Thursday, March 6, 2014

NBC's Thursday Night Problem

There was a time when Thursday night belonged to NBC. For a portion of the Eighties all four of the network's sitcoms that aired on the night (The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, and Night Court) ranked in the top ten shows for the year according to ACNielsen. In the Nineties NBC continued to dominate the night with such hits as Friends and Seinfeld. Sadly, the 21st Century has not been kind to NBC on Thursday nights. For much of the Naughts and the entirely of the Teens the network has regularly found itself beaten on the night it once owned.

Sadly for NBC, their losing streak on Thursday nights has continued this season. Their comedy scheduled at 8:30PM Eastern/7:30PM Central this fall, Welcome to the Family, was more or less dead on arrival. It did so poorly in the ratings that the network cancelled it after three episodes. Their shows at 9:00PM Eastern/8:00 PM Central and 9:30PM Eastern/8:30PM Central didn't do much better. Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show both consistently did poorly in the ratings. Sean Saves the World was cancelled on 28 February 2014. Things aren't much better for The Michael J. Fox Show. In February NBC announced The Michael J. Fox Show would not return after the Winter Olympics and would not air again until April. What must make all of this even more depressing for NBC is that they faced weaker competition on CBS than they had in previous years. Both The Crazy Ones and Two and a Half Men have been drawing lower ratings than Person of Interest had in the same time slot.

Sadly for the Peacock Network, the failures of Welcome to the Family, Sean Saves the World, and The Michael J. Fox Show have been typical of their shows on Thursday night of late. Since 2009 only two shows on NBC's Thursday night line up have lasted more than two seasons: Community and Parks and Recreation. Indeed, the lifespan of some of NBC's Thursday night comedies can be numbered in mere weeks. During the 2010-2011 season Perfect Couples only lasted for eleven episodes (with two more made available on Hulu). Its replacement, The Paul Reiser Show, did even worse. It was cancelled after only two episodes. Other shows that NBC has aired on Thursday night have only done a little better. Outsourced lasted one season. Both Up All Night and Whitney lasted only a little over a season.

Of course, the question is "Why has NBC done so badly of late on a night they once dominated?" Part of the reason may be that since 2009 the network has consistently debuted weak shows on the night. Up All Night had a good cast (Christina Applegate, Will Arnett, and Maya Rudolph), but its scripts were consistently poorly written and extremely unfunny. Whitney had two strong leads (Whitney Cummings and Chris D'Elia), but its feeble supporting characters dragged the show down. The Paul Reiser Show amounted to little more than a very poorly done imitation of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Despite a good cast Perfect Couples simply wasn't funny. With shows that were not particularly funny and, in some cases, not even particularly original, it should be little wonder that NBC would do poorly in the ratings.

To make matters worse the past several years NBC has consistently treated its few strong shows on Thursday night as odd men out. In its third season NBC did not debut Parks and Recreation until mid-season. NBC did the same thing with Community in both its fourth and its current fifth seasons. Both Parks and Recreation and Community have consistently performed better than the new shows NBC has debuted in their wakes. They also have fiercely loyal followings who are guaranteed to watch them each week (indeed, there was an uproar when fans found out Community would begin its fourth season until mid-season). It is then curious that the network has at times scheduled them so strangely. One has to wonder if NBC would not do better on Thursday nights if they would only debut both shows at the start of the season in September.

Of course, Community and Parks and Recreation aren't the only strong shows that NBC has scheduled wrongly. Unlike many of the sitcoms that have aired on NBC on Thursday mights, The Michael J. Fox Show has a particularly strong cast (including Michael J. Fox and Wendell Pierce). It is also a very funny, well written show. Unfortunately, NBC decided to schedule it at 9:30PM Eastern/8:30PM Central following the much weaker Sean Saves the World. While Sean Saves the World was not necessarily a bad show (it was much better than either Up All Night or The Paul Reiser Show at any rate), it wasn't a particularly good show either. I have to suspect many viewers opted to watch The Crazy Ones on CBS instead and did not bother to switch the channel back to NBC to watch The Michael J. Fox Show. Had The Micahel J. Fox Show been scheduled at 9:00PM Eastern/8:00PM Central, it might have done much better in the ratings.

In the end the path NBC should take with its Thursday night comedies seems fairly clear to me. The network has already renewed Parks and Recreation. They should also renew Community and The Michael J. Fox Show. What is more they should also debut all three shows in September for the 2014-2015 season. As to the fourth, new sitcom they air on Thursday nights in the 2014-2015 season, they should make sure that it not only has a strong cast, but that it also has strong scripts. It takes more than actors to make a successful sitcom. It takes good writing as well. Now I can't say that NBC will once more dominate Thursday nights with that line up. In fact, I suspect they could still well lose the night to CBS and at least part of it to ABC. That having been said, I think NBC would do better than they have the past few years.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The 86th Academy Awards

Watching the Oscar ceremony is a bit of a tradition for me. I watched it as a child with my parents when I was growing up. When I got older I watched it with my late best friend or, if we could not watch it together, my best friend and I would talk about the ceremony on the phone afterwards. Even though I didn't see any of the nominated films this year, I then watched the 86th Academy Awards ceremony as I always do.

Of course, not having seen any of the nominated films this year I really do not have an opinion on who won or who should have won. And from the buzz I heard from various web sites, news outlets, and my fellow film buffs I cannot say that there were very many surprises with regards to the Oscars. In fact, I can only think of one. Given all the talk about 12 Years a Slave, I fully expected Steve McQueen to walk away with the Oscar for Best Director. I was then a bit surprised to see Alfonso Cuarón win.

While I did not see any of the nominated films this year (the economy has forced me to cut back on how many times I visit the cinema), I did hear all but one of the songs nominated for Best Original Song. I was hoping that either "Ordinary Love" by U2 (from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) or "The Moon Song" by Karen O (from Her) would win. I was hoping that "Happy" by Pharrell Williams would not (in fact, I cannot understand how it was even nominated--I find the song incredibly annoying). As it turned out the one song I had not yet heard, "Let It Go" from Frozen, took the award. Having heard "Let It Go" for the first time last night, I have to say I was disappointed that neither "Ordinary Love" or "The Moon Song" won. "Let It Go" is not a bad song per se, but it seems terribly repetitive and not particularly original to me. In fact, I would class it with a number of other songs under the heading Generic Song from a Disney Animated Feature.

Of course, while I do not have an opinion on the various winners, I do have an opinion on the ceremony itself. Over all I thought the 86th Academy Awards ceremony was more entertaining than most. It was good to see Ellen DeGeneres back, and I thought she did a good job over all. Both the first time she hosted and this time Miss DeGeneres impressed me as something like the average person would be at the Oscars--a little bowled over by the stars and the spectacle of it all. At the same time, however, she seems very comfortable with the Hollywood elite to the point that she can joke around with them comfortably. Indeed, I think Ellen DeGeneres' selfie with everyone from Jennifer Lawrence to Brad Pitt was a stroke of genius. Not only was it very funny, but it strikes me as the sort of thing an average person would want to do in a room full of stars. As to the selfie itself, it became the most retweeted selfie of all time, with  871,000 in its first hour alone. Eventually Ellen's selfie even broke the Twitter website (although Twitter was still accessible from such clients as HootSutie and Tweetbot).

Over all I only have two criticisms with regards to Ellen DeGeners' hosting. The first is that I thought her joke about Liza Minnelli's expense was in poor taste. That having been said, Miss Minnelli's half-sister Lorna Luft seemed to think it was funny and Miss Minnelli herself seemed to take it all in stride.   The second is that while Ellen DeGeneres was funny as usual, at times it did seem that she lacked focus. Of course, this is a criticism that could be directed at the vast majority of Oscar hosts over the past twenty years.

While I thought that over all Ellen DeGeneres did a good job as the host of the Oscars, I was a bit disappointed in the clips they showed this year. The theme of last night's ceremony was heroes, so the clips shown centred upon that. Sadly, as has been the case the past many years, it seemed as if most of the clips were from recent films rather than the classics. The only older films to appear in the clip for "animated heroes" were all from Disney. As strange as it sounds, they did not show even one clip from a Warner Brothers cartoon, despite the fact that Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the other Warner characters are probably still the most famous animated characters in the world. The clips for live-action heroes showed a similar bias. In fact, the only black and white films featured in the clips for live action heroes were from Casablanca and It's a Wonderful Life. I think I can speak for classic film buffs and film fans in general when I say that it would be nice if they featured more, older films in the clips than newer ones. Let's face it, The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) is much more deserving of a clip in the Oscars than any one of  the "Transformers" movies!

I do have to say that I thought the tribute to The Wizard of Oz was fairly well done. I thought Pink did a fantastic rendition of "Over the Rainbow", far better than most I have heard. I also enjoyed the clips that they selected for the tribute. That having been said, I did have two problems with the tribute. The first is that since Judy Garland's children (Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft, and Joseph Luft) were all there, it would have been nice if they had introduced the segment. The second is I don't quite understand why The Wizard of Oz was singled out and other films from 1939 were not honoured with tributes as well. Let's face it, 1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year for film ever, so that this year is also the 75th anniversary of Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gunga Din, The Women, and many other great films. While The Wizard of Oz may be the most popular film from 1939 (along with Gone with the Wind, of course) it was hardly the only great film released in 1939.

For the most part I thought the In Memoriam segment was much better handled than it has been the past several years. It was certainly much more inclusive than any in the past few years, especially last year when Andy Griffith, Larry Hagman  Jack Klugman, and Ann Rutherford, among many others, were all left out of the segment. Last night's In Memoriam even included Tom Laughlin and Jim Kelly, actors whose careers were primarily in B movies. Sadly there were still some notable omissions, including Tom Clancy, Dennis Farina, Jean Stapleton, Audrey Totter, and Jonathan Winters. Beyond the omissions I did have two problems with this year's In Memoriam segment. The first is that they only listed one credit per individual. Would it have really hurt the Academy to have listed three or four for each person? The second is "Did we have to be subjected to "Wind Benath My Wings" sung by Bette Midler after the In Memoriam segment?" Don't get me wrong, I like Bette Midler, but I have always disliked the song "Wind Beneath My Wings". Indeed, if one listens to the lyrics it would appear to be a very ill fitting song for an In Memoriam segment! Next year I think the Academy should do the In Memoriam segment as they did this year, but include more credits per person, more of those who have died, and absolutely no song.

One segment I would like to see returned to the Oscars ceremony that was conspicuously absent is the handing out of honorary Oscars. Last night we only got to see clips of Dame Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin, and Piero Tosi accepting their awards, which are now given out separately from the Academy Awards ceremony itself. Personally, the awarding of honorary Oscars was always the thing to which I looked forward to the most and I have missed it ever since they stopped giving them out at the ceremony. I hope next year they will return the custom of handing out honorary Oscars to the ceremony. If they want to save time, they can always cut out a song or some of the clips.

Over all I do think the 86th Academy Awards had better presenters than usual. I thought Kevin Spacey was particularly funny when he introduced the honorary Oscars winners. I also thought Jim Carrey was funny when he introduced the clips of animated heroes--Mr. Carrey does a very good imitation of Bruce Dern! Of course, what I liked best about the presenters on last night's Oscars is that the Academy actually included older stars for a change, some of which can quite rightfully be considered Film Royalty. Sally Field, Goldie Hawn, and Bill Murray numbered among the presenters, as well as movie legends Kim Novak and Sir Sidney Poitier. Indeed, Sir Sidney Poitier may have been the best presenter of the night. He was as one would expect Mr. Poitier to be: dignified, elegant, charming, and commanding.

Of course, this brings me to a situation that absolutely disgusted me last night. No sooner had Kim Novak taken to the stage did Twitter light up with tweets insulting the legendary actress because of the way her face looked. Fortunately, there were also many (perhaps more, for all I know) individuals who jumped to Miss Novak's defence. The plain fact is that Kim Novak is 81 years old and has not had a particularly easy life. Her career as an actress was not particularly enjoyable or easy. She suffers from bipolar disorder and has battled breast cancer. She also had a horse riding accident a few years ago. Even if Miss Novak's life had been easier than it has been, it would be unfair to expect her to look as she did in Bell, Book, and Candle, Boys' Night Out, or Vertigo. I might point out that other legendary beauties of Kim Novak's era, such as Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren, also look far different now than they did at the height of their stardom. I think the loathsome tweets directed at Kim Novak said much more about those making the tweets than they did about Miss Novak herself. Sadly, there are many out there who do not want to accept that women age as they get older. Of course, as I said earlier, there were many (perhaps more) tweets in her defence, a fact of which I am proud. Indeed, Farrah Nehme wrote a blog post on the subject at her blog Self-Styled Siren.

Getting back to the subject at hand, the Oscars are an awards ceremony so, quite naturally, there are acceptance speeches. And I must admit that I was impressed by a few. By far my favourite acceptance speech came from legendary singer Darlene Love, one of the subjects of the Best Documentary Feature winner 20 Feet from Stardom. Darlene Love did something I don't think I've ever seen at an Oscars ceremony before--she belted out a song as part of the acceptance speech. It is to be noted that she was not cut off, despite the tendency of the Oscars producers to cut off any documentary winner who runs too long! I also loved Jared Leto's acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor as well, as he was one of the few actors who not only thanked his mother and brother, but one of the few to actually bring them to the ceremony His speech was eloquent and touching. I also loved Lupita Nyong'o's speech for Best Supporting Actress. She was charming and gracious in a way that only a few stars can be.

Over all I have to say that I am happy with last night's Oscars and if I were the producers I would only change a few things next year. First, I would make the awarding of honorary Oscars back to the ceremony. Second, I would try to include more people in the In Memoriam segment and eliminate any kind of song in proximity to it. Third, I would include clips from older films in the various clips shown. With the proper host I think that could well make for my ideal Oscars ceremony.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Three Pivotal Roles for Which Actors Did Not Receive Oscars

There are perhaps only a few subjects that classic film buffs enjoy debating more than the Oscars. We can spend hours debating which films should not have won Best Picture, which directors and actors were snubbed, and so on. When it comes to the Academy Awards, often it seems classic film buffs tend to focus on those times when the Academy "got it wrong". Indeed, last night I started thinking about the lead actor and actress categories and instances in which the most deserving actor either was not nominated or did not win. I narrowed this down to what I think could be the some of the gravest "miscarriages of justice" with regards to the Best Actor and Best Actress categories on the part of the Academy. These are three instances in which an actress lost an Oscar for what was the greatest performance of her career, an actress was nominated for entirely for the wrong role one year, and an actor who was not nominated for his best known role.

Of course, the instance that came to my mind in which an actress did not receive an Oscar for what was her greatest role is also one of the most notorious cases of what many consider the best performance of the year losing an Academy Award. As all classic film buffs know, at the 27th Academy Awards Judy Garland, who had been nominated for her role as  Vicki Lester in A Star is Born (1954), lost the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl (1954). Even then there was a good deal of controversy over Grace Kelly's win, with many maintaining that it was Judy Garland who truly deserved the award. Indeed, no less than Groucho Marx would call Judy Garland's loss of the Academy Award for Best Actress, "the biggest robbery since Brink's."

Reportedly the vote for Best Actress was very close that year. According to Hedda Hopper at the time it was the closest Oscar vote to not end in a tie, with only six votes separating Miss Garfield and Miss Kelly.
As surprising as Judy Garland losing the Oscar for Best Actress is, it is perhaps even more surprising that A Star is Born won no Oscars, even though it was nominated for six awards (including Best Actor in a Leading Role for James Mason; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Colour; Best Costume Design, Colour; Best Music, Original Song for "The Man That Got Away"; and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture).

Today for many, perhaps most classic film fans, it seems incredible that Judy Garland lost the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her part in A Star is Born. While it is not Miss Garland's most famous role (that would be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz), I rather suspect that the vast majority of film buffs consider Judy Garland's performance as Vicki Lester in A Star is Born as the greatest performance of her career. Indeed, I rather suspect some might well regard it as one of the greatest performances of all time. It is then difficult to understand how she lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly.

It seems likely that much of it might have had to do with the performance of A Star is Born at the box office. At the time A Star is Born was one of the costliest films ever made, its budget winding up over $5 million. Unfortunately, it only made $6,100,000 at the box office, hardly enough to pay for itself. The perception of A Star is Born as a box office failure may have had an impact upon Judy Garland's chances at winning the Best Actress award. At the same time it seems possible that Grace Kelly was not actually receiving the Oscar for her performance in The Country Girl, but for her performance in Rear Window from the prior year. Giving what some consider the best performance of her career in Rear Window, Grace Kelly was not even nominated for an Oscar for the film. It then seems possible that part of the reason Judy Garland lost the Oscar for Best Actress at the 27th Academy Awards was because the Academy felt guilty that Grace Kelly had not even been nominated for Rear Window!

At least Judy Garland was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her role in A Star is Born. In another instance an actress was nominated for Best Actress, but for entirely the wrong film. Ask anyone to name one of Ingrid Bergman's roles and odds are very good that they will name Ilsa Lund in Casablanca (1942). It is definitely her most famous role and I suspect even many classic film buffs would consider it one of her best performances. Indeed, there are many who believe Casablanca to be one of the greatest films of all time. It won the Oscars for Best Picture; Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay for the year 1943. It also received nominations in for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Humphrey Bogart and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Claude Rains. Despite this, Ingrid Bergman would not receive a nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Casablanca.

Of course, that did not mean that Ingrid Bergman was not nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. She was nominated for an Academy Award that year, but for her role as Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) instead. I am sure that I am not alone when I say that it seems preposterous that Ingrid Bergman was nominated for For Whom the Bell Tolls instead Casablanca. Indeed, it is not simply a case that Ilsa Lund in Casablanca is Miss Bergman's best known role, as identified with her as Scarlett O'Hara is with Vivien Leigh or the second Mrs. de Winter is with Joan Fontaine. It is more a case that Ingrid Bergman gave a truly fine performance in Casablanca while she gave what may have been one of the worst performances of her career in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Not only did Ingrid Bergman play the role of Maria in Whom the Bell Tolls much too broadly, she also endows the part with no depth or personality. While Ilsa Lund in Casablanca seems like a real, living, breathing woman, Maria seems more like an automaton. Worse yet, Ingrid Bergman was horribly miscast in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Maria is supposed to be a Spanish refugee, yet in the role Miss Bergman seems unmistakeably, inarguably Swedish.
I think most classic film buffs would agree with me that Ilsa Lund is not the greatest role of Ingrid Bergman's career. I also think most classic film buffs would agree with me that it wasn't even the best performance of the year (that would be Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph for me), but I think most classic film fans would also agree with me that her performance in Casablanca is far better than her one in For Whom the Bell Tolls.  I also think that most classic film buffs would agree with me that Ingrid Bergman deserved a nomination for her role in Casablanca.

Given this, it is hard to explain why Ingrid Bergman was nominated for For Whom the Bell Tolls instead of Casablanca. I have to suspect part of it might have been a bit of snobbery on the part of the Academy. For Whom the Bell Tolls was based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Hemingway, who was already a highly regarded novelist. It might have also been due to the fact that For Whom the Bell Tolls simply made more money than Casablanca. Indeed, For Whom the Bell Tolls was the highest grossing film for the year. Regardless  For Whom the Bell Tolls was nominated for nine Oscars, one more than Casablanca. In the end, however, it only won one Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress for Katina Paxinou. Sadly, it would seem Ingrid Bergman would have had a better chance at winning the Oscar for Best Leading Actress had she been nominated for Casablanca instead!

Of course, at least Ingrid Bergman was nominated for an Oscar for a performance in 1943, even if it wasn't for the one she should have been. Alongside Mr. Thackeray in To Sir With Love (1967),  Sir Sidney Poitier's most famous role may well be that of Detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night. In fact, Sir Sidney Poitier was so successful in the role that he played Virgil Tibbs in two more films, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organisation (1971). There can be no doubt that Mr. Poitier's portrayal of Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night was responsible for much of the film's success. Indeed, In the Heat of the Night was nominated for seven Oscars. It won five, including the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for Rod Steiger as Police Chief Bill Gillespie. Amazingly, among those nominations there was not one for Sir Sidney Poitier as Detective Virgil Tibbs.

The lack of a nomination for Sir Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs that year seems especially curious given Mr. Poitier had previously been nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role for The Defiant Ones (1959) and won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Lilies of the Field (1963). Indeed, his win for Lilies of the Field made him the first African American to win the Best Actor award. Given his previous nominations it would have seemed that Sir Sidney Poitier would have been a sure bet to be nominated for In the Heat of the Night. Sadly, it appears he was not.

It is difficult to say why Sir Sidney Poitier was not nominated for In the Heat of the Night. I very seriously doubt it was because it was one of those rare films with two lead actors. The Academy could have easily have nominated both Rod Steiger and Sir Sidney Poitier. Indeed, it must be pointed out that The Defiant Ones also featured two lead actors and both (Sir Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis) were nominated for the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Instead it seems quite possible that Sir Sidney Poitier may have lost out on an Oscar nomination for In the Heat of the Night simply due to his own success. If ever there was a year for Mr. Poitier, it was 1967. Not only did the year see the release of In the Heat of the Night, but To Sir with Love (1967) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) as well. It seems possible that any votes for Mr. Poitier in the category of Best Actor in a Leading Role might have been divided between In the Heat of the Night and To Sir with Love. In other words, Sir Sidney Poitier lost out on a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role simply because he was too good.

While I don't think anyone can complain that Rod Steiger won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Chief Gillespie (he was amazing in the role), it seems to me that Sir Sidney Poitier should have been nominated in the category as well. In fact, I would go so far as to say that year the Best Actor category should have ended in a tie, with both Rod Steiger and Sir Sidney Poitier receiving the award. It is impossible for me to say whose performance is better and, in fact, I would say that the two roles play off each other so much that one really can't have one without the other. Of course, here I must point out that for the year 1967 Sir Sidney Poitier was not the only actor to lose out on an Oscar for what would be his signature role. Nominated for her role as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967), Anne Bancroft lost the Oscar for Best Actress to Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner...

Of course, Anne Bancroft's loss to Katharine Hepburn points to the fact that there are many more instances in which actors lost Oscars for what was their quintessential roles. While the the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences often awards those actors most of us would agree are most deserving, they also often fail to award those most of us agree who are most deserving. While in theory a truly great performance should be considered with regards to the acting awards, it is a sad fact that other factors can come into play as well. And it is when other factors come into play that situations such as Judy Garland losing the Oscar for A Star is Born occur.