Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Shooting the Breeze about Alec Baldwin and “30 Rock”

30 Rock isn’t exactly what you’d call a brand-new show. This sitcom lampooning the NBC corporate culture and the running of a comedy sketch show lasted seven seasons, from 2007 to 2013. The creation of the multi-talented and hyper-funny Tina Fey, it trades upon Fey’s own experiences as SNL head writer. Fey also plays the role of Liz Lemon, a head writer alternately obsessed with food, liberal politics, finding Mr. Right, and keeping a bunch of misfit comedy writers in line. Throughout much of the series, her chief sparring partner is John Francis Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), a right-wing man-about-town far less interested in cutting-edge comedy than in corporate profits.

 During this pandemic, I’ve dived into 30 Rock head first. My initial takeaway is how much 30 Rock reads like an updating of a workplace-comedy classic, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977). That show, of course, featured the goings-on behind the scenes of a TV news broadcast, featuring a curmudgeonly boss (Edward Asner), a no-talent star (Ted Knight), an ageing vamp (Betty White as the Happy Homemaker), and assorted wisecracking writers. At the center of the chaos was Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore), as the uber-capable all-around assistant who needed to constantly stick up for herself as an unmarried woman. In 30 Rock, the unmarried woman has a great deal more authority, but is still fragile as she desperately juggles the demands of an egotistical star (Tracy Morgan), a boobalicious best friend (Jane Krakowski), and a boss who thinks he’s god’s gift to humanity. And, yes, at times she obsesses over chucking it all and having a baby.

 As Jack Donaghy, Alec Baldwin knocks it out of the park as a guy you love to hate. Baldwin may have started in dramatic roles (he’s played Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October and Stanley Kowalski in a TV version of A Streetcar Named Desire), but comedy seems to be his true métier. There’s something so slick and sleazy about his look that it’s hard to take him wholly seriously. And he certainly called on his looks and comic flair in his years of lampooning our 45th president. At the moment, though, he’s starring in a tragedy he never intended to make. Baldwin is a producer as well as the star of an ill-fated western called Rust, shooting outside Santa Fe,  New Mexico. On October 21, Baldwin fired a prop gun during an on-set rehearsal. Though the gun was supposed to be unloaded, it apparently discharged a live bullet that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza. No one is claiming that the shooting was intentional, but it’s clear from the testimony of the first assistant director and other crew members that basic safety precautions were not being followed. That’s the thing about movies: they require huge cadres of workers who must all understand the ins and outs of their jobs, or else risk dooming the entire production.

 The recently averted strike by IATSE, the umbrella union for movie folks, was partly about safety issues. Stars and other actors tend to be respected, even coddled—but crew conditions can be slipshod at best. When I interviewed Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, his great cause was protecting camera personnel who worked such long stretches that some died behind the wheel on their way home from 18-hour days. This happens in Hollywood, and there’s even more danger in out-of-the-way locales where union oversight is spotty or non-existent. .My Roger Corman pals shot films in places where life is considered cheap. But no one should die while making a movie.


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