Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Woody Strode: The Sequel

Photo by Kenneth James Bryson 

I last wrote about Woody Strode, athlete and actor, on March 1, 2013. In a blog post referring to Strode as “Django Overlooked,” I mused about his forty-year career in Hollywood, which included featured roles in such classic films as John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Richard Brooks’ The Professionals, and of course as Kirk Douglas’s worthy opponent in the climax of Spartacus. My mother, a proud UCLA alumna, thrilled to Strode’s heroics on the football field circa 1940. A few years later, while former UCLA classmate Jackie Robinson was integrating professional baseball, Strode helped break color barriers in the National Football League. Ultimately, though, he was better known as an brawny African-American actor, one whose ethnicity limited him to exotic and sidekick roles.

Much of what I know about Woody Strode I learned from his son and namesake,  who was always proud of his father’s legacy. I met Woody Kalaeloa Strode (nicknamed Kalai) when both of us were chosen to represent our country.at  Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. To serve as guides at the U.S. Pavilion, under the auspices of the State Department, we had to demonstrate our ability to speak Japanese. Kalai, who became a UCLA Asian Studies major despite his father’s hope that he’d focus on science, was well qualified for the post. Once on the job, though, he ran afoul of the pavilion’s top honcho, who was terrified – in that turbulent era – of the rebellious youth culture that was then roiling America. Whenever Kalai’s conservative Afro started growing a little full, he was ordered to travel to Tokyo for a haircut. Because the haircut obligation had starting becoming onerous, Kalai had the bright idea of shaving his head. For his father, after all, a bald skull had been a dramatic trademark. Sans hair, Kalai looked remarkably like a Buddhist monk. His fellow guides loved it . . . but poor Kalai was quickly sent home.

Though this display of individuality cost him his job, it did encourage him to keep to his own path. Back in the U.S., Kalai followed his father into the film industry, though he mostly remained on the other side of the camera. Entering a Directors Guild training program, he emerged as a credentialed assistant director. An A.D.’s position on a movie or TV set is less glamorous than essential: he (or she) must keep track of actors and crew members, fill out essential paperwork, and see to everyone’s needs. Kalai served on films like The Lost Boys and on the long-running TV series Diagnosis Murder.  Eventually he moved to Honolulu, birthplace of his full-blooded Hawaiian mother, a descendant of Hawaii’s royal family. During his years in Hawaii, Kalai worked as a teamster on many island-based productions, including Tropic Thunder and Lost. In 2011, he appeared on-camera in an episode of Hawaii Five-O (see below). revealing the easy-going charm that I remember from Expo days.

A philosopher and a gentle soul, Kalai had many friends in and out of showbiz. Sadly, he never quite fulfilled his dream of chronicling his father’s life. He died of cancer over Thanksgiving, just before his 68th birthday. Because his passing was sudden, he and his widow Pam were stranded in Texas, where they had gone to visit her ailing mother. Pam Larson Strode, an actress who first met Kalai on a TV shoot , has been devastated by his loss, financially as well as emotionally. That’s why pals have graciously created a burial fund to help return Kalai to the Hawaiian shores he loved so well.

A fond aloha to Woodrow Wilson Kalaeloa Strode, 1946-2014

Friday, December 12, 2014

‘Tis the Season for Nominations: Dear White People

As the countdown to Christmas continues, some Hollywood types have found themselves unwrapping early presents, in the form of accolades for films they’ve released in 2014. The Golden Globe list came out yesterday, a day after the Screen Actors Guild nods. Based on those nominations, some lucky performers and moguls are now getting measured for new fancy-dress duds, with visions of  Oscars dancing in their heads

Once the Academy Awards were the only game in town. Now, though, awards and nominations are announced on almost a daily basis, as various critics’ circles and fan groups weigh in on their favorites. The pundits, meanwhile, are busy calibrating the odds on who’ll be mentioned from the stage on Oscar night, February 22. Showbiz sites like Indiewire and The Wrap, as well as a weekly section of the L.A. Times called The Envelope, have long been making breathless predictions. The result: a sense of inevitability develops, persuading movie enthusiasts without industry connections to put some movies high on their “must-see” lists and skip others entirely. Everybody loves a winner, so why bother paying to see something that doesn’t stand a chance?

Ultimately, all these predictions end up shaping the box office. Which is why producers hire specialists to run awards-oriented publicity campaigns. And stars of small indie movies push themselves forward as legitimate contenders.  (It worked for Jennifer Aniston, who just scored SAG and Golden Globe nominations for Cake. Her film will not enter general release until January, and awards buzz will certainly help its box-office chances.)

The Golden Globe folks, a small cadre of foreign journalists who belong to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, have been handing out statuettes since 1947. Their reputation isn’t the best: they have often been accused of playing favorites, and their past includes questionable awards to well-connected fringe players like Pia Zadora (who was named New Star of the Year for Butterfly in 1982). Having attended an HFPA press conference in that era, I have a certain skepticism about the seriousness of their credentials. Still, their recent choices make more sense, and everyone seems to enjoy the televised Golden Globe evening (January 11, 2015) as one big glitzy party. The Screen Actors Guild prizes, to be given out January 25, are viewed with more respect. These awards, given by actors to their fellow actors, are often an excellent predictor of Oscar love. The makers of one potential contender, Selma, badly goofed   when they didn’t send out official screeners to the SAG membership.

For my money the Gotham and Indie Spirit Awards are the most interesting. These groups recognize lower-budget films that might otherwise be overlooked. Like Dear White People, a low-budget racial satire that was a hit at Sundance, but proved hard to find elsewhere. Dear White People scored Spirit Award nominations for writer-director Justin Simien in the Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay categories. And the Gothamites, who proudly kick off the awards season by making their presentations on December 1, gave their Breakthrough Actor prize to the film’s star Tessa Thompson, who triumphed over notables from Boyhood, Nightcrawler, and Obvious Child. Though Tessa (also featured in Selma) plays a campus firebrand in Dear White People, I remember her well from the days when she and my son acted together at Santa Monica High School, in classics like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and You Can’t Take It With You. Tessa was a sweet girl, a real charmer, and I’d love to catch her film . . . if I could find it. Maybe a bit of awards buzz might make that happen.   

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Who’s That Guy? A Dick Miller Tribute

Back in 1973, when I started at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, I quickly met a feisty little guy named Dick Miller. We instantly hit it off. As a literary young lady more knowledgeable about art films than genre flicks, I didn’t realize at the time that Dick was a B-movie celebrity of sorts. He had made his first Corman film, Apache Woman, in 1955, playing both an Indian and cowboy, and nearly killing himself off in the last reel. Later he played in something like 45 Corman cheapies, as everything from a heroic astronaut (War of the Satellites) to a jive-talking vacuum cleaner salesman (Not of this Earth) , a carnation-munching gourmand (Little Shop of Horrors), and a would-be bohemian who accidentally becomes a serial killer (Bucket of Blood).

Not knowing these early films, I simply enjoyed Dick’s company. But I also came to admire his versatility in the movies we made at New World. Somehow he was convincing as a rapist gym coach in The Student Teachers, even though his victim was probably six inches taller than the 5’5” Dick. And he was hilarious playing an inept lawman in Big Bad Mama. As Roger Corman’s assistant story editor, I was well aware of the brouhaha that developed when Dick (who’d started out with writing aspirations) was hired to write as well as perform in a blaxploitation martial arts flick, TNT Jackson. Years later, when I was researching Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires,Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, Dick reminisced about that shouting match with Roger,  during which his old mentor ripped up Miller’s script submission.  In Dick’s words, “I finally said, ‘Shove it!’ [Roger] got up—without his shoes—and kicked a lamp, and broke it. I heard years later that his biggest bitch was that he had broken the lamp.” Miller’s audacity swiftly won him respect among all the Hollywood underlings who had been dying to tell their producers to go to hell.

Though Dick could be pugnacious, he also won the hearts of many Corman protégés, among them Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and James Cameron. That’s why he’s featured in films like Scorsese’s New York, New York, and Cameron’s The Terminator. (He jokingly takes credit for the success of the latter, saying that “thanks to me Arnold Schwarzenegger became a star, you know that.” ) Joe Dante considers Dick a good luck charm, and he’s therefore appeared in every Dante film, from Piranha to The Howling to Gremlins to Looney Tunes: Back in Action. In Dante’s Matinee, he was paired on-screen with writer/director/Corman alumnus John Sayles, who has explained the Mutt-and-Jeff joke:  “I’m 6’4”, and he isn’t.”

This Sayles quip shows up in a charming new documentary that scored a hit at the South by Southwest Film Festival. That Guy Dick Miller was directed by the highly inventive Elijah Drenner, and produced by Dick’s loyal spouse, Lainie (whose own claim to showbiz fame is her appearance as the multi-talented stripper in The Graduate). Through Kickstarter, Dick’s many fans helped with funding. Last Friday’s Hollywood debut of That Guy Dick Miller revealed lots I didn’t know about Dick: his talent for making sketches (particularly of nekkid ladies), the spiffy pink jacket that has seen service in several of his films; the fact that Quentin Tarantino – without explanation -- excised his entire performance from Pulp Fiction; his surprise discovery of the need, while on set in Manila, to “bite the monkey.”   

After such a long and strenuous career, is 86-year-old Dick Miller now officially retired? As he said on Friday, “If the phone rings, I’m answering it.”

Friday, December 5, 2014

In Living Color: Audra McDonald and Peter Pan

I just had the pleasure of seeing (and hearing) Audra McDonald in concert. In case anyone doesn’t know about her illustrious stage career, McDonald has won a record six Tony awards, for roles in both dramas and musicals. Growing up in workaday Fresno, California, she made the unlikely leap to Juilliard and then Broadway.  As an African-American she has starred in revivals of such classic black works as Porgy and Bess and A Raisin in the Sun. Another of her Tonys was earned for her stunning portrayal of Billie Holliday in an original play, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.  

But she has also won acclaim (and Tonys) for roles not specifically designed for a black woman. Her first was as the leading lady’s comic sidekick in Carousel, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical set in a quaint village in 19th century Maine. It’s a sign of theatrical progress that the concept of colorblind casting has allowed her to star as a Southwest spinster in 110 in the Shade, a musical adaptation of The Rainmaker, which starred Geraldine Page on the stage and Katharine Hepburn onscreen.

When you’re a talent like Audra McDonald, you can expect to appear in television and films too.  But we’re long past the golden age of movie musicals, so her film roles have been limited. On TV she’s mostly been confined to medical and crime dramas in which she doesn’t sing a note. An appearance as an ob/gyn on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy evolved into seven years as Dr. Naomi Bennett on the spin-off series, Private Practice. (Once, shamefully, black actresses were confined to playing maids. Now they seem to be stereotyped as physicians and judges.)

It’s true that McDonald has occasionally aired her musical abilities on television. Her very first TV appearance, in 1999, was in a TV version of Annie, the one with Victor Garber as Daddy Warbucks and Kathy Bates as nasty Miss Hannigan. (Audra had the rather pallid role of Warbucks’ everlovin’ secretary, Grace Farrell.) And in 2013 she played yet another improbable musical role. The other evening at Disney Hall, she ended her concert with a stirring song from a musical in which she had NEVER expected to appear. The song was “Climb Every Mountain,” from The Sound of Music. Though I doubt there were many black nuns in pre-World War II Austria, McDonald was cast as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music Live!, the Carrie Underwood TV special that earned both cheers and jeers. I understand the feelings of the hate-watchers, but a production in which McDonald’s lovely soprano soars can’t be all bad.
Though I didn’t see The Sound of Music Live! I looked in on its follow-up, Peter Pan Live!, which I found competent, earnest, and just a bit dull. Quick assessment: the sets were spectacular. The choreography was impressive. The musical score by old pros Jule Styne, Carolyn Leigh, and Comden & Green still worked its magic, though the additional songs added for this production were mostly yawners. As Peter, Allison Williams (of Girls) was better than I had expected. As Peter’s nemesis, Captain Hook, the legendary Christopher Walken was worse than I had expected, sleepwalking his way through a role I had thought he would knock out of the park. Clapping children still ensured that Tinkerbell didn’t die. (At least I guess they were clapping, because the feisty little fairy lived to flit another day.)

I could never diss a project that aims to teach today’s audiences to love musical theatre. Maybe casting Audra McDonald would have made all the difference.