Friday, April 18, 2014

Zelda Gilroy for Supervisor, or The Many Campaigns of Sheila Kuehl

If you’re old enough to have seen The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, an amiable sitcom that rocked the airwaves from 1959 to 1963, then you remember Zelda Gilroy. The central character of this series based on Max Shulman’s satiric stories is Dobie Gillis, a romantically-inclined teenage boy who is putty in the hands of any girl who’s “creamy,” to crib from the language of the show’s theme song. Dobie (played with innocent zest by Dwayne Hickman) is particularly drawn to voluptuous airheads, like Tuesday Weld’s Thalia Menninger. But, alas, dim Dobie himself proves irresistible to the class brainiac, feisty little Zelda. She shows her love by crinkling her nose at Dobie (he always reflexively crinkles back, then recoils in horror), and by volunteering to do his homework.

Zelda was memorably played by Sheila James, whose real name is Sheila Kuehl. Today she’s convinced that she snagged the role of Zelda because she was even shorter than series creator Max Shulman. When Dobie Gillis became a hit, Shulman did her another favor: persuading her to continue with her studies at UCLA, despite the demands of her showbiz career. Eventually she became UCLA’s Associate Dean of Students and then, at age 34, entered Harvard Law School. Presumably her acting experience came in handy: she was only the second woman in the school’s history to be named the winner of its Moot Court competition. (I presume she used no nose crinkles to win over the judges.) Then it was back to California, where she launched a career in the state legislature.

I tend to be suspicious of actors who go into politics, but Sheila Kuehl is the real deal. She has served honorably in both California houses, accepted many committee posts, championed important social legislation, and earned a reputation for working well with colleagues on the other side of the aisle. She’s also my neighbor, making her home not far from me in the great little city of Santa Monica. Now that she’s termed out of the state legislature, Sheila is running to be one of Los Angeles County’s five supervisors. The district covers an enormous area, and she needs to woo a million voters. Which is why I attended an unusual fundraiser on the Sunset Strip.

 “Zelda for Supervisor” was the evening’s theme, and we were all encouraged to dress in our Fifties best. This being Hollywood, speeches were made by some showbiz names: actor-environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. and funnyman Bruce Vilanch, who couldn’t resist a Sarah Palin (“Caribou Barbie”) gibe. But the star of the evening was Zelda Gilroy, whom Kuehl herself described with typical enthusiasm as a role model for ambitious young women because she never took No for an answer. Several Dobie Gillis episodes were aired, including one in which Zelda—making her usual passionate pitch for Dobie’s love—proposes to become his campaign manager and get him elected to Congress. Ah, yes. The fabulous 1950s, when no one realized that Zelda herself would have made a much better candidate.

Much like Sheila Kuehl, who freely admits that her character shared many of her own personality traits. Persistence, for one thing, and a willingness to get creative if it will help her reach her goal. Far from shunning her TV past, Sheila glories in it, especially when it extends the reach of her campaign. Shilling for contributions, she announced, “I’ll call you ‘poopsie’ for twenty bucks.” Or, for $100, you can get a nose crinkle.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Noah’s Art: Bespoke Tailoring and the Movies

How did Noah fasten his clothing? At my local upscale cineplex a display case always houses a few costumes featured in some major new release. Recently I studied the drab, rough-hewn tunic worn by Russell Crowe for at least forty days and forty nights in Darren Aronofsky’s controversial blockbuster. I leave it to others to ponder Aronofsky’s vision, and whether it’s compatible with the Biblical account of Noah and the flood. Me—I wanted to check out Noah’s buttons, or the lack thereof.

My fascination with buttons comes from having read a fascinating new book called The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat. Travel writer Meg Lukens Noonan (like me a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors) discovered that a fourth-generation tailor in Sydney, Australia had just made, for a customer with deep pockets, the world’s most sumptuous overcoat. Nothing gaudy, you understand. Tailor John H. Cutler just started with a rare and costly fabric (the fleece of a small, shy Peruvian critter called a vicuña), added a stunningly patterned silk lining (from top Italian designer Stefano Ricci), then finished off his creation with buttons molded from the horns of an Indian water buffalo by an English firm that has been doing this for 150 years. While chasing down every aspect of the fabulous coat, Noonan mulls over the fine art of bespoke tailoring. It’s in some ways the opposite of high fashion: those who’ve embraced bespoke don’t go in for flashy trends and the constant need to update one’s wardrobe. Bespoke garments, though exquisitely crafted, are subdued. And they’re intended to last for decades.

I learned from Noonan’s book about the grand tradition of Savile Row. Since the early nineteenth century, English gentlemen have come to this London street to be fitted for suits designed especially for them. Noonan vividly describes one establishment, Anderson & Sheppard, where “a hushed front room glows with an amber light, as if viewed through a glass of sherry.” Among its elite clientele have been some of the entertainment world’s most glamorous folk: Rudolph Valentino, Duke Ellington, Fred Astaire, even Marlene Dietrich, who famously favored man-tailored ensembles.

During the golden age of moviemaking, studios with well-appointed costume shops had their own version of bespoke tailoring. The stars were outfitted head to toe in garments specially made to suit their bodies as well as their roles. Such famous studio designers as Edith Head made a career out of fitting and flattering. Deborah Nadoolman (Raiders of the Lost Ark) has griped to me that, because of today’s lower budgets, a costume designer is now often treated as a “costumer,” whose job is to go out shopping for appropriate items.

In today’s world, where disposable fashion rules, few customers have the money and the patience to have their wardrobes made to order. That’s why the craftsmen to whom Noonan spoke (like those English button experts) are a dying breed. Still, there’s hope: the popularity of Downton Abbey has encouraged enthusiasts to seek out bespoke tailors and cobblers who can help transform them into English country gentlemen.

 And what of Noah? In place of buttons, his tunic is closed with crude loops and tabs, quite appropriate since the first button-holes didn’t appear until the thirteenth century. I can’t imagine this highly individual garment on the rack at H&M. And it was surely hand-loomed and fitted to Crowe’s frame. So, although the look is hardly that of an English gentleman, it may be fair to call Crowe’s costume “bespoke.” Thanks to Noonan, I now get to ponder questions like these. 

Meg Lukens Noonan will appear on my panel, ASJA Award-Winners: Making it from Pitch to Publish, at this year’s ASJA conference, coming up on April 24-26 at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. The public is cordially welcome. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

And A Little Child Shall Lead Us: Remembering Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney

Since the start of 2014, two of America’s most priceless child stars have left us. Shirley Temple passed away in February, at age 85. From 1935 to 1938, the winsome moppet was the nation’s top box-office draw, singing and dancing her way into everyone’s hearts. Then, this past Sunday, we lost Mickey Rooney, who held on until age 93. In July 2012, after an Academy screening of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,  I remember how he came out on stage and somehow pulled off a few dance steps. That was Mickey Rooney: a trouper till the end.
Both Temple and Rooney found fame during the Great Depression, when Americans ground down by years of unemployment were desperate for low-cost entertainment. Films starring cute, plucky youngsters nicely filled the bill. Shirley’s wholesome family movies, in which she tap-danced with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and jousted with cantankerous Lionel Barrymore, were designed to lift people’s spirits, and so they did.  But by the time Shirley entered adolescence, the studios no longer knew what to do with her. There was serious hype around her first screen kiss, but the public wanted her to stay a little girl forever. That’s where my family came in. Why did my father’s parents—poor immigrants with too many kids and not enough money—move from the Midwest to California circa 1935? Naturally, to get the youngest daughter into the movies. She had curly hair and presumably could carry a tune, so it seemed obvious that she was bound for stardom. It didn’t happen, but eventually my father met my mother at UCLA . . . and the rest is (family) history.

Eventually Shirley Temple was smart enough to realize that there were no more movies in her future. She retired, married, raised three kids. Then, to everyone’s surprise, she got political. She was selected by Republican presidents to serve as a UN representative, an ambassador to Ghana and later to Czechoslovakia, and the U.S. Chief of Protocol. By all reports she filled these positions with grace.

I first learned of Shirley at a Brownie Scout meeting, when it was announced we’d be seeing a traveling exhibit that featured her enormous doll collection. (She’d been given hundreds of dolls by admirers all over the world.) Our leaders were amazed and amused that none of us had ever heard of Shirley Temple. But that would soon change. Television execs were soon to greenlight Shirley Temple’s Storybook, an anthology of fairytale adaptations, with the now-adult Shirley hosting as well as playing an occasional role. And old Shirley Temple movies suddenly became a TV staple. Like our parents, we Baby Boomers fell for her too.  
Mickey Rooney was as plucky as Shirley in his movie roles, but had a far wider range. He played Puck in Warner Bros.’ all-star Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), went dramatic in Boys Town (1938), and, as the All-American Andy Hardy, embodied everyone’s favorite kid brother. Once he grew up (but only to 5’3”) he kept at it, appearing in somber dramas, wacky comedies, family features like The Black Stallion, and even Roger Corman flicks. A friend of mine who once taped many celebrity interviews for A&E Biography explained why Rooney was a valued presence on the set. Once he was paid a substantial “honorarium,” he’d turn on the star power, improvising a heartfelt tribute to the subject at hand, often becoming dramatically tearful. But now his large extended family is battling over the old pro’s will and final resting place. Family feuds are ugly things. So let’s call up some tears, shall we?   

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Roger Corman at 88: Approaching the King Lear Years

On April 5, 2014, Roger Corman celebrated his eighty-eighth birthday. At this stage of his long career, he’s enjoying plenty of respect, even veneration. (On my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers Facebook site, one of his loyal fans recently referred to him as “The God Who Walks Among Us.”) 

As author of the definitive Corman biography, which was updated last fall with a brand-new epilogue, I’m often asked what my former boss is doing now. As a matter of fact, Roger has done rather well since he turned eighty. His tongue-in-cheek monster mash-ups for the Sci Fi Channel, which now calls itself Syfy, have made him popular with a whole new audience. And, in the course of promoting such made-for-TV schlockfests as Dinocroc vs. Supergator, he’s become something of an Internet celebrity as well.

Here’s how I kick off “The Epilogue Strikes Back”: 

            Fade in on a pristine stretch of tropical shore, where we spot an old codger with his shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest. Though sloppy and unshaven, he looks a lot like Roger Corman. Sauntering along, he ogles a bikini-clad lovely who has just bent down to dig up a rare coin. When a tentacled sea-beast unexpectedly looms, dragging the shrieking beauty into the surf, he reacts with mild surprise. Then, shrugging off the carnage, he makes a beeline for the coin she’s dropped in the sand. The scene ends on his self-satisfied grin.

            In February 2011, Roger and Julie Corman visited the set of to promote their latest made-for-TV movie, Sharktopus. On the webcast, a genial Corman explained that it was director Declan O’Brien who had proposed this out-of-character cameo appearance. Roger readily went along with the gag, because “I’ve played so many governors and senators—I said I’d be delighted to play a beach bum.” Host Matt Raub underscored for viewers the scene’s sly allusion to Corman’s “well-known aversion for letting good money go to waste,” and Roger agreed with a twinkle, “Exactly!”

            Roger was having fun here spoofing his cheapskate image. But he has also been enjoying his new reputation as one of Hollywood’s elder statesmen, with all the glory that entails. In November 2009, he was chosen by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to receive an honorary Oscar for his contributions to the film industry. At the Academy’s newly inaugurated Governors Awards banquet, such Corman alumni as Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme hailed their former boss, while longtime admirer Quentin Tarantino waxed poetic: “Roger, for everything that you have done for cinema, the Academy thanks you, Hollywood thanks you, independent filmmaking thanks you, but most importantly—for all the wild, weird, cool, crazy moments you’ve put on the drive-in screens—the movie-lovers of the planet Earth thank you!”

            In the years since 2009, Roger has been the star of at least one documentary (Alex Stapleton’s Corman’s World), has made countless personal appearances, and (though he doesn’t personally do email or own a cellphone) encouraged his staff to come up with clever ways of using Twitter and social media to promote the Corman brand. Getting older, though, hasn’t always been easy for him. A recent staffer described to me his short attention span, his frequent bursts of anger, and occasional threats to shutter the company. He and his wife Julie have also been rocked by a nasty lawsuit served against them by their two adult sons, who claim more of the Corman loot for themselves. It’s sad that Roger, at eighty-eighty, is now facing what a Corman veteran calls “the King Lear years.” 

Low-key commercial message: Yes, I really am an expert on all things Roger Corman. My newly updated biography, Roger Corman:Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, has won praise in such varied publications as Variety, the New York Times, Video Watchdog, and the Wall Street Journal,. It has also been hailed by several generations of Corman alumni as an accurate and insightful look at a very complex man. Click here to find out more.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Noah and Cesar Chavez Approach Biopic Heaven

In light of two films that opened last weekend, I’m pondering exactly what a biopic is. Cesar Chavez, a respectful salute to the Chicano labor organizer, earned tepid reviews and modest returns at the box office. And then there was Noah, which over the weekend collected a cool $44 million domestically, plus another $95 million overseas. This despite protests from those concerned that Darren Aronofsky’s Bible epic misrepresents the word of God.

Cesar Chavez was very much a living figure when I was growing up. I well remember sitting down with fellow grad students for a picnic lunch. Suddenly we were all staring at the one newcomer to California who had innocently unpacked a bunch of grapes. It was the era of the grape boycott in support of farm workers, and none of us had eaten grapes in years. Chavez and his movement did a lot of good for those at the bottom of the social ladder. Still, Chavez was—like most great leaders—a sometimes problematic human being. An important new biography by Miriam Pawel, who like me is a member of Biographers International Organization, is catching flak from Chavez admirers because it dares to point out the great man’s flaws. This film apparently goes the other route; critics are griping that it makes Chavez seem little lower than the angels.

Which of course is a complaint that’s been leveled at many biopics, like Richard Attenborough’s reverent 1982 film, Gandhi. Hollywood, especially in its early days, liked nothing better than to present an historical figure as a hero: hence admiring (though heavily fictionalized) films about such high achievers as Emile Zola and Louis Pasteur. Today we tend to be fascinated by the reality behind the legend. For me one of the triumphs of Spielberg’s Lincoln was that it presented an admirable man, but not a flawless one.    

A biopic can never be accepted as true biography because it involves actors taking on roles, and because there’s necessarily a compressing and a rearranging of incidents in order to tell a coherent story in a few hours’ time. Biographers, on the other hand, pride themselves on the lengths they will go to know everything about their subject. They conduct countless interviews, search through dusty archives, and chase down every possible lead. (No wonder biographies tend to be so very long.) A filmmaker might do some of the same research, but in the service of a relatively concise work of art, which means making major choices about what to condense and what to leave out.

I’m boggled by the fact that some religious folk are ready to condemn Noah, sight unseen, because they suspect it distorts the truths they find in the Bible. But a filmmaker working with the Bible is hardly overwhelmed by usable details. In the Book of Noah, we learn a fair amount about the  size of the ark and the height of the waves, but virtually nothing about the key personalities involved. Like: how does Mrs. Noah feel about all this? And why exactly does Noah get drunk and get naked in his post-flood vineyard? And, if the children of Noah’s sons are expected to repopulate the earth, where exactly are they going to find mates who aren’t their first cousins? All of this is, needless to say, subject to interpretation. There are no eyewitnesses to interview, no old letters to study, so the filmmaker can only try to approach the text seriously and with good intentions. Aronofsky’s take on the Noah story may be a bit bonkers, but it’s hard to say it’s wrong.

Fans of biography may want to join me at this year’s conference of BIO, also known as the Biographers International Organization. It all happens on the University of Massachusetts’ Boston campus on Saturday, May 17. The public is most welcome.