Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Is It Ok If I Call You Mine?

The current remake of Fame is clearly not aimed at people like me. The original 1980 film was, but more on that in a mo'. I succumbed to curiosity yesterday, and popped out to see this new version; I admit I did it no favors by watching the original on DVD before setting out. The two are not comparable, but as the current effort is being touted as a remake, well, it's hard not to compare the two. This Fame.2 is clean-cut and sanitized, with none of the grit of the original. These young folks are all perfectly formed and ready for their close-up. And dull as toast. Realistic conflicts are nowhere to be found here; the only drama results from mild parental disapproval or an occasional swindler swooping in on one of our kids. That latter plotline, involving the only interesting young actor in the piece, Paul Ioacono, does not compare with the corresponding sequence in the original, in which Irene Cara is duped into removing her blouse for a sleazy pedophile masquerading as a filmmaker (she dissolves into tears, but does not refuse, just in case this guy might be legit). See where this is going? Our New Fame is cleaned up, and aimed squarely at the High School Musical crowd, where the biggest problem is whether to be a highly successful pianist or a highly successful singer. And speaking of the music, well, I acknowledge I'm not a good judge of such things. But here I go anyway. I can report that there are several sequences in the remake which have clear antecedents in the original. That huge musical number in the lunchroom remains, though in the remake, the song has a hip-hop feel, while the original was rooted in disco. I don't know which song is better, but I do know that the new version feels very, very staged, as opposed to the original, which had a chaotic, improvisational, more organic feel. There isn't much dancing on cars here; the current cast of goodie goods would never dream of holding up Manhattan traffic like our original gang did. Instead, there is a Halloween sequence right out of Moulin Rouge. This new film is full of the visual, but the deeply emotional is hard to find. If you've gotten this far, you can tell that I have a fondness for the original Fame. The movie was released in 1980, and was only a moderate hit, though it spawned a TV series (which spawned its own spinoff), as well as a stage show and the current remake. While that first film was not considered a big hit, it had a large impact on any stage actor of my generation. Those students in the original were quirky oddballs, exactly the kind of kid who is attracted to the performing arts. And the tone of the movie was darker and grittier, which made it seem more realistic. The Manhattan of 1980 was pretty grimy, as opposed to the Disneyfied territory of the remake. We had the rich dancer who had an abortion in order to gain admittance to a professional corps de ballet, the fatherless Puerto Rican who so idolized Freddie Prinz that he followed his descent into drug use, and the mousy virgin who blossomed into a woman of power. And of course, there was Montgomery, the unusual-looking geek who outed himself as an acting exercise. That character, for some obvious reasons, resonated very strongly with me. Played by a young Paul McCrane, when he had hair, his loneliness was particularly painful for me to watch back then. Take a peek at this clip, which features McCrane singing a song he wrote himself; though never outwardly addressed, it's a love song to his best friend Ralph:
But actually, any young actor could find him (or her)self in the original Fame. I remember I first saw the film with a group of actors from my workshop; we drove into Hollywood to see the thing on the big screen at the Hollywood Cinerama Dome. We brought our acting coach and mentor, Bobbi Holtsman, with us. All the students ate the movie up; we were moved, inspired, energized, and tipsy with ambition. But Bobbi did not get it; I was tempted back then to believe Fame was just not an adult's movie. But I must now be around the age Bobbi was when she first saw it, and today's viewing of the DVD still provided a heady feeling of "I'm going to live forever." As I said, I did not follow the subsequent versions of Fame, losing interest in the series after a couple of episodes (it ran four or five years on NBC and in syndication). I never saw the second series, nor the stage show which made the regional rounds several years ago. A couple of the actors from the original made the transition to the series, but the two actors who went on to larger careers did not. Paul McCrane and Barry Miller have continued acting, most of the others haven't. I've found this fun clip, in which McCrane, Miller, and Maureen Teefy illustrate a little of what I've been rambling about. They have the unusual look of the teens who were always attracted to the arts, a little off-beat, a little misfit, a whole lot of insecurity. They look like us, back then. The remake's cast is full of picture-perfect model types whom you don't believe for a second live in the real world. The only actor who looked like that in the original was Boyd Gaines, who also appears in this clip. He has become a multiple Tony winner, but his character did not; this promising golden boy heads to Hollywood and ends up waiting tables, another realistic depiction of the actor's life:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

More Recent Deaths

There have been a few more deaths lately, if you can believe it, which were overshadowed by the recent spate of higher-profile demises. But they deserve a bit of a mention.

Arthur Ferrante

He was a classical pianist who entered Julliard at age 9. There he met the guy who would be his partner for 40 years, Lou Teicher. Their early concerts together focused on classical music, with the twist of the "duelling grand pianos" which became their signature. The "Grand Twins of the Twin Grands" eventually found their orchestrations of movie themes propelling them into pop stardom. They recorded over 150 albums, with 22 going gold or platinum; they sold over 90 million albums worldwide and gave over 5200 concerts before retiring 20 years ago. In the early 60s, they hit Billboard's Top Ten with their piano renditions of the themes from The Apartment and from Exodus, as well as "Tonight" from West Side Story. They continued to record movie themes throughout the 60s, and ended the decade with another top ten smash, the instantly recognizable Theme from Midnight Cowboy. I think my folks must have had a Ferrante and Teicher recording in their collection, as my mother and both my sisters played the piano. But I know my best friend from school, Robert, was a big fan and had many of their albums. While everybody else was listening to Creedance Clearwater Revival, Robert and I were listening to Ferrante and Teicher. No wonder we got beat up a lot. Teicher predeceased Ferrante, dying last year at age 83.

This gal died several weeks ago. Recognize her?
Crystal Lee Sutton

Well, you probably wouldn't. I didn't either. But one single moment in her otherwise non-descript life became an international iconic symbol. In 1973, she was a single mother of three, working in a textile mill in North Carolina for $2.65 an hour. She was spotted reading some union literature, and was fired. She went back to the factory floor to gather her belongings, and asked a co-worker for a Magic Marker. In her own words: "I grabbed it and I took a piece of pasteboard and I wrote the word UNION on it and, for some reason, I don't know why I did it, I climbed on the table and I just slowly turned the sign around. Everybody was in a state of shock and the machines started shutting down and everything got quiet. People started giving me the V sign." Sound familiar? Sally Field recreated that moment in Norma Rae, and won an Oscar.

When the movie was in pre-production, Sutton demanded creative control over the script, which was denied, so she refused permission to use her name. She blew it; the film became a fictionalized version of her story, and she was left in relative obscurity. She died from brain cancer at the age of 68.

I was very sorry to hear of this guy's death:

Zakes Mokae

He was an actor born in South Africa who appeared with playwright Athol Fugard in the latter's 1960 play The Blood Knot. It was the first time a black actor and a white actor appeared together onstage in South Africa, and cemented an artistic relationship between the two. Mokae became a leading interpreter of Fugard's work, appearing in Boesman and Lena, A Lesson From Aloes, and, in 1982, in Master Harold...and the Boys, a performance for which he won the Tony. Three years later, a television movie was filmed with Mokae recreating his role, and Matthew Broderick as the young Master Harold. I love this script, and the role of Harold is one of those I always wanted to play; it remains on my Wish List. I have some doubts that it will come my way, however, as Harold is 17.

If this gal doesn't give you the creeps, well, you're

Susan Atkins

She was one of Charles Manson's babes, and was a major participant in what may be the most gruesome, and is certainly the most notorious, of all American killing sprees, the Tate/LaBianca murders. Nobody has ever been able to fully explain the fanatical hold Manson had over his harem of lost women, who formed a community of sex, drugs, and violence in the late 60s. (There were a couple of men in the group, too, who committed much of the violence in exchange for all that free sex with the gals. Straight guys will do anything to get laid.) Manson brainwashed his ladies into believing that a race war was at hand, a world-wide conflict which the Manson family would survive by hiding in a hole in the ground. The blacks would win the war, but by annihilating all the whites, would have no one to run the world. At that point, the Manson clan would emerge from their hole and be proclaimed Leaders of the Planet.

What could go wrong with that plan?

In August of 1969, Manson noticed the race war was taking too long to get going, and decided to give it a push by committing a series of murders which could be blamed on blacks. He sent Susan Atkins and several other family members to the Beverly Hills home of Roman Polanski, an estate he had previously visited while looking for Doris Day's son, a record producer whom he believed had made promises he had not kept. Isn't this a great story? Anyway, Manson knew rich white people lived at the address, and believed murdering them would ignite the race war. Atkins and her three cohorts invaded the residence on August 8th, interrupting a small gathering and slaughtering the five people present. Atkins herself repeatedly stabbed Polanski's wife, actress Sharon Tate, while she begged for mercy for herself and her unborn child (Tate was 8 and a half months pregnant; Polanski himself was in Europe at the time). Patricia Krenwinkle chased coffee heiress Abigail Folger across the front lawn before subduing her, and doing her in. On the way out, Atkins wrote "pig" in blood on the door.

The next night, Manson himself drove Atkins and others to the Los Feliz home of Leno LaBianca, a wealthy grocer, and left them there to kill everyone and hitchhike home. Can you imagine picking up that crowd and driving them across the Valley? After slaughtering the grocer and his wife, they wrote "Helter Skelter" in blood on the fridge, forever ruining a perfectly good Beatles tune. The back-to-back murders traumatized Los Angeles for months, and may never have been solved had Atkins not bragged about her starring role in the events to a couple of cellmates when she was being incarcerated on an earlier murder charge (another one ordered by Manson). She failed to show any remorse during her trial, and was sentenced to death. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when, in 1972, the California Supreme Court briefly invalidated the death penalty. She was denied parole 18 times, including only a month ago, when her brain cancer was so advanced she slept through her hearing. During the 38 years of her captivity, she married twice (who the hell were those guys?), and at the time of her death this week, was the woman who had been incarcerated in the California penal system the longest (that honor now falls to her co-murderess Patricia Krenwinkle).

I don't remember the Tate/LaBianca murders as they happened, but the entire horrific episode was captured in a fascinating television film, Helter Skelter, in the mid-70s. Actor Steve Railsback's portrayal of Charles Manson was so convincing, it sank his promising career; nobody could see him as anyone except the mesmerizing cult leader. It's one of the most electric performances I have ever seen on film. Go to Netflix and rent the thing; it'll freak you out.

As for Atkins, she died this week at the age of 61. She is survived by her second husband, who is also one of her attorneys, and an illegitimate son (she gave birth while living in squalor with the Manson family; the child was removed by the state, and has not been heard from since. If you were Susan Atkins's son, wouldn't you remain hidden?) During her incarceration, she became a born-again Christian (don't they all?), and did her best to erase memories of the frightening words she uttered during her sentencing in 1971: "You'd best lock your doors and watch your own kids."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Dance Party: Here's The Story

What was the fascination with this show?? I hated it when it first aired, and did not acquire a taste for it during its countless reruns. And there were spin-offs, if you can believe it. This is the sitcom family who would not die. Books have been written, perhaps people have based doctoral dissertations on its impact, who knows? Who cares? Some have said it was a brave depiction of the increasingly common "blended family," but that doesn't hold much water with me. I doubt there were any more than two or three episodes during the total run of the show which actually dealt with the real-life challenges of step-siblings, step-parents, etc.

And didn't you just want to save Ann B. Davis from all that dreck?

I don't know how many further attempts to exploit BradyMania there were, but it seemed like dozens. There were reunion movies, parody movies, cartoon depictions, three-camera sitcoms, and on and on and on. The Bradys Go Hawaiian. Beneath the Planet of the Bradys. Star Wars VII: Attack of the Brady Clones. yuck.

Hey, I went to college with Eve ("Jan Brady") Plumb, during the period of her life when she was trying to escape the thing. It was apparently during this period that someone had the atrocious idea to put these people in a variety show. Eve declined to participate. (She eventually embraced her Bradyness, and appeared in some subsequent attempts to revive the series).

Well, I know who was responsible for the show from which this week's clip is plucked: Sid and Marty Krofft. They were the guys behind the psychedelic kids shows H.R.Pufnstuff, Lidsville, and the like. They were also responsible for bringing us the Donny and Marie Show in prime time. For that, they should have been barred from ever working in television again.

But at least those Osmonds have some musical talent. These people, with one exception, do not. Pity poor Florence Henderson, who had some Broadway cred before signing on to the sitcom which ate her career. The Kroffts had their hands full, getting this group of tone-deaf klutzes to seem like an actual performing troop. Oh, and pity poor Robert Reed, too, whose promising dramatic career was doomed by his participation in this show.

Tomorrow, it will be exactly forty years since this Bunch premiered on television, with one of the most recognizable theme songs ever written. It is so well-known that we don't need to hear it yet again on the Friday Dance Party. Instead, here is a compilation clip from the horrendous variety show starring the Brady Bunch, a clip actually edited by Susan Olsen, who played the smallest Brady (the one with the lisp). I guess she now has a sense of humor about the whole experience.

Happy Anniversary, Bradys! Now leave us alone.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Theatre Droppings: A Re-enactment

Well, I finally got back to Wayside Theatre this week, to attend a matinee of their current offering. I am deeply disappointed in myself that I did not get out there for their previous production, The Gin Game, which starred two of my favorite actors mature years, James Laster and Faith Potts. I lost track of their run, and missed the whole thing. I like The Gin Game (I saw stage legend Julie Harris and stage ham Charles Durning play it years ago), and I see that cranky male role in my future.

Anyhoo, I did not want to miss Wayside's current show, which carries the informative title of Robert E. Lee and John Brown: Lighting the Fuse. Well, that gives us some of the exposition right there: we know going in that we will be getting some Civil War history. Actually, pre-Civil War history, but that's just nitpicking. The play details the abolitionist raid perpetrated by Brown on the little town of Harpers Ferry, VA, just a few years before some Confederate rebels fired cannon balls onto Fort Sumter and ignited the Civil War.

The playwright here is Warner Crocker, who is also Wayside's artistic director; he directs the vast majority of the theatre's shows, and hires all the actors. He has written the best play in the English language, better than Hamlet and even The Odd Couple. Do you doubt my sincerity? Anyway, Warner makes a good case that the raid he is dramatizing lights the fuse which will soon explode into the War Between the States. I don't remember studying this event, which is odd for a number of reasons. I spent all but one year of my public schooling in Georgia, whose curriculum included substantial emphasis on the history of the Civil War. Maybe I was out sick the day we covered the John Brown Raid, who knows? But my lack of background knowledge actually enhanced my interest in this story, which is told effectively by a cast of men who play about a hundred characters.

The stars of the show are two very talented actors, John Alcott and John Dow (except they really aren't the stars; the ensemble surrounding them tells more of the story). Alcott is a Chicago based actor who has appeared at Wayside many times over the years. We spent a bit of social time together quite a while ago, when he claims I passed out at a party, from too many martinis. Not true, I was just resting my eyes. I particularly remember John's lovely, low-keyed work as Uncle Adolf in Last Night of the Ballyhoo, in which he dominated the stage from his easy chair. In this current offering, he dominates the stage with passionate fanaticism and lots of facial hair.

I don't know John Alcott very well, but he was quite complementary of my work in Man of La Mancha, so of course he is now my best friend.

John Dow, who is playing Robert E. Lee, is one of my DC compatriots. We have done many staged readings together, in addition to appearing in full productions of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (where we shared an interest in frozen grapes) and Lee Blessing's Thief River (in which he played me, twenty years later. Never mind, it's too difficult to explain...).

These two Johns are very effective as John Brown and Robert E. Lee, and their lone scene together is the linchpin of the play. The production is peopled with a wide range of folks, including one who may be the most famous American slave in history. No, I don't mean Toby from Roots or Mammy from Gone With the Wind, I mean Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and became a high-profile abolitionist. Stephen Seales plays the role here, and his well-reasoned arguments with the hot-headed John Brown create lots of dramatic fire.

But as I mentioned, there are hundreds and hundreds of other characters in this play, from raiders to soldiers to militiamen to politicians to slaves (even the president shows up). They are all played by Wayside's intern company, plus a local hire or two. These actors are refugees from La Mancha, so I had some fun watching these familiar faces put their own particular spin on each character. A special shout-out has to go to Vaughn Irving (I've written about this kid before), who delivers a whole lot of words while he's dying, and is pretty cute in a 4-second role as the President's Clerk. Vaughn has worked long and hard at Wayside and elsewhere, and must be feeling proud that this show's program is the first in which his name appears with an asterisk. (It denotes his new Equity status; welcome to the profession, Vaughn, now get out your checkbook, your dues are due.)

This show has particular resonance in the Wayside territory, as the raid happened nearby, and this part of the Shenandoah Valley is lousy with Civil War re-enactors. I confess I don't understand this phenomenon, but who am I to judge? There are many folks out there who enjoy dressing up in Civil War garb (I was warned to call it "attire," rather than "costumes"), and some of them have been coming to see the show all decked out (did I hear some even brought their guns? I hope they checked them at the box office). Throughout the year, this area of Virginia hosts actual re-enactments of the various local battles, with otherwise normal people dressing up in their "attire" and pretending to fight the battles again. At my matinee, there was one tall teenager dressed in the gray hat and coat of the Confederate Army (his pants must have been at the cleaners, as he was wearing sweatpants. But they were gray...).

As I confessed, I don't quite understand the region's giddy celebration of such a bitter period of their history. I don't know if there is any kind of an African-American population in the area, but if there is, I doubt they spend much time dressing up in slave garb and walking Main Street with chains around their ankles.

Well, Lighting the Fuse is being revived at Wayside to coincide with the John Brown Raid's sesquicentennial, which is a word I cannot pronounce but I know it means 150th anniversary. Brown does not look like much of a hero to me, though his motive to end slavery was pure. Today we would call him a terrorist, or at least an insurgent. Warner does a nice job of humanizing both John Brown and Robert E. Lee, who was summoned to clean up the mess Brown caused. Brown was executed (spoiler alert!), but the encounter helped Lee decide to lead the Confederate forces in the war which was sparked by this brief event.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Our Ladies

I had my dear friend Claudia with me for most of the last week. She is my oldest friend; we met in high school back in the middle ages. When I left Los Angeles to attend grad school, she flew out to visit me several times, and has continued that routine since I landed in DC. Usually, she can hook it into a business trip (she works in the health insurance industry, but we don't spread that around, as we don't want her attacked on the street).

We always have a terrific time together, and this week was no exception. She had to work during the day, but we had plenty of private time in which to catch up. We sat front row center at Dirty Blonde one night (I wrote about that show here), and we caught a Saturday matinee of A Piece of My Heart at American Century Theatre. We were quite caught up in that story of the women who served in the Vietnamese War. We also had time for a movie (Julie and Julia, which we loved. I enjoyed pointing out DC's own Helen Carey in one of the supporting roles) and we indulged in our favorite pastime, eating, with several meals out, several meals in, and much grazing in between.

Claudia and I have always had an easy relationship, dating back to our first meeting in our high school drama class. She was a topnotch stage clown back then, but ultimately gave up acting to, you know, have a life. I doubt she regrets that decision, but I may have detected a little bit of wistfulness, a little bit of wondering "what if...?" while we watched an old video of one of her stage successes.

Claudia's visit started me thinking about how lucky I have been with the ladies in my life. With rare exception, the best friends I have had over the years have been women, and always straight women at that. This is not an unusual occurrence with men in my tribe. I imagine if you asked any gay man, of almost any age, to list ten life-long friends, the majority would be straight women. I've been so lucky to have my ladies in my life; a few, like Claudia and Judy (I wrote more about our history here) have remained constant influences, while others may have drifted away over the years. But I am thankful to them all: to Janie, who helped me through the first years of college, to Mindi, who helped me through the first years of grad school, to Jenny, who shared my post-collegiate years, to Bobbi, who awakened my artistic life, and to Barbara and Deborah, who remain with me today.

I'm not the first one to notice the phenomenon of the gay man's close friendship with the straight woman. Whole books have been written about it. I bet Michelangelo and Da Vinci had their gal pals, and any thought of Noel Coward will soon be followed by a thought of Gertrude Lawrence. These are intensely important relationships to the gay man, which makes it doubly grotesque that a nasty nickname was given to our ladies back in the 70s. I have never used the epithet, and won't repeat it here (it rhymes with Flag Tag), and I find it astonishing that the very men who depend so much on their straight female friends would demean them with this ugly label.

Thankfully, you don't hear the term much these days. But the tradition of the gay male-straight female friendship remains in full force. The younger gents in my tribe continue to enjoy such relationships. I wish I knew how to upload and share a video of my Claud, perhaps the song with which she stole the video we watched last week. But I don't. I have, though, run across a very sweet little video posted by one of the young actors with whom I worked this summer. Dave is working at Wayside Theatre this season, and on one of his days off, he reunited with one of his great friends. On a lark, they made this stop-action video together; it perfectly sums up the way I feel about my ladies. I have a hunch we all feel the same.

Where would we be without them?