Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Uma's Birthday

Today is actress Uma Thurman's 39th birthday, and I have a few thoughts to share.

Modern movie audiences probably recognize Thurman from her roles in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films and cult favorite "Pulp Fiction."

But I first saw her when she was breaking into movies in the late 1980s. The first time I saw her was as Venus/Rose in "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen." It was a modest role, compared to the lead roles she has had in most of her films, but she was only 18 and still new in the business.

Her role was inspired by the famous Botticelli painting, "The Birth of Venus," which can be seen below:

That same year, I saw Thurman in another supporting role in "Dangerous Liaisons," co–starring with John Malkovich, who made his movie debut only four years earlier with an Oscar–nominated performance in 1984's "Places in the Heart."

"Dangerous Liaisons" really launched Thurman's career, paving the way for her appearances in "Henry & June," which was the first film to be rated NC–17, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," "Mad Dog and Glory" and, of course, the "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill" films.

But Thurman may have been a bit overshadowed in "Dangerous Liaisons" by her co–stars — besides Malkovich, the cast included Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and, in her final role, Mildred Natwick.

Over the years, Thurman hasn't always received rave reviews for her performances, but I attribute that more to the weakness of the material or the shortcomings of the director. For more than 20 years, I have regarded Thurman as one of the shining stars of the movie industry, and I think there are many great performances in her future.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Für Elise

It was 199 years ago today that Beethoven wrote his famous piano composition, "Für Elise."

No one is absolutely sure who Elise was, although scholars tend to believe she was his mistress.

One theory is that the piece originally was named "Für Therese," in honor of Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza, one of Beethoven's students. It is said that Beethoven, who was 22 years older than Therese, wanted to marry her and proposed in 1810, but she rejected his proposal. Supposedly, when the piece was published in 1865 (nearly 40 years after Beethoven's death), the title was transcribed incorrectly.

It has also been suggested that Elise was a nickname for Therese.

Well, I guess it doesn't matter. For more than 140 years, it has been known as "Für Elise," and it will remain so.

And, no matter for whom it was written, it is a lovely and timeless composition.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Remembering Lucy

Twenty years ago today, Lucille Ball passed away at the age of 77. It was about a week after she had a dissecting aortic aneurysm, which led to an eight–hour operation that was considered successful, but her aorta ruptured in a second spot eight days later and she died soon after.

It's not my purpose here to dwell on the circumstances surrounding the death of one of the greatest comediennes ever to appear on American television but rather to reflect on her great talent.

So, today, I would like to share with my readers one of my all–time favorite sketches from the "I Love Lucy" TV series. I refer to Lucy's performance in "Lucy Does a TV Commercial," which first aired nearly 57 years ago — on May 5, 1952.

Lucy's fans each have their favorite episodes, and there were certainly many great ones to choose from in that landmark series. This one, in which Lucy makes a commercial for a "health" product called "Vitameatavegamin," has long been my favorite. The product is supposed to have everything in it — meat, vitamins, vegetables, minerals — and it's laced with 23% alcohol.

Watch it and enjoy Lucy's genius at physical comedy. Few, if any, could match her, and I doubt we will ever see anyone like her again.

(Incidentally, though, April 26 has been a day of significant loss for the entertainment industry. Irene Ryan, who played Granny on "The Beverly Hillbillies," died on this day in 1973. Count Basie died on April 26, 1984. Actor Broderick Crawford died two years later. Actor Mason Adams died on this date in 2005. And Jack Valenti, a long–time president of the Motion Picture Association of America [MPAA] and the creator of the MPAA's film rating system, passed away on this date two years ago.)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bea Arthur Dies at 86

Sadly, actress Bea Arthur has died of cancer at age 86.

Modern audiences are probably most familiar with her work on "The Golden Girls," but my memories of her go back to the 1970s, when she made guest appearances on "All in the Family" as Edith's cousin, Maude, and went on to star in her own spin–off series, "Maude."

Early in her adult life, Arthur had a modest stage career, but she made her television debut on Dec. 11, 1971 — about six months before her 50th birthday — when, as Maude, she came to nurse the ailing Bunker family back to health in "All in the Family." I have attached a memorable clip from that episode to the top of this post.

As the star of her spin–off series, Arthur's trademark phrase was, "God'll getcha for that."

Arthur's performance on "Maude" earned her five Emmy nominations and four Golden Globe nominations during the series' six–year run.

In the mid–1980s, she was cast in "The Golden Girls" as Dorothy, the acerbic daughter of Estelle Getty's character, Sophia. Getty, who died last July, actually was a year younger than Arthur but was made up to appear much older. Arthur was nominated for four Emmys and four Golden Globes for her work on "The Golden Girls," which ran for seven seasons.

She won one Emmy each for her work on "Maude" (in 1977) and "The Golden Girls" (in 1988).

Last June, she and "The Golden Girls" co–stars Betty White and Rue McClanahan accepted the "Pop Culture" award at the Sixth Annual TVLand Awards.

Ironically, the Seventh Annual TVLand Awards will be presented on Sunday.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Shakespeare's Birthday

No one really knows when William Shakespeare was born. In fact, there are a lot of things about Shakespeare that are unknown. It isn't known, for example, what Shakespeare really looked like, what his religious beliefs were, what his sexual preference was, even whether all the works with which he is credited were actually written by him.

But April 23 is a reasonably good date to use as his birthday. April 23 was a date that, if it wasn't his birthday, fell around the time of significant dates in his life. It is known that he was baptised on April 26, 1564, so it is logical to assume he was born a few days before that. His first child was born on May 26. And it is also known that he died on this date in the year 1616.

April 23 is also the date on which St. George's Day is traditionally observed.

If this really is Shakespeare's birthday, it's been 445 years since the birth of the greatest writer in the history of the English language. And it wasn't many years after what would have been his 400th birthday that my sixth–grade English teacher decided to show us Franco Zeffirelli's film of "Romeo and Juliet" starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. I have attached a clip from that film with this post.

The movie was nearly 2½ hours long so, since our class periods were about 50 minutes long, my teacher had to show it to us over three days. But it may be the best film production of that play, possibly because the lead roles were played by actors who were close in age to what Shakespeare intended. Many of the previous productions featured much older Romeos and Juliets.

Today, nearly 450 years after his birth, Shakespeare remains, as Sir Laurence Olivier said, "the nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Tribute to Katharine Ross

Turner Classic Movies will be showing a four–movie tribute to actress Katharine Ross tonight.

Today isn't Ross' birthday — that will be next January. But 40 years ago, she was undeniably one of the most attractive actresses in movies, and she appeared in some pretty noteworthy films.

The first two movies on tonight's schedule, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" at 7 p.m. (Central) and "The Graduate" at 9 p.m. (Central), are pretty familiar, even today — four decades after they were made. The other two may not be quite as familiar.

The third film, "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here," is a pretty remarkable film, made more remarkable by the performances of Ross, Robert Blake and Robert Redford. And Conrad Hall's cinematography is amazing. The film starts at 11 p.m. (Central) and it is only about 1½ hours long. I recommend it.

The last movie in the tribute is "Voyage of the Damned," a 2½–hour film from 1976 that airs at 1 a.m. (Central). Based on a true story, the film is about an ocean liner carrying Jewish refugees from Germany to Cuba in 1939. There is some dispute over how many of the passengers ultimately perished in Nazi concentration camps, but Ross won a Golden Globe for her performance.

Actually, tonight's films give you the chance to see nearly all of Ross' award–winning performances. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts honored her for her work in both "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here." And the Hollywood Foreign Press Association recognized her work in both "Voyage of the Damned" and "The Graduate."

Ross' only Academy Award nomination was for her work in a supporting role in "The Graduate," but she lost to Estelle Parsons. Thus, she never won an Academy Award — although she turned down the role in "Klute" for which Jane Fonda received an Oscar.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Need a Tax Day Diversion?

Tomorrow is April 15, Tax Day, and, whether you've already filed your taxes or you've been putting it off, you can probably use a diversion.

And Turner Classic Movies has a good one planned — "Double Indemnity," a 1944 film noir directed by the legendary Billy Wilder and starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson.

Many folks may remember MacMurray and Stanwyck for their TV roles — MacMurray as the patriarch in the TV series "My Three Sons" and Stanwyck on "The Colbys" — but their performances in "Double Indemnity" were truly electric.

So was Robinson's. His career didn't include any TV roles that I know of, but "Double Indemnity" was, in many ways, a departure for him. Robinson is mostly remembered for his work in gangster movies, but his role in "Double Indemnity" had few things in common with his previous work.

As for Wilder, what can one say? He directed many classic films, and "Double Indemnity" was one of them. People may remember Wilder's comedies, like "Some Like It Hot," but he could clearly direct a drama with the best of them.

And this one will keep you on the edge of your seat.

TCM will be showing it at 7 p.m. (Central) on Wednesday.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Have a Meaningful Easter

If you want to experience a cinematic Easter, you can watch the DVD of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," if you have a copy or you can rent one at a nearby video store.

But if you want something else, I suggest tuning in to Turner Classic Movies on Sunday evening.

At 8 p.m. (Central), you can see the 1961 film, Nicholas Ray's "The King of Kings." Jeffrey Hunter plays Jesus. Siobhan McKenna plays Mary. Hurd Hatfield is Pontius Pilate. Rip Torn is Judas.

And, three hours later, you can catch Cecil B. DeMille's silent version from 1927.

Most of the cast members are probably unfamiliar to 21st century audiences. But in its day, DeMille's film was as popular with church groups and religious organizations as Gibson's was a few years ago.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Remembering Wild Kingdom

Unless you're over 30, you may not remember "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."

Actually, you might need to be over 40 to remember the show when it was a regular program on NBC. It premiered in January 1963 and continued until 1971, when it became a syndicated program, providing informative half–hour episodes on wildlife and nature.

"Wild Kingdom" literally traveled around the world to bring footage of animals in their native habitats to viewers. The program raised awareness of nature and the environment long before they were causes. It remained in syndication until 1988.

The host of the show was a zoologist named Marlin Perkins, who was in his late 50s when the show made its debut. His sidekick was a much younger fellow named Jim Fowler, who was in his early 30s. Perkins hosted the program until his retirement in 1985. He died of cancer the following year.

I can't say that my mother was much of a fan of prime–time television in the 1960s, but "Wild Kingdom" was one program that she enthusiastically encouraged my brother and me to watch, along with "The Wonderful World of Disney."

I am reminded of "Wild Kingdom" today because it is Fowler's 79th birthday. Yes, he is still living, which probably seems astonishing to most people who remember the show.

There were two features of the show that were so noteworthy that they inspired teasing from people like Johnny Carson, who often had Fowler on his show as a guest.

One feature was a tendency to link Mutual of Omaha's commercials to the subject of the program. For example, Perkins might say something like, "As the mother grizzly bear protects her cubs, you can protect your children with a policy from Mutual of Omaha," which then was followed by a commercial.

Well, it was Mutual of Omaha's show, after all.

I don't remember Carson making many jokes about that, but the other feature is one I distinctly remember Carson frequently mimicking in skits.

Simply put, Fowler was almost always the one who had to carry out dangerous assignments while Perkins remained a safe distance away and narrated. I remember once when Carson imitated Perkins saying something like, "While Jim wrestles with the alligator in heat, I'll remain in camp and make a pitcher of martinis."

As a veteran of television's pre–cable era, Fowler is probably amazed by how much things have changed in his lifetime. Today, there are cable channels devoted exclusively to providing the kind of programming on a 24/7 basis that he and Perkins did on their weekly half–hour program. There is far more awareness of animals and the environment today than Fowler and Perkins probably ever dreamed of at the height of their popularity.

But it might not have been possible without the groundbreaking work that Fowler and Perkins did.

Thanks, Jim. Hope you have a happy birthday.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Debut of 'Eroica'

It may not seem significant to those who aren't particularly interested in classical music, but Tuesday is the 204th anniversary of the first public performance of Beethoven's Third Symphony, which is also known as "Eroica."

That first public performance was held in Vienna, and the symphony was conducted by Beethoven himself. It is often cited as the end of the Classical Era and the start of Romanticism.

Originally, Beethoven intended to dedicate the symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven was an admirer of both the French Revolution and Bonaparte. But Beethoven's admiration for Bonaparte apparently had its limits. When he was informed that Bonaparte had been proclaimed emperor of France, Beethoven reportedly said, "So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!"

And Beethoven changed the title from one bearing Bonaparte's name to "Sinfonia eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire d'un grand'uomo," which, in Italian, means "heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man."

In the clip above, legendary Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan conducts the symphony. Karajan died 20 years ago. His birthday, ironically, was Sunday. He would have been 101.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Rock Stars Dying Young

Fifteen years ago, I was teaching journalism students and, one day in April, one of my students had a profound news development to report — rock star Kurt Cobain, the guitarist and lead singer for the group Nirvana, apparently had killed himself.

Cobain's body was found on April 8. The coroner determined that he probably had killed himself on April 5.

Nirvana probably was one of the most popular bands in the world in 1994, and the only subject that my students wanted to talk about that day was Cobain.

One student asked me to compare him to the icon of my generation, John Lennon. I acknowledged that Cobain and Lennon were well–known songwriters and performers who died of gunshot wounds, leaving behind young (well, in Yoko Ono's case, reasonably young) widows and young children. They weren't the same age when they died — Lennon was 40, Cobain was 27 — but they were both considered too young to die.

But that, as far as I was concerned, was where the similarities ended.

While Nirvana's music was popular in its day, I felt that the Beatles' music had real staying power. Beatles songs would be remembered long after most of Nirvana's music had been forgotten, I told my students. I don't think most of my students thought I was right about that, but it seems to me that time has proven I was correct.

And, most importantly, Lennon was murdered. Cobain took his own life. There is a world of difference, as far as I am concerned, between homicide and suicide.

I probably wouldn't feel compelled to write about this if hadn't posted an article about NPR's Robert Smith's interview with Eric Segalstad on Segalstad's book about more than 20 rock stars who died at the age of 27.

It is something of a coincidence. Some, like Lennon, were homicide victims. Others, like Cobain, committed suicide. Still others died from various forms of excess.

But it's still coincidental, as far as I am concerned.

In the years since Cobain died, there have been those who have been convinced that Cobain was murdered and it was made to look like a suicide. But every investigation I'm aware of has concluded that there was no conspiracy, that Cobain himself pulled the trigger.

It's a tragic story. I'm sorry my students were subjected to it. But I feel that Cobain's self–absorbed personality — as well as the heroin and Valium the coroner found in his body — was responsible for it.

And I'm sorry renewed attention now is being paid to Cobain's death.

Friday, April 03, 2009

'Niles Crane' Turns 50

Today is David Hyde Pierce's 50th birthday. He played Niles Crane on "Frasier," and he gave a solid performance as John Dean in Oliver Stone's film "Nixon."

Pierce is also gay — a fact that was not publicly acknowledged until after the "Frasier" series concluded.

During the 11–year run of "Frasier," there were rumors about Pierce's sexual orientation — but, possibly because his character was infatuated with Daphne, that fact was downplayed.

There were hints, however, such as his conversation with Frasier in the finale of the first season, when Niles said "Wow!" upon seeing Roz's coffee companion.

And there were more blatant moments when Niles' sexuality was implied, like the time in the second season when Frasier tried to set up Daphne with his new station manager, who turned out to be gay. Check out the expression on Frasier's face near the end of the clip when Tom asks him about Niles ...

... or the time in the final season when Frasier and Niles, who were under the impression that Roz's boyfriend was in the closet, found themselves at a gay bar while trying to have a word with the young man.

Well, the fact is that two of the most notoriously straight characters on the show — Niles and "Bulldog" (played by Dan Butler) — are gay in real life. And both are in long–term, monogamous relationships.

Sexual orientation has no bearing on talent, though, and neither does age.

Pierce is a talented actor. Happy birthday, Niles.