For the discussion titled “Increasing the Power of Women’s Voices in Hollywood”, I was joined by five up and coming writers in Hollywood with projects ranging from the live-action Mulan to The Mysteries of Laura.
These women tell stories of how they trained to be writers, how they obtained managers and agents and the joy of their first script sales, while constantly considering one of my major themes: How important it is to have a female voice in the room.
As a writer Garry knew the truth is always where to go for story – and this never rang so true and raw as when he invited Gilda Radner on his show during her battle with ovarian cancer. Together they wrote the deeply honest joke that involved Gilda saying she hadn’t been on TV in a while, Garry asking her why, Gilda saying she had cancer and then smiling up at him and asking, “What did you have?”
In this Emmy Legend oral history clip, Shandling spoke about working with her on that episode and how they both knew the subject had to be faced — and somehow made funny. It turned out to be the SNL star’s last appearance on television.
Of course, Cheever was also writing to Harriet Weaver but the editors left her name off the title, so it’s also a good look at how the Weaver marriage operated (in the same way The Letters of S.J. Perlemnan became a look at the marriage of Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell since he wrote so often to them).
What I enjoyed most was the inside look Cheever gave of coming to Hollywood when a studio adapted his story The Swimmer into a film – Weaver had much more experience living in Los Angeles as a writer of local histories so he helped Cheever navigate La-La-Land.
If you don’t know either of these writers, a selection of Cheever’s short stories, The Stories of John Cheever, won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (not too shabby) and John D. Weaver’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times tells you how important he was: “Weaver wrote two novels and eight nonfiction books, including one that helped change history: “The Brownsville Raid,” a 1970 book that led to the exoneration of 167 black soldiers who had been discharged without honor 64 years earlier.”
Both are well worth reading – as is Glad Tidings. Check them out.
His more full time writing was on the variety show The Hollywood Palace which showcased Hollywood talent such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. He later produced Sanford and Son. In our interview I asked Mr. Orenstein if he was part of the youth culture and he said with a laugh, “My wife accuses me of missing the sixties entirely, and I’m afraid she’s right. I avoided the ‘emerging counter-culture scene’ mostly because I didn’t know there was one going on.” He has taught in the MFA program for Writing and Producing Television at Long Island University in Brooklyn.
Now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has moved swiftly to make changes helping to create a more diverse membership, my thoughts on this year’s hashtag – #Oscarsowhite – are beside the point. But my thoughts on why the movie Concussion lost out in this race are relevant in that I want to encourage people to see the film, though it will fast be gone from movie theatres thanks to its pathetic publicity campaign (as I understand it the production company did not even send out screeners to voters, thereby tanking chances for nominations in any categories).
I saw Concussion when it was screening at the Palm Springs International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago — because who can turn down a film starring Will Smith — and because I sensed it had the social justice angle I enjoyed in Erin Brokovitch and Norma Rae. Those films received nominations – and won Oscars – so after seeing it – and after the Oscar nominations were announced – I wondered why didn’t Concussion earn anything? The themes of the film are well worth delving into — so are many other aspects of Concussion including how it speaks to women and people of color and what it teaches writers about honing a story and polishing dialogue.
Concussion deals with how a huge corporation – the NFL – disregarded – and continues to disregard – the life and health of its most visible employees – the team players. Concussion deals with how the NFL’s need to make mega-bucks made them bury the truth of CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the disease Dr. Bennett Omalu discovered while peforming autopsies on retired players, beginning with Mike Webster, a legendary player for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That meant that the mothers, sisters, wives and daughters of such players were denied the chance to understand and to help the beloved men in their lives all for the sake of a game. It is a film writers should see — and should have nominated – because of the nuance of the dialogue. The most telling line in the film is when a representative of the NFL says “If 10-percent of mothers in America decide football is too dangerous for their sons to play, that’s it. It is the end of football.” Of course, the representative utters that line as if the end of football is the end of the world – but I guess it would be the end of HIS world and that’s, sadly, the only world he cares about. Writer Peter Landesman keeps the focus on what matters when he has the doctor respond, “Deny my work, the world will deny it. But men will continue to die. And families will go on being destroyed.”
In his portrayal of Dr. Omalu, Will Smith, who is normally such a powerful presence, earned an Oscar nomination for the way he tranformed into the much more nuanced, humble character of the Nigerian immigrant doctor with medical degrees from more international universities than I could count. Playing a character like that it would be easy to ‘get cocky’ but Smith kept the low key, reality up front in his performance. Now that the Oscar nominations have been made, I feel that Will Smith was robbed. Smith embodied the gentle, spiritual qualities of the real man so deeply, he deserved at least a nomination. Any actor with 2 nominations to his name already (for Pursuit of Happiness and for Ali) would have easily received a nomination for this deeply mature drama.
I know this because after the screening the film festival sponsored a panel with Smith, Landesman and a surprise guest – Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who discovered that American football practices where destroying the brains of the men who played. During the interplay between Smith and Dr. Omalu, Smith kept going in and out of the accent and persona he had studied and captured while sitting right beside that real life inspiration. That was a lesson in acting all by itself.
But writer Peter Landesman was robbed as well. All through my time sitting in the darkened theatre, engulfed by the story, I had to decide if it was the real story that was powerful or if it was the writing of the film – and the answer was both. The lesson in writing came from watching Dr. Omalu speak. I wondered about the process of distilling this man’s life into a film – how did Landesman chose which pithy phrases to include in the film and did Landesman make any up that echoed what Dr. Omalu might say? Luckily, I had the chance to ask that question during the Q&A session and after thinking for a moment Landesman picked the saddest line Dr. Omalu had told him in their interviews – “I wish I had never met Mike Webster”. What a perfect line to summarize the sadness that came to Dr. Omalu’s career when he went up against the NFL and the fact that he had to regret a discovery that should have made his career – one that he knew could help children across the United States, his adopted home.
The line Landesman said was invented for the film – was one he happily shared credit with actor and writer Albert Brooks, who played Dr. Omalu’s supervisor and supporter. In a nice look at how well film collaboration works when everyone wants what is best for the story (and not merely what’s best for themselves) there is a line Brooks added to what Landesman began with on the page. In trying to demonstrate the importance of American football to the Nigerian immigrant who had never seen a game, Landesman had Brooks’ character say “The NFL owns a day of the week!” That is a great line. But Landesman originally followed it up with the weaker “They’re very big!” While working on the scene, Brooks improvised a better follow up line: “The same day the church used to own.” THAT’s a line that says something specific – much stronger than “They’re very big.” Nice writing lesson I’d say. That’s why the script deserved an Oscar nomination as well. And that’s why even without nominatinos everyone should see this movie.
I have friends who saw Concussion back to back with Spotlight – which tells the story of the reporters who broke the priest abuse scandal. What my friends’ came away with was shock that the NFL was more powerful than the Catholic church. Imgine. Both films are structurally the same – a small set of characters discover important information that a profitable corporation wants to hide – and in each film the characters are discredited. For Concussion it’s important for audiences to see how much more easily an immigrant of color could be discredited – Dr. Omalu is called a voodoo doctor by some and anti-American by others – even though by publishing his findings he is trying to save the lives of Americans — and not just rich, football players who one could say accepted the risk in exchange for money but the hoards of little boys who want to play tackle football as preteens.
Usually films about true American heroes – ones who fight against great odds to save others – are not only nominated for Oscars, but they win them handily. Remember Erin Brokovitch and Norma Rae. For Brokovitch, Julia Roberts won the Academy Award and the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. For Norma Rae, Sally Field won the Academy Awards for Best Actress and the film won for Best Original Song while also being nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The film was also nominated to the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.
Those facts started me wondering… why all these plaudits for women bucking big business and none for the man of color who did so? I’m bemused, bothered and bewildered. And just plain mad.
When my son played Little League the coaches referred to baseball as either the Gentleman’s sport or the thinking man’s sport – even comparing baseball to chess in the way players needed to always know where the other players were and what moves were possible. I understood that idea. I’ve never understood anyone’s fascination with American football — though the film Concussion did a good job of offering both sides by showing the many, many fans – males and females alike –
who consider the moves the players make to be balletic. Frankly, I prefer to pay to see Misty Copeland do actual ballet. And if all those folks who call American football ‘balletic’ paid to see an ACTUAL ballet every now and then the arts in America wouldn’t be in such financial difficulties.
So the final question is how to respond to the lack of Oscars for this very worthy film – and to the NFL for not responding fast enough to this deep danger to their players. Since both Hollywood and the NFL are major corporations I suggest our money is the best weapon to wield. So far the film has made less than any other Will Smith film – can we change that? I hope so. Frankly, I think anyone who watches the Superbowl owes it to their gridiron heroes to watch Concussion – THAT would make it financially successful even if it’s too late for it to be critically acclaimed.
I love movies about writers and the power of writing so when I noticed the trailer for Trumbo, based on the life of blacklisted Hollywood writer Dalton Trumbo, I had to see it right away – and I did and now I recommend you see both the trailer – and the film. The script was adapted from the book by Bruce Cook (which is also worth reading) by John McNamara, who I remember pitching to when he was a producer on The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr. (which was the show he did before his long run on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which itself was the ‘new Superman’ before Smallville arrived on the scene).
Anyway, what I enjoyed about the trailer is the idea that this is not just a plot-laden movie about the guy who wrote Roman Holiday (another movie you should see) with a front during the Blacklist; Trumbo the movie looks to be a movie about ideas and the freedom of speech and thought that is at the heart of the Constitution of the United States. As I said, I love movies about writers and the journeys to find their own voices and Trumbo’s story is one of those – along with the chance to make choices about what is worth standing for in this world – and the fact that those choices can lead to sacrifices – he spent 11 months in jail. And as you’ll see in the trailer – John Goodman is in the movie so how can it miss?
“Essentially, it is a challenge to do a podcast for 30 days in a row.
In 2012 Kreg Steppe was looking to give himself a little push in regards to recording his own personal podcast since he wasn’t recording it very often. That turned into a challenge for himself to record a show everyday for 30 days believing that after 30 days it would turn into a habit. Once it was mentioned to Chuck Tomasi he took the challenge too and they decided it would be a great idea to record starting 30 days before Dragon*Con, culminating with the last episode where they would record it together when they saw each other there.”
Spent the first day of my summer vacation (which didn’t start until all grades everywhere were calculated and posted) in my most favorite way to spend a day – reading an entire book in my garden in a series of sittings (interrupted by tea and lunch and hanging laundry and dinner, etc). What book you ask? Something deep and dark like War and Peace or Dr. Zhivago? Nope. I opted to open my summer with the autobiography of an old friend, though we’ve never met (though why he never appeared as a guest on Touched by an Angel is a mystery to me). Tim Conway, aka Ensign Parker on McHale’s Navy; aka Barnacleboy on Spongebob Squarepants aka a dozen crazy characters on The Carol Burnett Show.
Why did I choose that to begin my summer reading? Partly because he was raised in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where my Mom used to take me for ice cream treats during the summer; partly because he graduated from Bowling Green State University (as Doug and I did); and partly because I knew it would be full of fun tidbits about the early days of radio and television both in Cleveland (where he worked with Ernie Anderson before he became Ghoulardi) and in Los Angeles. Just about as funny as the book Jim Backus (Thurston Howell III) wrote with his wife, Henny, in the 1980s.
Conway’s book is full of funny stories about scrambling to fill time on early radio and television shows and honest discussions of being happy in life even if you’re always the second banana, never the star. He talks about being raised by his immigrant parents – Dad Daniel from Ireland and Mom Sophia from Romania — and then raising his own 6 kids with their lessons in his mind all the time. He talks about being bilingual (English and Romanian) and losing that second language as he grew up. He talks about the joy and honor of meeting and working with the great stars of his childhood movie-viewing including Cary Grant and Ernest Borgnine and his enthusiasm for all the blessings in his life is catchy.
I smiled often until page 70 when I fell on the floor laughing (much as I did while watching all those Carol Burnett shows in elementary school) and pretty much never got back in my chair. It was too precarious to ponder. I found myself regaling Doug with several of the stories even as he tried to read something else. If you’d like to spend some time in happy company I highly recommend What’s so Funny?