The Double Life of Pioneer Codebreaker Exposed on PBS

ELIZEBETH SMITH FRIEDMAN (1892-1980) decoded thousands of encrypted top secret messages for the U.S. government and Armed Services during two World Wars and Prohibition. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

ELIZEBETH SMITH FRIEDMAN (1892-1980) decoded thousands of encrypted top secret messages for the U.S. government and Armed Services during two World Wars and Prohibition. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

“If we missed her, who else are we missing.”

She had big dreams. But as a young Midwestern woman growing up during the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, she needed more than a little pluck and luck to realize them. As it turned out, pluck, luck, superior intelligence and an affinity for keeping secrets were her golden tickets.

Elizebeth Smith was born in 1892, the youngest of 10 children in an Indiana Quaker family.  Her dad, a Civil War veteran, saw no good reason why she should go to college, but finally acquiesced with the proviso that she pay him back at 6% interest. Always bookish, but bored with a post-college hometown teaching job, Elizebeth took off for Chicago emboldened by wanderlust and armed with her love of language and knack with numbers.

The remarkable story of Elizebeth Smith’s transformation into pioneering codebreaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman, who helped change the course of two World Wars and bust organized crime’s bootlegging operations during Prohibition, is deftly told in The Codebreaker, the latest installment in the PBS AMERICAN EXPERIENCE series.  The Codebreaker debuts on PBS tonight, Monday, January 11, 2021, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region.

Elizebeth Smith with her mentor, George Fabyan, at Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva, Illinois, circa 1916. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

Based on the book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, who also appears in the film, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Codebreaker shines a much-needed light on a forgotten American patriot, a woman whose life as a devoted wife and mother gave her the cover she needed to pursue a career decoding thousands of top secret messages for the U.S. government and Armed Forces.  Her work led to the creation of the science of cryptology, established the norms of modern codebreaking and the founding of the National Security Administration (NSA) by President Harry S. Truman in 1952.

Elizebeth Smith’s early love of Shakespeare led to her prophetic meeting with eccentric Illinois millionaire George Fabyan, who enlisted her help to prove that Francis Bacon was, in fact, the writer of Shakespeare’s works and had planted secret codes in the plays to confirm his authorship. The project failed but manifested Elizebeth’s extraordinary talent for decoding ciphers and patterns within texts. It also introduced her to project photographer William Friedman, who would become her husband and a distinguished cryptologist in his own right.

The couple married in 1917 and fine-tuned their methodology at the helm of America’s first codebreaking unit, spearheaded by their mentor George Fabyan.  Soon the Friedmans were in demand during WWI by the U.S. War, Navy, State and Justice Departments to break codes proliferating from the use of novel radio technology to transmit encrypted secret military messages.

William F. Friedman and Elizebeth Smith Friedman on the grounds of Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva, Illinois, circa 1917. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

As her husband’s professional career skyrocketed, Elizebeth lived the life of a suburban Washington, D.C., wife and mother while continuing her top secret work as a codebreaker for the U.S. government.  She not only decoded messages that expedited organized crime’s bootlegging operations in coastal waters during Prohibition, but also defended her findings and fearlessly faced Al Capone and his lawyers at trial.

During WWII, Elizebeth’s counter intelligence work for the U.S. Navy stymied the fearsome build-up of Nazi spy rings in South America and their command of German U-Boat activity off the coast that targeted Allied transport ships.

“Elizebeth Friedman had a tremendous influence on our country’s history,” said Cameo George, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer. “As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field that she herself pioneered, she fought sexism throughout her career but, through sheer brilliance, was able to shape an amazing legacy–taking down mobsters and helping to win not one but two World Wars!”

Elizebeth Smith Friedman in Washington, D.C., circa 1934, en route to present evidence in Federal court. Photo courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation Library.

Despite her highly important work as a pioneer in the development of strategic intelligence and cryptology as invaluable tools during wartime, Elizebeth Smith Friedman was never given credit for her role in these historic operations until records were declassified in 2008.  How refreshing in the aftermath of the seditious attack on our Capitol on January 6, 2021, when the meaning of the term “patriot” was demonized by right wing thugs, to be introduced to an unsung American patriot, a woman whose credentials are now available for every American to see and honor.

Award-winning writer/producer/director Chana Gazit incorporates wonderful vintage black and white film footage throughout The Codebreaker, crisply timelined by historians and incidental narration by actress Kate Burton.  Gazit’s film will be a timely and invaluable supplement to U.S. History classes and Women’s Studies in schools, libraries, colleges and universities going forward.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Codebreaker debuts on PBS tonight, Monday, January 11, 2021, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region,  and the PBS Video app for streaming info, and for DVD availability. –Judith Trojan

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

Glenda Jackson Illuminates Elizabeth Is Missing on PBS Masterpiece

Acclaimed actress Glenda Jackson stars as Maud, whose struggles with dementia don't dampen her determination to resolve two mysterious disappearances in ELIZABETH IS MISSING on PBS MASTERPIECE. Photo: Mark Mainz, courtesy of STV Productions.

Acclaimed actress Glenda Jackson stars as Maud, whose struggles with dementia don’t dampen her determination to resolve two mysterious disappearances in ELIZABETH IS MISSING on PBS MASTERPIECE. Photo: Mark Mainz, courtesy of STV Productions.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”— Maya Angelou.

We take our memory for granted… until we start to lose pieces of it. Such is the relentless path of dementia, the uncontrollable demon that shreds Maud’s memory until past and present become indistinguishable. Maud is the protagonist in Elizabeth Is Missing, a 90-minute drama produced in 2019 by STV Productions and BBC One and debuting stateside on PBS MASTERPIECE tonight, Sunday, January 3, 2021, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 Central.

Adapted from Emma Healey’s acclaimed 2014 novel by director Aisling Walsh and screenwriter Andrea Gibb, the film stars two-time Academy Award®-winning actress Glenda Jackson as the cantankerous mom and grandmother who is determined, despite her fractured memory, to solve the recent disappearance of her best friend, Elizabeth, and that of her older sister, Sukey, who vanished mysteriously 70 years before in 1949.

Glenda Jackson won her first Academy Award® for WOMEN IN LOVE (1970), a controversial adaptation of the D.H Lawrence novel, directed by Ken Russell.

Glenda Jackson won her first Academy Award® for WOMEN IN LOVE (1970), a controversial adaptation of the D.H Lawrence novel, directed by Ken Russell.

Casting Glenda Jackson in the title role in Elizabeth Is Missing pretty much guarantees a no holds barred depiction of the downside of aging and dementia, and Jackson doesn’t disappoint.  During her youthful stint on stage and in the cinema, actress Glenda Jackson was a force to be reckoned with.  Earthy and compelling, her performances won her Academy Awards® for Women in Love (1970) and A Touch of Class (1973).

In 1992, she segued from acting to politics and served multiple back-to-back terms in the House of Commons.  Twenty-three years later, Jackson resumed her acting career on stage in London and New York with award-worthy performances in Three Tall Women and King Lear and on TV (following its BBC TV debut in December 2019, Elizabeth Is Missing earned Jackson Best Actress BAFTA TV and International Emmy® Awards).

Jackson takes no prisoners as feisty, irascible Maud, a woman slowly disappearing in the fog of dementia. Exasperated by her over-protective daughter, doting granddaughter and condescending home health aide, Maud struggles to justify her memory lapses and idiosyncratic behavior and get on with life until she makes a startling discovery in her best friend’s garden… and then that friend, Elizabeth, suddenly goes missing. These shocks trigger flashbacks from Maud’s adolescence and young adulthood, a happy time darkened by the mysterious disappearance of her beloved older sister, Sukey.

Maud (Glenda Jackson) faces many obstacles in her efforts to learn the whereabouts of her best friend in ELIZABETH IS MISSING on PBS. Photo: Mark Mainz, courtesy of STV Productions.

Maud (Glenda Jackson) faces many obstacles in her efforts to learn the whereabouts of her best friend in ELIZABETH IS MISSING on PBS. Photo: Mark Mainz, courtesy of STV Productions.

Determined to find her friend Elizabeth, whom she believes to be a victim of foul play, and also to make sense of Sukey’s long ago disappearance, Maud arranges and disarranges clues on paper (prompted by the reminder notes positioned around her house) and leaves no stone unturned until her clues and her resolve begin to pay off. Seventy years separate the disappearances of Elizabeth and Sukey, yet Maud’s deep feelings for both women and her cries for answers and closure are finally heard and heeded.

Elizabeth Is Missing is essentially the story of three “missing” women, Elizabeth, Sukey and Maud, all of whom are victims of  circumstances beyond their control.  The film has much to say about the physical and emotional challenges faced by the elderly, especially those suffering from dementia:  the soul-crushing pain of being sidelined and rendered invisible; the collateral damage of isolation and loneliness; and the frustration of trying to live independently with a body and mind that no longer works well enough to make that possible.  While this may sound off-putting, it is a wake-up call that, in the hands of Glenda Jackson, is not to be missed or dismissed.

Glenda Jackson fearlessly portrays a woman struggling to come to terms with her dementia in ELIZABETH IS MISSING on PBS MASTERPIECE. Photo: Mark Mainz, courtesy of STV Productions.

Glenda Jackson fearlessly portrays a woman struggling to come to terms with dementia in ELIZABETH IS MISSING on PBS MASTERPIECE. Photo: Mark Mainz, courtesy of STV Productions.

Not only a must-see for Glenda Jackson fans like me, who continue to be lured by her fearlessness and the danger lurking in all of her portrayals, Elizabeth Is Missing is a surefire evergreen programmer for family counseling and caregiver training sessions, and college and university sociology, psychology and med school classes dealing with ageism, Alzheimer’s and other forms of age-related disabilities.

Elizabeth Is Missing premieres on PBS MASTERPIECE tonight, Sunday, January 3, 2021, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 Central. Check local listings for air times in your region, and the PBS Video app for streaming info, and for DVD availability. –Judith Trojan 

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

I Was Undone by HBO’s The Undoing

“Underneath this wonderful family, there is a ticking time bomb.”–director Susanne Bier.

I’ve been obsessed. I’ve watched and  rewatched episodes of The Undoing so many times, I’ve lost count.  I’ve been bewitched by its talented, smartly cast team of actors. I’ve been gripped by its riveting teleplay and its twisty direction.  I’ve been captivated by its clever use of music, sound and the seasonal streets, greenscape and skyline of Manhattan to set the mood and presage upcoming narrative.

There should be no surprise that The Undoing’s transition from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, You Should Have Known, to a six-part limited HBO series, had all the earmarks of success coming out of the gate. Created and written by Emmy® Award-winner David E. Kelley; starring and Executive Produced by Nicole Kidman; and directed in its entirety by Emmy®, Golden Globe and Academy Award®-winning director Susanne Bier, The Undoing has more than a little in common with such recent outstanding HBO limited series as Big Little Lies (Kidman, Kelley, Bier) and Sharp Objects. All three series explore the lives of privileged couples and their families whose dysfunction, once hidden from public view, is outed by particularly gruesome murders.

A marriage unravels with tragic consequences in THE UNDOING. From left: Hugh Grant, Noma Dumezweni and Nicole Kidman. Photo courtesy HBO.

The Undoing introduces us to a handsome, seemingly happily married professional couple–Grace (Nicole Kidman) and Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant).  The couple’s micro-managed lives revolve around their precocious 12-year-old son, Henry (Noah Jupe); their commitments to their patients (he’s a pediatric oncologist; she’s a clinical psychologist); and the responsibilities demanded of all wealthy patrons of Henry’s exclusive private school.

Another key member of this picture perfect family is Grace’s dad, retired financier Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland). Franklin lives in an art and music-filled Manhattan apartment on “millionaire-row” with a maid and driver at his beck and call. Despite his air of patrician detachment, Franklin dotes on his daughter and grandson and will do anything…anything… to ensure their happiness.

But all is not well in paradise, as is evidenced quickly in the first episode, when a shocking incident upends everything the Fraser marriage and family seems to represent and hold dear. The ramifications of a life built on lies immediately takes a toll on Grace, who has dedicated two decades of her life to healing her patients’ marriages and families. When she is forced to turn her attention inward and face chilling truths about her own husband and marriage, the Fraser family’s house of cards comes tumbling down and the collateral damage is swift and deadly.

Retired financier Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland) will do whatever it takes to protect his grandson, Henry Fraser (Noah Jupe), in THE UNDOING. Photo: David Giesbrecht for HBO.

This is Award-worthy stuff, most especially the brilliant performances by Hugh Grant (still a charming master of the bon mot, but frayed around the edges and dangerously, emotionally shredded); Donald Sutherland (he has never looked or acted so imposing and powerful; his flowing white mane of hair, formidable eyebrows and patrician profile belong on Mt. Rushmore); and Nicole Kidman and young Noah Jupe (their bond, as mother and son, is the engine that powers this drama from the outset).  The small supporting cast is equally outstanding, most especially Noma Dumezweni as defense attorney Haley Fitzgerald and Ismael Cruz Córdova as Fernando Alves.

As with games of chess (a pastime shared by Grace and her dad), every move plotted by David E. Kelley’s teleplay and orchestrated by Susanne Bier’s direction begets a series of unexpected counter moves that are impossible to ignore. All of these elements and mighty talents fanned my fascination with The Undoing from the outset, and sparked my resolve to identify the psychopath in sheep’s clothing who drove the Fraser family’s privileged, seemingly idyllic life to the brink of hell.

Psychotherapist Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) walks the streets of Manhattan at all hours of the day and night to clear her head in THE UNDOING. Photo: Niko Tavernise for HBO.

The full season (Episodes 1-6) of The Undoing is available on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max. The series debuted on HBO on Sunday, October 25, 2020. The final episode premiered tonight, Sunday, November 29, 2020, with many repeat screenings on HBO throughout the weeks ahead.–Judith Trojan

Posted in Cable, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Freedom Summer Tackles Timely Voter and Civil Rights

“Did you see the way our people, you know, they were protecting his bus yesterday, because they’re nice. They had hundreds of cars…You see Trump and the American flag.” –President Donald J. Trump.

Excuse me?  Nearly 100 trucks festooned with Trump campaign gear dangerously menaced a Biden/Harris campaign bus on heavily trafficked Texas Interstate 35 on Friday, November 2, 2020.  The incident, now reportedly under Federal investigation, resulted in at least one accident and the cancellation of two planned Biden campaign rallies out of fear for staffers’ and supporters’ safety.

Contradicting critics and encouraging investigators to look elsewhere, Trump tweeted: “In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong.”  A local female Texas GOP stalwart gave the incident a similar thumbs up, tweeting: “We sent the [Biden campaign] bus out of Hays [Texas]! Your kind aren’t welcome here! This is TrumpCountry.”

Has Election 2020 time-travelled back to the 1960s when violent intimidation of opposing candidates and minority voters in certain regions of the country was the norm?  Where the heck are we living, and how have we sunk so low?

This shocking behavior immediately triggered my memory and review of Stanley Nelson’s powerful Peabody Award-winning 2014 documentary, Freedom Summer.  The film is a poignant reminder that a mere five decades ago voting was virtually off-limits to Mississippi’s African-American community.  It was a time when attempts to correct that injustice incited menacing caravans of local “good people” who wore white hoods and capes, burned crosses on people’s lawns and beat, raped and murdered not only American citizens who attempted to vote but also those who campaigned and worked to expedite the fair and equal process.

By turns troubling and uplifting, the film continues to stand as a timely reminder that systemic racism can be eradicated when blacks and whites work together to implement change. Freedom Summer debuted on the PBS series American Experience in June 2014 and, Good News!… you can at watch it for free @ Freedom Summer bears revisiting.

Contrived literacy tests and threats of home and job loss, violence and death were the tactics used by the segregationist white establishment to bully black Mississippians out of the polls and elected office.  As the summer of 1964 dawned, only 6.7% of African-Americans were registered to vote in Mississippi, in contrast to 50-70% in other Southern states.  While African-Americans made up the majority of the population in rural Mississippi, they remained frozen in time–tipping their hats and bowing their heads as their white neighbors strolled by.

Mississippi Summer Project volunteers and locals canvas for new voters in 1964. Photo: Ted Polumbaum/ Newseum.

Somehow, Mississippi had fallen off the radar and remained the land that time and the rest of America forgot.  Until, that is, the Mississippi Summer Project aka “Freedom Summer” was launched by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to transport almost 1,000 white and black student volunteers down from the North for 10 weeks to aid local civil rights activists in their efforts to register black voters.

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson clearly sets the stage on which these idealistic young Northerners (average age 19-20) found themselves. Mississippi was in the grip of the Citizens’ Council, who answered any perceived threat to white supremacy with violence. Early casualties were Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, who disappeared en route to investigate a church bombing. Their bodies were later found buried in shallow graves.  The summer played out with beatings, the burning of 35 churches and bombing of 70 homes and community centers.

Poster Of Missing Civil Rights Workers

The film seamlessly integrates well-chosen period archival and news footage, photos and letters with articulate recollections by surviving volunteers, organizers and civil rights leaders who reflect on what they faced, how they survived the ever-present fear of being shot, tortured, raped or killed and what they garnered from their commitment.  Their stories are often chilling.

Standout witnesses here are the women who departed states like Iowa, New York and Vermont as fervent but naive young volunteers, as well as the locals who opened up their homes to them at great personal risk to themselves and their families (African-Americans housing white young women were especial targets).  Anthony Harris, then a youngster and now a Ph.D., is a particularly engaging witness.  He attended a life-altering Freedom School set up by the volunteers to introduce young African-American Mississippians to literature (blacks were barred from local libraries) and to the black history and culture they were sorely missing.

Two fearless women posed a special problem for President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who opposed the black voter registration drive in Mississippi, afraid it would cost him the next election.

Fannie Lou Hamer rallied volunteers and the nation with pleas for justice and voter rights. Photo: George Ballis/Take Stock.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper and SNCC field secretary, passionately supported unseating the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.  And Rita Schwerner, a Freedom Summer organizer and the young widow of Mickey Schwerner, worked relentlessly to keep her husband’s loss and memory alive in the public eye.

The film includes snippets from what appear to be Oval Office phone conversations, including those between President Johnson and F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, that are pretty damning, as are the backdoor machinations used by LBJ to stifle the Mississippi Freedom delegates at the National Democratic Convention.

But LBJ’s determination to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a monumental piece of legislation abolishing literacy tests and protecting voter rights in the seven Southern states, positions him irrevocably on the right side of Civil Rights history.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a direct result of the volunteers’ daunting efforts during the summer of 1964, can’t be understated, nor can the importance of Stanley Nelson’s film, Freedom Summer, as a reminder of a time when a long hot summer brought courageous young people of both races together, in a climate of fear and violence, to make a difference.

As we await the final outcome of Presidential Election 2020, it behooves us not to regress to a time when politically condoned and regionally orchestrated menace and outright violence stifled voters’ rights and campaign safety.

Be sure to revisit Stanley Nelson’s 2014 two-hour documentary, Freedom Summer, via the PBS American Experience Website and stand firmly and forever with the better angels of our Nation’s history and #Vote !–Judith Trojan

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

Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip Makes Timely Debut on PBS

“I remain your New York corespondent Walter Winchell, who can sit at his window and review those passing below.  He sees everyone he likes… or doesn’t. He can either drop a flower… or a flower pot.”–Walter Winchell

WALTER WINCHELL (1897-1972). Photo ©Globe Photos, Inc.

If names like Hannity and Limbaugh, Maddow and Cooper raise your hackles or float your boat, their talent to make or break news and newsmakers pales in comparison to the power wielded in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s by syndicated newspaper columnist, radio news commentator and TV host Walter Winchell.

The story of Winchell’s meteoric rise, colorful beat and tragic fall from grace make for a fascinating new installment of the PBS American Masters series. Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip debuts on PBS tonight, Tuesday, October 20, 2020, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  (Check local listings for air times in your region, and the PBS Video app for streaming, and for DVD availability.)  I urge you not to miss it!

Walter Winchell was the first media pundit to tweak entertainment and celebrity news and gossip with politically charged commentary. His talent to tap into the zeitgeist of mid-century America via the nascent tabloid newspaper, radio and TV markets gave him the edge… and his audience listened.

Walter Winchell snags a scoop for his New York Daily Mirror readers. Photo: Getty Images.

At his peak, Winchell took no prisoners as he transfixed 50 million Americans with his distinctive voice on radio and in newsprint, in communiqués freshly peppered with his own personally concocted “slanguage.” 

“Hollywood is where they shoot too many pictures and not enough actors,” snapped Winchell. 

The denizens of the Great White Way were also an easy target for Winchell, safely perched at his celebrity-filled corner table in the famed Stork Club. “Broadway is a main artery of New York life –the hardened artery,” cracked Winchell without missing a beat.

Born in Harlem in 1897, Walter Winchell hit the vaudeville circuit as a mediocre singer and dancer where he made two life-changing discoveries: He met his first wife, who gifted him with a typewriter; and he found that he was a better backstage gossip than performer.

By the mid-1920s, the only thing he was tapping on was the typewriter.  Winchell caught the attention of The New York Evening Graphic, a tabloid rag that gave him the chance to turn his gift for gossip into a paying gig.  He found his niche; and New York night crawlers, show biz stars and wannabes and Park Avenue swells became his unwitting subjects. He had a knack for knocking down the mighty with sly innuendo, suggesting much in his colorful brand of “Winchellese.” “She’s been on more laps than a napkin,” he opined.

Wider exposure on The New York Daily Mirror and national syndication, as well as his immensely popular radio broadcast kept “Mr. and Mrs. America and all the Ships at Sea” entertained with news of the rich and famous during the Great Depression and beyond. 

Walter Winchell reported from the courthouse in Flemington, NJ, during the 1935 Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder “Trial of the Century.”

No one was sacred, not even American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. Winchell reported directly from the Flemington, NJ, courthouse during the 1935 “Trial of the Century,” that convicted the Lindbergh baby’s purported kidnapper and murderer. But, when Winchell, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants, sounded early alarms about the rise of Hitler in Germany and parallel expansion of Nazi activity in the U.S. (youth camps and rallies), he made sure to single out notable Nazi sympathizers as well, including Charles Lindbergh. 

Winchell was no Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow.  Serious journalism was not his forte, but Winchell did have powerful political connections that he respected, for better (President Franklin D. Roosevelt and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) or worse (anti-Communist witch hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy and his henchman, Roy Cohn). Winchell relished partnering with FDR to promote the New Deal and our entry into WWII.  And Winchell supported J. Edgar Hoover’s efforts to expose American Nazi sympathizers. 

But Winchell’s anti-Communist leanings led him to tout McCarthyism in the 1950s.  This ill-fated alliance, as well as a failed stint as a TV host in the mid-Fifties and celebrated rows with African-American performer and activist Josephine Baker and popular TV host and Broadway columnist Ed Sullivan, led to Winchell’s downfall.

Winchell’s distinctive voice and snappy repartee, aka “Winchellese,” were highlights of his immensely popular radio show. Photo courtesy Granger.

Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip paints a valuable picture of Winchell’s enormous influence as a media superstar. Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ben Loeterman turns a fresh eye on Winchell’s career and the American cultural and political landscape that enabled him to rise and prosper, and eventually fall. 

Writer/producer/director Ben Loeterman masterfully incorporates a fascinating collection of vintage archival footage, audio and photos (the Lindbergh, American Nazi party and Josephine Baker segments are especially gripping).  Sharply focused anecdotes from period historians (most especially Winchell biographer Neal Gabler); spot-on Winchell reenactments voiced by actor Stanley Tucci; and unobtrustive voice over narration by Whoopi Goldberg round out this riveting documentary that will grab you from its 1952 “What’s My Line” opener and never let you go.  

Walter Winchell: the Power of Gossip is one of the most timely films in THIRTEEN’s American Masters’ series for WNET to come along in recent memory.  It will be an evergreen asset to programming in schools, libraries and universities covering the good, the bad and, yes, the ugly roots of modern media and superstar pundits.  I also recommend it as the perfect complement to HBO’s recent outstanding adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, in which Walter Winchell and Charles Lindbergh drive much of the narrative.

American Masters–Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip debuts on PBS tonight, Tuesday, October 20, 2020, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.   (Check local listings for air times in your region, and the PBS Video app for streaming, and for DVD availability.) The Plot Against America miniseries is available on HBO On Demand and to stream on HBO Max. –Judith Trojan

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Radio, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Honoring the Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

RUTH BADER GINSBURG (1933-2020) as seen in the feature-length documentary, RBG. Photo: Magnolia Pictures.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG (1933-2020) as seen in the feature-length documentary, RBG. Photo: Magnolia Pictures.

“Fight for the things you care about, but in a way that will lead others to join you.”Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

She was tiny. A determined young woman in a vibrant blue suit, head held high, briefcase in hand, clearly thrilled to be entering the hallowed halls of Harvard Law School as a first year law student. But there was a glitch. It was 1956, and her gender didn’t fit.

Director Mimi Leder’s 2018 biopic, On the Basis of Sex, opens with a sea of suitably suited young men, almost but not quite entirely obliterating the tiny young woman in blue as they walk en masse into Harvard Law to convene with their Dean as classmates for the first time. The soundtrack reverberates with a rousing chorus of “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard,”a fitting anthem to the mountain Brooklyn-born Ruth Bader Ginsburg will have to climb to survive and thrive as a freshly pressed young lawyer, devoted wife and doting mother in the “old boy’s club” that was Harvard Law School and the legal profession in the Fifties and Sixties.

Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston) has only men in mind when he encourages his first year law students to be big fish in a big pond. His cursory nod to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and the handful of other women who survived the cut is dismissive at best: “Why are you occupying a place at Harvard that could go to a man?” he snaps tartly.

"After playing Ruth, I realized how important it is to have a voice in the world and to express that," said Felicity Jones (above), who stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in ON THE BASIS OF SEX. Photo: Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features.

“After playing Ruth, I realized how important it is to have a voice in the world and to express that,” said Felicity Jones (above), who stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in ON THE BASIS OF SEX. Photo: Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features.

It’s clear that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career began in earnest that day and the days that immediately followed at Harvard Law. Her drive to survive and excel, despite the sexist battering, would fuel her career-long ambition to upend discrimination in all forms on the basis of gender. She would eventually become only the second woman to be named to the Supreme Court, where she served for 27 years.

Carefully scripted by Ginsburg’s nephew, screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, On the Basis of Sex carries Ginsburg through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, highlighting the snarky sexist challenges she faced during her two years at Harvard Law and her futile attempts, despite her stellar academic credentials, to land a job in any New York law firm. She accepts a Rutgers Law School teaching post that proved to be a viable niche to propel a pivotal sex discrimination case–“Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue”–that she would argue alongside her husband, tax attorney Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), in federal court in the early 1970s. With that case and several others that followed (e.g., Reed v. Reed), she was determined to set a precedent that the equal protections guaranteed by the 14th Amendment not only applied to racial discrimination but gender discrimination as well.

While the film recreates a fascinating portrait of Ginsburg’s early career where the roots of her road to champion gender equality were clearly planted, On the Basis of Sex is also a touching love story. Ruth Bader and Marty Ginsburg met as undergrads at Cornell.  The film catches up with Marty a year ahead of his wife at Harvard Law, and during his early career as a tax attorney at a high profile NYC law firm.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX dramatizes the loving family that supported Ruth Bader Ginsburg's progressive career. From left: Armie Hammer (Marty Ginsburg), Cailee Spaeny (daughter Jane Ginsburg), Felicity Jones (Ruth Bader Ginsburg). Photo: Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX dramatizes the loving family that supported Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s progressive career. From left: Armie Hammer (Marty Ginsburg), Cailee Spaeny (daughter Jane Ginsburg), Felicity Jones (Ruth Bader Ginsburg). Photo: Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features.

An unusually supportive, liberated husband for the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, (or any decade for that matter!) and a warmly attentive father to their kids, Marty never let his wife second guess her lofty career goals or give in to defeat. He also served as a buttress between two strong-willed women–his wife Ruth and their feisty, feminist teenage daughter Jane.

When Marty Ginsburg was felled unexpectedly by an early bout of cancer, Ruth stepped in to attend both her own and her husband’s Harvard classes so he wouldn’t fall behind. It’s clear why their marriage lasted 56 years.  Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer and Cailee Spaeny (as daughter Jane) are outstanding in their extremely engaging roles.

To flesh out Justice Ginsburg’s early life and later career en route to the Supreme Court, I also encourage you to revisit RBG, the Emmy®-winning, Oscar®-nominated feature-length documentary directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen.  The 2018 box office hit helped cement Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s preeminence as a progressive champion for women’s and LGBTQ rights and recast her visibility as a late-in-life pop culture icon.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's senior portrait at Cornell University. Photo: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States/Focus Features.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s senior portrait at Cornell University. Photo: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States/Focus Features.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a trailblazer, a role model and a friend,” remembered Senator Elizabeth Warren, who navigated a similar male-dominated milieu at Rutgers Law School.

To honor Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “life and unparalleled legacy upholding justice,” Participant, Focus Features and Magnolia Pictures will be re-releasing their 2018 films, On the Basis of Sex and RBG in theaters, today, Friday, September 24, 2020, the day that Justice Ginsburg will lie in state in the Capitol, the first such honor for a woman.

Both films will play in theaters in tandem with their availability on On-demand platforms. AMC Theatres will reportedly charge $5.00 per ticket. On the Basis of Sex is also currently airing on Showtime (check schedules in your region) and is available to subscribers via Showtime OnDemand.

Proceeds from the films’ re-release are earmarked for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project, co-founded in 1972 by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project “empowers poor women, women of color and immigrant women who have been subject to gender bias and who face pervasive barriers to equality.” Their four core areas of concern are: employment, violence against women, criminal justice and education.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg changed the world, but she changed the world by persuading the people who disagreed with her as opposed to destroying them,” said her nephew and On the Basis of Sex screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman. “What is crucial to understand about Ruth was how much she really revered the Constitution and the law and the country. What I learned from her is what patriotism looks like.”

As we approach what will go down in history as the most divisive and critically important Presidential election in our nation’s recent history, I encourage you to take a breath and revisit RBG and On the Basis of Sex.  Then join the conversation at #ThankYouRuth and share how much Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg’s legacy means to you, the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution and our democracy going forward. –Judith Trojan

Posted in Cable, Film | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Time Is Still Right for A Time for Burning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Comedy Legend Carl Reiner (1922-2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the most dogged online crime junkies was writer Michelle McNamara, whose blog,, chronicled her fascination with unsolved crimes. Like Ann Rule, she aspired as a writer to mirror Truman Capote’s novelistic approach. She was determined to bring the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker (EAR/ONS), whom she dubbed the “Golden State Killer,” to justice and assure closure for the rape victims, their families and the families of the murder victims.  She began building bridges with the EAR/ONS victims, many of whom had never even shared their stories with their closest friends and families (rape victims were 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. She was hooked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mae West: Dirty Blonde Takes Center Stage on PBS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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