Saturday, August 13, 2022

Godspeed Olivia Newton-John

Olivia Newton-John, who had a string of hit songs from the Seventies into the Eighties and starred in the movies Grease (1978) and Xanadu (1980), died on August 8 2022 at the age of 73. The cause was cancer.

Olivia Newton-John was born on September 26 1948 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire. She was six years old when her family immigrated to Australia. She attended Christ Church Grammar School in South Yarra, Victoria and  the University High School in Parkville, Victoria.

Olivia Newton-John was only 14 when she and three classmates formed the all-girl group Sol Four. She was still a teenager when she became a regular on the Australian television shows Time for Terry and The Happy Show. She was also a regular on The Go!! Show. Miss Newton-John won a talent contest on the Australian show Sing! Sing! Sing!. In 1965 she appeared in the movie A Funny Thing Happened Down Under. It was in 1966 that Decca Records released her first single, ""Till You Say You'll Be Mine."

Olivia Newton-John became part of the music group Toomorrow, formed for the movie for the same name, released in 1970. The film received poor distribution and produced no hits from its soundtrack. Fortunately for Miss Newton-John, her first album, If Not for You, was released in 1971. The first single from the album, "If Not for You," proved to be a hit, going to no. 1 in Australia, no. 7 in the United Kingdom, and no. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. Her third album, Let Me Be There, would produce another hit. In 1973 "Let Me Be There" went to no. 2 in Canada and no. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. It would be followed by even bigger hits, "I Honestly Love You" and "Have You Ever Been Mellow," in 1974 and 1975 respectively. This began a string of hits that would last for the next few years.

Olivia Newton-John's career would become even more successful following the release of the movie Grease. Her singles regularly reached the top forty of the Billboard Hot 100 until the mid-Eighties. She continued to record throughout the Nineties, Naughts, and Teens. She ultimately released 26 albums throughout her career.

Of course, Olivia Newton-John also had a career in film and on television. It was after appearing in A Funny Thing Happened Down Under (1965) and Toomorrow (1970) that Olivia Newton-John appeared in Grease (1978). The movie proved to be very successful, as did its soundtrack. She followed Grease with Xanadu (1980. Xanadu did not do particularly well at the box office and received negative reviews, but the soundtrack (half of which were by the Electric Light Orchestra and half of which were by Olivia Newton-John). She starred in the movie Two of a Kind(1983). Like Xanadu, the film failed at the box office and received negative reviews, but the soundtrack performed very well on the charts. Miss Newton-John would later appear in the feature films She's Having a Baby (1988), It's My Party (1996), Sordid Lives (2000), Score: A Hockey Musical (2010), A Few Best Men (2011), and The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee (2020).

On television Miss Newton-John appeared in the TV movies A Mom for Christmas, A Christmas Romance, The Christmas Story: A Story on Ice, The Wilde Girls, and Sharknado 5: Global Swarming. She guest starred on the shows Snowy River: The McGregor Saga, Ned and Stacey, Murphy Brown, and Bette. She was a regular on the show Sordid Lives: The Series.

As a kid I had a crush on Olivia Newton-John, even if I didn't  necessarily like all of her music. Of course, I am probably not the only person who had a crush on Olivia Newton-John as a kid, and I know she has a legion of fans who love her songs and some of her movies. Olivia Newton-John certainly had a beautiful voice. She also had the ability to literally light up the screen, regardless of the quality of the material in which she appeared. Quite simply, she was a great performer. The whole reason I still have a soft spot for Xanadu is that in the various musical sequences Miss Newton-John is simply incredible. I think if she had been born a few decades earlier, she would have been a major musical star.

Of course, Olivia Newton-John was more than a singer and actress. She was also a humanitarian. From a young age she advocated for animal rights. She was also an environmental activist. She founded the Olivia Newton-John Fund for cancer research. The world was a better place for Olivia Newton-John having been in it.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Godspeed Judith Durham

Judith Durham, the lead singer with The Seekers from 1963 to 1968 who went onto a successful solo career, died on August 5 2022 at the age of 79. The cause was bronchiectasis, which she had most of her life.

Judith Durham was born on July 3 1943 in Essendon, Victoria, Australia. She spent the first several years of her life in Essendon before her father moved to Taroona, Tasmania, a suburb of Hobart, Tasmania. She attended the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and received an Associate in Music in classical piano at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium. Originally planning to be a a pianist, her singing career began when she asked the Melbourne University Jazz Band's conductor, Nicholas Ribush, if she could sing with the band at the Memphis Jazz Club in Malvern. In 1963 she started performing at the Memphis Jazz Club in Malvern with Frank Traynor's Jazz Preachers. That same year her first, self-titled EP was released on W&G Records

Judith Durham joined The Seekers as their new lead vocalist after their original lead singer, Keith Ray, left to get married. It was because of Miss Durham's ties to W&G Records that The Seekers signed with the label in in 1963. Their debut album Introducing The Seekers, was released that same year. Their first single was a cover of the Australian bush ballad "Waltzing Mathilda." It peaked at no. 74 on the Australian singles chart.

It was in 1964 that The Seekers travelled to the United Kingdom, with the intent of staying their only ten weeks. As it turned out,they were offered work by the Grade Organization and the ten weeks turned into an extended stay. They eventually met Tom Springfield, brother of Dusty Springfield, who wrote "I'll Never Find Another You" for the group. It proved to be their first major hit, going to number 1 in Australia, number 1 in the United Kingdom, and number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. "I'll Never Find Another You" would be followed by several more hits, including ""A World of Our Own," "The Carnival is Over," "Someday, One Day," "Morningtown Ride," "Georgy Girl," and "When Will the Good Apples Fall."

Judith Durham left The Seekers in 1968 to pursue a solo career. Over the years she released several solo albums. She also played the role of Sarah Simmons in the Australian Seventies television show Cash & Company.

Judith Durham had one of the most beautiful voices of her era. Elton John himself once described her as having "the purest voice in popular music." She had an incredible soprano that placed The Seekers' songs and her own solo work well above the songs of many of their contemporaries. With The Seekers, Judith Durham was a pioneer among Australian music artists, becoming among the first to have international hits. She also influenced Australian music artists to come, including Olivia Newton-John (who, sadly, died only three days after Miss Durham). Judith Durham was an incredible singer and her songs will still be played for many years to come.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Late Great Clu Gulager

Clu Gulager, who appeared on the TV shows The Tall Man and The Virginian, and appeared in such movies as The Killers (1964) and The Return of the Living Dead (1985), died on August 5 2022 at the age of 93.

Clu Gulager was born William Martin Gulager on November 16 1928 in Holdenville, Oklahoma. His father, John had been an actor on Broadway before practising law in Muskogee, Oklahoma. His mother, Hazel, worked for the Veteran's Administration. His father gave him the nickname "Clu" after the martins or clu-clu birds that nested around their home. Clu Gulager was Cherokee and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He as also related to Will Rogers through his paternal grandmother, who was the sister of Will Rogers's mother. This made Clu Gulager and Will Rogers first cousins, once removed. 

Clu Gulager was a genuine cowboy when he was young. In an interview with Tulsa World from 2019, he said, "I was a cowboy from Oklahoma. I rode the fences [around cattle] in the winter, and in the summer, I was out in the field, watching out for rattlesnakes." He also played the French horn. After graduating high school, Clu Gulager served in the United States Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton. He attended Northeastern State College in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and Baylor University in Waco, Texas. It was while he was at Baylor University that he received a one-year scholarship to study in Paris under French director, actor, and mime Jean Louis Barrault (perhaps best known for the classic Les Enfants du Paradis).

Clu Gulager made his television debut in 1955 in an episode of Omnibus. In the late Fifties he appeared in the shows The United States Steel Hour, Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, West Point, The Alcoa Hour, Black Saddle, Playhouse 90, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Lawless Years, Have Gun--Will Travel, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Laramie, Law of the Plainsman, The Untouchables, Five Fingers, Riverboat, The Lineup, The Rebel, Wagon Train, The Deputy, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In 1960 Mr. Gulager began playing a two year run as Billy the Kid on The Tall Man.

In the Sixties Clu Gulager continued playing Billy the Kid on The Tall Man. In 1963 he began a five year run as Sheriff Emmett Ryker on the hit Western series The Virginian. In 1970 he starred on the series San Francisco International Airport. He guest starred on the shows The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Wagon Train, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Dr. Kildare, The Survivors, Ironside,  and Name of the Game. He made his move debut in The Killers (1964), playing a hit man opposite Lee Marvin. He also appeared in the movies And Now Miguel (1966) and Winning (1971).

In the Seventies he starred on the TV show The MacKenzies of Paradise Cove. He guest starred on the shows The Psychiatrist; The F.B.I.; Medical Center, Bonanza; The Mod Squad; The Bold Ones: The New Doctors; Mannix; The Wonderful World of Disney; Kung Fu; The Wide World of Mystery; Insight; Ironside; The New Perry Mason; Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law; Shaft; Get Christie Love!; The ABC Afternoon Play Break; McCloud; Khan!; Cannon; The Streets of San Francisco; Kate McShane; Medical Story; Three for the Road; Police Story; Phyllis; Ellery Queen; Barnaby Jones; Good Heavens; Hawaii Five-O; Most Wanted; Dog and Cat; Westside Medical; and The Oregon Trail. He also appeared on the mini-series Once an Eagle. Black Beauty, and King, as well as several TV movies. He appeared in the movies The Last Picture Show (1971), Molly and Lawless John (1972), McQ (1974), Gangsterfilmen (1974), The Drought (1975), The Other Side of Midnight (1977), A Force of One (1979), and Touched by Love (1980).

In the Eighties Clu Gulager appeared in the movies Lies (1983), The Initiation (1984), Chattanooga Choo Choo (1984), Into the Night (1985), The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Prime Risk (1985), A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985), Hunter's Blood (1986), Summer Heat (1987), The Offspring (1987), The Hidden (1987), Tapeheads (1988), I'm Gonna Git Ya Sucka (1988), and Teen Vamp (1989). He guest starred on the TV shows Quincy, M.E.; CHiPs; The Fisher Family; Cutter to Houston; Automan; The Master; Masquerade; The Yellow Rose; Cover Up; Street Hawk; Knight Rider; Riptide; Airwolf; Magnum, P.I.; The Fall Guy; Simon & Simon; and Murder, She Wrote; MacGyver. He appeared in the mini-series Space and North and South, Book II. He appeared in several TV movies.

In the Nineties Clu Gulager appeared in the movies My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys (1991), Eddie Presley (1992), Killing Device (1993), Palmer's Pick-Up (1999), and Gunfighter (1999). He guest starred on the shows Kung Fu: The Legend Continues; Beavis and Butt-Head; Walker, Texas Ranger; and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In the Naughts he appeared in the movie Feast (2005). In the Teens he appeared in the movies Piranha 3DD (2012), Tangerine (2015), Director's Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein (2015), Blue Jay (2016), Give Till It Hurts (2018), and Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood (2019).

I think Clu Gulager will always be best remembered as Sheriff Emmett Ryker  on The Virginian and medical supply warehouse boss Burt Wilson in The Return of the Living Dead. Even so, Mr. Gulager played a wide variety of roles throughout this career. In The Killers he was gum chewing hired killer Lee. In the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "Pen Pal," he played an escaped convict who visits the woman who has been writing him while he was in prison. In The Last Picture Show he played Abilene, the town scoundrel and a foreman for the richest man in town as well. In the mini-series North and South, Book II Clu Gulager played Union General Philip Sheridan. Over the years Clu Gulager played everything from cowboys to medical doctors to men of the cloth to police officers. What is more, he played all of them well. Clu Gulager always gave a good performance.

I never had the opportunity to meet Clu Gulager, but I have friends who were not only privileged to have met him, but to have called him a friend. Over the years Clu Gulager attended many conventions. He was also a classic movie fan, and it was not unusual to see him at various classic movie events around Los Angeles. From a piece he wrote for True West magazine I know he loved the work of Federico Fellini and his favourite movie was 8 1/2 (1963). From my friends I know that Clu Gulager behaved very much as cowboys in old Westerns are shown to act. He was polite, kind, charming, honest, and very loyal to his friends. He was also a fan of classical music and, as mentioned earlier, classic film. Clu Gulager was a true gentleman, and while he died at 93, to many of us it still seems as if he died too young.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story

Rightly or wrongly, there are those directors, actors, and artists from the Golden Age of Hollywood who are often obscure today and known only to devoted classic film buffs. They may have been critically acclaimed in their time. They may have even received Oscar nominations or even Oscar wins. Regardless, today their names are not recognized by the general public. Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story, written and directed by Scott Fivelson, centres on a fictional example of such an individual. Oskar Knight was a critically acclaimed director, one who holds the record for having been nominated for the Academy Award more times than any other director in history. Famous in his day, Oskar Knight is now only known to students of classic film.

Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story brings to mind such mockumentaries as All You Need is Cash (1979) and This is Spinal Tap (1984), while at the same time evoking such movies dealing with Old Hollywood as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and The Artist (2011). It follows Oskar Knight from his childhood in Germany to his early days in Hollywood to his rise to the top of the directing profession. Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story goes into some detail on the ups and downs of his career, including Oskar Knight's frustration at endless Oscar snubs, despite being nominated multiple times. The film not only touches upon his career, but upon Oskar Knight's personal life as well. His days as a Hollywood bon vivant, his marriage, and his son Oskar Knight, Jr.'s substance abuse problems are all covered in the movie.

What separates Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story from similar films is just how convincing it is. When one watches This is Spinal Tap, one is perfectly aware that Spinal Tap is a fictional creation, but when one watches Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story, one can almost believe there actually was a director named Oskar Knight. Much of this is due to the fact that it uses real-life Hollywood personages to discuss Oskar Knight as both a director and a person. Classic film buffs will recognize Margaret O'Brien (famous for Meet Me in St. Louis and The Secret Garden), the late Noel Neill (forever Lois Lane from the Superman serials and the TV series Adventures of Superman), and Jon Provost (best known as Timmy on Lassie). Among the rest of the cast are other readily recognizable names, such as Kristina Anapau of the TV series True Blood and the movie Black Swan (2010); Randall Batinkoff of the TV series Christy and the movie Higher Learning (1995); Julian Flynn from the movie Wasp Network (2019); Julianna Guill of the TV series The Resident; Rudolf Martin of the movie Swordfish (2001) and Ford v. Ferrari (2019); Lawrence Pressman of the movie The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) and the TV series Doogie Howser, M.D.; and Sir David Suchet of Agatha Christie's Poirot. Not only does Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story feature real-life Hollywood personages discussing the director, but all of their performances are sincere. Even when their discussions of Oskar Knight are tinged with humour (it is, after all, a comedy), one can honestly believe Oskar Knight actually existed.

Oskar sitting and laughing with Gary Cooper.
Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story 
is made all the more convincing in featuring photos of Hollywood legends into which Oskar has been inserted, further giving the illusion that Oskar Knight was an actual, respected director who hobnobbed with the Hollywood elite. As if this wasn't enough, we also get clips from his movies, from the screwball comedy Heaven to Betsy to his critically maligned epic Oskar Knight’s Moby Dick, not to mention Oskar's home movies and personal photos.

Of course, at the heart of Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story is Oskar Knight himself. As Oskar Knight, the great Lenny Von Dohlen doesn't have a lot of lines, but his performance still makes the viewer feel as if they know Mr. Knight. Lenny Von Dohlen was such a talent that he could relay the thoughts and feelings of his characters with little more than his facial expressions and body language. This is no less true of his performance as Oskar Knight, which stands out as one of his best performances in a career filled with great performances. The film's other lead, Alex Bell as Oskar Knight, Jr., also gives a bravura performance. Oskar Knight, Jr. is the child of Hollywood one sometimes hears about, the son of a famous and acclaimed director who falls victim to substance abuse. As Oskar Knight, Jr., Alex Bell is responsible for much of the humour in the film, while at the same time insuring Oskar Knight, Jr. remains a sympathetic figure in the movie. Lenny Von Dohlen and Alex Bell both make Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story, already a fun film to watch, all the more enjoyable.

Lenny Von Dohlen as a young Oskar Knight
Without a doubt, Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story would not work without Scott Fivelson's superior script and expert direction. Scott Fivelson has written a film that is at times very funny, but at the same time treats its subject with respect and even poignancy. It is because Oskar Knight is so well conceived that one can be convinced that he is real. Scott Fivelson's direction makes the best use of his diverse ensemble, improving upon performances that were already great to begin with.

Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story had a successful run on the film festival circuit. At the 2016 Hollywood Independent Film Festival Scott Fivelson won the Breakthrough Director Spotlight Award. At the 2017 Vancouver Filmdance Festival he won the award for Best Director. At the 2016 Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, Jay Gillespie won the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance as Young Val in the film. At the 2016 Garden State Film Festival, Ted Reedy won the award for Best Song from a Feature Documentary.

Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story
 will be coming out later this year. It is my firm hope that it also receives a theatrical release. After all, it is a film about cinema, so I think it really should be seen in a cinema.

Oskar Knight watching Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, and Myrna Loy.
Beyond everything else, Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story is a love letter to Old Hollywood. It is a loving ode to every director, actor, or other artist who never got their due, who never won an Oscar or took a lifetime to win one – you’ll have to see the film to find out if Oskar ever did – and today remain obscure, even though they deserved better. In that respect, Oskar Knight is something of an everyman, a stand-in for all those great directors and actors long overlooked by the general public. While I believe everyone will enjoy Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story, I can see it being loved best by classic film fans, who will know all too well there is a good deal of truth to Oskar Knight's story. Indeed, I think Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story could be destined to be a classic itself.