Open Mic

2012

TVWeek Says Time to Set Your DVRs Again for a Wonderfully Entertaining Courtroom Drama, Made By Otto Preminger. Why Moviegoers, Music Lovers and Design Freaks All Owe A Debt of Gratitude to Preminger

Chuck Ross Posted December 22, 2012 at 8:44 PM

There was a time, when I was in college, when I flirted with the idea of becoming a lawyer. As far back as I can remember I’ve been a person who asks question and more questions and then even more questions, leading or not. And trying to figure out the logic of a line of questions, or of an argument, has always thrilled me.

Thus I’ve always loved a good legal thriller. There has never been a time when I'm channel surfing and I happen across “The Firm” that I don’t stop and watch it from that moment on until its conclusion. Love that movie. Love the performances, love the script, love the Dave Grusin jazz-tinged score.

But the first legal thriller I fell in love with was Otto Preminger’s 1959 classic “Anatomy of a Murder.” Like “The Firm,” which was based on a best seller by John Grisham, “Anatomy of a Murder” was based on a best seller by Robert Traver. Traver was the pen name of a Michigan Supreme Court Justice named John D. Voelker. Like Grisham, Voelker had previously been a defense attorney, and based “Anatomy” on a real case of his.

When “Anatomy” came out – and I believe this is true even today – after seeing the movie real lawyers say it’s far more authentic in its legal detail than most courtroom dramas we see on TV or on stage or in the movies.

The performances in “Anatomy” are top notch. James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Murray Hamilton, Eve Arden – I could go on and on.

The movie is in glorious black & white. That the production looks so good is because of Sam Leavitt’s Oscar-nominated cinematography in this film, and the production design by Boris Leven.

“Anatomy” checks in at 2 hour and 41 minutes, but it’s superbly paced, so don’t let its running time put you off. If you get TCM, “Anatomy” is on at 11:15 p.m. tonight, Pacific Time Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, which is actually 2:15 a.m. tomorrow morning Eastern Time. "Anatomy" is also available on iTunes and Amazon's streaming service. If you're an Amazon Prime customer, it's free to stream. On Netflix "Anatomy" is available as a DVD, but not to stream.

I don’t want to say too much more about the movie, but I think the subject matter will surprise you, especially considering it was dealt with so frankly on screen more than 50 years ago.

I do want to say more about the film’s director, Otto Preminger. Preminger made some remarkably engaging movies, such as “Anatomy” and “Laura.” And he made his share of clunkers.

But what was really important about Preminger is that he was the first person to hire Saul Bass to do title sequences for the movies. It was a collaboration that lasted through 13 movies, starting in 1954 with “Carman Jones” and ending in 1979 with “The Human Factor.”

Here’s what Bass, who died in 1996, once said about Preminger: “He is a man noted for his willingness to blaze trails. Perhaps his most notable act of courage was to have the vision, or the temerity, depending on how you look at it, to pick a young designer who had never worked in film before and launch him on a second career. He’s a man who taught me that temperament and talent are not mutually exclusive. A man who I worked and fought with over the years and learned to love and appreciate.” This quote and the others below come from the exquisite biography of Bass published last year, "Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design," by Jennifer Bass (one of Saul's daughters) and Pat Kirkham.

Specifically about the work Saul Bass did on the poster and title sequence of “Anatomy of a Murder” the great director and film historian Martin Scorsese has said, “Here’s another emblematic image, instantly recognizable and intimately tied to the film. There’s something lurid and garish about the black on red, which is perfectly keyed to the subject matter, then risqué, of ‘Anatomy of a Murder,’ one of Preminger’s best. And since the film is all about moral ambiguity and different points of view that never converge, it was brilliant to separate the [image of] the corpse in seven pieces.”

So for the movie sequences and the iconic posters Bass designed for Preminger’s films, we are eternally grateful.

And if, like me, you love a good movie score, you should also be singing Preminger’s praises. He was insistent – and remarkably consistent – in hiring composers who were beginning their film music careers or who rarely worked on films, to score his movies.

For example, the pulsating, throbbing score of “Anatomy of a Murder” was by Duke Ellington. On “Man with a Golden Arm,” Preminger hired Elmer Bernstein fairly near the start of Bernstein’s career. I would say that the music from that film is better-known than the movie itself.

Other outstanding composers Preminger hired include Jerry Fielding, David Raksin, Jerome Moross, Jerry Goldsmith, Mischa Spoilansky and Georges Auric, to name but a few.

The last word about Preminger I’ll give to Bass: “Otto had a vision. A true, artistic visual vision. He believed that what he knew…together with what would come out of our work, was worth defending to the death…I discovered that what we wound up with together was better than what I started with on my own. It was stimulating to me as a designer to have such strong opinions from someone who knew what he was talking about in terms of design.”

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Wildly Funny, But Never Common. Today's TWeek Highly Recommended Movie on TV: A Romantic Comedy Filled With Deft Sardonic Humor -- and a Touch of Clowning Slapstick

Chuck Ross Posted December 21, 2012 at 12:56 PM

Quick -- name the best Hollywood directors from the 1930s and 1940s. You’ll likely answer Wyler, Curtiz, Hawks, Capra, Cukor, Stevens, Hitchcock, Ford, Preminger. Some might include Lang and Mamoulian and a few other wonderful directors less well known by the general public.

Too often, too many of us forget the great Preston Sturges, who was one of the best writers and directors of comedies in American film.

And Sturges’ best movie, “The Lady Eve,” starring Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, is showcased on TCM tonight, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time -- which is 8:30 p.m. here in the Pacific time zone. It’s also available on Netflix’s streaming movie service if you subscribe to that plan.

It’s not a holiday movie, but it is a wonderful movie to see during the holidays. The adjectives “delightful and amusing” were designed to describe “The Lady Eve.”

When “The Lady Eve” was released in March 1941, it was the third feature Sturges had directed -- and he wrote the screenplays to his films as well. The first was “The Great McGinty,” and the second was “Christmas in July.” Before that Sturges had written the screenplays to at least seven movies directed by others before he took the helm for “McGinty.”

One of those who hailed Sturges as a “comedy master” upon the release of “The Lady Eve” was The New York Times' famous movie critic Bosley Crowther.

In a March 2, 1941, column singing Sturges’ praises, Crowther wrote, “This thing called cinema style is sometimes hard to define but never hard to spot -- and that of Mr. Sturges pops out all over the screen. It is evidenced in the main by a sharp and sardonic wit, expressed not only in dialogue and a run of superlative sight gags, but more generally in his themes. Mr. Sturges revels in irony, in unsentimental exposures of human caprice …

“His pictures bubble with civilized, adult humor and sparkle with mischievous gibes. And they all end in the proper way for comedy to end. But they never go soft at any point. Even his coziest love scenes have a brittle, sardonic edge. Love, in a Sturges picture, is obviously just slightly refined sex and he happily never lets you forget it.”

Those are some of the reasons, I think, that a Sturges film like “The Lady Eve” plays so well today, more than 70 years after it was made. It appeals to today’s sensibilities.

As Crowther also noted in this piece he wrote seven decades ago, “A distinction of the Sturges style is its deft and perfect etching of character in quick but penetrating strokes. His people have vigorous personalities because he gives them the words to speak and the things to do.”

And what terrific words. Here’s an example. Near the beginning of “The Lady Eve,” Charles Coburn, playing the father of Barbara Stanwyck’s character, Jean, is displeased with something Jean has said. He rebukes her with: “Don’t be vulgar, Jean. Let us be crooked but not common.”

Writing more about the performances Sturges is able to get out of the actors in his movies, Crowther notes “the truly delightful clowning of Henry Fonda as [the] clumsy clutch in ‘The Lady Eve.’"

Great perfomances are hallmarks of Sturges movies. In “The Lady Eve,” besides Fonda, Stanwyck is at her seductively wisecracking best, supported by impeccable comedic role-playing by Charles Coburn, the hysterically deadpan antics of William Demarest, plus Eugene Pallette and Eric Blore, two of the best, most reliable supporting actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

One of the best things I love about “The Lady Eve” is that I can watch it over and over again and enjoy it as much I did the first time I saw it in an introductory film class I took at UCLA in 1971.

So please, watch “The Lady Eve” tonight or in the next few weeks, either for first time or for the umpteenth time. It’s a wonderful tonic for the holiday season.

Anatomy of Reporting Mass Murder: Why Were We Told So Much Wrong Information During the Live Reporting Last Friday of the Killings in Newtown, Conn.? Should Reporters Have Done a Better Job?

Chuck Ross Posted December 20, 2012 at 7:44 AM

[Updated 12/20/12 at 10:25 am, PT to correct the number of adults killed in Newtown by Adam Lanza on Dec. 14, 2012, not including his shooting himself.]

Scott Pelley, the anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News,” who is also a correspondent for “60 Minutes,” reported a story on “60 Minutes” last Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, about the killings of 20 children and 6 adults that had happened in Newtown, Conn., about 48 hours earlier. The children had all been killed at an elementary school.

Pelley led off his segment by saying that in first reports from Newtown “we were told that the gunman’s mother was a teacher at the school. That he was allowed in because he was recognized and that he targeted his mother’s classroom with two handguns. Tonight, we know that all of that is wrong.” Pelley could have added that we were also told, initially, the wrong name of the shooter, and that two bodies had been found at the shooter’s home.

Not everyone at the news outlets covering the shootings live made all of these mistakes.

Still, these errors in fact -- and a few others -- did make it out over the airwaves. Was this because reporters were doing their jobs poorly, or was something else going on?

“In the first place, almost all information gathered hurriedly is questionable,” says Richard Wald. “Almost all information passed from one human being to another has errors in it. And the thing that you do most quickly is usually most wrong. “

Wald knows of what he speaks. Wald is a former president of NBC News who then spent 20 years at ABC News. When he left ABC News at the end of 1998 he was senior vice president of editorial quality. He is currently the Fred W. Friendly Professor of Professional Practice in Media and Society at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. We spoke on the phone on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012.

Wald continued to explain what he thinks happened with the initial reporting from Newtown by explaining how reporting on live events has changed over the years.

“Let’s say you covered a breaking news event in 1950 and you worked for a morning newspaper. You would have had all day to gather and check one piece against another, and then write a story at 7 o’clock that night that would appear in the newspaper you worked for the following morning. It would be a story in which most of the mistakes would have been corrected, but it would still have errors in it.”

I also spoke to Marvin Kalb. Kalb reported for CBS News and NBC News for about three decades, and was the moderator for NBC’s “Meet the Press” for three years in the 1980s. Kalb is currently the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice, and Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

He also invoked the past to illustrate how different it was from reporting in the 21st Century. He said that in April 1945, Edward R. Murrow was “one of the reporters who got into Buchenwald. And he saw, for the first time with his own eyes, what had happened at one of these German death camps. What did Murrow do after he had seen this? He did not rush to the CBS radio bureau to report this news. He went back to his hotel room and he sat there for two days, trying to find the words to express that kind of horror. Now, that is no longer acceptable journalism." [You can listen to the radio report Murrow finally did file about Buchenwald if you clike here. Once you click through to the page, click on the words under the photo to hear the report.]

Kalb continued, “The point I am trying to make is that we don’t give our reporters any time to think any longer. The business has become so incredibly competitive. So my own gut feeling is that yes there were some mistakes made in the reporting from Newtown, and a couple of them were inexcusable. Absolutely inexcusable. And the reporters who made them simply did a lousy job. But most of the reporters who were there did a very good job.”

Wald also thinks most reporters usually do a very good job covering breaking news stories. The biggest barrier to getting things right, he says, is likely built into the system: “Today, if you have to gather information in minute one and report it on-air in minute two, the chances are that you are going to make an error. The world is full of errors. The errors are not necessarily the fault of the reporting system. They are the fault of the information-generating system. As for instance, you say to the policeman, did he have any connection to the school? Yes, says, the cop, I’ve heard his mother was a teacher. So you report that his mother was a teacher. It’s just the by-blow of speed, and it’s a by-blow of people saying things they believe to be true, but have not had the opportunity to check out. It happens all the time. There is nothing that takes at least 800 words in the form of reporting that does not have at least one error. The more quickly you do it, the more errors there are. There is probably a good mathematical formula for this -- I just don’t happen to know it.”

I countered that perhaps reporters covering live events, despite the competitive pressures to get information on the air quickly, could take a little more time with their reporting, and not rush to broadcast the first thing a policeman says might have happened.

Wald responded, “But when would you know if it’s true? So don’t go on the air is what you’re saying?”

No, I said, I’m saying slow it down and do some more checking. Then I asked Wald whether he was saying that the parameters of reporting done during live events are less than what we ask reporters to do in checking out stories that are not breaking at the moment.

Wald said, “The parameters during live events are the classic parameters. Those aren’t changed. You report, we publish, and we correct if we need to. It’s just that in reporting a live event those parameters are compressed in time -- they are just squeezed into a shorter time frame.”

I said, “Let’s say the standard for reporting something is that you have to have two sources. But during live reporting a reporter may not do this. He or she may talk to just one cop, who says, ‘I think this is what’s going on.’ “

Wald answered, “Well, maybe the reporter hears it from two cops who’ve both heard the same story. Or let’s say a cop is standing on a street corner and sees someone shoot someone else. He says someone shot someone on the street corner. You gonna ask him for another source? You’re asking a question that’s very nice but it doesn’t have a sensible answer."

Wald continued: “So let’s say you are told by the Secret Service that the president has been shot. You cannot not report it. But you don’t know if he’s been shot fatally or not. You take the word of the Secret Service guy speaking to you. It’s ineluctable that that’s the way it works. That’s the way people get information.”

Indeed, Wald noted that when President Reagan was shot on Monday, March 30, 1981, in front of the Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C., “It was first reported that he was unhurt. That was dead wrong. He had a bullet in him. Later, he was reported to be at death’s door. Also dead wrong. Getting breaking news wrong is not news."

Wald added, “And there’s a further complication: If you withhold the information you do have, people begin to distrust your reporting. It took about a half-hour for the precise information about the shooting of President Reagan to be reported carefully. Suppose that no one had reported anything about Reagan being shot for 30 minutes? Do you think that this country would have said, gee, there’s no conspiracy --the press isn’t hiding anything?”

Wald then reiterated his original point: “The astounding thing about the mass of information reporters get is how accurate so much of it is, not how inaccurate it is.”

Some of what happened in the reportage coming from Newtown is illustrative of Wald’s explanation of how the facts were gathered for reporting. For example, a number of reporters initially got the name of the shooter wrong. At first they said it was Ryan Lanza, when, in actuality, it was his brother, Adam.

Here’s what NBC News’ Miguel Llamos wrote on the NBC News website on Friday, Dec. 14: “The gunman who killed 26 people, 20 of them children, in Newtown, Conn., was 24 year-old Ryan Lanza, and he targeted his mother, a kindergarten teacher who was among the dead, sources told NBC News on Friday.”

Whoever these “sources” were, they were wrong about both the shooter's name and that his mother was a kindergarten teacher.

Later, NBC News took down this story and replaced it with one carrying the byline of Llamos and two of his colleagues. The new story said, “The gunman, identified as Adam Lanza, 20, was found dead at the scene of the slaughter, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, law enforcement officials said. The body of a woman believed to be his mother was found at their home in Newtown, authorities said.

“Officials initially misidentified the shooter to NBC News as Lanza's brother, Ryan. But a senior official later said that Ryan was nowhere near the shooting, is not believed to be involved, and is cooperating with the investigation.”

One question I have is why, in the initial story, it just says “sources” told NBC News, while in the corrected story it says the sources were “law enforcement officials.” In the interest of transparency, why didn’t NBC News say initially that the identification of Ryan as the shooter came from “law enforcement officials”?

I wanted to ask that of someone at NBC News, but the PR person for NBC News never got back to me for this story, despite my making two requests to talk to someone.

In fact, I would have also liked to discuss this subject with news executives or reporters at ABC News, CBS News, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel , but PR spokespeople for all of these news entities said no one in their organizations was willing to talk about this with me.

That’s too bad. Kalb suggested to me that I had run into a stone wall because “they are all afraid of what you might write about this. They figure it’s going to be negative and of no gain for them to participate in a discussion whose outcome they might not like.”

Too bad their collective skin is so thin. The danger is not in what I might write. The danger is in what they might report.

The Sports Move of the Century: The Jets Should Trade Tim Tebow to L.A. ... But We Have No Pro Football Team Here in L.A., You Say. Well, Here's the Plan ...

Chuck Ross Posted December 10, 2012 at 4:00 AM

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a column saying how exciting TV watching was each Sunday, thanks to Tim Tebow’s miracle success with the Denver Broncos.

But with the hapless New York Jets refusing to play Tebow this season, I’m one of the millions of fans of the man who has been dubbed the Mile-High Messiah who feels like a denuded disciple. But I am determined to be denied no more.

The Jets need to trade Tebow to L.A.

But wait, you protest, that makes no sense. We have no pro football team here in Los Angeles.

Yes, pigskin breath, I realize that.

The situation here in L.A. is that we have two football stadium projects eagerly waiting to intercept some NFL team that wants to move here. One proposal is a long-standing one by real-estate mogul Ed Roski Jr., who wants to build a stadium just south of downtown L.A.

The second proposal, which just cleared its final hurdles in the last few months, is a proposal by the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) to build a stadium in downtown L.A. itself, next to the L.A convention center and Staples Center.

Interestingly, AEG and Roski have had close ties in the past. Roski built the Staples Center, which AEG owns. Among other teams, AEG owns the L.A. pro soccer franchise the Galaxy, and half of the L.A. Kings, the current Stanley Cup champion hockey team. Roski also owns a stake in the Kings. And both AEG and Roski own stakes in the Los Angeles Lakers, who play their home games at the Staples Center.

So we have two stadium projects all set to break ground on construction, once an NFL team says it will move here. But no team has thus far said it will to come to the City of the Angels.

Time to get more creative. AEG or Roski needs to put up the bucks -- and either could easily afford it -- to acquire the services of Clarence the Angel’s No. 1 protégé, Tim Tebow.

Like many others, I believe that the Jets will release Tebow at the end of the season. To do anything less would be even more stupid and heartless than they have been in signing up a player they never really intended to let play.

And as soon as the Jets let him go, AEG or Roski needs to sweep in and sign up Tebow.

Then, not only will we have a great new stadium to offer some NFL team, but the next great quarterback for the team comes with the deal as well!

Tell me, how can the Jaguars -- currently tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for the worst record in the NFL with only two victories this season -- turn down this arrangement?

So what does Tebow do here while waiting for the Jaguars, or some other team, to arrive?

Lots.

He joins the lineup of our powerhouse 50,000 watt ESPN radio station here. He starts slowly as a summer vacation replacement for the “V Show” on weekends, as it becomes the “T Show.” Within two months it’s “Mike, Mike and Tim” in the morning and then “Max, Marcellus and Tim” in prime drive time every weekday afternoon.

Tebow makes his first foray into regular series TV. Given the amount of sex and violence in most prime time today, both in sitcoms and dramas, Tebow instead makes a deal with Nick at Nite and Warner Bros. With the miracle of modern technology, a special season of “Full House” is created, inserting Tebow as the regular baby sitter of the Tanner family in 24 old episodes of the series.

Tebow also finds time to star in Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump 2,” in which Forrest Gump Jr., now all grown up, is played by Tebow.

On Sundays, until he plays football again, Tebow presides over the 11 a.m. service at the Crystal Cathedral, bringing that Southern Califiornia landmark back to a prominence it hasn’t had for years.

Tebow’s just the Angeleño we need.

Hey Jeff, Here's How You Can Fix CNN, Part 2. This Time the Advice Comes From a Broadcaster in This Guest Commentary

Chuck Ross Posted December 7, 2012 at 8:02 AM

[Note: This guest blog entry is written by Bill Bauman, who addresses his comments to new CNN boss Jeff Zucker. For many years Bauman was the GM of WESH, Hearst Television's NBC affiliate serving Orlando, Fla. He retired five years ago. Bauman's last guest commentary for us was "Some Questions for the New CEO of The New York Times About the BBC Child Abuse Scandal"]

Dear Jeff:

Congratulations. It is good to see that you are back in a big chair. And the age of 47 is perfect for taking on this task. Old enough to have learned a lot, and young enough to still have the energy and confidence for the mission.

To my mind, CNN is one of the three most iconic brands of news in the world. The BBC, The NY Times, and CNN, in no particular order, are the very best. I flipped around a lot on election night, and kept coming back to CNN. Your technology, graphics, coverage and analysis were head and shoulders above your competitors.

I am probably biased towards CNN because of a lunch I attended years ago with Ted Turner. I remember him saying that he set out to do something completely audacious. He said, “I’m going to put reporters, photographers, and producers all over the world. And I’m going to send up a bunch of satellites. And I’m going to do the news from around the world, 24 hours a day, every day, forever.” Ted was pretty impressive. Visionaries tend to be.

Obviously your big challenge is prime time, and I have a few modest suggestions about that. First, I would get rid of Piers Morgan. He is just awful. Second, I would flip Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer. Anderson is good, but I think his demographic appeal is similar to Oprah. Give him 4-6 p.m. Move Wolf to 6-8 p.m.

I would create a new national newscast at 8 p.m. I don’t know if it is one or two hours. How about Matt Lauer as the anchor? He might be available, and would probably love to work for you again. I would model it after the longest-running, highest-rated, best news program on the air for the past 25 years. I would do "60 Minutes" every night. You certainly have the infrastructure. Like the BBC, you have people all over the world. What I don’t think you have are great storytellers. In my experience, audiences respond to great stories.

So I’d go out and get some of those people. You know who they are. I’d start by looking at ESPN and "Real Sports." Jeremy Schaap comes to mind. Mike Lupica, Frank Deford, Bernie Goldberg, Mary Carillo. From the nets I’d steal Steve Hartman and Armen Keteyian. They may be unavailable, but you know what I mean. You must have some already. Where has Christiane Amanpour been? These are the kind of correspondents I would recruit. And I would turn prime time over to them.

I would banish meaningless live shots, streaming video and intrusive graphics. I would charge these reporters with telling great, compelling stories. Just look at the success of "60 Minutes." I think under your leadership, CNN could produce a show like that every night.

You’ve taken charge of a great news organization. Go back to your roots. Do what Ted said CNN was all about.

God Speed,
Bill

Stars Come Out for CNN's Tribute to Heroes -- But the Focus Is on Everyday People Doing Extraordinary Things

Hillary Atkin Posted December 4, 2012 at 8:31 AM

It is an awards show where you hear some unusual words coming out of the winners’ mouths, as in, "It's not about me." And therein lies the spirit of celebrating everyday people who are changing the world in the two-hour program that is "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute.”

The sixth annual edition of the show, hosted again by the cable news net’s Anderson Cooper, was broadcast live Sunday, Dec. 2, from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and honored 10 individuals who are making extraordinary contributions to improving the lives of others – in communities from Kathmandu to Butte, Boulder to Port-au-Prince and Boca Raton to Cartagena.

Actor Harvey Keitel set the tone as he opened the show against a stark background by describing heroes like Malala Yousufzai, the young girl who was shot in Pakistan for promoting girls’ rights to an education, and the father who died as a result of Hurricane Sandy with his arms around the son he was trying to save from the floodwaters.

"As a young Marine, I was taught to help people who can't help themselves," Keitel said. "Heroes speak the language of humanity. There are those who rise to the occasion and those who wake up every day and do heroic work."

CNN’s honorees are all inspirational individuals who seem to have certain characteristics in common. As their stories unfolded in well-produced pre-taped packages, it was apparent they were motivated by personal tragedy, such as losing a child, or were struck by a tremendous injustice, or in a moment of clarity, simply recognized a gaping need.

Many work with children, like Nepal’s Pushpa Basnet, who discovered eight years ago that children whose parents are sent to prison in Kathmandu are forced to live behind bars as well -- in dire conditions. She started a day care center for the incarcerated children where they could learn to read, sing and draw, and eventually a home where dozens of children were able to live and start a new life. Within a few years, she hopes to build another group home with its own school for the kids and to create a college savings fund so they can continue their educations.

Basnet was introduced by Susan Sarandon, who is making a documentary about her. And like every one of the heroes, the audience gave her a heartfelt standing ovation. She was later awarded the Hero of the Year honor.

Then there was Connie Siskowski, introduced by Adrien Brody, who is shining a light on the more than 1 million children who are caregivers to disabled, ill or aging family members, and as a result struggle in school. She witnessed this growing crisis in her community of Boca Raton, Fla., and started the American Association of Caregiving Youth, which provides counseling, tutoring, transportation, computers and household items -- with the goal of making sure that no child drops out of school because of caregiving responsibilities.

Young girls in Afghanistan have a difficult time getting access to education at all, and that's where Razia Jan stepped in to make an impact. After living in the United States for 30 years and seeing what the Taliban was doing to her native country, she returned and acquired a piece of land on which to build a school for girls. After meeting with the village leaders and explaining why it would be a wonderful thing for their daughters to attend, it opened its doors in 2008 to 140 girls, 90% of whom couldn't read or write. Now the youngsters study math, science and language, even while under constant threat of attack from those who oppose their learning.

"Please hold my hand [through this],” said Jan, after being presented with her commendation by actress Viola Davis.

Underscoring the treacherousness in that part of the world, Cooper then read a message from Malala, who is recovering from her gunshots in a British hospital, acknowledging the global outpouring of love and support she has received. In her message, she praised girls in northwestern Pakistan "who are continuing their studies despite threats from militants" and urged people to "work together to educate girls around the world."

The plight of girls and their lack of education is also being addressed by another CNN hero, Catalina Escobar of Cartagena, Colombia. After a newborn died in her arms while she was volunteering at a local hospital maternity ward because the baby’s teenage mother could not afford the $30 treatment that would have saved his life, Escobar endured another heart-breaking tragedy -- her 16-month-old son was killed after falling eight stories from a balcony. She started a nonprofit named for him, the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation, building a state-of-the-art neonatal unit at the hospital. Then, realizing that most of the mothers were just children themselves, often trapped in the cycle of poverty and abuse, she built an education center where they take classes and learn skills. More than 2,000 young mothers have passed through its doors in the past 10 years.

Trying to help heal the scars of war was what motivated another hero, Mary Cortani of Gilroy, Calif., who three years ago got a call from a Marine who had been waiting more than a year for a service dog to help him with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Herself a veteran and an experienced dog trainer, she was motivated to start Operation Freedom Paws in 2010. Since then, she has assisted more than 80 veterans struggling with outwardly invisible wounds of war by matching them with service dogs who can help them overcome their struggles and avoid anxiety attacks.

"We need to do more to let them know we care about them,” Cortani said in accepting her honor from Jane Lynch, who credited her own dog with increasing her emotional stability.

Lest this subject matter was all too heavy, there were a few moments of humor, most notably from David Spade, who inevitably joked about Lindsay Lohan in his introduction to one of the "Young Wonders” who were highlighted -- kids doing significant work to help others, like the boy who raised $20,000 for a local food bank and the girl who thought to recycle cooking oil from her town’s restaurants and use it for home heating in low-income neighborhoods.

Ne-Yo’s performance of the song “Heroes” closed out the program with a fitting tribute to the exceptional people who were spotlighted, each of whom receives $50,000 from CNN and nonprofit training from the Annenberg Foundation.

(A full list of honorees is at www.cnnheroes.com.)

Hey Jeff, Here's How You Can Fix CNN

Chuck Ross Posted November 30, 2012 at 6:47 AM

One of the best analyses I’ve read about the appointment of Jeff Zucker as the new executive in charge of CNN was written by my good friend Brian Lowry. Lowry, Variety’s longtime TV critic, usually nails it, and he did yesterday as well.

Lowry wrote that in a press conference yesterday, Nov. 29, 2012, “Zucker repeatedly stressed maintaining CNN's journalistic values, but he, too, spoke of ’'broadening that definition of what news is’ and the need to compete with ‘anyone who produces nonfiction programming.’

“The goal, he said, is to respect CNN's tradition, ‘but not always being bound by it.’

“Practically speaking, if a primary objective hinges on improving the network's performance in primetime, that's a perfectly logical strategy. The problem is attempts to rival the appeal of ‘nonfiction programming’ -- a category so broad as to encompass reality shows that have virtually nothing to do with reality -- raise red flags about forays that have triggered criticism in the past, while highlighting the delicate balancing act any effort to ‘fix’ CNN entails.”

And clearly Zucker knows CNN must be careful in choosing how it broadens the definition of that is appropriate to air on its network. Thus, Zucker added during the press conference, “When I say nonfiction programming … I’m not talking about ‘Honey Boo Boo.’ But there is plenty of nonfiction programming that could fit very well under the CNN brand.”

OK, let’s figure out what that should be. I’m a big believer that much success can be derived from the KISS paradigm: Keep it simple, stupid.

So let’s look around the space in which CNN operates. Roger Ailes over at Fox News has created a juggernaut by brilliantly bringing conservative talk radio to TV. MSNBC finally figured out it could create a niche of its own by being the liberal/left alternative to Fox News.

CNN has staked out the “non-partisan” territory in between.

Phil Kent, the chairman and CEO of Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting System -- and the man who has hired Zucker -- was insistent during the press conference that “CNN doesn’t have an identity problem. We’ve had some executional problems. We can be executing more consistently, and not only in prime time.”

OK, so let’s say as a given that CNN’s “identity” will remain one that labels itself “non-partisan.”

I’ve long thought that what CNN should do is bring public radio to TV. Now hold on thar, fellow, you say, the TV equivalent to public radio is PBS.

Actually, it’s not.

How about NPR’s popular weekly comic news quiz program “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” becoming a weekend staple on CNN as well. The show already has a very loyal, upscale audience (here in L.A., it’s the single most popular show on NPR’s Southern California news showcase, KPCC) that would fit quite comfortably with CNN’s demo.

So far the only TV exposure I recall for “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” was an hour-long TV special a year ago on BBC America.

Wanna stretch the envelope? Develop a half-hour nightly version of “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” for CNN. Within weeks people will vaguely remember “Jon Who?” Please, as much as I like Stewart, is he really in the same class as “Wait Wait’s” Peter Sagal and -- dare I even mention his name out loud? -- the legendary “Wait Wait” antics of the great Carl Kasell? I think not, dear friends.

When it comes to interview shows, there are few "Piers" to public radio’s “Fresh Air.” Why isn’t CNN doing anything with the best interviewer in any medium, “Fresh Air’s” Terry Gross, who works out of WHYY in Philadelphia. Gross and her entire team -- including stalwarts Dave Davies, David Bianculli and Ken Tucker, just to name a few -- are stellar. Clearly CNN could use a little “Fresh Air.”

Public radio’s “This American Life” with Ira Glass and his crew did some outstanding work for Showtime, but that ended in 2008. Last year Current TV reran that series. Glass has said he and his staff don’t have time to do a regular, weekly TV version of the show. Maybe Zucker can talk him into starting with monthly specials, and then let’s see what happens.

It’s been three years or so since Lou Dobbs left CNN. How about CNN doing a nightly simulcast of public radio’s “Marketplace," with host Kai Ryssdal. The lively, sardonic Ryssdal would quickly become a hit on CNN.

Here's another one: A weekly CNN show called "Car Talk." This might be the easiest to get on-air quickly, since the two virtuoso's who created that mega-hit for NPR, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, stopped doing any new radio versions of the show in October -- though reruns continue to be popular running on public radio stations. I can see CNN's Greg D'Alba and the rest of his ad sales team salivating at the chance to bring a TV version of this show, with its accompanying upscale audience, to the Mercedes Benz's and BMW's of the world to sponsor.

You get the idea.

Zucker has the opportunity to make much of what’s on CNN a lot more compelling. An impressive beginning to that transition that would excite a lot of us would be to make CNN the TV version of the best of what public radio stands for and does best. It would be a great fit to what CNN already represents.

Why You'll Watch Lifetime's 'Liz & Dick' -- Though It's Another Lohan Train Wreck. And the Movie You Really Should Watch Today

Chuck Ross Posted November 25, 2012 at 10:16 AM

Having watched “Liz & Dick” starring Lindsay Lohan (Lifetime, 9 p.m. ET, premiering tonight, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012), I think Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara gets it exactly right when she says what really works against this telefim biopic is its script.

As McNamara writes: “It would be easy to blame Lohan, who plays Elizabeth Taylor, for the film's failure, if only because Lifetime has gone out of its way to market the movie as Lohan's comeback picture and to play up the similarities between the two women. These are, as far as one can tell, limited to them both having been child actresses and afflicted with addiction issues. Alas, Lohan is not at all convincing as Taylor but in her defense it is difficult to imagine why anyone actually thought she would be.”

And, as McNamara says, the film just “careens through the decades-long relationship between Taylor and Burton with more petulance than passion, knocking down gin bottles and rumpling silk sheets for no better reason than that's what it says to do in the script.”

McNamara adds, “Unfortunately Lohan and co-star Grant Bowler [as Richard Burton] have about as much sexual chemistry as Kermit and Miss Piggy and none of that couple's tenderness.”

All of which is true and all of which will not prevent “Liz & Dick” from being a hit in the ratings. Hell, if I hadn’t already seen it, I’d tune in. Unfortunately, it’s just another train wreck in Lohan’s continuing head-shaking journey through life, from which most of us voyeurs cannot avert our eyes.

And the film’s got a tabloid title guaranteed to lure us in: Lindsay Lohan in “Liz & Dick.” What the? Taylor and Burton were show business and celebrity royalty. They were Elizabeth and Richard, not Liz and Dick.

“Liz & Dick’s” screenwriter, Christopher Monger, co-wrote the script for HBO’s 2010 Emmy-winning “Temple Grandin,” which was one of the best biopics in recent years. How could he fall so quickly from that fabulous feature to this felony?

Clearly one mistake was that he needed to concentrate on fewer events in the lives of Taylor and Burton, instead of trying to cram their entire relationship into an hour and a half.

Better your time spent today watching (or DVRing and watching later) a truly seductive and courageous performance by Elizabeth Taylor. Today, in a little while, on TCM at 2:30 p.m. ET, Taylor is in one of her sexiest, most provocative roles: Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

The performance speaks for itself. The courageous part was taking place behind-the-scenes when the movie was being made in 1958. Taylor, 26 (the same age Lohan is today) was two weeks into shooting the film when, tragically, Mike Todd, her third husband, was killed in the crash of a private plane. They had only been married about a year. Taylor was devastated. It's been written that besides Burton, Todd was the one other love of Taylor's life.

Richard Brooks, the director of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” talks about what happened in the book “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute,” edited by George Stevens Jr.

As Brooks recalls in the book:

“Saturday they were going to take [Mike Todd’s] body and Elizabeth to Chicago because they were going to bury him on Sunday. I got a call from Elizabeth’s secretary, who said, “I think you ought to get up here because this girl is hysterical. She’s about to go off the deep end.” So I went up to the house, and … I walked into the bedroom and [Elizabeth] took one look at me and started screaming, “You son of a bitch! I guess you’re here like all the rest of these bastards who have been here all day long! ‘When am I going to go back to work?’ ”

Executives from the studio -- including the producers of the movie -- had gone to see Taylor “with flowers and doleful voices and all that crap, but what they finally got around to asking each time was ‘So, how soon do you think you’ll be back, honey?’ Well, she saw me and figured it was the same deal. I said, ‘Elizabeth, if you don’t want to come back to this movie, don’t come back. It’s a movie -- that’s all it is. If you don’t do it, they’ll start over and find somebody else to do it. If you never want to come back, that’s fine.’ She said, 'Well, I’m not. I’m never coming back. Fuck you and the movie and everybody else.' "

For the next three weeks or so, Brooks filmed around her. Finally, Taylor came to the studio to see Brooks. The director continues, “She arrived in a car with the window shades down, and she said, ‘I think I’d like to come back to work.’ I said, ‘It’s up to you.’ 'I don’t want to see that producer down here. If he comes on, I’m leaving. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to work. Maybe I’ll start and something will happen.’

“The next day she showed up. I think she worked an hour. That day after that, for a couple of hours. By the end of the week she was working four or five hours. Never missed a day and was never late. … So that’s the story. She finished the picture and we finished on time.”

Come January, Scarlett Johansson will play Maggie in a Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

If we’re lucky maybe one day Johannson will appear in a biopic of Taylor that will honor Elizabeth’s celebrity in all its glory, including her acting and her very public private life.

Eddie Murphy Gets His Moment in the Spotlight

Hillary Atkin Posted November 14, 2012 at 8:48 AM

If you are expecting a Comedy Central-esque roast of Eddie Murphy in sister network Spike TV’s tribute to the comedy legend, you would be mistaken.

What you will get in "Eddie Murphy: One Night Only,” airing tonight at 10 p.m. on the cable net, is a serious lifetime achievement type of tribute, laced with laughter from fellow comedians including Jamie Foxx, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Arsenio Hall, Martin Lawrence and Tracy Morgan.

It's the first-ever televised tribute to the comedy icon, and the show will take you on a journey from Murphy's childhood through his iconic characters on “Saturday Night Live,” like Buckwheat, Gumby, Mr. Robinson and James Brown, which rocketed him to stardom in the early 1980s.

You'll see clips from “Raw,” which remains the highest-grossing stand-up comedy film of all time, and bits from movies including ‘80s hits like "Trading Places," "Coming to America," "Beverly Hills Cop" and "48 Hrs.," as well as more recent hits such as "Shrek" and "Dreamgirls."

The program taped several weeks ago at Beverly Hills’ historic Art Deco Saban Theatre, dressed to look like a swanky nightclub filled to the rafters with revelers.

Here's a taste of the proceedings:

"There's not one comedian that could say he didn't want to be like him,” said Foxx as he took the stage and went on to laud Murphy's famous red leather outfits.

And then, not as svelte as Murphy was and still is, Tracy Morgan appeared in one.

"He's my comic hero, but his real legacy is that he made comedy sexy,” Morgan said, before opening his red leather jacket to reveal what looked like a decidedly unsexy pop beer belly. "I walked in his shoes at ‘SNL’ and so did Chris Rock."

Murphy's brother Charles talked about how as a kid, Eddie would watch TV and say, "When I grow up, I wanna be on that," and that at the age of 8 he was already telling world-class jokes.

Adam Sandler admitted he also wanted to be like Murphy. "30 years later, everyone still wants to be Eddie,” Sandler said.

After a clip from 1982’s “48 Hrs.,” you wanted to hear from Nick Nolte, but he wasn't among the all-male cast of scheduled presenters, which also included Samuel L. Jackson and Russell Brand.

Chris Rock talked about how Murphy took him under his wing when he first to moved to L.A. "About three weeks in, I got my first white girl," he recalled, in another allusion to Murphy's sex appeal.

Spoiler alert. The show’s highlight comes after an “SNL” clip of Murphy spoofing Stevie Wonder singing "My Cherie Amour,” and then when the lights come up, Wonder is at the piano and proceeds to belt out a rousing rendition of the classic hit. The crowd went insane. And Wonder went on to perform “Higher Ground.”

Then it was Jeffrey Katzenberg’s turn to pay tribute to Murphy, particularly his character Donkey in the Shrek films. "I have to follow that?” he said.

"No one plays multiple characters like Eddie," said Arsenio Hall, who also compared parts of their anatomy.

“Eddie Murphy reinvented the action comedy," said director Brett Ratner. “Without him there would be no Chris Tucker, no Chris Rock, no Dave Chapelle."

Martin Lawrence talked about how "Raw" inspired him and Keenan Ivory Wayans reflected on their times at the Improv in New York 30 years ago.

“What you have done is nothing short of remarkable," Tyler Perry said to Murphy. “You blazed a trail -- you are brilliant. All the laughter comes back to you, a million-fold.”

After all the praise, all the memories, all the laughter and the songs, it was finally Murphy's turn. "I don't get touched easily, and one thing struck me during all this. I look like Seal,” he said. "There are people here I haven't seen for years. It's like happy birthday for two hours."

And for Murphy fans, the two hours won't be enough, but it will be very satisfying.

The Most Outrageous Experiment Ever Conducted in the Movie Industry. Do Those Working in the Movies Know the Difference Between John Ford and Henry Ford? Should They?

Chuck Ross Posted November 13, 2012 at 4:24 AM

[Note: It was 30 years ago this month that Film Comment magazine published this article, after I had submitted it to the magazine, unsolicited. It had taken me more than six months to conduct this experiment, which I think remains the most outrageous "test" ever conducted with those who work in the movie industry. Film Comment published this article with the headline "The Great Script Tease." ] 

When was it, last night or the night before? You stayed up and watched the late show, so engrossed that not even a dozen commercials discouraged you. And when the movie was over you thought to yourself, “Damn, they don’t make ’em like that any more.”

Well, why don’t they? Would the people in today’s Hollywood recognize a great film if it stared them in the face? Are superb screenplays rejected because agents do not know the difference between John and Henry Ford?

I wanted to find out, so I sent a screenplay around. Not just any screenplay, mind you, but the screenplay of a late-show classic, one that was mentioned in the top ten of all-time favorite American movies by a Los Angeles Times readers poll in 1967 and again in 1978. A film that the members of the American Film Institute, in 1977, voted among the top three American films ever made, one that TV Guide in 1977 polled as the most popular, frequently shown film on television. A movie which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1943, as well as Oscars for its writers (Howard Koch, Julius J. Epstein and the late Philip G. Epstein), and its director (Michael Curtiz). Yes, movie buffs, let’s play it again—the one, the only, “Casablanca.”

I sent it to agents, rather than to studios, because none of the major studios will read unsolicited screenplays. To prevent accusations of plagiarism, they return them unopened. But studios and producers do read screenplays from agents. An unknown writer submits the screenplay to an agent, and if he or she decided to represent the writer, the agent submits the script to studios and producers on the writer’s behalf. But how to find an agent?

The Writers Guild of America represents writers in the motion picture, television, and radio industries. For one dollar they will send an aspiring screenwriter a list of agencies that have signed an agreement with the Guild, specifying certain terms between the writer and the agency. (For example, the agreement limits the agent’s commission to ten percent.) There were 217 different agencies on the list. Since the Guild will not recommend any of the agencies, I sent the screenplay, “Casablanca,” to all of them. The results offer a telling look at the movie biz.

NINETY of the agencies would not read the unsolicited script I sent them. Seven of the agencies never responded despite my repeated efforts to contact them. Eighteen of the scripts presumably got lost in the mail.

Eighty-five agencies did read the screenplay, submitted under my favorite pseudonym, Erik Demos. Instead of calling it “Casablanca,” I used the title of the original (unproduced) play it was based on: “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” I made only one alteration (in the script): Instead of calling Rick’s sidekick Sam, in the script I named him Dooley, after the actor who played the part, Dooley Wilson.

Thirty-three of the agencies recognized the script, and most reacted playfully. From John Crosby and Associated came this note: “Have some excellent ideas on casting this wonderful script, but most of the actors are dead.” In the same vein, Alan Greene of the Gage Group wrote: “Unfortunately, I’ve seen this picture before: 147 times to be exact.” International Creative Management (ICM) also recognized the script and speculated on my motives: “If you are trying to make a point about how the unrepresented writer has no chance of having his material read by an agency or production company, you have made a mistake in selecting ICM.” The agent, Patrick Faulstich, went on to explain that script readers at ICM “make every effort possible to cover unsolicited scripts and respond to their authors with personal and professional suggestions and comments.”

Incredibly, three agencies, Seiden & Associates, the Larry Sugo Talent Agency, and Lil Cumber Attractions wanted to represent the work, and a fourth, the Irv Schecter Co., had a more involved plan in mind. Though tempted, I politely refused all offers. I phoned each of these agencies, however, as soon as I received a contract or a nibble.

When Seiden & Associates sent me a contract, I phoned the boss, Dave Seiden, who told me, “You’ve got just as good a chance with us representing you as anybody else.” I then spoke to the person who read the script:

ME: It’s called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.
SHE: Want to hold on a minute…O.K., well if you’ve received a contract then it has merit.
ME: Do you remember the script?
SHE: Yeah. I’m the one who read it. Hold on a minute…I thought it was very good and, like I said, it has merit. We’ll see what we can do with it.
ME: You don’t have any criticisms of it?
SHE: No, no, no, just if it’s written well…
ME: Have you been reading scripts for a long time?
SHE: Yeah, quite a while. As far as I know, it has merit enough to market it.
ME: Think it would be good for a feature film?
SHE: It sounds like it would be good for TV.
ME: It had a lot of Bogart qualities, don’t you think?
SHE: Well, if you had that in mind, fine. It’s hard for me with that particular story to picture anyone in particular. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.

I told her I’d have to think about signing the contract.

After eight-and-a-half-weeks and one follow up letter, I heard from the second talent agency that wanted to represent the script. The outside of the envelope informed me that it was the Frank Vass Talent Agency doing business as the Larry Sugo Talent Agency. Inside I was shocked to read:

“Dear Mr. Demos, We tried to call you , but your phone is not listed. We like your script and submitted it to a studio.”

I immediately called the agent who signed the letter.

ME: Which studio did you submit it to?
SHE: I really don’t tell.
ME: Don’t you have to have my permission to do that?
SHE: Oh no. You don’t pay us—we are a special kind of agency. You don’t have to pay us anything until we sell something for you. Then there will be a contract with the studio, a lawyer, and you.
ME: You do this without contacting me first?
SHE: Yes. There is a 90-day period when we don’t make any contracts with any writers or talents while we see if the studio likes the material…You have a good story line. You have interesting characters. Rick is the most interesting character in it. And the couple—he is a Czechoslovakian? His name is Laszlo. Are you Hungarian?
ME: No.
SHE: Because Laszlo is a Hungarian name. I am Hungarian. And I know you made Laszlo Czechoslovakian, but there are a lot of Hungarians in Czechoslovakia.

Finally, the agency agreed to return the script to me with a list of the studios contacted, along with any comments the studios might have had. No such list was ever forwarded to me. Instead, a note to me stated simply, “You are not our client. Good luck.”

The third agent who wanted my signature on a contract was Lil Cumber. Her letter also wanted to know: “Who did you have in mind for the roles of Rick, Ilsa, etc.?” I thought that was worth a call.

ME: What exactly did you like about the script?
SHE: I liked the construction, the characterization, and the plot.
ME: You asked me who I had in mind for the roles….Well, Humphrey Bogart…
SHE: I meant somebody available now.
ME: Somebody like Bogart….
SHE: So all you have is a generalization…. I don’t know if your script is sellable, but I think that with the intrigue from the Mideast and the whole mystique of it has potential.

A writer learns to tolerate the interminable wait for a response. For example, over a six-month period I sent the Irv Schecter Co. three follow-up letters and made four follow-up phone calls before I could find out what happened to the script. In the end I was told that Schechter did not feel there was a market at the time for World War II stories. However, the man I spoke with did have some good news. He wanted my permission to send the script to a literary agent in New York to see about the possibilities of turning the script into a novel. Again, I respectfully declined the offer.

EIGHT agencies noticed the similarity of the script to “Casablanca,” but didn’t notice that it was, with the exception of changing Sam’s name to Dooley, exactly “Casablanca.”

For instance, said one: “I don’t know if it was my imagination or not, but I found it somewhat like ‘Casablanca.’ ” I thought the beginning was almost exactly like it.” What about the rest of it? “Well, no, then it departed more.”

Another agent suggested that I “take it a bit away from ‘Casablanca.’ The idea did intrigue me. I just think you need to rework it…you have excessive dialogue at times.”

Furthest out, perhaps, on the spectrum of responses were the shenanigans of Alex Jackinson, an agent located in New York City. Two months after I sent him the script, I received this response in the mail:

“If, by now you made a good agency connection—fine; if not, feel free to write me again. I read your script, and I may well have some suggestions to make.

Any suggestions you might pose about me; clients, experience, etc., etc., are all answered in my book.”

Jackinson enclosed a page of clippings from trade journals detailing the success of his clients, a page of blurbs extolling the virtues of his book on publishing, and an order form ($5.95 plus $.50 for sales tax and mailing charges).

I called Jackinson and told him I was more interested in his comments on the script. He refused to say anything about it on the phone, and instructed me to write him again. After I did he responded,

“Dear Erik Demos:

Yes, I may well have some suggestions to make (about the screenplay) but there are a few pre-conditions. One, you will have to read my book. The one thing for which an agent never has to apologize, is being a good salesman, so to say. So I am pushing my book. But there is a totally different reason why I want you to know me. You will not have to buy a copy—the L.A. Public Library had ordered five copies of my book, and they are still in circulation…Two, I will want to see copies of your correspondence with other agents.”

Another order form for his book was included. In a final correspondence Jackinson wrote, “My suggestion is that, to bridge the gap between ‘talented writer’, which you are now, and ‘professional writer’, which is yet to come, you need professional help. And that will have to be paid for. I could recommend a ‘literary surgeon’ who would help you, but are you ready to accept professional help????”

I decided the Oscar-winning screenplay did not need to go under the knife.

There was a grab bag of agencies that perceived either problems with the script or its suitability for the marketplace. The Memminger Agency told me, “What I didn’t like about the screenplay, as I recall, is that it started out with almost a documentary feel…. I think the dialogue could have been sharper and I think the plot had a tendency to ramble. It could’ve been tighter and there could have been a cleaner line to it. I think other than that it could’ve worked for you.” Lois Lane (honest) of the Sackheim Agency advised, “Put it away and when things like that come back out again—or after you’ve gotten something else sold then you can bring that out and sell it. The writing is excellent, so there’s no problem there. I’m not saying that you’re not a good writer-so-go-sell-shoes.”

The Larry Karlin Agency warned, “Never send a screenplay unsolicited!!!!! I gave you five pages to grab me—didn’t do it.” Said Alan Nicolette, assistant to Ansley Q. Hyman: “Too much dialogue, not enough exposition, the story line was weak, and in general didn’t hold my interest.” I try not to take criticism personally, and I hope Howard Koch and Julius Epstein don’t either.

Charlotte Trejos of the Trejos Literary Agency penned: “Story line is thin. Too much dialogue for amount of action. Not enough highs and lows in the script. Try for a script that has audience identification and one that can be filmed in the U.S.” The Carol Ferrell Agency had the same misconception: “Interesting script, but because it is done on location we feel it would be a difficult sell.” Just because the script says, “Set in French Morocco,” one needn’t film there. “Casablanca,’’ after all was shot mostly on the Warners lot.

Paul Dekeyser at John La Rocca & Associates had a specific suggestion: “I regret to say that we will not be able to help you with your script. I strongly recommend that you leaf through a book called “Screenplay” by Syd Field, especially the section pertaining to dialogue. This book may be an aid to you in putting a professional polish on your script, which I feel is its strongest need.” I contacted Mr. Field and asked him what he thought about the screenplay of “Casablanca.” Although he never read the screenplay, Field said he’d seen the movie four times. It worked each time, he told me, and he loves the dialogue, too.

I called the Ray Rappa Agency after three unanswered follow-up letters over a period of five months. Observed Rappa, “It’s a good script, but in this business it’s more the deal and what you’ve got cooking for you packagewise. It’s not an easy row to hoe when you take a new script and a new writer.”

Though it was six months before I got any reaction form Barr/Wilder & Associates, David Wilder amplified on Rappa. “It’s just the type of thing you can’t sell. If you’re going to sell a show to the studios they are buying things $2 million and under. They’re buying your horror movies, your action-adventure movies, your “Conans,” your “Sinbad the Sailor”—that type of show. That’s what people are looking at. A new writer today, unless you can come up with an action-adventure type of thing, I mean T & A, I’m talking Tits and Ass type of show, or your horror thing—

“What you’re trying to do is get your foot in the door. And your script, in my opinion—and I’ve been in this business a long time—is not going to get your foot in the door. If I gave a hundred eighty-nine page script of a horror movie—not animal horror, but person horror—they’d read it right away because that’s what they’re looking for. A young writer brought in a script two weeks ago almost like “The Exorcist” and a company bought it and the kid’s directing it. That’s how fast it happened. So I think you want to do the greatest writing you can do, but you should write something you can sell—that people are looking for.”

One year and two months after I sent the script to the Walter P. Sage Talent Agency it was returned with apologies. I called Sage:

ME: You didn’t mention if you read it or not. Did you like it?
SAGE: I’d kind of have to reel back—I’ve read and read and read…
ME: World War Two—took place in French Morocco—
SAGE: What do you want from me?
ME: I was wondering if I could get your comments on it.
SAGE: If I really wanted to chase it, really wanted to do something, hell or high water wouldn’t keep me from it. But do me a favor, do yourself a favor—keep writing, for God’s sake, keep pursuing—don’t be put off. Keep me in mind. Send me something we can both get excited about. You took the trouble to sit down and pour your heart and your time and everything else into your work. Keep writing. Keep pursuing. Because there will come a day, believe me when I say this to you, there will come a day when quality things will be seen. It’s just not the material I care to pursue at this time.
ME: What kind of material excites you?
SAGE: Everybody is swimming north. You swim south…Something that has an escape in it. If someone is going to pay $5-$12 to see a film, they want escape. The biggest success today is “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It’s purely escape—like James Bond. It’s not gory, it’s not morose, it keeps you on the edge of your seat. You completely forget the outside world; you completely forget your troubles. You’re wrapped up in identifying with the people up there on the screen. You’re creating a state of mind in the audience’s mind. That’s what to do.”
ME: You don’t think I accomplished that?
SAGE: I think? You know. Stay away from the comedic. You’re asking me what sells. The day of the gore is over. Everybody thinks if you write something dirty, filthy, and a lot of blood in it, and violent, that you’re gonna make a million dollars. But that day’s over.

WHAT, as they say in Hollywood, was the bottom line of my foray into the world of agents? Seventeen agencies that said they read the script would not say why they rejected it. Many were just plain rude. Two said they read the script, but then decided they had not read it. In all, of the eighty-five agencies that claimed to have read it, forty-one rejected it outright, eight rejected it and thought the script resembled “Casablanca,” three wanted to represent it, and one wanted to turn it into a novel. Only thirty-three agents recognized a rose by another name.

The comments of the agents who did not recognize the script are fairly representative of all those who rejected it and serve as their own indictments. Yet one must remember those thirty-three who did know what they were reading. Since the Writers Guild won’t recommend agents or agencies, it would seem that just recognizing “Casablanca” is as good a recommendation as an aspiring screenwriter can get.

Finally, it is worth asking what does one have to do today to become an agent in Hollywood. In California, where most of the agencies are based, obtaining the necessary credentials is relatively simple. The state requires formal application, fingerprints, a $1,000 surety bond, a $150 office license fee, your intended schedule of fees, and two affidavits of character.

In addition, California’s 1959 law states, “No talent agency shall knowingly permit persons of bad character, prostitutes, gamblers, intoxicated persons, or procurers to frequent, or be employed in, the place of business of the talent agency.”

I presume this is a necessary safeguard, so I am sure our esteemed California legislators will have no objection to my proposed amendment. I would add one more category to the list of miscreants barred from employment in an agency: “those unable to recognize the screenplay of ‘Casablanca.’ ”

Copyright by Chuck Ross.

Postscript: What would  happen if someone repeated this experiement today? While "Casablanca" is available on DVD and Blu-ray, it's not shown much on TV anymore, so fewer and fewer people are familiar with it. So my guess is that even fewer agents -- a lot fewer agents -- would recognize it today.

And of those agents who wouldn't recognize it, would they want to take it on to try and get it made? While I think the script of "Casablanca" remains one of the greatest of all time -- and still holds up tremendously (as does the movie made from it) -- I think there is little doubt that it would be tough to get it represented today, let alone made.