Queen Latifah Is Red Hot as Bessie Smith on HBO

bessieposter“I’m looking forward to people finding out who Bessie Smith is, if they don’t know about her already.”–Queen Latifah.

You may come to HBO’s latest bio-pic, Bessie, knowing little or nothing about blues singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937).  But by the end of two hours, while you’ll depart with many unanswered questions about Smith’s life and career, you’ll definitely be inspired to further explore Smith’s biography and to listen to her recordings.  More importantly, you’ll have deepening respect for the talents of actress/singer Queen Latifah.  Bessie debuts tonight, May 16, 2015, on HBO, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check HBO on Demand, HBO Go, and listings for additional playdates in May and June.)

Queen Latifah, in a gloriously bold performance, will definitely not be ignored come Awards season. She transcends a screenplay co-written and directed by Dee Rees jazzed by a string of evocative bio-vignettes devoid of much-needed expository back story or cultural context. Latifah plays “The Empress of the Blues”– from penniless dancer and street performer to sassy vaudevillian and bejeweled recording star who toured the country in a custom railroad car — as a quick study and a mass of contradictions.

Smith was haunted by the ghosts of childhood abandonment and abuse; she faced racial and sexual degradation at every turn; yet her instincts led her to cultivate a relationship with the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (played here by Mo’Nique), who became her mentor and eventually, it’s implied, much more than just a supportive friend and mother figure.

Photo: Frank Masi/HBO.

Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) traveled the country with her troupe in a custom railroad car. Photo: Frank Masi/HBO.

“Bessie really needed love and missed her mother, who died when she was young.” says Queen Latifah. “Ma came into her life and filled that role.”

A hard-as-nails contract negotiator, Smith cleverly fought for fair pay and challenged segregation in the hardscrabble honky-tonk circuit in which she and her troupe performed and toured. Yet, she craved a fine home, husband and kids, so she married her lover/manager, Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), bought the home and maybe even the kid who became her son, yet she never lost her sexual appetite for lovers of both sexes. That her most tender and brutally honest sexual and professional relationships are shown here to be with women depicts Smith as liberated and a feminist years before those terms were coined.

“I think Bessie, in her own way, was a radical feminist before there was a name for it,” says director Dee Rees. “Bessie wasn’t actively trying to be a feminist, but she just loved who she wanted to love. She had relationships with both men and woman, and I wanted to show that she took everything case-by-case, even the people that she loved.”

Photo: Frank Masi/HBO.

Queen Latifah pulls out all the stops as Bessie Smith in HBO’s BESSIE. Photo: Frank Masi/HBO.

Queen Latifah was approached to do this project more than 20 years ago, but what began with a story by playwright Horton Foote under the Zanuck Company banner evolved from a traditional bio-pic to a more expressionistic project eventually realized by director and co-screenwriter Dee Rees and Queen Latifah.

“I didn’t know who Bessie was when this movie came to me in my early 20s,” Queen Latifah recalls. “I did some homework and realized how influential she was and what amazing things she accomplished. For example, when you find out what an influence she was on Billie Holiday, it brings her importance into focus.”

Queen Latifah grew up to own this production, as co-Executive Producer and star; but she is ably matched by Oscar® winner Mo’Nique, who tears it up as Ma Rainey, and Michael Kenneth Williams, who brings surprising emotional depth to Bessie’s bullying lover/husband/manager Jack Gee.

Bessie Smith Album cover2Lacking sufficient biographical context, the film leaves you with a lot of unanswered questions.  But two things are certain: You’ll definitely want to become acquainted or reacquainted with the life, milieu and music of Bessie Smith, and you’ll be convinced  that Queen Latifah is one of the most talented and fearless actress/singer/social activists working on the planet today.

A gritty, explicit film that will work well in college and university programs dealing with the history of music, women’s roles and racism in America, Bessie debuts tonight, May 16, 2015, on HBO, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check HBO on Demand, HBO Go, and listings for additional playdates in May and June.)  –Judith Trojan


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American Ballet Theatre: A History Celebrated on American Masters

Alicia Alonso as she appeared in the American Ballet Theatre production of  "Swan Lake," circa 1945.  She recalls her illustrous caree with ABT in AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE: A HISTORY. Photo: Maurice Seymour.

Alicia Alonso as she appeared in the American Ballet Theatre production of “Swan Lake,” circa 1945. She recalls her illustrious career with ABT in AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE: A HISTORY. Photo: Maurice Seymour.

Even if you don’t know the difference between a jeté, plié or pirouette, you still might enjoy American Ballet Theatre: A History,  debuting nationally on the PBS series American Masters tonight, Friday, May 15, 2015, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region.)

Produced and directed by Ric Burns for THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET, American Ballet Theatre: A History celebrates the 75th anniversary of American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and will stream at http://pbs.org/americanmasters beginning on May 16, 2015.  A must-see for ballet aficionados, educators and students, the film is an archival treasure for American Ballet Theatre scholars and fans, as well as a sure-fire ABT fund-raiser.

Launched in the fall of 1939 and guided to greatness under the visionary direction of Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith (1940-80), American Ballet Theatre proudly wears the mantle as “the only major cultural institution that annually tours the United States.”  It has appeared in all 50 states and also made more than 30 international tours to 50 countries.  On April 27, 2006, ABT was named America’s National Ballet Company® by an act of Congress. 

American Ballet Theatre's Corps de Ballet perform "La Bayadere" in AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE: A HISTORY.  Photo: Buddy Squires, ASC.

American Ballet Theatre’s Corps de Ballet perform “La Bayadère” in AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE: A HISTORY. Photo: Buddy Squires, ASC.

It’s not easy to engage audiences with filmed dance performances. Visionary cinematographers, however, have been known to take the most esoteric subject matter and broaden its appeal. Buddy Squires, ASC, is one such cinematographer.  Squires has put his stamp on a boatload of Emmy and Academy Award winners and nominees, including many films by Ric’s brother, Ken Burns. The exquisite footage shot by Squires and his 30-person crew for this film using Phantom Flex cameras manages to zero in on the delicate beauty of the ballet movements without losing sight of ballet’s underlying athleticism and the importance of costuming and music to the experience of watching ballet in live performance.

American Ballet Theatre principal dancer and artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert La Fosse (right) rehearsing with choreographer John McFall (center) in McFall's ballet "Follow the Fleet," in 1983.  Photo: MIRA.

American Ballet Theatre principal dancer and Artistic Director Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert La Fosse (right) rehearsing with choreographer John McFall (center) in McFall’s ballet “Follow the Fleet,” in 1983. Photo: MIRA.

Director Ric Burns combines this recently shot ABT performance footage (from 2006 to present) with rare archival performance and interview footage and stills, as well as extensive interviews with past and present ABT dancers, choreographers and administrators to chart ABT’s storied past and celebratory present.  ABT’s survival is nothing short of miraculous given the spirit-deflating challenges faced by cultural institutions over the past 75 years.

“The story of American Ballet Theatre, and the breathtaking rise of dance in the U.S. over the last three-quarters of a century, is one of the most inspiring stories in the cultural world,” says Ric Burns. “Ballet is the most poignantly ephemeral and expressive of all the arts, both earthbound and transcendent. And ABT, indisputably one of the greatest dance companies in the world, has torn down an incredible number of barriers, welcoming choreographers of every kind and dancers from around the world.”

Choreographer Antony Tudo (left) coaching American Ballet Theatre dancer  Kevin McKenzie in Tudo's ballet "Jardin Aux Lilas," circa 1986.  Photo: Paul B. Goode.

Choreographer Antony Tudor (left) coaching American Ballet Theatre dancer Kevin McKenzie in Tudor’s ballet “Jardin aux Lilas,” circa 1986. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

Aside from the archival and recently filmed performance footage, I also found the interview clips (some archival) to be informative and fascinating, most especially with ABT founding member and co-director Lucia Chase; charter member and choreographer Agnes de Mille; dancer Alicia Alonso; dancer and current ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie; founding member and dancer Donald Saddler; and choreographer and associate director Antony Tudor.

Unfortunately, the film sags appreciably during the info-saturated segments featuring dance historians and critics Jennifer Homans and the late Clive Barnes. And while the exquisite camerawork by Buddy Squires and his crew is a major asset overall, the artful over-use of slow-motion to accentuate the tiniest ballet movements grows tedious.

American Ballet Theatre dancers, from left: Isabella Boylston and Misty Copeland during the shoot for AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE: A HISTORY.  They also reflect on their life with ABT.  Photo: George Seminara.

American Ballet Theatre dancers, from left: Isabella Boylston and Misty Copeland, during the shoot for AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE: A HISTORY. Photo: George Seminara.

These drawbacks and the film’s extended length may limit general audience appeal, but will not affect the film’s long-term value to students, teachers, archivists and fans of the ballet and ABT. American Ballet Theatre: A History is an evergreen asset to the ABT repertoire and smartly launches ABT’s 75th anniversary spring season (continuing through July 4) at NYC’s Metropolitan Opera House.

American Ballet Theatre: A History debuts nationally on the PBS series American Masters tonight, Friday, May 15, 2015, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region.) Beginning on May 16, 2015, you can find free streaming of the film and ABT background materials at http://pbs.org/americanmasters   The film will also be available on DVD on July 14, 2015 from PBS Distribution. –Judith Trojan

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Last Days in Vietnam Not To Be Missed on American Experience

Courtesy WGBH Educational Foundation.

Courtesy WGBH Educational Foundation.

I’ve always been fascinated by the offspring of super achievers. If their moms, dads, grandparents or great grandparents are heavy hitters in politics, the arts, medicine, sports, the military or scholarly pursuits, these kids have quite an act to follow.

Independent filmmaker Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy, has certainly done her due diligence and carved a worthy niche for herself.  The Emmy Award winner and recent Academy Award® nominee has produced and directed a formidable body of work–more than 25 films–on hot button social issues.

Rory Kennedy’s latest feature-length documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, written by her husband, Mark Bailey, and Keven McAlester, and scored by Gary Lionelli, is a riveting masterwork that demands to be widely seen and discussed.  It stands toe-to-toe with the now-classic films produced during the Vietnam War era. With a theatrical run and Oscar nomination under its belt, Last Days in Vietnam debuts tonight, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, on the PBS American Experience series (9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region).  It’s a timely addition to this week’s PBS program line-up honoring the 40th anniversary of the official end of the Vietnam War in April 1975 and will be available free for streaming after its broadcast at PBS.org/americanexperience

A crowd of South Vietnamese refugees waiting to be evacuated. Photo courtesy Stuart Herrington.

A crowd of South Vietnamese refugees patiently waiting and trusting that they’ll be evacuated. Photo courtesy Stuart Herrington.

“The end of April 1975 was the whole Vietnam involvement in microcosm, because we didn’t get our act together,” says Stuart Herrington, retired Colonel, U.S. Army. “On the other hand, sometimes people have to rise to the occasion and do the things that need to be done, and in Saigon there was no shortage of people like that.”

Herrington was a Captain during the Vietnam War and served as an intelligence advisor to the South Vietnamese.  He is front and center in Last Days in Vietnam alongside an impressive line-up of American and South Vietnamese military men of good conscience, U.S. government officials, intelligence officers and South Vietnamese civilians who recall the chaotic final days of the war and the burning moral question that they faced: “Who goes and who gets left behind?” The story that unfolds from their vantage point is gripping.

Even if you watched this debacle play out on the evening news at the time, I guarantee that you will be hard-pressed not to be awe-struck by the powerful news and military footage compiled for this film.  Shot during the thick of the massive evacuation efforts, the footage documents activity never before shown on stateside evening newscasts.

Desperate South Vietnamese climb aboard barges in the port of Saigon to escape advancing North Vietnamese troops on April 28, 1975, the day of the fall of Saigon. Photo ©Nik Wheeler/ Corbis.

Desperate South Vietnamese climb aboard barges in the port of Saigon to escape advancing North Vietnamese troops on April 28, 1975, the day of the fall of Saigon. Photo ©Nik Wheeler/ Corbis.

As the North Vietnamese approached Saigon, relieved by the resignation of their mortal enemy, Richard M. Nixon, American officers and officials on-site had two choices: evacuate U.S. citizens and their dependents only, or defy orders and also save their South Vietnamese comrades, friends and families.

Richard Armitage joined the U.S. Defense Attaché Office in Saigon in 1973 after three combat tours in Vietnam as an ensign in the U.S. Navy. Collaborating with South Vietnamese Navy Captain Kiem Do, Armitage planned to remove U.S. Navy ships before they fell into North Vietnamese hands. When Armitage discovered that the ships were filled with thousands of South Vietnamese refugees, he recalls his decision to ignore orders and do the right thing:  “I thought it was a lot easier to beg forgiveness than follow orders. So the decision was made, and they all went with us.”


Aboard the U.S.S. Kirk, crew members signal a Chinook copter to hover over their deck and drop its passengers. The chopper was too heavy to land on deck. Photo courtesy Craig Compiano/USS KIRK Association.

One of the more prolonged and moving segments in Last Days in Vietnam focuses on the challenges faced by the U.S Naval officers and crew on board the U.S.S. Kirk. Part of the fleet sent to evacuate Americans only, the crew and the ship–“with its single, tiny helipad”–was ill-equipped to handle the endless stream of helicopters attempting to land on the American destroyer.  The choppers were piloted by South Vietnamese airmen fleeing for their lives with their families and friends.

A youthful South Vietnamese man, who was six years old at the time, vividly remembers the day his dad, a South Vietnamese pilot, skillfully catapulted his young family onto the U.S.S. Kirk from a Chinook chopper hovering above.  It was too large to land on the ship. Location footage and recollections from the Kirk’s captain and commanding officer bear witness to the pilot’s amazing aeronautical feat and others performed by the Kirk’s crew.  

Crew members push a helicopter off a landing platform of the U.S.S. Kirk to clear room for more helicopters dropping off refugees. Photo courtesy Craig Compiano/USS Kirk Association.

Crew members push a helicopter off a landing platform of the U.S.S. Kirk to clear the deck for more helicopters dropping off refugees. Photo courtesy Craig Compiano/USS KIRK Association.

This is the stuff of true heroism and Last Days in Vietnam is a testament to their bravery, ingenuity and humanity in the face of a war gone horribly, shamefully wrong.

What comes across here are the heartfelt efforts of by-the-book military men, U.S. Intelligence officers and staffers who risked life and limb and faced career suicide to run unsanctioned, seat of-the-pants operations to save and evacuate as many South Vietnamese as they could, by land, sea and air.  The way they did it is astounding; and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they faced, sometimes overcame … and sometimes didn’t … will keep you on the edge of your seat and also break your heart.

In conjunction with the film, American Experience is launching a national outreach campaign inviting Vietnamese Americans and veterans to share their experiences.  “We knew there were so many more stories–of those who were evacuated and those who were left behind but who eventually made their way to the U.S.–and we wanted to create a platform to share, preserve, and honor their experiences,” says Mark Samels, American Experience Executive Producer. These stories will constitute the First Days Story Project at http://www.pbs.org/firstdays to be archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Last Days in Vietnam debuts tonight, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, on the PBS series American Experience, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET (Check local listings for air times in your region). It is available for rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video, as well as through many cable video-on-demand services. Following the PBS station broadcast, the film will be available for streaming free at PBS.org/americanexperience  The DVD will also be sold on the PBS Website and at other retail outlets. –Judith Trojan

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


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.


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.


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  



Posted in Books, Cable, Film, Illustration, Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments