Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Quips and Quotations (Conquer the Conquerors with Words Edition)


I am waiting for the Great Divide to be crossed   

and I am anxiously waiting

for the secret of eternal life to be discovered   

by an obscure general practitioner

and I am waiting

for the storms of life

to be over

and I am waiting

to set sail for happiness

and I am waiting

for a reconstructed Mayflower

to reach America

with its picture story and tv rights

sold in advance to the natives

and I am waiting

for the lost music to sound again

in the Lost Continent

in a new rebirth of wonder

--Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Friday, February 19, 2021

Photo Finish (Shivering for Your Art Edition)

 In order to obtain pictures by means of the hand camera it is well to choose your subject, regardless of figures, and carefully study the lines and lighting. After having determined upon these watch the passing figures and await the moment in which everything is in balance; that is, satisfies your eye. This often means hours of patient waiting. My picture, ‘Fifth Avenue, Winter,’ is the result of a three hours’ stand during a fierce snow-storm on February 22d, 1893, awaiting the proper moment. My patience was duly rewarded. Of course, the result contained an element of chance, as I might have stood there for hours without succeeding in getting the desired picture.

--Alfred Stieglitz


Saturday, February 13, 2021

Vital Viewing (Girl Group Survivor Edition)



Not counting any of several short-lived regroupings that occurred after 1980, Mary Wilson had the longest tenure of any member of the Motown vocal group The Supremes. Starting in 1958 when Wilson and three other teenage girls--Florence Ballard, Diane Ross, and Betty McGlown--living in a Detroit public housing project formed a group called The Primettes; through 1960 when McGlown left to get married and was replaced by Barbara Martin; through 1962 when Martin left to have a baby, with the group, now called The Supremes and signed to the upstart record label Motown, continuing from here on in as a trio; through late 1963 when Motown head honcho Berry Gordy named Ross official lead singer, the girls having taken turns singing lead up to that point; through 1964, '65, and '66 when Diane Ross became Diana Ross and the trio achieved a worldwide success that came close to rivalling that of The Beatles; through 1967, '68, and and '69 when a depressed Ballard turned to drink and was replaced by Cindy Birdsong and the group's named was changed to Diana Ross and The Supremes; through 1970, '71, and the first few months of '72 when Ross left to pursue a solo career and was replaced by Jean Terrell, the group's name once again just The Supremes;  through the remainder of 1972 when Birdsong left to start a family and was replaced by Lynda Laurence; through 1973, '74, and '75, when Terrell, upset that the hits had stopped coming and that Motown wasn't doing enough to support the group, left and was replaced by Scherrie Payne, and Laurence, wanting to start a family, decided to leave and was replaced by Cindy Birdsong, who as I just said had left to start family and was now returning to the fold; through 1976 when Birdsong, believing the group was being mismanaged (Wilson's husband Pedro Ferrer having taken over as manager) left a second time and was replaced by Susaye Greene; and through the first half of 1977 when the girl group finally disbanded. Mary Wilson, I repeat, was there for all of it, from beginning to end, 19 years.

Along with The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Temptations, and Bob Dylan, The Supremes' most well-known lineup--Ross, Wilson, and Ballard--were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Accepting on behalf of the legendary girl group at that year's induction ceremony were Florence Ballard's daughter Lisa Chapman Ballard (the mother having died in 1976) and a spectacularly glam Mary Wilson. Here's Mary's acceptance speech (the "Richard" she refers to is Little Richard, who made the speech inducting the group into the Hall):

Love the interaction between the klieg lights and Mary's ruby red lipstick!

As you saw and heard, Diana Ross wasn't there that night. Wilson's explanation as to why Ross wasn't there--that she wanted to spend time with her family--should be taken with a grain of salt...

...poured into an open wound. Whose wound exactly, is hard to say.

Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross. Since Wilson sang mostly backup during that era, I'm only going to give you a single song from that period, The Supremes' last big hit before Ballard left the group:

"The Happening" was originally recorded for the 1967 movie of the same name starring Anthony Quinn, Michael Parks, George Maharis, and, as it's presented in the opening credits, "introducing Faye Dunaway". A (phony and calculated) counterculture comedy about four young beach bums who, by chance more than anything else, kidnap a successful businessman (Quinn) only to find that no one's willing to pay the ransom, it came and went in theaters. I've seen this film and it's a mess. Dunaway got a much better introduction in Bonnie and Clyde, which came out later that same year. The film's lackluster showing had no effect on the single released to radio stations at the same time, which peaked at #1 here in the U.S. 

Cindy Birdsong, Jean Terrill, and Mary Wilson. Terrill was the official lead singer during this period, but she didn't dominate nearly as much as Diana Ross did. Wilson got to sing lead occasionally, as she did on this Smokey Robinson-penned hit:

Released in December 1971, it eventually peaked at #16.

Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson, and, um, let me double-check to make sure I got this right.....Scherrie Payne. By this time--it's 1975 now--Wilson was considered the act's main attraction, and was singing lead about half the time, including on this kinda'-but-not-really-a-hit song (I'll explain afterwards):

When it comes to disco, I feel one should distinguish what came before Saturday Night Fever from what came after Saturday Night Fever. Not because the music itself was all that different afterwards, or different at all, but because attitudes toward, and expectations of, the music had changed so much. In 1975, disco was an up-and-coming musical genre that Billboard magazine tentatively kept tabs on with a "Disco Singles" chart. The pre-Saturday Night Fever "Early Morning Love" peaked at #6 on that chart. That sounds impressive , but that success has to be somewhat qualified. The song was never released as a single in the United States. If you wanted to listen to it, you either had to buy or borrow the album The Supremes, which came out the same year, or go to an actual disco (of course, there was a third option that I just now showed you: watch Soul Train.

 When The Supremes finally came to an end, Mary Wilson embarked on a solo career. The couple of albums that she released had only modest sales, but her post-Supremes career was hardly a bust. As a concert performer she was a popular draw in Las Vegas and on the road. One song that became a mainstay of her act was "How Lucky Can You Get?", originally sung by Barbra Streisand in the 1975 movie Funny Lady (a sequel to Funny Girl.) I found four different videos of her singing this on YouTube, and have come to the conclusion that the song is now more associated with Wilson than it is with Streisand (in fact, I just now looked at a Babs compilation album that I have at hand, and the song's not even there.) Take a look:

Watching that, I can't help but think it was a waste of Mary Wilson's talent singing backup to Diana Ross all those years. Now, that doesn't mean I believe Wilson should have sang lead instead of Ross, whose voice, after all, gave The Supremes its charts-topping signature sound. What I think is that Wilson might have been better off as a solo act from the very beginning. But at a particular point in time, either no one saw that in her, or she didn't see it in herself. Settling for backup just may have been the quickest way of leaving the Detroit projects behind. RIP, Mary Wilson.



Sunday, February 7, 2021

Quips and Quotations (In Memoriam Edition)



 I never, ever update Mark Twain. I don't modernize it. I let the audience update the material. When I go out on stage, I'm trying to make the audience believe they're looking at this guy who died 104 years ago and listening to him and saying to themselves, "Jesus, he could be talking about today." And that's the point.

--Hal Holbrook

That's some of what the movie captured--the uncertainty and doubt. Most of the sources and informants were just low-level players who just saw a piece of the conspiracies. [All the President's Men] director Alan J. Pakula picked actor Hal Holbrook to play Deep Throat. Holbrook was the wise actor of the era, cerebral and high-minded. He was the one who seemingly knew the entire story but wouldn't tell it all. It was a powerful performance, capturing the authoritative and seasoned intensity, cynicism and gruffness of the man in the underground garage.

--Bob Woodward, The Secret Man.


Jim [Brooks] said, "I just had a flash. I know what it's about. Mary's going to do a show. Mary's going to do a new show...." Her movie career didn't go anywhere, and she had this big smash hit special, which was called Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman. It was an hour-long special with Dick and Mary reuniting them in a variety of different sketches and songs and everything. The show went through the roof, and CBS was nuts about the idea of getting Mary back on television for them.

--Allan Burns, TV writer and producer, screenwriter, and, early in his career, animator for Jay Ward Productions.

Allan's range was like nobody's...I don't think you ever get an absurdist [The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, The Munsters], a legitimate humorist [The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda] and a feeling person [A Little Romance] in one package.

--James L. Brooks, who, in addition to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, also created with Burns the Moore-spinoff Lou Grant.

He was a guide and mentor, and I loved him...Jim Brooks was the bouncing-off-the-walls part of the team, and Allan was the stabilizer.

--Ed Asner


Although we worked hard enough to make [Captain von Trapp] interesting, it was a bit like flogging a dead horse. And the subject matter was not mine. I mean, it can't appeal to every person in the world...But [The Sound of Music] was a very well-made movie, and it's a family movie and we haven't seen a family movie, I don't think, on that scale for ages.

--Christopher Plummer

Well, that was a dream come true. I had always been a fanatic Christopher Plummer fan. I still am. I had acquired a CD of him performing excerpts from Henry V to the accompaniment of the musical score that William Walton wrote for the Olivier movie of Henry V. I used to just listen to it over and over and over again. And Chang came out of that recording. I just thought, “I want a Shakespeare-quoting guy, and we’re gonna get Christopher Plummer.” It’s the only time I ever wrote specifically for an actor, not counting the Star Trek cast. And I said to Mary Jo Slater, who was our casting director, “You have to get him for this, because I can't make the movie otherwise. There’s no other actor who can do this.” So, she got him. And I had the time of my life. It was just my own Shakespeare wind-up toy. I would just say, “Do that ‘Let slip the dogs of war’ for me again.” He was a delight.

--Nicholas Meyer, who directed Plummer in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

In his 80s when we met, I marveled at his intense curiosity, hunger to make something vulnerable, and his need to challenge himself. Christopher was both dignified and mischievous, deeply cultured and always looking for a good laugh. As he said about playing my father who was dying ‘not an ounce of self pity,’ and that’s how he was. I’ll always be indebted to Christopher for honoring the story of an older man who dares to come out of the closet, to overcome shame with grace, and intelligence, and a rowdy desire for life — Christopher knew how to make that story alive for so many people.

--Mike Mills, who directed Plummer in Beginners, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at the age of 88, making him the oldest winner ever.

(All three of these fellas deserve a much better sendoff than I'm giving them here, but if I were to give each of them that better sendoff, I probably wouldn't be done until a month from now, and God knows who will have died in the meantime--Kirk) 

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

In Memoriam (Actresses Edition)


Cloris Leachman 1926-2021

Cloris Leachman's career begins with a contest that she entered but did not win, the 1946 Miss America pageant. The winner that year was Marilyn Buferd, Miss California, who, like many Miss Americas, embarked on a career in show business, a career most noteworthy for her role as a sexy Venusian in the 1958 tongue-in-cheek sci-fi grindhouse classic Queen of Outer Space, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor (herself Miss Hungary, 1936.) As for Leachman, Miss Illinois, she placed in the top 16, and that won her a scholarship that paid her admission to New York City's famed Actors Studio, where she studied under Elia Kazan, who taught acting in-between directing gigs. Kazan must have taught her well as she was cast as the second Nellie Forbush (following Mary Martin) during the original run of Rodgers and Hammerstein's smash Broadway musical South Pacific. After that, Leachman appeared with Katherine Hepburn in a Broadway production of Shakespeare's As You Like It. All this made her a well-known name in New York City. Nationwide? That took a little longer.

If you don't count some work she did as an extra, Leachman's film debut was as a desperate hitchhiker clad in a trench coat and apparently nothing else, not even shoes, in Robert Aldrich's 1955 film noir atomic age classic Kiss Me Deadly, based on a Mickey Spillane novel. It was a small but pivotal part, and, trust me, no one has ever provided  better panting accompaniment to Nat King Cole than Leachman. She also had a small but amusing role as a prostitute in 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That same year,  Leachman played the mother of the bride in the comedy Lovers and Other Strangers, but that movie (in my opinion) belongs to Anne Jackson, the mother of the bride's weepy sister who is having an affair with the father of the bride. Mostly, though, Leachman did television, everything from The Twilight Zone to That Girl. She was also the first Ruth Martin, Timmy's mother, on Lassie, but a contract dispute--she refused to sign one--led to her being  replaced by June Lockhart, who became much more identified with the role.

By the beginning of 1971, it probably seemed like the movies didn't have all that much use for Cloris Leachman, now in her mid-40s. However, it was just the right age to play Ruth Popper, the emotionally and sexually repressed wife of a high school football coach in The Last Picture Show, based on Larry McMurtry's novel about the impassioned escapades of otherwise bored teenagers (as well as a few adults) in a small Texas town in the early 1950s. Leachman isn't this film's main character, but she gets to have an affair with the film's main character, played by Timothy Bottoms at his sullen best. Once she reached middle-age, the former beauty pageant contestant was able to switch back and forth from attractive to often quite homely characters, depending on the requirements of the role. She is both in this film, looking like she modeled for the title character on a pack of Old Maid playing cards when we first meet her, and then increasingly prettying herself up as her relationship with the sad sack teenage boy heats up. She may be the movie's most likable character, all the more so for her act of forgiveness at the film's conclusion (when we hardly would have begrudged her all sorts of vengeful bitchery.) "Cut, print, you just won yourself an Oscar," director Peter Bogdanovich told Leachman after that final scene, over her objections as she wanted to do it over again. But that first and only take did indeed win her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. 

It would seem Leachman was now on the verge of becoming a full-fledged movie star. Except there was that other medium, television. As well as a movie may do at the box office, still more people watch TV (in fact, it's why The Last Picture Show was called that in the first place.) And it was there that still more people would watch Cloris Leachman.

When Mary Tyler Moore died in 2017, I included in this blog's tribute to her a full-scale critique of her classic eponymous sitcom, with fairly detailed descriptions of every major character. Here's what I wrote back then about the character Leachman played (albeit with a few added typographical corrections):

Phyllis Lindstrom. Mary Richard's neighbor and longtime friend, though I can't track down just how they met. I do know that they already knew each other by the time Mary agrees to rent an apartment in Minneapolis. Phyllis is a piece of work--opinionated, defensive, self-absorbed, often obnoxious,  and completely unaware that she's anything but perfect. She's also quite humorless, which of course makes her funny as hell. However far back she goes with Mary, Phyllis still has to compete with Rhoda for the title of Best Friend, and isn't any luckier in that regard than Leachman was in Atlantic City back in 1946, but it's great fun watching her try. One drawback for Phyllis in the Best Friend sweepstakes (other than self-absorption, obnoxiousness, etc.) is that she just couldn't spend as much time in Mary' apartment as she would have liked as she had a dermatologist husband (the unseen Lars) and a precocious daughter, Bess (Lisa Gerritsen) waiting for her at home. On top of everything else, Phyllis saw herself as a progressive parent and insisted her daughter call her by her first name, though you got the feeling Bess might have preferred Mary or even Rhoda as a mother. As I said earlier, Phyllis was an outspoken feminist, but when her husband dies, leaving her penniless, she actually has to go out and get a job (as well as a spinoff series, which takes place in San Francisco)

Cloris Leachman won several Emmys playing Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. One of those Emmys was for just guest-starring on TMTMS, as she had now moved on to her own show, Phyllis. How good did that show do? It got high ratings at the start, but they had begun to slip by the end of the first season, so there were format changes and cast changes, with Leachman and the now-teenage Garritsen the only mainstays. The series was canceled, but Leachman got to play Phyllis Lindstrom one more time, on the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show...

 ...and lost out to Rhoda, one final time. But she was funny as hell doing so.

Kass, a friend of this blog from way back when, has a couple of The Last Picture Show posts on her own blog that I encourage you to check out:


Cicely Tyson 2024-2021

Cicely Tyson was in some ways a late bloomer, which probably suited her just fine as she seemed to age at a dramatically slower rate than the rest of us. She spent her 20s not in show business but as a secretary for the Red Cross. When she was 30--30!--she was spotted on the streets of Manhattan by a modeling scout who encouraged her to quit her job and enroll in Barbara Mae Watson's modeling school, the first such institution for African-Americans in the United States (if you're doing your math, you'll realize this is the mid-1950s.) Within a year she was one of the top black models in the country, appearing either on the cover of or inside magazines targeting the black community such as Ebony and Jet. As is often the case with top models, she was encouraged to give acting a try. She took to that profession as easily as she did to modeling, appearing in the long-running off-Broadway play The Blacks, an expose on racism by white Frenchmen Jean Genet. I have not seen or read this play, but know of Genet's reputation as a provocateur.  And so it didn't surprise me when I found out that five members of the all-black cast of 15 appear on stage in "whiteface". Tyson doesn't seem to have been one of the five, and that's probably a good thing. Why cover that pretty face up with white powder? Television producer (though he became better known as a television interviewer) David Susskind saw her pretty face as sat in the audience, but was more, or at least equally, impressed with her acting abilities and cast her as a secretary in the urban drama East Side/West Side, starring George C. Scott as a social worker. On the air a good decade-and-a-half before Hill Street Blues (or, for that matter, a good decade before Good Times), this obviously wasn't your typical early 1960s TV fare, and it stirred up a good deal of controversy, with one episode about a black family in Harlem banned in two Southern states. It lasted just two seasons, and did not make Tyson a star. Neither did a few more movies she appeared in. Then came Sounder.

It was actually based on a children's novel. I remember taking it out from the school library when I was in the sixth or seventh grade, thinking it would be something like Big Red or Savage Sam, since there was a dog on the cover. I basically did accept it on that level, though it's the rare children's book (at least back then) where the father goes to jail. Obviously, this children's book dealt with some very adult concerns, and it when it was made into a film in 1972, it was, rare for a G-rated movie in that era, one adults could thoroughly appreciate. Though the title of the film is also the mixed-breed dog's name, it's not really about him, but the Morgans, a family of black sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South of the 1930s. The dog is more than just the family's pet, assisting the head of this household, Nathan (Paul Winfield), who often has to hunt to put food on the table. The film's central character, oldest son David (Kevin Hooks, who a few years later would play Morris Thorpe on TV's The White Shadow.), also tags along, happily bonding with his dad along the way. One day, however, the trio comes back empty-handed. The father assures his family that they won't go hungry, and in fact, the next morning there's ham and sausage on the table. Unfortunately, the Morgans have barely had time to digest their food when the sheriff shows up and accuses the father of taking the pork from a local smokehouse. As in the book, the father is arrested. Sounder is shot by a deputy as he runs after them, limps into the woods, and disappears from the movie for a bit. And what is Cicely Tyson's role in all this? She plays Rebecca, the mother, who has to keep the family going, assure the son that the dog will come back one day (as he in fact does), and figure out just where the father has been taken. It's the latter that makes Tyson so interesting to watch as she cleverly deals with some very indifferent and/or patronizing white people to get the information she needs. Sounder, a surprise hit at the box office, finally made Tyson a star. 

Not that there were all that many movies for her to star in. Sounder's success seems to have been regarded as a fluke by the Hollywood establishment as it did not lead to a whole slew of serious-minded movies about African-Americans. For her next big role, Tyson would have to settle for a much smaller screen. But before I go to that small screen, I want to show something. A bunch of somethings in fact.

Cicely Tyson was two years shy of 50 when she made Sounder, but, to my eyes, looked about 15 years younger. All of these pictures are post-Sounder, the very last one from when she was in her 80s. The woman spent her whole life looking about 15 years younger then her actual age. Now, I'm not trying to make anyone out there feel bad about looking their age. I only want to point out that it would have taken a whole lot of effort to make Cicely Tyson older than she her actual age.


The whole lot of effort. 

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a 1971 novel by Ernest J. Gaines that takes place between the late 1860s and the early 1960s, all told from the point of view of the title character, a 110-year old ex-slave. A highly-acclaimed made-for-TV movie followed in 1974. As with any movie adaptation--the many film versions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn comes to mind--much is lost when the first-person narration (by necessity as it's a different medium) is mostly abandoned for a more omniscient point of view where we can see for ourselves what happened. Just don't blink. Trying to cram a hundred years of the black experience into a two-hour movie occasionally makes that experience come off as perfunctory. Civil War? Check! Ku Klux Klan? Check! Civil Rights Movement? Check! But what ultimately makes the TV film an artistic success is the artist at the center of it, Cicely Tyson as the aforementioned Pittman. Yes, she had a good deal of help in the 110-year-old department from make-up artists Stan Winston and Rick Baker, but that would have been all for naught if the voice emanating from the century-old ex-slave sounded like a middle-aged telemarketer asking if you'd ever thought about purchasing a home security system. Also, she's not 110 years old in every scene in the movie. What's often overlooked is that the then-50-year-old Tyson also convincingly had to play a Jane Pittman just out of her teens (though there I suppose she got an assist from her own DNA.) For this acting tour de force, Tyson won not one but two Emmys: Best Lead Actress in a Drama and Actress of the Year.

 Cicely Tyson did much more in her career, won many more awards, and earned many more accolades than I've stated. So, too, did Cloris Leachman. But if I went through them all in any kind of detail for both women, well, I'd be 110 years old by the time I finished this post.