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Great American Playwright Neil Simon Passes at 91


Neil Simon Theater 2
Neil Simon, long considered America’s most successful and certainly most prolific playwright dies at 91. It’s fitting that the Neil Simon Theater still exists on Broadway.at 250 West 52nd Street.  I hope it always stays “The Neil Simon Theater.”

I did not know Neil Simon personally. But growing up in the theater in the decades where he dominated the Great White Way, his work was overwhelming to a young playwright, me. At one time, he seemed to have every play on Broadway.

The Christmas after my mother died, I was feeling particularly bereft and found myself observing a great Broadway tradition.I went to Chicago. By train. To see the out-of-town try-outs for a musical version, of a movie  he wrote “The Goodbye Girl.” Seeing that only half-successful work in the middle of the cold Chicago winter made me realize that yes, all your idols have feet of clay. IOW, everyone makes mistakes. The Goodbye Girl was a musical with a book by Neil Simon, lyrics by David Zippel, and music by Marvin Hamlisch, based on Simon’s original screenplay for the 1977 film of the same name.

I was also at a rehearsal of “The Goodbye Girl” when it limped to New York, and in the rehearsal room were the star Bernadette Peters and yes, Neil Simon himself.

He seemed so un-prepossessing in person. He was wearing a robin’s egg blue sweater and  kibitzed around with the various actors….But it was his eyes that got me. The intensity of his stare. Nothing was being missed. He saw it warts and all and I’m sure was thinking “How can I fix this? How can I help?” He reminded me of a very warm and friendly rabbi. His vast knowledge of the theater seemed to match those of a rabbinical scholar. He seemed immediately nice. But also intimidating. I mean, he was NEIL SIMON! But he didn’t carry himself like a star as Ms. Peters certainly did.

I guess I was so intimidated by him, I didn’t even have the chutzpah to talk to him. But what could I have said?  “I saw your play in Chicago and really liked it.” God! I hope didn’t say THAT! Which would have been a complete lie.  I don’t think I did.

I never saw him again. And, the show flopped. I thought nothing he wrote could ever flop, but some did.

He strangely isn’t revived much of late, but the Neil Simon Theater is still there. A permanent and fitting monument to a man that made Broadway history over and over again. He will be missed by all in the theater community. It was his great love.

Neil Simon R.I.P.

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Cher Saves “Mamma Mia 2,” but It’s Hard to Resist


When Cher, yes, CHER, enters in the Final Act of “Mamma Mia 2,” she saves the film, and yes, kicks it upstairs into Gay Heaven, or at any rate, Camp Heaven with a good, swift  stilletto-heeled sureness, only a stage and screen legend like Cher could provide. Pow! All the dullness and wishy-washiness of her young co-stars vanished, and NOW we were in the midst of a glorious fun-filled summer musical romp. She was so good, I immediately re-wrote my mind’s middling review and began raving like a teenaged fan-girl. Which let’s face it, is a cheery place to be in these troubled times. I guess I ended up loving it, and wanting to see it again. No, really.
In spite of all good sense, I found myself totally abandoning myself to its epic silliness. And why not? I always loved ABBA as a guilty pleasure. Those original, now classic, tunes got me through some very dark times when I was a house-cleaner in London in the ’80s. I was trying to get my plays done and become a right, proper British actor in the grand tradition. And it was tough. But ABBA was so uplifting, it made me forget all the charring.

I was a “Super Trooper”, and now Cher is a Super Trooper, too. In fact, she climaxes this barely organized mish-mash with that song, as well as her much heralded “Fernando” duet. As she and Andy Garcia(yes, ANDY GARCIA!) tango and sing their hearts out, both Senior Citizens now, as fire-works explode behind them, like it was 1968. Or ’86. Or one of those years, or decades that Cher’s career spans and she’s still singing! She’s a goddess for the ages. And FINALLY makes up for Meryl Streep not being in this movie except as a ghost.

You see, “Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again” does not really have a center to it, until Cher appears at the end like the Deus Ex Machina that she is. “Here We Go Again” flips back and forth in time between two stories, both starring lovely young blondes, Amanda Seyfried and Downtown Abbey’s Lily James. They both have to carry half the film each.

It seems Meryl’s character has died a year before “Mamma Mia 2” starts and her cinematic daughter Sophie (Seyfried) has to carry on without her, trying to re-build her mother’s dream of a turning their Greek island into a perfect Aegean guest house. Meanwhile, the film flashes back in time to the ’70s, when Donna (Lily James) was a wild young thing cavorting all over the continent, shagging everybody in sight.

Thus explaining (or trying to) how three different men could have potentially been the father of the single Mom Meryl’s child. As played by a trio of young hunks, notably “War Horse”s Jeremy Irvine (who grows up to be Pierce Brosnan). They make the case quite clearly how and why the young Donna/Meryl couldn’t keep her hands off all of them, one after the other, in rapid succession.

I would say Josh Dylan, who is making his big screen debut here as the young yachtsman that one day would become Stellan Skarsgard, has the best chiseled bod. British actor Hugh Skinner, who plays the young Colin Firth, doesn’t really get enough foreshadowing that his character is in later life going to be gay. An interesting opportunity missed.

Though Firth does camp up a storm in his own reserved way as his grown up self, and Christine Baranski (and Julie Waters) are back supplying even more camp (as if this film needed it).Which goes to prove something I’ve always felt. There can never be too much of a muchness. Or too much camp. Camp makes you happy. And so will “Mamma Mia 2.”

And last but not least, the young British hunk of hunks Dominic Cooper is back again as Sky, Sophie (Seyfried)’s hotter than hot love interest, and absentee husband. Dominic was one of the many stars of my year’s Best Film of that year “My Week with Marilyn” playing Milton Green, Marilyn Monroe’s ex-lover and now exasperated agent. He was also one of the original “History Boys” on Broadway and in film, and has been on “The Stephen Holt Show” more times than just about any one else (in this movie).And he used to date Cher! He just told Stephen Colbert. So it must be true!

Sensational, New Agatha Christie Bio by Laura Thompson, Pt.2


But I digress…Nobody EVAH writes about the wonderfully witty Ariadne Oliver character in Agatha Christie’s  oeuvre, so I thought I’d just fill you all in on how I felt. I loved that character. And Poirot and Miss Marple, too! And we’ve never seen a picture of an apple-munching Dame Agatha.

No. By no means is Laura Thompson’s meticulously researched and thoughtful book about  dotty, apple-munching Ariadne Oliver. It is securely focused on the elusive Dame Agatha Christie herself.

No one can explain how she was THAT prolific. She just seemed to never stop writing. And as she got older, she used to DICTATE her books into  a Dictaphone. Writing mysteries was essential to her as breathing. And as seemingly effortless.

Though as a single Mom after her divorce, she was forced to support herself. J. K. Rowling another prolific female British author, she, of the Harry Potter books comes to mind. Though Christie always had servants and was never on welfare as Rowling famously was.

Laura Thompson was allowed access by the Christie family to many notebooks and papers that have never before seen the light of day. It’s a treat for Christie lovers, and a triumph of a biography for Thompson. I can’t imagine anything being more thorough. “Agatha Christie: A mysterious Life” is exhaustively complete. And thoroughly researched, with end notes and footnotes galore.

Thompson interweaves episodes from the very secretive Christie’s life, as they appear, quite baldly in her prose. She never got over the break-up of her first marriage to the very handsome fighter pilot Archie Christie before WWI broke out.

Needing a Crying Wall, Christie seems to have poured her heart out in her Mary Westmacott books. Under a pseudonym, she could tell the truth. But actually I find the Westmacott books inferior reads to her bounty of mysteries. She needed the focus of a murder. She had a mind like a serial killer. And she just couldn’t stop writing. All her books Thompson reveals, are one way or another thinly disguised re-tellings of her break-up with the dashing rogue, Archie. Thompson posits that he is the barely cloaked villain in many, many of the stories. And all the violence she felt towards him, she took out on the page. Much to the delight of millions of readers.

Her difficult relationship with her only daughter Rosalind is gone into in great detail. Christie was an atrocious, absentee mother, and her daughter looked and sounded like her father. She didn’t take after her mother at all. Hard-headed, she became the businesswoman her flighty mother never was. And was in large part,  the  reluctant caretaker of her literary empire.

But it is Thompson’s tendresse and insight that spell-binds. She especially excels by slipping into the first person as Agatha herself recounts her doings during her infamous ten-day disappearance, which ended her first marriage, even though she didn’t want it to.

Hiding out under the guise of a “Mrs. Neale” at a Harrowgate Spa in 1926, the entire U.K. was out searching for the lost, “poor Mrs. Christie,” sure that Archie had done her in. Thompson reveals a never-before mentioned letter that Agatha wrote to Archie’s brother Campbell, telling them all where she was, but the letter seems to have gone astray and caused the ten-day ruckus that made her famous and made every book she subsequently wrote a best-seller.

It also ended her private life. Now forever a controversial public figure, by many who considered it a publicity stunt, Rosalind said “She ruined my father’s life.” The family all the while covered it as amnesia. 

And Thompson feels that this lingering bad taste of her “mysterious” disappearance may account for her lack of respect by many critics, while Thompson considers it a result of “Christie’s simple writing style.”

And a fan looking for a new Poirot or a new Miss Marple (her other great detective, an old lady who knits, no less) are more than going to find them popping up like real life figures as Christie goes through her trials and tribulations. For in Thompson’s skilled tellings, they WERE like real figures to her. And to us, her devoted, beguiled readers. “Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life” is a treasure to be bought and savored.

ACE Eddie Inches Allison Janney forward towards Oscar

How important is Film Editing? Well, over the years I’ve come to recognize that Film Editors are among the most important and hardest working artists/technicians in our business. I don’t know what we’d do without them. I really can’t praise their industry and expertise and devotion to their work highly enough. People in the business know how incredibly vital their are. And after helming my own TV show “The Stephen Holt Show” for over 30 years, I do, too. God bless the film editors, and so when they chime in, in the name of their united Guild, the A.C.E. Eddie Awards, attention by AMPAS voters is paid. Seriously.

So when they gave their big award this week to the Best Edited Dramatic Film, in this case “I, Tonya,” it gave that raunchy tabloid of a film that much more of a serious contender boost. And in this case the largest recipient of the Film Editors collective good will and approval would by extention go to Allison Janney, who plays the wild-cat mother of alley-cat Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya.” This is “I, Tonya” biggest Awards bid, Best Supporting Actress. Which is turning into a mud-wrestling final between Janney and Laurie Metcalf, formerly of “Roseanne,” and this season as the Good Mom in “Lady Bird.”

“I, Tonya” was an Indie that opened late in the awards season without much fanfare, whose importance has grown by the day, as more and more people see it. So much so that Allisson Janney’s Mom From Hell is inching ever forward in her death-match struggle against Laurie Metcalf’s much more likeable Mom in “Lady Bird.” And the Ace Eddie Award just continues to add to Janney & Tonya’s steaming forward.

You see, Best Supporting Actress has become basically a two woman race between Janney and Metcalf in the Battle of the Moms. And until the Golden Globe Awards two weeks ago, Metcalf’s gold was considered in the Oscar tank.

Then a strange thing began to happen. That race just turned around and Metcalf’s main Mom competitor Allison Janney started winning every single major award going forward, the Golden Globe, the Critics Choice Award and finally the SAG Award(pictured above ^). The A.C.E. just adds to “I, Tonya’s prestige and by extension, Allison Janney’s.

Tonya Harding was not considered a prestige player in real life. So it’s ironic in the extreme that the film about her “I, Tonya” is now considered a prestige, must-see-it Oscar film contender more and more by the day.Janney is majorly known for the nearly-decade run in “The West Wing,” amassing many Best Supporting Actress in a TV Series Emmys along the way.Allison Janney 3
An excellent actress no matter what the role, her gargoyle, LaVona Harding is just another example that she can play just about ANY type of role and make audiences like it and remember it and award it.

The race between her and Metcalf is razor thin, so we must take careful note of it, this Oscar season. Even if Metcalf just ended up on the cover of EW with “Lady Bird”s star, Saoirse Ronan and creator Greta Gerwig.Sometimes Entertainment Weekly just jumps the shark and lays out their mag and covers, goes to print too early. I think this is the case here. This is a VERY volatile Oscar race this year and if they’d waited a minute or not, and saw that their supposed front-runner “Lady Bird” had not one ONE AWARD AT THE SAGS, they never would’ve run this cover. It’s premature inauguration. A few more hours and it may have been Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell on the cover. Or Sally Hawkins and her magical Fish.

But you see just how close this supporting actress race and every category, as a matter of fact, this year is. And Brit Great Lesley Manville, an O.B. E. has been added to the mix, both here in the America Oscar Nominations and abroad at the BAFTAS in London. So do stay tuned for more mud-wrestling.

“I, Tonya” Margot Robbie & Allison Janney Are Wonderful. The Film is a Crock

“I, Tonya” is Australian actress Margot Robbie’s attempt at going for the gold, and trying to win an Oscar. She may have succeeded in getting herself a nomination the week after this on January 23. But who she’s more seriously pulled into Awards contention and the quite possibly the win, is her co-star Allison Janney, everyone’s favorite go-to actress, as her hateful mother LaVona.

And Janney has just astoundingly won TWO major awards, the Golden Globe and also the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress for her horrifying turn as the Wicked Witch of the Ice Rink with a parakeet on her shoulder.

Up until this past week, Laurie Metcalf had been predicted to be winning those awards, and suddenly the Golden Globes just turned this particular race, Best Supporting Actress upside-down. Just as Sam Rockwell did with Best Supporting Actor.

I found “I, Tonya” such a distasteful croc of lies, that I’ll concentrate on Ms. Janney’s chances, shall I?

Remembering all too vividly the events this loathsome episode that will forever cloud the history of figure skating, I just was not ready to listen to Tonya Harding’s side of the story. She had some foul person attack champion Nancy Kerrigan by hitting her in the shin with a mettle rod, thus effectively side-lining her and allowing the rabbity Harding to shine abd get onto the Olympic ice skating team. It was a horrifying incident and you just hated Harding for it.

Well, there’s more to the story, as it turns out. Or sort of turns out. If Harding is to be believed, which I for one, can’t. Seems that her husband/ ex-husband/ boyfriend/ whatever executed this hateful scheme .Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gilhooley is wonderfully scummy, but I didn’t believe a word out of his mouth. Both he and Robbie play the untruths they have to spout believably, which must be considered a great feat of acting on both their parts. But Robbie will be the one who wins  a nomination for producing this nauseating sea of lies. Which brings me to Allison Janney and why she keeps winning Best Supporting Actress Awards this season.

She’s got her own TV series, which she stars in every week on CBS, “Mom”. She won many, many Emmys for her yeoman multi-season run on “West Wing.” And so she is extremely familiar to viewers, and voters, who know she is NOTHING like LaVona , the very worst mother ever seen depicted as a character, reel or unreal on screen.

Laurie Metcalf’s compassionate, though beleaguered Mom on “Lady Bird” is VERY believable. She does not physically abuse her wayward daughter. But Lavona constantly smacks Tonya around and even throws a knife at her, which penetrates Tonya’s upper arm. So LoVona’ s bad behavior, makes “I, Tonya” believable and sympathetic, but only somewhat. This is a sports movie about child abuse. It’s going to seem very timely with the winter Olympics coming up.

Janney’s physical transformation is key here. She uglies up to the nth degree, and many think that’s acting, but  I don’t. However, Janney is so skilled an actress, you buy it. She’s also a comic, though horrible, relief from the incessant whining and bitch-slapping of her irritating daughter.

And I think voters are going to feel that Janney is the one to vote for, and surprisingly they say “I, Tonya” is surging right now. She’s a comfortable way in. It’s clearly a performance of someone we don’t like, by someone we do like.

And there is ONE scene in a diner, where else? Where LaVona tries to plead HER case as a mother to her destructive daughter, who hates her. And still does to this day. Janney as LaVona says that she went out and worked and gave everything to her daughter. “I didn’t stay home as bake brown betties all day.” Janney had me at that moment. And clearly she had the voters , too. So far.

Greta Gerwig is a genius! Her first film “Lady Bird” Is Brilliant! Will be nominated for many Oscars!

Greta Gerwig is a genius! There are no ifs and or buts about it, she just IS! Her new film “Lady Bird” is so brilliant, you can’t believe it. And she wrote it and directed it, too! Superbly! We’ve all known her as an actress. She emerged in her early 20s to become the Queen of Mumblecore. But she’s the Queen of Mumblecore no more! In her 2O’s, she seemed to be in every single Indie film that was happening during “The Mumblecore Period”. I never thought she was mumbling. Her light as a quirkily original young actress, always outshone most of her films. One notable exception was Whit Stillman’s witty,wicked take on college sororities,”Damsels in Distress.” Stillman and Gerwig seemed a perfect match. Later she began to turn up in more adult roles, like Mike Mills’ “20th Century Woman” and last year’s “Jackie.”

Indeed her style and wit seems the most similar to Stillman’s fizzy blend of champagne and real pain.

“Lady Bird”s big shocker and also its redemption is that is based in HIGH SCHOOL! Yes, it’s a coming of age story. That old trope which seems as ancient as time immemorial. A young teenage age girl struggles to find herself and to come to terms with her harassed embarrassment of a nagging mother. How cliché is that? But in Gerwig’s amazing young hands she turns this time-worn epic into something quite wonderful and new. In that alone, it’s amazing. It transcends genre, time and place.

She seems to have invented teen-ager-dum, or rather re-invented it. Set in the mid-1980s, we see Lady Bird fighting with her frazzled Mom. Sairose Ronan plays Lady Bird and Laurie Metcalf her Mom, and BOTH are going to the Oscars this year  with a ton of other nominations. Including, yes, Gerwig herself, breaking in to the male-only best directing category as well for sure the Best Original Screenplay category.And young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, who plays Lady Bird so convincingly at the same time, she seems to be channeling Gerwig herself. As is we’re seeing a halo-gram projection of Gerwig’s inner life. As she desperately tries to escape her ho-hum life in Sacramento “the mid-west of California” and go to a college in the East where it seems everything is “more exciting in a place like, y’know, Connecticut.’

In the first amazing scene in the film, we see her fighting with her mother about this who is adamant that she go to a Community College in Sacramento. Lady Bird screams and jumps out of the moving vehicle. And that’s just the first scene of the movie!

We’re with Lady Bird every step of the way, as she continues her fight in every aspect of her life in Sacramento. Especially the hide-bound Catholic school she attends where all the students have to wear the traditional uniform of the blue  plaid skirt and ugly, flat-chested navy blue jumper.

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How did Gerwig pull off this amazing double hat trick of writing & directing a major motion picture? At the press conference at the NYFF last month, she told a room of spell-bound press (pictured above ^) that being ”a film director is what I always wanted to be” And that as a much-employed actress, she was always studying just how all the great directors she was working with were doing it. An apt student, very much like Lady Bird herself, she clearly didn’t miss a trick.

And it has to be said that young(21) Saiorse Ronan is something of a genius herself. She plays the title role so that you love her AND hate her. She’s died her hair nearly every color of the rainbow, but it’s not becoming.

Lady Bird 11And she’s the first potential Best Actress nominee that has every played the leading role in a film with a full face of realistic teenaged acne. Ronan at her early age has been nominated TWICE already. For Best Actress just last year in “Brooklyn,” and for playing the villainous child Bryony Tallis in “Atonement.” And she’s really quite a good-looking young lady. Ingenue! Oscar can’t resist that word. Ingenue! She might be the one that takes the Oscar home this year. AND she’s Irish playing a convincing Californian….

And now that the film “Lady Bird” itself is such a success on every level, I don’t think we’ll be seeing much of Gerwig herself in front of the camera. She’s going to continue on with writing and directing and I hope she never stops! Her talent seems unfathomable and endless. I can’t wait to see what she does next!

Luminous, Lucent, Transcendant Kate Winslet Could Win Her 2nd Oscar for “Wonder Wheel”

Wonder Wheel 3

Lustrous, luminous, transcendent Kate Winslet is the wonder of Woody Allen’s new “Wonder Wheel.”
Is there any American filmmaker alive today who writes  such great roles for women? No. There simply isn’t. And as photographed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Kate Winslet seems to be a cinematic miracle of color and light, majesty and emotion,

You simply can’t take your eyes off her. Storaro and Allen have combined to give her a cinematic beauty that makes you gasp, in a multi-faceted role that makes you applaud. She is playing Ginny, a Brooklyn waitress, who works in a Coney Island Clam House. I have known SOOOO many Ginnys in my lifetime, and British though she is, Winslet absolutely nails her Ginny to the Coney Island boardwalk. And it’s  stirring performance in the grand tradition. She’s every woman. And every woman I’ve known, from Brooklyn, trying to make a better life for herself and her family. And trying to find love at the same time, having given up her dreams of being an actress earlier in her life.

Winslet’s Ginny seems the simplest of creatures.. But Allen’s writing and her bravura performance proves that every woman is as complex as a whirlwind. Or a rollercoaster. Or a Wonder Wheel at  Coney Island, to use this film’s great metaphor. Winslet has never seemed so bedeviled and so bewitching at the same time. She’s a housewife in waitress’ outfit that she wears like a queen, as she goes about her frantic daily work of cooking and cleaning for the whole of Brooklyn it seems.

Allen and Storaro capture the ordinary woman’s extraordinariness. She is married to a lout (James Belushi) and having a torrid affair with Justin Timberlake, the local lifeguard. Timberlake’s string-bean-ness seems out of place as a life guard, but he, too, has movie star charisma in buckets instead of muscles, that make all the women in the film falling for him make sense.Justin Timberlake Wonder Wheel He and Belushi have both never been better.Kate Winslet 1

She is playing Ginny, a common-as-they-come Brooklyn waitress, who is as uncommon, as she is earth-bound. Winslet’s a fiery red-head this time. And in Storaro’s use of orange and amber light, she seems so on fire, she is burning up the screen. It is no surprise then that her red-headed son is an arsonist, setting  a fire every time he’s left alone. The fires remind him of his mother.

And Juno Temple is Belushi’s neglected daughter, who turns up as a “Marked” woman, being chased by the mob, because she married a gansta, and became a “canary” who sang on her husband, making her a woman on the run for her life. She hides  out in Winslet’s and Belushi’s  humble household underneath the ever-present Wonder Wheel. Young, blonde Temple has the role of her career here, too, and is doomed from the first seconds we see her taking her first tentative steps under the Wonder Wheel.

In a simple car ride in a romantic rain storm with Timberlake, she becomes, as he says “as beautiful as the rain light.”Storaro has lit her in golds and blues to emphasize her beauty as well as her melancholy. She, too, is magnificent in this film.

Storaro  and set designer Santo Loquasto make more magic by making Coney Island in the ’50s look like the Riviera.

Winslet’s performance is so heart-breaking and towering it immediately recalls the great screen performances of screen queens past. Joan Crawford in particular. The shop girl who was not a shop girl.  The waitress who was not a waitress. And reminds you that not since the ’40s have actresses consistently seen parts like this. Winslet’s Ginny is the  working class version of Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine in Allen’s recent Oscar winner “Blue Jasmine.” “Wonder Wheel” is his best film since “Midnight in Paris” and is now one of my favorite Woody Allen movies. It’s right up there with the best. It reminds me why I love Brooklyn. And New York City.

“Wonder Wheel” is a movie movie about romance and melodrama and great actresses playing great roles. And it ends this year’s superlative NYFF with a BANG!

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