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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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Second episode of ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ raises stakes

The Other Woman thumbnailLast week’s pilot of Feud: Bette and Joan had our two Hollywood divas, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), compete in pissing contests to see who is the biggest queen of them all. While Crawford has the cunning and the calculation, Davis has the talent and the skill (plus the commitment to the craft), which means that by the end of the first episode, when Davis triumphantly marches onto the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in full Baby Jane Hudson drag, she won the first round.

The second episode works to balance that out, by having Davis be more vulnerable. In “The Other Woman” things start off strangely: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are on the same side. They form an alliance, understanding that they both are integral to the making of the film. It’s strength in numbers. Together they get a hot starlet fired, and show director  Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), that even though he’s the director, the stars are in charge. So, in an effort to undermine their united front, Aldrich plants an unflattering blind item in the press that cattily zeroes in on Crawford’s insecurity: namely, her aging beauty. Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis, still flouncing and crazed) is the author of the piece, but it’s Aldrich who creates it: allowing Hopper to write that it may have been Davis who bitchily sniped that Crawford wears falsies.

There is a great scene in the film in which Crawford’s car screeches to a halt, in her parking space, right in front of the sign that reads “Joan Crawford.” I thought she’d knock the sign over. Lange is great in the scenes that show Crawford’s fear and vulnerability, but she’s especially effective in the scenes in which she channels the legend’s rage. She approaches Lear-esque delusion, paranoia, and self-aggrandizement, in these moments, and she’s a terror to watch. She’s careful to temper any operatic moments, so as not to plunge into camp – there are no shades of Faye Dunaway in any of Lange’s choices. But Lange also gets to play Crawford’s more cunning side in “The Other Woman.” Stung by Hopper’s piece, she deftly manipulates the gossip columnist into siding with her, by crying poverty – and Hopper’s just dumb enough to believe it.

And because Lange is so great, Sarandon’s Davis feels like a bit of a struggle. Sarandon has yet to hit her stride in the same way her costar has; she hasn’t shaken of her Susan Sarandon-ness. It’s possible that she is worried about appearing too much like a drag impression of Bette Davis, but she rarely hits the fantastic highs that Lange does. Still, it’s a solid job, and in this episode, Davis is the one that’s losing. Not only is she starting to feel some of the insecurities that Crawford is feeling, but she’s also contending with her difficult relationship with daughter B.D. Merrill (Kiernan Shipka). B.D. is beautiful and young and is a constant reminder of the passage of time. Davis seethes when she sees B.D. be the belle of the ball at the studio, and quickly ships her off to main. Sarandon and Shipka have a great duel on a stairwell, in which the latter rips into the former: Sarandon’s great in the scene, but it’s Shipka that’s mesmerizing, proving that her time stealing every scene she’s ever filmed in Mad Men wasn’t a mere fluke.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is also back with her bizarre impression of Olivia de Havilland, along with Kathy Bates fun – if inconsequential – Joan Blondell. The two start blathering on about women’s lib and feminism, and though de Havilland believes that in the 1970s things are much better for women in the film business, Blondell quickly tamps her optimism down, gravely noting that things aren’t all that different.

But that’s what Feud is really about. Sure, on the surface, it’s about two Hollywood icons duking it out to see who will prevail, but the show is also about how Hollywood is a mean business to women “of a certain age.” Their work is judged alongside their looks, and if they are losing their looks, the perception is that they are also losing their talent. Aldrich exploits this sexism by playing on the vanity and insecurities of his stars, in hopes of gaining control of his picture. Initially, he’s won – but it’s clear that he cannot underestimate his opponents, nor can he celebrate too soon. He may have gained some footing by playing Davis and Crawford against one another, but he’ll have to be careful if he wants to maintain his authority.

If “The Other Woman” feels a bit like a step down from the fantastic pilot, that’s only because the pilot was so good and it managed to do so much in about an hour. Still, “The Other Woman” is stellar TV watching because Ryan Murphy knows how to put on a good show. And he’s wise to knock Davis down a few pegs: it makes the rivalry between she and Crawford more interesting, and it allows for Sarandon to delve into the complicated woman she’s portraying. Davis is the seeming epitome of no bullshit strength: so it’s a fascinating wonder to see her falter when she’s going through a musical number with Aldrich, unsure of her talent and worried about looking foolish. Again, nothing in this scene feels like Bette Davis, but Sarandon does great work here showing a less strident side of her character.

The next episode is entitled “Mommie Dearest” – wonderful because so far, Feud has managed to escape the looming, kitschy shadow of Mommie Dearest or its dubious legacy. And even though B.D. Merrill and Bette Davis had a strained relationship, Crawford’s relationship with her daughter Christina was downright catastrophic. When Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was filmed, Christina was in her early 20s, already a traumatized survivor of her childhood at the hands of the gorgon-esque Crawford. It’ll be interesting to see how much Murphy and his screenwriters Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam pay homage to the loopy Mommie Dearest.

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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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Dreaming about being BFFs with Leah Remini

I must have had Leah Remini on my mind a lot lately, because I had a very vivid dream about being friends with TV comedienne and Scientology whistle blower, Leah Remini. It was a very vivid dream. So vivid in fact, that when I woke up, I realized that I hadn’t yet written a Christmas card for Leah. And I realized that I didn’t have her address, but still, in the fog of just waking up, I made the strange connection that Leah and I shared a mutual friend who lives in Atlanta (we don’t), and so I would send Leah’s Christmas card, addressing it to Leah, but in c/o of my friend.

In my dream, Leah had a gorgeous ranch home, somewhere warm. I’ll assume it was L.A., but I’m not completely sure – it could’ve been Phoenix (I flew out there to visit in-laws a few times). She was very sweet. In my dream, she still had her thick New York accent, but she wasn’t as surly as her comedic persona. Not surprisingly, she was gorgeous and funny – just like she seems to be in real life.

This isn’t the first time that I had a celebrity dream that felt so real that I was still confused waking up. Once I dreamed that I was spring cleaning my apartment with Sharon Stone (who was, like 6″ in my dream) and I had the television on in the background, and the promos for the final season of Sex and the City came on, and suddenly, in the dream, I got very upset because when Kristin Davis came on the screen, I started to rant to Sharon Stone, “Oh my god, I’ve been calling Kristen for days, and she hasn’t gotten back to me. I don’t know what’s going on. She’s my best friend, and she hasn’t gotten back to me in days.” And I woke up and was actually upset that Kristin Davis was shining me on.

Celebrity dreams are weird – a boss of mine used to have a Website in which he compiled emails by contributors. These emails were stories of celebrity dreams. I was still working with him when I had the Sharon Stone/Kristen Davis dream, so he included it in his site (with a neat caricature of Sharon Stone).

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John Cena has fun in a so-so episode of ‘SNL’

John Cena and Maren Morris Bumper PhotosWhen John Cena exposed his arms during his monologue, I gasped. But not in lust like Leslie Jones, but in shock (and curiosity). They weren’t arms so much as lumpy pillars of marble. It was a scary sight. In fact, John Cena is a sight. The wrestler-turned-actor follows in the tradition of Hulk Hogan, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the muscle man-turned comedic film actor. Cena has proven that he has solid comic chops (see his great turn in the Amy Poehler/Tina Fey starrer Sisters). He gets a lot of comic mileage from his mountainous physique, go-for-broke attitude, and smirky good looks.

As host of Saturday Night Live, he proves to be a genial presence who seems to have a lot of fun playing off his macho man image. The writing on this episode wasn’t on par with the last three excellent episodes, so it’s a testament to Cena’s considerable likability that this episode wasn’t a total dud.

The cold open wasn’t a Donald Trump bit, which is good because as great as Alec Baldwin in, the show is running out of ideas on what to do with the character. There’s only so much you can do with the two-dimensional Trump that the writers boxed Baldwin in, and maybe a couple weeks off will let the writers come up with stronger stuff (and there will probably be more Trump-related news stories, ripe for satire). Instead, we get a great cameo from Bryan Cranston as Walter White, who is the new head of DEA. It’s a great joke, as all of Trump’s cabinet appointments feel like they’re out to destroy the very agencies they’re in charge of. Having Walter White be the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration is a great gag that unfortunately doesn’t get taken to its potential, because before we get settled into the joke of Trump’s asinine choices, Cranston-as-White shouts out, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

As a monologist, Cena did well, supported by an incredible Bobby Moynihan, who challenges the real-life Adonis to a wrestling match (he’s easily vanquished). Of course when Leslie Jones enters the stage, she’s a worthy opponent, but is quickly undone by her attraction to Cena (she slips him her room key card). Kenan Thompson also slips by, with a sly move, slamming a folding chair across Cena’s back (which turns the chair into toothpicks). Cena coasts on his charm and easy sense of humor, and the heavy lifting (no pun intended) is left to Thompson, Jones, and Moynihan, and it’s a nice monologue.

In fact, that’s how the show worked for the most part. Cena is thrown into a sketch – primarily as a sight gag or straight man – and the other performers graciously do the hard work. I’m not writing this to imply that Cena is a lazy performer, just a limited one, but one that knows how to work within his limits. And though the writers hewed too close to the “big lug” theme, Cena seemed to transcend any hackiness of the material with his good attitude.

The best sketch of the mixed big is “Hook a Hunk” a fake MTV dating show that has Cecily Strong’s babe choosing from three hunks: Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and Mikey Day. Cena pops up as the hunky host, and before we know what’s happening Strong and Cena find themselves attracted to each other, much to the consternation of the other guys. Cena’s smiley goofiness works well with Strong’s increasingly besotted and committed character. And as a neat and sweet twist, Bennett and Mooney find themselves in each others arms. It’s a surprisingly nice ending (that shows how far SNL progressed from the bro queer-baiting humor of the early 1990s).

The other great sketch – which wasn’t funny out loud, but well written was the Through Donald’s Eyes sketch that allows for us the viewers to see the world the way Donald Trump does – and it’s as messed as you’d imagine. Trump’s world is filled with syncophantic loved ones, his triumphs, and most importantly, gigantic hands and the chiseled looks of He-Man Cena.

The other great moments happened during the Weekend Update with Kate McKinnon as Angela Merkel and Strong as her recurring  Cathy Anne character, and the recurring Dyke & Fats sketch with McKinnon and Aidy Bryant. I’m not a huge fan of recurring sketches – often they lean hard on catch phrases, but what’s great about the aforementioned sketches is the strong writing and the committed performances. McKinnon as Merkel is great because it has shades of her Clinton – a frustrated, brilliant woman in a man’s world (though Merkel’s vulnerable while Clinton’s a shark – at least according to McKinnon’s performances). McKinnon’s Merkel is still pining for President Obama and is lamenting the lost opportunities of working with Clinton (she imagines the two having slumber parties – can you imagine?) As Kathy Anne, Strong slides up to the Update desk to decry the decline of American civility since the election, grousing about the rise of the Alt-Right. The joke, of course, is Kathy Anne’s sour look at the world, coupled with her malapropism. Strong’s physicality often has her playing beauties, so it’s great to have her play a grotesque.

The Dyke & Fats sketch is great because again, like with the gay twist in the Hook a Hunk sketch, it wouldn’t happen before. It’s great for the fictitious Chicago cops to embrace labels that would’ve normally been slurs – and Cena’s chief avoids insulting them, before condescending to them by offering the backhanded compliment that they’re great cops “for women” which sends both Dyke and Fats on a righteous tirade. It looks like a lot went into these sketches, production wise, so it’s a bit strange, that they’re so brief – I’d like to see these sketches extended.

The rest of the show was a solid C+ effort. Cena was the brightest spot in all of the sketches that exploited his looks and physical presence. The Science Fair sketch was alright – we get it, colleges reward athletes at the expense of academic integrity, with Cena’s college athlete putting together a dismal science project (tacking bananas onto a board), while the other students offer real projects, only to be shot down by the panel.

Another judging sketch – an America’s Got Talent-like sketch – has Cena and Day as a pair of falconers, except they’re using an owl, instead, who just keeps vomiting in their faces. Thompson has some nice moments as the befuddled judge, but otherwise, this sketch is a bit of a did.

There was also a couple ho-hum sketches in which Cena was merely a prop – an office Christmas party sketch and a romance bookstore sketch. Both benefited immensely from Aidy Bryant’s committed character work – in the former, she’s hanging on the ledge of her building by the tips of her fingers, while gripping the office Christmas tree. Instead of being concerned for her safety, her office mates are more worried about the Christmas tree. In the romance bookstore sketch, Bryant’s bookstore clerk scurries to a bookstack, where she meets up with her Fabio-like bodice-ripper romance hero, Cena, done up with a long, flowing wig and a puffy white dress shirt. Both sketches are nothing sketches – not bad, exactly, but very funny, though they prove that even in mediocre muck, Bryant is a find.

As far as pre-taped segments go, the aforementioned Dyke & Fats ruled, but there was a solid, if unspectacular, Karate Kid parody that went on for too long, and hammered the joke (Cena’s bully blasted Day’s Karate Kid through a succession of walls so hard, that Day flew out of his pants) relentlessly which diluted the impact of the joke. Still, Thompson was on hand to provide some nice, underplayed comic relief.

Random thoughts:

  • It’s funny that the show parodied America’s Got Talent – cast member Melissa Villaseñor was a contestant on the show. BTW, she was chosen because of her mimicking skills, and she’s not being used very well.
  • Even though McKinnon slayed as usual, Strong and Thompson were right up there, proving their mettle,too.
  • In the game show sketch, Thompson as Charles Barkley, showed that he is filling in nicely for Bill Hader’s former job of hosting fake game shows.
  • Next week, Casey Affleck, out doing the awards circuit right now for his new film Manchester by the Sea will be hosting. Brother Ben is an SNL vet, so we’ll see if humor runs in the family.

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Emma Stone makes a triumphant return to ‘SNL’

Emma Stone and Shawn Mendes Bumper Photos

Along with Justin Timberlake, Melissa McCarthy, Tom Hanks, and John Goodman, Emma Stone is a cast member that is so good at sketch comedy and hosting Saturday Night Live, that it’s curious that she didn’t pay her dues as a sketch comedienne before becoming an Oscar-nominated superstar.

Stone is funny, beautiful, and smart – a killer combination, and she got to show off all sides of her hilarious persona on last week’s show. Unlike a lot of gorgeous hosts, she doesn’t get marginalized by being shunted off into straight man roles (i.e. the exasperated mom, the exasperated girlfriend, the exasperated wife).

During her cute monologue, Stone informed her audience that it’s her third time hosting, and she called herself a vet of the show – I found it interesting that it was only her third time. Her monologue looked like it was going to be a musical – so I braced myself, but instead it was a funny riff on how SNL is like a high school. As she wandered the halls of the studio, she ran into cast mates who played the roles of high school archetypes (Vanessa Bayer was a mean girl, Kenan Thompson was a stoner, Bobby Moynihan was the brooding hunk).

Before, the monologue, we were treated to an Alec Baldwin as Trump sketch. I like his impression, and the sketch’s joke – that Trump will retweet anything – is salient and funny, but there needs to be more to the joke than what the writers are doing so far. Baldwin’s performance is brilliant and savage, but the writing is still weirdly soft. McKinnon’s wonderful Kellyanne Conway is great – and just like her Hillary Clinton, McKinnon is able to create a real, three-dimensional character instead of an accurate imitation (truth be told, McKinnon’s a virtuoso at characters, but not really all that great a mimic). The opener was funny, and I laughed (the Stephen Bannon as Grim Reaper sight gag was good), but it’s pointing to a future of softball lobs at the President-Elect.

The show’s first sketch was the recurring high school theater show. Lots of people are down on this sketch,and when it first came out, I didn’t like it much, either, but have since warmed up to it. The strident, myopic views of these supposedly progressive high school kids is a great parody of the dangers of forming one’s opinion in an echo chamber. Armed only with memes, Facebook posts, and buzz words, these kids are putting together a serious show, but undo any of their good intentions by being woefully misinformed (the kids think protesters at Standing Rock want the pipeline) or grossly inept at proving their point (shaming the audience into not being bilingual, the kids spoke Mandarin, but of course, it wasn’t really Mandarin). Aidy Bryant’s student then gets a monologue about HIV/AIDS in which her character starts off with an empowering message about the importance of destigmatizing AIDS (so far, so good), before her message gets away with her, and she urges everyone in the world to have AIDS before she announces  that “AIDS rocks!” (with triumphant fist in the air). As always, Kenan Thompson and Vanessa Bryant as two disgusted parents do some great, understated work.

Another great recurring tradition is to fit the hosts into funny music videos. Cameron Diaz, Anna Kendrick, and Elizabeth Banks starred in some memorable music video parodies during their stints, and Stone this time stars in a 90’s Christian Contemporary music video with Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon. As per usual, the visuals are spot-on: the big hair, the oversized dress shirts, the vests – the faux snow scene (check out Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last”). The song is about regifting a lame-ass candle from one coworker to another. McKinnon, Bryant, and Strong are great and sell the song despite the inanity of the lyrics.

Another Stone-heavy sketch has Pete Davidson as a high school kid having trouble with his math homework, and being inspired by the people in his posters, including McKinnon’s video game heroine, Mikey Day’s snowboarder, Thompson’s stand-up comic, and Stone’s bikini babe, all who lecture him about the importance of school and math. She dominates the sketch with a comically-porn squeal of a voice, as her character undermines the efforts of the other posters, who are sincerely trying to help Davidson.

As far as political sketches go, aside from the cold opener, we have a nothing sketch about a reality show that is looking to catch Hillary Clinton, as if she were Big Foot. Social media after the election has been peppered with stories of hikers and passersby spotting Clinton in the woods. It’s a pretty old joke that Twitter users already made, and the sketch – probably the bummer of the evening – didn’t do anything new with the joke (still, it was nice to see McKinnon as Clinton, even if all she did was stalk the forest).

I don’t like Weekend Update anymore – I just watch it for the correspondents. Leslie Jones didn’t disappoint, using her time to encourage men to be okay with the size of their endowments. She’s an ebullient, smart, and joyful presence and she’s a fantastic storyteller. The other correspondent was Bayer pulling out her great Jennifer-Aniston-as-Rachel-from-Friends impression, which was interrupted by the real Jennifer Aniston, who’s promoting a movie (in which Bayer is a costar). It’s a silly thing when the real person pops up next to the impressionist, but it was funny to see both Aniston and Bayer to a Rachel-off in which both descend into that high-pitched squawk of disbelief (at one point, Bayer seems to have some sort of Rachel meltdown as she sputters).

The rest of the show breezed through on the strength of the solid material and Stone’s great hosting skills. As a singing office cleaner with Jones and Cecily Strong (absent for most of the evening), Stone shone as the three cleaners guilted the office drones in their building to listen to their Christmas tunes, only to unveil a repertoire of holiday ditties that cast Santa as a big ole lech. The songs get dirtier and dirtier as the office workers get more confused and appalled as our trio belt out songs about how their chimneys only gone one way or that a line of elves are waiting for their turn after Old Saint Nick is done with them. A great bonus as Bayer’s clueless worker call the cleaners “Miss Thing” in a transparent attempt to hide that she doesn’t know their names.

From that winner comes one of the strongest of the evening – McKinnon’s return as Debette Goldry, an old Hollywood vet who recounts horror tales of Hollywood of yesteryear when women were treated as little more than objects (in fact, according to Debette, women were part of the prop budget and she sat on a table, labeled “woman). Stone, Jones, and Aniston appear as themselves and Zamata is the moderator of a panel of women in Hollywood, and while the three actresses talk about the challenges of being women in Hollywood, Debette trumps them with wretched tales of abuse at the hands of old time Hollywood studio execs, such as taking arsenic to keep her skin beautiful, or having pancake batter injected into her skin instead of Botox. Because she’s such a relic, Debette’s amazed when Aniston talks about sitting in the director’s chair – I loved Debette’s awed shock at this bit of news, which means a lot to her because she comes from a time when women were “just lying on a track waiting to get run over.” It would be nice if the stakes were heightened in the case of Stones, Aniston, and especially Jones, who actually did suffer from sexism and misogyny (her true experiences would give the scripted stuff thrown at Debette a run for its money). For many, the sketch feels like a way to say “Hey, actresses of today – you don’t have it so bad. Just look at how bad it was long ago.” And in a sense, that sentiment is correct: we rarely hear stories like that of Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland, thank god, and these sketches are a nice way to bring some much-needed perspective, especially when we hear Patricia Arquette talk about the wage gap in Hollywood (though, again, to counter any of that, the writers should’ve just let Jones talk about her summer, and Debette would’ve probably been like, “Yeah, you’re right…you win, I fold”).

The other pre-taped segment was a funny fake toy commercial. SNL has a long history of great fake ads – it’s one of the show’s highlights (back in the day, there was even a compilation show of the program’s greatest fake commercial hits). In this one, Fisher-Price has a new toy out for the holidays, a plastic well for sensitive little boys. While girls are playing with Barbies and other boys are playing with toy guns, what are the sensitive, melancholy boys supposed to do? Play with their plastic well, which gives them hours of fun, leaning against its side, running their fingers through the water, and being thoughtful. The kid who plays the pensive little tyke in the sketch is funny, as is his fiercely protective – and let’s just say it, awesome – mother, Stone is a hoot (“Everything is for you!” she rages at a little bully. “This one thing is for him!”)

And it’s fitting that a December episode would have a nativity sketch, with Stone playing Mary, who’s understandably irritated, tired, and undone by all of the guests marching into her manger to visit the baby. It’s not a funny ha-ha sketch – it makes total sense that’s shoved way at the end – but it’s very well-played by Stone and the message is pretty cool. For all eternity, we get the story of Mary being perfect, luminescent, meek, and compliant, and it’s great that in this sketch, Mary’s kind of a badass and totally relatable and sympathetic. It’s also funny that Kyle Mooney gets to be Joseph, but a total bro-ey Joseph, who doesn’t get why Mary may not want kings and wise men to traipse around her just after she gave birth (he even asks her to get them some drinks). Even if we’re meant to see Mary as “difficult” and a touch bratty, it’s a surprisingly feminist sketch, with Stone aces, conveying both the frustration of having to hold her shit together as well as the exhaustion of just giving birth and being a new mom. And the ending is fantastic with the Angel Gabriel’s condescending insensitivity when he asks, “Are you okay?  You look tired,” to which Mary fumes perfectly.

Following Dave Chappelle’s near-perfect episode and Kristen Wiig’s excellent outing, this is the third great show in a row. The next episode features John Cena, the wrestler-turned action star who has proven that he has decent comic chops (Sisters), and SNL has a history of doing right by these kinds of performers (The Rock has had a solid turn at hosting).

A random thought:

I love Cecily Strong’s Planned Parenthood t-shirt at the goodbyes – speaking of Strong, usually a heavy hitter, was quite absent

 

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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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