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.
March 8, 2017 § Leave a comment
The director who won:
And those who didn’t:
On this International Women’s Day, it’s worth noting that the average American fire department offers more opportunities for women than the film and television industry. I’m not just talking about women directors, though the fact that only four women have been nominated for the Best Director Academy Award in the Oscars’ 89-year history looks really bad, as does the fact that only one has won. I’m talking about opportunities for women across the board. The statistics are not only deplorable but actually getting worse.
The 2016 annual report of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film states:
In 2016, women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 2 percentage points from last year and is even with the percentage achieved in 1998.
Women accounted for 7% of directors, down 2 percentage points from 9% in 2015 and 1998. Last year, 92% of films had no female directors. In other roles, women comprised 13% of writers, 17% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers.
This year’s study also found that only 3% of composers working on the top 250 films were women.
What is to be done? It’s not enough to increase the female and minority membership of the Academy, which remains overwhelmingly white, male and old. The executives who greenlight films and TV shows have to change too, both in their gender makeup and outlook. It’s one thing to have more women executives who embrace the status quo, and another to have female–and male–executives who champion women writers, directors, cinematographers and composers. Another factor plaguing film and television is the lack of urgency. As long as the powers that be think things are fine as they are, nothing will change.
January 10, 2017 § Leave a comment
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.
January 3, 2017 § 1 Comment
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:
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
September 13, 2016 § 3 Comments
When I visited the Alto Nido, hummingbirds were flying in and out of the windows, the only charming touch in a dwelling that seemed to be both an abandoned DIY renovation and the lair of a mid-level hoarder. The place was on the Franklin side and thus not Gillis’s Ivar side apartment; still, I enjoyed its proximity to hallowed cinematic ground. That is, until the man said, “Guess who died here?–the guy who wrote The Great Gatsby.”
“You’re kidding,” I said, but he was serious.
“Yeah, right here,” he insisted, pointing to an alcove.
I knew this couldn’t be true: if F. Scott Fitzgerald had keeled over at the Alto Nido, someone would have written about it, and no one had. Also, I was pretty sure the location was off the Sunset Strip. As far as the Alto Nido man’s delusions were concerned, this turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. I got out fast.
The following year I met a normal-seeming man who lived in an old building on Hayworth Avenue in West Hollywood. Much to my relief, his apartment showed no signs of chaos or hoarding; in fact, it was clean and neat. My first visit went well until he said, “You want to see where F. Scott Fitzgerald died?”
Please don’t say “in my apartment,” I thought fervently.
He pointed to a building up the street. “It’s that one.”
And people say Los Angeles isn’t literary.
He was right about the location, of course. He’d even read Fitzgerald, though not much as I had. But that’s beside the point, which is: what are the chances of my meeting two completely different men in consecutive years whose hook was Fitzgerald’s death spot?
Both men are long gone from my life, mercifully, but I still wonder about it.
September 9, 2016 § 3 Comments
Today the Fitzgerald House is on the National Register of Historic Places. (It’s also for sale: $625,000 for 4 bedrooms, 2 baths and 2 half-baths.) As I gazed at it, I was struck by the contrast between the place where Fitzgerald’s career began and the nondescript West Hollywood apartment house where it ended only two decades later. Between those residences were a great many other Fitzgerald residences, including the estate on Long Island where he wroteThe Great Gatsby, apartments in Paris and Rome, a villa in the South of France, and a grand hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, near the sanitorium where his wife Zelda was institutionalized.
As he moved from house to house, Fitzgerald’s career soared and foundered. At the start the Depression in 1929, Fitzgerald’s short story rate at the Saturday Evening Post was $4,000–$40,000 in today’s dollars. He spent as fast as he earned, however, and by 1937 he was laboring in Hollywood as an unsuccessful, albeit highly paid, screenwriter. In 1940, while writing his comeback novel, The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald was felled by his third heart attack in the ground floor apartment of the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, his last companion. He was only forty-four but had lived in more houses than most centenarians.
Next time: F. Scott Fitzgerald Died Here
Sources: Matthew J. Bruccoli: “A Brief Life of Fitzgerald,” 1994.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald Walking Tour of St. Paul, MN” http://wcaudle.com/fscotwlk.htm
August 24, 2016 § 2 Comments
Last month I went to a crowded sneak preview of “Star Trek Beyond.” As I took my seat, the young woman next to me asked, “Did you two get separated?” When I told her that I was alone, she was wildly impressed. “I’ve always wanted to do that but I’ve never had the guts,” she said. I was baffled: after all, this was a popcorn movie, not a week-long Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective. “I almost always go to movies alone,” I said. “You should try it; it’s great.”
There was a time when watching films was my job. I generally saw 130 per year, at least half of them in theaters. During this period, I lost all perspective about normal–i.e., recreational–moviegoing. Not only did I no longer regard films as entertainment but I also had no idea what constituted an average person’s intake. Was one movie a week considered a normal number? I didn’t know, because I averaged three a week in theaters and more on video.
Mostly I watched alone, but I never felt alone: my attentions were fully on the screen, rather than on those sitting next to me. Which brings me to back to the woman who was afraid to see movies alone: how much companionship is there in watching movies? Sure, you can hold hands, but you can’t talk. And the experience is far from shared, as anyone whose opinion of a movie has differed a friend’s can attest.
Last night I went to a screening of a terrible new movie that I can’t name because there’s a press embargo on it until next week. I happened to have a friend with me, who fortunately felt much the way I did about it. Still, I couldn’t help worrying about her reaction to what was on the screen, as well as to my flinching from the gunfire and smirking at the script. At some point I realized there were two movies playing at once: the real one and the one in my row. That’s fine for mindless entertainment, but good movies require a level of concentration that’s hard to achieve when you’re wondering if your companion wants to walk out. That’s why I usually watch alone.