Weekly Wilson - Blog of Author Connie C. Wilson

Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books—-her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

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Bill Duke: An Autobiography Worth Reading

Bill Duke: My 40 Year Career On Screen and Behind the Camera

Bill Duke: My 40-year Career On Screen and Behind the Camera

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, 193 pages, plus index and photographs (15 pages)

Amazon: Print – $16.47. E-book: $13.99.

 

Bill Duke, with his 62 directorial credits, 17 as a producer, and 4 as a writer, is a face on the screen that movie-goers have recognized since the seventies. It was 1976, in fact, when his breakthrough role as Duane/Abdullah in “Car Wash,” paired with such luminaries as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Otis Day, Antonio Fargas and the Pointer Sisters gave him his first big break in the 40-year career he writes about in “Bill Duke: My 40-year Career Onscreen and Behind the Camera.”

For me, one of his most memorable roles was as Leon, the gay pimp in “American Gigolo.” His movements were sinuous and catlike; he was an unforgettable character in this story of lust and greed, which focused on Gere and his romance of Lauren Hutton as a neglected politician’s wife and a murder suspect.  Paul Schrader (Oscar-nominated this past year for his script for “First Reformed,” which Schrader directed) was the director. The music by Giorgio Moroder imprints the film on my mind.

Duke admits, “I found it to be one of the high points of my acting career with one of the leading roles of the film. It was outside of my comfort zone, but it was a growing experience. I loved the character I played, and I loved working with Richard Gere.”

Duke goes on to say that “Richard Gere was meticulous with every movement of his character, like the movement of his eyes, the face, the lips, the hands, and the legs.” I would add that this attention to detail and movement goes double for Bill Duke in his roles. Leon was, indeed, a high point of Bill Duke’s acting career, and one I remember well.

I would also say that Duke’s praise of his fellow actors and directors and co-stars is universal throughout the book. “Never is heard a discouraging word.” If you are looking for a “tell-all” book from a Hollywood insider that will open the floodgates on unsavory doings, this isn’t it. Bill does allude to a low period in his own life when he gave in to the temptation of drugs, but the story of the seamier side of life in Hollywood is not this book’s mission.

BACKGROUND

When I was teaching junior high school students in a small town in Illinois, I was happy to find that the local library had a series of 16 millimeter After School Specials.  I could rent these and show them to my students. I selected those where Bill Duke and Kevin Hooks were involved because they would be quality productions with good messages and the length was perfect to show to a class on a Friday afternoon late in the year. I was then (and am now) a film critic. I pay attention to who is in a film, and also to who is directing, writing and producing a film.

Duke has appeared in too many television series to list them all, including stints on those After School Specials as well as on “Cold Case” (2008), “Lost” (2006), “Battlestar Galactica” (2006), “Starsky & Hutch” (1978), “Kojack” (1976), “Falcon Crest, “Fame,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Knott’s Landing,” “Dallas,” and “New York Undercover.” He is still active on “Black Lightning.”

Bill Duke’s feature credits include the two films mentioned (“Car Wash,” “American Gigolo”), which really launched him, as well as “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” “Get Rich or Die Trying,” “Deep Cover,” “Hoodlum,” “Predator,” “Menace II Society” and “Not Easily Broken,” to name just a few. He has won NAACP Image Awards and been a nominee for a 1991 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or with “A Rage in Harlem.” Sundance Film Festival awarded “The Killing Floor” (1984) a Special Jury Prize and a Grand Jury Prize.  More recently, the Northeast Film Festival recognized “American Satan” with a Best Ensemble Prize and, in 2018-2019, Bill Duke can be seen as Agent Percy Odell in the television series “Black Lightning.”

Reading about how this 77-year-old African American actor/director/producer/writer rose from humble origins in Poughkeepsie, New York and how he continues to open the door for so many other talented black entertainers was interesting, educational and amusing. He seems to write from the heart with sincerity, although there are a few areas that he treats “once over lightly,” including his own bouts with drug addiction and his personal life.

When Duke talks about Leon, his desire to excel shines through. “Playing that role gave me an opportunity to show other sides of my acting ability.  I was seen by many casting directors as the big, tall, angry black man.  I wanted to show that I could be more than that.  The character of Leon was a soft-spoken brilliant sociopathic businessman, and I wanted the opportunity to let casting directors know that I had more range.”

Duke shares the trials and tribulations of being a television series regular. (“A television series is the hardest work for an actor on the face of this Earth.”) He thanks all those who have helped him along the way and does not speak ill of anyone, but does tell readers that, after appearing on a television series called “Palmerstown,” he could not find work as an actor for 2 years.

He explains, “In those days, they had something called a TV Q score, which was a way to measure how familiar audiences were with an actor, TV show, and so forth.  If you were on a television show that garnered a lot of publicity, you could be considered ‘overexposed,’ which could make it difficult to get hired for another television show or feature because your Q score went down.” He adds that the experience made him depressed and angry and convinced him that he had “better learn how to do more than just act.”

Thus began a career move towards producing, writing and directing and this quote:  “Once I figured Hollywood might typecast me as the police officer, I turned to directing.  That way, I could wait until an interesting project came along.” Duke has also moved into the job of Chairperson of the Department of Radio, Television and Film at Howard University, as of 2000.

[*As an aside, I once interviewed the man responsible for the Q Score system. He had headquarters at that time in Marion, Iowa. At that point in time, he was tasked with making a television star spokesperson out of top model Cheryl Tiegs, something that never really worked. The man had worked for Gallup and took his knowledge of polling into the world of television and movies with the much-vaunted “Q Score” that Bill Duke mentions as having given him two years of idleness, sadness and depression. The Q Score Big Boss didn’t like what I had to say about the Q Score, so the article never ran.  I was paid a “kill fee” after I interviewed him in his Marion, Iowa, offices.]

Duke scored a collaborative job with Joel Silver on “Commando,” which introduced him to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mark Lester (the director) and led, later, to his role as Mac in 1987’s “Predator.”’

PREDATOR STORY

One of the best stories in the book involves “Predator” and the unknown and inexperienced stuntman/actor hired to play the title creature. The actor was dressed in heavy black felt for the filming in the jungles near Puerto Vallarta. The heat and humidity were intolerable, causing the stuntman to pass out at least two times early on.

The director strode over and said, “If you pass out again, I’m going to have to fire you.” The original Predator creature (which did not appear in the film), was a smaller, more nimble creature that flew through jungle trees with speed and flexibility and fully packed laser guns. That Predator was also invisible and could strike his prey at any time. The bodysuit, including placement over the head and face, was originally used to insert computer-generated special effects over the actor’s body in post production. Unfortunately for the actor within the suit, he did pass out again.

At that moment, Joel Silver marched over to him and, as the actor awoke, suffering from exhaustion and dehydration, Silver said, “You’re fired.” The acrobatic, multitalented martial artist flying through the trees in a felt suit in one of his first jobs in America was Jean-Claude Van Damme.

ENCOURAGEMENT

One of the best things about the book is its “never say die” encouragement of young actors, in general, and African American actors in particular. While giving props to all of the heavyweights who have gone before (Sidney Poitier, Spike Lee, etc.), Bill Duke, himself, has proven to be a shining example of an actor who has paved the way for others. His work in Hollywood earned him an appointment to the Board of the California State Film Commission, as well as an appointment to the National Endowment of Humanities under President Bill Clinton. The Directors’ Guild of America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Tribute. The reader may get the feeling that the author sometimes feels he has not received his fair share of recognition, and his Bill Duke Media corporation may be an attempt to rectify that by producing a great deal more quality film output.

As an unconventional actor—-not known for good looks, but renowned for good performances—Duke has had a career that has had many highs and lows. He shares that, “It’s all about relationships in the industry.” That remark could probably be expanded to any line of work. It may be intensified in Hollywood, but it seems true of many corporations, businesses and industries.

Quote: “Nobody else in this world is like you.  There may be similarities, but nobody is just like you.  You have value, and if nobody has validated that for you, it is time for you to validate yourself.  Let your soul and your spirit out in your writing.  Tell the truth of your experience in life through your writing.  Writing forces you to love yourself and let out your truth.  It takes courage, but the payoff is something that you cannot spend.” (p. 190)

“I wish I could say that writing this book was inspired by me and my courage, but the truth is that it was not.  For many years, people told me that I should tell my story because of all that I had gone through in Hollywood, but I never believed that I had anything important to say.  I thought a lot of people had gone through what I had gone through.  I didn’t think there was anything special about bill Duke in Hollywood. However, when I reached my seventies, I wanted to leave something for those who come after me to benefit from.” (p. 190)

POETRY

Duke shares his poetry with us throughout the book. After reading of his humble origins in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the events that shaped him over the years, including a history of family violence, his poetry reveals a deep, sensitive soul, who arranges the poems on the page in vertical fashion. Lines like: “Nobody really cares. Nobody seems to really care about the other’s pain. For we must laugh and dance and sing and not remind us of anything that resembles fears that we’ve secretly tried to cover by pretending to be devoted lovers of everything except ourselves. “

What came through, for me, was that Bill Duke, at least early on, suffered from self-loathing. Was it his appearance? Was it because of remarks made to him when he was young? Was it because of his father and mother’s sometimes violent marriage? The source is difficult to pin down, as it often is in life.

WOMEN

Related image

Bill Duke during 1987’s “Predator” filming

It sounds as though Bill Duke doesn’t trust women. The reason for this is hinted at: a girl he had a crush on in college led him to believe that she’d spend time with him if he traveled to her school. He did (travel to her school). She didn’t (spend time with him). That seems to be one of the reasons why he stopped trusting ALL women. He had some sexual mistreatment by an early babysitter that also may have affected his views.

He frankly admits (p. 27): “I thought of sex as a game of pleasure from that day on, and maybe the reason I’ve hurt so many women in my life was because I always focused on the act, not the person.  I liked having sex with different women, but I never went beyond that and made emotional connections.  I simply enjoyed the physical act.  Maybe it’s because of the way I learned about sex; I’m not sure.”

On page 171, Duke adds, “One of the many reasons I never got married was that I always thought I was ugly, and I didn’t want to have children that looked like me.” He goes on to say, “After my first love betrayed me, I used that as an excuse to become a scoundrel when it came to women.”

At least this sensitive, introspective man realizes it is an excuse and admits he has, at times, been a “scoundrel” when it comes to women.

TRUST

While Bill Duke trusts himself (“Trusting what is inside you is key”, p. 189) he doesn’t seem to trust many other people. He talks of loneliness this way (p. 178): “You have a couple of friends who are with you throughout your life.  Some stay and some go, but when you’re not successful, not making money, and your career is not going well in our industry, there aren’t many people who flock to you.  That shouldn’t be a shock, because they are hustling and trying to do what they have to do.  If you can’t do anything for them, you are of no use to them.”

The book is good. The stories and experiences are fascinating and interesting. I always liked any film Bill Duke was associated with and that has proven to be prescient. If you’re interested in the film industry in any capacity as a career, this is a good read.

(Connie Corcoran Wilson, www.TheMovieBlog.com, www.ConnieCWilson.com)

“Galveston” Premieres at SXSW with Ben Foster & Elle Fanning

 

“Galveston,” based on the novel by Nic Pizzolatto, World Premiered here last Saturday (March 10th). Although I was assigned Red Carpet duties for “Galveston” and Ben Foster, its star, was supposed to attend, along with Elle Fanning,  it would have meant missing out on an interview with the screenwriters for “A Quiet Place.”  I saw it at the end of the festival, instead, without Ben Foster or Elle Fanning.

The brief plot summary for “Galveston”: “After surviving a set-up by his criminal boss (Beau Bridges), a hitman rescues a young prostitute and flees with her to Galveston, Texas, where the two find strength in each other as dangerous pursuers and the shadows of their pasts follow close behind.”

The novel the film was based on (“Galveston”) was written by Nic Pozaletti,  novelist-turned-screenwriter who wrote 22 episodes of television’s “True Detective” series.  Directed by Melanie Laurent, she also scripted it, and it wasn’t as strong as the source material. Producer was 74-year-old Jean Doumanian, better known for producing many of Woody Allen’s best-known films, [before he sued her over “The Jade Scorpion,” when she announced that he had 2 days to find alternative financing and Allen said she had been skimming]. [Interestingly, Doumanian also had a brief, troubled tenure running “Saturday Night Live” in 1980-1981 before Lorne Michaels returned. The credits for “Galveston” read “Jean Doumanian Productions, in association with Storm Outside.” Low Spark films appears as the company that helmed this and, later, when a motel used in the production is named Emerald Shores Motel, it is noteworthy that the company mentioned is Emerald Shores LLC. It is also true that the Motel’s desk woman, Nanee Covington, is well played by C.K. McFarland.]

THE GOOD

                                                                     Ben Foster (Pinterest)

Nobody can put sheer intensity and emotion onscreen better than Ben Foster, the Fairfield, Iowa, native who has studied Transcendental Meditation since the age of 4. Foster dropped out of high school in his freshman year and flew to Los Angeles, based on the strength of an audition tape, to be cast at 16 in a TV show called “Flash Forward.” He never looked back and came to the attention of the public, in general. for his superb work in “Hostage” with Bruce Willis, playing a character named Marshall “Mars” Krupcheck, in 2005.

By that point, I was watching him portray Russell Corwin on “Six Feet Under” (2003-2005) and admiring his acting intensity.  Of this quality, he has said, “That is source, that is art, that is spirituality.  And meditation is a way to defy fear and experience that source.” It seems to have served him well. He has racked up some impressive roles in films like “The Messenger” in 2009, opposite Woody Harrelson, portraying Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, whose task it is to tell soldiers’ families that their loved one has died in combat. Before that, there was Charlie Prince in “3:10 to Yuma” in 2007 and “Alpha Dog” as Jake Magursky in 2006.

Foster, selected in surveys when very young as an actor to watch, has said, “The heat around young actors burns out.  Natural ability and magnetism only get you so far.  The rest is hard work.”

Foster’s co-star in “Galveston,” Elle Fanning, is another young actress who knows all about starting young. Fanning began working on film as the younger version of her older sister, Dakota, at the age of 3, in “Taken” and “I Am Sam.”

Only 19 now, she was just as intense as Foster in her scenes as a young girl from Orange, Georgia, trying to escape a troubled past that included sexual abuse by her stepfather that results in a child, Tiffany (played as a child by Tinsley & Anniston Price and also by Lili Bernhart as a 23-year-old). She upped her game because Foster brought out the best in her, perhaps.

The acting in this film is over-the-top good.

THE BAD

The plot , script and direction: not so much.

The overall tone and setting of gritty reality was done well, and the costume design by Lynette Meyer to portray Elle as a trashy young thing was excellent, although to dismiss her character of “Rocky” as “a prostitute” is to shortchange that character. She is more an innocent with no other way to support herself than a true professional lady of the evening.

Rocky (Raquel/Fanning) shows up in the plot when Roy Cady (Ben Foster) is sent to rob a house which, in reality, is a set-up by his evil boss (who runs a laundromat), Stan Pithco (played by a decidedly portly and greasy Beau Bridges).  When Roy manages to survive the hit, he notices a pretty girl in a red dress tied to a chair. Almost on impulse, Roy cuts her loose and takes her with him— not as a hostage, but more as an act of mercy.

The script, in fact, spells this out in dialogue between Fanning and Foster, when she asks why he is kidnapping her. He responds, “I saved you. Be clear on that.”  Later, Foster goes to the wall for the young girl and her sister/daughter (think “Chinatown”), telling the now-grown-up Tiffany, “All this time I was your friend. You weren’t abandoned.”

There is a story line that involves Cady’s incorrect assumption that he is dying of lung cancer, his drinking (“You look like hell and you smell like it, too”) and his altruistic act(s) in defense of “Rocky”, whose real name is Raquel Arceneaux (Elle Fanning). Never do we get the impression that the 40-year-old and the 19-year-old are sexually involved, (although they do have one memorable date that might have led down that path, had the path been slightly longer.)

There are storms and rain and approaching hurricanes throughout the film (think Shakespeare) and the end made very little sense, except as it evoked a literary novel. By the denouement, the entire film will leave you marveling at the acting while feeling like you really need a stiff drink to recover from the many godawful things that have just happened to the characters.

VERDICT

I enjoy watching Ben Foster work. He has the same ability that Michael Shannon has to completely dominate the screen with his  intensity. Elle Fanning also has come a long way from  previous films. She  did a stand-out job opposite Foster. Maybe his excellence brought out the best in her?

I originally selected this film for Red Carpet duties because I met Foster once before, in Chicago, when he appeared there with “The Messenger” in 2009. He is nothing if not intense, but he is also a good interview and not at all like the almost psychopathic types he occasionally inhabits onscreen. Then the opportunity for interviewing the screenwriters from “A Quiet Place” loomed, in conflict with those duties, so I finally caught the film today at its last showing, and I’ve given you Elle Fanning’s comments (above).

Perhaps Foster will mellow even more as his daughter with Laura Prepon (“The Hero”) approaches one year old this August, and his years (2014 and 2015) with Robin Wright  (Penn), 14 years his senior, fade into oblivion.

See “Galveston” for the acting, but don’t try to make too much sense of the ending, nor of the scenes with Roy’s former African-American girlfriend, Lorraine (Adepero Oduye), which could have been omitted completely without harming the plot.

This is a French person’s script and  take on life in the South (shot in Savannah, Georgia and elsewhere in Georgia with many references to Austin, where Pizzolatto was once a bartender). That could account for some of what I found unsatisfactory about the film. My roommate was a French major in college, so, one year at the Chicago Film Festival (she accompanied me), we watched nothing but films that were in French with English subtitles. Fun for her. For me? Not so much. [ If you’ve  watched many French films, you’ll know what I mean.] I think the movie might have been better served in the Director/Writer area by utilizing a more-experienced U.S. director of either gender .

 

“Middle Man” Screens in Chicago at Chicago Film Festival

Middle Man

Genre: Dark Comedy
Director: Ned Crowley:
Actor: Jim O’Heir (“Parks & Recreation’s” Jerry Gergich)
104 minutes

“Middle Man” is a film from the twisted mind of Chicago native Ned Crowley, starring another Chicago native, Jim O’Heir, who appeared on “Parks & Recreation’ as Jerry Gergich, the lovable punching bag.

This wickedly dark comedy follows Lenny, a nerdy accountant searching for stand-up comedy fame. For, as the opening quote from Fatty Arbuckle says, “No price is too high to pay for a good laugh.”

En route to Vegas following the death of his mother (with whom he lived), Lenny picks up a mysterious hitchhiker who lures him into a violent killing spree that accidentally turns him into a comedy sensation.

Distribution is still pending so a capsule review is all I can offer at this time. But here’s a picture from the evening:

Jerry O'Heir (Lenny in "Middle Man" and Jerry Gergich on "Parks & Recreation") at the Chicago Film Festival.

Jerry O’Heir (Lenny in “Middle Man” and Jerry Gergich on “Parks & Recreation”) at the Chicago Film Festival.

“The Well” Is A Post-Apocalyptic World Movie with a Message for Our Time

Writer/Director Tom Hammock has been the production designer on 25 films, including “You’re Next” and “The Guest.” His directorial debut with “The Well” put all that experience to good use, as he selected the perfect location, costumes, music and cast for this post-apocalyptic  drama about survivors trying to stay alive in a dust-bowl-like world where water is the most precious commodity.
The movie is horror. It is thriller. It is social commentary. It is a reversal of all the normal stereotypes. And it is good—very, very good!
The film was shot in an area 2 hours outside of Los Angeles between December 1st and December 18th as quickly as possible, using 45 grueling set-ups in an 8-hour day. At the heart of the movie is a 17-year-old leading lady, Haley Lu Richardson as Kendall. When hired, Richardson had only one previous screen credit: an Arizona matches ad. (Richardson also appeared recently in an indie comedy, “The Young Kieslowski.”)
Had there not already been a movie entitled “Kick Ass,” this part would qualify. Richardson’s background in dance helped her to perform strenuous fight sequences. She is a real find. She appears in every scene of the film and the entire story is told from her point-of-view.
Hammock has created a dry desert world of Mad Max-like appearance, but without the larger-than-life characters of that franchise. These characters are real people who are desperately struggling to survive while a greedy water baron named Carson sets out to systematically exterminate all of them. He calls them hangers-on, saying, “If they’re alive, they’re consuming my water, and they can’t consume my water without my consent.” Carson is central to the story and is well-played by veteran character actor John Gries (“Taken,” Napoleon Dynamite”), whom Hammock met at a genre film meet-up in the L.A. area that Hammock hosted.
As we are told, “If the company drains all the water away from the aquifer, they control the whole valley.” Kendall, the 17-year-old survivor and her boyfriend Dean (played by Booboo Stewart, depicted as dying from kidney failure), is told by her boyfriend, “There was a time when a man owned the land, he controlled the water, but things are different. He who controls the land controls the water.”
This is a modern-day parable regarding wealth (in this case, water) and its unequal distribution. It is timely, making the film rise above generic film genre categories and become commentary on the world around us today. Ironically, oil is essentially worth little in Hammock’s world, while water is the most precious substance after a 10-year drought devastates the area. With a real drought ongoing in California, the theme is even more current.
And that Australia-like desert which is one of the biggest “characters” in the entire production? It’s near where Tom Hammock grew up, 2 hours north out of Los Angeles. All the farms are actual houses that were abandoned by their owners when the land, planted in alfalfa, turned to dust. (The script’s reference to years prior when rice paddies flourished had me initially wondering if the film location was somewhere in Asia.)
Carson and his red-haired daughter Brooke (well played by “America’s Top Model” contestant Nicole Fox) and crew view their task of killing all the settlers in the valley in these stark terms: “Think of it as the extinction of a species…You have to kill them. The vagrants only suffer. If it weren’t me, it’d be someone else.” They even take a minister along with them (Michael McCartney) who pronounces, “Pray for each of these desperate thirsty souls. Ten years of no rain.”
Since Kendall (Richardson) spends much of the film either hiding from Carson and his men or actively overcoming them in hand-to-hand combat, rifle or samurai sword in hand, the cinematographer, Seamus Tierny, did a great job properly lighting her as she crouches in a dark attic shrouded in a foil wrap to fool the heat-seeking machines the searchers use, or fighting men twice her size in stark sunlight in the next. (When asked about the lighting, Hammock said, “The majority was lit by a white sheet and a pizza box.”)
All of the normal power structures in the film are turned upside-down: it is Kendall, the female character, who is doing all the fighting (not completely new, since “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent”). It is her boyfriend, Dean, who is weak. Plus, ironically, it is water, not oil, which is the source of all conflict.
Kendall and Dean, her boyfriend, have an old Cessna airplane hidden away that they hope to use to escape to a more favorable climate, but they first must find a distributor cap that fits. Much of the story concerns Kendall’s efforts to find this distributor cap, an homage to the original Road Warrior film.
The rest of the story is Kendall foraging or checking on or rescuing a small boy at a nearby farm, Albie (Max Charles). Kendall struggles not only with the exterminators who wear truly horrifying outfits (and, at times, gas masks) but also with her own compassionate impulses. As the cliché says, “No good deed goes unpunished,” which proves true more often than not in the plot, co-written by Hammock and Jacob Foreman.
The costume design by Emma Potter is terrific, as is the spare musical score by Craig Deleon, who often scores for Michael Bay or Apple commercials. There is also an ongoing, menacing wind sound. Director Hammock, when asked what was most daunting about the filming, cited the windy dust storms in the area, as well as achieving the defining image of the leading lady coated in oil. They put Haley in a flesh-colored wet suit and made the oil out of black children’s paint, but the temperature was still in the thirties—cold and uncomfortable for their determined actress, shown submerged in the slimy stuff in the movie’s most famous still.
This is an excellent, entertaining psychological study on a par with “The Babadook” in that neither is straight horror. Each is a well-drawn psychological thriller—but the Uma Thurman-like “Kill Bill” action vote goes to “The Well.”

Don’t miss it. This enterprising young director should be going big places in his film future.
“The Well” premiered at the L.A. Film Festival. It played at the Chicago Film Festival on October 19th; a production deal is nearing completion.

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