“Icarus”: This Year’s Oscar Winner, and a Documentary Unlike Any Other

March 7, 2018 § Leave a comment

Grigory Rodchenkov and Bryan Fogel in “Icarus”/Courtesy Netflix

For me, the highlight of this year’s Academy Award ceremony was the awarding of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature to “Icarus.” Timely, compelling and suspenseful, the film has something for everyone, and the fact that it’s on Netflix should ensure the wide audience it deserves.

Because its subject is Russian doping in the Olympics Games, I expected “Icarus” to be a straightforward exposé in the style of most “issue” documentaries: talking heads, incriminating footage and generous voiceover analysis. Though “Icarus” has all these elements, it manages to be far more: a personal film, a sports documentary, a mystery and, ultimately, a devastating portrait of our geopolitical past, present and future.

At first the director Bryan Fogel, an elite cyclist, sets out to prove that drug testing for athletes is “bullshit.” In deciding to make himself a test case for doping, he consults with Don Catlin, who founded the Olympic lab at UCLA and devised much of the drug testing that Lance Armstrong managed to beat. Says Catlin about athletes, “They’re all doping. Every single one of them.” He agrees to advise Fogel on his cheating regimen for the Haute Route, a 7-day bicycle race that follows the hardest section of the Tour de France. Having previously come in 14th, Fogel plans to inject himself with HGH and testosterone to boost his performance.

The phlegmatic Catlin soon bows out, fearing for his reputation. This turns out to be the best gift Fogel could have received as a filmmaker, for Catlin’s replacement advisor is Grigory Rodchenko, the Russian chemist who directed the Olympic lab at Sochi and Catlin’s polar opposite in personality. As charming and charismatic as Catlin is dull, Rodchenko becomes the instant star of “Icarus.” His first appearance–via Skype–goes like this:

Rodchenko: What is your ultimate purpose? You would like to beat doping test? You would like to start your hormonal program? Then give sample, prove negative.
Fogel: Yes.
Rodchenko: Hahaha. You need a very serious advisor because there are a lot of traps.

Like a spy novel, “Icarus” hurtles along from that point on. Rodchenko smuggles Fogel’s urine samples back to his lab and tests them; he passes. Fogel reaps the benefits of doping in the Haute Route until a bicycle malfunction ruins his performance; still, he evades all the drug tests. Meanwhile, Rodchenko’s situation in Russia grows more perilous: fearing for his life, he enlists Fogel’s help in getting out. He returns to Los Angeles and, once there, can’t return: the death of his friend and boss Nikita Kamaev, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, of a sudden and suspicious heart attack, seals his fate as a political refugee. He reveals the methods used by Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service) in switching athletes’ urine samples during the Sochi Olympics to the New York Times, is subpoenaed by a Federal grand jury, and provides the information leading to Russia’s ban from this year’s Winter Olympics.

Like the view in a kaleidoscope, “Icarus” begins as a small and intricate pattern, then morphs and expands in countless fascinating ways. If you haven’t already seen it, you should.

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Remembering the Bel Air Fire of 1961 as the Skirball Fire Rages

December 7, 2017 § 2 Comments

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Roscomare Road, Bel Air, During the 1961 Fire, courtesy LA Times Archive

Waking to the news that the Sepulveda Pass was burning yesterday, I immediately thought of the last major wildfire to hit the area. On November 5th, 1961, the Bel Air Fire raced through the Hollywood Hills, burning 16,000 acres and destroying 484 houses. Though there were no fatalities, it was the largest fire to strike the City of Los Angeles, unrivaled until the current one began late Tuesday night.

The Bel Air and Skirball Fires began in similar conditions: fires from ignited brush were spread by Santa Ana winds at the end of an unusually long dry season. Without measurable precipitation or humidity, both catastrophes progressed quickly, flames racing from canyon to canyon along the ridge line of the Santa Monica mountains.

In Beachwood Canyon, the 1961 fire claimed 17 houses, including that of the writer Aldous Huxley and his wife Laura. When I interviewed Laura Archera Huxley in 2007, she vividly remembered being mesmerized by the flames near their house on Deronda Drive. Unable to grasp the urgency of the situation, she and Aldous waited too long to evacuate and lost nearly all their possessions as well as their home.

The Skirball Fire is being blown west instead of east, so Beachwood Canyon isn’t in danger from it. But bone dry conditions combined with tourists who smoke with impunity near the Hollywood Sign puts those of us who live here in constant jeopardy. When I learned that firefighters from our area were being deployed to fight the Skirball Fire, I started packing my bags.

Twenty-four hours later, the situation seems to be improving. But until this winter’s rains begin, fire danger remains, as does our fear. Visitors who ignore Beachwood Canyon’s No Smoking signs should know that all it takes is a single flick of a cigarette to destroy homes and lives. For those who don’t care, there’s a hefty fine for smoking. Let’s hope the City enforces it.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/why-we-freak-out-when-you-smoke-in-beachwood-canyon/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/setting-our-house-on-fire-hollywood-sign-tourists-and-their-cigarettes/

Remembering Hugh Hefner

September 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

Hugh Hefner and Me, Post-Interview/Hope Anderson Productions

My first and only meeting with Hugh Hefner, who died yesterday at 91, took place in 2008, when I interviewed him for my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign.” Our meeting took place at the Playboy Mansion, in a room that was permanently lit and dressed for filming. It was an afternoon of rules and rituals: after announcing myself at the hidden intercom outside the gate (“talk to the rock,” in “Entourage” parlance) I was instructed to stand with my crew in the courtyard until the PR rep admitted us. Peacocks wandered by as we waited, and noises from unseen animals eminated from the zoo. Once we were inside and set up, Hugh Hefner appeared in his trademark silk smoking jacket. He sat down in a throne-like chair and the interview began.

It was a strange, yet not entirely unfamiliar, experience. At fifteen, I toured Buckingham Palace with my family, a visit made possible by a former employee of my father’s company who was then Keeper of the Privy Purse. After watching the Changing of the Guard from inside the gates, we trooped through the Palace’s public rooms, all of them vast and a hundred years behind the times in their decor. The Playboy Mansion, with its protocol and fusty oak paneled rooms, was the closest I’ve come to revisiting Buckingham Palace, though unlike the Queen, Hugh Hefner was present. He was also gracious. After the interview, I told him that reading my father’s Playboy magazines as a child had given me an excellent sex education, which didn’t surprise him in the least. We posed for a picture, he exited and I was soon outside the gates again, in the real world.

“Under the Hollywood Sign” is available on DVD and streaming at http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com

Related article:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/04/28/hef-saves-the-hollywood-sign-again/

Remembering Hargobind Singh

September 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

Hargobind Singh, Tour Guide/Hope Anderson Productions

Six years ago I wrote about Hargobind Singh, whom I met outside my house one day while he was leading a walking tour of the neighborhood. https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2011/07/30/hargobind-singhs-walking-tours-of-hollywoodland/

In the years since our interview, Hargobind married, closed his business and moved with his wife Dalveer to New York. Soon afterwards, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. The last time I saw him was in 2015, during a visit to Los Angeles while he was in remission. More surgeries followed, and today he came to the end of his life after a brave two-and-a-half year battle.

Though he became a New Yorker, I will always think of Hargobind in Hollywoodland, a place he loved. In addition to local history, he learned about the wildlife and was able to identify birds by their calls. He led so many people up the Hollywoodland stairs that he grew noticeably thinner and more muscular, yet he was always respectful of us residents. I was lucky to be among his and Dalveer’s friends, a group that spans the world and today remembers him fondly.

“Almost Famous,” Alan Brackett’s Memoir of Music, Life and Los Angeles in the 1960’s

April 9, 2017 § 1 Comment


Those who’ve seen my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” will remember my interview with the musician Alan Brackett, a longtime Hollywoodland resident who also contributed the song that accompanies the end credits. Brackett has just published an illuminating memoir, Almost Famous: Journey to the Summer of Love, about his early life in Santa Barbara, where he was a child performer, and his subsequent musical career in Los Angeles during the 1960’s.

“I believe I helped kill [folk music] with…over-exposure,” he writes refreshingly. Brackett isn’t kidding: before founding the seminal psychedelic band the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, he was a successful folk musician, most notably in the Hillside Singers, a quartet that toured the country during the height of the folk craze in the early 1960’s, when he was still a teenager.

The other reason for folk’s demise, of course, was the British Invasion, whose seismic influence Brackett grasped as he enlisted in the Marines in 1964, ahead of being drafted. After six months of service he returned to a changed world, musically and socially: the 60’s had begun in earnest. His new band (first called The Young Swingers, then The Ashes) played rock, and after a few more incarnations and personnel changes became the Peanut Butter Conspiracy in 1966. The band signed with Columbia, cut an album and quickly became famous. Brackett, who played bass, was its main songwriter.

PBC had a woman as its lead singer, Barbara “Sandi” Robison, which probably contributed to its rivalry with the Jefferson Airplane, which was led first by Signe Anderson and then Grace Slick. (Beyond that fact, the Airplane’s drummer, Spencer Dryden, had been a member of The Ashes.) In an affecting aside, Brackett talks about manager Bill Graham’s reaction to the PBC’s getting better reviews than the Jefferson Airplane did: he kept the band off any bill that included the Airplane, effectively cutting off the PBC’s chances to play festivals and large venues across the country.

While “Almost Famous” will appeal most to those who remember the Peanut Butter Conspiracy and its heyday, anyone can appreciate the whirlwind atmosphere of the late 1960s music scene. Within a few months of its founding, the PBC not only had a major label recording contract but was billed with every famous band and musician of the day. The Doors, the Association, Iron Butterfly and the Byrds are a few of the bands Brackett knows well, and Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley and Frank Zappa enliven his anecdotes. His memories are all the more affecting because many of these musicians are gone, along with the Los Angeles they inhabited so brightly.

“Almost Famous” has some drawbacks: it’s heavy on childhood reminiscences and light on Brackett’s later life, including a stint in music publishing and a longer career as a Hollywood prop master. It also could have benefitted from a cleanup of the spelling, punctuation and grammar. Nevertheless, the book is a valuable account of an important time in American culture, and well worth reading.

https://www.amazon.com/Almost-Famous-Journey-Summer-Love/dp/1541382528/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1491779334&sr=1-1&keywords=alan+brackett+%22almost+famous%22

Remembering Carrie Fisher

January 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

Carrie Fisher in 2013

Carrie Fisher in 2013


Carrie Fisher’s death on December 27th was an unexpected tragedy: she had suffered a massive heart attack on her flight from London on December 23rd, the nightmare scenario of every frequent flier. Why December 23rd? Why London? I soon learned she was flying back from filming the Amazon series “Catastrophe,” in which she plays Rob Delaney’s mother. As for the timing, it was obvious: she had made sure to get home in time for Christmas.

The death of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, of a stroke on December 28th was shocking in its timing, though not as unexpected: Reynolds was 84 and had been in poor health. Although a mordant joke circulated that Debbie had managed to upstage her daughter one last time, her death underscored their devoted relationship: the two were next-door neighbors on a compound in Beverly Hills and in daily contact.

Both women became famous for films they made at 19: Reynolds for “Singing in the Rain” and Fisher for “Star Wars,” yet their careers couldn’t have been more different. Reynolds was a studio creation, an MGM musical star whose cabaret act lasted more than fifty years. She wanted a similar career for her daughter, bringing her onstage to sing from the age of 13, but despite an excellent voice–strong, bluesy and jazzy–Fisher blazed her own trail. After a stellar film debut in “Shampoo,” in which the 17-year-old fed, interrogated and seduced Warren Beatty in two riveting scenes, she beat out every young actress in Hollywood for the role of Princess Leia. “Star Wars” would have been enough for most people, but Fisher went on to write books: five novels (including Postcards from the Edge, which became a feature film) and three memoirs, one of which, Wishful Drinking, became a one-woman show.

Beyond her published writing, Carrie Fisher was for decades a sought-after screenwriter, not only on original work but on other people’s screenplays. Punching up scripts was her bread and butter and she did it well, adding jokes and fleshing out characters in the “Star Wars” series and in comedies like “Hook,” “Sister Act,” and “Made in America.” She also wrote for the Academy Awards, among many other TV shows. Despite her excellent acting in films like “When Harry Met Sally,” to me she was a writer first and an actress second.

It was through writing that I had my only encounter with Carrie Fisher, at a literary event in the mid-2000’s. It was a small, private gathering so I expected to meet her, but when she arrived–late, badly groomed and out of sorts–I knew it was not to be. As the anxious hosts huddled around Fisher, I sensed she would have rather been anywhere else, yet she had dragged herself to their house after sprinkling glitter in her unwashed hair. I can’t pretend that her brief reading was good, but after joking about the glitter she pushed through it, and probably with more difficulty than any of us knew. Her mother, a tireless trouper, taught her well.

Afterwards her struggles with bi-polar disorder led to hospitalization and shock therapy, which in turn led to a career resurgence–more books, the “Wishful Drinking” show, two more “Star Wars” movies and “Catastrophe.” Fisher’s late work included a documentary, “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” which aired posthumously on HBO last weekend. Intended as a tribute to her mother, the film now seems a testament to the kind of family values that aren’t supposed to exist in Hollywood. Of course they do, but the Fisher-Reynolds bond was exceptionally strong, and in the end unbreakable.

The Hollyweed Sign and Its Predecessor

January 3, 2017 § 1 Comment

The Hollywood Sign on January 1, 2017/Courtesy LA Times

The Hollywood Sign on January 1, 2017/Courtesy LA Times

Because I was out of town on New Year’s Day, I missed seeing the Hollywood Sign transformed to read “Hollyweed.” Nevertheless, I heard about it from neighbors as soon as I woke up, and shortly afterwards from every imaginable news outlet . While I was surprised that the prankster got away with it, the prank itself wasn’t new, as I knew from making my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign.”* On New Year’s Day, 1976, less than two years before the completion of the current Sign, a prankster named Daniel Finegood did exactly the same thing to the orignal Hollywood Sign. Here’s a photo:

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

At the time of the first prank, the Sign was a crumbling, unguarded relic that anyone willing to climb to could access. Today, the rebuilt Sign is fenced, alarmed and off-limits to visitors without official permits. (Disclosure: I have filmed there twice, both times with permission.) Because the Sign stands below a militarized emergency communications center, trespassers are subject to arrest–or so the City claims. That whoever who transformed the Sign was able to escape notice, let alone arrest, is proof that the Sign’s alarm system failed or went unheeded. One wonders whether terrorists have taken note.

The Hollyweed incident capped off a particularly frenetic holiday week, when thousands of tourists walking in the street (itself a crime) on the sidewalk-less part of Beachwood Drive endangered themselves and trapped residents in and out of their homes. Beyond the gridlock, there’s everything that comes with uncontrolled crowds: trash, public urination, defecation and sex, trespassing, illegal parking, drinking and drug use. The Hollyweed prank was the last straw–and also the event that exposed the lies and double-dealing of Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Councilman David Ryu, who have long promised to enforce the law in Hollywoodland. They haven’t and they don’t, and now it’s indisputable.

*”Under the Hollywood Sign” is available on DVD and as a digital download from http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com

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