New PBS Doc Profiles 7 Young Adults Who Lost Dads on 9/11

Photo courtesy Arrow International Media.

Photo courtesy Arrow International Media.

“My father was a firefighter on 9/11.  I never met him.”Megan Fehling, born October 2001.

September 11, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Sadly, the number of casualties continues to grow.  9/11 First Responders have faced chronic illness and many have succumbed to cancer. And those who lost loved ones continue to carry the debilitating burden of grief.

Generation 9/11, directed by documentarian Liz Mermin and produced for PBS by a Brit-based team helmed by Emmy®-winner John Smithson, zeroes in on a unique population tragically affected by the 9/11 debacle. Among the victims of the terrorist attacks were 105 expectant fathers. The two-hour film introduces us to six of their children, born after the death of their dads.  The seventh was a toddler who had yet to meet his dad at the time of his death.

Generation 9/11 debuts on PBS tonight, August 31, 2021, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, and see below for streaming info.)

Young Nick Gorki at the 9/11 Memorial site in NYC honoring his dad, Sebasian Gorki. Photo courtesy of the Gorki family.

I was anxious to meet the seven young people profiled in this film. Born at the dawn of the 21st century, these culturally diverse young men and women, now 20-year olds and counting, don’t disappoint. Their stories contribute much needed  perspective to post 9/11 media coverage.

Megan Fehling’s firefighter dad was killed in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, leaving a pregnant wife behind. Nick Gorki’s mother, Paula, worked in the South Tower. On 9/11, her morning sickness made her late to work; but her partner, Nick’s expectant dad Sebastian, had an unexpected meeting in the South Tower and did not survive. Fares Malahi was three in September 2001, living in Yemen with his older brother and mother while awaiting their U.S. visas. Fares never met his father, Abdu, who was working as an AV engineer at the Marriott in downtown Manhattan and died helping guests evacuate the hotel.

Ronald Milam, Jr., modeling as a youngster. Photo courtesy of the Milam family.

Ronald Milam, Jr.’s parents both served in the military and were working at the Pentagon on 9/11 on opposite sides of the building. After Ronald Sr. was killed, Ronald’s mother left the Army and moved the family to Texas. Dina Retik’s father was a venture capitalist and died on hijacked American Airlines Flight 11. Claudia Szurkowski’s father was working for the union of painters and wallpaper hangers in the North Tower on 9/11. Luke Taylor’s father, Lt. Colonel Kip Taylor, was killed in the Pentagon attack.  Luke’s mom died of cancer two years later.

Their lives may have begun on a horrific note, but their reflections, in retrospect, are surprisingly stoic.  As babies and toddlers, they were oblivious to why and how they lost their dads.  Some of their moms remarried, had more babies and, overall, the youngsters welcomed their new siblings and stepdads.  How do you miss someone you never met?  They adapted, and lived the hand they were dealt.

Their insights and those of their moms, stepdads and siblings are embellished with extensive period photos, home movies and media footage, highlighting various family, sports, and educational milestones, as well as the trajectory of 9/11 and the anniversaries that have commemorated it.

Claudia Szurkowski has family in Poland. Photo courtesy of the Szurkowski family.

That these young people grew up to be seemingly healthy, well-adjusted young adults during a 20-year period when our political, cultural, racial, environmental and global climate was anything but healthy and stable is pretty amazing.  Of course, as a young black man, Ronald, and his mom fear the ever-present threat of racist policing.  And Fares, who did know his dad, at least from afar, faces discrimination due to his ethnicity and sadly seems to have struggled to gain a footing in America.

Generation 9/11 is engaging when it focuses directly on the seven young people and their individual journeys. Clips of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama are clearly relevant to their stories. But attempts to broaden the film’s reach by piggybacking into the mix such topical hot button issues as Black Lives Matter, school shootings, the Capitol riot, the pandemic, climate change and Trump vs. Biden are clumbsy and distracting.

Fares Malahi spent his first three years in Yemen, never meeting his dad who worked and died in NYC on 9/11. Photo courtesy of the Malahi Family.

It’s times like this that I remember how much I miss the late, great British filmmaker, Michael Apted (the brilliant director of the 7 Up documentary series).  How wonderful to imagine Apted’s take on the seven young people profiled in Generation 9/11. He would have followed them every seven years, in successive films, focusing squarely on their personal hopes, dreams, loves and loss, and the psycho-social issues that impacted them individually at those specific ages. Parameters matter!!

Instead, Generation 9/11 is an overlong film that covers 20 years in their lives… and frankly, ours too (via the inclusion of ongoing national and international issues facing all of us).  It bites off more than it can chew. Hopefully, the press screener that I viewed has been fine-tuned before broadcast.

Generation 9/11 should have potential in high school, university and college classrooms and counseling programs dealing with grief recovery, family trauma, single parenting, and, of course, post-9/11 studies.

Generation 9/11 premieres on PBS tonight, August 31, 2021, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.) The film will stream simultaneously with broadcast and be available on all station-branded PBS platforms, including www.pbs.org and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV and Chromecast.  PBS station members can also view the documentary via PBS Passport.–Judith Trojan

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Mare of Easttown Nabs 16 Emmy Nods and an Upcoming HBO Marathon

“I had a very specific vision. I wanted to tell a story about home and the people I grew up with and yet make it entertaining and wrap a mystery around it.”Brad Ingelsby, screenwriter and creator, Mare of Easttown.

The lifelong friendship between Lori (Julianne Nicholson) and Mare (Kate Winslet) is shaken to its core in HBO'S MARE OF EASTTOWN. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO.

The lifelong friendship between Lori (Julianne Nicholson) and Mare (Kate Winslet) is shaken to its core in HBO’S MARE OF EASTTOWN. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO.

Brad Ingelsby, the Emmy®-nominated creator and screenwriter of the HBO limited series, Mare of Easttown, didn’t have to dig too deeply to recreate the Central PA working-class milieu that drives the series’ gripping family drama and murder mystery.  He grew up in the vicinity.

A microcosm of small town, blue collar America, Easttown, PA, is awash with vintage row houses, cookie cutter mid-century split levels and neighborhood bars. The distinctive dialect, deeply rooted Catholicism and faded memories of past basketball triumphs forever bind the town’s citizenry. The abduction of two young women and the murder of another open a Pandora’s box of long-standing secrets and lies that threaten to upend the town’s faux complacency–familial depression and suicide, teen pregnancy and prostitution, rape and marital infidelity–much of it tragically fueled by drug and alcohol abuse.

Detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) must come to terms with her own family tragedies before she can solve a township murder and double abduction in HBO's MARE OF EASTTOWN. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO.

Detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) must come to terms with her own family tragedies before she can solve a township murder and double abduction in HBO’s MARE OF EASTTOWN. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO.

Following in the footsteps of her beloved dad, seasoned Detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) is theoretically positioned to save the day. But she is deadened by grief over the suicides of her dad and son and fearful of losing custody of her tiny grandson. As she slowly works to overcome her demons, her skills as a detective begin to shine through. The seven episode series builds in intensity as Mare and her affable colleague, Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), investigate the murder and double abduction.

This is powerful stuff.  It’s a rare and welcome family drama and murder mystery focusing on flawed, resilient three-dimensional characters, most especially women, who as friends, lovers, mothers and daughters of all ages carry the ball to the finish line.

Mare Sheehan and her mom, Helen (Jean Smart), have a lot of weighty family baggage to unpack in HBO's MARE OF EASTTOWN. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO.

Mare Sheehan and her mom, Helen (Jean Smart), have a lot of weighty family baggage to unpack in HBO’s MARE OF EASTTOWN. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO.

I can’t remember when I’ve seen female relationships more sensitively rendered on screen.  It’s moving to watch the interplay between Mare (Kate Winslet) and her childhood friends, especially her best friend, Lori (Julianne Nicholson); Mare and her sassy mom, Helen (Jean Smart); Mare and her grandson’s troubled young mom, Carrie (Sosie Bacon); and Mare and her college bound daughter, Siobhan (Angourie Rice), whose lesbianism is refreshingly never an issue.  I truly hope that these women (the characters and the actresses who play them) will return to Easttown  and HBO for a second season.

Mare of Easttown is destined to have a long shelf life in college and university classrooms and grief and drug counseling programs, as well as in film screenwriting, directing and acting classes. The series has been nominated for 16 well-deserved Emmy® Awards, including series creator/screenwriter Brad Ingelsby, director Craig Zobel, and four of the series’ actors–Kate Winslet, Julianne Nicholson, Jean Smart and Evan Peters.

Although the drama debuted in April and May 2021, you can catch a marathon rebroadcast of HBO’s seven-part series Mare of Easttown today, Saturday, August 14, 2021, from 12 Noon – 6:00 p.m. ET/PT. The series is also available on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max. Be sure not to miss it! –Judith Trojan

And the Winners Are…

Mare of Easttown swept the 73rd Annual Emmy® Awards in the “Acting in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie 2021” categories on Sunday, September 19, 2021:  Outstanding Lead Actress (Kate Winslet). Outstanding Supporting Actor (Evan Peters). Outstanding Supporting Actress (Julianne Nicholson).  Mare of Easttown also won Emmys for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Contemporary Program (one hour or more).  Bravo, Mare!–Judith Trojan 

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Super Hummingbirds Fly Again on PBS Nature

A Chestnut-breasted Coronet Hummingbird sips nectar from a flower in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. From NATURE: SUPER HUMMINGBIRDS on PBS. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

A Chestnut-breasted Coronet Hummingbird sips nectar from a flower in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. From NATURE: SUPER HUMMINGBIRDS on PBS. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

“It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds.”–Aesop.

I love birds… and have loved them since I bonded with my chatty, cuddly (yes, cuddly!) little parakeet pal as a kid.  I also love gardening.

I weathered “pandemic isolation” by building a wildlife-friendly habitat in my backyard.  It’s amazing how much pleasure you can derive watching birds of various shapes, sizes and personalities feeding and nest building in your garden and jockeying for a cooling drink or a splash in an inviting birdbath. The list is endless: bullying Blue Jays, docile Doves, sweet-natured Robins, bonded Cardinals and loquacious Mockingbirds.  The daily show at their spa (my garden birdbath!) is a priceless lesson in interspecies conflict resolution, and the melodious summertime serenade that Mr. Mockingbird performs 24-hours-a-day sure beats the sound of silence during a pandemic shutdown.

Bird-watching was already on my radar four years ago when I previewed Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ann Johnson Prum’s 2016 documentary, Super Hummingbirds. The hour-long film, her second film featuring these dazzling, tiny creatures, returns tonight in a welcome rebroadcast on the Award-winning PBS series, Nature.

A production  of Coneflower Productions and THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET, Nature: Super Hummingbirds makes its return visit on PBS tonight, Wednesday, July 14, 2021 (8:00-9:00 p.m. ET).  Check  local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and below for streaming and DVD availability.

A Green-crowned Brilliant Hummingbird guards his turf as another hungry hummer interloper tries to take a sip of precious nectar. From NATURE: SUPER HUMMINGBIRDS. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

A Green-crowned Brilliant Hummingbird guards his turf as another hungry hummer interloper tries to take a sip of precious nectar. From NATURE: SUPER HUMMINGBIRDS. Photo courtesy Ann Johnson Prum/©THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

If you live in the Americas and have a flower garden or have passed through one at some point in your life, you’ve possibly met up with one or two hummers.  However, they move so fast and are so small (the world’s smallest birds!), chances are you were unaware of their presence.  That is unless you’ve mounted a specially designed hummer feeder outside your window.

Thanks to the marvels of high-speed photography, Super Hummingbirds literally brings us eye-to-eye with various colorful species of hummingbirds, a rare occurrence in everyday life. We are privy to their intimate mating, birthing, nest-building and parenting rituals, as well as their amazing aerial feats. They can fly backwards, upside down and hover in mid-air, with wing speeds of up to 80 times per second.

The film also introduces the work being done with hummingbirds by ornithologists, behavioral ecologists and evolutionary biologists based at such institutions as UC Berkeley, the University of New Mexico and Cornell.  Marvelous footage highlights hummingbird feeding studies conducted by Dr. Alejandro Rico-Guevara in  Colombia; the astounding hummer high altitude oxygen comparables tabulated in the Peruvian Andes by Dr. Christopher Witt; and the flashy hummer mating dances  filmed by Dr. Marcelo Araya-Salas in the Costa Rican rain forest.

 

Actress Patricia Clarkson narrates NATURE: SUPER HUMMINGBIRDS on PBS. Photo courtesy Joseph Sinnott/©2016 THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC.

Actress Patricia Clarkson narrates NATURE: SUPER HUMMINGBIRDS on PBS. Photo courtesy Joseph Sinnott/©2016 THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC.

Fast, feisty and focused on fueling up at the nearest nectar-rich flower, hummingbirds may be small, but their high-energy lifestyle makes extraordinary demands on their tiny bodies. Hence, their waking, sleep and feeding cycles are unique to the species and quite remarkable. Significant pollinators (pollen sticks to their heads as they hover and draw nectar from flowers), hummingbirds are also noteworthy for their adaptability to new terrain, climates and altitudes.

Super Hummingbirds will introduce you to tiny, breathtakingly beautiful, ever-evolving creatures that defy categorization. Even if you’re not an avian aficionado, I encourage you to take a step outside your comfort zone and catch the rebroadcast of Nature: Super Hummingbirds on PBS tonight, Wednesday, July 14, 2021 (8:00-9:00 p.m. ET).  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region; http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming info; and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.–Judith Trojan

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HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark Returns with Gripping New Episode

Journalist and true crime sleuth MICHELLE McNAMARA (1970-2016) first became obsessed with solving unsolved violent crimes as a teenager in Oak Park, Illinois, an upper class enclave harboring a backlog of cold case rapes and murders. Photo courtesy HBO.

Journalist and true crime sleuth MICHELLE McNAMARA (1970-2016) first became obsessed with solving unsolved violent crimes as a teenager in Oak Park, Illinois, an upper class enclave harboring a backlog of cold case rapes and murders. Photo courtesy HBO.

“A violent crime never ends with a victim. A singular act reverberates, its wounds appearing in other people, sometimes months and years later. The pain ricochets.”Michelle McNamara.

Nothing fascinates me more than twisty murder mysteries and psychological thrillers. Binging on smart fiction and nonfiction PBS and HBO whodunits helped me survive the pandemic shutdown and take a much-needed break from the political horror show playing out on the news every night.  One welcome discovery was Michelle McNamara, the author and journalist, and one of the most dogged online true crime junkies whose blog, TrueCrimeDiary.comchronicled her obsession with solving unsolved crimes.

During the 1970’s and ’80s, roughly about the same time serial killer Ted Bundy was on the prowl in the Pacific Northwest, 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.

Michelle McNamara's compulsion to reopen cold case rapes and murders eventually took a toll on her health, but resulted in the capture and conviction of the Golden State Killer. Photo courtesy HBO.

Michelle McNamara’s compulsion to reopen cold case rapes and murders eventually took a toll on her health, but resulted in the capture and conviction of the Golden State Killer. Photo courtesy HBO.

Michelle McNamara 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 systematically marginalized by the criminal justice 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.  McNamara was hooked.

You can revisit the backstory of the case and McNamara’s obsession with it in my lengthy June 28, 2020 piece in FrontRowCenter– I’ll Be Gone in the Dark Makes Chilling Debut on HBO.  Based on her best-selling book of the same name, the gripping six-part HBO series documents the roadblocks she faced in her efforts to right a boatload of horrific wrongs perpetrated almost a half century ago and left unpunished. Did she, in fact, fulfill 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?

Thankfully, the filmmakers responsible for the original series, including Award-winning documentarians Liz Garbus and Elizabeth Wolff, answer that question and bring closure to a community of survivors in a new hour-long HBO film, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: Show Us Your Face, that I encourage you not to miss.  It also opens a window on an unsolved rape and murder case that first intrigued Michelle McNamara as a teenager in her privileged hometown of Oak Park, Illinois.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: Show Us Your Face debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, June 21, 2021, 10:00 -11:00 p.m. ET/PT (see below for complete screening and streaming details for the new episode and the original series).

Unlike other young couples savagely attacked during home invasions and rapes by the Golden State Killer in the 1970's and '80s, Gay and Bob Hardwick managed to sustain their marriage and heal. Photo courtesy HBO.

Unlike other young couples savagely attacked during home invasions and rapes by the Golden State Killer in the 1970’s and ’80s, Gay and Bob Hardwick managed to sustain their marriage and heal. Photo courtesy HBO.

This new episode brings us face to face with the Golden State Killer, former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo, as he plays the physical and mental “incompetence card” to no avail and is sentenced to life in prison several times over without parole for the 50 home invasion rapes and dozen murders he committed during his reign of terror in the 1970’s and ’80s in California.

Several of the sociopath’s victims and their family members are reintroduced here as they convene with others for DeAngelo’s public sentencing hearing in August 2020.  We are privy to their powerful survivor impact statements spoken directly to wheelchair-confined DeAngelo.  He acknowledges his guilt to each individual charge and makes a blanket apology to his victims.  Michelle McNamara may not have lived to see this day (she passed away in 2016); but her determination to solve the case made DeAngelo’s capture and his victims’ closure possible.

As with the original six episodes of the series, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: Show Us Your Face is riveting.  The hour-long film seamlessly updates the case history, its resolution and the emotional scars that remain.  It closes one chapter in McNamara’s investigative work, but introduces yet another pivotal cold case that she credited with igniting her lifelong obsession with unsolved murders:  the 1984 rape and murder of Kathleen Lombardo in McNamara’s hometown of Oak Park, Illinois.

Although she was only 14 at the time, McNamara felt compelled to visit the crime scene.  Its impact was life-changing.  She returned to her hometown in 2013 to revisit the case and was immediately drawn to the ineptitude of the original investigation and missed connections between similar cases in the vicinity.

In 1982, teenager Grace Puccetti survived a brutal attack and rape in Oak Park, Illinois, two years before Kathy Lombardo was raped and murdered in the same vicinity.  Photo courtesy HBO.

In 1982, teenager Grace Puccetti survived a brutal attack and rape in Oak Park, Illinois, two years before Kathy Lombardo was raped and murdered in the same vicinity.  Photo courtesy HBO.

The filmmakers incorporate the late Michelle McNamara’s own archival research, voice recordings and interviews, most especially with Ms. Lombardo’s brother Chris, and another victim, Grace Puccetti, who survived a shockingly similar attack in the same vicinity just two years before Ms. Lombardo’s murder.  McNamara was unable to close this case before she died, but she incited like-minded community and family members to reopen the case and push for release of the evidence.

“Inside everyone lurks a Sherlock Holmes that believes that given the right clues, they could solve a mystery,” said Michelle McNamara.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: Show Us Your Face not only explores the long road that Joseph DeAngelo’s victims travelled toward healing… a journey that Michelle McNamara set in motion.  The film also opens a window on another cold case with wide reach that first captivated Michelle McNamara at 14 and remained an obsession until her untimely death at 46.  Hopefully, there will be additional “special episodes”  tracking new developments and a viable perpetrator in that case that will make the Oak Park victims, their survivors and McNamara’s unrequited dream come true.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: Show Us Your Face debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, June 21, 2021, 10:00 -11:00 p.m. ET/PT.  Check listings for repeat air dates in the days and weeks ahead and its availability in tandem with the original 2020 six-episode series, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max.–Judith Trojan

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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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