Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bitten By Tom Cruise

1994.  Remember when Tom Cruise sucked Brad Pitt?  In a major departure from his Risky Business and Top Gun movie image, Cruise challenged himself dramatically when he starred as Lestat the Vampire in the film version of the best-selling Anne Rice novel, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.  This showed us Tom Cruise, not as a mortal who looks fabulous in sunglasses, but as the undead -- a supernatural creature who seeks the blood of humans at night and will disintegrate if he's ever hit by rays of sunlight.  He sleeps by day -- in a casket.
Brad Pitt co-starred as the man Lestat turns into a fellow vampire by sucking on him.  A little.  Not enough to kill him.  And not in a homo-erotic way.  All the homo-eroticism readers loved in Rice's novel was kept out of the screenplay.  That was 1990s Hollywood.  Quite different from, say, episodes of True Blood on HBO a few years ago.  Lestat and Louis were just really good friends in the movie, having sort of a vampire bromance.

Tom Cruise really wanted to sink his teeth into that role.  But it almost wasn't his to play.

Daniel Day-Lewis reportedly had just signed on to be Lestat.  The actor had won his first Academy Award.  He was voted Best Actor for the 1989 biopic, My Left Foot, in which he brilliantly portrayed an artist severely disabled by cerebral palsy.  Daniel Day-Lewis would go on to make Hollywood history as the only man to win three Oscars in the Best Actor category.  His other two would be for There Will Be Blood (2007) and Lincoln (2012).

In 1993, I was a regular on a new weekend morning news program on WNBC called Weekend TODAY in New York.  I was on the local show when it made its debut in the fall of 1992.  I was approached to be the regular movie reviewer in addition to doing entertainment news and lifestyles features. That appealed to me.  After my years on VH1 as a celebrity talk show host and veejay, I knew I could bring something to that gig.  However, the day before our live show premiered, the news director changed my assignments from entertainment news and film reviews to reading community calendar events for family weekend entertainment and doing funny remotes from shopping malls, street fairs and such.  Friction ensued.

My late partner and I got invited to a 1993 AIDS fundraiser cocktail party in a Central Park restaurant.  We went.  Actor Daniel Day-Lewis was a guest.  He was very casual, very charming and took time to chat with anyone who approached him.  He chatted with my partner and me and I wished him the best of luck shooting Interview with the Vampire.  He leaned over and said, "Thank you but I may have to bow out of it."  He said that he was pretty exhausted and wanted to spend time with his family.  This was totally understandable.  He'd done the lead roles in three heavyweight dramas -- The Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Age of Innocence (1993) and In the Name of the Father (1993).
He would take time off and his next film was the 1996 drama, The Crucible.

I told Mr. Day-Lewis that I was an entertainment news contributor on a local weekend WNBC show.  We were at a weekday fundraiser and I asked him if I could mention what he told me on the air.  He gave me permission because, by the time the weekend arrived, he would've informed all the project-related film folks who needed to know.

I got to work at WNBC in the pre-dawn Saturday morning hours and let my producer know that I had a movie casting scoop to do on the air.  She told me I couldn't do it because someone else was doing showbiz news and gossip.  I knew I had a good item because I'd read that Tom Cruise was keen to play Lestat.  So, I called a buddy of mine.  Michael Lewittes had written a couple of very nice items about my TV work in The New York Daily News.  He was unaware of the Interview with the Vampire casting.  "Trust me," I said.  "This is a good entertainment news item."

He wrote it up.  It went to press.  He called me with the news that Tom Cruise's people contacted him to confirm that Daniel Day-Lewis was out of the picture.  Entertainment  Tonight picked up the story.

And there you have a little backstory to Interview with the Vampire -- and the movie casting news that could've been broken first on Weekend TODAY in New York on WNBC back in 1993.  Nowadays you can follow Michael Lewittes, formerly of The New York Daily News, on Twitter as @GossipCop.

Tom Cruise, now in his early 50s, is still in action.  Trailers are out teasing his upcoming summer release, Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation.  I bet he wears sunglasses in it.

Monday, March 23, 2015


THE DUFF, a teen comedy, is a fine example of how screwed up America's movie ratings board is.  The Duff is rated PG-13.  It's one of those comedies in which the kids rank hook-up sex more important than scholastic achievements and hot looks are more valuable than character.  Bianca is the drab girl who can't get a date.  She needs color.
She will get cyber-bullied by mean girls.  She will get angry and use some salty language.
Bianca says a couple o' lines that you would've expected to hear from Jack Nicholson as the hot-tempered, foul-mouthed sailor in 1973's The Last Detail.  Again, it's rated PG-13.

But Love Is Strange, a tender and beautifully done film about a gay married couple -- together for almost 40 years -- was rated R.  I reviewed Love Is Strange last month in my February postings.  The senior gay couple, played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, must part temporarily and ask relatives for help when job loss and the Recession leave them without their own home.  In one scene, the couple goes out to a local bar for a drink and recalls a group of political activists they knew decades ago.  They laugh and one refers to the activists as some "crazy motherf***ers."  Apparently, that one word in that one scene got the movie the R rating.  Was there sex or nudity in the film?  The steamiest thing you saw was a shirtless John Lithow.  Love Is Strange should've been nominated for Oscars and it should've been rated PG-13.  But the shadowy and conservative motion picture ratings board probably had a problem with a film focused on a very loving and kind gay married couple.  Meanwhile, The Duff  has a teen girl saying to a guy "...I'll rip your nutsack off" and "Eat a dick!"  Another character says "F***in' A!" and yet another teen says "I would totally bang the shit out of her.  But I wouldn't like it."  Mae Whitman stars as The Duff.  Her name is Bianca.  She finds out that her pretty friends in senior class consider her to be a "DUFF."  That stands for "Designated Ugly Fat Friend."
The football jock, who will be crowned homecoming king, convinces Bianca to get a style makeover.  He gives her tips on how to flirt with a guy.  He's straight and a bit of a jerk but he does sincerely try to help Bianca score with the long-haired dude she's got a crush on.
The football jock also happens to be the boy next door.  He and Bianca are neighbors.

Bianca is on the school newspaper staff gets assigned to write a feature titled "What Does Homecoming Mean To Me?"
There are teen comedies that, although aimed at young audiences, are so well-played and brightly written that they also appeal to middle-aged moviegoers.  My top examples are Clueless, a clever update on Jane Austen's Emma starring Alicia Silverstone, Mean Girls with a screenplay co-written by Tina Fey, Easy A with Emma Stone shining in a wonderful spin on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and Juno starring Ellen Page as a pregnant high school teen in the suburbs.

The Duff is enjoyable and the story's message is sound.  But the movie isn't as good as those four comedies I mentioned.  You don't mind that you've seen this kind of story before, but you've seen it previously done with much wittier scripts and more developed characters. Mae Whitman, who was a member of NBC's Parenthood cast, is good as Bianca.  There's a touch of the Juno about her in her braininess and awareness of people and things made famous prior to her birth.  For instance, she mentions actor Vincent  Price.  The other high school girls don't know who he is.  Also, one of the snappiest performances comes not from a teen character, but from Allison Janney as Bianca's divorced motivational speaker mom.  Janney, who also played the mom opposite Ellen Page as Juno, is a hoot and adds so much verve that you wish her part was larger.

If you see The Duff, I highly recommend you rent Love Is Strange.  You tell me if the touching drama about the same-sex married couple, together nearly 40 years, deserved a PG-13 rating like the one this teen comedy got.  If those two movies were high school term papers I was grading, I'd give Love Is Strange an A.  The Duff would get a C+.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

My VH1 Years: Paul McCartney

I interviewed Paul McCartney in London for VH1.  It still amazes that I can write and say that.  I flew to London to meet, sit with and talk to one of the world's most famous people in show business.  Wow.

To this day, he remains in my personal Top Five list as one of the most gracious, polite and punctual stars of any medium that I've ever had the privilege to meet.  Not only an acclaimed and celebrated pop/rock music legend, he was a true gentleman.
I worked with a British TV crew the morning of our taping.  Not only did Sir Paul show up twenty minutes early, he showed up alone.  No entourage.  No publicist.  No manager or agent.  He was a solo act.  The same could not be said ten years later of some young recording artists I interviewed on live morning TV shows in New York City about their one -- and only -- hit record.  Of course, we talked about his star-making days as one of The Beatles and their classics.  Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote gems that started as pop his with teens and have matured to become standards sung by great vocalists.

We talked about their music and their hit movies in the 1960s.  We also talked about his marriage to Linda McCartney.  What was the lovely spirit that connected them?
It's interesting to hear all this now considering his history later.  After Linda's death, his marriage to Heather Mills was...well, she didn't win our hearts the way Linda did.
Paul was promoting a new album.  He collaborated with Elvis Costello.  I asked him about writing with Costello and if it was, in any way, similar to writing with John Lennon.  Lennon and McCartney wrote for film.  The title tune and other songs we heard in the hit 1964 comedy, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, were eligible for the Best Song Academy Award. The score included "Can't Buy Me Love," "I'm Happy Just To Dance With You," "And I Love Her" and "If I Fell." Not a single song from A Hard Day's Night was nominated.  The Best Song Oscar went to "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from Disney's Mary Poppins.

I was on VH1 from 1987 to 1990. Humorist Henry Alford was a VH1 host in the 1990s and wrote about his experience in the memoir Big Kiss:  One Actor's Desperate Attempt To Claw His Way To The Top.  In the book, Alford wrote that all the VH1 veejays in the 1980s were all stand-up comedians like Gallagher.  Wrong.  Imagine my surprise after I'd purchased his book and read that section.
I've never been a stand-up comedian.  I did not smash melons with a sledgehammer.  Rosie O'Donnell was also a veejay then.  She and I did segments together.  She's a stand-up comedian but she was nothing like Gallagher.  Blonde veejay Edye Tarbox went on to substitute her first name with initials, kept a married last name and became the Fox News network anchor E.D. Hill.

I was the first African-American talent to be a prime time weeknight celebrity talk show host on VH1.  And I was the first African-American talent on VH1 to do an exclusive interview with Paul McCartney.  In London, no less.

Henry Alford went on to write for The New York Times and be a contributor on National Public Radio.  If you know him, show him this blog post.

Here's my first segment with Paul McCartney on that VH1 special.  Right under this post, you'll find the third section of our interview.  That was my favorite part.  He talked about the film role he turned down and why Lennon & McCartney did not take their songwriting talents to Broadway.

When South L.A. was called South Central L.A., I grew up there.  I graduated from a high school in Watts, a Watts trying to rise from the ashes like a phoenix after making national headlines with over a week of summer riots fueled by racial frustrations in 1965.

Our family lived in the Watts riots curfew area.

I'm proud to have grown up in South Central L.A.  I still can't believe I went from there to London to meet a Beatle.  I still count my career blessings.  I didn't even have a broadcast agent and there I was on national television.  Utilizing fine arts knowledge I got during my high school days back in Watts.  As you watch Sir Paul and me, keep in mind that it was the late 1980s...and I was very nervous.  But tried not to show it.
I hope you enjoyed that.  I hope you enjoy the McCartney segment under this post.

Paul McCartney - VH1 Meets McCartney (Part 3)

Saturday, March 21, 2015

My VH1 Years: Phil Collins

The Oscars.  The Royals.  Rock stars.  Safe sex.  Here's a Throwback Thursday piece for you.  Phil Collins and I discussed all that and more on VH1.
Here's a Throwback Thursday piece for you.  The rock star and actor was one of my favorite guests on my primetime VH1 talk show back in the late 1980s.  I hadn't seen it in years, but I found it online and thought I'd share it with you.  This is the kind of work I love doing.  The Grammy-winning singer/songwriter and musician was a true gent and an absolute delight to have in the studio.  I'm pretty sure I was the first and only talk show on national TV who pulled out of box of condoms that related to his music.  Phil Collins added his music to Britain's safe sex campaign and proudly told me all about it.
He was an Oscar® nominee in the Best Song category for his hit song, "Take a Look at Me Now" written for the 1984 drama, AGAINST ALL ODDS.                                                                          
Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward starred in that remake of a 1947 film noir classic starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas called OUT OF THE PAST.  Jane Greer had a supporting role in the remake.  Phil Collins wanted to sing the song  in the Oscars® show but the producers gave the number to dancer/singer Ann Reinking, a Broadway star who film goers remember from the Bob Fosse film, ALL THAT JAZZ.
She didn't get the lyrics right during the number and the camera shot to a pained expression on Phil's face as he sat in the audience.

We talked about that night.  He was on my show to promote his starring role in the film, BUSTER.  Yes, Collins can act.  He played the lead in a drama based on the life of a notorious 1960s bank robber in Great Britain.  He wrote the song "Two Hearts" for Buster and that would bring Collins an Oscar nomination for Best Song of 1988.

I posted our interview with Phil talking about Buster and other things as a separate item right under this one. Just scroll down.  You'll see it.

Collins would go on to write songs for Disney's animated TARZAN.  His composition, "You'll Be In My Heart" would bring him his third Oscar nomination for Best Song.  The third time was a charm.  He won the Oscar for Best Song of 1999.
I don't know what this says about diversity in TV but that talk show continues to be one of the highlights of my broadcast career.  I shot it live to tape.  We didn't have an audience.  I used my terrific floor crew as the audience.  I didn't use TelePrompTer, cue cards or an earpiece.  My talk show got good reviews from The New York Times, People magazine and TV Guide.  I got a CableACE nomination for Best Interviewer (and lost to Larry King).

I was never ever offered another national talk show host opportunity.  And I really wanted one.  I am still grateful to VH1 for utilizing interviewer skills.  It was a dream come true.

Phil Collins VH1 1988 Interview about Buster

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cate the Great in CINDERELLA

Such silky bitchiness.  Such delicious comic timing.  Let's face it.  Disney's new live-action CINDERELLA is mainly for the little ones.  But the Cate Blanchett performance as the StepMommie Dearest who makes Ella's life a hell of "toil and ash" makes the movie fun for the big ones to sit through also.  And she looks fabulous in high-glam storybook fashions.
Ella is a very good girl.  Her very good mother teaches her to "have courage and be kind."  Mother dies  young, leaving little Ella to be raised by her also very good and loving father.  He's sweet, but not quite worldly.  He can't see that the elegant Lady Tremaine weds him for his money more so than for love.  She wants financial security and material goods for herself and her dimwitted daughters, whom she obviously finds tiresome.
Lady Tremaine married for love the first time around.  Life disappointed her.  Now she wants money and position.  She marries Ella's father and practically turns their home into a casino with gambling and liquor for the guests.  After Ella's father dies unexpectedly (and also fairly young), StepMama is free to abuse Ella, now pretty much turned into the household domestic and called Cinder-Ella by the "mean girl" stepsisters.
You know the rest of the story.  Cinderella remains true to what she promised her late mother.  She's courageous and kind.  And she talks to animals.  And she has a fairy godmother.  She meets a handsome Prince. She's the belle of a ball.  That's all lovely to look and most entertaining but, believe me,  it's Cate Blanchett's delivery of a simple line like "Do shut up" that really gives this movie a kick.  Blanchett's mean and manipulative stepmother is the shot of brandy that cuts through all the whipped cream of the story.  She is to Cinderella what Eleanor Parker as The Baroness was to The Sound of Music.  It's fitting that Lady Tremaine fancies wearing jungle cat prints.  Her claws are out.
There's a wonderful choreography to Blanchett's physicality as the stepmother.  Like the description of Cyd Charisse's vamp in "The Girl Hunt" jazz ballet of Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon, she comes at you in sections.  Shoulders first, head follows with a tilt and a sly smile.  Blanchett calls to mind sensational sophisticated catty women in a Hollywood classic directed by Minnelli or George Cukor.  Did you ever see Cukor's under-appreciated 1950s musical comedy, Les Girls?  There's a touch of the Kay Kendall in Cate Blanchett's performance as Lady Tremaine.  Think of Kendall, decked out on all her finery, taking the stand in the courtroom section of Cukor's musical.  If only director Kenneth Branagh, a competent actor/director, was a master at giving such a leading lady the quality of close-ups she deserves in a role like this.  Cukor and Minnelli and other Hollywood greats had that talent.
In Lady Tremaine's final scene on the staircase, Branagh should've given her a close-up as she stood and watched her plans crumble.  Other than that, everything is fine.  As I wrote, this is mainly for the kids.  They will love kooky Fairy Godmother turning a pumpkin into a coach and animals into coachmen.  Helena Bonham Carter is a hoot as that magical character.  She's a blonde Fairy Godmother.
Disney now has a blonde obsession that, frankly, is wearing thin.  Elsa in Frozen, Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother, most of the anchors and contributors on ABC's Good Morning America and the lead female on Sunday night's Once Upon a Time (Disney is the parent company of ABC).  Blondes.  Branagh's Cinderella is racially diverse, a quality of films he's directed, but the constant Disney highlighting of the slim blonde as the "It" girl is annoying.  Nevertheless, Lily James is quite charming and well-cast as Cinderella.
Known to TV viewers as a member of the Downton Abbey cast, Lily James is not a blonde herself, but she had to be one to play Cinderella.  She's blonde, slim-waisted and wears a blue dress.  Just like Elsa in Frozen.  There's the other Disney obsession.  The studio loves putting a cinch-waisted blonde in a blue dress.  Notice that Cinderella has the same shade of blue that Elsa wears in Frozen and in the new animated short, Frozen Fever.  It's all about getting the blue dress.  Disney has become the Linda Tripp of entertainment.  But, back to the hair.   Why can't Disney mix it up and, at least, give us a brunette Cinderella like actresses in modern, sophisticated spins on the Cinderella story -- like Claudette Colbert in the 1939 screwball comedy, Midnight...Audrey Hepburn in Billy Wilder's 1954 romantic comedy, Sabrina...and Liza Minnelli who was a Cinderella waitress to a tipsy, wisecracking millionaire Prince Charming called Arthur in 1981.

On the Kenneth Branagh diversity in this Cinderella, I loved the casting of British actor Nonso Anozie as the Prince's captain and best friend.  He certainly can fill out a royal blue captain's outfit.

He is one great big tall cup o' hot cocoa.

The Cinderella message to "have courage and be kind" is good for kids.  The fantasy sequences with Fairy Godmother are fun and the royal ball is a visual treat.  Brava to Cate Blanchett for giving this fantasy movie the lemon zest that it needed.