Ann Roth Oscar Shoe-In for Ma Rainey’s Pitch Perfect Costumes

ANN ROTH

“Nothing wrong with having nice shoes.  A man gotta have some shoes to dance like this.”Chadwick Boseman aka Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Nicole’s nose.  Meryl’s caftan.  Tippy’s mink coat.  Brenda’s red fox coat.  Viola’s gold teeth and horsehair wig.  And Chadwick’s yellow shoes.  Just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the signature accoutrements devised by legendary costume designer Ann Roth to transform mere mortals into iconic film and stage characters.

In a career that has encompassed more than 200 feature films, Broadway and regional plays, TV/cable films, operas and ballets, Ann Roth has costumed every character no matter how minor, down to their nail polish, shoelaces and noses (The Hours).  Her skill set defies pigeonholing.

There’s Miami Beach drag (The Birdcage); period literary adaptations (The Day of the Locust, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain); social issue-driven classics (Midnight Cowboy, Silkwood, The Paper and HBO’s Angels in America); aliens (Signs) and the alienated (Hair); big hair (Working Girl and Mamma Mia!); women in crisis (Klute, Doubt, The Reader and HBO’s Mildred Pierce); Broadway buffoonery (Gary) and burlesque (The Nance).

Ann & Tony & Oscar…

Ann Roth and Glenda Jackson fine-tune a costume for Jackson’s groundbreaking role in KING LEAR during Broadway’s Spring 2019 season.

The breathtaking range of Roth’s creative talent and exacting demand for period detail was never so evident than during the 2018 New York theater season when she was nominated for Tony® Awards for three critically-acclaimed revivals:  Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women and Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.  In the 2019 season, she nabbed Tony® nominations for Taylor Mac’s quirky Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus and the blockbuster hit, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Prior recent Tony® nods include The Book of Mormon (2011), Shuffle Along (2016) and a win for my personal favorite, The Nance (2013).

Ann Roth accepts her 1996 Oscar for THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Photo AMPAS.

Her Academy Award® nominations—Places in the Heart (1984), The English Patient (1996), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), The Hours (2002), and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)—have spanned five decades.  And despite the industry’s yearlong pandemic pause, Roth’s run for the gold hasn’t skipped a beat.  A quarter century after winning her first Oscar® for The English Patient, she is poised to win her second for Ma Rainey’s head to toe costuming.  Should the film adaptation of August Wilson’s play seal the deal, as I believe it will, the Oscar® will land a cozy spot on her trophy shelf next to her 2021 BAFTA (British Academy Award), CDGA (Costume Designer’s Guild Award), and Critic’s Choice Award, as well as her boatload of regional critic’s awards and nominations for the film.

 Ann Roth & Ma Rainey…

While his themes transcend skin color, August Wilson’s cultural importance in the African-American community is irrefutable.  Wilson’s greatest achievement as an American playwright and his enduring legacy is his monumental 10-play cycle:  Each play tackles a different decade of the 20th century, beginning with 1900 (Gem of the Ocean) and ending with 1990 (Radio Golf).  All but one of the plays—Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1920)—are set in Pittsburgh.

“I pretended that Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) had a relationship with a dressmaker in Mississippi — she had this yellow dress made and thought it was fantastic," recollected costume designer Ann Roth. "But when she saw those city women in the fancy Chicago hotel, she knew the fur had to come out even though it was July. It was her armor.”

“I pretended that Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) had a relationship with a dressmaker in Mississippi — she had this yellow dress made and thought it was fantastic,” recollected costume designer Ann Roth. “But when she saw those city women in the fancy Chicago hotel, she knew the fur had to come out even though it was July. It was her armor.”

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom centers on a fictional afternoon in the life of Southern blues singer and recording artist, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, aka the “Mother of the Blues,” who has motored North in July 1927 with her sexy young girlfriend and nephew to record her signature songs in a steamy, bare bones Chicago recording studio. Flashbacks of Ma’s bawdy travelling tent show recall her dazzling stage presence and spirited fan base.

Hardened by her life as a black performer and gay woman in the Jim Crow South, Ma is wise to the ploys of her racist white record producer and condescending manager and her cocky young black horn player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman). All three men are trying to advance their careers and line their own pockets at her expense.

Big, bold and brassy, Ma is more than a match for the sidewinding white men who exploit her talent for their own financial gain, and for ambitious musician Levee who wants to kick-start his own career on her time, with her girlfriend.  Ma has every intention of recording her music her way, on her financial terms, and keep a firm grip on her girlfriend in the process.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom gave Roth the chance to work her magic in one of her favorite decades (the Twenties) and team up once again with director George C. Wolfe, the film’s producer Denzel Washington and star, actress Viola Davis.

Costume designer Ann Roth works her magic on the set of MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM. Photo: David Lee/Netflix.

Costume designer Ann Roth works her magic on the set of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. Photo: David Lee/Netflix.

“Ma Rainey was a tough, strong woman with gold teeth and a horsehair wig,” said Roth. “I loved it.”

Despite the project’s short lead time and few existent photos of the real Ma Rainey, Roth’s costume designs evolved from hours of meticulous period research in tandem with the film’s talented hair and makeup team. Roth, as always, set about transforming the actors into August Wilson-worthy characters, with viable backstories, no matter how brief their screen time.

“During the tent scene which must’ve had over 100 extras, I kid you not,” recalled Viola Davis. “Ann went up to every one of those extras. She explained where each part of their costumes came from and what it meant to be in that tent. It was a transformative experience.”

Roth bulked up Viola Davis with a rubber body suit, a mouthful of gold teeth, an authentic gold coin necklace, newsboy cap and fur stole, bodacious street and beaded stage garments, and advised the film’s hair and makeup team (also BAFTA winners and Oscar® nominees!) to top it all off with an extraordinary horsehair wig.

“Viola started moving in this new body, and experimented with how Ma’s going to swing that behind, and she started to find that woman and make her fabulous,” marveled Roth.

And lest we forget Levee’s fancy yellow shoes—the shoes he spots in a store window and splurges on en route to Ma’s recording session—Roth punched the character’s Florsheims up a few notches, tempting him instead with conspicuous yellow wingtips, signalling not only Levee’s exaggerated career aspirations but also their futility.  

Ann Roth’s lifelong fascination with all things dramatic, including the lives of the directors, writers and actors she admires, continues to propel her into grueling, overlapping film and theater assignments, most with repeat talent. She worked on 13 feature and cable films and numerous Broadway projects with her great friend, Mike Nichols; made three sweeping period films with director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, Cold Mountain and The Talented Mr. Ripley); and lately has linked up theatrically with Ma Rainey director George C. Wolfe.  At 89 years of age, with her second Oscar® looming, she is, at this writing, on set in North Carolina working on one of three films in her pipeline.

Just You, Just Me, Just Right…

Coincidentally, after apprenticing with fabled five-time Oscar®-winning costume designer Irene Sharaff, Ann Roth landed her first solo film gig on one of the secret pleasures of my youth:  The World of Henry Orient (1964).  I wanted to live the lives of those girls, and I never forgot teenage Tippy Walker’s mink coat.  Ann told me she got it off the back of a truck.

I first met Ann Roth almost 25 years ago.  I was asked to profile her for a lengthy magazine piece.  It sounds corny, but it’s true:  She “had me at ‘Hello’.”  I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have met, interviewed and worked with scores of incredibly talented artists, writers and filmmakers during my career as a journalist, publicist and Awards program director.  But crossing paths with Ann Roth for the first time, for me, was akin to being struck by a bolt of lightning.

I grew up with dreams of becoming a fashion designer like Coco Chanel and admired Oscar®-winning costume designer Edith Head for her commanding sense of style and chutzpah. I studied art in college, departed quickly from a post-grad stint at The Fashion Institute of Technology, and happily found my niche in graduate film school at NYU, where I never remember hearing the words “costume designer.”  The first thing I learned when I called Ann Roth to set up our first interview?  It’s best not to mention Edith Head.

“Edith Head dressed movie stars,” Ann said, punctuating the moment with the deliciously throaty growl she uses to express impatience.  “She didn’t dress the elevator man, the mother-in-law, or the secretary.  She did the leading lady.  I costume characters.  I’m not dressing stars.”

"I bought this red fox coat for two hundred bucks,” Ann Roth recalled about costuming Brenda Vaccaro in MIDNIGHT COWBOY. “I told Brenda not to worry, that she wouldn’t have to lie there naked. How could you not fall in love with a naked girl in a fur coat?”

“I bought this red fox coat for two hundred bucks,” Ann Roth recalled about costuming Brenda Vaccaro in MIDNIGHT COWBOY. “I told Brenda not to worry, that she wouldn’t have to lie there naked. How could you not fall in love with a naked girl in a fur coat?”

To say that I’ve been blessed to have been able to continue my relationship with her over the years is an understatement.  My time spent with Ann in her studio, the Costume Depot, in New York, and at her bucolic 18th century farm in rural PA, while preparing my original manuscript, are days I will never forget.  And the moments since then when we’ve connected are precious to me.  Her concern and comforting words when my mom passed away and during my own brief hospitalization were especially touching and very much appreciated given her exhausting work and travel schedule.

Little did I know when I received that fateful phone call from my editor more than two decades ago asking me to interview a costume designer (not named Edith Head!) that a window would open for me that would not only turn my preconceived notions about costume design on their ear, but also…and more importantly…bring a feisty and captivating new friend into my life.

The way we were. Judith Trojan and Ann Roth, circa 1997. Photo: Paul Schneck.

The way we were. Judith Trojan and Ann Roth, circa 1997. Photo: Paul Schneck.

Extraordinary talent, creative vision and an indomitable spirit got Ann Roth where she wanted to be.  “I always wanted my life to be an adventure,” she confided to me.  Knowing Ann has been one of my life’s great adventures.–Judith Trojan

♦♦♦♦♦♦ 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by George C. Wolfe, adapted by screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, from the play by August Wilson, was produced by Denzel Washington, Dany Wolf and Todd Black, and is available for streaming on Netflix.  The 93rd Academy Awards® will be telecast on ABC, Sunday, April 25, 2021, 8:00 p.m.ET/5:00 p.m.PT.  Ann Roth is the subject of The Designs of Ann Roth (2014), one of the USITT’s series of monographs on theatrical designers.  Costume Magic: Ann Roth Turns Burlap into Velvet by Judith Trojan, was published by Carnegie Mellon (Spring 1998).  And you can source Ann Roth’s November 16, 2014, CBS News Sunday Morning profile at www.cbsnews.com/sunday-morning/ or on YouTube.–JT

And the Winner Is…

Ann Roth received her 2020 Oscar® for “Best Costume Design” for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the 93rd Academy Awards®, on April 25, 2021. Bravo, Ann!–Judith Trojan 

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Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Tackle Hemingway in New PBS Series

American novelist, short story writer, journalist and sportsman ERNEST HEMINGWAY (1899 - 1961) at his home in Cuba, circa the 1950s. Photo courtesy A. E. Hotchner.

American novelist, short story writer, journalist and sportsman ERNEST HEMINGWAY (1899 – 1961) at his home in Cuba, circa the 1950s. Photo courtesy A. E. Hotchner.

“Our intent is to offer viewers an honest portrayal of a complex and conflicted writer who left an indelible mark on literature.”–Ken Burns.

The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Novels, short stories, battlefield dispatches, magazine columns, newspaper reportage, and a raft of unpublished personal correspondence. Ernest Hemingway mastered them all, and has been deemed the “most revered American writer since Mark Twain.”

Ernest Hemingway’s distinctive pared down prose, deceptively masculine sensibility and impressive output during the first half of the 20th century grabbed the literary world and public by storm.  He garnered a Pulitzer, a Nobel Prize, a National Book Award nomination and a high profile celebrity presence, the latter ignited in large part by his troubled, testosterone and booze-fueled lifestyle that he fictionalized in his work and embellished into myth.  But, as is evident in the riveting new six-hour documentary miniseries, Hemingway, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and scripted by Geoffrey C. Ward, the lifelong mental and physical baggage festering just below the surface of his disciplined writing career not only informed his work but ended up destroying it and him as well.

Hemingway family portrait, circa October 1903, from left: Ursula, dad Clarence, Ernest, mom Grace and sister Marcelline Hemingway. Photo courtesy Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Hemingway family portrait, circa October 1903, from left: Ursula, dad Clarence, Ernest, mom Grace and sister Marcelline Hemingway. Photo courtesy Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick orchestrate an uncompromising look at the man behind the myth in Hemingway, debuting on PBS in three, two-hour installments, beginning with Episode 1: “A Writer (1899 – 1929)” tonight, Monday, April 5, 2021, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  Episode 2: “The Avatar (1929-1944)” and Episode 3: “The Blank Page (1944-1961)” follow at the same time on succeeding nights. (Check local listings and see below for complete screening info.)

Ernest Hemingway may seem like a surprising departure for filmmakers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Geoffrey C. Ward who have collaborated on such lofty historical and cultural subjects as the Vietnam War, World War II, the Roosevelts, prohibition and baseball, to name a few.  But, in fact, Hemingway’s timeline, albeit relatively microscopic by Burns’ recent standards, has all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy spanning multiple continents and an impressive array of transformative cultural, historical and socio-political milestones.

Ernest Hemingway in the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, Italy, 1918, recovering from injuries suffered as a volunteer for the American Red Cross during World War I. Photo: © Henry Villard.

Ernest Hemingway in the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, Italy, 1918, recovering from injuries suffered as a volunteer for the American Red Cross during World War I. Photo: © Henry Villard.

Traversing Hemingway’s 61-year life span, we thread through the Parisian ex-patriate art and literary scene of the 1920s; the gruesome battlefields of three major wars; the boudoirs of four wives and numerous mistresses; the high seas off the coast of Florida; the dive bars in Key West and Cuba; bullfighting rings in Spain; and big game hunts in Africa.  Add the upper middle class Midwestern childhood in Oak Park, Illinois, that unfolded idyllically at the turn of the 20th century, then turned sour, imprinting Hemingway’s facility for writing and fascination with pursuits that drew a flimsy line between life and death.

This is heady stuff.  Notable literary scholars, critics and authors provide ample commentary about Hemingway’s oeuvre and the lifestyle that informed it.  Actor Jeff Daniels initially seems an odd choice to voice passages from Hemingway’s work and unpublished correspondence.  But when we finally hear Hemingway’s actual voice via archival footage and audio clips (you’d think it would be huskier with all of his risky business, serial head injuries and heavy drinking), it’s clear that Daniels’ Midwestern twang was well cast.

Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in Chamby, Switzerland, circa 1922.

Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in Chamby, Switzerland, circa 1922.

“The effect upon women is such that they want to go right out and get him and bring him home…stuffed,” said Dorothy Parker.

Much of the film series is driven by Hemingway’s women… the ones that got away and the ones that didn’t and wish they had.  His four wives are major players… two of whom (Hadley Richardson and Pauline Pfeiffer) bit the dust when someone more alluring came along; one of whom (Martha Gellhorn) dared call it quits on her own; and his fourth and final wife, Mary Welsh, who stuck by him at the end of his life when he was at his most mentally unhinged and abusive.  His controlling, self-absorbed mom, who decided that he and his slightly older sister should dress as same sex twins, seems to have planted the seeds of Hemingway’s adult predilection for switching he/she roles with his female lovers.

Ernest Hemingway's second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, cutting his hair.

Ernest Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, cutting his hair.

“Many women feel that Hemingway hated women and wrote adversely about them,” said Edna O’Brien. “I would ask his detractors, female or male, to read this story: Up in Michigan.  Could you in all honor say that this was a writer who didn’t understand women’s emotions and hated women?”

The exhaustively researched vintage footage and photos, passages from his work and correspondence are all wonderfully evocative.  I was especially taken with the rare clips of his pal Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of the legendary Parisian bookshop and literary hangout, Shakespeare & Company; and the many comments from 90-year-old Irish author Edna O’Brien, who touched me with her insightful and sensitive remarks about Hemingway’s work.

I also applaud the inclusion of Hemingway’s middle son Patrick Hemingway, who has some surprisingly positive things to say about his peripatetic childhood, his serial moms, and especially his dad.

The only visual downside here?  Hemingway’s obsession with bullfighting and big game hunting is covered extensively with graphic photos and film footage, especially in Episode 2. Animal lovers beware!

Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, en route to China in 1941.

Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, en route to China in 1941.

Hemingway aficionados and individuals with little previous knowledge of Ernest Hemingway will find much in this miniseries to incite revisiting and reading of his work. It will be an evergreen and indispensable asset in high school and college classrooms as well.

Hemingway Episode 1: “A Writer (1899 – 1929)” premieres on PBS tonight, Monday, April 5, 2021, 8:00 -10:00 p.m. ET.  Episode 2: “The Avatar (1929 – 1944)” debuts on Tuesday, April 6, 8:00 -10:00 p.m. ET.  Episode 3:  “The Blank Page (1944 – 1961)” follows on Wednesday, April 7, 8:00 -10:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, and ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.)

Hemingway will be available to stream for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including www.pbs.org and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV and Chromecast.  PBS station members can also view the documentary via PBS Passport, as part of a full collection of Ken Burns’ films.–Judith Trojan

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Tina Turner Is Simply the Best on HBO

“I had an abusive life. It’s a reality so you have to accept it,” says Tina Turner, as she contemplates the physical and emotional blows she absorbed as the abandoned child of sharecroppers in Nutbush, TN, and as the physically battered and emotionally abused young musical partner and wife of rock ‘n’ roll bandleader Ike Turner.

Thankfully, for fans like me, there were some very, very good days and nights for “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” Tina Turner… especially those she spent performing on stage, in recording studios and on film and TV.

I was lucky to have attended a performance of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love?” tour in 1993.  It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever experienced.  She was electrifying as she sang and danced in her sparkly signature mini dresses and high heels, on, over and around the elevated stage set scaffolding.  I remember holding my breath as she navigated the heights of that scaffolding, marveling at her voice, her agility and those legs!!  She was 53 at the time.

Tina Turner’s landmark musical performances, signature songs and personal appearances on TV talk and game shows and in movies, as well as flashbacks to the intimate dark corners of her life are all encapsulated in TINA, the new feature-length documentary directed by Oscar® winners Dan Lindsay and T. J. Martin.  TINA debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, March 27, 2021, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (See below for further info.)

Tina Turner and the Ikettes performing in January 1976. Photo courtesy Rhonda Graam/HBO.

Tina Turner and the Ikettes performing in January 1976. Photo courtesy Rhonda Graam/HBO.

Tina Turner’s 50-year career began innocently in a Baptist church choir, segued in 1957 from hopeful starry-eyed Ike Turner fan to show-stopping lead singer/dancer in his Ike & Tina revue, and matured into a Grammy Award®-winning solo career.

Lindsay and Martin’s two-hour Tina Turner tribute is a time-lined mélange of  recent interviews with Turner (now 81) and her husband, Erwin Bach, a former  record producer and the film’s executive producer.  The film is also jampacked with excerpts from her revelatory 1981 interview with People Magazine editor Carl Arrington; vintage performance clips and audio dating from before and during Ike & Tina’s meteoric rise, as well as commentary from key backup singers and managers; Turner’s biographer Kurt Loder; her mom and son Craig.

Turner’s pals Oprah Winfrey, actress Angela Bassett and playwright Katori Hall, the latter is responsible for the recent Tony nominated “Tina–The Tina Turner Musical,” additionally share their insights about Tina Turner’s singular appeal as a performer, her resilience as the survivor of shocking domestic violence and her successful career comeback.

Tina Turner and her four sons' home life was not happy and healthy as fans and the media were led to believe. Photo courtesy Rhonda Graam/HBO.

Tina Turner and her four sons’ home life was not happy and healthy as fans and the media were led to believe. Photo courtesy Rhonda Graam/HBO.

Audio clips from Carl Arrington’s explosive People Magazine interview drive the personal narrative of this film. The 1981 exposé blew the lid off her unhappy marriage and family life, revealing details of her brutal treatment at the hands of her mentor and former husband Ike Turner.

Unbeknownst to the growing legion of Ike & Tina fans at the time, Ike would beat her, choke her, throw scalding coffee on her, strike her with anything he could lay his hands on, before or after performances. She would often perform swollen, bruised and blackened from these incidents. One of their sons, who with his three brothers bore witness to their mom’s ongoing torture by their dad, details a chilling incident that pushed him to cut ties with his dad forever. Tina admits that after Ike died, and she had let go of the hate she felt for him, she realized that “he was a really ill person.”

Also relevant to her story as a 16-plus year victim of Ike’s abuse is her harrowing memory of her escape.  After several suicide attempts and Ike’s mindless attack in a limo on the way to a performance, she literally made a run for it… across a busy highway.  She somehow dodged oncoming trucks that day but not Ike’s vindictive divorce demands thereafter.  She walked away from her Ike & Tina career and marriage with nothing but the hard fought right to use her stage name.

Tina Turner in concert in Versailles, France, circa June 1990. Photo: ARNAL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Tina Turner in concert in Versailles, France, circa June 1990. Photo: ARNAL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Bolstered by a supportive new manager and her determination to rebuild her life and re-brand her name and career, Tina’s journey from longtime abuse victim and survivor to beloved superstar was astounding. Her showstopping performances, numerous Grammy Awards® and nominations, and hit songs bridged musical genres and fulfilled her dream to jump to the top of the Billboard charts and fill huge concert stadiums that were once the bastion of male counterparts like Mick Jagger.

Melding 50 years of powerful archival performance footage with explosive vintage audio and on-camera interviews is more than a tad daunting and, at times, the seams tend to show in TINA.  Questions remain unanswered, especially about how she managed to juggle the daily responsibilities of motherhood with the demands of endless concert tours. I would have also liked to have heard more from her sons.  But these quibbles aside, TINA is a welcome and moving reminder of Tina Turner’s extraordinary talent and her evergreen appeal as a performer and role model to women of all ages.

Of the many wonderful musical vignettes in TINA, the one that stands out to me and literally brought tears to my eyes is her haunting rendition of the Beatles’ signature song, “Help!”  In light of the secret life that Tina Turner lived and survived as a tortured young performer, wife and mother, it is an especially resonant song choice that speaks directly to those whose self esteem and hope is shattered by their physically and emotionally abusive domestic partners and spouses.

Tina Turner and her husband, Erwin Bach, now live in happy retirement in a beautifully appointed home in Zurich, Switzerland.  Photo courtesy HBO.

Tina Turner and her husband, Erwin Bach, now live in happy retirement in a beautifully appointed home in Zurich, Switzerland.  Photo courtesy HBO.

TINA debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, March 27, 2021, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.  Check listings for repeat air dates in the days and weeks ahead and its availability thereafter on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max.–Judith Trojan

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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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