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Killing Connie Casserole: How Stonewall Vilified ‘The Boys in the Band’

Between 1968, when playwright Mart Crowley wrote his off-Broadway hit “The Boys and the Band” and 1970, when William Friedkin turned it into a movie, there were the Stonewall riots.  For the health and well-being of the movie version, this was the worst thing that could have happened.

In June of 1969, decades of abuse, routine arrests and fear-mongering by the police department of New York City against the city’s population of gay men finally came to a head in front of a trashy, mob-owned gay bar called The Stonewall Inn.  The result was a victory for the gay male population, not just of New York but, in fact, the entire country.  History would recall that this singular event would empower the movement toward a larger struggle for equality (though the accuracy of that is in dispute).  Suddenly gays who had hidden in the closet and were routinely harassed by police found a new sense of themselves, a new and powerful spirit that would propel them forward.

By the time of Stonewall, Crowley’s play was still running successfully off-Broadway, but something came out of the Stonewall riots that shifted perspective and damned the film version before it reached the public.  The struggle for gay rights gave gays and lesbians a sense of self-worth, of personal pride and the courage to join the movement for their basic human dignity.  In this new wave of social perspective, The Boys in the Band seemed to be a thing of the past.  The story, about nine men – eight gay and one straight – attending a birthday party where they struggle with varying degrees of sexual identity and self-loathing, was seen by many post-Stonewall activists as a relic, a monument to attitudes that were now a thing of the past.  Many took to calling it the gay male version of a minstrel show.

Upon its release it received a knee-jerk accusation of having been stamped as dated which led to its commercial failure at the box office and its disappearance into the dustbins of history.  Even today the mere mention of The Boys in the Band (the film) is met with a kind of nervousness.  Either you are with it or, in many cases, wholly against it.

Watching the film again recently, I kind of get it.  I think I slightly understand why the gay community tends to reject it.  The Boys in the Band is not a fun experience.  It’s angry, it’s bitter, it has a nonet of characters who often tend to wallow in self-loathing and self-deprecating humor.  Its about a birthday party that starts off friendly enough but the deteriorates into a game a cruel truth-telling that has you wondering if these people will ever want to talk to each other again.  As much as I liked the film, I will freely admit it’s not something that I am ready to spend another evening with.

Yet, by no means, do I mean to say that the film is bad.  I just mean that like Revolutionary Road or Moonlight it is undeniably a solid film but it is not one of those films that you want to kick back with on a lazy evening at home.

The Boys in the Band tells one of those stories in which the setting and the occasion are an excuse to lock several people I a room together, liquor them up and then engage them in a bitter war of truth-telling.  Told in two acts the whole thing all takes place in the New York City apartment of Michael (Kenneth Nelson) who is preparing a birthday party for his longtime friend Harold (Leonard Frey).  As Act I opens we meet Michael, who is a piece of work.  He is a staggering alcoholic filled with self-loathing and bitterness who is Catholic and gay and wishes desperately that he wasn’t either one.  He tells his friend Donald (Frederick Combs) that he hasn’t has been sober for five weeks, but over the course of the evening, that streak will end.

Into the festivities come other guests.  There is a feuding couple Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and his partner Larry (Keith Prentice) whose quarrel escalates when it is discovered that Larry and Donald know each other from the baths.  Also, there’s Emory (Cliff Gorman), a flamboyant uber-queen whose skills at catering have earn him the self-entitled nickname of Connie Casserole.  Also there’s Bernard (Reuben Green), the only black man at the party, and a hunky cowboy prostitute (Robert Le Tourneaux) that Emory has hired as a gift for the guest of honor.

The party is crashed, in many respects, by the arrival of Michael’s former college roommate Alan (Peter White) who is straight but only suspected that Michael was gay.  Why did he call out of the blue, and why was he in tears?  Why is he suddenly contacting Michael after so many years?  It is left up to you to decide but it definitely has a massively dramatic effect on the progress of the party.  Michael was relived that Alan agreed to call him the next day but was buffaloed when he dropped in that night.

The festivities begin pleasant enough, but Alan’s presence makes things, to say the least, a little volatile.  By the time Harold shows up, the drama over Alan has resulted in him physically assaulting Emory and Michael already halfway drunk and the party has descended into chaos.

Harold’s entrance is kind of wonderful.  Director Friedkin frames him darkened in the doorway with the sounds of chaos going on inside the apartment, wearing a tailored suit, cigarette in hand, purse clutched under one arm.  He is amused by what is going on but far from surprised.  Michael berates him for not only being late but also stoned as well.  Harold is armed and ready:

“What I am, Michael, is a 32-year-old ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, its nobody’s god-damned business but my own.  And how are you this evening?”

Act II is a downward slide into self-loathing Hell.  A series of events of dancing to Motown on the terrace and noshing on Emory’s lasagna (which looks really good) deteriorates as Michael’s issues and drinking escalate.  Alan refuses to leave and Harold sits wearily at the sidelines unfazed by any bit of personal or emotional acid that Michael is ready to dispense.  He’s seen it all before, and knows instinctively that this is all par for the course.

A rainstorm pulls everyone in from the terrace and closes them in Michael’s living room where Michael begins a cruel telephone game of having everyone take turns calling someone they have been in love with.  The expectation is that the self-hatred will end once someone confesses to who and what they really are.  What comes of these forced confessions seems cruel but somehow it humanizes the characters, especially Emory whose out-and-about shell withers when he is forced to call a doctor who once humiliated him.

Finally, it is Michael who has the breakdown.  Pushed against the wall of his own insecurity, he is splashed with reality from Harold: “You’re a sad and pathetic man.  You’re a homosexual and you don’t want to be, but there’s nothing you can do to change it.  Not all the prayers to your god, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you’ve got left to live.  You may one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough.  If you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate.  But you’ll always be homosexual as well.  Always, Michael.  Always.  Until the day you die.”

Harsh?  Yes.  Truth?  Possibly.  What does that say about a culture of gay men who, at the time were told that they were criminals and mentally ill?  What does it say about the misinformation that being gay is a choice?  Harold makes it very clear that it isn’t, that Michael’s reality is inescapable no matter how hard he tries to wriggle out of it.  This was an internal struggle for gay men at the time (and even now) at being born into a skin that much of society wants to eradicate.

By the beginning of the 1970, the social stains that had repressed gays and lesbians were still alive and well.  The portrayal of gays in the movies was usually chaired in a deep melodramatic scenario that almost always ended in death, the most egregious being Suddenly Last Summer in which the gay man in question, Sebastian Venable, was eaten by cannibals.  This was not isolated.

The Boys in the Band was unusual in that it dealt with gay men who not only survived the film but were also portrayed as living, breathing human beings with lives, feelings, histories, joys, sadness, dimensions, senses, affections, passions.  They were a product of a time that regarded them as mentally unstable, dregs of society that the inritauit cum publice thought of as a dirty gutter lifestyle.

Television wasn’t much better.  The same year that Crowley wrote the play, CBS aired a special report called “The Homosexuals” in which Mike Wallace reported on the social stigma of gays in American society the included medical experts who blatantly and openly called it a mental disease.  Gays on television were usually seen as criminals as in a 1971 episode of the Burt Reynolds series “Dan August” featuring a man who kills his girlfriend when she discovers that he is gay.

Crowley’s play, by contrast, was an act of rebellion, a daring insight into the lives of men that few in straight society would dare to consider anything but abnormal.  His story rebelled simply by showing them as sensitive people who had been forcefully and psychologically encouraged to remain in the closet.  The movies saw gays as doomed, and television saw them as criminals and killers.

But by 1970, the crucible for many who had been encouraged by the Stonewall Riots has begun to turn.  For many, The Boys in the Band was a thing of the past, a relic as outdated as blackface.  Today it still wallows in controversy between those who find it insightful and those who find it insipid.  For those reasons, the film didn’t do well and would only find a measure of respect as times went on and gay men became more and more visible.  The aftermath of Stonewall may have made it seem like a thing of the past but those looking deep into the film’s heart can see that it is not irrelevant.

But still the stigma sticks.  This is an angry film.  It’s a bitter film.  It’s often hard to watch.  But I don’t think that it is ever false or insulting.  Crowley is trying to gain an insight, even though some might think that the instruments are too blunt.

Personally, I think the tone and mood and brutal honesty of The Boys in the Band are what keep it such a difficult story to work through.  Again, this is not a fun story.  It is an insight into a culture of men who’s very being had been criminalized, lobotomized and medicalized.  How could anyone live in that social and cultural police state and not feel some sense of psychological torment?  It is important to peer through the historical window and see how far the culture has progressed and how far it still has to go.

Those who demonized and vilified the film for being an Uncle Tom-ism of gay men are really missing something important.  The Boys in the Band is bitter but it’s not outside of the reality of how gay men felt about themselves in real life, despite Stonewall.  How far down did the psychological torment of being ousted and institutionalized by a society that hated them really go?  Do those attitudes still exist despite the current progress?  And even if the film is a depiction of attitudes of the past, why bury it?  Why not see it as a window on the past?  Why not see it as a historical reminder of attitudes that may seem passé but aren’t entirely outside of the realm of reality?  Yes, the film is nearly 50 years old but what does it still have to say?

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Posted by on 06/12/2019 in Uncategorized

 

Did YouTube triumph over “Triumph of the Will”?

Image result for Triumph of the Will

By Jerry Dean Roberts

Oh, YouTube!  Your paradoxical shenanigans keep me young.

Like anyone else, I am a prime participant in bizarro world of the video sharing website known as YouTube, either browsing or tinkering with my podcast.  But I am never far from being amazed at the ways in which the pendulum swings back and forth over the kinds of content that the site chooses to support.  Why are some movies available in full on the site while others are not?  Why is some forms of content okay but others are not.  Why are some songs up on the site while others are taken down?  I once got a copyright claim on a video over a copyrighted song but when I replaced it with another audio of the same song it was perfectly okay!?  That’s YouTube.

It seems that every policy that YouTube enacts can and will irritate the internet community.  Last year, the site’s high sheriffs decided to put in place a policy that would only allow videos to be monetized on channels that have at least 1000 subscribers and 4000 hours of watch time in a calendar year.  And, of course, there’s that long-standing cattle flop over the elasticity of the Fair Use doctrine.

Well now, right on cue, here comes another bit of hack-and-slash nonsense to make their polices even more baffling.  This past Wednesday, YouTube announced that it was enacting a ban on hate speech, meaning that any video which promotes and propagates a negative or inflammatory view of a particular race, ace, gender, etc. will be removed.

If it were any other entity, such a policy might not sound so bad, but YouTube is famous for its split personality, for swinging wildly between the kinds of content that it chooses to support.  It raises questions.  Does a news piece from FOX News or MSNBC count?  Would a documentary about the history of the Ku Klux Klan be omitted?  I just watched a Batman serial from 1942 that is replete with anti-Japanese content.  Does that have to go?

As I say, if it were any other entity, we might not care but since YouTube is largely regulated by a famously inconsistent (and broken) automated system, the results aren’t likely to fall within the realm of good common sense.

Yet, the larger conversation over this new policy this week has been the way in which is has fallen on Triumph of the Will, which was removed from the site Wednesday as part of the measure to put the new policy in effect.  That raises a great many more questions.

If you don’t know Triumph of the Will, allow me to explain.  This is a propaganda film released in 1935 featuring a rally at the Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg which took place a year earlier and was attended by 700,000 adoring spectators.  Hitler commissioned the film by one of the world’s most skilled filmmakers Leni Riefenstahl (his first choice Fritz Lang, sensed Hitler’s growing menace and fled for America).  The film features speeches by Hitler, and his top officers, Joseph Goebbles, Rudolph Hess and Julius Streicher.  It was intended to present the order and pageantry of the Nazi Party in an effort to move the masses into their cause.

Of course, Triumph of the Will disguises the truth.  Anyone who visits the film knows that behind the pageantry lies the horrifying truth.  What is carefully omitted from the film is the terror that was already being visited on Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and anyone that Hitler considered racially inferior or subversive to his cause.  This included several individuals that he had systematically murdered in what came to be known as “The Night of Long Knives” just three months before the movie was filmed.

The hypnotic power of the images in Triumph of the Will are its legacy.  It is one of the greatest examples of the manipulation of propaganda, of moving a country to action.  The film played to packed houses in Germany.  Riefenstahl was hailed for her craft.

Yet, the troubling legacy of Triumph of the Will is that while it canonizes the Nazi Party as a great, powerful and unstoppable force, it is also one of the most seminal and astonishing pieces of filmmaking in the history of the medium.  Yes, it is about Nazis, but one cannot ignore Riefenstahl’s expert use of moving cameras, long focus, aerial photography and cinematography.  Or her use of narrative to make Hitler look like a god – literally the film opens with a shot of his plane descending down from the clouds to the Earth below.  As a technical feat, this is a film that has been as studied as it has been reviled.  Like The Birth of the Nation a generation earlier, which had the Klan as its hero but was never-the-less another technological milestone, its craft cannot be removed from history despite the abhorration of its content.

So, did it make sense for YouTube to take the film down from its site.  I say no.  Anyone approaching Triumph of the Will is already going to see it with the foreknowledge that Hitler was a genocidal madman.  They will already know that his government power put into motion the systematic murders of 6,000,000 of Europe’s Jews plus many more “undesirables” and political enemies.  No one is going to learn anything from this film in the way of Hitler’s racial politics.

What they do get is a first-hand look at the work of a brilliant filmmaker, of how a skilled artist like Leni Riefenstahl could put in motion a piece of carefully crafted, carefully edited propaganda piece that had the power to seduce and move an entire population, many of whom probably had no idea what Hitler was leading the country into.  What one takes away from Triumph of the Will is the sinister ways in which a government edits and sculpts its image to erase the truth.  You can see in its images inspirations that would flourish in later films, including many of the shots from Star Wars.

Removing Triumph of the Will from YouTube solves nothing, achieves nothing and doesn’t change or alter history in any way.  No one seeing the film will have their mind altered.  No teenager will watch the film and be seduced by Hitler knowing the outcome of his machinations.  No one is going to be swayed into a neo-Nazi frame of thinking.  If you know, then you probably already had that in mind when you started the film in the first place.  Perhaps YouTube could be smarter about this.

The lack of logic to YouTube’s actions is not surprising given its history, but one has to think that a more sensible alternative might have been possible.  Perhaps a disclaimer that “YouTube does not support or condone the contents of this video.”  It’s unlikely that anyone watching Triumph of the Will on YouTube would need to be told that, but it still makes more sense than eliminating it all together.

 
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Posted by on 06/08/2019 in Uncategorized

 

Discovering ‘Citizen Kane’: a film-lover reluctantly indulges The Greatest Movie Ever Made.

Image result for Rosebud the sled

Here’s a shameful confession: I am new to Citizen Kane.  Here I am in my late 40s, I’ve spent a lifetime bathing in the cinema, and yet I have circumvented Orson Welles most famous artistic expression out of fear that I wasn’t going to understand what made it so great.  Oh, I’ve seen it several times.  It’s just that until recently, I haven’t been able to see the greatness that film scholars fawn over.

In the last couple of weeks, I have spent more time in the company of Citizen Kane then I probably ever have at any point in my life.  As my two-year-old podcast neared its monumental 100th episode, my co-host Doug Heller and I decided to mark the occasion with what is considered to be the greatest film ever made.  That meant that I was going to have to spend more time with the movie than I had ever had before.  Admittedly, I was not looking forward to it.

Maybe I’m like most people.  When something gets tagged as The Greatest Film Ever Made, I tend to back away.  That’s a height that most films cannot reach.  Is there a greatest film ever made?  No, not really.  The idea of The Greatest Film Ever Made is more of a marketing tagline, as with the work ‘masterpiece’ it has been diluted into a standard that most people associate with words like ‘pretentious’ or ‘priggish’.

Also I’m not an expert.  I have felt that the great mysteries of Orson Welles magnum opus have been lost on me.  Am I not smart enough to see greatness?  Am I missing something?  Is there an element that is lost on me?  Running up to the film in researching it for the podcast, I was not confident that I could ever see the film’s greatness.  I saw a great film that had a hole in the middle.  Something about it left me cold.

I’ll admit, this is largely because I haven’t spent a lot of time in the company of Citizen Kane.  I saw it back in the 80s when I was in high school and I can say that I didn’t understand it.  I didn’t hate it, Heavens no, but there was something distant about it, something not quite satisfying.  I don’t know, I can’t explain it.  When it was over, I never felt that I had arrived at the end of the film but nothing I would call a conclusion.

It was only watching the film again recently that I came to realize that this is the whole point.  It’s not telling you anything new to report that Citizen Kane is a box labeled with question marks and inside we only find more boxes with more question marks.  For the average viewer, this is frustrating.  For the stubborn viewer, this is an obsession.  The mystery of Citizen Kane is the grand mystery of human identity.  How well can anyone ever know another human being?  What are the building blocks that form the person that someone will grow up to be?  Can they really be understood by another person?  Who are we at the end of life, and what is left behind that tells our survivors the story of the person that we are?

In contemplating the mystery of Citizen Kane over the last few days, I have come to a strange and rather bitter conclusion about the nature of life itself.  We’re all going to die someday – hopefully later than sooner, and the time after our death will eventually fade the identity of the person that we were.  In time, all the people that we knew in life will die too and so that identity will fade further and further until we are merely a name on a headstone.  Depressing notion?  Yes.  But it’s not debatable.  The story of Charles Foster Kane is a reminder that this is the fate of even the most famous man on the planet.

Orson Welles paints Kane through the seasons of his tenure on Earth told not by Kane himself but by those who apparently knew him best.  The history of the man’s life is seen in square details at the film’s opening.  Following his lonely and alarmingly cryptic final moment on Earth, the viewer is taken through a whirl-wind of information about the man’s life from his birth, through his troubling formative years, the idealism of his years as a young man, the corruption of his soul in later years and the tragic loneliness of his old age.  The information given to us on the News on the March newsreel is the official record of Charles Foster Kane’s life but it never paints a complete picture.  Who was the man?  Again, who was the man?  Did Rosebud mean anything to anyone but Kane himself?  Can it tell you anything about him as a person?

The mystery of Kane is found in a narrative structure that, for the thoughtful viewer, is really kind of fun.  The journalist Mr. Thompson digs deep for the mystery of Charles Foster Kane by searching for the meaning of his final word through interviews with those who knew him best . . . oh! knew him well.

The movie is told in seven layers that peel back the mystery of this man through several different points of view.  First is the News on the March newsreel which gives us a picture of Kane’s life that will probably not be much deeper than what any biographer would ever write about him.

Second is Mr. Thatcher (George Coulouris), Kane’s legal guardian, whose memoirs recall the early years.  Third is Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane’s avuncular business partner who recalls Kane’s rise and then Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), Kane’s best friend, who recalls his downfall.  Fourth is Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), Kane’s second wife, who recalls their personal life.  Fifth is Raymond (Paul Stewart), Kane’s butler who recalls the deterioration of Charles and Susan’s marriage.

The final layer is Thompson himself.  Standing in the vast castle that was once Kane’s Xanadu, he has a picture of a man but never found what he was looking for.  For him, the results of his search are no different then the newsreel that set him on this quest to begin with.  Plus, in a fun bit of visual trickery, he mourns his fruitless efforts by cascading a handful of puzzle pieces into a box.

Ironically, he unknowingly stands thirty-feet away from the answer to his question.  Just over there, among the rows of boxes and personal effects lies Rosebud, a sled, an object of Kane’s childhood.  But in a devious and cold-blooded twist, it tells us something and nothing at the same time.  Thompson’s search for the word has an answer, but would tell him nothing.

As a viewer I find that I arrive at the answer to the question only a few steps further than Thompson.  I bore witness to Kane’s last moments, and I know something that Kane took to the grave – the identity of Rosebud.  But what is it?  Why was this sled so important to him?  Was it the last gift that he received from his mother?  Was it, as many scholars conclude, the symbol of the loss of family values as he is taken away to be raised by an affectionless banker?  All may be true but and untrue, depending on who you ask.

So here I am, having finally indulged in the great mystery of Citizen Kane wiser about the film but no wiser about the mysteries that it imparts.  The effect that this viewing at on me was a much deeper contemplation about the mystery of human identity.  When we shuffle off this mortal coil we will inevitably take a great many things with us.  There are those who will have been witness to our journey on Earth and, like Kane, will have many different perspectives.  But none will ever grab the Rosebud at the center of our being.

 
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Posted by on 06/05/2019 in Uncategorized

 

Bowing Out: Tim Conway (1933-2019)

Image result for tim conway on the carol burnett show

Tim Conway, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 85, was one of the funniest people who ever lived, and I absolutely mean that.  He was a gifted physical comedian, on par with Chaplin, Keaton and The Three Stooges.  His comedy was effortless, unpredictable and explosively funny.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the term “rolling in the aisles” was invented in reference to Tim Conway.  At his best, he didn’t simply make people laugh, he made people hurt themselves laughing.  They were rolling.  If proof is needed watch any of his best moments from The Carol Burnett Show and listen to that studio audience.  That’s not regular laughter, that’s the genuine sound of an audience brought to it knees.  Very few comedians could do that.

He spent 60 years in showbusiness and made his way through every medium imaginable from Ensign Parker on “McHale’s Navy” to this work on “The Steve Allen Show” and even the ill-fated “Turn-on”, a misfire from “Laugh-In” creator George Schlatter that the network thought was so bad that they cancelled it while the premiere episode was airing.  There were the movies with Don Knotts: The Prize Fighter and The Private Eyes.  There were the Disney pictures of my childhood like The Apple Dumpling GangThe Shaggy D.A. and Gus.

Conway was always best as part of an ensemble – which is possibly why his own shows never really worked.  He tried a sitcom “Rango” in 1967 which flopped.  As did his comedy variety show “The Tim Conway Hour” in 1970.  After “The Carol Burnett Show”, he would try again with “The Tim Conway Show” in 1980, a show that mirrored Burnett’s show probably too closely and died in a year.  Even when he was the lead in a movie, he had trouble as evidenced by the godawful Billiion Dollar Hobo in which he plays a bumbling dope who stands to rake in his uncle’s inheritance if he can spend a year riding the rails as a penniless hobo.

He was best when he had someone the play off of.  That’s why “The Carol Burnett Show” will be his legacy – he won three Emmy Awards for it.  That show, which ran eleven years from 1967 to 1978 was part of CBS’s legendary Saturday Night line-up called “Murderer’s Row” that also included “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, “All in the Family” and “M*A*S*H” – and was called such because it killed the ratings of whatever shows were running concurrently on NBC and ABC.

Of all of those CBS shows, “The Carol Burnett Show” is the one that has had the least staying power.  Watch any random episode on a given night and you can clearly see that it hasn’t aged well.  Like “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” it is best viewed in a “Best of” format that cherry-picks the best skits, and most often they are dominated by skits involving Conway.  His best bits were the physical ones, whether is was Mr. Tudball, the flappable boss with the Scandinavian accent and unfortunate toupee that inevitably ended up in his face, or artillery captain in the French army who attempts to load a cannon but ends up dropping the ball down his pants.  Or even Mr. Bunny, the rabbit lawyer who tries to keep his professional composure while constantly giving in to his rabbit tendencies.

Yes, Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner made up a company of sketch comedians that cannot be beat, but for my money it was Conway that made it great.  He had an innate ability to not only draw raucous laughs but to also to create those perfect moments when he broke up his co-stars, angling their timing and their professionalism into fits of sweating and stifled laughs.  There was always a moment when Burnett, Waggoner, Lawrence or Korman knew that Conway was trying to get them.  You could see it in their eyes.

One of my favorites was a sketch called “The Interrogator” in which Waggoner played an American POW being interrogated by Conway who was playing a Nazi.  Trapped in a two-shot, Waggoner does a valiant job of keeping his composure as Conway baits him, but when he produced a rosy-cheeked hand puppet of Adolph Hitler from his coat, Waggoner knows all is lost.  When puppet-Fuhrer launches into a squeaky-voiced rendition of “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dina”, you can see that even Conway is trying not to laugh.

Conway’s ability to trap his castmates in stifled laughter fell hardest on Harvey Korman, most evident in a brilliant sketch in which Conway plays a dentist who accidentally stabs himself with a needle full of novacane, first in the hand and then in the leg.  Korman, as the patient, is trapped in the chair and has nowhere to go.  The sketch is funny all by itself but the spice is added by Korman’s failed attempt to keep his composure.

But then it all came back.  Conway’s ability to keep his castmates in stitches finally came back around in a sketch of “The Family” in which his character Mickey recalls the story of two Siamese elephants at a freak show.  True to Conway’s nature, the story gets more and more absurd as Burnett sits just to his left sweating and hiding her face while the studio audience rolls in uncontrollable laughter.  Vicki Lawrence finally breaks the moment by asking “are you sure that asshole’s through yet?”  Conway is a goner.  Does that kind of laughter exist anymore?

Judd Apatow, hearing the news of Conway’s passing had the most fitting tribute, “Tim Conway was pure comedy.”  There is no reading-between-the-lines with that statement because if you know Conway’s work than you know what that means.  He wanted to make you laugh, and to keep you laughing.  You got caught up in his shenanigans and he kept you rolling in the aisles.

 
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Posted by on 05/14/2019 in Uncategorized

 

Bowing Out: Doris Day (1922-2019)

It is difficult to look at Doris Day’s three-foot smile and middle-American pretty face and reflect that here was a woman that was just as vilified as she was glorified.  There are millions who love her for her work in film, television and in her music career, but just as many who despise her for her radical activism on behalf of the ethical treatment of animals.  However, you feel about her, there is no doubt about the impact that she leaves behind.

Doris Day’s activism is a point of contention, but what I am going to take with me are the songs and the films, the declaration of a frilly pink world of chaste sex, designer gowns, Burt Bacharach albums and the full co-ax of apartments designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Those are the memories that I have, and the ones that I treasure.

Admittedly, I am not the first person to run to a Doris Day movie, but I can observe that if you watch enough, you start to notice something underneath, a subtext that makes her film work more than just silly romantic programmers.  There was something going on underneath her romantic fantasies, something sexy that the credo of Hollywood could only push so far.  Movies of the 60s were a strange ironic conundrum, especially romantic comedies.  America, at the time, was in the middle of the free love movement, but Hollywood was still in the chastity of the 1950s.  The difference was that you could suggest it heavily but you couldn’t show it.

In a lot of ways Doris Day, who died Monday at the age of 97, patented an on-screen image that was so perfectly indicative of the free love generation that it was almost deceptive.  She is so fixed in our minds as the perfect white, cornfed middle-American girl of the 1960s that it is almost a tease that her characters seemed to live a life of sexual frivolity that was abundantly evident, but took place exclusively off-screen.  In her romantic comedies, she defied the convention of television that required women to be the homemaker and housewife and lived her own version of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Manifesto.  She loved men, was attracted to them, wanted them, and probably got them.

Day made three films with Rock Hudson, Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back(1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964) and in all three you never had a single doubt that her characters had sex – or at least were perfectly schooled in what that word meant.  She had a libido, she knew it, and she was very aware of the level that it was vibrating on.  But it was always under the surface; the production code was still in force during her heyday on screen in the 1960s but the times being what they were, she could suggest everything and show nothing.  Maybe that’s what made her comedies so tasty – they were a tease rather than a show.

If subtext was the norm, my personal favorite was Calamity Jane (1953), a musical fantasy in which she plays a tomboy version of the famous wild west sharpshooter who develops a loving relationship with Wild Bill Hickock.  But it’s the not-so-well disguised lesbian suggestions that make the film a great deal of fun, particularly when she a showgirl up and down and declares “You’re the purdiest thing I ever seen.” Then looking too close at the fullness of her bosom questions “How do you hold that dress up there.”  Added to that, the Academy Award winning song “Secret Love” and you’ve got a lesbian perennial for the ages.

No matter what she sang, there was something much deeper in the performance that just a glorious voice belting out Top 40 songs.  Doris Day is that rare singer who could embody a character through song in a way that few could.  Sinatra could do this.  Judy Garland too.  But from Doris, there was something of an embodying quality to her contralto voice that took us inside of the soul of the song.  One of my favorites is her version of “When I Fall in Love,” a rapturous and hopeful ode to the promise of true love, she sings with great delight the inevitability that she will find love, but listen carefully and just underneath you’ll hear a sense of melancholy that true love hasn’t happened yet.  Another is “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” in which I am never sure if she has fallen in love with someone or if it is a faraway crush.  Whatever the case, listen to the tambour of her voice and you can feel the emotions of someone whose mind is completely enraptured by the person that she has fallen in love with.

I could write a thousand more words on what a great star she was.  I know that she was one of those performers whose entire body became part of the act.  She was bright, sunny and cheery.  The kind of person that you gravitate to.  You saw her name in print and you immediately conjured up a feeling of sunshine and happiness with a sense that underneath it all lay a person whose heart was an open book.  How many people give you that?  I’ll never see anyone like her again.

Que sera sera.

 
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Posted by on 05/13/2019 in Uncategorized

 

And the winner is . . . Green Book?!?

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The season of Oscar has come to a close and in the midst of an already bizarre and sometimes embarrassing ride that included a defunct popular category, a choice to go hostless and that stupid suggestion about giving out awards during the commercials, the 91st Annual Academy Awards landed on a Best Picture winner that is, to be perfectly honest, a weak and predictable crowd-pleaser that proves nothing.

Green Book, the story of a white racist bouncer in 1962 who is hired to drive a world-renowned black musician on an eight-week tour through the Midwest and into the deep south, went into the competition a wounded competitor.  With its questionable racial politics and gross historical inaccuracies (most of which were addressed by Doctor Shirley’s family), the movie seemed to have lost its footing since the nominations were announced last month.  Yet, in a Hollywood striving to make changes, and embrace diversity and tell stories about the social tapestry of the last century of American history, it is questionable whether this now beknighted film was really the story to do that.

Frankly, in my opinion, it wasn’t.  Nested in a Best Picture category that included much more current and hard-hitting movies about African-American history and culture like BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther, it seems odd that the voters would settle on a simplistic, easy-to-swallow audience pleaser that shaves points by undercutting and dramatizing the meat of our racial problems by reformatting them into a simple-minded heroes and villains narrative that can be easily sold to a mass audience not wishing to be challenged.

Think of it this way.  One can easily understand the Academy’s blunder with the Popular category and the stupid suggestion of giving out awards during the commercials, but Green Book speaks to the voters who have risen up to challenge the academy to recognize diversity and equality.  Does the victory of a weak reformatting of Driving Miss Daisy mean that changes will come gradually?  In the face of rewarding a beautiful film like Moonlight, are they reverting back to their old habits?  It’s hard to say.

The 91st Annual Academy Awards seemed a night of wavering degrees of good and bad rewards.  Between the beloved Black Panther, which picked up three awards for its score, costumes and production design and the very troubled (and critically hated) Bohemian Rhapsody which picked up four awards for its sound editing, sound mixing and film editing, plus an expected Best Actor award for Rami Malek, there seemed to be something in the air.  No one could really nail down what would win the final award (I myself thought it would be Roma) but as the night drew to a close, something seemed to be closing in between Green Book and Roma.  Alfonso Cauron’s film had already won Best Foreign Language Film

Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody was just about the only universally loved thing about that movie.  Perhaps it was his tenacity that brought him through a dead script, a troubled production (director Bryan Singer walked out) and a rather unwieldy set of prosthetic teeth.  Either way, it says something of him as a performer that he could pull out a remarkable performance despite the issues present.

The night seemed, for a while, predictable.  The early predictions fell into place until it was time to announce Best Actress.  It seemed written in the stars that seven-time nominee, and seven-time Oscar bridesmaid Glenn Close would win Best Actress.  But . . . that didn’t happen.  The winner was Olivia Colman for playing the ailing and temperamental Queen Ann in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favorite.  A clearly befuddled Colman didn’t know what to say at the microphone and called the moment “genuinely quite stressful.  Then the camera caught Glenn Close giving her second best performance of the year, that of an actress trying to pretend not to be stressed in the face of losing for the seventh time.

Less stress was finally given to Spike Lee who, after 30 years in the business, finally picked up a long-overdue Oscar for his script of BlacKkklansman.  Yet in losing the Best Picture race to Green Book, the director couldn’t help remembering back to 1990 when Driving Miss Daisy won the top award while his passion project Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated.  Backstage he addressed the similarity of the two films “Every time somebody drives somebody, I lose.”

Alfonso Cauron won two awards for Cinematography and for Editing his most personal film (and the best film of the year) Roma.  In addressing the film, Cauron casually and indirectly made a statement to the President of the United States and his policies and attitudes toward foreigners and indigenous peoples and encouraged us to embrace people of other cultures and not simply to look away.

Mahershala Ali picked up his second award in two years – he previously won for Moonlight – thanked Doctor Shirley who he played in the film.  And Regina King, the sole recipient of an award for Barry Jenkins beautiful If Beale Street Could Talk and called herself “an example of what it looks like when support and love is poured into someone.”

The 91st Academy Awards were an example of something else, however.  The question of what the show would look like without a host will certainly draw gnashings and curious head-twitches.  But, when the smoke is cleared, it may be possible to look on this award show has having had the cleaning run-through in years.  Without a host, it felt somewhat more streamlined.  The opening Queen medly with Adam Lambert was, expectedly, less-than-dynamic, and then came Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and Amy Poeler to give a five-minute monologue that was perhaps funnier than anything that has been written for the Oscar show since the days of Billy Crystal.

It is odd to say, but without a singular host junking up the proceedings with silly gimmicks, the show took on a different tone this year.  There was a spirit to this year’s awards that was . . . mature.  Maybe even streamlined.  Few may agree with this assessment but there was almost a more sophisticated tone to this year’s awards, a feeling of the Oscars that I remember as a kid.  The celebrities, both presenters and winners made silly jokes and award show banter but there wasn’t an established set of entertainment gimmicks.  This year it all seemed to be about the awards, about the diversity of film and about the magic of movies.  In a troubling but also satisfying year for Oscar, it can be said that at least they seemed to get the show right.  At least that’s something.

 
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Posted by on 02/25/2019 in Uncategorized

 

The Best Picture Nominees: Vice

The 91st Annual Academy Awards arrive tomorrow.  Let’s take a look at the last of this year’s Best Picture nominees.

So, here’s a question that’s probably not all that hard-hitting.  Would you be surprised by a story about two men who form a personal and professional bond with the intension of spending the next decade working their way through the political system, making alliances and re-establishing the format of how government is run all with the intension of establishing the kind of government that they want when they reach the highest office in the land?  Would you be at all surprised?  Even a little bit?

If your resounding answer is ‘no’ then you were very likely as frustrated by Adam McKay’s Vice as I was.  You already know that this kind of political restructuring is not only possible but has taken place through our history going all the way back to the revolution.  What is the movie telling you that you don’t already know?  How, in the 21st century, with our 24-hour media and social media could anyone be surprised by this?  This is the kind of insider bombshell that might have been surprising in, say, 1932.

Vice is a movie in which writer/director Adam McKay not only states and restates the obvious, but he tries and fails to be funny and clever about the alliance of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (with a bold emphasis on the latter).  Even aside from that Cheney, let’s be honest, just isn’t all that interesting a subject for a movie.  Christian Bale does disappear inside the role of Cheney but there’s something muted about this portrayal, some key element that’s missing that should make us either glorify or vilify him.  He’s so silent and so stoic at all times that you wait for some revelation, some element to his character to rise to the top to tell us something about him that we don’t already know.

What is far more interesting is the film’s other key player Donald Rumsfeld, played in a brilliant performance by Steve Carrell.  He plays the former Secretary of Defense with the passion and aura of a giddy snake charmer.  There’s a lot of fun and bluster to his performance and that’s where the central focus should have been.

 

 
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Posted by on 02/23/2019 in Uncategorized