HBO’s Allen v. Farrow Sheds New Light on Family Trauma

Dylan Farrow, adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, is now an adult and tells her side of the story in HBO's riveting 4-part documentary series ALLEN V. FARROW. Photo courtesy HBO.

Dylan Farrow, adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, is now an adult and tells her side of the story in HBO’s riveting 4-part documentary series ALLEN V. FARROW. Photo courtesy HBO.

“This is someone I loved more than anyone else. You can love somebody and be afraid of them.”–Dylan Farrow.

I can’t remember when I didn’t have a crush on Woody Allen.  I absolutely adored his films, his humor and the schleppy, self-deprecating, neurotic character he played on and off-screen.  Back in the day, if you knew me well, you often heard me say that he was my “ideal man.”  I reviewed his films, briefly pitched a book proposal on his work, and am writing this in my den prominently adorned with an original framed Annie Hall poster.  It’s a large, featured piece of artwork on my wall, and it’s going to haunt me from this day forward… and not in a good way.

One of the collateral takeaways from the riveting new four-part HBO documentary series Allen v. Farrow is the question of where or whether to draw a line between an artist’s work and his or her character off the grid.  Should we continue to widely celebrate an artist’s oeuvre in light of his or her morally bankrupt character or criminal behavior?  Allen v. Farrow has much to say about Woody Allen’s purported life off screen as a sexually abusive dad.  The revelations are disturbing and, to my mind, the evidence is quite conclusive, which will trigger a terrible dilemma for film historians, critics, students and fans going forward who may still find it difficult to sideline Allen’s impressive body of work.

Woody Allen and Mia Farrow and family in happier times. Photo: Globe Photos/mediapunch/Shutterstock.

Woody Allen and Mia Farrow and family in happier times. Photo: Globe Photos/mediapunch/Shutterstock.

The first episode of Allen v. Farrow, the four-part limited series directed by Emmy® and Peabody Award-winning investigative filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, debuts tonight, Sunday, February 21, 2021, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO (see below for details).

After having screened all four hours of Allen v. Farrow prior to its broadcast, I personally believe that the series makes a strong case against Woody Allen, not only as the sexual abuser of Dylan, the young daughter he shared with his partner Mia Farrow, but also as a master manipulator of women and the media. He clearly used his formidable power and connections to control the narrative surrounding accusations of his guilt and vindication by the Yale New Haven Sexual Abuse Clinic.

Allen further discredited his accuser, Mia Farrow, as an abusive, unstable mother and a woman scorned and then sued her for custody of the very child he was accused of sexually abusing.  And, most damaging of all, he forever shredded the self-worth and trust of the object of his considerable obsession, his daughter Dylan, and irrevocably fractured her once happy family.

Mia Farrow and her toddler daughter Dylan. Photo courtesy HBO.

We’ve sadly grown accustomed to this sort of woman shaming behavior after four years of Trump at the helm of our media universe, darkening our daily diet with lies and nasty name-calling. We saw it play out with the burgeoning #MeToo movement, spearheaded by Trump’s brave victims and those of fellow sexual predators Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. The women took the hit but continued to stand their ground.  And now the women in Woody Allen’s life are finally speaking out.

Mia Farrow’s story–before, during and after Woody Allen–is front and center in Allen v. Farrow, as is Dylan’s, who is now a wife and mother with a young daughter of her own.  The filmmakers restore Mia and Dylan’s credibility as smart, emotionally reflective women and give them a chance to set the record straight and present evidence never before released to the general public. Their stories are corroborated by family members and close friends, as well as an impressive line-up of professionals, including investigative reporters, forensic psychiatrists, case workers, investigators and prosecutors familiar with or directly involved with the Allen/Farrow sexual abuse case and custody battle as they played out in New York City and Connecticut in 1993 and beyond.

Woody Allen’s voiced reflections are threaded throughout via audio recordings from his 2020 autobiography, Apropos of Nothing; taped phone calls with Mia Farrow; and clips from his press conferences where he reiterated his innocence and his love for his kids.

Woody Allen shares a bit of news with adopted daughter Dylan (left) and son Satchel (Ronan). Photo courtesy HBO.

Allen v. Farrow is chockablock with wonderful clips from Allen and Farrow’s film and TV careers; charming Farrow family home movies and photos; and visits to Farrow’s bucolic, kid friendly country home in Connecticut.  The filmmakers explore the dynamics of the Farrow family before and after Woody Allen’s arrival, charting his slow but initially welcome assimilation into the family as dad to Mia Farrow’s two adopted kids, Moses, who was thrilled to finally have a dad, and Dylan, the cherubic little girl he singled out for special attention.

Farrow and Allen also had a child of their own, Satchel, an equally adorable tyke, who tagged along with older sister Dylan, grew up to dissociate from his dad, change his name to Ronan, and become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist instrumental in outing sexual predator Harvey Weinstein.  Ronan Farrow is a crucial player in this film.

Two pivotal, deeply disturbing incidents and the events leading up to them are revisited here in detail by Mia Farrow, with reflections from Dylan and others who were there at the time. The first involves Farrow’s shocking discovery of Allen’s nude photos of her teenage daughter Soon-Yi Previn and the heartbreaking repercussions that followed.  And the second, prefaced by accounts of Allen’s intensifying predatory behavior with Dylan, centers around Allen and Dylan’s encounter in the attic of Mia Farrow’s Connecticut home.

Included are clips from the video that Mia Farrow filmed as she questioned her daughter, then seven, about the attic, where Farrow and her intimates had reason to believe Allen sexually assaulted the child.  It is important to note here that Farrow’s gentle approach paints her to be a mother genuinely careful not to coach, antagonize or upend her child in any way.

Dylan Farrow. Photo courtesy HBO.

Dylan Farrow. Photo courtesy HBO.

Dylan Farrow is a willing participant in Allen v. Farrow, speaking out publicly for the first time about her relationship with her obsessively adoring dad.  It’s clear that she was a victim many times over.  She struggled with Allen’s increasingly oppressive intimacy (behavior she naively accepted at first as typical of father-daughter relationships).  And then she faced public backlash and grueling questioning (nine times) by the two Yale investigators, whose final verdict is shown to be clearly suspect (the interview notes were suspiciously discarded) and compromised by Woody Allen’s handlers.

Allen v. Farrow is rich with detail, compelling and long overdue.  Sadly, it may close the already wobbly door on Woody Allen’s film career and legacy.  The first episode debuts on HBO tonight, Sunday, February 21, 2021, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.  Premiere Episodes 2-4 follow on successive Sundays, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.  Check listings for repeat air dates for all episodes once they debut and their availability thereafter on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max. –Judith Trojan

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Marian Anderson’s Civil Rights Legacy Shapes Voice of Freedom on PBS

Internationally renowned African-American contralto MARIAN ANDERSON (1897-1993) sang to an audience of 75,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Easter Sunday 1939. Photo courtesy World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.

Internationally renowned African-American contralto MARIAN ANDERSON (1897-1993) sang to a standing audience of 75,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Easter Sunday 1939. Photo courtesy World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.

“She can sing from the top of the Washington Monument if she wants to.”–President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Quite remarkably, in 1939, President Rosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt raised their voices in support of singer Marian Anderson, repudiating the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) when they barred the African-American singer from performing at an Easter Sunday benefit concert at D.C.’s Constitution Hall.

Concert organizer Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, countered with a plan to hold the concert outdoors instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. What better way to celebrate Howard University, the concert’s benefactor, and provide black Americans with the chance to re-dedicate the Memorial after having been marginalized during its initial dedication in 1922.

Young contralto Marian Anderson’s performances defied convention and dodged danger in Jim Crow America. Photo courtesy Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

Voice of Freedom, the latest film to debut in GBH Boston’s AMERICAN EXPERIENCE series, revisits the racial, cultural and political mindset that preceded that landmark concert on Easter Sunday 1939, with a look back at the remarkable career of the concert’s stellar attraction: African-American contralto Marian Anderson.  Written, produced and directed by veteran filmmaker Rob Rapley and narrated by Renée Elise Goldsberry, Voice of Freedom premieres on PBS tonight, Monday, February 15, 2021, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region.

Although Voice of Freedom fails to delve deeply into Marian Anderson’s personal life and psyche, the film is a welcome exploration of her public persona and the brutal landscape of racism as it impacted African-American performers like Ms. Anderson during the first half of the 20th century.  Voice of Freedom is especially noteworthy because it focuses on a black female performer whose career was impeded by systemic racism and sexism.

Through an extensive, smartly curated compilation of period film footage, photos, newspaper clippings and vintage audio recordings of Marian Anderson and her mentors, filmmaker Rob Rapley transports Ms. Anderson from her earliest days as a chorister at Philadelphia’s Union Baptist Church and solo performer at small town college and church venues with African-American constituencies.  Slammed doors and threats of physical violence were commonplace as she attempted to advance her music training and grow her audience in segregated, Jim Crow America.

A pivotal, critically disappointing Town Hall concert in New York City triggered Anderson’s departure to the U.K. and Europe in 1927.  As with many notable African-American performers at the time, she was soon welcomed by large appreciative, less overtly racist audiences.

Marian Anderson, with her manager Sol Hurok (left)  and Metropolitan Opera rep Rudolf Bing (right), signs a contract to appear at the Met in 1955. Photo courtesy CSU Archives/Everett Collection/Alamy Stock Photo.

While abroad, she polished her vocal and language skills; signed with an influential manager, Sol Hurok; set off on an extensive well-received tour of Europe and Scandinavia; and garnered a career-defining accolade from beloved Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, who hailed her voice as one that “one is privileged to hear only once in 100 years.”  With Toscanini’s “Voice of the Century” imprimatur forever imprinted on her work, Marian Anderson headed home to the States, wealthy and a star, as the Nazis began blazing their treacherous trail throughout Europe.

With articulate insights threaded throughout from scholars, archivists and writers, all specialists in their fields and all women, Voice of Freedom documents the racist and sexist career obstacles encountered by Marian Anderson, leading up to her uneasy mid-20th century relationship with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement… specifically the NAACP, its youthful cohort and visionaries like Walter White and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Whether outlier or icon, Marian Anderson would not bend to boycotts or sit comfortably with efforts to politicize her performances.  Her voice was her calling card and her advocacy came through her commitment to her concerts, wherever she decided they would be, and the racist roadblocks she managed to obliterate. In 1955, Marian Anderson went on to break through one more extraordinary barrier:  At age 58, she became the first African American to star in an opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Millions of radio listeners tuned in to hear Marian Anderson sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. Photo courtesy Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo.

Millions of radio listeners tuned in to hear Marian Anderson sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. Photo courtesy Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo.

I challenge anyone to reach the end of this film and not tear up during the 1939 clip of Ms. Anderson’s climatic performance of “America” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Given the recent desecration of the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol and the heightened racist climate in the U.S., Marian Anderson’s powerful 1939 performance and the back story leading up to it are more timely than ever. They are deftly revisited in AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Voice of Freedom, which has been wisely programmed to debut during Black History Month on President’s Day 2021.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Voice of Freedom premieres on PBS tonight, Monday, February 15, 2021, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region, http://pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience  and the PBS Video app for streaming info, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability. –Judith Trojan

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The Long Song Sings Slavery’s Truth on PBS

Adapted from Andrea Levy's award-winning novel, THE LONG SONG miniseries debuting on PBS MASTERPIECE follows the tumultuous life story of July (Tamara Lawrance), a ladies maid on a Jamaican sugar plantation before and after the Christmas Rebellion slave uprising of 1831. Photo: Carlos Rodriguez © Heyday Television.

Adapted from Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel, THE LONG SONG miniseries debuting on PBS MASTERPIECE follows the tumultuous life story of July (Tamara Lawrance), a ladies maid on a Jamaican sugar plantation before and after the Christmas Rebellion slave uprising of 1831. Photo: Carlos Rodriguez © Heyday Television.

“If only my tale were so simple.”

I will never forget how I felt in the days following ABC-TV’s 1977 broadcast of Roots, the dramatic miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s controversial novel.  Shock and shame come quickly to mind.

As I rode the New York City subway to work each morning after an episode’s broadcast, I was convinced that every passenger in my car had Roots on their mind.  I felt sure that no matter what our race or color, we would never forget what we saw or allow future generations to bury slavery’s stain.  It would be our responsibility to wipe racism from the face of the earth.  Sadly, 44 years later, systemic racism continues to shred the soul of our nation.

We are long overdue for a dramatic wake-up call on broadcast TV and what better way to do it than on PBS with an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s critically acclaimed 2010 slave narrative, The Long Song.  Levy (1956-2019) was born in London to Jamaican parents.

July (Tamara Lawrance) and her mistress Caroline (Hayley Atwell) are forever bound together in THE LONG SONG on PBS MASTERPIECE. Photo: Carlos Rodriguez © Heyday Television.

July (Tamara Lawrance) and her mistress Caroline (Hayley Atwell) are forever bound together in THE LONG SONG on PBS MASTERPIECE. Photo: Carlos Rodriguez © Heyday Television.

While it does not carry the provenance or scope of the Roots literary and film franchise, the three-part miniseries adaptation of Levy’s novel is timely and refreshingly focused on a female protagonist whose road to self-preservation and self-reliance is a journey well worth our time and attention.

The first episode of The Long Song premieres on PBS MASTERPIECE tonight, Sunday, January 31, 2021, at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 Central.  Episodes 2 and 3 follow on successive Sundays, 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 Central.  (See below for further details).

The Long Song traces the tumultuous life story of a resilient young black woman named July, as she confronts the painful indignities of slavery from childhood through motherhood on a Jamaican sugar plantation before, during and after the Christmas Rebellion slave uprising of 1831. The story is told in flashback from July’s point of view.

The offspring of a field slave and the plantation’s Scottish overseer and resident rapist, July is cruelly snatched from her mother’s arms as a young girl, renamed Marguerite and repurposed as lady’s maid to Caroline (Hayley Atwell), the vapid, spoiled sister of the plantation owner.  July caters to Caroline’s every whim, absorbing her racist abuse as she navigates the minefield and false promises she faces in pre- and post-Emancipation Jamaica.

July (Tamara Lawrance) must walk a fine line to protect her daughter Emily in THE LONG SONG on PBS MASTERPIECE. Photo: Carlos Rodriguez © Heyday Television.

July (Tamara Lawrance) must walk a fine line to protect her daughter Emily in THE LONG SONG on PBS MASTERPIECE. Photo: Carlos Rodriguez © Heyday Television.

As directed by Mahalia Belo and adapted for the screen by Sarah Williams, The Long Song’s fictional slave narrative is spiced with period romance, childish upper class lunacy and lush hot house exteriors. July’s service in the manor house away from the steamy plantation fields provides fleeting opportunity to work in well-appointed rooms, fall in love, bear children, reunite with her mother and even turn the tables on Caroline. But make no mistake, these opportunities are clearly hard won and fleeting.  There is a price to be paid for happiness.

July’s story is thick with soul crushing reminders that blacks were inhumanely toyed with and tossed aside with no concern for their well-being in the British colony of Jamaica, in the early and mid-19th century.  While not suitable for young children, The Long Song miniseries will have resonance in high school and college classrooms and library programs as a vital reminder and discussion catalyst about the harsh realities of slavery, its extensive geographic reach and long-term consequences. The miniseries will also be a welcome supplement to studies and discussions of Andrea Levy’s novel and body of work.

The first episode of the three-part miniseries, The Long Song, premieres on PBS MASTERPIECE tonight, Sunday, January 31, 2021, at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 Central. Episode 2 debuts on Sunday, February 7, 2021, at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 Central. Episode 3 will be broadcast on Sunday, February 14, 2021, at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 Central.  Check local listings for air times in your region, http://pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece and the PBS Video app for streaming info and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-ray availability.

Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou, respectively, greet newborn son and grandson Kunta Kinte, in the first episode of the groundbreaking 1977 ABC miniseries, ROOTS, based on Alex Haley's novel. Photo: ABC Photo Archives.

Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou, respectively, greet newborn son and grandson Kunta Kinte, in the first episode of the groundbreaking 1977 ABC miniseries, ROOTS, based on Alex Haley’s novel. Photo: ABC Photo Archives.

ABC-TV’s original eight-episode Roots (1977) miniseries is available for streaming from HBO Max and Amazon Prime, among others. Check Netflix and Amazon for DVD and Blu-ray availability. –Judith Trojan

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PBS Delves Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie

AGATHA CHRISTIE (1890-1976) published 66 murder mysteries featuring such iconic sleuths as Jane Marple and Hercule Poiret, numerous short stories and plays, including the longest-running play ever to hit the boards. Photo courtesy Christie Archive Trust.

AGATHA CHRISTIE (1890-1976) published 66 murder mysteries featuring such iconic sleuths as Jane Marple and Hercule Poiret, numerous short stories and plays, including the longest-running play ever to hit the boards. Photo courtesy Christie Archive Trust.

“She saw blood, she saw gore, she saw death, and she wasn’t afraid to use it.”

I confess… I haven’t cracked open an Agatha Christie novel in decades.  Although I never miss film or TV adaptations of her work, especially those featuring eccentric super sleuths Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple. But after previewing two beguiling British TV imports that explore Christie’s mindset and milieu, I’m more than anxious to revisit Agatha Christie’s work on the printed page.

It turns out that the “Queen of Crime”–deemed the best-selling novelist of all time, whose book sales are only surpassed by Shakespeare and the Bible–was a fascinating woman in her own right. Her life story is flush with clues that fueled her self-described “sideline” as the prolific author of 66 novels, numerous short stories and plays that dissected the flawed art and heart of murder and murderers.

Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie premieres on PBS tonight, Sunday, January 17, 2021, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. Agatha Christie’s England premieres on PBS, Sunday, January 24, 2021, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region (more details below).

Rare childhood photos, as seen on PBS in INSIDE THE MIND OF AGATHA CHRISTIE and AGATHA CHRISTIE'S ENGLAND, capture Christie's startling ethereal beauty.

Rare childhood photos, as seen on PBS in INSIDE THE MIND OF AGATHA CHRISTIE and AGATHA CHRISTIE’S ENGLAND, capture Christie’s startling ethereal beauty.

Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie follows Christie from her isolated “chocolate box” childhood in bucolic Devon, England, through her pivotal nursing career during two World Wars; her mysterious 11-day disappearance triggered by one bad marriage and the wanderlust that precipitated her happy second marriage; her Middle Eastern adventures on archaeological digs and the Orient Express; her discomfort in the media spotlight and her twilight years as a beloved family matriarch.

Nothing, not even advancing age, slowed Agatha Christie down.  She was 62 when her murder mystery, The Mousetrap, opened in London’s West End in October 1952. The play would run continuously until March 16, 2020, when stage performances were sidelined by COVID, holding the record as longest running play ever to grace the boards.

Agatha Christie with her first husband, Archie Christie. Following the breakdown of their marriage, Christie mysteriously disappeared for 11 days, which became a national news story. Photo courtesy Christie Archive Trust.

Agatha Christie with her first husband, Archie Christie. Following the breakdown of their marriage, Christie mysteriously disappeared for 11 days, which became a national news story. Photo courtesy Christie Archive Trust.

From 1961 until 1973, three years before her death, she published one book a year. Although she passed away in 1976, at the age of 85, Christie’s voice and visage are ever present throughout the film in absolutely glorious clips from rare audiotapes, as well as her letters, family photos, the film footage that she shot in the Middle East, and through revelations from her 73 secret notebooks.  Her notebooks are crammed with scribbled daily musings, to-do lists, and plot and character fragments that she wove into subsequent novels.

Christie biographer Laura Thompson, archivist Dr. John Curran, and Sarah Phelps, who has adapted five Christie novels into screenplays, decry the myth that Christie peddled “cozy” fiction. They point to her lifelong obsession with subtle, complex details, a facility she fine-tuned in her youth and incorporated into her crime novels. Christie’s knowledge of poisons, wounds and weaponry is neatly tied to her wartime experiences as a nurse and certified medicinal dispensor and her fascination with forensic science.

Warm anecdotes from Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard and great grandson James Prichard provide insight into her strengths as an avid listener and observer, her life as a shy homebody and loving grandmother holding court in stately family homes.

“Married woman was my occupation,” asserts Agatha Christie firmly, in voice over.  The Prichards clearly enjoy the irony of her self-proclaimed “occupation” as it flourished comfortably side-by-side with her prolific writing career that spanned the darkest periods of the 20th century and focused on the grizzly topic of how best to commit a murder.

Clips from several recent film and TV adaptations of Christie’s work and a stage performance of Witness for the Prosecution round out filmmaker Matt Cottingham’s delightful Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie.

In contrast, Agatha Christie’s England is a literary travelogue of sorts, produced and directed by Toby Roebuck. The film specifically examines the impact of class and tradition on Christie’s writing. Roebuck retraces her roots in the beautiful land and seascapes of Devon and the favorite homes and communities she tapped for artistic inspiration throughout her career.

Highlighted by vintage footage, photos and home movies of exquisitely manicured and appointed manor houses, turn-of-the-century beach resorts, and posh hotels frequented by privileged society reminiscent of the denizens of Downtown Abbey, Agatha Christie’s England explores Christie’s privileged childhood that notably bridged the Victorian and Edwardian eras and details the surprising origins of her beloved sleuths, Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot.

Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie premieres on PBS tonight, Sunday, January 17, 2021, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. Agatha Christie’s England premieres on PBS, Sunday, January 24, 2021, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air times in your region, http://pbs.org  and the PBS Video app for streaming info, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.

Whether viewed back-to-back or individually, Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie and Agatha Christie’s England provide a welcome introduction to Agatha Christie’s life and work. –Judith Trojan

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The Double Life of Pioneer Codebreaker Exposed on PBS

ELIZEBETH SMITH FRIEDMAN (1892-1980) decoded thousands of encrypted top secret messages for the U.S. government and Armed Services during two World Wars and Prohibition. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

ELIZEBETH SMITH FRIEDMAN (1892-1980) decoded thousands of encrypted top secret messages for the U.S. government and Armed Services during two World Wars and Prohibition. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

“If we missed her, who else are we missing.”

She had big dreams. But as a young Midwestern woman growing up during the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, she needed more than a little pluck and luck to realize them. As it turned out, pluck, luck, superior intelligence and an affinity for keeping secrets were her golden tickets.

Elizebeth Smith was born in 1892, the youngest of 10 children in an Indiana Quaker family.  Her dad, a Civil War veteran, saw no good reason why she should go to college, but finally acquiesced with the proviso that she pay him back at 6% interest. Always bookish, but bored with a post-college hometown teaching job, Elizebeth took off for Chicago emboldened by wanderlust and armed with her love of language and knack with numbers.

The remarkable story of Elizebeth Smith’s transformation into pioneering codebreaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman, who helped change the course of two World Wars and bust organized crime’s bootlegging operations during Prohibition, is deftly told in The Codebreaker, the latest installment in the PBS AMERICAN EXPERIENCE series.  The Codebreaker debuts on PBS tonight, Monday, January 11, 2021, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region.

Elizebeth Smith with her mentor, George Fabyan, at Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva, Illinois, circa 1916. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

Based on the book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, who also appears in the film, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Codebreaker shines a much-needed light on a forgotten American patriot, a woman whose life as a devoted wife and mother gave her the cover she needed to pursue a career decoding thousands of top secret messages for the U.S. government and Armed Forces.  Her work led to the creation of the science of cryptology, established the norms of modern codebreaking and the founding of the National Security Administration (NSA) by President Harry S. Truman in 1952.

Elizebeth Smith’s early love of Shakespeare led to her prophetic meeting with eccentric Illinois millionaire George Fabyan, who enlisted her help to prove that Francis Bacon was, in fact, the writer of Shakespeare’s works and had planted secret codes in the plays to confirm his authorship. The project failed but manifested Elizebeth’s extraordinary talent for decoding ciphers and patterns within texts. It also introduced her to project photographer William Friedman, who would become her husband and a distinguished cryptologist in his own right.

The couple married in 1917 and fine-tuned their methodology at the helm of America’s first codebreaking unit, spearheaded by their mentor George Fabyan.  Soon the Friedmans were in demand during WWI by the U.S. War, Navy, State and Justice Departments to break codes proliferating from the use of novel radio technology to transmit encrypted secret military messages.

William F. Friedman and Elizebeth Smith Friedman on the grounds of Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva, Illinois, circa 1917. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

As her husband’s professional career skyrocketed, Elizebeth lived the life of a suburban Washington, D.C., wife and mother while continuing her top secret work as a codebreaker for the U.S. government.  She not only decoded messages that expedited organized crime’s bootlegging operations in coastal waters during Prohibition, but also defended her findings and fearlessly faced Al Capone and his lawyers at trial.

During WWII, Elizebeth’s counter intelligence work for the U.S. Navy stymied the fearsome build-up of Nazi spy rings in South America and their command of German U-Boat activity off the coast that targeted Allied transport ships.

“Elizebeth Friedman had a tremendous influence on our country’s history,” said Cameo George, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer. “As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field that she herself pioneered, she fought sexism throughout her career but, through sheer brilliance, was able to shape an amazing legacy–taking down mobsters and helping to win not one but two World Wars!”

Elizebeth Smith Friedman in Washington, D.C., circa 1934, en route to present evidence in Federal court. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

Despite her highly important work as a pioneer in the development of strategic intelligence and cryptology as invaluable tools during wartime, Elizebeth Smith Friedman was never given credit for her role in these historic operations until records were declassified in 2008.  How refreshing in the aftermath of the seditious attack on our Capitol on January 6, 2021, when the meaning of the term “patriot” was demonized by right wing thugs, to be introduced to an unsung American patriot, a woman whose credentials are now available for every American to see and honor.

Award-winning writer/producer/director Chana Gazit incorporates wonderful vintage black and white film footage throughout The Codebreaker, crisply timelined by historians and incidental narration by actress Kate Burton.  Gazit’s film will be a timely and invaluable supplement to U.S. History classes and Women’s Studies in schools, libraries, colleges and universities going forward.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Codebreaker debuts on PBS tonight, Monday, January 11, 2021, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region, http://pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience  and the PBS Video app for streaming info, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability. –Judith Trojan

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Glenda Jackson Illuminates Elizabeth Is Missing on PBS Masterpiece

Acclaimed actress Glenda Jackson stars as Maud, whose struggles with dementia don't dampen her determination to resolve two mysterious disappearances in ELIZABETH IS MISSING on PBS MASTERPIECE. Photo: Mark Mainz, courtesy of STV Productions.

Acclaimed actress Glenda Jackson stars as Maud, whose struggles with dementia don’t dampen her determination to resolve two mysterious disappearances in ELIZABETH IS MISSING on PBS MASTERPIECE. Photo: Mark Mainz, courtesy of STV Productions.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”— Maya Angelou.

We take our memory for granted… until we start to lose pieces of it. Such is the relentless path of dementia, the uncontrollable demon that shreds Maud’s memory until past and present become indistinguishable. Maud is the protagonist in Elizabeth Is Missing, a 90-minute drama produced in 2019 by STV Productions and BBC One and debuting stateside on PBS MASTERPIECE tonight, Sunday, January 3, 2021, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 Central.

Adapted from Emma Healey’s acclaimed 2014 novel by director Aisling Walsh and screenwriter Andrea Gibb, the film stars two-time Academy Award®-winning actress Glenda Jackson as the cantankerous mom and grandmother who is determined, despite her fractured memory, to solve the recent disappearance of her best friend, Elizabeth, and that of her older sister, Sukey, who vanished mysteriously 70 years before in 1949.

Glenda Jackson won her first Academy Award® for WOMEN IN LOVE (1970), a controversial adaptation of the D.H Lawrence novel, directed by Ken Russell.

Glenda Jackson won her first Academy Award® for WOMEN IN LOVE (1970), a controversial adaptation of the D.H Lawrence novel, directed by Ken Russell.

Casting Glenda Jackson in the title role in Elizabeth Is Missing pretty much guarantees a no holds barred depiction of the downside of aging and dementia, and Jackson doesn’t disappoint.  During her youthful stint on stage and in the cinema, actress Glenda Jackson was a force to be reckoned with.  Earthy and compelling, her performances won her Academy Awards® for Women in Love (1970) and A Touch of Class (1973).

In 1992, she segued from acting to politics and served multiple back-to-back terms in the House of Commons.  Twenty-three years later, Jackson resumed her acting career on stage in London and New York with award-worthy performances in Three Tall Women and King Lear and on TV (following its BBC TV debut in December 2019, Elizabeth Is Missing earned Jackson Best Actress BAFTA TV and International Emmy® Awards).

Jackson takes no prisoners as feisty, irascible Maud, a woman slowly disappearing in the fog of dementia. Exasperated by her over-protective daughter, doting granddaughter and condescending home health aide, Maud struggles to justify her memory lapses and idiosyncratic behavior and get on with life until she makes a startling discovery in her best friend’s garden… and then that friend, Elizabeth, suddenly goes missing. These shocks trigger flashbacks from Maud’s adolescence and young adulthood, a happy time darkened by the mysterious disappearance of her beloved older sister, Sukey.

Maud (Glenda Jackson) faces many obstacles in her efforts to learn the whereabouts of her best friend in ELIZABETH IS MISSING on PBS. Photo: Mark Mainz, courtesy of STV Productions.

Maud (Glenda Jackson) faces many obstacles in her efforts to learn the whereabouts of her best friend in ELIZABETH IS MISSING on PBS. Photo: Mark Mainz, courtesy of STV Productions.

Determined to find her friend Elizabeth, whom she believes to be a victim of foul play, and also to make sense of Sukey’s long ago disappearance, Maud arranges and disarranges clues on paper (prompted by the reminder notes positioned around her house) and leaves no stone unturned until her clues and her resolve begin to pay off. Seventy years separate the disappearances of Elizabeth and Sukey, yet Maud’s deep feelings for both women and her cries for answers and closure are finally heard and heeded.

Elizabeth Is Missing is essentially the story of three “missing” women, Elizabeth, Sukey and Maud, all of whom are victims of  circumstances beyond their control.  The film has much to say about the physical and emotional challenges faced by the elderly, especially those suffering from dementia:  the soul-crushing pain of being sidelined and rendered invisible; the collateral damage of isolation and loneliness; and the frustration of trying to live independently with a body and mind that no longer works well enough to make that possible.  While this may sound off-putting, it is a wake-up call that, in the hands of Glenda Jackson, is not to be missed or dismissed.

Glenda Jackson fearlessly portrays a woman struggling to come to terms with her dementia in ELIZABETH IS MISSING on PBS MASTERPIECE. Photo: Mark Mainz, courtesy of STV Productions.

Glenda Jackson fearlessly portrays a woman struggling to come to terms with dementia in ELIZABETH IS MISSING on PBS MASTERPIECE. Photo: Mark Mainz, courtesy of STV Productions.

Not only a must-see for Glenda Jackson fans like me, who continue to be lured by her fearlessness and the danger lurking in all of her portrayals, Elizabeth Is Missing is a surefire evergreen programmer for family counseling and caregiver training sessions, and college and university sociology, psychology and med school classes dealing with ageism, Alzheimer’s and other forms of age-related disabilities.

Elizabeth Is Missing premieres on PBS MASTERPIECE tonight, Sunday, January 3, 2021, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 Central. Check local listings for air times in your region, http://pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece and the PBS Video app for streaming info, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability. –Judith Trojan 

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I Was Undone by HBO’s The Undoing

“Underneath this wonderful family, there is a ticking time bomb.”–director Susanne Bier.

I’ve been obsessed. I’ve watched and  rewatched episodes of The Undoing so many times, I’ve lost count.  I’ve been bewitched by its talented, smartly cast team of actors. I’ve been gripped by its riveting teleplay and its twisty direction.  I’ve been captivated by its clever use of music, sound and the seasonal streets, greenscape and skyline of Manhattan to set the mood and presage upcoming narrative.

There should be no surprise that The Undoing’s transition from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, You Should Have Known, to a six-part limited HBO series, had all the earmarks of success coming out of the gate. Created and written by Emmy® Award-winner David E. Kelley; starring and Executive Produced by Nicole Kidman; and directed in its entirety by Emmy®, Golden Globe and Academy Award®-winning director Susanne Bier, The Undoing has more than a little in common with such recent outstanding HBO limited series as Big Little Lies (Kidman, Kelley, Bier) and Sharp Objects. All three series explore the lives of privileged couples and their families whose dysfunction, once hidden from public view, is outed by particularly gruesome murders.

A marriage unravels with tragic consequences in THE UNDOING. From left: Hugh Grant, Noma Dumezweni and Nicole Kidman. Photo courtesy HBO.

The Undoing introduces us to a handsome, seemingly happily married professional couple–Grace (Nicole Kidman) and Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant).  The couple’s micro-managed lives revolve around their precocious 12-year-old son, Henry (Noah Jupe); their commitments to their patients (he’s a pediatric oncologist; she’s a clinical psychologist); and the responsibilities demanded of all wealthy patrons of Henry’s exclusive private school.

Another key member of this picture perfect family is Grace’s dad, retired financier Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland). Franklin lives in an art and music-filled Manhattan apartment on “millionaire-row” with a maid and driver at his beck and call. Despite his air of patrician detachment, Franklin dotes on his daughter and grandson and will do anything…anything… to ensure their happiness.

But all is not well in paradise, as is evidenced quickly in the first episode, when a shocking incident upends everything the Fraser marriage and family seems to represent and hold dear. The ramifications of a life built on lies immediately takes a toll on Grace, who has dedicated two decades of her life to healing her patients’ marriages and families. When she is forced to turn her attention inward and face chilling truths about her own husband and marriage, the Fraser family’s house of cards comes tumbling down and the collateral damage is swift and deadly.

Retired financier Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland) will do whatever it takes to protect his grandson, Henry Fraser (Noah Jupe), in THE UNDOING. Photo: David Giesbrecht for HBO.

This is Award-worthy stuff, most especially the brilliant performances by Hugh Grant (still a charming master of the bon mot, but frayed around the edges and dangerously, emotionally shredded); Donald Sutherland (he has never looked or acted so imposing and powerful; his flowing white mane of hair, formidable eyebrows and patrician profile belong on Mt. Rushmore); and Nicole Kidman and young Noah Jupe (their bond, as mother and son, is the engine that powers this drama from the outset).  The small supporting cast is equally outstanding, most especially Noma Dumezweni as defense attorney Haley Fitzgerald and Ismael Cruz Córdova as Fernando Alves.

As with games of chess (a pastime shared by Grace and her dad), every move plotted by David E. Kelley’s teleplay and orchestrated by Susanne Bier’s direction begets a series of unexpected counter moves that are impossible to ignore. All of these elements and mighty talents fanned my fascination with The Undoing from the outset, and sparked my resolve to identify the psychopath in sheep’s clothing who drove the Fraser family’s privileged, seemingly idyllic life to the brink of hell.

Psychotherapist Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) walks the streets of Manhattan at all hours of the day and night to clear her head in THE UNDOING. Photo: Niko Tavernise for HBO.

The full season (Episodes 1-6) of The Undoing is available on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max. The series debuted on HBO on Sunday, October 25, 2020. The final episode premiered tonight, Sunday, November 29, 2020, with many repeat screenings on HBO throughout the weeks ahead.–Judith Trojan

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Freedom Summer Tackles Timely Voter and Civil Rights

“Did you see the way our people, you know, they were protecting his bus yesterday, because they’re nice. They had hundreds of cars…You see Trump and the American flag.” –President Donald J. Trump.

Excuse me?  Nearly 100 trucks festooned with Trump campaign gear dangerously menaced a Biden/Harris campaign bus on heavily trafficked Texas Interstate 35 on Friday, November 2, 2020.  The incident, now reportedly under Federal investigation, resulted in at least one accident and the cancellation of two planned Biden campaign rallies out of fear for staffers’ and supporters’ safety.

Contradicting critics and encouraging investigators to look elsewhere, Trump tweeted: “In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong.”  A local female Texas GOP stalwart gave the incident a similar thumbs up, tweeting: “We sent the [Biden campaign] bus out of Hays [Texas]! Your kind aren’t welcome here! This is TrumpCountry.”

Has Election 2020 time-travelled back to the 1960s when violent intimidation of opposing candidates and minority voters in certain regions of the country was the norm?  Where the heck are we living, and how have we sunk so low?

This shocking behavior immediately triggered my memory and review of Stanley Nelson’s powerful Peabody Award-winning 2014 documentary, Freedom Summer.  The film is a poignant reminder that a mere five decades ago voting was virtually off-limits to Mississippi’s African-American community.  It was a time when attempts to correct that injustice incited menacing caravans of local “good people” who wore white hoods and capes, burned crosses on people’s lawns and beat, raped and murdered not only American citizens who attempted to vote but also those who campaigned and worked to expedite the fair and equal process.

By turns troubling and uplifting, the film continues to stand as a timely reminder that systemic racism can be eradicated when blacks and whites work together to implement change. Freedom Summer debuted on the PBS series American Experience in June 2014 and, Good News!… you can at watch it for free @ http://pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/collections/civil-rights/ Freedom Summer bears revisiting.

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 in 1964. 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.

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson 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

The film 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 risk 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.

Two fearless women posed a special problem for President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who opposed the black voter registration drive in Mississippi, afraid it would cost him the next election.

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

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 President Johnson 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.

But LBJ’s determination to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a monumental piece of legislation abolishing literacy tests and protecting voter rights in the seven Southern states, positions him irrevocably on the right side of Civil Rights history.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a direct result of the volunteers’ daunting efforts during the summer of 1964, can’t be understated, nor can the importance of Stanley Nelson’s film, Freedom Summer, as a reminder of a time when a long hot summer brought courageous young people of both races together, in a climate of fear and violence, to make a difference.

As we await the final outcome of Presidential Election 2020, it behooves us not to regress to a time when politically condoned and regionally orchestrated menace and outright violence stifled voters’ rights and campaign safety.

Be sure to revisit Stanley Nelson’s 2014 two-hour documentary, Freedom Summer, via the PBS American Experience Website  http://pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/collections/civil-rights/ and stand firmly and forever with the better angels of our Nation’s history and #Vote !–Judith Trojan

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Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip Makes Timely Debut on PBS

“I remain your New York corespondent Walter Winchell, who can sit at his window and review those passing below.  He sees everyone he likes… or doesn’t. He can either drop a flower… or a flower pot.”–Walter Winchell

WALTER WINCHELL (1897-1972). Photo ©Globe Photos, Inc.

If names like Hannity and Limbaugh, Maddow and Cooper raise your hackles or float your boat, their talent to make or break news and newsmakers pales in comparison to the power wielded in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s by syndicated newspaper columnist, radio news commentator and TV host Walter Winchell.

The story of Winchell’s meteoric rise, colorful beat and tragic fall from grace make for a fascinating new installment of the PBS American Masters series. Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip debuts on PBS tonight, Tuesday, October 20, 2020, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  (Check local listings for air times in your region, http://pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video app for streaming, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.)  I urge you not to miss it!

Walter Winchell was the first media pundit to tweak entertainment and celebrity news and gossip with politically charged commentary. His talent to tap into the zeitgeist of mid-century America via the nascent tabloid newspaper, radio and TV markets gave him the edge… and his audience listened.

Walter Winchell snags a scoop for his New York Daily Mirror readers. Photo: Getty Images.

At his peak, Winchell took no prisoners as he transfixed 50 million Americans with his distinctive voice on radio and in newsprint, in communiqués freshly peppered with his own personally concocted “slanguage.” 

“Hollywood is where they shoot too many pictures and not enough actors,” snapped Winchell. 

The denizens of the Great White Way were also an easy target for Winchell, safely perched at his celebrity-filled corner table in the famed Stork Club. “Broadway is a main artery of New York life –the hardened artery,” cracked Winchell without missing a beat.

Born in Harlem in 1897, Walter Winchell hit the vaudeville circuit as a mediocre singer and dancer where he made two life-changing discoveries: He met his first wife, who gifted him with a typewriter; and he found that he was a better backstage gossip than performer.

By the mid-1920s, the only thing he was tapping on was the typewriter.  Winchell caught the attention of The New York Evening Graphic, a tabloid rag that gave him the chance to turn his gift for gossip into a paying gig.  He found his niche; and New York night crawlers, show biz stars and wannabes and Park Avenue swells became his unwitting subjects. He had a knack for knocking down the mighty with sly innuendo, suggesting much in his colorful brand of “Winchellese.” “She’s been on more laps than a napkin,” he opined.

Wider exposure on The New York Daily Mirror and national syndication, as well as his immensely popular radio broadcast kept “Mr. and Mrs. America and all the Ships at Sea” entertained with news of the rich and famous during the Great Depression and beyond. 

Walter Winchell reported from the courthouse in Flemington, NJ, during the 1935 Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder “Trial of the Century.”

No one was sacred, not even American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. Winchell reported directly from the Flemington, NJ, courthouse during the 1935 “Trial of the Century,” that convicted the Lindbergh baby’s purported kidnapper and murderer. But, when Winchell, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants, sounded early alarms about the rise of Hitler in Germany and parallel expansion of Nazi activity in the U.S. (youth camps and rallies), he made sure to single out notable Nazi sympathizers as well, including Charles Lindbergh. 

Winchell was no Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow.  Serious journalism was not his forte, but Winchell did have powerful political connections that he respected, for better (President Franklin D. Roosevelt and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) or worse (anti-Communist witch hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy and his henchman, Roy Cohn). Winchell relished partnering with FDR to promote the New Deal and our entry into WWII.  And Winchell supported J. Edgar Hoover’s efforts to expose American Nazi sympathizers. 

But Winchell’s anti-Communist leanings led him to tout McCarthyism in the 1950s.  This ill-fated alliance, as well as a failed stint as a TV host in the mid-Fifties and celebrated rows with African-American performer and activist Josephine Baker and popular TV host and Broadway columnist Ed Sullivan, led to Winchell’s downfall.

Winchell’s distinctive voice and snappy repartee, aka “Winchellese,” were highlights of his immensely popular radio show. Photo courtesy Granger.

Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip paints a valuable picture of Winchell’s enormous influence as a media superstar. Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ben Loeterman turns a fresh eye on Winchell’s career and the American cultural and political landscape that enabled him to rise and prosper, and eventually fall. 

Writer/producer/director Ben Loeterman masterfully incorporates a fascinating collection of vintage archival footage, audio and photos (the Lindbergh, American Nazi party and Josephine Baker segments are especially gripping).  Sharply focused anecdotes from period historians (most especially Winchell biographer Neal Gabler); spot-on Winchell reenactments voiced by actor Stanley Tucci; and unobtrustive voice over narration by Whoopi Goldberg round out this riveting documentary that will grab you from its 1952 “What’s My Line” opener and never let you go.  

Walter Winchell: the Power of Gossip is one of the most timely films in THIRTEEN’s American Masters’ series for WNET to come along in recent memory.  It will be an evergreen asset to programming in schools, libraries and universities covering the good, the bad and, yes, the ugly roots of modern media and superstar pundits.  I also recommend it as the perfect complement to HBO’s recent outstanding adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, in which Walter Winchell and Charles Lindbergh drive much of the narrative.

American Masters–Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip debuts on PBS tonight, Tuesday, October 20, 2020, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.   (Check local listings for air times in your region, http://pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video app for streaming, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.) The Plot Against America miniseries is available on HBO On Demand and to stream on HBO Max. –Judith Trojan

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Honoring the Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

RUTH BADER GINSBURG (1933-2020) as seen in the feature-length documentary, RBG. Photo: Magnolia Pictures.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG (1933-2020) as seen in the feature-length documentary, RBG. Photo: Magnolia Pictures.

“Fight for the things you care about, but in a way that will lead others to join you.”Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

She was tiny. A determined young woman in a vibrant blue suit, head held high, briefcase in hand, clearly thrilled to be entering the hallowed halls of Harvard Law School as a first year law student. But there was a glitch. It was 1956, and her gender didn’t fit.

Director Mimi Leder’s 2018 biopic, On the Basis of Sex, opens with a sea of suitably suited young men, almost but not quite entirely obliterating the tiny young woman in blue as they walk en masse into Harvard Law to convene with their Dean as classmates for the first time. The soundtrack reverberates with a rousing chorus of “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard,”a fitting anthem to the mountain Brooklyn-born Ruth Bader Ginsburg will have to climb to survive and thrive as a freshly pressed young lawyer, devoted wife and doting mother in the “old boy’s club” that was Harvard Law School and the legal profession in the Fifties and Sixties.

Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston) has only men in mind when he encourages his first year law students to be big fish in a big pond. His cursory nod to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and the handful of other women who survived the cut is dismissive at best: “Why are you occupying a place at Harvard that could go to a man?” he snaps tartly.

"After playing Ruth, I realized how important it is to have a voice in the world and to express that," said Felicity Jones (above), who stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in ON THE BASIS OF SEX. Photo: Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features.

“After playing Ruth, I realized how important it is to have a voice in the world and to express that,” said Felicity Jones (above), who stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in ON THE BASIS OF SEX. Photo: Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features.

It’s clear that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career began in earnest that day and the days that immediately followed at Harvard Law. Her drive to survive and excel, despite the sexist battering, would fuel her career-long ambition to upend discrimination in all forms on the basis of gender. She would eventually become only the second woman to be named to the Supreme Court, where she served for 27 years.

Carefully scripted by Ginsburg’s nephew, screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, On the Basis of Sex carries Ginsburg through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, highlighting the snarky sexist challenges she faced during her two years at Harvard Law and her futile attempts, despite her stellar academic credentials, to land a job in any New York law firm. She accepts a Rutgers Law School teaching post that proved to be a viable niche to propel a pivotal sex discrimination case–“Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue”–that she would argue alongside her husband, tax attorney Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), in federal court in the early 1970s. With that case and several others that followed (e.g., Reed v. Reed), she was determined to set a precedent that the equal protections guaranteed by the 14th Amendment not only applied to racial discrimination but gender discrimination as well.

While the film recreates a fascinating portrait of Ginsburg’s early career where the roots of her road to champion gender equality were clearly planted, On the Basis of Sex is also a touching love story. Ruth Bader and Marty Ginsburg met as undergrads at Cornell.  The film catches up with Marty a year ahead of his wife at Harvard Law, and during his early career as a tax attorney at a high profile NYC law firm.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX dramatizes the loving family that supported Ruth Bader Ginsburg's progressive career. From left: Armie Hammer (Marty Ginsburg), Cailee Spaeny (daughter Jane Ginsburg), Felicity Jones (Ruth Bader Ginsburg). Photo: Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX dramatizes the loving family that supported Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s progressive career. From left: Armie Hammer (Marty Ginsburg), Cailee Spaeny (daughter Jane Ginsburg), Felicity Jones (Ruth Bader Ginsburg). Photo: Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features.

An unusually supportive, liberated husband for the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, (or any decade for that matter!) and a warmly attentive father to their kids, Marty never let his wife second guess her lofty career goals or give in to defeat. He also served as a buttress between two strong-willed women–his wife Ruth and their feisty, feminist teenage daughter Jane.

When Marty Ginsburg was felled unexpectedly by an early bout of cancer, Ruth stepped in to attend both her own and her husband’s Harvard classes so he wouldn’t fall behind. It’s clear why their marriage lasted 56 years.  Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer and Cailee Spaeny (as daughter Jane) are outstanding in their extremely engaging roles.

To flesh out Justice Ginsburg’s early life and later career en route to the Supreme Court, I also encourage you to revisit RBG, the Emmy®-winning, Oscar®-nominated feature-length documentary directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen.  The 2018 box office hit helped cement Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s preeminence as a progressive champion for women’s and LGBTQ rights and recast her visibility as a late-in-life pop culture icon.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's senior portrait at Cornell University. Photo: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States/Focus Features.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s senior portrait at Cornell University. Photo: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States/Focus Features.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a trailblazer, a role model and a friend,” remembered Senator Elizabeth Warren, who navigated a similar male-dominated milieu at Rutgers Law School.

To honor Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “life and unparalleled legacy upholding justice,” Participant, Focus Features and Magnolia Pictures will be re-releasing their 2018 films, On the Basis of Sex and RBG in theaters, today, Friday, September 24, 2020, the day that Justice Ginsburg will lie in state in the Capitol, the first such honor for a woman.

Both films will play in theaters in tandem with their availability on On-demand platforms. AMC Theatres will reportedly charge $5.00 per ticket. On the Basis of Sex is also currently airing on Showtime (check schedules in your region) and is available to subscribers via Showtime OnDemand.

Proceeds from the films’ re-release are earmarked for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project, co-founded in 1972 by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project “empowers poor women, women of color and immigrant women who have been subject to gender bias and who face pervasive barriers to equality.” Their four core areas of concern are: employment, violence against women, criminal justice and education.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg changed the world, but she changed the world by persuading the people who disagreed with her as opposed to destroying them,” said her nephew and On the Basis of Sex screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman. “What is crucial to understand about Ruth was how much she really revered the Constitution and the law and the country. What I learned from her is what patriotism looks like.”

As we approach what will go down in history as the most divisive and critically important Presidential election in our nation’s recent history, I encourage you to take a breath and revisit RBG and On the Basis of Sex.  Then join the conversation at #ThankYouRuth and share how much Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg’s legacy means to you, the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution and our democracy going forward. –Judith Trojan

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