Monday, February 28, 2011

Swingtown: One Season Wonder

And in the end, the love we take is equal to...?
The backstory saga of 'Swingtown' might be the rarest of tales imaginable: passionate TV network executive takes a chance and champions a (presumably risqué) series to appear on her network; in doing so, she inadvertently eliminates any potential that series had to succeed. 'Swingtown' appeared on CBS in the summer of 2008 and lasted for just one season, 13 episodes. In that time, it garnered a fairly decent cult-like following among those who actually watched the show while it aired. 
Suburban hausfrau trying quaaludes for the first time 
The unfortunate thing about this show is that it was actually very, very good. Much better, I suspect, than anyone who tuned in had expected. Its very fate, in fact, depended on those who didn't watch it and instead made judgements about what they perceived to be its content. Even based solely on its name. (Hand-wringers then appealing to advertisers.)
Previous neighbors offering 4th of July leftovers
More unfortunate, still, is that the creators of the show were shopping it around before CBS came into play. And it might have ended up on Showtime, where it would have been a great fit. But the CBS executive who read it loved it so much, she insisted 'Swingtown' appear on her network, subsequently rendering it D.O.A. with her devotion. Sometimes, it's best to leave what you care about alone. Her dedication to the show would have been been better served had she said: "Please go find a home on cable television because I'd like to watch this show." But there you have it. 
Smart, liberated girl ready to dump summer fling for her teacher
I was intrigued by this 70's era show (set in 1976) and watched 'Swingtown' when it aired in the summer of '08. I felt invested enough in the characters, its attention to detail and story after that first viewing that I bought the DVD set from Amazon and watched it all over again. My favorite example of this great attention to detail –– apart from the very specifically styled homes and decor –– is how often you hear the comforting, muffled sound of a transistor radio playing hit songs from the era, whether indoors in someone's kitchen, or outdoors at a picnic. 

The soundtrack for the series is impressive. They managed to get rights to some of the best songs of the time, like Jackson Browne's 'Running On Empty'. What is especially great about the show is that it was conceived and created so independently of any recent 'period show' trends. It began its ill-fated run on CBS shortly after 'Mad Men' had gained popularity, but 'Swingtown' had been in production before that –– and the series creator was as passionate about the era he was depicting (based on the lives of his parents) as Matthew Weiner was in basing 'Mad Men' on his father's life and times. 'Swingtown' is as artfully crafted as 'Mad Men'. It should have had a place to truly develop –– away from the confines of network television and concerned and panicky advertisers. Somehow, even within those confines, it was made beautifully.
New neighbors, new perspective
'Swingtown' is a unique series because a TV executive's love ultimately brought it down. I highly recommend you purchase this gem and embrace the sincerity and passion that went into its creation.

Friday, February 25, 2011

80's Obscure: 'Pale Shelter' (by Tears For Fears)

'Pale Shelter' is a great find on YouTube. It was directed by music video pioneer Steve Barron, better known for a-ha's 'Take On Me' and Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean'. Scrolling down Barron's list of music videos is impressive. I didn't realize the same person was behind many of them. But his style certainly had an impact. Several of my other personal favorites are his, such as Bryan Adam's 'Cuts Like A Knife' and Joe Jackson's 'Steppin' Out'
This Tears For Fears video has great use of imagery throughout, from paper planes to a giant steaming iron burn on an airplane runway. It's a mood piece and suits the tempo and feeling of the song extremely well. It also recalls those Sure deodorant commercials (about raising your hand, if you're sure.) 
I also love how Roland Orzabel and Curt Smith are dressed in soft, relaxed fabrics, in a best of the 80's kind of way. They wear classic shapes & could have been styled by (early) Helmut Lang. In many ways, this video stands as a clever time capsule of the early 80's.

80's Obscure | 'Love's Got A Line On You' (Scandal/Patty Smyth)

I've had a little thing for this video since coming across it on YouTube. I love the low-fi quality, the peppy song –– and most of all, I love Patty Smyth's pink, purple and white striped jumpsuit, in which she gets all jumpy. It's an energized combo that instantly puts me in a springtime mood. 

This was a demo to show record labels and there is a more official video for this song, as well - but I quite enjoy this simple version. They seem to be genuine, just having fun. You will also notice that Jon Bon Jovi makes an appearance here on guitar, despite not having been a member of the band. He sort of jumped into it to help out and it's all very charming in a makeshift way.

Speaking of 'Jump', Smyth was a contender back in the day to follow David Lee Roth's footsteps as the front woman of Van Halen after his departure. It's really no wonder she later became Mrs. John McEnroe - someone had to be able to keep up with his abundance of energy and who better for that than Patty, as you can see here.
I watched a lot of videos growing up. I definitely wanted my MTV whenever I could find me some, since we didn't have it at home. I've always especially loved the classic videos of the early 80's, when MTV was new, fresh & exciting. So it's especially fun to find obscure videos I haven't seen before via YouTube. 

And here is the official video for the song (which I had also not see before YouTube.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Trifecta of Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell & Carole King - Thoughts On Casting

 Carly Simon... one of the 'girls' in Wellers' book

Over the past two years I've become friends with the incomparable Sheila Weller, which has been a joy since I adore her magnificent joint biography of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon, 'Girls Like Us'. I read it a couple of years ago and can't remember how we started to interact at the time. I think I wrote a note somewhere about the book. She must have sensed my genuine appreciation because she reached out to thank me for it. At some point we were emailing one another. Later, I posted a review of her book on Amazon and highly recommended it. Sheila was very kind to offer to send me a signed copy of her book and I'm happy to house two of them on my bookshelf. My Amazon review (the only review I've ever posted there) for 'Girls Like Us' from October 21, 2009 reads:

"The only trouble with this book is that it ends. It is so hard to put it down. If you have any interest in music and culture in the late 60's and 70's, you would know something about the women featured in this great comparative story. But there is so much to Weller's book that is new, and it is an admirably researched and presented piece. The backgrounds and personalities of these three women - Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon - are so different, yet their lives intertwined incessantly when they became musicians. Each one has many surprising aspects to her life I personally would not have known about if it weren't for this in-depth read. All three are equally compelling and inspiring. And in each of these women you may find some part of yourself or some idea of how you might have felt during those turbulent and groundbreaking years - in terms of music, culture and particularly the women's movement. It's absolutely transporting and transfixing. I love comparative analyses and the people of that period - so I absolutely loved this book! The problem I'm having now is moving on and finding another book I like as much as this one. Highly recommended."

That was my heartfelt recommendation and still is... I love this book.
My personal favorite one of the three 'girls' is Carly because I somehow relate to her the most, but I did go through a Joni phase during and after college. My first Joni album was 'Court & Spark' and it's still my favorite, as by that then she was dabbling in jazz and I sense that she had come into her own and had a certain confidence. Carole is amazing and I sometimes feel in a 'Tapestry' mood. But it's Carly who I can grasp the most for her experiences - and for her sensitive but expressive qualities. 

Going into it, I knew a great deal about each of them -- not least of all because each one had her deep relationship with James Taylor, one of my lifelong musical heroes (Carole partnered musically, Joni as the girlfriend and of course, Carly, the wife and mother to his children.) I had already read two biographies on Taylor and have enjoyed his entire catalogue of music. It was so great to be able to peel the layers of these three incredible women at such turbulent moments in their lives, their careers -- and in society as a whole -- via Sheila's book.
Joni Mitchell
Carole King
I have since been in touch with Ms. Weller and when I heard that this very rich story will be adapted for screen (by John Sayles) I was so excited. Like many who love this talented trifecta, I thought instantly at how challenging but fun it will be cast those incredible ladies -- but who, indeed, could even carry such raw characters as these? Especially in a time when performers tend to be unnatural, formulaic and calculated? For fun, and as an exercise since I could be casting for my projects someday soon, I spent about a week writing lists and making notes on possible contenders. I chose a final three and made a video of my thoughts on casting for Carole, Joni and Carly and even shared it with Sheila. The casting process has not begun, but it was a pleasure for me to be able to share my findings with the writer who made them so vivid for me in the pages of her book. 

I'll take this one out with one of my favorite videos, Carly and James singing 'You Can Close Your Eyes' together. This moment in their lives shows how profoundly in love Carly was with JT. The memory of the love they once had for one another still lives on. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Golden Anniversary: The Enduring Love of Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin

Seldom do we see celebrity couples in Hollywood who can withstand years (let alone decades) of commitment along with the pressures of their respective careers. Often cited as having succeeded in that challenging arena of their lives have been couples like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. I recently noted the well-sustained marriage of Sam Elliot and Katharine Ross here on Retro Active Critiques.
The Golden Couple
Meanwhile, Katharine Ross' costar in the fabulous original version of 'The Stepford Wives', the enormously talented actress with a knack for playing goofy ladies, Paula Prentiss -- whose finely-tuned comedic timing I've loved in 'What's New Pussycat', 'The World of Henry Orient' and her numerous other film roles -- has had an even longer marriage to equally talented actor-director Richard Benjamin, who starred in two of my favorite films (both featured here) 'Goodbye Columbus' and 'The Last Of Sheila'. As individuals, they've both been significant to me in terms of their films. Together, they have appeared in at least three of my all-time favorites.
Richard Benjamin with Ali MacGraw 
in the wonderful 'Goodbye Columbus'
Richard Benjamin in the fabulous 'The Last Of Sheila'
Paula Prentiss with Katharine Ross 
in the equally fabulous 'The Stepford Wives'

The Stepford Wives' sad conclusion as they 
convene at the grocery store
Paula Prentiss with Peter Sellers in 'The World Of Henry Orient'
I have also recently ordered a very rare DVD copy (of a video copy) of a short-lived but groundbreaking TV show they starred in together called 'He And She', which has also had a mention here. I'm excited to watch it and will report back on that later!
"He And She" CBS promotional photos
Two decades into their marriage, in 1980, the funny couple even hosted Saturday Night Live together. There have been many couples who've appeared on SNL together, but I hadn't heard of a couple who shared hosting duties on that stage, equally.
Sharing hosting duties on Saturday Night Live
What I discovered in looking deeper into this magnificently lengthy marriage is there are aspects to their commitment to one another I couldn't have imagined. It's an incredible story, a saga of sorts, that really shook and surprised me.

Prentiss and Benjamin met at Northwestern University in 1958 before either of them had started acting professionally, before they became famous. This had to have helped in their longevity, since they were able to evolve with their relationship and fame and see one another from a perspective beyond their romantically-challenged profession(s). Prentiss, born Ragusa, was from San Antonio, Texas and it's been said that she wanted to become a doctor. Richard Benjamin was from New York City (born and raised) and had always wanted to be an actor. They both studied acting at school.
Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss in the early days
I found a People magazine article from 1976 that speaks volumes –– and opens up this story to new interpretation (not to mention my noticing how much more politically correct even writers who write for entertainment publications are today than they were back in 1976.) Here is one excerpt I'd like to share from the article that chronicled their life together until that point, having already been together for 15 years (they were married in 1961) because only this piece in its own time can capture the real graveness of how Hollywood can be a frightening place to exist. Or even coexist, as in their case (from People Magazine, 1976):

Their present plateau of success and serenity would have seemed unforeseeable just a decade ago when Paula experienced her harrowing mental breakdown. At the time she was in Paris filming What's New, Pussycat? while Dick was touring with Barefoot in the Park in Cincinnati. "One day during shooting," she recalls, "I just climbed up the ropes to the catwalk and started walking the beams. Very loudly and clearly I called down to everyone on the set, 'I'm going to jump.' A French technician grabbed me, and there I was, hanging by one arm."
Paula Prentiss in 'What's New Pussycat'
She came to in a Paris hospital and later transferred to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York. "It was horrendous. You're crazy because they say you're crazy," she says. "It was especially horrible because I couldn't figure out how to do what they wanted me to so I could get out." Dick took her to lunch once a month but usually found her so drugged up that "she wasn't Paula. I'd make believe everything was all right, but it was like taking a carrot out to lunch. What did I know about psychiatry? I was a Jewish boy, and in our house, if someone had a headache, no one worried about brain tumors or neurosis. It just meant you hadn't eaten enough."
Paula's crisis may have had some of its roots in the celebrity shock she sustained during her first years out of Northwestern University's drama school. She and Dick met there while studying under noted acting teacher Alvina Krause. Prentiss was born Paula Ragusa, an Italian from San Antonio who at a reedy 5'9" loomed over her classmates like a stork. Dick, a sardonic New York kid whose parents struggled in the rag trade, wowed Paula because she claimed on an earlier occasion he was the first New York Jew she'd ever seen. They started housekeeping together "before the pill," notes Dick, "when things were dangerous."
New York meets Texas
An MGM talent scout auditioned them but, ignoring Dick, signed Paula to a seven-year contract in 1960. "It was a life I hadn't picked," she says. "It was terrifying. I just allowed myself to be driven along." In less than a year, Paula cranked out three dizzy frivolities, beginning with Where the Boys Are. "I was such an idiot," Benjamin groans. "I accepted it all to be with the girl I wanted to be with." Even their marriage was arranged by the studio: Paula had to make a promotion junket, and in 1961 an unwed traveling companion was considered a no-no. They were forced to delay the ceremony before a New York judge for one hour so that the bride could log publicity mileage about the wedding with long-distance calls to Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. "The only thing that woke us up," she reflects now, "was that crash landing in Paris."
She dropped out of films and into analysis, while Dick began his breakthrough as Ali McGraw's schlemiel in Goodbye, Columbus. Along the way, Paula found her best therapy was co-starring with him in a 1967 CBS series called He and She that approached an almost Lear-like level of sophistication before its time. It died after a single season. Still, Paula believes, "It was worth it after what we'd been through. By working together we learned to live with each other again."
These two go way back
Despite situations that would have been too much for most couples endure, they seem to have always persevered. I can only speak for myself here, but I find the idea of Prentiss having been signed to a seven-year contract with MGM –– at the start of the 60's, before so many social mores and messages in life (and subsequently, films) were about to change –– then being forced into marriage (ironically) to the man she loved to keep up appearances in terms of publicity, and where society still stood, and then being trapped in a mental institution because of a supposed 'breakdown' on set (I'm hesitant to believe she actually had one since she may have been temporarily immersed, as actors can be, in her role as a kooky, suicidal chick in the film 'What's New Pussycat'.) It's altogether terrifying. Seems like they managed to keep their heads, while keeping their feet planted on that shaky ground, to get past those heady times together and not fall apart. There are very few couples who made it through the multitude of changes happening in the 60's, 70's & all the way back until today. Let alone film stars.
Jack and Paula and Dick
Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss may not be considered 'stars' today. They may never be featured in People magazine again. I, for one, have gone from enjoying their work individually to having the utmost respect and admiration for them as an unsinkable pair who've navigated this world (and Hollywood) together, despite whatever they may have faced. It is now 2011, so they have been together for exactly half a century! Apart from their list of professional accomplishments and their marriage milestone, they have two grown children: Ross and Prentiss. 
Happy golden anniversary to Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, an inspirational Hollywood couple if there ever was one.
The golden couple. Still solid, still smiling.
And an update: here is the opening for the absolutely wonderful 'He & She'. I've received the series (not the best quality, but okay) and I've been watching it with fervor. I am really excited to report back on this fabulously sophisticated 'one season wonder' in an upcoming post. Stay tuned...!

Monday, February 7, 2011

'Goodbye Columbus' (Trailer)

'Goodbye Columbus', starring Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw, is a charming and somewhat overlooked film. 

I made a trailer for it several months ago. So at least there is one for it now. There isn't an official trailer anywhere and mine appears to be the one and only. 

(You can also find more posts with MacGraw here & here.) 

Based on a novella by Philip Roth and featuring original songs by The Association - "Goodbye Columbus" is about Neil, a poor Bronx librarian, and Brenda, a pampered Jewish princess from Westchester. 

This was both MacGraw and Benjamin's film debuts, playing Brenda and Neil as they try to cross class lines. A very funny and poignant comedy.