Friday, August 28, 2015

A Live Interview Turns Deadly: Seeking Stardom in Roanoke

We’ve all heard by now about the bloody doings in Roanoke, Virginia: of how a disgruntled ex-reporter at WBDJ-TV shot and killed two of his former colleagues while they were in the midst of an on-air interview. My first thought, other than profound sympathy for the victims and their loved ones, was that this sounded like one more reminder that Paddy Chayefsky’s Network – which predicts on-air death as a ratings draw – is alive and well.

But my thinking evolved as I learned more about the behavior of Vester Lee Flanagan II, who went by the professional name of Bryce Williams. This was a man who was determined to be noticed. Not only did he fax to ABC News a lengthy diatribe spelling out his grievances but he also managed to videotape the actual shootings, then posted them on Facebook and Twitter, where they were seen by thousands before the accounts were taken down.

All of which reminds me of a book published by biographer and film historian Neal Gabler back in 1998. Gabler’s Life: The Movie begins by focusing on a movement he calls the Entertainment Revolution. Says Gabler, “the desire for entertainment—as an instinct, as a rebellion, as a form of empowerment, as a way of filling increased leisure time or simply as a means of enjoying pure pleasure—was already so insatiable in the nineteenth century that Americans rapidly began devising new methods to satisfy it.” If nineteenth-century Americans craved entertainment, how much more did it appeal to their mid-twentieth-century descendants, who could flick on their radios and television sets whenever they took the notion. And one of the century’s most popular political figures, Ronald Reagan, succeeded with the public because – as a professional movie actor – he knew just how to tap in to America’s love of stories with good-guy heroes and happy endings.

Though Reagan’s appeal was that of a man in a white hat, some seriously flawed human beings have also sought public attention as the leading actors in big public dramas. And, to a certain extent at least, the mass media have helped them make their case. Gabler points out that Timothy McVeigh, later to be convicted for the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, was actively courted by news sources to tell his story. The result was a soulful photo on the cover of Newsweek; he also negotiated for the right to choose among such celebrity interviewers as Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw, with the program to be aired during a ratings-sweeps week.

Gabler informs us that “John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, had left a tableau in his hotel room—a photo of Judy Garland with the Cowardly Lion, a Bible inscribed to Holden Caulfield (the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye), a photo of himself with refugee children—that he thought would suggest a motive behind his crime. In short, he was providing a theme as well as an act.” And we learn that Arthur Bremer, who in 1972 would shoot and paralyze presidential candidate George Wallace, explicitly viewed himself as an actor in a film, “so much so that while stalking President Nixon, his initial target, he missed the chance to kill him when he raced back to his hotel to change into a black suit.”    

Social media, of course, makes it all the easier to become an overnight celebrity. Now Vester Flanagan is just that. But of course he’s dead . . . and so are two journalists who were unlucky enough to cross his path.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Beverly in Movieland Visits Sesame Street

It’s far from a sunny day on Sesame Street. The show is decamping from PBS, its home for almost five decades, to pricier digs at HBO. And Maria, played for the past 44 years by Sonia Manzano, is retiring from the Fix-It Shop to take up residence in a year-round sunny clime, like maybe Miami Beach or San Juan.

I can’t pretend that I grew up on Sesame Street. My own black-&-white TV childhood was spent with bland characters like Howdy Doody, Sheriff John, and the matronly Miss Francis of  (ugh!) Ding Dong School. Sesame Street, when it popped up in 1969, had plenty of innovations that I came to appreciate later, as a mother of young children. First of all, it used the medium of television in a way that earlier shows did not. Jim Henson, who was there from the start, contributed not only the Muppets but also the brilliantly-colored and visually inspired graphics that marked the show. There was also a creative sense of inclusiveness: Sesame Street, with its very Sixties awareness of racial inequities, created a rainbow brigade of characters, a far cry from the exclusively WASP cast of The Mickey Mouse Club. Not only were the majority of the regular human characters black (Gordon and Susan) and Latino (Maria and Luis), but the presence of orange, yellow, and blue Muppets suggested that warm, cuddly individuals exist in our world in all colors, shapes, and sizes. And Sesame Street, which was particularly planned to capture the imagination of inner-city kids, was not afraid to have an urban look. Previously, children’s programming seemed always to be set in some Dick-and-Jane-style dream-suburbia, like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. On Sesame Street, by contrast, there were stoops, and alleys, and trashcans (but no trash).

Sesame Street also seemed willing to talk about real life-and-death issues, though in the gentlest way possible. Human characters fell in love, got married, had babies. Perhaps the show’s most famous foray into reality came after Will Lee, the actor who’d played crusty but lovable Mr. Hooper since the show’s beginning, died suddenly in 1982 at the age of 74. The decision to incorporate the death of a beloved Sesame Street personality into the show, from the perspective of oversized five-year-old Big Bird, was not easily made. But the “Goodbye, Mr. Hooper” episode – which also captured the cast’s genuine grief at the loss of a longtime friend -- was to become one of the show’s  most honored of all time. (I confess I can’t watch it without tearing up a little. Like everyone else in my age group, I’ve lost so many good people over the years.)

If Sesame Street could be sad, it was also very funny. The show’s creators had the foresight to understand that children would learn far more if their parents watched too. And parents, of course, would expect to be entertained on their own level. Which is why the show has always made a point of riffing on popular culture, often with the cooperation of major showbiz figures. In the heyday of the Beatles, I always chuckled at the salute to the letter B, set to the tune of “Let It Be.” And I particularly liked the Monsterpiece Theatre segments, parodying such landmark PBS dramatic series as Upstairs Downstairs. These were presented by Cookie Monster in the guise of the suave, smoking-jacketed Alistair Cookie.

Suffice it to say that the influence of Sesame Street lives on. Some of its fans even grew up to create Avenue Q, a Broadway hit that probes what’s really going on between Bert and Ernie. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Bud Yorkin: Engineering a Showbiz Career

Of course I’m dating myself, but I remember the 1971 TV debut of All in the Family. I was a grad student, hanging out with my boyfriend at the UCLA Department of Meteorology, where he had a part-time job. We both had work to do, but the show was getting so much advance press that it seemed obligatory to check it out. So we watched it on a little black-&-white TV in someone’s office. Black-&-white seemed appropriate for a show that was intended to raise hackles via the views of a lovable bigot. Frankly, we didn’t know what to think.

 All in the Family was inspired by a frank but funny British sitcom, “Till Death Us Do Part.” But it was all-American in its focus on the cultural conversation of its time. Over nine years, it tackled issues pertaining to race, religion, gender, and class, deliberately courting controversy. Before its long run was over, it had sparked such spin-offs as Maude, The Jeffersons, and Good Times. Credit for the show’s long-term success is usually given to Norman Lear, but his producing partner, Bud Yorkin was the one who started the ball rolling. Lear himself said it: “He was the horse we rode in on, and I couldn’t love or appreciate him more.”

I knew that Yorkin, who died this week at the age of 89, had made many contributions to TV and film comedy. Aside from his producer credits, he directed amiable films like 1963’s Come Blow Your Horn and 1967’s Divorce, American Style, then won Emmys for his stylish handling of one of TV’s seminal variety shows, An Evening with Fred Astaire. What I didn’t know until I read the obits was that Yorkin had an engineering background. After  spending World War II in the Air Force, helping to install sonar systems in the Pacific, he earned an electrical engineering degree at Carnegie Tech, and his first stab at an entertainment job was a stint repairing TV sets.

 I’m delighted by Yorkin’s engineering credentials because, though his route to Hollywood is not the usual one, he is not totally unique. My legendary former boss, B-movie maven Roger Corman, decided to break into showbiz after graduating from Stanford with a degree in industrial engineering. Many Cormanites have commented to me on how the engineer’s zest for problem-solving has shaped Roger’s filmmaking career: “He’s always written movies in three days, shot them in three days, used the same sets to shoot two or three movies. He loves that because that’s the efficient engineer in him. He loves that sense of being practical. You’ve had the expense of building the set, making the monster, now let’s get as much as we possibly can out of it.”  One Corman veteran theorizes that “one of his great joys in life is to come into total chaos and to straighten it out. And I think this has something to do with his engineering background. I sometimes think Roger actually, on some levels, creates problems so that he can solve them.”

Of course, filmmaking is a creative business as well as a practical one, and what this Corman alumnus calls “a very formal, black-and-white, engineering approach” doesn’t make for great art. But sometimes engineers can surprise you. I knew of one aerospace engineer, Todd W. Langen, who became obsessed with screenwriting. He took courses, studied produced scripts, and worked out a careful formula for what a good action movie should contain. Then he quit his day job. I thought he was crazy—until he resurfaced as an award-winner for The Wonder Years.

This post is dedicated to the most important engineer in my life, on our special day.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl: Not Your Mother's (or Your Father’s) Sexcapades

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is not an easy movie to love. I knew going in that it would deal frankly with youthful sexuality and the violation of common social taboos. Since my focus lately has been on Mike Nichols’ bold but often hilarious cinematic explorations of sex, I figured I was prepared for anything. But, make no mistake, Diary of a Teenage Girl is no sexy romp. This despite the fact that the film, based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s ground-breaking graphic novel, finds very funny excuses to integrate animation into its cinematography, as a way of entering both its heroine’s head and her highly charged libido. 

Mike Nichols, of course, tickled Baby Boomers by laying bare the bedroom adventures of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. He delved far deeper in Carnal Knowledge, which begins with two young collegians (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) lamenting their virginity, then follows them from innocence to impotence, with many sordid stops along the way. Carnal Knowledge is hardly a comfortable film, but I suspect it’s one with which some male viewers will not be able to help identifying. It’s quickly clear that all the women who float in and out of Jonathan and Sandy’s lives are just vessels for their unrequited longings for – what exactly? Unconditional love? Total erotic pleasure? Novelty? In any case, in its point of view this is a guy movie, from start to finish.

A much different perspective can be seen in An Education, the 2009 British film based on Lynn Barber’s autobiographical magazine piece. This film, which introduced me to the charms of Carey Mulligan, concentrates on a smart but restless high school girl, circa 1961, who is lured into an affair with an attractive older man (Peter Sarsgaard). Though sex (on a romantic weekend in Paris) is part of Jenny’s bargain with the devil, the film’s concerns are less with her budding sexuality than with her reckless determination to escape from the middle-class values of her good-hearted but dull parents. Writer Nick Hornby, who adapted Barber’s story for the screen, said as much when he explained what appealed to him about this assignment: “She's a suburban girl who's frightened that she's going to get cut out of everything good that happens in the city. That, to me, is a big story in popular culture. It's the story of pretty much every rock 'n' roll band."

Which brings me back to The Diary of a Teenage Girl. We’re in San Francisco, in the year 1976. Fifteen-year old Minnie Goetz (bravely played by Bel Powley) has just discovered that her mother’s attractive yet feckless boyfriend  Monroe (Alexander Sarsgård) is checking out her breasts. This gives her the courage to make her own interest in a physical relationship crystal-clear. And so they do. The film’s opening line is voiceover narration: Minnie’s awestruck “I had sex today! Holy shit!”  But we don’t simply overhear Minnie singing the body electric. In the course of this movie we see a great deal.  Soon Minnie is busily experimenting, both with Monroe and with the teenage boys who suddenly seem quite interested in her maturing self. Eventually there is very public fellatio, a threesome, and psychedelics. It all seems related to a grim San Francisco social scene I’m glad wasn’t part of my upbringing. But at least some of the reason for Minnie’s sexual urgency can be laid at the door of her mother (Kristin Wiig), who’s too busy looking for her own satisfaction to see  -- until late in the game -- what her daughter has become. Then, thankfully, there’s a glimmer of hope.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Theodore Bikel: A Mensch for All Seasons

Was there anything Theodore Bikel couldn’t do?  In the course of a long career that ended with his death last month at age 91, Bikel showed the world that he could act up a storm, sing like a bird, and serve as an outspoken champion of human rights. He had stamina too. A friend of mine, a personal trainer, worked with Bikel for 13 years. Though fighting off several forms of cancer, including leukemia, he exercised three times a week until recently. Even when his body was finally letting go, his mind remained sharp until the end.

Bikel was by no means shy about his gifts. A strong sense of self was important for one forced to leave his beloved Vienna at the age of fourteen, one step ahead of the Nazis. His family, active in Zionist circles, relocated to pre-statehood Israel, where he first discovered acting. Soon after, he switched from Hebrew to English, playing the all-American sad sack, Mitch, opposite Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois, in the London premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Laurence Olivier.

Bikel’s facility for languages and accents came in handy when he landed in Hollywood. One of his early roles was that of a Dutch doctor living in Nova Scotia in a charming family film my parents adored, The Little Kidnappers (1953). Naturally he played German-speakers, as in The African Queen (1951), but he also gravitated toward Slavic parts, like the submarine commander in one of my own favorites, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966). In its recent obit, the New York Times enumerated some of his many linguistic incarnations: “On television Mr. Bikel played an Armenian merchant on Ironside, a Polish professor on Charlie’s Angels, an American professor on The Paper Chase, a Bulgarian villain on Falcon Crest, the Russian adoptive father of a Klingon on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and an Italian opera star on Murder, She Wrote. He also played a Greek peanut vendor, a blind Portuguese cobbler, a prison guard on Devil’s Island, a mad bomber, a South African Boer, a sinister Chinese gangster, and Henry A. Kissinger.”

His most honored role, though, came courtesy of Stanley Kramer’s love for unlikely casting. In Kramer’s landmark 1958 film, The Defiant Ones, Bikel was a Southern sheriff leading a posse to re-capture the escaped cons played by Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. It’s a surprisingly sympathetic part: this particular Southern sheriff is at base a humane man. The character reflects Bikel’s own strong social convictions, but as a born-and-bred Southerner he’s hard to buy. Still, audiences responded to Bikel’s portrayal, and he was rewarded with an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Personally, I’d rather remember him as the larcenous linguist Zoltan Kaparthy in the film version of My Fair Lady. Or as an exemplary Teyve in Fiddler on the Roof, a part he played on stage more than 2000 times.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Bikel was also known the world over as a folk singer, one who accompanied himself on a host of instruments, including guitar, mandolin, balalaika, and harmonica. With Pete Seeger and others, he helped found the famous Newport Folk Festival in 1959. On Broadway, he created the role of Captain von Trapp to Mary Martin’s Maria in The Sound of Music. It’s said that Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers wrote “Edelweiss” especially for him. The tune’s sweet simplicity and Bikel’s mellow voice: what a perfect blending of singer and song! It well befits a man who lost his homeland, then gained the whole world.

As Capt. von Trapp on Broadway