Jane Fonda in Five Acts Takes Center Stage on HBO

The Oscar winner’s men, movies and political missteps are revisited in JANE FONDA IN FIVE ACTS. Photo courtesy HBO.

“I just wanted to be ok.  I wanted to be a good girl.”–Jane Fonda.

Those are startling admissions from the two-time Oscar®-winning actress and polarizing political activist who President Richard M. Nixon and his cronies loved to hate.

Emmy® Award-winning filmmaker Susan Lacy, now a producer/director at HBO, undoubtedly had her hands full when she signed on to bring some sort of structure and closure to the first seven decades of Jane Fonda’s life.  Not to worry.  Lacy, the creator and mastermind behind the long-running, Award-winning American Masters series on PBS, had more than enough tools in her toolbox  and chutzpah to get the job done.  Jane Fonda in Five Acts is filmmaking at its very best.

Jane Fonda speaking at an anti-war rally in San Francisco in 1972. Photo: Everett Collection. Courtesy HBO.

Even if you think you know everything you need to know about Jane Fonda. Think again.  Grab a seat, or program your DVR.  Jane Fonda in Five Acts debuts on HBO tonight, September 24, 2018, from 8:00 – 10:15 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.)

Ted Turner and Jane Fonda in Montana in 1994. Photo courtesy HBO.

Septuagenarian Jane Fonda is an engaging, articulate participant here, and “Hanoi Jane” is dead and buried. Filmmaker Lacy clearly had Fonda pegged from the outset when she divided the film into five acts, four of them named for the pivotal men in Fonda’s life: her dad, Hollywood icon Henry Fonda; French writer/director Roger Vadim; community activist, radical and politician Tom Hayden; and media tycoon Ted Turner.

Jane Fonda in Five Acts is lush with film clips; TV interviews from various points in her career; color home movies shot by her dad; vintage photos; and sober reflections from two of her three husbands; her best friend, producer Paula Weinstein; her environmental activist pal and co-star, Robert Redford; the late actor/director Sydney Pollack ; her son Troy Garity; step-daughter Nathalie Vadim; and adopted daughter Lulu.

Lifelong pals, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, co-starred in the romantic comedy, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, in 1967. Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Courtesy HBO.

Lifelong pals, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, co-starred in the romantic comedy, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, in 1967. Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Courtesy HBO.

The home movies are lovely and the film clips (Henry’s and Jane’s) are well-chosen. The clips are clear reminders that no matter how tarnished her political profile, Jane Fonda never lost her love affair with the camera and brilliance as an actress.  Riddled with self-doubt as a woman and an artist, she recalls her early experience studying with Lee Strasberg– nervously expecting his condemnation, but receiving, instead, unexpected validation.

I especially relished clips from Barefoot in the Park (1967), a bubbly romantic comedy with lifelong pal Robert Redford; as well as Fonda’s recollections about her personal discomfort filming Vadim’s explicit Barbarella (1968 ); her segue into social issue dramas with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and timely environmental cautionary tales via The China Syndrome (1979); her scheme to go off script and “touch” her dad  in a pivotal scene in On Golden Pond (1981); and inspirations for her Academy Award®-winning roles in Klute (1971) and Coming Home (1978).

Aside from the clips, there are enough “aha moments” to keep you glued to your seat for 2-1/4-hours.  There was much more than meets the eye (or the “fake news” of the day) to her foray into fitness and her reasons for venturing into North Vietnam in the first place.

ON GOLDEN POND, from left: Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda, 1981. Photo: Everett Collection ©Universal/HBO.

Left unsaid or merely implied is the fact that her husbands were driven by self-interest and benefited in various degrees from her status as Hollywood royalty, her bank account and her willingness to do almost anything to assure her commitment to their lives and vision. Fonda paid a steep price by stifling good judgment in the service of men, often to the detriment of her children and her own well-being (she admits to suffering from bulimia for many years, a byproduct of her dad’s obsession with weight). Hanging over her like a rash was the most powerful man on the planet during the Vietnam War, President Richard M. Nixon, whose henchmen hounded her and whose voice can be heard denouncing her at the top of this film.

Lacy titled the last act of Jane Fonda in Five Acts simply: “Jane.” Act 5 zeroes in on Jane Fonda, the survivor, who, despite having absorbed decades of identities in roles she was hired and psychologically conditioned to play on stage, screen and in real life, now thrives comfortably in her own skin… with a little help from cosmetic surgery and various hip and knee replacements.

JANE FONDA'S WORKOUT became the best-selling home video to date and ignited America's fitness craze. Photo: Steve Schapiro. Courtesy HBO.

JANE FONDA’S WORKOUT became the best-selling home video to date and ignited America’s fitness craze. Photo: Steve Schapiro. Courtesy HBO.

As a dynamic woman’s rights and grassroots activist, Fonda now talks the talk and walks the walk with a mature perspective that reflects an apologetic, forgiving and grateful heart. She is especially keen on reaching out to very young, old and low-income minority women, who may find it especially difficult to rise up to the challenges raised by the #metoo and #timesup movements. While Acts 1-4 provide a treasury of Fonda family cinema lore, Act 5 ensures the film’s evergreen value as a women’s issues, rights and activism discussion catalyst in high schools, colleges and community and counseling programs.

If you need assurances that it’s never too late for your final act to be fresh and new and, above all, meaningful, I urge you to catch Jane Fonda in Five Acts on HBO tonight, September 24, 2018, from 8:00 – 10:15 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.) Fun Fact: Jane Fonda turns 81 on December 21, 2018.–Judith Trojan

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Remembering Perry Miller Adato 1920-2018

PERRY MILLER ADATO (1920-2018)

“I don’t think you can teach anybody anything, whether it’s about art, architecture, literature, or social issues unless you entertain them. You simply cannot lecture people.  You have to involve them emotionally: make them laugh, excite them or make them indignant.” —Perry Miller Adato

Legendary documentary filmmaker Perry Miller Adato passed away on September 16, 2018, three months shy of her 98th birthday.  I’m heartbroken.

I will miss her phone calls and gracious invitations to her film soirées in New York City or lunch at her home in Westport, Connecticut.  I will miss writing notes in her holiday cards each year and her sound professional and motherly advice (she was one year younger than my mom, also born in December).  And most especially, I will miss her unwavering support of my work that began 40 years ago when we connected during my 15-year stint at the Educational Film Library Association (EFLA), where I became Editor-in-Chief of Sightlines magazine, a staff member of EFLA’s American Film Festival, and spread my wings as a young journalist covering the independent documentary film scene.

There’s a special place in heaven for female trailblazers who encourage talent when they see it and mentor other women in their field.  Perry Miller Adato played that role for me (and I’m sure for many others), and impacted me even before I was privileged to meet her, interview her, review her films and become her friend.  For a time, I lost track of Perry when I turned my full-time attention away from films and filmmakers and onto books and authors during my tenure as a Corporate Communications professional at Simon & Schuster.

Director Perry Miller Adato was the first woman to receive the Director’s Guild of America Award for directorial achievement in documentary for her film, GEORGIA O’KEEFFE (1977). Photo: Getty.

But Perry Miller Adato and I were destined to meet again.  I bumped into her in the theater one night when we were seated in the same row, believe it or not. We resumed our professional ties when she graciously agreed to be a presenter (twice) at the annual Christopher Awards gala that I produced and directed for many years in Rockefeller Center.

Perry was thrilled to participate as we honored a new generation of Christopher Award winners.  She was a Christopher Award winner in her own right for Georgia O’Keeffe (1977), a film that also garnered her a groundbreaking Director’s Guild of America Award for directorial  achievement in documentary, the first ever awarded to a woman and the first of four DGA Awards that would come her way.

I was honored, but frankly shaken when she asked that I write her formal obituary.  I sidestepped that request when I realized that not only was I too close to my subject for that assignment, but that I had, in fact, already written an article that could stand as my final tribute to Perry Miller Adato.  I originally wrote that piece for Perry in professional support of what would become her last film project. I eventually fine-tuned and published it in 2013 here in FrontRowCenter.  

Perry Miller Adato Remembers Paris The Luminous Years, (originally published in FrontRowCenterJanuary 17, 2013, and edited and reprinted below), focuses on her final film, Paris The Luminous Years, a monumental feature-length documentary that debuted when she was 90 years old.  But even more importantly, my article recalls the critical impact she had on me before I even met her or knew the meaning of the word “documentary.”  I was touched that Perry never tired of telling me how much she loved the piece. It stands to this day as the only “obituary” I could ever write about and for Perry Miller Adato, my brilliant friend and inspiration. I’ve tweaked and reprinted it again below, and I hope you’ll enjoy it! –Judith Trojan

Perry Miller Adato Remembers Paris The Luminous Years 

Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein and their fascinating community of expatriates seize the spotlight in Perry Miller Adato's Award-winning documentary, GERTRUDE STEIN: WHEN THIS YOU SEE, REMEMBER ME (1970).

Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein and their fascinating community of expatriates seize the spotlight in Perry Miller Adato’s Award-winning documentary, GERTRUDE STEIN: WHEN THIS YOU SEE, REMEMBER ME (1970).

Back in the day when I was a young graduate film student at New York University, I by chance caught Gertrude Stein: When This You See, Remember Me (1970) on WNET/Channel 13.  To say that the film changed my life is an understatement.  More than anything I had yet to learn at NYU, Gertrude Stein instantaneously toppled my perception of what a documentary film could, should and would be going forward into the final decades of the 20th century.  It had nothing in common with the tired, formulaic “educational films” that I was raised on—those snooze-inducing films that held audiences captive in schools and libraries and on public TV.

For me as a budding film and art historian and journalist and for a whole generation of my peers—the young social issue filmmakers about to jump-start their careers—that film opened a door to a whole new way of presenting and preserving artistic vision and visionaries.   Through the skillful weaving together of rare interviews, archival clips, photographs and letters—the fruits of dogged research—with exquisite renderings of artwork and text, the filmmaker, Perry Miller Adato, succeeded in bringing to life, in riveting fashion, a community of artists and writers who many of us could only hope to “meet” on the printed page, on museum walls or in concert halls.

Perry Miller Adato on-set filming PARIS THE LUMINOUS YEARS.

Adato went on to produce and direct many award-winning films on individual artists throughout the years and, in the process, influenced the evolution of such young filmmakers as Ken Burns and a host of women filmmakers who gained courage by following her lead.   Adato’s life’s work came full circle with her most brilliant, beautifully conceived and thoughtfully researched film of all, Paris The Luminous Years:  Toward the Making of the Modern (2010).

Of all the new and classic films I’d seen in the months preceding its encore broadcast on PBS in early 2013, Paris The Luminous Years triggered my first epiphany of 2013.  It was a happy reminder of why and how my love affair with documentaries and their makers came to be.  If you care about the arts (fine art, music, dance, theater, literature and documentary filmmaking at its best), I urge you not to miss this film. (It’s currently available on DVD and other formats from PBS, Amazon, Netflix et al.)

In the context of Perry Miller Adato’s previous work, this film makes perfect sense.  It seamlessly pulls together all the distinctive elements in her toolbox into a film that is nothing short of a masterpiece   One not only gains an overall sense of the historical period within which her subjects, the trailblazing European and American expatriates, lived and worked.  But we are also privy to their position in the artistic subculture and hierarchy of the time, as well as the cultural and social influences on their work and the groundbreaking artistic, literary and musical movements that germinated in this very special place and time.

Literary giants Sylvia Beach and James Joyce ponder the fate of Joyce’s controversial oeuvre in Beach’s iconic Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, circa 1922. From PARIS THE LUMINOUS YEARS (PBS/Princeton University Library).

In short, Paris The Luminous Years not only stands as an epic achievement in documentary filmmaking, but also serves as an evergreen educational resource that should be mandatory viewing for all serious students of the history of 20th century art, literature, music and dance.

There are no false or irrelevant moments in the film.  Especially invaluable are the crisp, spot-on shots of the artwork, one of  Adato’s specialties, as well as her liberal use of fascinating and undoubtedly rare archival film footage, particularly the glorious period film clips of Parisian street life and café society and the content-rich clips of noted artists, writers and musicians who share personal anecdotes.  Adato’s intelligent script manages to integrate, in novelistic fashion, a massive amount of research without seeming pedantic or compromising the integrity of the material.

Paris may represent the Shangri-La of romance and fantasy for many viewers today (e.g., Woody Allen’s wistful romantic comedy, Midnight in Paris), but the City of Light best be remembered for the more important role it played in the lives of artistic visionaries (circa 1900-30) who needed Paris to create a body of work that ultimately reshaped the landscape of the arts forever.

Perry Miller Adato

Perry Miller Adato delivers that message loud and clear in Paris The Luminous Years, and with her rich and incomparable body of work secures her place in the cinematic pantheon.  Bravo Perry, Godspeed…and Thank you! —Judith Trojan

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TV’s First Lady Betty White Celebrated on PBS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind Debuts on HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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QuestTheDoc on PBS Champions Family Resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story Ignites PBS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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