March 20, 2018

A non-objective observer at the Olivia de Havilland v. FX trial

odh-bogart-lapl.jpgOlivia de Havilland with Humphrey Bogart, left, in 1952. Los Angeles Public Library Herald Examiner collection.

On Tuesday afternoon, oral arguments were heard in the case of Olivia de Havilland vs. FX over her portrayal in Ryan Murphy's docudrama, "Feud." The issue before the three judges from the 2nd District Court of Appeal was FX's desire to dismiss the case brought by de Havilland, who essentially argued that the way she was presented in the miniseries was as "vulgar" (using the word "bitch" twice, once in reference to her sister, Joan Fontaine) and as a gossip — altogether contrary to the way the film icon has lived her life. (One of the few things both sides agreed on is that de Havilland is, indeed, an "icon.") Whether or not the case can move forward to a jury trial should be announced in the next few weeks.

To hear the FX attorney tell it, "Feud" is akin to Citizen Kane and Dostoevsky and Dickens tell us more about their era than the historians of their day. (Seriously, that was all woven into their arguments.) They also said that to let the case move forward would endanger the First Amendment, creative freedom and any docudrama anyone ever hoped to make. They insist that de Havilland has to prove "actual malice" to move the case forward. And as a producer of Peter Bogdanovich's "The Cat's Meow" told me when I objected to the way that film presented William R. Hearst and Marion Davies, "you can't libel the dead." Maybe so, but Olivia de Havilland is very much alive, and she is objecting.

At 101 she has been living in Paris for decades with occasional visits to California, where her daughter Gisele, who looks remarkably like her, lives. (Gisele was in court today.) Olivia is known to be a patently private person, but 75 years ago — yes 75 years — she made lasting legal history with what is still known as The de Havilland decision. She sued Warner Bros and successfully ended Hollywood studios' practice of extending seven year contracts by adding on any time they had suspended the talent for any reason. The court ruled that seven years was seven calendar years, thereby liberating actors by ending their servitude on a date certain. At the time, Olivia had objected to type casting and made it clear it was not just about her, but the lesser known talent who had to suffer in silence. Yet she also pointed out, "As soon as my victory was legally confirmed, and I was free to choose the films that I made, Paramount presented me with the script of 'To Each His Own' — this was exactly the kind of challenge for which I fought that case." That performance also won her the first of her two Academy Awards.

And with this current case, she is again making clear that the issues at stake are not just about her. As she wrote in a letter to the Los Angeles Times:

I have spent a good portion of my life defending the film industry. However, studios, which choose to chronicle the lives of real people, have a legal and moral responsibility to do so with integrity. They have a duty not to steal the value of an actor's identity for profit. "Feud" failed in its professional duty to portray me fairly and truthfully. I am proud to be the standard bearer for other celebrities, who may not be in a position to speak out for themselves under similar circumstances.

As I listened to the arguments today, I found myself realizing that many of the very real complaints that de Havilland (and anyone who cares about accurate film history) has, probably cannot be determined in a court case.

olivia-at-100.jpgAs someone who has made her living writing about film history for the last twenty years, I know I wasn't able to enjoy "Feud" because I knew too much about Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Hedda Hopper and yes, Olivia de Havilland. The characters were too cartoonish for me to appreciate and I shrugged it off. But when the FX attorney cited a dubious biography of Davis and Crawford as their credible source for the dialogue they put in de Havilland's mouth, it was too much for me. Fictionalizing people who once lived for publicity and profit offends anyone who seeks to be a serious biographer and is left in the dust by sensationalism, but for Olivia de Havilland it has to be much more than that.

She had a complicated, nuanced and at times challenging relationship with her sister, but for all her 101 years she has kept silent about it. A product of an era when "a lady" kept her opinions to herself, and tutored by studios to act like a star both publicly and personally, de Havilland has lived by that code. And now a television program has defined her as "vulgar" and "a gossip" to generations who will assume that is accurate. Maybe that reference to "Citizen Kane" makes a valid point after all — how many viewers of that film assume that the beloved and vivacious comedienne Marion Davies was actually the whiny drunk character, Susan Alexander?

October 22, 2017

'Human Flow' is beautiful and devastating to watch

Human-Flow_Dadaab-Camp_Kenya.jpgRefugees in a dust storm at the Dadaab camp in Kenya.

In 2016, 22 million people worldwide, over half of those children, registered as refugees, many crossing borders to flee war, famine and discrimination. Added to this figure are the 65 million refugees who have been living in refugee camps for years, sometimes decades, after having left their homes in search of safe haven. Now Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident and artist, has added his very personal perspective on this crisis to put a human face on this massive human migration. His documentary, "Human Flow," is impressive in its sweep, hauntingly beautiful at times and ultimately, devastating to watch.

With the help of a crew of 200, Ai traveled to 23 countries. He visited refugee camps all over the globe, including Dadaab in Kenya, the largest camp in the world, populated with 500,000 Somalis fleeing war in their country. He visited Israel, documenting a Gaza camp that houses 4.7 million Palestinians where the electricity goes off every afternoon. He made a visit to an Afghani camp in Pakistan which, after several decades, was closing down. The residents, some of whom were born in the camp 10 or 20 years ago, were being repatriated to their home country. In a heartbreaking segment they are seen packing up their few belongings and heading out in a truck caravan back to Afghanistan to villages that have been reduced to rubble and don't exist anymore. A tired UN worker sums up the move this way: "Well at least now they are living in the country their passports are from."

Services, homes, clean water and food may not be part of the picture. They will be forced to scrounge through the rubble to create a life yet again.

From the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos, where mountains of life jackets have created an altar to the memory of the individuals who crossed treacherous seas to land there, to the border of Macedonia where 13,000 fleeing the war in Syria waited only to be told they could not come in, Ai documents lives uprooted. The numbers are staggering: in 2016, 1.2 million asylum applications were filed in Berlin. Most recently, 500,000 Rohyinga have fled ethnic cleansing in Burma to Bangladesh and Thailand.

Camps meant to be a way station have become permanent installations to thousands, hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions, as memories of home recede. The film states that the average refugee spends 25 years away from home. Watching multi-generational families trying to cobble together a home made of tarps and sticks to start life anew with only what they've carried on their backs is heartbreaking. Children have no schools to attend. Food and medical care are scarce or non-existent.

human_flow_AWW_Lesvos_Greece.jpgAi Weiwei on Lesbos.

The sweep of this crisis is illustrated again and again as Ai travels from country to country, sometimes letting the refugees themselves speak about their plight. One scene shows a Syrian women who becomes overtaken with emotion and cannot continue her interview. "I have been roaming aimlessly for 60 days with my son," she says. "How do I start my life again?"

As the UN High Commission on Refugees states, every day worldwide, 34,000 people leave their homes searching for safe haven. Trying to improve your life is a human right and should be recognized as a basic human need. No one makes the decision to take a perilous journey with an uncertain future and a family in tow lightly. Ai has used his ample resources to create what he calls a "celebration of human dignity and a plea for protecting those whose everyday dreams, loves and freedoms have been trampled by tyranny, war and deprivation."

Why we never see a movie where the dog dies

THE-STRAY_movie-card.jpgThe movie poster for "The Stray." Below, Pat and Addie.

Every family has lots of rules. We have one big one. Never see a movie where the dog dies.

Our rule has a special motivation. We have a developmentally disabled son who loves dogs and is overwhelmed by death. That includes the obvious: deaths of relatives and family friends. Even more so, it includes the less-than-obvious: death of dogs.

Patrick's reaction to these things isn't immediate. He is stoic in the immediate aftermath. But a week or so later, we will get a call from his workplace, or a call from the group home where he lives, that he is sobbing and they don't know why. We always do. Uncle Doug died (two years ago). Or his yellow lab Lilly died (four years ago). Or Michael Jackson (No time limit on the grief there). These sobbing outbreaks will continue for months, more often years. The bottom lip quivers and the tears pour.

We made our no-movie-where-a-dog-dies rule quite easily after taking him to see "Marley and Me." After that, we were able to console ourselves with the rationalization that we weren't bad parents, just stupid ones.

Now, my wife dissects the movie advance stories and reviews for any hint of dog trauma. Never again will we make that mistake.

Except we did, on a recent Saturday.

Pat Dwyre and Addie 10-17 - Copy.jpgJill had read a review of the movie "The Stray." It was about a dog and a family. We love to take Patrick to movies, because he loves to go. But the hunt for the right kind gets tougher and tougher. Hollywood seems locked into a series of movies that have the world almost coming to end before being rescued--after long scenes of violence and crashing cars and aliens in spaceships and tumbling buildings and cities being swallowed up in tsunamis--by superheroes who have just begun to shave that week.

So, when we see a movie about a dog and a family, we feel blessed, especially since the review on "The Stray" seemed to go out of its way to make it clear that that the dog doesn't die in this one. That means it was either a slick or misleading review, or we just missed some clues.

So, when Pluto was struck by lightning in "The Stray," we were confident that his temporary state of no movement was just part of the story. That he would, like the children and adult also struck by lightning and recovering, rise up and give us the happy ending we wanted. Or, in our case, badly needed.

We even held out hope, as they were holding the burial ceremony and shoveling dirt on Pluto's graves. Couldn't Pluto rise up out of the hole in the ground, shake off the dirt and run around licking everybody graveside? Please...PLEASE!!!

Sadly, Pluto stayed buried.

We now will review our assessment of our parenting. Maybe stupidity ISN'T a good answer. Maybe we aren't so good at this, after all.

In the meantime, as we assess the need to turn ourselves into some childhood protection agency, we will brace for the phone calls. Yes, we will say, we understand why Pat is sobbing and it will pass.

We will tell them, just don't use the word "Pluto" around him for a while. Like maybe for five years.

Bill Dwyre is the former sports editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times

September 30, 2017

Volleying with Rosie Casals

Rosie Casals2 9-29-17 - Copy.JPG
"Battle of the Sexes," the movie about the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match in 1973, opened in the Coachella Valley this week. Rosie Casals, a contemporary of King's, was one of the original nine female players who had excused themselves from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association to form their own tour in protest of the tournament purses they received compared with those of male players. They accepted token $1 contracts, established a distaff tour sponsored by Virginia Slims and struggled to bring something approaching equal treatment into America's sporting consciousness.

Casals, portrayed in the movie by Natalie Morales, lives in the Coachella Valley, and was on hand last night In Rancho Mirage for a Q&A after the movie's premiere. Luminaries in the audience included former tour player Tory Fretz, who started the nonprofit Love & Love Tennis Foundation with Casals, and cabaret singer Iris Williams. Among Casals' observations:

On Natalie Morales:

"She has longer legs and is much taller than me. ... But I'm sure I was a better tennis player."

On Howard Cosell, her co-commentator on ABC's broadcast of the King-Riggs match:

"He didn't know a thing about tennis."

On Marilyn Barnett, the hairdresser depicted in the film as the catalyst for King's sexual awakening:

"The movie portrayed Marilyn as a very nice person. I wish she was, but she wasn't. ...The movie portrayed that she cut everybody's hair, but she did not."

On John McEnroe's recent comments that if Serena Williams played on the men's tour she would be ranked "like 700 in the world":

"They don't warrant repeating."

On the current state of women's tennis:

"I think women tennis players have gotten complacent."

On comparing men's and women's tennis:

"It's apples and oranges. We're entertainers -- is a guy singer better than a woman? You wanna see Iris Williams or Elton John?"

Photo: Ellen Alperstein

June 4, 2017

LACMA costumes curator on Queen Victoria as fashion icon

clarissa-dress-iris.jpgClarissa Esguerra shows Victorian-era silk taffeta dress from England. Photo by Iris Schneider.

Britain's Queen Victoria has been gone for 116 years but she lives on in the world of popular culture, continuing to attract and fascinate audiences. Played on the big screen by actors Judi Dench ("Mrs Brown", 1997 and "Victoria & Abdul", 2017 ) and Emily Blunt ("The Young Victoria", 2009), she is currently being portrayed on television by Jenna Coleman in the PBS Masterpiece series "Victoria." The UK-produced show's first season aired in the U.S. earlier this year and is now in production for the second, to air here sometime in 2018.

victoria-pbs.jpgIn any screen treatment of Queen Victoria, the clothes matter. When she reigned, the silhouette of women's dress changed dramatically, and not just in England. Early women's fashion magazines in America and Europe took their cues from what Victoria wore.

Recently I visited with Clarissa Esguerra, LACMA's associate curator of costume and textiles -- and the department's resident expert on all things Victorian -- to talk about Victoria as fashion icon. During her 64-year reign, Victoria was hugely influential and her style of dress was a large part of that. The museum houses over 2,500 pieces of Victorian-era clothing. Costume designers and students of fashion history are able to study them up close at the museum's Doris Stein Research Center for Costumes and Textiles.

"Victorian fashions were strongly influenced by Queen Victoria, her reign, and the society that she ruled," says Esguerra. "Unlike monarchs before her, she was not fickle, but very steady, traditional, and serious." She points out that the look of women's clothing shifted when the Romantic era transitioned to the Victorian. "The silhouette had been an hourglass shape with exaggerated, wide sleeves and skirt hems with small, slightly elevated waistlines. Dresses were also considered more whimsical with elaborate trims. When Victoria became queen in 1837, you started to see a general sobering of fashion, still beautiful and delicate but color became more somber and trims were less loud."

Victoria was 18 when she inherited the throne. She married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, just 3 years later. It was a love match and the marriage was passionate and complex. Though Victoria was known to detest pregnancy, the couple had nine children. "She was kind of a model of what would become middle class virtues, of respectibility, hard work, gentility, and kindness. She liked stability," Esguerra said.

Example of cartridge pleating.

Clothing historians often refer to Victorian women's fashion as "hyper feminine." Huge skirts (which depended heavily on multiple petticoats) and tiny waists (corsets required) were de rigueur. The fitted bodice, sloped shoulders and bell-shaped skirt were key to the period's silhouette. A sign of status was to show off as much fabric in their skirts as possible. A technique called "cartridge pleating" (above) allowed dressmakers to fit the maximum amount of fabric possible into a waistline.

"All of that volume made the waist look even smaller and created 'area' around the woman," Esguerra says. "Women became less mobile and there began to be physical distance from men." When it came to their clothing, Victorian men were very rule oriented. The goal, according to Esguerra, was to "look genteel -- it was all about the tailoring." Padding was used to create the "ideal torso." Men were not supposed to show any kind of finery. "If anything it was more about being respectable and dressing in a very methodical way." she said.

Victoria's sartorial influence was made possible by a revolution in ladies magazines in the early 19th century. Widely circulated, they were "very much structured like magazines now where you have a section of what's fashionable, who is wearing what and where they wore it, including court functions," says Esguerra. Before photography, hand-painted engravings served as illustrations, documenting the clothing worn by ladies of society and the queen herself. The ladies magazine Godey's was instrumental in spreading Victoria's fashion influence in America. Started in 1830, Godey's was published in Philadelphia for 48 years. It's editor, Sarah Hale, admired Victoria and published images of her.

Photo by Iris Schneider.

Plaid became popular in the mid-1850's when Victoria and Albert built Balmoral, a retreat in the Scottish highlands. "It became the rage" Esguerra says. "I think wearing plaid was a way for her to connect to the land where she built this estate. Plaid became fashionable in mens, womens, and childrens clothing for years after this. She made it fashionable for the masses."

Later on, Victoria also set the standards for mourning dress. Devastated when Albert died tragically at the age of 42, she outwardly expressed her profound sorrow by wearing black for the rest of her life. "She made it fashionable to mourn your loved one," said Esguerra. "There were very strict rules and and specific stores for mourning wear."
When asked what advice she would give to a costume designer about to design for an actress playing Victoria, Esguerra didn't hesitate. "Think about the silhouette and think about her subtlety. She wasn't glamorous -- she didn't want to be a glamorous woman. She wanted to be a genteel, respectable wife and queen. She wasn't flashy, but she was beautiful."

And just what is it about Victorian-era clothing that might pique a modern audience's interest? "It must seem so otherworldly to people today," says Esguerra.

"Social rules were followed as to what was appropriate to wear according to time of day, company and occasion. The time it took for men and women to dress -- with all the layers of underpinnings -- is completely different from how we dress today."

She speculates that perhaps the desire to be transported back to another time is the answer. In any case, I'll be checking back to hear Esguerra's verdict on the costumes for the PBS Masterpiece series. I know she'll be paying close attention.

victorian-trail-coat-lacma.jpgvictorian-dress-lacma.jpgTail coat circa 1840, woman's plaid silk taffeta dress circa 1855. From LACMA collection.

Costume designer Sandy Powell at the Getty
Talking hats with 'Trumbo' costume designer
Costume designer Jenny Eagan discusses her Emmy nominated work on 'Olive Kitteridge'
Haute couture in Basque Country: Visiting the Balenciaga Museum
A peek inside Universal's closet

April 5, 2017

Costume designer Mary Zophres moves on from 'La La Land'

mary-zophres-judygraeme.jpgPhoto: Judy Graeme

As one of the most in-demand costume designers in Hollywood, Mary Zophres has worked with many high profile directors, including Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau and Nora Ephron. Until last year she was best known for her 20-year collaboration with Ethan and Joel Coen. That is, until December when a little film called "La La Land" came along -- thrusting all involved into an awards campaign spotlight the likes of which Zophres had never experienced. Her boldly colorful and dance-friendly costumes married perfectly with director Damien Chazelle's vision for his exuberant musical and earned Zophres her second Oscar nomination.

"This one was different," she said during a recent chat in her home office, located in a quiet West Los Angeles neighborhood. "The other films I've worked on that were nominated (Zophres' first Oscar nod was for "True Grit" in 2010) were with the Coen brothers and they're not particularly interested. They're happy that awards bring better box office, but they never would have tolerated the amount of work like screenings, Q&A's, and interviews." Zophres is used to hearing from peers and costume geeks when her films come out, still she is amazed at the amount of La La Land-related fan mail she's received.

"I've gotten letters from all over -- from the UK, Asia -- people wanting those dresses that Emma (Stone) wears. That was not my intention! I just wanted them to be pretty and feminine. They want to know if I have the patterns and if I can loan them."

Zophres' library of film, photography and design books along with artwork by her young son dominates her work space. I've caught her on a rainy Tuesday during a rare in-between phase. Even on this gloomy day her energy and exuberance are contagious. Coming to the end of an eight-month hiatus, she's ready to tackle two films back to back. This summer she will go on location for the Coens' new project, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," and in the fall will begin work on Chazelle's follow up to La La Land, "First Man," the story of NASA's mission to land a man on the moon.

Although already deep into prep for the next projects, Zophres is still enjoying the La La Land euphoria. "We all loved working on it," she says. "Damien was so communicative with everybody in his crew. From crafts services to grips, everybody had a special experience on that film. If you're shooting dance numbers and music's playing in playback I defy anyone -- you're a grump if you don't get some kind of energy off of that!

"I've done lots of dark movies and I'm good at characters and making people understand character through clothes but at heart I'm a schmaltzy little kid who loved the musicals my mom and I watched on AMC when I was a kid. I had a blast designing it."

She especially loved working with Chazelle. "Damien is a Coen brothers fan and he had seen "Hail, Caesar!" -- which has a big musical number.

He also responded to the buoyancy of Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can." "He knew my resume. What he definitely didn't want was the look of any other musical that had been done in the last ten years. He wanted a nostalgic feel and he knew that I had done period films."

Zophres sounds slightly bemused with her professional ascent. "I didn't come out of the womb or out of college intending to be a costume designer," she says. Growing up in South Florida she worked at her parents' clothing store and experimented with sewing. "My mother's favorite story to tell was that I had 100 projects going that I never finished," she recalls. While an art history major at Vassar she had a revelation during a screening of Truffaut's "Day for Night" -- that one could actually work on a film. It was at this point that she also realized she wanted to be behind the camera. To her parents dismay she moved to New York after graduation. Bartending and retail jobs (including a stint with designer Norma Kamali) paid the bills until she began to get small film production jobs, one of which was in a costume department. She says that her background in art and art history, and dressing people in her parents' store from a young age, strangely synthesized into preparing her to be a costume designer.

The turning point in Zophres' career came when she began to work for costume designer Richard Hornung, who she knew socially in New York. She started as a production assistant and considers the experience her graduate school. She gained a new level of confidence working with Hornung as his assistant designer on the Coen brothers' "Hudsucker Proxy." When "Fargo" came along, Hornung was too sick with AIDS to do the film. She interviewed and got the job of costume designer.

Kevin Jones, the curator at FIDM in downtown Los Angeles, admiringly describes her design aesthetic as "modern and dynamic with strong lines and frills." Zophres credits Hornung with instilling in her an "intuitive" sense of working: "You kind of go and go until you get it right. Keep on going until that person becomes the character you're intending them to be." She has grown comfortable with the delicate balance her job requires. "As a costume designer your first duty is to the director and the script," she stressed. But when working with actors, she says, "I'm myself, I'm a social being and I'm empathetic. I make sure they know I would never send them to camera in something they're not comfortable in-ever. We're building this character together."

Filmgoers will next see Zophres work this September in "Battle of the Sexes," directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris ("Little Miss Sunshine"). Starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, the film recounts the buildup to the much-hyped 1973 match at the Houston Astrodome between tennis greats Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. King won the match 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

In a recent article, The Guardian's Angelina Chapin set the scene:

Billie Jean King's entrance on to a Houston tennis court on Sept 30, 1973 was more suited to a Las Vegas stage than a sports stadium. The top-ranked 29 year old player arrived atop a gold throne framed by flamingo pink feathers and carried by four shirtless men. Her opponent, the 55 year old former No. 1 player Bobby Riggs, arrived on a rickshaw pulled by models dubbed 'Bobby's Bosom Buddies'. This wasn't a regular tennis match. It was the Battle of the Sexes.

Chapin goes on to write, "When King battled Riggs, she was fighting a widespread cultural attitude that women were inferior to men. She knew a theatrical face-off was the perfect means through which to grab the nation's attention and change their minds." She quotes King as saying, "Had I lost, women's tennis would have suffered, Title 9 would have been hurt and the women's movement would have been damaged. I knew it was very important I win the match if I wanted people to take women's tennis-and women-seriously."

Zophres says, "I was really moved by the whole topic of the women's lib movement because I remember as a kid my mom was into it. Doing the research for that film reminded me so much of my mother, who I lost a couple of years ago, so it was really heartfelt for me." For the costume team, "a lot of it was about getting into Billie Jean King's 'style vibe' in the '70s." King's actual dress from the Battle of the Sexes (replicated in the film) is now housed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

"Battle" reunited Zophres with Emma Stone and the designer says the two have fallen into an easy working relationship. "Emma is a very open, loving person, a professional. She's there on time if you need her for fittings. She knows what it takes to get it done. She's collaborative but not in an obnoxious way." For the tennis movie, Stone had beefed up into a "wildly different build" than on "La La Land." The challenge for Zophres and her team was dealing with lots of costume changes, for Stone as well as for the rest of the cast. "We had to shoot big matches, big scenes with lots of background. We worked every weekend on that film. It was hard and exhausting but I really got a kick out of it."

emma-steve-battleofthesexes.jpgFox Searchlight

Nowadays, Zophres finds herself balancing the demands of career with family and parenthood (she has been married to comedian and writer Murray Valeriano since 2006.) She is clear about the fact that her choices of projects are guided by wanting to do something different each time, but that's not the only criteria for the veteran designer.
"The film industry can be really hard on relationships," she says, referring to the often long periods spent away on location. Zophres relishes any opportunity to work in Los Angeles. "If it upsets me to imagine someone else designing that film, then I'll go on location. It's my litmus test and I still do it to this day. If I don't care, then I'm not going to uproot my family. I want a balanced life."

Mary Zophres' costumes from "La La Land" and "Hail, Caesar!" can be seen at FIDM's Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition until April 22.

October 2, 2016

Hollywood night: A mellower Ovitz and Meyer together

ltla-ovitz-meyer.jpgPhotos by Live Talks LA

The only reason I scored a ticket to the sold-out reunion of legendary Hollywood moguls (and foes) Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer is because I slept with the producer.

For months, my boyfriend, Ted Habte-Gabr, had been receiving plaintive communiqués from tout le Hollywood, begging for seats to this particular event in his Live Talks LA speaker series--especially when they learned it would not be videotaped, as most of his events are.

Bestselling writer James Andrew Miller, whose new book "Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency" chronicles the rise of the talent agency CAA, would be on Ted's stage, quizzing the fabled firm's co-creators--who would be appearing publicly together for the first time in 20 years. If you were in "the business," you had to be present. "This is my Frost and Nixon," implored one appeal. "I MUST be there."

Though neither my professional nor personal interests take me anywhere near the Hollywood orbit, I'm wired, as a career journalist, to appreciate a good story. When Ovitz postponed the initial date because of back surgery, my curiosity was piqued further. Was he looking for a way out? What would happen when the two men met?

And so I went last Thursday to people-watch from the back of the room, diving into Miller's opus for the backstory.

The story of CAA's development is one of the most important business tales of the 20th century. Shades of the dot com run-up I long-ago happily covered for the NY Times and MSNBC were evident in abundance in Miller's pages: Young ambitious agents at entrenched old-guard William Morris brazenly strike out on their own, work their asses off, deflect alliances with anyone who doubts their ability to conquer the biggest stars, eventually change the way the industry does business--steadily becoming wealthier and more powerful (and cockier) by the moment.

miller-ovitz-meyer-ltla.jpgFrom left: Michael Ovitz, James Andrew Miller and Ron Meyer.

As Miller lays out Studs Terkel-style with hundreds of candid interviews, the tale inevitably and predictably devolves with a power struggle and acrimonious split.

Hollywood insiders young and old arrived on the big night, eagerly scouting for the best seats in the DGA theatre so they could gaze at the expected fireworks. By now, many of them had devoured the book.

Now, the principals, once the closest of allies, were to be quizzed on stage, together, with Miller--Switzerland--between them.

Live before six hundred of their peers, the men recounted the story of the events that led to the founding of their agency. The necessary ingredient to success in most any industry was clearly evident in their reminiscences: unbridled ambition.

Forty minutes in, Miller asked Ovitz who besides Meyer he sought counsel from in those heady, early days.

"There was only one guy and he's sitting on my right," Ovitz said. "We pretty much steered everything the way we wanted it to go while we had everybody else involved in feeling as if they were part of the decisions."

Meyer: "We used to joke about it, while other agencies were home reading the newspaper and cracking their eggs in bed, we were in staff meetings. We had no lawyer, we had no money, we had nothing, so we decided fuck 'em, we'll go get them. And that's what we did. For better or worse, it was a much more gentlemanly.... business before we started. Once we were let one was safe. We didn't go to sleep at night unless we stole clients."

Ovitz: "Ron and I had a goal which was 100% market share. Unfortunately it doesn't work that way unless you're in the beer business. We made lists and factually strategically targeted who we wanted."

Meyer: "No one liked us cause we were raiding their clients."

Ovitz, once considered the most hated man in Hollywood: "That's not true. Everybody liked you."

Meyer, known for being one of the sweetest: "More than you."

When Miller asked Meyer's reaction to Ovitz' ascent as the public face of the business they'd built, the conversation took a turn not for the combative, but for the confessional.

Meyer: "It was much more personal than professional. We had been through so much together. It had very little to do with the business; business was fine...I felt that, you know, our relationship had changed. Whether it was me not feeling worthy, it sounds so silly to say that...I felt so disenfranchised from our relationship."

Ovitz: "Now that I'm an old man with a look back and say to yourself what could you have done differently. We were on such a roll in every aspect of the business that I was oblivious and insensitive to a lot of the people issues....There weren't enough hours in the day. I was flying 600 hours a year to do these deals. The economics were huge....I was basically myopic in the drive to build these different businesses. When I got a taste of it after we sold--Herb Allen and I worked with the guys who formed Blackstone on selling CBS records to Sony... and when I started building those kinds of relationships I didn't realize that I was sacrificing relationships that were more important to me. I was completely engrossed in what I was doing.... I wanted to win. And when you look back on your life and realize winning at all costs is not necessarily a good thing."

Meyer: "Look, I also have some responsibility. I did not tell Mike how I was feeling....I felt he wouldn't have handled it well. I don't want to sound too altruistic, but I felt there was a much bigger picture. It was easier to shine it on than to deal with it..... Stuff built up and I allowed it to build up."

Meyer dismissed the dissolution of their partnership and friendship almost nonchalantly, as if he were erasing the last twenty years of enmity. "You're with someone for 25 years day and night. We were as close as you could be. Shit happens."

Toward the end of the conversation, Miller asked Ovitz about his vindictive purchase of a property in Malibu that Meyer had said he wanted to buy.

Ovitz: "It's really simple and uncomplicated. I was pissed off. I took the property. ... It was a giant, giant mistake. One of the reasons I made the mistake is I didn't have him to advise me. I was pissed off, I was upset. I was getting a divorce from someone I didn't want a divorce from. [Ron.] Getting old sucks but the thing that's good about it is you look back and realize places you could have made some changes. You can't do anything about it. If it was someone else I did that to, it would never have happened because he would have walked into my office and said, 'You idiot what are you doing.'"

Meyer had nothing further to say. "There's too much said about it. I appreciate what Mike said. I think there's way too much said about it."


The talk was filled with inside Hollywood anecdotes that even this outsider found amusing. A highlight: Ovitz's retelling of one of his favorite business meetings, with Prince in white satin suit and platform heels arriving with his menacing bodyguard, and the unpopular decision to make "Purple Rain. Another: Squiring Steven Spielberg, with Kate Capshaw, to a movie theater on a Friday night to see "Jurassic Park"--the first time the director had seen his films in such a venue.

Perhaps the reflective hindsight was triggered by the interviews they'd done for Miller's book. Or the fact that their families, along with various players like Sandy Climan, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Silver, Howard Weitzman, Irwin Winkler and others were apparently listening in on the reunion. Or, maybe it was advancing age and the challenges of time.

In the end, the hour and 45 minute conversation ultimately was more indy movie than blockbuster tent-pole, leaving some in the industry press disappointed.

Yet, witnessing two men who shaped an industry, older now, seemingly remorseful, even wistful, about their ruthless workaholic natures and their very public rout, left more of an imprint on me.

Lisa Napoli is the author of the upcoming book from Dutton, "Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made The McDonald's Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away."


September 30, 2016

James Dean died 61 years ago today. Now the famous gas station is gone

james-dean-casadepetrol.jpgJames Dean fills up in the Valley on Sept. 30, 1955. Photo by Rolf Wütherich

By Stephen Sachs

It is one of the most historic gas stations in Los Angeles. Seen by millions across the globe in an iconic photograph of a Hollywood legend. The destination for fans and followers worldwide as if on pilgrimages to a religious site. And it has now been torn down.

The gas station at the corner of Beverly Glen and Ventura Blvd in Sherman Oaks, where James Dean filled up the tank of his new 550 Porsche Spyder for the last time and then drove into immortality, has been demolished. One of the last remaining locations connected to Dean's final day is gone.

If you're a Dean fan, the gas station and the famous photograph snapped the final morning of his life are well known.

Originally named "Casa de Petrol," the gas station opened in 1948 as an adjunct to the landmark Casa de Cadillac dealership next door. At the time, the intersection on Ventura Blvd was known as "Casa Corner," and included a Casa burger stand and a "Casa de Cascade" car wash. Only the dealership remains and is still in service.

Sixty-one years ago today, on the morning of Friday, September 30, 1955, James Dean woke and had coffee. He was living in a log cabin-styled rented house on Sutton Street in Sherman Oaks a few blocks behind the La Reina Theatre, not far from the gas station. He had recently completed filming on "Giant" and was taking his new Porsche Spyder to Salinas for the car races that weekend. Mechanic Rolf Wütherich, stunt man friend Bill Hickman, and photographer Sanford Roth would go with him.

The group met that morning at Competition Motors in Hollywood, on Vine Street near Fountain Avenue, to give the Spyder one final check. Dean's father and uncle arrived at the shop for a visit. While the Porsche was being serviced and prepped for the race, the group walked across the street to the Hollywood Ranch Market for doughnuts and coffee.

Dean and Wutherich at Competition Motors Sept 30 1955.jpgDean and Wütherich at Competition Motors that day.

The car was ready around 1:30 p.m. Dean slung himself into the driver seat of the Spyder, now dubbed "Little Bastard." Wütherich dropped into the passenger seat. They pulled out of Competition Motors and turned northbound up Vine Street, Hickman and Roth following behind in a Ford station wagon. To get to Route 99 (now the I-5), the group headed west down Ventura Blvd.

Dean needed to fill up the gas tank for the 345-mile drive to Salinas. He pulled into the gas station on Ventura at Beverly Glen, near his house, at approximately 2 p.m. He hoisted himself out of the Porsche to gas up the tank. Wütherich hopped out, grabbed Dean's camera and snapped a now-famous photo of Dean standing at the service island.

At approximately 2:15 p.m. Dean climbed back into the Porsche. He gunned the engine, with Wütherich beside him, and turned right on Ventura, then right on Sepulveda Blvd. on their way to Route 99 North and over the "Grapevine." Around 5 p.m, they stopped at Blackwell's Corner, a roadside café and gas stop in Lost Hills, to top off the tank, stretch their legs and grab a snack before heading on to Salinas. But Dean would never make it.

Dean was killed near Paso Robles at approximately 5:45 p.m, at the junction of Route 466 (now 46) and Route 41, when a 23 year-old Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, driving a black-and-white 1950 Ford Tudor, crossed into the highway intersection and slammed into Dean's Porsche. Turnupseed and Wütherich survived the crash. Dean became a legend. He was only 24 years old.

Many years before launching the Fountain Theatre, I was an actor. I became a Dean fan as an acting student at Los Angeles City College. Like generations of young actors before me, I was galvanized by James Dean. I was riveted by his films and read many books about him, studying the brooding photographs. I was thunderstruck. Not only by his raw, hypnotic acting. By him. His charismatic look, his outsider persona, the way he embodied an ache of loneliness twisted with a tormented, artistic intensity. He was cool.

When you're a passionate college acting student in your 20s, still figuring out who you are, Dean was the guardian angel of the troubled, misunderstood young man. Like millions of young male actors, he was "me." Or who I wished I was. I analyzed his acting, his posture, his walk, his manner. Researching his troubled life, he seemed like a vulnerable wounded man/child, perpetually reaching for something just out of grasp. The way he died sealed it. So young, so talented, so cool, enigmatic and beautiful. The low-slung sleek silver Porsche shooting down the dry, barren highway toward the sun. The metal shards and shattered glass exploding like a bursting star.

Dean and Rolf Wutherich in Porsche final drive Sept 30 1955.jpgDean and Wütherich on Sept. 30, 1955.

After ten years, I stopped acting. I began writing and directing plays. Running theatre companies in Los Angeles. I launched the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood in 1990. Married, became a father. Moved to the San Fernando Valley. No longer a young actor. I was soon a middle-aged husband and a dad with two sons. But I was still a Dean fan.

After dropping one son off at school at Sherman Oaks Elementary on Greenleaf Street, I would sometimes drive one block over to Sutton Street and stare at Dean's last home address. The house he rented there is gone, burned in a fire many years ago. A new modern home now hides behind a metal gate to keep onlookers out. But the tree-lined street looks much the same. It's easy to imagine Dean stepping out that bright morning on the last day of September, on what would be his final day.

Many years have passed. My sons and I have gotten older. The gas station where James Dean fueled up for his final ride became a flower shop in the 1980's. But they kept the original building intact. The service bays, filling pump islands, classic awning — all still there. Over the years, running errands with my wife and kids — chatting over play dates and summer camps and which detergent to buy at the grocery store — we would happen to drive by the old gas station in our family car. Silently, secretly, I'd shoot a glance at the empty service bay island and see Dean and the Porsche, filling up one last time.

Then, last week, came a shocking surprise. After dropping off my older son for an appointment, I drove by the old gas station. I couldn't see it. It was hidden, encased by heavy green construction fencing and iron scaffolding. Tractors, haulers and earth movers standing ready.

Casa de Petrol 1961 (1).jpgCasa de Petrol in 1961.

I frantically parked my blue Honda on Moorpark Street and dashed to the site. Found a gate in the fence and pushed in. The old gas station stood in front of me like a haunted abandoned relic surrounded by dirt, a large pile of rubble nearby. Two construction workers, wearing hardhats and work gloves, stood near their equipment. I rushed quickly to them.

"Do you mind if I have a look?" I asked. "I won't get in the way. You see, this is kind of an important place -"

"James Dean." The husky guy on the left, construction manager Doug Thane, smiled. I was clearly not the first fan to appear at the site since demolition began. There had been others.

"I didn't know anything about it, " admitted Thane. "And then people started showing up. Taking pictures. Wanting things. Some lady took a piece of pipe."

Thane's wiry co-worker, Curtis Listerman, squinted into the midday sun. "James Dean was cool, man," he nodded, running his hand over his balding head. "I look just like him."

"What's this place going to be after they tear it down?" I wanted to know. "What will go up in its place?"

"I don't know," Thane shrugged. He then pointed across the street. "I think a strip mall. Like that."

"Folks are saying they should make it a museum or something to James Dean," chuckled Listerman, wiping the dust from his mouth.

James-Dean-gas-station-030.jpgThe station last week.

Another construction worker, Dave Wiesing, stepped up. Wiesing was a bit older. He confessed he was also a Dean fan. He knew what the fuss was about. Several times, he and his wife had taken part in the annual James Dean Final Drive, a yearly event on September 30th that draws hundreds of people from all over the world to trace Dean's route from the site of Competition Motors in Hollywood to the fatal intersection in Cholame.

"Is it okay if I have a look around?" I asked. "Before it's all gone?"

As construction manager, it was Thane's call. He peered at me and grinned. "Go ahead."

The small glass-paned office was long empty with graffiti sprayed across its walls. On the front door of the old office, someone had spray-painted the letter "J" and a heart. A message to Dean and the world.

I walked over to the service island and stood in the exact spot where Dean fueled up his Porsche nearly sixty-one years ago. Much was still there, as it was. The metal columns supporting the tin decorative awning, the cement pedestal that held the three red Mobil gas pumps. The pumps themselves were long gone but the footprints were still visible in the cement.

Standing there was like stepping into the famous photo snapped by Wütherich that fateful day so long ago. Everything looked liked it did. Except now a yellow tractor was parked where Dean's Spyder once stood.

"You want to take something?" Thane offered cheerfully.

"Can I? Really?" I asked.

"Sure," he said. "What do you want?"

listerman-thane.jpgListerman and Thane

I glanced around. There was nothing in the huge pile of rubble that seemed connected to Dean in any way. And what was still there from the photograph — the columns, awning — were impractical to take. Then it hit me.

"Do you have a sledge hammer?" I asked Thane. He nodded. I beckoned. "Follow me."

I lead Thane and his sledge hammer over to the service island cement pedestal where Dean had fueled his car. The cement was still untouched. Unharmed. Intact. As it was when Dean was here.

"That," I pointed. "I want a piece of that." I chose the exact spot of the cement service island pedestal where the Porsche had been parked decades ago, where Dean stood. "There. Right there."

Thane hoisted the hammer. Raised it above his head. And with a loud grunt and a glisten in the sun, the sledge hammer swung down and — for the first time in sixty-one years — broke off a large chunk of history.

I held the heavy piece of cement like a holy artifact. A smaller chip broke off in my hand. I examined it up close. Like it was going to tell me something. What am I going to do with it? I don't know. But I knew I had to have it. I guess it's kind of like the people who chisel a chip off his tombstone. They want to hold a piece of something — anything — that will make them feel that way again.

My older son is now twenty-four, the same age as Dean. And the twenty-four year old actor I once was, so long ago, is a memory. What we once were is no more.

The house Dean rented on Sutton Street is gone. Competition Motors on Vine Street is gone. The Hollywood Ranch Market is gone. Even the original highway intersection where the crash occurred in 1955 is not there. It was moved. The highway was realigned decades ago. The crash site now sits in a grass field.

But the gas station had remained. Still standing. Until now.

Instead of a Porsche Spyder, I stroll back to my Honda. I get in. Drop the heavy chunk of cement in the back. The smaller chip I gently place in the cup holder between the front seats. A piece of Jimmy beside me.

Everything changes, including ourselves. Like old buildings torn down. What remains, we hold on to. Like the chip of cement I now keep in my car.

A talisman of James Dean and the young man I once was.

I turn the ignition of my Honda. Start the car. Rev the engine, good and loud, just to show I still can. Shift the gear into drive. Point my car toward the sun. And the afternoon horizon.

Stephen Sachs is a playwright, director, husband and father, and the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.


July 31, 2016

Female stars in silent films at the Villa Aurora

villa-aurora.jpgVilla Aurora in Pacific Palisades. Photo:

There are many hidden gems throughout Los Angeles and one of my favorites is Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, with its rolling hills, lush gardens and ocean views. Originally built in 1928, it has passed through a variety of hands, including those of Marta and Lion Feuchtwanger, who escaped Germany during WWII and turned the villa into a refuge for other emigrants such as Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Fritz Lang. The gatherings they enjoyed helped inspire the current use of the villa as an artist's residence and host for various events. The villa also features a built-in pipe organ and so it was only natural to use the large living room area for screening silent films.

For the fourth year in a row, the Villa Aurora is sponsoring a summer salon featuring silent films. This one focuses on the great female stars. I was happy to be asked to curate the series and two of the four films remain to be screened: Pola Negri in "A Woman of the World" on August 6 and Marion Davies in "Show People" on August 27.
In "A Woman of the World" (1925), Pola Negri pokes fun at her own vamp image playing a sophisticated, tattooed European countess who is so world weary, she decides to visit her American cousin. Needless to say, a clash of cultures results and how the populace of Maple Valley reacts to a celebrity in their midst is timeless. Directed by Mal St. Clair, this film has just been restored by Paramount; its preservation premiere was at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in June and this will be the first Southern California screening.

"Show People" (1928) is the story of the country girl coming to Hollywood determined to be a star, but with plenty of twists and cameo appearances to make it a must see. It stars Marion Davies and one of the reasons I chose this film is because it showcases her comedic talent, timing and charm. Too many people think they know Marion Davies because they have seen "Citizen Kane" and assume that the whiny, untalented Susan Alexander was modeled on Marion. "Show People" proves what a total misconception that is. Directed by King Vidor and co-starring William Haines, "Show People" is a delight.
And since silent films were never really silent, the renowned composer Michael Mortilla will be there both evenings to play that fabulous organ.

Pack a picnic dinner and come early to enjoy the grounds. The villa is located at 520 Paseo Miramar in Pacific Palisades and shuttles from Los Liones Drive and Sunset Blvd begin at 5. The films begin at 8:15.

May 22, 2016

Extra pickles with this movie, please*

Sheldon Cohen Factor's2 5-16 - Copy.JPGIt's a tired trope: the L.A. restaurant worker hawking his script in between serving the main course and dessert. But new to me was the writer/producer moving among tables, hawking his finished film like a Girl Scout selling Samoas.

That's precisely what Sheldon Cohn was doing Saturday afternoon at Factor's Deli in West L.A. Garbed in a Claussen-green T-Shirt bearing the name of his film, The Pickle Recipe, Cohn was handing out fliers and plastic pickle pens, and trying to goose attendance for that night's screening at the Laemmle theater in Encino, and for today's showing at the Beverly Hills Laemmle. A polished pitch this was was not; a charmingly schlubby appeal it surely was.

The indie flick sounds like fun: An event emcee's equipment is destroyed in an accident weeks before his daughter's bat mitzvah, at which she expects him to perform to perfection. He's got no money and fewer prospects until an uncle unencumbered by a moral core suggests he could sell his grandmother's secret dill pickle recipe, a transaction that would require him to steal it.

Hijinks, as if you couldn't surmise, ensue.

I know little else about the film, except that it has generated some festival buzz. But I do know that the personal delivery of this coming attraction was almost as satisfying as Factor's egg cream.

Photo: Ellen Alperstein

*Corrected spelling of producer's name

April 28, 2016

'Louder Than Bombs' and the toll on a war photographer

Devin-druid-Gabriel-Byrne-louderthanbombs.jpgDevin Druid and Gabriel Byrne in "Louder Than Bombs." Lower photo of Joachim Trier by Iris Schneider.

"Louder Than Bombs," the first English-language film from Norwegian director Joachim Trier, takes a rather sober look at Isabelle Reed, a war photographer, and the toll her career choice takes on her family. It is a subject that has shown up affectingly in another feature film, "A Thousand Times Good Night" with Juliette Binoche, and will surface again when the upcoming film based on award-winning war photographer Lynsey Addario's autobiography, "It's What I Do," is released.

The attraction of war photography is compelling and complex. Being a news photographer, I understand the instinct we have to run towards danger while everyone else is running away. That drive has produced dramatic images that have changed the course of history: Nick Ut's image during the Vietnam War of children running down the road, their clothing and naked flesh burned by napalm, Carolyn Cole's images from the conflict in Liberia, Addario's images from the Middle East conflicts and Syria, and Tim Hetherington and James Nachtwey's work that shows the toll of war on civilians and eventually got Hetherington killed in the line of duty.

But "Louder Than Bombs" attempts to show the toll that the war photographer's choice to document this hell, and her death while back at home under questionable circumstances, exacts on her family who wait for her at home. In coming home, the main character, played powerfully by Isabel Huppert, suffers from PTSD: she discovers it is harder to find peace when she returns to her suburban New York home than it was to dodge bombs and artillery in a war zone. The adrenaline rush while confronting conflict becomes addictive, as does the desire to make a difference in the world, to tell the stories of the real effects of war on innocents and the soldiers on the front lines. But the film confronts the possibly sexist question: in attempting to save the world, has she inflicted harm on her own family? Trier's choice of a mother as the photographer seems aimed at stacking the deck beyond the concerns one would feel for a male photographer and I'm not sure I agree with that difference.

joachim-trier-iris.jpgThe story takes place three years after her death, when the family and a close colleague gather to edit her images and memorabilia for a retrospective show. In coming together to go through her effects, each family member must deal again with their own trauma surrounding her life, her death (or was it her suicide?) and their own issues as they try to move on, remake their lives and examine the secrets they have held close and avoided confronting. The linear story is offset by some beautiful dream sequences that bring an eloquence to the tale and add another affecting dimension, exposing the inner lives of the characters. While photographs never lie, every photographer chooses what to put in and leave out of the frame. So it is with memories, Trier seems to be saying. Each individual's truth may vary. Each character needed to make their own story about Huppert's death in order to move on. "This is a film that tries to portray the minds of the characters as much as the events around them," Trier said. "Their thinking, their dreams, their memory are all that matters."

While her two sons are proud of the impact her images have had, and her husband willingly left his own acting career to look after the family while she traveled from war zone to war zone, there is no doubt that constantly worrying about whether she would come home alive took a toll on her family, as it does I'm sure on any conflict photographer or war correspondent. Gabriel Byrne and Jesse Eisenberg play the damaged husband and older son, but it is the young son played deftly by Devin Druid who seems to be the planet around whom the others revolve. Despite his adolescent sullenness, he exudes a boyish wonder as he tries to grow up and figure out who he is and will become. Even with his adolescent struggles, he is definitely, according to Trier, "insightful beyond his age," and turns in a very moving performance.

Despite a plot more convoluted than it needs to be, the issues raised about personal choices and their consequences, family secrets and the complicated paths in and out of grief, give you a lot to think about.

April 14, 2016

April means the return of French films

call-my-agent-colcoa.jpgScene from "Call My Agent."

April in Los Angeles means the Festival of Books, which occurred last weekend at USC, and the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, which will celebrate its seventh year in Hollywood at the end of the month. And in between is The City of Lights, City of Angels French Film Festival offering Angelenos an opportunity to see a panoply of French films on the big screen for free or at reasonable prices. With more theater screens being devoted to blockbusters, there has been a decline in access to foreign films, but for nine days, from April 18 through April 26, we can gorge on over forty French features and documentaries.

This year's impressive line-up includes two films starring Academy Award winner Jean Dujardin, the American premiere of Claude Lelouch's latest, "Un plus Une," and the closing night film, "Up for Love," a romantic comedy having its world premiere at the festival. There are documentaries, dramas and comedies with a nod to French television as well. There are also discussions with actors, distributors and directors such as Michael Hazanavicius, the Academy Award winning writer director of "The Artist." Wine and cheese - of course - are served many afternoons.

This will be the 20th COLCOA Festival and while I always find myself intrigued by many of the new films, and I am sucker for French comedies, it is the restored classic films that I end up making a priority. This year COLCOA will honor Academy Award-nominated writer-director Jean-Paul Rappeneau on Thursday, April 21 with a screening of the digitally restored "A Matter of Resistance" (1965), starring Catherine Deneuve and Philippe Noiret, as well as the U.S. premiere of his new film, "Families." Other classic films on the schedule include Barbet Schroeder's first feature, "More" (1969) and an 80th anniversary screening of digitally restored "They Were Five" (1936) by writer-director Julien Duvivier and starring Jean Gabin and Charles Vanel. Just writing this out, I am starting to get excited.

COLCOA is held at the Directors Guild, 7920 Sunset Blvd., and for tickets and schedule information go to

April 7, 2016

All that Hollywood jazz

Don-Cheadle-in-Miles-Ahead.jpgDon Cheadle as Miles Davis.

What are the odds that we'd be watching not one but two movies out in theaters the same week about famously dysfunctional jazz trumpeters, each of whom got his start working with the legendary Charlie Parker, and met their premature ends within a few years of each other, ravaged by drugs and hard living?

Hollywood loves brilliant, tormented artists, but even when their actual lives are colorful and lurid enough--as Chet Baker's and Miles Davis's surely were--writers and filmmakers still can't resist further embellishment.

So we have Ethan Hawke reincarnating Baker--who appeared in several movies beginning in the 1950s--in the midst of starring in his own fictitious mid-'60s biopic as a framing device for an impressionistic account of Baker's erratic career. But since Baker's early years had already inspired a real movie in 1960 (All the Fine Young Cannibals, starring Robert Wagner as jazz trumpeter "Chad Bixby"), what's the point of gratuitously inventing another one?

Similarly, we have Miles, as depicted by veteran actor Don Cheadle in his first feature-film outing as a writer-director, cast as the action hero of a "Lethal Weapon" in reverse--set during Miles' "lost years" of 1975-80, the black guy is dangerously crazy and the hapless white guy (Ewan McGregor, playing a conniving Rolling Stone journalist) is improbably dragged along on the wild ride. And here--spoiler alert!--the mainspring of the plot is not only entirely invented as well, it's what Hitchcock called a "MacGuffin." Ultimately, an irrelevant distraction.

Both movies have their pleasures: Hawke gives a fine and understated performance emphasizing Baker's sensitive and vulnerable qualities, while Cheadle's depiction of Miles entertainingly doubles down on what NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates recently called his "badassery." In this case, not content with simply portraying a brilliant musician who uncompromisingly blazed his own artistic path in a white-dominated industry, Cheadle went full blaxploitation--Superfly with a horn, flash with the ladies, equally handy with guns or fists, who mau-maus the record label weasels and cons a journalist into scoring his dope and driving his getaway car. And the thing is, while "Miles Ahead" feels over the top much of the time, various biographies and accounts like this Esquire piece suggest that even so it may not be that far off the actual mark.

If anything, the real Chet Baker story was even more tragic than the scenario laid out in "Born To Be Blue," and was unforgettably told in Bruce Weber's 1988 documentary "Let's Get Lost." It contrasted Baker in the 1950's, captured in film clips as a gorgeous young man in his prime, with the gaunt and toothless wreck he'd become by the end of his life. A few months before the film's release, Baker fell to his death from the balcony of his second-floor Amsterdam apartment. Heroin and cocaine were found in his room, and in his system. He was 58.

A few years later, when I saw Miles Davis perform at the Hollywood Bowl in 1991, I could not have known it would be his final performance. He was, frankly, terrible. He barely played more than a few notes, unmemorably, spending most of the set in silence at the darkened rear of the stage, back to the audience as was his custom. Puzzling and deeply disappointing, I thought. So I was saddened, and somehow still shocked, when he died at 65 only a month later, in Santa Monica, of what was described as respiratory distress. At the time, a journalist in a position to know told me the actual cause of death was AIDS--that is, a secondary infection that his immune system, presumably infected during years of injection-drug use throughout the '70s and '80s, couldn't fight off. But while it's been widely rumored since, it's never been confirmed and likely never will be.

The Hollywood treatment of anything is always a mixed bag. While it has the salutary effect of introducing potentially thousands if not millions of moviegoers to interesting and significant protagonists and story lines, the dictates of drama invariably mean that characters, events, and narratives are all negotiable. Yet such is the power of cinema that it confers an authenticity that turns every film into a de facto documentary, and movie audiences little note nor long remember the complex and layered reality behind the shimmering spectacle arrayed before us.

Still, in an era dominated by endless superhero sequels, action franchises, and lame TV series reboots, we should be grateful for any relief from such mindless distractions. Let us reward those actors and filmmakers who--like Chet Baker and Miles Davis--struggle to create their art within a cruel and mercenary system, yet manage to transcend its limitations and leave behind something of lasting beauty and significance.

March 6, 2016

A Hollywood scholar's appreciation of the LAT's Susan King

classic-hollywood-grab.jpgLos Angeles Times readers have been sadly noting the gaping holes left in local coverage by the massive loss of talent that resulted from the buyouts of last November. But today marks the final Classic Hollywood column by Susan King, the LA Times reporter who for the last 26 years has provided insightful interviews, reviews and profiles in the world of movies. (She stayed on to help with the award season.)

In addition to her regular reporting, Susan's weekly Classic Hollywood column put the spotlight on films, people and books that otherwise would go unnoticed and unheralded. She called attention to DVD releases of classic films as well as screenings around town of silent films and special programs worthy of finding an audience. In a city that is so spread out and so diverse, it is a challenge to get the word out and Susan could always be counted on. Whether it was a new series of UCLA restorations at the Hammer, special screenings of preserved films at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or the American Cinematheque's Aero or Egyptian theaters, or film festivals such as Cinecon or the TCM Classic Film Festival, Susan was there to spread the news.

"Susan's experience and infinite knowledge of the film industry's heritage will be sorely missed," says the American Cinematheque's Margot Gerber. "Her interviews always nailed the significance of an actor, writer, producer or director's contribution."

She gave us in-depth interviews with preservationists, actors and those working behind the scenes that did not appear anywhere else. Susan was much more than a fan; she understood the history of Hollywood and its impact on our culture and our economy. There are far too few people left who can connect the dots the way Susan did.

Randy Haberkamp, managing director of Preservation and Foundation Programs at the Academy, adds, "Susan was at the center of classic Hollywood. Every time she interviewed me, I noticed she had done her homework and her questions made me dig deeper. I looked forward to talking to her because I always learned things — what new books were out or what films were about to be released on DVD."

And that's exactly what her readers will be missing. The LA Times says that the column will continue, and hopefully it will appreciate Hollywood as Susan did, as a continuum with a history and culture that deserves to be celebrated. But Susan King's wealth of knowledge, her appreciation of filmmaking over the decades and sly humor will be sorely missed.

King's final Classic Hollywood newsletter

February 16, 2016

John Sayles week at Cinefamily's theater

john-sayles.jpgJohn Sayles, patron saint of any Indie filmmaker who knows their history, will be the center of a three-day homage by Cinefamily, running Thursday through Saturday at their theater at 611 N. Fairfax in Los Angeles.

Beginning on Thursday night, February 18 at 7:30, Sayles will introduce the film that jump started his directing career in 1979, "The Return of the Secaucus Seven." Figuring he needed a calling card to prove he could direct, Sayles took his $40,000 of savings, gathered some friends including his Williams College buddy David Strathairn and the woman who would become his life partner and frequent producer, Maggie Renzi, and made the movie in a few weeks. Since then, Sayles has written more than thirty films and directed more than twenty including "Matewan," "Lone Star" and "Silver City."

Friday night features "Brother From Another Planet" (1984) starring Sayles, Strathairn and a young Joe Morton, followed by the cult classic "Piranha," (1978) written by Sayles, directed by Joe Dante and produced by Roger Corman.

On Saturday afternoon at 2, Sayles will be conducting what is billed as an hour long Master Class, cosponsored by the Writers Guild Foundation, followed by a new restoration of his film, "City of Hope." That evening the double bill is "Lianna" and "Baby It's You," both from 1983.

Revisiting these films, and experiencing them again in a theater, one is struck by their timelessness. Sayles knows exactly where to find the veins to reveal our culture, our economy and our own, often self-imposed, limitations. If his movies remind you of other films, they are ones that you have seen since: Sayles was there first.

Sayles will be introducing all of the films and the series is classic Cinefamily, who took over the theater several years ago to present a wide variety of weird and wonderful films and programs. They aim to be the antidote to watching films alone on small screens or various devices and provide a unique communal experience for artists to interact with their fans and vice versa.

January 25, 2016

Banana dresses


Western Costume Company, North Hollywood. Photo by Judy Graeme.

January 10, 2016

Talking hats with 'Trumbo' costume designer

orlandi-with-hat-iris.jpgDaniel Orlandi with hats from "Trumbo" at Western Costume. Top and bottom photos by Iris Schneider.

Outside Western Costume Company it's a rainy January day, but inside it still feels like Christmas. That's because Trumbo costume designer Daniel Orlandi is doing a show and tell with Hedda Hopper's hats from the film. Just arrived back from various exhibits, the hats, kept in carefully labeled white boxes, are sumptuous and spectacular, even off the head of Helen Mirren, the actress who plays the late Los Angeles Times gossip columnist in the 2015 biopic about black-listed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Orlandi used pieces from his own collection to embellish the hats, including hand-painted and celluloid flowers that will melt if wet.

hedda-hopper-flowers.jpg"Hats were her gimmick..they got her attention," Orlandi says of Hopper. "People would make her outrageous hats and she would wear them. It got her more publicity. And she was also this kind of malovent, ambitious woman. It was her way of saying, 'aren't I funny and cute? And now I'm going to go in for the kill.' "

Orlandi created all of the hats with the help of Western Costume's chief milliner Kerry Deco. In the millinery shop at the essential Hollywood institution's cavernous home on Vanowen Street in the Valley, they would come up with a design and add the trimmings to make the hats scream Hedda. "Kerry and I really had so much fun!," Orlandi said. "The thing about Hedda Hopper is that her hats didn't match her outfits. She wore hundreds. We didn't copy any of them but we certainly got the essence."

Orlandi was a natural choice to design the wide range of costumes for the large ensemble film that spans the 1940's to the 1970's. The veteran costume designer had to create glamorous evening looks as well as at-home wear (robes and pajamas), prison garb, children's clothing, and day suits. Bryan Cranston, the actor who played Dalton Trumbo, had multiple changes as did Mirren. Nothing the actors wore came about by accident.

"I love doing research," Orlandi said. He specializes in movies about real people and wants the costumes to be as authentic as allowed by the demands of the script. "I like to know as much as I can when I'm talking to the actors or the production designer. Bryan knew all about Trumbo so we had some really interesting discussions about how we wanted to contrast his flamboyance and eccentricity with Hedda Hopper's." They wanted Trumbo's costumes to reflect the quirkiness of a screenwriter often depicted editing scripts in the bathtub. "His suits were nicely patterned and I found some beautiful vintage woolens to make them in."

helen-and-bryan.jpgProduction stills by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Bleecker Street

Orlandi learned the ropes of television and film costume design as a young assistant working for Bob Mackie in the 80's. "I learned how to work with performers, how to act in a fitting -- not to get too close. It's business, not personal." he recalls. "Everybody came in there. Tina Turner, Cher, Carol Burnett, Elton John." An especially fond memory is seeing Fred Astaire on the set of "Pennies From Heaven". He realized how much he enjoyed working with performers. "I really love working with actors and feel very protective of them. I love fittings...I don't like to dictate to them, it's more of a collaboration, like when an actor like Robert de Niro finds the right shoes and says 'yes, this is it!' It's THEIR performance."

Next up for Orlandi are two more biopics to be released this year. "The Founder," about McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, stars Michael Keaton and is directed by John Lee Hancock, with whom Orlandi worked on "The Blind Side" and "Saving Mr. Banks." "All the Way" reunites Orlandi with Bryan Cranston (as LBJ) and Jay Roach, "Trumbo's" director.

There's also an awards season coming up. "Trumbo" has already brought him a Costume Designers Guild Award nomination for excellence in period film. And this week are the Oscar nominations. If I had a vote, he'd get one just for those fabulous hats.

Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo and Diane Lane, who plays his wife.

orlandi-hats-iris.jpgHats from "Trumbo" at Western Costume.

December 23, 2015

Quentin Tarantino

LAO_Quentin Tarantino.jpg

Take My Picture Gary Leonard appears on Thursdays at LA Observed. Click on the image to see it bigger.

November 9, 2015

What 'Trumbo' doesn't tell us


When I saw "Trumbo" in a recent screening with a packed house at the Writer's Guild Theater, the WGA official hosting the event could hardly contain himself -- what a concept, a film starring a writer! During the Q&A following, screenwriter John McNamara, in his first feature film outing after more than three decades working exclusively in episodic television, was all but giddily jumping out of his seat. And the audience identification was, shall we say, intense.

As Ron Rapoport reported here earlier, the film is anchored by the compelling performance of Bryan Cranston and an accessible, if one-dimensional, storyline that all aspiring creatives can easily get behind: Enlightened politics! Personal courage! Standing up to cowardly bosses and venal politicians! And best of all, you win!

Well...we know that dramas aren't documentaries, and movies aren't reality. But it's safe to say that few moviegoers, even those working in the industry, know much about the blacklist, and fewer still know anything about Dalton Trumbo. Yet for most of the audience, this film may be all they ever learn about it.

That's a shame, because for all Cranston's charisma in the title role, the larger story is much more complex and interesting. And despite a number of earlier attempts, no one has fully succeeded in telling it.

The Trumbo film's best known antecedents, "The Front" (1976) and "Guilty by Suspicion"
(1991), took the commercially safer route as star vehicles for leading actors Woody Allen and Robert De Niro, playing fictional or composite characters (while populating the supporting cast with surviving blacklisted actors for appropriated street cred). These films relied on idealized victims and cartoon villains, largely airbrushing out messy and inconvenient truths -- some of which "Trumbo," at least, touched upon: a number of the accused had actually been Communist Party members, not merely innocent liberals falsely accused, and the reasons for naming names, or not, were often more nuanced than the black-and-white characterizations of partisans on the left and right.

But there are two other earlier dramatic films -- also featuring real-life blacklisted writers as the leading characters -- that are worth searching out for a more complete dramatic treatment.

In 1975, CBS aired the Emmy-winning made-for-TV movie "Fear on Trial," starring William Devane in the story of CBS broadcasting personality and writer John Henry Faulk, blacklisted in 1957 for resisting the shakedown racket of AWARE, Inc., a McCarthy-inspired for-profit monitoring organization that for a fee would investigate and "clear" performers of Communist affiliations. With the financial support of Edward R. Murrow and others, Faulk successfully sued for libel and won a $3.5 million judgment in 1962, inspiring the book upon which this TV movie was based. While the amount was reduced on appeal, the judgment stood, and many accounts credit Faulk's determined five-year legal battle, waged on his behalf by legendary First Amendment lawyer Louis Nizer (nicely underplayed in the film by George C. Scott), with finally ending the blacklist for good. In other words, it took more than Trumbo's credits on "Exodus" and "Spartacus," important as they were.

"Fear On Trial" was never released commercially, and aired in the U.S. only once, but you can join the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills and view it on-site from their voluminous archives.

More recently, in 2001 the Starz cable movie channel exclusively aired "One of the Hollywood Ten," starring Jeff Goldblum as writer-producer Herbert Biberman, who like Trumbo had been a member of CPUSA, refused to name names, went to prison for contempt of Congress, and was blacklisted. But unlike Trumbo, who kept busy in Hollywood writing under pseudonyms, Biberman took the road less traveled and turned his back on Hollywood, Instead, he became an early pioneer of independent cinema, mounting a professional feature film production entirely outside the Hollywood studio system. "Salt of the Earth," directed by Biberman, was written by Michael Wilson, produced by Paul Jarrico, and featured actor Will Geer, all blacklisted at the time. While Red-baiters had often searched in vain for evidence of radical subversion in Hollywood productions, "Salt of the Earth" effectively doubled down on the agit-prop charge by lightly fictionalizing a true story championing a successful strike by impoverished Latino zinc miners in New Mexico.

Often cited as the only American film effectively banned -- industry craft unions refused to work on it, radio and newspapers refused to advertise it, theaters refused to book it -- "Salt of the Earth" only played briefly on 13 screens before it quickly ended its money-losing initial run and was soon forgotten. But it went on to earn its place in film history when it was exhumed from obscurity in the mid-'60s, became a campus favorite, and in 1992 was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." But while "Salt of the Earth," once suppressed, is now widely available, "One of the Hollywood Ten" -- which effectively dramatized its production -- was, like "Fear On Trial," also never commercially released and is nearly impossible to see today.

In 1997, the four major Hollywood creative unions -- the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild, and the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists -- attempted to expiate their past sins by mounting "Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist," a commemorative event marking the 50th anniversary of the House Un-American Activities committee hearings to formally apologize for the blacklist whose very existence they and the studios had once denied. But by then, Trumbo, Biberman, Wilson and countless other victims were long dead. Paul Jarrico was among the survivors on hand to receive the apology -- but in a bitter irony, died in a car accident the following day when he apparently fell asleep at the wheel while driving himself home from the event.

Today, amid all the self-congratulatory hype around "Trumbo," have we finally learned the lessons of history? I don't think so. The "blacklist" may be a thing of the past, but the censorious impulse -- the eagerness to punish political dissent and unpopular speech with write-in campaigns, boycotts, speaking disinvitations, and public shaming through social media -- is alive and well, coming as much or more from the left as it does from the right.

Those are unsettling implications that a feel-good movie like "Trumbo" doesn't even attempt to address.

November 6, 2015

My kind of superhero movies

Filmmaker Alexandria Bombach was working on a short documentary in 2012 when she was given some footage shot in Afghanistan. Meant as B roll, or background, the footage was shot on a camera set up on a street in Afghanistan. The photographer had turned the camera on and walked away. At first it seemed like nothing was happening. But Bombach decided to watch and as she did she was immersed in the ordinariness of everyday life and struck by what she saw. As her colleague Mo Scarpelli tells it, Bombach thought, here was a country that the US is intrinsically tied to and we have no idea what it's like to live there.

She had heard about a small group of photojournalists working in Afghanistan since the Taliban lost power in 2001 and thought their story might just be the window into Afghani life that she was looking for. She called Scarpelli, and asked her if she'd go with her. The two knew each other from previous projects they had worked on in Africa and Asia. Scarpelli agreed. So Bombach sold her car to buy the air tickets, and Skyped with a fixer they had heard of through a friend. They didn't want to do too much research in advance. "The best way, is to just go," Scarpelli said. "A lot of the information we get here is coming from a foreign, white perspective. We are more interested in telling local stories." They hoped they would be able to connect with the fledgling photojournalist community working in Kabul.

"Frame by Frame," their first feature-length documentary that will open on Friday at the Laemmle Music Hall, is what came out of that impulse. In order to make the film, Scarpelli says the two filmmakers reached out to many more experienced in feature-length storytelling. "We built a village around the film," she says. She called the process wonderful, but really hard. While they shot for only 8 weeks, it took a year and a half of post production and editing.

bombach-scarpelli.jpgThe film is a compelling and inspirational look at four photojournalists who are determined to document life on the streets in their country, and that job can be a risky business. We meet Najibullah Musafer, Massoud Hossaini, Farzana Wahidy and Wakil Kohsar, part of a tight-knit but growing community of working photojournalists in Afghanistan today. Despite the risks, these four are driven to document the lives and struggles of those who live the ordinary stories. It is a very affecting film. When the Taliban were defeated in 2001, these photographers were more easily able to work in the open but they still encounter fear on the streets.

Wahidy, the only female among the four, has made the plight of women in Afghanistan her focus. When she travels to Herat to visit burn victims who were abused by husbands or family members, the doctor at the special clinic set up for these women denies her entrance, fearing for his own safety should she document the truth. The hospital has gone so far as to change the name of the burn unit to defuse and confuse the public as to who is being treated there. The exchange is telling, both in the doctor's worry for his and his hospital's safety, and Wahidy's persistence in searching for the truth. Once ejected, Wahidy finds a willing victim who eventually gives a harrowing interview, telling how, after an unhappy arranged marriage, she was doused with gasoline and set ablaze by her father-in-law. Wahidy tries to keep her composure but these abuses are difficult for anyone to listen to. The photographer, who had to get her education in secret with 300 other girls when the Taliban came to power, is determined to shine a light on the abuses, both physical and emotional, that women in Afghanistan suffer today.

Massoud Hossaini, the most well-known of the photographers in the film, who happens to be married to Wahidy, won a Pulitzer for spot news in 2012 when he witnessed a bombing during a religious rite and documented the horror unfolding before him. But the acclaim does nothing to ease the pain he witnessed that day, or the memories easily conjured up when he visits the victims who survived and who still stay in touch with him. His commitment to his craft makes for a complicated dance between personal safety and public responsibility. Like each of the photographers in the film, it is that commitment to the truth but also to their fellow Afghanis that drives them on their dangerous mission. Sadly, the film cannot be shown in Afghanistan but the filmmakers are doing everything they can to make it available to the Afghani American community through free community and online screenings, and at screenings at over 30 American universities.

All of the photographers--Hossaini, Wahidy, Najibullah Musafer and Wakil Kohsar--attended classes at the AINA Photojournalism Institute, started in Afghanistan in 2002 by National Geographic photographer Reza Deghati to train native Afghanis in documenting their own country. Najibullah Musafer, the oldest photographer of the four in the film, has continued shooting, but also started Third Eye Photo Center in Kabul to train young people in photojournalism and photography. Only with constant vigilance will news of their country filter out beyond its borders. The joint effort between Bombach and Scarpelli and the four photographers in this film makes very clear the importance and commitment of those seeking truth and sending it out into the world, despite huge personal risks.

Another love letter to journalism also opens Friday, "Spotlight," the star-studded bigger budget feature about the Boston Globe's investigative series that exposed the priest pedophilia scandal and cover-up perpetrated by the Catholic Church in Boston and, ultimately, internationally. The film centers on the investigation begun at the Globe in 2001 when editor Marty Baron, formerly of the LA Times, New York Times, Miami Herald and currently the executive editor of the Washington Post, arrived at the Globe and with an outsider's perspective, was able to guide his staff through an investigation into allegations of abuse that had been ignored for years. The Globe's work won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.

A paean to the very old-school ethic of knocking on doors, searching records for paper trails, reading microfilmed archives and old clips, this film could very well be the shot in the arm that journalism needs right now. Just as "All the President's Men" caused a jump in journalism school enrollment when it showcased the work done by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward at the Washington Post as they, along with Deep Throat, launched an investigation that ultimately brought down Nixon and 40 of his aides for the Watergate break-in and cover-up in 1972, the heroes in "Spotlight" responsible for speaking truth to power--and in Boston nothing was more powerful or entrenched than the Catholic Church--are the journalists committed to exposing the tragic truth. The film keeps you on the edge of your seat.

These two films are my kind of superhero movies.

November 4, 2015

'Trumbo' tells a great story and demands to be seen

trumbo-mirren-cranston.jpgHelen Mirren and Bryan Cranston in "Trumbo."

At a screening of "Trumbo" at the Sherman Oaks Galleria last week, screenwriter John McNamara told an Omygod! story about how the movie came into being.

It seems that a producer was visiting him and noticed Bruce Cook's biography of Dalton Trumbo on his bookshelves.

"I knew him," the producer said.

"You knew Dalton Trumbo?" McNamara asked

"No, I knew Bruce Cook. Who's Dalton Trumbo?"

McNamara repaired this astonishing breach of institutional memory so effectively that a mere seven years later a movie based on Trumbo's encounter with, and eventual victory over, the Hollywood blacklist opens in theaters Friday.

The movie is a triumph on a number of levels, but two stand out. Bryan Cranston, who plays the title role, trades in his "Breaking Bad" crystal-meth lab for one that produces pure Oscar-worthy gold, and Hedda Hopper is consigned to the lower regions of hell she so richly deserves to inhabit.

McNamara had to go off-script as it were to work Hopper into the movie. She does not appear in Cook's biography of Trumbo, which is credited as the source for the movie, nor is she mentioned more than briefly in several of the standard texts on the blacklist. But her role as chief cheerleader for the grand inquisitors who ran the blacklist can not be overstated.

For a while I found myself wondering if Helen Mirren, who plays Hopper with all the venom at her considerable command, took the role mainly so she could wear the wonderful hats the costume department has provided her with. Later, I winced in disbelief when she announced Hopper had 35,000,000 readers.

Hopper's power to inspire fear and end careers was unquestioned, a fact that McNamara may actually have underestimated when he shows her losing a battle to John Wayne, a fellow officer in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which served as the blacklist's in-house enforcer. The movie shows a confrontation between Wayne and Hopper, who insists that Edward G. Robinson should not be allowed to resume his career after he has recanted his left-wing views before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Wayne overrules her and Robinson goes back to work.

But exactly the opposite thing happened when Larry Parks testified before the committee a few months later. Parks, who had been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "The Jolson Story," was on the verge of a long leading-man career, and after his testimony, Wayne said, "I'm sure they'll give him a second chance. The American public is pretty quick to forgive a person who is willing to admit his mistake."

Hopper responded by chastising Wayne publicly, first at a meeting of the Motion Picture Alliance and later in her column in which she said she was shocked Wayne would dare say such a thing. Wayne apologized and Parks' career was ruined, along with, to a slightly lesser extent, that of his wife, the actress and musical-comedy star Betty Garrett.

One question I have is why Trumbo's fellow writers, and fellow jailbirds, on the Hollywood Ten are barely mentioned in the movie. Instead, Louis C.K. impersonates a fictional screenwriter with whom Trumbo trades quips and debates strategy. And while it is true that Louis B. Mayer resisted the blacklist at first, I wonder if even Hopper would have addressed him with that most hateful of anti-Semitic epithets to force him to go along with it. Maybe she did.

But why nitpick? "Trumbo" tells a great story with great verve. It also contains one of the funniest lines in the movies this year. It comes when Kirk Douglas responds to an ultimatum given by a studio head on the set of "Spartacus." I won't spoil it for you. This is a movie that demands to be seen, whether you know who Dalton Trumbo is or not.

Ron Rapoport is the author, with Betty Garrett, of Betty Garrett and Other Songs: A Life on Stage and Screen.

September 2, 2015

Costume designer Jenny Eagan discusses her Emmy nominated work on 'Olive Kitteridge'

olive-frances.jpgFrances McDormand as Olive Kitteridge. HBO. Photo of Eagan below courtesy of FIDM.

It's one of those blistering hot August days in the Valley but Jenny Eagan is the picture of cool, calm and collected. The Emmy-nominated costume designer is, for the moment, headquartered at Western Costume in North Hollywood, where she is prepping for a new project in a large air conditioned trailer on the grounds of the Los Angeles institution. There is nothing glamorous about the utilitarian space — just a few desks for Eagan and her assistants on one side of the room and multiple racks of clothes on the other. She has allowed me to interrupt a very busy day of fittings to chat about working on "Olive Kitteridge," the 2014 HBO mini-series that has brought Eagan her first nod from the television academy.

Coincidentally, Eagan had read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Elizabeth Strout (on which the mini-series is based) a year before getting the job. "Olive" is set in a small town in Maine and spans several decades, starting in 1980. The lead character, played by Frances McDormand, is a math teacher, wife and mother. She is frumpish, irascible and possibly one of the most complex characters McDormand has ever portrayed.The cast includes Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan and John Gallagher Jr.

Jenny portrait.jpgMcDormand acquired the rights to the book shortly after publication and spent about six years developing it for television. In addition to starring, she served as a producer. "Frances and I met very early on," said Eagan (right). "I knew her from previous projects so we had a comfortable relationship. She already had a pretty strong sense of who Olive was." She acknowledged that arriving at a specific look was a process. She researched the silhouette of the period and clothing typical of the region, even looking at yearbooks from the area where Olive would have lived and taught. "I started sending Fran things I thought would represent the character. It's important to get the look and color palette of the lead character done, and then everything on the outside sort of grows."

Eagan and McDormand eventually decided that Olive would only wear skirts (because maybe that's what HER mother did) and would most likely make a lot of her own clothes. That bit of character development plays out when Olive makes a dress to wear to her son's wedding. "That was the first costume we really hit on," says Eagan. "We wanted to give it a dated look and purposely made it a little ill fitting — maybe her bra strap shows a little — that's so Olive."

Another issue was weight. "In the book, Olive is much larger," says Eagan. After a lot of discussion, the decision was made for McDormand to gain about 20 pounds over the course of the series by gradually adding padding. For Eagan, the toughest challenge was "getting Frances to a place where she could look at herself and say, 'this is her,' because she'd been envisioning this character for so long. This was a pressure I put on myself-just wanting her to look and say 'this is what I always hoped for'. I hope I accomplished that."

Growing up in Independence, Mo. Eagan developed an early interest in clothes and fashion and she recalls sewing lessons with her grandmother. After studying merchandising and textiles in college, she made her way to California in the mid-90's. By 1997 she was in Los Angeles. A job in film production connected her to highly respected costume designer Mary Zophres, for whom she worked as an assistant for 13 years. She considers Zophres to be "100% my mentor." The films they worked on include "Catch Me If You Can," "True Grit," "The Soloist," and "Iron Man 2." She went on her own in 2010 with a Mark Wahlberg film, "Contraband." "It was a great first film where I got my sea legs handling a crew and delegating the work," Eagan said. "In the beginning there's the anxiety of whether I could even pull this off. I still get nervous, especially working with a new director or show runner and you're not sure if all the personalities will click. Years of experience help you become more relaxed — you think, OK, it's gonna be fine — we're just shooting a movie here!"

While Eagan has no qualms about dressing the entire cast of a movie, dressing herself for the red carpet is another matter. On the day we talked she still hadn't decided what to wear to the Emmy ceremony. "I'm a procrastinator when it comes to things for myself," she said. She has to be her own stylist and tries to wear vintage whenever possible. She also doesn't usually have the time to properly hunt for the perfect outfit saying, "I hate it, it really stresses me out! My mother's like, 'what are you doing? Get yourself a dress!"

The Creative Arts Emmys ceremony will take place on Sept.12 at the Microsoft Theater at LA Live.

Jenny's "Olive Kitteridge" costumes can be viewed at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles through Sept 26.

olive-couple.jpgMcDormand and Richard Jenkins. HBO.

August 19, 2015

Station to Station: Doug Aitken's different conversation

aitken-iris.jpgDoug Aitken at his studio. Below, Union Station in September 2013. Photos by Iris Schneider.

Doug Aitken likes to open things up. Among the objects in his Venice studio is a huge wooden dining table that he designed. Upon closer inspection, you notice symmetrical cuts and realize the piece is really a drum meant to be played at its 4 ends with mallets, like an African drum. He had been thinking about all the dinner parties he's gone to, and what to do when it gets boring. "This way," he said, "you could start up a whole different kind of conversation."

So it's not that all that surprising that Aitken would have come up with his latest big idea, a way to have a different conversation about art, music, time and place. Called "Station to Station," the multi-media sound and light project crossed the country housed in a train that was a mobile laboratory for artistic, musical and visual exploration. It became a collaboration between more than 42 artists and musicians and an intermittent audience connecting with the train as it moved west to Los Angeles' Union Station and finally Oakland.

aitken-station-iris.jpgI remember when the train pulled in to Union Station. A happening is the perfect description. There was music: Beck performed in the old ticket area, along with the band No Age and electronic DJ Dan Deacon. There were yurts lit from within by Urs Fisher and Liz Glynn and art by Stephen Shore, Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner. Along the route there had been performances by Jackson Browne and Patti Smith. Ed Ruscha made cactus omelets in the desert. Giorgio Moroder was aboard using the sounds of the train in a musical composition. Music and art were on display in and around Union Station, as they had been on the trek across the country.

"I saw it as a necessity to make an alternative platform to culture," Aitken said recently during an interview in his Venice studio. "It wasn't restricted to being inside a museum or a gallery. It was about trying to work with the voice of the individual, to empower people to create things they wouldn't have made or encountered normally." In formulating the idea, he talked about and thought about how to create an artistic dialogue. He decided to use a train that would become a moving series of environments and studios, send it across the country and create happenings whenever and wherever it paused in its journey. "For every train, there is a station and many of these architectural spaces built in the 20's and 30's are completely dormant. We could create contemporary kunsthalls and this negative space can become stimuli for language and the creative act. It would become a sequence of events rather than one language."

Working with such a wide range of artists and musicians, each with their own individual vision, Aitken's train became a moving month-long art project about space and time, changing as it traveled and giving people an opportunity to interact with art at its stops along the route.

Arranging for the train to start and stop along the way was a logistical endeavor that took three years to plan. Indeed, the stops made it possible to allow commuter trains to speed by. Along with the help of a "prodigy train kid," Adam Auxler, Aitken was able to create a unique series of train cars and craft a schedule to cross the country in under 30 days. "It was almost a time code," Aitken explained. The train would be able to be on the tracks for a certain period, then have to pull off and wait several hours before it could continue. He wanted to make something purely artist-driven and off the grid -- using abandoned train stations allowed for that. The car interiors themselves became spaces to be designed and lived in by the artists. He loved the idea of many different individuals creating art that would be packaged as a continuum and presenting it to people who might otherwise never be exposed to it. At various stops, local townspeople came out to see the art and hear the music. Local artists whose work is otherwise unknown were invited to participate.

Aitken had spent the month filming the ride. When he thought about how to present what he had captured on film he decided that knitting together a series of one minute films could best represent the totality of the parts. "It becomes a composition, rather than a narrative," he said. (Random fact: I became part of the narrative. About two minutes in, I appear onscreen, a member of the audience at Union Station. That was a totally weird surprise.)

The film opens at the Nuart on Friday. A musical performance by No Age begins ten minutes prior to the 7:30 p.m. show, and by White Mystery ten minutes prior to the 9:50 p.m. All shows will be followed by a Q&A with Aitken. He also will sign the film's companion book on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at Cinefile Video (next door to the Nuart.)

'Listen to me Marlon' lets us understand Brando the man

brando-streetcar.jpgFrom "A Streetcar Named Desire." Alamy/Courtesy of Showtime

While Richard Nixon may be the person most well-known for recording hours and hours of himself on tape, he is not the only one. A recent documentary, "Listen to Me Marlon," is based on tapes that Brando made over the course of his career, trying to make sense of himself and his life. Unlike Nixon's tapes of office conversations and political hijinks, Brando's are introspective musings by him alone. Billed as "a creative odyssey into the mind and motivation of an enigma," the documentary, which was written, edited and directed by Stevan Riley, uses the tapes to provide a fascinating backbone of the film. While Nixon's tapes facilitated his undoing, Brando's serve to illuminate his troubled life, giving us a window into the struggles that drove him and sometimes undermined his success.

Riley also learned during the filmmaking process that Brando had his face digitized in the 1980's. He tracked down the digital files and decided to augment them with new techniques of animation. The result is a very strange and often distracting 3-D rendering of Brando's head and face that accompanies the tapes and often looks like a disembodied head speaking with Brando's voice. The tapes are the main voiceover in the film, and they provide a fascinating and often haunting look inside Brando's mind, paired as they are with movie clips, interviews from the length of his career and police footage of his family's tragedies. Slowly, a picture emerges of a troubled man searching for the love denied him by his withholding father and alcoholic mother.

It's sometimes hard to reconcile this image with that of the dashing, flirtatious young Marlon tempting his female interviewers with that sly smile and macho magnetism. The film also elaborates on his work with the civil rights movement and his outspoken bravery in the face of our country's racist attitudes. He traveled often to the South in the 60's and participated by marching and speaking out against racism. The clip of Sasheen Littlefeather rejecting Brando's Oscar for his performance in "The Godfather" made me realize that, rather than a publicity stunt, the gesture came from Brando's deep disappointment with the film industry's portrayal of Native Americans. He was, in fact, ahead of his time in this regard but ridiculed rather than respected for it.

Ultimately, Brando was never able to live the life he hoped for. His own family succumbed to tragedy of its own despite the wealth he had hoped would melt his cares away. Instead, it only seemed to exacerbate his problems and his children's feelings of alienation and struggle grew. The last scenes of Brando facing the press after his son' Christian's murder of his sister's boyfriend, and the subsequent suicide of Brando's daughter Cheyenne, are heartbreaking.

As with any single-sourced story, there is a lot left out. For instance, the only children mentioned are Christian and Cheyenne, when Brando sired more than 10 children from many marriages and liaisons.

But Brando's thoughts on acting are revealing: "Acting is lying for a living, just making stuff up...If I was not an actor, I would have been a con man. I would have been a very good con man...A good con man can fool anybody. But the first person you have to fool is yourself."

In the end, there were many regrets: "Life is a rehearsal, an improvisation...I'm going to put a special microphone in my coffin, so when I wake up in there, six feet under the ground, I'm going to say 'Do it differently.'"

August 15, 2015

For your consideration: Two Emmy not-nominated costume designers

bessie-still.jpgTop photos via HBO. Bottom: Starz.

When the 2015 Primetime Emmy nominations were announced I made a point of scanning the list for my favorites. Unlike most people, I wasn't looking for names of programs or actors, but of costume designers, the people whose job it is to help build character and aid in story-telling through the look of the clothing they create for a television show or movie.

I'm a hard core fan of what they do and felt sure I would see the name Michael T. Boyd, the industry veteran who designed the costumes for the HBO film "Bessie" starring Queen Latifah as the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. It was while channel surfing one night that I was drawn into the film's story by the evocative clothing and look of the film, which follows Smith's journey from the days of vaudeville through to the Great Depression. Boyd won an Emmy in 1991 for his work on "Son of the Morning Star." Essence Magazine gushed, saying "try watching 'Bessie' without hopping online to buy every flapper dress and glittery headpiece you can find. Costumer Michael T. Boyd wisely utilizes every opportunity to drape Latifah's voluptuous frame in lush and flattering fabrics, cuts and styles true to that era. The clothes used to personify Bessie's lower stations in life are equally authentic."

Turns out Boyd's name was not on the list, although "Bessie" did garner nominations for acting, writing, casting, cinematography, music, and sound mixing. During a recent phone chat (Boyd is on location in Atlanta working on a film about Dolly Parton) he expressed mild disappointment at not being nominated but made it clear that he thoroughly enjoyed working on "Bessie". For the self-proclaimed show biz outsider — Boyd has lived in Texas since college — the project has a special place for him and he considers the movie "nearly flawless."

"Bessie" was shot entirely in Atlanta and Boyd did the requisite research through books and photographic images. "The walls of the costume department were covered in the look," he said. "Everybody (on the costume team of 20) needed to know what I know. You could see the entire movie on the walls. I love that time period. We went from 1905 to 1933. There were so many changes, so much ground to cover and we had very little prep time."

Although Boyd brought a knowledge of the vaudeville era to the table, this was his first film portraying singing on stage. He took on the task of dressing the various bands himself. "That was my special little project. I wanted them to look a certain way as we moved through the movie...ragtime to the jazz era of the 30's — you want those guys to look right."


Also impressed by Boyd's work on "Bessie" was Mary Rose, curator of FIDM's current exhibit, Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design. The show features designs from the past year, some Emmy-nominated, some not. Rose knew she wanted to include Boyd when she first viewed the film earlier this year. Considering the Emmy snub, she offered Boyd a bit of a consolation prize. He told me that he was surprised to be invited. The show at FIDM's downtown campus marks the first time his designs have been part of any costume exhibit.

For admirers of television costume design who want to follow the process in real time, there is a blog by "Outlander" designer Terry Dresbach (another Emmy winner omitted from this years list of nominees.) Production for the Starz series about a 1940's combat nurse who time-travels back to 18th century Scotland is based in Glasgow, where Dresbach lives for a good part of the year (along with her husband Ron Moore, Outlander's show runner).


Her blog, An 18th Century Life, provides an inside look at just what goes into researching and creating costumes for the show, which premiered last summer. Dresbach is also active on Twitter, where she frequently interacts with Outlander's legions of fans.

July 19, 2015

'Endless Summer' poolside


The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel hosted an poolside screening of "Endless Summer" for the 50th anniversary of the surfing culture classic.

Photo by Iris Schneider.

July 12, 2015

Hanging out with Mya Taylor of 'Tangerine'

mya-taylor-donuttime-iris.jpgPhotos of Mya Taylor in Hollywood by Iris Schneider.

When you're down and out, and things can't get any worse, you have to keep your sense of humor. You have no other choice. So says Mya Taylor, the rising star of "Tangerine," a quirky buddy movie centered around two transgender sex workers, Alexandra (Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). It was written and directed with huge heart by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch. "I can't say that I did those things, but I can't say that I didn't," Taylor says of the sex work, but she speaks knowledgeably about that life and the challenges of being transgender in 2015. "You never get used to jumping in and out of cars," she says. "It isn't easy, it isn't safe, it's scary all the time...Since the film was made, I've applied for 186 jobs over the past months and gotten absolutely nothing in response. And when I have been asked for a job interview, they take one look at me and then at my ID which still has "Jeremiah" as my first name and that changes everything."

I met Taylor after a screening of "Tangerine" last week and spent the next day with her as she got ready for the film's opening Friday night. This film could not be more timely, with the public becoming more aware of transgender issues. An editorial in the New York Times last week urged legislation to end transgender discrimination in the workplace, citing "an economically disadvantaged community that continues to face pervasive employment discrimination." "Tangerine" uses its engaging storytelling and humor to reveal the humanity of its characters, vulnerable survivors in a sometimes terrifying universe.

Baker and Bergoch met Mya in 2013 at the LBGT Center in Hollywood, just around the corner from Donut Time, on Santa Monica Boulevard at Highland, where much of the movie takes place. She became their introduction into the world on the street. According to Bergoch, they sensed that there were stories to be told about the people in Donut Time, people most of us ignore as we drive by on our way home. Taylor introduced Baker to her then-roommate "Kiki," who became Sin-Dee, her co-star. Set on some of the gritty streets of Los Angeles, "Tangerine" focuses on the world of transgender sex workers. The film takes you on a wild ride one Christmas Eve up and down the boulevard as Sin Dee, in a fit of rage, sets off to confront an unfaithful pimp/boyfriend and seek revenge against his new girl. But what could have been a sad downer of a film instead is a raucous adventure that somehow keeps you laughing despite sordid car sex, cheating husbands, lots of drugs, angry johns, fits of rage and jealousy and outright acts of cruelty.


Mya was determined that, if the movie was made, it had to keep its sense of humor. The interplay between the two leads, and the unfiltered honesty between the characters, exposes strong bonds of love and friendship, despite life's difficulties.

In part, the visual humor helps lighten the mood. Baker shot the whole film using iPhone 5s outfitted with lens adapters to allow for wide shots. He also put the cameras on bicycles and shot during business hours using real people. Bergoch remembers chasing people down the street to get them to sign releases, many unaware that they were being filmed for a real movie rather than somebody's latest selfie. Baker's familiarity with and love for the city makes LA as much a character in the movie as its talented cast. Setting out mostly on foot, with some wild bus and subway rides, public transportation in LA was never so seamless.

While the film plays like a light-hearted romp through the streets of LA, the characters' stories are anything but. "I've lived a hard life," Taylor says. Brought up in Texas from a young age by her conservative grandparents,while her mother served time, Taylor left for Las Vegas shortly after realizing her family would never accept her for who she was. "I don't identify as gay. I should have been a woman," she says. "It's not about sexuality. It's about who you are as a person." Like many young transgender men and women, she lost the support and safety net of her family. She believes she has had to travel this path in life to gain strength. She's hoping "Tangerine" will be a turning point for her and open doors for other people to be comfortable with who they are.

She woke up on Friday to an article on Indiewire mentioning her name and "Oscar" in the same sentence. "That feels so good," she says. "But I'm still a humble person." Indeed, while preparing to attend the opening of "Tangerine" on Friday at the Hollywood Arclight, Taylor did some shopping at one of her favorite haunts: Fashion 4 Ever near the corner of Santa Monica and Western where she bought the stretch jeans she would wear that evening for $7.99.


Going to Donut Time for photos took her back to an old part of her life. "That's not me anymore," she said. She's moved on in many ways, living now in North Dakota with her boyfriend, and in love. Another acting gig is in the wings: She has signed on to portray transgender rights activist Marsha P. Johnson in an upcoming documentary "Happy Birthday Marsha."

Getting to know and work with Baker in 2013 and during the intense 23 days of filming, Taylor says they have developed a deep friendship and trust. "Sean is my hero," she says. "He knows everything about me. He's the person I trust the most...My advice is this: when a handsome man comes over to talk to you, and says he wants to make a movie about you, say yes!"


May 5, 2015

Silent Joan of Arc under the viaduct*

the-viaduct-film-iris.jpgUnder the Buena Vista Viaduct that crosses the LA River. Photos by Iris Schneider

* Name fixed

On Sunday night about 200 people gathered to watch an outdoor screening of the silent classic, "The Passion of Joan of Arc," starring the extraordinary Renee Jeanne Falconetti in her only film role. But unlike the outdoor screenings at Hollywood Forever or 7th and Fig, this location was a little harder to find. "People are always looking for unusual spaces," said Sean Woods, a superintendent with California State Parks, "a way to get out of the car and find the nooks and crannies of the city." And it doesn't get more nook and cranny than The Viaduct.

It's a narrow slip of land under the Buena Vista Viaduct, which sits at the north end of the 34-acre Los Angeles Historic State Park, now under construction along the railroad tracks and Los Angeles River north of Chinatown. "This bridge is called the Buena Vista Viaduct," explained Woods, who oversees this and 5 other urban state parks. "It was built in 1901, one of 12 historic bridges on the river. It was the longest single span concrete bridge when it was built as part of the 'city beautiful' concept. The idea was to build grand neoclassical architecture to create a sense of place in LA. Such a beautiful space shouldn't be closed off to the public. It's public land."

So Woods reached out to the neighboring arts communities, offering the land, which had been used to house equipment, for intimate public gatherings. Micah Greenberg and Mathieu Young, who both produce non-traditional music events, heard about it and started talking. And this evening was born.

The film itself, a unique vision directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer in 1928, still holds up. The faces of Joan of Arc and her tormentors, shot in tight closeup, tell her story with very little exposition. The movie was made on a set built to the director's specifications with twisted perspective to heighten the drama.

Despite the chill in the air, the audience surrendered to the haunting accompaniment of George Sarah's specially composed score for a chamber music string quartet, keyboard, electronic beats and voices, and followed Joan on her sorrowful journey. Every seven minutes the Gold Line would whoosh by, an intruder from the real world, causing the screen to flutter softly in its wake.

Greenberg and Young, who normally runs Kensington Presents, a music and dinner series in Angelino Heights, are already cooking up another event at The Viaduct. "Of the 200 people here tonight," said Greenberg, "I'd say that probably 175 had no idea this place existed. What we want to do is create events that will surprise people." And speaking of cooking, the next should have better food options available. One lone pizza maker, and a one-pizza-at-a-time oven, to feed 180 people made for long waits and some grumbling. They were not prepared for the crowds. Next time will be better.

Woods hopes that Sunday's event will put The Viaduct on LA park-goers' maps. "This is our Redcat," he laughed. His excitement was hard to contain as he talked about future events there and at the State Historic Park when it reopens in December.

"We need to build parks in urban areas that will attract people of color. Our parks weren't relevant to the changing demographic of the state," Woods said. To that end, there is a LA River Campout May 16-17 at another river-adjacent site called The Bowtie. There will be campfire programs, sunset tours, riverbank bird watching and, most important, free tents and camping equipment for first time campers. The fee is $20 per campsite. No one will be turned away for lack of funds, but reservations are needed.

Woods says they are committed to reaching out to new campers. "A lot of the kids who come have never been camping before," he said. "You should come out and see how happy they are."


April 28, 2015

The most civilized and generous film festival

HAZAVANICIUSsm.jpgDirector Michel Hazanavicius. Photo by Iris Schneider.

If Los Angeles is the city of film festivals, and I think it is, then the COLCOA festival has to be the most civilized and generous one of all. The "City of Lights, City of Angels" festival will run through Tuesday screening French features, documentaries and now French television to an enthusiastic audience of movie lovers. During the 9-day festival, 68 movies will be shown. Each day starts with coffee and croissants and a free 11 am screening of a favorite film from the festival. There is also an open 2 pm classic screening and then evening films which must be ticketed. But anyone who checks the COLCOA facebook page can request tickets to the next day's screenings and often win them. And most days include an open "Happy Hour Talk" at 4 pm, and a wine reception afterwards for all attendees.

This is a festival that simply celebrates French film and film lovers.

After many of the screenings, there are panels with the directors or actors and any ticketholder gets a chance to vote on each movie. On Tuesday, the last day of the festival, the audience winners will be re-screened along with other favorites from the festival in a movie marathon of free screenings. All movies are shown in the beautiful Director's Guild theaters on Sunset Blvd. Parking is available onsite.

A recent night's screenings included "The Search," a new film written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, whose silent film "The Actor" won five Oscars in 2012, including best picture. The new film, set in Chechnya, is a gripping and emotional exploration of four characters whose lives are intertwined by the war with Russia. Hazanavicius wanted to draw attention to the situation in Chechnya because he felt that the human toll of this and many vicious wars is too often ignored after a brief mention on the evening news. His film is beautifully written and acted by newcomers including 9 year old Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev and Maksim Emelyanov, who play a displaced child and a young Russian soldier, and veteran actors Annette Bening and Berenice Bejo. Like many of the films screened during the festival, distribution in the United States is still an open question.

In addition of many comedies, some of the outstanding films screened this year were "Atlit," set in Israel, and "Memories," about the complications that come with retirement and aging. In the documentary category are "Cartoonists," "Of Men and War," "Silenced Walls," and "Steak (R)Evolution."

This festival is a great opportunity to see films that really celebrate the small but powerful movies that simply explore what it means to be human and struggle with all that life throws our way.

Previously at Native Intelligence:
City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival opens Tuesday

April 19, 2015

City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival opens Tuesday

In an attempt to reverse the trend of writing about great events after they over, here is a reminder about an annual opportunity to see dozens of French films beginning Tuesday: The City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival. From April 21 through the 28th, a mix of the best dramas, comedies, thrillers, and shorts are available for a reasonable price or for free and being screened at the Directors Guild in Hollywood. Unlike many festivals, you don't need to purchase passes as tickets are available for individual films.

Their web site at COLCOA is easy to navigate and packed with information, but let me cut to my particular favorite series at the festival: the classic films.
oss-117-cairo-nest-of-spies.jpgYears before Jean Dujardin won his Academy Award for Best Actor for "The Artist," COLCOA devotees had "discovered" him (as well as its director Michel Hazanavicius) playing the inept, very politically and culturally incorrect spy in "OSS 117, Cairo Nest of Spies." It is a hilarious send up of James Bond (but based on novels that predated Ian Fleming's creation) and even though it is only ten years old, "OSS 117" is being screened as a classic on Thursday at 2 in the afternoon. Other classics shown this year include newly restored versions of Truffaut's "The Last Metro," Renoir's "La Chienne" and Wim Wender's "Paris, Texas." The classics are all free and there are no rsvps, but getting there a little early is a small price to pay for the rare chance to see these films on the big screen.
Check out the other films as well, several are American premieres, and there are also discussions with filmmakers that are open to the public. With fewer screens at the multiplexes showing foreign films, take advantage of this fabulous week to immerse yourself in the finest French films.

April 13, 2015

Sebastiao Salgado and 'Salt of the Earth'

salgado-amazonas1.jpgGold miners in Brazil. All photos by Sebastião Salgado, Courtesy of © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images/Sony Pictures Classics

"Salt of the Earth," Wim Wenders' reverent documentary about photographer Sebastiao Salgado, should be required viewing for every member of the human race. Unfortunately, more people will probably see "Fast and Furious 7" than this riveting and heartbreaking film. Salgado has spent most of his adult life as a chronicler of man's inhumanity to man. Wenders, who was struck by the beauty, power and humanity embodied in Salgado's images, made this film along with Salgado's older son Juliano Rebeiro Salgado. In fact, like Dorothea Lange, Salgado's life's work documenting the world's families came with great sacrifice to his own. His older son Juliano grew up with a mostly absent father, and he really got to know his father as an adult when in 2004 his father invited him to come along on several photo trips that he eventually contributed to this film. Although Juliano had grown up surrounded by his father's work, he says he didn't really come to understand and appreciate those photographs until the making of this movie.

As Wenders points out in his incisive narration as the film opens, the word "photograph" means writing with light. Usually, a photograph will capture the light that emanates from the sun, the moon, the clouds. But for Salgado, the light seems to come from within him, and he shines it on the impoverished, the unfortunate and those thousands of poor souls who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Using both digital and film cameras, his photography shows no evidence of any difference, despite the passionate arguments many photographers have had over the difference each type of equipment makes. Salgado's images are luminous, the quality impeccable, regardless what camera he is using. In the film we see a scene he is recording but the image he has produced has a depth that almost takes your breath away. The photograph is different than what your eye or brain records. His images soar and it's hard to explain why.

There is a humanity in his work, a dignity that he finds and honors in every subject, every circumstance no matter how dire. He spent many decades documenting tragedy around the world from the drought-scarred Sahel in Africa to the genocides in Rwanda and Congo. He photographed the firefighters who tried to extinguish the burning oil wells of Iraq that were lit by Saddam's army as a final act of vengeance after the end of the Gulf War, turning the landscape into a literal hell on earth.

Ultimately he had to stop. His soul could absorb no more tragedy. After taking a break and retreating to his family's dying farm in Brazil, he embarked with his wife Leila, who has collaborated on all his photography over the years of their marriage, on a different project that she suggested: to replant the denuded forests of his family's farm and try to restore the land to its natural beauty. In accomplishing this, his own renewal took place. He decided that his next project would be one of hope, and spent the next 8 years documenting the pristine and beautiful places and people around the world untouched by change and published the work in a book called "Genesis." Getting back in touch with the beauty of nature, the power of one tree growing to maturity multiplied by thousands, brought him the hope he had lost sight of, and his own rebirth and restoration of spirit.

This is not an easy film to watch, but it is an important one. We must not turn away from these tragedies until we stop repeating them.

salgado-tigray-ethiopia.jpgTigray in Ethiopia.

salgado-korem-camp.jpgKorem refugee camp in Ethiopia.

salgado-amazonas2.jpgOil well firefighter in Kuwait.

April 2, 2015

'White God' is both allegorical and mind-boggling


I just returned from a trip to Eastern Europe where graffiti proclaiming "Refugees Welcome" was scrawled across walls in Dresden as a response to anti-immigrant demonstrations in Germany. Indeed, a growing wave of immigrant resentment is sweeping many European countries. So I was curious about "White God," a film by Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo. His allegorical film is an attempt to warn about the dangers of racism and prejudice, and he makes his point in a visceral way. Using dogs to represent the "masses," Mundruczo's film takes us with him as the world descends into chaos--a chaos for the ruling class that is, the people who have been abusing and dominating dogs systematically, and sending to the pound the mixed breeds that would otherwise be left to roam the streets fending for themselves unless their owners pay a "mixed breed" tax. The authorities roam as well, in groups, pulling up in their vans, armed with sticks and lassoes, rounding up the mixed breed dogs and sending them to certain death at the city "shelter." Only through the love of the movie's heroine Lili, and the music she plays, are the rampaging and angry dogs ultimately subdued and soothed, but not before they take their revenge on those who heartlessly abused them, leaving a bloody trail in their wake.

dresden-iris.jpgWe are hooked from the film's effective and affecting opening sequence, where his charming young heroine Lili, played beautifully by newcomer Zsofia Psotta, rides alone on her bike through the eerily deserted streets of Budapest searching for her lost dog Hagen, only to be joined by Hagen and hundreds of dogs running through the streets like a well-choreographed army. A sense of dread overcomes you and it never really goes away until the film's final scene. Lili is a girl on the verge of adolescence whose long visit with her estranged father precipitates her growing up, as she loses her innocence along with her dog, and learns the hard lessons and compromises of life, love and loss.

The technical aspect of working with 250 dogs and no CGI, was no small feat for the director who willingly took on the challenge. In this day of computer generated mayhem, it's mind-boggling to imagine how this film was made. Credit must be given to all the actors, the director and the dog trainer Teresa Miller. Her work with the lead dogs, who play Hagen, Luke and Bodie, was extraordinary. Many of the dogs used in the film, like the two leads, were rescue dogs and many found homes among the cast and crew when filming was through. Although the director reassures us that the violence portrayed on the screen was safely simulated, it was at times very hard to watch. But for Mundruczo, there was a purpose: "art must hold a mirror up to the face of society."

Although at times I wasn't sure whether Mundruczo was simply urging us all to become vegetarian, with harrowing close-up images from slaughter houses and butcher shops, his broader story certainly resonates when seen in the context of current events in Europe and beyond. With the entrenchment of an immigrant underclass in many European cities, and issues of harmony between races ever-present worldwide, the film, while sometimes over the top, is hard to dismiss and gives us much to think about.

March 26, 2015

On famous actors and 99-seat theater*

blythe-danner-country-house-lamont.jpgBlythe Danner last year in "The Country House" at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo: Michael Lamont.

I've been a Blythe Danner fan for decades. But I don't understand why her words were chosen to receive the famous-actor spotlight in a full-page LA Times ad - which attacked Actors' Equity's controversial proposal to require at least minimum-wage payments to the union's members who work in LA County theaters with fewer than 100 seats.

Her quote begins with this testimonial: "99 seat theaters provided the lifeblood for many of us when we began in this business and are still not only relevant but crucial to the artistic life of our city and country."

Like many actors, Danner probably performed in a few small theaters as a young woman, probably in the East in the '60s. But those experiences don't necessarily have any relevance to the particular issues surrounding Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan in LA County in 2015. Does anyone remember Danner performing under Equity's 99-seat plan?

I doubt it. I've been paying attention since before the plan went into effect in the late '80s, by which time she was a long-established star. And I can't recall any such performance by Danner. If Danner had worked in a play at a 99-seat theater in LA during this period, the LA Times surely would have reviewed it, so I ran her name through the online LA Times database since 1985, searching for any sign that Danner had dabbled in a 99-seat show. None of the 271 Times references to Danner since 1985 indicated that she had performed under the plan.

Her only LA theater credits listed in her Wikipedia bio are the title role in "Major Barbara" at the Mark Taper Forum in 1971 and a staged reading at the Ahmanson. Also, as I wrote in a 2014 LA Observed column, she was superb in the premiere of "The Country House" at the Geffen last year. Yet the Taper, Ahmanson and Geffen are not on the 99-seat plan.

So why is she being cited as an authority on the current brouhaha?

Danner shouldn't be chided for declining to participate in LA's 99-seat theater. Although she has previously lived in Santa Monica, more recent interviews indicate that nowadays she considers herself primarily a New Yorker. Why would she bother with plays in LA's 99-seat theaters when she can work on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in Williamstown, or even at the Taper and the Geffen? Like many actors, she also works frequently in movies and TV, which probably provide her with more income than she receives from any stage job.

I wouldn't pretend to speculate on how she might compare her artistic rewards in all of these various arenas, but I also wouldn't suggest that she would necessarily feel that the artistic rewards might be even greater in a 99-seat production in LA. Yet now, with no experience in that world, she has been thrust into the role of being a spokeswoman for LA small theater.

Actually, even considering the many famous actors who unambiguously reside in LA, only a tiny percentage of them ever perform under the 99-seat plan. If more of them worked under the plan, their names might attract a lot more customers - and revenue -- to these theaters.

Not that these companies should cater to the stars if they aren't right for the roles, but some of these stars are clearly capable of doing the job and adding a few extra audience members on the side because of their celebrity. For example, I'll guess that the presence of the great Laurie Metcalf (who was one of the signers of the LA Times ad) in Circle X's intriguing "Trevor" surely provides at least a few benefits at the box office.

But part of the reason why Metcalf's appearance is so noteworthy is because so few actors on her level of fame and experience participate in 99-seat theater. They might sign petitions for it, but they don't want to be subjected to its barely-compensated regimen. Only a minuscule proportion of the wealthiest actors can afford to completely ignore the size of the paycheck when deciding whether to take job offers.

metcalfe-TREVOR.jpgJimmi Simpson and Laurie Metcalf in "Trevor." Photo: Ryan Miller

Of course this overall dearth of accomplished celebs in the 99-seaters is good, on one level, for it makes more room for the gifted not-yet-famous actors. However, many of these talented but struggling performers truly can't afford to spend much time doing 99-seat theater. They would benefit, more than anyone, from a well-coordinated raise -- to at least the minimum-wage level.

Sometimes, the more affluent actors might better serve the 99-seat companies by donating money. It could be more helpful to be a benefactor than a box-office attraction. For example, from the "Trevor" program I learned that Courteney Cox of "Friends" and "Cougar Town" fame is a contributor to Circle X (her "Cougar Town" colleague Bob Clendenin was a co-founder of Circle X and is not only in the cast of "Trevor" but also is listed as a donor to the company at the highest level.)

I'm not asking this next question rhetorically -- I don't know the answer. But maybe someone out there might know: Does Blythe Danner regularly donate to any of LA's 99-seat companies?

[* Update: Since my column posted, former Antaeus Company artistic director Jeanie Hackett answered this question about whether Blythe Danner has contributed to 99-seat theater behind the scenes. Danner donated to Antaeus "when I ran it," she says, and Danner "hosted a benefit for us at her house as well. I don't think Antaeus is the only company she donated to. She also went to see small theater regularly -- and was a fan of many of the small companies around town. I know she sometimes makes 'anonymous' donations -- as many celebs do, since they are pursued relentlessly by the theater-needy. But she would often say to me that she thought that that small theater in L.A. rivaled that in NYC."]

Rather than expecting any labor union - in an era of minimum-wage activism on many fronts -- to endorse a plan that pays less than minimum wage (especially now that it has been pointed out that this has been happening for decades), 99-seat companies should begin raising the money that will be necessary for the day when paying the minimum wage is required - whether it's by Equity or by a court. And these developmental efforts should be aimed not only at the relatively few wealthy actors, of course, but also at foundations, corporations, government agencies and audience members in general.

As I mentioned in my last column, Equity should have been much more specific about the terms of the proposed transition to minimum-wage payment and the union's access to any financial resources that might facilitate that transition. Equity leaders maintain that the national council will decide all of this when it meets in late April. They also have indicated recently that the transition won't be as sudden as some have feared. More public attention to these matters would have been useful before the LA membership's current "advisory" referendum began.

Speaking of my last column, when I cited 323 productions in Greater LA (Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties) that operated on Equity contracts from May 27, 2013 through May 25, 2014 (the last year for which records were available), several readers asked how many of these contracted shows occurred in Los Angeles County -- where the 99-Seat Plan (not a contract) was used in 390 productions during the same period. I asked Equity, which reported that 221 of the 323 contracted productions were in Los Angeles County - and that these numbers do not include touring productions that played LA after being cast and contracted in New York or other cities.

I'm a theatergoer, not an actor, so I was primarily interested in finding out the number of opportunities to see professional theater within my normal driving distance - which includes Orange and Ventura counties as well as LA County - regardless of whether the shows were on the 99-seat plan or on contracts. But I'm glad to hear that 221 contract productions occurred in LA County during that one year, and, again, if the minimum wage requirement is enforced, I hope that the producers who already use contracts are open to doing whatever they can to welcome the 99-seat producers into their world. Co-productions, anyone?

Meanwhile, as we non-actors await Equity's decision, I notice that among the 99-seat theater supporters who signed the LA Times ad are Alec Baldwin and Al Pacino. Does this mean that we'll soon be able to see them doing "The Odd Couple" together on Hollywood's Theater Row or in deepest NoHo (Baldwin as Felix, Pacino as Oscar)? Or maybe they would prefer just to make a few big donations?

February 17, 2015

Your fashion and dining guidance for Last Remaining Seats 2015

wizardofoz-lrs-underhill.jpgGirls dressed for "The Wizard of Oz" during Last Remaining Seats in 2012 at the Saban Theatre. Photo: Larry Underhill.

Before Bringing Back Broadway and a decade of new downtown residents, the only hint of revival came during the few days of screenings during Last Remaining Seats. It was an underground movement with no army. Things have changed and the series of classic films returns to lead the charge and take its place as a highlight of a downtown Los Angeles summer. As you may know, dressing up for a night on the town and hitting a show on Broadway during its early 20th Century prime was about style and being seen. Here's my 2015 list of alternative dining and dress options to help you take in the town's beloved series.

"Psycho" (1960) 

Million Dollar Theater (1917)
Wednesday, June 10 8 p.m.

This Alfred Hitchcock classic carries dark themes of victimization in stark black and white, and appears to evade anything fun. Except when you see Hitchcock use his showmanship in the movie trailer setting up the thrills you can expect. How do you make light of a heinous murder on the screen? "Let's see. Norman likes sandwiches and keeps Mom in the fruit cellar. Maybe a light picnic?," said undisclosed LA Conservancy staffer in an email, a person presumably kept hidden away in an upper room of the elaborate Spanish Colonial Revival building that's home to the Million Dollar Theater. That's the spirit!

See the movie dressed as Marion Crane by wearing an outfit that says business-fugitive-wear for a fashionable escape from Arizona by car with cash. Gentlemen can don a sensible jacket. If you are daring, wait in line with a prop "mother" covered with a blanket sitting in a wheelchair. At the theater door you can say: "Don't worry. She'll wake up in time for the credits. Mother loves Saul Bass." The dining option is nearby at Grand Central Market where you piece together dishes and some create Oedipa comfort food; a toasted cheese sandwich.

Here's a friendly warning for anyone coming to downtown for the first time. Stay on the western side of Broadway. Across from the theater and market is Ross Cutlery. There's no telling who may be inside getting their knife sharpened.

"A boy's best friend is his mother." - Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)

Trailer: "Psycho"

"City Lights" (1931)

chaplin-lapd-ed-fuentes.jpgLos Angeles Theatre (1931)
Saturday, June 13 8 p.m. 

There can't be enough cinephiles to dress up like The Tramp or blind flower girls to honor this silent film that gave us romance with soulful expression. Pass on duplicating the scene where the Tramp has dinner with an intoxicated millionaire in a fancy Italian joint. Keep it lovely and simple. Dress down with your date, share a French dip at Coles or a desert at coffee house. Place a flower in a makeshift vase and set it on the table, and then pay the bill with loose change.

Note: Chaplin reportedly helped fund the completion of the Los Angeles Theatre so that it would be ready to open with the premiere of "City Lights" in January 1931. Photo at right: Ruben Fernandez as Chaplin's The Tramp and LAPD Commander Andy Smith at 2008 press conference. Photo by Ed Fuentes.

"You?" - A Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill) Title Card

Trailer: "City Lights"

"Dios se lo pague/God Bless You" (1948)

Palace Theatre (1911)
Co-presented with Latin American Cinemateca of Los Angeles
Wednesday, June 17 8 p.m. 

This Argentina drama is about an unskilled worker who invents a way to make him wealthy, then lead into despair when his boss steals his genius. The worker's wife is distraught and kills herself, so the worker, now living in the streets, vows revenge. Add another love triangle to complicate revenge and then you have a steamy barrio melodrama. Dress dapper for the film. Argentina considers it a cinematic landmark. Since it's a tale of deception and lies, B.S Taqueria is the right place to snack if it's open by June.

"How to Marry a Millionaire" (1953)

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (1961)
Saturday, June 20 8 p.m.

The regal trappings of the Music Center for this 1953 film demands gowns befitting Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe, whose characters are three models who rent an expensive Manhattan penthouse apartment and pose as women of wealth. The goal is to snag rich husbands. A penthouse at JW Marriott Hotel at LA Live could stand in as the location for an updated version, and our three vixens hoping to attract a working millionaire can scout an NBA game or award ceremony on site. That's cynical of me. That would never happen. Flemings, Pacific Dining Car, or Morton's gives off a mid-century big-ticket urban meal experience.

"Wealthy men are never old." - Schatze Page (Lauren Bacall)

Trailer: "How To Marry A Millionaire"

"Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory" (1971)

Orpheum Theatre (1933)
Wednesday, June 24 8 p.m.

It may be appealing to dress as a winner of a Golden Ticket or a painted Oompa Loompa, but the ambitious will reach for the eccentric experimental fashion of Willy Wonka. That purple velvet jacket with Victorian lines is just short of portraying the chocolate industrialist as a dandy. It also hides how dangerous he could really be. If you recreate the jacket, don't forget those wide lapels that scream 1971. And skip dinner. Get a Hershey bar and sneak into the downtown version of Wonka wonderland, the Dutch Chocolate Shop with the revealed Ernest Batchelder tiles waiting to be unwrapped.

"The suspense is terrible. I hope it'll last." - Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder)

Trailer: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

"Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981)

The Theatre at Ace Hotel
Saturday, June 27
2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

If there is a curse for renaming the temples of Broadway, it hasn't angered the spirits protecting the former United Artists flagship. It's now known as The Theatre at Ace Hotel and the blockbuster about a rugged archaeology professor who chases artifacts in mysterious worlds will be screened. Dress appropriately in a fedora with a wide brim and tall crown so you can complete a striking silhouette in your leather jacket and khakis. About that bullwhip, leave it at home. The real unsung accessory is the canvas shoulder bag that would have an easy transition if you wear it entering the urban canyons of downtown. By the way, when you watch the film, listen closely for secret messages and codes. When Marcus Brody tells Indiana Jones that "The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions," it could have also been a warning from a fictitious 1936 that Bunker Hill could be a lost artifact. As for dining, a downtowner in the mood for adventure can take a journey to the edges of the world where rituals are foreign and danger is hidden; the Westside. The Versailles Cuban restaurant on La Cienega is tropical enough, and it opened the year Raiders was released.

"I don't know, I'm makin' this up as I go." - Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford)

Trailer: "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

Last Remaining Seats runs between June 10 - 27, 2015. Tickets go on sale March 25 to L.A. Conservancy members ($16) and April 8 to the general public ($20).

Previously on LA Observed:
Ed Fuentes previews Last Remaining Seats for 2014
Dress, dine and drink advice for Last Remaining Seats

December 7, 2014

Cinefamily honors Robert Downey, Sr.

Photos by Iris Schneider

The trendy United Artists Theater at the Ace Hotel downtown was the home today for the third of four events presented by Cinefamily honoring Robert Downey, Sr. for his body of film work. His most famous late '60's anti-Madison Avenue, anti-racism, and anti-capitalism satire, "Putney Swope," was screened for a sellout crowd as a fundraiser for the little Indie arthouse on Fairfax, based at the old Silent Movie Theater. Downey Sr. and the film were introduced by his son, Robert Jr, Alan Arkin and Louis C.K., who said he was astounded when he first stumbled upon "Putney Swope" in New York after bringing home a random bunch of VCR's from the $1 bin at his local video store. After lamenting our society's loss of books, video stores and the ability to just stumble upon great stuff like this film, Louis extolled its virtues this way: "Watching this movie I just kept saying 'Oh my God, Oh my God. Somebody actually made this movie...they didn't just sit there and think this would be crazy.'"

When Louis C.K. asked Downey how he came up with the idea, the reply was, "A little marijuana and some stuff that really happened."

On Monday night, the festival concludes with a free event (online reservations recommended) at Cinefamily with Alan Arkin and Downey Sr. on hand introducing "No More Excuses" and "Rittenhouse Square."

Robert Downey, Sr.

Edited post

November 21, 2014

The sad tale of Happy Valley

It's a terrible time for a drought in L.A. All the news about child sex abuse just makes you want to take a shower.

There's the case of Mark Berndt, the elementary school teacher who fed his semen to students in what is now the largest and most expensive child sex abuse case in the history of the L.A. Unified School District.

There's the attorney whose defense of the LAUSD in a lawsuit over a teacher who had sex with a 14-year-old was to blame the girl. "Making a decision as to whether or not to cross the street when traffic is coming," he told KPCC, "...takes a level of maturity and that's a much more dangerous decision than to decide, 'Hey, I want to have sex with my teacher.'"

Child abuse, of course, knows no bounds, geographic, economic or otherwise, and now that L.A. is swarming with smarm, how timely that the documentary "Happy Valley" opens here today at the Laemmle Royal Theater in West L.A. stadium - Copy.jpeg

It's about what happened to the town of State College after Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with and convicted of molesting boys for years under the cover of an at-risk youth program he founded. Long known as Happy Valley for its bucolic setting and social glue of college football under Head Coach Joe Paterno, the region grows dark in the imperative to apportion blame and shame by a community desperate just to get back into the game.

The audience for a screening Wednesday night at CAA's Ray Kurtzman Theater in Century City was refreshingly spare of "industry" types checking their phones every three minutes. Most of the 126 folks in attendance were people whose jobs and interests concern kids -- teachers, coaches, parents -- and friends invited by Mike Tollin. He's co-founder of PACE (Philanthropy And Community Engagement), and his guests had sharp inquiries during the post-screening Q&A about the coping skills of individuals and the institutions they love and hate.

Moderated by Tollin, whose organization is an L.A.-based network of bigwigs across the country who all want to promote nonprofits that serve kids, the session featured Matt Sandusky, one of the film's stars (only in a perverse parallel universe does someone "star" in a movie about sex abuse) and Jolie Logan, president and CEO of Darkness to Light, a nonprofit that educates people about and works to prevent child abuse.

Matt Sandusky is the youngest of Jerry Sandusky's six children, adopted by him and his wife Dottie after the coach plucked him from poverty and elevated him to a lifestyle kids like him only dream about. Before meeting Jerry, Matt lived with 30-some people in a house without running water, and Sandusky's name, he explains in the film, "was a golden ticket. It was good to be next to him, to feel powerful, to feel that people envied me instead of looking down on me."

Later in the film, he captures the prevailing Happy Valley sentiment: "If people thought of Joe Paterno as God, Jerry was like Jesus. They were to me the two most powerful people. They could do whatever they wanted, they could do no wrong."

Jerry did do whatever he wanted, and it was all wrong. By the time his trial began in 2012, Matt was 33, and had maintained his silence about his abuse and supported his father. Because that's what you do when you're family, that's what you do when an abuser has left you traumatized.

As Matt recalled during the Q&A, at trial he heard the testimony of Victim No. 4, a guy he knew well and who seemed to be retelling the story he had lived. Matt, like that witness, had been what he called a "chosen one."

Matt was "chosen" for abuse until he attempted to take his life at 17. After decades of denial, he had watched someone else muster the courage to tell in open court something he had kept hidden out of fear, shame and guilt. After the trial that day, Matt said, he went home and "didn't speak to anyone for two days." Then he came out to the district attorney, offered his testimony (which proved unnecessary) and the only family life he'd ever known was over.

Two years later, he's the only Sandusky to have confirmed Jerry's crimes, and although he sees the disclosure as necessary to heal, if not to survive, it has been an expensive treatment. The family considers him a liar who broke their trust. "That's the child sex abuse norm," he told the crowd.

Jerry Sandusky--Music Box image - Copy.jpg

Although Matt continues to identify as a Sandusky for the purpose of promoting Peaceful Hearts, his foundation that advocates for abuse survivors and promotes their recovery, he and his family officially have changed their last name to protect his children from being ridiculed in Happy Valley, where they still live.

Someone in the audience asked the question we all had: "Why do you still live in State College? Have you considered leaving?"

"You think about it. But, ultimately, that's our home ... and I've been pushed enough. I'm not going to be pushed out of my home."

Logan said that 5,000 people in Happy Valley have taken the training offered by Darkness to Light to help people recognize child abusers in their midst, and the circumstances that foster them. Someone in the audience mentioned its program in connection with the LAUSD, but I couldn't hear if she was expressing a wish or a reality.

The point of the evening was that child abuse is culturally metastatic, and eradicating it requires a similarly comprehensive response.

The point of the film is more sociological. It's about how idolatry cleaves community when its residents share a sense of what happened, but not why and how to repair the damage.

As director Amir Bar-Lev told Sports Illustrated, "human beings have a deification problem and America has a spectacle problem. There are much bigger issues at work, and that's why this story took on the life that it has. ... For America to point its fingers at Happy Valley and say, 'that town had a problem with football,' that sounds pretty hypocritical to me."

Apart from Jerry Sandusky, the only unanimously acknowledged evil player in "Happy Valley" is the NCAA, for its craven attempts to seem responsive. Everyone else -- the Penn State student struggling with the right thing versus the easy thing, the complicated and complicit Joe Paterno, the local historian who says, when the university dismantled the coach's stadium shrine, "This is why you can't build statues of people who are still alive" -- manifests the symptoms of a cancer on the soul in starkly different ways.

It's Happy Valley's story, and pretty much everyone else's, too.

Photos: Penn State University, Music Box Films

This costume exhibit could be more wearable

Photo by Iris Schneider

I love movies. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. That's how I felt at the Hollywood Costume exhibit on display at the future home of the Academy museum. The exhibit, showing at Fairfax and Wilshire in the May Company building that will house the museum, was put together (and is on its final tour stop) by the Victoria and Albert Museum and augmented with pieces from the academy's collections. It includes 150 costumes (40 from the academy archives) and it is impressive in its scope. You enter the darkened space to the swelling sounds of a film extravaganza. Unlike a movie trailer that is too loud, the music never stops.

Ushers remind you to give your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkened space, and guide you with flashlights so you won't go bump in the night. But the pitch black environment--simulating a black box theater with black floor, walls and ceiling--did not make it easy to navigate as the costumes were under hot spotlights, forcing your eyes to pingpong between total darkness and bright spotlights and video screens. Ouch! And while your eyes do adjust to the darkness somewhat, your ears are given no such mercy.

Each display is a cornucopia of information, replete with screens showing original notes from the likes of Charles Chaplin and other great directors and actors, videos showing costumes being worn in the films they were designed for, musings from actors and fascinating interviews-displayed almost life-size--with directors, actors and the costume designers who work with them. At one point though, Quentin Tarantino was talking about the costumes for "Django Unchained" while Martin Scorsese, in a too-close by display, spoke about "Gangs of New York." Maybe it's just me (I have a hard time filtering noise), but it was virtually impossible to shut out the sound of one in order to listen to the other. The exhibits are impressively multimedia, incorporating drawings, artifacts and fabric swatches to show how costume design comes together and illustrating the collaborative process that the best in the business prefer. But amid the cacophony of sound and light, it was hard to absorb the wealth of information.

As a sidenote, it is interesting that this exhibit comes from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Having reported on the auction of half of Debbie Reynolds' extensive costume and artifact collection, I have always wondered why the Academy did not snap up that collection and others before these items were sold off at auction to individual cinephiles. When the museum opens we may get a chance to see what is in the academy archives.

There is a lot to learn at this exhibit--for instance, did you know that Meryl Streep got her degree from Vassar in Drama and Costume Design?--but after an hour, I found myself seeking solace. There must be a way to figure out how to create a more conducive environment in which to look at these iconic costumes and listen to lauded experts of their craft. They have much to say about the science of costume design and how costumes help them define and craft their characters. It's fascinating to learn about their process, and how these designers make something very complicated look simple: "My job," says Edith Head, "is to help the girl who wears the dress become the person she's playing on the screen."

The exhibition runs until March 2, 2015.

November 9, 2014

My week of culture in LA

Thumbnail image for pacino-aarp-iris.jpg
Al Pacino at the AARP Films for Grownups Film Festival, above. Elevator Repair Service, below. Photos by Iris Schneider.

It was a good week in LA for culture. The AFI Film Festival began in Hollywood on Thursday with lots of star power and free tickets to those willing to put in the time to visit and re-visit the AFI website and, tickets in hand, wait in line for a seat at the theater. Once inside, you can be treated to both major and independent films and often a talk afterward with the lead actor and/or director or screenwriter. Marion Cotillard spoke, along with the Dardenne brothers, after the screening of "Two Days, One Night." She described the rehearsal period and working with the very demanding brothers -- who sometimes asked for 70 takes -- as an extraordinary and exhilarating experience. The powerful but understated film about a working class mom seeking a way out of impending financial doom seemed so real that it felt like a documentary.

Downtown at LA Live, and somewhat under the radar, was the AARP Films for Grownups Film Festival. They had lots of stars willing to talk after the screenings, and unlike the AFI crowd, the people who asked questions at the AARP Festival were not beneath unmitigated adulation, simply asking to shake a hand or get a hug. Al Pacino, there to discuss his latest film, "The Humbling," was more than happy to oblige. The film, about an actor losing his craft, and fire, to the ravages of age, was riveting and his performance both tragic and comic, and totally without vanity as he shared the screen with a much younger Greta Gerwig.

arguendo-iris.jpgAnd then, back at the Redcat for just a weekend, Elevator Repair Service blew into town with "Arguendo," their raucous, and verbatim, look at the Supreme Court argument of Barnes v. Glen Theatre, brought by a group of strippers claiming that forcing them to wear pasties and g-strings violated their First Amendment rights. Just one word regarding Elevator Repair Service: go! Unfortunately only here for several performances over this weekend, they never fail to surprise and entertain while making you think and teaching you something at the same time. Like ERS director John Collins, I've always been curious about the goings-on inside the Supreme Court as arguments are presented. After this performance, I feel like I've been there -- minus a bit of artistic license of course. On a personal note: Thank you, ERS, for explaining the genesis of Chief Justice Rehnquist's gold-striped robe. I've always loved his bizarrely comic display of ego and personal pomp.

September 22, 2014

Admiring the unproduced written word

Nathan Fillion, Alison Brie and Justin Bartha on stage. Photos by Iris Schneider.

More than 300 fans of the written word, Hollywood-style, packed the Ricardo Montalban Theater on Vine Street Saturday night for the latest performance presented by The Blacklist, a group founded by Franklin Leonard which compiles a database of unproduced screenplays and scripts as a service to screenwriters toiling in Hollywood. Occasionally, the group presents a live read of a favorite screenplay. Saturday night's rousing read of Victoria Strouse's very funny script, "The Seekers of Perpetual Love," did not disappoint.

The accomplished and enthusiastic cast included Justin Bartha, Alison Brie, Dean Cameron, Nathan Fillion, Seth Green, Melanie Lynskey and Jean Smart. Read without intermission and with spare staging, it kept the focus on what The Blacklist feels is most important: the writing. There's definitely something to be said for the pleasure of listening to what's on the page.

You can learn about future readings by going to their website.

Leonard and Strouse

August 23, 2014

The butterflies of Griffith Park: A tale of extinction and survival

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: "A Hollywood drama of butterfly extirpation and persistence over a century of urbanization," reads the headline on a recent scientific study in the Journal of Insect Conservation. The story that unfolds offers glimmers of hope for the rich biological diversity that lives amongst us in Los Angeles.

For two years, Tim Bonebrake and Daniel Cooper systematically surveyed Griffith Park to see which species of butterflies live there today. They spent 71 days across the seasons observing butterflies in six sites around the park. At the same time, they combed through historical field notes and specimen records from 1900 to 1960 to find the species that used to live there.

cloudy tailed-copper.jpgPapilio300.jpgMetalmark300.jpgCecho300.jpgTheir goal was to figure out how one beautiful, iconic slice of biodiversity was affected as a megacity developed around Griffith Park, effectively turning it into an island in an urban ocean. It's a well-known scientific axiom that local populations of species tend to blink out more quickly on islands. This is sometimes called a local extinction or extirpation.

In Griffith Park, 10 native butterfly species, 18 percent of the 55 native butterfly species that once lived in the park, have disappeared without a trace. What surprised Bonebrake, who is an old friend and colleague of mine, is not that so many species went extinct locally, however. It's that so many species survived.

Bonebrake and Cooper even discovered one butterfly thought to have vanished from the park long ago. The wonderfully named cloudy-tailed copper, Lycaena arota nubila, is a critically endangered butterfly that hangs on in a narrow swath of urban southern California. It was first described by local lepidopterist John Adams Comstock in 1922. Adams kept detailed notes on his observations during walks in the park and wrote one of the first field guides to the butterflies of California. Griffith Park was a favorite spot for naturalists in the early 20th century, and their field notes helped Bonebrake and Cooper establish a historical baseline to measure change.

Despite the fact that preserving species has never really been a significant priority for LA's city park system, Bonebrake and Cooper found that many native plants and butterflies have survived in Griffith Park. "Urban parks and open spaces can represent effective and valuable conservation reserve systems even when, as is the case for Griffith Park, conservation initiatives have been minimal or slow to develop," they conclude.

Griffith Park has one important thing going for it--size. In conservation, size matters. At 4,310 acres--almost seven square miles--Griffith Park is a large island of habitat in a sea of city. This makes it an especially important place for urban conservation--a kind of refuge for species that live amongst us, big enough even for one lonely mountain lion to survive, but sheltering hundreds of other, less iconic species too. Because of its size, Griffith Park could serve as an important node in a larger network of habitat fragments throughout the city.

Bonebrake and Cooper call for more explicitly recognizing parks and open spaces containing native shrubland ecosystems like Griffith Park as more than "waste land" within urban areas--even if they are not as big as Griffith Park. We should value these patches of habitat for their "significant natural resources" and develop explicit conservation strategies for these areas, which could help "stem ongoing losses of biodiversity in our increasingly urbanized world," they argue. Then we might "look forward to a possible 'Hollywood ending' for the wildlife of Los Angeles and other urban centers worldwide."

Photos of butterflies in Griffith Park courtesy of Tim Bonebrake. Top to bottom: Cloudy-tailed copper (Lycaena arota nubila), Anise swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon), Behr's metalmark (Apodemia virgulti), Echo azure (Celastrina echo).

June 8, 2014

Sebastian Junger finishes with war in 'Korengal'

Sebastian Junger felt as though he had never been tested. Growing up in a "peaceful American suburb during the 80's" he needed to prove himself, to experience some adversity. So in 1990, approaching 30, the author took himself to Bosnia to cover the war. He survived and proved to be an astute observer. He went on to bring his observations to a wide audience through his first film, "Restrepo," the outcome of a year-long collaboration with photojournalist Tim Hetherington embedded with the 173rd U.S. Airborne Brigade on a remote mountain outpost in Afghanistan. Junger was in LA last week to talk about his latest film, "Korengal," and he remembered vividly an essential element of his lengthy visits to the war zone: the bone-crushing boredom.

sebastian-junger-iris.jpg"Monotony is an important part of war," Junger said. He and Hetherington spent the better part of a year documenting combat and life for their first film. "Korengal" is the companion piece to "Restrepo," done after the tragic death of Hetherington on assignment during Libya's civil war in 2011. Junger reluctantly revisited the footage shot for Restrepo to complete a second film that he and Hetherington had talked many times about making. And after Hetherington's death, he decided ("within an hour") never to cover combat again.

"Restrepo" showed what combat looks like. "Korengal" tries to show what war feels like. He recalled a period of several weeks on the mountain outpost where no fighting had erupted. "I felt a little guilty for finding myself wishing something would kick off. Then, the lieutenant walked by muttering 'Please, someone attack us today.' I heard that and thought--nothing to feel guilty about. We're all on the same page."

That anecdote seems to sum up the complexity of war, and the conflicts our military men and women live with every day. Junger knows that there are many reasons why they sign up for military service, from altruism to curiosity to adrenalin. "Korengal" gives the soldiers a chance to talk about those conflicts and complexities. It asks the audience to consider these questions: How does fear work? What do courage and guilt mean? Why do so many soldiers miss the war when they come home?

"Korengal" reflects the structure of an earlier book of Junger's called "War," which he divided into three parts: fear, killing and love. "There is a psychic voltage in the experience of combat, and you can absolutely grow to like it," he says. "But equally and more important than that is the true sense of brotherhood and close bonds." He feels that a big part of the re-entry problem that returning veterans experience occurs because "they are not coming back to a close-knit, tribal or agrarian community where as warriors they are welcomed back into the fold, but to Western society. And for all our technology and culture, we are a very fragmented and alienated society. We have the highest rate of suicide, and depression, child abuse and mass murder of any society. They are coming from an environment of extraordinary closeness and loyalty. So who is messed up, us or them?"

His explanation puts the re-rentry process into a different perspective and makes it easier to understand how a soldier can miss the war once he returns home. "Brendan (O"Byrne) misses the war a lot, but is also very damaged by it. This is the dilemma. He did a lot more thinking than some of the guys in the platoon and can be wracked with guilt over the killing of innocents during warfare, yet says he would jump at the chance to get back to the battlefield. He has all those conflicting feelings and is not landing on any one of them...he's stuck with all of them. That is the moral confusion of war," Junger says.

Indeed, watching "Korengal" does give you an understanding of the bond that was forged on that remote outpost. And no matter how primitive and dangerous the conditions are, the experience creates a closeness that pales in what we know as daily life for a civilian. Add a dose of PTSD, the physical and mental pain of war injuries and the stress of earning a living, and the tremendous difficulty of being a reentering veteran becomes crystal clear.

"Korengal" opens June 13 in Los Angeles.

Photo of Junger by Iris Schneider

May 2, 2014

Costume designer Sandy Powell at the Getty

Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend as Victoria and Albert. Courtesy of the Getty.

For a brief time last Sunday, the real life Queen Victoria and the 2009 movie version played by actress Emily Blunt crossed paths at the Getty Center in Brentwood. Born in 1819 and crowned in 1838, Victoria reigned until her death in 1901. The film, The Young Victoria, examines the monarch's early life and marriage. An exhibit at the Getty Museum, A Royal Passion, Queen Victoria and Photography, provided the backdrop for a conversation between three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell and Deborah Nadoolman Landis, director of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA. Powell designed the costumes for the film for which she won her third gold statue in 2010. She also won for "The Aviator" (2005) and "Shakespeare in Love" (1999). In front of a packed auditorium, Powell and Nadoolman Landis chatted about the challenges and rewards of designing period clothing while on-set stills of "The Young Victoria" cast flashed on the screen behind them. The audience included design students, fans of the film, and "A Royal Passion" attendees.

British-born Powell, 52, has become one of the go-to costume designers for period film. "There's more to do in terms of research — you learn something every time," she said when explaining why she prefers the genre. "It's really difficult doing a contemporary film — actually harder than period — because everybody has an opinion about what a contemporary person looks like — whereas in a period film you kind of have the upper hand."

Powell gave some insight into her creative process and revealed some tricks of the trade. She was attracted to Victoria's story because the script "was about a young vibrant woman who was thrown into the deep end." If she agrees to take on a project after reading the script, meeting with the director is the crucial next step. "Generally if we get on as people it works out," she said with a smile. In "The Young Victoria," Powell's challenge was to show the difference between the pre-coronation, sheltered, youthful girl, and the woman Victoria grew into after becoming queen. For the costume designer, that meant going from girly to "a stronger line, less fussy." In addition to looking at photographs and paintings from the period, Powell was able to do research at Kensington Palace in London, Victoria's childhood home and where her surviving clothing is now stored. She studied what she could for accuracy but, except for well-documented pieces (such as Victoria's wedding dress), Powell primarily made up her own versions "based on the look of the period — the kind of thing she would wear."

Victoria and Albert at Buckingham Palace, 1854, by Roger Fenton.
Creating the massive amount of costumes needed for a film like "The Young Victoria" (58 changes for Blunt alone) is the sort of task the matter-of-fact Powell is seemingly undaunted by. After her initial sketches, she and her team shopped for fabrics, commissioned hats and gloves, and scoured the internet to find the best dealers for period jewelry. "I like doing the jewelry," she said. "It's one of my favorite bits. We do it at the end of the film when we've got all the clothes. Victorian jewelry isn't that difficult to find...and a lot of the dealers were willing to buy it back after we'd used it." Although Powell takes her inspiration from the fabrics she finds, she is almost always restricted by budget. "You don't always have to buy the most expensive to make things look expensive. You can get away with using cheaper fabrics — it's what you do with them."

Powell often hand paints pieces to look embroidered, and sometimes uses fake fur in place of real. When asked if she's excited by seeing the costumes come together, Powell said, "Of course, the organic process is the most exciting part, watching it develop. The real design moment is not the sketch at the beginning - design is when the costume is halfway there at the first fitting and you say, what does it need? Less here or a bit more there. That's the designing."

Nadoolman Landis, left, and Powell.
Powell's Getty appearance came at a typically busy time — she flew in for the weekend from Cincinnati, where she is working on a new Todd Haynes movie, "Carol," with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. She did however, seem to enjoy having the chance to reflect on the role of the costume designer in the greater scope of movie-making. "We're creating characters in films. We're helping to make entertainment, summing up the essence of a period in clothing. The characters have to be believable and it's our job to make that happen." Powell answered honestly when a young audience member asked what is the thing she loves most about her career. "I like everything about designing and if I didn't it would be an impossible job to do. It consumes so much of your life - you have to sacrifice everything else for that period of time, whether it's three months or a year. The day I stop enjoying it is when I'll give it up."

Previously on LA Observed:
LA Observed goes to LACMA with costume designer Marlene Stewart (video)

February 27, 2014

Ed Fuentes previews Last Remaining Seats for 2014

last-remaining-seats-laco-2012.jpgRory Cunningham greets guests at Last Remaining Seats in 2012. Flickr photo: Barry Schwartz.

It's been said that downtown's revival is now so mainstream, a real coolness evades the city. For more pushback, LA Weekly carried a story that used a headline stating downtown will never be cool. I challenge that claim with three words; Last Remaining Seats.

By opening the historical palaces of Broadway, it was a whisper in the ears of Angelenos that someday things will get better. It has, and the Los Angeles Conservancy's annual summer film series has kept downtown cool since 1987.

The full 2014 schedule has been rolled out. Expect filmgoers dressing up to mirror the mood of the movie, or the wear period fashion from last time downtown was a real destination. My annual list of dining and dress options also shows downtown has more places to be at, and is fulfilling the romantic promises of the Los Angeles Conservancy.

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Los Angeles Theatre (1931)
"The Lady Eve" (1941)
Wednesday, June 11, 8 p.m.

Ah, if only the ship shaped Coca-Cola bottling plant, a 1939 Streamline Moderne downtown marvel, had a pop-up café inside. It would be the perfect spot to dine before "The Lady Eve," the Preston Sturges screwball comedy that begins on a cruise ship and follows the testy romance between Jean Harrington, a con-woman (Barbara Stanwyck), and Charles Pike, a well-to-do ophiologist (Henry Fonda). If there was a Rainforest Café nearby, that would be the obvious choice to mark the Amazon trip taken by Pike. Thankfully there isn't, so you can have a real intimate dinner by scampering to the dining gem Cicada. Since "The Lady Eve" was the first "high-fashion picture" for Stanwyck, so claimed by the film's costume designer, Edith Head, dress in classic style and shoulder pads. Gentlemen, just try not to look too ruffled at any advances you may encounter.

"I need him like the ax needs the turkey." - Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck)

Trailer: The Lady Eve

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The Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (1964)
"West Side Story" (1961)
Saturday, June 14, 8 p.m.

The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the grand lady of Grand Avenue, and "West Side Story," made their debut in the early 1960s. Besides that shared timeline, there is a redevelopment footnote. One reason Bunker Hill was razed was so the Music Center could add elegance to downtown. The boarded tenements seen in the film were to be demolished to make room for The Lincoln Center (but that was delayed until their scenes as gritty backdrop were completed). As for this screening, local Sharks and Jets can dress in their best dance-in-the-gym street-smart elegance, and do their best finger snapping moves by the Music Center Fountain. Instead of a pick for thematic dining, I propose the Los Angeles restaurants that serve Puerto Rican dishes have a taste-off on Grand Avenue, a real fried green plantains and pork chicharrón rumble.

"Play it cool boy, real cool." - Ice (Tucker Smith)

Trailer: West Side Story

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Orpheum Theatre (1926)
Footlight Parade (1933)
Wednesday, June 18, 8 p.m.

"Footlight Parade" is Busby Berkeley's 1933 musical extravaganza -- starring James Cagney and Joan Blondell -- with an aquacade highlight flock of chorus girls in caps and bathing suits. There's nothing subtle in this pre-code motion picture. It's all dancing, all music, and in the 15-minute musical number "By a Waterfall," all wet. That scene, and others, are given proper scale and scope on The Orpheum's big screen. To fulfill the "Footlight Parade" trailer's promise of witnessing one of the "most magnificent spectacles ever conceived," do your pre or post screen dining and drinking at The Rooftop at The Standard, Downtown LA.

"Aw, talking pictures, it's just a fad." Chester Kent (James Cagney)

Trailer: Footlight Parade

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The Theatre at Ace Hotel (former United Artists Theatre, 1927)
"Back to the Future" (1985)
Saturday June 21, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Bringing Back Broadway's latest trip to its future was the opening of the Ace Hotel, and this screening gives filmgoers a chance to dress retro 1980s, or jump back even further to the 1950s. The in-house brasserie, L.A. Chapter, has a menu and hours that caters the two screening schedule.

But the real honor goes to the silver-haired doctor who ran on faith, a touch of eccentricity, and maybe a little madness. I'm not talking about Dr. Emmett Lathrop "Doc" Brown (Christopher Lloyd), the sidekick to Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), armed with a flux capacitor and a time machine built out of DeLorean. I speak of the late Dr. Gene Scott, who kept the pulse of the United Artist Theater alive as a broadcast site for his television ministry, and nabbed two "Jesus Saves" neon signs in 1989. The Ace Hotel kept one, and it will remain part of downtown's former ambiance. Need one more film reference? The neon signs were installed on the roof of the Church of the Open Door at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles at 6th Street and Hope, and dedicated in 1935. In 1985, the year "Back to the Future" was released, The Church of the Open Door held its final services, and "Jesus Saves" neon became lit archives (before placed in storage in 1988). As Doc Brown may have said: "Great Gene Scott!"

"I guess you guys aren't ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it." Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox)

YouTube: Back to the Future

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Palace Theatre (1911)
"El Gran Calavera" [English translation: The Great Madcap] (1949)
Wednesday, June 25, 8 p.m.
Co-presented with the Latin American Cinemateca of Los Angeles

Surrealist Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel needed a comeback project after being blacklisted from Hollywood, and forced out of Spain during their civil war. In comes dark comedy "El Gran Calavera," a satire about a family trying to change the spending habits of patriarch Ramiro de la Mata (Fernando Soler) by making him believe he lost his wealth. Ramiro gets wise to the deception and fools them right back to expose their slacking ways. Of all the films on the slate, this poke at social order could be remade downtown. Of course, the Eastside and Westside debate can be used as subtext, while Broadway is used as a backdrop of clashing classes. Something to discuss over dishes from Tacos Tumbras A Tomas at the changing Grand Central Market, or while dining on the dishes from Baco Mercat that have their own Spanish subtext.

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Orpheum Theatre (1926)
"Citizen Kane" (1941)
Saturday June 21, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

The restored opulence of The Orpheum Theatre makes it the Citizen Kane of historic venues on Broadway. This would be the film and venue to be dressed in stunning 1940's era finery and fedoras. An after-party at the Julia Morgan-designed Herald Examiner building would complete the evening, but don't expect that to happen. To mark an evening screening of a landmark within a landmark, there is ALMA. It's walkable to The Orpheum and was Bon Appétit's "Best New Restaurant in America 2013." Book it now. Reservations are a month out.

"You can't buy a bag of peanuts in this town without someone writing a song about you." - Charles Foster Kane

Trailer: Citizen Kane

The 28th annual Last Remaining Seats season will be June 11 through June 28, 2014.
Tickets will go on sale Wednesday, March 26 to Conservancy members and Wednesday, April 9 to the general public. Tickets are $16 for L.A. Conservancy members and $20 for the general public.

January 20, 2014

Reading 'American Pie' for fun

iris-live-read-lacma.jpgDavid Buchan/WireImage

There was a palpable buzz in the Bing Auditorium at LACMA last week as excited guests gathered for another installment of the series "Live Read." Created several years ago for LACMA's Film Independent program by Jason Reitman as a way for scripts to be given new life, the program is usually kept secret, even from LACMA employees, until a few hours before the show. At the ticket booth I was told, "We have to check his twitter account in the afternoon to find out who's coming. Kind of crazy..."

The stage that often hosts venerable movie stars of bygone days, in person or on its silver screen, was filled with stars very much of the moment: Olivia Wilde, Michael Sheen, Mike White, Topher Grace, John Cho, Anna Kendrick, Ari Gaynor, Sarah Burns and Krysten Ritter. Sharon Stone joined the fun in a nod to another generation. They were assembled and seated behind easels that held the scripts to a film that may not be the first on everyone's list of great American classics: "American Pie."

Director Chris Weitz set up the night by saying "While making this movie, we did not think This is going to get us to LACMA one day. But I did get to make this movie with my best friend, my brother," Weitz said, referring to Paul who stood at his side.

They described the "Live Read" process: "This is a cold reading. Many of these people just met. Some know each other. The rest hate each other...The performance cannot be recorded, photographed or streamed. In fact, I don't even think you should remember it."

Those sentiments notwithstanding, it was a memorable evening. Women played men and men played women, which undoubtedly added to the fun. I never saw the film because I thought it would be too raunchy for my taste. But I got the best of all worlds: a great night, listening to a funny, raunchy but ultimately very sweet coming of age movie that was definitely a lot easier to listen to than it would have been to watch.

On the nature of LA in 'Her' and a new 'Green room' at the bay aquarium

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: You've probably heard by now that the new Spike Jonze movie "Her" is set in Los Angeles in the near future. You undoubtedly know it's a love story between man and machine. If you've been hiding under a rock, Scarlett Johansson plays "Samantha"--a new, highly personalized "operating system," really more of an artificial intelligence--that gets installed at the beginning of the movie on all of the devices used by awkward hipster Theodore Twombley, played by Joaquin Phoenix. And yes, the future is still filled with awkward hipsters, alas.

Here in LA, the movie has generated a lot of chatter because of its portrayal of a densely packed city of high-rises, filled with beautiful apartments and offices, where everyone travels by pleasant, comfortable mass transit. You can even ride a train from downtown to the beach! Fittingly, this rare utopian vision of LA has been nominated for best picture.

Her movie.jpgLA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne weighed in on the conversation with a thoughtful piece this weekend arguing that "Her" represents a vision of the future for a city that is currently "caught in limbo between two very different kinds of urbanism: between its private and car-dominated past and denser, more public and more connected future." Hawthorne likes the way Jonze looks ahead and "sidesteps the retro riptide" that preoccupies so much of our culture these days, including architecture. (Note to Pulitzer Board: Give it up. There is not a critic working today who more consistently, creatively, provocatively, and productively addresses the crucial questions of the city in which he lives, as well as global issues in architecture and urbanism.)

But there is a third way that Jonze and Hawthorne ignore here. Call it "ecological urbanism." Aside from a brief visit to the beach, Jonze's vision of LA's future is bereft of nature. The mountains can be seen off in the distance behind the beautiful scrim of dense skyscrapers. (Jonze achieved the effect digitally and by shooting some scenes in Shanghai, which brings dense smog back to the city.) Nature exists outside the city: in the Sierra Nevada and on Catalina. There are a few scrubby trees here and there and patches of sorry looking rooftop grass, but otherwise the city is a completely self-contained technological snow globe. And there is no sense of how this city runs. Where does the energy come from? What causes the smog? Of what nature is this city built? It is tempting to think that this lack of nature in the city of the future parallels the emptiness that gnaws at its main characters.

* * *

Mark Gold writes: Last Saturday, on another gorgeous 80 degree day during our year without a winter, Heal the Bay dedicated the new "Green room" at their Santa Monica Bay Aquarium to the extraordinary life and achievements of their founding president and California treasure, Dorothy Green. Some things haven't changed much in California over the last 35 years since Dorothy became a force of nature opposing the peripheral canal project in the late 1970s. We have the same governor, he just declared an official drought last week, and a new version of the peripheral canal (with tunnels this time) is in the news and controversial again.

Dorothy wasn't a big fan of drought declarations. She educated many of us about the importance of valuing all water, whether it came from rain, snow melt, or sewage. Her life's goal was to get everyone to understand that California has enough water, but we don't have a drop to waste. The Green room shares this vision of smart water management. You'll find exhibits on the importance of local water self reliance through conservation, water recycling, and stormwater capture there. And you'll learn about the importance of protecting our watersheds and the benefits they provide to wildlife, our coastal waters, and to all of us.

Green room.jpgOutside the doors of the aquarium lies a bay that no longer contains fish with tumors and fin rot, or a dead zone, or beaches that are routinely closed due to large sewage spills. A lot has changed for the better since Dorothy created the vision and provided the leadership and inspiration that has made Heal the Bay such an unprecedented success. The Green room helps tell her story of how one person made a difference by improving the quality of life for millions of people in the Los Angeles region who enjoy and love our beautiful coast and the incredible biodiversity in our bay and local watersheds.

The Green room will educate and inspire tens of thousands of people annually on how a strong environmental ethic of activism, sustainability, leadership, and perseverance can heal even the most polluted bays or degraded rivers. Dorothy educated, mentored, and inspired generations of environmental stewards and activists, including myself. In the most fitting of launches, her young granddaughter opened the Green room by cutting the ribbon, thereby initiating the next generation of future activists to learn about Dorothy, watersheds, and sustainable water management.

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Heal the Bay.

December 14, 2013

A night at the nihilism movies

By day, Elisha Shapiro teaches reading and composition at Santa Monica College. By night, he's a werewolf. Or he could be if he didn't shave all his body hair for a nude photographic art project.

Nihilist sign.JPG

Actually, the depilatory makeover happened many years ago, but it's the sort of traffic-stopping stunt Shapiro routinely indulges. Staging the Nihilist International Film Festival is just the most recent act in his parallel universe of art.

Like the opening day of the Los Angeles Games in 1984 when he staged the alternative Nihilist Olympics. A series of cars competed in the tire-squealing U-turn event at the intersection of Melrose and Curson. Five oddly dressed people wielding clipboards and Magic Markers rated the performance of the Dodge Dart, the Firebird, the taxi...

Like the 1994 election for L.A. County sheriff, when he ran as a Nihilist, an arty campaign covered by this correspondent in the pages of Los Angeles magazine, where he said, "As sheriff, my department will be crawling with homosexuals and women, who will make the department less aggressive. ... After all, 10 percent [of the electorate] are gay, more than 50 percent are minorities and there are probably at least a hundred artists who vote."

Last night, Shapiro produced the 14th Nihilist film fest at the Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. The audience watched 10 short films Shapiro curated from 40-some flicks submitted by people who thought that among the millions of festivals listed on film competition websites, their artistic sensibilities married nicely with nihilism, which Merriam-Webster defines as the belief that traditional morals and ideas have no worth or value; that a society's political and social institutions are so bad that they should be destroyed.

So of course nihilism is funny. Anyone who knows Shapiro knows that. Overheard in the crowd of 30 or so folks milling about before the screenings was a woman telling a friend about a recent meeting he had missed: "All we talked about was bankruptcy. All I like to talk about is moral bankruptcy."

Funny nihilism also can be dark and gruesome. "Deborah," the first short of the night, is an animated film from Germany about a woman impregnated by a monsterish sort who ends up getting his nose pecked off by a bird because he's unhappy about impending fatherhood. A moral tale within an amoral world told in a crisp 2 minutes and 45 seconds.

"Self Inflicted," from Oregon, is about a masochist in search of a woman to hurt him so good. Enduring cinematic images: stiletto heel/foot instep; fork/fingernail. But he's a nice guy, and over its nine minutes you root for him to find the right passive-aggressive partner. He doesn't.

"Really thought there was going to be a happy ending there," said Shapiro.

Elisha Shapiro2 12-13-13.JPG

"I find this film really charming," he said as introduction to "Geek Assassin." Too long by half (28 minutes), it's brought to you by our gentle Canadian friends who created a vengeful redhead so violent she makes "Goodfellas" look like frat boys. We watched the assassin mentor a high school girl in dealing with bullies, and do we need to mention that disarming language skills are not part of her arsenal?

Another blood-soaked charm came courtesy of "Juice of My Heart," a 4 ½-minute L.A. film about a waitress mistreated by customers. The final scene -- spoiler alert -- features a cop given a cup of coffee in which a finger floats.

The Japanese-language "Heartbeat" stars blunt force with a side of Saturday-morning cartoon in 2 ½ minutes of animè-ish action, also from L.A. Its peppy soundtrack and bright colors are set against stabbings, car accidents and other urban adventures. Fun for the whole family!

There's violence, and then there's institutional ennui. Help yourself to "Appetite," from Eastern Europe, in which a couple unburdened by one word of conversation makes and eats breakfast for 7 ½ minutes while bloodcurdling screams issue from the apartment next door.

Shapiro's response: "Serbians are hilarious."

The most popular film of the evening was produced in Scotland, but exactly where is a mystery because, as the credits announce, "This place let us film here as long as we didn't mention them."

"The Arsehole Gene" is an LOL mock documentary about the discovery of mutated DNA that makes people not only wholly unlikeable, but subjects of discrimination. After all, as we see in 13½ minutes of interviews with scientists, pharmaceutical reps, arseholes and their enablers, they can't help being truly repugnant creatures. "George Patton, Nero, George Bush ... politicians, lawyers and bikers," says one talking head, "are just sick people. You can't really blame them for what they've done."

What they do ranges from spilling the milk to peeing in the teapot.

The British Arsehole Foundation lobbies for benefits for the afflicted "because there's an arsehole in every family. Please donate."

But the claim of global suffering is undermined by a thoughtfully provided pie chart that depicts the arsehole population as nearly one-third U.S. and two-thirds French.

Still, posters for the British public information campaign proclaim: "You could be an arsehole. Get tested now!"

As the scientists acknowledge, "We can detect it, but we can't treat it." They advise prenatal testing, so that "parents can decide if they want a son or daughter who's an arsehole. Our hope is that within decades, we'll have an arsehole-free world."

If that works out, the conceptual artists who feed the nihilist market presumably will find other rich resources. Elisha Shapiro knows there's really no shortage of material.

To see other examples of Shapiro's work, link here.

Photos: Ellen Alperstein

December 9, 2013

It's hard to turn away from 'Narco Cultura'


Like a repellent exhibit at Ripley's Believe It or Not that you can't take your eyes off, Shaul Schwarz's documentary "Narco Cultura" keeps you riveted. I'm not sure if it's the entertainment or the need to make sense of what you're watching that keeps you engaged, but Schwartz has made a film that is compelling in either case. Eager to delve below the surface of the drug cartels' hold on Ciudad Juarez, the filmmaker and National Geographic photojournalist spent about two years delving into the cultural effects of the drug violence and drug lords that have made Ciudad Juarez the murder capital of the world — while also inspiring adulation among a growing group of musicians and young people. By contrasting the world of musicians who have risen to popularity by singing and composing songs that glorify the violent world of Mexican drug lords with the day to day risks and dedication of the Ciudad Juarez police force, he has crafted a film that goes beyond the bloody headlines and body counts.

Schwarz follows the composer and lead musician Edgar Quintero, who was invited to join narco corrida group "Buknas de Culiacan," after his success writing lyrics about the drug world for other singers. Quintero is an affecting and hard-working father of two young children who, although he has never been to Ciudad Juarez, easily weaves stories that glorify the drug culture and drug lords into the corrida style. "We're bloodthirsty, crazy and we like to kill," he writes. While it's easy to dismiss the songs as appealing to a small audience in Mexico, seeing the band appearing at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, toting bazookas onstage and festooned with bullets on their belts as the audience sings along, familiar with every murderous word, makes it harder to dismiss.

Schwarz has a photographer's eye and the look of the film is starkly beautiful. Many frames stop you in your tracks and could easily grace the pages of National Geographic. He also is a storyteller and those skills are put to good use as he contrasts the day to day dangers faced by CSI investigators like Richi Soto, who don black facemasks on their way to bloody crime scenes for their protection. Three of the detectives on the force were brutally murdered and those like Soto who remain have to question every day if doing their job is worth the risks they take. Of the thousands of murders committed in Juarez over the past few years, 97% have not been prosecuted. Of those prosecuted, few have been punished. The police say, "It's sad when they don't value your work. We feel like we are just bullet collectors."

Mexican journalist Sandra Rodriguez laments in the film the glorification of beheaded bodies, bullets and the drug lords who make it all happen. "It is a symptom of how defeated we are as a society. Kids want to look like narcos because they represent an idea of success and power. Killing someone represents limitless power."

Schwarz has made a valiant effort to make us look at the far-reaching effects of drug violence. At a recent screening of the film, musician Ry Cooder was in attendance. The master guitarist and corridos writer himself made this assessment of the narco corridas the film explores: "Love the music. Hate the lyrics."

November 20, 2013

Photos: AARP Films for Grownups Film Festival

cast-of-12-years.jpgCast members of "12 Years a Slave" Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o and Alfre Woodard with director Steve McQueen. Photos by Iris Schneider.

Iris Schneider attended the first AARP Films for Grownups Film Festival this past weekend at the Regal Cinemas at LA Live. The screenings of 9 new or upcoming films included appearances by the actors and directors of highly anticipated films such as "Nebraska," "Philomena," "Saving Mr. Banks" and others.

After the screening of "12 Years A Slave," director Steve McQueen was surprised by a direct descendant of Solomon Northup, Evelyn Jackson, who introduced herself during the audience Q and A. Northup's book was the genesis of McQueen's film. His reaction says it all: "Ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce you to someone very important."

Lupita Nyong'o and Alfre Woodard.

Steve McQueen introduces Evelyn Jackson, descendant of Solomon Northup.

Nicole Holofcener, the director of "Enough Said," and star Julia-Louis Dreyfuss.

October 25, 2013

Elliott Erwitt gives young Hollywood an excuse to party

IMG_4720sm copy.jpg
Waiters hold photos by Erwitt. Below, Erwitt with Matthew McConaughey and Camila Alves McConaughey.

Big doings in the photography world around Los Angeles this week. The Annenberg Space for Photography opens its latest exhibition, a showcase of the work of National Geographic photographers this Saturday. But last night at the Leica Gallery the red carpet and velvet ropes were in place and flashes popped as photography royalty bumped up against young Hollywood and its art wannabes. The museum, a posh space hidden behind some hedges on Beverly Boulevard near Robertson, not only exhibits the work of Leica shooters but, I was told by a photojournalist friend of mine covering the event, "sells the cameras and the Leica lifestyle." The Magnum veteran photographer Elliott Erwitt made a rare appearance to herald the publishing of another book, "Elliott Erwitt's Great Scottish Adventure." This one, a tie-in with The Macallan (their fourth in a collaboration with photographers), marks the end of a months-long project documenting Scotland, funded by one of its high end distilleries: The Macallan Scotch Whiskey.

erwitt-mcconaughey-alves.jpgErwitt, looking much younger than his 85 years, had just flown in from New York for the tony book launch, and was leaving this morning on a months-long book tour that first takes him back to Scotland and then on to other cities. The party was a true collision of art and commerce, an odd mix of art-lovers and those who can sniff out an open bar and manage to get their name on the list. "These shots of whiskey go for at least $20 at bars around town," a friend told me as she swirled the caramel colored liquor in her heavy glass. Indeed, bottles of The Macallan can sell for thousands of dollars.

Among the young crowd of beautiful people were some who did not even know who Elliot Erwitt was, or that they were in the presence of one of the greatest photographers who ever lifted a Leica. "I'm here for the ladies," one gentleman said when Erwitt's name drew a blank. "And I'm not disappointed." When Matthew McConaughey, a scotch enthusiast, walked in the door, the paparazzi could relax. They knew they had their money shot for the night. As the event swirled around him, Erwitt chatted with some guests, leaning on the cane he uses with a Harpo Marx horn attached to the handle. Erwitt acknowledged that the Leica around his neck was not just an ornament for the night. He couldn't resist shooting a few pictures just for himself. From the waiters working as human easels to the women in sky-high heels, the evening was a perfect canvas for Erwitt's sardonic eye. Can't wait to see what he made of it.

Erwitt chats with the photogs.

Erwitt mingles at the party.

Photos by Iris Schneider

August 22, 2013

Misquoting Dorothy Parker

Today is Dorothy Parker's 120th birthday. She was born on August 22, 1893, and her devotees shall observe the occasion by posting her quotations and poems on the Internets. However, a famous quip about Los Angeles may not be applicable.

As the president of the LA Chapter of the Dorothy Parker Society and tour guide, I am asked on a regular basis if Dorothy Parker actually said that Los Angeles is "72 of suburbs in search of a city." The answer is...probably not.

The quote has been attributed to Dorothy Parker but it's really a paraphrase of Aldous Huxley's bon mot found his 1925 book, Americana. He wrote that Los Angeles was "nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis" and he was probably quoting someone else who initially said Los Angeles was seven or six suburbs in search of a city. The witticism expanded from there. At times it was attributed to H.L. Menken, Robert Benchely, Alexander Woolcott and Dorothy Parker.

Most likely it was Mencken who used the phrase in an essay published in the April 1927 issue of Photoplay magazine after visiting Los Angeles for three weeks in 1926. I cannot find the actual essay so I must reserve the right to be wrong. Thanks to Kim Cooper, I have found the publication online. But I still reserve the right to be wrong.

Regardless, Mrs. Parker's hatred for our fair city inspired plenty of other waspish quips.
I can verify that she once told a reporter that she loathed palm trees, calling them "the ugliest vegetable God created." You can tweet that.

August 14, 2013

Two Jews walk into a Catskills hotel...

Knock knock.

Who's there?

Jews from the Borscht Belt.

Jews from the Borscht Belt who?


Jews from the Borscht Belt who can't finish their story because technical difficulties at the screening Tuesday night at the Museum of Tolerance stopped "When Comedy Went to School" five minutes before the end.

The tolerant audience was mostly gracious, but co-director Ron Frank was mortified.

"That's never happened," Frank said today in a telephone interview. The documentary, co-directed by Frank, a resident of L.A., and Mevlut Akkaya, a New Yorker, traces the lineage of standup comedy to New York's Catskills Mountains where, from the 1930s through the 1960s, East Coast Jews vacationed, comedians refined their craft and busboys scored.

"If you're a Jew and you marry a Jew, that means everything you hated is now in your house." -- Marc Maron
It's a fun film whose talking heads wrap immigrant history, ethnic identity and cultural change around a hot mike. The Borscht Belt is where funny people learned how to turn a sense of humor into a profession.

"In those days," Jerry Lewis says in the film, "comedians had some place to be bad."

Mickey Freeman was one of them. Asked to take his stage act to a hospital to entertain the patients, he obliged by "singing, dancing, telling my best stories. On the way out I said to the patient, 'I hope you get better.' " he said to me, " 'You too.' "

Jewish humor, suggests narrator Robert Klein, is Isaac's fault. As the son of Abraham and Sarah, his name, Klein says, means "he shall laugh." Which is what his parents reportedly did when he was born. "Hey," says Klein, "if you had your first kid at 100 and your wife was 90, you'd have to laugh too."

Jokes are in Jews' genes, the product of the extreme experiences of pain and pleasure that forges the psychological skill to make fun of adversity.

"People are standing in front of a German firing squad. One says, 'Long live the homeland.' 'Shhh,' says another. 'Don't make trouble.' " -- Mort Sahl

In the early 20th century, New York's lower east side had a denser population than Calcutta does today -- there were 500 people per acre, and a pervasive sense of doom and gloom. "But what a fabulous new field for complaints, doubts and guilt," Klein observes. "A triple 'oy vey.' "

As Jews climbed into the middle-class, they escaped the stress of city life to summer in the Catskills. Their common experience was fodder for Edward Israel Iskowitz, rebranded as Eddie Cantor; Nathan Birnbaum, reborn as George Burns; and orthodox Benjamin Kubelsky, who emerged as Jack Benny.

The successful ones moved into the broader American entertainment landscape of network TV, where Danny Kaye (nee David Daniel Kaminsky), Sid Caesar and Woody Allen helped America become somewhat less culturally homogenous. Where Alan King was so big he gave a command performance for Queen Elizabeth. According to Frank, there is no record of Her Majesty's reaction when, after greeting the comedian,"Hello, Mr. King," he replied in kind: "Hello Mrs. Queen."

From Catskills' mouth to Liz's ears.

"No Jew at that time ever went back to Europe [on vacation]," Jackie Mason explained, "because they just came from Europe ... and that's where everybody got killed."

Deprivation and scarcity were American Jews' history, and they continue to reside in the collective memory. Black-and-white footage depicts a young Woody Allen in front of a microphone, fingering his pocket watch. "An antique gold heirloom," he muses. "My grandfather on his deathbed sold me this watch."

Every summer Jews poured into New York's Ulster and Sullivan counties to fill 500-plus hotels, bungalows and rooming houses. Big and plenty was the antidote to scarcity, and here in the Borscht Belt -- the Sour Cream Sierras, the Right Stuffing -- more was more, for guest and entertainer alike.

"Jewish parents feed their children certain kinds of foods to keep them from moving quick ... matzo balls." -- Dick Shawn

"Gentiles almost never went [to the Catskills]," Jackie Mason says, "They never heard of the place. Half of the Jews never saw a gentile. A gentile was something you saw in the movies. ... You saw Gary Cooper, you said, 'That was a gentile.' ... there's no such thing as a 6-foot tall Jew."

His career change from rabbi to hotel social director provided Mason with material for his standup routine: "Gentiles are running, playing basketball, volleyball, handball, running back and forth... A Jew says, 'You see a piece of cake here?' "

Family life and gender relations were regular fare for the comedians -- well, the male comedians, anyway. And apart from Fanny Brice, Totie Fields and Joan Rivers, the comedians were male.

"My wife can't cook at all. In my backyard the flies chipped in to fix the screen door." -- Rodney Dangerfield

One of the talking head professors who clearly has the gene, remarks that, "Sex, according to my mother, is a very fine department store on Fifth Avenue."

But summer is for romance, and there was no shortage in the Borscht Belt. As a young male hotel worker, to Klein, the pool of potential hookups was a"kosher candy store ... for other guys."

"In my house I can't relax. I told my kid, 'Someday you'll have children of your own.' He said, 'so will you.' " -- Rodney Dangerfield

"Bungalow bunny" was the term for housewives who had flings with younger men. Larry King, who has been married to seven women over eight marriages, got his first carnal sample when he was a high schooler working as a busboy.

It happened on the baseball field with a married woman whose husband came to the mountains only on the weekends. He "scored," King says, at home plate.

"This woman goes to a palm reader to have her palm read. The palm reader says, 'Your husband will die a violent death.' The woman says, 'Will I be acquitted?' " -- Mickey Freeman

Today, almost nothing is left of what, for 50 years, was the largest resort region in the U.S. Only one hotel remains, and, as Frank said, much of what's left is rubble. There are weeds, he says, growing in the stairway of the once-grand Concord Hotel, where there's also a chandelier and a mirror.

Weird. Not funny.

What happened was time. The Woodstock music festival in Sullivan County signified the cultural change in America, and comedians like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, who were never popular in the Borscht Belt, took center stage with their edgy political humor as restless America moved into the 1970s. By the 1980s the Catskills were over.

"Nixon's the kind of guy who, if you were drowning 20 feet from the shore, would throw you a 15-foot rope. Kissinger would say he met you more than halfway." -- Mort Sahl

That's sad. But this film isn't, so maybe the techno-interruptus of our screening was kismet. The screening audience was deprived of the post-mortem comments, but left the theater smiling.

You can see the whole story starting Friday at some Laemmle Theatres. Link here for a trailer, and here for the production's website.

August 4, 2013

'Blackfish' another nail in the coffin of animal entertainment

Photo: Suzanne Allee

A few years ago, I took my 17-year old daughter to Atlanta to visit my mom. While there, we decided to take a break and visit the Atlanta aquarium. We had been told it was a "state of the art" facility, with an overhead shark tank and other special exhibits. We spent a couple of hours there. The halls were packed with people of all ages, many carrying cuddly little stuffed sharks and toys, and the main event was a tank the size of several football fields filled with 3,000 species of fish. At the end of the visit, my daughter and I both agreed: We'd never go back.

It was unsettling at best, and pathetic for anyone with empathy for these creatures, to see so many fish that should be swimming in the ocean crowded into tanks for the benefit of human entertainment.

It made us think about zoos and animal shows in a different way. In fact, with interactive entertainment what it is today, I am wondering if zoos themselves have become obsolete. It seems that there is no real reason to capture animals and take them out of their natural habitat when we can create computer environments that take you to their habitat without disturbing their lives. As far as teaching our children about the wonders of nature, it seems crazy to try to simulate their habitat for our benefit, and runs counter to the lessons we are trying to teach our kids about respecting and preserving nature's communities.

Another nail in the coffin of animal entertainment is the recently-opened documentary Blackfish, about the business of packaging and training orcas, or killer whales, to entertain us. If you have children, you've probably been to Sea World in San Diego or Orlando, Florida. I guarantee that if you see this movie, you won't be going back to Sea World anytime soon. Or ever.

The film was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and made without the cooperation of Sea World but with the cooperation of several former Sea World trainers. It tells the very sad story of Tilikum, one of the most famous performing orcas that has had a checkered past in captivity. Tilikum was responsible for killing the experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 and Keltie Byrne in 1991 when Tilikum was owned by Sealand of the Pacific. Tilikum is currently housed at Sea World and used for breeding purposes only.

Tilikum began his life in captivity 30 years ago and the interview with John Crowe, a hardbitten and world weary sailor who was among the crew that helped chase down and separate a young calf from its mother and their pod in 1970, is wrenching to watch. It's obvious that Crowe has never forgotten it, or forgiven himself for his part in the hunt. In the wild, orcas remain with their family for decades and have extremely long life spans. In captivity, their lives are shorter and often much more violent — to each other as well as their trainers. There is chilling video of physical damage that orcas have inflicted on each other, and tales of stomach problems from their diet in captivity and anxiety-provoked behavior due to conditions like light deprivation and enclosures that are stimulus deprived and too small for their size.

Through interviews with former Sea World trainers and video clips of incidents with other killer whales and from public record of the Brancheau case filed against Sea World by OSHA, Tilikum's erratic and dangerous behavior in captivity, and Sea World's effort to keep the public and even its trainers from learning about episodes of his violent past, Cowperthwaite makes a strong case against life in captivity for these mammals whose brains are more complex than ours.

The interviews with trainers who saw Brancheau's death, and with two witnesses to Byrne's death, fly in the face of Sea World's explanations of what happened: that Byrne slipped and fell into the water, dying quickly of hypothermia, and that Brancheau's poor choice of hairstyle, a pony tail, gave Tilikum something to grab onto as she slipped into the water by mistake. Witnesses have said she was pulled into the water by Tilikum and was not released until the whale was put into a smaller tank and prodded with sticks to open its mouth and release her as the water began to be drained from the tank.

The level of deception and corporate-speak on the part of Sea World makes the attempts to sugar-coat these incidents egregrious. As you learn more about what life is like in captivity for these majestic creatures, and how their exploitation goes hand-in-hand with commercial success, Cowperthwaite makes a damning case against Sea World and, by extension, any program that takes these creatures out of the natural habitat and into a life in captivity.

In the end, it makes it difficult to justify keeping these majestic killer whales living in tin bathtubs so we can watch them perform. It's hard to justify a way of life for these creatures that seems barbaric at least, and certainly out of balance with nature and the life they should be living in the wild.

July 22, 2013

A peek inside Universal's closet

Poppy Cannon-Reese gives a fast tour of the Universal Studios Costume Department. Universal video

Color photos by Judy Graeme. Click any photo to enlarge

When Poppy Cannon-Reese became manager of the Universal Studios Costume Department two years ago, she already had an insider's knowledge of the warehouse-like place. During her long career as a costume designer and stylist for commercials and feature films, Cannon-Reese had been a frequent client, routinely making Universal the first stop of her day. "Because it's open at seven in the morning, before the stores open, you can come here and get a fix on what you need and get if you have to dress a bunch of guys walking down the street in flannel shirts and jeans, we have all that," she says. Almost anything that is required to create the look of a character can be found there — more than a million pieces from monster masks to cowboy hats in many sizes are available for rental.

Universal's costume department takes up the whole fourth floor of the Edith Head Building.

The department, which dates to when Universal opened as a studio in 1915, occupies an entire floor of the Edith Head Building on the lot. Items cater to all kinds of productions, including feature films, television, commercials and music videos. The Universal Costume Department is on the circuit of essential resources that Hollywood costumers rely on, along with Western Costume in North Hollywood, the Warner Brothers costume department in Burbank and Palace Costume in West Hollywood.

uni-costumes-monster-masks.jpgCannon-Reese already knew everyone in the department when she arrived, including her predecessor, Larry Harnell, who retired after 46 years. When the job opened up, she says it was "like a bolt of lightning. I knew I needed to apply! I was excited about the possibilities and what I could do. Our clients are basically people who shop all day long, so my goal is to make them as comfortable as they are at Neiman Marcus or Bloomingdales. If you can speed up anybody's day by making it easier, that's my goal."

The Costume Department, she says, is like a giant closet. "You have to know what you can keep and what to get rid of. We edit periodically and donate to charitable organizations." She oversees a staff of 18, including dressmaker John Hayles, who worked with Marilyn Monroe early in his career. (All are members of Costumers Union Local 705.) They service costumers and stylists all day, including A-list Hollywood designers such as Colleen Atwood, Marlene Stewart and Sanja Hays. She finds them fun to work with because they "have a strong point of view, and a strong sense of what they are looking for. Plus, their personal styles are always fascinating. They always know exactly what they want."

uni-costumes-dress-forms.jpgSince the closet always gets full, Cannon-Reese and her staff are always on the lookout for pieces to send to the Universal archive located in Sunland. They recently found Tippi Hedren's dress from Alfred Hitchcock's "Marni," Michelle Pfeiffers dress from "Scarface," and Marlon Brando's costume pattern from "Mutiny on the Bounty." "Once something goes to archive it never gets worn again," she said.

The Costume Department has also recently been added to the Universal Studios Hollywood VIP Experience tour. This tour, unlike the one most visitors take, is conducted in small groups and includes more work-a-day, hidden areas like sound stages and the props warehouse. "I think it's really important for us to be on the tour...for visitors to the lot to see the costumes because to me there's a magic, an inherent value and beauty," says Cannon-Reese. "I love my clients and the stylists but in some ways it's as important to show the public the glamour of the film industry in person — where you can actually be right there with it and touch it. I think we give them a really good look behind the scenes."

The Universal costume department circa 1916, courtesy of Universal Studios archive.

Boots and hats.

Cloche hats that would be right at home in 'Downton Abbey.'

July 21, 2013

'Chinatown' screening in Union Station (photo)


We went to see "Chinatown" at Union Station along with a few hundred other folks for the closing night of the Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles. Great film, great location.

July 6, 2013

Tom Bergin's House of Secrets: My Kiefer Sutherland story

kiefer-sutherland-rolling-stone01.jpgTom Bergin's "House of Irish Coffee" Tavern will stop pouring Sunday, after 77 years in business, 64 of them in its current Fairfax location — an eternity by L.A. standards. I'll leave it to others to eulogize the fabled saloon, whose walls and ceilings are layered with thousands of cardboard shamrocks, each bearing the name of a longtime patron. (When I proudly received my shamrock nearly 30 years ago, I looked at all the fading 30-year-old shamrocks on the wall and thought, "Those guys must be really old now!")

But for now I'll share a tale that emblemizes the kind of place Bergin's was, a longstanding neighborhood bar where locals could cavort with the occasional drop-by celeb, ranging from Luke Perry up to Cary Grant.

It was after work one day in June 1991 that I happened to be having a round of drinks at Tom Bergin's with a couple of friends, seated in a booth near the entrance. We had beaten the boisterous happy-hour crowd, so it was easy to spot none other than actor Kiefer Sutherland, sipping a beer alone at the bar. He was at the end of the horseshoe near the restrooms. His "K. Sutherland" shamrock loomed unobtrusively high above him, out of reach (and, unless you were specifically looking for it, out of sight) on a high beam. It was paired with the shamrock for "J. Roberts," his then-fiancee "Pretty Woman" Julia Roberts. Their elaborate and much anticipated Hollywood wedding was scheduled for three days hence. Kiefer was then exactly 24 (!), and considered by many to be the luckiest dude on the planet, having captured the heart of America's sweetheart (his co-star in "Flatliners.") He had made his mark in Hollywood, not just as the son of Donald Sutherland, but with a mixed bag of films, most notably "Stand By Me" and "Young Guns." This was a full decade before he achieved household-name status as a TV star in a revolutionary and topical action series.

That summer day at Bergin's, my two pals and I did what any right-thinking tavern denizens would do — we had the waiter send over a congratulatory drink. But these were not typical circumstances. You see, unbeknownst to the young actor, my friends were David Rensin and Bill Zehme, two of the magazine industry's leading celebrity journalists. David was among the top-tier Playboy interviewers who coaxed gems from the mouths of A-list luminaries, and Bill had made his reputation getting infamously reclusive superstars such as Warren Beatty and Johnny Carson to spill their guts for Rolling Stone. In short, these guys are Zen masters in the art of the revelatory conversation, and know how to get the goods. At the time, I was the West Coast bureau chief for Us Magazine, and on the cusp of hosting and producing my own celebrity talk show for E! TV. The impending Julia/Kiefer nuptials was far and away the hottest story in our realm. So you'd be forgiven for envisioning three vultures circling their unwitting prey.

But that's not at all how it went down. As far as we were concerned, we were officially "off duty." We wanted to send over a drink not to lure Kiefer into a drunken conversation that would appease our curiosity and earn us points with our editors and readers. We simply wanted to do the menschkeit thing and offer him man-to-man salutations and congratulations. We wouldn't spook him by revealing our professional identities. We also made an informal pact to not tell our editors that we had encountered him on the eve of the year's most anticipated wedding, out of respect for a guy who's just enjoying the luxury of a quiet moment at one of his favorite saloons before the whirlwind that awaited him.

He accepted the drink and casually brought it over to our booth to say thanks. We offered him a seat and he joined us. We chatted. He had already married, fathered a daughter, and gone through divorce, but because we were about a decade older, we didn't refrain from offering upbeat big-brother advice. David was (and is) happily married and then had a young son. Bill and I had each recently gone through divorce hell, with its attendant child-custody traumas. So we all had perspectives to share. More than that you won't get out of me.

Except for the fact that Kiefer said nothing whatsoever that prepared us for the shock that awaited us the next morning, when the headlines screamed that his wedding to Julia Roberts was called off!

Immediately Rensin, Zehme and I phoned each other, in those pre- texting dark ages, though in current parlance our reaction was the equivalent of "WTF?!?!" It wasn't clear WHO put the kibosh on the wedding, but either way, we had to wonder — did it happen BEFORE we ran into Kiefer, and he was stoically but surreptitiously nursing his wounds? (If so, what an actor!) Or did he then go home AFTER Bergin's to discover that Julia had pulled the plug — and if so, why? (If it was because she detected booze on his breath, we were prepared to be character witnesses to salvage the ceremony.) Or could HE have been the one who got cold feet? And, horror of horrors (we joked, as we reconstructed the conversation for clues), was it because of something we had said?

Such a mystery! Without revealing our rendezvous, I advised my US editors back in New York that Kiefer and Julia had side-by-side shamrocks at a nearby Irish bar, and offered to photograph it for their inevitable story. But when I went there for lunch, Kiefer's shamrock remained, but Julia's had magically vanished. So I snapped a shot of the solo shamrock, which took on a special poignance.

As fate would have it, about a week or so later, I was attending a play at the Mark Taper theater in downtown L.A. As the houselights were dimming for the show to begin, I suddenly noticed that right behind me was seated none other than Kiefer Sutherland. I remember being impressed that, so shortly after the big brouhaha, he was showing his face in public. Throughout the first act, I was distracted by trying to think of what to say to him during intermission. I wanted to find out exactly what he knew during our Bergin's escapade, but how to ask? And would he wonder if I was stalking him?

I needn't have worried, because the second the houselights came back on, he darted out to the plaza for a smoke with his pals tightly clustered around him — I lingered and tried to eavesdrop nearby, but ultimately it was not an auspicious opportunity to be peppering the poor guy with stupid questions.

Eventually it came out that Julia thought Kiefer had cheated on her with a stripper. He denied it, but she nonetheless saw fit to run off on what was to have been their wedding day with his actor pal, Jason Patric — to Ireland! So there you have it, a plot straight out of Hollywood, by way of Dublin. Twice!

Kiefer stayed busy for the next decade as a working pro with a long string of, alas, inconsequential films — more than 70 to date. But then he famously hit his stride as counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer in Fox's adrenalized series, "24," and the rest is history. The inception and demise of his second brief marriage, in the '90s, escaped wide notice. (Though the tabloids did have a field day with his two post-2000 DUI convictions, one of which resulted in a 48-day jail sentence.)

Kiefer's shamrock is still hanging high above the barstool where we spotted him. Until Sunday anyway. And, yes, I still wonder what was really whirling through his mind that evening at Bergin's 22 years ago.

May 17, 2013

Valley Girl at 30

At LACMA on Thursday night, a packed and very excited audience, some dressed in 80's garb, watched a screening of "Valley Girl" as the the museum's Film Independent program celebrated the movie's 30th anniversary. "This film was well-researched and shot in Los Angeles. It is about our cultural history," director Martha Coolidge told the crowd.

Although everyone laughed and applauded every character and Los Angeles landmark, from the Sherman Oaks Galleria to the Mulholland Drive overlook and Grauman's Chinese, no one would argue with Coolidge when she said of the film, "It's serious." Nicolas Cage made his screen debut in the film, at age 18, and Coolidge entertained with stories from the set. She said that despite the backer's demands that breasts be bared for rating's sake, when they saw the whole movie for the first time they said incredulously: "It's a real film. It's about something." Indeed, the screenwriters were determined to make a film that mattered, not just another movie about teens looking for sex. There are threads that go back to Romeo and Juliet, and scenes with the heroine's hippie parents nearly brought down the house while showing the movie's great heart.

After the show, those audience members who dressed up were summoned to the stage for a costume contest. Then everyone headed to the LACMA courtyard for a reception under the watchful eye of Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."


Photos by Iris Schneider. Top, the crowd. Bottom, Coolidge and Elvis Mitchell.

May 16, 2013

Ricky Jay's tricks and treats

The film opens on a masculine pair of hands having intimate relations with a deck of cards. Shuffle, cut, caress, they are as rhythmic and intricate as partners in a "Swan Lake" pas de deux.

"Cards are like living, breathing human beings," intones a male voice, "I suppose because they give you real pleasure."
Ricky Jay-Kino Lorber.jpg
The speaker/card choreographer is Ricky Jay, whose sleight-of-hand artistry has long secured his spot atop the magic mountain. "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" shows as much as tells his story at the Nuart Theatre in West L.A. starting Friday.

Occasionally cantankerous and famously brilliant, Jay is an historian and scholar of magic, an author, speaker and actor who has been known to make people weep with incredulity. In reviewing his 1994 one-man show "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants," The New York Times said "You aren't asked to suspend disbelief--you have no choice."

He's juicy grist for the documentary mill. This is a man who can turn the jack of clubs into club soda but can't program a number into his cellphone. This is a man who claims to "know absolutely nothing about the 20th century," but waxes sweetly in a telephone interview about Nippy cheese and the joys of pastrami at Langer's Deli.

Like many illusionists and conjurers, Jay's affection for deception came early, courtesy of his grandfather Max Katz and his network of renowned magicians--Slydini, Cardini, Al Flosso, Francis Carlyle and Roy Benson--who taught the kid how to fool people. By the time he was 4, Jay was performing, and by 7 was making money at it.

Magic is deception, but also, as Jay says in the film, "inherently honest. That's the major difference between deception as crime and deception as performance."

The best practitioners amuse while they deceive. A black-and-white TV clip in the film features Flosso's Catskills patter as he pulls coins from the nose of the usually leaden Ed Sullivan, who can't contain his laughter. As a kid, Jay, who grew up in Brooklyn, was enamored of Flosso; estranged from his family, Jay recalls poignantly that the only kind memory he has of his parents is when they arranged, as a surprise, for Flosso to perform at his bar mitzvah.

In the 1970s, after appearing on "The Tonight Show," flirting with academia at Cornell and performing at The Electric Circus nightclub sandwiched between Timothy Leary lecturing about acid and Ike and Tina Turner, Jay left New York for Los Angeles, where he hooked up with two seminal influences, Charlie Miller and Dai Vernon. As Jay describes, it was a time of "total immersion" in the art of artifice, when they'd hang out at the Magic Castle until 2 a.m., then repair to Canter's until dawn.

Vernon, a charming raconteur and ladies' man, approached card handling as an engineering feat. He once told Persi Diaconis, Jay's friend and a professor of statistics and mathematics at Stanford, that he had captured the essence of pure sleight of hand in a single sentence. Which he declined to share with Diaconis.

"Did he ever tell it to you?" LAObserved asked Jay in the phone interview.


"Do you think he'd formulated such a sentence, or just said he had?"

"It's absolutely possible that [Diaconis] was being conned," Jay said with a note of reverence. "Vernon was that kind of character. ... He was a game player and a terrific one." Jay spontaneously recites by heart a passage from a decades-old New Yorker profile of Vernon: "In the performance of good magic the mind is led on, step-by-step, to ingeniously defeat its logic."

Some of the film's talking heads are recognizable. David Mamet, who directed Jay's stage shows as well as his performances in feature films, speaks to his intellectual devotion to magic. Steve Martin makes us laugh as he's being conned by the long-haired, bell-bottomed Jay on Dinah Shore's afternoon talk show.

Other satellites in the Jay orbit are unfamiliar. Fred Neumann was Jay's aikido teacher. He remembered his pupil's stage trick when he turned two $1 bills into a single $2 bill, and decided to test Jay's magic mettle one day after class. Jay was in the shower when Neumann asked him to perform the trick.

"I'm not prepared," Jay objected. Then, naked and dripping wet, suddenly conjured two $1 bills and rendered them into a single $2 note. There is no martial art with that kind of power.

Jay's currency is the small-scale, sleight-of-hand act, so LAObserved asked his opinion of the Baz Luhrmann-esque magic extravaganzas popular in Vegas--you know, where the Statue of Liberty disappears, or people get sawed in half, then, one hopes, reconstituted. "It would be nice," Jay said, "for people to realize that magic is as different as styles of dance."

So the deceivers' clubhouse is a big tent, and if Jay isn't always keen to work with the elephant who is or isn't in the room, he still can do business there. Medical shows hire doctors and police procedurals hire cops to ensure plausibility, if not veracity, in their storytelling. Illusionists hire Deceptive Practices, the consulting company Jay and his partner, Michael Weber, own. Secrecy is to magic as omerta is to the Mafia, so Jay and Weber don't necessarily dish the tricks of their trade; they're more illusion-helpers who supply, as they say, "arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis."

They made Gary Sinise's legs disappear in "Forrest Gump." They built the heavenly stairway in "Angels in America." Such projects, Jay said on the phone, are an "exercise in problem-solving, which is particularly intriguing when it's probably nothing you'd do in your own performance. It's intellectually exciting."

Jay, who lives in L.A. (and won't identify the neighborhood because he deems that information "on a need to know basis"), seems unable to live without intellectual excitement, whether he's in the shower or having lunch.

Suzie Mackenzie knows. The British journalist was covering the filming of a BBC documentary about Jay when the director wanted him to recreate an illusion originally performed by Max Malini, a notable magician from the early 20th century. Jay balked at the request and left the set, suggesting to Mackenzie that they go to lunch. It was a hot day, the restaurant was noisy and Mackenzie was wary of Jay's mood and his prickly reputation.

Once they were seated, Mackenzie recalls in the film, Jay began to relax and talk about the difficulty on the set. With his menu propped in front of him, he explained the trick he'd been asked to replicate. Malini had made coins appear three times under a lady's hat sitting on a restaurant table. The fourth time he lifted the hat, instead of a coin there was a block of ice the size of a six pack.

At that point, Jay lifted his menu to reveal a huge, six-pack-sized block of ice.

Mackenzie burst into tears. "He said, 'I deceived you. It's what I do for a living."

"It's a moment I'll never have again. ... It was a supreme piece of artistry I witnessed, it was done for me. It was the most extraordinary thing I've ever seen in my life."

You must be quick to see "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" at Nuart — it's a disappearing act after May 23.

Photo and trailer courtesy Kino Lorber Inc.

April 25, 2013

Paris Photo comes to Hollywood

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Paris Photo is the annual photography fair held in France — transported to the U.S. this weekend for the first time. On the lot at Paramount Studios are gallery spaces, booksellers such as Taschen and Aperture and live artist conversations and film screenings. Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men," is one of the featured speakers. At the preview on Thursday, City Hall's culture maven Olga Garay-English welcomed the organizers to LA and Councilman Tom LaBonge presented a proclamation and a calendar.

Photos by Iris Schneider. Top, looking onto the New York backlot at Paramount Studios from a facade occupied for the weekend by Zucker Art Books. Below, display space inside facades on the studio's New York street.

paris-photo-3.jpg paris-photo-2.jpg

April 8, 2013

April in LA is for film and books

colcoa-poster-2013.jpgThe City of Lights, City of Angels Festival, celebrating the best in new and classic French films, will be held from April 15-22. Over 35 features will be screened at the Director's Guild in Hollywood and it's open to the public. While we know that a few of the films have already been picked up for release in the States, this may be your only chance to see most of these gems. Every genre of film is represented, but I am a sucker for French comedies so I am particularly looking forward to Daniele Thompson's "It Happened in Saint-Tropez," Christian Vincent's "Haute Cuisine" and Philippe Leguay's "Cycling with Moliere." There are opportunities to meet with filmmakers at the afternoon "happy hour" talks as well as classic films such as Louis Malle's "The Fire Within" and one my all time favorites, Jacques Demy's "Bay of Angels," both starring Jeanne Moreau. Tickets and more information

With the guessing games over who the next owner of the Los Angeles Times will be heating up, we should rejoice every year the Festival of Books continues. Started 18 years ago by Narda Zacchino and Steve Wasserman, both now long gone from the paper, the festival is a gift to the community. Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, April 20 and 21, USC will be host to over 100,000 people appreciating over 100 panels, stage presentations, music and children's programs. Admission is free as are all the outdoor events and most of the panels, but tickets are required for the indoor conversations, such as Joyce Carol Oates with Patt Morrison and Anna Quindlen with Karen Grigsby Bates. These are always popular and for thirty dollars you can buy a pass that allows you to reserve a spot at up to eight of the conversations.

Outdoor stage events this year include such big names as Debbie Reynolds, Paul Anka and Valerie Harper and there are dozens of panels focusing on history, biography, fiction, crime — you name the genre. The festival is akin to Queen for a Day for authors who toil alone to create their works and suddenly are surrounded by so many readers. They come from all over the country for this special weekend so it seems like the least we locals can do is show up and take advantage of it while we still have it. This year, for the first time, there is the added advantage that the Expo Line drops you right in front of campus. More details

The most recent addition to the April festival calendar is the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. We are so spoiled here in Los Angeles with the Academy, the Cinematheque and UCLA screening classic films all year round, but last year several thousand attendees from 49 states poured into Hollywood to remind us of the incredible pull the home of the movies has on the world. The Fourth TCM Festival will be held April 25th through the 29th and they take over the Roosevelt Hotel and the Loews at Hollywood and Highland for a packed schedule that gives audiences a choice of four or five films at a time, from early morning until late at night. Films are screened at Grauman's, El Capitan and the Egyptian.

Highlights this year include Jane Fonda immortalizing her hand prints in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese theater and introducing "On Golden Pond" and stars such as Max von Sydow and Eva Marie Saint discussing their extraordinary lives and careers. Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow will be in conversation with Carl Davis, the composer and conductor who has illuminated and elevated Kevin's restorations of films such as "The Wind," "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" and the incomparable "Napoleon." Still, it is the simple joy of watching a great movie on the big screen that has to be the biggest draw of the festival. This year's sampling includes "The Great Escape," "Bonnie and Clyde," "On the Waterfront" and "From Russia with Love" as well as brilliant comedies such as "The Lady Eve," "Ninotchka," "Libeled Lady" and "It Happened One Night." A few passes are still available and tickets for individual films can be purchased on a first come, first served, stand by basis for twenty dollars each, ten for students, at the theater box office. Full schedule

Why was I at Ebert's funeral?


CHICAGO -- I gave the Roger Ebert prayer card a quick look Monday morning on the walk to my seat in Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral, then tucked it into the back of my notebook and waited for the funeral to start.

It was 9:30 and about half the seats available for the 10-o'clock service were still empty. Iron barricades that stretched more than halfway around the block -- down N State Street to E Chicago and N Wabash avenues -- emphasized the unrealized expectation of a capacity crowd. Perhaps people stayed away after hearing the morning TV news warnings of a limited number of public seats. Maybe it was the weather -- the forecast promised the warmest day yet this spring, but the morning was rainy and cold.

The Cubs home opener also might've been a factor, though the game wasn't until afternoon and, besides that, Cubs super-fan Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers found the time to show up, albeit clothed from head to toe in signature Cubs pinstripes. One other Cubs fan seated in a pew in the center of the church caught Woo Woo's attention prior to the service and flashed a peek of the Cubs jersey concealed beneath his coat.

Welcome to Chicago.

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He interviewed Jackie Robinson near the end

jackie-ruby-dee-lapl.jpg"42," Brian Helgeland's earnest, by-the-numbers film account of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color line, takes place a decade before the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Any chance that Robinson might have accompanied the team to Los Angeles ended when he was traded to the Giants in 1957, a year before the two teams moved west. Rather than accept the trade, Robinson promptly retired, and thus began a feud with Walter O'Malley, and with all of baseball, that lasted until his death in 1972.

Robinson never bothered to hide his antipathy toward the game he had done so much to change. He participated in very few of its ceremonial events over the years and refused to go to old timers games so often that teams stopped inviting him.

One notable exception occurred on June 4, 1972, when Robinson agreed to come to Dodger Stadium to have his number retired. He had resisted the idea for many years but finally Don Newcombe, his old friend and teammate who worked in the Dodgers' community relations department, convinced him.

The death of Gil Hodges two months earlier might have played a role in Robinson's change of heart, Newcombe told me at the time. At the funeral for the former Dodger first baseman, Robinson said he had always thought he might be the first Brooklyn player of that era to die.

"He knows he's been bitter about a lot of things and he doesn't want people to remember him that way," Newcombe said, adding that he thought Robinson regretted his estrangement from baseball.

Though 1972 was the 25th anniversary of Robinson's major-league debut, baseball took no official notice of the milestone--perhaps because he might have wanted nothing to do with it--and there was little public fuss over the fact that he was in town. I was covering the Dodgers for the Times then and recall no press conference nor did anyone connected with the team suggest Robinson might be available for an interview. He was staying at the Biltmore, I was told when I inquired. I could try to reach him there.

I asked the voice answering the phone if I could speak to Jackie Robinson and was startled to learn that I was doing so. Anybody can just call in off the street and talk to Jackie Robinson? I thought. Flustered, I asked if it might be possible to meet with him, if he might have just a moment when he was not too busy.

"Come on over now," he said.

The room was dark when I entered and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust well enough to see that nobody had been much concerned with Robinson's comfort. The room was tiny, and he was in bed under the covers.

"The light hurts my eyes," he said as he switched on a small bedside lamp so I could see my notebook.

Robinson's health was a disaster by then. He had had a heart attack, suffered from diabetes, was blind in one eye and was seriously overweight. He could no longer drive a car or play golf--the race track was his last remaining refuge--and at Dodger Stadium the next day I would see that he had the slow shuffling gait of a man in his 80s. I found this almost unbearably sad for two reasons.

One is that Robinson was very likely the greatest athlete of his generation. Baseball aside, he had been a magnificent football player and world-class long jumper at UCLA, and Harley Tinkham, a veteran Times sportswriter whose opinions in such matters were never challenged, once told me that his best sport was basketball.

The second reason for my chagrin was that the elderly man under the covers trying to shut out the light in the middle of the afternoon was only 53 years old.

Robinson's physical decline was purely that, though. Neither his mind nor his passions had diminished in the slightest.

There is a theory that Robinson compensated for Branch Rickey's orders not to fight back during his first years in baseball by making up for it the rest of his life. Whatever the truth of the first part of that equation, there can be no doubt about the second. The Dodgers could honor him by retiring his number, but if they expected him to return the favor they were sadly mistaken.

"Baseball and Jackie Robinson haven't had much to say to each other," Robinson told me, and he recounted a conversation he had had the day before with Dodgers President Peter O'Malley in which he had expressed his displeasure at the fact there were no black managers in baseball. (Frank Robinson would not break that barrier for another two years.)

"I told Peter I was disturbed at the way baseball treats its black players after their playing days are through," he said. "It's hard to look at a sport which black athletes have virtually saved and when a managerial job opens they give it to a guy who's failed in other areas because he's white."

O'Malley had seemed genuinely concerned, Robinson said, and he was grateful for that, but it was not enough. Any reconciliation with the Dodgers, it was clear, would never be truly complete.

Robinson was trapped between Rickey, the man he revered, and Walter O'Malley, who had taken control of the team in Brooklyn. O'Malley believed Rickey had cheated him out of $50,000 in the transaction ("That was a lot of money in those days," Peter O'Malley said) and the rift had never healed.

"Anybody who had anything to do with Mr. Rickey was a bad guy to Walter O'Malley," Robinson said. "When Mr. Rickey left the club, there were real problems between me and Mr. O'Malley based on my relationship with Mr. Rickey."

As for the next day's ceremonies, Robinson seemed almost weary that anyone might think they would somehow lessen the distance he felt between himself and the Dodgers in particular and the game of baseball in general.

"I couldn't care less if someone is out there wearing 42," he said. "It is an honor, but I get more of a thrill knowing there are people in baseball who believe in advancement based on ability. I'm more concerned about what I think about myself than what other people think. I think if you look back at why people think of me the way they do it's because white America doesn't like a black guy who stands up for what he believes. I don't feel baseball owes me a thing and I don't owe baseball a thing. I am glad I haven't had to go to baseball on my knees."

An hour passed speedily by and I knew it was time to go, to let him turn off the lamp and rest. But suddenly I was surprised to hear myself asking a question I had not prepared--one I had never asked a sports figure before and never expect to ask again. Had he ever, I wondered, thought about his place in history? His answer indicated that he had.

"I honestly believe that baseball did set the stage for many things that are happening today and I'm proud to have played a part in it." Robinson said. "But I'm not subservient to it."

Not willing to rest, in other words. Not willing to let his game, or his country, off the hook.

The next morning, I saw Robinson down on the field at Dodger Stadium where the buzz of ballplayers gathered around the batting cage melded amiably with the activity of workers setting up microphones for the number-retirement ceremonies for himself, Roy Campanella and Sandy Koufax. He seemed to be enjoying himself as he chatted with several people when suddenly a shout came from the stands just to the third-base side of home plate.

"Mr. Robinson! Can I have your autograph! Would you sign this, please! Here! Catch!"

A middle-aged man threw a baseball out of the stands and it hit Robinson in the head, knocking his Dodger cap to the ground. Only then could I see how blind he truly was. The throw had been an underhand lob an eight-year-old could have caught with ease, but he had never seen it coming. Robinson was stunned, but mercifully unhurt. The fan was desolate with apologies.

A week later, I received a shock of my own when a letter from Robinson, personally typed from all indications, appeared in my mailbox. My article had been all right, he said, but there was one thing he wanted to straighten out.

Don Newcombe had been trying to peddle that garbage about him regretting his estrangement from the Dodgers and from baseball for years and I was not to believe a word of it. He regretted nothing, he wrote, nothing at all.

Four months later, having raged against the dying of the light until the end, he was dead.

Portions of this blog post ran previously in the Los Angeles Times Magazine

Jackie Robinson played himself alongside actress Ruby Dee in 1950's "The Jackie Robinson Story." Photo: Los Angeles Public Library Herald Examiner Collection.

March 11, 2013

Dress, dine and drink advice for Last Remaining Seats

last-remaining-seats-2012.jpgPatrons dressed for "Paper Moon" at the Los Angeles Theatre during Last Remaining Seats in 2012. Photo: Douglas Hill.

For real Angelenos, the Los Angeles Conservancy announcing its Last Remaining Seats season is the first true sign of summer coming. A few years ago, after seeing how people waited in line dressed up in period wear, I started offering ideas to make the screening a full experience. Fortunately, not many took me up on the fashion tips. So I will try again. Here are some dress, dine and drink options for this year's 27th edition of Last Remaining Seats. The majestic palaces are the real stars, so they get top billing on this list.

Orpheum Theatre (1926)
"To Catch a Thief" (1955)
Saturday, June 1

Costume designer Edith Head fussed over Grace Kelly's Frances Stevens, so a French Riviera Technicolor is draped and fitted fashion glam on the Hitchcockian blonde. Not that Cary Grant's retired jewel thief, John Robie, was just slumming in his smart sneaky loafers. If you decide to be a fashion copycat of the feline femme fatale or former cat burglar, elegance is the key. Wear 1955 style with conman-like confidence and you can slip in the new French bistro, Figaro, on Broadway. You can also opt for downtown French spots, Coco Laurent, or the Arts District-based Church & State.

"The cat has a new kitten." -- Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly)

Trailer: To Catch a Thief

• • •

Palace Theatre (1911)
"La Bamba" (1987)
Wednesday, June 5
Co-presented with the Latin American Cinemateca of Los Angeles

This screening of the Ritchie Valens biopic is so close to home, one can picture the young Valenzuela family bringing the future rock 'n' roll comet and his siblings to Broadway to watch movies. That is pure conjecture, of course. So is imagining what kind of career Valens would have had. A striking thought when you consider the boy from Pacoima would be the same age as Bob Dylan. Enough personal sentiment; grab a skinny tie and press a white shirt to wear under that 1959-era sweater or shiny jacket. Make dining a quick bite at Grand Central Market. We're in a hurry. Come on. Let's go.

"My mom reckons I'm going to be a star. And stars don't fall from the sky." -- Ritchie Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips)

Trailer: La Bamba

• • •

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (1964)
My Fair Lady (1964)
Wednesday, June 12
Presented as part of Curating the City: Modern Architecture in L.A.

In early 1964, "My Fair Lady" was released. Later that same year, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion opened to be a cornerstone to make Los Angeles more presentable to high society. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion shares the aura of Henry Higgins's socialite mother. Both mother Chandler and Higgins want their immediate world to catch up with their expectations. It doesn't stop as civic planning has Grand Park shaping more Pygmalion effect for downtown. As for fashion, you may think dressing up to fit the tempo for "My Fair Lady" is unpractical, but consider this: In 2011, Sue Wong's Fall 2011 collection was a nod to the film's Edwardian styling and theme of transformation. That is something to mull over while having ricotta dumplings or sticky toffee pudding at The Parish, an English gastro-pub that, by the way, is only a few blocks away from the Flower District.

"Bravo. Eliza." -- Mrs. Higgins (Gladys Cooper)

Trailer: My Fair Lady

• • •

All About Eve (1950)
Los Angeles Theatre (1931)
Wednesday, June 19

Margo Channing's inner circle of theater friends and colleagues are a harsh bitter bunch. They do very little intervention on behalf of the aging actress being nipped at her high heels by an ambitious ingénue. Still, they all bring fabulous style while being crafty and catty -- even the men. Match that thin sincerity by wearing the best faux fur you have and stroll into the Biltmore like you own the joint. Find a staircase to stand on and brood while you decide which elegant restaurant will make it all about you. No reservation at any downtown place with dark woods and cocktails with personality? Talk your way in. That's what Eve Harrington would have done.

"I detest cheap sentiment." - Margo Channing (Bette Davis)

Trailer: All About Eve

• • •

Wednesday, June 26
Ben-Hur (1925)
Orpheum Theatre (1926)

Roaming downtown Los Angeles in robes may have people thinking you are seeking to be touched by the hand of Kevin Lee Light, the tall "Jesus in L.A." It may be best to think fashion circa 1925, the year this silent epic was released. Or come as you are, you cubicle wage slaves hoping to take to your chariots and win the race to freedom. Incidentally, if you are traveling from the Westside, you may not be far off from Ben Hur's path. According to AFI, modern documentation says the set for the chariot race was near the intersection of what's "now La Cienega and Venice Blvds." To stay in the right time zone as the motion picture, have an after-screening drink at Formosa Café, which also opened in 1925.

"-- Stately and beautiful: but under the beauty, deep-locked in the heart of each ship, a hell of human woe." -- Title Card as it dissolves into interior of ship's slave galley.

Trailer: Ben Hur

• • •

Saban Theatre (1930)
Casablanca (1942)
Saturday, June 29 (Two shows)

If only the two screenings of "Casablanca" were held downtown. The Hotel Figueroa's Moroccan motif would have been an ideal place to have a pre-show gathering with the usual suspects. Still, the art deco jewel Beverly Hills' Saban Theatre lands you near Tagine, a modern throwback to Rick's Café Américain. The menu and mood clings to the ideals of a romantic location that proved past love can find you, even if you are hiding away in a personal exile. Wear a white dinner jacket. You never know who will step back in your life.

"Why did you have to come to Casablanca? There are other places." -- Rick Blain (Humphrey Bogart)

Tickets go on sale to Conservancy members March 27 for $16, and to the general public April 10 for $20.

January 17, 2013

This film should walk the plank

unsinkable-henry-morgan.jpgChalk this up under "didn't see the forest for the trees." Or maybe "didn't see the seaweed for the sand."

The advance screening invitation Tuesday for "The Unsinkable Henry Morgan" at the too-hip Downtown Independent theater was promising. It teased 30 minutes of undersea adventure in the hope of creating buzz for the documentary's premiere on the Sundance Channel this Sunday night.

In 1671, Capt. Henry Morgan's fleet raided the Spanish settlement in Panama and probably burned it down (someone did; unclear who, but such brutal, king-of-the-mountain behavior was typical of Morgan) before karma ran his ships onto Lajas Reef, or some other neighborhood impediment.

Pirates are hot ... sorry, trending ... these days, or they were 10 minutes ago, and who doesn't love a story of pillaging and recovering the spoils of that pastime after 350 years of repose under the Caribbean Sea? We thought we would see tall tales and under-construction truths, learn how a renowned underwater archaeologist found and reclaimed the flagship of Morgan, the privateer representative of the British Empire in all its imperialistic glory, trying to horn in on Spain's New World action.

We thought "The Unsinkable Henry Morgan" would show how Fritz Hanselmann, chief underwater archaeologist at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, had found the sunken Satisfaction, as well as a bunch of historical artifacts.

What we saw was "My Dinner with Andre," with less action.

I'm no film critic, but it seems to me when you have all the raw material for a real-life swashbuckler, a history-infused contemporary quest for ships, cannons, swords and who knows what other undersea pirate-y loot, you tell that story. You don't spend 30 minutes filming a costume designer's creation of Morgan's coat, a watercolorist's depiction of a burning Panamanian settlement, a model maker's miniature Satisfaction, a chin-stroking author of a book about Morgan and a couple of travel journalists, all sitting around talking about how lucky they were to get this gig.

These folks are all accomplished members of their professions. But this isn't their story. It's Hanselmann's. Instead of wandering around in search of a storyline, of a way to let the audience down easy--spoiler alert!--when we learn that the divers found an authentic, 17th-century ship, but not one of Morgan's, the film just should have given Hanselmann the tiller.

He's an accomplished reclaimer of underwater historical treasure, and, for crying out loud, he looks like a pirate. He admitted as much during a Q&A at the theater after the screening. Solidly built with longish blond hair and a soul patch, Hanselmann is charming, one of probably few research scientists who can impart the gee-whizzery of a shell-encrusted cutlass in the context of the conservation necessary to preserve it for generations to come. He cares about the environment that is his office as much as the bounty it yields, and he's good at explaining why. He has the coolest job in the world, and we want to watch him do it, and talk about it.

Why the director, Michael Haussman, who also participated in the Q&A with disjointed, confused comments, chose to tell and not show this tale is a damn shame. All storytellers, at some point, struggle with how to relate a drama that ends in a way they don't anticipate. The problem with "The Unsinkable Henry Morgan" isn't that the ship they found wasn't Morgan's, the problem is that the film fails to embrace the journey, and to embrace Hanselmann as our guide.

Captain Morgan Rum, which funded the documentary, has to be disappointed that evidence of Henry Morgan remains sunk in the sand. But it should be even more disappointed that a good story foundered on the shoals of poor conception.

To see a trailer of the film, link here.

Photo: Sundance Channel

Frederick Wiseman talks film with Elvis Mitchell

Director Frederick Wiseman, still working at 83, was talking about his documentaries at LACMA's Film Independent program this past Friday night after a screening of his 2011 film "Boxing Gym." He sat with Elvis Mitchell who announced at the program's start that after the film, Wiseman would appear and answer questions--from Mitchell. (Note to Mitchell: Next time, it would be nice for the LACMA audience, many of whom are knowledgeable about film and fans as well, to have an opportunity to ask questions too.)

"Each movie is like a chapter in a book about contemporary human life." Wiseman said. "The work will never be finished, but it will provide a trace of life over the last 40 or 50 years." If any movies can accurately and consistently claim to reveal the human condition, it must be Wiseman's. Starting as he did with "Titicut Follies" in 1967, shot at Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, the film's release was fought by the state of Massachusetts, and its release was delayed and restricted for many years. The name comes from a talent show put on by the hospital's inmates and the film shows unflinchingly what life is like inside the walls of the hospital. Its release was fought by the state of Massachusetts and was delayed and restricted from wide release until years later when it was released to the general public.

wiseman1-iris.jpgIn all of Wiseman's films there is no exposition, no narration and no external storyline, other than what is unfolding in front of the camera. What some might call "cinema verite" is a term Wiseman has dismissed in interviews as a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning. The power of his films comes from what is revealed through deft editing and the unrelenting eye of the director. He is the ultimate fly on the wall. A partial list of his film titles gives a vivid idea of what Wiseman has attempted to do in documenting institutions over the course of his career: "High School," "Law and Order," "Hospital," "Basic Training," "Juvenile Court," "Welfare," "Model," "Racetrack," "Deaf," "Multi-handicapped," "Near Death," "Public Housing." "There is a tension between the internal and external," he said Friday. "Between the world inside the institution and the world outside, the micro and the macro. All societies have need for these institutions. They exist everywhere."

Wiseman acknowledged that liberals and activists are sometimes upset with his films because he feels they have a "naïve view of the simplicity of social change." In fact, he says, "social change is not simple. It is complicated, and my films reflect that complexity. They show that it is tougher to change than you think it is." To illustrate that point, he talked about his film "Near Death," which was filmed with patients and doctors at the Intensive Care Unit of Boston's Beth Israel Hospital as doctors and families dealt with life and death issues and the ethics and expediency of administering care. "The doctors really cared about the patients," he said. "It was a very democratic process and everyone participated in the decisions about how to treat the patients."

In making his films, he will shoot about 100 hours of footage over 3 or 4 weeks. In the editing room he is constantly making choices and honing down his material. He makes no apologies for the process by which he decides what stays and what goes. Documentary notwithstanding, he is telling a story and edits and compresses material for dramatic effect but nothing is staged.
Wiseman began his filmmaking career at 37 after working as a lawyer and teacher. His films, he said, are influenced by his favorite writers and poets--Ionesco, Cummings, Eliot, and Frost, and each one "starts in mid-sentence." He is currently editing footage shot at UC Berkeley for his next movie.

Photos by Iris Schneider

January 8, 2013

Celebrating Marion Davies in Santa Monica

Thumbnail image for Marion Davies Beach House 2.jpgLast Sunday, the Santa Monica Conservancy celebrated the birthday of Marion Davies at the Annenberg Community Beach House, which is appropriate since the center occupies the spot where William Randolph Hearst and Ms. Davies once shared an opulent Old Hollywood mansion and now shares the site with the remaining pool and a guest house designed by Julia Morgan in 1928.

guest house.jpgdining room.jpgGiven my passion for other properties in the famous couple's real estate portfolio, I really appreciated the guided tours of the Guest House. Conservancy docents, dressed in vintage, assumed the role of a Davies' contemporary in order to share tidbits about the residence and its owners.

joan crawford.jpgWe had a swell time in the dining room listening to Joan Crawford discuss Marion's parties.

hedda.jpgAnd Hedda Hopper dished about that infamous cruise with the couple while we stood in the foyer.

Later, there was vintage dancing, toasts and cake. Notables in attendance included Old Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker and author Ernest Marquez. I even learned that Charles Hood is the 2013 artist in residence at the Davies Guest House. You can read his beach house blog here.

It was a beautiful day to be by the sea. More pics below and on Flickr.

celebration sign.jpg Katherine in dress.jpgnicole and dylan.jpg

porch.jpgtub tile.jpgswingers.jpg

mc of event.jpgporch view.jpg

January 1, 2013

Visiting Dawnridge with Hutton Wilkinson

hutton portrait.jpgI only have a few minutes left before 2012 turns into 2013. I'm observing the folk tradition that you should envision the best moment of the last year in hopes that it will manifest again in the new one.

My best moment of 2012 was visiting with Hutton Wilkinson at his home in Beverly Hills in April. Interior designer, jewelry guru, businessman, socialite, native Angeleno, author, raconteur, and Old Hollywood maven, Hutton Wilkinson is the perfect embodiment of Los Angeles past, present and future.

I'd been aware of him through his role as protégé and business partner of the late artist and interior designer, Tony Duquette, but had never had the opportunity to meet him until a journalist friend invited me along on a visit to Mr. Wilkinson's compound in Beverly Hills, which includes, Dawnridge, Duquette's magnificent house, for an interview about his latest jewelry collection and its accompanying book, Tony Duquette Hutton Wilkinson Jewelry.

Charming, funny, erudite, gracious and kind, Mr. Wilkinson is one of those people who make you feel smart and witty just being in his presence. Wearing a fantastic silk robe from Duquette's personal collection of Asian textiles, he welcomed us as we stepped into Dawnridge's mirrored foyer.


"Ask me more questions, " he commanded as we sipped ice tea in the beyond-baroque living room.

"What kind of jewelry looks best on the jolie laide?" I said.

"Pearls! No, you have to have attitude to wear my jewelry. You need lots of self-confidence. Like Elsie De Wolf, you have to make people see beyond [the plainness of your face]."

Continue reading "Visiting Dawnridge with Hutton Wilkinson" »

November 24, 2012

Sigourney Weaver at Tail o' the Pup, 1983

sig-weaver-tailopup.jpgNew York Magazine's fashion blog The Cut has a Thanksgiving gallery up billed as Twenty-two famous beauties stuffing their faces. Hidden in the series is this gorgeous shot of the original Tail o' the Pup at La Cienega and Beverly boulevards. Eddie Blake was forced to move in 1986 to make way for the Sofitel and landed on San Vicente, where the Pup remained until 2005. The photo is by Douglas Kirkland and Corbis. Sigourney Weaver at the time was between The Year of Living Dangerously and Ghostbusters, and a couple of years from introducing Ellen Ripley in Aliens.

The slide show also has images of a young Elizabeth Taylor eating a hamburger, Katherine Hepburn sharing chowder with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, plus Marilyn Monroe, Tina Turner, Heidi Klum, Twiggy and other faces.

Previously on LA Observed:
What about a Tail o' the Pup truck?
Art o' the Pup
The Pup is gone
Tail o' the Pup next to go

October 25, 2012

Show of Stanley Kubrick materials to open at LACMA

Woman at LACMA checks out posters from Kubrick's movies. Judy Graeme/LAO.

"Stanley Kubrick" (at LACMA) is the first retrospective exhibition of the legendary filmmaker's work in the U.S. It's co-presented with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and originated in Frankfurt, Germany. Included is archival material, annotated scripts, photographs, costumes, cameras and equipment, set models, and props.

The show is accompanied by a film retrospective at the Bing Theater beginning in November. The exhibition opens Nov. 1 and runs through June 30, 2013.

October 18, 2012

Revisiting the Garden of Allah

GOA pool.jpgIn early October, contributor Kaitlin Parker posted a lovely history of the Garden of Allah hotel/apartment complex in slide show format, featuring an underground tour of the site in its current incarnation as a mini mall at Crescent Heights and Sunset. Ulisses Acosta, the site's current property manager, even revealed tiles and tunnels that may date back to the hotel's original foundation.
TTWS-cover-11-SMALL-195x300.jpgOne of the few people who might know for sure is author Martin Turnbull, who has devoted himself to tracking down bits of Garden of Allah hotel lore and integrating them into his fictional series about the famed residential hotel through the decades.

On Saturday, October 20th at 1 PM, Martin will join the LA Chapter of The Dorothy Parker Society at Greenblatt's Deli to discuss his research and latest Garden of Allah novel, The Trouble with Scarlett, featuring Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley who both lived in the hotel its Golden Age in the '30s.

Martin may even have an update on the status of the historical, original scale model of the complex that's still up for auction.

Join us on Saturday. We'll be on the second floor of Greenblatt's Deli at 1 for a no-host lunch.

Historic Garden of Allah photos from Marc Wanamaker and the Bison Archives.

September 24, 2012

The Beverly Hills Hotel and I go way back

Anxious to get away from a day of bad news, I retreated to that shrine of wealth and Hollywood make-believe, the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was their big day. The hotel was holding a reception to honor being named an official Beverly Hills landmark, and also to open the time capsule buried at the hotel 20 years ago when a major renovation project was begun.

The hotel and I go way back.

beverly hills hotel-iris.jpgI got to stay there in the late 70's when I was sent across the country by Rolling Stone to interview Dustin Hoffman for a story when "Kramer vs. Kramer" was about to open. I was smitten, mainly by the idea that I really didn't belong there but no one seemed to notice. I was eternally grateful that my true identity was never discovered. Then, in 1980 I arrived in Los Angeles from New York to work at the Los Angeles Times. The move was an experiment and I only expected to last a year at best, sure I would miss my beloved Manhattan. I remember being intrigued by some Los Angeles oddities: palm trees, blatant ostentation and the fact that in Beverly Hills you could put a penny into a parking meter and actually get some time for your money.

One of my favorite activities to aid in adjusting to my new city was to frequent the Beverly Hills Hotel. To me, that place epitomized Hollywood and, as Joni sang, its "star-making machinery". It represented a world so far from my own. I would never aspire to that lifestyle — the jewels, the outfits, the valet parkers, the assumption that you deserved to be catered to. It was the height of pretension, but I realized that, despite my very modest working woman's salary, I could pretend, and they would welcome me as one of their own. I could afford breakfast in the Polo Lounge, and people — and celebrity — watch for free. Like a true New Yorker, I could find street parking on the east side of the hotel and walk through the lush California gardens to breakfast. I could invite some other working-class stiffs for a drink in the Polo Lounge after work and pig out on lovely silver bowls of free guacamole that were placed on your little cocktail table as if you belonged there, no questions asked. I could have myself paged by the bellhops that still walked the aisles of the Polo Lounge simply by calling from the pay phone down the hall, and return to my table to impress my friends before my name was called. I could be a poser and who knew how many of the people sitting by my side were doing exactly the same thing?

As I descended the stairs to the Crystal Ballroom where the reception was held, all those feelings came flooding back. I was greeted by a phalanx of cocktail-bearing waiters in the hotel's signature crisp white jackets. They smiled warmly and offered drinks. Another set of hosts and hostesses proffered the elegant printed progam of the event's activities. Everyone nodded in welcome. The thick carpets and upholstered chairs absorbed the noise of the crowd's chatter. You were enveloped in the blanket of quiet and elegance under hugely ornate chandeliers, and I could feel the weight of the day's sad events disappear into thin air. In that ballroom, the outside world mattered not one whit.

With a little bit of pomp, a video from 20 years ago when the time capsule was put together, was shown. The aging stars of the day were captured there: Milton Berle, Tony Curtis, Charlton Heston. Each had a contribution to put in the capsule and today, each of those contributions was accounted for: Milton Berle's Cuban cigar, Heston's video of "America the Beautiful," a cocktail napkin signed by Curtis.

While the hotel is still the place of choice for many of Hollywood's big machers, things have changed a bit. The event I attended included few real celebrities. Dionne Warwick was the top biller, donating her newest CD for the new time capsule. All the other donors were business people, travel agents and such whose work lives and personal lives became intertwined with the hotel over the years.

The three employees who have worked at the hotel the longest were honored. All of them began their work lives there in their teens and have made a lifetime of serving the famous and not so famous who have walked through the hotel's doors.

Before everyone moved to the patio for drinks and hors d'oeuvres, the time capsule was closed. One item, for me, seemed sadly out of place. A digital photo album montage would be unearthed 20 years hence with images of today's very real world: Syria, Libya, gas prices and other reminders of modern society. I felt betrayed. In this beautifully constructed world of make believe, it just didn't seem right to have the real world intruding where it clearly didn't belong.

Photo: Iris Schneider

September 11, 2012

Silent sites unseen: interview with John Bengtson

silentechoes-cover.jpgThere ought to be a complicated, untranslatable German word for the feeling one gets upon recognizing one's everyday landscape in the background of old films or television shows. Is it a twinge of recognition or a thrilling ache?

Let's just call this feeling wiedererkennungsgänsehaut. All I know is that the emotion makes me feel immortal.

Whatever we call it, every Californian knows this feeling -- or should -- since on-location filming is a fact of life in this area.

John Bengtson, an author, film historian and attorney based in the Bay Area, is one of the rare people who acted upon his sense of wiedererkennungsgänsehaut after recognizing a San Francisco location in a Buster Keaton film, "Day Dreams" (1922).

Now, John tracks down the actual historical settings preserved in the background of silent film classics. He has published his discoveries in a series of books: Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Buster Keaton; Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin; and Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd.

John is coming to Los Angeles this Saturday in order to present a lecture called "Silent Footsteps" at the Central Library on Saturday, September 15 at 2 PM.

Using local archive and map resources, including photos from the library's photo collection, he will take attendees on a virtual tour of the lost neighborhoods of Bunker Hill, Court Hill, as well as the downtown Los Angeles Historic Core, as documented in the films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.

John agreed to answer a few questions below but will have more to say about the photo collection of the LAPL this Saturday:

What location have you yet to identify? What's left on your 'get' list?

My top "lost" location is the apartment building Harold Lloyd's roommate climbs in order to escape the police at the beginning of "Safety Last!" (1923). Watching his "human fly" friend scale the building gives Harold the idea to use his friend's climbing skills for a publicity stunt, and sets the entire movie in play. There is a decent chance the building is still standing.

What makes it my top location is that there are so many clues visible during the scene that I "ought" to be able to figure it out, but can't. It stands on a street facing a trolley line, beside a narrow alley, and adjacent to a building that has "California Garage" painted on the side.

I will be showing several locations from "Safety Last!" during my talk.

Continue reading "Silent sites unseen: interview with John Bengtson" »

August 10, 2012

Neil Diamond gets his Hollywood star


Neil Diamond gets his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, accompanied by Los Angeles City Council members Tom LaBonge (clutching a loaf of pumpkin bread), Eric Garcetti and Joe Buscaino. Diamond noted it has been 40 years since his first concerts at the Greek Theater, and that his his first Los Angeles concert was in 1966 at the Hullabaloo, the Sunset Boulevard club of KRLA disk jockey Dave Hull that was located where the Nickelodeon theater is now. His performance was panned by the Los Angeles Times, he said.

Photo by Gary Leonard

July 30, 2012

Downton Abbey costumes and other shows now at FIDM

Costumes from "Downton Abbey"

One of my favorite things about "Downton Abbey" (besides the addictive story lines and actor Dan Stevens' blue eyes) are the costumes. They've attracted attention for their opulence and historical accuracy since the "upstairs/downstairs" drama about an aristocratic family in early 20th Century England premiered there in 2010. Designer Susannah Buxton won an Emmy for her work on the show in 2011 and is nominated again this year. Starting Tuesday, Los Angeles fans of the show and its costumes can see some of them up close, as well as sartorial creations from other Emmy-nominated shows such as "Boardwalk Empire," "Game of Thrones" and "Once Upon a Time." They are featured in FIDM's new museum show, Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design.

magic-city-fidm-jg.jpgNot nominated this year, but included in the show, are costumes from "Pan Am," "Smash," "New Girl," and "Magic City." Devotees of "Mad Men," however, will be disappointed. Not only was the show's designer Janie Bryant not nominated for an Emmy this year, the producers decided not to participate in the FIDM show this time around. Oh well, there's always next year.
"Magic City"

The 2012 Emmy winners for outstanding costumes will be announced at the Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards on Sept. 15, 2012.

"The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design" runs through Oct. 20, 2012 at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in the South Park area of downtown.

"Once Upon a Time," left, and "Boardwalk Empire"

All photos by Judy Graeme. Click any picture to view larger

July 29, 2012

Night vision: Street piano


Shawn Whitehead plays piano for change in the courtyard of the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. His friend Fred Banks watches.

The latest in Iris Schneider's series of Night Vision photographs from around the city.

June 21, 2012

Western Costume feted at LACMA


The Costume Council saluted 100 years of service to Hollywood films by the Western Costume Co. on Wednesday night at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Moses (Ned Albright) chatted with Miwa Kosuga in the museum's atrium after the program. Photo by Iris Schneider.

May 18, 2012

Are we all paparazzi now?

paparazzi1-iris.jpgAlthough the term paparazzi was first coined in Italy, it has reached its zenith — or its nadir — on this side of the Atlantic, aided by the internet, the money to be made and the ease of picture-taking technology and dissemination. It's debatable which came first, the insatiable desire to document the famous or the need for the masses to see endless images of celebrities caught acting like normal people. Added to the mix is another layer, as celebrities themselves post their whereabouts and thoughts on their Twitter accounts, courting the popularity that we always knew they craved despite their protests.

Some of these issues of celebrity were addressed at the Getty Wednesday night at "Are We All Paparazzi Now?," a discussion in conjunction with an exhibit called "Portraits of Renown," celebrity portraits dating back to the 1800s and including Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Georgia O'Keefe, Edgar Allan Poe, Josephine Baker, Andy Warhol and Anderson Cooper as an infant, photographed by Diane Arbus. The show hangs, not accidentally, adjacent to an expansive show of the work of Herb Ritts, whose sun-drenched and beautifully composed images of people like Madonna and Richard Gere had almost as much to do with their ascension in the public eye as did their talent.

Since directing "Teenage Paparazzo," a thought-provoking 2010 documentary about a 13-year-old Los Angeles boy who threw himself into the pursuit of the celebrity image, Adrian Grenier has taken on the role of educator. The star of "Entourage," usually the object of the camera's lens himself, screens his film and speaks to teens and adults about the perils and paradoxes of celebrity in American culture. He often uses the term "hall of mirrors" to describe the state of society today. It seems apt, as I often wonder if people have forsaken actually living their lives for the shared experience of documenting their lives, pausing to photograph the meal that's just arrived at their table, the painting they are looking at in the museum or the shoes they are trying on. Now that we know celebrities are just like us, proven by the endless flow of images of them shopping, pushing strollers, sipping lattes in their sweats or heading to or from the airport, we've come to the point where we've deemed our own lives just as worthy of exposure.

The discussion, taking place at a major museum, begs the question: the portraits that grace the walls of the Getty seem several cuts above the images that we are bombarded with daily. Yes, the paparazzi quench the desire for our society's need to know everything about those we have put on the public pedestal. But is there anything about these images that can be called art? Squiers noted the difference between making pictures and taking pictures. "Great photographers make pictures," she said.

Today's paparazzi certainly give us images that provide a glimpse into our society and what it values at this moment in time. One quizzical audience member referred to them as "bullshit." Galo Ramirez, the lone paparazzo on the panel, responded, "If it's bullshit they want, it's bullshit I will give them." At the same time, he acknowledged the lucrative market for his work, refusing to put an amount on what an image could bring him but saying that whatever he is paid makes it well worth his while to wait at someone's home for hours. He is hoping to snag the hottest shot on the market in the next "news" cycle: Angelina Jolie in her wedding gown.

The panelists at the event, which was co-sponsored by Zocalo Public Square, included Grenier, Carol Squiers of the International Center for Photography, Carolyn Davis (a photo editor at Us Weekly) and Ramirez, who famously crashed his car into one driven by Lindsay Lohan as they both made U-turns several months ago. He recently got pictures of the coroner's van taking Whitney Houston's body from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Carla Hall, an editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times, moderated the panel.

Grenier has taken the issue of celebrity and run with it, having the self-awareness and smarts to see its many layers. He acknowledges that pictures tell a story and there is nothing inherently wrong with storytelling. "But we have to leave the celebrity experience and have human experiences with each other," he said. "I don't want to tell anyone how to live. I just want people to see as many perpectives as possible."

Carla Hall, Carol Squiers, Adrian Grenier, Carolyn Davis and Galo Ramirez.

Both photos: Iris Schneider

May 7, 2012

What I learned from biographer Charles Higham - and Orson Welles


Joel Bellman, a former radio and newspaper journalist, is communications deputy for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Chances are, the recent passing of author and biographer Charles Higham escaped your notice. He left no survivors. His longtime partner had died two years earlier. And Higham - who'd reportedly broken his hip earlier in a fall - had passed away more than a week before the story of his death finally broke in the Hollywood Reporter.

To the extent that Higham was known at all by the general public, it was for a series of sensational tell-all celebrity biographies notorious for their scandalous, sometimes thinly sourced and often hotly denied allegations of personal peccadilloes, weird sex (lots of it) and general depraved portrayals of his subjects. Critics dismissed them; the entertainment industry reviled them; and ultimately, many readers simply tired of them.

Still, I felt a twinge of sadness when I read about his lonely death. And I thought back to a long-ago interview I conducted with him, and how, though it was our only contact, it taught me one of the most valuable lessons of both my professional career, and my life.

Higham's literary career was controversial, to put it mildly. Born into privilege in England, his family fell on hard times following a divorce. He published poetry from a young age and wrote several plays. Later, as a successful journalist and film critic, he took a writer-in-residence position at UC Santa Cruz, which led to his first book, one of the few serious critical overviews of the films of Orson Welles. Though generally admiring, it was also unsparing - and committed, for Welles acolytes like Peter Bogdanovich and author Barbara Leaming, the unpardonable sin of blaming Welles for many unnecessary self-inflicted career wounds. Higham attributed them to Welles's "fear of completion" that repeatedly led him to abandon projects that remained unfinished, or were subsequently maimed and mishandled by others attempting to salvage what was left.

Higham went on to become the New York Times Hollywood correspondent, and the successful author of numerous formulaic and increasingly sordid biographies largely trashing some of the biggest movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s.

I don't know whether Errol Flynn really was a Nazi spy or Cary Grant a "wife-beating, miserly closeted homosexual," as one obit short-handed two of his more sensational claims. But when I had the opportunity to interview Higham for a radio documentary I was producing on Orson Welles, I didn't care. Tawdry tales of Tinseltown - true, exaggerated, invented, unverifiable - didn't interest me.

What did interest me, intensely, was what he'd written about Welles, an early hero of mine both for his prolific and wildly successful radio career in the 1930s and 1940s, and for a small handful of some of the most memorable American films ever made, from the acknowledged masterpieces "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" to the noir classics "Lady From Shanghai" and "Touch of Evil."

In 1985, Welles turned 70, and Higham had written "Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An American Genius," the more critical of two biographies published that year. The other, by Hunter College film professor Barbara Leaming, boasted Welles's complete cooperation and Leaming's uncritical adoration, offering a gracefully written and colorful portrait of an uncompromising genius who'd suffered more than his share of indignities and tough breaks in a world of artistic philistines. Higham's book, by contrast, had enjoyed no cooperation from Welles at all - that earlier book had ensured lifelong enmity from the sensitive and easily wounded Welles. Its writing was mechanical, the tone generally unsympathetic, the narrative a tragic arc of vanity, indulgence, and artistic dissipation. Small wonder that critics dismissed it as merely the latest uninspired product in a literary assembly line of celebrity takedowns.

Still, much as I love and admire so much of Welles's work, I could not brush aside Higham's "fear of completion" thesis. And when I interviewed Higham - after having earlier interviewed Leaming - I found myself increasingly skeptical of her sunny, uncritical embrace of the Orsonian world-view. I really wanted to embrace her simplistic account of the unjust victimization of a misunderstood and underappreciated genius. But Higham, a more graceless writer, nevertheless made a compelling case for something more than just bad luck dogging Welles's career. As an acting prodigy whose lifelong infatuation with Shakespeare began when he was a young boy, Orson himself in a candid moment might have agreed with Cassius: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves..."

As I was wrapping up my interview with Higham, he offhandedly asked me if I'd interviewed Welles himself for the piece. "Oh, God, no," I said, dismissing the possibility. "I can't imagine he'd agree to do something like this. He doesn't know who I am, and I don't know anyone who knows him." Higham replied, "You should do it. At least try. He's staying here in town at a house in the (Hollywood) Hills close by."

As I pondered our conversation later, I began to think, "Yeah - what the hell? What have I got to lose? Why don't I?" I made a mental note to follow up.

The following week, as it turned out, based on some previous investigative reporting I had done, I was subpoenaed to testify as an expert witness in a civil lawsuit brought against the Lyndon LaRouche political cult. After almost two full days on the stand, getting pounded in cross-examination by the LaRouche attorney - an aggressive former prosecutor - I was exhausted and anxious to get back to my documentary.

As I was about to pull out of the parking lot, I snapped on KNX for a quick news update, only to hear: "Actor-director Orson Welles was found dead today in the Hollywood Hills home where he had recently been staying. Officials said he had suffered an apparent heart attack, and died alone. Welles, 70, was best known..."

I don't remember the rest of the report; I don't think I heard it. I may have been in shock. Not only would I have to reconfigure the documentary from a birthday tribute to a eulogy, I could not believe how my timidity and procrastination had cost me a priceless opportunity to snare what might have been one of the very last interviews Orson Welles would ever grant. At the very least, I had missed forever a chance to tell the great man how much his work had inspired me. And he'd been living less than a mile from my office.

I went on to finish what became a two-part documentary, a sad and difficult job quite different than the project I had eagerly embarked upon. It got some attention and won a few awards, and today it's part of the archived holdings in the Paley Center for the Media. But I will always regret the failure of nerve that carried such an incalculable price.

Late in his career, in a reflective moment, Welles famously observed that "We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone." Last month, Higham - like Orson - apparently suffered a fatal heart attack, at home, alone. He, too, was past his prime, his early artistic promise not eclipsed by a string of hammy bit parts, chat-show appearances and Paul Masson commercials, but buried under a pile of lurid yet lucrative celebrity exposes that similarly earned him wealth and fame, while costing him dearly in credibility and respect.

But it's the second half of Welles's quote that I want to remember: "Only through our love and friendship," he added, "can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone." And that's the lesson I learned not just from Orson, but from Higham: in work, and in life, never hesitate to reach out to someone, no matter how prominent or inaccessible they may seem.

They can only say no. But over the decades, I've been surprised by how often they say yes.

Washington Post file photo from 1981 of Charles Higham; young Welles photo from Bellman

April 11, 2012

April is my favorite month to stay in LA

annie+hall+tcm.jpgYou never have to look too far to find lots of things to do in Los Angeles, but April is the one month of the year I make sure I stay in town because so much comes to us. The third annual Turner Classic Film Festival opens on Thursday, April 12, immediately followed on April 16 by the City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival and then their final weekend is overlapped by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held at USC on April 21st and 22nd. So many choices, so little time.

This will be the 3rd annual TCM festival and I have to admit, when I first heard of their plans to bring classic films to the big screen at Grauman's and other theaters in the heart of Hollywood, I was dubious at best. How many people would show up to see "Sunset Boulevard" at 9 in the morning when they could stay in bed watching it on their television? Well, I was humbled to learn several thousand people from 49 states and throughout the world would and the festival has been selling out ever since. This year, stars such as Liza Minnelli, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley Jones, Kim Novak and directors John Landis, John Carpenter and Stanley Donen are among the dozens who will be introducing films such as "Cabaret," "Two for the Road," "Auntie Mame," "Vertigo," "The Women" -- over 100 films in all. It is a veritable convention of film lovers and part of the joy of it for those of us who live here is that it is a reminder of how lucky we are - between UCLA, the Cinematheque at the Aero and the Egyptian, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences we have access to classic films year round.

Still, the TCM festival is something special. For those who didn't buy passes last summer when they went on sale, individual tickets are sold before the screenings on an "as available basis," so your chances are best at those shown in the largest venues, Grauman's Chinese and The Egyptian. Check out for the schedule and check again in a month or so to see when next year's passes go on sale.

The City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival is in its sixteenth year -- and with fewer theaters showing foreign films year-round, it is a rare chance to see over thirty French films that may never be released in this country. Because of ColCoa, past attendees were already familiar with Jean Dujardin, this year's Oscar winner for best actor for "The Artist," because several of his previous films, including his hilarious OSS James Bond-spoofs, have been shown in past years. This year, new releases include the much anticipated "Another Woman's Life" starring Juliette Binoche and "Americano," starring Salma Hayek from the writer director Mathieu Demy, son of Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy. Classic films are celebrated at ColCoa and this year those include "Call Me Savage" starring Yves Montand and Marcel Carne's "Hotel du Nord." The festival is held at the Director's Guild and is open to the public. Full schedule

The Los Angeles Times continues with its budget struggles, but miraculously their Festival of Books flourishes. Each year hundreds of authors -- who spend so much of their time alone with their computer -- gather for a weekend to engage with -- and be amazed by -- thousands of active, engaged readers. There are a variety of "stages" -- the cooking stage, the poetry stage, the children's stage -- you get the idea -- and dozens of panels and one on one "conversations" such as Rodney King with Patt Morrison.

This year's "celebrity authors" include Betty White, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julie Andrews; Scott Berg will be moderating one of several biography panels (I am moderating another) and discussions with the likes of Katrina vanden Heuvel, Tom Hayden and Robert Scheer are sure to be lively and informative. Something for everyone. The Festival of Books was the brain child of Narda Zacchino and Steve Wasserman -- now both long gone from the Times -- and has evolved into one of the finest book festivals in the country. For years, the Festival was held at UCLA, but last year moved to USC. It opens on Friday night with what will be the 32nd annual LA Times Book Awards, coordinated by the Times' film critic Kenneth Turran, and that too has public tickets available. Admittance to the Festival of Books is free, but this year they are selling passes for $30 to eight panels for those who want to be sure to get in to see their favorites. (Stages and outdoor performances are all free as well.) It is still one the best deals in town and for tickets and more information. Website for info

Happy April.

Annie Hall screens at the Turner Classic Film Festival on April 15 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre

March 23, 2012

Hollywoodland -- your land, my land


Remember in 2008, when a Chicago investment group stuck a For Sale sign on 138 acres of open space next to the Hollywood sign? They bought the land from the estate of Howard Hughes in 2002 for close to $1.7 million, got it zoned for four McMansions (because we're short on those) and then offered it up for $22 million. Bob Pool broke the story, and a lot of people got really steamed.

Today, fellow Angelenos, thanks to an impassioned fund-raising campaign by Mr. Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge and the Trust for Public Land, those 138 acres now belong to us. Even with a final sale price of $11.7 million, it wasn't until philanthropist Aileen Getty stepped in with a million-dollar-plus donation, and Hugh Hefner kicked in the final million that the deal was done. (A complete list of major donors is here.)

So say thank you in the best way possible -- go for a Hollywoodland hike.

Pix from yesterday's ceremony after the jump...

Continue reading "Hollywoodland -- your land, my land" »

February 24, 2012

Walking through Hollywood history

NewPic_Philip_Mershon.jpgIt's Oscar weekend and the entertainment industry's one hundredth year in Hollywood. Is it just a lucky accident that two front-running Academy Award nominees for Best Picture --"The Artist" and "Hugo" --celebrate important moments in film history? Not only do these films recreate famous moments in cinematic development but also highlight the beauty of movie birthplaces. Who can resist the joys of Paris as seen through the eyes of Hugo Cabret and Martin Scorsese? And "The Artist" pays homage to the silent film era by recapturing film locations in our area relevant to the time period.

So in honor of Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, I bring you an interview with a Hollywood expert: a tour guide. Philip Mershon is a researcher of Old Hollywood history who shares his love of Hollywood on his blog, Felix in Hollywood. Philip also conducts walking tours of the old studio district surrounding Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. labeled his "In A Place Called Hollywood: A Stroll Through The First 100 Years Of Tinseltown" tour "a city gem".

I took the tour earlier this month and enjoyed the way Philip shared his vast knowledge about early Hollywood with wit and affection. Afterwards, I sent him some follow up questions via email.

What did you think of the film The Artist--it seems to have captured many Old Hollywood locations from the silent era.
I really enjoyed "The Artist", though I don't consider it a 'sweep the Oscars' kind of movie like some people do. I suppose that's because I've watched plenty of for-real silent movies and know how brilliant they can be. Watch "Piccadilly" or "Sunrise" for sheer atmospheric other-worldliness, and "The Patsy" or "Exit Smiling" for hilarious comedy and you'll see what I mean. I am, however both delighted and grateful that the "The Artist" was made, made so well, and has found a wide-release audience. Bravo!!! Now if we could just get more American productions to shoot in Los Angeles like this French company did.....

What's your favorite film and why?
Oh no you don't! You're not gonna do a "Sophie's Choice" on me! Someday, over several pots of coffee, we can talk about my 40 or 70 or 100 favorite films, but it's simply impossible to reduce it down to one. For instance the 4 silent titles I mentioned above would probably be on the list but so would a whole bunch of pre-coders, a ton of 30s musicals and gangster pictures, several serials, gobs of noirs, a few surf pictures and - as much as I hate to admit it - even a some modern-era films. An example of that would be: I could watch "The Last Emperor" on a loop for the rest of my life!

What's your favorite stop on your walking tour and why?
[Though it's impossible to answer that question accurately,] I will tell you my favorite part of giving the tour. Not long after I started, I discovered a very unexpected aspect of the tour that people were experiencing. They think that they are just buying a ticket to journey through the history of Hollywood, but then in the middle of talking about movies that maybe their parents or grandparents introduced them to, or TV shows that they watched as children (many of which were old re-runs to begin with), or hit songs that sound tracked the seminal moments of their lives, they realize they are taking a very personal journey as well. These little "entertainments" were quite foundational in all of our personal developments, and I love being able to give that to my guests. It's why giving this tour will never get old for me.

Give me one Old Hollywood anecdote
The private office of Columbia Pictures President Harry Cohn was about as easy to get to as Fort Knox. First, of course, you had to get through the front gate of the studio lot. This was no easier a feat back then than it is now.

After which you would locate and enter the Administration Building. Up on the second floor you would walk into what could be considered the President's Suite. That first room was a large and busy reception area where you would announce yourself to the girl at the desk. Phone calls would then be made, intercoms would be buzzed and those that were deemed admissible would be ushered into the next office, Mr. Cohn's Personal Secretary.

At this point you would want to have a seat because regardless of whether you were on time or early for your appointment, there was going to be a wait. No one could tell you for how long - that was up to Harry. Could be 10 minutes, could be 2 hours. Now don't get too comfortable in that chair because you see there is no knob on the door you will use to enter the Holy of Holies. It is unlocked by a buzzer on Harry's desk that he will depress, when ready, for only about a second. And if you miss pushing that door open during that second-long duration and force him to push it again, well, let's just say I feel sorry for you when you get inside! Glenn Ford said there was an area of the door at about chest height where the paint was eaten away from all the sweaty palms that pushed it open.

Why is your site/tour called Felix in Hollywood?
I'll give you the shorter version of a long and boring story. Felix is the nickname given me by my best. He experienced this revelation from a Felix The Cat t-shirt I was wearing one day about 15 years ago. He's a pretty persuasive guy and in a short period of time a number of other people started calling me Felix too. "Felix In Hollywood" is the name of a 1923 silent Felix The Cat cartoon that I decided to use as the title of the blog I started in 2009. Due to the popularity of the blog, I decided to carry the magic of Felix into the tour branding as well. Hey, you still awake?

You can chat up Philip at Musso & Franks on April 30th where he will be the "on-site history guy" entertaining guests at the next LAVA Literary Salon- Down These Mean Streets: Raymond Chandler's Underworld .

January 25, 2012

Night vision: Projection room


In the projection room tonight at the Million Dollar Theater, for Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory," with projectionist Tom Ruff.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive will be presenting classic films at the historic Broadway movie palace each Wednesday night through March 28. Upcoming showings include "Bus Stop," "Shampoo," "Bridge on the River Kwai," and "Taxi Driver," among others.

Photo: Iris Schneider

January 12, 2012

Wim Wenders on 'Pina' the film and the friend

Wim Wenders photos by Iris Schneider

When avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch died suddenly in 2009, filmmaker Wim Wenders not only mourned his close friend. He felt he could no longer make the film they would have begun shooting two days later. His hope of finally bringing her emotional and ground-breaking work to a larger audience ended abruptly after almost twenty years of collaboration.

"My interest was to see and film Pina's eyes at work. We cancelled the film and pulled the plug," he said. "Only when the dancers made me understand a month or two months later that we could make a different film, not of Pina but for Pina, did I think I could do it."

What Wenders and the Pina Bausch company have created with their documentary, "Pina," which opens in Los Angeles January 13, is an elegy, a meditation, an emotional roller coaster ride through life and all its emotions depicted almost soundlessly through movement.

Recently, Wenders sat down for interviews to talk about the experience of making his latest film. Dressed in a natty but rumpled three-piece suit, and in a blue mood with royal blue glasses framing his eyes, a blue shirt and a blue wristwatch on his arm, Wenders talked passionately about the challenges of making this film. He had pondered for years just how to capture and communicate the power, emotion and simplicity that characterized Bausch's work.

Finally, in 2008, he started playing with 3D technology. "I was convinced that 3D was the perfect language for dance, the answer to 20 years of hesitation, and stalling and ruining my brain wondering how to make an appropriate film of Pina's work. Dance and 3D could bring out the best in each other...But this was before 'Avatar,' and 3D was really in its infancy."

There were many physical challenges working with unwieldy cameras unable to capture the fluidity and elegance of Bausch's movements. "My assistant became a four-armed Indian goddess" trying to move and shoot in 3-D with the bulky cameras available at the time. Wenders also sensed a huge opportunity and he dove in, modifying the cameras and adapting them as he went along. In the end, Wenders was able to stand back and allow the dancers to pay their very personal tribute to Bausch, in the visual language that Bausch taught them to use. "In the best possible sense of the word," he said, "technology was at the service of these emotions."


"I cried my heart out the first time I saw a piece by Pina, not really knowing what hit me," Wenders explained. "Her dance is so physical, it involved the bodies of her dancers so much...Pina's work was not just an aesthetic experience, it is an existential experience. It is about life. She said it best herself. 'I am not interested in how my dancers move, I'm interested in what moves them.'"

The film was shot in and around Wupperthal, Germany, where the company is based. "Wupperthal has an incredibly rich history, industrial landscapes, a richness of possibilities. It was great to be outdoors in the sunlight, have the horizon, the hanging train, the city and industrial landscape," Wenders said. Indeed, seeing the dancers move along mountaintops, on streetcorners, with railways speeding above them or onstage in the pouring rain is shocking, and exhilarating, and gives the film a very unique visual framework. Wenders, who has been a photographer since his teens, used his sharp eye to great advantage.

Moving on without Pina by his side was difficult. "I had to face the question every day: What would Pina think? She was looking over my shoulder with each and every shot. Does Pina like it? Is this good enough? She was very present, for the dancers and myself. Her spirit is there and amazing...Only when I edited the film and first showed it to the dancers and they felt that Pina's universe was well-preserved in the film did I feel that Pina would approve."

Working with Pina's troupe was also a very different directing experience for Wenders, whose films include "Wings of Desire," "The State of Things," "Paris, Texas," and "The Buena Vista Social Club."

"She had assembled a strange utopian humanity around her," he said. "So different than the typical directing experience, where you work with actors for a few months. Pina's relationship with her dancers went on for decades...

wim+wenders+1000v+iris.jpg"I don't know how I will continue working with actors after this experience. Over the course of one year I did not have one complaint, not one single scene of jealousy. None of that stuff you are used to on every movie crew. I was privileged to work with them."

And ultimately, Wenders was satisfied by the technological accomplishment of "Pina."
"The challenge was big, working with such a new language. We tried to imitate what two eyes are doing, and what the brain does with what two eyes do. To really be in awe of what our two eyes do every day," he said.

He must have done something right. After a brief opening to qualify for Oscar consideration, "Pina" is currently on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination in the documentary category.

November 18, 2011

Weegee's Hollywood

Weegee's plastic lens turned on Elizabeth Taylor circa 1950..

Here's a riddle from the art world: Who was part huckster, part experimental trailblazer and part social commentator, lampooning society's adoration of celebrity, but longing to be one at the same time? Warhol, you say? No, turns out it's Weegee, the cigar chomping photographer — aka Arthur Fellig — who fled New York in 1946, where he made his reputation as a chronicler of the night, of crime scenes and the spectators who gathered to watch, to turn his sights on Hollywood.

Claiming he was "through with the newspaper game," after selling the title of his book of New York photographs called "The Naked City" to a producer who turned it into a movie, he was drawn to Hollywood. But, as the sweeping show currently up at MOCA proves, Weegee was a lot more complicated than we thought.

Continue reading "Weegee's Hollywood" »

November 4, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- November 4, 2011

Friday, November 4, 2011

  • Dick Howard and Martín Plot discuss "Democracy in America" as part of the new West Hollywood Lecture Series curated in partnership with CalArts at the West Hollywood Library, City Council Chambers, starts at 7 PM
  • "Antiquity in the Twentieth Century: Modern Art and the Classical Vision" symposium starts at the Getty Villa and continues to Saturday. 10:30-5 PM
  • Los Angeles Transportation Club hosts its 88th Annual Installation Dinner at the Hyatt Regency Long Beach.
  • Lupus LA hosts its Ninth Annual Hollywood Bag Ladies Luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
  • La Luz de Jesus Gallery 25th Anniversary Celebration Part 11 with Mark Mothersbaugh, Mark Ryden, and many, many others. 8 PM
  • Designer Alber Elbaz visits Lavin Store in Beverly Hills tonight.
  • Night & the City: LA Noir in Poetry, Fiction, & Film events at Beyond Baroque: Raymond Chandler and his Los Angeles Legacy at 7:30 PM and A Night with James Ellroy, live and in person, at 9:30 PM. Venice
Saturday, November 5, 2011
  • SNL's Molly Shannon signs new book, Tilly the Trickster, at Barnes & Noble at the Grove. 1 PM
  • Los Angeles Police Foundation hosts its True Blue Gala at L.A. Live.
  • American Indian Arts Market at Autry National Center 10 AM -5 PM.
  • Friends of the Los Angeles River benefit hosted by the LA Weekly at its LA 101 Music Festival at the Gibson Ampitheatre, Universal City.
  • Leslie Klinger discusses Before Dracula: History of Vampire Literature at Brentwood Branch Library. 2PM
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art honors John Baldessari and Clint Eastwood at its inaugural Art and Film Gala.
  • Seth Rogen, Adam Arkin and others host Exceptional Children's Foundation's Fourth Annual Art Sale Fundraiser at Downtown Art Center Gallery. Los Angeles. 6 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- November 4, 2011" »

October 20, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 20, 2011

Thursday, October 2011

  • Celebrity Chef Tour fundraiser for the James Beard Foundation, featuring the cooking of Iron Chef Marc Forgione and family at Chaya Brasserie, West Hollywood, 7:30 PM. h/t Eater LA
  • Outfest Legacy Project honors Adam Shankman at its Legacy Awards 2011 at the Directors Guild of America. 8 PM
  • Eric Olsen, Glenn Schaeffer, & Michelle Huneven discuss and sign We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers' Workshop at Book Soup at 7 PM.
  • Boys & Girls Clubs of America honors Earvin "Magic" Johnson at its Heroes & High Hopes Award at the Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles at L.A. Live.
  • Bonnie Nadzam will read and sign her debut novel, Lamb, at Skylight Books at 7:30 PM
Friday, October 21, 2011
  • LA Fashion Week starts today at the Sunset Gower Studios.
  • Thad Nodine will read and sign his debut novel, Touch and Go, and Andrea Portes will read her novel, Hick, at Skylight Books, starting at 7:30 PM
  • GLSEN-Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network honors Chaz Bono and Rob Reiner at its Seventh Annual Respect Awards at the Beverly Hills Hotel. 5:30 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- October 20, 2011" »

October 10, 2011

Media scene: Elizabeth Taylor exhibit


After viewing the traveling show "The Elizabeth Taylor Collection" at MOCA PDC this morning, it isn't hard to understand why Andy Warhol once said, "It would be very glamorous to be reincarnated as a great big ring on Liz Taylor's finger."

Taylor, who died last March at the age of 79, spent a lifetime amassing her legendary collection of fabulous jewels, fine art, and haute couture. The show, which represents just highlights of the collection that will be auctioned by Christie's this winter, is a window into Taylor's dazzling life. After being on display in Moscow and London, the exhibit will run in Los Angeles for four days beginning Oct 13 then move on to Dubai, Geneva, Paris, Hong Kong, and New York.

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Sapphire & diamond sautoir by Bvlgari.

The jewelry is considered one of the greatest private collections ever assembled. There are stories behind numerous pieces. Many were gifts from the men in Taylor's life. Viewers can drool over gems from husband numbers 5 & 6, Richard Burton — including the 33-carat "Elizabeth Taylor Diamond" ring; "La Peregrina," a ruby and diamond necklace incorporating a 16th century pearl once owned by King Phillip 2 of Spain; and the "Taj Majal Diamond," a 40th birthday present.

From husband number 3, Mike Todd, there is the "Mike Todd Diamond Tiara;" given to Taylor in 1957 and the "Cartier Ruby Suite" which Todd gave her while she was swimming in their pool in St. Jean Cap Ferrat. One of the most unique pieces is the necklace fashioned from ivory theater tokens once owned by Hollywood costume designer Edith Head. This was Head's signature necklace and Taylor admired it throughout the years of their close friendship. Head left it to Taylor in her will.

Warhol's 1963 portrait of Taylor is there, representing just a small part of Taylor's art collection. Also on display is a Versace beaded evening jacket from the 1990s, arrayed with portraits of Taylor in her most famous roles, a Chanel ballgown, and a Tiziani black velvet evening cape from the late 1960s which Taylor wore to Princess Grace's 40th birthday ball.

It's not surprising that tickets sold out quickly. Exhibit organizers announced this morning that viewing hours will be extended to include Friday and Saturday evenings from 8 p.m. to midnight on Oct. 14 and 15. Tickets cost $50.00 and will go on sale tomorrow morning at A portion of the profits will be donated to The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

Those lucky lucky enough to score tickets most likely won't be disappointed. Fans will get a close look at many of Taylor's most treasured posessions. Collectors will no doubt contemplate making arrangements to attend the auctions in New York and London. Taylor herself would be pleased. She always planned to put her jewelry up for auction with the hope that the next owners would "give them a really good home."

"The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor" @MOCA Pacific Design Center
Oct. 13-16, 2011



Photos by Sean Roderick except sautoir, which was provided by MOCA.

October 6, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 6, 2011

Thursday, October 6, 2011

  • PEN USA and The Paris Review host a party featuring insights from Ann Louise Bardach, David Kipen, Jonathan Lethem, Tom Lutz, Mona Simpson, and Michael Tolkin in the Cactus Lounge of the Standard Hotel. 7:30-10 PM
  • The Drucker Business Forum hosts Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner for a look at "Keeping LA Competitive in the Global Economy" at Crawford Family Forum, 474 S Raymond Ave, 3 PM
  • LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne discusses cars, freeways, & getting around LA as part of a series on "Transportation & Living Streets" at Occidental College
  • Documentarian Aron Ramen screens his documentary "Pwer & Control: LSD In the 60's" at Beyond Baroque , 681 Venice Blvd, Venice 5 PM
  • LA artists Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston & Betye Saar reminisce at Natural History Museum as part of Pacific Standard Time. Natural History Museum, 900 Exposition Blvd
  • Aloud presents criminologist David M Kennedy in conversation with LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck at 7 PM.Taper Auditorium, LA Central Public Library, Downtown LA
  • "The Hollywood Librarian" documentary screens at CSULA, U-SU Theatre, Cal State Univ, 5151 State University Dr, LA. 6 PM
  • Harry Gamboa, Jr. & Willie Herrón lead a tour of the exhibition "Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987" at 7 PM at LA County Museum of Art

Friday, October 7, 2011

October 2, 2011

The Klitschkos' story knocks you out

Even if you can get past - or actually enjoy - the preening and posturing that dresses the set for every professional boxing match, there are so many other ways to be offended by the sport whose currency, whose whole point, is violence.

Even if you can get past - or actually enjoy - watching two guys punch each other's faces into mashed potatoes with blood gravy, how can you not wonder if, in 20 years, they'll be able to articulate a cogent thought without slurring their words? How can you abide the oily promoters, the gangsta posses, the racist fan element?

For a lot of people, boxing long ago lost its "sweet science" descriptor in favor of one more like the monster science run amok and fueled by the arrogance and coarsening of American culture.

Then there are the Klitschkos. Two middle-aged brothers born and raised in a former Soviet Union of deprivation and repression who became world champion heavyweight fighters. Two brothers who own the one-two punch of athletic success and academic achievement. Each holds a Ph.D. and retains the intellectual dexterity to appreciate and participate in a world beyond clenched fists and unsavory sycophants.

Continue reading "The Klitschkos' story knocks you out" »

September 29, 2011

Night vision: The Closer


Crew films an episode of "The Closer" on Fuller Avenue near Beverly Boulevard, at about 1 a.m. Third installment in the Night vision series. Click on the image to see it larger.

September 28, 2011

Lunch with an inspiring group of women

When Los Angeles Magazine's Amy Wallace called and asked me to write an article for what would be the "L.A. Woman" issue, I blurted out, "Please tell me it isn't going to be all silicon and collagen." She laughed and responded, "Well, there has to be a little of that - it is L.A. - but we are really going to try to do something different." And I have to admit, several months later, they have done just that.

Their October issue focuses on women who "make a difference" and there are a lot of them. Cover girl Maria Shriver holds a regal pose and smartly turned down multiple offers for other covers where the accompanying article would have raised questions about her personal life. Instead, she is the interviewer in the anchor piece on philanthropist Wallis Annenberg.

On Tuesday, over 100 women (and a few men) gathered on the top floor of the Andaz Hotel on Sunset to celebrate the L.A. Woman issue and the fifty women named as the city's "game changers." As editor Mary Melton mused that she wished they could have lunches like this for every issue, I was struck how different this list was from the "Power" issues we are used to from magazines such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and the like. For one thing, you would be hard pressed to find deep pocket advertisers taking out the full page "congratulations" ads — which seem to be the major reason d'être for such issues — with honorees such as Laura Avery, veteran manager of the Santa Monica Farmers Market, or Charisse Bremond-Weaver, director of South Central's Brotherhood Crusade.

Another surprise is there was only one "movie star" on the list and that was Diane Keaton — and she was chosen because of her impact on architectural preservation. Granted, there was a handful of behind-the-camera women such as former Paramount head Sherry Lansing, lawyer Patrica Glazer, Endeavor's Nancy Josephson and screenwriter Aline Broth McKenna, but they were being credited for their civic contributions as much as their professional achievements. Most of the women were not household names nor wealthy powerhouses -- the one thing they had in common was that they each worked passionately to bring positive change to the city and people's lives.

And so since Melton, Wallace and the women of Los Angeles Magazine made the decision to dig a little deeper and examine the complexities of L.A. women instead of the stereotypes without benefit of those "Congratulations" ads, I thought the least I could do was congratulate them in LA Observed.

September 27, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- September 27, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

  • Los Angeles Philharmonic's gala "Rhapsody in Blue" expects about 650 guests at Disney Hall.
  • Chris Salewicz discusses his book, Bob Marley: The Untold Story, at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. 7PM
  • Aloud at Central Library presents Adam Winkler, the author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America in conversation with UC Irvine School of Law founding dean Erwin Chemerinsky. Richard J. Riordan Central Library, 630 W. 5th St., L.A. 7 p.m. Free.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
  • Jaimy Gordon: The National Book Award-winning author of The Lord of Misrule will read and discuss her work at Otis College of Art and Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., L.A. 7:30 PM
  • Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles honors Connie Rice at its Angel of Peace Award Luncheon at the offices of the California Endowment.
  • Amor Towles signs his new novel, Rules of Civility, at Diesel Bookstore, 225 26th St., L.A. 7 PM
Thursday, September 29, 2011
  • Joachim Sauter, Art Center alumna Rebeca Méndez and Christian Moeller discuss digital media in a built environment at Art Center in Pasadena 7 PM, as part of the school's 3X3 series: "Get Physical, New Media in Space."
  • Author Mark Z. Danielewski ("House of Leaves," "Only Revolutions") will give a talk on Thomas Pynchon's three Los Angeles novels, not counting Gravity's Rainbow. Libros Schmibros, 2000 E. 1st St., L.A. 7

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- September 27, 2011" »

September 8, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- September 8, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

  • Zócalo at the Hammer: Randall Kennedy ponders "Is Obama Erasing the Color Line?" at Hammer Museum at 7 PM.
  • Taschen Beverly Hills hosts a tasting and book party for Jim Heimann's Menu Design in America from 7-9 PM. Reservations required. Call 310 274 4300.
  • MAK Center Exhibition Opening Reception for "Final Projects" 7:00 PM
  • Fashion Night Out events all over town

Friday, September 9, 2011

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- September 8, 2011" »

June 17, 2011

Debbie Reynolds sells off her Hollywood collection


"Isn't there some millionaire out there who can save all this?" The question hung in the air as hundreds of ordinary people, film buffs with their kids, designers and lookie-loos lined up to ogle the astounding array of costumes and props collected over the years by Debbie Reynolds and now, sadly, being put up for auction.

The collection is on display for preview before Saturday's auction at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. A visit is a jaw-dropping experience. So many costumes from so many landmark films, it simply boggles the mind that no one has stepped forward to save the collection before it's dispersed in a diaspora of Ben Hur-ish proportions.

As I worked my way through the crowd, I overheard again and again that same lament: "Why couldn't this be saved?" Apparently not for lack of trying, as Reynolds has found out. She has finally given up her dream of creating a museum in Los Angeles to house her vast collection of some 5,000 costumes and sets after a failed attempt to open one in Las Vegas in the 80's. Now she is ready to move on.


Walking through the rooms of pristine costumes, each accompanied by a loop of the scene from its movie, I was awestruck at the tenacity of Reynolds, who attempted to save all this history. Where did she keep it all? And how did she keep them in such good condition? Every gown looked pristine.

debbie-reynolds-collex2.jpg"They all came folded in plastic tubs," said a Paley Center employee, "We were shocked at how perfect everything was." Everything from Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor's vaudeville suits from "Singin' in the Rain" to Marlon Brando's uniforms in "Mutiny on the Bounty," Audrey Hepburn's gown from "My Fair Lady," Katherine Hepburn's from "Mary Queen of Scots," and Marilyn Monroe's iconic white dress from "The Seven Year Itch," displayed next to the photograph that froze it in our memory as she famously stepped over a subway grate and tried to maintain some modesty. There is Grace Kelley's pink appliquéd dress and Cary Grant's sports coat, come to life as they picnicked on fried chicken in "To Catch a Thief." Even one of Austin Powers' 60's suits made the cut. All the greats are there: Hepburn (Kate and Audrey), Kelly (Gene and Grace), Donald O'Connor, Barbra Streisand, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino, la Liz, Brando.

Joanne Paull let her daughter Elizabeth miss a day of school ("They were cleaning out their desks, so I decided it was okay") to come and view the collection with her mom Holly Margulies in tow. It was as worthy an experience as any museum had to offer.

Erica Enders, who works with Profiles in History, the auction house Reynolds chose to sell the collection, says she has met the actress several times. "She's got a sad face," she said. "This is hard for her." No doubt. My condolences to Debbie.

debbie-reynolds-collex4.jpgIn my opinion, she deserves not only a museum, but her own special Oscar for trying so hard to preserve Hollywood's history.

May 25, 2011

Tim Burton exhibition has Burbank on the mind


Tim Burton's major retrospective of his art and film work was a big hit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibition opens Sunday in the Resnick Pavillion at LACMA. Included are more than 700 drawings, paintings, photos, film and video works, puppets, storyboards, costumes and other "cinematic ephemera." The show is organized in three sections "each in relation to Burbank, the city in which he was raised."

Burton will be at the museum on Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. signing the catalog. Tickets for the exhibition are $20 each. LACMA's Unframed blog has a video interview with Burton's high school art teacher.

Selected images from the show, provided by LACMA. The bottom photo is by Sean Roderick.

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May 11, 2011

In praise of The Barn and Valentino

the-barn-hollywood.jpgThe Hollywood Heritage Museum, known to many simply as "The Barn," is the oldest surviving studio structure in Los Angeles. Originally situated at the corner of Selma and Vine, it was already twenty years old when it became Cecil B. De Mille's headquarters for directing his first feature, "The Squaw Man," in 1913. Paramount grew up around the building and when the studio moved to its current Melrose location, they took the barn with them.

Even though it was designated a California landmark in the mid 1950s, it sat for a while in an empty parking lot before Hollywood Heritage took it over in 1985, preserving it and moving it to Highland Avenue, right across from the Hollywood Bowl. Since then, the non-profit, member-supported group has developed it into a real little treasure of a museum, with historic props, cameras and photographs of the silent days. What makes it all the more amazing is that it is run by an all volunteer staff with a fabulous little gift shop and a variety of programs unavailable anywhere else in town.

valentino-in-blood-and-sand.jpgOn Wednesday night, Donna Hill, the author of "Rudolph Valentino, The Silent Idol: His Life in Photographs," will be celebrating the star's May birthday with a presentation of rare photographs and a screening of "Blood and Sand." On Sunday, June 5th, there will be a signing of the new book "Hollywoodland" and a tribute to June Withers will be held on June 8. One of my favorite events is "Silents under the Stars," presented by The Silent Society, an offshoot of Hollywood Heritage, with films screened outdoors at the old Paramount ranch. This summer they are featuring Harold Lloyd's 1923 comedy, "Safety Last" on July 17 and Tom Mix's "The Great K & A Train Robbery" on August 21.

The Barn is open five days a week, Wednesday - Sunday from noon until 4:00 pm and if you have never been, you owe it to yourself plan a visit. I guarantee you will learn something and have a new appreciation of the Los Angeles that was. For more information on Hill's book, go to and for information about the Barn, their programs or joining Hollywood Heritage,

Photo: Valentino in "Blood and Sand"

May 1, 2011

Gregory Peck gets a stamp

peck-stamp.jpgThe latest addition to the Legends of Hollywood commemorative stamp series is an image of Gregory Peck in his Oscar-winning role as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird." The image choice is especially fitting since, of all the characters Peck portrayed, the small-town widower lawyer was closest to his heart. And, in 2003, the American Film Institute ranked Atticus Finch the number one movie hero in American film.

The stamp was unveiled in an unusually celebratory ceremony last Thursday at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Motion Picture Academy in Beverly Hills. Since Peck, a five-time Oscar nominee, was a longtime member of the Academy and served as its president, the organization hosted the event. The U.S. Postal Service set up a counter in the lobby of the Academy building so visitors could buy first-day issues of the stamp.

Peck family friend Sharon Stone emceed the ceremony. Speakers included the actor's widow, Veronique Peck, and his children, along with former senator Christopher Dodd, now president of the Motion Picture Association of America; actors Morgan Freeman and Laura Dern; and (via video) director Martin Scorsese. They spoke of the beloved actor's talent, generosity, and care and concern for others. One of the sweetest moments came when Stone read a poem titled "Where Are You?" written by the Pecks' eight-year-old granddaughter.

The program included a screening of scenes from the La Jolla native's best known films, including "Mockingbird," "Roman Holiday," "Gentlemen's Agreement," "The Gunfighter," both versions of "Cape Fear" (1962 and 1991) and "The Guns of Navarone."

Many notables were in the audience, among them actors Sidney Poitier and Sally Kellerman, lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, director and former Academy president Arthur Hiller and Mary Badham, who played Finch's daughter Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and still lectures about the film worldwide.

The program concluded with a scene from a documentary, "Conversations with Gregory Peck," produced by Peck's daughter Cecilia, in which he was asked how he'd most like to be remembered. First of all, he said, as a devoted husband, father and grandfather, and second, as a good storyteller.

The Gregory Peck stamp is the first in the series to be issued as a Forever stamp.

Mary Daily, a journalist and teacher, is senior writer for UCLA Communications & Public Outreach

April 18, 2011

"The Bad Mother" vs a Bad Mother

Most writers have someone to whom they show their works in progress. Mine is Victoria, the lady that works the cash register at the donut shop. Victoria is maybe 5-foot-nothing in the 6-inch mules I have never not seen her tottering on behind the counter. She is also always, by seven in the morning, in full make-up, her processed blond hair rippling like a mermaid's to her waist. Victoria and her husband, who makes the donuts, moved to Portland from Mexico; they have seven children and own three businesses and work seemingly all the time. Despite this, Victoria is perennially cheery and a big reader, something I learned when I used to pick up the donuts every morning for my husband's coffee business.

As wives will do, we discussed our lives. When Victoria learned I was a writer, she asked to see some things I had written. I brought her two features I wrote for the LA Weekly. When I stopped in a few days later, she took my hands and said, "I need more." I brought her more. And more. She wanted to see everything, she professed to love the way I wrote and the topics I chose. How can this not be the best things a writer can hear?

Two years ago next month, I began to write about Amanda Stott-Smith, after she dropped her two young children from a Portland bridge at 1:43 AM, killing her four-year son. Her seven-year-old daughter survived for an hour in the 45-degree water and essentially saved her own life by screaming so long and so loud that two residents along the river motored their boat into the darkness and found her. I knew almost immediately the writing would become a book, if not how long it would take to get members of the family to trust and speak with me.

Victoria, who I would see every two weeks when I paid the donut bill, and I talked about Amanda, about the children. She asked when the book would be out; I told her, not for years. She said, she could not wait that long. And so last December I gave her the book in progress, about sixty pages. When I next saw her, she said, "I need more." I promised her that more would be forthcoming.

It was not, not for lack of material, but because The Bad Mother, a novel I finished writing in March 2009 -- two months before Amanda dropped the children from the bridge -- was slated to be published. I found this out in late December; there was editing to do, and once it was published, in March, pushing the novel into the world, what a writer friend refers to as, "rolling that log." There was and is travel, and appearances, things one does not anticipate, or that I did not anticipate, that make you portage from one writing stream to another.

When the novel was released last month, I brought a copy to Victoria.

"My god," she said. "You wrote it so fast!"

I explained, as I would wind up doing with many people, that the novel was not the book about Amanda, and that while I understood why people would, from the title, imagine it to be about a mother who drops her children from a bridge in the middle of the night, it was actually about homeless kids in Hollywood. That the confusing coincidence of the titles was just that, coincidence, and that the book about Amanda is called, "To the Bridge."

Last Thursday, I stopped into the donut shop. I had not seen Victoria for a month, as I had been out of town on readings. She was interested in these, saying, "I bet when people hear you read it, it changes their opinion about what happened."

I told her, that was true. That some people read the book and are scared of what happens to these kids and the dangers they are in. But when they hear me read it, they understand I feel only tenderness for these kids. Victoria nodded.

"You are also showing that the mother is a human being," she said. "That they didn't get the whole story in the newspapers."

Victoria had another customer, and so I had about two seconds to tell her, it was the novel I was doing readings for, not "To the Bridge." She looked puzzled, as though the overlaps in the stories were causing vexation, and it put me in mind of something my mother often asks: why are you always writing about dead children?

I left the donut shop thinking about this, as well a question I receive at each reading of The Bad Mother: was the novel inspired by your experiences as a journalist in Hollywood? I answer that, while it makes sense this is the case, it is not. That the characters are made up; that I have never interviewed a homeless or dying teen; that it must be the osmosis of driving through Hollywood every day for eighteen years that created the book.

I was pressing the clicker that opens my car door when I realized the genesis of the work is quite the other way: that I began writing nonfiction books and articles about murdered children after I began addressing them as fiction. That "To the Bridge," in fact, grew from The Bad Mother.

Nancy Rommelmann reads from The Bad Mother at Book Soup on June 30.

March 21, 2011

Life Imitates Art

I was visiting a mentoring and art center for homeless teens in Portland last week when my cell phone rang. It was Gordon (not his real name), calling from Orange County. I went to grade school with Gordon, and had not had contact with him since 1980. Earlier in the day, I had received a Facebook message from a fellow schoolmate, asking whether Gordon had also contacted me saying he needed $2500 or would be evicted by 3 PM. I told the classmate no; that I was sure it was SPAM, and that he should contact Gordon to let him know.

Standing yards away from a dozen homeless teenagers, two of them in wheelchairs, I asked Gordon if that was why he was calling, to let me know, the SPAM was not from him.

"No," he said. "I actually do need $2500 or I will be evicted."

I processed this, looking at the kids who come to the center each day for two meals, to make art and to read and use the computer until 2:30, when, rain or shine, the center closes and the kids are back on the street. I was visiting because the week before, I published a novel, The Bad Mother, about homeless teens in Hollywood. The kids at the center had found out about the book, they wanted to read it and to meet me. One girl told me she'd essentially been on the streets since age five, and then followed me around like a puppy, telling me her story, not with self-pity, just the facts, which included that she is, with the assistance of the center, renting a studio apartment and attending community college classes to become a CPA.

And here was Gordon, if it was Gordon, on the phone. We attended private school together in Brooklyn; last I heard, he had a white-collar job and was living in Southern California. I told him, his request had the sound of a common scam, and how did I even know it was him? I asked him what he called me in 7th grade. He got the answer right, and even sang the little ditty he'd sing when he said it.

I asked Gordon, what was going on? How did he find himself in this place? He said something about his business having lost clients, some bad financial decisions. He said he needed money and that he needed it today or would be out on the street. I asked him about his wife and children; he said they were with him and fine. He sounded cavalier. I told him, I was not going to give him money, and that his reaching out to people he had not seen in 30 years was very suspect.

"I appreciate you saying that, Nancy, but I always thought, once a Saint Anner, always a Saint Anner," he said, referring to the name of our school. "And if it was you calling me for money, even thirty years later, I would give it to you."

I told Gordon, I had to go. I might have added, take care, or get help, but did not. I have, as have nearly all of us, been around the block with people and their addictions, to drugs, booze, gambling, lying. We have learned that throwing money at the problem does not help.

I walked back into the center, thinking how bizarre it was to get this call here. I thought about the characters in my book, without homes, often without hope. And I met E, who was playing around on an espresso machine donated to the center. He told me he was learning to be a barista; that he didn't know a lot yet about coffee but he loved it. I told him, my husband was in the coffee business.

"Really?" he said, his face becoming both bright and shy. "Do you think I could meet him?"

I told him, I would be happy to help.

February 5, 2011

Film costumes open at FIDM

The 19th annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition opens Tuesday at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Downtown. The exhibit includes Oscar-nominated costumes for "The King's Speech," "The Tempest," "True Grit" and "Alice in Wonderland" — more than 20 of last year's films in all — and it's free. Here's a preview from this afternoon.





From the top: Costumes from Burlesque; True Grit; Colleen Atwood, Oscar nominee for Alice in Wonderland; inside the exhibition.

Photos by Sean Roderick