Children of Giant Takes a New Look at an Old Film on PBS

childrenofgiant

James Dean filming GIANT with two local children on-location in Marfa, Texas, circa 1955. Photo: Richard C. Miller.

Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo and film director George Stevens.  Through the years, it’s been hard to dodge the after-hours buzz on this stellar crew.  It’s also hard to imagine them playing second fiddle to anyone, but that’s what they do in Children of Giant, the VOCES season opener airing on PBS tonight, April 17, 2015, 10:00 – 11:30 p.m. ET (Check local listings for air dates in your region).

VOCES, Latino Public Broadcasting’s arts and culture series, turns the spotlight on the Mexican-American supporting players and townsfolk who welcomed the stars and production team to their dusty West Texas community in the summer of 1955. The Hollywood luminaries descended upon Marfa, Texas, by plane, train and automobile to film an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s controversial novel, Giant.  The film, dubbed a new kind of Western, went on to receive 10 Oscar nominations, winning George Stevens an Oscar in 1957 for Best Director.

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Elsa Cardenas (far right) was cast by George Stevens to play the Mexican-American nursing student “Juana,” who marries Jordan Benedict (Dennis Hopper) in GIANT. Photo courtesy the George Stevens Collection.

Children of Giant, directed and executive-produced by Hector Galán, recalls the impact of that pivotal summer on the lives of Marfa citizenry, most of whom were Mexican immigrants.  Many, as children, were cast as extras. Some townsfolk housed cast and crew, while others stood quietly by and watched and photographed the now-iconic sets being built and scenes being shot.

It clearly was a dazzling summer in Marfa, Texas, one that warranted a charming welcoming parade and nonstop community hoopla.  But, as is evidenced in Children of Giant, the importance of the summer of ’55 stretched beyond mere nostalgia, reflecting much more than the black and white photos and home movies of the stars shared here by current and former Marfa residents. The Ferber novel and its film adaptation dealt with racism and segregation. These were hot button issues for African-Americans in the 1950’s, but they also hit close to home in Marfa, where its Mexican-American residents, like others living throughout the Southwestern U.S., struggled to bridge the racial divide that separated them from Anglos.

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Actress Elsa Cardenas today. Photo courtesy Galan Productions.

Elsa Cárdenas was 16 when she portrayed Juana, the Mexican-American girl in Giant who marries Jordan Benedict III (Dennis Hopper), the son of powerful white rancher Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and his wife, budding feminist Leslie Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor).  To underscore her character’s Mexican heritage, Ms. Cárdenas’ skin was covered with dark make-up, much too much dark make-up.

Ms. Cárdenas was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and obviously didn’t need that make-up. This jarring revelation as well as others, for better or worse, about the film’s production timeline, its casting and its relevance in the ongoing discussion of racism, feminism and immigration in America come via reflections from Ms. Cárdenas and her fellow cast member, Earl Holliman; the film’s dialogue coach, Robert Hinkle; the director’s son, George Stevens, Jr.; and various film historians and journalists.

Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and director George Stevens on the Marfa , TX, set, during the summer of 1955.

George Stevens, Jr., Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and GIANT director George Stevens on-location in Marfa, TX, during the summer of 1955. Photo courtesy Sunset Boulevard/Corbis.

They elaborate on Giant’s transition from book to screen, from Hollywood sound stage to rural West Texas and on to box office glory, illustrated by behind-the-scenes black and white and color photos and footage, and clips from the finished film.  Also revisiting this memorable summer are several of the former child extras and children of community leaders, all Mexican-Americans.  Now senior citizens, they share the good times and treatment they received from the director, actors and production staff during the summer of 1955.  And adding to Marfa’s immigrant mix was a German war bride, a beloved member of the film’s catering crew who also appears here as well.

Children of Giant debuts on PBS tonight, April 17, 2015, 10:00 – 11:30 p.m. ET (Check local listings for air dates in your region). It’s the season opener of the VOCES series “devoted to exploring and celebrating the rich diversity of the Latino cultural experience.” When paired with a reading of Edna Ferber’s novel and a screening of George Stevens’ classic film (now available on DVD, Netflix and On Demand, etc.), Hector Galán’s documentary, Children of Giant, is a relevant addition to the study of George Stevens’ films, especially the Ferber-Stevens’ collaboration, and will serve as an important discussion catalyst about racism, segregation, immigration and feminism in America as depicted in literature and film. –Judith Trojan

 

 

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HBO’s Living with Lincoln Reveals One Family’s Magnificent Obsession

Thanks to diligent members of five generations of one American  family, we are privy to this quiet moment shared by Abraham Lincoln and  his beloved son, Tad.   Photo: Meserve Kunhardt Foundation. Courtesy  HBO.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of members of five generations of one American family, we are privy to this quiet moment between Abraham Lincoln and his beloved son, Tad. Photo: Meserve- Kunhardt Foundation. Courtesy HBO.

My dad was a hard-core Lincoln buff.  And, frankly, he didn’t have to work very hard to get me on board the Abraham Lincoln bandwagon. When Ken Burns’ groundbreaking miniseries, The Civil War, debuted on PBS, my dad and I shared that experience and every repeat broadcast thereafter.  That I came to know Ken, during my professional career as a journalist and director of the Christopher Awards, was icing on the cake.

As I sat screening director Peter Kunhardt’s incredibly moving new documentary, Living with Lincoln, I especially missed my dad.  He would have loved this film, and so, I hope, will you.  It debuts on HBO, tonight, Monday, April 13, 2015, 9:00-10:15 p.m. ET/PT, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination.  (Check HBO On Demand, and listings for additional HBO playdates in April.)

Yes, Living with Lincoln is a compelling look at Abraham Lincoln’s personal evolution as a man, father, husband and U.S. president. But it’s a story that could not have been fully told without the incredibly moving and complex thread that links Lincoln with five generations of one American family, the family of filmmaker Peter Kunhardt.   

Frederick Hill Meserve surrounded by his Lincoln collection. Photo: Kunhardt Family. Courtesy HBO.

Frederick Hill Meserve surrounded by his Lincoln collection. Photo: Kunhardt Family. Courtesy HBO.

The story opens with the Civil War diary kept by battle-scarred Major William Neal Meserve.  Determined to heal his father’s psyche and patch their painful father-son estrangement, William’s son, Frederick Hill Meserve, began collecting photographs and mementos relating to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War to illustrate a book based on his dad’s diary.  Abraham Lincoln was the first president to be photographed in office; but as Lincoln and the war faded in memory, the photos, glass negatives and presidential memorabilia were soon filed and forgotten in dusty attics, damp basements or obscure warehouse graveyards.

Frederick Hill Meserve’s quest to unearth and publish those photos (he privately published his first edition of The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln in 1911), became a lifelong passion that also involved the acquisition of rare books and all sorts of period ephemera relating to Lincoln. The project grew to encompass one of the largest private collections of 19th-century American photography, devoted primarily to Lincoln and the Civil War.

The portrait of Abraham Lincoln that appears on the U.S. $5 bill.  Photo: Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation.  Courtesy HBO.

The portrait of Abraham Lincoln that appears on the U.S. $5 bill. Photo: Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation. Courtesy HBO.

In short, the face we recognize on the U.S. penny, the five dollar bill and on the sculptures at Mount Rushmore and the Lincoln Memorial were made possible by Frederick Hill Meserve’s zeal to find, catalog and preserve images of Lincoln in period photographs.

But if you think the film, Living with Lincoln, is simply a documentary about collecting, preserving and storing documents, you’d be wrong.  Not only was Meserve’s journey filled with fascinating twists and turns, but it tapped into familial compulsions and obsessions that pulled his daughter, her children and their children, for better or worse, into the mix and led to the making of this remarkable family film chronicle, directed, produced and narrated by Meserve’s great-grandson, Peter Kunhardt.

Seventy minutes fly by as Kunhardt explores the challenges faced by family members who were instrumental in the evolution of the Lincoln collection from its inception to the present-day.  Lincoln’s historic narrative meshes with that of the filmmaker’s family–the former is richly evoked with vintage photos from the collection, the latter is beautifully illustrated with family photos, home movies and their ancestors’ own words (read in voice over by living relatives, which is a nice touch).

Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt with her husband Philip and three children. Photo: Kunhardt Family. Courtesy HBO.

Children’s book author/illustrator and Lincoln archivist Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt with her husband, Philip Kunhardt, and three of their children. Photo: Kunhardt Family. Courtesy HBO.

A sizable portion of the film focuses on the filmmaker’s grandmother, Frederick Meserve’s daughter Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt. Dorothy carried the burden of her father’s obsession throughout her storied but often difficult life. She was forever torn between her all-consuming dedication to her father’s Lincoln project and her much-needed income-producing career as a successful children’s book author and illustrator. The creation of her first best-selling book, Junket Is Nice, and her classic Pat the Bunny, the latter published by Random House in 1940, is a fascinating sidelight in this film.

Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt wrote and illustrated the first ever touch and feel book for young children.  Photo: Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation. Courtesy HBO.

Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt wrote and illustrated the first ever touch and feel book for young children. Photo: Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation. Courtesy HBO.

Dorothy’s fertile creative mind was beset with depression, seemingly a family attribute, that was fueled by her struggle to fulfill all of the responsibilities she tackled as a devoted daughter, dedicated archivist, loving wife, mother, best-selling author and illustrator. She subsequently fell ill with lung disease, triggered by the hours she spent living and even sleeping amidst the dusty and moldy stacks of old books and ephemera she and her dad had collected.

Many of Dorothy’s projects fell by the wayside; but, aided by her son, Life magazine editor Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Dorothy Kunhardt’s own Lincoln book, Twenty Days, finally saw the light of day in 1965, inspired by the assassination of another American president, John F. Kennedy. Amazingly, I found a first edition of that book in my own dad’s Lincoln collection, and am thrilled to now know its provenance.

Awe-inspiring and poignant, Living with Lincoln moved me to tears. At its core, it’s a story about two American families and their resilience in the face of great challenges. It’s about their ability to silence naysayers and achieve monumental goals despite crippling emotional scars brought about by war, parental abandonment, financial ruin, debilitating illness, drug abuse, suicide and the death of one’s children.  It’s about acknowledging the baggage and cherishing the personal best we carry from generation to generation in our own families and, most importantly, about the “better angels” among us who aspire to be good citizens, parents, children and, most of all, who remind us to remember, respect and treasure those who have made us proud to be Americans.

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University has just purchased and will preserve the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection going forward. As reported in The New York Times on March 30, 2015, the collection now comprises “more than 73,000 items,” including “57,000 prints, as well as thousands of books, pamphlets, maps and theater broadsides.”

Photo: Kunhardt Family. Courtesy HBO.

Photo: Kunhardt Family. Courtesy HBO.

Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865.  Be sure to watch Living with Lincoln, debuting tonight on the eve of the 150th anniversary of that tragedy, Monday, April 13, 2015, 9:00-10:15 p.m. ET/PT.  (Check HBO On Demand, and listings for additional HBO playdates in April.)–Judith Trojan

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Scientology and Sinatra: All or Nothing at All on HBO

Frank Sinatra at a Capitol Records recording session in  Los Angeles, CA.  1954. Photo © 1978 Sid Avery.

Frank Sinatra at a Capitol Records recording session in Los Angeles, CA, circa 1954. Photo © 1978 Sid Avery.  Courtesy HBO.

Director Alex Gibney is on a roll. The Oscar and Emmy Award winner’s latest two documentaries landed prestigious back-to-back premiere time slots on HBO, and deservedly so.

I’m still shaken by Gibney’s riveting exposé, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. The film, based on the book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Lawrence Wright, debuted on HBO on March 29, 2015 (Check HBO On Demand, and listings for additional HBO playdates in April.)

You, too, will be baffled by the continuing appeal of its wacky doctrine and its nutty-as-a-fruitcake founder, as well as the alarming tactics used by him, his paranoid successor and militaristic church henchmen to keep their flock in line. After listening to eight, former high-level acolytes–including church administrators and Hollywood A-listers–admit their shame at being once willing Scientology pitchmen and women, you’ll find yourself mentally connecting the dots with other similarly insidious cult movements.  And, I guarantee, you will never look at Tom Cruise the same way again.   

Frank Sinatra.  Photo courtesy HBO.

Hoboken native Frank Sinatra was apparently always a scene stealer. Photo circa approximately 1916, courtesy HBO.

In sharp contrast, director Alex Gibney’s second HBO opus in as many weeks, Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, will lighten your mood appreciably, as the man and his music take center stage in this fascinating, fast-paced and supremely entertaining two-part, four-hour profile debuting on HBO tonight, Easter Sunday, April 5, 8:00 – 10 p.m. ET/PT, and concluding Monday, April 6, 2015, 8:00 – 10 p.m. ET/PT.   The documentary signals the centennial of Frank Sinatra’s birth on December 12, 1915.

Gibney frames this celebratory biography with the music and memory of Frank Sinatra’s 1971 “Retirement” concert at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.  The extraordinary concert vignettes, rarely if ever seen except by the Hollywood elite who actually attended this concert, capture the performer at his seasoned best. Sinatra apparently chose 11 songs in particular to propel his audience through the evolution of his career. Gibney ran with that concept, using the 11 songs to introduce and serve as a backdrop to Sinatra’s personal and professional biography.

PHoto courtesy HBO.

As a young man on the move, Frank Sinatra rose up through the ranks touring on the road, charming masses of adoring bobby soxers at the Paramount Theater in New York City and capturing the heart of the nation on records and the radio before he segued into feature films, TV and Las Vegas. Photo courtesy HBO.

Clips from various vintage TV interviews with Sinatra provide the film’s key running narrative, a ploy that effectively allows him to tell his own story and, most importantly, to set the record straight as he saw it.  He is the most visible (on-camera) narrator, which enhances the evergreen value of this film going forward. Other “witnesses” (including noted journalists, professional colleagues and collaborators, his children, ex-wives and friends) are only heard in voice over for the most part. No one is allowed to steal the spotlight from the Chairman of the Board.

Aside from its fabulous music track, Sinatra: All or Nothing at All takes no prisoners as it addresses and answers many previously unanswered questions about Sinatra’s childhood and parents, his progression from band singer to teen idol, movie star and Las Vegas entrepreneur, his career missteps, his courtship of and problematic association with his wives, lovers, the Kennedys and the mob. While the story of his son’s kidnapping turns out to be far less explosive than one would expect, more complex revelations cover his association with Sam Giancana, his scuffle with the HUAC and the extent of his condemnation of racism and his support for racial equality.

Frank Sinatra’s earliest period of success coincided with my parents’ youth (Sinatra and my dad were both born in 1915), so he was for them what the Beatles were to my generation. I was drawn into Sinatra’s story with the arrival of Mia Farrow, and I was hooked by the media frenzy they engendered during their inexplicable May-December romance and brief marriage.  Along with the rest of teenage America, I loved Farrow as the young anti-heroine in the hit TV drama, Peyton Place, and, subsequently, for her performance in one of my favorite films, Rosemary’s Baby.

My friends and I devoured news reports of the much ballyhooed Sinatra-Farrow cruise to Cape Cod, featuring the lovebirds’ lofty contingent of chaperones, including Sinatra’s pals Roz Russell and Claudette Colbert.  My friends and I even trekked down to the Hudson River to see if we could catch a glimpse of Sinatra’s yacht as it made its way out-of-town, with boatloads of paparazzi in hot pursuit.

Frank Sinatra, with his first wife Nancy and, from left son Frank, Jr., daughters Tina and Nancy, Jr.  Photo courtesy HBO.

Frank Sinatra, with his first wife Nancy and, from left, son Frank, Jr., daughters Tina and Nancy, Jr. Photo courtesy HBO.

I found Farrow’s commentary in this film to be especially informative and fair-minded.  Other highlights include recollections from his son, Frank, Jr. (who refers to his dad as “Frank Sinatra,” throughout the film); Sinatra’s daughters Nancy and Tina; his first wife Nancy, Sr.; and, surprisingly, from Harry Belafonte and former friend and lover Lauren Bacall.

There are eye-opening revelations about the roles played by Joe, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, femme fatale Ava Gardner, close pal Sammy Davis, Jr., mobster Sam Giancana, and the Rat Pack in Sinatra’s life.  His efforts to bite the bullet and remain current and competitive in the music industry, despite his disdain for Rock ‘n’ Rollers and the Hippie movement of the 1960s, are explored in entertaining vintage TV clips. The grainy footage of Sinatra trading barbs and swapping tunes with Elvis Presley is especially priceless.

From overture to final curtain, Sinatra: All or Nothing at All opens a fascinating window on Frank Sinatra’s extraordinary talent and mystique, with its rich and carefully edited blend of home movies, photos, film and TV clips and concert footage, all seasoned with a soundtrack that confirms Sinatra’s legacy for generations to come.  Part 1 of Sinatra: All or Nothing at All debuts on HBO tonight, Easter Sunday, April 5, 8:00 – 10 p.m. ET/PT, and concludes with Part 2, on Monday, April 6, 2015, 8:00 – 10 p.m. ET/PT. Be sure not to miss it!  And have a Happy Easter and Passover!  (Check HBO On Demand and listings for additional April playdates on HBO in your region.)–Judith Trojan

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It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise Debuts on HBO

It's Me Hilary doc poster-1

Actress/writer/producer Lena Dunham turns the spotlight on her friend, illustrator/author Hilary Knight, in her new documentary. Photo courtesy HBO.

Skeezix sleeps in a bowl under a lamp in Hilary Knight’s memento-filled Manhattan apartment. Skeezix is a cat that looks like a raccoon.  Eloise would feel at home here.”

Almost 20 years have passed since I penned that lead-in to my interview with illustrator/author Hilary Knight. My profile of Hilary went on to win a prestigious award, but my biggest prize was the chance to meet and get to know Hilary.  

Hilary’s beloved cat companion at that time, Skeezix, was the spitting image of my Maine Coon-esque cat, Fluffy. And how could I not love a guy who doted on a cat named Skeezix?   Of course, Hilary was the artist who co-created and illustrated Eloise, the book that introduced the universe to a six-year-old force of nature named Eloise who lived, as we all know, at The Plaza Hotel in New York City. Not to be outdoneHilary held court in the most charming, artistically “curated” New York apartment I’d ever encountered.  To say that bonding with Hilary Knight and Skeezix was a snap is an understatement.

Skip ahead 20 years, and now you, too, will have a chance to meet Hilary Knight and his latest cat companion, Ruff. Lena Dunham, the fearless star and co-creator of one of my guilty pleasures, the HBO series Girls, has produced a whimsical and surprisingly revelatory 40-minute documentary about her new friend, Hilary Knight. It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise premieres tonight, Monday, March 23, 2015, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check HBO On Demand and regional listings for additional HBO playdates throughout the weeks ahead.)  I urge you not to miss it!

Lena Dunham's tattoo honors her childhood heroine, Eloise, who gave "a slightly weird child a lot to relate to." Photo courtesy Lena Dunham/HBO.

Lena Dunham’s tattoo honors her childhood heroine, Eloise, who gave “a slightly weird child a lot to relate to.” Photo courtesy Lena Dunham/HBO.

That Lena Dunham and Hilary Knight bonded instantly is hardly a surprise. When Hilary, now 88, found out that the star of one of his favorite cable TV series sported a prominent tattoo of Eloise on her lower back, he was smitten. It’s Me Hilary–part bio pic, part whimsy–quite simply is Lena’s love letter to the man whose creative sensibilities continue to inspire her work.

The film, co-executive produced by Jenni Konner and directed by Matt Wolf, introduces Hilary’s milieu and his fantasy-filled life to the masses. Although it includes some wonderfully inventive animation and a nutty sequence featuring a frog and a nymph, of sorts… be forewarned, this is not a film for young kids.

Lena gently tracks Hilary’s life as it continues to play out in the New York apartment that I loved (I’ll never forget the crystal chandelier in the bathroom!) and most especially his East Hampton lair, where he works nonstop on illustrations for new books, theater posters, labels for cans and fantasy playlets that he produces and films with his eccentric group of friends (he even makes the costumes!).  There is brief input from several female performers and writers, who acknowledge Eloise’s importance to their feminist worldview. And marvelous vintage home movies record Knight frolicking as a child with his brother and as an adult with his nieces. The latter, now middle-aged (one of whom bears a striking resemblance to Lena Dunham), recall what it was like growing up with an uncle who enveloped them in his world of make-believe.

Hilary Knight and Kay Thompson in happier times.  Photo courtesy HBO.

Hilary Knight and Kay Thompson in happier times. Photo courtesy HBO.

But most importantly, we are privy to Hilary’s complex professional and personal relationship with Eloise author Kay Thompson, the eccentric song stylist, actress and mentor to MGM’s musical stars, who was Hilary’s ticket to enduring fame and, in the end, a tight-fisted demon who, even in death, continues to control and demoralize him.  After creating and publishing several more Eloise tomes with Kay, their professional and personal ties disintegrated.

The coverage of Kay Thompson’s career here, via wonderful vintage photos, radio broadcasts, early TV performances and film clips, is riveting. Playwright Mart Crowley and former Simon & Schuster editor/publisher, now literary agent Brenda Bowen provide fascinating sidelights to this publishing and personal horror story (at 29, Hilary had innocently signed his rights to Eloise over to Kay Thompson). While Hilary is barred from ever drawing Eloise again, a heartbreak that continues to haunt him, he perseveres, financially strapped but clearly immersed in and emboldened by a fantasy life that he orchestrates via his artwork and “home movies.”

Hilary Knight and Eloise… the Back Story from a prior interview by Judith Trojan

Photo courtesy HBO.

Hilary Knight at work on his patio in East Hampton, L.I. Photo courtesy HBO.

Illustrator Hilary Knight was born to draw.  “I was fortunate to grow up in a household of artists during the late twenties and thirties when the art of illustration was at its peak,” he told me. “It certainly helped form my style.”

Later inspired by the English illustrators of Punch and Lilliput magazines, and especially the nasty little school girls created by Ronald Searle, Hilary submitted his character illustrations to such magazines as Mademoiselle and Good Housekeeping.  “They were often children, and they were prototypes of Eloise,” he recollected.

Through D.D. Ryan, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, Hilary shared his drawings with stylish singer/vocal arranger Kay Thompson, who was then performing at New York’s Plaza Hotel.  “Kay invented a precocious hotel child named Eloise, who existed only as a telephone voice Kay used to entertain her friends,” Hilary recalled.  In 1954, Thompson and Knight transformed Kay’s “telephone voice” into a character in an illustrated “book for precocious grown-ups.” “We spent a lot of time at The Plaza, going over places where Eloise might be,” he said.

Eloise in repose.  Photo: Hilary Knight, 1969. Used by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc./Courtesy of HBO.

Eloise in repose. Photo: Hilary Knight, 1969. Used by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc./Courtesy of HBO.

Rumors circulated that Liza Minnelli, Thompson’s goddaughter, was the model for Eloise. “Absolutely not, although Liza would have been about the right age,” Hilary emphasized.  Hilary actually “found” Eloise in one of his mother’s watercolors.  Her portrait of a young girl inspired his initial pencil sketches.

Eloise was published by Simon & Schuster in 1955, and the rest is history.  Life magazine spread the buzz, and Eloise rag dolls and pricey little girl dresses hit the racks.  An all-star “Playhouse 90″ TV adaptation fizzled, Hilary concluded, “because Eloise is not a real girl, she’s a flat, black-and-white drawing.”

“Kay decided we should do Eloise in Paris (’57),” he said.  “So, I went to Paris when Kay was finishing up work on the film, Funny Face. Then Simon & Schuster sent us to Moscow for Eloise in Moscow (’59).  Every night for four weeks, we went to events like the ballet or circus looking for something that would fascinate our creation, Eloise.” Eloise at Christmas Time debuted in 1958. The troubled and prolonged evolution of Eloise Takes a Bawth, published in 2002 after Kay Thompson’s death, is covered in It’s Me, Hilary.

Hilary Knight and a young fan.  Photo:  Paul Scheck.

Hilary Knight engages with a young fan. Photo: Paul Schneck, for Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Six-year-old Eloise continues to be the darling of Baby Boomers who share the magic of Eloise with their kids and grandkids.  Eloise “was never meant as a children’s book,” Hilary told me.  “But, right from the start, it went from adults into the hands of children. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to it.”

What is Eloise’s most devilish escapade? “I can’t believe she’d pour a pitcher of water down the mail chute,” Hilary told me with a chuckle.  Her best attribute? “Invention, and her warm relationship with nanny, her substitute mother.”

Hilary Knight has illustrated more than 60 books, and his writer/illustrator credit appears on nine titles. Theater posters and record album covers are also among his specialties.  “I work in many styles and mediums, but the elements that unify my work are motion, as in Eloise propelling herself down a Plaza hallway, and child-involving details like those found in the poetry book, Side By Side (’88/S&S).”

Photo:  Hilary Knight, 1969. Used by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc./Courtesy of HBO.

Eloise tackles her own drawing in IT’S ME, HILARY: THE MAN WHO DREW ELOISE. Photo: Hilary Knight, 1969. Used by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc./Courtesy of HBO.

As we approach the 60th anniversary of Eloise’s first publication in 1955,  It’s Me Hilary is a timely tribute to the film’s subtitled focus– The Man Who Drew Eloise.  Kudos to Lena Dunham and her talented team!  Be sure to tune in tonight, Monday, March 23, 2015, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT.  (Check HBO On Demand and regional listings for additional HBO playdates throughout the weeks ahead.)

Although not suited for young children, the film will be an evergreen addition to programs in high schools, colleges, libraries and museums exploring and celebrating Eloise, Hilary Knight http://www.hilaryknight.com and the worlds of children’s book illustration and publishing.  –Judith Trojan  

 

 

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Seymour: An Introduction

 

Seymour Bernstein. Photo: Jiyang Chen.

Seymour Bernstein. Photo: Jiyang Chen.

It may have an unassuming title, but Seymour:  An Introduction, the new documentary directed by Ethan Hawke, is anything but humdrum. Hawke, the gifted Oscar-nominated actor (Training Day; Boyhood) and screenwriter (Before SunsetBefore Midnight), who has also enjoyed a career as a director and novelist, takes his first steps into the documentary arena with his 81-minute “introduction” to New York-based pianist, composer and beloved piano teacher Seymour Bernstein.  The film, a hit on the 2014 festival circuit, premieres theatrically in New York City on March 13, 2015, with a national roll-out the following week and throughout the next month.

“I never set out to make a documentary,” says Hawke. “I met Seymour Bernstein at a dinner party and found myself completely hypnotized.”  While Hawke’s freshman venture as a documentary filmmaker may have been tentative at first, his kinship with eccentric and nonconformist characters and his respect for Bernstein as a friend, musician and a mentor permeate Seymour: An Introduction and turn it into one of the first must-see documentaries of the new year.

Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke  explore the meaning of mentorship in SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION.  Photo courtesy Robin   Holland. A Sundance Selects release.

Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke explore the meaning of creativity, music and mentorship in SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION. Photo courtesy Robin Holland. A Sundance Selects release.

It’s hard not to fall in love with a man who, at 87, continues to retain the same passion for music and his craft that drove him, as a six-year-old, to his family’s hand-me-down upright piano. He recalls an almost mystical connection to Schubert at an early age and went on to study with a string of notable instructors, including Nadia Boulanger.  At 15, he began assisting his teacher at the time, Clara Husserl, by supervising some of her other gifted pupils; and he soon taught pupils of his own, some of whom quite extraordinarily remained with him for years to come.

Building a name for himself within the classical music industry via an international concert career at a young age, he went on to amass numerous grants and prestigious awards.  He published several books and an impressive body of work as a prolific composer.  But the Seymour Bernstein who intrigued Ethan Hawke and who will inspire and exhilarate general audiences is much more than the sum of these career highlights or a collection of scrapbooks filled with clippings and rave reviews.

While he draws the curtain on Seymour Bernstein’s personal life for the most part, Hawke focuses instead on Bernstein’s philosophy and how it colors his music, his teaching and life itself.

I believe there is a sentiment that holds (and I’m paraphrasing here!) that a teacher appears in our lives when we least expect it… and most need one.  That premise could easily be the subplot of this film. Bernstein, even at his advanced age and maybe because of it, continues to flourish as the teacher who we all, even the tone-deaf amongst us, would benefit from having in our lives.  There are lessons to be learned from Mr. Bernstein, for sure.

Seymour Bernstein shares a wealth of knowledge about music and life with filmmaker Ethan Hawke.  Photo courtesy of Ramsey Fendall.  © Risk Love LLC.  Sundance Selects release.

Seymour Bernstein shares a wealth of knowledge about music and life with filmmaker Ethan Hawke. Photo courtesy Ramsey Fendall. © Risk Love LLC. A Sundance Selects release.

Despite piano lessons that last far longer than standard hour-long sessions, it is immediately apparent why Bernstein’s piano students study with him for years and graciously appear on camera during and after their lessons to share their experience of working with their mentor. “My greatest pleasure is to help my pupils feel good about themselves,” says Bernstein.

His gentle manner and facility with the classics and the human back stories that inspired them infuse this film. His enthusiasm and lifelong refuge in music is touching and seems as fresh and honest as if he’s still that six-year-old child discovering Schubert for the first time.  And his ageless “ear” for top-notch pianos is still on point as we watch him run through a row of inferior rental pianos in Steinway’s basement until he finally “meets,” greets and plays the one that takes his breath away.

As Seymour Bernstein shares his philosophy about the role of music in his life and its transformative power in the broader universe, he also explores with Hawke the drawbacks of living one’s creative life in the spotlight, driven by the whims of the moment and the lure of fame and fortune.  Hawke admits to his own struggles with fame, stage fright and the challenges he faces when he pursues less commercial, more creative avenues of his craft. Bernstein opted out of the performance circuit at age 50 to devote his precious time to composing and teaching.  Ethan Hawke has definitely found the right teacher and friend in Seymour Bernstein.

Seymour Bernstein performs for Ethan Hawke and friends in SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION.  Photo courtesy of Ramsel Fendall. ©Risk Love LLC. Sundance Selects.

Seymour Bernstein performs for Ethan Hawke and friends in SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION. Photo courtesy Ramsey Fendall. © Risk Love LLC. A Sundance Selects release.

If you are an artist, or aspire to be one, you would do well not to miss Seymour: An Introduction.  The film is a must for piano students, Music Appreciation and Performance Studies and programs in schools, universities, libraries and museums that celebrate cultural icons. Hopefully, the film will find a niche on PBS or HBO and have wider accessibility after its theatrical run beginning on Friday, March 13, 2015 in New York City, and various venues across the country in the weeks ahead. —Judith Trojan  

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August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand Debuts on PBS

August Wilson, circa 2004.  Photo:  David Cooper.

August Wilson, circa 2004. Photo: David Cooper.

“He wrote about the frustration and the glory of being black.”  This curtain-raising assessment of playwright August Wilson by his friend and colleague, actor/writer/director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, pretty much sets the tone for August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand.

The latest installment in the PBS American Masters series, August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, is a no-nonsense celebration of the 70th anniversary of Wilson’s birth (1945), the 10th anniversary of his untimely death (2005) and a timely programming choice for Black History month.  If you love the theater, be sure not to miss the debut of this informative, 90-minute documentary on PBS tonight, February 20, 2015, 9:00-10:30 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region.) The film will also be available for streaming after the broadcast at  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters and on DVD on February 24.

August Wilson's childhood home (then without running water) in Pittsburgh's Hill district  is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  Photo courtesy WQED Pittsburgh.

August Wilson’s childhood home (then without running water) in Pittsburgh’s Hill district is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo courtesy WQED Pittsburgh.

Although he breaks no new creative ground with this film, Emmy Award-winning director Sam Pollard provides something much more valuable.  Not only do we see and hear Wilson in vintage interviews, but we are privy to stirring performance excerpts, as staged readings or clips from filmed footage of his original Broadway productions and the 1995 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of The Piano Lesson.  While I clearly remember having seen and loved the latter, I confess with some shame that I’ve never experienced a live performance of one of August Wilson’s plays. Hopefully, Pollard’s documentary will propel you, as it has me, to seek out Wilson’s work, on the page and on stage.

Wilson grew up poor in Pittsburgh, one of seven children of a black mother and an immigrant white father.  Unable to surmount the racial bullying that he faced in school and without the support of a stable father figure (the German baker spent most of his time drunk, unemployed and absent), Wilson quit school in his teens and educated himself in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library.  His passion for poetry opened his eyes and ears to the faces and voices he found on Pittsburgh’s street corners and in local hang-outs, like coffee shops and barber shops, where he scribbled notes for his poems and met locals who eventually inspired characters in his plays.

August Wilson (right) and his mentor Lloyd Richards (left).  Richards' directed Wilson's first six Broadway plays.  Photo:  The Yale Repertory Theatre.

August Wilson (right) and his mentor, Lloyd Richards (left), who directed Wilson’s first six Broadway plays. Photo courtesy The Yale Repertory Theatre.

August Wilson ascended the Broadway boards via his collaboration with mentor Lloyd Richards, the legendary African-American director whom Wilson met and impressed while attending the prestigious National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. Wilson’s greatest achievement as an American playwright and his enduring legacy within African-American culture is his monumental 10-play cycle:  Each play centers on a different decade of the 20th century, beginning with 1900 (Gem of the Ocean) and ending with 1990 (Radio Golf).  Not surprisingly, all but one of the plays — Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1920)—are set in Pittsburgh.

Photo:  Photofest, Inc.

Photo: Photofest, Inc.

Wilson’s journey from Pittsburgh and poetry to playwriting and Pulitzers through the ranks of the burgeoning black awareness creative community sparked by the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties is crisply detailed here in extensive interview footage.  In addition to the clips featuring Wilson himself, the articulate, spot-on recollections from noted critics, actors, scholars and his widow, costume designer Constanza Romero, are key assets in this film. Now major film and TV performers, Viola Davis, Charles Dutton, Laurence Fishburne, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson all drew early critical acclaim in August Wilson’s plays and are authoritative voices here, whether in interviews or performance footage.

Although the subtitle of this film mirrors the title of an essay written by Wilson regarding “the need for black cultural separatism,” I encourage you to watch August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, not only for an understanding and appreciation of Wilson’s cultural importance to the African-American community in the 20th century, but as a universal voice that transcends skin color and speaks to the challenges and joys we all face as members of American families and immigrant cultures.

Photo:  Photofest, Inc.

Photo: Photofest, Inc.

If you didn’t come to this film knowing that August Wilson was one of the greatest American playwrights on par with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, watching the breathtaking footage of Viola Davis’ jaw-dropping performance in Wilson’s King Hedley II (2001) will surely send you running to the nearest library, Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com to grab a copy of this play and tickets to every Wilson revival on the horizon.

American Masters–August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand will be an important addition to programs in libraries, high schools, universities and religious venues dealing with African-American culture, American Drama and Dramatists, and Performance Studies.  Educational resources are available from PBS Learning Media. The performance clips are especially relevant to Women’s Studies as well.  After its debut tonight on PBS (February 20, 2015, 9:00-10:30 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for premiere and repeat air times in your region), the film will also be available for streaming at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters and on DVD beginning on February 24 from PBS Distribution. –Judith Trojan  

 

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Men, Boyhood and Oscar

© AMPAS

© AMPAS

It’s hard to recall a richer, more creatively satisfying year for men and boys than 2014.  Of course, I’m referring to the fascinating male characters and performances that flooded the cinema, circa 2014: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, The Judge, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Mr. Turner, Nightcrawler, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash.  No matter how the Oscar race plays out on February 22, these films, all contenders in one or more categories this year, are winners, as performance pieces and/or creative achievements.

Richard Linklater's engaging, semi-autobiographical film, BOYHOOD, follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) through a period of 12 circuitous years of childhood and adolescence.

Richard Linklater’s engaging, Oscar-nominated film, BOYHOOD, follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) through 12 years of childhood and adolescence. Photo:  IFC Films.

While I’m especially partial to the outstanding ensemble performances and dizzying originality manifested in Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, I’m equally impressed with Boyhood’s back story, substance and quietude. Its universal theme speaks to the journey we all take in some form or another and, for that especially, it deserves a long shelf life.

Turning 40 has never been easy.  But we apparently have that pivotal milestone to thank for director Richard Linklater’s Oscar front-runner, Boyhood.  By the time he reached his 40th birthday in late July 2000, Linklater had built a promising career dotted with critical and cult favorites; time and its passing seemed to be a conceit that drove his more popular work.

Mason (and the actor who played him, Ellar Coltrane) at 7. Photo:  Matt Lankes. Courtesy  IFC Films.

Mason (and the actor who played him, Ellar Coltrane) at 7. Photo: Matt Lankes. Courtesy IFC Films.

At 40, Linklater was ready to take a risk and step outside his comfort zone.  He decided to film a subject that not only was personally important to him, as a husband and a father, but, if viable, would enable him to incorporate the passing of 12 years of real time believably.

Richard Linklater’s fascination lay with childhood, especially the K-12 years when we process a range of formative life experiences and emotions. It would be a tough sell and huge undertaking for anyone to capture those years on camera in a two to three-hour dramatic narrative unless he narrowed the playing field (i.e., focused on one child); employed willing actors (to play the same roles over a period of 12 years); and tweaked the traditional production timeline to acquire sufficient funding (to cover more than a decade of rising production costs, to ensure site logistics and employ the same actors and crew for scenes to be filmed each year in snippets for 12 years as his characters aged).

56up_posterMore than a half-a-century ago, British director Michael Apted stepped into this uncharted minefield when he began documenting the lives of a handful of British youngsters every seven years, following them as they grew up and older in what has become known as the UP series. (See my review of Apted’s most recent installment, 56 UP @ http://judithtrojan.com/2013/10/14/).  Also well-known for his dramatic features, Apted opted to continue to use the documentary format to chronicle his subjects’ progression through the years, while Linklater aimed to film actors within a fictional, scripted (albeit semi-autobiographical), dramatic storyline.  Although he owes much to Apted’s groundbreaking work, Linklater faced a different set of industry obstacles.

“It was like taking a great leap of faith into the future,” says Boyhood director Richard Linklater.  Filmed over 12 years in 35mm with the same dedicated and talented cast and crew, Boyhood seamlessly flows through 12 years in the fictional life of Mason, a young Texan played by Ellar Coltrane, who aged from six through 18 during the 12-year film shoot.  Mason shares his life with older sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, an adorable, nine-year-old scene stealer when the project began).

Photo:  IFC Films.

Single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) shares a memorable moment with her kids, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and Mason (Ellar Coltrane), in BOYHOOD. Photo: IFC Films.

The kids are raised by single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette, who is prime to win her long overdue Oscar in this role). Olivia provides her kids with structure and, by example, the tools they’ll need to weather the myriad changes in their residences, schools and finances. Olivia is the one constant in her kids’ lives, and she never forgets the importance of that role.

This is a rare three-dimensional and, more importantly, unsentimental portrait of a single mom who struggles to make a safe, secure life for her kids without losing sight of her own goals. She works doggedly to acquire the education and career she missed as a young wife and mother, while extricating herself from two bad marriages and building a better relationship with her first husband, her kids’ dad Mason, Sr.

BoyhoodStill7

Madcap dad Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke) makes up for lost time with his kids, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), in BOYHOOD. Photo: IFC Films.

Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke in a delightful Oscar-nominated performance) reenters their lives after a vagabond stint in Alaska and marginal career as a musician.  As the film progresses, Mason, Sr., sidelines his irresponsible life of pipe dreams and empty pockets to provide for his kids, if not financially, then as a loving sounding board and whimsical link to art and nature.  That he finally makes a good match with a sweet, like-minded woman adds to his viability as a positive role model for his kids.

It’s clear that Richard Linklater‘s Boyhood is a labor of love and enormous dedication by his creative team of actors, producers and crew.  They managed to evoke a quiet, realistic, moving depiction of childhood and family life in 21st century America that segues through a 12-year-period unhampered by obtrusive timelines. It is engrossing for almost three hours without resorting to overt sentimentality, melodrama or heavy-handedness … no 3-D aliens, explosions or walking dead.

boyhood-ethan-hawke-ellar-coltrane-patricia-arquette

Mason’s high school graduation party in BOYHOOD celebrates his family’s strong bond and an important rite of passage. Photo: IFC Films.

There are the requisite birthday and graduation parties, hiking and biking, barbecues and bowling, peer pressure, booze and broken promises, first love and heartbreak. There are lessons to be learned, successes to be celebrated and disappointments to be weathered as Mason matures physically and emotionally and navigates the upheavals in his homes, schools and friendships and the pressures in his parents’ lives.  That his mom and dad mature effectively as parents and productive adults over a period of 12 years is an asset here.

In the end, as Mason moves into his college dorm and bonds with yet another new group of friends, we understand along with him that maybe it’s not so important to be focused on the future and to second guess where you’ll be in five, 10 or 12 years.  It’s much better to appreciate, in the moment, everyday life and the journey you share with family and friends.

BoyoodStill4

Mason (Ellar Coltrane) at 9 must make due with an unwanted haircut in BOYHOOD. Photo: Matt Lankes. Courtesy IFC Films.

Nominated for six Academy Awards, Boyhood is definitely a journey worth taking. It’s a highly recommended, evergreen choice for film appreciation, family life, parenting and women’s programming in high schools, universities, libraries and religious venues.  Rated R, Boyhood is now available on DVD, OnDemand, et al.          –Judith Trojan

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