Friday, March 30, 2018

you can't go back: "roseanne," reimagined

Flashback / That was then...

The sitcom "Roseanne," in its original incarnation, produced 222 half-hour episodes during a nine-season run on ABC - from October 18th, 1988, to May 20th, 1997. For six of those seasons, it was among the top four most popular shows, according to the Nielsen ratings, and was the most watched TV show in the United States from 1989 to 1990. And with good reason.

In a word, it was terrific.

At its artistic zenith, during its heady success, "Roseanne" was every bit as wickedly funny and bracingly original as "Seinfeld," as charismatic as "Friends," and as socio-political as "All in the Family" (although its issues were more "socio" than "political"). And in Roseanne Connor, it had an anchor as crucial as Lucy Ricardo, alternately incorrigible and endearing.

Connor was the alter ego of its star, Roseanne Barr, an outspoken stand-up comic who sarcastically self-identified as a "domestic goddess" and who molded this stage routine into a credible sitcom narrative. Roseanne Connor and her husband Dan were aging, pot-smoking hippies/liberals, defined during the 1970s, who much to their surprise found themselves ensconced in the '80s as dubious role models to three kids. But they tried.

The inexperienced Barr was savvy enough to surround herself with actors with strong stage credentials (John Goodman as her husband Dan, Laurie Metcalf as her sister Jackie and Estelle Parsons as their mother) and seasoned character actors from film (John Randolph as her father, Ned Beatty as Dan's father and Shelley Winters as her grandmother). Their influence rubbed off: Barr became a credible, often surprising, actress.

During its run, the Connors, in an effort to not be like their own parents, tried to respect their kids' individuality, while also educating them about racism, sexism, sex, homophobia and the harsh fact that life is not fair and requires hard work. Often strapped for cash, Dan worked in a series of construction jobs and tried being self-employed refurbishing and selling motorcycles, while Roseanne checked off a series of bosses - George Clooney and Fred Dalton Thompson at the Wellman Plastics Factory (with Debra Mooney as its owner, Mrs. Wellman), Elizabeth Franz at Art's Beauty Salon, and Martin Mull at Rodbell's, the luncheonette in the Landford Mall.

There were gay actors and gay characters on the show and, in one memorable show, Roseanne was kissed by Mariel Hemingway.

Perhaps the most telling episodes involved Roseanne's contentious relationship with neighbor Kathy Bowman, an uptight Republican blonde played to perfection by Meagan Fay during the 1991-92 season.

The show, with its attention to social issues, was often compared to Norman Lear's "All in the Family," also hugely successful - but there was a difference. "All in the Family" was also something of an unexpected backfire. Its bigoted central character, Archie Bunker, conceived to be an embarrassing joke, instead became iconic, a beloved national hero.

Like most successful sitcoms, "Roseanne" didn't know when to quit. Its final seasons were frankly unwatchable, with the Connors suddenly wealthy after winning a lottery (but, for some reason, never moving from that crowded little house) and with Roseanne indulging in insufferable "We're Connors!" proclamations. She gave birth to a late-in-life baby and, in the peculiar (but fascinating) final episode, she announced that (1) her mother is gay and (2) Dan had died. This was preceded by episodes in which Roseanne constantly demonized her father (also now deceased) and in which her two daughters have grown into awful young women dedicated to berating and humiliating their poor boyfriends/husbands. Unwatchable.

By this time, I stopped tuning in and was relieved when ABC put the show out of its misery. It wasn't the same "Roseanne." A friend had changed.

"Roseanne" had become something that it never was - negative.

During its run, the show appealed more to liberals than to the audience that it was portraying. In fact, conservatives were critical of "Roseanne" when its star campaigned for Presidential hopeful Bill Clinton in 1992 and especially when she mangled (on purpose?) "The Star Spangled Banner" at an MLB game in 1990, a performance variously described as "disrespectful," "disgusting," "a debacle" and "disgraceful," the word invoked by President George H. W. Bush himself. All the D words.

After "Roseanne" ended its run, Barr briefly hosted her own daytime talk show in 1998 and, as reported on the Angry Patriot site, she believes it was cancelled when she "crossed" Hillary Clinton by interviewing Paula Jones about her allegations against Bill Clinton, whom Barr referred to as a "rapist."

She remained out of the spotlight for a while before she returned with the 2011 reality series, "Roseanne's Nuts," about her years as a macadamia nut farmer in Hawaii, and with a 2012 campaign for President, running against Dr. Jill Stein on the Green Tea Party ticket and coming in fifth.

She was in clear need of a reinvention. And so was ABC.

Flashforward / This is now... 

Among the three traditional television networks and Fox, ABC had apparently ranked fourth. True, it had "The Bachelor," Shonda Rhimes and such trendy titles as "Modern Family" and "Black-ish"on its slate, but NBC had a monster called "The Voice" and CBS had sports. The network needed a shot in the arm and, following the Presidental election, it was deduced that the remedy was to cater to a conservative audience. But, from where I sit, ABC was already more right-leaning than NBC and CBS.

Enter "Roseanne" as a reboot - "reboot" being a euphemism for creative bankruptcy. Since original ideas are scarce and also risky, a rehash of what was perceived as strictly a blue-collar sitcom appealing to the unemployed masses would be the way to go. And so the original set of "Roseanne" was meticulously reconstructed and its cast reassembled.

Given the times, the issues would be different. But the all-important hook in terms of marketing would be to make it clear that the Connors (or at least the character of Roseanne) would be portrayed as fervent Trump supporters, exploiting the politics of its star - the implication of this hype being that the new "Roseanne" would be more "political" than "socio."

There certainly would be no "Hate Has No Home Here" signs on the Connor lawn in the exterior shots of their home in the fictional Landford, Illinois.

And as the debut of the "Roseanne" drew closer, ABC rebranded itself "America's Network" and also rebooted the cancelled Fox competition, "American Idol." "America"/"American" was clearly the operative word.

The new "Roseanne" debuted on Tuesday, March 27th to an audience of 18.2 million viewers - two days after the Stormy Daniels interview on CBS's "60 Minutes" played to 21.3 million viewers.

As it was in the heyday of "The Apprentice," TV is again in The Age of Trump. The difference is that the man can no longer be easily avoided. He's seemingly everywhere now.

And as far as ratings are concerned, Michelle Obama has both Roseanne and Stormy beat; she attracted 24.5 million viewers when she appeared on "60 Minutes" back in November of 2008.

The first two of ten new episodes of "Roseanne" were aired back-to-back for the debut. The opening one pitted conservative Roseanne against her progressive sister Jackie. The current president and his main opponent in the primary were not mentioned by name - only as "him" and "her" (although Hillary Clinton was also labeled as "the worst person" by Roseanne). The immediate impression is that this would be the first and last time that the series would refer to the election or who's in the White House. Co-star and producer Sara Gilbert has verified this in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Gilbert confirmed that the remaining eight episodes of "Roseanne" would be issue-oriented, such as the second episode's involvement with Roseanne's cross-dressing grandson.

This makes sense, business-wise: While ABC hoped to attract its target audience with the show, my hunch is that it was also cautious to tread ever-so-lightly, so as not to alienate or lose other audience segments.

The reboot of "Roseanne" doesn't necessarily begin where the original left off two decades ago. Case in point: Dan Connor is now very much alive - or just barely (as portrayed by a strangely muted John Goodman). And there was only a fleeting, rather trifling mention of Jerry, the baby that Roseanne birthed late in the first show's run - and no mention at all of Jackie's baby born at the same time. Out of sight, out of mind.

The show struck me as a pale imitation of itself. The two episodes shown were frankly mediocre, something that could not be said about the original "Roseanne," even in its descent. There were few genuinely humorous moments and, although it's announced at the outset that the show is "filmed before a live audience," the enthusiastic laughter sounded "sweetened." Or "canned" or "augmented" or "enhanced." Pick your word.

Among the noticeable losses in this new incarnation are any kind of chemistry among the cast and any indication that the star still has a sense of humor. Roseanne Connor of the 1990s may have been sarcastic and cantankerous but she was never unpleasant company. Now she is.

And the show itself simply isn't the same, isn't what it used to be - an observation that can be easily fact-checked by the convenience (and, in this case, the misfortune) of comparison, given that the glorious original is aired in whopping 12-hour blocks every Saturday on TVland.

Watching the updated "Roseanne," I recalled an episode from its original run during which Roseanne and Jackie commiserate about how their mother would snoop around their room when they were kids - everything seemed to look the same and yet, somehow, it wasn't. Something ... changed. And that's my exact impression of this disappointing "reboot."

Thomas Wolfe was right. Sad but true. You can't go home again.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

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(from top)

~Roseanne Barr in the opening credits of the original "Roseanne" and with John Goodman in a scene from one of the episodes
~photography: ABC, 1988©

~Barr in a scene from the documentary, "Roseanne for President"
~photography: Sundance Selects, 2016©

~Barr in a promo poster for the reality series, "Roseanne's Nuts"
~photography: Jill Greenberg/Lifetime 2011©

~Barr and the man who will not be mentioned by name

Saturday, March 24, 2018

stage→film: dacosta, prince & lapine

Theater directors rarely receive much recognition from critics and movie purists when they venture into filmmaking. It's as if they don't count.

They're clearly out of their league. I mean, how can they possibly have any affinity for the camera or the medium itself? How dare they?

Case in point: Morton DaCosta did wonders with the film versions of two plays that he originally directed for the stage, "Auntie Mame" (1958) and "The Music Man" (1962). Both movies are noteworthy for their utter fidelity to their stage predecessors and yet are impressively cinematic.

And both were also nominated for best picture Oscars but, true to form, the Academy overlooked DaCosta in the director cartegory both years.

DaCosta would direct only one other film, which was not an adaptation  - "Island of Love" (1993), with Robert Preston, Tony Randall and Walter Matthau, a movie that was so mishandled by Warners that it's almost as if it wasn't made.

Harold Prince made what I thought was an auspicious film directing debut with the delicious 1970 Angela Lansbury-Michael York black comedy, "Something for Everyone," one of those
sophisticated sex comedies in which the randy young hero (York) sleeps his way through every member of a wealthy family (shades of Pasolini's "Teorema" with Terence Stamp).

The film is just about impossible to see nowadays, although Prince's second (and last) film, a 1977 truncated version of the Stephen Sondheim musical, "A Little Night Music," starring Elizabeth Taylor, has been available on home entertainment for decades.

The estimable James Lapine, meanwhile, made one of the best films of 1991 - now also forgotton, of course - namely "Impromptu," a randy farce about the affair between Frederic Chopin (Hugh Grant) and George Sand (the fabulous Judy Davis in one of her greatest film performances).

Emma Thompson, Julian Sand, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters round out the cast. I can't think of anything wrong with this film.

Like DaCosta in the 1960s and Prince in the 1970s, Lapine has only a couple other film credits. He subsequently filmed the very good 1993 Michael J. Fox-Nathan Lane show-biz comedy, "Life with Mikey" and, for HBO, a 1999 adaptation of the Anne Tyler's "Earthly Possessions," starring Susan Sarandon and Stephen Dorff.

If rep houses still existed and had resourceful bookers, "Something for Everyone" and "Impromptu" would make a great double-bill.

Notes in Passing:  James Lapine, of course, directed his "Impromptu" co-stars, Patinkin and Peters, on Broadway in the 1984 Sondheim musical, "Sunday in the Park with George." Terry Hughes directed the same cast for American Playhouse in 1986.

And it's rarely noted, but Morton DaCosta provided the voice of Edwin Dennis reading his Will during the opening moments of "Auntie Mame."

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

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(from top) 

~Poster art for "Something for Everyone"

~Morton DaCosta with Ronny Howard during rehearsals for "The Music Man"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

~Harold Prince with Angela Lansbury on the set of "Something for Everyone" 
~Lansbury with Michael York in a scene from "Something for Everyone"
~photography: Cinema Center 1970© 

~ Poster art for "Impromptu"

~James Lapine on the set of "Impromptu"
~ Bernadette Peters and Judy Davis in a scene from "Impromptu"
~photography: Hemdale 1991©

Thursday, March 15, 2018

a millennial "millionaire"

Jean Negulesco's irresistible comedy of 1953, "How to Marry a Millionaire," opens with an overture of sorts - Alfred Newman's "Street Scene," with the composer himself on screen conducting the vast Twentieth Century-Fox Orchestra - before it segues to the main titles and Lionel Newman-Ken Darby's "New York!," a song performed by a chorus with pile-driving intensity:

"New York, New York! You high and mighty, bright and shiny fabulous place, New York!
New York, New York! You busy, dizzy, razzle-dazzle, scandalous place, New York!
Guys with easy money tryin' to blow it! Dolls with hidden talent dyin' to show it!
Take off for Broadway by taxi, by subway! And land on the town! A merry-go-round!
New York, New York! Where millionaires and Cinderellas rendezvous at the Stork!
In Central Park, romantic babies and their fellas rendezvous in the dark!
Crazy city with its hat on the steeple!
Noisy city with its millions of people!
Doorway to glory and fortune and fame!
You'll never get your fill of it! Never forget the thrill of it!
Glorious, glamorous wonderland - New York!"

I took the liberty of printing all the lyrics in case you want to indulge in an at-home sing-a-along the next time Turner Classic Movies airs the film.

Which is often.

That said, its memorable opening, unusual for its time, was a conceit to introduce moviegoers to the wonders of Stereophonic Sound and the new CinemaScope process. "Millionaire" was planned as Fox's first presentation in a modern anamorphic format but its release was delayed. And so, "The Robe," a 1953 biblical epic considered the more important film by the studio, introduced CinemaScope. (The two titles were filmed concurrently.)

But "How to Marry a Millionaire" was perhaps hastily and prematurely dismissed as a playful trifle back in '53, given its narrative about three models sharing a luxury apartment as a ploy to ensnare super wealthy men. More than 60 years after its release, however, the film remains impressively modern and has grown in stature with time. It seems to get better every time I watch it on TCM.

Which is always.

To say that it's aged well is to seriously underestimate the film. It's effortlessly funny and incredibly watchable, thanks largely to the three-way chemistry and off-screen camaraderie of its leads - Betty Grable (a Fox veteran who receives top billing on screen), Marilyn Monroe (Fox's new darling who received top billing in the ads) and, in her first comedy, Lauren Bacall (who, of the three, provides the film with its titanic supporting structure and, despite its status as an ensemble piece, is the movie's actual star).

"Millionaire" was the first of  "three gals" pictures by director Negulesco (seen here with Marilyn, on her left) - followed by "Three Coins in a Fountain," "Women's World," "The Best of Everything" and "The Pleasure Seekers," all Fox releases.

And scenarist Nunnally Johnson (with Marilyn, on her right) - the author of "The World of Henry Orient" - based his fizzy script on two plays, "Loco" by Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert and "The Greeks Had a Word for It" by Zoë Akins.

All of this is in preamble to a conceit of my own - a little fantasy casting. While I don't necessarily endorse the idea of remakes, I do appreciate that a few have worked - and must confess that I toy with the idea of a remake of "How to Marry a Millionaire" every time I stop what I'm doing to sit down and watch it yet again - yes, again - on Turner Classic Movies.

I can't resist - either the film or my fantasy.

Even though the movie purist in me bristles at the thought of an actual remake of the film (and would accuse Hollywood of creative bankruptcy if it even dared to try), I continually indulge my own fantasy version.

I'm not singular here. Fantasy casting is something that movie geeks have practiced for ages. But I tend to take it to solipsistic extremes.

That said, my version could be an update but I kind of favor the '50s milieu of the original. I would definitely retain the wacky names of the three women who dominate it and also would populate my version with - now get this - a cast of mostly millennial talent. My unlikely, unorthodox choices might seem blasphemous and worthy of ridicule - and, by all means, feel free to disagree and share your own casting ideas.

But the bottom line is: I believe in my vision. It could work.

And so, throwing caution to the wind, here's my dream cast...

~The Women~

Kristen Stewart as Schatze Page (the Lauren Bacall role) - Stewart is arguably the best actress of her generation and she's done varied, compelling work with fascinating filmmakers ever since she freed herself from the yolk of the "Twilight" series (a franchise that brought her fame, fortune and a lot of negative publicity). Stewart has the perfect slouch and cynical air that the character Schatze demands. And, much like Bacall back in the day, it's time for her to have some fun and do a comedy. And I'd give anything to hear Stewart snap out the line, "Nobody's mother lives in Atlantic City on a Saturday night!," something that I'm certain that she'd invoke with the hauteur of a Lauren Bacall.

Emma Stone as Loco Dempsey (the Betty Grable role) - Loco is the most unaffected and least manipulative of the three women - friendly, down-to-earth and accessible, the same qualities that Stone has conveyed so effortlessly on screen. But the character is no pushover and is actually a lot smarter than she looks. As one of the potential monied targets in the film learns, it's unwise to underestimate Loco. It can be humiliating.

Miley Cyrus as Pola Debevoise (the Marilyn Monroe role) - Pola is something of a cartoon character, oblivious to her good looks and self worth because she wears glasses. She literally bumps her way through life and sometimes has no idea who's in front of her. She mistakes a thief for a visitor, and her date for a waiter. And about that date, does he have a black eye? Or is the guy wearing a black patch? The ever-playful, mischievous Cyrus, who has potential to spare, could be a revelation channeling Monroe's creation in a wholly contemporary way.

~The Guys~

Justin Timberlake as Freddie Denmark (the David Wayne role) - With Miley in place as Polo, I'd cast Timberlake as the seemingly shady guy with whom she keeps having unexpected encounters and who commiserates with her about the advantage of wearing eyeglasses. Timberlake hasn't made many movies, let alone film comedy, but he's always been witty and game on SNL and has a lightness about him. And like Wayne (who is just about perfect in the original film), he would be an attractively sensible, regular-guy foil for sweet Polo.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Tom Brookman (the Cameron Mitchell role) - Tom is a genuine millionaire who is written off by Schatze largely because he doesn't look like a millionaire. He doesn't carry himself as one. She sizes him up as a "gas-pump jockey" who eats "horseburgers" (which she kind of likes herself). Gyllenhall could be terrific sparring with Stewart, alternately challenging her and flirting with her, and I can already see him showing up with a golf club in tow for the design-house sequence in which Schatze and others model the latest couture fashions for him.

Chris Evans as
Eban Salem (the Rory Calhous role) - Thanks to a weekend trip to his "lodge" with Waldo Brewster (see below), Loco meets Eban who she thinks is a rich land baron with a ga-zillion trees. But Eban is just a dedicated forest ranger who enjoys overseeing said trees. This is a relatively small role but Eban's laid-back personality is in line with Evans' easy-goingness.

But then there's the other Chris - Chris Pine as Eban. Pine would be more than perfect, too. Decisions, decisions.

Warren Beatty as J.D. Hanley (the William Powell role)  - J.D. is a patrician and represents Old Money which is catnip for Schatze. Beatty has just the right amount of reserve and mature good looks for the role.

But then there's the temptation to see George Clooney as J.D. He's a bit younger and less reserved and might be more credible opposite Stewart.

John C. Reilly as Waldo Brewster (the Fred Clark role) -  It's difficult to imagine anyone but Fred Clark as a patented Fred Clark/conservative character but it's easy to imagine Reilly trying to impress Loco by complaining ad nauseam about his wife and her family and bragging about how he disinherited his daughter because she ran off with a guy he pegs as "a gigolo."

Sasha Baron Cohen as J. Stewart Merrill (the Alex D'Arcy role) - Again, it's not much of a role - a bit part really - but I can't think of anyone more appropriate to play the faux exotic guy who dazzles Polo with endless wealth. Plus, Cohen would look appropriately suspect wearing that eye patch.

So much for my solipsistic fantasy. Now share yours...

Notes in Passing: "How to Marry a Millionaire" was adapted into a TV series - by Johnson himself - in 1957 and ran for two seasons until 1959. In syndication. It reportedly has the distinction of being the first syndicated television show, although I would love to know why Fox didn't market it to one of the three major networks at the time. Anyway, it starred a young Barbara Eden (center) in one of her first roles as Loco Jones, the only character whose name was (partially) retrained from the movie. Merry Andrews (on Eden's left) played Mike McCall and Lori Nelson (on Eden's right) was Greta Hanson.

I'm a little surprised that the material hasn't been revived since, given that TV is into so much rebooting these days.

Also surprising is the fact that no one has thought to adapt it into a stage musical, given that Broadway has become so dependent on movies for (not-so-)fresh material. It's called ... creative bankruptcy.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

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~images from "How to Marry a Millionaire"
 ~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1953©