Sunday, March 23, 2014

TV: Grace and Frankie

As Stan noted this week, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda are coming to Netflix.  Lesley Goldberg (Hollywood Reporter) explains the two will do 13 episodes of a sitcom entitled Grace and Frankie.


Three years from now, as 2017 draws to a close, Jane will be eighty, Lily Tomlin will be 77.  This year, Jane turns 77, the age when her father Henry passed away.

We bring that up to point out that both women have had long lives but time is finite.

Grace and Frankie could be one of the last recorded projects either woman does -- certainly one of the last projects where either is a lead actress.  And while both women are actresses of extreme talent, neither has shown much of it in the last decade.

Jane's done the most work -- six films and a TV show.  Sometimes, it has  worked.  Monster-in-Law was a strong and fully-fleshed performance, for example.  Peace, Love and Misunderstanding worked because Jane was willing to exhibit Grace's naked hunger and need to be part of her daughter's life.  . . . And If We All Lived Together worked far less than the other two and Jane seemed to confuse the character and her own performance.  After that, everything else is either insignificant (two cameos) or awful.

Awful is her performance as Leona Lansing on The Newsroom which is all wind-up power doll who never really goes anywhere because the scripts don't care to send her (or any woman -- we long ago noted Aaron Sorkin's problems with women).  It' a hollow performance, all indicated thoughts and feelings but no core.  It would be the worst performance Jane's ever given (yes, we have seen In The Cool of The Day) were it not for Georgia Rule.

In that awful film, only Lindsay Lohan deserved praise for acting.  Gary Marshall tried very hard to work his magic but it was impossible with Felicity Huffman giving the same dull performance she always gives, playing the role inside her mouth and thinking it's cute even though she left cute at least 40 years ago.

And then there was Jane playing . . .

Well what exactly?

A lumberjack?

Katharine Hepburn as she really was?

We bring this up because among the groups we spoke to last week about Iraq, illegal spying and Ukraine was a group of acting students and there big questions were about acting and politics and Jane came up. Specifically, the question was, "What the hell happened to her acting?"

Because the two-time Academy Award winning Best Actress was one of the most talented performers of her generation and her performance in Klute really is the finest film acting of the 20th century -- by an actor or an actress, it is the finest.

One person (and remember these are drama majors hoping to have acting careers) offered that Jane's too busy "pretending to be authentic offscreen and it's hurting her as an actress when she does a role."  That woman argued that Fonda knows illegal spying is wrong, she knows we don't need more wars but she lacks the guts to speak out the current administration "while trying to present herself as some sort of brave voice for the people.  She's full of s**t and it's coming out of her pores."


For example, our opinion has always been a gay man can successfully play straight before the camera (or on stage) but a gay man having to play straight on the set and also play a straight character may be having too many levels to pull off successfully. (Even in the closeted days, few were fully in the closet.  Tony Perkins was and it tended to paralyze his performance, bisexual Paul Newman, in the 50s and 60s, was more relaxed on the set and able to focus on his acting.)  So, yes, Jane acting "The Third Act" of her life (as inspirational leader who lacks leadership skills as evidenced by her inability to call out the current government spying) and also trying to act a character may explain why she's given such lousy performances in the last ten years.

But  another reason (instead of or along with)  could be that Jane knows her press.  Few performers pay as much attention to critical notices as Jane.  She seems to get a perverse joy out of them even when they're negative.  She's also seen as combative with reporters who are writing soft feature articles on her.  (It's why she got  a bad rep with many journalists and why, for example, journalist Paul Rosenfield loathed her.)  (In fairness to Jane, what they see as 'combative' is sometimes Jane initiating a conversation with a sardonic comment that is misread as combative.  Few performers have Jane's strong desire to be liked by all.)

Aware of her press, she's aware that her brittle roles remain some of her best received.

Klute, The Morning After, The China Syndrome, The Electric Horseman, California Suite, Agnes of God, They Shoot Horses Don't They?, Monster-in-Law, Julia and Fun With Dick and Jane are among her most praised performances.  Some (including one journalist intrepid enough to offer it to Jane's face) have gone further to divide her performances into smoking and non-smoking roles and arguing Jane excels at playing brittle, career women who smoke.

She gave a brittle, but naked, performance in 33 Variations and many in the entertainment community believe she was denied a Tony (she was nominated) because the voters felt she was doing, as one playwright put it, "The 330th Variation on the same performance."  He was speaking of the impression among some, he didn't share it, nor do we.  It was a very naked performance, she let herself out there in a way few actors ever do.  To her misfortune, the role, in the text, called for a performance or type that some see as all she offers.

In a well written role, Jane can find levels and depths that even a director or the original writer didn't realize were present.

But too often, in the last ten years, she's had roles that are nothing and she's tried to apply technique to bring them to life.

All that happens is a clinched performance.

More and more, Jane's a clenched fist.

Her body in these roles is as constrained as her emotions.

She becomes as unyielding as a stone and all a stone can do is sink.

Last year, The Guilt Trip was released and Barbra Streisand gave one of her finest screen performances. (Her inability to stop attacking people resulted in the film doing so-so business.  Stop trying to be the voice of a political party if you want to have ticket buyers or viewers or whatever.)

Barbra's performance was up there with Yentl and Funny Girl and The Way We Were and Up The Sandbox.  In fact, in some ways, it blew all of those previous performances away.

Yes, there were the showy moments like when her character finds out the man she wished she'd married, the man she'd named her son after was dead.  But even in those car scenes, listening to the audio books, Barbra provided so much reality, so much love, so much concern, so much need.  It was a rewarding performance.

Jane's done similar characters and done them well.  But the last time she played one in a leading role?  You really have to go back to Coming Home (which she won one of her two Oscars for).

In California Suite, Alan Alda notes a rare vulnerable moment in the character of Hannah and Jane's Hannah advises him to "take a picture, because you're not going to see it again."

That's more or less a promise the actress has kept.  There are flashes of vulnerability in The Morning After (an all time great performance) and in Peace, Love and Misunderstanding, for example, but flashes only.  (And Jane the actress finds those notes and fleshes them out -- they weren't obvious moments in the script.)

If you want to see Jane doing a performance hitting similar notes to Barbra's in The Guilt Trip, you really have to go back to her French films with Roger Vadim and her American films of that period.

Jane can still play those roles, she's just chosen not to (and there are fewer of them written over 40).  She played them very well in The Game Is Over (she's fantastic), Barefoot In The Park (ditto), Barbarella, Any Wednesday, Sunday In New York, Cat Ballou, etc.

And she played it in Coming Home and won an Academy Award for that performance (deservedly so).

But she's stuck to stones and immovable and impassive characters because that's what she's wrongly believed (based on critical reaction) that she can pull off.  It would be great to see her play a villain.  We imagine she could be as delicious onscreen as, for example, Vanessa Redgrave was in Mission Impossible.

Instead, she's stayed with brittle and her performances risk becoming as awful Katharine Hepburn's were at the same age.

Hepburn's win for On Golden Pond was one of the two most undeserved Best Actress Academy Awards of all time.

While Henry Fonda created an actual character in that film, Hepburn was a joke.

She was playing a twice removed send up of a mother and wife.

Most importantly, she was playing the public persona of Katharine Hepburn and had been since the death of Spencer Tracy.

She was involved with him romantically only very briefly.

Not because he was married but because he preferred men and she preferred women.

But there she was on the set, pretending Spencer had been the love of her life (not Laura Harding?) and pretending to be Ethel Thayer, a character the actress had nothing in common with but, most importantly, didn't respect.

So playing straight on the set (Henry knew she was gay and didn't care, no one really did except Hepburn herself) and then playing it even more over the top when the cameras were rolling, Hepburn created a character that doesn't resemble a wife or a mother or even a human being.

Jane Fonda the producer was wrong from an acting stand point to cast Hepburn.  As Henry noted before the filming and after, Barbara Stanwyck would have been better in the role.  (Yes, Stanwyck was a lesbian, that's not an issue.  The issue is are you using all your time on the set to convince everyone you're straight? Stanwyck was a strong actress who didn't waste her performance on the set pretending she was in mourning -- for decades -- over her lost male love.) Loretta Young (who also wanted to play the role) would have been better in the part as well.  If the concern was marquee value, Bette Davis would have been a far better choice than 'the great Kate.'

Hepburn may have brought in more fawning press in real time, and therefore helped ticket sales, but she's not just the weakest part of the film, she actually harms it, destroys it.

On Golden Pond was a huge hit, one of the biggest films of its year.  It's not very well remembered today and that's because of Hepburn and her camp performance of a heterosexual woman.

That's a shame in so many ways but it's a real shame for Jane the actress.  As Ethel and Norman's daughter, Jane gave a very strong supporting performance and it's largely forgotten and overlooked because of all the cheese Hepburn spread across the screen.

Jane the actress broke from her brittle roles to play this part.  Yes, she can detonate the sardonic one liner in the film but she's not the brittle career woman.  She's also not playing poverty (The Dollmaker and Stanley & Iris) but a contemporary, middle class woman and playing it very well.

Had it been recognized (she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award) and remembered, Jane might have returned to film sooner.  We're not making one of those hypothetical What-ifs.  We're not saying, "Had she won the Oscar for it, she might never have retired."

We're talking about the fact that once she decided to return to films, she went after a number of roles before she filmed Monster-in-Law.  In some cases (Elizabethtown, for example), she was actually briefly attached to the film.  In all cases, these supporting roles were seen as iffy for Jane by the studios making the films.  They didn't believe she could carry a supporting role or play these women who weren't brittle career women or deep into poverty.

Now when we spoke about the above, we were much more wicked in our remarks and got huge laughs and the professor told us later we should write up our critique.  We begged off and stated we might write about it after Jane passed away.

We had no reason, we insisted, to type up that commentary.

And then came the news of Jane and Lily's sitcom.

This news was quickly followed by a huge panic on our part.

Because this should be a great project but it could instead suck worse than anything ever seen.

Let's move to Lily for a moment.

Lily often plays eccentrics very well.   One of the few times she's played a non-eccentric well resulted in her Academy Award nomination (for Nashville).

In the 70s and the 80s, Lily seemed able to play almost anything (almost).

Part of the reason for this belief was Lily's amazing one-woman shows (Appearing Nightly and The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe).  But another reason for that belief was that Lily turned down pretty much everything she was offered.

In the 90s, Lily was offered much less -- not because she was less talented but because the entertainment industry isn't known for embracing women over forty.

Offered much less, Lily accepted pretty much everything offered -- which explains embarrassments like The Beverly Hillbillies, Getting Away with Murder and Krippendorf's Tribe.  It also explains why Kim Basinger delivered the star turn in Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter.  Lily was supposed to play that role but bailed in the end because she wrongly believed ABC was going to turn her animated Edith Ann specials into a TV series.

Lily Tomlin's worst reviews came for Moment By Moment.  The film's not as awful as the critics made it out to be.  At times, it's distant.  But it's not stilted and it's far from one of the worst films ever.

For years, it was used by the press as an example of a film bomb (despite the fact that it made back its production budget at the box office).  It's actually has many moving moments and Travolta and Lily do have a genuine chemistry in the film.  The only real mistake Jane Wagner, as director and writer makes, is probably assuming the audience grasps the journey.  Apparently, many needed cards on screen explaining things like: "See how Trish is exploring Travolta's body and her own desires?  She's owning her sexuality." and "See how Trish is trying to find him?  Her comfort with her own sexuality is transferring to strength in other areas."

The biggest problem for the film was probably Lily.  Her character is fully realized but it's a minor key from an actress we expect standard chord progressions -- major chords -- from.  In other words, in Nashville and The Late Show and All of Me, Lily's reaching through the screen with her talent and grabbing us but as Trish, she's really not doing that.

In the TV show, Jane and Lily are going to play friends whose husbands have left them.  We'll get to that shortly.

But the roles being planned for the two women?

They don't go to the strengths currently.  Lily's not being asked to work on the order of her film triumphs or her successful turn as Kay on Murphy Brown.  Instead, the role is a lot more like her bad character on the recent Malibu Country (which Lily said was based on her mother but appeared to many to be playing Marie from The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (but without Jane Wagner to provide meaningful dialogue).

Jane can't be clenched in her performance.  Even if she's playing a brittle woman, she can't be clenched. And Lily needs to be written in bright tones, not minor chords.  She won't have anything to play in minor chords.

Lily and Jane, with Dolly Parton, made one of the most successful films starring women: 9 to 5.  The 1980 film, produced by Jane, was huge, over a hundred million domestically at a time when very few films had that kind of domestic box office and none of them were comedies.

In that film, Lily played smart and steely (not what her characters are usually known for) and Jane's character can best be described as innocent.  It worked, it worked very well and maybe there's something to be said for the sitcom considering creating characters against type.

Maybe not.

Netflix isn't known at present for doing series revolving around women.  Of all their original programming, only Orange Is The New Black revolves around women -- and women in prison, of course, is a fetish genre for many straight men.  So Lily and Jane doing well in this is important beyond just Lily and Jane.

And we're worried because of what we've noted above.

But we're also worried because of the description of the show The Hollywood Reporter provided:

From Skydance Productions (WGN's Manhattan), the single-camera comedy centers on nemeses Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin), whose lives are turned upside down when their husbands announce they are in love with each other and plan to get married. The women, much to their own dismay, find that their lives are permanently intertwined and, much to their surprise, they find they have each other.

In other words, Netflix has ordered a third season of TV Land's Happily Divorced?

Okay, it's a premise.  One already done but many have been, a series isn't necessarily its premise.

The premise may raise eyebrows, we'll get back to it, but so should the format.

The sitcom should be filmed in front of a live audience because that would spark Fonda and prevent what will probably be a huge conflict between Lily and Jane since Jane's not producing this time and she and Lily are co-stars and equals.

As such, Lily's well known habit of repeating take after take and exploring her character will be given as much time as Lily wants and Jane really is a first-take's-the-best actress.  While Lily's wanting to work up her performance, Jane's is going to be spiraling down.

We're not saying Jane's process is right and Lily's is wrong or vice versa.  We're saying that the processes are at odds and that's not good for a series.

You can stomach it in a film and many have.

Take Robert Redford for example.

He and Barbra Streisand worked together and the result was a film that was a box office hit and went on to become a romantic film classic (The Way We Were).  In the years that followed, all the studios wanted the two to do was reteam.  Barbra wanted that herself and even wanted Redford, at one point, for The Prince of Tides.  Redford rejected all reteaming attempts.  He doesn't loathe Barbra or hate her or even dislike her. He would gladly present an award with her or do something live.  But he's not stepping foot on a film set with her ever again.

Barbra, like Lily, believes in exploration on the sound stage.  And it works for her (as it does Lily).  But it left Redford drained and desperate to finish The Way We Were.  There was never another film with Barbra and there never will be.

By contrast, Jane's first take is usually her best and, if you get past take five, you've got a problem.  (And you had problem with The Electric Horseman's big kiss scene because the takes went on forever with both Fonda and Redford fading with each take.)  Because their process is similar, Jane's acted opposite Redford more than any other actress: The Chase, Barefoot in the Park and The Electric Horseman.  (Natalie Wood made three films with Redford, but the third was a cameo where Natalie played herself.)

On the set of Big Business, Lily and Bette Midler fought loudly and viciously for the first week or so until they found a way to respect each other's methods.  Lily found Bette too casual in her approach and Bette was fond of reminding her that every take didn't have to be Oscar worthy.

Maybe it's assumed, "They've worked together before."  Yes, they have but 9 to 5 was 34 years ago.

And those 34 years now tend to show in close ups.  While Lily probably won't be highly concerned, Jane is a leading actress used to leading actress perks like having her close ups shot early because faces tend to droop as a day wears on.  It's going to be difficult to do that -- even in single camera -- if Lily's working up her characters and bits of business and more.  Again, the format should have been before a live audience.

Now let's go back to that premise.  Fran Drescher starred in Happily Divorced and there was much to praise (most of it Fran herself) in the first season.  There was also much not to praise.

In June of 2011, we noted:

Happily Divorced opened with Fran (her character's name is Fran also) in bed with husband Peter (John Michael Higgins) where he confesses that he's gay. It's in that scene that the show makes clear it may not recover.
Some people feel uncomfortable watching the show. It's not homophobic and Fran's own reputation for embracing full equality for all is well known. But there's a problem and they can't put their finger on it. Like the character Fran or the actress, they're missing the obvious.
The problem is Higgins.
John Michael Higgins plays shy, retiring types. In fact, "reticent" probably best captures his presence. He can be very good such as in Christopher Guest's classic films A Mighty Wind, Best In Show and For Your Consideration. If he were playing "Mr. Mooney" to Fran's "Lucy Carmichael," it might work. But he's playing Fran's ex-husband whom she's angry with. And he's gay. So her barbs and snap are hitting weak Higgins. What's next? An episode where Fran beats up on the elderly?
It's not that the writers don't give Higgins lines to say. Fran's not continually pelting him with insults. But his energy level is so low and Fran's is so high that their exchanges are uncomfortable.

Some critics considered the show homophobic.  We didn't.  But some did.

And if Jane and Lily exist on their new show to bitch about gay men, it's going be considered homophobic.

If they're going with the premise, the men better be something because sad sack gay didn't play on Happily Divorced and it won't here.

The actors?

They better be something.  That means it can be someone they've  worked with like George Segal (Jane's co-star in Fun With Dick and Jane, Lily's in Flirting With Disaster), Paul Mooney (Jane's co-star in the FTA documentary and tour), Keith Carradine (Lily's Nashville co-star) Dabney Coleman (Lily and Jane's co-star in 9 to 5, Jane's co-star in On Golden Pond), Jimmy Smits (Jane's co-star in Old Gringo), Fred Ward (Lily's co-star in Big Business), Jon Voight (Jane's co-star in Coming Home) or Alan Alda (Jane's co-star in California Suite, Lily's in Flirting With Disaster).  Or it can be someone who's established themselves already Robert Hays, Stacy Keach, Steven Bauer, Victor Garber, Elliott Gould, Dorian Harewood, Richard Benjamin, Harry Belafonte, Robert Wagner, A. Martinez, Ryan O'Neal, Michael Warren, Buck Henry, John Amos, Martin Sheen, Mike Farrell, Taj Mahal, etc.  But if they go with unknowns, they better be able to hold their own.

The imbalance on Happily Divorced made it awkward when Fran would get off a one liner because Peter came off like such a sad sack.

The ex-husbands would presumably be guest-stars and not in every episode.  Even if they only appear once, they better be played by strong actors who can hold their own.  For our suggestions, we went with people who were no more than 20 years younger than the actresses  but one  husband or both could also be significantly younger than the actresses.

What's important is that the actors hold their own.

Otherwise, the women's anger will seem overplayed and overdone.

It's also important that the two men don't come off as insulting gay stereotypes.

Grace and Frankie . . .

September 24, 2006, we reviewed Heroes.  By mistake.  We thought it had already started airing the Monday of the week before.  It debuted September 25, 2006.  (See note at the end of this October 1, 2006 piece.)

But otherwise, we wait until something airs.

Why not this time?

The show hasn't even filmed an episode.

And that's precisely the reason why.

We've outlined some potential pitfalls ahead.

They're going to make the show they want and it'll work or it won't.

We hope it works.  We hope it's popular and successful to give them a strong credit in the latter part of their careers and inspires Netflix to produce more shows with women.

In case you don't get how important this is, we'll offer two more points.  First, Netflix is probably closer to where entertainment series will be in 20 years, closer than broadcast TV.   So it matters that women are there on the ground floor and not trying to play catch up a few years from now.  Second, do you watch TV? If so, are you aware (regular readers of this site should be) that NBC's spring season, like last fall's season, features no new shows revolving around women.  About A Boy isn't just an NBC sitcom, it's also their programming strategy.

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