My heroes have always been in documentaries


I’m sorry that the blog has been kind of quiet over the past week; the good folks at DISH were generous enough to give us an HBO/Cinemax freeview, and I spent a little time getting re-acquainted with some old favorites including Secretary (2002—with my gal Maggie Gyllenhaal) and The Devil Wears Prada (2006).  (Prada may be the only Anne Hathaway movie that I can tolerate, though I did grab Rachel Getting Married [2008] from the last HBO freeview…I just haven’t watched it yet.)  But my favorite offerings from HBO On Demand are their documentaries, and I watched four of them over the past several days:

obitposterIf You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast (2017) – Not long after the passing of the legendary Rose Marie in December of 2017, MeTV offered up a most proper tribute to the late entertainer by airing Wait for Your Laugh, the documentary covering her career released shortly before her death.  I had it on the DISH DVR for a while before I finally got around to getting a gander at it; suffice it to say, I was not disappointed—it’s really a wonderfully worthwhile watch.

The creator of the TV sitcom (The Dick Van Dyke Show) that cemented Rose Marie’s boob tube immortality—Carl Reiner—appears in Laugh, but he’s also the focus of a documentary whose title stems from a joke Reiner often tells audiences at personal appearances (one of those appearances is featured in Obit, in which he’s interviewed by Facebook compadre and Biffle and Shooster auteur Michael Schlesinger).  Reiner relates an amusing anecdote at the beginning of Obit that one morning he opened up the paper and saw his photo in the obituaries; he did a double take and then realized the tribute was for the woman standing beside him in the candid, actress Polly Bergen.  If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast is a philosophical musing on how many individuals are living well past the retirement age (including the star of Reiner’s beloved sitcom creation, Dick Van Dyke) and with nephew George Shapiro, Reiner sits down to chat with a number of nonagenarians to learn their longevity secrets.

Reiner and Brooks’ “2000-Year-Old Man” in animated form

When If You’re Not in the Obit focuses on show business veterans, it’s a most engaging movie: the highlight of the film for me is a conversation between Reiner, Mel Brooks (who seems to be well on his way to becoming the 2,000-Year-Old Man of their famous comedy routines), and Norman Lear where they reminisce about past times.  However, there are a few segments involving non-celebrities where my interest admittedly began to flag: there’s a sequence about a 100-year-old woman (Ida Keeling) who’s still competing in running races…and I’m gonna be honest: she’s an inspiring lady, but once you get to be that age the only time you should be running is if you’re chased.  Sadly, a few of the people interviewed have shuffled off this mortal coil since its airing (notably Fyvush Finkel and Patricia Morison), and while I understand why the footage is there I could have done without the participation of Dan Buettner, who mouths a lot of the annoying platitudes you can pretty much read in his books.  (Oh, and I hereby declare a moratorium on Jerry Seinfeld, who gets far too much exposure here.)  If you’re up for enjoying insights from the likes of Stan Lee, Betty White, and Kirk Douglas this is a documentary you won’t want to miss.

nicholsposterBecoming Mike Nichols (2016) – Director Mike Nichols was 36 when he won an Academy Award for directing The Graduate (1967), his second feature film (his first was 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and in this captivating documentary he talks about this triumph with friend Jack O’Brien during the course of two conversations recorded in the summer of 2014 (one before a live audience at the same New York City theatre, the Golden, where Mike’s successful stage revue with partner Elaine May [An Evening with Nichols and May] premiered on Broadway 55 years earlier).  They would be the final interviews with Nichols, who passed away that same year at the age of 83. Becoming focuses on the early portion of Nichols’ career (with a wealth of anecdotes about Woolf and Graduate), and sort of telescopes his later movie and stage triumphs in a montage that closes the proceedings.

Elaine May and Mike Nichols

The most engaging moments in Becoming for me are Mike’s recollections of working with Elaine May; the duo created some of the most brilliant moments in comedy improvisation (and there are clips of their routines to complement these stories, including the classic mother-and-son telephone conversation [“I don’t want my mouth to be full when my son calls me”]).  Nichols also recalls priceless anecdotes about his early success directing such Tony Award-winners as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, and if you’re a movie nut you’re sure to enjoy the sections on Woolf and Graduate. (I got a hearty chuckle hearing Mike refer to the DP on Woolf as “my nemesis”—the cinematographer on that film was Haskell Wexler.)  The only debit of Becoming Mike Nichols is that it’s far too short (72 minutes)—the man is such a delightful raconteur that it’s a shame the party has to come to an end.

writerposterArthur Miller – Writer (2017) – The subject of the above documentary, Mike Nichols, also makes an appearance in this doc that spotlights the life of the legendary writer who penned such classics as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.  Here’s the thing: Nichols recalls to director Rebecca Miller (Arthur’s daughter with third wife Inge Morath) how he was emotionally waylaid seeing Death of a Salesman for the first time (he went with a girl whose mother often procured theatre tickets for them, and they were apparently so gobsmacked they didn’t even take a bathroom break).  But he tells the exact anecdote in Becoming Mike Nichols—only the play that stunned him and his lady friend was A Streetcar Named Desire.  (I suppose it’s possible to be blown away by both plays…but there’s just something about his recollection that feels a little contrived.)

Rebecca Miller directs her famous father

Rebecca Miller’s documentary presents an interesting picture of her pop, whose public persona was that of a pipe-smoking intellectual; in Writer he comes across as a cuddly dad who wouldn’t be out of place on some sort of long-ago TV sitcom.  There’s a ton of home movies featuring—and interview footage with—Artie (you might recognize bits of the 60 Minutes interview Miller did with Mike Wallace), and it’s a refreshingly comprehensive look at the man considered to be one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century (it served as a reminder to me that Miller kept writing well beyond the 1960s, though his efforts were often critically panned back in the day).  There are slow spots, to be sure; the material on Miller and second-wife Marilyn Monroe is dull (you kind of get the feeling that Rebecca wasn’t too enthusiastic about this portion of the doc) and it runs maybe a smidge longer than it should.  However, if you’re love Arthur Miller’s work (the portions on his early family life and the creation of Salesman make for must-see viewing) you won’t want to skip this.

kingposterKing in the Wilderness (2018) – I saved this documentary for last because it’s my favorite of the four; a mesmerizing examination of the famed civil rights leader and the last years of his life before his assassination on April 4, 1968…as told by friends and close associates (former Atlanta, GA mayor Andrew Young, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, actor-singer Harry Belafonte, etc.).  It coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of his passing, and for those people who remember MLK mostly for the ”I have a dream” speech and his civil rights work it will come as quite a revelation.

Lost in most of the tributes composed on the anniversary of King’s death was the inconvenient truth that in the last year of his life, MLK had become a pariah where his former liberal supporters were concerned.  The catalyst for this was a sermon that he gave at Upper West Side New York’s Riverside Church in 1967 (a year to the day before his assassination), a speech that later became known as “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”  A no-holds-barred denunciation of America’s foreign and domestic policy, King addressed the riots and unrest of the era by stating “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.” (Emphasis mine.)

Dr, Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael, marching in Mississippi

Not only was King pilloried in the press (by many of the “white moderates” he so memorably referenced in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”) but his fellow ministers and supporters started to hold him at arms’ length.  (Wilderness nicely details MLK’s moral dilemma in castigating a president who, while doing much to advance the civil rights agenda, nevertheless insisted a racist, unjust war was the right action to undertake.)  Adding to this controversy was King’s fearless campaign in Chicago to address the Windy City’s housing inequities (that earned him a lot of love from Mayor Daley), and the gradual abandonment of his principles of non-violence in organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) started to advocate a mission of “Black Power.” (Dr. King was always asking probing questions about that movement despite his strong disagreement with their tactics.)

king-schulkeBefore he made that fateful trip to Memphis, TN (to support a garbage workers’ strike for better wages and working conditions), MLK and his staff were hard at work on a “Poor People’s Campaign” that would culminate in another march on Washington. (This campaign has been revived in 2017 by the Reverend William Barber II of North Carolina…not that you’d hear about it much on the cable news networks.)  King in the Wilderness presents a captivating look at a leader who was often plagued with self-doubt (MLK frequently questioned himself and friends as to whether he had done all he could in the fight) and yet was always able to summon the necessary strength to continue in the struggle…but most of all, it gives the viewer a look into a man who, when all was said and done, was as human as us all.

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