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One of Broadway’s most famous sopranos and a darling of the concert world, Barbara Cook died Tuesday morning of respiratory failure at her Manhattan home. According to publicist Amanda Kaus, at her last meal she was served vanilla ice cream, a nod to one of her most famous roles, shop clerk Amelia Balash, and oft-quoted songs in Bock and Harnick’s 1963 She Loves Me. Lauded as the “singer’s singer,” she was 89.
Barbara Cook's pure soprano tone and warm presence have delighted audiences around the world just short of 70 years. Considered a favorite ingénue during the heyday of the Broadway musical, Miss Cook launched a second career as a concert and recording artist. She was blessed with the ability of sustaining mesmerizing and lengthy high notes with great clarity. It's amazing how very personal she could make lyrics. You’d see that she was feeling them and that made for an affecting performance.
In her trademark black pants, black pull-over that was a cross between a chemise and a poncho and those oh-so-comfortable sandals, Miss Cook was equally at home on international stages, such as London's Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall or intimate cabaret settings, such as Cafe Carlyle, where she often rang in Spring with long-time collaborator and accompanist [the late] Wally Harper, and Feinstein's at former Loews Regency.
She had a much-lauded career with Tony, Grammy, New York Drama Critics Circle, and Drama Desk Awards. Miss Cook is a Theatre Hall of Fame inductee. In January, 2007 Miss Cook became the first female pop singer to present a full concert at the Metropolitan Opera in its 123-year history.
The person who often told Miss Cook what to do and the one she trusted most, Harper, whom she called her rock, “someone who understood me better than I understood myself.”
His death in 2004 was a devastating blow. Theirs was an incredible partnership “where we knew what the other was thinking before we thought it. That's not to say we didn't argue and disagree,” she laughs. "Just like old friends, we went at each other over just about everything under the sun. In spite of that, we got along quite nicely. Now that I think about it, maybe it was because we actually rarely disagreed. On those occasions when we did, I listened to him. The best I can say about Wally is that he was simply a musical genius!"
From their first meetings in the 70s, Harper wanted to add another "element" to Miss Cook. She explained he really pushed her, not always willingly, to experiment to see what she was capable of doing. The result was the addition of a strong rhythmic pattern to her vocals.
In the early 90s, Miss Cook was beyond thrilled to be named to the Theater Hall of Fame. Though concerts and cabaret became her bread and butter, "Broadway," she said, "is still my first love."
In 2011, she became an honoree at the 34th annual Kennedy Center Honors and, with her fellow inductees Neil Diamond, Yo-Yo Ma, Sonny Rollins, and Meryl Streep, feted at the White House by President and Mrs. Obama. "With her sublime voice and rich performances,” said Kennedy Center chair David Rubenstein, “Barbara Cook has defined all that's best and brightest in the Great American Songbook.”
Her 2004 engagement on the West End was SRO. Returning stateside, she took the show to the Lincoln Center’s Beaumont for 14 sold-out weeks, and received critical raves. She was Tony-nominated for Best Theatrical Event. Miss Cook and Harper, a team for over 30 years, were recipients of MAC Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Three years earlier, she premiered Mostly Sondheim at Carnegie Hall and took it to the West End, where she was nominated for Olivier Awards for Best Entertainment and Best Actress in a Musical.
Her last Broadway appearance was in 2010, for 76 performances, in Sondheim on Sondheim, co-starring with Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Erin Mackey, Euan Morton, and Matthew Scott.
Morton, currently appearing in Hamilton, says, “I was blessed to work with the very best, but I cannot sing the praises of Miss Cook enough. I simply fell madly in love with her. She was 83and stunning. I couldn’t help but marvel at how she sounded. Her voice was mesmerizing, simply exquisite. She told me she hadn’t done eight shows a week in over three decades and that she was concerned, worried about her physical stamina. We watched her closely, but she soldiered on gloriously!"
Miss Cook related that she never thought of Sondheim tunes as songs, “but as gifts. I love the simplicity and the clarity of Irving Berlin, and Stephen's work has that also. There's something so rich about his work that I never tire of his songs. The more I do them, the more I'm finding different things and subtleties. Quite simply, nobody writes as he does."
She became one of the finest interpreters of the composer’s work, and he had high praise for her: “No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara Cook.”
Barbara Cook graduated in 1945 from Girls High in Atlanta, where she remembered how students poked fun at her because she wore the same clothes over and over. She sang for troops at the U.S.O. and many local organizations. Everyone was wowed by her voice. She worked three years as a typist to fulfill her dream of moving to New York.
Three years later, “I was on my way to seek my fame and fortune" with no plans to return. “Mom thought it was just going to be a visit,” she laughs, “but I packed everything I owned. I wanted to see what I can do with my singing. She didn't believe me, but after two weeks she was on her way home alone. Now, looking back, because we were so close, she must have been devastated. She lost a daughter [complications from pneumonia], but accused me of being responsible – something that haunted me for years. As far as Mom was concerned, we were one person with no separation, no boundaries. Thankfully, I am a strong person or I might not have survived that."
She continued as a typist and went to as many auditions as she could squeeze in. The summer of 1950, she worked in the Poconos at Tamiment resort. “It was a wonderful time, and I learned so much,” she noted. “There was Danny Kaye, Side Caesar, Herbert Ross, and Jerry Robbins. I was the ingénue, and Jack Cassidy was the juvenile, and we did songs from Broadway shows. People kept encouraging me and I gradually built confidence.” She would in the not so distant future cross paths again with Cassidy.
A long-term cabaret experience in Boston prepared her for Broadway and clubs. "I spent nine months doing revues with small casts. The music was Porter, Gershwin and Berlin.
It took three years before luck struck, but romance beat luck to the door. Miss Cook met acting teacher David LeGrant in 1952 when they worked the same resort. After marrying, they hit the road in a 1953 national tour of Oklahoma! [The couple had a son, Adam, born in 1959.] They divorced in 1965, one of the incidents that led her to begin drinking to find solace.
The tour brought her to the attention of casting directors. She made her Broadway debut at 23 in 1951 as the ingénue lead in Sammy Fain, Yip Harburg, and Fred Saidy’s Flahooley, which co-starred the exotic Peruvan singer Yma Sumac.
"Considering the great talents in theater at that time," she said, "that was pure luck. However, we closed after 40 performances."
She was back to auditioning, which soon paid off with limited engagements of musicals at City Center and went on to roles in Plain and Fancy, the original Candide as Cunegonde, The Music Man as Marian the Librarian, The Gay Life, She Loves Me!, The Grass Harp and, less we forget, Carrie on the West End.
"In 1956, when I heard who was putting Candide together," she pointed out, "I wanted to be cast, but never thought I'd get a part. My vocal instructor insisted I learn Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart, even though I kept telling him it wasn't the type of music I wanted to sing." As it turned out, that insistence was a huge pay off. “When I arrived at my first audition, I was surrounded by opera singers.
“Leonard Bernstein was late, always late,” she continued, “but I used the wait to look over the sheet music. With all those high notes, you could have mistaken it for grand opera."
Audition she did, and Bernstein was impressed enough to want to hear more, but not what she was prepared to sing. In what she called quite a brazen and foolhardy moment, she told the maestro that she would do an aria from Madama Butterlfy if she had the music.
"He said, 'I don't need the music! I know it.' And Mr. Bernstein sat at the piano and started playing - at a different place than I knew. He was playing a part of the aria I didn't know! But we got on the same page and I gathered all my strength and ended with a D Flat and, boy, did he perk up!"
Candide lasted only 73 performances. “But,” noted Miss Cook, “what a pedigree it boasted: the only musical libretto by Lillian Hellman and one of Leonard Bernstein's best scores. Lyricist, John LaTouche, sadly, died prior to rehearsals and Richard Wilbur took over. No less than Dorothy Parker came in to make a few contributions.
Miss Cook related that she learned a lot about music working with Bernstein. "He was wonderful and made me feel as if I could do anything. He loved to catch you off guard. There was, however, one time I could have strangled him. He came to my dressing room and took great delight in telling me Callas was out front. 'That's not what I need to hear before a performance,' I shot back. He laughed and replied, 'Watch out! She'd kill for some of your E Flats!'"
She observed when starting out, that she didn’t put a lot of thought into acting a song. “That’s something that evolved. In time, I came to understand how to absorb the lyrics, inhibit and feel them as if they’re part of me. I live inside the songs I love, and sing my way out.”
For The Music Man, Miss Cook won a 1958 Tony. Strangely, it was in the Featured category when she was the co-star opposite Robert Preston and even billed above the title. “There were compensations,” she said. “It was a wonderful show and I couldn't have asked for a more outstanding, easy-going, or nicer co-star than Robert. It was such a pleasure to come to work and hard to believe I was enjoying every day as much I was. Robert was the engine of the show, the spark. Onstage, he had enough electricity to light Chicago for ten years!
"It was nice being in a show that was such a hit," she adds. "Everyone who was anyone came, and came back after. One night Robert came into my dressing room for our usual chit chat and said, 'Coop's out front.' I replied, 'Coop?' He said, 'Yes, Coop. Gary Cooper.' That got my attention. I told him if I didn't meet him there'd be hell to pay. After the curtain, there was a knock on my door. I opened it and there he was – all six foot three of him. I looked up and said, 'Oh, Mr. Cooper, it's so wonderful to meet you. I'm a huge fan.' And he replied, 'Gosh.' And that was it. Yes, there are some disappointments in life."
In 1961, she was cast in the much-anticipated Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz musical The Gay Life, with book by the Fay and Michael Kanin – based on a cycle of late 1890s Viennese short stories by Arthur Schnitzler that focus on a womanizing playboy, who ultimately marries Liesl. The score is a mixture of traditional Broadway tunes and operetta. As Liesl, Miss Cook had two memorable tunes: “Magic Moment” and “Something You Never Had Before.” “It was such a lovely show [directed by Gerald Freedman, choreographed by Herbert Ross]. Walter Chari and Jules Mushin were so wonderful to work with.” The show closed after 113 performances. Another disappointment.
She went on to become a memorable Anna in the City Center revival of The King and I and was a stunning Magnolia in a New York State Theater production of Show Boat. She ventured into non-musical roles during the run of Any Wednesday, in Jules Feiffer's Little Murders, and Lincoln Center Theatre’s production of Gorky's Enemies.
Miss Cook was known to have a temper. She also had a long memory. “However,” she recalled, “whenever I was asked how it felt to work in Broadway's so-called ‘Golden Years,’ I said I didn't know. I didn’t. I was just walking, one foot in front of the other, wondering where my next job would come from. Do you think, one day, the actors working today will look back at this time as the 'Golden Years' of musicals?"
On second thought, rolling off names such as Ethel Merman, Gwen Verdon, Rex Harrison, and Julie Andrews and the shows they were appearing in at the time, she opined, "I guess those were golden years. And I was lucky to be where I was. It was just the right time and I was the right package. I was so fortunate to have worked with such amazing people."
There was a huge disappointment in 1964. Her She Loves Me! co-star Jack Cassidy was nominated for a Tony for his portrayal of Stephen Kadaly, but in her integral role as Amalia Balash, in one of the great mysteries for theatrical history books, she – who had become a musical theater darling -- was inexplicably overlooked, in spite of rapturous reviews, by the Tony nominators.
She did win featured Tonys for The Music Man and Sondheim on Sondheim.
There is one theatrical experience she preferred to talk about. However, she eventually came round.
“Tastes had changed,” she said. “My style of music was out-of-favor with audiences that count. Work was hard to find. In 1988, when Royal Shakespeare Company director Terry Hands offered me the co-starring role in Carrie at Stratford, it seemed like a good idea. It would be a new start. And the show was set to move from London right to Broadway.”
Barbara Cook playing Margaret White was quite unusual casting [the part was played on Broadway for a few nights by Betty Buckley]. Throughout her career, Miss Cook said she played those nice girls Broadway audiences loved. She certainly wasn't your vision of a rabid religious fanatic, “but I dug in and gave it my all. There were more than a few creative differences during rehearsals.” She and Hands got into heated arguments. She wanted to quit but thought that would be unprofessional, so she courageously stuck with the show.
"Courageously" is not used casually. "On opening night," reported Miss Cook, "in one of those freak stage accidents, I literally almost gave it my all. I was nearly decapitated when one of the props malfunctioned!" She wanted out as soon as possible, and leave was granted. "I did absolutely the right thing in leaving. It was a debacle. There were some good songs, but as a whole it was...Oh, God!"
Hands, then a leading light of the RSC, she explained "had a good vision - in the beginning. But he was used to directing works by dead authors. He'd never done a musical [actually, he had]. Carrie was a whole different can of worms. And I think we may have had a few cans of them onstage! I don't know if it was so much ill-conceived, or just problem-plagued. The biggest problem was that not one person working on it had done a show from scratch. No one had a clue as to how to fix it. I thought if a scene didn't work, Terry would see it. He didn't."
Miss Cook's new theatrical beginning was not to be. Though she stopped drinking in the late 70s, she developed manic depression, which led her to step away from the limelight and out of public life. “Then, somewhere, somehow when I saw how I was spiraling to that point of no return, I pulled myself up and sought help."
Part of her "recuperation" was getting back onstage and singing. And her concert appearances and new recordings led to rediscovery from new audiences.
Candide, She Loves Me! and The Music Man were great experiences. “Though I haven't done musical theater since 1971's The Grass Harp,” she observed, “there's nothing like being in a Broadway show. I loved everything about it, especially the rehearsal period and being with people all working toward one goal. I made bonds that will last forever. Theater offers a wonderful sense of family and camaraderie. Even when you don't always get along!"
What? Not get along with Cunegonde, Marian the Librarian, and Amalia Balash? "No, when they didn't get along with Barbara Cook," she retorted. "It happened occasionally. But usually it was like we were all fighting on the same side, in the trenches, watching out for each other.
On those rare occasions when there were serious falling outs or a problem with a fellow performer, Cook said it was difficult to leave hurt feelings backstage, especially when she had to go out and sing a romantic ballad and do a love scene. "A couple of times it was quite the most difficult thing! Most of the time, however, I just went out and did it. I didn't have a choice. Thankfully, the problems I had didn't last long. I'd try to patch things up quickly.
"It all comes down to the fact that you're not out there alone," she continued. "Some actors thrive on that. I never did. I hate that! I always tried to keep things cool because it's hard to work if you feel you can't trust the other person.
Miss Cook was greatly influenced in her approach to concert and cabaret music by the legendary song stylist Mabel Mercer. "I owe so much to Mabel for all I learned from her."
Surprisingly, Miss Cook never did warm-ups or vocal exercises. When I asked why, she stated, "I was fortunately born with a naturally sweet soprano. I had a wonderful vocal teacher who helped me build my voice. I learned good technique and I've always done what I was supposed to do. A lot of it has to do with the genes."
At the end of an interview promoting her 80th birthday concerts with the New York Philharmonic, I asked Miss Cook if she knew how much longer she could go on. She
replied, “Singing is something I love doing, so, as long as I can do it, why stop?"
Miss Cook taught master classes around the world. Finally, in 2015, after being promoted to do so for years, she sat down in her apartment on Riverside Drive and began telling her story, co-written with Tom Santopietro. Her brutally honest autobiography, Then and Now, A Memoir (2016), details the working relationships she shared with the key composers, musicians, and actors -- among them Bernstein, Harper, Elaine Stritch, Preston, and Sondheim, Bernstein – and even reveals the long-kept secret of her affair with actor Arthur Hill, when they were both married.
With aging, her crystal soprano changed. She gained weight and wasn’t in the best physical shape. She occasionally forgot lyrics to songs she's sung a thousand times and often worked with sheet music on a stand. The voice became a shade darker, but not in a blatant or perceptible way. However, when she sang, it was magic. At the last performance I caught, at Queens College, she was down with a bad cold, but soldiered on. She had amazing voice control and only coughed a bit between songs.
In 2011, I was asked by the late American Theatre Wing president Isabel Stevenson to watch for Miss Cook’s arrival at a pre-Tony Awards luncheon at the Waldorf. She arrived with an assistant by taxi, and I greeted her. She didn’t remember my name, but said she knew my face. I told her we had spent three occasions doing interviews. She replied, “Oh. Okay, so, where do we go?”
I informed we’d be heading for the ballroom, but the one elevator on the Park Avenue side which went there was under maintenance – and, oh no!, that we’d have to walk up a flight of stairs and cross to elevators on the Lexington Avenue side. She was having none of that. Before suggesting a cab to go around, I ran up to the bellman’s desk and asked if there was a way to use the elevator. There wasn’t. I returned to the entrance with the news.
Guests were arriving, and a bellman was putting luggage on a cart. Miss Cook looked at me. I looked at her. Her eyes darted to her assistant, then back to me. “Are you sure?” She replied, “Honey, I’ve done just about everything, but this’ll be a first!”
We were brought a cart, she boarded, and, accompanied by her assistant and a bellman, we went on a block and a half journey laughing all the way. We took the escalators to the elevators and I escorted her to her table in the ballroom. I went to leave and she blurted, “Where are you going? Aren’t you going to help me to the stage?” I asked to be prompted a few minute before she was to be onstage. When I got the signal, we made our way to the stage in the dark. Someone was singing. There were stairs. I got in front and went up backwards, guiding her up. She wouldn’t let me leave. At the appointed time, I walked her out in the dark to the microphone.
Afterward, we did everything in reverse, but went to the Lexington Avenue exit, where her assistant hailed a cab. “Was I terrible?” she asked. “No,” I said, “but I was worried we’d have an accident and I’d be responsible for your injuring yourself.” She laughed, “So was I! That’s why I held on to those brass poles for dear life!”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Especially later in her life, I believe this was the motto Barbara Cook lived by.
Broadway is big business on London’s West End, and not just because of U.S. and Asian tourists. Soon there’ll be 11 musicals which originated here.
Currently on the boards are: Disney’s Aladdin and The Lion King; An American in Paris, which just opened to across-the-boards raves; Beautiful; The Book of Mormon; Dreamgirls, in its West End premiere; Kinky Boots; Motown; Wicked; and, not to be forgotten, Stomp. Jersey Boys just closed after nine years. The first revival of 42nd Street is in previews and opens in a week.
Coming in May is a Annie revival; Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, a 12-week engagement beginning June 17; and, on September 28, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, choreographed and directed by Susan Stroman.
In November, and quite eagerly anticipated, the groundbreaking Tony-winning Hamilton opens at the 1,500 plus seat Victoria Palace, now undergoing a multi-million pound top-to-bottom renovation and reconstruction.
The two American musicals currently all the buzz are former Royal Ballet dancer Christopher Weldon’s An American in Paris, which one critic called “an instant classic”; and the first revival of Gower Champion’s 42nd Street.It appears the West End will have a highly competitive battle of American musicals.
The Tony-nominated Best Musical (with 14 nominations) An American in Paris stars Broadway and Paris leads New York City Ballet's Robert Fairchild, Royal Ballet principal Leanne Cope, and a company of 40 plus, is at the former large cinema, the Dominion. Fairchild, Cope, and the production received rapturous notices. It won for Choreography, Director, Orchestrations, Scenic Design (Bob Crowley), and Lighting (Natasha Katz). In addition, there were thirteen Drama Desk nominations, including for Musical -- with, among its three wins, Weldon for Choreography. Joyous, and sometimes dark, it’s a blend of ballet, jazz, and tap, stunning design, and memorable Gershwins’ classics such as “I Got Rhythm,” “But Not for Me”, “Liza,” “The Man I Love,” “Shall We Dance,” “'S Wonderful,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and the soaring Mittyesque fantasy filled with ostrich-plumed chorus girls, “Stairway to Paradise.”
Set in post-war Paris, it takes liberties with the 1951 Academy Award-winning film that inspires it. Army veteran Jerry Mulligan falls in love with the City of Love, where he’s keen to begin a new life and nurture his passion as a painter, especially after he falls for ballerina Lise, who’s spoken for by Henri, the son of the family who protected her from the Nazis.
The musical co-stars David Seadon-Young as the war-maimed, acerbic Jewish composer Adam Hochberg (one of his great lines: “Who says music needs to cheer people up?”), who’s also in love with Lise; Haydn Oakley as Henri Baurel, who hides a secret passion to be a nightclub singer; Zoë Rainey as rich American arts patron Milo Davenport, who has eyes on Jerry; and former child star with a later career on TV (including Doctor Who) and in film (including 1966’s Alfie) and best-selling author Jane Asher as Madame Baurel (she was formerly engaged to Paul McCartney, whom she met at 17 when she interviewed the Beatles).
42nd Street, billed as “Broadway’s biggest show on London’s biggest stage,” opens next week at the historic (1812) Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where it premiered in 1984, winning the Olivier for Best Musical.
Its score of Tin Pan Alley hits include “About a Quarter to Nine,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Dames,” “Getting Out of Town,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “Keep Young and Beautiful,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” “With Plenty of Money and You,” and those four showstoppers “42nd Street,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and “We’re in the Money.”
Based on the 1931 musical film noir directed by Lloyd Bacon with groundbreaking choreography by Busby Berkeley, it’s headlined by two-time Grammy winner with over 200-million records sold Sheena Easton as Dorothy Brock. The plot is set against a producer’s comeback effort with a big musical, which on the eve of its opening loses its leading lady – portrayed by former chart-topping recording artist Sheena Easton; and how the ingénue steps in and becomes a star.
There’s a stage-filling cast of 55 plus, which includes the largest dance ensemble ever, and orchestra of 20 plus. Co-stars are Clare Haise as Peggy Sawyer; Tom Lister as Julian Marsh; Stewart Neal as tapper Billy Lawler; Jasha Ivir as brassy co-composer Maggie Jones; and Christopher Howell as her partner.
Directing is Mark Bramble. Todd Ellison is music supervisor, with music direction by the lively veteran Jae Alexander. Sets are by Douglas Schmidt.
To say it’s is merely a revival would be incorrect. It features enhanced production numbers, more songs, bigger sets, non-Depression era lavish costumes, and an unforgettable tap finale that explodes in razzle dazzle.
There’s Champion’s choreography and new choreography by four-time Tony and three Drama Desk-nominee Randy Skinner, who with Karin Baker, was Champion’s tap associate on the Tony-winning 1980 Broadway premiere. Skinner was choreographer for the Tony and DD-winning 2001 Broadway revival, as well as national tours and numerous international productions.
American musicals received just-announced Olivier Award nominations: Best New Musical: Dreamgirls at the Art Deco Savoy Theatre, with Amber Riley getting a nod as Best Actress; and Groundhog Day [in previews here], which played at the Old Vic – with Andy Karl and Andrew Langtree nods for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. In the Best Actress category, Glenn Close was nominated for the Sunset Boulevard revival, which played at the huge Coliseum, and is now on Broadway at the Palace. The Awards are announced April 9.
London’s West End, Equity not-for-profit, and first-class Fringe theatres total over 75, compared with 50 here [which would include the top Off Broadway houses]. At the moment, American/Broadway musicals are dominating the West End. Where plays in smaller houses are concerned, limited runs are the thing. Before one production is loaded out, another loads in.
Revivals, especially of the works of stellar British playwrights, are always on; and London boasts some prestigious Fringe houses, such as the Royal Court and Really Useful Company’s The Other Palace [formerly the St. James (it’s neighbor is the historic Victoria Palace)], which focuses on new musicals and revivals. They just closed a revival of Michael John La Chiusa and George C. Wolfe’s The Wild Party. April 4-15 will be This Joint is Jumpin’, a celebration of Fat Waller’s music, which will headline Tony winner Lillias White. From May 30 – July 8, TOP will present Belgrade Theatre Coventry’s production of Benji Bower’s La Strada, based on the Fellini film (not to be confused with Lionel Bart/Charles Peck’s 1969 one-night-only Broadway production which starred Bernadette Peters and Larry Kert). Directing will be Sally Cookson (National Theatre’s Jane Eyre).
The Royal National on London’s South Bank across Waterloo Bridge, which was founded by Sir Laurence Oliver, is publicly-funded as is the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Opera. In that vicinity, across Blackfrairs, Millennium, and London Bridges, you’ll find the Young Vic and Shakespeare’s Globe. In the area is also the Menier Chocolate Factory, known for its innovative revivals (most recently: Into the Woods; Funny Girl, which transferred to the West End; and She Loves Me).
End of the month and end of this awards season. The Oscars and Indie Spirit Awards consumed cinematic consciousness — all dovetailing into last weekend’s monumental fuck-up for the ages. During the Feb. 26th ceremony on ABC, actors Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, who were set to present the Best Picture category, were accidentally given the wrong envelope — it was a duplicate of the one listing Emma Stone as Best Actress for the musical “La La Land” rather than the one for “Moonlight” as Best Picture. A confused Warren passed it on to Faye, who announced “LaLa Land” as the winner.
Wrong! While the gaggle of producers, cast and creators of the film started their thanks, an Academy person hustled onto the stage to say, “Oops, it was really ‘Moonlight.’”
Certainly it wasn’t planned this way but it offered a sort of a philosophical/metaphorical twist to a contest that pitted a small film hitting several bugaboos with a bigger film which also addressed some bugaboos. But in this case the politically-charged progressive challenger won — against the odds.
Maybe it wasn’t quite the surprise that the presidential election turned out to be but it certainly packed a wallop. It will certainly mean that the accounting firm PwC partner Brian Cullinan and his associate will never get backstage at the Oscars ever again. And it will make this year’s low ratings not so insufferable because everybody’s has now been talking Oscars afterwards.
Youthful director Damien Chazelle’s “LaLa Land” had gotten enough props winning various awards and landing on about 20 Best Of critics’ group lists. But it just wasn’t that good a musical, let alone that great a film.
Okay, so the darn song “City of Stars” did stick in my head — and frankly did deserve its win for Best Song — but dammit, actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone didn’t rock my world, and just weren’t that great as dancers or singers. As the end-all and be-all of films this year, it’s a sad statement as the one getting all those accolades. Nonetheless, Chazelle got his directing win and so did Emma Stone for Best Actress (and okay, neither of those scores being so annoying).
Though “LaLa Land” is a nice movie with a treacly storyline saved by an unexpected ending, it does more damage than good by being a perfect anesthetic in this age of Trump. It’s a conservatively-styled film that does what it does safely. So very vanilla. More importantly, it didn’t make me feel any sorrow for these silly white people as they have their faux drama about trying to make their art “authentically” — especially when it came to Gosling’s character as jazz’s true savior versus John Legend’s pop music, C’mon. There was nothing authentic about this and their paucity of singing and dancing skills made the inauthenticity even more telling.
Having now dismissed that film for getting so much attention — I might have been less severe had it not gotten such inordinate praise — this Oscar season was so important for the films up there that did matter. Take for example, “Moonlight.” As ghetto gangs get demonized ever more by Trumpian tirades, this film humanizes and, even moreso, details the depth of the complex, emotional lives of the inhabitants of one such ghettoized housing project in Miami, Florida. Telling it through a tryptich of young Chiron’s coming of age — as both a gang survivor and gay man on the down low — Barry Jenkins’s film of the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney decidedly deserved its win for Best Adapted Screenplay as well.
“Moonlight” was the Indie Spirit Awards’ big scorer Saturday, and pulled in Oscar wins as well with Mahershala Ali taking home the award for Best Supporting Actor. But its biggest win is that it joined a raft of films which not only broke the color barrier but did so solely on merit. “Hidden Figures,” “Fences,” and even “Lion” told real tales of people with mixed ethnicities as if to point them out even moreso at a time when insightful or inspiring stories counterbalance dark political jabs.
What’s incredible about the doc picks is that three of them — “O. J. : Made in America,” “13th” and “I Am Not Your Negro” — are profound political indictments about how mainstream America has treated its people of color; and “Weiner” is an indictment of celebrity culture and politics; only “Gleason” is a simply life-affirming film.
And even in the Short Docs category — including winner “White Helmets” — addressed the crisis in Syria like never before.
So this proves that people out there looking at screens, either in the theaters or in their hands, can still find that most of this year’s award choices offer some truly interesting and satisfying stuff.
“I simply awoke one morning and asked myself, ‘What does God think of Donald Trump?’” declared director Martin Dunkerton. “It was such a powerful and amazing question, yet I didn’t know the answer. So decided I’d try to find out the answer in my own particular way.”
Well, of the many documentaries that have been spewed out thanks to this arduous and contentious election season possibly the most off beat — even wacky — is director Dunkerton’s God vs. Trump - Only Love Wins. In order to find out some kind of answer he decided to turn to a very unique constituency — various spitualist and mystics that he knew or knew people he knew. “I love meeting amazing psychics, and I thought they’d be a brilliant source of discovery.”
Riffing off the disruptive even disputatious campaign driven by rich businessman Donald Trump — an outlier in comparison to Hillary Clinton's more traditional politician persona — spurred this former BBC doc director to knock out a set of interviews with several people he could easily approach and get enough answers that could comprise a taut but intriguing movie.
“The psychics and spiritual leaders in the movie were often friends of friends. I gave a room in my house to an Australian singer called Ryan Whitewall last summer who led me to Iolani Grace, The Heart Alchemist in Australia, who in turn led me to the Aboriginal voice of Jingki, an award-winning visionary singer — and a tough cookie. Jingki has read law and is viscerally powerful on camera. People love her and her views on Trump... and American politics.”
Urgency was the order of the day. In order to rush out this hard-traveled set of interviews Englishman Dunkerton had get going to destinations from one end of the globe to another.
As he explained “My father died on August 17, and I heard about it less than an hour after my first psychic interview. The movie took a U-turn to England, where upon I met another psychic in Glastonbury — Sarah— who gave more than brilliant powerful insights into Trump. From the UK, I leapfrogged to Iceland, which was a total surprise.”
However it is skewed with Dunkerton’s core feel-good philosophy, this film is clearly a critique of Trumpism’s negative versus God’s positives.
“Trump wields words of fear, and this has attracted millions. Yet, people want to be healed and loving, so it seems like a conundrum. Underneath everyone is so desperate for change. The USA quite obviously is ready and requires an overhaul; sadly ‘people’ are clearly desperate, which offers an opening for such an allegedly misogynistic, xenophobic man like Trump. It’s tragic he is so close to power.”
For this 40-something director, the film was rushed out to debut November 3rd so audiences could add his spiritual take away for voters to consider -- either before the election or in the wake of its results. “We are powerful beings. We hold the spiritual keys of grace and love in our own hearts. These politics are of our own making. Trump is a mirror to our soul, sort of like a Darth Vader as was in Star Wars. The film shows that in the end if God vs Trump, then Only Love Wins."
God vs. Trump - Only Love Wins is available for purchase or rent on Thursday 11/3 at:
http://www.facebook.com/godvstrump Instagram @GODvsTRUMP
http://www.instagram.com/godvstrump Twitter @GODvsTRUMP
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