The Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Classic Film Festival breezed in and out of Hollywood for an eighth consecutive year last week. The unique four-day festival, like the cable television channel and brand, is a focused, choreographed affair which is strictly a showcase for movies. TCM can be merchandised and monetized and spread across multiple platforms for streaming, home entertainment, experiences, books, articles and wine (and it is) but, however it’s sold, promoted and presented, Turner Classic Movies exists to show movies.
Club TCM at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Photo by Scott Holleran © Copyright 2017 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
So does its Classic Film Festival, though TCM adds value by integrating scholars, movie stars (and those connected to them) and storytellers into the theatrical movie experience. TCM is, as General Manager Jennifer Dorian put it at the press conference, Hollywood’s “keeper of the flame”. That it is fueled by impeccable TV and classic movies professionals that appreciate classic motion pictures and their fans comes through. TCM’s fans and festival-goers, the passholders, are a hardy and uniquely American bunch; spending time with these people while waiting to watch movies and, then, watching the movies, is invigorating if you love movies (and probably boring if you don’t). This band of classic movie geeks, romanticists and individualists descend upon Hollywood Boulevard, walk purposefully to the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard or Musso and Frank for lunch or Club TCM for a drink. They think fast, talk smart and they know exactly what they want.
So they tend to get noticed for not acting as if they want to be noticed, especially by those who work in establishments along Hollywood Boulevard, who would spot my TCMFF badge, stop and ask about the festival with a sense of wonder and respect. TCM passholders also tend to know which movies they like and they can often tell you exactly why. They’re generally discriminating about how they watch movies, too. Unlike other film festival guests, they pride themselves on choosing and knowing which, not how many, films to see, based on certain standards. By my estimate, after four days of hearing their travel tales, festival feedback and thoughts on classic movies and the programming built around them, TCM passholders are generally neither jaded nor pretentious. Like the best movies, especially classic movies, they are sharp, not cutting.
Much of this year’s excitement emanated from new nitrate screenings, especially Laura (1944), and also The Lady in the Dark (1944), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Black Narcissus (1947), all shown in American Cinematheque’s recently renovated theater, Sid Grauman’s The Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard. The original nitrate print showings were well received, despite the fact that government regulators apparently forced the Egyptian’s concession stand to basically shut down during renovations. The nitrate screenings were made possible through the Academy Film Archive, George Eastman Museum and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The projection process for nitrate, which is potentially flammable and dangerous, was paid for by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Turner Classic Movies and The Film Foundation in partnership with the American Cinematheque and the Academy Film Archive.
Dana Gould as Dr. Zaius attends Citi’s poolside screening of ‘Planet of The Apes’ during the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 8, 2017 (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TCM)
Though a movie star or someone connected to a movie, historian or scholar attends each screening and appears at various events and tapings for TCM, passholders know that the TCM Classic Film Festival, more than other film festivals, revolves around the actual experience of seeing movies, not seeing who’s who, though inevitably there is some of that (predictably and mostly at the galas). TCM Classic Film Festival‘s exclusive founding partner, Delta Air Lines, is the official airline. Other sponsors include Citi, the official card (sponsoring poolside screenings, such as Planet of the Apes, which are fun) and Bonhams.
Screenings earning passholder enthusiasm this year include David Lean’s Oscar-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Jean Harlow’s biting Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Ernst Lubitsch’s One Hour With You (1932). The latter two pictures were screened a second time due to high demand, though, to my knowledge, no one was turned away from a screening as has happened at past festivals. Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) starring John Wayne, shown at the Egyptian, impressed those who’d never seen it. The same goes for Billy Wilder’s underappreciated Stalag 17 (1953) with William Holden. People also seemed to enjoy seeing Panique (1946), Cry, the Beloved Country (1951, with thoughts from film scholar Donald Bogle), The Palm Beach Story (1942, with an appearance from Joel McCrea‘s grandson, Wyatt McCrea) and, of course, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), with its references to Grauman’s Chinese Theater, screening at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, which seemed to be the main point of attraction. I heard universal praise among passholders for actress and occasional TCM hostess Dana Delany’s thoughts and facts on Love Crazy (1941).
Photo by Scott Holleran © Copyright 2017 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
In fact, in the wake of the recent death of longtime host Robert Osborne, to whom TCM dedicated 2017’s Classic Film Festival, TCM’s on-air talent and heirs apparent was a top festival topic. Of course, fans fondly remembered Robert Osborne throughout the festival. A thoughtfully conceived wall for moviegoers to write thoughts on the distinguished host, journalist and former actor (to be shared with his surviving family) was a welcome addition. Upon reading fans’ posted notes and hearing from attendees, it becomes clear that Robert O. was highly valued for his wealth of knowledge, passion and accessibility about classic movies. Every other passholder made a point to tell me that they think this quality lacks among current TCM hosts. Passholders generally told me that they are fine with Ben Mankiewicz, whom they appear to regard as an innocuous stand-in or comic relief. Actress and sometime hostess Illeana Douglas, who, like Mankiewicz, is known and touted as being related by blood to a famous Hollywood talent, elicits both mild groans and sincere approval. Tiffany Vazquez, whom TCM hired last year to make weekend introductions and festival intros, is not popular among passholders, however, with most citing lack of inflection, engagement and passion. Part-time TCM hosts Alex Trebek, Leonard Maltin and Dana Delany all seasoned TV pros, earned higher praise among TCM’s most devoted fans.
Questions about Robert Osborne dominated the press conference, too, with journalists (including this journalist), asking about plans for programming, streaming and home entertainment of the host’s original movie introductions and his Private Screenings series. Programming boss Charlie Tabesh explained that airing the Private Screenings episodes is “very expensive” due to rights and he said that certain episode rights have unfortunately lapsed but that TCM’s goal is to bring them back. Turner Classic Movies’ General Manager Jennifer Dorian (who said she most admires Mary Tyler Moore in answer to a question about women in TV) announced a new online course, TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock, in association with Ball State. The six-week course on Alfred Hitchcock movies is free and runs in conjunction with TCM’s summer programming of Hitchcock movies. Dorian said that TCM is also giving a free, 30-day trial of its club membership for TCM Backlot and may explore other streaming options, such as iTunes, in addition to its proprietary streaming partnership with Criterion Collection, FilmStruck. TCM also has a new wine club, though I haven’t tasted the courtesy bottle of “deliciously spicy” Alfred Hitchcock Zinfandel.
The 50th Anniversary Screening of “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) Red Carpet & Opening Night at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival In Hollywood, California.
Movies screened during the festival include What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), So This is Paris (1926), America America (1963), The Awful Truth (1937) and The Great Dictator (1940). Three movies released in 1971—The Last Picture Show, Harold and Maude and Gene Wilder‘s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—were shown as well as Rear Window (1954) and the opening night picture, In the Heat of the Night (1967), which I’m told started over 30 minutes late due to tardy composer Quincy Jones, who joined producer Walter Mirisch, actress Lee Grant and director Norman Jewison for a discussion. The movie’s leading man, actor, producer and director Sidney Poitier (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), who is 90 years old, also appeared during opening night, though he did not participate in the exchange.
Other guest appearances included Michael Douglas (Streets of San Francisco, Wall Street, Falling Down) in the lead interview (last year’s guest was Faye Dunaway), talking about his career from acting on television to producing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, recently, starring as Liberace. Dick Cavett entertained with tales about Muhammad Ali and others and interviewing Groucho Marx. Mel Brooks attended the 40th anniversary screening of his Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety (1977) and was congratulated by Albert Brooks and Billy Crystal. Other one on one exchanges featured Lee Grant, Peter Bogdanovich and Leonard Maltin. Father and son filmmakers Carl Reiner and Rob Reiner were recognized with a hand and footprint ceremony at the Chinese Theater forecourt. Actresses Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher were remembered at screenings of Stanley Donen’s Singin’ In The Rain (1952) and Mike Nichols’ Postcards from the Edge (1990) with family members Todd Fisher and Billie Lourd in conversations at both screenings. Actor and screenwriter Buck Henry introduced a 50th anniversary restoration from Rialto Pictures of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967).
Photo by Scott Holleran © Copyright 2017 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
This year’s festival theme, “Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy In The Movies”, seemed incomplete without a single Buster Keaton movie (Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin scored just one movie each). The comedy theme also left out Abbott and Costello, Jerry Lewis and movies starring Bob Hope. To my knowledge, Richard Pryor’s only appearance was in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues.
Hollywood Boulevard is as dodgy as ever, and is probably more dangerous, with not a single cop seen patrolling pedestrian routes on bike or foot, despite the risk of sidewalk crime. A thief struck a Starbucks while I was there. I know of worse crimes, too, in recent years. Several merchants told me about slow police response times. Disney and other area businesses employ private security to protect customers from street thugs and hustlers, including those obstructing walkways with snakes wrapped around their necks.
Turner Classic Movies (TCM) presents movies, uncut and uninterrupted, from the world’s largest film libraries. TCM airs programming such as The Essentials, and annual themed movies, such as 31 Days of Oscar® in February and Summer Under the Stars in August. TCM also sponsors separate TCM Classic Film Tours in New York City and Los Angeles, produces books and DVDs about classic film, maintains a movie database at tcm.com, a mobile app to pair with one’s cable TV subscription, and other tie-ins such as Backlot, FilmStruck and an excellent monthly mini-magazine, Now Playing. It’s a division of Turner, a Time Warner company, which also owns CNN, TBS, TNT, truTV, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Turner Sports and is owned by the corporation that owns Time, Warner Bros., and Warner Home Video.
This year, the Spotlight Pass ($2,149) included gifts and privileges, priority entry to all screening events plus entry to the opening-night party following the red-carpet gala screening at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and more; an Essential Pass ($799) featured gifts, privileges and opening-night screening; the Classic Pass ($649) included access to all film programs except the opening-night screening and the Palace Pass ($299) gave the passholder access to all screenings and events excluding the opening-night screening. The venues were fine, as usual, with the ArcLight Hollywood, The Egyptian, Pig ‘N Whistle and host Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel being the most friendly, accommodating places.
Faye Dunaway, 76, recently made history when she named La La Land as 2016’s Best Picture with Bonnie and Clyde co-star Warren Beatty at the Academy Awards—the winner turned out to be Moonlight—but one of the screen’s most glamorous modern movie stars had already reappeared in Hollywood last spring for a taping of a rare television interview in Hollywood. The Academy Award-winning Dunaway, star of Network, The Thomas Crown Affair and Chinatown, sat before an audience attending the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival (the interview is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies on April 3; check local listings). At one point during the two-hour interview with host Ben Mankiewicz, Dunaway, who discussed Bonnie and Clyde and Warren Beatty, The Towering Inferno and director Elia Kazan, reminded her host: “You said I’d get a break.”
At that, the audience laughed and applauded, as the 1970s’ leading actress smiled, waved and left the stage, only to return a short time later to resume the interview with a brief statement to the audience that she knows she’s made mistakes—”I’m not going to talk about those”—and acknowledged without specificity that mistakes are part of her career. Accordingly, Mankiewicz, in his first major festival interview for the network, made no mention of Mommie Dearest, the 1981 creative and commercial disappointment based on a salacious bestseller in which Dunaway portrays Forties movie star Joan Crawford. Among movies mentioned and covered were Dunaway’s hits and pictures opposite Dustin Hoffman (Little Big Man), Mickey Rourke (Barfly) and Frank Sinatra in his last motion picture (The First Deadly Sin).
Faye Dunaway being interviewed at TCM’s Classic Film Festival 2016 at Hollywood’s Ricardo Montalban Theatre.
The interview started with an exchange about Faye Dunaway’s breakthrough role in Arthur Penn’s shocking, violent Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 film about the 1930s crime spree and mass murders by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The Oscar-nominated performance caused a fashion trend and earned Dunaway, who had also appeared that year in The Happening and Hurry Sundown, consideration for both the best commercially and creatively viable productions. She co-starred the following year as an insurance investigator in Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen, which she admits in the TCM interview “might have been my absolute favorite movie,” referring to the original as more sensual—and less overtly sexual—than 1999’s Rene Russo-Pierce Brosnan remake.
The native of Florida’s panhandle told TCM that she related to Bonnie, the small town Southerner who goes on a bank robbery rampage with her boyfriend, Clyde, and described co-star Warren Beatty, who produced the film, as “indefatigable”, adding that she had previewed and enjoyed his latest picture Rules Don’t Apply.
After Bonnie and Clyde catapulted Faye Dunaway into movie stardom in those final months of Hollywood’s glamorous years—she told the audience she’d auditioned for director Arthur Penn at the now-controversial Beverly Hills Hotel, where she would be photographed a decade later on the morning after she won the Best Actress Oscar for Network—her roles became more complex. Dunaway played an oilman’s daughter who fights to own and operate his oil fields in Stanley Kramer’s Oklahoma Crude with George C. Scott. She earned another Oscar nomination as the mysterious femme fatale in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (which she called “mercurial neuroticism”). She played the villainess in Richard Lester’s 1973 hit adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and its sequel, The Four Musketeers, which she said was released without the cast’s knowledge or consent. She played a skyscraper architect’s romantic interest in 1974’s biggest hit, The Towering Inferno, a civilian in Sydney Pollack’s surveillance state thriller, Three Days of the Condor, with Robert Redford in 1975, and a self-centered television executive in Sidney Lumet’s and Paddy Chayefsky’s prophetic Network in 1977, for which she won the Academy Award as Best Actress for playing soulless Diana Christensen, who domineers the TV network to showcase a circus of reality-distorting programming. Dunaway observed that the character also had a certain poignancy.
“Paddy named Diana after Diana Rigg, who starred in [Chayefsky’s 1971 movie] The Hospital,” Dunaway told TCM. By the turn of the 20th century, she had worked with the best and brightest, from actors Hackman, Brando and Depp to directors Kramer, Jewison and Kazan. Dunaway told TCM that she had learned from the masters, crediting a particular acting tip from Anthony Quinn, whom she says advised Dunaway during filming of The Happening to “work harder off camera than on.”
Mankiewicz brought up details of Dunaway’s early life and career, from her attendance at University of Florida and a teaching scholarship to Florida State University to her time at Boston University and working with Elia Kazan in New York City. Kazan was “invaluable” to her, she explained, telling her what to do off camera. Dunaway said that his counsel prompted her to do her own work studying the characterization. Working with Kazan on a cinematic adaptation of his own novel, The Arrangement, she says she matched a Billie Holiday poster with a relevant thought for her character, Gwen, from one of the blues singer’s recordings, putting it as a caption to the poster. It was what Holiday said to her husband when he came home with lipstick on his collar. The caption reads: “Take a bath, man. Don’t explain.”
Faye Dunaway said that delving into a character’s imagined background and philosophy is part of her job as an actress.
“That’s when I’m happiest,” she told Turner Classic Movies. Citing her iPhone’s Bob Dylan collection in an exchange about her critically acclaimed performance as an alcoholic in 1987’s movie version of Charles Bukowski’s Barfly, she emerged during the course of the TCM Classic Film Festival interview as a freethinking loner and individualist. Indeed, though she will now also be remembered as the presenter who called out the wrong Best Picture winner, Dunaway came across last spring as a woman of the world, starring in Marc Forster’s Hand of God on Amazon, using Uber and enjoying life in Los Angeles, though she admitted to Mankiewicz that, on some days, LA can disappoint.
“I went to the [movie theaters at The] Grove the other day and there wasn’t a [single] movie I wanted to see,” she said in the interview, which will air on Turner Classic Movies on April 3. When asked what she does to keep finding depth in new roles, Faye Dunaway replied with this thought: “Fill yourself up again.”
It’s not about the actress. It’s about the characters she played. Mary Tyler Moore was best known for the characters of Laura Petrie on The Dick van Dyke Show, and Mary Richards on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
What did these two characters have in common? Innocence without naiveté. Neither Laura Petrie nor Mary Richards were fools. These characters were soft, but not airheads. There was a charming innocence about both of them, a persona most of us will never forget. These characters were brought to life by Moore’s own unique mannerisms and persona, no doubt a blending of her own unique personality with the great writing, acting and humor that brought it all to life.
Innocence can be honest and smart. You can remain innocent while never becoming a fool. That’s what Moore captured so wonderfully in both of her memorable characters.
When The Mary Tyler Moore Show first aired in the 1970s, some people commented on the refreshing wholesomeness of the character in the midst of what was, in many ways, a dark and difficult era. Yet the same could be said about today. This leads me to think that such a combination of qualities is rare, and special, in any time or place. People will always appreciate and benefit from them, and they should.
The actress is not the character. But it must say something about the actress that she brought these two characters to life in a way that transcends the ages. Let’s also not forget Moore’s memorable performance in the movie Ordinary People. Many were shocked by the contrast between the innocent Petrie/Richards characters and the much harsher one she portrayed in the movie. It shows her range, and range marks the difference between a good and a great performer.
The blending of honesty and innocence gave credibility to the theme song of Moore’s show which ended with, “You’re gonna make it after all.” Did she make it after all? It’s only a fictional sitcom character, after all. But the hope was always that she did.
Fond farewells, Mary Tyler Moore. We don’t get a whole lot of performers like you. We’re very lucky we had you.
James Garner, who died on July 19 at the age of 86, was quintessentially modern (in the best sense of the term), masculine and American.
His screen persona was easygoing, strong and resolute, whether portraying a player in TV’s Maverick or opposite the indomitable Doris Day in The Thrill of it All and Move Over, Darling (both 1963). His dark Indian handsomeness perfectly fit heroic, military roles in The Great Escape and The Americanization of Emily and Garner exuded masculinity without coming off as brooding, tortured or macho like some of his tough guy peers. He conveyed the sense he could knock an adversary out with a single punch while equally portraying a subtle quality that he’d only do so upon his own independent judgment that taking a swing was warranted, was his decision alone and that he would do so almost always as a last resort.
Blending comedy and drama and making it look seamlessly integrated, the Korean War veteran kept his most challenging roles grounded in reality with an intensity rarely seen among actors of his type, caliber and range. In The Children’s Hour, he plays a doctor in love with one of the female teachers accused of lesbianism in Lillian Hellman’s story of friendship and persecution, yet he does so deftly without overwhelming the tale and all while adding depth to every scene. It’s a small, serious and crucial role which delivers an early glimpse at his ability to play men of the mind.
He played off forbidden sexual orientation again in 1972’s They Only Kill Their Masters with June Allyson and fabulously as the object of Julie Andrews’ sexual impersonator’s affections in Victor/Victoria (1982) after returning to television as the title’s reformed criminal character in NBC’s successful crime comedy-drama The Rockford Files. By then, his charisma, dry wit and physical attractiveness were a tonic for troubled times and became popular in the culture, parlaying into an endorsement deal for a commercial series about Polaroid’s cameras featuring Mariette Hartley.
James Garner’s humor was always sharp, not snide. His persona was a bit jaded, not cynical. He was never depraved. His characters were always smart, attuned to reality and ultimately interested in achieving some higher value, whether helping a troubled friend on Rockford or stepping up to help the helpless, as he did in trying to rescue Donald Pleasance’s blind man in The Great Escape, a role which capably demonstrates his skill in combining the qualities of a big and tall friendly U.S. soldier with a modern sensibility to be the non-conformist who is confident to take on a task no one else will dare attempt and to do so with humor, grace and kindness. Garner played some variation of this unique mixture in many dimensional performances; in Grand Prix (1966), Skin Game (1971), Murphy’s Romance (1985), the CBS medical drama Chicago Hope, Space Cowboys (2000), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), and, of course, as Duke in The Notebook (2004). He was like a more modern, enlightened version of Clark Gable or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
James Garner had the movie star looks, charm and larger than life heroism. But he possessed a distinctly American characteristic of wanting to do what’s right even when doing what’s right is not obvious. With his body, eyes and tone of voice, he expressed an attitude of ‘to hell with what others think’ in each climactic scene with just the right degree of Devil-may-care and heroism to make the conflict resolution seem jovial, serious and never without the top value clearly at stake – with the dilemma never taken lightly, unseriously or undertaken as a trivial or reckless gesture. That he acted with an exact balance of ease and self-confidence is why his death is widely impacting people who live in an age when men of action, reason and joie de vivre are especially rare, particularly in pictures.
He wrote his memoirs with Jon Winokur a few years ago (read my review here) and capped off a remarkable career with the equally remarkable story of triumph in his personal life over an evil stepmother who physically, sexually and in all ways abused the Garner children. That James Garner chose to come out and speak up is an honest, strong testament from an amazingly talented and entertaining artist. Now that he is gone, it is perhaps better known that he also embodied the virtues of characters he portrayed. This makes watching his screen performances more rewarding.
May James Garner rest in peace.
A new biography of Johnny Carson by the lawyer he fired, Henry Bushkin, is ultimately too shallow and calculated to be credible.
The book, simply titled Johnny Carson, is a major publishing event. There’s not much that’s known about the talented Midwestern comedian and host of the Oscars, President Reagan’s inauguration and, of course, The Tonight Show (1962-1992). He was famously private. He lost a child to addiction and married several times and he pioneered both television and the entertainment industry, with highly profitable deals – apparently made after learning lessons from some bad deals – in media, real estate and men’s fashion. The reader learns about the business of Johnny Carson’s show business.
But something’s off. Author Bushkin, whom Johnny hired through a referral early in his career for no apparent reason, as reported here, delivers a crisp, curt narrative. In fact, it’s too clipped. Sentences feel overly edited, as if important information is deliberately left out, and in every chapter it seems like there must be more to each story. For example, Bushkin writes that he lets Johnny win at tennis because he says he’s afraid of being fired, but Johnny hasn’t fired a single person without cause in the past. By Bushkin’s telling, which comes early in the telling of this tell-all, he fears for his job when he says he has no reason to worry. So, one already has reason to suspect his motives. Something doesn’t add up.
As I read on, the sense of omission increased. A minor error, the misspelling of boxer Joe Frazier’s name, made me wonder if there were other errors as well as omissions, which may have escaped notice or scrutiny by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Johnny Carson was a powerful, intensely entertaining host and humorist. His nightly monologue was, like Carson, groundbreaking in wit, depth and relevance. Decades later, the format he perfected dominates late night television. At times, he was silly. Other times, he was serious. He interviewed the nation’s top stars and intellectuals, bringing both a touch of lightness and a graceful dignity to everything he discussed. And he did discuss. Unlike today’s smarmy TV cynics masquerading as comedians, such as Jon Stewart, Greg Gutfeld and Stephen Colbert, Johnny Carson took ideas seriously.
Some of that sensibility can’t help but come through. More than a few of Johnny’s jokes, which are best described as witty observations, are retold. They’re still spot on. I laughed out loud at several of them. His ability to grasp the irony and humor in a given topic was extraordinary, a fact which is ignored in these pages, and his timing and delivery were perfect. Johnny Carson had both a twinkle and a reality-driven, Midwestern accessibility that made his knowing look and distinctly controlled lack of expression communicate a response to something in an instantaneously universal way. After Johnny visited London for Wimbledon and found himself in a hotel without air conditioning during a prolonged and sweltering heatwave, Bushkin came with his wife to pick him up and found him in a tub filled with ice and water. The author writes that Johnny Carson looked up at them and said: “I don’t care what you have to do but get us the hell out of here tomorrow. Charter a 747 if you must, but get us out of Dodge.”
Bushkin speculates with some degree of plausibility that the Tonight Show host was driven in some fundamental way by his inaccessible, unloving mother’s lack of approval.“Ruth Carson was a person who was impossible to impress and impossible to please,” he observes. “She seemed to take no pride or pleasure in her son’s accomplishments.” He suggests that Carson, who he says could be biting and cruel, became like his mother: “There came to be too many moments when Ruth Carson’s chilly influence abruptly took over his disposition.”
There are too many instances to the contrary to count. According to Bushkin’s version, Johnny Carson, who died in 2005, was also meticulously kind and generous. Of course, Johnny was fastidious about his work and reputation, the responsibility for which appears to have been lost on Bushkin, who as Carson’s attorney was the recipient of the barbs, kindness and attention to detail. When Johnny Carson sued a manufacturer of “Here’s Johnny” toilets for trademark violation of his individual rights, the lawyer accuses Carson of being petty. Never mind that the signature phrase powered Bushkin’s countless escapades and indulgences. Among these include the author’s extramarital affairs – he writes about Johnny’s infidelity in more detail – and trips around the world. But constantly and insidiously Henry Bushkin drops the context that he, unlike Johnny Carson, was not the king of late night television and a brand unto himself for over 30 years.
Never mind, too, that, as Bushkin reports, his boss was singled out for attack time and again. For instance, Carson, a father of three boys, was threatened with a grenade by a German couple demanding money at a time when the children of Sinatra, Hearst and Getty had been kidnapped. When Los Angeles Police advised Carson to defy the criminals’ demands and let police deliver a bag to a location on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood near NBC’s Tonight Show studios in Burbank, Johnny Carson said No, insisting that he personally deliver a decoy bag of money rather than risk harm and injury to his wife and her child. Whether being targeted in bars or being the second name on John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman’s list, “Here’s Johnny” carried with its instant association of good humor and an upright posture a huge target for pure post-New Left envy and hatred of ability, achievement and success.
Bushkin himself seems to realize this, though he doesn’t grant Johnny much understanding, which reinforces the impression that he sought to profit from his association with Johnny Carson without regard to what made Johnny great. It’s a common flaw in today’s celebrity biographies and in Johnny Carson it’s less obvious, which makes the omission worse. Without any interest in Johnny Carson the artist, we are left with a cold and calculated assessment of Johnny Carson the brand that seeks to cash in on Johnny Carson without earning it. So the narrative reads like a bean-counter passing judgment on an artist. In the scope of the entire book, there is not a single sentence or thought describing Johnny Carson at work on his monologue, for example, or preparing for an interview with one of his guests, so we’re left empty of any examination of his ability to create humor and induce laughter, which is a tremendous skill. Johnny Carson’s talent and ability are taken for granted.
All that’s left is celebrity and that’s the appeal of this book. Writing about a cultural icon of late 20th century America does have an upside and it’s fun to read about someone who was a titan of comedy and television. When Johnny and his third wife, Joanna, decided to spontaneously marry in private at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel on a day he was being honored with some other award for achievement, Bushkin writes that Johnny informed the gathered guests: “A lot of columnists have been asking why me and my gal haven’t set a date for the wedding, so I think I will tell you that we were married at one-thirty this afternoon.” Bushkin continues: “Johnny then leaned down and kissed Joanna. Flip Wilson, wearing his Geraldine drag, kissed Johnny. Noting that all three of Johnny’s wives had names that started with the same letter, Bob Newhart concluded, “Obviously Johnny didn’t want to have to change the monograms on the towels after every marriage.” The secret had been kept, romance had triumphed, the laughs were plentiful, and the party rocked. No marriage ever had a more promising beginning. In time, when the marriage ended and the divorce was settled, this romantic gesture would cost Johnny $35 million.”
How Johnny earned the money is left essentially unsaid, probably because Bushkin doesn’t know or care to know the source of Johnny’s wealth. The deals are one thing and Bushkin may have arranged, papered and closed them as he says. But the talent that made the deals – and profits – possible is something else. Instead, we get glimpses of glimpses of Bushkin in Vegas with women. Bushkin in the south of France with Mary Hart (Entertainment Tonight). Bushkin in Hawaii with Joyce DeWitt (Three’s Company). The story of Carson Productions, the business failures and success, the Hart, Schaffner and Marx company’s Carson suit designs are left untold, listed in dollars, cents and snippets. Again, there’s next to nothing about how Johnny worked, studied and made choices – did he watch clips of comedy routines, listen to songs or albums or read book excerpts before guests appeared on The Tonight Show and was he involved in creative meetings? – let alone deeper insights. Only in the last chapters does Bushkin disclose that “the man smoked four packs a day or more.” Why? Did he try to quit? Blank out. The death of Johnny Carson’s alcoholic son, Rick, is barely mentioned let alone explored.
Politically, Bushkin writes that Johnny Carson – who interviewed everyone from Bobby Kennedy to Ayn Rand on The Tonight Show – was “strong on integration and civil rights, skeptical of the military and war, big on personal responsibility. Overall, you’d have to say he was anti-big: anti–big government, anti–big money, anti–big bullies, anti–big blowhards.” Carson’s politics sound interesting. So does his friendship with flamboyant gay writer Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood). So does the fact that Johnny chose not to attend either of his parents’ funerals. Bushkin never goes into any of that.
The man, the artist, the host, the master of ceremonies – all remain elusive to the man who was Carson’s longtime lawyer and it isn’t hard to see why. Bushkin reports that his then-romantic partner, actress Joyce DeWitt, once suggested to Johnny that he should play Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bushkin writes that Carson responded by lecturing DeWitt in why his audience would never want to see him in that. It’s probably one of the most interesting untold stories in this biography. But again, we never get to read a word of Carson’s lecture, which might have contained his philosophy of humor or at least his approach to doing comedy or at minimum understanding his appeal.
At the end of one chapter, Bushkin says that Mary Hart called Johnny Carson insane. We are expected to take her word for it via the author, but in the very next chapter Johnny Carson is angling to get a job for his alcoholic son in order to help him recover. He doesn’t sound remotely irrational let alone insane.
This sense of there being more to the story and huge gaping holes in Bushkin’s account is especially true when it comes to Joan Rivers. The comedienne was once Carson’s handpicked substitute host and presumed heiress to The Tonight Show‘s hosting. But she went behind Johnny’s back and took a late-night show gig with then-fledgling Fox. Why she did do what she did, which led to a ratings disaster and may have contributed to her husband Edgar’s suicide, is another untold story here. Elsewhere, Bushkin describes himself as the middleman between Johnny Carson and Carson Productions chief Ed Weinberger, then admits that he asked Ed to be the one to tell Johnny that his son Rick had been fired. Bushkin clearly expects the tale to reflect poorly upon Johnny. Instead it reflects poorly on Henry Bushkin. Did Bushkin forget that he was the middleman? Or just that he’d told us he was?
Tellingly, when speaking of Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson, Bushkin intersperses the terms envied and admired.
In the end, the lawyer who waited until Johnny Carson – and his TV sidekick Ed McMahon, who hardly rates a mention here and there – died to write his superficial Johnny Carson confesses that he went behind Johnny’s back and tried to undersell Carson Productions by $30 million. He says he did it because he thought he was suited to run Carson Productions and therefore didn’t think it was “that big of a crime”. But he didn’t object when Carson found out about the double-cross and called him into his Malibu beach house to fire Henry Bushkin. The author describes Johnny Carson as “the most interesting man I had ever known.” He doesn’t come close to exploring or explaining why. (Read my 2005 obituary of Johnny Carson here.)