Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Losing Another Boy from the Hood: An Appreciation of John Singleton

John Singleton gone at age fifty-one?

Mortality is much on my mind right now, alas. Some very nice people in my orbit have succumbed to illness far too quickly, and of course we’re all aware that the crazies are out there, gunning down anyone they perceive as “different.” But you just don’t expect a talented director/producer to be felled by a stroke smack in the middle of what used to be called middle-age.

Good thing Singleton started out early. He’s still best known for writing and directing 1991’s Boyz n the Hood, a complex family drama set in South Central L.A. that was already in his head when he was applying as an undergraduate to the prestigious USC School of Cinematic Arts. Influenced by Spike Lee’s Harlem-based landmark film, Do the Right Thing, Boyz n the Hood tells an L.A. story that has nothing to do with swimming pools and mansions. It begins with a small group of inner-city young boys who flirt with sports and gang-banging, then returns to them seven years later when the allure of sex and of violent retribution threatens their paths away from the urban ghetto. 

While at USC, a school known for its solid gold links to the film industry, Singleton came to an important realization: "I learned that no one was going to write the films I wanted to do except for me. No one was going to have the vision to tell the stories that I wanted to tell except for me." Fortunately, despite his youth, Hollywood proved open to what he had to say. As a mere sophomore, he signed with an agent at the powerful CAA. By the time he reached his senior year, he was inking a deal with Columbia Pictures to shoot his script for what was then called Summer of ’84. He knew from the start that he’d occupy the director’s chair, later saying, "I wasn’t going to have somebody from Idaho or Encino direct this movie." Despite his lack of experience, Columbia ultimately allowed the newbie director to shoot the film in continuity, so that it’s possible to watch him becoming more and more adept as the seven-week shoot wore on. 

Among Singleton’s cast for Boyz n the Hood were such prominent players as Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, as the estranged parents of central character Tre Styles. The part  of Tre was the first major role for future Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr., while Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut made their screen debuts in other key roles. The movie itself was a huge success, with Singleton Oscar-nominated both for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director honors. In the latter category, he was the first African-American ever to be nominated. At 24, he was also the all-time youngest nominee in the directing category.  

Singleton has strongly influenced such hot African-American directors as Barry Jenkins and Jordan Peele. But, though he never again achieved the celebrity he enjoyed with Boyz n the Hood, he was hardly a one-hit wonder. His later films as a director included Rosewood, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and the 2002 remake of Shaft, with Samuel L. Jackson playing the blaxploitation hero.. As a producer, he helped finance and launch the memorable 2005 indie, Hustle and Flow, which garnered an Oscar nom for Terrence Howard’s lead performance and won for the unlikely rap song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”  As recently as 2013, Singleton was announced as the director of a major Tupac Shakur biopic. It didn’t happen. Unfortunately, that’s one movie we’ll never get to see.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Charles Van Doren in Jeopardy, and Other Quiz Show Tales

If you’re a Jeopardy fan, you already know there’s a new champion around, one who may give the fabled Ken Jennings a run for his money. Publications are currently chock-full of stories about James Holzhauer, a contestant who’s as strategic as he is smart about obscure factoids. The Atlantic.com, for one, has issued a series of breathless updates regarding his meteoric rise: “On an episode of Jeopardythat aired Tuesday evening, James Holzhauer became the fastest-ever contestant on the show to to earn $1 million in prize money.” And so on.

I can’t pretend I’m a serious fan of quiz shows. But I can remember back to when the brand-new medium of television was full of shows like “The $64,000 Question” (cash awards have gone up considerably since then!) and “Tic-Tac-Dough.” TV was live back in the day, and it seemed as though the whole nation tuned in to watch. Of course we were fans of contestants with appealing personalities, and some of them became media stars. There was, for instance, that Italian immigrant shoemaker, Gino Prato, who answered questions about opera. And a smartly-dressed young psychologist, Dr. Joyce Brothers, who chose boxing as her unlikely topic area and became the first woman ever to win the $64,000 top prize. (Word is that sponsor Charles Revson, who founded the Revlon cosmetic line, disliked Brothers and some other contestants, and tried hard to maneuver them into losing.)

The fun of that early quiz show era came to a dramatic halt in 1958, when rumors began circulating that the various contests were rigged. When I recently read about the death of Charles Van Doren at the age of 93, it all came back to me. Among trivia nerds, Van Doren seemed to be a golden boy. Handsome and sophisticated, he was an English instructor at Columbia University. And his family tree was impeccable. Father was Mark Van Doren, a Columbia professor and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry. Mother Dorothy was a writer and editor. His father’s brother, Carl Van Doren, was a noted literary historian who won his own Pulitzer for a biography of Benjamin Franklin. I suspect old Ben might have been amused (or maybe saddened?) by Charles Van Doren’s fall from grace.

It seems that a show called Twenty-One, which launched in 1956, pitted two contestants against each other. The show (sponsored by Geritol, which solved the problem of “tired blood”) at first played it straight, but no one wanted to watch. That’s when the producers hit on a new strategy. According to what I’ve read, “Twenty-One was not merely ‘fixed,’ it was almost completely choreographed. Contestants were cast almost as if they were actors, and in fact were active and (usually) willing partners in the deception. They were given instruction as to how to dress, what to say to the host, when to say it, what questions to answer, what questions to miss, even when to mop their brows in their isolation booths (which had air conditioning that could be cut off at will, to make them sweat more).” Charles Van Doren’s agonized testimony before Congress in 1959 blew the lid off the scandal. Suddenly all the fruits of his success – the money, the contracts, the marriage proposals – disappeared, and he was left with a tarnished reputation and a lot of regrets.

Sounds like the plot of a movie, doesn’t it? In 1994, Robert Redford produced and directed Quiz Show, starring Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren and John Turturro as his unfairly defeated nemesis. It’s not nice to tamper with the faith of a nation.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

A Little Presidential Humor (on the occasional of the election in Ukraine)

Did you hear the one about the guy who got elected president of his country because he plays the president on TV? This week it’s proving to be no joke. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko (I love all that alliteration) has just been trounced by forty-one-year-old Volodymyr Zelensky. No question that the status quo in Ukraine needs some improvement. There’s a lackluster economy, charges of corruption in high places, and an ongoing feud with Putin’s Russia, which has made major inroads on Ukraine’s eastern border. So what are Zelensky’s credentials to tackle all this? Well, he’s an actor and comedian with absolutely no political experience. Zilch.  Zip. But he has been awfully appealing on Servant of the People, a TV series in which he plays a high school history teacher who somehow finds himself elevated into his nation’s highest office. And what are his real-lie views? His plans? His allegiances? Well, no one exactly knows. But they like him . . . they really like him.

It’s not only citizens of Ukraine who put their faith in celebrities from other fields when it comes time to choose a political leader. Seems as though I’m always hearing about political satirists of the Jon Stewart ilk running for office in Asia and the Middle East. (They may not be able to solve things, but at least they know what the issues are.) In the U.S. there’s been a long comic tradition of humorists launching presidential campaigns. In 1928, the beloved Will Rogers campaigned on the “Anti--Bunk” ticket, vowing that if elected he would resign. In 1940, Gracie Allen (the female half of the Burns and Allen duo) toured the country announcing her mock-presidential aspirations. Asked whether as president she would recognize Russia, she apparently responded, "I don't know. I meet so many people …"  And to show that she would tolerate no vice in her administration, she refused to name a running-mate.

Starting in the late 1960s, when political comedy got more serious, Pat Paulsen boosted his career by perennially running for president as the candidate of the S.T.A.G. party . (Theoretically, this stood for the Straight Talking American Government Party.) His campaign slogans included "We Can Be Decisive, Probably" and "United We Sit.” And he vowed to amend the First Amendment, requiring that all obscene and pornographic material be turned over to the president for close scrutiny. 

Now I hear that Roseanne Barr is serious (or as serious as she ever gets) about running for president on the Green Party ticket, promising to eliminate taxes and currency altogether. (Instead, we’d institute the barter system.) I think it’s pretty clear she’s not going to win. But of course we’ve had Hollywood celebrities who made it all the way to the White House not so very long ago. First and foremost there was Ronald Reagan, who was an actor (and president of the Screen Actors Guild) before he became Governor of California and then a president beloved by many. And now the U.S. is led by a guy whose qualifications for the presidency included being a zillionaire real-estate tycoon and also the irascible host of a TV reality show called The Apprentice. Lots of voters seemed to conclude that firing people on TV was good practice for firing up the nation.

What of those actors who, like Volodymyr Zelensky, have played presidents? I’m talking about, for instance, Kevin Kline in Dave and Michael Douglas in The American President. And, of course, Martin Sheen in TV’s The West Wing. Should we consider electing one of them? Hey, what about Veep’s Selina Meyer?