Friday, June 27, 2014

Michael Jackson, In Memoriam

I must be getting old. As I browse my daily newspaper, my eye is often caught by the obituary section. There I’m partial to those large memorial boxes featuring a photo of the deceased as well as a long description of his or her earthly accomplishments, lovingly written by survivors. On June 25, I was stopped in my tracks by something unexpected. There was no photo, just the reproduction of a scrawled signature. Above it were the words “In Memoriam.” And below the signature I saw a name and some dates: Michael Joseph Jackson, August 29,1958 – June 25, 2009.

Yes, it’s been five years since Michael Jackson left the building. Conrad Murray, the cardiologist who administered to Jackson—as a sleep aid—the powerful anesthetic that shortened his life, is now out of jail, having served two years of a four-sentence. (Fortunately for the rest of us, his medical license has been revoked, and I’ve read he plans to embark on a singing career.) But as I understand it, Jackson’s tangled financial holdings are still being sorted out. A good friend of mine, an attorney for one of Jackson’s own attorneys (don’t ask!) has said this is the most complicated, most fascinating case he’s ever encountered.

I have no idea who put together the memorial tribute. But it’s highly emotional, and seems the work of a friend or family member, not a business associate. Here are some excerpts:

“The Creator blessed him with never-before-seen musical talent.”

“He had a lifelong dedication to his profession which never allowed him to form a traditional family of his own.”

“He lived to see unprecedented success and basked in the admiration of millions. By the same audience, he was unjustly persecuted under unfounded cruel allegations which broke his spirit.”

“Human neglect and carelessness forced his body into an early rest and his soul entered eternity on June 25, 2009 at the age of 50. He is mourned by his extended family and millions of people around the world.”

There’s much more, including a listing of Jackson’s unheralded talents (he was apparently both an inventor and a gifted sketch artist) as well as his many charitable activities. But for all the affectionate chronicling of Jackson’s “irresistible” smile and  “infectious” laughter, I see a huge reservoir of anger. This tribute reads like the life of a saint, one whose goodness couldn’t withstand the cruel machinations of others.

I don’t pretend to know the real truth about Michael Jackson. I don’t understand his mysterious lifestyle, his baffling choices. I do know that he was immensely talented. Like many, I suspect that his personal life was somehow stunted by the show business career toward which he was pointed almost from birth.

I also know that he made a difference to many he never met. A small example: I was on a family vacation at a Mexican resort, the kind where members of the staff put on the evening’s entertainment. One highlight was a Michael Jackson tribute show, highlighting his most popular numbers. The star, lip-syncing to Jackson’s falsetto and pulling off his idiosyncratic dance moves, was a slender young Mexican who during daylight hours worked as a bartender. When, over a frosty piña colada, I asked how he’d developed his uncanny impersonation, I learned he’d been a fan since age eight. Through years of practice before his bedroom mirror, he’d turned himself into a Michael Jackson clone.

I wish him a happier life than Michael Jackson had. Perhaps (aside from those Club Med talent shows) he’ll steer clear of showbiz, which can give generously, but also taketh away.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

At Sea with Roger Corman (and TCM)

Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main . . . . Now that summer’s officially here, it’s pleasant to contemplate an oceanic adventure. If you’re a movie fan, you can get in the mood by watching Master and Commander, or perhaps Pirates of the Caribbean, or even Finding Nemo. Or you can go one better and sign up for Turner Classic Movies’ latest Classic Cruise, which will troll the warm waters off the Florida coast between October 21 and 26.

This very special Disney cruise, overseen by TCM hosts Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz, will cater to movie lovers by showcasing classic films and featuring a goodly assortment of legendary Hollywood folk. No, not Tom Cruise, though the idea of cruising with Tom seems just about perfect. But if you’re keen on oldies but goodies, you can meet Ann Blyth, whose biggest hit was 1945’s Mildred Pierce. If film noir is your passion, you’ll enjoy hearing from film historian Eddie Muller. Nostalgic Baby Boomers might like to take a gander at one-time heartthrob Tab Hunter.

To my amusement, three of the top-billed guests on this year’s TCM excursion are Hollywood legends with whom I’ve interacted. Pride of place goes to Richard Dreyfuss, whose heyday was the Seventies. In that busy decade he flew off to college in American Graffiti, put out to sea in Jaws, and hobnobbed with space aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He was also a comic romantic lead in The Goodbye Girl, winning himself an Oscar in a category that included such international stars as Richard Burton and Marcello Mastroianni. And I can honestly say I knew him at the start. Back when I was in high school, I attended a summer theatre workshop held on the UCLA campus. Wannabe thespians came from all over Southern California. Some were so serious about their future careers that they already had agents and stage names. Rick Dreyfuss from Beverly Hills High had none of that, nor did he strike me as a standout in the talent department. But he was an awfully nice fellow, and I’m delighted that he’s had such a major career. (As for those others, whatever happened to them?)

 Shirley Jones was nice enough to make time for me when I was researching Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond. Since she’d played the sister of little Ronny in The Music Man and his future stepmother in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, she was well equipped to tell me about his professionalism and his charm. I was also pleased to discover that Shirley is a straight shooter. Her comments on the strange career of Ron’s brother Clint were insightful, and she made a fascinating digression into some of the branches on her own family tree. (More on that, perhaps, some other time.)

But the #3 guest on the TCM list is someone I know particularly well (to the extent, of course, that ANYONE knows him). I’m talking about Roger Corman, my former boss and the subject of my insider biography, Roger Corman: Blood-SuckingVampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches,and Driller Killers. Roger loves freebies, so it’s no surprise that he’s willing to go cruising on TCM’s dime. And there’s no end to the monster-from-the-deep flicks that can be programmed in conjunction with his appearance. How about Piranha, for starters? Or She Gods of Shark Reef? Or Creature from the Haunted Sea?

Friends have suggested that I sign on for the cruise. But given Roger’s recent attitude toward me and my book, I might end up getting fed to Sharktopus.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Roadshow! -- Listening to the Sound of Money

Oh what a day!  June 20 marks the release of Jersey Boys, yet another attempt to bring a Broadway hit musical to the screen. There’ve been other movie adaptations of Broadway musicals in recent years: Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd, Mamma Mia!, and Dreamgirls immediately come to mind. Some have had distinguished casts, and have picked up a few critics’ prizes. But with the exception of Chicago in 2002, none has been an outstanding success. This time around, the director is Clint Eastwood, who’s insisting that Jersey Boys is not a musical so much as a dramatic story that happens to feature music. We’ll soon see how well that approach works, and whether today’s moviegoers can be persuaded to overlook the dreaded “m” (as in “musical”) word when they choose an evening’s entertainment.

There was a time when Hollywood was all about musicals. Once The Jazz Singer introduced synchronized sound, every studio rushed to make films that featured “all talking -- all singing -- all dancing.” The marquees of 1930s movie palaces touted Busby Berkeley’s backstage extravaganzas, with their oodles of beautiful girls dancing in formation. Later that decade, audiences thrilled to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who specialized in elegant dancefloor tête-à-têtes. The 1950s were the great years of Gene Kelly, the inventive genius behind such classics as An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain.

By the late 1950s, moviegoers would just as soon stay home and watch that newfangled wonder, television. That’s when Hollywood moguls—looking to compete with the tiny black-and-white screens in America’s living rooms—turned to Broadway. They shelled out big bucks for the film rights to stage musicals that could be filmed in living color, then augmented by stereophonic sound.  It worked, sometimes very well. West Side Story (1961) was an enormous critical and popular success. My Fair Lady (1964) was a hit too, despite the casting of a leading lady (Audrey Hepburn) whose singing voice needed to be dubbed. After Julie Andrews, the stage star of My Fair Lady, was snubbed in favor of Hepburn, she was quickly snapped up by the Walt Disney Company, which cleverly cast her in a charming original musical, Mary Poppins.

By this time, every studio was vying to make the biggest, splashiest, most lucrative musical of all. A fascinating book called Roadshow!, by my colleague Matthew Kennedy, is subtitled “The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s.” Matt chronicles how Hollywood’s determination to produce spectacular roadshow musicals (the kind with reserved seats and intermissions) eventually killed off the genre. His opening chapter, “The Musical that Ate Hollywood,” is devoted to a Broadway adaptation that was so successful it saved Twentieth-Century Fox from ruin, following Fox’s monstrously expensive 1963 production of Cleopatra.

Of course I’m talking about The Sound of Music. This nun-and-Nazi fest hardly had instant appeal in Hollywood. Detractors called it The Sound of Mucus, and actor Doug McClure sniped that “Watching The Sound of Music is like being beaten to death by a Hallmark card.” But the film turned Julie Andrews into America’s new sweetheart. And a brilliant mountaintop opening that made maximum use of location shooting and a wide-screen format showed how cinema can breathe fresh life into a stagebound play. The film’s original release was so successful it lasted a full 4 ½ years. Only problem: all of Hollywood was now looking for the next Sound of Music. Doctor Dolittle, Camelot, Star!, Paint Your Wagon, Hello, Dolly! . . . . the costly flops just kept on coming. Which goes to prove that extravagance has its price.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Obvious Child; Not-So-Obvious Parents

Seeing the new indie, Obvious Child, on the eve of Father’s Day has sent my mind in some interesting directions. On Father’s Day, of course, the media were full of dad stories. NPR chronicled heroic dads.  Parade magazine interviewed delightfully goofy dads. At the gym, my treadmill TV offered movies about sad dads (Bruce Willis, as a New York cop unable to afford his daughter’s dream wedding) as well as police procedurals about bad dads (a rapist whose goal is to impregnate his victims—yuck!).   

All of which sent me back to Obvious Child, whose central figure is Donna Stern, a screwed-up but rather adorable stand-up comedienne (Jenny Slate). Her career isn’t taking off, and her day job has just evaporated. Then a bad break-up leads to a boozy but joyous one-night-stand, and bingo! she’s on track for a bundle from heaven. Concluding that she’s not good mom material, she elects to have an abortion. And decides—in her own quixotic fashion—to let the father-to-be know what she’s planning for Valentine’s Day.

Surprise! Max turns out to be a stand-up kind of guy. Sure, he’s WASPy and doesn’t travel in the same circles as Donna’s hipster friends, but he’s also both smart and understanding. And his chance remark about hoping someday to become a grandpa clues us in to the fact that this fellow might turn out to be a keeper. Donna’s choice regarding her pregnancy made me think about  Juno and Knocked Up, two other recent comedies in which unlikely couples face the consequences of their bedroom shenanigans. Those films are both similar to and different from this one, in ways I won’t spell out here. But I’m slightly puzzled that the situation keeps arising, both on movie screens and (I suspect) in real life as well.

Whatever happened to the Pill? I grew up in an era when the new availability of oral contraceptives was a very big deal indeed. The birth-control pill was first marketed in the U.S. circa 1960, but state laws and medical anxieties at first limited its spread. It wasn’t until 1967, two years after a Supreme Court decision overrode bans in many states, that Time magazine featured this new medical advance on its cover. One expert representing Planned Parenthood estimated for Time that  by 1967 more than five million American women considered the Pill their contraceptive of choice. Most of those women were married, because until 1972 states were still free to keep oral contraceptives out of the hands of females who happened to be single.  

Time devoted the bulk of its cover story to medical issues, debates within the Catholic Church, and population control in underdeveloped nations. Only gradually did the article arrive at the question of how the Pill was transforming American society, solemnly noting that “a girl who is promiscuous on the Pill would have been promiscuous without it.” What Time did not think to stress was the importance of reliable contraception in an era when abortion was strictly illegal.

Sixties Hollywood of course steered clear of the whole issue. An industry whose longtime production code had its basis in Roman Catholic strictures was not about to make contraception a plot point. Today, as social mores have loosened, we encounter lots of on-screen sex, but almost no acknowledgment of its possible consequences. That’s why I appreciate Juno, and Knocked Up, and Obvious Child. However pollyanna-ish they might be in suggesting the possibility of happy endings, at least they recognize that when you get horizontal with a person of the opposite gender, something might possibly develop.

I’ve promised my good friends in Ridgecrest, California that I’d spread the word about their summer movie festival. So here goes. The Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert is presenting “Summer of Movie Magic” on Wednesday nights through August 27. Disney favorites will alternate with silent film classics, and each evening’s festivities will kick off at 7 p.m. with selected cartoons. Hot dogs and other goodies are available. It all happens at the Historic USO Building, 230 W. Ridgecrest Blvd, Ridgecrest, CA For more information, phone 760-375-8456. Be there or be square! 

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Seven Ages of Jane Fonda

Shakespeare said it: “All the world’s a stage . . .  and one man in his time plays many parts.” Jane Fonda is emphatically not a man, as she’d be the first to point out. But she’s had a remarkable life, full of entrances and exits, which is why she’s just been honored with the American Film Institute’s 42nd annual lifetime achievement award. (Videotape of the ceremony will be aired tomorrow night, June 14, on TNT, with an August 1 encore on TCM.)

That Shakespearean soliloquy from As You Like It  goes on to divide a man’s life into seven ages: the infant, the schoolboy, the young lover, and so on, all the way up to the old man approaching death “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”  Fortunately, Jane Fonda still seems to have her teeth, and much more. At 76, she looks and sounds quite marvelous, and she’s by no means ready to slip off to oblivion. But it’s fair to say that she’s been through at least seven ages, some of them overlapping. Several of these ages seem to dovetail with the interests of the various men in her life, to the point where one might assume that Jane was a malleable creature, molded in turn by a series of Svengalis. If that was once somewhat true, it is so no longer. Through the decades, as her addresses and her hairstyles have kept changing, she has clearly evolved into her own person.

So . . . here’s my take on the Seven Ages of Jane:

(1) Jane as ingénue: The only daughter of the famous Henry played a bouncy cheerleader in Tall Story (1960), a wacky schoolmarm-turned-outlaw in Cat Ballou (1965), and a ditzy newlywed in Barefoot in the Park (1967).

(2) Jane as sex goddess: For her husband Roger Vadim, who had previously discovered and then married Brigitte Bardot, Jane starred as the sexually provocative Barbarella (1968). Around this time, Newsweek ran a story titled “Anything Goes: The Permissive Society.” To highlight the collapse of social taboos, Newsweek displayed on its cover a provocative but discreetly posed nude shot of Jane—all bouffant hair, pouting lips, and white skin—on the Barbarella set.

(3) Jane as serious actress: She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her grueling role in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), and won for Klute (1971). There was another nomination for Julia (1977), and a second win for Coming Home (1978). Three additional nominations followed.

(4) Jane as activist: Many still condemn Jane for her 1972 visit to North Vietnam, where she naively posed seated on an anti-aircraft gun. This was the era of her marriage to anti-war activist Tom Hayden, and her outspoken political views stirred up much controversy.

(5) Jane as workout queen: Beginning in 1982 Jane’s exercise books and videos kicked off a national fitness craze. I personally survived more than one sweat-intensive workout at her Beverly Hills studio.

(6) Jane as Lady Bountiful: While married to cable-TV tycoon Ted Turner, she founded a center for adolescent reproductive health at Atlanta’s Emory University, and has since spearheaded other organizations supporting women.

(7) Jane as Hollywood legend: She is still performing, in movies and on Broadway. Remarkably, she appeared as Nancy Reagan in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

Something I really admire about Jane  Fonda: she gives great Oscar acceptance speeches. Unlike her close friend Vanessa Redgrave, she doesn’t always insist on airing divisive views when she’s in the spotlight. Witness her 1972 Oscar win for Klute, when she knew enough to keep her mouth shut.