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Time hasn't done its proper work. America's first female comedian has been plum forgotten. But now the story of Jackie "Moms" Mabley is being rescued from the ash heap of history, and last century's vangard entertainer may yet claim her rightful place in this century. Leading the rescue squad is Whoopi Goldberg, with her debut documentary Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley.
"She was the first to do what she did and she's gotten no recognition for it at all," Goldberg told Film Festival Traveler at New York's Apollo Theater, where the film was recently screened. "People don't remember her. So this is my reminder."
The film is refreshingly unabashed by its enthusiasm. "There's something about her that knocked me out as a kid," muses Goldberg on camera. Yet far from a mere valentine, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley also considers civil-rights history, the obstacles dogging women comics and Mabley's own ruffled past as a rape survivor.
The funny lady with the ratty housefrock and frumpy hat had a leg up to speak truth to power. Dubbed "Mr. Moms behind the scenes, she bent gender and wielded a virile force that ironically gave her a career advantage," the movie argues. Offstage there was something kingly about "the original queen of comedy," though her public persona was strictly straight.
Mabley's nervy allure takes Goldberg across issues of race, class and sexuality fueling her idol's five-decade career. With such routines as, "Mary had a little lamb -- wasn't the doctor surprised?!" Mabley's standup act brought a gleeful twang to risqué domestic material that few other entertainers of any ethnicity dared to touch. "Me and Nehru got in a big argument..." samples a more political sort of monologue which she increasingly braved. "It was about changing stuff," Goldberg remarked on the red carpet.
Born in the North Carolina mountains in 1897, Mabley hit black vaudeville's “chitlin’ circuit” during the segregated 1920s and crossed over to broader white audiences in the 1960s. By 1961 her star had sufficiently risen that she could vault the chasm from The Apollo in Harlem to Carnegie Hall on 57th Street. Mabley's 1967 appearance on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” opens the documentary, which also features clips of her on such mainstream fare as “The Ed Sullivan Show” of 1969; “The Bill Cosby Show” of 1970; and the 1974 film Amazing Grace -- one year before her death at the age of 81.
Hands down, the most affecting scene in Goldberg's documentary shows Mabley singing “Abraham, Martin and John” on the variety show “Playboy After Dark.” As a personal friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. and as a guest at JFK's White House, Mabley was "crying for her nation and for her children" in this soulful lament that in turn jerks audience tears. Also on the televised set at the Playboy Mansion was Sammy Davis Jr., who comments that "Moms" was a "mom to every young performer." It's a sentiment that resonates with Goldberg, per her comment at the film's afterparty at Sylvia's. Before sitting down to savor the downhome spread, she noted her debt to the provocateuse who showed that a career in engagé comedy might be possible for her.
Yet the gag ceiling still exists, especially for women of color. How else to explain that the Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Grammy and Golden Globe lauriate has never hosted “Saturday Night Live”? And not for lack of trying, shared Tom Leonardis, who for nearly two decades has headed up Goldberg’s production company Whoop Inc. (and who executive produced the documentary).
Other celebrants at the Harlem event included Rain Pryor, Kathy Griffin, Dick Cavett, Jerry Stiller and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” producer George Schlatter. Together with the likes of Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers and Eddie Murphy -- who reveals that he ripped off Mabley's act for his character in The Nutty Professor -- they also serve as talking heads about Mabley and the hampered African-American beginnings in show business. Rounding out the film are audio recordings transcribed in jaunty animation as well as newly found archival stills and rediscovered performance footage.
Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley premieres November 18 on HBO. It began life as a stage piece. Said Goldberg, "Once I realized people didn't know about her, I decided to make a documentary. Silly me!"
The elevator pitch for The Book Thief isn't exactly grabby: the story takes place in Nazi Germany; it's narrated by Death; and almost everyone gets killed in the end. Yet both the bestselling novel and its screen adaptation have that certain ich weiss nicht that keeps people coming back for more.
For director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey), the uncommon choice of narrator was one of the main elements that drew him to the project, as he recently told a press gathering in New York. "It's the key to the whole story because that's what gives us a perspective on humanity," he said. Percival recalled telling the book's author, Markus Zusak, that he "didn't feel quite so scared about death" as he had before encountering The Book Thief.
To convey Death's "comforting" nature, Percival cast an actor (Robert Allam) with an "empathic, warm, velvety nature to his voice that makes you think that, well, when my does time comes it mightn't be so bad if a guy like that's looking after me."
While Death hovers over, at the core of the drama is tweenaged Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse). Liesel's coming of age begins with the loss of her brother, who dies before her eyes, and of her destitute mother, who has relinquished her offspring to a working-class family in a fictional Bavarian town.
Liesel comes to the Hubermanns with baggage including the emotional kind and a copy of The Gravedigger's Handbook, which she snatched at her brother's funeral. Her foster father, Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush), helps Leisel with both. His warmth and solicitude allow her to feel at home while his lessons in literacy awaken her passion for the written word. So much so that she filches her second book of the narrative, one being burned in a Nazi book purge. There will be many more purloined volumes before the saga wraps.
The brazen young book thief strikes a victory for the creative act of storytelling as against the fascist crackdown on artistic expression. When Hans and his wife (Emily Watson) hide a young Jew (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement, Liesel's connection with words -- and with their secret houseguest -- significantly deepen. Along the way she and her foster family resist injustice with a range of actions that put their courage to test.
To find their Liesel, the filmmakers searched for seven months across four continents. It was Zusak who suggested the young Nélisse from Monsieur Lazhar. As Percival put it, the actress to play Liesel would "have to appear very vulnerable" but also "be incredibly feisty." Nélisse brought both a tenderness and a "fighting spirit" that stood out from the pack, not to mention a heightened spatial awareness thanks to her advanced training as a gymnist, said Percival. Prepping her for the role meant an immersion in the era.
"I read Anna's Suitcase when I was in sixth grade, but I didn't know a lot about about the Holocaust," said the 13-year-old Québécoise. Among the movies Percival had her watch were Schindler's List, The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Pianist; and she was sent on a tour of Berlin bomb shelters. "I think that my generation...doesn't really know a lot on this period," remarked Nélisse. Now that she has aroused her friends' curiosity about the Holocaust, her hope is that "more people my age are going to know and it's going to be better for the next generations."
For the film's many German participants, recreating Nazi history brought up complex emotions. Singing "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles" ("Germany, Germany over all"), the hallmark stanza of the then national anthem, itself picked a few scabs. The filmmakers had to teach 450 local extras the verses, which had been banned since 1946. "There were people singing that song as best as they could; it's hard to sing it with pride," noted Percival. "The mostly German crew were there with tears in their eyes because it was painful for what their forefathers believed in...some of the shame that they still feel till this day for the terrible things that happened." That the town square was dressed in hundreds of swastikas rendered the exercise all the more powerful, he reported.
Michael Petroni's screenplay distilled World War II information from Zusak's source material. Yet the book itself served as a valuable reference for this period film celebrating books. "We've got a 580-page book, which is a guidebook to the film," said Percival. Right down to the art department, its historical detail and "message about the human spirit" enlightened both crew and talent alike.
Rush described rereading bookmarked sections of the novel on nights before performing relevant scenes. "We all wanted to honor the book," said Rush. "There aren't major substantial changes. It's not like they've rewritten the end for the film or put in another character for some marketing demographic."
Call me crazy, but at the 2013 edition of The New York Comic Con (October 10 - 13, at the Jacob Javits Center), I noticed many many more women attending, especially dressed as either renowned female characters or taking their own unique spin on established heroes. Now maybe I was paying more attention to feminine pulchritude I was encountering instead of those stock muscle bound (or just rotund and t-shirt clad) male figures but I really do think I have taken note of something I might have found utterly unbelievable when I started out in science fiction and comics fandom many years ago.
Is it an indication of such cultural shit, a triumph of geek nerd culture, a celebration of the fantastical rather than the testicular. But what was the cause?
Certainly it could be women reading the YA and dystopian fiction proliferating bookstores and providing source material role models that cosplayers and LARPers (for the uninitiated that’s costume players and live action role playing) identify with. But there are also the comic characters from Marvel and DC that have persisted for decades, characters from indie comics, films and so on. Cons all over the world are filled with women who tirelessly create costumes that bring these comic characters to life.
But what astounds me is how these character become the scrim that people step out from behind and transform themselves totally, and at the same time, express their own unique identity and fandom. Even better, women and men are playing out these fantasies without subscribing to conventionally acceptable body types, color, or behavior. Now that might confound some part of the social norms police but that makes these cons a new kind of celebration of this world of infinite niches.
To learn more, go to http://www.newyorkcomiccon.com/
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