TV’s First Lady Betty White Celebrated on PBS

TV legend Betty White, now and then (1950s). Photo courtesy Pioneers of Television Archives.

Sweet. Sassy. Kind. Funny. And very smart. Those are just a few of the heartfelt air-kisses wafting throughout Betty White: First Lady of Television. This pleasant new 55-minute documentary, directed by Steven J. Boettcher, debuts tonight, Tuesday, August 21, 2018, during a 90-minute PBS fundraising blitz that rolls out at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat screenings in your region.)

It’s pretty clear that the endearing Betty White you’ve come to know and love at various stages of her remarkable, 80-year career in show business is the same caring, zesty, quick-witted charmer off-camera as well.  As early TV programmers cast their net in uncharted territory, she heard opportunity knocking and became a pioneer in the new medium in her own right.  She was the first woman to produce a national TV show, the first woman to star in a sitcom, the first producer to hire a female director, and the first woman to receive an Emmy® nomination.

Filmed over a period of five years and peppered with recent interviews with Betty, her co-stars, and wonderful vintage TV clips, Betty White: First Lady of Television introduces viewers to her groundbreaking segue into TV via Hollywood on Television (1949-’53) and her seamless slide into sitcoms in Life with Elizabeth (1952-’55).

A devotee of legendary film soprano Jeanette MacDonald and her screen partner, Nelson Eddy, Betty also made good use of her own lovely singing voice, as is evident in the charming vintage clips that bookend this film.  It’s obvious from these clips that the camera always loved her and she loved it back. And that affection has continued to extend to the fans who followed her career and grew throughout the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and into the new millennium.

Interviewed for this film during her nineties (Betty turned 96 on January 17, 2018!), Betty adds significant perspective to her career’s salad days and her catalog of beloved signature character roles, including Elizabeth (Life with Elizabeth); Sue Ann Nivens (Mary Tyler Moore, 1973-’77); Rose Nylund (The Golden Girls, 1985-1992); and Elka Ostrovsky (Hot in Cleveland, 2010-’15).

Florida here we come! THE GOLDEN GIRLS (clockwise from top: Rue McClanahan, Betty White, Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty).

Florida here we come! THE GOLDEN GIRLS (clockwise from top: Rue McClanahan, Betty White, Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty).

Always fascinated by words, Betty hit the ground running as an early TV game show celebrity guest, most famously appearing regularly on Password, where she met and married the show’s original host, Allen Ludden.  Off-camera, she sharpens her competitive edge with daily Scrabble games and crossword puzzles.

A lifelong animal welfare advocate, Betty has spent decades partnering with various zoos and animal rights organizations, speaking out and writing books about the wisdom of animals. When you see her cuddling and sharing kisses and treats with a huge bear in Betty White: First Lady of Television, first you’ll probably gasp and question the scene’s veracity, but your cynicism will quickly fade and you’ll be touched by the depth of her love for animals.

“You can always tell about somebody the way they put their hands on an animal,” she has said. “Animals don’t lie. Animals don’t criticize. If animals have moody days, they handle them better than humans do.”

Allen Ludden and Betty White met and fell in love as host and celebrity guest contestant, respectively, on the game show, PASSWORD. Their final passwords were "Wedded Bliss."

Allen Ludden and Betty White met and fell in love as host and celebrity guest contestant, respectively, on the game show, PASSWORD. Their final passwords were “Wedded Bliss.”

For this reason, I’ve always been a Betty White fan and tried never to miss a variety or talk show (The Tonight Show was a regular Betty White stomping ground) that featured her as a guest. I laughed my way through her hilarious turn at age 88 as the oldest host and star of Saturday Night Live (May 8, 2010).  I think she appeared in most of the sketches during that special Mother’s Day episode, each one funnier and more risqué than the next.

According to Betty White: “I may be a senior, but so what? I’m still hot.” Yes, that’s true, Betty! We should all be so lucky!

Be inspired to thumb your nose at your advancing age and revisit more than a few memorable TV moments with this talented, cockeyed optimist and the friends and colleagues who sing her praises. Tune in to PBS at 8:00 p.m. ET tonight, Tuesday, August 21, 2018, and enjoy an hour with Betty White: First Lady of Television.  (Check local listings for air times and repeat screenings in your region.) –Judith Trojan

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Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind Debuts on HBO

Actor/comedian Robin Williams (1949-2014) grabs the spotlight and never lets go in HBO’s ROBIN WILLIAMS: COME INSIDE MY MIND. Photo: Mark Sennet Life Pictures Collection. Courtesy HBO.

“He was like the light that never knew how to turn itself off,” recalls comedian Lewis Black in the engaging new documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind.

The two-hour love and laugh-fest, directed by Emmy® Award-winner Marina Zenovich, debuts tonight, July 16, 2018, on HBO, at 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.)

The film travels a fine line between hilarity and heartbreak. There are the requisite “witnesses”–Lewis Black and a cadre of fellow A-list comedians; Robin Williams’ first wife, Valerie Valardi; their son, Zak; and Robin’s half-brother, McLaurin–who revisit the good times and not-so-good times spent with their pal, colleague, husband, father and brother, respectively.

Valerie Valardi and Robin Williams on their wedding day in 1976. Photo courtesy HBO.

But as Robin Williams’ life and career progressed rapidly into super stardom, detoured into depression, was stalled by addictions and tragically flatlined by physical illness, sober reflections from pals David Letterman, Billy Crystal, Pam Dawber and Steve Martin predominantly land near the climax of this long film. For the most part, the film, its star player and his fellow comedians provide more than enough to laugh about.

Williams’ outtakes were and continue to be hilarious.  They are highlights of this film. His off-script shenanigans during weekly tapings of ABC-TV’s Mork & Mindy (1978-82) extended the process for an unprecedented three hours, compelled producers to add a fourth camera to the mix, and exploded audience demand for tickets. Outtakes from Mrs. Doubtfire and an episode of Sesame Street are also highlights.

Mork (Robin Williams) , Mindy (Pam Dawber) and Jonathan Winters on the set of MORK & MINDY. Photo courtesy ABC-TV.

It was common knowledge that Robin Williams idolized comedian Jonathan Winters, who was also a favorite of Williams’ dad. A vintage black and white clip revisiting Winters’ inventive shtick with a stick routine on The Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Paar, is cleverly paired with an outtake from an episode of Sesame Street during which Williams attempts to explore and share a stick with Elmo. It’s clear that Robin Williams and Elmo were a match made in Heaven, as were Williams and Koko, the language savvy gorilla, who had a memorable encounter with Williams as well. Unfortunately, images from that tête-à- tête only turn up in a closing photo montage.

Williams was a Juilliard alum and did land on the Great White Way or close to it, via Lincoln Center. Steve Martin recalls the duo’s stint on the boards in a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.  A grainy clip captures the offbeat performance of the two wild and crazy guys (Martin and Williams) as they try to maintain their focus on the playwright’s actual text.

Entertaining clips replay bits of business from his sold-out one-man show at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, circa 1986, and a USO Christmas tour with Lewis Black in the Middle East; and banter between Williams and his pals Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg during their Comic Relief events.  Williams’ serious award-worthy performances in such films as Dead Poet’s Society, Good Will Hunting, Awakenings and the unsettling One Hour Photo are also referenced in abundance here.

Robin Williams may have seemed a good fit with Elmo and Koko, but he was no Fred Rogers. We are reminded throughout the film that Williams’ off-the-cuff riffs and talk show banter often crossed into sexually explicit terrain. A clip features Williams’ raunchy “hands-on” improv during a fundraising gig that even seemed to make his co-stars, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, uncomfortable. Be forewarned! This overlong bit may be off-putting to some viewers.

Robin Williams’ personal reflections culled from years of past interviews thread throughout and shed some light on his parents, career highs and lows, insecurities and addictions.  But, off the grid, Robin Williams was apparently compelled to keep his most painful secret to himself: his formerly hard-wired mind and body were short-circuiting. He suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, not Parkinson’s Disease as originally misdiagnosed and reported. In 2014, he shocked his family, closest friends and fans by taking his own life.

A tad too long, the film could use some judicious cuts, especially the hackneyed period music that signals Robin Williams’ transitions through the decades… from his privileged, private schooled adolescence during the 1950s and ’60s to his 1970s San Francisco hippie/street performer phase. There is also more to learn about Williams’ childhood and unconventional family dynamics that laid the groundwork for his extraordinary talent, excessive need to please and horrific untimely demise.

If you long for some laughs (and who doesn’t in Trumpsville, USA?), Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind will do the trick.  It’s an entertaining picnic in the park that reminds us how much we relished and continue to miss the singular talents of this comic genius.  You can catch the film’s debut tonight, Monday, July 16, 2018, on HBO, from 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the days and weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.) –Judith Trojan

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QuestTheDoc on PBS Champions Family Resilience

“Our society is incredibly polarized right now and, I believe, desperate for opportunities to connect across the various barriers that we think separate us: race, class, religion, geography, political party,” says filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski. “I want viewers to see themselves in the Raineys and their story.”

First-time director Jonathan Olshefski manages to meet and successfully master that mission via his feature-length debut documentary, Quest. A film festival award winner and fan favorite during its recent theatrical release, Quest premieres on the PBS series, POV, tonight, Monday, June 18, 2018, 10:00 – 11:30 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat screenings in your region.)

Skillfully combining intimate vérité footage shot over a period of eight years with clips from home movies and personal photos, Olshefski introduces us to the Rainey family of North Philadelphia.  Eight years in the life of this resilient, proud blended African-American family unfold quietly… but quickly pack a wallop.

Musically gifted Patricia "PJ" Rainey and her dad, Christopher "Quest" Rainey, don't skip a beat in QUEST. Photo: Jonathan Olshefski.

Musically gifted Patricia “PJ” Rainey and her dad, Christopher “Quest” Rainey, don’t skip a beat in QUEST. Photo: Jonathan Olshefski.

Musician Christopher “Quest” Rainey; his wife, Christine’a “Ma Quest” Rainey; her cancer afflicted son, William, who struggles to meet his responsibilities as a young dad; and Chris and Christine’a’s musically gifted daughter, PJ, are the core family members in focus here.  Chris and Christine’a not only provide the backbone of their immediate family, but nurture and mentor members of their community as well.

Chris hosts, promotes and produces the work of local hip hop artists in their basement home music studio, while Christine’a cares for homeless mothers and children in a neighborhood shelter.  As Chris and his wife struggle to make a living and their neighborhood a safer, healthier, more productive place to live, their resilience is tested by unexpected pregnancy, serious illness, gun violence and addiction.

Love and commitment to marriage, family and community bind Christopher "Quest" Rainey and Christine'a "Ma Quest" Rainey as they face challenges in their North Philadelphia neighborhood via QUEST. Photo: Colleen Stepanian.

Love and commitment to marriage, family and community bind Christopher “Quest” Rainey and Christine’a “Ma Quest” Rainey as they face challenges in their North Philadelphia neighborhood via QUEST. Photo: Colleen Stepanian.

Chris and Christine’a play the challenging cards they are dealt by never wavering from their commitment to each other.  They take their responsibility to their family and friends seriously, a mandate handed down from parent to child. Chris credits his mother with his positive, productive mindset. “Instead of doing something destructive, do something constructive,” he counsels a self-destructive hip hop artist.

The Obama and Trump Presidential elections also edge into the eight-year timeline of this film, and turn Chris and Christine’a’s attention to issue awareness and voter registration in their community.  In response to Trump’s comments demeaning African-American living conditions, Christine’a calmly contradicts: “You don’t know how we live.”

Patricia "PJ" Rainey (left) matures from preteen to young adulthood in QUEST. Here with her mom, Christine'a "Ma Quest" Rainey (center), and dad, Christopher "Quest" Rainey (right). Photo: Jonathan Olshefski.

Patricia “PJ” Rainey (left) matures from preteen to young adulthood in QUEST. Here with her mom, Christine’a “Ma Quest” Rainey (center), and dad, Christopher “Quest” Rainey (right). Photo: Jonathan Olshefski.

Quest will be an evergreen  discussion catalyst in courses and programs in high schools, colleges, universities, public libraries, community centers and churches dealing with family relationships, African-American studies, marriage counseling, community activism, social issues, inner city music and hip hop artists.

Quest debuts on the PBS series, POV, tonight, Monday, June 18, 2018, 10:00 – 11:30 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat screenings in your region and https://www.pbs.org/pov/quest for supplemental toolkits, discussion guides, and DVD and online streaming availability.) –Judith Trojan

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John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls Rings True on HBO

“To refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is unpatriotic.” — Senator John S. McCain III (R-AZ).

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ) listens as he is being introduced at a campaign rally in Denver, Colorado, October 24, 2008. Photo: REUTERS/ REUTERS/Brian Snyder. Courtesy HBO.

The Kunhardt filmmaking clan (producer/directors Peter, George and Teddy Kunhardt), noted for their powerful films about such trailblazers and visionaries as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Warren Buffett and Ben Bradlee, have now turned their cameras on another American maverick.  The Kunhardts’ latest feature-length documentary, John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls, makes its HBO debut tonight on Memorial Day, Monday, May 28, 2018, 8:00 – 9:45 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the days and weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.)

Screening update:  To honor the legacy of Senator John S. McCain, who passed away on August 25, 2018, HBO has scheduled Encore screenings to commence on what would have been his 82nd birthday, Wednesday, August 29, 2018, 8:00 – 9:45 p.m. Additional screenings will air on Friday, August 31, and Saturday, September 1, 2018.  Check air times in your region.

Filmed in Washington, D.C., and at Senator McCain’s bucolic home in Sedona, Arizona, after his diagnosis with brain cancer, John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls is titled not for McCain’s dire medical prognosis but for his favorite book, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.  He became transfixed by the novel at age 12, and continues to hold its protagonist, Robert Jordan, the champion of lost causes, close to his heart as a role model.

Naval pilot John McCain (right) with his squadron and T-2 Buckeye trainer, circa 1965. Photo courtesy HBO.

As colleagues, friends and family members (even his forgiving first wife, Carol, who admits to being “blindsided” when her husband ditched her for a younger woman) share personal and professional anecdotes about the man they obviously love to love, it’s clear that Senator McCain’s positive legacy as an American hero and patriot is the focus here.

Senator McCain admits throughout the film to more than a few regrets. He seriously considered naming his friend and colleague, Joe Lieberman, as his running mate in his 2008 presidential campaign but was convinced otherwise…enter Sarah Palin.  He lacked scholarly focus as a student at the United States Naval Academy (Annapolis). And he owns up to some self-described “imperfect service” during his more than 30-year stint as a U.S. representative and senator.

“I’ve been tested on a number of occasions,” he says.”I haven’t always done the right thing. The important thing is not to look back and figure out all of the things I should have done–and there’s lots of those–but to look back with gratitude.”

To my mind, Senator McCain’s challenges to Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency were much too slow getting out of the gate. I always believed that had he taken a strong stand against Trump’s distressing 2016 campaign behavior and confronted Trump’s disrespectful mockery of his 5-1/2 year incarceration as a POW during the Vietnam War, John McCain could have sent Donald Trump packing long before election day.  McCain’s silence was deafening, or so it seemed to me.

John McCain (left) standing with his father, Admiral John S. McCain, Jr. (right) in front of a plaque dedicated to Senator McCain’s grandfather, Admiral John McCain, Sr. Photo courtesy the McCain Family/HBO.

But that’s water under the bridge. Senator McCain has become one of President Trump’s worst nightmares and the standard-bearer for everything that Trump is not and never will be… the son and grandson of distinguished Naval officers (his elders were the first father-son admirals in U.S. Naval history); a graduate of Annapolis and a Navy fighter pilot who served in the U.S. military with distinction (1958-1981); a survivor of torture and lifelong disabilities inflicted during his 5-1/2 year incarceration as a POW during the Vietnam War; and a U.S. representative and senator for more than 30 years who has respected the tenets of the U.S. Constitution and advocated, in word and deed, the importance of bipartisanship.

Now, as he fights his daunting battle with aggressive brain cancer, Senator John McCain has resurfaced in the public eye as an American patriot who we are assured has always had a strong moral compass when it matters most and has never had a problem confronting “lost causes” head on, persevering and crossing the aisle to get the job done.

Navy pilot John McCain (left) with his father, Admiral John S. McCain, Jr. (right), after the former was released from a North Vietnamese prison camp in 1973. Photo courtesy HBO.

As Memorial Day 2018 draws to a close, what better time to become reacquainted with the “better angels” populating our military and political landscape… those resilient patriots who continue to serve with distinction and defend the American ideals for which our forefathers fought and died.

John McCain: for Whom the Bell Tolls debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, May 28, 2018, 8:00 – 9:45  p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the days and weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.)

Screening update:  To honor the legacy of Senator John S. McCain, who passed away on August 25, 2018, HBO has scheduled Encore screenings to commence on what would have been his 82nd birthday, Wednesday, August 29, 2018, 8:00 – 9:45 p.m. Additional screenings will air on Friday, August 31, and Saturday, September 1, 2018.  Check air times in your region. –Judith Trojan

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Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story Ignites PBS

Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) captivated movie-goers with her exotic beauty during the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. But she was most proud of her unheralded contributions to the war effort as an inventor. Photo ©Diltz/RDA/Everett Collection.

“Any girl can look glamorous…all she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”–Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

Screen queen Hedy Lamarr (Algiers, Boom Town, Samson and Delilah, White Cargo) learned quickly how far a pretty face could take her in the male dominated Hollywood film industry of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.  She also knew that her fascination with science and technology and her talent as an inventor, encouraged by her beloved dad from a young age, were best kept under wraps from the fans and Hollywood suits who would make her a star.

Today, when women are still fighting to be taken at more than face value as artists, scientists, politicians and industry leaders, director Alexandra Dean’s fascinating feature-length documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, couldn’t be more timely. The 2017 film festival favorite debuts tonight, Friday, May 18, 2018, on the PBS American Masters series, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and   http://www.pbs.org/americanmasters for online viewing immediately after its broadcast premiere.

Hedy Lamarr shared the screen with Spencer Tracey in I TAKE THIS WOMAN (1940).

Ms. Dean and her team (including Ken Burns’ master cinematographer Buddy Squires) utilize a lavish array of period and personal photos and vintage film clips to introduce the cultural and political landscape that defined Hedy (Kiesler) Lamarr’s milieu as an upper class Austrian Jew, before and during the Nazi occupation.

The teenage Viennese beauty first made a splash in the 1933 Czech film, Ecstasy. Her sensual nude scenes in that film gave her acting career a boost internationally and secured the film’s long shelf life as a sexually explicit groundbreaker ( I saw it in film school in the early 1970s).  It wasn’t too long before she married a much older wealthy munitions tycoon (the first of her six husbands), surreptitiously freed herself from his jealous grasp, and snagged a contract from M-G-M’s Louis B. Mayer on board a ship en route to the States.

Telling reminiscences from her son, daughter and granddaughter, as well as friends, colleagues and film historians, footnote Hedy Lamarr’s creative endeavors, personal foibles, feature film and TV appearances. She was one of the few major stars who challenged the binding contract system that shackled actors and actresses to individual studios for seven years and the rare actress who attempted to produce her own films.

But it is Ms. Lamaar’s thoughtful, intelligent voice over commentary that ignites Bombshell. Her audio reflections were pulled from interviews recorded in 1990 on four audiotapes by Forbes magazine contributor Fleming Meeks.  Threaded throughout the film, the audio bytes provide a rich first person narrative in which she recalls her roles as an actress, mother, daughter, clandestine inventor and, most challenging of all, a great beauty whose face inspired the look of Snow White and Catwoman.

Hedy Lamarr broke into Hollywood films starring with Charles Boyer in ALGIERS, 1938.

We learn the genesis of her WWII-driven invention (with avant-garde composer George Antheil) of a “frequency hopping communications system,” which they created to stymy German submarines from detecting radio-guided torpedoes headed their way. Instead of being honored at the time for this life-saving contribution to the WWII effort, Lamarr was instructed to entertain the troops and sell kisses for war bonds.

She and Antheil were awarded a patent but never saw a penny for their invention.  The patent expired and their communications system was ultimately employed successfully during WWII and the Cuban Missile Crisis and has served decades later as the basis for secure WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth technologies.

My only gripe with Bombshell?   It’s chock-a-block with so many tantalizing plotlines that I came away from it with questions galore. I’d love to know more about Hedy Lamarr’s early life with her parents as a young Jew living in Vienna, circa the 1920s and 1930s; how she managed to meet, marry and shed all six of her husbands; and why her picture perfect memories of being a mom contradicted her children’s recollections.

Hedy Lamarr’s beauty was never more evident than in ZIEGFELD GIRL, circa 1941.

In the end, her obsession with plastic surgery tragically seemed to disfigure her beautiful face, and she was one of notorious Dr. Feelgood’s unfortunate victims (she admits to thinking he was injecting her with special B-12 shots not meth).  She even claims to have dated another client of Dr. Feelgood’s…JFK.

While you may find, as I did, that Hedy Lamarr’s life story has more than enough substance and drama for three or four films, the best place to begin navigating the Lamarr minefield is Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story debuts tonight, Friday, May 18, 2018, on the PBS American Masters series, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and   http://www.pbs.org/americanmasters for online viewing immediately after its broadcast premiere, as well as its availability via such services as Amazon, iTunes and FandangoNow. –Judith Trojan

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Untested Rape Kits Exposed in HBO’s I Am Evidence

“You don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.” —Maya AngelouI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).

The late poet, activist Maya Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend.  She was seven years old, and the “trauma of telling” stole her voice. She literally stopped talking for five years, believing that she was responsible for her rapist’s murder because she told on him.

As boldface names like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey continue to capture worldwide attention, for reasons that no longer have to do with their craft as film producers and performers, the airing of old and new wounds inflicted by sexual harassers, abusers and rapists have emboldened more and more women and men from all walks of life to speak out about their experiences via the #metoo movement.

If you’re a fan of NBC-TV’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and especially admire the advocacy role played by its star, Mariska (Olivia Benson) Hargitay, on and off camera, I encourage you to watch producer Hargitay’s powerful film exposé, I Am Evidence, debuting on HBO tonight, Monday, April 16, 2018, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the days and weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.)

A rape kit being processed in I AM EVIDENCE. Photo courtesy HBO.

Ms. Hargitay’s 90-minute documentary, directed by Trish Adlesic and Geeta  Gandbhir, shines an uncompromising light on the stockpiling of hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits across the country. Although assault survivors often face victim shaming and blaming trauma when they report their attacks, they are assured that their rape kits contain crucial DNA evidence that will pinpoint their rapists’ identities.

However, rape kits stored untested in dusty police storage rooms or remote warehouses provide no closure for these victims.  As time passes, untested rape kits have also been unceremoniously discarded, sometimes before their statute of limitations expires.  Survivors live with the knowledge that no one in the criminal justice system cares, and they grapple with the PTSD fear that their rapists, still at large, will strike them or others again.

I AM EVIDENCE exposes the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits stockpiled across the country, which stymies the use of critical DNA evidence to identify and convict rapists, and bring closure to their victims. Photo courtesy HBO.

I AM EVIDENCE exposes the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits stockpiled across the country, which stymies the use of critical DNA evidence to identify and convict rapists, and bring closure to their victims. Photo courtesy HBO.

I Am Evidence explores the back story of the rape kit debacle as it has played out for decades in Detroit, Cleveland and Los Angeles.  We meet individual sexual assault survivors in those cities who had all but given up waiting for justice to be served, as well as their legal advocates and family members who address the deeply rooted racist and sexist attitudes that have traditionally fueled law enforcement’s dismissive handling of rape cases in general.

The filmmakers give ample time to law enforcement professionals who are attempting to turn the tide.  “These rape kits are the best bargain in the history of law enforcement,” confirms Tim McGinty, former Cuyahoga County prosecutor in Cleveland. “One in four results in an indictment. One in four of the four is a serial rapist.”

When DNA results from tested rape kits are linked to CODIS, the national criminal database, law enforcement officers can identify serial offenders.  I Am Evidence follows the trail of one serial perpetrator, a long distance truck driver who victimized women across state lines for decades (including his wife and two of the women profiled in this film living, respectively, in Los Angeles and Ohio). Had rape kits from these women (and potentially many other victims along his truck route) not been allowed to languish on the shelf for years, an untold number of women would have been saved from rape and, it is believed, probable murder.

Detroit Prosecutor Kym Worthy and actress/ producer/advocate Mariska Hargitay confer during filming of I AM EVIDENCE. Photo courtesy HBO.

Detroit Prosecutor Kym Worthy and actress/ producer/advocate Mariska Hargitay confer during filming of I AM EVIDENCE. Photo courtesy HBO.

Aside from her long tenure as Lt. Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU, Ms. Hargitay recalls the additional fuel that continues to fire her advocacy:  the flood of letters she receives from sexual assault victims. She went on to found the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004, which not only aims to end the backlog of untested rape kits in the U.S. via its “End the Backlog” initiative, but also strives to change the dialogue surrounding sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.

I Am Evidence has been a fire starter on the film festival circuit and will serve as an important discussion catalyst going forward. The film is a timely program choice for audiences of criminal justice students and professionals focusing on women’s issues, racism and sexism, as well as counseling sessions for assault survivors and their families.   

I Am Evidence debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, April 16, 2018, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.) — Judith Trojan

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Sex, Lies and Butterflies Soars on PBS Nature

A Postman Butterfly gathers pollen in Deerfield, Mass., one of the many extraordinary images featured in SEX, LIES AND BUTTERFLIES debuting on PBS NATURE. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

A Postman Butterfly gathers pollen in Deerfield, Mass., one of the many extraordinary images featured in SEX, LIES AND BUTTERFLIES debuting on PBS NATURE. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

When was the last time you came face to face with an actual butterfly?  And I don’t mean a computer generated knock-off! (If  you’re currently watching the quirky Alan Ball series, Here and Now, on HBO, you’ve seen more than your share of those phony baloney impostors lately.)

I’m an avid gardener and can’t imagine settling for anything but the real thing.  As the seasons stretch from spring into summer then fall, there is nothing more magical than watching the arrival of these glorious creatures in my garden, whether they flit past my porch windows en masse (as they did last year, in what seemed like an endless, mind-blowing parade) or they dart around me in the garden en route to feast on the flowers and flowering shrubs that I planted … just for them.  I can’t think of anything better than sharing my garden with these colorful little souls.

This butterfly in Tambopata, Peru, is ready for its close-up in NATURE: SEX, LIES AND BUTTERFLIES on PBS. Photo courtesy Mark Carroll/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

This butterfly in Tambopata, Peru, is ready for its close-up in NATURE: SEX, LIES AND BUTTERFLIES on PBS. Photo courtesy Mark Carroll/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

If you’re as obsessed with butterflies as I am or if you’ve taken them for granted, I urge you not to miss the latest episode of the PBS series NATURE, which makes the most of sophisticated eye-popping macro-cinematography to time-line the extraordinary 50-million year metamorphosis of one small brown moth into some 20,000 species of butterflies.

Sex, Lies and Butterflies debuts on PBS tonight, April 4, 2018, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET/9:00 – 10:00 p.m. Central. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and  http://www.pbs.org/nature for immediate online streaming, DVD and Blu-Ray availability.)

This fascinating documentary was produced and directed by Emmy® Award-winner Ann Johnson Prum and written by Janet Hess, who seem to share an affinity for the tiniest creatures … you can read my FrontRowCenter review of their 2016 film for PBS NATURE, Super Hummingbirds, at https://judithtrojan.com/2016/10/12/  

Sex, Lies and Butterflies takes viewers on a similarly remarkable journey as it positions us eyeball-to-eyeball with such species of butterflies as Painted Ladies, Monarchs and Swallowtails and introduces us to those lucky biologists and ecologists in the U.S. and abroad who study the life cycles, migratory patterns and survival techniques of butterflies.

Birdwing Butterflies mating in Deerfield, Mass., a process that can take hours. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

Birdwing Butterflies mating in Deerfield, Mass., a process that can take hours. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

I guarantee that as you watch the extraordinary footage of these beauties as they mate, lay their jewel-like eggs, hatch and dodge predators via a funky array of caterpillar “attire” and break free of their chrysalises as full-fledged butterflies, the only word that will come to mind is “Wow!”

In fact, the film’s “wow factor” never waivers as Ms. Prum and her team explore unique butterfly species and their broad-based habitats; the marvels of their incredible eyes, proboscis, wings and vocalizations; their natural enemies and surprising “frenemies”; the logistics and challenges of their extraordinary migratory journeys and pivotal role as pollinators.

A beautiful Heliconia Butterfly photographed in Mindo Ecuador. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

Serenely narrated by actor Paul (John Adams) GiamattiNATURE: Sex, Lies and Butterflies is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET.  It debuts on PBS tonight, April 4, 2018, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET/9:00 – 10:00 p.m. Central. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature for immediate online streaming, DVD and Blu-Ray availability.) Be sure not to miss it!– Judith Trojan

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