Open Mic

February 2014

Possessing 'the Fascination of Rattlesnakes Courting in a Bathtub.' Two Must-See Movies on TV Tonight

Chuck Ross Posted February 26, 2014 at 11:59 AM

Watching the first episode of the return of “House of Cards” reminded me of a review I read recently that said watching certain characters on the screen possesses “the fascination of rattlesnakes courting in a bathtub."

But the review was not about “House of Cards.” It was written by an uncredited movie reviewer in Time magazine about “The Little Foxes,” a movie from 1941 that collected nine Academy Award nominations, including “Best Picture.” It didn’t win that major award, but neither did the real best picture of 1941, “Citizen Kane.”

But like “Kane” all these years later, “The Little Foxes,” with a screenplay by Lillian Hellman (with help from Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell and Arthur Kober, and based on Hellman’s play), still packs a wallop. And I am not comparing the greatness of “Kane” to “The Little Foxes.” But as the New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther wrote at the time, “The Little Foxes” is a “most bitingly sinister picture” and “one of the most cruelly realistic character studies yet shown on the screen.”

The latter is thanks to Miss Bette Davis, who I think is one of the true acting geniuses in the history of movies.

“The Little Foxes’ is available on DVD, but not for streaming by either Netflix or Amazon. However, if you get TCM (Turner Classic Movies), you can either watch it or record it tonight, Feb. 26, 2014 -- without commercial interruption. It’s on TCM at 10 p.m. ET (and 7 p.m. PT).

As we eagerly await this year’s Oscar celebration this weekend, watching "The Little Foxes” is a good warmup. The plot of the movie takes place in 1900 and revolves around the slave trade and the exploitation of slaves. But as Steve McQueen, the director of this year’s “12 Years a Slave,” has noted, many old Hollywood movies don’t realistically portray the horrors of slavery.

In this sense, “The Little Foxes” is more like another of this year’s nominees, "The Wolf of Wall Street,” in that it’s all about those who are doing the exploiting, with nary a nod to the pain and suffering of those exploited.

But unlike “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Little Foxes” is a piercing, stinging drama of piranhas tearing the surface flesh off one another, leaving only the raw, exposed nerves dangling, like live electric transmission wires that have tangled and touched, exploding.

It was a tough production. At the helm of the film was director William Wyler. Davis had worked with him twice before, making “Jezebel, and “The Letter,” and she believed he drew out the best in her.

But in making “The Little Foxes” they fought more than they ever had. Wyler insisted that Davis see Tallulah Bankhead, who was playing the lead in “The Little Foxes” on Broadway.

According to Gabriel Miller’s 2013 book about Wyler, “The Life and Films of Hollywood’s Most Celebrated Director,” “Davis felt that Bankhead portrayed [the character] as a cold, greedy, conniving and evil woman -- an interpretation that made sense to her. Wyler, however, wanted a more shaded portrayal of [the character] as both funny and charming as well … .”

Miller then writes, “Finally, two weeks after shooting started, Davis walked off the set and went to Laguna Beach, where she had rented a house. ‘I was a nervous wreck,' she said. 'My favorite and most admired director was fighting me every inch of the way. I just didn’t want to continue.’”

Though Davis notoriously fought Jack Warner at Warner Bros. and refused to be in some pictures, she said this was the first time she had actually walked off a set and refused to work on a picture she had already began.

Miller continues, “[Producer Sam] Goldwyn implored her to return to the ['Little Foxes' set], but she adamantly refused. He then allowed her to take some time off, from May 12 to May 21. … Wyler was able to shoot around her. Rumors abounded in the press, and there was speculation that Davis was ill or pregnant. There were also rumors that she was going to be replaced by either [Davis rival] Miriam Hopkins or Katharine Hepburn. … Davis finally returned to the set on June 2, but she refused to accede to Wyler’s demands, and he was forced to accept her interpretation of the role.”

Wyler and Davis “never worked together again.”

That’s too bad, because their work together was indeed stellar.

On “The Little Foxes,” outside of Davis and Herbert Marshall, who plays her husband, Horace, most of the cast came from the original stage production of “The Little Foxes” and had never been in a major movie before. That includes Patricia Collinge, who plays Davis’ sister-in-law, Birdie, Charles Dingle (Ben), Carl Benton Reid (Oscar) and Dan Duryea (Leo). Duryea went on to have a terrific career in B-movie film noirs.

the little foxes.jpgPeter McNally, in his 2008 book “Bette Davis: The Performances That Made Her Great,” talks about Davis performing with the original cast members of “The Little Foxes” in the film: “Because Davis was the consummate actress, she played well with the other Broadway actors. Tellingly, her character dominates the others, including her brothers. Davis had a star quality that none of her co-stars had; they were not Hollywood stars at all. So she not only became part of the ensemble, she added dramatic weight to the scenes in which she played. … With the ensemble approach, Davis not only blended in, but she did so without mannerism or upstaging. Her very stillness, at times, drew the audience to her character. She was the complex one, not the others. Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography allowed one to see an entire scene in all its detail."

McNally then quotes Foster Hirsh in “Acting Hollywood Style”: “[W]ith few close-ups and forced to share the spotlight, Davis internalizes the character’s rage and her own … she gives a tight, brittle, murderously subdued performance.”

Interestingly, the other film Toland had shot earlier in 1941, most famously, was “Citizen Kane.”

But a year before, in 1940, Toland, who had shot “Wuthering Heights’ for Wyler and producer Goldwyn in 1939, was getting ready to shoot another Wyler film, this time at Twentieth Century Fox. The movie was going to be called “How Green Was My Valley,” based on a 1939 bestseller by Richard Llewellyn.

Early in 1940 the head of Twentieth Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck, had sent over to Philip Dunne, one of Twentieth’s hottest scriptwriters, a script of “How Green Was My Valley.”

In his 1980 memoir, “Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics,” Dunne writes, “The script was long, turgid, and ugly, its central feature figure being an equally long, turgid, and ugly strike in a Welsh coal mine. A great part of the dialogue consisted of speeches and diatribes, pro- and anti-labor. The family which was the center of the script’s plot was torn apart by dissension and mutual hatred, and the overriding mood of the script was deeply depressing. I sent the script back to Zanuck with a note saying not only that I hoped I could be spared the assignment of rewriting it, but that I wondered what had persuaded him to buy the book in the first place.”

I mention “How Green Was My Valley” because it is the movie that beat out both “The Little Foxes” and “Citizen Kane,” among others, to win the Best Picture Oscar for 1941. Though certainly not as ground-breaking as “Kane,” it’s a wonderful movie that I highly recommend. As it happens, TCM is also showing it tonight, after “The Little Foxes,” at 12:15 a.m. ET, which is 9:15 p.m. here on the West Coast. It’s also available to stream from Amazon, but not from Netflix. And it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray.

After Dunne sent his note to Zanuck, Zanuck simply had delivered to Dunne’s Fox office a copy of the novel. Dunne discovered that the initial adapters had missed the essence of the book. Dunne wrote that the book “was full of warmth, love, nobility and earthy humor. It was above all, the story of a family -- strong, proud, loving and self-reliant …”

After Dunne finished his first draft, Zanuck said that he had hired Wyler to direct the picture, and suggested that Dunne and Wyler work together on a final draft. That pleased Dunne, since he and Wyler were friends.

Zanuck OK’d the final script and, Dunne writes, “Gregg Toland was assigned as cameraman and our Welsh village and mine went up on the studio’s ranch in the hills behind Malibu. We originally had intended to shoot on location in Wales itself, but with Britain at war in 1940, this was impossible.”

As casting began, Dunne writes, "the axe fell. [Fox’s] New York office, showing its usual impeccable taste, hated the script, hated the absence of real starring roles, hated Wyler’s reputation as an extravagant director, predicted disaster for the entire project, and refused to put up the money for it.”

A furious Zanuck endeared himself to Dunne forever, Dunne says, by writing “a defiant letter to New York saying that this was the finest script he had ever had, and that some day he would find a way to make this picture, even if he had to take it to another studio.”

A few month later, Dunne writes, director John Ford, who loved the script, “agreed to bring in the picture for a million dollars, and on that basis New York had told Zanuck he could go ahead.”

Dunne says that Irishman Ford, "with only a few minor changes, faithfully and brilliantly shot the script that Wyler, Zanuck and I prepared.”

Then Dunne writes, “I often have wondered what ‘How Green Was My Valley' would have been like had Wyler directed it instead of Ford. There would have been differences, of course, completely different camera angles, different emphases, different shadings in the performances. But these differences wouldn’t have been much greater than the differences you might detect if you listened to Jascha Heifetz play Beethoven’s Violin concerto and then to … Yehudi Menuhim play the same work. In all the performing arts, individual interpretation is important, but never as important as the basic material.”

At the Oscar ceremony that year, Dunne writes, “ ‘How Green Was My Valley’ swept the board: best picture, best director, best supporting actor (there were no starring parts), best photography and art direction -- in fact, best-just-about-everything except best screenplay.”

That prize was won by “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.”

Several months later, both Dunne and Ford found themselves in Washington, D.C., working for Uncle Sam.

Dunne noticed an award on Ford’s desk, from the New York film critics, also honoring him as the best director of 1941. Dunne complimented him, and Ford dismissed the compliment. Dunne writes, “ 'I said, perhaps a little bitterly … that I would have loved to have gotten more out of the picture than just my salary.'

“ ‘You greedy bastard,’ he said, ‘you got the Oscar. What more do you want?’

“When I told him I hadn’t won the Oscar he was silent for a moment, I think really shaken, and then said, ‘Ah, the ballots were probably counted by Republicans. Come on out and have a drink.’

"I thought that was the end of it, but two days later his New York Film Critics Award arrived in my mail. On it he had scrawled in red crayon: ‘Thanks, Phil. Affection, Jack.’”

how-green-was-my-valleyA.jpg

Costume Designers on Top TV and Film Productions Get a Chance to Shine

Hillary Atkin Posted February 26, 2014 at 7:25 AM

It was another big night for TV darlings “House of Cards,” “Behind the Candelabra” and “Downton Abbey” as their respective costume designers, Tom Broecker, Ellen Mirojnick and Caroline McCall took the top prizes at the 16th Costume Designers Guild Awards.

Held Saturday night, Feb. 22, at the Beverly Hilton, in ceremonies hosted by “Scandal’s” Joshua Malina, it’s the gala evening when costume designers in television, film and commercials get the glory for dressing actors who wear their creations in an event known for its relaxed yet festive atmosphere -- and one in which the definition of “black tie” is stretched to its creative limit.

The jokes are also flowing -- “I’m a 33-inch waist and a 30-inch inseam. Don’t judge,” Malina said in his welcoming remarks, which underscored the integral part costume design plays in storytelling.

Beginning with a clip reel of the year in design, it was easy to appreciate the range of artistry and historical eras brought vividly to the screen in shows including "Bonnie and Clyde,” ”Breaking Bad,” “Boardwalk Empire," “Scandal,” “Nashville” and "Mad Men" and films including "Her," "Blue Jasmine,” “American Hustle," "Philomena," "The Butler” and "The Great Gatsby” that were showcased.

The first award of the night set the bar for excellence, with Mirojnick’s win for HBO’s made-for-television movie “Behind the Candelabra.” Fittingly, in the spirit of the project, she wore a gold sequined cocktail dress and a bracelet with a Liberace charm on it.

In the contemporary television series category, it was Broecker and ”House of Cards” that triumphed over other worthy contenders “Saturday Night Live” -- for which Broecker was also a nominee -- “Nashville,” “Scandal” and “Breaking Bad.”

In the period/fantasy television series category, the costumes of “Downton” took the prize over entries from "Game of Thrones," "Boardwalk Empire," “The Borgias” and “Mad Men.”

On the big screen, Patricia Norris for “12 Years a Slave,” Trish Summerville for “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and Suzy Benzinger for “Blue Jasmine” were awarded the trophies.

Benzinger’s acceptance speech was notable for the time she took lauding director Woody Allen, with whom she has collaborated for 20 years on a series of his films. “He’s fair, honest and taught me that work is the real reward. Even with all the accolades, we all feel lucky working with him. I respect and adore him,” she said.

Comedy highlighted the festivities even more than usual as writer/producer/director Judd Apatow was honored as a distinguished collaborator and feted by two of his most prominent proteges, Bill Hader and Jonah Hill.

Hill had the well-dressed crowd in the palm of his hand as soon as he mentioned that his mom was a costume designer on the beloved television classic ”Taxi,” before shouting out costume designer Sandy Powell for her work making him into “The Wolf of Wall Street’s” Donnie Azoff, for which he’s Oscar-nominated as best supporting actor.

But it was all about Apatow from that point on, springboarding off a montage of his work in film and television ranging from “Freaks and Geeks” to “Superbad” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” to “Girls.” “Most of us you see here started because of Judd,” Hill said. “He saw something in us that no one else did. I’m so grateful for everything he’s done for me. But I’m shocked because I wouldn’t think of Judd in the context of costume design.”

Yet Hill related how much effort Apatow put into costuming the schlumpy high school characters in 2007’s “Superbad,” down to the Richard Pryor T-shirt he wore in his role as Seth.

“This is awkward, because I don’t love Jonah Hill,” Apatow began, to great laughter from the audience, before launching into an anecdote about breaking a button on his jacket before the ceremony and trying to glue it back together with nail polish.

“It’s hard for anyone to take advice from me, wearing cargo shorts and a T-shirt, telling them what’s in fashion. But when I look at the montage, I see that you kicked ass -- and how important the wedding gown was in ‘Bridesmaids,’ the costumes in ‘Talledega Nights’ and the green bikini in ‘Girls.’ But maybe my career highlight is trying to hide the bulge in Ben Stiller’s pants.”

The awards ceremony was sponsored by Lacoste, which presented its annual Spotlight Award to actress Amy Adams, who also used comedy to make her points about the value of costume design in fully creating a character.

“They’ve taught me many things, like the importance of always wearing undergarments to fittings and then bringing a lingerie bag to separate your things at the end of the day. No one wants to have to use tongs,” said Adams, who was presented with the award by her “American Hustle” co-star, Jeremy Renner.

Adams highlighted another of her current roles, albeit a smaller and less showy one, alongside Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze’s “Her.”

“On ‘Her,’ costume designers turned me into a hipster. That’s nearly impossible -- as I am a nerd,” she admitted. “You’ve also been magicians, therapists, friends and collaborators and it’s an honor to turn your visions into reality.”

Many other familiar faces from current movies and TV shows took part in the ceremony as presenters, including June Squibb and Will Forte from “Nebraska,” Kerry Washington, Mindy Kaling, Debra Winger and Scott Foley.

There was also a memorable appearance by Raquel Welch, who claimed her costume in 1966’s “One Million Years B.C.” is what made her legendary career. “There wasn’t much dialogue. It was all about the bikini,” said Welch, who looked stunning in a black sequined number that showed off her famous curves.

And there was this commentary from Apatow: “My 16-year-old daughter is not aging as well as Raquel Welch.”

Please click here to see the full list of winners in the announcement from the Costume Designers Guild.

Costume Designers Guild Awards 2014.jpg

Jimmy Fallon's 'Tonight Show' Debut Is Tonight. Does He Believe Enough in Himself to Excel? Back to the Future

Chuck Ross Posted February 17, 2014 at 3:18 PM

I’ve seen a leaked script of what may be Jimmy Fallon’s debut tonight on "The Tonight Show," and here’s the cold opening -- instead of a monologue -- which notes that there is plenty of room for ad-libs:

Title cards superimposed on the screen, and unseen announcer Steve Higgins tells us that we’re watching a TV show that’s a salute to Obamacare: “What’s My Pain?”

Close in on Fallon as the host, in a bow-tie, affecting an accent that sounds part American and part British. As a panel of "experts" posture diagnostically on the edge of their chairs, the first contestant signs in, protesting that he’s not a hypochondriac. His name: Mel Brooks. His pulse: 78. His blood pressure: normal. The panel fails in its first snap judgments -- upset stomach, twisted esophagus – and, eventually, as time runs out and Fallon throws all the cards over, we find out that the correct ailment was a sty.

Lucky contestant Brooks wins the full prize: two weeks' free hospitalization.

Furthermore, one of my friends on Madison Ave. slipped me the following NBC sales sheet about the new “Tonight Show": “ ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’ is a completely informal and mostly ad-libbed variety program starring comedian Jimmy Fallon. No set format will be used on the show -- instead the entertainment revolves around Fallon and what he decides to do next. Planning of each night’s show is held to a minimum so as to provide the maximum of elasticity, so that the program can take advantage of any situation that might come up, whether right there in the studio, outside in the street, or in some other city in the U.S. Fallon usually opens the program playing a selection on his guitar -- then he rambles over to his desk to read a few notes and comments on whatever strikes his fancy. One or more guests will be featured on the program.”

Okay, time to ‘fess up. This “memo” from Madison Ave. is actually taken from a real NBC in-house document that was circulated right around the time the "Tonight" show -- then called "Tonight!" -- debuted on Sept. 27, 1954. And it made no mention of Fallon, of course, but referenced the original "Tonight!" show host, Steve Allen, and his playing of a piano, not a guitar. I found it in the 2005 book by Ben Alba, “Inventing Late Night: Steve Allen and the Original ‘Tonight’ Show.”

Likewise, what I wrote above as the leaked “cold opening” of Fallon’s show tonight is almost a verbatim paragraph from Time magazine describing a bit on Allen’s “Tonight!” show that appeared 59 years ago this week. It was a send-up of the then very popular TV quiz show “What’s My Line.” (And the part I said was to be played by Mel Brooks was actually played by Allen “Tonight!” show regular Steve Lawrence, who did numerous comedic bits in addition to singing with Eydie Gorme, on the show.)

I make the comparison of Fallon, 39,  to Allen (who was 32 when he transformed his antic local New York City program into the national "Tonight!" show) because it’s always been clear that Fallon is much closer in style to Allen than to any other of the previous “Tonight” show hosts. Allen was a comedian who was also a pianist, wrote songs and sang. Fallon is a comedian who plays the guitar and drums and not only sings, but, seemingly, can mimic anyone else who has ever sung.

Fallon himself has made the comparison between himself and Allen. In a piece last week in The New York Times, Bill Carter quoted Fallon as saying, “What I do is more a variety show. It’s always been older in style. I’m an old soul. “ Fallon added that his “Tonight” show “will be a new take, but the show will have an old soul.”

Carter continued, “Specifically, [Fallon] feels linked to the first ‘Tonight’ show host, Steve Allen, who featured humor and music but also wild and silly stunts like climbing into a bowl of banana splits.”

Fallon, to his credit, after five years and almost 1,000 episodes of hosting “Late Night,” has a good grasp of what he’s good at and what he’s not good at.

Jimmy Fallon tonight show.pngCarter wrote, “Mr. Fallon acknowledged that his ‘Tonight’ will not be a place to go -- at least initially -- for hard-hitting interviews with politicians or celebrities dealing with some unpleasantness. When President Obama and Mitt Romney were his guests, Mr. Fallon had them ‘slow jam the news,’ one of his signature bits. If that means taking criticism for soft interviews, Mr. Fallon said, so be it.

“ ‘Other people do that better,’ Mr. Fallon said. ‘I leave that to Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey. The political stuff? Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, they have it. And Stephen Colbert, who is an animal. He’s amazing. Those guys are good at it. I don’t want to mess with that.’ “

Good for Fallon for recognizing his strengths and weaknesses. But then, oddly, Carter notes that “Mr. Fallon recently began extending his monologues on ‘Late Night’ and will extend them more on 'Tonight,' though [Fallon’s executive producer, Lorne Michaels] noted that one difference would involve inserting news clips to illustrate the humor.”

Huh? Jimmy, you just said Jon Stewart and Colbert and Maher own that space concerning humor about news events. Stick to your strengths, Jimmy. There are enough late-night monologues, and almost all those other hosts do it better than you have done it on "Late Night." Why not start your new gig on the "Tonight" show with various comic cold openings, be them in song or not?

Elsewhere in Carter’s piece Michaels says, “Jimmy is by no means a pure stand-up, far from it.”

And that’s Jimmy’s ace-in-the-hole. It’s why he can be hugely successful on the “Tonight’ show. As Carter notes, “Given the range of his talents -- singing, guitar playing, impressinons, sketches -- the big shift in a Jimmy Fallon 'Tonight Show' would seem to be toward a variety show rather than stand-up based comedy.”

Absolutely. In a real sense it’s what Allen was doing when he started the “Tonight” show 50-plus years ago. For many years, part of what made Letterman so much fun to watch is that he adopted much of Allen’s comic zaniness, from the lunatic stunts Dave would attempt to the kooky interactions he’d have with folks such as local shopkeeper Rupert Jee. And Letterman has acknowledged a debt to Allen.

But Letterman long ago stopped being wacky and madcap in the Allen tradition. Jimmy Kimmel has certainly borrowed from Allen as well -- in particular, his man on the street interview -- which Kimmel calls “Lie Witness News,” is a variation of the man on the street bit Allen popularized.

What Fallon has got that his rivals don’t is his talent for mimicry and musicality. And, of course, the best band on TV.

To ask Fallon to reinvent late-night would be an unfair burden. But certainly he’s got the chops to give "The Tonight Show" the jolt of energy it needs. If he hasn’t already, I’d suggest he study up on what Allen did both on the old “Tonight!” shows, his old prime-time show, and the later syndicated late-night program Allen did for Westinghouse for two seasons in the early 1960s.

Ultimately, Fallon only will be great by not compromising what he feels is right from within himself. But as he starts his new journey tonight, he should keep in mind that glancing back might give him a good blueprint for the future.

Sex! Thrilling Ecstasy! Stabbing! More Sex! Hollywood! Scandal! It's One of the Most Salacious Pieces We've Ever Written, All in an Attempt to Convince You to Set Your DVR to Record a Movie with a Dull Title That's One of the Best We've Ever Seen

Chuck Ross Posted February 9, 2014 at 12:17 PM

In the summer of 1936, the biggest news on the world stage was the Olympics. Four years after the mostly uneventful games in Los Angeles, Germany’s chancellor, Adolf Hitler, was trying to make a political statement with the games in Berlin, which ran through the first two weeks in August. African-American Jesse Owens did much to thwart those ambitions.

In New York, The New York Times wrote that hot August that New Yorkers were taking advantage of their parks as never before, with “as many as 6,000 persons in an evening attend[ing] the twice-a-week dances in Central Park.”

Back in Los Angeles, Time magazine, in a cleverly written non-bylined piece, says that the week of Aug. 10th, 1936, brought “another of those scandals which periodically afford the U.S. film followers an intimate glimpse of high & low life in Hollywood. While the cinema colony shamefully hung its tail between its legs, while circulation managers of the tabloid Press howled with delight, [actress] Mary Astor and Dr. Franklin Thorpe battled for custody of their 4-year-old daughter in a mud-slinging contest in which the purpose of each was to make the other appear grossly immoral.”

At the time of this custody case, Dr. Thorpe, Astor’s former gynecologist and ex-husband, was 44, and Astor was 30.

According to the Time article, the case swiftly “passed from the nursery to the boudoir as each of the disputants began telling not the Judge but the Press how oversexed the other was.”

The story continues, “A tattling nurse produced by Miss Astor named four women who at various times after the divorce had apparently spent the night with Dr. Thorpe. One of these, a blonde onetime showgirl named Norma Taylor, was also recalled by a Los Angeles policeman. Dr. Thorpe had summoned him in after Miss Taylor, intoxicated, had invaded his dining room when he was eating with his daughter, brandished a candlestick, chased him upstairs, cornered him in a bathroom [and] plunged a fork into his thigh.”

Not to be outdone, Dr. Thorpe’s team of mouthpieces said they had a copy of Astor’s diary, which they had obtained under questionable circumstances. Said Time, “Its revelations, doled out day by day from [Thorpe's] attorney's office, were as purple as the ink they were written in.”

The Time account continues, “[N]o screen lover but a sad-eyed dramatist was cast as Miss Astor's No. 1 partner-in-sin. Browsing through Miss Astor's diary, the doctor's lawyers said they found that she had recorded experiencing a ‘thrilling ecstasy’ in the company of [playwright] George S. Kaufman [“Dinner at Eight,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner” “Animal Crackers”]. ‘He fits me perfectly,’ stated Miss Astor, recalling, ‘many exquisite moments . . . twenty—count them, diary, twenty. . . . I don't see how he does it... he is perfect.’

"In October 1935, Actress Astor admitted on the stand, she had telephoned Mr. Kaufman, whom she had not met, from a Manhattan saloon, asked him if he would care to make her acquaintance. He would and did, the upshot being that playwright and actress spent ten days together in a ‘snug and delightfully cozy’ Manhattan apartment. Miss Astor wrote in her diary that she asked Mr. Kaufman: ‘How is it that you don't tell me you love me?’ The worldly, 47-year-old dramatist, according to the Astor diary, replied, ‘Well, I'll tell you; I am not going to say I love you because I don't. I was through with love long ago.’ "

Kaufman had been subpoenaed to testify in the custody battle, but never showed up. Time magazine, however, was able to track down Beatrice Kaufman, George’s wife: “[She is the] fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Interviewed in London last week she declared, ‘I knew all about this case before it caught the limelight. ... I know Mary Astor well. My husband met her just about this time a year ago. I was in Honolulu and he was working in Hollywood. They had a flirtation. ... I cannot see any terrible harm in that. Is it unusual for a husband to flirt with an actress? We have been married 20 years. We are adults, leading our own lives in adult fashion. George is a good husband. I love him very much and he is in love with me. . . . Please do not ask me to discuss Miss Astor. She is a film actress and kept a diary. Very stupid, that. . . .’ ”

A week later, in its issue of Aug. 24, 1936, Time magazine reported on the outcome of the case: "To Actress Mary Astor, suing her onetime husband, Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, for full custody of their 4-year-old daughter, the Los Angeles Superior Court awarded the child for nine months a year. Before rendering his decision, Judge Goodwin J. Knight called for Miss Astor's diary in which she recorded her irregular love life and which Dr. Thorpe's lawyers tried to use obliquely to disqualify her as a fit mother. After four hours of reading the manuscript from cover to cover Judge Knight ordered the diary impounded with the court.”

Knight later became the governor of California, from 1953 to 1959.

And what ever happened to Astor’s diary? Kenneth Anger’s infamous “Hollywood Babylon,” which was published in Europe in 1959, but didn’t get to the U.S. until 1965, published this 1935 entry from Astor's diary which Anger claimed was authentic:

His first initial is G, and I fell like a ton of bricks. I met him Friday. Saturday he called for me at the Ambassador and we went to the Casino for lunch and had a very gay time! Monday—we ducked out of the boring party. It was very hot so we got a cab and drove around the park a few times and the park was, well, the park, and he held my hand and said he’d like to kiss me but didn’t.

Tuesday night we had a dinner at ‘21’ and on the way to see 'Run Little Chillun' he did kiss me—and I don’t think either of us remember much what the show was about. We played kneesies during the first two acts, my hand wasn’t in my own lap during the third. It’s been years since I’ve felt up a man in public, but I just got carried away.

Afterwards we had a drink someplace and then went to a little flat in 73rd Street where we could be alone, and it was all very thrilling and beautiful. Once George lays down his glasses, he is quite a different man. His powers of recuperation are amazing, and we made love all night long. It all worked perfectly, and we shared our fourth climax at dawn. I didn’t see much of anybody else the rest of the time—we saw every show in town, had grand fun together and went frequently to 73rd Street where he fucked the living daylights out of me.

Is this really what that diary said? We will never know. In 1952 the court ordered Astor's diary burned.

A month after the end of the child custody case, Mary Astor’s latest motion picture opened in September, 1936. It was a drama that had the name of what seemed like a western: “Dodsworth.” Here’s the beginning of Time magazine’s review, also not bylined:

Dodsworth (Samuel Goldwyn-United Artists). 'Why don't you try stout, Mr. Dodsworth?' drawls a woman's voice from the shadowy corner of a steamship deck. Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) who has just asked the steward for a drink that will soothe his nerves, whirls around, surprised. Mr. Dodsworth's surprise was nothing to that of Producer Sam Goldwyn and his staff when, at this line, the audience at a Hollywood preview last week burst into applause. The applauders were not partisans of stout but of Mary Astor, whose first line they recognized even before the camera moved over to her. Throughout the picture they kept applauding frequently and as she was coming out of the theatre in the flesh with Screenwriter Marcus Goodrich and her mother, they mobbed her. Cheered her. Shouted ‘You're all right, Mary!’, begged her for her autograph.

“Thus did the public affirm its recognition of a fine performance, its sympathy for Mary Astor's position in her recent suit to get custody of her daughter (TIME, Aug. 17 & 24). Meanwhile Fate had brought Mary Astor the greatest picture, the most human and sympathy-winning role of her life just when she needed it most.”

Legend has it, according to “America’s Film Legacy” by Daniel Eagan, that producer Sam Goldwyn once famously said of “Dodsworth,” “I lost my goddamn shirt. I’m not saying it wasn’t a fine picture. It was a great picture, but nobody wanted to see it. In droves.”

In fact, due to the interest in Astor at the time, box-office numbers from Variety indicate the film did just fine filling theaters, thank you.

What is true is that, outside of film buffs, the movie is not well-known today. But “Dodsworth” is on my short list of best movies ever, and I urge you to see it today or record it on your DVR. It’s on TCM at 8 pm ET (5 pm PT) today, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014. It’s also available on DVD, but it’s not available to stream by either Netflix nor Amazon. If you are reading this after "Dodsworth" has already been shown on TCM, and you don't want to buy a copy on Amazon or elsewhere, keep an eye out for it. TCM repeats it periodically.

While Astor is fine in the film, the most memorable performance is by Walter Huston. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in the movie, and should have won. (He was beaten by Paul Muni in “The Story of Louis Pasteur.”) "Dodsworth" is based on a best-seller by Sinclair Lewis. Sidney Howard later adapted the novel to the stage, and Howard then wrote the deliciously scintillating screenplay.

The movie itself was nominated for Best Picture, but lost to “The Great Ziegfeld.” In fact, “Dodsworth” is a joy to watch for its acting, its story and for all the great craftsmanship it exhibits, from art direction to editing.

Robert Osborne, the wonderful host on TCM who clearly knows a lot about classic movies, has said this about “Dodsworth”:

“Directed by William Wyler, who is, if not the best director, one of the best. It’s got a dull title and a cast that no one particularly knows–Walter Huston stars in it, Anjelica Huston’s grandfather [and the father of director/actor/writer John Huston]. It’s an absolutely riveting story about a very successful man who retires and takes a trip to Europe with his wife, and the wife is someone who decides she doesn’t want to grow old. It’s about the conflict of what it does to their life together.

"It’s an amazing film to me, because not only is it fascinating, but for something made in 1936, it is so up to date, and so modern. It could be a movie made today and people would like it. I actually introduced it once with the son of the man who produced it, and the crowds were so large for this 1936 film that they had to show it three times, which shows the grip that it can have on an audience today. Anyone can relate to the problem of getting older, the problem of not wanting to be dismissed by people. It’s that line we all come to eventually when you’re no longer young, but you don’t want to be old, and you haven’t made the adjustment of the fact that you’re not 25 anymore.”

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On the Scene at aTVfest: A Digital Media Experience -- The Secrets Behind 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' ' CeeLo Green's The Good Life' ... and So Much More

Hillary Atkin Posted February 8, 2014 at 12:15 PM

It turned out to be the calm before Winter Storm Pax threatened Atlanta, but instead of calm, there were three days and nights of excitement as the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) presented its second aTVfest: A Digital Media Experience, with screenings, panels, Q&As and parties at venues throughout the Midtown area.

Even during the winter season, there is certainly no shortage of media and film festivals, most of them well-established. So that’s why it was especially impressive that this new entry drew such light and heat to an otherwise chilly Atlanta February 6-8, thanks to previews of highly anticipated new shows including Sundance Channel’s “The Red Road,” TBS’s ”CeeLo Green’s The Good Life” and Fox’s “Gang Related.”

But it’s not just about TV shows, although there were also screenings of “Looking” (HBO), “Justified” (FX), “The Walking Dead” (AMC), “The Americans” (FX) and “Archer” (FX) along with the Season 3 premiere of “Dallas,” upcoming on TNT. And naturally there are respected honorees, who this year included Angie Harmon, who received the Spotlight Award, Connie Britton, who was honored with the Icon Award, and Megan Boone, who received the Rising Star Award.

The fest celebrates design, creativity and innovation in television and media production, showcasing quality work in broadcast, cable, online, music video, animation, advertising and social media. Award-winning above and below-the-line talent take part in a series of informative panels, discussions and workshops held at SCAD’s state-of-the-art Digital Media Center, its main Atlanta campus and at the stunning new SCADshow theater, with finishing design touches put on just hours before the opening-night screening.

Many producers, writers, directors and industry executives from companies including ABC Entertainment, AMC Networks, FX, Discovery Channel, FremantleMedia, National Geographic Television, HGTV and The Gersh Agency come in from Los Angeles and New York, and there is major representation from the Atlanta-based Weather Channel and Turner networks including TBS, TCM, TNT and CNN.

Hometown heroes Green and the reunited Goodie Mob (Big Gipp, T-Mo and Khujo) drew a sellout crowd to SCADshow to preview their new show with executive producers Andrew Jameson and Eli Frankel.

“The opportunity came from Andrew,” said Green, who was sporting a black “Sons of Anarchy” T-shirt. “TBS wanted to get into reality and I had said ‘no’ before but when we were in the studio [making an album] we realized we missed each other after 14 years. So this was an opportunity to showcase where we are now.”

Shot during a seven-week residency in Las Vegas, “The Good Life” is partially scripted in a style that Jameson compared to Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“The guys are coming up with great ideas but some of them are disastrous and pretty outrageous, like incorporating a tiger into their act,” he said.

“It’s like a dream come true for us,” said Khujo, before the discussion shifted to the origins of the Goodie Mob 20 years ago, when Southern rap was not accepted outside the region.

“We loved each other and hated the stereotype. The way we behaved was in revolt,” Green recalled. “We were a collection of MCs, poets and philosophers -- a band of gypsies.”

Speaking of “Curb,” which has not been on HBO since 2010, I had the opportunity to interview its executive producer Tim Gibbons in a 90-minute session at the Digital Media Center’s theater.

“It’s up to Larry, whenever he wants to come back. HBO has given him an open door -- and they never give him any notes,” said Gibbons, who is currently the EP of BET’s breakout hit “Real Husbands of Hollywood.”

The audience was treated to a round of clips from “Curb” as Gibbons explained that absolutely none of the show was scripted and that David often preferred that some of the cast, especially Cheryl Hines, who plays his wife, not even see the outline so that they would come to their scenes totally fresh. Rehearsals are only for camera blocking and “mumble” dialogue is used so the improv and jokes are as spontaneous as possible.

“Much more footage is shot than in a scripted show and Larry will star certain lines in the edit that can become the centerpiece of a scene. The whole process can take up to a year for 10 or 12 episodes,” he said.

Gibbons said “Real Husbands” developed from a skit Kevin Hart did on the BET Awards lampooning Bravo’s “Real Housewives.” It blew up on social media the next day and the network moved quickly to develop it.

Billed as “the fakest reality show ever,” and featuring J.B. Smoove, Nelly, Boris Kodjoe, Nick Cannon and Duane Martin, it premiered in January 2013 and is currently shooting a third season.

Other well-attended panels included “Instant Classics: Lifestyle Television Series We’ll Never Forget,” “Network Branding in the Age of Digital Media,” “The Pitch,” "Big Vision Empty Wallet: Strategies to Get Your Foot in the Door Without Breaking the Bank,” “Sci-Fi on TV,” “Beyond Passive Entertainment: The Second Screen,” “Demystifying the Development Process” and “Deconstructing the Co-Production Deal.”

The events went late into the evening as organizers, led by SCAD President Paula Wallace, hosted afterparties at Atlanta hotspots including Lure, Livingston Bar + Restaurant and Tap.

Writers Guild Awards Honor 'Breaking Bad,' 'Veep' -- We Have the Full List of Winners

Hillary Atkin Posted February 5, 2014 at 5:27 AM

Four months after its record-breaking series finale, the accolades for “Breaking Bad” keep rolling in. The latest came Saturday night when the AMC drama took the award for best drama series at the 2014 Writers Guild Awards, which honor outstanding achievement in writing for film, television, radio, promotion, new media and videogames.

"This has been an amazing last seven years. No one saw it coming,” said the perennially modest creator, writer, producer and sometime director Vince Gilligan, who won the DGA the previous weekend, in accepting the trophy. “I'm continually reminded that motion pictures -- movies and television -- are collaborative. I can’t imagine doing this without the amazing cast, producers and directors. But I’m reminded that it all starts with the word created on the page.”

The award was handed out near the end of ceremonies held on the West Coast at the JW Marriott L.A. LIVE in Los Angeles, while a separate East Coast kudofest took place in New York City’s Edison Ballroom. Some Los Angeles attendees were unnerved to find out the winners were published online before they were announced in the Pacific time zone.

Still, that didn’t diminish the joy for the writers of HBO’s “Veep,” which took the award for comedy series in a field that included “Modern Family,” “30 Rock,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Parks and Recreation.”

The prestigious new series prize went to Netflix’s much-lauded “House of Cards.” The other contenders were “The Americans,” “Masters of Sex,” “Ray Donovan” and “Orange Is the New Black.”

“Her” writer Spike Jonze won the award for original screenplay, which was up against David O. Russell for "American Hustle,” Woody Allen for “Blue Jasmine," Bob Nelson for "Nebraska" and Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack for "Dallas Buyers Club."

In his acceptance speech, Jonze called the trophy “an award for pain, because writers endure a very specific kind of torture.”

In the adapted screenplay category, Billy Ray took the prize for “Captain Phillips” in a field that included Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for “Before Midnight,” Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” and Terence Winter for “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

“I owe quite a debt to Captain Richard Phillips, who survived something I know would’ve killed me,” Ray said in his acceptance speech about the real-life ordeal the hijacked captain endured. “It was Captain Phillips who wrote this movie. I just wrote it down.”

Jonze and Ray are also nominated for Oscars in their respective screenplay categories.

The Los Angeles ceremony, which was not televised but streamed live on latimes.com, was hosted by actor Brad Garrett, who got flack on social media by starting things off with racial jokes about “Gravity” that many considered offensive.

West Coast presenters included Julie Delpy, Bruce Dern, Julianna Margulies, Stana Katic, Walton Goggins, Dermot Mulroney, Nick Offerman, Joe Manganiello, Amber Tamblyn, Betsy Brandt, B. J. Novak, Sasha Alexander and “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek.

The writing staff of “Jeopardy!” received the first-ever WGA Award for quiz and audience participation.

The honorary awards were especially poignant this year, honoring Paul Mazursky, Garry Marshall, Sam Simon, Alex Gibney -- all of whom gave moving and often funny speeches -- and posthumously honoring Thomas C. Cook, whose daughter accepted graciously on his behalf.

The WGA also recognizes individual episodes of drama and comedy, for which “Breaking Bad’s” Gennifer Hutchison and “30 Rock’s” Jack Burditt and Robert Carlock took home trophies.

In the hotly contested comedy/variety series category, the writing staff of “The Colbert Report” beat nominees from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Conan” and “Portlandia.”

A complete list of winners can be found by clicking here.

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