Category Archives: Biography

Bette and Joan play mothers in the third episode of ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’

The third episode of Feud: Bette and Joan – written by Tim Minear – is entitled “Mommie Dearest” and I’m sure it was impossible to go in that direction. The episode largely avoids references to the camp fest (except for a mention of estranged daughter Christina Crawford). The episode’s title is reference to motherhood – both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were famously difficult parents – both had children write tell-all memoirs, Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest the source material for the silly Faye Dunaway film. But Minear isn’t interested in camp; instead, he wants to show how difficult Davis and Crawford had it, trying to juggle motherhood and work. Minear also writes a tête-â- tête in which Crawford and Davis compare rough childhoods, giving some context to why these ladies are so hard.

Motherhood is obviously an important theme in “Mommie Dearest” and it winds its way throughout most of the episode. Crawford’s relationship with her kids is obviously more notorious, given that Christina Crawford memorably recounted the horrific abuse she received at the hands of her mother. Christina is only mentioned briefly, but there’s tension in the allusion: Crawford has to be convinced to send a note of congrats to her daughter when Christina makes her theater debut. Instead of signing the card bought by Mamacita, Crawford, in a gaze that could melt steel, starts to fume about how her own mother never gave her plaudits for her accomplishments. It’s a rough scene but it foreshadows her horrifying admission to Davis later, when the two meet for dinner. When asked by Davis when she lost her virginity, Crawford refers to being raped at 12 by her stepfather as her “first time.” Davis is human enough to be appalled at Crawford’s life and is shaken.

So motherhood is a complicated thing for Crawford because she had a neglectful mother who let her daughter be raped by her husband. So it’s no wonder that Crawford doesn’t really know how to be a good mom. And motherhood is a way to stave off loneliness, too. According to Minear’s script, she adopts her children so that she never has to be alone. And once the children start to grow up, she wants to adopt more, thereby continually keeping her house full of children. When age prohibits her from adopting any more children, she has to face a reality in which she is alone.

Davis, meanwhile, is much more together as a mother, even nurturing. B.D. Merrill, like Crawford, penned her own memoir that damned her mother, but in Minear’s script, the relationship, while fraught with tension and angst, has a base of love. Davis loves B.D., but like Crawford isn’t necessarily equipped to be a great mom (whatever that means). So, when B.D. is cast in a small role, and turns out to be awful, she rallies and supports her (even though, behind her back, she is appalled and free with her opinion). Davis was tough on her costars, especially those who she felt could imperil the success of her film (film folklore has it that she was so frightening to Marilyn Monroe during All About Eve that Monroe would regularly vomit from fright). And she finds a surrogate son in her costar, Victor Buono, who transfers the love he misses from his homophobic mother to Davis, who predicted her popularity among drag queens. Though Davis is far more nurturing than Crawford, she’s still an ambitious actress, and when B.D. wants to run lines, Davis is far more interested in working with Buono, who a) has a part of consequence in the film and b) is a fine thespian.

“Mommie Dearest” is a heavy show that gives both Davis and Crawford some space to feel out their characters and be quiet. That doesn’t mean there aren’t the histrionic we expect: this is Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, after all. The filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was beset by the women sniping at each other and doing their best to sabotage the other. When Davis has to drag a prone Crawford out of bed, the latter weighs herself down with weights, causing Davis to wrench her back. And when Davis is called to kick Crawford around, she goes all Method and actually starts to savagely kick her costar in the head. The two haunt each other scenes, throwing the other off, and Crawford’s vanity means that as the film progresses, she uses tricks of the trade to pull, tighten, and pinch whatever is sagging or hanging, with the result being that as the film ends, Crawford has Benjamin Buttoned.

The third episode is continuing the awesome streak started by the pilot. Both Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are wonderful in their scenes, and the latter especially gets to really develop her character into something interesting in this episode. For the first two, the balance has tipped slightly in favor of Lange’s Crawford: it’s the showier of the two roles, and Lange’s physical transformation is more drastic (the hair, the makeup, the eyebrows). For her part, Sarandon sidestepped much of Davis’ patented clipped speech (though it feels as if in this episode it’s stronger – “How nice,” she snaps at Hedda Hopper), and is more subdued. In “Mommie Dearest” she gets to explore many sides of her character’s personality, and does so with aplomb. As Victor Buono, Dominic Burgess is a find, while Kiernan Shipka is a brilliant sparring partner for Sarandon.

From the fourth episode on, it appears as if Feud will look at the publicity surrounding the release of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? as well as the hubbub around Oscar nominations – it was touched upon in “Mommie Dearest” that both Crawford and Davis want Oscar nominations, and Crawford ingeniously drops a story in the press that Davis would graciously put her name up for supporting actress to let her costar get nominated for best actress. This disagreement allows for Lange to probably have the greatest line so far in Feud history when Crawford roars at Davis, “And it was Gloria Swanson who was robbed in 1950, not youuuuuu, bitch!” (1950 was a good year: Anne Baxter for All About Eve, Davis for All About Eve, Swanson for Sunset Boulevard, Eleanor Parker for Caged, and Judy Holliday who deservedly won for Born Yesterday) To see Davis yearn for an Academy Award is interesting because so far, all we see and hear is that Bette Davis is the great artiste and it’s Joan Crawford who is the movie star sell out.

 

 

 

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FX and Ryan Murphy create riveting drama with ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ – a recap

Pilot thumbnail

Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange). Photo from FX

Ryan Murphy is one of the busiest men in entertainment, creating anthology shows that roll out fascinating stories of crime, intrigue, or horror. His latest project is Feud, which centers on famous rivalries. In the premier season, Murphy zeroes in on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and their infamous collaboration in the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Murphy’s muse Jessica Lange stars as Joan Crawford and she trades barbs with Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis. The 8-episode season starts with “Pilot” in which we’re introduced to the start of it all. Murphy is a camp aficionado and a camp manufacturer, so it’s not surprising that he aims his talents toward icons like Davis and Crawford, both of whom achieved immortality because of camp. What is surprising is how invested the film is in the characters, and how interested the script is in making Davis and Crawford real people instead of outlandish cartoons.

Working with a script with Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam, Murphy veers away from easy cliches about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Yes, the bitchery and the sniping is still there, but he leavens it with desperation and fear. In 1962, both Crawford and Davis were experience mighty ebbs in their careers: Crawford was struggling to pay her gardeners, while Davis was slumming it, in the theater, hamming away at a small part. The film industry – a notoriously sexist and ageist business – had little use of the two women, and this was played out in an early scene at the Golden Globes, where Crawford had to watch the then-It Girl, Marilyn Monroe collect a Golden Globe (“I’ve got great tits,” Crawford sneers, “but I don’t throw them in everyone’s face”).

In the face of such opposition, Crawford seeks out a role for herself. She and her trusty housekeeper Mamacita (a funny Jackie Hoffman) comb the libraries for stories about women. Crawford wisely sums up women’s roles in three categories: ingenues, mothers, or gorgons.” For some reason Henry Farrell’s 1960 novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? stands out – mainly for its title – though, if Crawford had read it up to that point, she’d realize that both Blanche and Jane are monstrous gorgons. But she’s hooked and wants to make the film.

And then Robert Aldrich (played by Alfred Molina) enters the picture. A b-movie director in very much a similar situation to Crawford and Davis, he hopes that Baby Jane will enliven his career, sputtering in a morass of tawdry flops. After convincing a very-profane Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci, playing bitchy very well) to distribute the picture, Crawford needs only one more element in her project: a costar.

Unlike Crawford, Bette Davis doesn’t tear through her life crippled by insecurities. Where Crawford is portrayed as paranoid and despondent, Davis is efficient and cold. While Crawford was a great star, she was a so-so actress who could pull off a good performance if coaxed by a strong director; Davis, meanwhile, was a brilliant actress – a skilled technician who often outclassed the material she was given.

But it isn’t just talent that sets these two women apart: it’s also class. Crawford has severe complexes because she believes people see her as jumped-up white trash who made good. Her slightly-vulgar Hollywood mansion has plastic on the furniture, while Davis’ East Coast residence is tasteful. These markers of taste and class weigh heavily on Crawford as she repeatedly laments throughout the film. Her goal isn’t just to merely stage a successful comeback. She wants something far more elusive: industry respect.

The film is presented as a flashback and is introduced by Catherine Zeta-Jones playing Olivia de Havilland (Davis’ costar in the Baby Jane quasi-sequel Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte). Zeta-Jones barely performs – though, she does get a great line, when a reporter asks her to comment on the hatred shared between Davis and Crawford. “Feuds are never about hate,” she corrects him. “Feuds are about pain.”

With that in mind, Murphy, Cohen, and Zam work to create a story that is not only about ambition but about hurt. Crawford is hurt that the film industry is tossing her aside. Crawford is hurt that her peers don’t respect her. Lange does a tremendous job in showing that pain, which never really is successfully hidden by her hollow bravado. Lange could’ve looked to Faye Dunaway’s operatic turn as Crawford in Mommie Dearest, but instead chose to create her own Crawford.

In fact, that is what makes Feud so successful. Both Sarandon and Lange look and sound nothing like the women they’re playing. But instead of working at imitating them – and the two could’ve just YouTubed draq queens doing Crawford and Davis – the actresses set aside accuracy, and instead chose to create characters from the script. Sure, there are stabs at creating physical similarities: Lange sports the Kabuki-like makeup of Crawford, but the actresses are far more interested in developing interesting performances than just to simply sound and look like their subjects.

And that is what saves Feud from being merely an empty camp bitch-fest. The expected one liners are still there – mostly served with relish and venom by Sarandon’s Davis. Also some of the supporting characters pop in with flamboyant turns (I’m thinking specifically of Judy Davis’ broad turn as Hedda Hopper).

As a piece of film history, Feud also works because there is great attention paid to all kinds of details. The sets are wonderful and beautifully-made. And when the filming of Baby Jane starts, viewers get a glimpse of what it looks like behind-the-scenes.

The plot of pilot has Crawford and Davis agreeing to star in the picture together. Even though it would be in their best interest to set aside any petty differences, they begin to snap at each other almost immediately: at a photo-op in which the two divas sign their contracts, they both go for the left chair (to get top-billing in the photo caption), with Davis prevailing (though Crawford looms over Davis’ left shoulder).

When filming finally begins, Davis has a meeting with Crawford and is seemingly supportive, telling her costar that she has the goods to put in a great performance – this disarms Crawford, before Davis spits back “But lose the shoulder pads and cut back on the lipstick. You’re playing a recluse who hasn’t seen the sun for 20 years.”

And though Crawford tries to ingratiate herself with the crew of Baby Jane with presents and a Pepsi vending machine (she’s the soda giant’s “brand ambassador”), Davis manages to upstage her with skill and commitment to her craft. Crawford is vain, worried about how she looks. Davis is all too happy to make herself out to a grotesque. In this script’s version of the events, Davis is the one who creates Baby Jane Hudson’s monstrous look: the tatty white dress, pitiful blond curls, and bone-white pancake makeup. Smearing the white greasepaint on her face, she gleefully turns herself into a horror, and her perturbed daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) is aghast, asking “Do  you really want to look like that.”

But Davis is a pro. Crawford’s a neurotic mess who wants to recapture her glamorous youth when she was a screen goddess, but Davis – never a sex symbol – is more interested in doing the work itself. Though Davis is being a beast about it, she’s right. When the two sit in a screening room, looking at what they filmed, Crawford is immediately thrown into despair at how badly she looks and how much she’s aged; Davis, meanwhile is moved to a single tear (before she quickly wipes it away) because of her strong performance.

Legend has it that Davis and Crawford were horrible to each other, sometimes even resorting to physical violence. That these two over-sized egos are crammed into a single film set is fascinating to watch. Right now, the film seems to lead its viewers to feel sympathy for Crawford who is riddled with self-doubt. As the filming of Baby Jane continues, it’ll be interesting to see how the two will continue to work side-by-side, given that neither trusts the other.

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Andy Cohen’s new book ‘Superficial’ is deeper and more thoughtful

Andy Cohen’s second collection of diary entries Superficial: More Adventures from the Andy Cohen Diaries reads a bit like a solid descendant of Andy Warhol’s diaries. Like Warhol, Cohen’s tome is filled with entries of running into celebrities and his unvarnished opinions of those famous people. And while the title is self-referential and tongue-in-cheek, Cohen is surprisingly introspective and candid throughout the book. Even though he’s pretty free with his judgment on his celebrity pals, he’s often hardest on himself.

For most, Cohen will be reality TV’s ultimate carnival barker. A former executive at Bravo, he has since become a TV star in his own right, a sort-of 21st century answer to Truman Capote (though are less literate). He’s most famous now for the Real Housewives franchise. Because of him, women like NeNe Leakes, Brandi Glanville, Teresa Guidice, and Bethenny Frankel are household names. Cohen’s successfully shepherded these women into fame and has foisted them onto the public consciousness.

But as shown in Superficial, the housewives are just one part of a busy life. One thing readers will notice about Cohen’s life is that it’s busy. Yes, he’s not working in a coal mine, but for a rich privileged white guy, he’s got an exhaustive schedule of meetings, appearances, talks, TV and radio spots, brunches lunches and dinners, and vacations. Celebrities pop in and out of his professional and persona life – Anderson Cooper, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kelly Ripa are regulars in Cohen’s world. To his credit, though the book is heavy with names dropped, he’s not obnoxious about it.

In fact, despite enviable wealth, good looks, lots of friends, a rewarding job, Cohen’s approach to his life and work feels like a yeoman effort. Often Cohen sounds tired, irritable, and lonely throughout the book. He doesn’t grumble about his work, and he does have perspective, but often his tone reflects a “done with it” attitude. It’d be very lazy – though tempting – to suggest that he’s going through a midlife crisis; it does seem though that Cohen’s life is a less rosy than outsiders would assume.

And though Cohen’s public persona is that of an affable gay BFF, he’s a bit crustier in real life. He’s honest though about his moments of petulance – there’s the shockingly immature reaction to his “loss” at a silly lip sync show, in which he owns his “sore loser” status. Also, he owns his ignorance and naiveté about intersectionality and cultural appropriation when he obliviously (and quite stupidly) stepped into a controversy about race after criticizing Amandla Stenberg’s public statements about cultural appropriation (which he dimly reduced to a celebrity feud between Stenberg and Kylie Jenner over hair) It’s commendable that the author doesn’t try to pass himself off as perfect. Far from it. In fact, the Cohen we get is fully three-dimensional, and quite interesting.

Some will be disappointed by Superficial after finishing it: Cohen’s US Weekly public image, his association with trashy reality TV, and the candy-colored dust jacket of the book will lead readers to assume that this is a breezy, silly affair. And a lot of it is dishy, gossipy tea about celebs that orbit around Planet Andy, but there’s just as much of Andy Cohen, the hardworking, sometimes unlikable, sometimes lonely man who is looking for companionship and stability in his whirling, high-paced world.

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Kathy Griffin’s funny new book is a case of not enough of a good thing

Kathy Griffin’s comedy comprises of tales of the comic’s dealings with celebrities, good or bad. Throughout her career, she’s had many confrontations with famous people, and instead of ruing and being moody about, she has taken the experiences and made a multi-Emmy winning and Grammy winning career. In her new book, Kathy Griffin’s Celebrity Run-Ins: My A-Z Index, Griffin has compiled a selection of celebrity encounters, good and bad, and laid it out in alphabetical order like a dictionary.

Because she’s somewhat trapped by the format of the book, some of the stories feel abrupt and some of the celebrities get such a short shift, you wonder why she included them in the first place. And the stories that do get more ink feel somewhat rushed, too, which is a shame because Griffin’s an ace at translating her quick-fire wit to the page. And when she wants to be – as in the passages devoted to late pals Joan Rivers, Jackie Collins, and Garry Shandling – she can be an emotional writer, too. Those readers who remember her first book, Official Book Club Selection, will know that despite her reliance on humor and wit, she doesn’t shy away from darker aspects of her life. Celebrity Run-Ins is different, though, much lighter in tone and content, so there are only a few spots that feel like a shift away from the general jocular tone of the book.

And that’s a shame, because the years since Official Book Club Selection, a lot has happened in Griffin’s life, including the deaths of several friends (including mentor Joan Rivers), the cancellation of her talk show, the embarrassing Fashion Police fracas, the end of her popular reality sitcom,  her win of a Grammy, a notable dust up with Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and a seeming end to her relationship with Bravo. Some of these events are alluded to in her book, but it would be great to read more about how she dealt with these difficulties, and how she sees them now, with perspective. Of course, none of these stories would fit into the rigid format she’s constructed, so hopefully she has another book in her.

That’s not to say that Celebrity Run-Ins isn’t funny or not worth picking up. It’s hilarious and often an astute look at our celebrity culture. What inspired the book, according to Griffin, is she realized with a start that she knew or worked with the principal figures in the excellent documdrama Straight Outta Compton. And the list she’s compiled is an impressive array of figures from sports, politics, film, television, theater, and music (her adorable bother, Maggie, a celebrity and fan favorite in her own right also gets a chapter). While expected names make appearances  – Gloria Estefan, Anderson Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt, Chris Colfer – it’s the names of folks you wouldn’t necessarily expect like Suge Knight, Warren Zevon, and Marshawn Lynch that may be a pleasant surprise for readers (the Suge Knight story is very funny). And because she’s known for her brutal irreverence for celebrity (along with her devotion and obsession with it – she’s our Andy Warhol), some of the celebrities included – and I’m looking at Jon Hamm in particular – may want to skip her assessment of them.

Celebrity Run-Ins works best when Griffin is indulging in her love of gossip, Hollywood, and admiration for her subjects. The book hits various high points, most notably when she writes with great affection about Anderson Cooper, Cher (who gets dialogue written in funny phonetic spelling) Jackie Collins, Gloria Steinem, and Jane Fonda, among others. It’s in these passages that she combines her sharp wit with her big heart. It makes for fun reading that gets sentimental, but never gloppy. Her relationship with Cooper in particular is wonderful because the two have a sibling-like love for each other, and Griffin is forever subjecting him to her hilarious pranks, and he seems to be the perennial good sport about it all.

Hopefully there is a weightier tome in Griffin, yet. Her Twitter has posts that reflect her attitude and opinion on politics, race, age, gender, the election, queer rights, and culture. I’d love for Griffin to pen an essay collection in which she addresses Black Lives Matter, ageism, sexism, homophobia, Trump, Clinton, as she does in her stand-up and social media. But that’s for another time. For now, Celebrity Run-Ins does a commendable job in providing its readers with some laugh out-loud moments.

 

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Megyn Kelly’s ‘Settle for More’ is a jumbled but admirable effort

Megyn Kelly’s public persona is a study in contradiction: on the one hand, many see her as simply one of a giant roster of beautiful blonde talking heads on Fox News. On the hand, she’s a feminist hero, bravely standing up to the bullying tactics of Donald Trump. The truth is a messy in-between, which Kelly tries to present as an authentic human being instead of a two-dimensional figure concocted by a team of TV producers, image experts, managers, and hair and makeup people. In Settle for More, Kelly works to humanize the glossy image she presents so successfully on her various appearances, by sharing anecdotes of her childhood, her frailties and vulnerabilities, as well as her ambition and drive. She makes a convincing case for herself as a complex and complicated person with many sides to her. But often her rather stark limitations as a writer fail her, muddying the impact of her words.

Some of why Settle for More fails in part is because Kelly seems unsure of what kind of book she’s writing. As a straight-up memoir it doesn’t work because Kelly’s childhood and upbringing isn’t that interesting, and she doesn’t have the literary flair of a Sarah Vowell or a David Sedaris to inject her storytelling with anything amounting to interesting yarn spinning. She grew up in a solidly middle class New York State family, and went through a hellish year of bullying in junior high and suffered through the unexpected death of her father. To be sure, these are traumatic events, and Kelly’s perseverance is to be admired. But these experiences aren’t enough to warrant a book, at least not the one that Kelly’s written.

It’s when she writes about her professional life that Settle for More becomes far more interesting. Her career is fascinating in that she started off as a lawyer, but disaffected and unsatisfied, she decided to shift gears in mid-career and jump over to broadcast journalism. When she writes of her time as a female attorney dealing with condescension and sexism, Kelly’s work shows much more promise. Here we see the assemblage of the public persona and image of Megyn Kelly, and she does a solid job of showing the real person underneath. She shares anecdotes of sparring with politicians and fellow journalists (including an amusing bit about a terse tete-a-tete she shared with Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart), and she highlights some of the misogyny and sexism that she faced.

Unfortunately, because she’s part of the Fox News brand, she cannot indulge in any semblance of feminism – and she even indulges in some stupid and simply untrue characterizations of feminism – and hedges her bets continuously throughout the book by stressing just how much gender doesn’t matter. This theme becomes tiresome and feels a little bit like overcompensation, as if she was worried that if she sounded too much like Gloria Steinem (whom she dings for wearing a “I had an abortion” t-shirt), her fan base may abandon her. In her quest to downplay gender, she comes off a bit desperate to be “one of the guys.”

But despite her ambivalence toward gender issues, they are major themes throughout Settle for More. And why shouldn’t they? After all, as a lawyer and then a journalist, Kelly has succeeded in male-dominated industries that still operate in large part, on the boys club mentality. Throughout her career, she has faced obstacles that will be relatable to female readers, including sexual harassment and unwelcomed advances by colleagues and superiors. The most notable – and high profile – passages in the book involve Kelly’s interactions with Donald Trump and Roger Ailes.

Trump’s fights with Kelly were well-publicized. The now president-elect took to Twitter to slam Kelly’s questions during the debate, using typically boorish and sexist language (referencing her menstrual cycle). Kelly tells a riveting tale of rabid Trump supporters who take to social media with sexist and misogynistic threats and slurs. Surrounding herself with security detail, Kelly would become haunted and hunted by Trump’s supporters, and became an unlikely hero of the left, while the right thought of her as a turncoat. What’s important about Kelly’s account is that she is taking control of the narrative, instead of allowing for the media to shape it, and her writing does a solid job in complicating the reductive assumptions people came to, when the Trump fracas was dominating the media.

Her disclosure of her experience with sexual harassment at the hands of Roger Ailes is also important in that highlights an important issue that too many people disregard, minimize, or trivialize. Many question Kelly’s timing and motives for her candor – some will go the predictable route of victim-blaming, victim-shaming, misogyny, and dismissal, which is why it’s so vital that we continue to hear stories like Kelly’s, and that we continue to encourage victims to speak. Our job as readers isn’t to question why or how Kelly dealt with her experience of harassment, because there is no one right or ideal way of responding to sexual harassment. Our job is to hear Kelly’s story and listen.

If Kelly had focused on her career when writing Settle for More, she would’ve had an above-average book. If she focused on gender issues, and stopped hedging her bets when it comes to gender identity and gender politics in law and journalism, she’d have a great book. Unfortunately, Kelly chose the traditional memoir, and as a result, she merely has produced a competent book, with flashes of great potential.

 

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My favorite episode – ‘Drunk History’ – “Marsha P. Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots” / “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break”

My favorite episode is a feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.

For this entry of “My favorite episode” I fudged a bit with the format with my choice of Drunk History. Each episode has a short film, and I cherry picked two segments from two different episodes for this “My favorite episode”entry.

In light of Tuesday’s election, both “Marsha P. Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots” and “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break” take on extra poignancy  – and frankly, sadness. Both tell the story of people of color who must survive and thrive in systems of oppression. It feels strange to write about sadness and poignancy when writing about Drunk History, because it’s a Comedy Central show which boasts an insane premise: get somebody plastered and have that person recount an historical event, while famous actors act out the event (often lip syncing to the drunken recount of the tale).

marsha-johnson

But some of the best comedy can have tinges of sad. In “Marsha P.Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots” comic/writer Crissle West tells the story of Marsha P. Johnson, the trans queer activist who is believed to have instigated the Stonewall Riots that sparked the modern Gay Rights Movement. The story isn’t without controversy because there are people who tried to minimize Johnson’s role – or in Roland Emmerich’s case, completely erase it – but that call can be chalked up to a larger erasure of black contribution to American history.

Emmerich is an important reference because the director could’ve done something really good with his 2015 film about the riots, but instead chose to create a fictional avatar of white gay malehood. West’s recounting of the story – in about six minutes – gets at the heart of why the Stonewall Riots were so important, in a much more truthful way than Emmerich managed in his two-hour movie.

Another bonus of this episode is that – yay! – the folks at Drunk History actually hired trans actresses to play the lead parts. Alexandra Grey stars as Johnson and Trace Lysette portrays queer rights activist Sylvia Rivera. The two give wonderful performances in the short time allotted to them. And Grey in particular has some fun with miming West’s slurred account of the events.

What’s so great about West’s retelling of the story is that it brings up the importance of intersectionality, something that often gets ignored when telling the history of queer rights. West pinpoints just how important it is to remember that these aren’t just queer folks, these are queer folks of color.

So, in West’s recount, the cops raid the Stonewall Inn (West was shaky on the dates –  it was either June 18th or June 28 – one of the “eights”…It was June 28th), and are rounding up the patrons, and Marsha P. Johnson has enough. And when she throws a shot glass across the bar, shattering a mirror, and then shouting “I got my civil rights!” it prompts other patrons to fight back, keeping the abusive police officers at bay. West calls it the “Shot glass heard around the world.” The follow up is great because West links the riots to a larger movement in the queer community – one that included support for homeless queer folks.

Once she finished the story, she and show creator Derek Waters are in the kitchen next to her fridge, and West ends her segment with some powerful, important words: “But truly, Black people deserve to be on all this shit. Black people and Sacagawea, who needs to get off the goddamn coin, and onto some paper money. Because this is our shit.”

marilyn-ella-cc

The other segment “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break” doesn’t have the high stakes of the Stonewall Riots story but is equally important (and hilarious). This time comedienne Tymberlee Hill tells the story of Ella Fitzgerald (Gabourey Sidibe), who is aided by Marilyn Monroe (Juno Temple) after facing discrimination. Like West’s segment, Hill’s segment is helped immeasurably by the impassioned storytelling which is not hurt at all by Hill’s growing drunkenness.

The story – some may argue it’s apocryphal, thought Fitzgerald herself was the one who told it originally – takes place in the 1950s and Fitzgerald is kept out of the famed New York City nightclub, the Mocambo, because the owners didn’t want a black singer performing there. Monroe – a fan of Fitzgerald’s music – calls the manager and promises to attend every evening of Fitzgerald’s engagement there, ensuring that her heavy press following would be great publicity for the club.

Hill’s story is more about female friendship and solidarity, but in the context of pre-Civil Rights America, and some ten years before the Civil Rights Act. Marilyn Monroe’s commitment to social justice is instructional to a lot of white female celebrity feminists today because it was a practical way of the legendary actress to use her privilege and power for social betterment.

Like West’s segment, Hill’s is more poignant and heartfelt than the average segment on Drunk History where the gimmick of having a comic slur her way through an historical event while some famous movie stars goof around in powdered wigs and costumes is what’s normally expected. But in “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break” Hill, Sidibe, and Temple imbue their roles with touching sentimentality. In fact, Sidibe and Temple give quite powerful performances, despite the schticky premise and trapping of the show.

The centerpiece of this segment is the meeting of Monroe and Fitzgerald in the latter’s dressing room. It’s here that we get to see the beautiful friendship between these two iconic women. It’s here that the two women share their struggles with the entertainment industry: they bond because both women have been abused by show business (though Fitzgerald’s life as a woman of color has unexplored difficulties). We also get a tiny peak into their difficult personal lives too (though the sheer wretchedness of Monroe’s life get developed – which is okay, as it’s so widely retold it’s almost become a cliche). When they hug, and Hill chokes through emotion to tell the story, the show transcends its silly, yet smart, trappings.

But as touching as this episode is, it’s also high-larious. Hill tells the story with such enthusiasm and joy that her mouth sometimes runs before her brain – she loses her breath and hiccups (which Sidibe mimes perfectly). The best, though is when it’s time to watch Fitzgerald perform, and Hill does some great sloshed scatting that Sidibe mimics exactly – and when Hill stumbled through Fitzgerald’s name, Sidibe has a great bit of lip syncing to that, too.

But the comedy is merely a side effect of a great story told by a great story teller. When Monroe and Fitzgerald hug after bonding, Hill stresses, “And these two women, they literally need each other…Because in this moment when Marilyn helps Ella, she frees them both…The fact is sometimes sisters have to hook each other up.” It’s a great message about the uplifting nature of social justice – both those who help and those who are helped are better because of it. And Hill’s final thought on the story is important because she reminds Derek Waters that her story is about two women who forge a friendship when she says through tears, “Ella loved that lady.”

Both of these segments were aired weeks ago, but I can’t help getting emotional when watching them now, given what’s happened this past week. It’s a scary time for a lot of people, particularly queer people and people of color, and these segments show the healing nature of comedy, but also the important direction of progress: forward.

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Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg shine in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

Florence Foster Jenkins

The trailer for Stephen Frears’ new film Florence Foster Jenkins is misleading in that it makes the film seem like a crowd-pleasing comedy. While very funny, Florence Foster Jenkins is a sentimental dramedy about unfulfilled artistic ambition. Based on the true story of Jenkins, the story talks to those who may be frustrated because they have the will and desire but not the skill or the talent.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a rich socialite who loved music. She also had designs on being a singer, but the trouble was she had no discernible talent. She had no ear for tone, pitch, or key. And though she had a love of music, she wasn’t terribly disciplined, and therefore her performances became legendary in their ineptness. She was an outsider artist in much the same way that Mrs. Miller or the Shaggs were – Jenkins was painfully sincere about her desires of a musical career, though, and her sincerity would eventually prove to be her undoing.

In Frears’ film – written by Nicholas Martin – we meet Jenkins (Meryl Streep), who is holding court at the music appreciation club she founded. She lives in a platonic, but devoted marriage with failed actor, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). An early marriage resulted in Jenkins being stricken with syphilis; despite her grim prognosis, she managed to live over 50 years with the illness, though the physical damage to her body is significant: she tires easily, and cannot play the piano without pain. After a particularly-successful fundraising event, in which Jenkins starred in a series of tableaux vivant, she decides that she wants to pick up her singing. Music is crucial in her life, and aside from the love she has for her husband, music is the most important thing in her life.

It’s a this point, that the movie resembles somewhat, the light comedy that the trailer promises: Jenkins’ money convinces an important conductor to tutor and she employs a fledgling composer/pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany her. Initially horrified at the untalented Jenkins, McMoon quickly gets enmeshed into this strange world of delusion, as he finds himself becoming more attached to the kind Jenkins. As her ambition grows, Jenkins sets her sights on Carnegie Hall, where she plans to perform for the troops who are fighting in WWII.

As far as biopics go, Florence Foster Jenkins is a solid work. It’s Frears’ at his least challenging (at least challenged). The story seems tailor made for this kind of movie. The title character makes for an intriguing underdog to root for: we know that her singing is awful – it’s horribly pitchy, and because she wants to perform arias, almost every note she attempts is hopelessly out of her reach – but she’s a kind person and her desire isn’t so much ego unchecked, but merely desire unchecked. And her passion is infectious, and audiences will root for the woman. And the character is yet another in a long list of brilliant portrayals for Meryl Streep. Possessed with a beautiful voice, Streep expertly produces some ear-gouging notes that do not feel like comically-bad warbling, but the genuine attempts of a hopelessly inept songstress. As with all her roles, Streep digs into the human being underneath the character and finds sincere moments of poignancy and beauty.

And as the befuddled pianist, Helberg is a marvel. Those familiar with his work on The Big Bang Theory, know that he’s a great comedian, but this role requires far more subtle work, and he’s marvelous: his Cosmé is a timid, souful man who loves music as much as Jenkins. Though the character is sexually ambiguous, Helberg adds subtle curlicues to his line readings and his physical performance. Like Streep, he’s dug deep into this guy and has created a full, three-dimensional person, full of tics and quirks. Because the film is so lightweight, I don’t think there will be serious talk of Oscar for Streep, but Helberg should be on the shortlist (just the actor’s reactions alone are worth a mantle full of prizes)

And Hugh Grant? Well, he’s an actor that always seems to be upstaged. In this film, he slips into the role of the hack actor St. Clair Bayfield, effortlessly. Though Grant is more talented, he essentially is the character: suave, debonair, and handsome. He still relies on his bag of tricks: the crinkle-eye smile, the slight dithering, the befuddlement and doesn’t make as near a strong impression as do his costars, but then again, that seems to be the them of Hugh Grant’s career: the laidback utility player, reliable, if unspectacular.

As far as escapist entertainment goes, Florence Foster Jenkins is a high-class production. Careful detail to setting and tone, and an engaged script make for a solid, above-average hour and a half of movie viewing. Frears’ direction seems unobtrusive, though it also feels a bit nondescript and anonymous, too. Still, he draws some great moments from his stars and Streep and Helberg are worth the price of admission.

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