happy Easter. And remember...."Representation Matters."

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Beyoncé's Dad Is My Podcast Guest

Mathew Knowles is the proud papa of Beyoncé, one of the most famous and fascinating entertainers in show business right now.  What the star sings and what she wears always make entertainment news headlines.
Beyoncé and her husband, Jay-Z, are most definitely a top power couple in the music business.
Mathew Knowles distinguished himself in the music business.  He has had great success in it, yet he still felt the sting of racism.  In his new book, RACISM FROM THE EYES OF A CHILD, he writes his memories and observations of race in America from his childhood during the Civil Rights era of Dr. Martin Luther King's marches to our racial pride when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States to such modern-day horrors as white supremacists marching through Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 during the Trump administration.  Mathew Knowles and I talk about race, class, success, therapy, his marriage to Tina Knowles (the mother of Solange and Beyoncé) and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King in relation to today's youth.  Yes, I do also mention Beyoncé during the interview.  Mr. Knowles has a website you can visit:  www.MathewKnowles.com.

I open the podcast episode by telling my co-host, Keith Price, that the April cover of VANITY FAIR is great and groundbreaking.  Actress, producer and Emmy-winning comedy writer Lena Waithe is on the cover and the magazine let Lena be Lena.  She is her fabulous, talented lesbian self.  VANITY FAIR didn't try to make her look girly.
In the podcast following the Mathew Knowles episode, Keith and I open with a few glowing words about a Brazilian actor who is...ok, let's just say it....a gorgeous hunk.  And a very fine actor.  His name is Rodrigo Santoro.  Millions saw him play the bald and bejeweled villain in the action/adventure 300, a story set in the days of ancient Greece.

Santoro had a role in a film that boasted one of Jim Carrey's best performances.  The 2009 movie is called I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS.  Ewan McGregor co-starred and he's also excellent.  As usual. But you probably didn't see the movie.  I explain that point to Keith in the show.  Here's a trailer I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS:
I'll also tell you about GOOK, an indie film set in 1992 Los Angeles during the time of the tense Rodney King trial.  Justin Chon plays the lead character.  He also wrote and directed the film.  The young filmmaker should be extremely proud of himself.  Here's a taste of his film:
I will politely disagree with famous veteran filmmaker Steven Spielberg about his recent comments regarding Netflix features and I'll tell you what's new with the legendary Rita Moreno.  Plus, I give you a new look at her most dramatic scene in WEST SIDE STORY, the classic movie musical that brought her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress of 1961.  The film won several Oscars, including Best Picture.  Reportedly, Steven Spielberg plans to remake the beloved film.  But who could ever match Rita Moreno's brilliance as Anita?

There you have it.  A sample of what's coming up soon in our next two MOCHAA podcast episodes.  Check here to see when they're posted: www.MOCHAA.podomatic.com.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Millennials and a Splash of Marilyn Monroe

It amazes me how the late Marilyn Monroe has become more respected and even more famous since her untimely death in 1962 than she was during her lifetime.  In life, she was internationally famous but not really appreciated as a skilled actress who was also a knock-out in musical numbers.
On HBO this week, I saw the Arthur Miller documentary entitled ARTHUR MILLER: WRITER directed by his daughter, Rebecca Miller.  We see and hear the acclaimed playwright.  In interviews, he talks about his late wife, Marilyn Monroe.  We hear her words as she tells about their first meeting, a meeting that occurred when she was a 20th Century Fox newcomer and not a big star.  Miller complimented her on her acting.  He explains his compliment and details the depth and wit of the performance she was giving.  He told her that she should be on the stage.  Marilyn tells us that, when he made that remark, people near them laughed as if it was a light joke.  Miller was serious.  This was a fascinating part of the documentary.  Then, I thought of my interview with actor Lou Gossett, Jr. five years ago.  Gossett and Monroe were in Actors Studio classes together.  She was dating Miller at the time.  Marilyn Monroe asked Lou Gossett to be her scene partner.  He told me that he watched her do work by Tennessee Williams in class. She did scenes from THE ROSE TATTOO and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.  Gossett described her stage acting in class as "brilliant."  He went on to say that, had she lived and if Hollywood had allowed her to do the quality of acting onscreen that she'd done in class, she'd have two Oscars by now.  But, in life, she didn't get much respect from film journalists.  She made headlines as a sex symbol but was not given significance as an actress, as an artist. Damn those entertainment journalists.  She was one of the best comic screen actresses of her day. Her comedy timing in HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and SOME LIKE IT HOT is masterful. She's awed and influenced other artists from Arthur Miller to Norman Mailer to Madonna.  Today, she still has an influence over our pop culture. Last night, I saw a photo from a new movie that comes out in a few months and I immediately thought, "The director has the actress doing a Marilyn Monroe bit."
Monroe's last completed film was a drama, THE MISFITS, with a 1961 dramatic screenplay written by Arthur Miller.  The two divorced after the film's completion.  Marilyn had dropped about 15 pounds and looked absolutely sensational as she started work on her colorful next project.
She'd started work on a new 20th Century Fox comedy co-starring Dean Martin.  Noted director George Cukor was directing them in SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE.
This 1962 shoot was a remake of the popular screwball comedy starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant called MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940).  Marilyn Monroe, who had a keen sense of self-promotion, shoots a tastefully nude swimming pool scene.
Of course, pics of this shoot made magazine covers and had male hormone in 1962 spinning like they were in those giant teacups at Disneyland.
UNDER THE SILVER LAKE, directed by David Robert Mitchell, stars Andrew Garfield and seems to be sort of "millennial noir."  The modern-day takes place in Los Angeles. A young dude becomes obsessed with the mysterious disappearance of his beautiful blonde neighbor.  She likes to the use the apartment complex swimming pool.

 See the Monroe influence?  Here's a trailer for UNDER THE SILVER LAKE.
It opens this year, June 22nd.

Marilyn Monroe died during production of SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE.  Again she made headlines and magazine covers. She was 36.  The project was shelved and then repackaged with a new cast and crew.  It becomes a hit Doris Day and James Garner comedy called MOVE OVER, DARLING (1963).  Doris Day's character even makes mention of the Irene Dunne and Cary Grant original film.  In the story, a wife gets lost on a tropical island (like Tom Hanks in CAST AWAY) and is presumed dead after seven years. The husband is on the verge of remarrying.  He's engaged to a highbrow bore when his first love is found and returns home.  She's determined to prove that she's very much alive and wants to marry him again.

Clever Monroe fans and film enthusiasts took the SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE footage in assembled it into a short version of what the late Hollywood legend's first role as a wife and mom could've been.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ava DuVernay Deserves Better

Yes, here's another one of my rants about the lack of gender and race diversity in the field of film journalism we've had over the decades.  Couple that with how some Hollywood history was overlooked when reviews were written recently about A WRINKLE IN TIME's remarkable director, Ava DuVernay.  Let me tell you right up front that I grew up in South Central L.A.  I believe she did too. We're of different generations but, I'm sure, some of the same things applied.  Back in those days when Sidney Poitier was a top box office star and the Oscars ceremony had relocated from Santa Monica to downtown's L.A. Music Center, you did not see black people on TV doing film reviews.  Black folks were not film critics in publications like THE LOS ANGELES TIMES.  Only white broadcasters and white writers held those jobs.  I was a film geek.  When I was a student at Verbum Dei High School in Watts, I pretty much pushed myself into audition consideration to be a contestant on a classic film trivia TV quiz show called THE MOVIE GAME.  I made the cut.  It shot in Hollywood.  I was the first African American contestant and, at the time, the youngest.  Mom sat in the audience.  She watched me become the show's youngest and first African American winner.  However, for someone to grow up in South Central L.A. with dreams of making films that would be released by a top Hollywood studio...well, that was pretty much an impossible dream.  The odds were against you.  The odds were against me going to New York City and getting my own prime time celebrity talk show on national TV.  But I did it.  And Ava DuVernay made a fantasy film that was released by Disney.  Brava, Ava!
The late, great Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert saw greatness in Ava DuVernay.  I first heard of her through him.  Watch the moving documentary about him, LIFE ITSELF (2014).  Ava appears in it.  Several film critics appear in.  Not a one is black.  Late last year, HBO premiered SPIELBERG, a documentary about Steven Spielberg.  About a half dozen film critics appear in that.  Not a one is black.  Remember when AMC was American Movie Classics and host presented classic films?  All the regular hosts were white males.  Turner Classic Movies now has four hosts.  Four white hosts.

There same frustrations African American filmmakers have felt when Hollywood declared "Black films aren't marketable and don't make money overseas" has been and is felt by those of us who worked the entertainment news side and pushed to do reports on filmmakers and actors of color who were not getting mainstream attention.  We also hit a color wall.  We pushed to do film reviews in the studio but were denied the opportunities.  So...predominantly white guys on network TV news programs and syndicated entertainment news shows told us why we should see THE COLOR PURPLE, BOYZ N THE HOOD, THE HELP, THE BUTLER and 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  I ran into Rex Reed at a News York City film screening.  He saw 12 YEARS A SLAVE and then went on a 4-week paid vacation overseas.  In my entire life, I have never known a black person who got 4 consecutive weeks of paid vacation. By the way, Rex did not understand and hated GET OUT.

Back in the 80s and 90s when weekend box office receipts became part of the local and network news reports, we'd hear about the Top 5 movies at the weekend box office.  To be in the Top 3 was an admirable achievement.

Black history was made in 2015.  F. Gary Gray, a black director, gave us the critically acclaimed STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON.  Not only did respected national critics rave about this film, it was number one at the box office for three consecutive weeks.  A film from Universal directed by a black director.  AND... it was making money overseas.  However, the TODAY Show on NBC/Universal, gave way more attention to TRAINWRECK, JURASSIC WORLD and the animated MINIONS, all three also from Universal.  Stars visited for studio interviews. The TODAY Show had no features on STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON and never even mentioned the Black Hollywood history it made at the box office.  And Matt Lauer, then with TODAY, is seen in Universal's STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON.  After my VH1 years, when I worked at WNBC and did entertainment reports on a local news program, publicists still remembered me from VH1 and offered me clients to interview in studio.  I was offered in-studio interviews of three performers -- singer Dianne Reeves, singer Patti LaBelle and actress Pam Grier.  My white executive producer declined the invites saying, "They're not our audience." I soon realized that was the same as "Black films don't sell overseas."  Our news anchor, however, did get to book a live in-studio interview of Pia Zadora.

January 2017.  Chris Connelly and Jess Cagle, two very nice white gentlemen who are entertainment journalists with high profile jobs, were on GOOD MORNING AMERICA awaiting the Oscar nominations to be announced. They wondered if black actors would be in the running because of the "Oscars So White" issue. Viola Davis was announced as a Best Supporting Actress nominee for FENCES.  Neither Jess nor Chris knew or mentioned that Viola Davis had just become the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in all 89 years of Oscar history. It was her third nomination. Jess and Chris talked about Meryl Streep.  My point -- our Black History in the Hollywood industry should be acknowledged.

This year. director/writer Ryan Coogler rocked Hollywood with his box office blockbuster, BLACK PANTHER.  A film with a predominantly black cast that was written and directed by a black man was number one at the box office and has hit the $1 billion mark in worldwide box office.  Coogler's Marvel Comics-based action/adventure has become a pop culture phenomenon.
Last week --- just last week -- A WRINKLE IN TIME opened.  Ava DuVernay directed this female-driven inspirational fantasy starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. A 12-year old black girl is the lead character in the film.  Little black girls all over the country can see themselves in the lead character in a major motion picture.  THAT is major.
When I was a kid, I won tickets to see a preview of the sci-fi fantasy thriller FANTASTIC VOYAGE.  Mom, my sister and I saw on the 20th Century Fox lot.  Mainstream American may not have known it but I knew that Raquel Welch is Mexican-American.  Our next door neighbors were Mexican-American.  I had Chicano classmates, teachers, priests and friends.  Raquel Welch represented the world that I knew -- and she played a scientist in the movie!  That was so cool and so significant to young me.  Just like seeing Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte on the big screen.

History was made at the box office last weekend.  I cannot remember in my lifetime of hearing entertainment news reports when the Number One and Number Two films at the weekend box office were directed by African American filmmakers.  And one of them is a woman!  BLACK PANTHER came in tops again, followed by A WRINKLE IN TIME.  This was a major achievement for Women In Film and Black History in Hollywood.  However, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER called Ava's number 2 spot a "disappointment" because she didn't top BLACK PANTHER.  I read a couple of lackluster reviews from middle-aged white male critics who apparently watched A WRINKLE IN TIME through the prism of middle-aged white manhood.

There was no consideration for of acknowledgment of the fact that young black and Latina girls all over the country might be looking at the same film with wonder and delight.  Until last weekend, those girls have seen Cineplex screens dominated by white male superheroes.  In fact, A WRINKLE IN TIME could be a film that inspires some of them to seek a career in the film business.  Ava's film could be delighting future directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, actresses -- and film journalists.  In short, it could inspire their dreams the way a fantasy film like FANTASTIC VOYAGE did mine.

In the late 80s, Raquel Welch was a most fabulous guest on my VH1 talk show.

This is a reason why the field of film critics is in great need of some race and gender diversity.  I wish I was on a TV show where I could say the things I've put in this blog post.

In Academy Awards history, a few women have directed films that got nominated for Best Picture.  An even fewer number of those women got a Best Director nomination for directing the movie in the Oscar nominee category for Best Picture.  Ava DuVernay directed SELMA.  She did not get an Oscar nomination for Best Director -- which she deserved -- but it was nominated for Best Picture of 2014.

Ava DuVernay, I believe, is the only African American woman who directed a film that was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture.  Black History, Women In Film History, Hollywood History.

Ava DuVernay is one of the very few African American women who directed a film that was in the Top 3 of the weekend box office.  Black History, Women In Film History, Hollywood History.

But for her fantasy film to come in at No. 2, in the eyes of some white film journalists, is a disappointment.  Given the long, long, long history of racial exclusion and the lack of equal opportunities in Hollywood, they should be praising the fact that she got the movie made instead of writing that it made "only" $33 million. In its first weekend.

I have not seen Ava DuVernay's A WRINKLE IN TIME but I plan to.  I am proud of her -- and very proud that she's from South Central L.A.  I feel some of the recent print reviews about her new film ignored the historical big picture.  Ms. DuVernay deserves more respect for her accomplishments.  Just my opinion.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Defiant Friend, Doris Day

I have been a Doris Day fan ever since I was kid.  Her old movies were shown frequently on local TV and AM radio stations were still playing her records.  In my VH1 veejay years of the late 80s, it really hit me what a phenomenon in the entertainment business she was.  Doris Day, as you probably know, was a hit vocalist during the World War 2 years.  She sang with a band.  Then she did popular radio show appearances.  Then Hollywood gave her a big break in 1948.  Reportedly, Warner Bros had planned ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS as a vehicle for Betty Hutton.  Hutton, at the time, was a top Paramount star.  Well, Warner Bros. didn't get Hutton and took a chance on singer Doris Day, a talent who could sing and dance yet never had any acting training.  Well, she proved to be a natural in the last category.  Day became a big, new star on the Warner Bros. lot.
She was on the studio's assembly line of musicals.  Not all of them became true classics like a MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN or THE BAND WAGON, but they were entertaining.  One thing to notice now is what a really good dancer Doris Day was. Look at her dancing with Gene Nelson in TEA FOR TWO (1950) and LULLABY OF BROADWAY (1951).  She was a newcomer in 1948.  By 1953,  her name was above the title for the original musical western, CALAMITY JANE. That has another display of her solid dancing skills.  Also, she introduced "My Secret Love."  Another hit record for her and a tune that won the Oscar for Best Song.  It seems to have been Doris Day's destiny to be a top Hollywood movie star.
With her spunky, independent girl next door image as a starter, she advanced to more serious fare that showed her impressive dramatic talent.  She had serious scenes with Frank Sinatra in YOUNG AT HEART, she should've nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as an ambitious, manipulate singer (Ruth Etting) in the drama biopic LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME co-starring James Cagney and there's her dramatic work as the mother of a little boy who's been kidnapped during a family vacation overseas in Hitchcock's THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. That gave her another future Best Song Oscar winner to introduce.  "Que Será, Será" became Day's signature tune.
By the 1960s, thanks to her bright romantic comedies with Rock Hudson (PILLOW TALK brought her a Best Actress Oscar nomination), she had truly become a Hollywood movie icon,  Icon is a word greatly overused today but, in her case, it applied.  Doris Day's image symbolized a certain kind of bright entertainment to audiences all over the world.

Doris Day was a triple threat Hollywood star -- like Judy Garland.  Doris Day could sing, dance and act.  Both were Oscar nominees in the Best Actress category.  It's not such a practice anymore but, when Doris was making movies like THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, TEACHER'S PET, PILLOW TALK and PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES ... she sang title tunes written for the film and/or songs written for her to perform in the story.  Doris Day had hit records on the Billboard charts and made hit movies that made her a Top Ten box office star.  In VH1 days, pop superstars like Madonna and Cher couldn't quite pull that same achievement off to the extent that Doris Day did.  And there's a hip embrace of diversity and inclusion in her biography.  Her girlhood idol and inspiration to sing was Ella Fitzgerald. In the 1950s, he widowed father remarried.  His new wife was a Black woman.  Doris, in her memoir, told that she had a blast at that wedding reception.  I bet the studio wanted her to keep hush-hush about that.  Years later, a couple of tongues were wagging that she was having an affair with...Sly Stone of Sly & the Family Stone.  They weren't having an affair.  He was meeting with Doris Day for permission to record a cover of "Que Será, Será."

Doris Day went on to star in a hit CBS sitcom.

Now... about her defiance.  The early years of the AIDS crisis were dark, brutal years in which anger and ignorance reigned.  There was anger from our gay community at the Reagan Administration for not acknowledging the epidemic and doing something to fight it.  As far as the ignorance, AIDS was the new leprosy.  People did not want to touch you if they knew you were HIV positive.  NEW YORK MAGAZINE had a major article in which it was noted that expensive people who were regulars as posh East Side Manhattan restaurants stopped being regulars.  Why?  They assumed that all male waiters were gay, all gay men had the AIDS virus and they could transmit it to you by touching your food plate and silverware.  That's how some educated people thought and reacted.  The 1980s were like Medieval times.  A book publicist friend of mine who worked for a top publishing house in New York City had seen some of this ignorance play out at swanky cocktail parties.  He noticed that people would get visibly nervous if someone gay or even assumed to be gay simply sneezed.

Compassion and education -- and medical attention -- were needed.  To me, female Oscar nominees charged forward with the quality of compassion that, well...frankly, President Reagan did not.  There was, of course, 2-time Best Actress Oscar winner Elizabeth Taylor.  There was also another woman who'd been Rock Hudson's leading lady -- Doris Day.

Rock Hudson, after his big movie star days had lessened. went on to years of success and more popularity on NBC in the 1970s.  In 1984, he was added to the cast of DYNASTY.  There, a change in his appearance had been noticed. Reportedly, one actress did not want to do a love scene with him.
Hudson, who'd kept private about being a gay man, had been diagnosed with AIDS and the revelation of his illness in the news gave a famous face to the disease.

After her CBS sitcom years, Doris Day had a chat show that she taped where she lived.  In the Carmel, California area.  She did an episode with her longtime friend and famous co-star, the now-ailing Rock Hudson.  Whereas some folks in America were so misinformed that they thought that simply being up close to a person with AIDS could infect them, there was Doris Day to make you feel like a coward.  We saw the defiance and strength of her sunny disposition image in those dark years when she hugged and kissed her terminally ill friend in public.  Cameras were rolling.  I'm sure Hollywood knew about Hudson's condition before it was made public.  A fellow you'll see giving a short soundbite in this piece is Doris' noted record producer son, the late Terry Melcher. Rock Hudson died in 1985 at age 59.
I've long been a fan of Doris Day movies and records.  But this defiance and sweet devotion of hers in public to a plague-stricken friend always made me love her even more.  It was an example of how we all should behave.

She Directed TALK TO ME

You know may not know her name but I'm sure millions of moviegoers remember her face.  Did you see 1991's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS? ...