Friday, August 30, 2013

Sarah Horn: A Star is Born?

A funny thing happened to Sarah Horn when she attended a late-summer pops concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Star Kristin Chenoweth asked for a volunteer from the audience to duet in a ballad from her hit Broadway show, Wicked. Up came Sarah, seeming properly awed to be standing on stage in front of thousands. Yes, she earned her living as a voice teacher, but her gigs up to that point had been modest, including a teaching stint at California Baptist University. Chenoweth sang the introduction, and then it was Sarah’s turn. Out came a powerful voice and a strong stage presence. At one point, Chenoweth was moved to marvel, “Holy crap! Harmony!” Friends captured the moment with cellphone videos, and suddenly there were two million views on YouTube. The Hollywood Bowl asked Sarah back, and other offers starting rolling in. Yes, a star was born.

It was reminiscent of Susan Boyle bowling over Simon Cowell in 2009 with her rendition of  “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent. A big difference, though: Boyle was a contestant on a televised talent show. And part of what helped her career take off was the obvious disconnect between her frumpy appearance and her soaring voice. I suspect the show’s savvy producers saw this, and found ways to take advantage of it. Horn isn’t a glamour girl either. And she looked rather bulky when standing next to the very petite Chenoweth. But the point is that she came to the Bowl simply to be a spectator . . . and then lightning struck.

Honestly, isn’t that what most of us have been waiting for in our own lives? From the time I was young, growing up in Southern California, I always half-expected to be told that I was some casting director’s dream. When relatives with connections wangled a “behind the scenes” tour of the Twentieth Century-Fox back lot, I chose my outfit with care, hoping that some studio exec would exclaim, “You’re exactly what we’ve been looking for.” I suspect I’m not unique in fantasizing myself becoming an overnight sensation.

Which perhaps is one reason why A Star is Born keeps being remade. The classic film stars James Mason as a fading star and Judy Garland as the spunky young kid who comes out of nowhere, takes advantage of a few lucky breaks, then marries and quickly eclipses him. That musical version, directed by George Cukor, was released in 1954, and earned six Oscar nominations (though Garland, who won an Academy Award in the film, had to settle for runner-up status on the actual Oscar night). The very first Star is Born dates back to 1937, with Frederick March and Janet Gaynor in the leading roles. In 1976, an iteration starring Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand was set in the world of rock music. It was less admired than its predecessors, but did introduce the Oscar-winning song, “Evergreen.” Recently, Clint Eastwood was slated to direct a brand-new adaptation of the (yes!) evergreen story, based on a script in which the leading man is a Kurt Cobain type, but the loss of female lead Beyoncé has jeopardized the project.

If most of us want to be catapulted into fame and fortune, we also want the same for others whom we deem deserving. That’s why Sarah Horn’s story has struck such a chord. I wonder what the future holds for her. Will she become the award-winning Vicki Lester, or the sadder-but-wiser Mrs. Norman Maine? Or, perhaps, in this age of instant Internet stardom, will she be forgotten by this time next week?  

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Dr. King and Dr. Poitier: They Both Had a Dream

This week’s fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington rightly focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King, whose “I Have a Dream” speech galvanized a nation. But it’s worth noting Hollywood’s visible presence at the march. It was not merely black performers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Diahann Carroll who took a visible role on that day. Steven J. Ross’s invaluable Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics recounts how such superstars as Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, and Tony Curtis made their presence felt. The leader of the Screen Actors Guild delegation was Moses himself, Charlton Heston. He had deliberately been chosen by singer-activist Harry Belafonte, because of his appeal in the American heartland.

But I want to focus on another Hollywood participant, Sidney Poitier. Though much less overtly political than his friend Belafonte, Poitier too joined that symbolic march to the Lincoln Memorial. But it was his presence on the nation’s movie screens that really made the difference. On August 28, 1963, America had yet to see Lilies of the Field, the charming film that would net Poitier the first Best Actor Oscar ever won by a black man. But from 1950 onward, he had an unprecedented career as an African-American whom the world could accept as a full-fledged screen hero. True, some of his early roles were silly and melodramatic, as when he played Rau-Ru, the secret son of Clark Gable (yes, really!) in a Civil War melodrama called Band of Angels. But more typically he took on realistic roles with a large dollop of dignity. In his very first film, No Way Out, he was the noble Dr. Luther Brooks, who was hard-pressed to perform his medical duties because of the racists in his midst. And he gravitated toward portraying educated men -- doctors, lawyers, social workers, teachers -- throughout his career.

In 1955’s groundbreaking Blackboard Jungle, Poitier was an unruly high school student whose leadership qualities eventually came to the fore. But the role that sealed his reputation as a civil rights icon was, ironically, one that friends urged him not to play. In 1962’s The Defiant Ones, he shed his usual middle-class dignity to portray an escaped felon shackled to a white man (Tony Curtis). During their odyssey through the American South, both slowly and painfully discover tolerance  . . . and even brotherly love. African-American novelist James Baldwin found the film’s ending an insulting nullification of the black man’s well-honed survival instincts. In  a long essay on Hollywood called The Devil Makes Work, he noted that “liberal white audiences applauded when Sidney, at the end of the film, jumped off the train in order not to abandon his white buddy.”  By contrast, said Baldwin, “the Harlem audience was outraged, and yelled, ‘Get back on the train, you fool!’”

Though some black Americas may have been outraged, much of white America was happy to adopt Poitier as a symbol of future racial reconciliation. Part of the credit must go to director Stanley Kramer, who cast Poitier in this role, and then used him in two additional landmark films, Pressure Point and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  That’s why the increasingly reclusive Poitier showed up for the opening of the StanleyKramer Centennial celebration, and wrote a letter praising a man who “had the insight and courage to bring to the forefront social issues that were difficult to address, and commonly ignored, by the general public.”

Kramer had the courage of his convictions, but Poitier embodied those convictions on screen, showing America how to move ahead. Methinks we need him still.
On opening night of the Stanley Kramer Centennial at the Billy Wilder Theater, Poitier poses with Karen Sharpe Kramer (left) and Kat Kramer

Friday, August 23, 2013

Jackie Joseph: From “Little Shop” to Lunch

Fans of the original Little Shop of Horrors, that funny-creepy black-&-white gem from 1960, of course remember Jackie Joseph. As Audrey, the love interest of the hapless Seymour, she’s the rose in a garden full of poison ivy. Fittingly, Jackie herself loves to garden. We had lunch recently in her comfortable Sherman Oaks home, slurping down gazpacho made from tomatoes, peppers, and onions she grew herself. Fortunately, no man-eating plants were on the menu.

Our chat quickly turned to Roger Corman’s two-day movie. He had the use of someone else’s leftover set, and shooting had to finish before 1959 ended, because the new 1960 SAG contract would guarantee actors residuals. To save time, Roger had several cameras running at once, and didn’t sweat the small stuff: “If by chance there was a shadow on you . . . too bad! You had to go on to the next shot. But, for the most part, he got it done.”  

Such was the need for speed that Jackie found herself changing her clothes onstage in a carpenter’s booth. All those perky little Fifties outfits came from her own closet. Though her clothing was clingy, she played Audrey totally without a sexual edge, just “a very nice girl wearing a tight dress.” As Roger Corman doubtless intuited, the innocence of the character was not far from that of the young actress: “I just thought anybody who was in a movie had to be amazing, and how lucky I was to have a job.” Her faith in her co-workers, though, wavered when she sat in the makeup chair. At first she was thrilled to be in the hands of a veteran Corman makeup artist . . . until she noticed her eyebrows starting to look disturbingly bushy. Finally she politely asked, “Have you made up a lot of women before?” His reply: “No. Only monsters.” Which was her cue to sneak off to the ladies’ room and repair the damage.

As a director, Roger was not one to discuss interpretations or line-readings. He believed the key was to cast the right actors, those who had the essence of what he was looking for. Jackie now says, “Since he never used me again, I wondered if he was disappointed in me.” She and I agree, though, that there wasn’t much room for her brand of innocence in the Corman world. When they’ve chanced to meet, he has always been cordial, and Jackie clings to an image of him as a country squire, suave and slightly aloof.    

Still, she’s long been bothered that when Menken and Ashman’s hit musical rendition of  Little Shop debuted off-Broadway in 1982, the original cast was not notified. When a touring company put down roots at the Westwood Playhouse, publicity reps didn’t even seem aware of the movie’s existence. Jackie calls this “our adventure in being insignificant.” For that, Roger Corman apparently bears part of the blame. Screenwriter Chuck Griffith once told me how the musical’s Audrey, Ellen Greene, opened his eyes to Corman’s tactic of swearing that such key original players as Jonathan Haze, Mel Welles, and Griffith himself were all deceased, and therefore there was no point in inviting us to N.Y. for the opening or for offering us anything.”

Still, her role in Little Shop has led to many good things for Jackie Joseph. I’ll get to those another day, but will let her have the final word about Roger Corman’s amazing impact on her career: Even though he beat us out of getting residuals on our contracts, there was a residual effect that will never go away.” 

For more insider stories about Little Shop of Horrors and other Corman accomplishments, I’m pleased to recommend the new edition of my critically acclaimed biography.  It brings Roger Corman into the present day, detailing his recent success with monster mash-ups, his acceptance of an Honorary Oscar at a star-studded ceremony in 2009, and the lawsuit that has rocked his family to its foundations. Previously suppressed material has been restored, and this 3rd editionof Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers is enhanced by an all-new photo section as well as a cover that gives Audrey Jr. pride of place.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

In a World . . . Where Women Call the Shots

In a world where females continue to be largely shut out, it’s refreshing to spot a small groundswell among smart young women who are writing and directing quirky projects in which they can star. On TV, Lena Dunham is the current It girl. In films,  Zoe Kazan wrote (though she didn’t direct) last year’s delightful Ruby Sparks. This year, Julie Delpy shared a writing credit on Before Midnight, and Greta Gerwig co-authored Frances Ha. But you’ve really got to hand it to Lake Bell, who wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the newly-released In a World . . . Along the way, she won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, and the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.

Back when I was making movies for Roger Corman, I sat through many a movie trailer. You know, those brief “coming-attractions” previews designed to attract audiences by showcasing a film’s best lines, most vivid action moments, and perhaps an exploding helicopter or two. In the Roger Corman universe, the trailer-cutter usually spoke his own voiceover narration, and I was quite accustomed to hearing a familiar voice drop down to basso profundo level to enhance its dramatic impact. Little did I know that everyone was imitating the late Don La Fontaine, who had been dubbed “The Voice of God” for his legendary vocal powers. La Fontaine’s skill at manipulating his resonant baritone proved especially effective in trailers for futuristic flicks like Terminator 2.  And he virtually owned the evocative opening phrase, “In a world where . . . “  

In Lake Bell’s movie, she’s the daughter of a voiceover specialist (the wonderfully pompous Fred Melamed) who’s considered almost in La Fontaine’s league. Bell casts herself as Carol, a struggling vocal coach who’s good with accents but has never dreamed of trying to beat her dad at his own game. Partly that’s because women are virtually never chosen to narrate theatrical trailers. But Hollywood is launching a hot new “quadrilogy” based on the futuristic exploits of some fierce yet very female Amazon warriors, and suddenly Carol’s in contention for the plum voiceover job.
Bell clearly knows this corner of Hollywood exceedingly well. Her attention to vocal delivery throughout the film means that the audience is listening extra-hard to the way everyone speaks. It goes without saying that – during the scenes in which three main characters are prepping audition tapes for the Amazon Games gig – voices that are normally pleasant suddenly drop into the basement, the better to suggest portents of doom. Carol’s voice, in this pressure-filled situation, also takes on a sultry tone that’s pretty darned irresistible (and much at odds with her generally gawky girl-next-door manner).

Though the film’s chief characters are voiceover artists, others in the cast also have voices worth listening to. The plot makes room for a handsome Irish chap whose accent Carol is determined to snag on tape, as well as a Russian housekeeper, a Japanese passerby, and a pretty Brit from a neighboring apartment who needs to borrow the shower. Among the American-born characters, the women’s voices are particularly memorable. Geena Davis, who plays a short but important scene with Bell near the end of the film, captures the sound of a blunt, no-nonsense studio executive. There’s also a dyke, a ditz, an office slut, and (especially) a Valley Girl attorney, whose “sexy baby” squeak works against her landing a suitable law-firm job. At the fadeout, Carol is educating young women to use their voices more effectively, much as Lake Bell is raising her voice to introduce her audiences to a woman’s world.