Friday, March 30, 2012

Ginger Rogers Got Wilder

Besides having danced her way to global fame in sleek, original 1930s musical comedies with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers was also one of the top screwball comedy actresses of the 1930s and '40s.  She was in a league with Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur.  One of my favorite screwball comedy performances of hers is in an early Billy Wilder film that rarely gets mentioned in talks about his classics.  It's The Major and the Minor.  Ray Milland, who'd go to win a Best Actor Oscar for his dramatic work in Wilder's The Lost Weekend, plays Major Kirby.  He's the officer who believes Ginger is a 12 year old girl called Su-Su Applegate.  She's really a 20something woman who got fed up with being chased by men while she was trying to chase a career in Manhattan.  Susan Applegate wants a one-way train ticket back to Iowa.
Long before two male musicians dressed in drag and fled town on a train in Some Like It Hot, Susan Applegate disguised herself and desperately boarded a train.  She fled the concrete jungle of Manhattan to keep her virtue intact only to be surrounded by more wolves outside that concrete jungle.  Susan doesn't have enough money for an adult ticket.  She disguises herself as a kid to get away with paying half-fare.  Fake identity on a train.  Wilder would do this again for laughs in 1959's Some Like It Hot.  He'd do it dramatically in his 1944 film noir classic, Double Indemnity.
Men are still the problem.  She was working as a scalp massager.  One frisky, older gent in town without the Mrs. made a nighttime appointment.  You guessed it.  He wanted to massage Susan.  She calls it quits in the Big Apple.  Susan sneaks onboard the train, her mode of escape from Manhattan man hands, and she's chased yet again.  This time by the big bad conductors who catch on to her trick.  But kindly Major Kirby comes to the aid of little "Su-Su."  He's an honorable guy.  A handsome honorable guy.  Ironically, Susan Applegate -- fleeing from males with lively libidos -- will wind up in a military academy where "Su-Su" will carbonate the hormones of cadets who recently marched into puberty.  This 1942 box office hit was the first American film Billy Wilder directed.  He also co-wrote the screenplay.  It's got gender disguise, sexual tension, that touch of Wilder cynicism, love and -- in this case -- patriotism for its wartime audience.  This kind of movie script would not be done today.  Wilder had a witty, European touch.  He knew how far to go and where not to go.  The audience knows that Su-Su is really a young woman instantly smitten with Major Kirby.  When he squints with one eye at her and remarks "Su-Su, you're a knock-out,"  we know he's not at all improperly interested in that little girl.  He's the one man Susan wants to chase without her cover being blown.  For all its innocence, I still giggle at what Wilder got past the censors.  Susan is dodging lusty men.  She's now in disguise and hiding out in a military academy full of teen cadets clutching rifles -- big phallic symbols.  The spot where all the cadets take their girls to kiss & make out is by a campus cannon -- bigger phallic symbol.  Leave it to Billy Wilder.
Also, there's a little tension for Susan too.  Most of the young cadets are pretty gangly but Cadet Osborne  is a tall teen cutie.  And he likes Su-Su.  The movie was a release from Paramount Pictures.  One of that studio's big stars then was glamour girl Veronica Lake.  She's the star Kim Basinger's hooker in L.A. Confidential impersonated for her clients.  Lake's peek-a-boo hairdo was a sensation in the early '40s.
Cadet Osborne escorts Su-Su to the military dance.  He's the lucky one.  She's been pursued by several. 
We can see why.  The available girls from Miss Shackleford's School are all suffering from Veronica Lake Syndrome. 
Susan needs to attend this dance where she can scheme to win Major Kirby away from his witch of a fiancée.  Just the way the major squints and looks at Su-Su with one eye, we should take a better look at Ginger's skill in this role.  She's playing the female in the three stage of her life.  She plays her as the girl.
She plays her as the young woman.
She plays her as the older woman.
Three different stages and each stage that Rogers plays has a distinct personality and level of maturity.  She's very effective in each stage.  The female is more mature than the males.  The philandering dodo at the beginning wants more than a scalp massage.  He's an older man but has the same level of maturity and subtlety as the boys in the military academy.  ("Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?")  Actor/writer Robert Benchley was a pro at this kind of comedy part.
That aspect about male behavior is so Wilder.  The Major and the Minor could also been called They're Either Too Young or Too Old, which was the name of an Oscar-nominated song Bette Davis introduced in the all-star Warner Bros. wartime musical comedy, Thank Your Lucky Stars.  For single girl Susan Applegate, they are either too young or too old.  Except for good Major Philip Kirby.  Susan will chase him until he catches her.
Just as Tony Curtis played three characters in Some Like It Hot -- Joe the love 'em and leave 'em sax player, Josephine the band member and Junior the millionaire -- Ginger Rogers plays three characters, each a variation on the same female.  Ginger is delicious in this Billy Wilder comedy.  The role has what audiences expected in a Ginger Rogers comedy character -- the working class girl whose wisecracks are a tough front for the warm, vulnerable, lovable person who's known disappointment.
The work of Ginger Rogers should be studied by young women with dreams of acting careers.  Ginger had the kind of career that would humble Oscar winners like Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Hudson.  She was versatile, an Oscar winner and a box office favorite before and after she won the Oscar.  She clicked with Depression era moviegoers as one of the brassy Gold Diggers of 1933, a famous musical with numbers created by Busby Berkeley.
Her look and attitude were softened and refined for the character she played in the 1935 original screen musical, Top Hat.  The score was written by Irving Berlin.
She and Fred Astaire sang and danced their way to box office success and film history with songs written for them to introduce.  Songs like "Cheek to Cheek" in Top Hat.
..."Pick Yourself Up" in Swing Time...
..."Let's Face The Music and Dance" in Follow the Fleet...
...and "They All Laughed" in Shall We Dance, the musical with an original score by George and Ira Gershwin.
She had wonderful screen technique that added extra magic to the musicals with Astaire.  They brought out the best in each other and their best was stunning.  Watch how Ginger acts in the dance numbers.  She internally reacts to the lyrics of the song, treating the song as a monologue.  She dances in character to the emotion of the scene.  The "Never Gonna Dance" number near the end of the classic Swing Time is a perfect example.  If she and Astaire were in a drama and verbally expressed all the complicated emotions that they dance in that awesome number, they probably would've gotten Oscar nominations.  There's a beautiful clarity in her acting.  Each did get one nomination in their long film careers.  For dramas.  Not for any of the musicals that made them film icons.  Ginger's brilliance at delivering zingers was in peak form when she played one of the struggling New York actresses living in a boarding house in the 1937 comedy/drama Stage Door.  Dancer Jean Maitland is one tough lady but she's really just as scared as the rest of the girls in that residence hoping for success.  Or, at least, a good meal -- even if it comes with a blind date.  Her "take-no-prisoners" wisecracks are her armor.
Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller.  The kind of machine-gun delivery of one-liners from the women in this movie is a lost art that I wish would make a return.  Although Ginger had nowhere near the classical stage training that co-star Katharine Hepburn did, Ginger steals the picture.  She's the heart of it.
The adolescent she plays in Billy Wilder's comedy echoes something she did at the beginning of Kitty Foyle.  In that very feminist 1940 drama written by Dalton Trumbo, she's a young unmarried woman with a career who's reviewing her life.  She's worked her way up from a clerical job and being born on the wrong side of the tracks.  She's offered the chance to run off with a man in her life.  A man from an upper class family.  He's got more money and less character.  In flashbacks, we see Kitty Foyle years before she became a secretary.  We see her as a kid watching the upper class.
For this drama, Ginger Rogers won the Best Actress Academy Award.  She deserved it.  Yes, it's an old film but its views on social class, class entitlement and women's independence feel fresh in comparison to some of the Hollywood films churned out today.
I mentioned Oscar winner Renée Zellweger earlier.  In 1942, Ginger Rogers starred as Roxie Hart.  The story was later musicalized on Broadway as Chicago.  Zellweger played Roxie in the film version of that Broadway hit.
If you're up for some Wilder fun with plenty of Ginger, watch her play three stages of the female's life as she outsmarts males of all ages in Billy Wilder's The Major and the Minor.  Just like Su-Su Applegate, she's a knock-out.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Daly Show

I knew he was going to catch some heat for it.  On his radio show, Carson Daly was addressing the recent news item about a JetBlue co-pilot reportedly having a mid-air meltdown.  Carson, who television viewers remember from MTV and now see as the host of NBC's The Voice, said something to the effect that gay male passengers probably would not have been able to restrain the out-of-control pilot.  Carson was joking but his voice is national.   I knew listeners would take it seriously.  He's apologized.
This blog isn't about Carson's boo-boo.  We all now that there are tough, macho gay men in the America.  I've met many in my broadcast career.  When I worked for a WNBC weekend morning news program in New York City, I had dinner with a couple of Army officers.  Those two men had been going together for some time.  One had flown missions in Vietnam.  Very cool, down-to-earth gents there were.  Over dinner, I asked, "Where did you two meet?" and they answered, "In the Pentagon."  The Carson Daly story also reminded me of an awards dinner I was asked to host in the mid '90s.  It was for G.O.A.L. New York -- that's the Gay Officers Action League of New York City.  That league of cops marches annually in New York City's Gay Pride Parade.  One of its members helped me get soundbites from Madonna when I covered one of her media events and aired the piece on WNBC.  Of course, I accepted the invitation to have dinner with them and host their awards event.  These NYPD men and women were, like the Army couple, very cool and down-to-earth.  On TV, we see a lot of gay men like Carson Kressley or Ross Mathews, the regular on E! and the Chelsea Lately weeknight talk show.  The G.O.A.L. men didn't resemble them.  Do you ever watch American Chopper?
Most of the G.O.A.L. guys looked either like Pauly or his dad.  This was one of those great "only in New York" kind of events.  The only thing straight about these dudes was the Scotch many of them were drinking.  After the awards were all presented and we bellied up to the bar, it was amazing to see several of these beefy, brawny cops knock back cocktails...and match each other doing quotes from Mommie Dearest.  I kid you not.
These guys could've been cast to take down thugs in a Scorcese gangster movie.  But this wasn't a film production.  It was real night life in Manhattan.  Knowing that the big, butch men a few feet away from me shouting "Tina! Bring me the ax!" were armed while they shouted it...well, I'd never felt safer in New York City in all my time there.  Heaven bless the entire NYPD.  Especially the members of G.O.A.L.

Carson Daly should've been with me that night.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Actress Whoopi Goldberg

I read her news with Glee.  Literally.  Award-winning actress Whoopi Goldberg will play a character in episodes of Glee that are scheduled to begin airing early in the highly-competitive May ratings period.  Whoopi is a top daytime television personality.  The news that she got a role on that TV series excites me because, as an Oscar-winning actress, Whoopi Goldberg has been under-utilized.  She is a stunningly good and versatile actress.  Rent The Color Purple and watch it again.  Hers was one of the top Hollywood performances of the 1980s.  That remarkable work as Celie still holds up.  Steven Spielberg's film brought Whoopi her first Oscar nomination.  Her second nomination got her the Hollywood gold.  The movie, Ghost.  
For those of us black folks of a certain age, Whoopi's Oscar win that night was as significant, as memorable as when Sidney Poitier won the Best Actor Academy Award for 1963's Lilies of the Field.  He was the first black man to win an Oscar.  The first African-American to be nominated for the Oscar and the first to win it was Hattie McDaniel for her Best Supporting Actress performance in 1939's Gone With The Wind.  Whoopi was the second black woman to win Best Supporting Actress thanks to her fabulous, hard-won work in that 1990 fantasy comedy/drama.  Whoopi was guest on my old VH1 talk show when she was promoting her 1988 movie, Clara's Heart. She was a terrific guest.  I don't mean to play a "race card" but when Caucasian friends of mine would say, "She did The Color Purple. Why is Whoopi doing movies like Fatal Beauty now?," I'd get upset.  I'd have to school them on the fact that black actresses don't get the same amount of Hollywood opportunities that white actresses get -- even if they've got Oscar nominations to their credit.  Whoopi needed to pay the bills.  She'd take a script that had another actress' fingerprints on it and try to make it her own whether a Fatal Beauty -- turned down by Cher -- or a Sister Act -- turned down by Bette Midler.  Whoopi wasn't even wanted for Ghost.  She had a Best Actress Academy Award nomination in a hit film to her credit.  But she could not get an audition to play Oda
Mae until Patrick Swayze made the director/producer test her or lose him as leading man.  Now that Whoopi entertains daytime TV viewers every weekday on The View, folks forget how skilled an actress she is when given the chance.  Whoopi and Viola Davis are now the only two black actresses with more than one Oscar nomination to their credits.  Each now has two.  Last year and early this year, there was much controversy over The Help and Hollywood still casting black women as maids.  Whoopi too has played maids and she was memorable in her portrayals.  If The Help was a Best Picture nominee for 2011 then The Long Walk Home should've been up for Best Picture of 1990.  Co-starring Sissy Spacek, it's one strong, well-acted drama about people who refused to sit in the back of the bus in the mid 1950s.  And it's about people who challenge themselves to do the right thing.  You need to see it.
She was a maid in Corrina, Corrina.  It's one of my favorite weekend feel-good rentals.  Ray Liotta plays the widower dad with a lovable little girl.  He starts to fall in love with the maid, Corrina, when she gently eases his daughter out of emotional pain..  You sit through this bright film hoping that dad and the maid will kiss.  Terrific chemistry between Whoopi and Ray Liotta.  Corrina, Corrina has the heart of a 1950s Italian comedy.
I told Whoopi back in 2007 that Corrina, Corrina should be turned into a Broadway musical comedy.  Liotta's character was an advertising jingle writer.  There's already a music angle in the story.  I still believe it would work.  Heck, The Color Purple, Sister Act and now Ghost have gotten the stage musical  treatment.  Why not that one?  I also loved Whoopi's work as the non-nonsense detective on a Hollywood case in Robert Altman's The Player with Fred Ward and Tim Robbins...
...and her role as the harried network TV executive trying to keep control over the cast of neurotic daytime drama actors in the comedy Soapdish with Sally Field.
A biographical role she essayed really moved me in a Rob Reiner film.  She played Myrlie Evers, the widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers.  He was shot dead in the driveway of his home in 1963.  His murder is mentioned as a news story in The Help.  Myrlie struggled for 30 years to bring the assassin to justice.  Co-star James Woods got an Oscar nomination for his performance.  This is one of Whoopi's strongest films, a film with history that should be talked about in schools
Whoopi Goldberg can go from serious drama to screwball comedy and back with ease.  Not every actor can.  People should've been writing Hollywood scripts with her in mind as first choice.  But she's had to crash through the color barrier that every minority performer encounters to get equal opportunities in some area.  I am not an actor of Whoopi's skills or popularity but I am familiar with the kind of struggles, frustrations and humiliations she's had.  I interviewed her on my prime time network talk show.  My show got high marks from The New York Times.  Did I try to get another national talk show gig after VH1?  Yes.  I wanted a vehicle like James Lipton's Inside the Actors Studio.  Was I ever offered another national talk show host opportunity?  No.  But Joan Rivers, Dennis Miller, Craig Kilborn, Pat Sajak and Rosie O'Donnell all got shots at a second national talk show.  If anything, I spent most of the '90s convincing broadcast agents, TV executives and news producers that I really did host and write a network talk show.  That's...the business.  The entertainment industry presents us minorities with some extra challenges.  And we really have to love this business to want to stay in it.  As I blogged previously, we minorities are often lucky to get the opportunity to try to get the opportunity.  Think about Whoopi not being able to get an audition for Ghost until Patrick Swayze lent his star clout.  Before Whoopi became a welcomed addition to ABC's The View, she hosted a national weekday morning radio show for a couple of years in New York City.
I was a regular on her show for its 2006 to 2008 run.  It may not have been a hit show but being picked by Whoopi to be her weekly movie critic was as significant to me as seeing her win the Oscar.  She'd made Oscar history.  She selected me to do the kind of work that we African-Americans were never chosen to do when she and I were growing up.  I was reviewing new movies and talking about classic ones.  I sat right next to her when I did it every week.  And I made her laugh.  Honestly, I do not know if she realized how deeply important and special that job, that privilege, was to me.  I was so proud of it -- and she made that job possible.  In the big broadcast market picture, my film critic gig on Premiere Radio was a minor thing but it was a big deal to me.  To go to work, sit next to and perform live with a show biz icon...wow.  An unforgettable experience.  It was thrilling, surreal, occasionally frustrating and humbling at the same time.  Frustrating because, to her with her international fame, that morning radio show may not have been something major she chose to publicize.  To the rest of us on the staff, it was major.  I still would love to host a show like Inside the Actors Studio.  I truly believe that if minority kids see reflections of themselves on TV telling why classic films, new films and live theatre are important -- and interviewing the folks who make films and theatre -- it inspires those kids to embrace the arts.  That's important to me.  If I got a project like that, I'd love to interview Whoopi again.  I love to thank her once more for making me feel significant.  I'm so glad Glee has given her a role.  Whoopi's a good actress.  There's more to her than what we see five days a week on The View.  Incidentally -- Whoopi Goldberg does an imitation of Lana Turner that is so wickedly funny it would make drag queens want to hang themselves with their own pantyhose because they didn't come up with it first.
Oh. And another thing -- for a long time, she wanted to do a remake of the Preston Sturges classic, Sullivan's Travels.  I'd really like to discuss that in an interview.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Colbert Report: Margo Channing

If you're a serious classic film buff, you already know this:  Claudette Colbert was slated to play Margo Channing in All About Eve.  Colbert reportedly injured her back while shooting 1950's Three Came Home.  A Hollywood bio pic, this drama starred her as Mrs. Agnes Newton Keith.   An American wife, she and her family lived in Southeast Asia in 1940-1941.  She was separated from her husband and child and confined in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.  Colbert's performance brought her some of the best reviews of her film career.
But the injury took Colbert out of the All About Eve production.  The script was sent to Bette Davis, whose career was in a lull at that time.  The rest is movie history.  Davis did the picture and made the role of Margo Channing her own.  Maybe too much her own, in a very fabulous way.
Davis' chic, sophisticated, ultimate Broadway diva look is iconic now.  This is a woman who'd toss a mink coat on the floor like it was bathrobe.  In the long battle for Broadway respect and accomplishment, you can see that she's a survivor and victor who has the scars to prove it.  Still, as her boyfriend Bill Sampson says, she's "a loose lamb in a jungle."  When All About Eve opens, we know we're going to see a new Broadway star get be exposed for the phony she is.  The character that she's manufactured for the public and personal glory is about to be assassinated.  There's a big clue in the literature of film from screenwriter/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz.  As that conniving little witch from Wisconsin, Eve Harrington, sweetly reaches out to accept a prestigious award, there's a stop-frame during the narration from the powerful and all-knowing theatre critic, Addison DeWitt.  Notice the prop guns on the wall behind Eve.
One gun seems aimed at her heart.  Eve will be shot down.  She backstabbed to get that award.  One of the people she used will get the dirt on her and reveal how unscrupulous a character she truly is offstage.
Part of the fun of watching this classic again is seeing how Eve Harrington weasels her way into the life, home and career of acclaimed Broadway star Margo Channing.  Eve wants Margo's fame and all the privileges she believes go with it.  Young, devious and talented, she is out to replicate Margo like a monster in a sci-fi pic.  Thelma Ritter as Margo's good friend and assistant, Birdie Coonan, is the first to detect this:  "...like she's studying you.  Like you was a play or book or a set of blueprints.  How you walk, talk, eat, think, sleep."  Cosmetically, Claudette Colbert would've been perfect opposite Anne Baxter's Eve Harrington.
Colbert had more of the styling and attitude that Baxter's Eve imitates if she's truly out to make herself a younger human Xerox copy of Margo Channing.
Eve may subtly begin to dress a bit like Margo Channing but...come on.  Seriously.  Does Baxter's Eve Harrington ever seem like a through-and-through duplicate of Davis' Margo Channing?
I love this movie.  All About Eve has been one of my all-time favorite classics for decades.  I own a DVD of it and have watched it more times than I care to admit.  But, as I got older, I began to notice that little difference.  It's as if Baxter had been styled to act opposite Colbert and, perhaps because of scheduling or whatever, didn't make the adjustments to match Davis' interpretation of Margo Channing.  Colbert was a champagne cocktail.  Davis was more "a martini, very dry."  Several martinis, in fact.  And cigarettes.
Bette Davis generated a different kind of heat than Claudette Colbert did.  They were different types of actresses in their long Hollywood careers.  Colbert played Cleopatra in 1934.
 Davis played Queen Elizabeth.  Twice.  Decades before Cate Blanchett did the same.  Davis first played the monarch in 1939.
If Eve Harrington schemes to become a Davis-as-Margo clone and claw her way to Broadway stardom starting as her understudy, she probably should have looked more like a young Lizabeth Scott...
...or the early Lauren Bacall.  Bacall did play Margo Channing in the hit Broadway musical version of All About Eve.  Bacall won a 1970 Tony Award for her performance in Applause and reprised the role in a 1973 CBS special presentation.  It co-starred popular TV actor Larry Hagman as Margo's boyfriend.  Hagman also sang.
Claudette Colbert-as-Margo would've been a perfect set-up for Phoebe, the Eve Harrington clone already in replication progress.  The look would've been in triplicate -- Margo to Eve to Phoebe.  And, at the end, we see that there are many other Eves/Phoebes in waiting.  It's the visual warning from the images of Phoebe that Mankiewicz gives us in Eve's mirror.
Claudette Colbert starred in 20th Century Fox's 1951 romantic comedy, Let's Make It Legal.  It has a bit of an All About Eve connection.
Barbara Bates (Phoebe in All About Eve) and Claudette Colbert were cast as mother and daughter in Let's Make It Legal.
Also featured in the cast was Fox blonde and screen newcomer, Marilyn Monroe.
In All About Eve, Monroe had a bit part as Addison DeWitt's eye candy party date, Claudia Casswell.  Addison introduces her to hostess Margo like so:  "Miss Casswell is an actress, a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art."
In just a few years, Marilyn Monroe herself would be a major Hollywood movie star getting top billing like Bette Davis and Claudette Colbert did.  All About Eve -- one of my favorite movies and Margo Channing is a role that Bette Davis was born to play.

The Talented Della Reese

She was a trailblazer who really did make it all look easy -- when it really wasn't.  And she demanded to be paid well for hard work wel...