Friday, September 30, 2016

August Wilson and "The Cosby Show" -- Black Lives Matter

This week, amid all the hoopla generated by the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the mall in Washington DC, I attended a performance of August Wilson’s first great play about the African-American experience. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in a recording studio in jazz-age Chicago, first appeared on Broadway in 1984. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle award, and paved the way for a cycle of ten plays that have won many accolades, including two Pulitzer Prizes.

The timing for this revival (which stars Lillias White) seems auspicious. After several unfortunate years of #Oscarsowhite, some of the hottest films now emerging from end-of-summer film festivals feature slices of black life, past and present. Along with the controversial The Birth of a Nation, critics and audiences have responded to the inspirational Queen of Katwe, the tender Loving, and a brave low-budget indie called Moonlight, among others. Denzel Washington now heads a multi-ethnic cast in a remake of The Magnificent Seven, which tops this week’s box office charts. More pertinent, perhaps, is the fact that Washington directs, as well as stars in, an upcoming screen adaptation of August Wilson’s classic baseball drama, Fences. (His wife is played by the great Viola Davis.) It opens on Christmas Day.

The production of Ma Rainey I just saw was directed by Phylicia Rashad, who has a long string of Broadway acting roles to her credit. Though she’s a Tony winner for a recent revival of the classic A Raisin in the Sun, she’s certainly best remembered by most of us as Clair Huxtable, the loving wife of Bill Cosby’s character on The Cosby Show. This sitcom of course ruled the airwaves from 1984 through 1992.  It’s never easy to move on from a long-lasting hit, and I admire Rashad for proving that she can do more than banter with a TV spouse and TV children.

One of many landmark aspects of The Cosby Show was that it helped a nation fall in love with an upper-middle-class African American family. The patriarch played by Cosby was an obstetrician (and also the son of a prominent jazz musician); wife Clair was an attorney. Their five smart, sassy kids kept them hopping, and the nation got a chance to meet black parents who faced the same joys and woes as  their white counterparts. So The Cosby Show, though often very funny, was both a comedy and a civics lesson, with dad Cliff Huxtable sometimes the butt of the joke.

How times have changed! We now know (or at least suspect) things about Bill Cosby that aren’t so pleasant. The man we’ve been hearing about lately, from a long list of women with tales of drugging and rape, seems to have taken advantage of his worldly success in ways disturbing to imagine. As a weekly visitor in the nation’s living rooms, he had power, and he apparently used it in  unsavory ways.

Which brings me back to August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Its title character, an actual historical figure, was a jazz great with a following among African-American record-buyers. That’s why her (white) manager and the (white) head of a record label are willing to put up with her shenanigans, which involve showing up late for recording sessions and making outrageous demands. She sasses them, but saves most of her venom for those beneath her, the musical sidemen who back up her singing. Power corrupts, and those on the bottom are the ones who suffer:  too bad a self-styled educator named Dr. William Cosby had to teach us that lesson.   

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

William Cameron Menzies: A Production Designer Who Has Gone with the Wind

When we think about the landmark film production of Gone With the Wind, most of us conjure up images of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniels. If we’re up on film history, we remember the film’s imperious producer, David O. Selznick, as well as a revolving cast of directors that included George Cukor and Victor Fleming. But the name William Cameron Menzies doesn’t readily spring to mind. My colleague Jim Curtis’s exhaustively researched 2015 book, William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, aims to change all that.

Menzies began his career as an art director at the tail-end of the silent era. On such early sound films as 1933’s all-star Alice in Wonderland and the futuristic 1936 Things to Come, he used his artistic talents not only to plan appropriate settings but also to lay out camera moves and action sequences. Through volumes of elaborate sketches that are the forerunners of today’s storyboards, he conceptualized the visual aspects of many productions. He himself described his mandate: “As a production designer, it is my job to dramatize the mood of a picture and to keep it ‘in character.’ This is done simply by coordinating every phase of the production not covered by dialogue and action of the players.” 

That, of course, was a huge responsibility, and Menzies’ family life inevitably suffered. Still, those in the know fully recognized his genius. Selznick insisted he be part of the Gone With the Wind team, and later granted him the brand-new “production designed by” credit to reflect the broad scope of his services. Ironically, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not recognize the title of production designer when it came to handing out Oscars. That’s why the art direction Oscar for Gone With the Wind (one of eight won by the film) went solely to Lyle R. Wheeler. Happily, at the Oscar ceremony Menzies was awarded a special plaque recognizing his “outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood” in the film. (He had earlier nabbed a competitive Oscar for the 1928 silent, Tempest, but won no awards in his later career, which ended with an associate producer credit on 1956’s Around the World in Eighty Days.)

The Academy’s recognition of Menzies’ work on Gone With the Wind focused on his pioneering use of color. For instance, he deliberately chose severe red skies & indigo backings” to punch up somber scenes like the burning of Atlanta. When it came to filming the moment in which Melanie gives birth, the challenge was to suggest the anguish of the experience while not running afoul of the MPAA’s Breen office, which frowned on depicting outright pain and suffering. Menzies’ solution was to choose angles “of stark black and sharp, knifelike patterns of yellow, no light falling on the shutters or the human figures in the foreground, simply a white backing reflecting the colored glare of flood lamps through the slits.” He intuited that orange was a hot color, while black could suggest violence. The combination of the two colors suggested both a steamy afternoon and the violence of childbirth.

Menzies’ contributions to Gone With the Wind also included the iconic use of a (fake) tree in the foreground to add drama to the shot of Gerald O’Hara showing his daughter the land that is her birthright. When he needed towering shadows of Leigh and de Havilland, he got the effect by using doubles who were required to move in unison with the two actresses in the foreground of the shot. Who knew?  

Speaking of Atlanta, I encourage all working writers and journalists to be aware of the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ regional conference in that fair city on Saturday, November 5. There’ll be loads of practical info on how to further your career. Early bird sign-up rates end soon. Here’s the link. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Curtis Hanson: An L.A. (and Roger Corman) Story

With the passing of Curtis Hanson, we’ve lost another great director. He recently died in his Hollywood Hills home at the all-too-early age of 71. Hanson is best known for directing 1997’s L.A. Confidential, a film noir thriller based on James Ellroy’s novel exploring police corruption in the City of Angels, circa 1950.  Hanson called L.A. Confidential his most personal project, because Ellroy was “telling a story set in the same city that I grew up in and dovetails with certain ambitions that I’ve had in terms of telling an L.A. story.” L.A. Confidential  would be nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. Kim Basinger won an supporting actress Oscar for her femme fatale role, and another went to Hanson, along with Brian Helgeland, for their adapted screenplay. Too bad the film was up against Titanic.

Before he took the helm of L.A. Confidential, Hanson had directed such successful nail-biters as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992) and The River Wild (1994). He also succeeded with Wonder Boys (2000, based on Michael Chabon’s novel of academic life), and the surprisingly appealing 8 Mile (2002), about the rise of rapper Eminem. Though Hanson could delve into a female relationship story (In Her Shoes, 2005), his natural bent seemed to be toward the dark and violent side of life. That’s hardly surprising: he emerged (like Titanic’s James Cameron and so many more of Hollywood’s rising directors) from the colorfully grim world of Roger Corman.

Hanson first came to the attention of my former boss in 1970 when he wrote the screenplay for The Dunwich Horror. This variation on a supernatural tale by H.P. Lovecraft was directed by longtime Corman art director Dan Haller for Corman’s former movie home, American International Pictures. (Corman himself served as executive producer.) This was the era when Corman was moving into his own company, New World Pictures. Hanson wrote and directed for Roger a 1972 film called Sweet Kill. IMDB describes this as “the story of a psychotic maniac who literally ‘loves’ women to death.” But despite the lurid subject matter, audiences weren’t enticed. Typically, Roger asked Hanson for additional sex scenes, then retitled the flick The Arousers.

My own sojourn at New World Pictures came just after Hanson’s time, though I remember tabulating bookings for The Arousers in drive-ins across America. During my New World stint, however, I rubbed shoulders with other young directors (like my buddy Steve Carver) who began notable careers by making Corman genre movies, usually thrillers or horror flicks, on the lowest possible budgets. Monte Hellman was no youngster when he returned to New World to shoot Cockfighter. But I worked closely with Paul Bartel, who was tapped to direct the cult classic Death Race 2000 and would move on to the lurid Eating Raoul as well as much larger studio projects.  Jonathan Demme, who directed his first film, Caged Heat, for Roger in 1974, was a fixture around the New World offices, long before he became a major Hollywood player and an Oscar winner for a dark and twisted project on a grand scale: Silence of the Lambs.

Corman protégés from an earlier era included Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Bogdanovich. After I left New World (but before I returned to Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons), the directing career of Ron Howard was launched. I knew Joe Dante as a New World editor and trailer cutter, but didn’t suspect he’d blossom into a director on the strength of Corman’s Piranha. For Joe, as for other Corman folk, cheap genre movies led to big careers. 

If you want to know more about Roger Corman and his circle, do check out my acclaimed insider biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. Now available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook form.