Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hollywood in Black and White

A hush will fall over this teeming megalopolis this afternoon, traffic will cease, streets will empty.

It's Oscar day and no matter where you live, on this day you live in Hollywood.

And when Hollywood struts its stuff, we all watch.

I'm betting the ratings will be unaffected by the recent disclosure in the Los Angeles Times that the majority of Academy voters are 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male with a median age of 62.

In other words, old white guys.

It was a nice bit of reporting by the Times. The Academy is more secretive than the Tournament of Roses which is more secretive that the CIA. It took a major effort to unearth that data.

But the revelation is hardly shocking. Just look at the best movie nominations this year: "Moneyball," "The Artist," "The Descendants," "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," "War Horse," "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris," "The Tree of Life." All movies that deal with lives and loves of white folks.

Only "The Help," nominated for Best Picture contains much in the way of ethnic diversity.

Consider the top grossing films of 2011.

"Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "The Twilight Saga," "The Hangover Part II," "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." You can fill out the list with a bunch of animated features.

Again, hardly a diverse selection unless you count cartoon characters
as minorities.

And again, hardly breaking news. The Times article pointed out that Jesse Jackson protested the lack of diversity in the Academy some 16 years ago.

Progress? Last year there wasn't one black presenter.

Hollywood has historically been run by white males, for the most part. So is the American auto industry but film shapes people's perceptions and attitudes a lot more than SUVs do.

Which is why we should care.

The industry has paid lip service to diversification for years, but ultimately it amounts to very little.

Sydney Poitier is not the only black actor in town anymore and a woman actually won a Best Director Oscar last year. Those are baby steps in an industry that should be making giant strides.

Indeed, the most successful minority in the movie business is Tyler Perry, whose film and television productions have earned more than $500 million worldwide.

He did it on his own, running his own studios in Atlanta. He personally made $130 million last year, according to Forbes magazine.

That's a lot of money for Hollywood to ignore.

Diversification is made even more problematic because Hollywood is a closed society.

Want a job as a carpenter, or grip, or lighting technician? You had better know someone who knows someone if you want work.

Want to succeed as an actor or director? You have a better chance of winning the lottery.

Still, changes are necessary if movies are to truly reflect the society in which we live.

Blacks are about 2 percent of the Academy, and Latinos are less than 2 percent.

That's just wrong.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The High Price of Grandiosity

The rich are not like you and me, F. Scott Fitzgerald once opined,
and he should know. He spent a fair amount of time observing and
writing about the foibles and the follies of the monied set.

And while I’d like to have a vault full of cash to assure the comfort
of my family now and for a few generations forward, I’m glad I’m not
subject to the narcissistic instincts that afflict the wealthy.

Example A is David Siegel, a time share tycoon who runs his company,
Westgate Resorts, out of Orlando, Fla. Fitzgerald would have loved

Mr. Siegel and his wife several years ago thought it would be swell
to build the biggest house in the United States. So they embarked on
an ostentatious monstrosity they called “Versailles” after the royal
chateau outside of Paris that was once housed the kings of France.

This Americanized version is located in Windermere, a gated enclave
for the well-to-do that had managed to escape notoriety until a
couple of residents, Mr. and Mrs. Tiger Woods by name, had a very
loud and public spat several years ago.

The Siegel’s dream home is a tidy 90,000 square feet. It features 13
bedrooms, 23 full bathrooms, a 6,000-square-foot master suite (with
plans for a bed on a rotating platform), a banquet kitchen plus 10
satellite kitchens, a 20-car garage, three pools, a two-story wine
cellar and a grand hall with a 30-foot stained glass dome and a
ballroom that will accommodate 1,000.

That’s just the basics. It also features a boat house, formal
gardens, a baseball field, two tennis courts and a rock grotto with a
waterfall, a fitness center, a two-lane bowling alley, a roller rink,
a video arcade and a theater.

And I thought I had trouble finding my glasses and keys in my
2,500-square-foot corner of the world.

The cost: In the neighborhood of $100 million which is not bad
considering the Brazilian mahogany French doors cost $4 million alone.

The good news, especially if you’re a billionaire Russian arms dealer
or a member of the House of Saud, is that it’s for sale.
Asking price is $75 million, a real steal.

By comparison, the mansion once owned by Aaron Spelling in Holmby
Hills recently sold for $85 million and it’s only 56,500 square feet,
larger than the White House but a mere tract home compared to

The difference is that the Siegel pad isn’t finished. Seems like the
recession kicked Mr. Siegel right in his assets and it was au revoir

Completing it will set you back another $25 million, assuming you
want to follow Siegel’s plans. If you want changes --- say, another
10 or 15 bathrooms for instance ---- well, that will up the price.

And you have to live in Florida which is no bargain at all.

In the meantime, Siegel will have to make do with his current
26,000-square-foot home where he and his wife were recently profiled
in a documentary entitled “The Queen of Versailles” which was shown
at the Sundance Festival.

The Siegels didn’t much care for the film. They’re suing for

While Siegel sits, brooding, he is probably discovering that this
grandiosity game is tough to win.

For example, the real Versaille in France checks in at 721,206 square
feet. So Siegel’s dream, had he completed it, was in reality a faux
Versailles, a pretend version kind of like the Matterhorn at
Disneyland. Nobody takes it seriously.

And when it comes to sheer unmitigated spending, Segal would have
been hard pressed to top the 27-story floor personal home of
businessman Mukesh Ambani, the billionaire chairman of Reliance

It takes a staff of 600 to maintain the residence,located in Mumbai,
India, which was built to accommodate Ambani, wife Nita, their three
children and Ambani's mother.

It features 400,000 square feet of living space, parking space for
168 cars, nine elevators in the lobby, three helipads and an air
traffic control facility.

Also included is a health spa, yoga studio, small theater with a
seating capacity for 50 on the eighth floor, a swimming pool, three
floors of hanging gardens, a ballroom and an ice room infused with
man-made snow flurries.

Forbes Magazine estimated the cost of the residence at nearly $2

It remains empty, however, because the owner believes it would be bad
luck to move in, according to the Daily Mail.

Maybe he and Siegel can find a nice condo somewhere.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Be My Valentine

Gentlemen, don’t be this guy:

She: “It’s Valentine’s Day. You forgot.”

He: (stammering) “ Well, I can explain. I did a little research on
the holiday and this is what I found.

“Valentine’s Day honors a couple of Christian martyrs named, what
else, Valentine. One was put to death for attempting to convert a
Roman emperor to Christianity.

“The other was a priest who refused a law attributed to Roman Emperor
Claudius II, allegedly ordering that young men remain single. The
Emperor supposedly did this to grow his army, believing that married
men did not make for good soldiers. The priest, however, secretly
performed marriage ceremonies for young men. When Claudius found out
about this, he had Valentine arrested and jailed.

“He fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and on the day of his
execution, Feb.14, sent her a love letter signed, ‘Your Valentine.’

“Nice stories, both. But they are legends with little or no
historical evidence to support them. The celebration most likely was
an attempt by the Catholic Church to Christianize a Roman fertility
festival held in mid-February.

“In fact, the Catholic Church deleted Valentine’s Day as an official
feast day in 1969 apparently believing that neither of these
gentlemen had anything to do with love and courtship.

“So I didn’t forget. I just decided not to celebrate a holiday that
has no basis in fact.”

She: Icy stare. Silent treatment for at least a week, maybe longer.

And so our protagonist learns the hard way that it’s easier to buy
candy or dinner or flowers than to apply steely eyed logic to affairs
of the heart.

The fact is, we’ve been celebrating Valentine’s Day for a very long

Doing a bit of research from such diverse Internet sites as CNN, the
Census Bureau, the History Channel and Wikipedia we discover the

The first recorded association of Valentine's Day with romantic love
is in “Parlement of Foules” (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer
wrote: "For this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh
there to choose his mate."

It seems odd that birds would be mating in February but let’s allow
old Geoffrey a little literary license.

Doing it as only the French can do, a “High Court of Love” was
established in Paris on Valentine's Day in 1400. The court dealt with
love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. Judges were
selected by women on the basis of a poetry reading.

Also in the Middle Ages, legend has it that young men and women drew
names from a bowl to see who their valentines would be. They would
wear these names on their sleeves for one week. Now, to wear your
heart on your sleeve means being transparent with your affections.

Today, Valentine’s Day continues to be a big deal. According to the
Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day
cards are sent each year, making Valentine's Day the second largest
card-sending holiday of the year. (An estimated 2.6 billion cards are
sent for Christmas.)

Not surprisingly, women buy 85 per cent of all Valentines. On the
other hand, men spend almost twice as much on Valentine’s Day as
women do.

Candy sales account for $448 million the week before Feb. 14 and $8.6
million is spent on sparkling wine.

Other Valentine facts:

More than one-third of men would prefer not receiving a gift. Less
than 20 percent of women feel the same way.

Fifteen per cent of U.S. women send themselves flowers on Valentine’s

More than 9 million pet owners will buy gifts for their pets.
More at-home pregnancy tests are sold in March than in any other

Finally, the most used (and abused) poem in recent history began life
as a bit of Valentine’s Day doggerel first noted in a 1784 collection
of English nursery rhymes:

The rose is red, the violet's blue,
The honey's sweet, and so are you.
Thou are my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou'd be you.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Crooner-in-Chief

Americans in the past have chosen their presidents based on party, on
stature, on appearance, on rhetoric, on popularity, even on critical
issues from time to time.

But this may be the first presidential race decided on singing
ability. Call it “Campaign 2012” meets “American Idol.”

This all started when President Obama, appearing at a recent
fund-raiser at the Apollo Theater in New York, crooned a couple of
bars from “Let’s Stay Together,” a hit a few years back by renown
R&B/gospel singer Al Green.

And while it’s hard to judge talent on a couple of bars of music, his
performance, in falsetto no less, sounded pretty good. So good, in
fact, it went viral on You Tube (more than 4 million views) and
became available as a smart phone ringtone.

While the President may be struggling to right the economic Ship of
State, he certainly did right by Mr. Green.

Sales of the song rose 490 per cent after Obama’s rendition,
according the Hollywood Reporter.

With than kind of juice, Obama could record an album and pay down the
national debt with the proceeds.

Not to be outdone, Mitt Romney launched into an entire chorus of
“America the Beautiful” at a recent campaign stop in Florida.

The song was surely selected to warm the hearts of conservatives
everywhere. I mean, you couldn’t have Romney singing “Jumpin’ Jack
Flash’’ to a crowd of people who thought the last great American
songwriter was Stephen Foster.

It was the worst idea since Dukakis drove a tank. To put it kindly,
it was soul-less and embarrassing.

Historians may look back and declare Romney was revealed on that day
to be tone deaf both musically and politically.

Yet, some found both performances inspiring. A former colleague
suggested we incorporate singing into a new kind of presidential

Rather than just debating, candidates would compete in singing,
dancing, cooking (have them de-bone a chicken or bake a soufflé),
bartending (have them produce a mai-tai from scratch), free-throw
shooting, a round of golf and a few hands of Texas hold-em.

That would tell us something about their character.

Obama is not the first president or potential president to make music
a part of his persona.

Richard Nixon played “God Bless America” on the piano at one point
during his administration and accompanied Pearl Baily in the East
Room during a social function.

Bill Clinton, before he was president, showed up on the Arsinio Hall
show on night with his saxophone and dark glasses in tow and launched
into a version of “Heartbreak Hotel.” After becoming president,
Clinton jammed with E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons at an
inaugural ball.

Other presidents played although not publicly. John Quincy Adams
played the flute, Chester Arthur the banjo, Woodrow Wilson the
violin. Franklin Roosevelt liked to sing. And John Tyler organized
his 15 children in a White House minstrel band, according to
historical accounts.

But perhaps the most famous of all was Harry Truman who never met a
piano he didn’t like.

Truman once conducted a nationally televised tour of the renovated
White House and played on a 1938 Steinway. The building was
condemned, one account says, when a leg of a piano played by his
daughter Margaret crashed through the floor of the decrepit mansion.

Truman once famously said: "My choice early in life was either to be
a piano-player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the
truth, there's hardly any difference."