Teddy Toplines Episodes 1-3 of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History


Theodore Roosevelt  thrived in the spotlight and the crowds loved him.  Photo courtesy Library of Congrress.

Theodore Roosevelt thrived in the spotlight, and the crowds loved him. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’re well aware that the first episode of Ken Burns’ monumental and much-ballyhooed seven-part series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, debuts tonight on PBS (Sunday, September 14, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET).  It goes without saying that I encourage you not to miss it.

I guarantee you will be hooked from the start.  You’ll marvel at the masterful way Burns and screenwriter/historian Geoffrey C. Ward interweave the complex biographies of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor and their extended families into the fabric of American history, literally from conception to grave.  And you’ll be gripped by the poignancy of their personal challenges and demons and the remarkable resilience and brilliance that drove this family into social, political and environmental reform at the highest and most noble level.

Their story is Shakespearean, the stuff of high drama, and it’s certainly not an easy one to tell.  After all, there was a Roosevelt in the White House for 19 of the first 45 years of the 20th century. But Ken Burns and his longtime collaborators, including and most especially Geoffrey C. Ward, bring the Roosevelts’ story to life in a way that will engross and inspire you.  Although bred within an insulated patrician New York family, Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin each had a gift for seeing the bigger picture, and a passion for tackling the “new deals” born of a new century: burgeoning industrialization, technology and militarism; human rights, economic and land management challenges; and global expansionism.

Burns fortifies this “web of ties” with his usual lush mix of extraordinary period footage and photos and commentary by subject specialists (Ward is joined by the likes of Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough and George Will, among other equally esteemed historians and Roosevelt scholars). Intimate and revelatory letters, diary entries, excerpts from the Roosevelts’ books and other writings and sensational news clips and political cartoons are read in voice over by noted actors.

TR, FDR and Eleanor are voiced throughout by actors Paul (“John Adams”) GiamattiEdward (“Eleanor and Franklin”) Herrmann and Meryl Streep, respectively.  Their readings are convincing and engaging.  In fact, Ms. Streep captures Eleanor’s voice so pitch perfectly that you’ll think Streep is actually channeling the now deceased stateswoman.

President Theodore Roosevelt's young, rambunctious family  energized the staid White House and  captured the hearts of Americans.  Photo courtesy Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

President Theodore Roosevelt’s young, rambunctious family energized the staid White House and captured the hearts of Americans. Photo courtesy Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

Episode 1: Get Action (1858-1901), Episode 2: In the Arena (1901- 1910) and Episode 3: The Fire of Life (1910-1919), airing Sunday (9/14), Monday (9/15) and Tuesday (9/16), respectively, do not disappoint as they set the stage and flesh out the back story of the New York Roosevelt family tree (FDR was TR’s fifth cousin by birth and nephew by marriage; Eleanor was TR’s niece).  Eleanor’s marriage to FDR united, at least on paper, the Republican and Democratic branches of the Roosevelt family.

FDR and Eleanor’s early years, talents and travails and subsequent courtship and marriage dance around the predominant subject of the first three episodes: Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919).  A remarkable intellect, naturalist, adventurer, reader, writer, politician and media darling, he met the new century and rose to political power with unbridled chutzpah.

Theodore Roosevelt in his new buckskin suit, circa 1885.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Theodore Roosevelt in his new buckskin suit, circa 1885. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

TR’s life was made for the big screen before the big screen existed.  He was not expected to survive his early fragile start in life.  His exuberant adventures, international exploits and political and social reforms, contrast with his touching love for his wives and children evoked throughout his beautifully written prose and letters.  Although he was likened to a kid in a candy store or a bull in a china shop, he apparently did sit still long enough to read several books a day, write and publish critically acclaimed books and some 150,000 letters. He was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize; he kept talking for one full hour after he’d been shot by a would-be assassin at a political rally; and, flattened by a 104-degree fever,  he survived an Amazon expedition decimated by fire ants and cannibals.

TR knew how to play the media and when he got its attention, he corralled it long enough to win votes and the hearts and minds of  the American public.  When he made mistakes, they were, like everything else he did…big mistakes. He worked his way up the political ladder on his own terms, yet he seemed to be a remarkable mediator between disparate factions, both at home and abroad.

Theodore Roosevelt circa 1903.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

TR’s story unfolds in Episodes 1-3 of The Roosevelts like a great piece of adventure fiction. I was touched and saddened when he stepped away from his bully pulpit and died peacefully in his sleep at age 60.  I also couldn’t help but wonder how TR would’ve fared today.  Given TR’s versatility, intelligence and joie de vivre  and the heady challenges in uncharted territory that he faced at the dawn of the 20th century, it’s hard not to imagine that he would have fit in and flourished today.  As one police captain said upon TR’s passing:  “Oh, there was such fun in being led by him.”  What a pleasure that must have been!  And, oh, how we could use some of that “fun” today. –Judith Trojan

To be continued…

The first episode of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History premieres tonight, Sunday, September 14, on PBS, from 8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m., ET, and runs for seven consecutive nights. In addition, each episode will be repeated from 10:00 p.m. – 12:00 a.m., ET, each night and will have a weekend, daytime marathon September 20 and 21.  An additional repeat is planned in Spring 2015.  Check local listings in your region for premiere and repeat broadcast times.  Beginning on Monday, September 15, the entire 14 hours will be available online to stream through PBS stations’ video sites, pbs.org/theroosevelts, and PBS station branded digital platforms, including ROKU, Apple TV and Xbox, and will be available for two weeks, through September 29, 2014.  DVDs and Blu-ray are earmarked for September 16.–JT


Posted in Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning Debuts on PBS

Dorothea Lange in 1937.  Photo courtesy Rondal Partridge Archives.

Dorothea Lange circa 1937. Photo courtesy Rondal Partridge Archives.

If you’ve ever doubted the important role played by artists as catalysts for social change, I suggest you tune in to American Masters on PBS tonight  (9 p.m.- 11 p.m. ET, check local listings for air times in your region) and catch Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning.

This powerful and intimate look back at the life’s work of legendary documentary photographer Dorothea Lange will, by turns, enlighten you and break your heart.  Directed and narrated by Dyanna Taylor, the granddaughter of Dorothea Lange and social scientist/economist Paul Schuster Taylor, Grab a Hunk of Lightning is the realization of Dyanna’s extensive research and lifelong dream to tell her grandparents’ story.

Dorothea Lange's haunting portrait of a  Depression-era MIGRANT MOTHER, is just one of many Lange photographs that powerfully capture the desperation of poverty in America, circa 1936.  Photo: Dorothea Lange.

Dorothea Lange’s haunting portrait of a Depression-era MIGRANT MOTHER, is just one of many Lange photographs that powerfully capture the desperation of poverty in America. Photo: Dorothea Lange © 1936.

Many of us are familiar with Dorothea Lange’s iconic photos documenting the bread lines and weary unemployed during the Great Depression and the migration of destitute farm families fleeing the Dust Bowl. Yet, there are other photos of consequence to take into account, including her beautifully serene early Bay Area society portraiture, her Hopi Indian studies in the Southwest, and her heart-wrenching post-Pearl Harbor photos of Japanese-Americans stoically facing relocation to internment camps on the West Coast.

To see Lange’s photos reproduced beautifully in the telling of her life story will certainly be a revelation for students of her oeuvre.  But, for the rest of us, her work serves as a reminder of the struggles, resilience and hope that drove Americans to survive the worst of times. It puts many of our current Recession-era woes and ongoing economic challenges in perspective.

Born in 1895, Dorothea Lange grew up in Hoboken, NJ; but she found her destiny on the West Coast. Abandoned by her father and crippled by polio at age seven, she nevertheless dreamt of a career as a photographer even before she owned a camera.  A resourceful young woman, she eventually turned a trip to San Francisco that left her penniless thanks to a pickpocket into a mission to build her own business in the Bay Area as a portrait photographer.

Through the influence of the two men she subsequently married–the noted painter/illustrator of  Native Americans and cowboys of the Southwest, Maynard Dixon, and social scientist/economist Paul Taylor–she realized her best focus as a photographer.  While her journey to this end was fulfilling, her children and step-children often became collateral damage as she juggled the responsibilities of motherhood with her gruelling photographic journeys with her husbands and assignments for F.D.R.’s Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Dorothea Lange's granddaughter, Dyanna, grew up to become an award-winning cinematographer and the chronicler of her grandmother's life story. Photo:  Dorothea Lange © 1961.

Dorothea Lange’s granddaughter, Dyanna, grew up to become an award-winning cinematographer and the chronicler of her grandmother’s life story. Photo: Dorothea Lange © 1961.

Filmmaker and granddaughter Dyanna Taylor brings a lifetime of never-before-seen family footage and audio to this project, as well as the exquisite reproduction and incorporation of Lange’s photos and accompanying journal entries.

A highlight here is the wonderfully intimate black-and-white footage of Lange as she prepared for her ground-breaking, 1966 one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Despite suffering with a debilitating illness that would soon take her life, she meticulously sifted through her massive stash of negatives and conferred with her young assistant and with MoMA Photography Curator John Szarkowski. Her anecdotes and analysis of her work during that process are priceless and will insure the film’s evergreen status in all future studies of Lange’s photographs.

Japanese-Americans were tagged en route to internment camps in 1942.  Photo: Dorothea Lange © 1942.

Japanese-Americans were uprooted and shamefully tagged en route to internment camps after Pearl Harbor. Photo: Dorothea Lange © 1942.

Additional commentary comes throughout from that young (now white-haired) assistant, Richard Conrad, as well as former colleagues and friends, historians, her middle-aged children and step-children and, most especially, from Dyanna, who remembers how her grandmother challenged and changed her childhood perception of the world around her. That Dyanna grew up to be a Peabody and five-time Emmy Award-winning cinematographer is no accident.

This is a long film; but it is rich with images and recollections of life in early and mid-20th century America that, thanks to the resilience and talent of Dorothea Lange, we will never be allowed to forget.

Relevant also are her challenges as a woman plying her craft in a man’s world, as an artist whose childhood bout with polio made her adept at becoming an invisible and sensitive chronicler of the down-and-out, and as a working mother who so lost herself in her work that she alienated her children, yet won them back in the end.

While her catalytic first marriage to Maynard Dixon pointed her photography in a new direction, it was her longtime marriage to Paul Taylor that gave purpose to her artistic vision.  Dorothea Lange was of her time (May 26, 1895-October 11, 1965), yet her drive, her images and her values remain relevant today. –Judith Trojan

Dorothea Lange in her San Francisco Bay area home studio in 1964.  Photo courtesy Rondal Partridge Archives.

Dorothea Lange in her San Francisco Bay area home studio in 1964. Photo courtesy Rondal Partridge Archives.

American Masters–Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning debuts tonight, Friday, August 29, on PBS (9:00 – 11 p.m. ET). Check local listings for premiere and repeat broadcasts in your area.  The film will be out on DVD on October 21, 2014, from PBS Distribution. Its companion book, Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (Chronicle Books) by Elizabeth Partridge, is currently available.



Posted in Film, Photography, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Critic Roger Ebert Immortalized in Poignant Film Bio

Life Itself posterThe biggest surprise about Steve James‘ touching documentary chronicling the legacy and final days of film critic Roger Ebert is Ebert himself. While it’s always been clear that Ebert was mad about the movies, the general public really never knew the extent to which Roger Ebert’s “love story” also included the woman who would become his wife and business partner during the last two decades of his life.

As a critic myself and an admirer of Ebert’s work, I regularly sought out and trusted his reviews in print and on TV. I always made a point to catch him and fellow critic Gene Siskel trading barbs on their PBS and syndicated film review shows and during their entertaining appearances on “The Tonight Show.”

In Life Itself, a two-hour documentary based upon Ebert’s memoir of the same name and currently screening in theatres, on iTunes and Video On Demand, director Steve James takes viewers back to the place where Ebert’s love affair with movies began–his home turf of Chicago–and his transition from neighborhood news hound to Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.  While Ebert put film criticism on the Pulitzer map and turned his “thumbs-up” into a coveted endorsement, he was no saint. He drank to excess, caroused with “weird’ women and had a difficult relationship with fellow critic Gene Siskel, with whom Ebert partnered on TV to wide success.  He met his wife at an AA meeting. They were introduced by advice columnist Ann Landers.

A fine romance.  Chaz and Roger Ebert.

A fine romance. Chaz and Roger Ebert on their wedding day. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

In his later years, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the treatments ultimately left him physically disfigured and unable to speak.  With his devoted wife, Chaz, by his side, he tackled his mounting physical challenges and grueling medical protocols with amazing positivity.  And he never stopped writing.

Although it becomes apparent during the film that his illness was terminal, he remained feisty and focused and determined to participate fully in the production. He shares his thoughts on his illness, pivotal memories and movies and their makers via his “voice”-activated laptop.  An avid blogger, Ebert continued to ply his journalist chops on the Internet until the end of his days. His blog became his voice as he expanded his commentary into the social and political arena.  He died in April 2013.

The most engaging portions of the film recall and include input from Ebert’s pals and colleagues:  his Chicago newsroom cronies; fellow film critics; the filmmakers whose friendships never compromised Ebert’s honest evaluation of their films; his touching love affair and late-in-life marriage to Chaz; and his conflicted, competitive partnership with Gene Siskel (whose wife provides some not-so-flattering memories of her own).

An early advocate of Martin Scorsese, who is also Executive Producer of Life Itself, (along with director Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball), Werner Herzog, Gregory Nava and Errol Morris, among other trailblazing independent filmmakers, Roger Ebert turned the American public on to serious film criticism without, as Scorsese says here, drowning his prose in ideologies.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert "At the Movies."

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert “At the Movies.” Photo: Kevin Horan. Magnolia Pictures.

“I was born inside the movie of my life,” Ebert says in Life Itself.   As the camera rolls for the last time, he hides nothing, not the worm holes that littered his early career, or the ravages that ate away at his body as his career and his life drew to a close. Ebert’s journey is rolled out for everyone to see; it’s often bumpy, but it’s well worth the ride.

For film buffs and students, aspiring film critics, Ebert/Siskel fans, and for those facing their own life and death struggles with debilitating illness, Life Itself will fascinate and inspire.  But, most importantly, this is a film for anyone who craves a good love story… that is, for anyone who needs assurance that it’s possible to make a marriage that works, movies that matter and mount a “third act” with courage and dignity. –Judith Trojan 

Life Itself is currently in limited theatrical release and is available on iTunes and Video On Demand.  You can check out Roger’s blog at  http://www.RogerEbert.com


Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Halle Berry Flies High on CBS with Eerie Extant

Halle Berry cracks another universe in EXTANT.  CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Halle Berry cracks a new universe in EXTANT. c 2014 CBS Broadcasting.

Oscar-winner Halle Berry makes a smooth transition to broadcast TV in her new 13-episode series, Extant, debuting tonight on CBS (Wednesday, July 9, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT).   With executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Allen (The Sopranos) Coulter at the helm, atmospheric cinematography and equally distinctive music, plus a top-notch supporting cast, the premiere episode of Extant does not disappoint.

If you’re a fan of The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby, which Extant seems to reference at this early stage, you’ll be hooked from the get-go. Berry stars as Molly Watts, an astronaut who returns home after a 13-month solo mission in outer space. In a perfect world, Molly’s transition back to her family and work on terra firma would be challenging.  But in this scenario set in the not-so-distant future, she is short circuited by seen and unseen menace.

Molly must come to grips with the fallout from a mysterious encounter in her space station and the shady goings-on by her superiors at the International Space Exploration Agency (ISEA). Also muddying the waters are the loss of two beloved colleagues and the moral issues swirling around her scientist husband, John (Goran Visnjic), whose Humanics project aims to humanize robots.  Exhibit #1 at John’s fund-raising show-and-tell is the Woods’ creepy son, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon).

Will Ethan (Pierce Gagnon) ever learn to love?  Photo: Robert Voets/CBS c 2014 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Will Ethan (Pierce Gagnon) ever learn to love? Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Broadcasting.

A tantalizing mix of sci-fi, mystery and thriller, the premiere episode of Extant, the brainchild of screenwriter Mickey Fisher, is riveting. Hopefully, his next 12 episodes will match the promise shown here and will prove to be a savvy vehicle for Halle Berry’s return to series TV.

Extant debuts on Wednesday, July 9, on CBS (9:00 -10:00 p.m. ET/PT). The final episode airs on Wednesday, September 17, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.  Episodes are currently available @ OnDemand and http://www.Amazon.com/EXTANT  –Judith Trojan 

Posted in TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Freedom Summer a Must-See on PBS

FreedomSummer-Poster (1)“I just wanted the right to vote.”  How many of us take that right for granted?  In his powerful and poignant new documentary, Freedom Summer, filmmaker Stanley Nelson reminds us that a mere five decades ago, voting was virtually off-limits to Mississippi’s African-American community.

By turns troubling and uplifting, the film is, most of all, a timely reminder that racism can been upended when blacks and whites work together to implement change.  Freedom Summer debuts on the PBS series American Experience tonight. (Tuesday, June 24, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for premiere airtime and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

Contrived literacy tests and threats of home and job loss, violence and death were the tactics used by the segregationist white establishment to bully black Mississippians out of the polls and elected office.  As the summer of 1964 dawned, only 6.7% of African Americans were registered to vote in Mississippi, in contrast to 50-70% in other Southern states.  While African Americans made up the majority of the population in rural Mississippi, they remained frozen in time–tipping their hats and bowing their heads as their white neighbors strolled by.

Mississippi Summer Project volunteers and locals canvas for new voters.  Photo: Ted Polumbaum/ Newseum.

Mississippi Summer Project volunteers and locals canvas for new voters. Photo: Ted Polumbaum/ Newseum.

Somehow, Mississippi had fallen off the radar and remained the land that time and the rest of America forgot. Until, that is, the Mississippi Summer Project aka Freedom Summer was launched by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to transport almost 1,000 white and black student volunteers down from the North for 10 weeks to aid local civil rights activists in their efforts to register black voters.

Freedom Summer clearly sets the stage on which these idealistic young Northerners (average age 19-20) found themselves. Mississippi was in the grip of the Citizens’ Council, who answered any perceived threat to white supremacy with violence. Early casualties were Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, who disappeared en route to investigate a church bombing. Their bodies were later found buried in shallow graves.  The summer played out with beatings, the burning of 35 churches and bombing of 70 homes and community centers.

Poster Of Missing Civil Rights Workers

Freedom Summer seamlessly integrates well-chosen period archival and news footage, photos and letters with articulate recollections by surviving volunteers, organizers and civil rights leaders who reflect on what they faced, how they survived the ever-present fear of being shot, tortured, raped or killed and what they garnered from their commitment.  Their stories are often chilling.

Standout witnesses here are the women who departed states like Iowa, New York and Vermont as fervent but naive young volunteers, as well as the locals who opened up their homes to them at great personal danger to themselves and their families (African Americans housing white young women were especial targets).  Anthony Harris, then a youngster and now a Ph.D., is a particularly engaging witness.  He attended a life-altering Freedom School set up by the volunteers to introduce young African-American Mississippians to literature (blacks were barred from local libraries) and to the black history and culture they were sorely missing.

Fannie Lou Hamer M00575 MH

Fannie Lou Hamer rallied volunteers and the nation with pleas for justice and voter rights. Photo: George Ballis/Take Stock.

Two fearless women posed a special problem for President Lyndon Johnson, who opposed the black voter registration drive in Mississippi, afraid it would cost him the next election.  Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper and SNCC field secretary, passionately supported unseating the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City; and Rita Schwerner, a Freedom Summer organizer and the young widow of Mickey Schwerner, worked relentlessly to keep her husband’s loss and memory alive in the public eye.

The film includes snippets from what appear to be Oval Office phone conversations, including those between LBJ and F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, that are pretty damning, as are the backdoor machinations used by LBJ to stifle the Mississippi Freedom delegates at the National Democratic Convention.  And yet, once elected, LBJ is shown signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, abolishing literacy tests and protecting voter rights in the seven Southern states.

A direct result of the volunteers’ daunting efforts during the summer of 1964, the relevance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 can’t be understated, nor can the importance of this film as a reminder of a time when a long hot summer brought courageous young people of both races together to make a difference.

Volunteers  Johnny Waters, Ceola Wallace and Jake Plum explain voter registration procedures to Willie McGee.  Photo:  Johnson Publishing Company LLC.

Volunteers Johnny Waters, Ceola Wallace and Jake Plum explain voter registration procedures to Willie McGee. Photo: Johnson Publishing Company LLC.

American Experience presents Freedom Summer tonight, Tuesday, June 24, at 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET on PBS. Check local listings for premiere and repeat broadcasts in your area.  It will be available on DVD and on-line (for three weeks) from PBS.  –Judith Trojan



Posted in Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun Debuts on PBS

Francisco Moncion and Tanquil Le Clercq perform in Jerome Robbins' ballet, Afternoon of a Faun, in 1953.  Photo: Augusta Films.

Francisco Moncion and Tanquil Le Clercq perform in Jerome Robbins’ ballet, “Afternoon of a Faun,” in 1953. Photo: Augusta Films.

If you’re not a dancer, ballet aficionado or George Balanchine acolyte, chances are you’ve never heard of ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq (1929 – 2000).  Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Nancy Buirski aims to rectify that lapse in her new documentary Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun, making its PBS debut tonight on American Masters. (Friday, June 20 on PBS, 9:00 p.m. ET; and 10-11:30 p.m. nationally. Check local listings for premiere airtime and repeat broadcasts in your region).

Blending a flourish of classical music, home movies, intimate photos and letters, riveting vintage performance footage and recordings of her voice, the film introduces us to the meteoric rise and heartbreaking demise of Le Clercq’s career as principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.  At 27 on a triumphant world tour, “Tanny,” as she was known to intimates, was tragically stricken with polio and paralyzed from the waist down at the height of her career.

It was 1956, and the scourge of polio had yet to be contained.  At the time, I was a fearless tot, clueless to the life-altering paralysis and death that could result from infection by the virus.  But I can remember not being allowed to frequent crowds or public pools due to the epidemic and remember lining up at my grammar school for three doses of the Salk vaccine as soon as it was deemed safe.  Tanny was not so lucky.  In fact, one of the most moving and ever-present voices in the film, her friend and fellow dancer Jacques d’Amboise, recalls when and how Tanny fell ill, immediately after postponing their pre-tour vaccination.

American Masters - "Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a FaunÓ

Tanaquil Le Clercq and George Balanchine, circa Balanchine’s 1952 ballet “Metamorphoses.” Photo: Clifford Coffin/Ballet Society.

Tanny’s early life in Paris and New York City, as a sheltered child of privilege, and her dance training overseen by a domineering mother are too briefly sketched here.  Taking center stage instead are the two principal men in her life: choreographer George Balanchine, to whom Tanny became muse and subsequent wife, and choreographer Jerome Robbins. While her pal and fellow dancer Robbins could not compete with Balanchine for her ultimate affection, her ties to Robbins survived his broken heart, her debilitating illness and their periodic estrangement to provide her with a sounding board and an emotional lifeline during her later years.  Their intimate and, at times, passionate letters thread throughout this film.

Although Tanny is the film’s subject, you’ll come away learning as much or more about George Balanchine’s proclivities–the allure of new, young dancers who incited a seductive pattern of creative collaboration, leading often to career milestones, marriage and finally separation.  Yet surprisingly, he remained with polio-stricken Tanny at first, believing that the right treatment and therapy would restore her ability to dance again.

While revelations from Balanchine’s long-time assistant, Barbara Horgan, dancer Arthur Mitchell and Tanny’s girlhood chum Pat McBride Lousada give a sense of the backstage drama that played out around her at various periods in her life, it is Tanny’s dance partner and a star in his own right, Jacques d’Amboise, who brings the soul to this story.  d’Amboise opens the film; and whether visible on-camera or in voice over or in performance footage with Tanny, his presence is a definite asset to this film.

Jacques d’Amboise is an emotional firecracker who conveys clearly and passionately the challenges Tanny faced in the hothouse environment in which they worked and the implications of the tragedy that befell her.  At one point, he is so wrenched with emotion that he simply can’t continue.  Having met and worked with d’Amboise during two Christopher Award galas for which he was both an Award recipient and a presenter respectively, I am not surprised by the depth and quality of d’Amboise’s input and am happy that director/writer/producer Nancy Buirski included him to the extent that she did.

Tanaquil Le Clercq and Jerome Robbins.  Photo: Augusta Films.

Tanaquil Le Clercq and Jerome Robbins. Photo: Augusta Films.

As you watch the generous selection of archival footage and kinescopes of Ms. Le Clercq’s performances in this film, you’ll be captivated by her stage presence and, most especially, by her extraordinarily long legs, elongated arms and angular body (principal female dancers at the time, according to d’Amboise, were primarily short and stocky). You’ll immediately understand why Tanaquil Le Clercq inspired the hearts and art of visionary choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins and why her untimely loss to the world of ballet was a loss for us all.

American Masters–Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun premieres on PBS on Friday, June 20, at 9:00 p.m. in the NY metro area, and 10-11:30 p.m. nationally. Check local listings for premiere and repeat broadcasts in your area. A DVD will be available June 24 from Kino Lorber. For three years after its original airdate, the film will stream in the USA @ www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/tanaquil-le-clercq/watch-tanaquil-le-clercq-afternoon-of-a-faun/3023/   –Judith Trojan



Posted in Dance, Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tony Awards Telecast Hits the Jackpot with Jackman

Hugh Jackman and Tony, "hoppy" together!

Hugh Jackman and Tony, “hoppy” together!

Lately, I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with “Awards” telecasts.  I’ve had my fill of the meaningless hype surrounding these shows that seem to focus more and more of their attention on designer gowns, million dollar gems, unseasoned presenters and off-color and demeaning shtick instead of on the craft they’re supposed to be honoring.  Audience demographics and ratings are the engines that drive most of this drivel.

But after watching Sunday night’s telecast of the 68th annual Tony Awards® on CBS (6/8/14), hosted with vim and a lot of vigor by actor Hugh Jackman, I’m happy to report that I’m back on board with Tony.

Granted the annual Tony Awards telecast is usually classier than most awards shows.  Afterall, the mission of the American Theatre Wing is to honor legit Broadway dramas and musical theatre. But last year’s Tony extravaganza, despite the tireless performance by multi-talented host Neil Patrick Harris, quickly lost its luster.  Tedious self-serving speeches and editing glitches turned those festivities into a snooze fest.

In contrast, the 2014 Tony Awards presented on Sunday by Tony Award Productions, a joint venture of The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, were the best ever!  They were again broadcast from New York City’s landmark Radio City Music Hall, a perfectly appointed venue to showcase complex live performance vignettes from Broadway shows.  And Hugh Jackman was more than a match for beloved serial host Neil Patrick Harris.  It’s no surprise that Jackman can hold his own as a talented actor, singer and dancer, but who knew he also hops, taps and raps?

Actor Hugh Jackman captivated the crowd as host of the 68th annual TONY AWARDS on Sunday, June 8. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions.

Actor Hugh Jackman captivated the crowd as host of the 68th annual TONY AWARDS on CBS, Sunday, June 8. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Award Productions.

Jackman literally hopped his way through a comical opening segment, maneuvering his way into and around Radio City’s cavernous backstage, orchestra, audience and onto the stage, welcoming nominees, their guests and seamlessly seguing into a rousing number from Best Musical nominee After Midnight featuring Fantasia, Glady’s Knight, Patti Labelle and a cast of world-class hoofers. It should be noted that throughout this tour de force opener, Jackman was barely winded.

Also cleverly entertaining were his musical intros to the Best Actress nominees and his rap twist of “Music Man” lyrics with LL Cool J and T.I., whoever that is.  In short, Hugh was fabulous and always gracious–no-off color, snarky remarks–and on his game throughout the show.

Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart brought down the house in this number from ALADDIN.  Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions.

Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart brought down the house in this number from ALADDIN. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Award Productions.

Other highlights included the performances by Tony winners Neil Patrick Harris (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Jessie Mueller (Beautiful–The Carole King Musical) and James Monroe Iglehart (Aladdin); as well as the surprise arrival of singer/songwriter Carole King and her show-stopping performance of “I Feel the Earth Move” with Ms. Mueller. Best Actor in a Musical nominee Jefferson Mays performed a riotous quick costume change intro to the Award-winning Best Musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. And the magic of live theatre was clearly in evidence during the climactic fight from Scenic Design Award-winner Rocky and the precision exhibited by Best Choreographer nominee Susan Stroman’s tapping mobsters from Bullets Over Broadway.

Can Bryan Cranston's year get any better?  Now he's a Tony winner for his riveting turn as LBJ in ALL THE WAY.

Can Bryan Cranston’s year get any better? Now he’s a Tony winner for his riveting turn as LBJ in ALL THE WAY. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Award Productions.

The musical numbers were well-integrated and, for the most part, excellent incentives to buy tickets, as were the wins and speeches by actor Bryan Cranston for “All the Way”; actress Audra McDonald (A record-breaking sixth Tony win!) for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”; and supporting actor Mark Rylance (whose win for “Twelfth Night” prompted him to remember and honor blacklisted American actor Sam Wanamaker for his contributions to Shakespearean theatre in the U.K.).  In short, the show was a great showcase for Broadway and the theatre, in general, while still giving space to cross-over talent from other mediums, including Sting, Jennifer Hudson and Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who all represented upcoming Broadway shows.

True, I wasn’t enamored by overhyped Idina Menzel and her lackluster number from “If/Then,” or the long-winded, self-aggrandizing thank-you speech by one of the producers of the Best Musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.  And he may have an intriguing name–Darko Tresnjak–but this Broadway newcomer, who also won a Tony for “A Gentleman’s Guide,” seemed a tad too impressed with himself.  I found it amusing that he appeared oblivious and unimpressed by the fact that he was receiving his directorial award from Clint Eastwood.

While I thought the Oscarcast in March hit an all-time low–essentially it played out like a commercial for social media, selfies and Ellen, who made some insensitive blunders–the 68th Tony Awards telecast soared. When producers of these shows start to worry more about satisfying viewer demographics than how best to showcase the craft they’re honoring, then the Awards lose their credibility.  Kudos to Tony Awards telecast director Glenn Weiss, also an executive producer with Ricky Kirshner, for getting it right this year.–Judith Trojan

If you missed the 68th annual Tony Awards® telecast on CBS, Sunday, June 8, 2014, you can watch it at http://www.cbs.com/shows/tony_awards/



Posted in Theater, Theatre, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment