Saturday, June 30, 2018


"Cut away from me?"
"Honestly, it's too much of you. They don't want you in every scene."
"They don't? Then why do they write me fan letters every day? Why do they beg me for my photograph? Why? Because they want to see me! ME...Norma Desmond! Put it back"
                                                            -  Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Every generation deserves its own revolution, its own slang, its own music, and apparently, its own A Star is Born. Yes, that enduring Tears Behind the Tinsel fable about the doomed love affair between a star emergent and a star descendent is returning to the screen for its fourth iteration in 2018. What began life as George Cukor's What Price Hollywood? (1932) starring Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman, was in 1937 remade, renamed, and retooled into the form most recognize today-- A Star is Born (1937) starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. In 1954 original director George Cukor returned to helm what is perhaps the most familiar and iconic version of the now thrice-told tale, the musicalized A Star is Born starring Judy Garland and James Mason. Garland's version, like those that came before, was set in Hollywood and the motion picture industry. When Barbra Streisand teamed with folk singer Kris Kristofferson for the eagerly-anticipated 1976 remake, the film was again made into a musical, but the setting was now the world of rock 'n' roll. Well, not quite...let's just say the music industry.

October 2018 will bring us yet another musical adaptation of A Star is Born, this time starring Bradley Cooper (making his directing debut), and Lady Gaga (nee Stefani Germanotta) whom I’m glad to see has finally abandoned her meat dress. Though one might assume any update of A Star is Born would be most relatable if it were to feature an up-and-coming winner of a reality TV singing competition falling in love with an opioid-addicted social-media influencer suddenly faced with a deficit of “likes,” but from the looks of the new film's trailerCooper sporting long hair and a scraggly beard, Ms. Gaga granted a Funny Girl-esque scene where the hero tells the self-effacing heroine she’s beautifulit’s clear A Star is Born: 2018 will be tipping its hat to the classic Judy Garland film, but taking its cues from the Barbra Streisand version.
Barbra Streisand as Esther Hoffman
Kris Kristofferson as John Norman Howard
Gary Busey as Bobby Ritchie, a road manager
Paul Mazursky as Brian Wexler, a manager
As Helen Lawson so memorably reminded us in Valley of the Dolls, “Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope.” But when it comes to the world of rock & roll, accept no substitutions. At least that's the philosophy of down and burnt-out rock sensation John Norman Howard (Kristofferson) who needs a bump of coke and a swig of Jack Daniels just to get through his passionless concert engagements. Concerts in which he’s obliged to give repeat performances of past successes (like a pre- “Garden Party” Rick Nelson) to faceless throngs of entitled fans he has grown to resent. Unprofessional, uncommitted, and disrespectful of his own talent, John Norman is a has-been in training, isolated and world-weary of the sex/drugs/rock & roll existence of a superstar.
More a folk singer than hard rocker, Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson didn't write any of his songs for A Star is Born.  Which is a pity, and perhaps why they're so undistinguished 

One alcohol-soaked night out on the town he happens to catch the act of curly-haired chanteuse Esther Hoffman (Streisand) and finds in the warm, lush, plush notes emerging from her fair throat, a glimmer of the commitment and raw talent he’d lost touch with within himself. Of course, he’s instantly besotted.
The Oreos
Yep. That tone-deaf name actually passed for cute and edgy back in the '70s. Though the two women flanking La Streisand appear throughout the film as Esther's backup singers and ostensible friends, neither is even given a name. Maybe that's because their primary purpose in the film is to make Streisand sound less like an "Easy Listening" artist, while simultaneously serving as signifiers of how hip and down-to-earth Esther is (Look! She even has Black friends!). In real life, backup singers Clydie King (left) and Venetta Fields are recording legends in their own right, with careers dating back to the early '60s. 

Putting aside for the moment the credibility-stretching conceit that growl-rocker John Norman would find the cutesy Captain & Tennille-esque ditty Esther is crooning remotely engaging in the first place, in order for this scene to work one must also accept that between persistent interruptions from a waitress, a pushy fan (Robert Englund), and the eventual outbreak of a fistfight, John Norman is still able to detect something special about our Esther (her perpetual backlight, perhaps) that makes him certain his racing heart is not just the result of all that cocaine. Perhaps it was something in her voice and shy manner when she tells him “You’re blowin’ my act!” that touched his showbiz weary soul.

They court cute, he wooing her by showing her his adorably immature and self-destructive streak, she by being all judgy about his life choices, thereby demonstrating that she’s a straight-shooter unimpressed by wealth and celebrity. How can love fail to bloom? 
And while Esther exhibits very little in the way of professional ambition (she's actually responsible for her trio losing a commercial job because a silly jingle for cat food clashes with her artistic purity), John Norman encourages her songwriting and uses his fame and connections to give his lady love a leg up in the business. Her breakthrough moment comes when she steps out on stage in a conservative pantsuit and wows a crowd of rock fans with her MOR pop groovin’... and before you know it, a star is born.
Wailin' Esther Hoffman
She's not your father's rock & roller...oh, wait...maybe she is

Romantically, John Norman and Esther are good for each other in that mutual fixer-upper way beloved of soap operas and doomed romances. So when the pair hastily marry and the movie momentarily grinds to a halt to accommodate a protracted fashion show/Barbra Streisand ass and legs appreciation hour; the only comfort to be had is in knowing they can’t keep up these shenanigans for much longer. 

With fewer montages, A Star is Born might have found some time to show us more of Esther's overnight success. With Barbra Streisand in the lead, the filmmakers seem to expect audiences to take Esther’s eventual success as a given. For in a 2 ½ hour movie titled A Star is Born, it’s almost perverse the way the film staunchly refuses to show us how she becomes a star. One minute she goes over well at a benefit concert, the next she's got a song on the charts and the world is clamoring for tour engagements. 

Further compounding the sense of things feeling rushed is we never see how Esther feels about her life being changed. Nowhere to be found are scenes of Esther reacting to sudden wealth, celebrity, or having all her dreams come true. On the contrary, Esther never seems to enjoy her success at all. The screenplay has her treating her newfound fame as some kind of necessary annoyance she has to endure in order to support her poncho habit and all those artfully staged gambols with John Norman out in the desert. 
Tony Orlando stands by as Rita Coolidge (Mrs. Kristofferson) eyes Barbra suspiciously.
Even before her inebriated husband appears in time to drop an F-bomb on live TV, Esther is the glummest Grammy nominee you've ever seen. Most of us know that the average pop star would sell their firstborn for an industry award, but not our Esther. On what should be the realization of a lifetime dream, Esther is so disinterested in the award, she almost leaves the ceremony early.

As Esther climbs further up the ladder of success (something we just have to take the film's word for)  John Norman finds it increasingly difficult to gain even a foothold, sinking deeper and deeper into his old self-sabotaging ways. Since there’s no telling how much time has elapsed between courtship to crack-up, the tension in their relationship takes a backseat to the masochism. That is until fate or a suicidal act of selflessness intervenes (it’s left ambiguous which), successfully granting Streisand fans what they’ve wanted all along: unobstructed access to La Plus Grande Diva du Monde.

Streisand fans have their patience rewarded when the film concludes with an eight-minute concert medley shot entirely in closeup. A closeup wherein Streisand's famed vocalizing is in constant danger of being upstaged (and not in a good way) by her Valerie Cherish-style boogying. The dramatic emphasis placed on this sequence: Esther on her own, singing her late husband's songs, with heightening self-assurance, introduced to the crowd as Esther Hoffman-Howard...suggests that THIS is the moment that a star is born. Which would certainly explain why the preceding 2 hours and 15 minutes have shown us an Esther far more devoted to canoodling with her hubby than pursuing a recording career. 
Initially shot in a single tight closeup, new footage restored to A Star is Born in 2018
 alters the finale to include more wide shots to give some of us a breather

I’m not overly fond of remakes, but in 1976 so much had changed both in the world of celebrity (recording artists were as big as movie stars) and society’s attitudes towards women (a wife with a more successful career than her husband wasn’t considered “quite” the emasculating tragedy it was in 1954), that a rock & roll update of A Star is Born sounded like a pretty sound idea. And while it was hard to imagine anyone bold enough to try to follow in the ruby slippered footsteps of Judy Garland in the role, if there was any star in the '70s with that kind of nerve, it was either Barbra Streisand or Clint Eastwood; and 1969s Paint Your Wagon had already strained the limits of what most of us were willing to subject ourselves to vis a vis Clint Eastwood singing. 
A Star is Born was a Christmas release, vying for holiday boxoffice dominance against another high-profile remake, Dino De Laurentiss' King Kong. I wasn't what you'd call a huge Barbra Streisand fan at the time, but when A Star is Born opened that Christmas at The Northpoint, one of San Francisco's largest theaters, I allowed myself to get all swept up in the pre-release hype. So much so that the film's central paradox--that Barbra Streisand was known for a lot of things, but heavy rockin' wasn't one of them--didn’t really hit me until I was sitting, dumbstruck, watching the movie in the theater. Almost immediately it became apparent that even the faux, sanitized vision of the rock world presented in A Star is Born was an ill-fit for Streisand's image, look, and sound.
Originally titled Rainbow Road and conceived as a co-starring vehicle for then real-life couple Carly Simon and James Taylor, a rock and roll version of A Star is Born actually makes sense. (Too much so, it would appear, if one believes accounts of Simon and Taylor turning the film down because it hit too close to home.) Newbie producer Jon Peters thought the property would make the ideal image-changing vehicle for his lady love, but it is precisely Streisand's involvement that proves the most problematic element of the enterprise. Does she possess star quality and magnetism? Yes. Is she a dynamic personality who energizes the film? Yes. Does she have a remarkable voice? Yes again. Is she for one minute convincing as the kind of singer capable of getting rock audiences to sit up and take notice? Absolutely not.

In retrospect, it strikes me that Streisand, a recording artist trained in musical theater and supper clubs, may have been better served by a A Star is Born set in the more traditional showbiz worlds of Hollywood, Broadway, or even Las Vegas. But, seeing as A Star is Born revisits the same “Oh, My Man/Oh, My Career” themes featured in both Funny Girl and Funny LadyI can appreciate the appeal a change in setting might have presented. 
"I don't mean to be difficult... ."
Misogyny has always played a factor in how Streisand's professionalism has been represented in the press. Sensitivity to this is perhaps why, by 1976, it had almost become a staple of Streisand's films to feature a scene where she's shown telling people how to do their jobs.

Barbra Streisand hasn't really been "hip" since the early days of her career when she was seen as a kooky bohemian with an avant-garde, thrift-shop sense of style. Since then her appeal has largely been "middle": middle of the road and middle-aged. A Star is Born was an effort to recast Streisand as a contemporary of Linda Ronstadt and Stevie Nicks, but her larger-than-life persona, studied self-awareness, showbizzy comic delivery, and penchant for drag queen levels of glamour overkill feel all wrong for the world of concert stadium rock. Even taking into account the weirdness of the 1976 music scene, wherein youth-centric TV music shows like The Midnight Special and Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert would feature such head-scratcher bookings as The Hudson Brothers and Helen Reddy appearing alongside Chaka Kahn and Fleetwood Mac; buying Barbra Streisand as a rocker still remains a major stretch.
For A Few Dollars More
Critics ripped it apart, but A Star is Born was a huge hit for Streisand
and one of the top boxoffice releases of 1976

A Star is Born is Streisand’s first feature film after satisfying a four-picture, ten-year commitment to producer Ray Stark with the “contractually obligated” Funny Lady. As the first of her films over which she was able to exert near-total control (her clashes with director Frank Pierson are the stuff of legend), it’s no small wonder that A Star is Born at times feels a tad overdetermined in placing Streisand even more front-and-center than a star-propelled vehicle like this necessitates.

A Star is Born was Streisand's big chance to present herself exactly as she wanted to be seen, and in press conferences, she was fond of telling reporters that situations and dialogue were drawn from her relationship with Jon Peters (her hairdresser on 1974s For Pete’s Sake, now producer and lover). Streisand filled Esther’s apartment with furnishings from her own home, and even indulged herself with a “Ms. Streisand’s clothes from…Her Closet” credit. For the first time Streisand actually invited audiences to draw comparisons to herself and a character she was playing. All of this makes A Star is Born doubly fascinating, for it not only gives us a glimpse of what a self-professed perfectionist thinks is good, but a sobering look at how a star, when finally granted power, chooses to wield it.

Woman on Top
On the plus side, all of this makes Streisand's Esther Hoffman considerably less passive and victimized than her A Star is Born predecessors. She fights back, yells, tells professionals how to do their jobs (a Streisand movie staple by now), and engages in gender-flip activities like proposing marriage, removing the word "obey" from their marriage vows, putting makeup on John Norman in the bathtub, wearing tailored suits when she performs, and riding John Norman like a pony when they have sex.
Lost Inside Of You
A private reason I was so keen on seeing A Star is Born is due to having developed a crush on Kris Kristofferson from having seen him earlier that year (a LOT of him) in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea co-starring Sarah MilesShort of some Barbra side-boobage and several views of Kristofferson's happy trail, nothing remotely as explicit as above transpires in A Star is Born

I know what I’ve written thus far doesn’t seem like it, but A Star is Born really IS a movie I love. Part has to do with my fond memories of this particular time in my life and nostalgia for the '70s (and this movie is as '70s as a mood ring); partly because of the soundtrack (still the film's strongest suit); and only the most self-serious Streisand fan would deny the camp appeal of the film's in-your-face vanity project aesthetic. It's all Barbra, all the time. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Part of my love and appreciation for Barbra Streisand lies in the fact that even when she’s miscast (Hello, Dolly!), ill-used (Meet The Fockers), or unhappy (Funny Lady), she’s never less than mesmerizing to watch. 
A photographer captures Esther's best side as Barbra Streisand channels Cleo Laine

As stated, I think the soundtrack to A Star is Born is its greatest asset. Academy voters must have thought so too, granting the song “Evergreen” the only Oscar win of four nominations (all technical: cinematography, sound, score). It’s a Streisand showcase all the way, but Kristofferson—granted but two songs to perform in rotation—does a nice job on “Crippled Crow” and when Streisand allows him a cameo on the songs fashioned as duets. More melodic pop than rock, I like the ballads best, my favorite being Paul Williams’ “With One More Look at You.” A testament to the soundtrack album’s strength is that listening to it provides a purer A Star is Born experience than actually seeing the movie. In the final analysis, the songs reveal character and convey a narrative arc far more evocatively than the film does.
As John Norman's road manager, Gary Busey gives a performance so good,
you practically ache thinking about what A Star is Born had the potential to be

I think it’s fair that every generation gets its own A Star is Born. With each new incarnation comes the hope that the film will deviate from its predecessors enough to say something new and relevant to its time. Everybody loves a good love story, so there’s always that; but fame worship and the cult of celebrity dominate our culture so disproportionately and dangerously these days, a real opportunity presents itself with a remake.
So, A Star is Born, I guess it's time to take one more look at you.

"Will there be anything else, Ms. Streisand?"
Barbra Streisand's assistant during the making of A Star Is Born was actress Joan Marshall. Then married to director Hal Ashby (Shampoo), she's billed as Joan Marshall Ashby in the credits, but fans of William Castle know her as Jean Arless, the knife-wielding star of Homicidal.
Guest Stars
Fans of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? are sure to recognize Maidie Norman
1988 Best Actress Oscar nominee for Anna, Sally Kirkland
Robert Altman favorite Marta Heflin
Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund
That's Roslyn Kind, Streisand's younger half-sister. She appears in the film for
less time than it takes for you to read this. And she's never in focus, to boot.

Streisand & Kristofferson were reunited in 1984 for her first music video: "Left in the Dark." The six-minute video for the Jim Steinman song (which appears on her "Emotion " album) was directed by Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused, Love Field, Heart Like A Wheel). Watch it HERE

From the Literary Corner
Novelizations were a popular movie marketing tool in the '70s. If the book is anything like the purple prose featured on the promotional bookmarks (click on image to enlarge), perhaps I shouldn't have passed this one by

Are You Watching Me Now?

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2018

Friday, June 15, 2018

FAME 1980

"I am so excited because I'm gonna go to the High School of Performing Arts! I mean, I was dying to be a serious actress. Anyway, it's the first day of acting classand we're in the auditorium and the teacher, Mr. Karp... ."    
                                                       A Chorus Line - James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante

I read recently that the estate of choreographer/director Michael Bennett is planning a 2025 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line to commemorate its 50th Anniversary (feel old yet?). A Chorus Line opened on Broadway in July of 1975, and I still have vivid memories of seeing the touring company when it played San Francisco in 1976. A theatrical experience that, to this day, has never been surpassed.
I didn’t see the iconic musical’s most recent incarnation, the official 2006 Broadway revival, but I recall with equal vividness a conversation I had at the time with a young dance student who’d just returned from seeing the NY production, his first-ever encounter with A Chorus Line. He raved about the dancing and thoroughly enjoyed the production, but in the end was at a loss to understand the show’s reputation as a groundbreaking classic: “I liked it…I just don’t get what all the fuss was about!”  
Said “fuss” being that A Chorus Line won nine Tony Awards including Best Musical, the Pulitzer Prize, ran for 15 years on Broadway, and was an seminal and influential pop culture phenomenon the world over.
While listening and resisting the impulse to explain the significance of A Chorus Line by means of sign language (i.e., my hands around his throat), it became apparent to me that this youngster’s reaction was perhaps born of his having grown up during the Disneyfication years of Broadway. Raised in the post-The Lion King/Wicked world of musical-theater-as-amusement-park-attraction, seeing a show consisting of little more than a bare stage and a troupe of talented dancer/actor/singers must have come as something of a shock.
Similarly, having been weaned on stunt-dance movies like Step Up #643 and dance competition TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance, it's also likely that this young man grew up with a perception of dance as athletic spectacle. I can't imagine Michael Bennett’s classic musical theater choreography looks very impressive when one has been conditioned to see dance performance in terms of Herculean feats of gymnastic strength, flexibility, and showboating "Look at me!" grandstanding of the sort antithetical to the “move as one” aesthetic of chorus work (“Don’t pop your head, Cassie!”).
However, there was one eye-opening takeaway from our conversation which gave me a better grasp of why new generations might find themselves at a loss to understand exactly what my generation found so powerful and innovative about A Chorus Line: personal self-disclosure as a metaphor for the significance of the individual. A Chorus Line came out smack in the middle of the "Me Generation," when the notion that the average person might have a story worth telling was still something of a novelty.
In today’s climate of reality-TV, famous-at-any-price celebrity, and toxic social media oversharing; nothing dates A Chorus Line more than its cast of dancers who shun having the spotlight shone on them. They recoil from being asked to talk about themselves, don't like getting personal, and (horrors of horrors) resist being the center of attention. They'd prefer to communicate through dance, finding both dignity and self respect in being allowed to do what they do for love. Even if it means being part of a corps of dancers; an anonymous, nameless, member of a chorus line.

As nakedly honest and heartachingly revelatory as those monologues seemed to me in 1976, I suspect that nothing disclosed by those characters would even warrant more than a handful of “likes” on Twitter today. This awareness of the degree to which the show business landscape has changed over the years became an ineradicable part of my revisiting one of my favorite musicals of the ‘80s: Alan Parker’s Fame
Irene Cara as Coco Hernandez
"How bright our spirits go shooting out into space depends on how much we contribute to the earthly brilliance of this world. And I mean to be a major contributor. A sure-as-shit major contributor."
Gene Anthony Ray as Leroy Johnson
"I'm gonna be a good dancer. You will NOT keep me down!"
Maureen Teefy as Doris Finsecker
"If I don't have a personality of my own, so what? 

I'm an actress. I can put on as many personalities as I want!"
Barry Miller as Ralph Garci (Raul Garcia)
"That's the meanest high there is. It beats dope. It beats sex. I LOVE fucking acting!"
Paul McCrane as Montgomery McNeil
"I mean, never being happy isn't the same as being unhappy."
Laura Dean as Lisa Monroe
"I only ever wanted to be a dancer."
Lee Curreri as Bruno Martelli
"You're not my age. Nobody's my age. Maybe I'm ahead of my time!"
Antonia Francheschi as Hilary van Doren
"You see, I've always had this crazy dream of dancing all the classical roles before I'm 21."

Fame, the American feature film debut of British director Alan Parker (Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express) was inspired—according to Parker, but denied by producer David De Silva—by A Chorus Line. Specifically, the dramatic potential suggested by the song “Nothing,” which references a young dancer’s early experiences attending New York’s High School of Performing Arts.

In a way, that makes Christopher Gore’s original screenplay for Fame something of a prequel to A Chorus Line; being that the film concerns itself with the formative experiences in the lives of eight young theater hopefuls at The High School of Performing Arts—from freshman auditions to senior graduation. Taking the kids from roughly the ages of 14 to 18, the movie combines elements of the coming-of-age film, the slice of life drama, and the backstage musical. Most effectively (and entertainingly), Fame also recalls and revitalizes those fondly-remembered high-school movies of my youth: Up The Down Staircase, The Trouble With Angels, To Sir With Love, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Blending elements of comedy and drama, the four-year journey of the students of PA (High School of Performing Arts) is, contrary to its title and the sanitized, rah-rah movies and TV shows it inspired, a fairly dark, hard-shelled look at the blood, sweat, and tears that go into pursuing a life in the arts. Ironically, the achievement of fame doesn’t even factor into the fates of the characters.
Ann Meara as Mrs. Sherwood
Jim Moody as acting teacher Mr. Farrell
Fame's main characters represent a familiar cross-section of ethnic, cultural, and temperamental types, and as such, their experiences and relationships tend to follow a fairly predictable arc. There’s driven Coco (triple threat dancer/singer/actor); brash Leroy (dancer); shy Doris (actor/singer), troubled Ralph (actor/stand-up comic); closeted Montgomery (actor/singer); solitary Bruno (musician/composer), directionless Lisa (dancer or actor…whatever), and self-assured Hilary (ballerina). These terse descriptions are in no way a diminution of the characters or performances; merely an indicator of the built-in limitations of the film’s multi-character structure.
Ilse Sass and Albert Hague as Mrs. Tossoff & Mr. Sharofsky
Debbie Allen and Joanna Merlin as honor student Lydia Grant and ballet instructor Miss Berg

In order to make room for songs and dance numbers while tackling everything from first love, illiteracy, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and sexual exploitation; it’s necessary for Fame to resort to a bit of narrative shorthand. But the sublime triumph of the script and the film as a whole—which stands as a resounding testament to Parker and the film’s remarkably engaging cast—is that the abbreviated feeling of the various vignettes only leave you wanting more. No particular character or storyline overstays its welcome.

The end result, by virtue of the script's emotional vitality and the cinematic ingenuity of cinematographer Michael Seresin and longtime Alan Parker editor Gerry Hambling, is that the film achieves moments of real poignancy and passion.
Never less than an exhilarating, kinetic delight, Fame, instead of avoiding the “aspiring teens put on a show” tropes standardized by Judy Garland Mickey Rooney in those old MGM musicals, cozies up to them and updates these showbiz movie conventions in surprising ways. I found myself responding to clich├ęs I thought I’d grown immune to ages ago.
As teen musical’s go, Fame is distinguished by its R-rated grittiness and the strength of its supporting cast of pleasingly inclusive and interesting fresh faces. The kids - many of them students from the real High School of Performing Arts - look like kids, dress like kids, and exude an appealing naturalness. Mercifully spared the coyness in language and presentation that marred the already pretty terrible 2009 PG-rated remake; Fame 1980 presents a vision of New York simultaneously seedy and scintillating. Bracingly at odds with the all-white pop-culture visions of Manhattan foisted upon us by Woody Allen and TV shows like Sex & the City, Seinfeld, and Friends; Fame’s New York actually looks like New York. It’s level of inclusion (it’s nice to see so many PoC studying ballet, classical music, and Shakespearean acting) is something 2018 filmmakers could still take a lesson from.
Carol Massenburg as Shirley Mulholland ("That's two L's")
One feels the camera could be trained on any of the kids in the cast and still produce a fascinating story. One of my favorite small roles, played with authenticity, humor, and sass, yet never fails to break my heart, is that of Shirley, Leroy's less-then-gifted dance partner.

If I have any criticisms at all, they’re of the subjective, nit-picking sort. For all the scenes that soar (the audition sequence is so good it could stand alone as a short film), there are head-scratchers like the recurring gag that asks us to share the ogling gaze of the adolescent boys peeking into the girls’ locker room. My problem isn’t so much with the fact that this sort of mainstreamed harassment has been normalized with “boys will be boys” rhetoric for too long; it’s that--given how Coco’s story plays out (a scene in which, once again, the director’s gaze renders us complicit in a woman’s sexual exploitation) it baffles me how a director can display so much sensitivity in some areas while revealing such a blind spot in others.
When I was young, I thought the sequence in which Coco is taken in by a pervy con man (one calling himself Francois Lafete, no less) lacked credibility. I thought it portrayed Coco as dumb, which she never was. Now I see the scene as being considerably smarter and more perceptive of Coco's fatal character flaw than I'd first realized. She prides herself on being a savvy professional who knows all the angles. When I watched the scene again I noticed how much lying and obfuscating Coco does in an effort to seize a perceived advantage. This con is able to work only because Coco is led to believe she has the upper hand.

Another of my gripes is the character of Montgomery. He simply hasn’t aged very well. Putting aside his cringe-worthy monologue (“Gay used to mean such a happy kind of word once.”), I give Fame credit for a positive portrayal of a gay character in a mainstream film at a time when William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) gave us yet another homicidal homosexual, and The Village People were still tap dancing around their own queer identity (the deeply closeted Can’t Stop The Music was released just a month later). But for me, Montgomery is a throwback to the days when movies thought the best way to make a controversial character sympathetic was to render them as a figure of pity.

As a teen grappling with his homosexuality, Montgomery feels isolated (in a Performing Arts School, yet!), but we in the audience can see he’s surrounded by all manner of gay kids. I don't expect anything as progressive as giving him a high-school sweetheart, but it would have been nice for his character to see that he wasn't the only one, and that "gay" could be happy. But, as written, Montgomery is content to stay on the sidelines, looking all alabaster and moony while playing Queer Eye for the Straight Guy & Gal to Doris and Ralph. At least he gets his own song (penned by McCrane).
Red Light
My functioning gaydar knew in 1980 that the late Gene Anthony Ray was gay long before it was confirmed personally by Fame TV show cast members several years later after I had become a dancer myself. Making his film debut in Fame, the dynamic Ray passed away from an HIV-related stroke in 2003.

Fame was released three years before Star Search popularized caterwauling as singing and made way for today’s barrage of I-deserve-fame-because-I-want-it, celebrity-in-an-instant horse races like American Idol, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent. Thus, one of the things I find most gratifying about Fame is its realistic perspective and persistent repudiation of the fame myths our culture keeps feeding young people.
I've always perceived A Chorus Line's glittering finale to be a much more heartbreaking and stark close to the show than its rousing melody would have us believe (after spending an entire evening getting to see these dancers as unique individuals, it is their fate to once again fade into chorus anonymity). Similarly, I've never felt Fame's exuberant theme song or its emphatic title to be really  what the film is all about. The cocksure lyrics (in the context of the film, written by Coco, but actually written by Dean Pitchford to Michael Gore's music) may reflect Coco's determined quest for for fame and immortality, but the movie is more about the pain and sacrifices of chasing success. For me, the Oscar-winning song "Fame" is less a paean to the power of dreams than a pep-talk anthem to  optimistic wishful thinking.
Leslie Quickley as Sheila
Fame's casting is so spot-on and the kids so idiosyncratic and charming that no matter how brief their on-camera time, you come to look for them in scene after scene. They become the ones you cheer for in the big graduation number 

Fame is technically an '80s film, but its roots are clearly in the '70s. By this I mean it's a product of a  '70s film sensibility. That decade-affixed mindset where creative choices were made appropriate to the material (swearing, nudity, drug use, sex) and not simply grinding out a feel-good musical to pander to the lucrative PG-rating demographic. I can't imagine a studio today releasing films like Fame or Saturday Night Fever with R-ratings. Some accounting actuary or focus-group survey would point out how much more money could be made from a PG release, and that would be the end of the very grittiness that gives these films their uniqueness.
I've always thought Fame was a very good movie, but in these post-High-School Musical years it has taken on the feel of a genuine classic. One look at the remake (a film I recommend you avoid at all costs) confirms that what Alan Parker and company have pulled off here is something very, very special. So good that even the watered-down TV show and fairly awful theatrical version couldn't defile it.
What Are You Doing Now?
Anyone who knows an actor learns quickly never to ask that question, for it invariably leads to the awkward conversation centered around the jobs that one didn't get. I love that Fame includes such painful, reality-check moments. Here the current graduating class encounters the most promising senior of their Freshman year (Boyd Gaines)...waiting tables

An example of ensemble casting at its finest, I can't say there's a single performance in Fame I find any fault with. The veterans and novices deliver with equal assurance, a credit to Parker casting cannily close both to type and the relative demands of each role. To cite a particular favorite is less a comparative assessment of one player being "better" than another, so much as it's a recounting of my own emotional journey watching the film. Based on who I am and how I'm wired, some plot points and characters just spoke to me more persuasively than others.
Irene Cara's delicacy (those cheekbones!) contrasts with her character's hardness, 
making for a compelling and strong screen presence. Cara, already a 10-year showbiz veteran by 1980, went on to win an Oscar, Golden Globe, and a Grammy for co-writing the theme song to Flashdance (1983)
I have to say that the Doris/Ralph relationship is my favorite in the film. I didn't expect to like their characters, but the actors bring some remarkable nuances to their performances. Just watch how Miller listens in his scenes.
The contentious relationship between English teacher Mrs. Sherwood and Leroy is very nicely played.
Ann Meara really gives the inexperienced Ray a lot to work off of. He's at his best opposite her
As stated, it's not a matter of assigning the label "best" to anyone, but I really liked the performances of Barry Miller and Paul McCrane. McCrane's earnest naturalism redeems what I find lacking in the role as written. Miller went on to win a Tony Award for Biloxi Blues in 1985 while McCrane won an Emmy for the TV series Harry's Law (2011) on whose finale he sang the song he wrote and performs in Fame.

The music and dancing in Fame is glorious. I'm not exactly sure why, but it's one of the few '80s soundtracks that doesn't sound painfully dated. That's not to say the sound isn't very much locked into the time, for it is. But like the scores to many great musicals, it has a sound characteristic of the time and place depicted, it doesn't have that overly-trendy sound (like say Voyage of the Rock Aliens, or Earth Girls are Easy) that feels so corny and out of date it only has a distancing effect.
Hot Lunch Jam
Hot Lunch Jam
For sheer percussive energy, you can't beat this number. Cara's vocals slay
I Sing the Body Electric
Each and every time I make a bet with myself that I'm not going to get
waterworks from the graduation finale number. A bet I lose each and every time. 
Fame choreographers Louis Falco (r.) & William Gornel

As you can see from the photo above, Fame opened at Hollywood's Cinerama Dome on May 16th, 1980, which is the date I saw it and fell in love. Although I was a big fan of Alan Parker, the only names in the cast familiar to me were Barry Miller (who I thought was as terrific in Saturday Night Fever); Anne Meara (from the comedy duo [Jerry]Stiller & Meara); and most famously, Irene Cara. Fame is credited with launching Cara's career, but I remembered her from TV's The Electric Company and Roots, and on the big screen in Sparkle and Aaron Loves Angela.

Pre-release publicity was minimal, so I didn't know what to expect. Try to imagine, on that big Cinerama screen, what it was like to discover all these talented unknowns and hear for the first time those songs that are now almost too-familiar. A rousing, thrilling motion picture experience from start to finish. And I returned to see Fame many, many times over the summer. I was enthralled and surprisingly moved by it.
I was still attending film school at the time and working full-time at a bookstore, but within the short window of eight months, the releases of All That Jazz (December -1979), Fame (May -1980) and Xanadu (August-1980) became the dance film trifecta that inspired me to seek a career as a dancer.
The Roland Dupree Dance Academy on 3rd Street in LA is where I took my very first dance class (and eventually taught). Strange to think there was a time I didn't even know what legwarmers were and had to ask someone what a dance belt was (a thong/jock for male dancers); but it's here I studied ballet, tap, jazz, and modern. I wish I could remember when I took this photo, but I attended from 1980 to at least 1984.

As for Fame, one of the main reasons I always get teary-eyed during the film's finale is because in that spectacular display of goosebump-inducing talent (in which the "stars" sung about have nothing to do with celebrity), the experience is like bearing witness to the dedication and hard work that goes into making an artist...into creating something beautiful. It has nothing to do with making someone famous.
The Cast of Fame

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2018