Listen To Me Marlon a Must See on Showtime

ListenToMeMarlon_01.ROne of the best films of 2015 debuts on Showtime tonight at 9:00 p.m., and I urge you not to miss it. It will be aired in repeat broadcasts in the weeks ahead, so check your Showtime listings and On Demand as well.

Listen To Me Marlon is quite simply an extraordinary, mind-bending profile of Oscar®-winning actor/activist Marlon Brando, written, directed and edited by noted British documentarian Stevan Riley and produced by John Battsek for Showtime. The documentary had a brief theatrical release last summer, where and when I caught it for the first time. A second screening for this review only confirmed my original opinion that the film sits without question alongside the most innovative and outstanding work of Ken Burns, Fred Wiseman, the Maysles bros., Errol Morris, Andrew Jarecki, Michael Apted, Bill Jersey, Perry Miller Adato and D. A. Penneybaker, among the mighty few who have dared to re-imagine the nonfiction biographic film.

Young Marlon on the beach. Photo courtesy Brando Estate/SHOWTIME.

Even as a youngster, Marlon Brando had a flair for the dramatic gesture. Photo courtesy Brando Estate/SHOWTIME.

Without a doubt, Listen to Me Marlon benefits greatly from Stevan Riley’s access to more than 200 hours of Brando’s own intimately recorded audio recordings. Brando apparently earmarked this material for a future film of his own. He was determined to set the public record straight about the myths that defined and defiled him during his mercurial acting career, personal life and political activism.

Brando’s audio reflections on his life and career at all stages drive the film as its voice over narration–from his troubled childhood in Nebraska and his meteoric rise to super stardom on the New York stage and in Hollywood to his volatile relationships with women, his passion for Tahiti and his slide into morbid obesity and obscurity. It’s clear after watching and listening to the story that unfolds from Brando’s perspective in Listen To Me Marlon that he was an extremely intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful and poetic soul who struggled often unsuccessfully to justify his higher purpose and existence on this planet.

Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy in Brando's breakthrough Broadway performance in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," circa 1947. Photo: CORBIS/SHOWTIME.

Marlon Brando, with Jessica Tandy, in his breakthrough Broadway performance in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” circa 1947. Photo: CORBIS/SHOWTIME.

A hypercritical, physically abusive father and a creative, irresponsible alcoholic mother laid the groundwork for Brando’s struggles with authority and women throughout his life.  When we hear late in the audio that he spent years in psychoanalysis, it’s clear that despite his ultimate vilification of the science and its practitioners, the therapy had a profound effect on the way he processed his life experiences and recalled them on the audiotapes.

Riley brilliantly pairs Brando’s articulate, deeply felt voice over with vintage film clips, home movies and gorgeous photos documenting the actor’s backstage antics, his happy and tragic family life with his children, feature film performances, screen tests, revelatory TV interviews with Edward R. Murrow, Dick Cavett and Hugh Downs, his two Oscar® wins, and his political and romantic escapades.

Particularly fascinating are Brando’s memories of his studies and close friendship with noted drama coach and actress Stella Adler, who is seen here in rare film clips espousing her philosophy on the art of acting.  His analyses of his notable stage and film performances and the challenges those roles presented provide invaluable and evergreen insights for seasoned and budding actors, stage and film directors and students of the cinema and theatre.  Stella-Adler-Quotes-5-8x6

As Brando’s musings approach the final moments of Listen To Me Marlon, it’s clear how, when and why his youthful excitement over his early career success faded into cynicism, disillusionment with fame and disgust for Hollywood’s artless passion for the almighty buck.  So, in addition to clips from his best work, there are clips and stills highlighting the problematic films he slogged through later in life when he devoted most of his time to more noble pursuits, like the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam war movements and his fight to right the wrongs inflicted on Native Americans.

Marlon Brando circa 1951. Photo: Getty Images/Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

Marlon Brando, circa 1951. Photo: Getty Images/SHOWTIME.

“Everybody feels like a failure.  Everybody feels like they coulda been a contender,” says Brando in Listen To Me Marlon, referencing the iconic line from his Oscar®-winning performance in On the Waterfront (1954).  Had he not been an actor, Brando says he probably would have been a con man, which he admits would not be too far afield from being an actor.  Instead, I think, he could have been a profoundly influential drama teacher and acting coach, or even a counselor/therapist for creatives via the meditative arts.

Listen To Me Marlon breaks new ground in the crowded universe of documentary film profiles. Kudos to filmmaker Stevan Riley and producer John Battsek for this superbly edited, insightful assemblage of rare audio and visual archival materials…for making sense of an extraordinary, conflicted artist’s life story, from beginning to end…on the record.  Don’t miss it!

Listen To Me Marlon makes it cable TV debut tonight, Saturday, November 14, 2015, on Showtime (9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET/PT).  Check listings for repeat broadcasts in the weeks ahead and On Demand.–Judith Trojan

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James Bond Is Back and I Finally Got Him

One cool dude. Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions’ action adventure SPECTRE.

One cool dude. Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions’ action-adventure SPECTRE.

Where the heck have I been? I confess that the only reason I attended an early screening of the latest James Bond film, Spectre, was because of my new “appreciation” (G-rated word here) for Daniel Craig. I’ve become a big fan since I caught him in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).  I continue to devour that film every time it reruns on HBO. I even bought the DVD.  When I caught wind of the rumors that Craig and Rooney Mara may re-team for the second English-language installment of the Millennium Trilogy, my heart skipped a beat; and I revisited the prospect of seeing Daniel Craig as James Bond.  Yep, maybe that casting could work, too.

I haven’t seen a Bond film since the Dark Ages (aka, the Sean Connery and early Roger Moore era).  For me, Bond and Connery were interchangeable.  End of story.  I moved on and never looked back. I shamefully dissed and unfortunately missed Daniel Craig’s run in the last three Bond films.  So I came to Spectre with Craig’s performance in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on my mind.

The chase is on during the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions’ action adventure SPECTRE.

The chase is on during a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. Photo courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions.

Mea culpa!  In a word, Spectre is dazzling.  Bond may be working under the radar in this installment, with some malfunctioning gizmos; but the spectacle of his rogue mission is gripping, and the mood is set straight away as he maneuvers through the film’s spectacular and explosive opening sequence during a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City.

Threats to his persona and his peers in high places are, of course, not unexpected and emanate from a web of lies and betrayals. Bond’s mission takes him above, below and on top of gorgeous landscapes around the globe where he navigates breathtakingly choreographed encounters with some vicious collateral henchmen. But when Bond lands full circle back in London, he must face off with their sinister boss (a perfectly cast Christoph Waltz) who carries a painful family secret from Bond’s past.

Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux wait for a ride in SPECTRE. Photo courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions.

Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux have a date with destiny in SPECTRE. Photo courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions.

Aside from Daniel Craig’s perfect fit as Bond (and that includes his natty, form-fitting, wrinkle-free suits!), there are other big surprises to relish: Bond’s women–Moneypenny (Naomie Harris); his romantic interest, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux); and even the beautiful older widow of an adversary, Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci)–are independent, strong-minded collaborators and not sexy window-dressing.

Kudos to director Sam Mendes for orchestrating this complex action-adventure and to his production team for their classy set and costume design and breathtaking cinematography, all of which envelope their cool, taciturn hero and star in just the right light and shade.

If you’ve had your fill of schlocky, super hero films featuring mind-numbing explosions and mindless cartoon characters, be sure not to miss Spectre. The storyline and Bond’s facile escapes may be far-fetched; but they make for terrific, suspenseful escapist fare, embellished and empowered as they are by timeless, beautifully appointed sets and costumes, gorgeous international locations and, above all, by Daniel Craig.

Daniel Craig is a perfect 21st century James Bond in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions’ SPECTRE.

Daniel Craig is fleet of foot, wrinkle-free and a perfect fit as James Bond in SPECTRE. Photo courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions.

When and hopefully if Craig decides to return for his fifth go-round in the James Bond film franchise, I’ll be first in line to see it.–Judith Trojan



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How To Dance in Ohio on HBO Spotlights Young Adults with Autism

The social challenges faced by autistic teens and young adults, including Caroline and Jay, are chronicled in HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO. Photo courtesy HBO.

The challenges faced by autistic teens and young adults, including Caroline and Jay (above), are chronicled in HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO. Photo courtesy HBO.

“We like to socialize, but we don’t know how.”

That poignant remark, heard during the opening moments of producer/director Alexandra Shiva’s new film, How To Dance in Ohio, pretty much sums up the hurdles facing youngsters on the autism spectrum.  They are especially vulnerable as they transition from the safe cocoon of home and family to more independent lifestyles in college, careers and romantic relationships.

How To Dance In Ohio follows an engaging group of higher functioning autistic teens and young adults in Columbus, Ohio, as they prepare to attend their very first formal dance. For young people on the spectrum, “preparation” is a double-edged sword, as you will see if you tune in HBO tonight, Monday, October 26, 2015, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET/PT (Check listings for additional playdates).

Currently, one in 68 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with autism, a “tenfold increase in the past decade.” That means most of us probably know at least one or more families raising a child on the spectrum. While there have been countless films, books and articles touting sanctioned and alternative programs and therapies specifically geared for autistic children, How To Dance in Ohio focuses instead on higher functioning autistic young adults who benefit immensely from ongoing social and life skills programs.

Three young women–22-year-old Jessica; her best friend, 19-year-old college student Caroline; and 16-year-old high school student Marideth–are of special interest. They and their peers are patients of clinical psychologist Dr. Emilio Amigo, and his staff, at the Amigo Family Counseling Center in Columbus, Ohio.

Dr. Emilio Amigo guides his autistic patients into adult terrain in HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO. Photo courtesy HBO.

Dr. Emilio Amigo gently coaches his autistic patients to become sociable young adults in HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO. Photo courtesy HBO.

“For many of them,” explains Dr. Amigo about his autistic patients, “there’s a giant wall between them and everybody else. The simple task of learning how to say hello, make eye contact and be in a back-and-forth conversation can be incredibly difficult, if not crippling.”

The spring formal dance presents an especially difficult set of challenges, both physical and psychological. Anxiety levels run high, as Dr. Amigo and his staff gently address and build his patients’ confidence and skill level through repetitive practice group encounters. Although Dr. Amigo admits that the dance is a risky endeavor, he’s hopeful that his patients will go the distance.

Jessica, Caroline and Marideth’s struggle to process the idea of attending the dance and interacting with young men as their dates is, at times, heart-wrenching. It’s clear during the young women’s intimate and sometimes exasperating day-to-day family encounters and group sessions that they are beset with crippling fears and repetitive avoidance tactics. Jessica still lives at home with her parents but works at a bakery that employs and trains autistic adults. She longs to live independently in her own apartment.

Jessica Sullivan and Caroline McKenzie search for the perfect gown for their spring formal dance. Photo courtesy HBO.

Jessica Sullivan and Caroline McKenzie shop for the perfect gowns for their spring formal dance. Photo courtesy HBO.

Caroline overcame a rocky start at a community college and has a crush on a boy she met in Dr. Amigo’s therapy group. With hours spent researching data on her computer, Marideth has the hardest time engaging with others.  Yet, according to her mother, Marideth was incapable of even being touched just 10 years before.

The promise for change and growth is evident. Jessica and Caroline eventually enjoy the spotlight as they joyfully shop for formal evening gowns and walk the red carpet to the dance.  And Marideth plays a sly waiting game until she receives an invitation from the boy who secretly interests her.

Ultimately, the young women work through their social and physical discomfort to shine on the dance floor. This is no small feat, but is accomplished thanks to their supportive parents and the life skills learned from the man who orchestrated the dance project to begin with. His surname, Amigo, couldn’t be more fitting.

Marideth, foreground, hits the dance floor in HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO. Photo courtesy HBO.

Marideth, foreground, hits the dance floor in HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO. Photo courtesy HBO.

How To Dance in Ohio is a compassionate, eye-opening introduction to young people facing adulthood on the autism spectrum. “We’re all different… like multi-colored M&M’s,” says one of Dr. Amigo’s patients. That’s an assessment that could fit us all, let’s face it…no matter what “spectrum” we find ourselves assigned to.

How To Dance in Ohio debuts tonight, Monday, October 26, 2015, on HBO, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET/PT.   Check listings for additional HBO playdates throughout October and November, as well as its availability via HBO On Demand, HBO NOW and HBO GO.–Judith Trojan

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Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey Debuts on American Masters

Pedro E. Guerrero landed in his first photography class by accident at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, circa 1935. Photo: Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.

Pedro E. Guerrero at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, circa 1935. He landed in his first photography class by accident and never looked back. Photo: Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.

Before Mexican-American photographer Pedro E. Guerrero died in September 2012 at age 95, he agreed to be filmed by filmmakers Raymond Telles and Yvan Iturriaga. Their hour-long film profile, incorporating Guerrero’s gracious commentary, American Masters–Pedro E. Guerrero:  A Photographer’s Journey, finally debuts on PBS tonight, September 18, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check local listings for air times in your region.)  

A timely fit for National Hispanic Heritage Month, the film is a co-production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET and Latino Public Broadcasting’s VOCES.  It is quite a revelation.

Guerrero was born and raised in Arizona, where his family lived for generations.  Despite a financially comfortable upbringing, he was forced to attend “Mexican only” segregated schools.  To escape the intolerance that he faced on a daily basis in his hometown, he bolted for Los Angeles at 20, where he planned to sign up for an art class at the Art Center School.  The art classes were filled, so he signed up for the only class that was still open…a  photography class.  The rest is history.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright photographed by Pedro E. Guerrero at Usonia in Pleasantville, NY, in 1947. Photo: Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright photographed by Pedro E. Guerrero at Usonia in Pleasantville, NY, in 1947. Photo: Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.

Serendipity seems to have followed Guerrero throughout his photographic journey. At 22, he connected with legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who, seemingly on instinct, took the unseasoned photographer under his wing and assigned him to photograph his winter home, Taliesin West, in the Arizona desert.

After his service as a war photographer overseas during W.W.II, Guerrero continued to photograph Wright at work and at ease until his death in 1959.   Guerrero went on to develop similarly close working friendships with the sculptor Alexander Calder and, after Calder’s death in November 1976, sculptor Louise Nevelson, until her death in April 1988.  In all three cases, Guerrero photographed the masters still engaged and productive until the days leading up to their deaths.

Guerrero additionally built a notable niche as an architectural photographer for major magazines.  He shot international interiors and exteriors on-assignment for magazines like Vogue and House & Garden; lived for 50 years in New Canaan, Connecticut, an enclave of mid-century modern architecture; and enjoyed the high life in Mad Men-era New York City… until his anti-war efforts during the Vietnam War cost him his lucrative publishing assignments.

Pedro on American Masters set16-IMG_0003

Pedro E. Guerrero at age 92 on the set of AMERICAN MASTERS–PEDRO E. GUERRERO: A PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNEY. Photo: Miguel Creus.

Pedro E. Guerrero was a spry 92 when he sat for filmmakers Telles and Iturriaga and recalled the three masters who consumed his life and work–architect Frank Lloyd Wright and sculptors Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson.  The film is profusely illustrated with Guerrero’s striking black-and-white and color photos documenting the construction of Wright’s, Calder’s and Nevelson’s masterworks. Guerrero’s second wife and archivist, Dixie Legler Guerrero; Nevelson’s granddaughter, sculptor Maria Nevelson; and a handful of articulate architectural photographers, critics and historians also share insights and recollections.

American Masters–Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey provides a tantalizing taste of Guerrero’s phenomenal body of work, and hopefully will bring him the long overdue national attention he so richly deserves. Watch it tonight on PBS, September 18, 2015 , 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check local listings for air times in your region.)  

Sculptor Alexander Calder with his stabile in Sache, France, photographed by Pedro E. Guerrero. Photo: Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.

Sculptor Alexander Calder with his stabile in Sache, France, photographed by Pedro E. Guerrero. Photo: Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.

The broadcast film and a Spanish-captioned version will be available to stream on September 19.  Check out for more info on streaming, community outreach screenings and the DVD release scheduled for November 17, 2015.

Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey will be an evergreen addition to programs in schools, universities, libraries and museums focusing on Hispanic-American photographers and architectural photography in general.  It will also be an enlightening supplement to programs and exhibits featuring the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson.–Judith Trojan


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American Experience Tackles Walt Disney on PBS

Walt Disney shares a moment with Mickey and Minnie, circa October 1933. Photo © Condé Nast Archive/Corbis.

Walt Disney shares a moment with Mickey and Minnie, circa October 1933. Photo © Condé Nast Archive/Corbis.

Walt Disney always reminded me of my childhood pediatrician. And that was a very good thing. Not only did they look alike, but both men were, in fact, passionate healers who never lost their ability to speak to the needs of children… and “the child” within the older folks who raised them.  One man greeted me every Sunday night from my TV screen; the other stopped by regularly to cure what ailed me.

To me, my parents and the rest of his patients, my doctor was a saint.  In a larger playing field, Walt Disney was a creative genius whose body of work made us all feel really good.  My doctor effortlessly removed my tonsils in his office and alleviated my measles’ scare.  Walt Disney gave me Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Bambi, Davy Crockett, Mary Poppins, Hayley Mills and The Mickey Mouse Club. I had a charmed, healthy childhood thanks to those two men.

I think you’ll find yourself thinking a lot about your past and, most especially, some joyful moments of your childhood as you watch the ambitious, two-part, four-hour biography of Walt Disney, produced and directed by Sarah Colt, premiering on the American Experience PBS series.  Part One debuts tonight, Monday, September 14, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET.  Part Two follows on Tuesday, September 15, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region.)

The first two hours of Walt Disney cover Disney’s critically formative early years (1901-1941). Seemingly driven to rewrite the story of his unhappy Midwestern childhood–his domineering dad’s string of business failures continually uprooted the family–Disney channeled his psychological wounds and considerable artistic talent into a career in the nascent movie industry. As is the case with most visionaries, timing is everything; and for Walt Disney, the time was right for his all-consuming passion: Animation.


Walt, Mickey and the merch, circa 1931. Photo © Disney.

Animation was a growth industry, a genre primed for the enormous innovative, entrepreneurial skills that Disney brought to the table. With his brother Roy as his financial advisor and a team of dedicated, talented artists by his side, Disney planted and grew a lucrative niche in Hollywood. By 1928, the Disney Brothers Studio premiered Steamboat Willie, and a star named Mickey (Walt’s “alter ego”) was born.

Part One of Walt Disney draws an absorbing portrait of a man who had an instinctive understanding of his audience and a knack for building a brand, decades before “branding” became a buzzword. The film provides a fascinating look at his tenacious efforts to film and release Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) as the first ever feature-length, story-driven animation. Despite his naysayers and obsessive attention to detail that slowed production to a crawl, Snow White was an immediate critical and box office hit that grossed $8 million during its first year (that’s more than $100 million today!).  Clips from Snow White and other classics produced during this period, including the initially less successful Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) are plentiful, as are vintage behind-the-scenes film clips, home movies and on-camera analyses by various film scholars, critics and cultural pundits.


Walt Disney (far right) looks on as his FANTASIA collaborators (from left) George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky and T. Hee peruse a model for the film. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

But there was trouble brewing in paradise. Labor unrest and union organizing threatened to derail Walt’s career trajectory and his new studio in Burbank. Part Two (1941-1966) chronicles the arc of betrayal and mistrust that apparently transformed Walt from Mr. Nice Guy into a grudge-carrying, “friendly witness” during the HUAC hearings in 1947.

To escape the turmoil, Walt focused his attention and “better angels” instead on a seemingly frivolous personal pursuit: building and commandeering his own scale-model railroad. And, of course, that child friendly railroad eventually compelled him to design and build a “community” around it.  It would be called Disneyland.

Part Two is a breathtaking and often touching look at how Walt delved into new film genres (nature films, live-action comedies and live-action/animation hybrids) and markets to keep his brand fresh and financially viable.  He even managed to secure a deal with ABC-TV to fund the building of Disneyland. That back story is riveting, as is the film footage that records and tracks the evolution of Disneyland from landfill to monumental opening day. Walt Disney, a lifelong chain-smoker, died tragically from lung cancer at age 65 with plans underway for yet another new dream “community,” this time in Florida, to be called EPCOT.


Walt Disney (standing far left) and some of his animators, circa 1931. Photo courtesy David Lesjak.

The glorious film clips, vintage behind-the-scenes footage, home movies and recollections from various old-timers who knew and worked with Walt as animators; designers; ink and painters; and composers; including his son-in-law, producer Ron Miller, provide welcome insight into Walt’s psyche, creative endeavors and executive temperament. However, the pompous rhetoric posited by the film’s resident cultural “scholars” often stops the film dead in its tracks.

If you’re a Baby Boomer, the timeline and psychology behind Walt Disney’s impact on your life is quite simple. You remember exactly how Disney films and TV shows and the promise of visiting Disneyland fit into your life.  You remember where you were when you first were frightened by the Evil Queen in Snow White, cried during Bambi, held your breath when the clock struck 12 in Cinderella or danced down the street after watching Mary Poppins.  You remember how excited you were to buy Davy Crockett coonskin caps or how you never missed an episode of The Mickey Mouse Club.  You remember how good all of those moments made you feel and why.


Walt Disney holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations and wins. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

And so, like me, you’ll probably want the “experts” who drain the energy out of the documentary with their windy psycho-babble–about Walt’s feelings at any given moment, his so-called demons and the cultural context of our Baby Boom generation–to just put a sock in it. Call me Grumpy, but one of these particularly self-important blowhards–a young, female cultural historian with insignificant film history creds–should have landed more often than not on the cutting-room floor.

Walt Disney airs tonight and tomorrow night on the American Experience PBS series.  Part One debuts Monday, September 14, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET; Part Two debuts Tuesday, September 15, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region.)  It will definitely be a keeper on DVD.  Be sure not to miss it!–Judith Trojan

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Tennis Legend Althea Gibson Profiled on American Masters

Althea Gibson, approx. 1957 Courtesy Johnson Family Archives

Althea Gibson, approx. 1957. Photo courtesy Johnson Family Archives.

Sometimes it’s best to turn a blind eye to a film’s missteps and focus instead on the relevance and timeliness of its subject matter. That’s definitely the case with Althea, the latest installment in PBS THIRTEEN’s American Masters’ series premiering tonight, Friday, September 4, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET/PT (Check local listings for air times in your region).

Programmed to coincide with the U.S. Open currently underway in Flushing, NY, Althea pays long overdue attention to tennis trailblazer Althea Gibson (1927-2003), the first African-American to play at and win the U.S. Nationals (1957 & 1958) and Wimbledon (1957 and 1958).  The U.S. Nationals were a precursor of the U.S. Open.

Without the trail blazed heroically by Althea Gibson during the 1950’s and 1960’s when African-Americans, and women for that matter, faced an uphill battle to be taken seriously on the court, there would be no Venus or Serena Williams…or Arthur Ashe for that matter. At this writing, Serena Williams is a current contender for a Grand Slam sweep. And it took almost 20 years after Althea’s historic victory at Wimbledon for an African-American male–Arthur Ashe–to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon (1975).

Althea Gibson with Dr. Robert W. Johnson, one of her mentors. Photo courtesy Johnson Family Archives.

Althea Gibson with Dr. Robert W. Johnson, one of her early mentors. Photo courtesy Johnson Family Archives.

Tennis was hardly an obvious choice for the sharecropper’s daughter who grew up a tall, gangly tomboy on the streets of Harlem playing basketball, skipping school and tussling with anyone who stood in her way.  Her prowess on a neighborhood paddle tennis street court caught the attention of local tennis coaches and sports figures who took her under their wing, channeling her raw talent, smoothing out her rough edges and pointing her in the direction of serious mentors like Dr. Hubert Eaton and Dr. Robert W. Johnson. Eaton and Johnson were respected physicians who also worked with and toured promising young African-American tennis players.

The film, produced and directed by Rex Miller, tracks Althea’s journey from the streets of New York through her storied rise through the segregated, sexist world of amateur and professional tennis during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Abundant archival footage and photos, as well as the reminiscences of fellow players, including her doubles’ partner Angela Buxton and tennis champ Billie Jean King, also an executive producer of this film, drive home the racial and financial obstacles Althea faced in order to reach the pinnacle.

Althea’s sweet National and Wimbledon victories–the latter also remembered for her awkward face-to-face with the Queen–and her professional exhibitions with the Harlem Globetrotters; her surprising singing, acting and recording careers; and her appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “What’s My Line,” and her chat with legendary Edward R. Murrow on “Person to Person,” all underscore the extent of her exhilarating public adoration at the time.

But then, somehow, she disappeared from view. While the film is a generous catalog of Althea’s professional challenges and triumphs, her personal life during and after reaching her career milestones is pretty much marginalized here. Questions raised about her family dynamic, love life and marriages, mental health and her slide into destitution and final days in Newark, NJ, are left unanswered.   The film is also burdened at times by an intrusive, over-enthusiastic period music score and abrupt transitions that could use some fine tuning.

Althea Gibson at the West Side Tennis Club, Forest Hills, NY, 1957. Photo courtesy West Side Tennis Club Archives.

Althea Gibson at the West Side Tennis Club, Forest Hills, NY, circa 1957. Photo courtesy West Side Tennis Club Archives.

American Masters:  Althea is, however, well worth savoring for its record of the life and times of this remarkable sportswoman. Althea never claimed to be a role model and trailblazer in her sport: “She just wanted to play tennis,” recalls Billie Jean King.  But the film serves as an important reminder for seasoned tennis enthusiasts and an eye-opener for the rest of us that the tennis world as it plays out now in the U.S. and abroad (i.e., the equal participation by men and women of all races and the competitive financial remuneration) owes much to Althea Gibson.  Her name and accomplishments should never be forgotten.

American Masters: Althea will be an evergreen choice on DVD for programs in schools, libraries and sports clubs serving young people and adults. It premieres tonight, Friday, September 4, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET/PT, and is immediately followed by an encore presentation of American Masters: Billie Jean King at 10:30 – 12 midnight, ET/PT.  (Check local listings for air times in your region.) You can read my original review of American Masters: Billie Jean King at    –Judith Trojan

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Poignant Tashi and the Monk Debuts on HBO

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Cecil, the lion, had a family, too.

It’s been a distressing couple of weeks. I’ve been especially disturbed by the media firestorm ignited by two individuals in particular who have money to burn and no idea where and how best to spend it. One guy seems to think that stalking and shooting endangered animals sheltered in jungle habitats is a reasonable 21st-century pastime.  The other, a Presidential wanna-be, shoots off his mouth and rises in the polls despite (or because of?) his racist and sexist rants.

Cecil, the lion, was illegally poached from his Zimbabwe preserve, wounded by an arrow, stalked for two days, shot dead and decapitated by a man who drills and fills teeth for a living.  His lame defense?  He didn’t know that Cecil was a “known, local favorite.”2015-07-zimbabwe-wildlife-lion-usa

And then there’s the current Republican Presidential front-runner. This media savvy windbag’s performance during G.O.P. debate #1 will be remembered not for any substantive political policy but for the laughs and press he generated denigrating the appearance and professionalism of two women (Rosie O’Donnell and Megyn Kelly, respectively).

It cost “Dr. Chopper” $54,000 to turn poor Cecil into a wall trophy; and “The Trumpster” will soak millions into his campaign to stay one step ahead of those he name-calls “stupid” losers.


Donald Trump on the stump.

I have a better suggestion for both of them. Donate your time and money to those who are working to find a cure for breast and prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease…the four key scourges facing Baby Boomers, the generation in which you are both card-carrying members. Or redirect your testosterone, dental expertise, business and real estate acumen and cash to help build and expand services at pediatric hospitals like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; or fund schools and communities for abused, abandoned and orphaned children like the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community in India; or work to promote and protect environmental and animal rights initiatives that will assure your children’s children of a healthy planet for all species.

The mission of the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community founded by former Buddhist monk Lobsang Phuntsok is introduced in a lovely spirit-booster, Tashi and the Monk.  The 45-minute documentary debuts tonight, August 17, 2015, on HBO (8:00 – 8:45 p.m. ET/PT).  I suggest you check it out if you need an antidote to the spate of depressing media fare we’ve been experiencing of late.

Tashi Drolma, the star of TASHI AND THE MONK. Photo courtesy HBO.

Tashi Drolma is a child on the mend in TASHI AND THE MONK. Photo courtesy HBO.

The Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community opened its doors in India’s remote Himalayan mountain region in 2006.  Jhamtse Gatsal in Tibetan means “garden of love and compassion.” As showcased in Tashi and the Monk, directed by Andrew Hinton and Johnny Burke, the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community is putting “love and compassion” to the best possible use…by providing a safe, healthy haven, positive life goals and welcoming surrogate family milieu for at-risk children previously destined for a life of dereliction and despair.


TASHI AND THE MONK explores Lobsang Phuntsok’s mission to found the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community in the district of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, India. Photo courtesy HBO.

Lobsang Phuntsok was himself a lost boy. Abandoned by his mother and running wild, he was sent to a monastery in South India and eventually studied under the Dalai Lama, became a Buddhist monk and taught Buddhist philosophy in the U.S. and Canada. Determined to put his teachings to work in his homeland, Phuntsok returned to his childhood village with the goal of creating a community for troubled children much like himself, to give them the childhood he never had.

Tashi and the Monk follows a new young resident as she learns to quiet her temperamental flare-ups and co-exist within her new environment.  The daughter of an alcoholic father, five-year-old Tashi Drolma is a wild child whose often violent, anti-social behavior disrupts life for her fellow residents and teachers and makes it impossible for her to bond with other children in the community.

Tashi Drolma and Lobsang Phunstock. Photo courtesy HBO.

Tashi Drolma shares a quiet moment with her teacher and benefactor, Lobsang Phuntsok, in TASHI AND THE MONK. Photo courtesy HBO.

Phuntsok’s’s tender efforts to teach her to respect and not harm others, to share and to find joy and peace where she previously incited chaos are telescoped to fit the short running time of this film. But Tashi’s challenges and improvement are palpable. By all appearances–and this film is replete with smiling, happy faces and glorious shots of the exquisite surrounding landscape–the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community is doing a good job of nurturing and educating its residents (numbering 85 as of this film) via its “three pillars”: an intelligent mind, kind heart and healthy body.

Tashi Drolma’s transition from an anti-social trouble-maker into a happy, trusting pal is explored in TASHI AND THE MONK. Photo courtesy HBO.

Lobsang Phuntsok is, however, believably torn by his inability to accept all of the troubled children who come his way.  He is stymied by insufficient housing and staff, which, of course, translates into the need for more funding. You’ll no doubt be inspired to help him out after you watch Tashi and the Monk  debuting tonight, August 17, 2015, on HBO, 8:00 – 8:45 p.m. ET/PT. Check listings for additional HBO playdates throughout August, as well as its availability via HBO On Demand and HBO Go.

Visit   to find out more about the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community and how you can donate your time, money or even sponsor a child in-residence. –Judith Trojan

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