Cinema is one of the great pleasures in life. If you love good movies, then you will be delighted with the lineup for the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (May 6-9 2021). This post will point you in the right direction as well as provide an added bonus. One of the titles featured during the festival is 1996’s Nichols and May: Take Two. I had the honor of interviewing Mark Harris, author of the New York Times Bestseller, Mike Nichols: A Life. I hope you enjoy our chat and be sure to catch all the great movies during the festival. During our conversation, I tried to fit in as much as possible regarding Mike Nichols (1931-2014), such a iconic figure in the world of improv comedy, theater and film known for such landmark films as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Catch-22 (1970), and Carnal Knowledge (1971). And those three titles are just scratching the surface!
Cast and producers including Al Pacino, third from left, Meryl Streep, third from right, and Mike Nichols, second from right, hold the award for outstanding miniseries for their work on “Angels In America,” at the 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards Sunday, Sept. 19, 2004, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Harris first got to know Nichols during his work adapting Tony Kushner’s landmark play, Angels in America. By then, Nichols was in his seventies and a master of his craft many times over. During our talk, Harris noted: “It is remarkable to me how Nichols kept looking outward during a production, while the meter was still running, finding ways to construct and to add.” As for what might be said in describing Nichols’s body of work, Harris said it wasn’t a matter of maintaining a thematic structure. It was really more down to earth. “It was about finding what excited Nichols to pursue a project: a script, a collaboration, a writer, an actor.”
NICHOLS AND MAY: TAKETWO (1996): TCM premiere of this documentary about the influential comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Four of their radio sketches have been re-created with new animation created especially for the program.
Includes conversation with author Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life.
Nichols and May: Take Two
SATURDAY, MAY 8 11:45AM ET
And remember, the festival kicks off May 6th! This year’s Festival will be presented virtually and feature four days of incredible programming on TCM and within the Classics Curated By TCM Hub on HBO Max, a dedicated destination for classic movie fans within the HBO Max app.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
2021 TCM Classic Film Festival
Thursday, May 6 through Sunday, May 9 at two virtual venues: the TCM networkandtheClassics Curated by TCM Hub on HBO Max.
To learn more, go to the TCM Film Festival site right here. You’ll discover a unique film festival experience on TCM.
The biggest fear for many, apart from death, is a fear of rejection! Well, I say, Fugetaboutit! In fact, if you’re in New York City, I encourage you to consider doing what I did: go up and do an open mic at a comedy club! Yes, that is what I did as part of an Airbnb experience, “Learn Stand-up with a Comedian,” hosted by Rishi and John, both NYC-based comedians there to show you around the NYC comedy scene. You can certainly just observe but I felt I was ready to jump in and go on stage.
New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world–and that definitely includes comedy. Within the closely knit area of Greenwich Village, are a number of comedy clubs all with their own energy and history. And, at the epicenter is the Comedy Cellar where on any given night you might get to see such legends as Amy Schumer and Jerry Seinfeld. With the help of my mentor for the evening, comedian John Kim, I got quite an immersive experience. I learned a lot and was fueled with plenty of inspiration which made going up on stage for open mic all the easier. And what a stage! I couldn’t have asked for a better venue for a first-timer, The Lantern Comedy Club!
The Lantern Comedy Club
The great challenge is in confronting any doubts: Is the material good enough? Am I good enough? Yes, trust me, you’re more than worthy to go up on stage and just give it a try. More than likely, or let’s say it’s just about a guarantee, any misgivings will melt away once you start. Something will trigger in your brain: Go! Okay, here’s the next hook! Stop, try to pause. Go! Add this. Don’t say that just yet..okay, say it now.
As in anything, you get what you bring to something. I’ve been working on a particular character and his story arc for quite some time. I decided to put together a comedy bit and featured Maximo Viaje, a guy form Mexico City who has somehow stumbled upon a journey of self-discovery in the U.S. even though he entered the country illegally. For Max, that’s just a small problem in a much bigger picture. Okay, so this is a fictional character that I’m bringing to life on stage. Now, for all you fellow writers, tell me: Wouldn’t this be a very useful exercise for you? Check it out:
You get into a frame a mind and, yes, your mind is a beautiful thing and it’s in it to win it. Thanks to my beautiful mind and to such an insightful and inspirational guidance from John Kim, I did more than just get through my set. I really learned and grew from the experience. And, just like hitting the gym, you know when you’re in the zone and you know you want to get back to it again and again.
Sometimes you just need a good hook to get you around to seeing a movie. Take 2015’s “The Condo,” a light comedy from Gravitas Ventures that is now available on Video on Demand. There is a lot of good energy here and it begins with leading actor Baron Jay. In fact, check out the interview link below where Jay provides some insights on making it in the industry. This is our gateway. There is something about Jay, his spirit, his humanity–that makes you want to stay with him and see his work.
And right below this is THE CONDO movie trailer:
The premise: Four married guys find themselves with a condo that they turn into a bachelor pad. This may remind some of you of the Billy Wilder classic, “The Apartment.” Well, that was on the mind of Baron Jay and inspired him to commission Bill Marroni to write the script, who directed Jay’s first feature film, “Safe House.” What this movie does best is to showcase a lot of solid emerging talent. It’s a vehicle that serves well everyone involved: Produced by Baron Jay and Michael Joseph for Baron Jay Film Group; directed by horror genre veteran James Cullen Bressack (Bethany); and written by Bill Marroni and Bill Dumas.
Baron Jay and Jackie Moore in THE CONDO
Something like this, if done right, makes the most of the opportunity to experiment. There are some recurring themes that get a chance to be developed. The cast is led by Trae Ireland (#FromJennifer), Jackie Moore (Pernicious), Baron Jay (Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp), Michael Joseph (Restoration), Tracy “Stresh” Mcnulty (Emma’s Chance), Chris Sapone, Aria London, and Johanna Rae (Psychos). Baron Jay commands the screen as a hapless realtor and lover. Trae Ireland is a cocky stand-up comedian with dwindling reasons to laugh. And Jackie Moore is a surprise hit as a sexy man-eater suffering from multiple personality disorder.
Jackie Moore in THE CONDO
So, while rough around the edges, “The Condo” is a fun view. If you are a fan of improv comedy, that’s a helpful way of looking at this: lots of talent trying out different things. Overall, I come back to Baron Jay, the ringmaster for this project. As he advises aspiring actors and filmmakers: if you’re tired of knocking on doors, then create something of your own. For those of you out there with those sort of dreams, this is especially of interest. That said, there is an effortless, even masterful, quality from the lead actors. I look forward to seeing where everyone goes with their movie careers.
“Marilyn: The Story of a Woman” is a graphic novel originally published in 1996 by Seven Stories Press. It caught my eye on my last visit on the last day of business at Seattle’s Cinema Books. Funny how we find our comics sometimes. A perfectly compelling work was just sitting on a shelf waiting for me to finally take notice. Kathryn Hyatt proves to be a devoted and thoughtful fan of all things to do with Marilyn Monroe, one of the most celebrated and misunderstood of Hollywood stars.
Stars burn bright and then they burn out. While this holds true for the career of Marilyn Monroe, that is only the briefest of descriptions. What Hyatt does is pay tribute to the human being and the artist. A mountain of books have been written about Marilyn Monroe but her unique life and work forever fascinate generating more and more stories. Hyatt carves out a path in search of some clarity.
Marilyn Monroe was the committed innocent artist. She was innocent in the sense that she was uncompromising in her pursuit of purity of purpose as she saw it. She had to overcome many obstacles none the least of which were her own feelings of low self-esteem. Even when she seemed to have a control over her own sexuality and image, she was still haunted by misgivings. Hyatt lovingly brings us into that world. For instance, the photo shoot that would lead to the iconic centerfold in Playboy was bittersweet. Hyatt evokes the scene with great empathy. Monroe may be thrilled by the attention upon her beautiful body but, at the same time, she only agrees to pose in order to get her car back from being repossessed. And she continues to replay harsh criticism from earlier years that she is “unphotogenic.”
Hyatt has a nice feel for capturing the mannerisms and movement of Monroe. It’s a mixture of a crunchy underground vibe and a more smooth and polished approach. The zest for pursuing her narrative is clearly there. What I’ve come to find in comics biographies is that the cartoonist’s depiction of the subject is akin to an actor’s portrayal. The best versions aren’t direct impersonations but are the creator’s unique interpretation. Hyatt mapped out in her mind the quintessential Monroe and everything that came before and after. She also had to map out what to focus on in the larger-than-life world of Monroe. And that process is akin to a novelist’s work. The overall result is quite stunning.
Monroe’s sexuality was, and remains for us in her work, the undeniable focal point. There are a number of well-chosen scenes where Hyatt addresses this key issue. There are a certain number of depictions of Monroe nude which Hyatt handles with grace. Those depictions wouldn’t work if they were simply meant to titillate. If Hyatt had felt a need to really get provocative, she could have taken a lewd turn but, instead, she is interested in humanizing. In that regard, Hyatt includes a scene of Norma Jeane as a little girl appearing naked before her family. It’s an interesting harbinger. We come to see that Marilyn doesn’t have a problem with her own skin but that will not prove to be as simple out in the world.
Much in the same way that the Kennedy dynasty will forever fascinate, the life of Marilyn Monroe will always have something to say on a personal and a universal level. The theme of Hyatt’s book is a close look at a particular woman who managed, by sheer determination, to place herself in the forefront of public discourse. We see Norma Jeane’s struggle to become Marilyn Monroe. It happens gradually, by fits and starts, as she navigates casting couches and fickle to malicious critics. Through the process, she fully appreciated the status she achieved and gave back as much as she could. However, the misgivings would never go away. She was an innocent artist and that is the deeper layer that sustains her legacy.
“Marilyn: The Story of a Woman” can be found at Amazon right here.
There’s the legendary tragic story of 19th century American actor, Edwin Booth. He was so celebrated for his performance as Othello that he kept to that role, made a career out of it, and died with it. If only actor Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton) were so lucky. He’s stuck with being known as the guy behind the Birdman mask in a ridiculously successful superhero movie franchise. “Birdman” is about a lot of things, including Riggan’s journey toward redemption. After so much water under bridge, he feels he’s found something meaningful he can do with all that he’s learned. He’s adapted Raymond Carver for the Broadway stage. It’s an audacious move and one that rankles those who position themselves as arbiters of taste, specifically the New York theater critic, Tabitha Dickinson (played by Lindsay Duncan). The role of Tabitha is relatively small and yet so pivotal. She’s the one who, for better or worse, holds the fate of Riggan’s play and perhaps much more. And she’s the one who should be most eloquent on matters of culture except her delivery is all too pointed. In a great balancing act, “Birdman” arrives at its satire with grace.
“Birdman” is one of those films that hits the nail on the head so well that it leaves you wanting more. The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director for Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Birdman” is an instant classic. Forget about anything you may have heard or read from naysayers giving it a nonsensical label of being “pretentious.” I read that’s what, of all people, shock jock Howard Stern labeled this film as being. That absurd assessment, that twisted view of culture, is the sort of thing that is lampooned in “Birdman.” It’s as if Federico Fellini and Paddy Chayefsky were both alive today and created a masterpiece speaking to where we find ourselves. And where do we find ourselves? We find ourselves with the Howard Sterns of the world making empty gestures each day to countless fans.
We are stuffing ourselves with pop culture that often, some would say always, proves to be as fulfilling as cotton candy. In a film full of great conflict, the resounding head-butt is between high and low culture. Not only do we have snooty critics like Tabitha, but we have snooty thespians out to make life a living hell for Riggan. Enter Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton). When Riggan finds himself in need of a replacement for a lead role, Mike is fortuitously available. He also happens to be notoriously rude and unstable. He thinks Riggan is incapable of genuinely caring about anything. He laughs at Riggan’s personal story about Raymond Carver. Mike also realizes that he has a very crazy way of showing that he cares.
And to care about something is at the heart of this film. Riggan is given many reasons to care, including his daughter, Sam (played by Emma Stone). There’s a wondrous scene where Sam lashes out at her dad. What’s remarkable is how much is said and conveyed. Sam goes from being triggered into conflict, to full-on rage, to a descent into regret. It’s the sort of sustained moment you would experience in theater. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu pushes the boundaries of what can be conveyed in film, particularly with a series of awe-inspiring continuous shots. It’s theatrical on one level. It’s hyperreal on another. And, you better believe it, it makes you want to care.
“Birdman” is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. The feature with a behind-the-scenes look at the film is priceless. For more information, visit Fox Searchlight right here.
Paul Buhle is busy these days with various comics projects. He is truly a friend to cartoonists. And, as we find out in this interview, there’s a good story behind that. In fact, there’s plenty to talk about when you engage in a conversation with Paul Buhle. Today, his latest book, co-edited with David Berger, is out and avaiable, “Bohemians: A Graphic History,” a 304-page comics anthology that explores the world of bohemians in America from about 1850 to 1950 (my review here). It is published by Verso Books and you can find it here.
Paul Buhle retired a few years ago from Brown University where he lectured on History and American Civilization. He has written and edited numerous books on labor, culture, and radicalism. Now, Mr. Buhle finds a good portion of his time devoted to editing books that tell their stories through comics.
“Where Bohemia Began,” art by Summer McClinton, script by Paul Buhle
“Good morning, Bohemians!” So, the jubilant cry would have been heard in Paris, circa 1853. It can still be heard today from down the street where I live in Seattle and all across the globe. I am a bohemian. I’ve always identified as such as a writer, artist, and cartoonist. But what does it really mean and how did this concept come to be? In the new comics anthology, “Bohemians: A Graphic History,” edited by Paul Buhle and David Berger, we get a full history. These short works are created by some of today’s most accomplished cartoonists, who also happen to be some of the best examples you will find of contemporary bohemians.
Joel Craig loves a challenge. He is pursuing three of them: acting, nursing, and cartooning. Yes, if you’re serious about each of these professions, they can all take a lot out of you. And they can all definitely give back to you. WELCOME TO NURSING HELL0, Joel Craig’s recently released graphic memoir, is a very funny and insightful collection of comics. You can read my review here. He’s in the thick of it, living and working in Los Angeles and navigating a busy life.