Thursday, February 14, 2019

Of Shithouse and Blackface

Julie's recent "editorial" on FACEBOOK addressed what is or isn't offensive.

She mentioned that she was not offended that some people said she was "built like a brick shithouse."

As odd as the term is, and as curve-less as a shithouse is, it was intended as a compliment.

She went on to mention the motives behind the Governor of Virginia's use of "blackface." The governor also admitted to admiringly darkening up to enter a contest as Michael Jackson.

We'll probably never know just what was going on in the infamous yearbook picture. Virginia was on the "wrong side" in the Civil War, and wearing blackface while standing next to someone in Klansman garb and hood? Hopefully it was intended to point out that the KKK should not be targeting black people. Hopefully.

We do know that the governor of Virginia has not been "racist" in appointing blacks or in allocating funds to black causes. His black classmates in college say he treated everyone the same.

But Julie's point is well taken. How far do we take "being offended?" And why should somebody being "offended" influence what others may want to see?

"Shithouse" just on profanity alone could offend some people. Some feminists might resent the term as less a compliment than some kind of "sex object" slur.

But if Julie and many others aren't offended, should the term be avoided now, and worse, censored in a book or a movie made years ago?

"Blackface" as well as "Yellowface" has led to the virtual banning of everything from "The Jolson Story" to old Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movies on the late show. "Blackface" scenes have been clipped from cartoons and film comedies. There's a Three Stooges short where Moe is hit in the face with a bottle of ink, and Larry gleefully says "Mammy!" If that film was shown on TV, no doubt that moment would be censored, even if the joke was not about black people, but an Al Jolson reference.

Just how much steam the governor of Virginia was letting off, we don't know, but we do know that "blackface" as performed by Al Jolson, for example, was not intended as "racist." Jolson was in sympathy with the oppressed people he played. His ballads in blackface were known as "tearjerkers," because he sang them with such sincerity. The upbeat songs, such as "Camptown Races," were sung with joy.

Minstrels, an insanely popular form of entertainment up through the end of slavery and the dawn of talking pictures, looks racist now, but at the time, one can argue it was motivated not by hate, but by humor. Humor is often a device to break down fear. If people feared blacks, the Minstrels were showing that this was wrong, because these people were harmless, "colorful," and good natured. The "coon songs" of the 78 rpm era did not tell people to hunt down and string up blacks. The songs, in essence, said, "don't be frightened, these people are harmless. They like watermelon and fried chicken and playing the banjo." Simplistic, offensive now, but the intent was not so malicious.

"Blackface" was also not the only form of ethnic humor. 78rpm records had plenty of "ethnic" humor making fun of all the immigrants who weren't yet assimilated, and talked funny. "Cohen on the Phone" was a huge seller, but it wasn't viciously using scripts calling Jews cheap or devious. There was Italian dialect, Dutch dialect (Weber and Fields) and Irish and German comedy, too.

While it would be naive to suggest there was nothing mean-spirited in all of this, it would be an injustice to also claim there was nothing but racism behind it.

People back then were aware of the line between comedy and ridicule. Joe Welch, a Jewish comedian who presented himself in a very stereotypical way, was once arrested for "impersonating a Jew" on stage. Somehow, and even he was surprised, there was a law against such a thing.

One of the most successful comedians of the day was Bert Williams. He was black, but light-skinned. He "corked up" for the stage. His classic song was "Nobody," a serio-comic lament. Ziegfeld made him a star, and he topped the bill along with Eddie Cantor and W.C. Fields. Talking about racism, Bert once said, "Eddie, it wouldn't be so bad if I didn't still hear the applause in my ears." Bert wasn't talking about racism from the audience. The audience loved him. The racism was in being denied the same hotels as white performers. This was about black people not "blackface."

One of the biggest targets in early film comedy is cops. Chaplin beat up cops. The Three Stooges threw things at cops. People feared cops and nobody was "offended" to see a policeman get mistreated in a film.

Some will insist, "oh, but black people have been oppressed...take that into account." Is that the excuse why the Washington Redskins haven't changed their name? That the plight of blacks in the South for a few decades is more overwhelming than an entire people swept off the ENTIRE land, North and South?

The righteous indignation of the "offended" don't seem to be too bothered about the "N" word as long as it's used by other blacks. But there are degrees. Some say the "N" word is not all right. Others say it's all right if it's spelled with "igga" at the end. There are probably as many black people who want to abolish BOTH those words, as those who find these words liberating. What to do? It would be easy to say "ban the N word in any form" just as easy as it would be to say "ban any reference to blackface, past present and future."

It comes down to intent. Kenan Thompson on "Saturday Night Live" last week, appeared in a sketch in which he told a group of people that blackface was "NOT ALL RIGHT," and that included "COSTUMES." Yet, "Saturday Night Live" had Darrell Hammond playing Jesse Jackson and Fred Armisen playing President Obama. Should those shows be banned?

Today's PC craze has led to Scarlet Johansson withdrawing from a film role as a transgender. She's an actress...but she's NOT a good enough actress to play a transgender? The role must go to one?

If that type of thinking was around some years ago, Julie Newmar would have not been cast in "MacKenna's Gold" or "F-Troop." She played Indians. In "MacKenna's Gold" she most certainly was made-up to have darker skin than her own.

Would she have won a Tony Award? Maybe not. In "Marriage-go-Round" she played a Swede. Julie is not even 50% Swedish in ancestry, was born in California, and has no Swedish accent. Today, the role would go to a Swedish woman. Or, oddly enough, to someone black. Recently the French woman Joan of Arc was played by a black woman on stage. Everyone applauded this. People applauded when the white founding fathers in "Hamilton" were played by blacks and Latinos, and when casting calls for replacements specified that whites need not apply.

Was Julie "racist" when she played Hesh-ke in "Mackenna's Gold?" Of course not. Was that role implying that all Apache women are murderous? No.

Some years ago, some comedians openly declared that their aim was to be "offensive." From Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce to Sam Kinison and George Carlin, they acknowledged that being "tasteless" was a choice. They felt making people laugh and making people think, and challenging our views, was a good thing. Now? Megyn Kelly was fired for even asking if "blackface" was so bad on Halloween. She was racist? No, she was wondering if a little white kid could wear a Black Panther super hero outfit or an Obama plastic mask. If dressing up as an Indian was wrong. If wearing the Michael Jackson white glove and spangled outfit was wrong. Of course, dressing up as Jolson now would be wrong. Obviously. But also, obviously, Jolson sang in blackface with good intentions. That should be recognized in liner notes to a "Jolson Story" DVD. We don't tamper with "Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain and we don't tamper with Shakespeare's Shylock which many find anti-Semitic, or Dickens' Fagin which also, depending on who is playing it, can be quite offensive and stereotypical.

Years ago, in a letter Julie sent me, she wrote "morality is how you behave toward people." The Governor of Virginia, today, has not been racist. Al Jolson was not racist. George Jessel (who also wore blackface on stage in the vaudeville days) once walked a black actress/singer into a restricted club. When blocked at the door and asked who had reserved a table, Jessel said, "Abraham Lincoln."

How people behave toward each other is their morality and it should define them. The comedians such as Don Rickles who "offended" everyone? Not racist. Malcolm X, who routinely called out Jews as despicable, and had no use for any "blue eyed white devil," was a racist. That he pushed for civil rights in his own way, does not mean he wasn't offensive.

Equality would mean that we allow the Wayans Brothers to make a movie called "White Chicks" and not only be in whiteface but in drag, too. "Dragface" is allowed because not a lot of women are "offended" by men prancing about lisping, mincing, and cartooning femininity with their effeminacy. We do not want "blackface" now, but perhaps under special circumstances, we would. If "Black Like Me" was remade, would a white man be hired to play Griffin, the white man who darkened his skin, or would it be played, ala Godfrey Cambridge in "Watermelon Man," by a black man who "whites up" for the start of the movie?

Similarly, if a transvestite is allowed to use the ladies room because he "identifies" as a woman, should some white woman who "identifies" as black be forced to resign her job? Or would it be all right as long as she admits, on bended knee, "I am white, I know this, but I "identify" as black. Genya Ravan, a brilliant R&B singer, was acknowledged, as Dusty Springfield was, as Janis Joplin was, as someone who sang soulfully. And yet when she met Etta James, Etta sourly grunted, "How DARE you sing black?" Really? Should Maria Callas have said to Leontyne Price, "How DARE you sing Italian opera?"

Dick Gregory's catch-phrase was: "We all have problems."

A problem is whether to constantly point the finger, declare our suffering greater than somebody else's, and to also insist that what WE find offensive must always be banished from everyone's view.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Female Director, Gay Co-Star, Lesbian Star -- "Can You Forgive Me"

The ever-surprising Julie is raving about a new movie...and, no, it is NOT a loud, gruesome "Super Hero" blockbuster.

It's not a musical either.

Some intellectual foreign film perhaps? Wrong again.

Quoth the Catwoman, "Can You Forgive Me" is...

"A daring movie. Be surprised.

If I tell you what it's about you might not see it. See it.

Every scene pulls you in.

Superb female director.

It's so good you can't tell they're acting.

You won't stop watching."

Should Julie have mentioned there is a "cat woman" angle? Would that help poor "Batman '66" fans who need SOME reference to cling to? Here you go...

I would agree with Julie: "if I tell you what it's about you might not see it..."

Indeed, I happened to see some promo for it, and when a clip was shown, it didn't seem to be too compelling. It was presented as "based on a true story" (we all know how THOSE are embellished). The clip showed a sour-looking Melissa McCarthy (resembling a cross between Roseanne Barr and Seymour Philip Hoffman) and her flamboyant friend (Richard E. Grant) who flirts with a gay waiter in a diner. Not the best choice of scenes. The plot line was discussed, and that didn't exactly grab my attention either.

BUT...Julie's "SEE IT" was good enough for me to see it, and it IS a very unusual, quirky, original film. The acting is indeed excellent (watch for a restrained, excellent supporting role from Jane Curtin). The film resists "opening up" and being commercial with flashy moments of comedy, sex or violence (hence the quandary of what clip MIGHT sell it). Instead, it goes its own way, figuring anyone who has paid to sit in the theater, or stream it, is going to stay with it. And yes, if you do, you will be rewarded.

"You won't stop watching." Indeed.

I've enjoyed McCarthy's comedy on "Saturday Night Live," but here, she proves herself as an actress with a lot of range. Richard E. Grant showed tact, taste and restraint in a role that could've been over the top, instead of realistic and affecting. Hell, even the cat in the film showed a lot of personality.

In a year of "Black Panther" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "A Star is Born" among others, this quiet little "New York" movie has been overlooked, but not by the keen eye of Julie Newmar.

"A daring movie" these days, is one that does not rely on special effects, pandering to Millennials, or pushing an R-rating for those with no attention span.

As of this writing, "Can You Forgive Me," and another odd quirky small film, "Stan and Ollie," have yet to make back their $10 million production cost, but they're close to that mark. Of course, when you add in the price they'll get for streaming, and DVD sales, they'll both double or triple the investment, if not more. That's some sign that individualistic films can still be made and find an audience.

Getting Foreword with Julie

As visitors to the julienewmarwrites.com website know, Julie is a very skilled author. From essays to memoirs, the site is loaded with fascinating things to read.

Julie's latest foreword (she did one for a book on cats, for one on the "Mothers of Invention...") is for something called "Dynamic Dames," subtitled "50 Leading Ladies Who Made History." While not much thought went into the title (in this PC and #metoo era, do we call women DAMES???) a lot of thought certainly went into the foreword!

While the opening line might startle a few insecure males ("My heroes have all been female...") soon enough Julie is calling out the French fashion designer Thierry Mugler, Franz Liszt (well, she does suggest a female Liszt might be a good thing), and Gary Cooper, whose "face alone made female's hearts melt." Likewise, she name-checks Adam West, the effeminate comic character actor Eric Blore, and "the impossible talent of Buster Keaton. He was barely 5'5."

So, while there's nothing like a dame (as the song goes), a few males have managed to make it into the Foreword. Look for Julie's trademark wit and way with words, and her ability to "nail it" within one sentence:

"Gal Gadot may deflect this insidious mental crud with her bracelets, but my constant complaint is that there is too much noise."

While not a "Dynamic Dame" of the world of movies, Julie takes a detour for what many consider the most beautiful and intelligent first lady since Jackie Kennedy.

Concluding...

The book, a formidable tome checking in at 248 pages, is available via Amazon/Kindle ($12.99). Sloan De Forest, writer of the book, is of course, female.