Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Trying to Separate Bill Cosby From Cliff Huxtable. The difficult of separating art from the artist isn’t a new problem for cinephiles, as Hollywood is built upon the history of great geniuses who have had often troubled, occasionally horrific personal lives. The fall of Bill Cosby has been widely reported in the media as numerous women have come out and accused him of sexual assault in the past year. (He was eventually charged in December.) The New York Times’ Rachel L. Swarns examines the difficulty of separating Bill Cosby from his trademark character Cliff Huxtable of “The Cosby Show.”
So I want you to press the rewind button. Go back to a time when Viola Davis’s Emmy for her portrayal of a driven criminal defense lawyer was unimaginable, back before Shondaland, or “Empire,” or “black-ish.” Before a black president sat in the Oval Office in “24” or in Washington. Go back to Sept. 20, 1984, when Dr. Huxtable walked into the kitchen of his Brooklyn brownstone and introduced white audiences to one of the first black middle-class families to appear on prime-time TV. I was a high school senior then, watching the show on a Zenith television with my parents and two sisters in our house on Staten Island. Like many black families, we had grown accustomed to being mostly invisible on the small screen. There had been shows like “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons,” but the portrayals of African-Americans sometimes edged toward caricature. Watching Dr. Huxtable, who embodied so many of the fathers, grandfathers and uncles we knew, was electrifying. Spending time with him became a weekly ritual. We squeezed onto the sofa with bowls of salty popcorn every Thursday at 8 p.m. and laughed and laughed and laughed. By 1985, he was No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings and I was carrying him with me to college, in my brand new 13-inch television set. Every week, my friends and I tuned in, riveted. Dr. Huxtable and his wife, who was a lawyer, were far more prosperous than my parents. (My father was a small-business man, who owned two laundromats and later worked as a commercial real estate broker. My mother was a teacher and a school administrator.) But in so many ways, their lives mirrored ours. We had lively dinners, battles over report cards and curfews, and days when we were just plain silly, delighting in the delicious minutiae of family life. Like Dr. Huxtable, my dad navigated fatherhood with good humor and a healthy dose of resignation. He helped to console us when our beloved pets died. (Remember Rudy and her goldfish?) He frowned disapprovingly at boyfriends. (Think Denise and her many beaus.) He longed for just a little peace and quiet after long days at work, a few moments free of squabbling children. (Can’t you see Dr. Huxtable collapsed on the couch, with a newspaper draped over his face?) I never met Bill Cosby. But I knew Cliff Huxtable. I knew lots of Cliff Huxtables. We all did.
2. How Gregory Peck Led a Revolution and Infused Youth and Diversity in Hollywood. Diversity has been on the minds of anyone who remotely pays attention to the film industry, as #OscarsSoWhite and the startling inequality in Hollywood have been made aware to the public at large. But as the Academy Awards announces that it will radically change its membership in order to better represent society, it’s easy to forget that such changes have been made in the past. Deadline’s Pete Hammond looks back at how Gregory Peck changed the Academy membership almost fifty years ago.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs finds herself in a tough spot, but imagine the difficulties faced by Peck in a far more volatile time. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968 forced him to break precedent and delay the Oscar ceremony for the first time ever — by two days, from April 8 to April 10. Several black performers nominated or scheduled to present had said they would not appear unless the ceremony was held after King’s funeral. This is certainly different than the current social media outcry and recent veiled boycott talk from several actors and directors of color, following the second straight year in which Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Emmanuel Lubezki were practically alone among non-white nominees in major categories. In 1968, the Oscarcast went on without incident after the burial of King, and ironically, two nominated films that dealt with bigotry owned the night: The Best Picture winner “In The Heat Of The Night,” and the inter-racial marriage comedy “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — both starring Sidney Poitier — won the most awards. The Academy, circa 1968, at least didn’t have to deal with the crisis over the diversity shutout that moved current leadership to confront the problem and take hard measures. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection between the two crises. Peck insisted before his term ended in June 1970 that the Academy had to reshape its stodgy image informed by a mostly white, and old voting body. He pressed for the Academy’s membership rolls to be infused with younger, more active members. He began a campaign to encourage them to join the Academy, reminiscent of the global effort the current Academy has launched to bring in a more diverse class of voters. Hollywood was truly at a crossroads then, and so were the Oscars, which had nominated in 1970 such daringly different kinds of films as “Midnight Cowboy” (the eventual Best Picture winner), “Easy Rider,” “Z,” and “Medium Cool,” while also giving Best Picture nods to films like “Hello Dolly” and “Anne Of The Thousand Days,” two movies more representative of the past than the future. The times, they were a changin’ in a country full of political upheaval. Peck realized that his effort to inject youth into the rolls would mean retiring many older and/or inactive members who hadn’t worked in eons but still prized their vote. He eased that hardship by moving them to “Associate” status. That meant that while their voting rights were taken away, they were still able to feel part of the proceedings by attending screenings and lectures. Sound familiar? That’s exactly how the idea is being sold this time around; voters who have ballots taken away can still attend screenings, and receive screener DVDs under their “emeritus” status.
3. How The Coen Brothers Survived Hollywood and Lived to Make “Hail, Caesar!” So, tomorrow promises the release of the new Coen Brothers film “Hail, Caesar!” The Coen Brothers themselves are fairly private people, mostly allowing the films to speak for themselves. Well, Variety’s Ramin Setoodeh scored an interview with the filmmaking duo where they talked about their new film, their tendency to work with the same actors, and the possibility of a “Barton Fink” sequel, responding exclusively with sparse answers, of course..
Do you let your actors improvise?
Joel: They can improvise all they want, but we’re not going to necessarily shoot any of it. Sometimes the actors are more strict about what we’ve written than we are. I remember Bill Macy struggling with something on “Fargo” — he had a line where he goes, “I … ,” and a couple of stumbles. I said to him, “Billy, this is just to indicate that you’re having trouble finding the words.” And he said, “No, I want to say it exactly as it’s written.”
Do you offer a lot of direction?
Ethan: We don’t. As Billy Bob Thornton, who is also a director, said, “If you find yourself talking to the actor a lot, you probably cast the wrong person.”
Do you require a lot of takes?
Joel: Not really. We’re not Stanley Kubrick.
You write your scripts together in the same room. Do you work in chronological order?
Ethan: Yes, we start at the beginning.
4. The Story of “Mr. Show’s” “The Story of Everest” Sketch. Vulture recently published it’s “100 Jokes” feature that tracked the 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy. Following up on that piece, Vulture contributors have been interviewing comedians and actors about famous, long-lasting bits that have left a mark on the culture. Vulture’s Abraham Reisman sits down with David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and Jay Johnston of “Mr. Show” to discuss the famous “The Story of Everest” sketch.
Bob Odenkirk: I always loved hearing stories about Jay’s childhood and youth because they were interesting and offbeat. In this one, he told a story about his uncle. I don’t know what the healthy variation on hoarding is, but it’s what Jay does, and his mom. We were talking about how his house had a lot of stuff in it. His mom would collect a lot of stuff, and one of the things he had was a grill inside.
Jay Johnston: The guy was my cousin. The grill had the two wheels and the one leg, y’know? My mom had a lot of tchotchkes, those types of things, and they were in these printing trays that were on the wall. Like, frames with hundreds of compartments for lamps and dice and a rabbit’s foot, shit like that. Many rabbits’ feet. Then, one day, my uncle-cousin guy or whatever — cousins, somehow —
David Cross: “Uncle-cousin guy”?
Johnston: Yeah, I know, I was really trying to nail down what he was, and he’s just, like, a cousin. Just a cousin. But it’s like, twice-removed, I think? So anyway, they’re at a Cubs game, and they got all drinkled up, he and his friends, and he came by after the game and was visiting. He’s about six foot six, and his name’s Clarence. Huge guy, red hair, red beard, and he goes on this story, telling about what a great game it was, and this play or some shit that happened in the game. He was standing in the kitchen, and my sister and myself and my mom were sitting on stools. He’s going on and on about, [loud, sloppy voice] “Well, we, y’know, we’re out there, we were chillin'” — and as he’s talking, he’s feeling a little bit uncomfortable because we’re kind of in a smallish room and he wants to sit down. We’re sitting and he sees the Weber grill, and he doesn’t really look at it, just sees it out of the corner of his eye and goes to sit on it, and it just takes off immediately, and he flies backwards and grabs both of these printing trays with all of this shit in there, and just rips them off the wall because he’s such a huge dude.
5. The Truth About Show Biz, According to Javier Grillo-Marxuach. Television screenwriter and producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach has been involved with numerous acclaimed series’ like “Lost,” “Medium,” and “Charmed.” But he also is an essayist who traffics in self-reflection about his role in the industry. He recently published on “The Eleven Laws of Showrunning,” a meditation on what can go wrong with making a TV show from the perspective of the writer. The L.A. Times’ Robert Lloyd interviews Grillo-Marxuach about this ten-years-in-the-making essay and what he’s learned on the job.
Grillo-Marxuach: I became a co-executive producer-level writer in 2006. I had worked my way up the ladder from staff writer for 11 years, worked as a network executive for two years prior, gotten a master’s degree in screenwriting before that, and sold and produced several pilots — always with a more powerful auspice attached above me. I was finally in a place in my career where I could make some selfish decisions about my future. Primarily, I wanted my agents to go out with a script called “The Middleman,” which I had written a while earlier, but they had not seen as commercial enough. I was finally in a place to say, “This is what I want to do.” I knew that if I sold that piece of material, I was going to be in charge, and I would have to figure out how to be in charge. I also felt remarkably undereducated in that respect, so I began to quantify the behaviors I had seen from the best of the people with whom I had worked, and the mistakes of the worst, including myself. As for why now…putting these thoughts down into an organized presentation is a natural outgrowth of the “Children of Tendu” podcast, which I have been doing on and off with my friend and fellow Puerto Rican Jose Molina (who is also a high-level writer/producer and has worked on shows from “Dark Angel” and “Firefly” to “Agent Carter”) since 2014. Several years ago, Jose and I were getting drunk before our “Dungeons & Dragons” game — you know, like you do — and had a very dark conversation about some of the abuse we each felt we had received at the hands of some of the more terrible bosses in our careers. Rather than leave it at that, we began to talk about how we could make it better, and we came up with the idea of doing a nuts-and-bolts podcast about how to not only navigate the business of television, but how to behave as a writer, producer, and collaborator while preserving your decency and integrity. We also wanted to give our knowledge away for free — we wanted everyone to be able to benefit from what we have seen in our 40 or so combined years of experience, and feel that way too many people with far less experience than us make way too much money selling the dream and not the reality. After doing the podcast for some two years — by which time I had been a show runner and a co-executive producer/second-in-command on several shows over the course of 10 years — I figured it was time to put my thoughts out there and stop worrying about the possibility that it would result in blowback from other show runners who might not want to hire me for being so publicly vocal about the management culture in the industry. The bottom line on “why now” is this: For all intents and purposes, I am a middle-aged white male with a reasonably well-established career and a bit of success. If I don’t use all that privilege to try to challenge some bad behavior, then what was the point?
Tweet(s) of the Day:
Why is ABC bleeping words on American Crime that were used 20 years ago on its own NYPD Blue? Grow up, for heaven’s sake.
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) February 4, 2016
This film was all 1 long continuous take – 4 yrs before Iñárritu did Birdman – and yet no Oscar love: pic.twitter.com/OZxJ1IIJCG
— Chris Miller (@chrizmillr) February 3, 2016