Friday, February 28, 2014

Mel’s Oscar Crystal Ball

By Melissa Agar

It’s finally here – the night I’ve been anxiously awaiting for weeks. Oscar Night is my Super Bowl/World Series/Olympics all rolled up into one bloated, borderline smug ceremony. I’ll spend Sunday curled up on my couch with my ballot, waiting to see how many obscure categories I was able to call and how many times I miss the mark. I’ll giggle along with Ellen, miss the pre-show Barbra Walters special, and get to bed much later than I probably should, but it’s worth it to spend the evening celebrating something I love – movies.

And so here are my predictions for the top categories this year. I’ve listed both who/what I think will win and also who/what I would vote for if I were a member of the Academy (if only!). Perhaps this will give you a leg-up in your own Oscar pool, but I accept no responsibility if I sink you completely! (Full disclosure: my record is pretty decent, although this is a particularly tough year.)


The Wolf of Wall Street
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave

WHO WILL WINMy gut tells me that 12 Years a Slave has it in the bag and probably has since its release last fall. It is a solid film, to be sure, and will lend a little bit of gravitas to the evening.

WHO SHOULD WINConfession time: I wasn’t that crazy about 12 Years a Slave. While the film has some very solid performances, it also had tremendous pacing issues that dampened the overall emotional heft of the film. Of course, I still wept like a baby when Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was reunited with his family after 12 years, but the movie did such a poor job of handling the passage of time that it sort of felt like 12 days rather than 12 years. (Thank goodness for a little grey hairspray to make Northup look older!) If I were voting for best film, then, I would cast my ballot for American Hustle. It’s a smart, funny, energetic film that kept me engaged from start to finish. It manages to be both a throwback to Hollywood’s golden era of the 1970s and yet still totally fresh and modern. 


Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

WHO WILL WINThis seems to be a two-man race between Ejiofor and McConaughey with DiCapario as a possible spoiler based largely on the groundswell of social media support clamoring for Leo to finally win an Oscar. Ultimately, though, my gut tells me that Ejiofor will walk away with the trophy Sunday night. He gives a powerful, understated performance that drives 12 Years a Slave

WHO SHOULD WINAs much as I liked Ejiofor’s performance in 12 Years a Slave (my issues with the film had nothing to do with his performance whatsoever, and his performance actually made me like the film more than I maybe would have), I would cast my vote for McConaughey. This has nothing to do with my nearly 20-year adoration of the normally handsome actor but rather a total appreciation for the risk he took to break from that rom-com stoner vibe he allowed his career to fall into and to prove that he can actually act. His performance in Dallas Buyers Club is staggering to behold – painful, conflicted, and tremendous. He finds the many shades in Ron Woodroof – both sympathetic and unlikable. It’s a masterful performance.


Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

WHO WILL WINThis seems like one of the more wide-open categories this season, although Blanchett has won many of the pre-Oscar awards, including the Golden Globe last month. The question becomes whether or not the renewal of the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow feud/accusations will result in Blanchett becoming collateral damage. Will a Blanchett win become a tacit Hollywood endorsement of Allen?  Or am I overthinking this whole thing? I’m putting my money on Blanchett largely because I also think that she SHOULD WIN as well. Her brittle, damaged Jasmine was a thing of beauty on screen and doesn’t deserve to be mixed up in a decades old scandal. If the backlash affects Blanchett, though, I suspect Bullock will get her second Oscar for her work in Gravity. Her work there is lovely, particularly when you consider how much of it is spent alone.


Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

WHO WILL WINLeto has largely swept the pre-Oscar awards, and he’ll conclude the season with another win. His performance provides Dallas Buyers Club with large amounts of its heart, and his sensitive, drug addicted Rayon is a masterful performance worthy of all the accolades.

WHO SHOULD WINI’d cast my vote for Leto, too, although I really loved Hill’s work in Wolf. I have a feeling that guy’s time is coming eventually.


Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

WHO WILL WINWhile this may seem like a two-woman race between Lawrence and Nyong’o, I have a feeling the Academy will go with the newcomer, particularly since Lawrence just won last year. Nyong’o is a newcomer, and the Academy loves to reward that, too. Her performance helps underscore the brutality of 12 Years a Slave and is the one you cannot forget after seeing the film. Even if the Academy doesn’t reward the film in the other major categories, I suspect this is the place where they can’t ignore the film.

WHO SHOULD WINAs much as I admired Nyong’o’s work in 12 Years a Slave, I have to say that I would cast my vote for Lawrence. Her work in American Hustle was exhilarating and haunting and something I’m still talking about months later.


David O. Russell, American Hustle
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Martin Scorcese, The Wolf of Wall Street

WHO WILL WINThere are some pretty impressive names and some pretty impressive films on this list this year. I suspect that many will go down as some of the best films of this decade. The work that Cuaron did in Gravity, though, is something in a class by itself. He brought outer space to life in a way that has never really been done before.  The film is largely a directorial feat. He will win because he SHOULD WIN


American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club

WHO WILL WINThis is where American Hustle has the best shot at a big ticket Oscar. Screenplay is often where the Academy rewards films that may be too “edgy” to take home Best Picture. This is the bone that was tossed to Pulp Fiction, Fargo, The Usual Suspects, Almost Famous, Little Miss Sunshine – all films that should have been stronger contenders for Best Picture but were too indy or niche for the wider Academy demographic. It’s a decent consolation prize for Russell as he bides his time for greater Oscar glory.

WHO SHOULD WINAs much as I love American Hustle (and I do – I stand by my assertion that it was the best film of 2013), I would cast my vote for Her. Spike Jonze is a visionary, creative voice in contemporary American cinema, and it’s time for the Academy to recognize that. Her is a truly creative script – the very definition of “original.” 


Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

WHO WILL WINWith 12 Years a Slave being a frontrunner for best picture, you have to think it is the frontrunner here, too. I don’t know how much my pacing complaints have to do with the script (and I may be the only one who has them), and there were some flashback elements that I found a little disconcerting, but this is a way for the Academy to recognize an important film.

WHO SHOULD WINI would not cast my vote for 12 Years. I do think that a lot of my issues with the film are largely rooted in the script – the pacing, the flashback, the muddy exposition, characters who appear with little explanation and then disappear with a sense that we should care but can’t because we’re still trying to figure out who they are. (Wow – the longer I write this article, the less I like 12 Years a Slave.) This year was a much stronger year for original screenplays, although there are some strong films on this list. I was amongst the group of critics who liked and admired The Wolf of Wall Street and a lot of that affection lies with the script that was sardonic, ironic, and flat out funny. That’s where I would cast my vote, although there would be something beautiful about Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy finally getting some recognition for their lovely Before trilogy.

TCM TiVo Alert for March 1-7

March 1–March 7 


IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (March 1, 8:00 pm): I've mentioned before that 1967 is a landmark year in cinema. While the Hays Code was lifted before that year, it took a while for Hollywood to push the envelope, be more daring and take on serious subject matter without soft-selling it. Among the films released in 1967 were The GraduateBonnie and ClydePoint Blank and the best of the bunch, In the Heat of the Night. The latter pairs one of cinema's most under-appreciated actors, Rod Steiger, with one of film's most respected (and rightfully so) actors, Sidney Poitier. (Poitier also starred in 1967 in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a film I don't hold in high regard as it fails to match the intensity of the films I mentioned above.) In the Heat of the Night gives the viewers an authentic view of racism in the South during the era of the Civil Rights movement. Steiger is the sheriff of a racist town working with Poitier, a police detective from Philadelphia, to solve a murder while overcoming significant challenges. The film won five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor for Steiger. It's one you must see if you haven't already.

OUT OF THE FOG (March 4, 1:45 pm): I'm an unapologetic fan of John Garfield. During Hollywood's golden era of the late 1930s to the late 1940s, he was as good an actor as anyone, and that's saying a lot. In this 1941 film, Garfield is a sadistic gangster with no redeeming qualities. He's a hood who shakes down old fisherman at a Brooklyn pier. Garfield is captivating as the cruel criminal in one of Warner Brothers' grittiest film noirs. His character falls for Ida Lupino (can't blame him), the daughter of one of the fishermen he is terrorizing. He even uses that to his advantage. Two of the main fisherman he is shaking down come up with a plan to kill him, but can't follow through. However, the way Garfield gets offed is one for the ages. A truly great film that showcases Garfield's talents.


BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936 (March 3, 8:30 am): Eleanor Powell’s first starring role, and a portent of great things to come from her. The plot, predictably, is paper-thin. Jack Benny is a Broadway columnist whose copy is in great need of punching up. So he has to go about digging up dirt. He picks on producer Bob Gordon (Robert Taylor), whose new show “Broadway Rhythm,” is being backed by heiress Lillian Brent (June Knight) who also wants to star. Enter Irene Foster, (Powell), Bob’s childhood sweetheart, who wants to audition. Yes, it’s a mess, but who watches a musical for its plot? We want to see Powell hoofing, and boy is she good. Her routine with Buddy and Vilma Ebsen (his sister and her only film appearance) in “Sing Before Breakfast” is light and enchanting. As for Powell’s solo dance numbers at the end, watch for “You Are My Lucky Star,” “Broadway Rhythm,” and “I’ve Got a Feeling You’re Foolin’,” which earned Dave Gould an Oscar for Dance Direction.

EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (March 7, 8:00 pm): Director Ang Lee’s story of the family tension between a master chef and his three grown daughters at their weekly ritual Sunday dinners is a pure delight. Mr. Chu (Shihung Lung) and his three grown daughters, who live with him, have simply lost their ability to relate to one another. This makes their Sunday dinner, the one point where they all get together during the week, such an ordeal that the participants can hardly eat. Mr. Chu has lost his joie de vivre. His culinary art no longer receives the respect it used to enjoy in Taiwan. His fear is that traditional recipes are being mixed up into one, banal flavor. He’s literally losing his taste for the food he creates. The daughters are also slaves to their routines, it seems that they, too, have lost their joie de vivre. “Can this family be saved?” we ask. Lee’s answer is a simple, yet most refreshing one. Those looking for a course in Eastern wisdom will be left disappointed, but Lee’s solution is no more different in a Taiwanese household than it would be in an English, Kenyan, or Peruvian one. Lee shows us that the basic human condition is universal and easily crosses cultures. And stick around for the moment that gets Mr. Chu back on the right track. It’s beautifully written and staged by Lee.


ED: C. Warner Bros. had a unique talent for remaking their movies, and, although many film fans don’t know it (because it’s rarely screened), this film is actually a remake of The Life of Jimmy Dolan from 1933 with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Loretta Young, and Aline MacMahon with Garfield stepping to the Fairbanks role as a prizefighter on the lam whose cynicism fades under the spell of a good woman. The film is Garfield’s – he’s a distinct improvement on Fairbanks Jr. in the role. But, as astounding as it seems to us today, Garfield wasn’t the film’s main attraction. That would have been the Dead End Kids, whom Warners’ was pushing. Now, without them, the film would have been no great shakes, for although Garfield is superb in an early role, co-star Claude Rains is sleepwalking through the proceedings, and the ham antics of the Dead End Kids (who, with the exception of Huntz Hall, use the same names they did in Dead End) only serve to pull the film down. Gloria Dickson also gives good reasons why she never made it past the B’s. She’s definitely lackluster. The only reason I even give this film a “C” s because of Garfield alone, but even he can’t rescue this from being a mess.

DAVID: B+. Each week Ed gives me the honor of selecting the film for our "We Disagree" feature. He got a good laugh when I chose They Made Me a Criminal. Why? Well, it's simple. There are few "actors" I loathe as much as the Dead End Kids, later to become the even more annoying Bowery Boys (as well as the East Side Kids and the Little Tough Guys). And Billy Halop may be the worst on-screen personality I've ever seen. However, they are excellent in 1937's Dead End, the movie version of the play in which they starred. They're not bad in They Made Me a Criminal, released two years later. What's so impressive about this film is, as Ed wrote, John Garfield. He has star written all over him, and he more than lives up to that. It was made for the Dead End Kids, but Garfield carries the film with skillful acting and great charisma. He's a boxer on the lam, wrongly accused of a murder committed by his manager, but pinned on him. It can be somewhat cliche, but not predictable. Garfield's performance is so magnificent you don't pay attention to anything else but him. Busby Berkeley, the famous musical director and one of Ed's all-time favorites, does a fine directing job in this non-dance film though you can see some of his legendary choreography in the fight scenes.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Dinner and a Movie

From Pompeii to Salerno

By Steve Herte

This week I lost RoseAnn, a very dear friend of at least 38 years. I met her through the Barbershop Quartet I sang in with her husband in 1976 and the three of us became infamous. One year Tony bought the car of his dreams, a big silver Cadillac (not the ones they make now, this one was huge) and it was quartet competition time. Tony, RoseAnn and I decided to dress in black, white ties on the men, black hats and super dark sunglasses. At every stoplight we’d look suspiciously side-to-side and sometimes we were noticed by passers-by who quickly averted their gaze. When we arrived at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington, D.C., and slowly got out of the car we had to keep from laughing when the bus-boys nearly fell over each other to get our luggage and open the door for RoseAnn. At the time, Tony’s and my quartet was “Bound for Sound” and I was the only non-Italian with Jim Galima, Frank LaRosa and Tony Molaro - later, when Frank left to get married, Phil Provenzano joined and I was still the only German. We had a lot of fun and RoseAnn was always in on it. Boy, could she cook. I still remember her stuffed artichokes. No one made them comparably since. I know I have a photo of her someplace and will scan it onto my Facebook page as a memorial.

All this Italianissimo (yes, we dined at the restaurant of the same name on a pier off Brooklyn) brings me to this week’s selections, both Italian and both from the same location on the Italian boot, on the Gulf of Naples. I’ve been to Pompeii (with Tony and RoseAnn) and seen the plaster casts of the people who once were vibrant citizens of a thriving resort. It was a sobering experience and yet fascinating. See what you think. Enjoy!
Pompeii (Film District/Tri-Star, 2014) – Director: Paul W.S. Anderson. Writers: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler & Michael Robert Johnson (s/p). Cast: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris, Joe Pingue, Carrie-Anne Moss, Currie Graham, & Dylan Schombing. Color and 3D, 105 minutes.

Ever since Pliny the Younger reported his eye-witness account of the eruption of Vesuvius back in AD 79, the story of the total destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum has become legendary and told from several angles. But simply reading his impressions in high school Latin class does not prepare one for the eye-popping newest version directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. This edition begins with a quote from Pliny and views of the plaster casts made from the vaporized citizens of the doomed resort town. Then it opens onto a battle scene in Britannia during the “Celtic Rebellion” (for some strange reason the Germanic pronunciation with a hard “C” is used throughout the film). Actually it was more like the Celtic massacre, as the Romans on horseback and on foot under Senator Corvus (Sutherland) cut down every man, woman and child, heaping them into a death pile. Saved only by his instincts, young Milo (Schombing) plays dead, digs his way out from under the bodies, and somehow survives until being taken into slavery. However, he remembers Corvus slaying his entire family.

Milo grows to adulthood (Harrington) as a slave and is trained as a gladiator for the arena. His skills and his speed help him to survive all opponents no matter the size, and he is dubbed “The Celt.” His owner brings him to Pompeii for the spectacle of setting him against the reigning champion Atticus (Akinnouye-Agbaje), a mountain of a man who believes that with this victory he will gain his freedom from slavery (poor misguided soul).

Meanwhile in Pompeii, prominent citizen Severus (Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Moss) eagerly await the arrival of their beautiful daughter Cassia (Browning) from a stay in Rome. Along the road to Pompeii one of the horses pulling Cassia’s coach stumbles and breaks a leg just as they are passing the line of slaves being led on foot. She notices Milo immediately and he asks to help the horse, being from a tribe of horse-people. With Cassia’s insistence, he is allowed to put the horse out of its misery and Cassia is impressed. So is her handmaiden, Ariadne (Lucas), who sees the chemistry between these two from the start. The crowds arriving for the celebration of the Vulcanalia (appropriately) delay Cassia’s coach and, impatient to be home in her beloved Pompeii, Cassia drags Ariadne out of the coach. They take in the town before arriving at her parents’ villa on foot.

Severus has grand plans for Pompeii – a new chariot race arena, new bath houses, etc. (a real urban planner) – but needs funding from Rome to accomplish it. He invites Senator Corvus to a party at his villa along with his right-hand man Graecus (Pingue) to hopefully gain his backing on this huge enterprise. He doesn’t know Corvus has met Cassia in Rome and that he desires her in marriage but Cassia will have nothing of it. Another guest at the party, the slave owner, has brought his contestants as a kind of window dressing and sets them on pedestals in the main dining area with Milo facing Atticus. Ariadne sees Milo first and points him out to Cassia. Their eyes meet again and we in the audience immediately know where this is going.

Vesuvius and the god Vulcan have other plans, of course, and the volcano rumbles and shakes the town, momentarily interrupting the partying, but the Pompeiians shake it off. (“It always does that.”) The quaking ground terrifies Cassia’s horse and no one, except Milo, can calm it down. Again, under her insistence, he performs his horse-whispering talent and convinces Cassia to join him on the horse as they ride off to the slopes of Vesuvius chased by Roman soldiers. For this little adventure she gets a reprimand while he gets 50 lashes.

Milo and Atticus share a cell and though each knows he must kill the other they eventually become friends, especially when Corvus changes the order of events in the arena. The slaves are chained to a pylon in the center of the arena and set upon by Roman soldiers as a re-enactment of the “Celtic Rebellion.” It is then Atticus believes that he will never be set free, as he and Milo are the only ones left standing at the end of the battle. When Corvus orders another detachment of soldiers to slaughter them, Vesuvius blows an enormous cloud of black smoke and starts hurling lava bombs helter-skelter. The quake is destroying the arena and the audience is clearing out in terror. One lava bomb collapses the pillared viewing stand where Corvus, Severus and Aurelia sit, and all are knocked unconscious. Aurelia, knowing of Corvus’ designs on her daughter, begs the recovering Severus to kill the still-unconscious Corvus. However, he’s too slow on the uptake and Corvus kills him.

The volcano takes center stage for the rest of the movie as people try to get to the harbor only to find the seriously quaking ground has caused a tidal wave, sending one of the largest ships careening down a city street. A well-placed lava bomb hits and sinks the ship just recently boarded by the slave owner. Corvus has Cassia locked in a room in her villa. Atticus has a final battle with Graecus in the arena after Milo retrieves her. Corvus arrives and snatches Cassia, chaining her to his chariot, Milo chases after them on Cassia’s horse as lava bombs and pumice stones continue to rain down on the city.

If it’s action you want, Pompeii has got it. Forbidden romance? Check. Dazzling special effects? Double check. A great new way of telling a tale that already is universally known? Check. How about historic and scientific accuracy? Well, some license has been taken, but I was very much impressed by the design of the volcano and how they built up the cone at the beginning only to have it disintegrate into the final pyroclastic flow at the end. Pliny never mentioned a tidal wave but it probably happened (he was watching from the other side of the Gulf of Naples). And I loved the ending. Just when you think the two lovers would survive, they realize that the horse cannot outrun the pyroclastic flow carrying both of them. They dismount and embrace as the flow envelops them. Beautiful!

Pompeii is well-constructed, beautifully photographed (the aerial views were breath-taking), and with novel insight into occurrences that could have been on the August 24, AD 79 (or November 23, depending on who you believe). It is a serious film, no intentional comedy at all (except for two scenes when the volcano stops erupting for the lovers’ dialogues – twice), and definitely worth a second viewing.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Trattoria Zero Otto Nove
15 West 21st Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues), New York

Chef Roberto Paciullo, a native of Salerno, Italy, opened the first Zero Otto Nove on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx in 2008. The newest venue in the Flatiron District of Manhattan opened in May 2011. The whitewashed exterior stands out on dark 21st Street and the vermillion banner sporting the seahorse logo announces the restaurant’s presence. Inside, the décor is all arches in shades of pale coral, sky blue and sea green constructed to look like a seaside trattoria complete with street lamps. The bar takes up the space in the front windows and the dining area is just beyond it. The young lady at the Captain’s Station led me to a table for four in a central location. Eventually it became a table for two, as they needed the chairs for another party.

My smiling waiter appeared soon after, noted my tap water preference and presented me with the menu. I saw several inventive cocktails on the last page along with the “wines by the glass” and beer menu. I chose the Zeal Martini, a bewitching mixture of Stolichnaya Oranj Vodka, Peach Schnapps, Triple Sec, Cranberry and Ruby Red Grapefruit juices, an intriguing start to Southern Italian feast.

When I mentioned I wanted to have an appetizer, pasta, and a main course my waiter didn’t flinch. I told him I like the exotic and unusual. He listed the specials of the day and got my attention with the Ravioli stuffed with Mortadella, Sopressato and other Italian cold cuts. But after a thorough read through 11 appetizers, 5 salads, 2 soups, 9 pastas, 14 main dishes, 3 sides, 14 pizzas and 2 calzones I chose the Zucca, Salsiccia e Gorgonzola – sautéed sweet sausage crumbled under butternut squash and crowned by Gorgonzola cheese – sizzling in its own little iron frying pan. The combinations of the sweet squash, the tangy cheese and the savory sausage made it a delightful experience. It was all I could do to eat it slowly. The breadbasket had both focaccia and large, tasty crusty bread slices to allow me to enjoy every last bit.

My waiter suggested the Super Tuscan – a 2008 Brunello di Montalcino from Centine vineyards – as a possible match for the flavors I chose and gave me a taste. It was a beautiful deep ruby red wine, fruity in flavor and light on the tannins – an excellent accompaniment to the meal.

The pasta I chose was the most exotic (for me) on the menu and also the most difficult to eat. It was Linguini al Nero di Seppi – fine linguini pasta with cuttlefish meat sautéed with garlic, oil and black squid ink (frankly, I don’t think it comes in any other colors). A server came over to my table offering fresh black pepper. Looking at the already black mass in front of me, I wondered if he could tell where he peppered it, but I let him do it anyway. The cuttlefish was tender and almost invisible in the black mass of linguini on the plate. The flavor was subtly fishy, delicately garlicky and another temptation to devour it too quickly. After the first few bites I wiped my chin and the black stains on the napkin reminded me to eat this dish carefully. Again, the bread helped clean the plate upon finishing it.

My main course has been a flagship dish on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx for the original Zero Otto Nove, but I didn’t know it at the time. The Coniglio Cacciatore (Rabbit - Hunter Style) was described on the menu as a rabbit stew in tomato sauce with fresh rosemary but it was more than that. The ample portion of tender, slightly dry rabbit meat, on the bone was cloaked in a rich tomato sauce with just the right hint of rosemary (I usually worry about rosemary as it is a very powerful herb) and sat there begging me to tear into it, which I did. The sauce made up for the dryness, as did the wine, and in time there was nothing left but bones. I guess my waiter never tired of saying it but for a third time he said, “Good job!”

Though I definitely had room for dessert and had read about Chef Robert’s famous cannoli, I took one look at the time and 10 o’clock was coming soon. Knowing the length of my commute home I ordered a Double Espresso and a glass of Berta Gavi di Gavi Grappa and called it a night. Many other dishes on the menu were still calling me to try them as well as some of the specials and of course, dessert. I will just have to find another occasion to return to Trattoria Zero Otto Nove. Maybe next time I’ll learn my waiter’s name and the meaning of Zero Otto Nove (089) – it sure isn’t the address either in Manhattan or the Bronx.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Death by Invitation

The Z Files

By Ed Garea

This is the inaugural column dedicated to what are referred to by critics as “Z movies.” The Z movie is a product of the ‘50s (though the term wasn’t coined until the mid-‘60s), when the studio system collapsed and independent producers and newly-minted smaller studios jumped in to fill the market for what used to be known as “B” movies. 

Television also helped kill off the B-movie proper, and the advent of the drive-in and the rise of the grindhouse in urban areas gave low-budget producers a market for their films. The Z movie is low budget, but that alone does not make it bad. The quality standard for such a film must be well below that for a B movie and the producers are those on the fringes of the film industry. In the ‘30s and into the ‘40s, films from Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” could meet those standards, as they were poorly made, with shoddy scripts, decrepit sets and woeful acting, and marketed to independent theaters. Most Poverty Row productions focused on horror or mystery; the later Z movies first focused on horror and science friction, later going into the genres of gore, violence and soft-core pornography.

So what we get from all this is that Z movies are terrible. That is true, but it’s also why, in the vast majority of cases, they’re fun to watch. Otherwise, Mystery Science Theater 3000 wouldn’t even have come into existence.

Death by Invitation (Kirt Films, 1971) – Director: Ken Friedman. Writer: Ken Friedman. Cast: Shelby Leverington, Norman Paige, Aaron Phillips, Lesley Knight, Denver John Collins, Bruce Bentlinger, Tom Mahoney, Sarnell Ogus, Sylvia Pressler, & Rhonda Russell. Color, 81 minutes.

This low-budget slice of celluloid from producer Leornard Kirtman (Carnival of Blood – 1970 and Curse of the Headless Horseman – 1972) is so slow-moving it might as well be titled “Death by Boredom.” It works on the old horror standby of a centuries-old curse leading to modern-day revenge, but the execution is so poor and crudely done that it loses its audience. The plot execution is so poorly done that unless viewers have seen something like it before, they’re out of luck, for nothing is ever explained during the course of the movie.

We begin by being treated to a spectacularly clumsy opening where a group of villagers are about to burn a witch. Is this set in Salem, England, Holland? We’re not told. At any rate, it’s nice to see that the colonists of 17th century inhabitants lived in shingled houses with metal outdoor basement doors and concrete sidewalks. They’ve got their witch, but they don’t quite know what to do with her. Mainly they drag her around, dressed as one would at a low-budget Renaissance Festival. They tie her to a stake, but there’s no wood surrounding it, so they drag her to a basement where they slit her throat. But before dispatching her, she seems to place a curse on the family of the man that led the mob. All this is accompanied by some of the most annoying music I have ever heard in a picture.

Cut to the present day. We’re on Staten Island, I think, (it’s never made clear), and are dining with the Vroot family. Since that’s a Dutch name, one can assume our 17th century witch was dispatched either in New Amsterdam or Holland proper. The Vroot family, resided over by patriarch Peter (Phillips) is celebrating the engagement of daughter Carol (Russell) to Jake (Paige), whom Roger wants to join the family business. Among the invited guests is Lise (Leverington) who is a dead ringer for our dead witch. Uh-oh. Lise is late to the party and tries to make light by telling a story of how the cab gave her his number on the way over, but the strictly religious family won’t hear of it. However, no one seems to mind when Jake begins hitting on Lise right in front of everyone. Fiancée Carol just sits there in the background sporting a dress that looks like it was cut from the living room drapes.

Lise also seems to serve some sort of double duty as a visiting caregiver to Peter’s wife, Naomi (Ogus). At least I think this is the case; watching this film is like trying to solve a puzzle.

After Lise departs, son Roger (Collins), intrigued by her story (Why?) takes a cab ride to her place where she regales him with a monologue about how in a primitive tribe the women did the hunting and the men made them up and oiled them for the hunt. When the men try it themselves the women found out and killed them. All this is told at a pace that makes one want to cry out “Get to the point already!” But Roger is entranced by the speech, or bored out of his skull, I couldn’t tell. He takes off his top and kneels before Lise, and we think Roger is about to get lucky. But no, Lise proceeds to sink her nails into his throat and back, killing him as the stage blood oozes down.

Now, instead of celebrating an upcoming betrothal, the Vroot family is trying to find Roger. This leads to a very clumsy and contrived scene with a clueless detective who tries to steer the family into believing that Roger is probably somewhere pushing drugs. This must be Friedman’s attempt to ease the tension by inserting a comedy relief scene. The problem is that the cops merely come across as stupid and witless, and the Vroot family is left with just their hopes that Roger will eventually find his way home.

Two other scenes need mention here. One is where Jake visits Peter’s office to hear his offer of going into the family business. What is supposed to be a scene expanding and extending the plot turns into a cacophonous mess as the Muzak playing in the background at the office drowns out Peter and Jake’s dialogue. The scene just rambles on, leaving me with the impression that the director had decided to go to lunch and didn’t inform anyone else on the set. The other scene is where little Elly (Knight) is up in her room when we suddenly see Lise outside. Shortly after we learn that both Elly and sister Sara (Pressler) have been slain. The shot of Lise earlier seems to have been like an insert to let us know whatever it is that Friedman wants us to know. The only thing it has going for it is that it does come off as creepy and strangely effective – for once.

It’s been strongly telegraphed that Jake is hot for Lise and we know it’s just a matter of time before he gets his shot. We have already seen that, for someone who’s just gotten engaged, Jake spends as little time as possible with his future bride, who just remains in the background. He drops in on Lise at her place and she begins with the old monologue about the tribe of women who do the hunting while the men prepare them for the hunt, but Jake will have none of it; he’s horny. They proceed to have the required sex scene, although for a producer whose product includes a few softcore titles, the scene is somewhat muted. After the fun is over, Jake discovers blood dripping down. He follows the trail and discovers a hidden room Lise conveniently has in her apartment. Attached to the ceiling in that room is a bag with the chopped up remains of others in the Vroot family. Jake is horrified and the scene degenerates into a terrible fight scene with an ax-wielding Peter entering and accompanied by very poor sound. It ends here and we wonder what the point of the whole thing was to start.

What keeps the film from being totally unwatchable, besides the unintentionally hilarious script, is the performances of the leads, in particular Leverington and Paige. Both, unbelievably, went on to decent careers, mostly in television. This was actually the first film for Leverington, who also went on to strong roles in both The Long Riders (1980) and Cloak and Dagger (1984). Paige, later known as Norman Parker, has also appeared in Prince of the City (1981), Turk 182 (1985), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), and television series such as Family TiesFalcon Crest, and the soap As the World Turns.

Death by Invitation actually opened on October 21, 1971, at the Esquire Theater in St. Louis, which may have been chosen because of its proximity to Leverington’s alma mater of Southeast Missouri State. For his part, Friedman would only direct one more feature, Made in U.S.A. (1987), but made his mark as a screenwriter, with films such as White Line Fever (1975), Heart Like a Wheel (1983), Johnny Handsome (1989), and Cadillac Man (1990).

Although not a full-blown train wreck, Death By Invitation is more like a shaggy dog exercise, with great expectations and a zero payoff. It’s for late night viewing when anything will do, as long as it’s accompanied with a snack and some wine before hitting the hay.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert for February 23-28

February 23–February 28


PYGMALION (February 23, 12:15 am): It's hard to believe this splendid 1938 comedy starring Leslie Howard (who co-directed it) and Wendy Hiller is the same story (from George Bernard Shaw's play) as My Fair Lady, a 1964 musical and the most overrated film of all time. The latter is boring, ridiculously long, and filled with poor songs that were outdated when the movie was released. The former is witty, charming, entertaining and funny. Howard is often overlooked in comparison to other actors of his era, but he proved time after time that he was among the elite in his day and this film is an excellent example of his talent. 

IN COLD BLOOD (February 25, 10:15 am): Largely based on Truman Capote's book of the same name, which is largely based on the true story of two hoods who kill a family of four in Kansas for money, that isn't there. Told in flashbacks and filmed in black and white, this 1967 movie, done in documentary style, is gripping and fascinating, even though we know the outcome almost immediately. It conveys the coldness that some people have toward others in society. It's also proof that Robert Blake, who plays one of the killers, could act when given an interesting role.


THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (February 23, 8:00 pm): When one looks up the term “action picture,” a still from this film should be under the definition. Quite simply, this is the role Errol Flynn was born to play, and he’s quite good in it. Give him such villains to play against as Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone, and this film just can’t be beaten. Olivia de Havilland shines as Maid Marian, with Una O’Connor and Herbert Mundin in fine form as the comic relief. The best thing about the film is its refusal to take itself seriously, which amps up our enjoyment even more. Michael Curtiz directed with a nearly flawless style. It’s simply one of those rare films I can watch over and over without growing bored.

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (February 24, 1:15 am): In the 1960s, espionage movies came in three categories: spy spoofs, spy films that didn’t take themselves all the seriously, as witness the Bond franchise, and spy films of a serious nature. This is in the last category and is one of the best not only of the ‘60s, but also in the history of film. It is faithfully adapted (as best as possible) from John LeCarre’s excellent spy thriller and concerns a burnt-out officer in British Intelligence (wonderfully portrayed by Richard Burton) whose last assignment is to ferret out a mole in the organization operating out of a Communist cell in East Berlin. Intelligently directed by Martin Ritt with solid supporting performances from Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, and Peter Van Eyck. It’s simply a “can’t miss” movie.

WE DISAGREE ON ... THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (February 25, 2:45 am)

ED: B. On only his second attempt, director Peter Bogdanovich hit the Academy lotto, and I have to agree with those who say he never managed to top this masterpiece. A wonderful coming-of-age film set in the desolate town of Anarene, Texas, it’s based on a novel of the same title by Larry McMurtry. McMurtry’s earlier novel, Horsemen, Pass By, was adapted by director Martin Ritt into the award-winning Hud in 1963, and there are many similarities of mood between the two films. But there are two reasons why I’m not giving this film an “A.” One is that this film is not as good as the earlier Hud, and two, Cybill Shepherd’s performance pulls the film down a notch. Ben Johnson, Timothy Bottoms, Ellyn Burstyn, and Cloris Leachman are all fine, but I got the distinct feeling that the director was using his camera to act for Ms. Shepherd. Too bad, for overall, this is a fine film.

DAVID: A+. I agree with Ed that director Peter Bogdanovich never made a better film than this 1971 classic, but when you make one of the finest movies of all-time it's pretty difficult to top yourself. It's a perfect examination of life in a small, dying West Texas town in the early 1950s largely centered around two high school seniors, played by Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges. The two young stars are excellent and are helped by the older supporting cast – particularly Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman (who both won Best Supporting Oscars), and Ellen Burstyn. Filming it in black and white (just like In Cold Blood) was an excellent decision that enhances the bleakness of not only the dying town, but its residents who are also dying along with it. The characters, many who are lonely even if they are married, engage in sexual relationships for companionship, to try to recapture an excitement for life, to dull the pain of their existence or to get what they want. As for Cybill Shepherd – who plays Jacy Farrow, a popular girl desperate to find a rich boyfriend to marry – she is ideal for the role. A stunningly beautiful woman in her first film, Shepherd does a great job of conveying the character's vulnerability while still being manipulative, sometimes doing so without saying more than a few words. The acting is superb and Bogdanovich's ability to juggle several different storylines without confusing the audience make this a very special and memorable film.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Johnny Carson Book Review

Johnny Dearest

By Ed Garea

Johnny Carson By Henry Bushkin. Illustrated. 294 pages. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. $28.

A little over eight years since his death in 2005, Johnny Carson appears to be having a comeback of sorts. TCM has been running his interview segments hosted by Conan O’Brien, and now former BFF Henry Bushkin has released a memoir of his time with Carson.

We fans have always wanted to know the real Carson, if there was one. Johnny was an enigma; here was man who seemingly had no private life. His triumphs – and more importantly, his foibles – were spread over the tabloids for all to see. And Carson went with the flow, for he could always count on his adoring public. I remember when it was reported in the press that Johnny’s third wife Joanna made some outrageous financial demands in their divorce action. After everything was settled, Joanna came up with an apropos observation: she said it was a “no-win situation” because Johnny could always retreat to his public for his side of things, and no matter what, his public always sided with him. And Johnny did just that. On the night following her financial demands we were all waiting for Johnny’s monologue to get his take on things. And we weren’t disappointed. He opened with: “I just saw my cat’s lawyer. It seems he wants $2,500 a week to keep himself in Tender Vittles.” With that he was on a roll. He ended the monologue with this gem: “When I was growing up my idol was Jack Benny. Now it’s Henry the Eighth.” It was no wonder we wanted to know more about the man we so gladly invited into out living rooms (and our bedrooms) late every night.

However, those looking for answers to the enigma of Johnny Carson will find few, if any, answers in the self-aggrandizing memoir written by Bushkin. Gossipy stories, yes, lots of them, but real insights? Nary a one. According to Bushkin, he was Johnny’s “lawyer, counselor, partner, employee, business adviser, earpiece, mouthpiece, enforcer, running buddy, tennis pal, drinking and dining companion, and foil; and all this on Page 1. Henry was all those, and seemingly more, as he never tires of telling us. For if we didn’t get it the first time he gladly repeats his duties on Page 55, and later again on Page 82, where he is Johnny’s “Swiss Army Knife of a companion, attorney, manager, agent, henchman, crony, tennis pal, and corkscrew all in one.” What I got out of his oft-repeated self-description was that Bushkin was a sort of Prufrock, albeit without the intelligence. In the end, though, Henry found himself cast aside when King Johnny discovered Henry’s duplicity concerning a business deal.

Like millions of others that followed Carson night after night, I always believed that “Bombastic Bushkin,” the inept financial adviser referred to in Johnny’s monologues, was a figment of Carson’s imagination, like his “doctor,” Thumbs Hendelman. But no, the world and I later discovered there was a real Bombastic Bushkin and his name was Henry. We, of course, discovered this fact when the news that Carson had canned Henry hit the newswires. Now, with Johnny safely dead, Bushkin has come forth from the shadows to tell his side of the story, as it were; of his relationship with The King of Late Night, a relationship that followed the patterns of Carson’s other human relationships: rocky and stormy.

Knowing that memoirs such as this needs a big opening, Bushkin begins his story in the year 1979 at the home of Henry and Ginny Mancini, who are throwing a party to which Bushkin’s employer was specifically invited and promised to attend. But here it was, an hour later, and Ginny Mancini was badgering Bushkin as to Johnny’s whereabouts. Bushkin himself found it odd that Carson, who in the past was the epitome of punctuality, would be so late. Time continued to pass. No Johnny. The party itself wasn’t short on celebrities; Bushkin could look around and spot the likes of Roger Moore, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Tony Curtis munching canapés and washing them down with expensive hooch. But the subject on everyone’s minds and lips was “Where’s Johnny?” They asked Ginny Mancini repeatedly about when, or whether, Carson would show up.

It seemed an eternity to Bushkin, waiting for Johnny to make his entrance; being virtually ignored by the celebrity-studded crowd, except when those who knew him approached to ask where he could be. And all Bushkin could answer was that he didn’t know, though he had his suspicions: Johnny had recently split from third-wife Joanna and was living in a rented house. The split was distressing for Johnny, but Bushkin knew Johnny had been back home since early that morning reconciling with Joanna. It was Johnny who insisted Bushkin accompany him to the party, where Johnny would surprise everyone by arriving arm-in-arm with his newly-reconciled wife: “Great, I thought to myself. He wants me there in case there’s a mess that needs cleaning up.” After almost nine years, Bushkin fully understood his role vis-à-vis Carson. At last the Carsons arrived in a Rolls-Royce and immediately became the focus of the party: the women fussed and cooed over Joanna while the men stared admiringly at Johnny’s new blue cashmere jacket, backpatting and handshaking with him. The rest of the night saw Bushkin observing his employer to see everything was under control. When the Carsons went to leave, Johnny told Bushkin to come over the next day for a game of tennis. There was business to discuss, that of Carson refusing to sign a new contract with NBC unless the pot was sweetened considerably. Being Carson’s lawyer meant forever bring on call, for no other clients were allowed to matter in his world.

Perhaps it was Bushkin’s naiveté that led to his becoming involved with Carson. Here he was, a Bronx born, Vanderbilt Law educated youngster working for a small entertainment law firm in Manhattan when the call came through that none other than Johnny Carson needed a lawyer. It was 1970: Johnny was firmly settled into his role as the host of “The Tonight Show” and NBC’s Late Night Earnings Superstar, his show was most profitable on the NBC docket and would remain so for many years to come.

His friend, Arthur Kassel, a security expert/private eye/crime photographer/police groupie, had recommended Bushkin to Carson. Arthur explained that Carson was weathering a rough patch in his marriage and could use good legal advice. When Bushkin protested that Carson could have any high-priced matrimonial lawyer in the city, Kassel retorted that Carson doesn’t trust lawyers, but agreed to meet with Bushkin based on Arthur’s recommendation. Bushkin dutifully presented himself at Carson’s office for an interview, which to Bushkin was akin to being the last guest for the night on The Tonight Show. During the interview the item Johnny was most interested in was Bushkin’s tenure on the Vanderbilt tennis team, telling the young attorney that if he were hired, Carson would expect him to play tennis with him occasionally. Bushkin left the office feeling despondent; that he didn’t get the job and confided so to Arthur. But Kassel, who sat in on the interview, told him the exact opposite: that Johnny liked him very much and would be calling.

And Johnny called the next day, personally inviting Henry to meet him that evening at his apartment. With Johnny was his next-door neighbor, Sonny Werblin, an ex-agent for Lew Wasserman and MCA and former owner of the New York Jets. After an uncomfortable lull filled with small talk, Werblin got down to business, telling Bushkin, in front of Carson, to watch his step: “Johnny’s mood can go from up to down in milliseconds. The situation about to be discussed would be dangerous if word got out. Keep a tight lip.” After another silent period marked again only by small talk, Carson got to the heart of the matter, telling young Bushkin that he had reason to believe his second wife, Joanne, was cheating on him. And he also had a good idea of with whom she was cheating. Carson wanted Bushkin to accompany him and Arthur and some other guys when they break into Joanne’s apartment and gather the evidence. Though Bushkin professed to be appalled at first, Carson soothed him by explaining that Henry was along in case something happened. Even though everything was planned, there was always the possibility that things might go wrong and a lawyer is a handy person to have around. Bushkin said he proved his worth a few minutes later when he outlined a legal loophole that would protect the group in case something did happen.

The next evening, Johnny and his accomplices entered Joanne’s building and bribed the building manager to let them in. Once inside Joanne’s love nest, they were quickly able to gather the incriminating evidence. It was then Bushkin saw Carson lean against the wall and begin to weep. His raincoat had opened and Bushkin saw that Johnny was carrying a .38-caliber revolver in a holster on his hip. On the return to Johnny’s apartment, not a word was said. Carson thanked everyone and said he was tired and wanted to be alone.

If Bushkin thought that perhaps he had seen the last of Johnny, he couldn‘t have been more wrong. The next evening he was awakened from a sound sleep at two a.m. by an obviously sloshed Carson. Johnny said he was sitting in Jilly’s, a saloon famous for catering to celebrities, with Ed McMahon and needed Bushkin to come right away. Henry managed to catch a cab and arrived about an hour later to find Johnny nursing a drink, totally in his cups, bemoaning his marital situation with a certainty that only a drunk could have. Ed popped out of the men’s room and Johnny dismissed him for the night. It dawned on Bushkin that he was to take Ed’s place as the sounding board. Johnny ran the gamut of his troubles, from his failure as a husband to his failure as a father to what he saw as the root cause of his failures at marriage, his mother “She’s the toughest son of a bitch of them all. There is no goddamn way to please that woman. She’s Lady Macbeth! My marriages failed because she f***ed me up . . . If a doctor opened my chest right now, he couldn’t find a heart or any goddamn thing. Just a lot of misery. My mother made sure of that. She deprived us all of any real goddamn warmth. My dad, Homer, should get the f***ing Medal of Honor for endurance.” But then, according to Bushkin, the storm passed as quickly as it came, and Johnny saw a hot brunette enter the room. Henry was dismissed as Carson left with the woman.

The next morning, Carson called to ask what they talked about the night before. Bushkin was the soul of discretion, so much so that Carson invited him over to his place to begin the paperwork for divorce proceedings. If the past two nights were some sort of bizarre test, Bushkin passed with flying colors and became Carson’s attorney and everything that went with it, a position he would hold for the next two decades.

These three stories set the tone for the rest of the book, which becomes a gossipy, self-aggrandizing memoir of a bromance gone horribly wrong. It’s fun reading, almost as if one is eavesdropping at the clubhouse, but it adds practically nothing to the knowledge of Carson that we’ve already picked up before from other, more reliable sources. Anyone who has read through the plethora of material that appeared even before his death, knew Carson to be a complex mass of contradictions; a man who seemed so accessible in his role as host of The Tonight Show, whose quick wit and charm made for many memorable moments over the years supplemented by his oft times razor sharp monologues. But when the red light of the camera turned off, so did Carson. His preferred method for unwinding after a show was to retreat to a room in his home and play his drums alone for hours on end. In private, he was even more mercurial: gracious, witty, generous one moment; curt, aloof and nasty the next moment. As Bushkin puts it: “Never have I met a man possessed of a greater number of social gifts – intelligence, looks, manners, style, humor – and never have I met a man with less aptitude for or interest in maintaining real relationships.” There was no room in his innermost life for a wife or children; when his son, Rick, was hospitalized at New York’s Bellevue, Carson declined to pay him a visit, citing a media circus that would break out if he did visit, and sending Bushkin in his place.

Bushkin’s idea of insight into Carson’s personality is to tell lurid, unsubstantiated stories of his exploits. One story is credited to Bushkin’s one-time girlfriend, actress Joyce DeWitt, about how Jilly Rizzo, the owner of Jilly’s, told her about the time Carson was putting the moves on a hot blonde only to find not only was she not unattached, but that her boyfriend was a major underworld figure. He and several large associates removed Johnny from his bar stool and threw him down a flight of stairs, and, if not for Jilly’s intervention, Johnny would have received an even bigger beating to follow. Carson reacted to this social faux pas by holing up in his apartment and missing three shows. To set things right, NBC Network supposedly cut a deal with mobster Joseph Colombo to cover a rally by his Italian-American Civil Rights League on Columbus Day, 1970.

While all these stories make for fun reading, there is a rationale behind each and every one. In Bushkin’s world, there are two Johnnys: There is Good Johnny and Bad Johnny. Good Johnny was caring and giving, especially as concerned Bushkin – giving him down payments for homes and loans, taking him on vacation with him to Vegas, Wimbledon, and the rest of Europe. And, of course, taking Bushkin’s legal and financial advice, by which Carson made out pretty well. Bad Johnny, on the other hand, drank heavily and was nasty when drunk, was a compulsive cheater on all four of his wives, did not take Bushkin’s advice and sign a pre-nup with third wife Joanna, was emotionally cold, tried to steal at least one of Henry’s girlfriends, and worst of all, become financially contented, allowing side businesses such as his clothing line, to wither and die. According to Henry, Carson never really liked the business side of things. He just liked making money, and when he had enough money, that was that. Worst of all, in Henry’s view, was Carson’s indifference to his own company, Carson Productions. Like his other projects, he was initially enthused when it was starting up, but now he was bored by it all and wanted to sell. He set the price at a figure Bushkin thought unrealistic, so Bushkin did some negotiating of his own with the Tribune Company and when the news of this was leaked to Carson, he fired Bushkin, accusing him of trying to sell his company out from under him. They negotiated a handshake settlement – and Henry never saw Johnny again.

The following financial battle saw Bushkin sued for malpractice and held liable for Carson’s failed business deals. It took him, he said, four years of litigation to clear his name, which peaked in a lengthy trial in which the jury agreed with him and awarded him $17 million. Who was right? It’s hard to say, since we have only Bushkin’s view of what transpired between the two, suffice to say that Bushkin goes on an extended whine about how much time he devoted to his most important client in the past (And relentlessly reminding us that he thought they were friends. Johnny once joking referred to Henry as his consigliere during the day when The Godfather was all over the pop culture of the day.), throwing tennis games to keep him happy, being at his beck and call 24 hours a day, etc. He also retreats into another running theme throughout the book: that Johnny’s cold behavior was a result of having a cold, distant mother who he could never please. That Carson’s life was spent trying to gain recognition and love from a mother who was not prepared to give him any. Dimebook Freud, to be sure, but it does seem to resonate in some of Carson’s behavior, especially towards his wives and sons.

I would have liked insights on Johnny’s wives and sons, his relationships with Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen, both of whom are conspicuous by their absence. How about more on his relationship with Joan Rivers? Most of all I would have liked to have some real insights into Johnny himself, other than some pop psychology blaming his mother. Instead we are treated to what is really an autobiography by Bushkin, in which Johnny is the main supporting character. It seems that Johnny wasn’t the only one in their relationship with the Hollywood-sized ego.