The Time Is Still Right for A Time for Burning

A TIME FOR BURNING explores Lutheran pastor Bill Youngdahl's failed attempt in 1965 to integrate his congregation in Omaha, Nebraska. Photo courtesy Bill Jersey.

A TIME FOR BURNING explores Lutheran pastor Bill Youngdahl’s failed attempt in 1965 to integrate his congregation in Omaha, Nebraska. Photo courtesy Bill Jersey.

“Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”–Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963.

It’s hard for me to admit, but until recently, I never connected the dots between Bill Jersey’s 1965 landmark Civil Rights documentary, A Time for Burning, and the events that splintered ties to my own childhood church in New Jersey.

Ever since I met Bill, who I now consider a dear friend, and began writing about his work, I’ve struggled to do justice to his groundbreaking film.  Yes, the subject matter is extremely troubling; but I failed to realize that it was hitting too close to home for me.  I grew up in a bucolic all-white community, developed post-war on Dutch and German farmland in Clifton, NJ.  I was baptized and confirmed in the Allwood Community Church, a lovely clapboard church serving congregants of the Dutch Reformed Church of America. The Protestant denomination was newsworthy at the time thanks to the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, whose “Power of Positive Thinking” mantra spiked attendance at his Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in NYC.

For the better part of my active church membership during my childhood and young adulthood, circa the 1950’s through the late 1960’s, our minister was the Rev. Raymond J. Pontier.  He and his wife, a popular high school teacher, and their kids became beloved members of our church, civic and school communities. He also built a highly visible statewide coalition with Catholic and Jewish religious leaders, was a Board member of the NJ ACLU and active in numerous organizations working for peace and justice.  After living almost two decades under his quiet but socially progressive influence, I later realized how impactful he was on the choices I would make as an adult and journalist.

That he managed to remain a minister in our church for 18 years was remarkable for two reasons.  For one thing, ministers tend to migrate from church to church within their designated Protestant denominations. And secondly, as the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements took hold across the country during the mid-to-late Sixties, Rev. Pontier practiced what he preached.  His advocacy for fair housing and abortion rights and against the war triggered his censure by our Church Elders.  It became a dirty battle.

Frankly, I was shocked, given the years of service this man had given to our church and community.  My mom and I wrote supportive letters in his defense.  My letter was especially pointed.  The whole thing, I said, smacked of a witch hunt.  I was in high school or college, just a year or two younger than one of his draft-age sons. I’m proud to say that my letter was read aloud in his support at a pivotal meeting convened by our Church Consistory.  He thanked me. But our letters didn’t do any good.  Rev. Pontier was ousted and subsequently found a welcome niche in the Unitarian Universalist Church.  I left the Allwood Community Church.

The parallels between my experience and the toppling house of cards documented in A Time for Burning are clear and unsettling.

“The only way is by taking the big risk, the hero’s journey, to look at things honestly.”–director Bill Jersey, A Time for Burning.

Commissioned by Lutheran Film Associates in 1965, Bill Jersey’s A Time for Burning documents the efforts of young Lutheran Pastor Bill Youngdahl to follow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s example and integrate a large, all-white church in Omaha. With each new revelation from Pastor Youngdahl’s white, seemingly Christ-loving congregants, it became painfully clear, however, that this film would not travel the trajectory of traditional run-of-the-mill “sponsored” films.

“The Lutheran Church hired me to make a film for them on the church’s response to racial tension,” recalled Bill Jersey.  “So I found a minister who had an integrated church in Orange, New Jersey, and was being called to a big all-white church in Omaha. I knew he’d want to integrate it, and that there could be some tension. I met with the minister, who said, ‘You can do a film here, there’s no problem.’  The church fathers had hoped to show their organization responding effectively to the tension embroiling the country over this issue, but it was not turning out that way.”

Systemic racism stymied Pastor Bill Youngdahl's mission to bridge the racial divide in Omaha, Nebraska, circa 1965.

Systemic racism stymied Pastor Bill Youngdahl’s mission to bridge the racial divide in Omaha, Nebraska, circa 1965.

The 56-minute documentary tracks the crises of conscience and faith that arose when pastor Bill Youngdahl encouraged his white congregation to engage with black congregants from a neighboring Lutheran church. Despite his gentle, faith-based approach, Pastor Youngdahl’s impact on Omaha’s Lutheran community proved to be, as Jersey predicted, incendiary. The brick walls that the idealistic young pastor valiantly tried to knock down between whites and blacks were so firmly implanted that he faced the unthinkable: deep-seated racism from his white congregants and distrust and fear from neighboring black congregants.

As filming progressed, the God-fearing citizens of Omaha, both white and black, provided filmmaker Jersey with a litany of soul-crushing revelations: “One white Omaha church member said of the African-American congregants: ‘I want God to bless them as much as He blesses me… I just can’t be in the same room with them.’ Another said, ‘I don’t see the problem… I had a Negro in my gym class.’ An African-American barber (Ernie Chambers) commented on the white churchgoers, ‘Your Jesus is contaminated–just like everything else you do!'”

Unencumbered by a script, narrator, identifying subtitles, timelines or media stars and filmed with a minimal crew, A Time for Burning became a benchmark film in the nascent cinéma vérité movement. The critically acclaimed Civil Rights documentary was broadcast on most PBS stations nationwide, but its unorthodox format and unvarnished content was not a fit for network broadcast at the time. The film did impress Fred Friendly, the legendary President of CBS News, who ultimately called it “the finest Civil Rights’ film ever made.”

A Time for Burning subsequently received an Academy Award® nomination for Best Documentary Feature, was added to the Smithsonian’s permanent collection and, in 2004, was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the prestigious National Film Registry. In 2012, it was transferred from the original 16mm film to 35mm by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“For me, cinéma vérité means letting the truth drive the story."--BILL JERSEY.

“For me, cinéma vérité means letting the truth drive the story.”–BILL JERSEY.

The film thrust Bill Jersey to the forefront of the cinéma vérité movement where he has remained for more than 50 years, producing and directing independent documentaries on such hot button issues as racism, criminal justice, gang violence, AIDS, Communism and integration. Despite his résumé of more than 100 films, Jersey—with typical self-effacement—claims to have lost count of the awards and nominations he’s received. In the mix are names like Emmy, Oscar, Peabody, DuPont Columbia, Christopher, Gabriel, Cindy and Cine Golden Eagle.

Who could have predicted that more than half-a-century after its release in 1967, A Time for Burning would continue to resonate… and painfully so.  America remains polarized by systemic racism. And the film’s title could easily serve as a mantra for the firestorm now empowering Americans in the months following George Floyd’s murder. The thought that he is not the first and won’t be the last victim of racist cops is a hard pill to swallow.

The question remains: How many more shocking cell phone videos and documentary films will we have to watch and how many more decades or centuries will it take for us to fulfill Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 call for an end to racism in America?

I encourage you to revisit A Time for Burning or screen it for the first time.  You can stream it for free @  https://vimeo.com/426115081/6f642677bf  And while you’re at it, check out the YouTube DocTalk video link @ https://youtu.be/TORZvA4pQU4 for a fascinating half-hour panel discussion about the film, featuring director Bill Jersey, the film’s executive producer Robert E.A. Lee, and NPR film critic Elvis Mitchell. –Judith Trojan

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

Remembering Comedy Legend Carl Reiner (1922-2020)

CARL REINER (1922-2020), circa 1962. Photo courtesy CBS via Getty Images.

CARL REINER (1922-2020), circa 1962. Photo courtesy CBS via Getty Images.

“It’s now 1:00 a.m., and I am going upstairs to my computer to tweet out my thought of the day, because I can. I have the freedom to do that because of people like you who are committed to protecting our liberties and our Constitution.”Carl Reiner to Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, July 9, 2017.

Ninety-five-year-old Carl Reiner wrote those words to Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in a letter published in The New York Times encouraging Kennedy to delay his retirement.  I turned 70 just two days before that, but the promise held by my own retirement was soon upended by a series of unexpected, spirit-breaking challenges.  And now this… Record numbers of Americans have fallen victim to COVID-19, as asymptomatic carriers or seriously ill patients. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s brutal murder-by-cop, mass protests have filled the streets in support of Black Lives Matter, while others have rallied to save Confederate statues and flags and against life-saving COVID-19 restrictions. Teachers and school administrators fear returning to COVID-compromised classrooms in the Fall.  And skunks of various stripes have morally bankrupt the White House and G.O.P. and rendered my only refuge (my backyard garden) off-limits.

Let’s face it, news of the day is unrelentingly grim, and life as we used to know and love it is indefinitely on pause.  When Carl Reiner passed away on June 29, 2020, at the age of 98, I thought the gig was up. Would I ever laugh again?

But then I remembered that comedy legend Carl Reiner had a lot more shtick to share before he called it quits. “Every morning before having breakfast,” he’d say, “I pick up my newspaper, get the obituary section and see if I’m listed. If not, I have my breakfast.” Never one to let a good idea go south, Reiner parlayed that humorous A.M. confession into an engaging film project. He was 95 at the time.

Ninety-five-year-old Carl Reiner celebrated his peers as host and prime subject of IF YOU'RE NOT IN THE OBIT, EAT BREAKFAST (2017). Photo courtesy HBO.

Ninety-five-year-old Carl Reiner celebrated his peers as host and prime subject of IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE OBIT, EAT BREAKFAST in 2017. Photo courtesy HBO.

If you only see (or revisit!) one film this week… or next week… or the week after that, do yourself a favor and make sure it’s If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll thank Carl Reiner for good timing and me for pointing you in the right direction. I reviewed the documentary here in FrontRowCenter when it debuted on HBO exactly three years ago in 2017.  The film can still be accessed via HBO On Demand and streamed via HBO Max and affiliate portals.  Or buy the DVD!

Three of these talented guys enjoyed close friendships well into their nineties. From left: Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks and Norman Lear. Photo courtesy HBO.

Three of these talented guys enjoyed close friendships well into their nineties. From left: Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks and Norman Lear. Photo courtesy HBO.

Directed by Danny Gold and produced by Carl Reiner’s nephew and agent, George Shapiro, who also appears in the film, If You’re Not in the Obit proves what fellow humorist Mark Twain asserted more than 100 years ago, that “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

At the time of this film’s original release, Carl Reiner was a youthful 95 and still actively engaged as a comedy writer, director, actor, author, raconteur and cohort of his son, film director Rob “Meathead” Reiner.  An unstoppable force of nature, Carl was especially keen on meeting and profiling a thriving bunch of nonagenarians and a few centenarians who defied negative American ageist stereotypes and encouraged the rest of us by their example.

Reiner didn’t have to venture too far afield for his subjects.  Some of his closest pals and colleagues–Mel Brooks (90), Norman Lear (94), Dick Van Dyke (91) and Betty White (95)–were more than willing and able to participate. Mel Brooks’ repartee with Reiner on-camera and in vintage animated “2000 Year Old Man” clips is priceless. But even more important was Brooks’ role as Reiner’s nearest and dearest best friend. Lifelong friendships are key to healthy longevity.  My first concern upon hearing of Reiner’s passing was how is Mel?  He must be devastated.

Dick Van Dyke and his wife, Arlene Silver, enjoy the their successful May-December marriage in IF YOU'RE NOT IN THE OBIT. Photo courtesy HBO.

Dick Van Dyke and his wife, Arlene Silver, enjoy the their successful May-December marriage in IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE OBIT. Photo courtesy HBO.

Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke’s lives initially intersected on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-66). If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast includes vintage clips from that sitcom.  Shared memories recall highlights from their early comedy careers and showcase Van Dyke’s ongoing effervescence and agility and the touching rationale behind his late-in-life marriage to a much younger woman.

In contrast to bubbly Dick Van Dyke, Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee was all business at 94 as he recounted unapologetically the trajectory of his transition to comic book writer, publisher, media mogul, actor and nonretirement.  Stan Lee passed away in November 2018, six weeks before his 96th birthday.

Since my early twenties and throughout my career, I’ve been drawn to and have written extensively about individuals and films about individuals who in advanced age continue to engage, excel and inspire.  If You’re Not in the Obit is by far one of the best and most refreshing examples of that genre. It doesn’t hurt that my favorite singer, Tony Bennett, at 90, opens the film with a wonderful performance of “The Best Is Yet to Come.”

The film blends no-nonsense life lessons from a fascinating mix of nonagenarians and centenarians who’ve surmounted family losses, debilitating illnesses and depression and continue to dance; practice and teach yoga; sky dive; sing; perform as classical pianists and instrumentalists; act; run marathons; author books; paint; and serve as fashion icons.

At 101, Ida Keeling works out an hour every day. In IF YOU'RE NOT IN THE OBIT, she and her daughter recall her transition at age 67 from a depressed mom mourning the murder of her sons to a healthy marathon runner. Photo courtesy HBO.

At 101, Ida Keeling worked out an hour every day. In IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE OBIT, she and her daughter recall her transition at age 67 from a depressed mom mourning the murder of her sons to a healthy marathon runner. Photo courtesy HBO.

Aside from the inspiration and insights garnered from Carl Reiner and his remarkable peer group, there are some younger voices here as well. Longevity expert Dan Buettner sheds light on why some people flourish in advanced age and how the rest of us can do the same. And comedian Jerry Seinfeld caught me, a fellow Baby Boomer, by surprise with his sensitive take on the subject and some serious personal revelations.

“You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you’re down there.”–George Burns

I laughed out loud when I read that quote from one of Seinfeld’s role models, George Burns.  I also winced a little… because I can relate to it. Burns was in his nineties and sharp as a tack when I was lucky to catch his stand-up routine at the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey. He had long ago booked, but eventually was unable to perform, a gig at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on his 100th birthday.  He died a month after turning 100 on March 9, 1996.

Laughter was the best medicine according to Carl Reiner and Betty White, who shared the secrets of their longevity in IF YOU'RE NOT IN THE OBIT, EAT BREAKFAST. Photo courtesy HBO.

Laughter was the best medicine according to Carl Reiner and Betty White, who shared the secrets of their longevity in IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE OBIT, EAT BREAKFAST. Photo courtesy HBO.

If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast debuted on HBO in 2017, exactly three years ago, and can still be accessed via HBO On Demand and streamed via HBO Max and affiliate portals.

No access to HBO?  Then you owe it to yourself to find another way to watch and even own a copy of this entertaining, inspiring and timely film.  It’s an evergreen reminder, as per feature film director Luis Buñuel, that “Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you’re a cheese.” –Judith Trojan

Posted in Cable, Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark Makes Chilling Debut on HBO

“I had a murder habit and it was bad.  I would feed it for the rest of my life.”–Michelle McNamara.

I’ve had the privilege of interviewing and profiling many notable filmmakers and writers in my career, but none more fascinating than best selling author Ann Rule (1931-2015). Dubbed “America’s True Crime Queen,” she wrote 35  New York Times Best Sellers that probed the psyche of seemingly normal, accomplished individuals who murder. A former police officer and lifelong student of forensic science and criminology, Rule had a fascinating backstory. Inspired by Truman Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, she remembered thinking, “If only I could get into a killer’s mind like Capote did.  He took the truth and wove it into a seamless story instead of a staccato police report.”

While researching and selling true crime stories to True Detective and other publications, Ann Rule found herself in the thick of a breaking case that would inspire her own In Cold Blood.  In 1971-72, she volunteered at a Seattle suicide hot line two nights a week with work-study student Ted Bundy. In 1975, she signed her first book contract to write about a baffling string of coed murders in the Northwest. The term “serial killer” had yet to be coined.  Ted Bundy eventually confessed to those grisly murders and more in other states and became the subject of her first book, The Stranger Beside Me (1980).

The Bundy connection jump-started Rule’s book career, but shattered her innocence. “With all my training, nothing aberrant showed in him,” she recalled.  “That’s what’s so frightening. He presented a kind, empathetic mask to the world.”

Rule confessed “I would’ve trusted him with my daughters.” During the time she befriended Bundy, he was already raping and burglarizing, but he never touched Rule. “I wasn’t his type. Serial killers don’t kill people they know.”

Oddly enough, during the 1970’s and ’80s, roughly about the same time Bundy was on the prowl in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, a string of idiosyncratic home burglaries, 50 brutal home invasion rapes and 12 murders were terrorizing clusters of low-crime neighborhoods in Northern and Southern California. Dubbed variously as the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Raper (EAR), the Original Night Stalker (ONS) and the Golden State Killer, the predator or predators stymied original investigators who failed to link cases occurring beyond their jurisdictions. The cases went cold, and 37 boxes of case files were stockpiled and forgotten.

Left behind were a long list of traumatized survivors–those who were brutally raped as teenagers and young women; the parents, spouses and children of those women; the families and friends of the men and women who were murdered; the detectives who failed them–and the amateur and professional sleuths who kept the EAR/ONS cases alive in online chat rooms and crime blogs.

“Murderers lose their power the moment we know them,” believed true crime writer Michelle McNamara. Photo: Robyn Von Swank/HBO.

One of the most dogged online crime junkies was writer Michelle McNamara, whose blog, TrueCrimeDiary.com, chronicled her fascination with unsolved crimes. Like Ann Rule, she aspired as a writer to mirror Truman Capote’s novelistic approach. She was determined to bring the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker (EAR/ONS), whom she dubbed the “Golden State Killer,” to justice and assure closure for the rape victims, their families and the families of the murder victims.  She began building bridges with the EAR/ONS victims, many of whom had never even shared their stories with their closest friends and families (rape victims were regularly diminished by the judicial system in the 1970’s and ’80s).  Disturbing patterns emerged through her research, connecting the burglaries, rapes and murders in disparate California communities to a single perpetrator. She was hooked.

She found a willing market in Los Angeles Magazine for her story, and the hoopla generated by the magazine article led to a book contract with HarperCollins.  She was on her way, but faced pitfalls that took an emotional and physical toll on her as a writer, wife and mother.

Michelle McNamara and her husband, actor Patton Oswalt. Photo courtesy HBO.

Her supportive husband, actor/comedian Patton Oswalt; their tiny precocious daughter, Alice; Michelle’s siblings; the retired detectives whose memory of the crimes never faded; the true crime onliners who joined her team; her agent and her editors at Los Angeles Magazine and HarperCollins all played pivotal roles in the drama driven by Michelle McNamara’s obsession.

“When I’m puzzling over the details of an unsolved crime, I’m like a rat in a maze given a task,” wrote Michelle McNamara. “I’ve felt in the truest sense of the word, gripped.”

You too will be gripped by McNamara’s half-decade crusade as it is revisited in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the new six-part limited series debuting tonight, Sunday, June 28, 2020, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO (see below for details).

Emmy winner Liz Garbus, producer/director of the HBO limited series I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK. Photo: Henny Garfunkel/HBO.

Based on Michelle McNamara’s 2018 book of the same name, the series is helmed by Emmy® Award-winning documentary producer/director Liz Garbus who corralled a brilliant crew of talented directors and editors to tell Michelle McNamara’s story.

Garbus and her team create a riveting portrait of a writer possessed.  The six episodes are chockablock with relevant family and crime scene photos and ephemera, early home and school video clips, voice mail messages, podcast audio, and filmed interviews with McNamara, her husband and siblings, devoted colleagues and, most especially, the now middle-aged victims who have their own painful stories to tell.

Passages from her personal diaries, blog, magazine article, emails and text messages are threaded throughout, as are seamlessly incorporated dramatic recreations and clips from McNamara’s book read in voice over by actress Amy Ryan. It should be noted that Ryan’s and McNamara’s voices are indistinguishable here.

This is a masterful portrait of one young woman’s relentless obsession to right a boatload of horrific wrongs perpetrated almost a half century ago and left unpunished.  There were powerful life-altering outcomes for Michelle McNamara and her family, friends, colleagues, and the victims who trusted McNamara and can now embrace closure and a community of supportive survivors as friends.

If you haven’t read McNamara’s book and are coming to this story for the first time, I won’t ruin this incredible documentary series for you by including spoilers.  Suffice it to say that it is imperative that you stick with this series, even if it gives you nightmares.  Better yet, stream it through to the end (the last two episodes especially will knock your socks off) to see why and how Michelle McNamara’s journey ended and if it fulfilled her dream to bring the diabolically evil perpetrator out of the shadows of time, enabling his victims and the criminal justice system to finally see him, as she had hoped to see him, in the light of day–old and powerless.

MICHELLE McNAMARA (1970-2016). Photo: Robyn Von Swank/HBO.

“Murderers lose their power the moment we know them,” she concluded.  I guarantee that once you commit to this film series, you won’t be able to look away. I’m sure Truman Capote and Ann Rule would concur.

Episode One: “Murder Habit” of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark debuts on HBO tonight, Sunday, June 28, 2020, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET/PT. Premiere Episodes 2-6 follow on successive Sundays, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET/PT.  Check listings for repeat air dates for all episodes once they debut and their availability on HBO Now, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, HBO Max, and other partners’ streaming platforms.–Judith Trojan

Posted in Cable, Film, Journalism, Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Mae West: Dirty Blonde Takes Center Stage on PBS

MAE WEST as she appeared in the Paramount film, I'M NO ANGEL (1933).  Photo: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images.

MAE WEST as she appeared in the Paramount film, I’M NO ANGEL (1933).  Photo: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images.

“When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.”–Mae West.

Mae West lived to be 87 or 88… her birth year seems to be a matter of debate.  For at least 80 of those years, she gave new meaning to the word “show” in her chosen profession.

At a time when very few women in show business had the guts to wangle higher salaries and production control from the fat cats who held Broadway and Hollywood in their grip, she managed to swing both.  And they sure made a good investment. Her incendiary Broadway plays drew record crowds and a boatload of publicity.  Her successful run of films during the height of the Great Depression pulled Paramount Pictures from the brink of bankruptcy.

Tantalizing highlights of Mae West’s colorful life story are recalled via vintage archival footage, feature film and TV clips and an excessive number of talking heads in the latest episode of the Award-winning American Masters series.  Mae West: Dirty Blonde debuts on PBS tonight, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/ 7:00 p.m. Central. (Check local listings for air times in your region, http://www.pbs.org/maewest and the PBS Video app for streaming, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.)

Mae West was a power player and trailblazer and her forte was sex. She dressed the part, sang the songs, and delivered the racy lines she wrote to make censors cringe and audiences roar with laughter. “I believe in censorship,” she said. “After all, I made a fortune out of it.”

Through eight decades, she established herself as a singer, dancer, actress, playwright, screenwriter, director and producer, in a career that began as child actress “Baby Mae” in Brooklyn dives, then quickly segued to vaudeville and burlesque, where she was credited with popularizing a suggestive dance called “the shimmy.”

Next stop Broadway, where after making a splash in small bawdy roles, she wrote and starred in her risqué 1926 play, Sex, which landed her in a paddy wagon, arrested with 20 other cast members and convicted for obscenity and corrupting “the morals of youth.” She schmoozed with the warden and his wife, and her 10-day jail sentence was aborted for good behavior.

Riding the wave of naughty notoriety, she sashayed back to town and followed Sex with The Drag in 1927, featuring a homosexual theme that dabbled in conversion therapy and climaxed with a drag ball that she cast with 40 or 50 gay and cross-dressing non-pros.  The play closed out of town, but cemented her popularity in the LGBTQ community that continues to this day.

Rafaela Ottiano and Mae West heat up the screen in SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933). Photo © Paramount Pictures.

Rafaela Ottiano and Mae West heat up the screen in SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933). Photo © Paramount Pictures.

While her buxom hourglass figure and titillating characters had surefire appeal to straight men, she deliberately gussied up her next play, Diamond Lil (1928), with gorgeous costumes to broaden her fan base and attract female audiences. It worked.

Diamond Lil became a commercial and critical hit and led to her record-breaking contract with Paramount Pictures. She not only negotiated a higher salary than the Paramount Studio chief who hired her, but the contract also assured her unprecedented control over every aspect of her films, from costumes and lighting to scripts and leading men.  And so, in the blink of Mae West’s baby blues, Cary Grant came out of the shadows from studio test extra to land his first leading man role opposite West in She Done Him Wrong (1933), a screen adaptation of her play, Diamond Lil.

“I wrote the story myself,” said Mae West. “It’s all about a girl who lost her reputation but never missed it.”

When the infamous Motion Picture Production Code kicked into high gear in Hollywood in 1934, her films were targeted by the censors.  She persevered, but soon America had a new, censor friendly box office superstar: Shirley Temple.

Mae West and George Raft in NIGHT AFTER NIGHT (1932). Photo: John Springer Collection.

Mae West and George Raft in NIGHT AFTER NIGHT (1932). Photo: John Springer Collection.

At the height of her success, Mae West wasn’t rail thin or a sweet young thing, but she could stop traffic and turn men into mush with her sexy stroll and bon mots.  She always had the upper hand with the men she seduced on and off camera, from Cary Grant and George Raft to W.C. Fields and the phalanx of oiled-up muscle men she featured in her Las Vegas nightclub act during her twilight years. “She stole everything but the cameras,” recalled George Raft.

The period during which Mae West’s life story and show business career played out is rich with potential for any filmmaker. She was and remains an icon–a subversive female artist and writer before her time–and her story has yet to be told fully on screen.

The directors of Mae West: Dirty Blonde, Sally Rosenthal and Julia Marchesi, work hard to make their 90-minute running time work for West.  They incorporate wonderful vintage period footage to frame West’s evolution from “Baby Mae” to “Diamond Lil.” Clips from West’s films, as well as abbreviated segments featuring her highly touted TV appearance on Dick Cavett’s talk show, her shelved interview in 1959 with Charles Collingwood for CBS-TV’s “Person to Person,” and her scandalous 1937 NBC Radio tête-â-tête with Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen are high points.

But Rosenthal and Marchesi play it safe… too safe. They plump up the narrative with an overpowering music score, and pack their film with historians and critics, as well as a few of West’s erstwhile pals who have a backstory to tell but don’t tell it, and an odd assortment of show business names that could easily have been replaced by a narrator to whom contemporary audiences would immediately relate and whose career is distinctly modeled on West’s.  Paging Bette Midler!

Bette Midler serves as an Executive Producer of this film.  She would have been an ideal narrator or, at the very least, a prominent talking head.  And why not reduce the number of critics and historians down to one or two that have the most clout:  Jeanine Basinger and Molly Haskell get my vote.  Celebrity talking heads who actually lend credence and advance the narrative here include André Leon Talley, Lady Bunny, Natasha Lyonne, Candice Bergen (“sister” of Charlie McCarthy) and Ringo Starr, who co-starred with West in her final film, Sextette (1978). One wonders why other co-stars from that film and West’s other late-in-life film, Myra Breckinridge (1970), were not tapped as well.

John Huston and Mae West in MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (1970).

John Huston and Mae West in MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (1970).

“A dame that knows the ropes,” wise-cracked Mae West, “isn’t likely to get tied up.” Mae West knew what she was doing, had the last laugh, and died a millionaire in November 1980. Her definitive film bio is yet to be made…but Mae West: Dirty Blonde is a start.

American Masters–Mae West: Dirty Blonde is a production of THIRTEEN productions LLC’s American Masters for WNET.  The film debuts on PBS tonight, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/ 7:00 p.m. Central. (Check local listings for air times in your region, http://www.pbs.org/maewest and the PBS Video app for streaming, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.) –Judith Trojan

Posted in Film, Theater, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Sex, Lies and Butterflies Soars Again 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 that soars again on PBS NATURE. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/ ©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

“Just living is not enough,” said the butterfly, “one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.”–Hans Christian Andersen.

When was the last time you came face to face with an actual butterfly?

I’m an avid gardener; and 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 have in past seasons in 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.

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 rebroadcast of one of my favorite episodes of the PBS NATURE series. Sex, Lies and Butterflies soars again tonight, May 27, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and  http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for immediate online streaming, DVD and Blu-Ray availability.)

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.

This fascinating documentary 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. It 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.

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty,” said Maya Angelou.

This film, serenely narrated by Paul (“Billions”) Giamatti, serves as an evergreen reminder of why we need to be concerned that butterfly populations are dwindling at alarming rates.  Sex, Lies and Butterflies is a wake-up call and surefire pandemic pick-me-up.  As we tentatively break free from our quarantined cocoons (homes!) and return to the rat race, it’s important not to forget the beauty and fascinating “back stories” that such exquisite creatures continue to afford us in our own backyards.

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

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

NATURE: Sex, Lies and Butterflies is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET.  It will be rebroadcast on PBS tonight, May 27, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video App for immediate online streaming, DVD and Blu-Ray availability.) — Judith Trojan

Posted in Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Ruffalo, Panjabi and O’Donnell Shine in HBO Literary Adaptation

“There has always been the tyranny of the word over the image: anything that’s written has got to be better. Most people feel it’s more genuine if you express yourself in words than pictures.”Martin Scorsese.

Works of literary fiction and nonfiction have been the source material for filmmakers since the dawn of cinema. Marty Scorsese’s lifelong dedication to the “picture business,” as he likes to call it, has certainly not precluded his ample use of narrative originally born in literary circles. If re-imagined on film in the hands of Scorsese, James Ivory and others of their caliber, the genre enriches our appreciation of great literature, the limitless potential of cinema, and our understanding of history and the human condition.

Two recent HBO literary adaptations, The Plot Against America and I Know This Much Is True, based on critically acclaimed novels by Philip Roth and Wally Lamb, respectively, tackle the daunting task of turning Roth and Lamb’s complex family period dramas into limited six-part TV series. Both adaptations feature topnotch production teams and outstanding casts. Both series explore fundamental and fearsome family challenges that merit our attention. However, while Roth’s novel worked as a riveting, six-hour attention-grabber, Lamb’s novel may have been better served within a shorter time slot.

Mark Ruffalo impressively tackles the dual roles of twin brothers Thomas and Dominick Birdsey in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Mark Ruffalo impressively tackles the dual roles of twin brothers Thomas and Dominick Birdsey in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Episode One of I Know This Much Is True debuts on HBO tonight, Sunday, May 10, 2020, 9:00 -10:00 p.m. ET/PT. Premiere Episodes 2-6 follow on successive Sundays, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.  The Plot Against America premiered on HBO in March and April 2020.  Check listings for repeat air dates for both limited series in the days and weeks ahead. The series are also available on HBO Now, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.

Based on Wally Lamb’s New York Times Best Seller, the entire six-part TV adaptation of I Know This Much Is True was directed and written by Derek Cianfrance, who also serves with Wally Lamb and others as Executive Producer.

Five of the series’ six episodes chart an unrelentingly grim family saga played out by twin brothers damned by mental illness and the mystery surrounding their illegitimacy and their immigrant grandfather’s legacy.  I Know This Much Is True focuses on the identical twin Tempesta brothers, Thomas and Dominick, born six minutes apart on December 31, 1949 and January 1, 1950, respectively, to an unwed Italian-American mother in a fictional small town in Connecticut. Their newsworthy birth dates, straddling “the first and second halves of the 20th century,” held the promise of great things, but instead jump-started a lifetime of roadblocks facing firstborn Thomas, as he crumbles from emotionally challenged child to paranoid schizophrenic adult, and his brother and self-described caretaker, Dominick.

Social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O'Donnell) is determined to help Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo) save his brother from incarceration in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O’Donnell) is determined to help Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo) save his brother from incarceration in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Their story is told from Dominick’s point of view. His life has been upended at every turn as he struggles to defend and protect his brother at school, at home against their domineering stepdad, at college, and as they enter middle age.

As Thomas unravels, Dominick’s attempts to remedy the fallout from his brother’s shocking instability backfire and lead them both down a painful path of no return.  Consumed by rage, bitterness and self-blame, Dominick treads on shaky ground as he continues to mourn the death of his daughter and breakup of his marriage to the love of his life. Hovering over all of this Sturm und Drang is the mystery of the twins’ biological father, a man who their beloved mother refuses to identify, even on her deathbed.

Writer/director Derek Cianfrance weaves as many expository threads from the original 912-page novel as he can into this six-hour series.  Needless to say, this is a rocky road to travel.  Aside from  flashbacks highlighting pivotal, politically timelined incidents in the boys’ 1950’s childhood and 1960’s college years, Cianfrance jumps even further back into the family’s past to explore the detritus left behind by their arrogant Sicilian grandfather.

Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi) attempts a last ditch effort to repair the Birdsey brothers' emotional scars in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi) attempts a last ditch effort to repair the Birdsey brothers’ emotional scars in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

This series certainly won’t lift your sagging spirits during the pandemic and could stand some fine-tuning; but the outstanding performances by its notable cast are well worth your time and commitment.  Mark Ruffalo is extraordinary in the dual lead roles of identical twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Tempesta Birdsey.  Rosie O’Donnell and Archie Panjabi are refreshingly empathetic and catalytic as the brothers’ social worker and psychiatrist, respectively.  And Kathryn Hahn shines as Dominick’s subdued, tender hearted ex-wife Dessa. Also memorable is John Procaccino as the brothers’ stepfather, Ray Birdsey, whose brutish parenting skills soften with age and infirmity to reveal his surprising devotion and deep affection for his stepsons.

I Know This Much Is True will not make you smile or inspire you to do cartwheels on your front lawn. But it should make you think about your own family and its generational impact, for better or worse, on your current emotional and physical well-being. Words like communication, secrets and, above all, love, hope and forgiveness, and the complex threads that bind them are all important themes here if you chose to see them.

Former married couple, Dessa Constantine (Kathryn Hahn) and Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo), reestablish ties in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Former married couple Dessa Constantine (Kathryn Hahn) and Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo) reestablish ties in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Episode One of I Know This Much Is True debuts on HBO tonight, Sunday, May 10, 2020, 9:00 -10:00 p.m. ET/PT. Premiere Episodes 2-6 follow on successive Sundays, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.  Check listings for repeat air dates in the days and weeks ahead. The series is also available on HBO Now, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.–Judith Trojan

Posted in Books, Cable, Film | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Remarkable Rabbits Are Hopping on PBS Nature

Can this little fuzzball be any cuter or stressed? Snowshoe Hares are resilient denizens of snow covered North American landscapes but face determined predators. NATURE: REMARKABLE RABBITS documents an especially challenging chase in Yukon, Canada, triggered by the hare's prime nemesis, a hungry Canada lynx. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

Can this little fuzzball be any cuter or stressed? Snowshoe Hares are resilient denizens of snow covered North American landscapes but face determined predators. NATURE: REMARKABLE RABBITS documents an especially challenging chase in Yukon, Canada, triggered by the hare’s prime nemesis, a hungry Canada lynx. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

“I’m just a little wabbit!”Bugs Bunny.

Bugs and his fictional peeps–Peter Cottontail, White Rabbit, Roger Rabbit, and the Easter bunny–are consummate people-pleasers. Who better to spend time with while we’re sidelined or sickened by the global pandemic than these celebrated, cotton-tailed bunnies with an attitude.

If, like me, you’ve enjoyed having rabbits as pets or seasonal backyard visitors, I encourage you not to miss filmmaker Susan Fleming’s latest hour-long documentary for the PBS Nature series, Remarkable Rabbits.

Nature: Remarkable Rabbits debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for broadcast dates and times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and Amazon Prime Video and the PBS Video app for streaming and PBS.org for DVD availability.)

While 60 minutes is hardly enough time to provide more than a brief introduction to these shy, prolific creatures…believe it or not, there are more than 100 types of domestic and wild rabbits and hares…the film does much to distinguish various species and zero in on their secret lives.

As with all films in the PBS Nature series, the camerawork is extraordinary. Rabbits and hares (their differences as newborns are quite distinctive) are resilient. Despite facing threats to their habitats and lives due to climate change, over-development and predators, they manage to thrive in a surprising range of disparate environments, from city parks and rural swamps to steamy deserts and snow-covered mountains.

Despite their name, Antelope Jackrabbits are hares not rabbits. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

Despite their name, Antelope Jackrabbits are hares not rabbits. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

They are amazing athletes and shrewd survivalists.  Against the backdrop of the Chicago skyline, we watch the midnight mating ritual of male and female Eastern Cottontails. In the Tucson, Arizona, desert, an Antelope Jackrabbit (actually a hare), weighing more than nine pounds, standing almost two-feet high and clocking speeds up to 45 m.p.h., attempts to outmaneuver a pack of Harris hawks. And an adorable Snowshoe Hare, with some surprising survivalist tricks up its sleeve, blends in with the frozen Canadian Yukon landscape to dodge the advances of a hungry lynx.

Despite their remarkable ability to reproduce, many wild rabbits face eradication, while their domestic counterparts, if accidentally or deliberately released in the wild, are in danger of overrunning residential neighborhoods. Other domesticated rabbits are bred, primped and promoted for show.

Coifed to perfection, this Lionhead rabbit, a domestic breed, competed at the American Rabbit Breeders Association rabbit show in 2018. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

Coifed to perfection, this Lionhead rabbit, a domestic breed, competed at the American Rabbit Breeders Association rabbit show in 2018. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

We meet biologists, a paleontologist and wildlife professionals intent on breeding and returning near extinct species to their original habitats, as well as a surprising number of rabbit enthusiasts who descend upon the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) rabbit show determined to win “Best in Breed”and the penultimate trophy for “Best in Show” for their coiffed and coddled contestants. Forty-nine breeds compete for the coveted prize of “Best in Show.”

I am one of those lucky kids, raised in the 1950’s, who received a tiny pure white, pink-eyed (Albino) rabbit one year for Easter.  Adorable little Frisky grew very big very fast, and cuddling was eventually out of the question.  She thankfully lived a long life in an elevated coup and run built in the backyard especially for her by my dad.  Today, she would be a spoiled house pet… an unheard of arrangement in those days.

Two-week-old baby Cottontail rabbits in Port Rowan, Ontario, Canada. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

Two-week-old baby Cottontail rabbits in Port Rowan, Ontario, Canada. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

This episode in the award-winning PBS series, NATURE, is not only a timely programmer for Easter week but also a fascinating evergreen introduction to an animal that is often taken for granted in the wild and overshadowed by cats and dogs in the home.  Written, produced and directed by Susan Fleming and executive produced by Fred Kaufman, the documentary is a Production of Remarkable Rabbits Inc. in association with THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Terra Mater Factual Studios for WNET.

Nature: Remarkable Rabbits debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for broadcast times and dates in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and Amazon Prime Video and the PBS Video app for streaming and PBS.org for DVD availability.) –Judith Trojan

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

Fauci, Cuomo and Feel-Good Media Help Us Heal

New York State Governor ANDREW M. CUOMO’s daily COVID-19 status reports reassure American citizens in the New York metro area and beyond with hard facts, reality checks and, above all, empathy.

“America is America because we overcome adversity and challenges. It is what makes us great.”Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Let’s face it. This may not be the most opportune time to catch up on documentaries and feature films about killer viruses, natural disasters and alien invasions.  The COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus) pandemic has become the world’s worst nightmare in real time.  And now, as the virus spreads across America, the ramifications are frightening because we’re late to the game and medically unprepared for the numbers of critically ill Americans who may need care.

As news reports of the devastation ravaging Italy and the rest of Europe reach our shores, we can’t afford to look away. At the end of this piece, I do recommend a number of “feel-good” films and TV programs to watch during our national quarantine that may help lift your spirits.  But first, I need to applaud two men who have grabbed the national media spotlight in a good way during this crisis.

Never, in recent memory, has the adage “Knowledge is Power” been more important.  And for that to work, we look to our leaders in government and the medical community to do everything in their power to stem the tide of this scourge and protect and support those in the trenches whose job it is to heal us. Our leaders, if they are capable of exhibiting real leadership, must also clearly, accurately and on a daily basis communicate to American citizens the facts…updated statistics, medical directives and lifestyle restrictions…impacting us, as a nation and our local communities.

Knowledge is power, and when responsibly communicated by leaders via the media, it is balm for fears fanned by unfounded rumors, hunches and fake news spread by irresponsible hotheads, hucksters, and foreign operatives on Facebook and Twitter.

Knowledge gives us a feeling of security in the midst of chaos. We can breathe a bit easier knowing that our leaders care and are nonpartisan problem solvers who are doing what they were elected, educated and hired to do…serve their constituency and their patients.

We can depend upon the truth, and nothing but the truth, from ANTHONY S. FAUCI, M.D. He has served as Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) under six U.S. Presidents.

Sadly, although there are no FDRs, Winston Churchills or JFKs on the national or international horizon to calm our psyches at this writing, two New York Italian Americans deserve kudoes for their outstanding daily media communiques:  Andrew M. Cuomo, the governor of New York, a State currently with the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases nationwide; and Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

No-nonsense Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of NIAID since 1984, keeps the White House press briefings on track with medical updates and best and worst case scenarios.  He doesn’t deal in hunches, partisan politics or verbal jousting. He artfully treats President Trump respectfully, as well as the journalists in the briefing room who are there, despite threats to their own well being, to accurately talk the talk and walk the walk for all Americans. If Dr. Fauci is set to appear on any talk or news show, I make sure to tune in. His boundless energy, clear thinking and articulate interviews continue round-the-clock to the point where I’m starting to worry about his own well-being.  Where would we be without Dr. Fauci manning the charge and keeping us informed?

The same goes for New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.  Never known for being a passionate, powerhouse communicator, Governor Cumo has stepped up to the plate and delivers.  His empathetic, measured delivery works wonders during daily briefings to his statewide constituents, the press and those of us in the tri-State area lucky enough to catch him midday on broadcast TV or cable.

Governor Cuomo updates all aspects of the coronavirus–testing and treatment sites and availability, medical equipment and statewide restrictions–as they relate to New Yorkers.  He seamlessly balances these daily stat reports with candid reality checks and admonitions peppered with extemporaneous personal reflections and anecdotes about his family, the “pain of isolation,” and the call for collective selflessness.  His message is universal: “We are all in this together.” He is riveting and reassuring; and despite the fact that I live in New Jersey, I will continue to watch him for as long as this nightmare unfolds.

TV programs and films featuring MISTER ROGERS or TOM HANKS (currently a coronavirus patient) are spirit boosters during this difficult time.

If my current personal Rock Stars, Anthony Fauci and Andrew Cuomo, don’t float your boat, you have many other film and TV/cable options to lift your spirits.  Looking for laughs?  Re-watch “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”; “Horrible Bosses”; “DodgeBall”; “Clueless”; “Wedding Crashers”; “There’s Something about Mary”; “Bridesmaids”; and anything produced and directed by Mel Brooks or Wes Anderson.  Catch up with NBC’s current reboot of “Will & Grace”; reruns of “The Big Bang Theory”; “I Love Lucy”; “The Office”; “Cheers” or “Frasier.” Sit back and enjoy “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Maude,” or anything else produced by Norman Lear.

Looking for feel-good films?  Revisit “It’s a Wonderful Life” or almost anything else starring Jimmy Stewart; “Big” and “Forrest Gump” or almost everything else starring Tom Hanks …or featuring his latest incarnation: Fred Rogers. Check out “Nine to Five” and “Moonstruck”; “WALL-E” and “UP”; “Norma Rae”and inspirational sports films like “Field of Dreams”; “Chariots of Fire”; and “Hoosiers.” And don’t forget animal-centric dramas, docs or animation like “March of the Penguins”; “The Lion King”; “Babe”; and absolutely anything starring Kermit the Frog!  The list is endless!

Remember time is a precious commodity!  It’s definitely time to be kind to yourself and others… and be well. –Judith Trojan 

Posted in Cable, Film, Journalism, Medicine, Politics, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Remembering Mary Higgins Clark (1927-2020)

The characters in my books are resilient and resourceful. When calamity strikes, they carry on.”–Mary Higgins Clark.

America's "Queen of Suspense," novelist MARY HIGGINS CLARK (1927-2020). Photo © Bernard Vidal.

America’s “Queen of Suspense,” novelist MARY HIGGINS CLARK (1927-2020). Photo © Bernard Vidal.

There are times in our lives when we hit that proverbial fork in the road… when our feelings of self worth are shaky and we’re in need of a reminder of how incredibly blessed our lives have been.  Mary Higgins Clark’s recent passing did that for me. January 31, 2020 was a sad day for her millions of fans around the world for sure. For me, news of her death hit closer to home.

Remembering Mary and the impact she had on my life as a writer and friend also reminded me of the many other remarkable people I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with during the course of my career. Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award recipients; Newbery and Caldecott honorees; Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe, Peabody, and Christopher Award winners… super achievers, icons, legends in the publishing, film and TV industries.

In the case of Mary Higgins Clark, I not only interviewed her several times as a journalist and PR professional, but was delighted to work with her during my Corporate Communications stint at her career-long publisher, Simon & Schuster, and during my 11 years as Director of the Christopher Awards.  We also met and mingled at various charity events in Manhattan.

MARY HIGGINS CLARK with me JUDITH TROJAN, Director of the Christopher Awards, at the 54th annual Christopher Awards gala in Rockefeller Center, NYC, February 27, 2003. Photo: Paul Schneck.

MARY HIGGINS CLARK with me JUDITH TROJAN, Director of the Christopher Awards, at the 54th annual Christopher Awards gala in Rockefeller Center, NYC, February 27, 2003. Photo: Paul Schneck.

During my tenure at The Christophers, we honored Mary with a Life Achievement Award at our 54th annual Christopher Awards gala on February 27, 2003. Five years later, she graciously accepted my invitation to present a well-deserved Life Achievement Award to her friend and fellow Simon & Schuster author, historian David McCullough, at our 59th annual Christopher Awards gala on April 10, 2008. It was a spectacular evening in Rockefeller Center, made all the more memorable by Mary’s presence and her charming, heartfelt speech honoring her pal, David McCullough.

At the time of Mary Higgins Clark’s death at age 92, the perpetual #1 New York Times best-selling author had written 40 suspense novels, four short story collections, a his­torical novel, a memoir and two children’s books. She collaborated with another best-selling author, Alafair Burke, on the Under Suspicion series; and co-authored five suspense novels with her daughter, author Carol Higgins Clark.

With more than one hundred million copies of her books in print in the U.S. alone, Mary Higgins Clark consistently topped both The New York Times Best Seller Hardcover and Paperback lists simultaneously, which, needless to say, was a remarkable and singular achievement in the publishing world.

Mary Higgins Clark perusing her first book circa 1969, a biographical novel about George Washington. The book was re-issued in 2002 with a new title, "Mount Vernon Love Story." Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Mary Higgins Clark perusing her first book circa 1969, a biographical novel about George Washington. The book was re-issued in 2002 with a new title, “Mount Vernon Love Story.” Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

But reaching that pinnacle wasn’t easy.  Not surprisingly, her protagonists were invariably feisty women who prevail in the face of unexpected adversity. Raised in the Bronx, Mary, an Irish-Catholic, lived that plotline firsthand.

Her father died suddenly when she was 10, and her husband’s untimely death in 1964 left her a young widow with five children, ranging in age from five to 13. Like her mother before her, Mary struggled to keep her family afloat. But she never lost sight of her goal to write books.

As a teenager, Mary Higgins window shopped her way past pricey Fifth Avenue department stores, fantasizing about the glamorous dresses she’d wear someday as a famous author. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Young Mary Higgins’ compulsion to write paid off handsomely. She grew up to become Mary Higgins Clark, America’s “Queen of Suspense.”

The interview with Mary Higgins Clark that I share with you below is edited and condensed from the original published in the Fall 2007 issue of Healthy Edge magazine.  We chatted by phone, she from her seaside home in Spring Lake, New Jersey, on July 24, 2007. It was a beautiful summer day that found her hard at work on her latest novel.  This was not to be our last interview; but it proved to be the most intimate, focusing less on specific career highlights that we’d covered in the past and more on the personal life experiences that strengthened her faith and shaped her life’s work.

With refreshing candor, Mary revisited a series of heart-rending family tragedies and personal challenges as a daughter, sister, wife, widow and single mother with career aspirations that would have broken the best of us.  But she was born and bred in the Bronx, afterall. This witty, street smart Irish storyteller of deep faith made it abundantly clear how and why she’d surmounted these personal setbacks… and flourished.  Despite its often dire subject matter, this remains one of the most enjoyable and inspiring interviews I’ve ever conducted.  I will never forget her and, believe it or not, how much she made me laugh on that sunny summer day in 2007.

Judith Trojan:  As a young woman, with a budding literary career, you had five school-age children and your terminally ill husband, Warren, to care for. How did you cope?

Mary Higgins Clark: Well, of course, you know what you start with. I had 14 years and nine months of a wonderful marriage. A lot of people don’t get that. For five years, we knew that Warren was dying. Every Christmas and every birthday, I was so grateful we had one more. In fact, I wrote an article, “The Five Years that Taught Me How to Live,” for Redbook magazine. I had to work because Warren had changed jobs. It was exactly the job he wanted. Before he took the new job, he said, ‘If I have a physical, I won’t get it.’ I said, ‘You can’t live as though you’re going to die. Tell them you have so much money, you don’t want to know anything about their pension plan,’ which was the biggest joke in the world.

Mary Higgins Clark at home with husband Warren and their kids in 1961. Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Trojan:  His illness must have been terribly difficult for you both.

Higgins Clark: He had constant chest pains. The doctor told him ‘Get a lot of rest. Don’t run for a bus, don’t pick up the baby, don’t wrestle with the boys.’ Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. They told us he would have a major heart attack and die because all the tests showed that his arteries were almost totally clogged. That was before bypass surgery.

Trojan: Did you ever have hope for a positive outcome during that time?

Higgins Clark: Warren had said, ‘If I can last 10 years, there will be an operation.’ So, there was always that little peephole of hope. He died in 1964, and the first bypass operation was done a year later. How many lives has it saved? Warren looked healthy. He had always been a terrific athlete. He turned 45 less than two months before he died. I was 36.

Trojan:  Did heart disease run in his family?

Higgins Clark: His father had a stroke in his 50s. Warren was a heavy smoker. You couldn’t get him off it. In the end, when we got that verdict from the doctor, he said, ‘Of course, no smoking; it’s a nail in the coffin.’ I gave up smoking, but Warren couldn’t kick the habit. I told him, ‘The prescription was not that I give it up while you keep it up.’

Mary Higgins Clark sold her first suspense novel to Simon & Schuster in 1975. She remained with S&S for the rest of her life. "It marked a turning point in my career," she remembered.

Mary Higgins Clark sold her first suspense novel to Simon & Schuster in 1975. She remained with S&S for the rest of her life. “It marked a turning point in my career,” she remembered.

Trojan:  What advice would you give to moms today who find themselves widowed at a young age?

Higgins Clark: Be grateful you have your children. I wasn’t sure if I was pregnant when Warren died. I wasn’t, but I was secretly thinking I could handle six as well as I could handle five.  I remember running into a very nice man I knew in town who said, ‘You’re handling Warren’s death very well.’ I said, ‘Do I have a choice?’ When you really look at it, you do not have a choice. You have to accept what you can’t change.

Trojan:  You suffered through an inordinate number of losses in your early life—first your father, both brothers, your husband, your in-laws—one after another. The death of your husband and your mother-in-law, both on the same day, must have been devastating.

Higgins Clark: My mother-in-law loved her son so much. She knew how bad Warren was and said, ‘I don’t want to survive him.’ She was sitting by his bed. He had one of those crushing heart attacks that you hear the pain. I was downstairs and heard his ‘Agh’ all through the house. I thought the oxygen tank had exploded. I raced upstairs, and his mother was trying to hold the oxygen tube over his face. I started CPR. When she saw that he was dead, she just said, ‘Oh Warren,’ and collapsed and died. Really, they died together. Her heart simply gave out.

Trojan:  What a tragedy.

Higgins Clark: Four months later, her second son died. I thought God gave her a break that she died before she would have to see another of her sons die.  She was a very good woman, a most charitable woman.

Trojan:  During WWII, your older brother, Joseph, joined the Navy. I’m sure you and your mother feared for his life in combat, but instead he died during basic training.

Higgins Clark: It certainly was not something we expected. He got spinal meningitis and had a fever of 104 and violent headaches. They had him in sick bay for a week before they took him to the hospital. He was only 18.

Trojan:  Your younger brother, John, lost his wife and child in quick succession and then died an untimely death from a fall. How did you get through all that?

Higgins Clark: There were so many at one time that it just seemed as though there was blow after blow after blow. Of course, you have a constant sadness. You can’t lay that on other people. But a fact of life is that people die out of their time.

“Kitchen Privileges: A Memoir” by Mary Higgins Clark was published by Simon & Schuster in 2002.

Trojan:  In reading your memoir, I was intrigued by your mother. No matter what tragedy befell her, she forged ahead.

Higgins Clark: I think the great grief of her life was Joseph. The loss of my father was, of course, devastating; but there’s something about losing a child. He had been a ‘preemie,’ and she never left his side during that first year; she was so afraid he would slip away. She would have thrown herself across the tracks for any one of us, but there was something so tender about her relationship with Joseph.

Trojan:  What attributes best describe your mom?

Higgins Clark: My mother never stayed angry, even if she had a reason to be mad at someone. She always had a sense of humor. Her heart was broken, but she was never gloomy. She never said ‘Why me’ to me or my brothers. When you have faith, if someone is sick, you can storm heaven with prayers. And you take comfort that there has to be a reason for all this; there must be a bigger plan that you don’t know about.

Trojan:  Was your mom’s resilience following the sudden death of your father a model for you when your husband died?

Higgins Clark: Since I knew how much I missed my own father, I knew exactly how much my kids would miss theirs. I thought it was my job to be a mother who didn’t take the grief out on them, but also to do the best I could because I knew how much they would miss him.

Trojan:  In the 1950s and 1960s, most mothers didn’t work or have the kind of goals and drive that you had. Your husband didn’t seem to be threatened by your determination to write. He sounds like a prince!

Higgins Clark: He loved it. Warren’s attitude about it was, ‘Look, so many people try and don’t make it. Go ahead, but think of it as a hobby. Some women bowl, you write.’ When my work started selling, no one was prouder than he.

Trojan:  Throughout your career, you’ve given generously of your time to various Catholic causes and to literacy. Why literacy?

Higgins Clark: I’ve always been active in the literacy program in New York and have done a lot with former First Lady Barbara Bush. I think the biggest gift you can give someone is education, and there’s nothing more basic in education than to be able to read.

Trojan:  You were a Bronx girl, yet you’ve lived much of your adult life in New Jersey. How have your hometowns impacted your work?

Jokes about New Jersey were no laughing matter to Mary Higgins Clark. She intentionally set more than a half dozen of her best-selling suspense novels in New Jersey to shed positive light on her adopted home state. This is one of them, published by Simon & Schuster in 2018.

Higgins Clark: All my life I have had to defend the two places that I have lived–the Bronx and New Jersey. This is why I’ve written books specifically set in New Jersey, to try to get people to appreciate our state.

Trojan:  Despite all of the responsibilities you’ve shouldered as a single mother of five, you’ve never lost sight of your personal goals. You wanted to write, to travel to exotic places, to wear those gowns you admired in shop windows along Fifth Avenue. You were also determined to graduate from college. How old were you when you got your degree?

Higgins Clark: I was 48. I gave myself a prom. It was a darn good party!

Trojan:  How do you manage to maintain your energy level, especially on grueling book tours?

Higgins Clark: Travelling has gotten so obnoxious now with the security and getting there early. There are so many delays. That has made going out on tour less attractive. But it’s really a pleasure when you meet people who say they’ve read every one of your books, or who say how they were able to escape while reading one of them at a time when they were either sick or had terrible grief. I’ve had four generations stand in front of me—13, 35, 57 and 75— and great grandma says, ‘We all read your books, dear!’

Trojan:  In retrospect, what stands out most in your life beyond the losses we’ve discussed and the great success you’ve achieved through your writing?

Higgins Clark: I’ve been very blessed. I’ve been married since 1996 to John Conheeney [1929-2018].  So, God gave me a good man at the beginning and a good one at the end! After Warren’s death, I knew I was going to educate my children, that I would never depend on a man to do it, rich or poor. I worked hard to make it happen. I wanted them educated, and I wanted them to do well.

Trojan:  Some women have been known to choose a man over their kids.

Mary Higgins Clark and John J. Conheeney dancing at their wedding in 1996. They were married for 22 years when he passed away in 2018. Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Mary Higgins Clark and John J. Conheeney dancing at their wedding in 1996. They were married for 22 years when he passed away in 2018. Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Higgins Clark: Following Warren’s death, I just thought I would not get involved. Suppose I married a guy with a lot of money who said, ‘I want you to bake cookies, and I like four of your kids and I don’t like the fifth.’ I made a deal with God: ‘Don’t take the kids and, I promise you, I will never ever be one of those ladies who’s sleeping around, promise.’ Better the picture on the wall of a father who loved them, than somebody who might find one or the other a pain in the neck.

Trojan:  What life lessons would you most like to pass on to your children and grandchildren?

Higgins Clark: Be aware of how blessed you are. Look around at the education you’ve had, at the home you have, the friends you have, and the health you enjoy. Be grateful because so many people have nothing and some less than nothing. Someone once said, ‘If you want to be happy for a year, win the lottery. If you want to be happy for a lifetime, love what you do.’ Ω –Judith Trojan

Posted in Books, Journalism, Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Poison Squad Provides Food for Thought on American Experience

The 50-year crusade for food safety by U.S. government chemist Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), leading to the creation of the FDA, is the timely focus of John Maggio's new documentary THE POISON SQUAD for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The 50-year crusade for food safety by U.S. government chemist Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), leading to the creation of the FDA, is the timely focus of John Maggio’s new documentary THE POISON SQUAD for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

“One obsessive, determined person can change the world, and he did.”

If you care about the purity of the food and beverages you consume, then grab a bottle of Pepto and keep it handy as you watch The Poison Squad, the latest installment in WGBH Boston’s Award-winning American Experience series debuting on PBS tonight, Tuesday, January 28, 2020, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ and the PBS Video app for streaming and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.)

You may need to take a swig or two of the pink stuff during the first half hour of this fascinating two-hour documentary, but please stick with it.  As The Poison Squad wends its way through the back alleys of the blossoming food manufacturing industry during the last half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s often not a palatable picture. It was a period when Americans transformed from healthy agrarians into city folk chiefly dependent upon food and beverages processed cheaply and sloppily for mass consumption by powerful food manufacturers.  If our grandparents didn’t grow their own produce or raise cows and pigs, they bought what they assumed to be the same clean meat and produce packaged and sold in their local markets.

Unfortunately, there were no standards and practices in place to assure the cleanliness of food processing plants, confirm packaging claims, or question the toxicity of additives used to bring questionably fresh food and beverages, including milk for children, back to “life.” Slaughterhouses, meatpacking plants and the dairy industry were rife with unsanitary assembly lines and non-existent refrigeration.  At the top of the food chain, industrial giants like Heinz, Pillsbury, Nabisco, Coca-Cola were well-connected in Washington and seemingly untouchable.

As a result, by the late 19th century, Americans were consuming a hearty dose of garbage. The only thing “pure” about foods like honey and maple syrup, for example, was their primary ingredient: “pure corn syrup.”   Unsuspecting Americans mistakenly thought they were buying such staples as butter (beef tallow, pork fat and worse) and coffee (chicory and sawdust). Chemical additives like copper sulfate, borax, sodium benzoate and formaldehyde were used to freshen up food and beverages as they were being canned and bottled. When it wasn’t being used in food processing, formaldehyde was the go-to embalming fluid during the Civil War.  And borax was a popular cleanser and ant killer.

In 1902, Congress authorized funds for human trials of controversial food additives to determine their safety. Dr. Harvey Wiley (third from left in back row), then Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry, tested the additives on 12 young men who became known as “the Poison Squad.” Photo courtesy of the FDA.

Now the good news!  Enter Dr. Harvey W. Wiley (1844-1930) with a medical degree from Indiana University and another degree in chemistry from Harvard in hand, as well as lessons gleaned from growing up on a farm.  Armed with a passion to insure clean food and a take-no-prisoners evangelical zeal inherited from his progressive dad, Wiley kept his eyes on America’s kitchen tables from his perch as Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture.

In 1902, he embarked upon a controlled experiment with a panel of 12 young men who came to be known as “The Poison Squad,” to whom he fed food and beverages laced with chemical additives commonly used by food manufacturers of the day.

“In exchange for free food and five dollars a day, these volunteers agreed to eat only the meals served by Dr. Wiley, submit to a battery of physical examinations after each meal, and promise not to sue the federal government if they were sickened in the process.”  Yes, some got sick, but no one died.

As Wiley faced off with government officials who were in the back pockets of the food industrialists, he was supported by some fascinating allies.  Since women were the prime shoppers and cooks for their families, Wiley received a boost from powerful leaders of the women’s suffrage movement.

Teddy Roosevelt’s on again, off again support of Wiley’s cause thread throughout the film… from Roosevelt’s early stint on the battlefield through his terms as governor of New York and President of the United States.  Rough Rider Roosevelt remarked that he would rather eat his hat then the putrid canned meat served in soldiers’ rations.

Influential cookbook author Fanny Farmer and author Upton Sinclair, whose explosive novel, The Jungle (Doubleday, 1906), exposing the disgraceful conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, were also key to Wiley’s success.

Emmy Award-winning writer/director/producer John Maggio (recently interviewed in FrontRowCenter) peppers The Poison Squad with vintage film clips and photos as well as insights from culinary historians, investigative journalists, popular cookbook author Mark Bittman, and Deborah Blum, the author of The Poison Squad (Penguin, 2018), the book on which Maggio’s film is based.

In 1906, Dr. Harvey Wiley’s crusade finally paid off, leading Congress to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first consumer protection laws in U.S. history, paving the way for the creation of the FDA.

Despite its late 19th and early 20th century timeline, The Poison Squad is remarkably timely today.  Cancer-causing chemicals and air pollutants are returning to our environment in a big way, as the Trump administration caters favor with big business by weakening or eliminating long established bans and restrictions on their products. Lax food labelling, e.g., fish, is also a continuing area of concern.

American Experience: The Poison Squad debuts on PBS tonight, Tuesday, January 28, 2020, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ and the PBS Video app for streaming and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.)— Judith Trojan

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