The US government’s persecution of prominent members of the black community has been a recurring theme this Oscar season. MLK/FBI details the harassment and surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. Judas and the Black Messiah follows an informant who infiltrates the Black Panthers in order to take down Fred Hampton. And now, The United States vs. Billie Holiday focuses on the FBI’s attacks on the legendary singer. They targeted Holiday (Andra Day) because of her song “Strange Fruit”, which tells the story of the lynching of Black men and women in the South. The FBI claimed the song would incite riots. They were actually worried about it inspiring a burgeoning civil rights movement and threatening their way of life. White life.
US vs. Billie Holiday covers her story from the 1940s to the 1950s. By this time she is an established star touring the country. She also has a huge drug problem that threatens to derail her career. Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) comes onto the scene at this time. He’s claims to be a journalist, but is actually a Federal narcotics agent. The head of the division, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), knows about Holiday’s drug issues. If he can take her down with that she won’t be able to perform “Strange Fruit”. Thanks to Fletcher’s betrayal, Holiday is sent to prison. Oddly enough, when she gets out, she accepts him back into her life and they begin a relationship. But he’s still being used by Anslinger to get to her, a role that Fletcher begins to rebel against.
Director Lee Daniels has a lot to juggle with this film. It’s part biopic, romance, and historical drama. As a result Holiday’s story often feels disjointed, like Daniels is jumping around from moment to moment in an attempt to capture everything. Also, the sudden tonal and visual shifts are distracting. It’s a very interesting piece, but it could have been more cohesive. Day, on the other hand, often exceeds the movie she’s in. She truly embodies Holiday from the start, going beyond a simple imitation. Plus, her performances in the musical numbers are captivating. It’s an incredible debut that is deserving of the Oscar talk.
The legendary Cicely Tyson has passed away. She leaves behind a prolific award-winning career in film, TV, and the stage. She was a trailblazer who opened the door for other black actresses that followed. Moreover, she used her work to show how multidimensional black women are and their deserving of respect. I’ll remember her most for the dignity and poise she possessed. Like a regal queen. She always seemed sure of herself and what she wanted from the world. Recently, Miss Tyson completed her memoir, Just As I Am. I’m looking forward to reading it and learning more about this incredible woman.
Today would have been Rock Hudson’s 95th birthday. He was the embodiment of the classic Hollywood movie star. Gorgeous, talented, and extremely charming. Some of my favorite films of his are Giant, Pillow Talk, and All that Heaven Allows. He gave a searing performance in Seconds as well. Currently, there is a documentary and a biopic in the works about his storied life. I’m glad that Rock continues to be remembered and celebrated as an icon.
The late screen legend Elizabeth Taylor would have turned 88 this month. She left behind an incredible legacy as an actress, businesswoman, humanitarian, and activist. She was also a stunningly beautiful woman. It’s no surprise that she had eight husbands. In fact, the world was fascinated by her personal life and all the men she captured. I’m more into her movies, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof being a particular favorite, but that’s another post for another day. Let’s focus on the shallow stuff and rank her husbands.
8. Conrad Hilton Jr.
Conrad Hilton Jr. was Elizabeth’s first husband. On paper, he seemed like the perfect catch. A young, handsome, hotel heir. He and Elizabeth got married in a huge ceremony that was covered extensively by the press. Unfortunately, the fairytale ended quickly. Elizabeth realized that her new husband was an abusive heavy drinker. She divorced him after only 8 months of marriage. Conrad was like the first pancake of her husbands. He didn’t turn out right, so she tossed him in the trash and tried again.
7. Michael Wilding
Michael Wilding may be the least know of her husbands. He was a mildly successful actor, twenty years her senior, and fairly bland. But I guess he was a step up from Conrad. The marriage went downhill as her career took off and his lagged behind. Similar to A Star is Born, but less entertaining. After five years they were done.
6. John Warner
I wonder if Elizabeth was imaging herself as the new Jackie Kennedy when she married politician, John Warner. Going on the campaign trail may have seemed like a novel concept to a movie star. In any event, this was no Camelot and he wasn’t as handsome as JFK. Liz was soon bored with her life as a senator’s wife in D.C. She passed the time boozing, taking pills, and eating. Luckily, she got a divorce and went back to Hollywood.
5. Larry Fortensky
The substance abuse that began during her marriage to Warner eventually led Elizabeth to check into the famed Betty Ford clinic where she met her next husband, Larry Fortensky. They fell in love and got sober together. What a sweet meet-cute story. The marriage didn’t last long though. Larry, a construction worker who came from simple means, didn’t enjoy being “Mr. Liz Taylor”. There are worse things. Like, his mullet.
4. Eddie Fisher
Eddie Fisher and his wife, actress Debbie Reynolds, were best friends with Elizabeth and her third husband, Mike Todd. After Mike’s tragic death, Eddie “comforted” a grieving Elizabeth. They began an affair that led to Eddie leaving Debbie, America’s Sweetheart, and marrying Liz. Of course, Debbie got the last laugh when Elizabeth dumped Eddie for her Cleopatra co-star. Karma is a Burton.
3. Richard Burton
Elizabeth and Richard Burton were married twice. So, he counts as husband #5 and #6. The second marriage lasted less than a year and was uneventful, so I’m putting it at #3 on the list. Follow that? More to come below.
2. Mike Todd
Producer Mike Todd was Elizabeth’s 3rd husband and at the time she called him the love of her life. He was as big and over the top as his productions, which included Best Picture winner Around the World in 80 Days. He liked the spotlight and making a show of things, so he and Liz were a good match. Plus, he lavished her with jewelry, including an ornate ruby necklace and diamond tiara. Elizabeth once said that the best thing about him, though, was that he made her feel protected and loved. It’s sad that they didn’t get to spend more time together. He died a little more than a year after they married.
1. Richard Burton
Elizabeth’s love affair with Richard Burton began on a dramatic note. They left their spouses for each other causing the tabloid press to lose its mind. The Vatican was also playing close attention since they denounced the couple, charging them with “erotic vagrancy”. Should the Church really have been throwing stones from its glass house? After divorcing Eddie, Liz and Richard rushed to the altar. The next ten years of marriage were filled with elaborate vacations, tons of jewelry, kids, 11 movies together, and raucous partying. There were also many fights. The press didn’t call them the Battling Burtons for nothing. In the end, though, they had a deep love for one another that lasted long after their union ended.
It’s rare to see a current film set in the past that feels
so incredibly authentic to the time period it’s trying to recreate. I
experienced this recently with the new feature Motherless Brooklyn. Instantly,
the audience is fully immersed in the 1950s with the cinematography, production
design, and costumes taking you into that world.
The film, set in New York circa 1957, focuses on Lionel (Edward Norton) a young man working at a detective agency headed by his idol, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). At the start of the movie, we see Frank investigating a secret case that ultimately gets him killed. Lionel takes it upon himself to solve his boss’ murder. Over the course of a few days, he follows clues that lead him down a dark trail through a city filled with complex characters. There’s an extremely corrupt public official (Alec Baldwin), a brilliant engineer with secrets (Willem Dafoe), and an activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) fighting for the disenfranchised citizens of New York. They all tie together in a series of twists and turns.
Norton wrote, produced, and directed Brooklyn, a
passion project that has been in the making for 20 years. You can tell that he
has loved and nurtured this film for decades. The writing is intelligent and
the direction is precise. He also delivers on the acting front. Lionel is an emotionally
scarred man with Tourette’s syndrome. He can’t control his ticks or the random offensive
words that come out of his mouth. A lesser actor could have hammed this up and
gone really big. But Norton makes Lionel a fully formed person and not a caricature.
The supporting players also enrich the material. Mbatha-Raw, in particular, is
quiet yet effective in her portrayal of Laura.
The book, of the same name, that Brooklyn was adapted
from came out in the 90s and was set in that decade. Norton made the decision
to change the time period because it worked well with the 50s film noir feel of
the story. It was great choice. This film is on par with the classics that were
actually released in that era.
The documentary Making Montgomery Clift aims to paint a
more accurate picture of the classic Hollywood actor. I feel like most people
only know a few facts about him. And some of those facts are quite shaky. But
if you don’t want to dig deeper about a subject, you tend to go with the basic
things out there. Co-directors Robert A. Clift and Hillary Demmon set out to
fill in the details that previous movies, books, or TV specials left out.
Robert, Montgomery’s nephew, is especially invested in correcting the stories
that have been told about his uncle over the years.
The biggest misconception that the film sets out to dispel is
that Montgomery was a tragic figure. Supposedly he was a self-hating homosexual
who was slowing killing himself with heavy drinking and pills. The film doesn’t
try to skip over his vices, but it’s clear that he didn’t have a death wish
either. He seemed to have enjoyed his life. In terms of his sexuality, he was
open as one could be at that time about being into men. His friend Jack Larson
speaks of how Montgomery was affectionate with him, going so far as to kiss him
in a restaurant. He refused to play the game, like other gay actors in that
period, by getting married to a woman. In addition, many interviewees in the
film talk about his light-hearted jovial spirit. Definitely not the walking
tragedy he was reported to be.
A lot of attention was paid to Montgomery’s appearance. He was
an exceptionally beautiful man and his talent often gets overshadowed by his
looks. The documentary goes into detail about how serious he was about acting. He
was very choosy about which movies he made turning down many prominent roles,
like the lead in Sunset Boulevard. Montgomery also refused to sign a
contract with a studio. He wanted to be a free agent and avoid being controlled
by the system. In the middle of his career, he was involved in a horrific car
accident that altered his appearance dramatically. It was alleged that this
contributed to his downward spiral. But a talking head in the film says Montgomery
actually preferred how he looked after the accident. The focus wasn’t on his
looks anymore and he could become more of a character actor.
The one flaw in this valuable history lesson of a film is the
focus on Montgomery’s brother William Brooks Clift Jr. Like his son, Robert, William
was invested in correcting the false information that had been put out about
his brother. He was a bit obsessed with his brother’s career actually. William
horded pictures, home movies, newspaper clippings, and audio recordings
featuring Montgomery. The film devotes a lot of time to this obsession. It
makes sense that Robert would want to mention his father. He certainly
influenced the movie. But so much detail slows down the narrative and the focus
is taken away from Montgomery. It all could have been trimmed down more.
I felt like I walked out of Making with a better
understanding of who Montgomery was as a person. And, it definitely made me
side-eye previous reports about him. In a voice-over, Robert speaks of wanting
to give back the dignity that past tabloid tales took away from his uncle. I
think he definitely achieves his goal with this film.