Tuesday, December 31, 2019

In Memoriam: After the Parade Passes By

As that exasperating year 2019 wanes, it feels appropriate to look back on the famous movieland folks we’ve lost. TCM has put together a short  but poignant video segment reminding us of some of the indelible faces and voices who now remain only in our movies and our dreams. I’ve written my own Beverly in Movieland tributes to some of these great performers: Doris Day,  Peter Fonda, Valerie Harper, Albert Finney, Bibi Andersson, Machiko Kyo. And I’ve lamented the loss of outstanding filmmakers like John Singleton, D..A. Pennebaker, Franco Zeffirelli, and Stanley Donen. In the field of music (for the screen as well as for the stage and the concert hall) there have been several indelible passings: André Previn, Michel LeGrand, and Broadway’s Jerry Herman, the exuberant composer of Hello, Dolly and Funny Girl.

Of course deaths don’t stop when the memorial video is posted online. Jerry Herman, who died last Thursday at the age of 88, didn’t make the final cut. A recent edition of The Hollywood Reporter also lists a few passings that TCM overlooked. One was D.C. Fontana, the very first female writer on Star Trek. (In an era less politically correct than our own, women writers found it smart to conceal their gender by turning their given names into male-sounding initials.) Another was Carroll Spinney, the gentle, spritely puppeteer who impersonated Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch and wore the feathers of Big Bird for nearly half a-century. I was particularly moved when Karen Pendleton passed on in October at the age of 73. Pendleton, one of the original Mouseketeers, was a regular on The Mickey Mouse Club for its entire nine-year run.  Though several of the Mouseketeers led tawdry adult lives, Pendleton was a major exception. After the show ended, she devoted herself to her education. When a 1983 car accident that damaged her spinal cord left her paralyzed from the waist down, she went back to college, earning a master’s degree in psychology. Putting her academic training to work, she served as a counselor at a shelter for abused women, while supporting the rights of the disabled by joining the board of the California Association of the Physically Handicapped. A life well lived, indeed.

I was sorry to read about the loss of masterful actors like Ron Leibman (so moving in Norma Rae) and Moonstruck’s Danny Aiello. And I shook my head ruefully at the passing of Jan-Michael Vincent, a talented action hero but one who cut his career short because of his personal weaknesses. (In later years he was reduced to appearing in Roger Corman war epics, like my own Beyond the Call of Duty, flying off to Manila to star in quickie flicks undermined by his drinking habits.)

But of courses the deaths that most moved me were those of celebrities with whom I’ve personally interacted. It seems like yesterday that I, as a writer of profiles for Performing Arts magazine, was welcomed at the home of the versatile character actor René Auberjonois, who lit up stage and screen with his eccentric portrayals. I will always think fondly of the late Dick Miller, my buddy in my New World Pictures days and years later a valuable source of information when I was researching my Corman biography. How wonderful that Dick          inspired both the loyalty of some of Hollywood’s finest directors and an affectionate 2014 documentary (That Guy Dick Miller) summing up his long career  And then there is good-guy Robert Forster, whose resonant baritone is—and always will be—on my answering machine. Hail and farewell. .

Friday, December 27, 2019

Culver City: The Heart of Screenland Beats Again

Culver City, a small civic enclave in West Los Angeles, likes to call itself  “The Heart of Screenland.” The legendary MGM Studios (which once used to boast that it had “more stars than there are in heaven”) occupied a central spot at the junction of Washington and Culver Boulevards. Back in the days of Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was synonymous with glamour, and MGM’s mascot, Leo the Lion, was the king of the movieland jungle. Alas, by the time I moved into Culver City, the stars had largely gone elsewhere. With the decline of the studio system, MGM had sold off its fabled backlot, where Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were filmed, to create a middle-class housing tract called Studio Estates. (You could live on street like Garland Drive, Hepburn Circle, or Astaire Avenue, each of them named after a Golden Age MGM notable.) What was left of the MGM lot—with its huge soundstages, star bungalows, and elaborate wardrobe facilities—was largely scooped up by a new Hollywood player from Japan, Sony Pictures.

Recently I took a tour, hosted by the ever-enterprising Los Angeles Conservancy, that focused on Culver City’s recent rebirth. Some of this involves ultra-cool modern architecture associated with the Southern California tech phenomenon called Silicon Beach. But in Downtown Culver City, near where the staid old Culver Hotel once housed a rowdy bunch of Munchkins who were appearing in The Wizard of Oz, old is meeting new in highly unexpected ways. It was a reminder to me that MGM has never been the only studio in town. Right down the road, in a stately white columned building that reminds onlookers of Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara, there’s a smaller studio that has also played a famous role in Hollywood history.

The Culver Studios Mansion was erected back in 1918 by silent film actor, director, and producer, Thomas Ince, who modeled it after George Washington’s Mt. Vernon. Ince didn’t enjoy his studio (which also included a 40-acre back lot) for long.  In 1924, in celebration of his 44th birthday, he boarded the yacht belonging to William Randolph Hearst for a pleasure cruise that also involved Charlie Chaplin and Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies. After a dinner involving lots of champagne, he became severely ill, was carried off the yacht in Long Beach harbor, and died. Heart failure was the official cause, but persistent rumors tell a far different tale: that Hearst had shot Ince in the head, mistaking him for Chaplin whom he thought was having an affair with Davies.

After Ince’s death, his studio property was first occupied by Cecil B. DeMille, then by RKO, and by producer David O. Selznick, who featured the stately mansion in the opening credits for all of his films. (No, it was not used as Tara, but the burning of Atlanta in GWTW featured the bonfire made of old sets on the property.)  In the early days of television the studio was purchased by Desilu, and used for such landmark TV series as The Andy Griffith Show. Today a mural featuring Lucy and Desi commemorates that period.

So what’s going on now? The studio site has been acquired by Amazon Studios, and an extensive remodel is taking place. Though the Mansion and some legendary star bungalows (including one where Gloria Swanson canoodled with Joseph Kennedy) have been carefully preserved,  the lot is now dominated by massive construction equipment. That means offices, parking spaces (of course!) and such amenities as barbecue pits, along with modern facilities for turning out Hollywood-worthy content. High tech strikes again.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A Fiddler on the Screen for Christmas: Sounds Crazy, No?

A few years back, I was invited to  a local synagogue on Christmas Eve, to speak about my book, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson. The invitation was in line with the old saw about what Jews do on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, so it’s said, Jews eat Chinese food and go to a movie. So the very hip event planners at Santa Monica’s Kehillat Ma’arav had come up with an irresistible deal: a kosher Chinese buffet and a screening of The Graduate, with my talk as (I suppose) the dessert.

This year Christmas Eve just happens to fall on the 3rd night of Hanukkah. And what better time for L.A.’s Laemmle theatre chain to offer its very own Christmas eve tradition? The Laemmle family of film exhibitors come from a long line of proud Jews, dating all the way back to Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle. (Aside from his fame as an early movie mogul, Carl was known in his day for saving hundreds of Jewish residents of his German birthplace from the Nazis)  For the last dozen years, the homey local theatres in the Laemmle chain of independent cinemas have participated in a tradition of their own. But let the Laemmles describe it, via their website:

JOIN US TUESDAY, DEC. 24th for an alternative Christmas Eve. That's right - It's time for our 12th Annual, anything-goes Fiddler on the Roof Sing-a-Long!

Belt out your holiday spirit … or your holiday frustrations. Either way, you'll feel better as you croon along to all-time favorites like “TRADITION,” “IF I WERE A RICH MAN,” “TO LIFE,” “SUNRISE SUNSET,” “DO YOU LOVE ME?” and “ANATEVKA,” among many others.

The evening includes trivia, prizes, and by all means -- we encourage you to come in costume! Guaranteed fun for all?

At each venue, a guest host (a well-connected cantor or Jewish entertainer) is guaranteed to help attendees rock the shtetel. I personally can’t make it this year, but it sounds like great fun, and it’s also an opportunity to see once again on a big screen .a film that gets better with age. When it was first released in 1971, I compared it unfavorably to the bravura Broadway production, starring the larger-than-life Zero Mostel. When Norman Jewison (who jokes about not being Jewish, despite his name) was selected to direct the film version, he made clear that the cinematic rendition would be less fanciful, more realistic. Instead of Mostel, he went with a young-ish Israeli performer no one had heard of. His name was Topol, and he was funny, poignant, real, and totally masterful. His was one of eight  Oscar nominations for the film, which danced off with three.

To see the film Fiddler on the Roof from another perspective, check out a 2019 feature-length documentary called Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles. Based on Alisa Solomon’s fascinating book, it delves deeply into the backstory of the Broadway musical, then explores some ways in which Fiddler on the Roof has influenced audiences all over the world. Taking this one step farther, the documentary roams the globe, showing us glimpses of productions in Japan, Thailand, and the Netherlands.  It then gives us a glimpse of the Yiddish-language version (directed by Joel Grey, the Oscar-winning son of Yiddish comic great Mickey Katz) that has ecently galvanized the New York theatre scene.. And there are lots of on-camera interviews with show biz folks ranging from Harvey Fierstein to Lin-Miranda, who appeared once upon a time in a junior high production. Miranda loves Fiddler so much that he staged a surprise rendition of one of its songs at his wedding reception. On Christmas eve, L’chaim to one and all!