Open Mic

April 2011

The Unexpected Appeal of NBC's 'The Voice'

Hillary Atkin Posted April 29, 2011 at 6:16 AM

Having never been a consistent fan of reality shows, reality competition shows or music competition shows like, um, the pop-culture dominant for a decade "American Idol," we are surprisingly entranced with "The Voice," which premiered to great hype on NBC.

Succumbing to some of that hype and a healthy dose of curiosity, our plan was to sample the first few minutes and then move on to other pursuits which would surely be more productive. Somehow, from the very first notes of "Crazy" being performed by Cee Lo Green, country’s Blake Shelton--who just entered our consciousness recently on an awards show--Maroon 5’s Adam Levine on drums and the diva-licious Christina Aguilera taking center stage with her multi-octave range, we were unexpectedly hooked.

That's saying a lot, since we are not necessarily fans of any of these artists either. No dislike for any of them, but perhaps somewhat mild pleasure on occasion of seeing their performances--or mostly the default position of neutral when it comes to how we feel about the foursome.

Obviously, we are not alone in our newfound fandom. The show delivered the strongest ratings of a season premiere on a major network since "Undercover Boss" premiered on CBS after the Super Bowl, garnering huge numbers for the Eye.

Up against the tough competition of two other shows where music plays a huge part, "Dancing with the Stars" and "Glee," the Mark Burnett-produced "The Voice" racked up 11.8 million viewers.

The first twist in "The Voice" is that contestants are judged only on their voice and not on their looks. They each come out on stage and perform with the four coaches’ backs turned toward them, and whoever likes them presses a button to turn around the chair. That’s where the drama comes in--maybe no one will spin around to face the performer. It happened. Sadly. Because viewers get invested in each candidate with a pre-taped clip about them and where they came from.

The competition was peppered with close-ups of hands about to press the “buzzer,” then recoiling, then hitting it to spin around.

If more than one coach turns around, the power structure shifts and it's up to the contestant to choose whose team he or she will join as the contest progresses. Some have a natural and predictable affinity for one artist or the other. A pop singer with a big voice goes with Aguilera, while a country performer--after being told by Xtina that he's a cutie pie and to take off his hat and then his pants--naturally votes for Shelton.

That’s where the rivalry comes in, and it’s heating up between Aguilera and Levine, who was slow to win any contestants to his team in the first episode. Cee Lo and his infamous colorful costumes are a charismatic presence while Shelton seems to hang back a lot. All seem to be having a great time. Meanwhile, the contestants’ families are backstage with host Carson Daly cheering them on, and then shown after their performance, mostly with glee.

After each coach has eight members on his or her team to mentor, they will teach them how to best develop their sound. The real competition starts when the "battle round” pits performers on the same team against each other, and it's up to their coach to decide who stays and who get shown the door.

Viewers get to choose when the team’s top singers square off against each other live. The winner will get a $100,000 prize and a recording contract. We already have some favorites--like the woman who performed Nirvana's "Smells like Teen Spirit" and went with Levine, who admired the creativity of her adaptation--but we’re reserving judgment until the teams are finalized.

Just like any song, there will be high notes and lows, but "The Voice" is definitely one catchy tune.

 

Guest Blog--Vast Wasteland My Ass, Part Two. Strange Bedfellows: 'Oh! Calcutta!' 'Playhouse 90' and 'The Beverly Hillbillies'

Chuck Ross Posted April 26, 2011 at 5:34 AM

[Editor's Note: This is a guest blog by Norman Horowitz, and a follow-up to a blog entry he wrote that can be found if you click here. Norman started in the TV business in 1956, when he was 24. He has been president of Worldwide Distribution for Columbia Pictures TV (Screen Gems); president of Polygram Television; and president of MGM/UA Telecommunications Co. A related article about the 50th anniversary of Minow's "vast wasteland" comments appeared earlier  on our TVBizWire, wherein Minow said that the wasteland of TV has become even "vaster" today.]

By Norman Horowitz

It was in the early 1960s that I went to see the head of programming at a New York station and screened a lovely five-minute children’s program called “Pick a Letter.” The potential buyer watched with great interest and then told me that he would not buy it. He explained, “Norman, if a kid starts to watch it in less than a minute he will switch off and watch a cartoon.”

He said 5-year-olds have a “bullshit detector” and if they get a sense that you are trying to teach them something they will change the station. It was a valuable lesson for me to have learned.

Since then I have always believed in the notion that you could “put it on, but you could not make them watch what you put on.”

When I wrote about Newton Minow and his “vast wasteland“ declarations the other day in a piece I called “Vast Wasteland My Ass,” I annoyed many people. By articulating my position in more detail I will probably annoy those that I annoyed before a bit more and annoy an entirely new group of people.

While at CBS in the late sixties I met Monica Simms, who was then head of children’s programming at the BBC. She was a bright and charming woman and we spent some “out of the office” time together.

I had booked three tickets--for my wife, Monica and myself--to whatever the “hot” Broadway show that was in fashion at the time, and Monica asked if it was possible to change the tickets and go and see “Oh! Calcutta!” instead. I am still recovering emotionally from sitting in the first row of the theater with my wife and Monica and watching an “X”-rated performance.

I was unable then or now to connect the woman who was in charge of children’s programming at the BBC wanting to see and enjoying that notorious play.

I was with Screen Gems in the early seventies in London and Monica invited me to her home for dinner. There were about a dozen people there including a bunch of very senior BBC producers and programmers.

The after-dinner and wine conversation predictably centered around the “inadequacy” of American television that provided their audience with “what they wanted to see,” in contrast to the BBC that gave their audience--at least to a certain extent--“what they should see.”

Of course I am oversimplifying both positions, yet it is reasonable for me to describe the conversation in that way.

I would describe myself as a “content libertarian,” ergo a believer in freedom of thought and expression.

I am and have been in favor of the commercial nature of programming in our country in that it offers the opportunity--for the most part--for the viewers of television to “vote” with their remote controls on what they want to see and not what ANYONE ELSE thinks that they should see.

My mother abhorred my reading comic books and listening to “The Green Hornet” on the radio, yet it was what I chose to read and listen to. There was what many would have you believe “better” stuff for me to read and to listen to, yet I chose what I read and listened to FOR MYSELF.

We have allowed the “elitist” Newton Minows of the world to advocate “what is good, better or best” on television, which is wonderful as long as they are not with the FCC or any other regulatory body. Minow was chairman of the FCC when he famously made his "vast wasteland" remarks. 

Sadly, Minow has been characterized as a “virtual saint’ by many, yet his commentary about American television is to me a reflection of his--as well as many others'--elitist attitude toward television content. For me there is no difference between the programming of “Playhouse 90” and "The Beverly Hillbillies” except that they will appeal to different audiences.

Minow was recently reported to have said “...the most constructive thing the FCC could do was to expand choice. And in that we certainly succeeded." The quote to me is indicative of what is/was off-base with him. The FCC's role should be to exercise a “content neutral” position, not one exemplified by Minow's “snobbishness.”

I will conclude by stealing from something I wrote more than two years ago, with a few changes.

My comments are directed to all of the arbiters of public taste in the world.

I have a history of being annoyed by those who like to define things as "good" or "not so good." It is not for others to determine what people should listen to. To "expose" people to different music is a good thing. Judging them for not choosing to like what you have presented is not a good thing.

Now, the following you may put under the category of “too much information” about me, but it is to emphasize my point.

Here are some of my "likes" that are not for everyone or anyone, just me. I have been very fortunate in having been exposed to so many things; nevertheless I do like what I like and do not need anyone to tell me what I should like.

I like Broadway musicals—particularly Stephen Sondheim among others—but not opera.

I like silly movies like “Blazing Saddles” and “Where's Poppa”—but not “The Godfather.”

I like coleslaw, ketchup, salt, Guldens mustard, French fries, and fried onion rings. I do not like a Waldorf salad, beets, steamed artichokes, sushi and sashimi.

I like the Carnegie Deli in New York, and dislike most French restaurants in Los Angeles. I have grown to love large grain caviar, yet have never fancied crepes.

I have nodded off during concerts of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—but have always stayed awake at a Bette Midler or Mandy Patinkin concert.

As someone involved in the sale and production of movies and television content, I abhor (a good word that I seldom use) it when so many look down their noses at many movies and television programs and determine what is "good" or "not good" for people to eat or listen to, or watch or read.

Please do not deify Newton Minow and those of his ilk that will have you enjoy only what they deem acceptable.#

Guest Blog: What's Real and What's Not About Reality TV? That's One of the Questions Addressed in HBO's Remarkable New Docudrama 'Cinema Verite,' Which Features a Stellar Cast: James Gandolfini, Tim Robbins and Diane Lane

Chuck Ross Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:14 AM

[Editor's Note. This guest blog is by our friend David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle, and this review initially appeared in that newspaper and on its website at SFGate.com. We are grateful to David for letting us reprint it. David can be reached at dwiegand@sfchronicle.com.]


By David Wiegand
San Francisco Chronicle

Playwright Luigi Pirandello would have had a field day with "Cinema Verite," HBO's fictionalized docudrama airing Saturday night about the making of "An American Family," loosely considered TV's first reality show.

Filmed in 1971, "An American Family" followed the Loud family of Santa Barbara in their day-to-day activities for 12 episodes, which aired two years later on PBS. The family included husband Bill, who owned a mining equipment firm; his buttoned-up wife, Pat; and their kids, Grant, Kevin, Delilah, Michele and the oldest, Lance, who was (gasp) flamboyant, lived at New York's fabled Chelsea Hotel and spoke like a road show Blanche DuBois.

At the time, TV viewers accepted everything they saw in "Family" as "real"--from the most mundane details of the family's day, to Lance parading extravagantly around the outskirts of the Warhol crowd, to Pat's eventual decision to leave Bill. But we look back at the series now with an entirely different viewpoint: that of a TV audience long accustomed to suspending disbelief (sort of) when watching contemporary reality shows, many of which are about as real as an old episode of "Bewitched."

In a broad sense, there is no such thing as reality on TV. Even in a documentary, not to mention shows like "America's Next Top Model" and "The Apprentice," reality is manipulated the minute an editor subs one shot for another.

So what is TV reality, then? In our time, reality means a bunch of bratty 20-year-olds getting drunk in a shared house, or has-beens going through rehab, or weather-beaten suburbanites eating insects on desert islands--all of it, to one degree or another, very obviously set up.

Back in 1971, producer Craig Gilbert and his filmmakers, Alan and Susan Raymond, set out to document the lives of an everyday American family. Viewers may have subliminally understood that reality was somewhat altered through editorial choices, but they more or less accepted what was on their TV screens as life as it actually and naturally happened.

But was it? That's the question posed by "Cinema Verite" directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini as they look back at "American Family."

Did Gilbert direct the Louds' actions to make his film more dramatic? In "Cinema," Gilbert (James Gandolfini) is shown inserting himself into a scene and telling the family what to do. We also see the Raymonds (Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins) revolting when Gilbert begins to cross the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, perhaps because he's developed a crush on Pat.

In fact, when I first saw the film, I was bothered by Diane Lane's performance as Pat: way too "Hollywood," way too "acted." But re-viewing the original "American Family," I couldn't help seeing that Pat herself was "acting" in almost every scene--something that never occurred to me back then--and that Lane is icily spot-on. Never mind Pat's propensity for wearing Jackie O sunglasses, indoors and out, at all times: Because she was not an actress, it's startling and obvious to see her frame each line of supposedly casual conversation as if it had been scripted.

In "Cinema," Bill (Tim Robbins) is shown "re-taking" a reunion with the family after a business trip. But in the original documentary, you can't help noticing that he's entirely aware of the camera almost all the time. Of course, the real Lance (who died in 2001 of complications from AIDS) played shamelessly to the home audience, but his siblings managed to hold onto a bit of credibility, for the most part, except for the boys when their band was covering Rolling Stones songs.

What makes "Cinema Verite" evoke Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of An Author" is that we have a contemporary feature film that purports to be a documentary about how reality was altered during the making of another documentary 40 years ago, leaving us to consider what is real and what isn't.

Does your head hurt yet?

If so, it's meant to, and that's the thought-provoking genius of "Cinema Verite." To complicate things even further, a handful of re-created "Cinema Verite" scenes supposedly in the original film were not, in fact, in "American Family." When Pat visits Lance (Thomas Dekker) in New York City, he takes her to La Mama for a Warholian play featuring Candy Darling. In "Cinema," Pat bolts from the theater. In "American Family," she sticks it out and belittles the play only after the show to Lance and his roommate.

Because TV today is awash with so many slickly deceptive reality shows, there are moments in "Cinema Verite" that are not unlike looking at cave drawings after taking in a Rembrandt show.

Yet, while seeing the original film adds a fascinating dimension to the HBO film, it isn't mandatory: Even without the original source material, "Cinema Verite" offers provocative insight into how far we've become lost in the reality-TV wilderness in the past 40 years.

Guest Blog: Vast Wasteland My Ass--Why Newton Minow Wasn't The Programming Shark He Thought He Was When He Coined That Famous Phrase

Chuck Ross Posted April 21, 2011 at 7:54 AM

[Editor's Note: This is a guest blog by our friend Norman Horowitz. Norman started in the TV business in 1956, when he was 24. He has been President of Worldwide Distribution for Columbia Pictures TV (Screen Gems); President of Polygram Television; and President of MGM/UA Telecommunications Co. A related article about the 50th anniversary of Minow's "vast wasteland" comments appeared earlier this week on our TVBizWire, wherein Minow said that the wasteland of TV has become even "vaster" today.]

By Norman Horowitz

It was almost 50 years ago that FCC Chairman Newton Minow delivered a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in which he famously referred to TV as a "vast wasteland." You can click here to read the entire speech.

 

Here’s a relevant excerpt. It's a little long, but important so I can make my point: “Like everybody, I wear more than one hat. I am the chairman of the FCC. But I am also a television viewer and the husband and father of other television viewers. I have seen a great many television programs that seemed to me eminently worthwhile and I am not talking about the much bemoaned good old days of ‘Playhouse 90' and ‘Studio One.’

 

I’m talking about this past season. Some were wonderfully entertaining, such as ‘The Fabulous Fifties,’ ‘The Fred Astaire Show,’ and ‘The Bing Crosby Special’; some were dramatic and moving, such as Conrad’s ‘Victory’ and ‘Twilight Zone’; some were marvelously informative, such as ‘The Nation’s Future,’ ‘CBS Reports,’ ‘The Valiant Years.’ I could list many more--programs that I am sure everyone here felt enriched his own life and that of his family. When television is good, nothing--not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers--nothing is better.

 

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

 

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials--many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

 

Is there one person in this room who claims that broadcasting can’t do better? Well a glance at next season’s proposed programming can give us little heart. Of 73 and ½ hours of prime evening time, the networks have tentatively scheduled 59 hours of categories of action-adventure, situation comedy, variety, quiz, and movies. Is there one network president in this room who claims he can’t do better? Well, is there at least one network president who believes that the other networks can do better? Gentlemen, your trust accounting with your beneficiaries is long overdue. Never have so few owed so much to so many.

 

Why is so much of television so bad? I’ve heard many answers: demands of your advertisers; competition for ever higher ratings; the need always to attract a mass audience; the high cost of television programs; the insatiable appetite for programming material. These are some of the reasons. Unquestionably, these are tough problems not susceptible to easy answers. But I am not convinced that you have tried hard enough to solve them.”

 

I have worked one way or another in the business of television for more than 50 years. I started at Screen Gems in the late fifties.

 

From 1958 through 1974, under John H. Mitchell, Screen Gems delivered classic TV shows and sitcoms such as “Father Knows Best,” “Dennis the Menace,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Bewitched,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Flying Nun,” “The Monkees” and “The Partridge Family,” among many others.

 

I would suspect that Newton Minow would have put most of these popular programs in the “undesirable” category but I am not sure. Screen Gems Television was the television subsidiary of Columbia Pictures.

 

John Mitchell was a sales and creative genius.

 

It seems like it was a century or more ago that John was asked by a journalist “[W]hy is there not more good television” and John brilliantly replied “Good for whom?”

 

In my years of selling television content all over the world I have thought that the United States has at least one of the best “democratic television” systems. We make content for commercial reasons, yet from time to time “greatness” emerges from the process.

 

Americans have control of their remotes and can choose to watch whatever they wish from a variety of sources. Many if not most are aware that their television sets contain an on/off switch that could allow them to read something or, heaven forbid, talk to one another.

 

More independent producers and deliverers of content would assist the process as well as a better-funded PBS, but I expect that Paul Ryan would disagree.

 

I am sure that Newton Minow is a man of good intentions, but we must be on guard against those who wish to influence the process in order to make it--in their view--better.

 

I remember when we produced “Celebrity Charades” at Columbia Pictures Television and I was asked if I was not ashamed. I replied “only if it fails.” And it did.

 

It is not now a good idea--nor was at the time--for anyone like Minow to “pontificate” about content. Complain about diversity YES, but not about content. Jump up and down about the non-delivery of adequate news and documentary content. It won’t help, but what the hell.

 

Long live trivial television!

Comedy Central Gets Into the Awards Game--What Took So Long?

Hillary Atkin Posted April 13, 2011 at 8:17 AM

File this under the category of "Why didn't we think of this before?" Twenty years in, Comedy Central hosted its first awards telecast Sunday night, inaugurating its Comedy Awards even as its corporate cousins MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, TV Land and Spike have had successful kudocasts for years. Using that corporate synergy, the show was simulcast across a swath of those networks.

Was it worth the wait? The show definitely had some fun, and funny moments--and broke some of the rules of televised awards shows to comic effect. Getting right into it without an opening sketch, the network’s Jon Stewart--looking a little ragged around the edges--presented the award for best comedy film to the little-seen "The Other Guys.” Suddenly, scores of people including Will Ferrell and Adam McKay bounded up on the stage to accept the award--a sight gag that mocked the Academy Awards’ recent controversies over the number of producers on a project.

The audience was a who's who of current kings and queens of comedy from Steve Carell and Will Farrell to Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig. On stage, the show-stealing Steven Colbert appeared with a drink in hand and later got into a tussle with Jon Stewart--literally tossing him offstage after "The Daily Show" won the award for best late-night comedy series. Colbert stole the statuette and announced that he was accepting the award in honor of "every person whose soul has been crushed by Jon Stewart over the past eight years."

Someone who hasn't been seen much over the past eight years, legendary comedian Eddie Murphy, was presented with the icon award by his self-proclaimed biological son, Tracy Morgan, who raved that Murphy was the one who took stand-up comedy to rock star status.

After a series of clips from his most memorable work in television and film, Murphy--to a standing ovation, of course--took the stage and remarked that this was the sort of award given to an old guy. In what probably came as a surprise to many people, he revealed that he was about to turn 50 and had been trying to make people laugh for 35 years, inspired by comedy greats like Richard Pryor, Charlie Chaplin, Bill Cosby and George Carlin.

Murphy didn't say anything amusing, or if he did, it was left on the cutting room floor, as the program was actually taped March 26 at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom.

That means Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, among others, have been walking around for weeks knowing they won--Fey as comedy actress for the film "Date Night" with Steve Carell, and Baldwin toting home yet more hardware for his role on perennial awards favorite "30 Rock."

The "South Park" guys, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, in winning against animated competition including "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy,” put the whole thing in perspective by commenting that winning an award from their parent network was like being student of the month when your mom is the teacher. Meanwhile, they are rocking Broadway with their "Book of Mormon," so expect to see some Tony action for this pair.

No comedy show would be complete without a shout-out to comedy legend David Letterman, and the late-night star got his by becoming the first recipient of the Johnny Carson Award for Comedic Excellence, presented by another comedy great, Bill Murray.

Jon Cryer used his moment in the spotlight on the show to address the elephant in the room, his convoluted relationship with Charlie Sheen, who had called him “a turncoat, a traitor and a troll”--but who has recently taken to praising his "Two and a Half Men" co-star. Cryer did this through a gag involving dancers and rappers and came out, ahem, winning.

A song called "I Just Had Sex” with a handful of repetitive lines as lyrics is obviously a joke tune. But it got the full throttle awards show song and dance number treatment with rapper Akon, Jorma Taccone and “SNL” regular Andy Samberg crowing about how good they felt, with a full complement of scantily clad dancers providing the eye candy. Points scored.

You won't be seeing that sort of goofy song performed on the Emmy Awards. Nor would you really want to. But it was a perfect fit for these Comedy Awards, a fine first edition that can only get better with age.

Elizabeth Taylor and the Unlikely Alignment of the Hollywood Gods That Produced a Truly Great American Movie

Chuck Ross Posted April 10, 2011 at 6:39 PM

With the recent death of Elizabeth Taylor, there is renewed interest in her movies.

She made some fine movies and one great one, the latter which TCM presented--uncut and with no commercials, as usual--on Sunday night, April 10, 2011. Even if you missed that screening, the movie is a must rent or buy on DVD.

I’m speaking of the film version of one of the greatest American stage dramas, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

The film is amazing in a number of ways.

First, it’s a film that no one thought could be brought to the screen when it debuted on Broadway in 1962. The play takes place in a single evening and is the story of a knock-down, no-holds-barred relationship--set in the wee hours of the morning--between a middle-aged couple, George, a college professor, and Martha, his wife. Another, younger couple, Nick and Honey, is also in on the festivities.

This description is cursory and does not do justice to this stunning drama, but I don’t really want to say too much more for those who have not seen it.

The reason that no one thought it could be brought to the screen was that the language is very raw.

No one, that is, but Jack Warner, who bought the play in 1964 and told Albee that it would star Bette Davis and James Mason, who would have been 58 years old and 57 years old, respectively, when cameras were scheduled to roll in 1965. (The film came out in 1966.)

Davis especially could have been tremendous as Martha. And how much fun it would have been to have seen her perform the opening scene in the movie, in which Martha imitates Davis.

But the pairing of Davis and Mason was not to be. Instead Warner and producer/screenwriter Ernest Lehman chose Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who had married in March 1964.

Lehman later said that Taylor was his first choice to play Martha. What’s so odd about it, of course, is that at the time of the filming in 1965 she was just 33, and looked quite the opposite of a frumpy middle-aged housewife. She gained weight for the part and makeup helped with the rest.

The decision to use Taylor, made up to look much older, factored into another big decision that was made about the movie--that it would be filmed in black and white.

Here’s Lehman talking about that decision, from George Stevens Jr.’s indispensable 2006 book, "Conversations With the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute":

“We felt that the dialogue would read differently in color, that the characters themselves would read differently emotionally in color. We had a chance to see how right we were, because at the time, ABC was shooting a documentary special on [‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ director] Mike Nichols, which was never released. They were shooting it in color while we were shooting in black and white. I got a chance to see Elizabeth Taylor, as Martha, in color, and everything changed completely. We knew that all our efforts with wig and makeup to make her look older than she was –she was 33 and we wanted her to look about 48--would go right down the drain in color. Inasmuch as the movie played totally at night, black and white seemed right for the emotional tone.”

That decision to film the movie in glorious black and white also partly led to the firing of the cinematographer originally hired to shoot the movie, the famous--and famously talented--Harry Stradling Sr., who was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won two of them. At the time he had just won his second Oscar for photographing “My Fair Lady.”

Stradling and Nichols did not get along, and Nichols said the final straw came when Stradling said the way to shoot “Woolf” was to shoot it in color but process it in black and white.

So at the last minute another talented cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, came in to shoot the movie. Wexler’s work on “Woolf” was remarkable--not only did the he win an Oscar for his work on the film, it’s truly a stunningly photographed movie.

Another fortuitous decision was the hiring of Nichols. Just three months older than Taylor, he actually had first developed a friendship with Burton, back in 1961 when they were both playing on Broadway, though in separate shows. When Burton hooked up with Taylor, Nichols became very friendly with her as well, Nichols has said.

“Woolf” was Nichols' first time directing a movie, and perhaps his greatest contribution was his insistence that Lehman write a script that contained almost all of Albee’s biting dialogue. Said Lehman in the “Conversations” book, “I think the result on screen is mighty powerful. The movie knocks me out every time I see it. Nichols managed to get me to give up almost everything I introduced into the screenplay that wasn’t in the play--for example [additional] lines of dialogue or moving about of scenes.”

And Nichols was an odd choice to direct “Woolf.” His background was mostly sharp, urban comedy. And yes, that’s the flipside to drama and tragedy, but still, not an obvious choice. He had appeared on Broadway--and records--in a comic partnership with Elaine May. Then he turned to directing of stage plays, most recently, at the time, of Neil Simon’s comedy “Barefoot in the Park,” starring Robert Redford.

But when Taylor told Nichols of her interest in doing “Woolf” on the screen, Nichols told her that he had seen the show and really, really understood it in a deep way and felt he could direct it on screen. (All of the Nichols comments in this piece come from his movie-length commentary of “Woolf” on the DVD version.)

An interesting side note: Lehman and Nichols asked Redford to play the supporting role of Nick in the film. Knowing that it was not a sympathetic part, Redford turned it down, and the role went to George Segal.

Nichols’ direction of “Woolf” is exemplary. It’s without the stylization he would use in his next film, “The Graduate,” and “Woolf” is far better for not having those kinds of stylized flourishes.

Nichols has said of “Woolf” that it was the only time when making a movie that he knew exactly what he wanted to do beforehand for just about every scene, and was highly confident that his choices were right.

Another factor that makes “Woolf” extraordinary as a film is its score, by Alex North. Nichols has said that Albee told him he didn’t like the music added to the play for the film. Albee is wrong.

North’s score is masterful. Interestingly, North’s initial reaction when asked to score the film is one most of us would have had: “The picture was so intense and so filled with brilliant dialogue that a film musical score at first seem unneeded.”

But like the score Elmer Bernstein created for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” North’s quiet background music, used sparingly, enhances “Woolf” luminously.

So how lucky for us. The gods really did smile down on this production. Besides Wexler's Oscar, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" pulled in Academy Awards for Sandy Dennis for supporting actress, Richard Sylbert for his meticulous art direction and Irene Sharaff for her "just right" costumes. Burton was nominated but didn't win. Lehman has said that Burton "was just great in [the] role. I think it was the best non-Oscar-winning performance I've ever seen." (Burton lost to Paul Scofield in "A Man for All Seasons.") And Taylor won her second Oscar for her performance in "Woolf."  

Taylor is dazzling, hitting all of the right notes in her portrayal of Martha.

As Nichols noted, here was Taylor, who had literally been in movies since she was a little girl, working with four outstanding stage veterans--Nichols, Burton, Segal and Dennis--on one of the most demanding of stage pieces.

Yet it was Taylor, Nichols said, who taught so much to all of them about what film acting was all about. He said they’d do a scene and he’d think that she hadn’t nailed it, but then, watching the dailies the next day, realize she was outperforming everyone else.#

What Katie Couric Should Do Next--First of All, She Should NOT Do a Daytime Talk Show, and Here's Why

Chuck Ross Posted April 5, 2011 at 2:44 AM

Let me ask you something. Is Katie Couric more in the mold of Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer and Meredith Vieira or Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell and Regis Philbin?

Clearly it’s the first trio.

So I believe that Couric would have a tough time making it as a daytime talk show host. There’s a certain lightness, a palatable joie de vive, a wink and a nod between audience and host that marks the best and most successful daytime talk show hosts. Oprah has gotten more serious-minded over the years, but she’s unmistakably got it as well.

It’s part of the Fred Astaire factor. It’s a silky smoothness in what one does that simultaneously gives one respectability and a connectivity to an audience that leads to popularity.

Couric actually has this factor as well, but it’s in the same sense that the women in the first trio I mention above have it.

So it seems clear to me what Couric should do after her contract to anchor CBS News’ flagship evening newscast ends in June.

One excellent choice for her would be a return to the “Today” show. It’s a milieu in which she shines. Reportedly, Vieira’s contract ends in September. “Been there, done that,” you say? I say “Fiddlesticks!” or, better yet, “Mugwump!”

A mugwump is what some of the supporters of Grover Cleveland were called. And Cleveland was the only president to serve a term as President of the United States, then, in a notoriously bad move, go to CBS to anchor its evening news telegraphcast, before becoming President of the United States again, four years later.

OK, I confess I don’t have a clue what Cleveland did in between his two non-consecutive terms as U.S. president, but the point is that "been there done that" is the position of trolls and not those with tigeress blood.

Lauer and Couric, together again. It’s worth watching and millions will. And, economically, it’ll be worth it to Comcast to pay Couric millions to once again wake up way too early.

Another organization to whom it would be well worth it to pay Couric millions is the CNN division of Time Warner.

The place is a mess and she’d be a good complement to Anderson Cooper. For one, she could replace the stultifyingly stupor-inducing Piers Morgan. Couric is one of the best interviewers around; Piers, er, um, less so.

In a forthcoming New York Times magazine piece that’s already been published online, Couric says that if she does a daytime talk show it would be known for “smart conversation.”

Oy yoy yoy. Another indication that Couric should stay out of the daytime talk show arena. Daytime talk shows are about silly talk, fun talk, exploitative talk, feel-good talk and in-your-face-Jerry-Springer-talk-show-type-talk. They are not about “smart conversation.”

Smart conversation is what one finds on ABC’s “The View,” and another possibility for Couric would be to host a show similar to that compelling and entertaining program. CNN could use a good one. So could NBC. And if Barbara Walters wants to take more time off or leave the original version entirely, Couric would be a great fit to replace her.

We close with some great responses Couric gave in her interview in the New York Times magazine:

Andrew Goldman of The New York Times: At your first job at CNN, the head of the network, Reese Schonfeld, famously said you just didn’t possess the gravitas to be in TV news.

Couric: Which I think is Latin for ‘testicles’ by the way. But to give this some perspective: I was 23 years old.

NY Times: For the 15 years you co-hosted “Today,” no one seemed capable of writing about you without using one particular descriptor. Tell me about your current relationship with the word ‘perky.’

Couric It used to bother me because I thought there was a sexist undertone to that word. It meant shallow and cute, but not somebody who had any depth. It did become a pejorative word, but listen, it’s better than ‘bitchy.’ #

Guest Blog: You Are There, as Charlie Sheen Implodes in Motown

Chuck Ross Posted April 4, 2011 at 8:12 AM

[Editor's Note: Bill Shea is the Enterprise Editor of Crain's Detroit Business and as a reporter also covers entertainment and media. He also writes a blog for Crain's Detroit Business, and it was on that blog where this piece first appeared. The updates in the piece were also done by Shea. Both TVWeek and Crain's Detroit Business are published by Crain Communications. We thank Bill and the folks at our sibling publication for sharing this with us.]


By Bill Shea
Crain’s Detroit Business

By now, you've read or heard that opening night of Charlie Sheen's new roadshow was an unmitigated, seven-gram catastrophe.

The former "Two and a Half Men" star launched his "My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not an Option Show" 20-stop, month-long tour in front of 4,700 people people at the Fox Theatre last night, and I was there live tweeting everything as the wheels came off the wagon -- and his fans leapt off his bandwagon.

In retrospect, it felt like being present at a historic moment. And not a good historic moment, like the Beatles at Shea Stadium in '65. No, this was more like Custer's annihilation or the sinking of the Titanic.

The first warning sign of trouble ahead was an opening act comic, who bombed and was aggressively booed. Never before had I seen an audience so angry with a performer. The guy was painfully unfunny, on par with the dreadful George Lopez. Less funny, even, and the crowd devoured him. Sheen came out at one point to plead the guy's case, but it was no use. He eventually left, and I figured it was a ploy by Sheen's camp to set the expectations low so he could look like a hero on stage.

For awhile, it worked. The audience was on its feet cheering him when he came out. He burned a 2.5 Men bowling shirt, then donned a Detroit Tigers No. 99 "Warlock" jersey, and said profanity-laced nice things about the city and its fans. The crowd was with him at that point.

It didn't take long to fall apart. The show wasn't seamless. It felt professionally done in parts, thrown-together in others. Sheen at one point was on a presidential-style podium with teleprompters, and read a long speech in his trademark style, with his creative weird expressions. But it went on for 20 minutes, and the crowd grew restless. Boos began in earnest.

After that, there were some videos, attempts to tell stories, some music. But things were sloppy and going downhill.

It was all disjointed, and the crowd's sense of disappointment and anger was the only consistency of the night. About a half-hour into the show, people were starting to leave. After Sheen chastised the audience for not being quiet while he was trying to talk, the exodus increased. It was painful to watch. He made jokes about Detroit's population and crack in the city, which were duds in a town with fierce civic pride.

At one point, Sheen tossed a baseball a couple of times with Todd Zeile, former infielder for the St. Louis Cardinals and nearly a dozen other teams. Todd Zeile? Really?

The crowd was out for blood. Tiger blood. And it got it. The nadir was the premiere of a Snoop Dogg video called "Winning" -- Sheen's catchphrase slogan -- that was difficult to hear because of bad audio in the theater. When it ended, the house lights came up. That was it. An abrupt end after 70 minutes. The confused crowd streamed out.

After about 10 or 15 minutes, Sheen walked back on stage amid the roadies tearing everything down. Maybe 500 people were left and Sheen called them to the front of the stage. He thanked everyone for coming and said the show would be fixed. Just too late for Detroit.

I will say this in Sheen's defense: Probably a third of the show drew intense cheers and laughter. That tells me it probably could be fixed -- starting by making it seamless, cutting down Sheen's opening homily of weirdness by about half, and dumping or trimming some of the video segments. It's not beyond salvage, but good grief, it needs work. And probably some A-list guest stars.

Also, another essential fact largely missed in postmortem media reports: There were people booing before the show began. Clearly, some people showed up angry-drunk or were there simply to antagonize Sheen. The actor and his handlers failed to manage crowd expectations beforehand, so much of the blame is on his head for that. But that said, I'm not sure anyone was going to succeed at the Fox last night unless they were an established act.

No one had any idea of what the show was going to be, but what it was failed to satisfy even the vaguest expectations of Saturday night's crowd. Perhaps they thought he would be doing standup comedy, or a 90-minute version of his raving radio and TV interviews.

Then again, what kind of crowd does one expect to show up at a Charlie Sheen show?

The show's failure on just about all fronts can be exemplified by this: Because so many people walked out while it was going on, there was no one available for the post-performance meet-and-greet. We were lingering outside the front of the Fox and saw that doormen and security staff were quietly pulling a few people aside and leading them to a side door -- to meet Sheen. Tickets for the meet/greet had been priced at more than $500, and apparently not many were sold.

We were led inside after a security guard said I could meet Sheen only if the guard held my reporter's notebook and pen.

I agreed, figuring I could remember what I needed to know or could simply text it to myself. There wasn't much to it: We waited in a hallway, then were led down a set of stairs into the bowels of the Fox to a hot, bunker-like room where Sheen posed for photos -- taken by his staffers -- in a cattle-call style meet/greet. It was very brief, formal and mechanical. Other than the handshake, we were told no touching, no bad language, no threatening gestures, etc. There would be no impromptu fun with the Warlock and his fans.

It was over before it began, really. He looked haggard and ready to be gone, and mumbled something like "Well done, sir" to me. The Fox security guy handed me back my notebook and pen. Everyone got a show poster on the way out the door. The we were quickly herded up some different stairs and out a side door, back out into the chilly Detroit night. The room felt like a gathering of generals in the losing side of a war that everyone wanted them to win. Forced grins, etc. A little sad.

This morning, there is no shortage of cynics, haters, reactionaries, pearl-clutchers, fuddy duddies, nay-sayers, wet blankets -- and that's just the media commenting about the show. The journalist schadenfreude isn't surprising: The establishment press pronounced the sudden emergence of wild-man Sheen a toxic pop culture manifestation many weeks ago. They consider his entire lifestyle one long criminal act, and are reveling in his failure today. And they've been waiting for him to be humbled, and are delighting in their unoriginal "I told you so" moment today.

There's clearly disdain, on the part of some, of anything escapist and dangerous, and that's exactly what Sheen's over-the-top iconoclast-malcontent gonzo act is. He's an adult Pied Piper leading fan-boy acolytes down a path that diverges from the safe and established -- which offends and frightens many in the media. They drag out professionals and doctors to warn us that Sheen is a man in need of help, a dangerous Svengali or simply a boorish jerk rather than a Peter Pan.

Let's face it, some of these critics are the people who saw nothing wrong with the dancing ban in "Footloose," and thought Kevin Bacon's Ren McCormack was a trouble-making hoodlum. They thought Judge Smails was a sympathetic character in "Caddyshack."

And while Sheen and his followers may consider the criticism to be the fearful senile ravings of bitter old trolls, today's harsh assessments are, to a degree, correct.

The show failed and the freaks, fun hogs, ne'er do-wells turned on him in droves. Yet I give people credit that they understand Sheen is very different from themselves, and no one is going to try to match his lifestyle. He's not Hunter S. Thompson, whose followers mainly have stuck to impersonating his clothing and writing rather than his booze and drug intake. Common fans can't afford to break drug laws on national television and shatter social mores the way celebrities can. It takes a certain moxie, and even more money, to be able to march to the expensive beat of Sheen's drum.

"Jesus! What's happening to this world? What indeed? The bag-boy grinned. The desk clerk grinned. And the cop crowd eyed me nervously. They had just been blown off the track by a style of freak they'd never seen before. I left them there to ponder it, fuming and bitching at the gates of some castle they would never enter." -- Hunter S. Thompson, excised portion of "Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas" that appeared in Rolling Stone in November 1971, but not the book.

I think that quote largely sums up much of the anti-Sheenism.

In America, we love celebrity flame-outs, and Sheen's Warholian 15 minutes that have lasted more than half of his life may be nearing its end. That said, I credit him for trying to capitalize on his situation. Most celeb meltdowns end up in a staged cathartic moment on Oprah, and then she proclaims his or her redemption. But with Sheen, we may have been witness to how things will be done in the age of social media, when celebs can directly reach fans without vampiric intermediaries.

Today, Sheen is limping off to Chicago to lick his wounds, reportedly $150,000 richer but maybe slightly humbled. But maybe not. Those who bought his tickets are that much cash poorer, but we have a lot of stories to tell. We can say, "Yes, I was there, that night in Detroit, when Charlie Sheen exploded before our eyes." And maybe that was worth the price of admission.

UPDATE: TMZ.com reports that Sheen's audience in Chicago on Sunday was chanting "Detroit sucks" and that as part of a quickly revamped show he read a poem about how much he hates Detroit. Twitter updates sound like it's a better show, but still not a good one. Little or no booing, people not leaving. Sheen is able to tell hecklers "Go back to Detroit" to cheers.

UPDATE II: A piece published by The New York Times written by that paper's lead movie critic, A.O. Scott, he takes not only Sheen and his show to task, but blasts the Detroit audience and media critics, too. Best-written analysis I've read, and wish I'd written it. Sample: "The ushers, in their black gold-braided uniforms, retained an air of inscrutable dignity in the midst of an orgy of depthless vulgarity. Everyone else in the room — onstage, backstage, in the $69 orchestra seats — had to swallow a gag-inducing, self-administered dose of shame. And no, the journalists who traveled to Detroit to gawk and philosophize at the spectacle are not exempt from that judgment."

UPDATE III: If you're not following me on Twitter, you can do so here. My live tweets from Sheen's Detroit debacle are there. I pasted a few highlights below.

~ I felt like I was present at a historic moment, and not a good one.

~ People are pouring out of the Fox. Like Opening Day for the Tigers, this is a bomb.

~ This is a bit like a high school play without any adult supervision.

~ I'll be charitable and call the show Dada-baroque. Needs work. A lot.

~ Sheen starting to lose audience with long meandering Sheenspeak. Recovers a bit.

~ First blow-up sex doll of the night in audience at Fox.

~ "Napalm-dripping brain" ... crowd happy.

~ Fox guys looking for weed smokers in our section.

~ Thank god I have an aisle seat. Crowd could be out for blood, tiger or otherwise. They mean business in here. Tense but mirthful vibe.

~ Freakin Peter Griffin's ginormous head is in front of me. Stage left view obscured.

~ Wondering if show will be cross between a Rocky Horror night and cockfight.