For a six-seven year period I devoted much time and energy to reporting on Omaha native John Beasley, a respected film, television, and stage actor and the director of his own namesake theater in his hometown. You’ll find on this blog several of the stories I did about John and his theater, including productions mounted there, and various guest artists who performed there. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader,com) is about one of those guest artists, actor Anthony Chisholm. My reporting about Beasley and his theater came to an abrupt end a few years ago when he took such strong exception to a review I wrote of one of his productions that it spoiled that particular beat for me. For all I know, he’s forgotten about the incident. But the verbal excoriation he gave me was so unsettling that I haven’t had the urge or the guts to contact him again, much less set foot in his theater. I did right by John and his theater for years, and he knows it, and so I do hope we can be friends again in the sense of my covering his work. The ironic thing is that that review was the only review I ever wrote – everything else was a feature or profile, and he never had any problem with those. Can’t we all just get along?
By the way, he’s picked up a recurring part in the HBO drama Treme and he hopes to have his recurring role in the NBC serio-comic series Harry’s Law continue. He continues to develop a feature film on Marlin Briscoe, the NFL’s first black quarterback.
Anthony Chisholm is in the House at the john Beasley Theater in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Actor Anthony Chisholm, a great interpreter of the late August Wilson’s work, is in Omaha for the second time in three years at the invitation of the John Beasley Theater. Chisholm’s originated roles in several Wilson plays about the African-American experience. He was a close friend of the playwright.
Chisholm once played opposite JBT founder John Beasley in a regional theater production of Wilson’s Two Trains Running. A friendship was born. In 2004 Chisholm came here to be part of the ensemble cast for Wilson’s Jitney at the JBT. Now, fresh off a Tony nomination for his featured role in Wilson’s Radio Golf, Chisholm is back at the JBT in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold…and the Boys. The show opens October 26 and runs through November 18.
This marks the first time that Chisholm, a veteran of regional theater, off-Broadway, Broadway, television and film, has worked in a piece by the South African Fugard. Chisholm met Fugard through the late director and drama instructor Lloyd Richards, a key figure in each man’s life. Chisholm studied under Richards, who brought Fugard’s work to the States at the Yale School of Drama and on Broadway.
Chisholm, a resident of Montclair, N.J., was destined to be an actor from the time his mother, an unpublished poet and novelist, encouraged him to recite prose and verse as a child in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. A young Chisholm wowed family, friends and fellow congregants at East Mount Zion Baptist Church with his resonant bass voice and perfect diction.
“I remember my uncle Pete telling me that was my ‘calling.’ He said it in such a deep and placed way that that stuck somewhere back in me,” Chisholm said.
One of Chisholm’s favorite childhood haunts was the Karamu House, a social settlement offering arts and crafts, dance and theater. The Karamu House Theatre, whose notables have included Langston Hughes, Ruby Dee, Brock Peters, Ivan Dixon and Halle Berry, gained fame for its integrated productions.
Intent on an architectural career, Chisholm entered Case Western Reserve University. He waited tables at a posh Washington, D.C. nightclub, the Junkanoo, to earn enough so he could continue his studies. This was the mid-1960s. As the Vietnam War grew hotter and the draft loomed larger, Chisholm’s number came up and he landed in the U.S. Army. His commanding presence found him a drill sergeant — barking orders to a regiment of 1,500 old-timers.
While in uniform he won a dramatic reading contest that earned him a scholarship to Yale. He never used it. On a leave home he visited the Karamu and found himself shanghaied into a reading of Douglas Turner Ward’s A Day of Absence. Cast on the spot, he had to beg off due to his military commitment. But Chisholm recalled the director encouraging him by saying, “’When you get out of the Army you come back here — we’re going to get you started.’ And so it was.”
Not before Chisholm got his orders for Nam. He served as an M-60 gunner on an armored personnel carrier with the 4th Armored Calvary, 1st Infantry Division. He saw his share of firefights. He survived the shit and just six months after returning home he began doing rep at the Karamu. Things happened fast. Paramount Pictures came to Cleveland to shoot a feature, Up Tight!, and he was cast alongside Roscoe Lee Browne and Raymond St. Jacques. Seven more film roles came in short order, including a pair of cult classics – Putney Swope and Where’s Poppa?.
He’s continued to act on the small and big screen, including parts in Beloved and in the new Adam Sandler-Don Cheadle film, Reign Over Me, playing opposite Cicely Tyson. He’s also done many guest shots on episodic TV and played a recurring character, Burr Redding, in the acclaimed HBO series Oz. But he’s mainly a stage actor. As a young man he hooked up with the Negro Ensemble Company, where he studied under Richards in a master class. He’s gone on to act with such leading theaters as the Goodman and Steppenwolf in Chicago, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Seattle Repertory. Then there’s his association with August Wilson, whom he first met in 1990. He considers himself a disciple of Wilson’s.
“There was something very holy about him. He was a prophet-philosopher. He was just this very unusual individual. If you read his writing so many of the things he says in storyline, as characters speaking, are so philosophical and deep,” Chisholm said. Doing Wilson, he added, “has made me a beter actor without a doubt because working with well-written material brings out the best in you.”
An actor’s journey is all about discovery — about one’s self, one’s craft. It’s very much a life-long, self-taught process. “You teach yourself and you borrow from observation and every now and then you’re informed of something — an eye-opener,” Chisholm said. “So, yes, it’s always continuous.”
Arriving at the truth is the goal. It means being vulnerable and letting go.
“I know my own truth serum,” he said, “and if I don’t believe it, nobody else is going to believe it. Each role, as I move along, gets more truthful. You have to listen. I’ve been working on listening more. I don’t even think when I go out on stage or in front of the camera. I just throw myself out there. That’s a conditioning I’ve got to at this point, where I try to keep my head clear — a blank slate.
“I don’t care if I have a million lines, I don’t think about those words. As I observe and I feel, when it’s time to respond, it vomits out. The words will be there because I know the words back and forth. And that’s the way we are as people. Stuff comes out of us as we bounce things off one another.”
- Polishing Gem: Behind the Scenes of the Beasley Theater & Workshop’s Staging of August Wilson’s ‘Gem of the Ocean ‘ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Playwright/Director Glyn O’Malley, Measuring the Heartbeat of the American Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Playwright John Guare Talks Shop on Omaha Visit Celebrating His Acclaimed ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevyn Morrow’s Homecoming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Crowns: Black Women and Their Hats (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
As noted here before, storytellers are drawn to boxing for the rich drama and conflict inherent in the sport. So when I learned that Holt McCallany, star of the new FX series, Lights Out, spent a formative part of his youth in my hometown of Omaha and that his mother is singer Julie Wilson, a native Omahan, I naturally went after an interview with the actor, and setting it up proved unusually easy. In wake of the series’ cancellation, I know why. Producers and publicists were desperate to get the show all the good press they could but even though the show was almost universally praised by small and big media alike it never found enough of an audience to satisfy advertisers or the network. Because I enjoy charting the careers of Nebraskans who make their mark in the arts, particularly in cinema, I expect I will be writing more about McCallanay, who is a great interview, in the future. In addition to his television work, which between episodic dramas and made-for-TV movies is extensive, he has a fine tack record in features as well. I am also planning a piece on his mother, the noted cabaret artist Julie Wilson.
Canceled FX Boxing Show, ‘Lights Out,’ May Still Springboard Omahan Holt McCallany’s Career
©By Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Storytellers drawn to boxing’s inherent drama invariably find redemption at its soul and conflict as its heart.
Ring tales are on a roll thanks to Mark Wahlberg’s Oscar-winning film The Fighter and FX’s series, “Lights Out,” (the series finale airs next Tuesday, April 5 at 9 p.m.). Although FX recently announced it has decided not to renew the show for a second season, the show received favorable reviews from critics while generating more than usual interest locally, as it stars former home boy Holt McCallany in the breakout role of the fictitious Patrick “Lights” Leary, an ex-heavyweight champ attempting a comeback.
McCallany grew up in Omaha, the eldest of two rambunctious sons of Omaha native and legendary New York musical theater actress and cabaret singer Julie Wilson, and the late Irish American actor/producer Michael McAloney.
Like his hard knocks character, McCallany was truant and quick to fight. He was expelled from Creighton Prep. He says most of the “unsavory crew” he ran with outside school “wound up in jail.” At 14, he ran away from home — flush with the winnings from a poker game — to try to make it as an actor in Los Angeles.
“I was a very rebellious and a very ambitious kid,” he says.
In the spirit of second chances linking real life to fiction, he got some tough love at a boarding school in Ireland and returned to graduate from Prep in 1981, a year behind Alexander Payne, whom he hopes to work with in the future. McCallany, who’s returning to Omaha for his class’s 30th reunion in July, appreciates the school not giving up on him.
“I got kicked out but they eventually took me back, and they didn’t have to do that. Near my graduation I said to one of the priests, ‘Why did you guys take me back?’ and he said, ‘Because we believe in your talent, Holt. We see a lot of boys come through here and we believe you can be one of the first millionaires out of your class and a good alumnus.’ When you’re a kid you take that stuff to heart and it kind of stays with you, and if you believe it, other people will believe it about you, too.”
Tragedy struck when his troubled kid brother died at 26 in search of another fix. It’s a path Holt might have taken if not for finding his passion in acting.
“I felt like I had a calling. My brother didn’t have that, and my brother’s dead now, and I can tell you a lot of the pain and suffering he went through is related to this subject. When you don’t know what it is you want to be and you’re lost and you’re floundering and you’re going from job to job and kicking around and nothing really works out, it’s a very dispiriting place to be. It can lead to substance abuse and a lot of negative things.”
In the show, Leary’s a devoted husband and father trying to rise above boxing’s dirty compromises, but he and his younger brother get sullied in the process.
McCallany, who infuses Lights with his own mix of macho and sensitivity, is the proverbial “overnight sensation.” He’s spent 25 years as a journeyman working actor in film (Three Kings) and TV (Law & Order), mostly as a supporting player, all the while honing his craft — preparing for when opportunity knocked.
Everyone from co-star Stacy Keach, as his trainer-father, to series executive producer Warren Leight to McCallany himself says this is a part he was born to play. Why? Start with his passion for The Sweet Science.
“Boxing was my first love, and way back when I was a teenage boy in Omaha. My brother won the Golden Gloves. We had an explosive sort of relationship, he and I. We would often get into fistfights and all of a sudden he was getting really good.”
As for himself, McCallany’s a gym rat. He’s logged countless hours sparring — “sometimes those turn into real wars” — and training with pros. He appeared in the boxing pics Fight Club and Tyson. He’s steeped in boxing lore. He brought in his friend, world-class trainer Teddy Atlas, as technical adviser on Lights Out.
The pains taken to get things right have won the show high praise. The only critics who matter to McCallany are pugilists. “The response from the boxing community has been really positive,” he says.
“There are a lot of similarities I find between boxing and acting,” he says. “In the theater the curtain goes up at 8 and the audience is in their seats and you’ve got to come out and give a performance, and it’s similar in boxing — there’s an appointed day and appointed time when you know people are going to be there ringside and it’s time for you to come out and perform.”
In both arenas, nerves must be harnessed.
“The anxiety is your friend,” he says. “That’s what’s going to ensure you’re going to do what you’re trained to do and, as Ernest Hemingway said, ‘remain graceful under pressure,’ which is really what it’s about.”
As much as he admires great boxing films he says “Lights Out” is not constrained by the limits of biography or a two-hour framework.
“We have all of this time to explore in rich detail a boxer’s life and his relationships and his psychology,” he says. “With this character the writers and I have the freedom to really create and really see where this journey is going to take us, and that’s very exciting. I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen in season two because I’m not sure, and I promise you they’re not sure either. That’s what’s different.”
While they’ll be no second season now, McCallany’s up for a part in the nextBatman installment and has a script in play with
- Holt McCallany and Warren Leight Interview LIGHTS OUT (collider.com)
- Five Reasons to Watch Lights Out (seattlepi.com)
- ‘Lights Out’: A Total Knockout Of A Boxing Drama (npr.org)
- FX’s ‘Lights Out’ has more than punches to throw at viewers (latimesblogs.latimes.com)
- So long, “Lights Out” — you coulda been a contender (salon.com)
- Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home Girl Karrin Allyson Gets Her Jazz Thing On (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home Boy Nicholas D’Agosto Makes Good on the Start ‘Election’ Gave Him; Nails Small But Showy Part in New Indie Flick ‘Dirty Girl’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
If you are like me and you like your issues-oriented television with a bit of an edge to it, then we likely agree see eye-to-eye that Bill Maher is a healthy antidote to the talking head drivel that passes for analysis and to the rants that pass for discussion on much of TV these days. Not that I agree with everything Maher or his guests say. Far from it. Not that I think his entertainment show is a substitute for substantive news and public affairs programs. It isn’t. It’s just that I like that he isn’t afraid to go after sacred cows and to challenge many of the conventions and systems that we are weaned to believe have our best interests at heart when reality should tell us different. That is a long way of saying I admire Maher and so when I heard he was coming to do his stand-up act here I went after getting an assignment to interview him in advance of his show. It was a fairly brief phone conversation, but he was just as smart and engaging as I expected. In fact, even though we were speaking by phone, it sort of felt like I was a panelist on his show and my questions were all the cues or prompts he needed to go off on one of his spirited riffs about this or that. My story previews his October 24 appearance here and can be found in The Reader (www.thereader.com). I will not be able to attend his live show, and now that I don’t have HBO anymore I miss out on his TV show, but when I do catch glimpses of him as a guest on Larry King Live and so forth I at least have a feel now for what it’s like to go one on one with him. It’s actually pretty easy and fun because he’s a pro and he’s being real.
Bill Maher Gets Real
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Acerbic television host and political comic Bill Maher views the 60 to 70 stand-up gigs he does each year as opportunities to connect with the American gestalt. His October 24, 8 p.m. Omaha Music Hall show will be more fodder for his gauging the nation’s Zeitgeist.
“When I go out into America I can really get a feel for what this country is all about. I especially love going to places I’ve never been before, and I don’t think I’ve ever played Omaha,” he said by phone from his CBS Television City studio office in L.A..
“Then when I go back to Hollywood and do my show here I feel like, Yeah, I’m not just sitting in a place that’s not really America. I do the work, I go out there and I see America, and I enjoy it more than anything,”
His topical late night HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” is in its eighth season. It’s among the few programs that neither talks down to its audience nor apologizes for its signature unabashed sarcasm. Before this show he enjoyed a decade-long run with “Politically Incorrect,” which began on Comedy Central and ended on ABC. Executives at ABC cancelled it after Maher and a guest made controversial remarks in the wake of 9/11. Unlike the network wonks who freaked, he says HBO’s suits take his incendiary humor and viewer reaction to it in stride.
“They’re like a Jewish mother. They will let me know after the fact if I’ve caused them some consternation or pain. They’ll be like, Aw, don’t worry about us, we had to handle 50,000 emails yesterday, it’s OK, we’ll be alright. Yeah, that sometimes happens, but to their great credit they don’t ever stop me.”
Considering his barbed comments on sensitive subjects. just staying on the air may be the greatest accomplishment of this self-described Libertarian and apatheist who considers organized religion a neurological disorder.
“I’m proudest that I’ve somehow managed to remain on television for 18 years,” he says. “I mean, from the end of ‘Politically Incorrect’ to the start of this show there was only a six month break. You would think someone who espouses as many unpopular opinions as I do, I mean just religion alone, would have been shown the door a long time ago instead of getting a star on the (Hollywood) Walk of Fame.
“So it’s pretty amazing to me, but that shows something good about America. When I started on ‘Politically Incorrect’ in 1993 all the critics said this show is never going to last because you can’t have a host who tells an opinion. Hosts were all playing out of the old Johnny Carson or Bob Hope playbook, where you just never let the audience really know your politics You didn’t know if Johnny Carson voted for Nixon or Humphrey. You still don’t know who Jay Leno or David Letterman votes for.”Maher, who regards America as a declining empire with a dumb body politic, has faith enough folks embrace his funny, smart, self-righteous brand of social criticism that he lets viewers know exactly where he and his guests stand.
“People, even if they don’t agree with you, as long as you entertain them and you’re honest about it and you’re not down-the-line doctrinaire, they respect that,” he says. “They can take it if they don’t agree with you.”
The edge “Real Time” maintains, he says, is the unfiltered, unapologetic way things get said.
“I think people feel like it’s more honest than anything else on TV. That we will give a very raw and different point of view. Admittedly, it’s my opinion and they may not agree with it, but I think they respect the fact it’s real.”
“Real Time” also fills an information niche, albeit a highly interpretive one.
Maher says, “Part of it is we’re a live, news wrap-up show on Friday night. I think the purpose we serve for a lot of people is they have busy lives, they don’t have a chance to be newshounds all week like we do. What I try to do is to make sure that anyone who hasn’t really gotten a chance to look at the paper that week will be caught up on most of the important things that happened if they watch the show. We will touch upon them in one way or the other, either in the monologue, in an interview, in the panel, in New Rules, or in the editorial at the end.”
At the end of the day then, what is Maher — a comic, a humorist, a critic, a commentator, a pundit, or a talking head?
“Well, I guess we live in an age of hybrids, so there are times when I am any one of those things, but I always think of myself first as a comedian. That’s why I still go on the road, because that’s what I love, that’s what I know best, and that’s what I do best.”
For tickets to An Evening with Bill Maher, call 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com.
- Bill Maher Reaveals Montage Of Former Guests Frustrated By Christine O’Donnell (mediaite.com)
- Bill Maher Gets Hollywood Star, Thanks Sarah Palin, Bush & The Pope (huffingtonpost.com)
- Bill Maher Gives Advice to Brett Favre and White Men of America (charlestoncitypaper.com)
- Bill Maher: America Needs “A Class War” (mediaite.com)
- Bill Maher’s next book gives us the New New (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
Another of my articles about documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, this time taking more of an overview of her career. If you’re a PBS television viewer then chances are you’ve seen at least one of her films on Great Performances or American Masters. My profile of her originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com). I did a more recent piece on Levin for the same publication, this time having to do with an edgy collaboration she has with editorial cartoonist Steve Brodner. Look for that story posted on this site as well. Gail and I recently lost a dear friend in Omaha, Ben Nachman, who devoted much of his life to collecting and preserving Jewish oral histories, including the recollections of Holocaust survivors. Look for some stories on this blog site about Ben and his work. He led me to many survivors and rescuers, and a selection of those stories can be found on the site as well. Rest in peace, Ben.
Gail’s most recent film to find wide viewing is her documentary profile of actor Jeff Bridges for American Masters. You can find my story “Long Live the Dude” about the project, The Dude Abides, on this blog. She also has a recent film about Cab Calloway that hasn’t yet found a mass audience. Also on this blog you’ll find my stories about Gail and her Making the Misfits film, her James Dean: Sense Memories film, and her work with political cartoonist Steve Brodner.
A Filming We Will Go: Gail Levin Follows Her Passion
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Reared in Nebraska, New York-based, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Gail Levin captures an encyclopedic gallery of subjects that resonate with her eclectic life. She grew up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family with a string of retail clothing stores and a taste for the arts and humanities. Levin, a die-hard cineaste since seeing Fellini’s 8 1/2 at the Dundee Theater as a teen, followed the example of her aunts, including a pair of English teachers/published poets, and a noted psychologist who was a pioneer in aging research, to choose a field diverse enough to encompass her many passions and interests.
Her most recent work, James Dean: Sense Memories, premieres May 11 (8 p.m. CST) on the PBS American Masters series and takes an impressionistic look at the life imitating art aspects of the late actor’s short but event-filled life. The film comes in the 50th anniversary year of Dean’s death in 1955. It follows another Hollywood-related piece she did, Making the Misfits (2002), for that acclaimed series.
Until its recent demise, Levin was producing and directing small documentaries on artists for a new high-definition satellite television network called Voom.
The Omaha Central High School graduate earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did grad work at Wheelock College in Boston. She enlisted kids in a Boston Head Start program in homemade photo-film projects borne of her curiosity about the era’s heady free cinema movement. She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational media and filmmaking doctorate.
An internship on a Boston WBZ-TV kids show led to an associate producer’s job that turned into a senior producer slot. In only a few years, she evolved into the kind of independent filmmaker she is today, where she goes from essaying a rite-of-passage on the open sea to sweating out a shoot in the scorching desert to recording candid conversations with famous figures from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.
Twenty-five years into her career as a television producer-director and documentary filmmaker, Levin considers her work a calling despite the endless pitches she makes, the constant leads she pursues, the interminable lulls between projects and the inevitable production glitches that crop up.
“I’ve been so blessed. I have had a career that I love and that I hope is not going to end any time soon,” she said on an Omaha visit. “As hard as it is sometimes, I don’t even care. When you know the roller coaster, you know how to ride it, I guess. Besides, I don’t know how to do or like anything else. You know, you are lucky in this life if you get to do a couple of the things you really want to do, and I already have, so, I think I’m already ahead of the game. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects…and I’ve been able to see them go from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”
One of those dream projects came quite early in her career when, in 1980, she and a small crew filmed a transatlantic voyage made by several young mariners aboard the Lindo, a 125-foot, three-masted, top-sail schooner built in Sweden in 1925. The ship left Boston harbor June 4, docking in Kristiansand, Norway 23 days later, where Levin filmed. Then the ship made out to the open sea for additional shooting before completing the return crossing in mid-July. She landed the Lindoassignment through her children’s programming work at Boston’s WBZ-TV. Her film charts the bonds that develop among a group of Boston-area youths initiated in the maritime traditions of old wooden sailing ships by a crew of seasoned sailors.
As soon as she heard about the prospect of this “across the ocean documentary,” she said, “I knew I wanted to do it. I couldn’t go fast enough.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity made possible by some unusual circumstances. The U.S. boycott of that summer’s Olympic Games in Moscow freed-up hours of programming that needed filling by then-NBC network affiliates such as WBZ. “I can’t imagine it would happen today,” she said. “That a television station or even a network would send a filmmaker and crew off for what was a fabulous several-week adventure. This is what you now go out in the world and try to pitch people to finance for you.”
Despite “hitting some particularly bad weather” and nursing a cameraman who “became very seasick right away,” the journey and resulting film, The Tall Ship Lindo, lived up to her high expectations. “I loved every minute of it.” The experience of being ensconced in tight quarters on an old sailing vessel, totally exposed to and buffeted by high seas was, she said, “quite extraordinary.” She added, “To this day I’m still friends with the people from that voyage.” Her most lasting impression is of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the ocean. “A 125-foot boat is not a very big boat and you don’t know that until you go across the ocean on it. It’s tiny. You are very aware from the very first second…that you are just a speck. You’re out there and you are so tiny and it is so big, and but for the grace of God…You have to be in awe of it.”
The Tall Ship Lindo won Emmys for outstanding cinematography and sound.
The Boston Years
By the early-’80s Levin moved to New York to work as a TV producer-director and by the middle of the decade formed her own production company, Levson, which she’s since renamed Inscape. During those first years as an independent filmmaker, her deep ties to Boston often led her back there for projects, including a few she counts among her finest achievements. One of these prized Boston projects is The Story of Red Auerbach, a 1985 film she made as a WHDH-TV special profiling the shrewd, crusty architect of the Boston Celtics NBA championship dynasty.
A lifelong sports fan, Levin knew the Celtics legacy and Auerbach’s anointed status in its mythology. When she sensed old-school Red was resistant to an upstart woman treading on his traditionally male turf, she sagely deferred to one of his trusted friends, Will McDonough, the late sportswriter, to handle interviewing the curmudgeonly coach and his players. “Red was very funny about me. I think he thought, Who’s this girl? She can’t do this. And my reaction to that was, Yes, I can, but I’m not going to try to shove this down your throat. So, Will did the bulk of the interviews because I thought Red wouldn’t talk to me the same way he would with Will. It didn’t have anything to do with how much I knew. I knew a lot. I make it my business to know what I’m supposed to know about these things. Well, it worked out great and Red ended up really trusting me. One of the great things of my life is to have met Red and to have done that documentary.”
Another Boston project she regards warmly is Harvard, A Video Portrait, a 1986 film made in conjunction with the 350th anniversary of the prestigious Ivy League school. “It’s just an amazing place. We started shooting in the reading (pre-exam) period, which meant I didn’t have one working classroom to shoot,” she said. “So, we made it the great academy. The great hall of learning. Everything quiet and beautiful and iconic, which it is.” Her on camera interview subjects included famed lawyer and legal educator Archibald Cox, Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner for literature Seamus Heaney and leading architect Moshe Safde.
Making the Misfits
Then came a dream project – Making the Misfits. This documentary about the celebrated and ill-fated 1961 feature The Misfits starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe takes the measure of one of cinema’s most exhaustively analyzed motion pictures, yet one about which a documentary had not been made until Levin’s. Shot on location in and around the Nevada desert, the film, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller and directed by that late great lion of American filmmaking, John Huston, became a cause celeb due to the legendary figures involved in its making, the personal dramas unfolding during and after the shoot and the constant presence of Magnum Photo Agency photographers documenting the entire production. Levin’s impressionistic film touches on it all.
Penned by Miller as a vehicle for his then wife Monroe, the story of troubled Western drifters refusing to be reined-in by encroaching civilization had nothing over the on-the-set intrigues playing out amongst the rarefied company of creative titans making The Misfits. Hounded by the press since their headline-making union a few years before, the unlikely match of the intellectual Miller and the bombshell Monroe was falling apart by the time the movie began. Monroe was at a personal and professional crossroads. Desperate to shed her sexpot image, she was finding studios and audiences less than eager to see her in a “serious” light. Already suffering from the emotional turmoil that defined her last years, she caused much disruption and many delays with her chronic tardiness, absences and blown lines.
The Misfits has long been overshadowed by the looming, larger-than-life legacies of the three Hollywood idols who starred in the project and died untimely deaths after its completion. Gable, the one-time King of Hollywood, suffered a massive heart attack only 11 days after shooting wrapped. Gable, who was 59, lost weight in preparation for his part as a lean, laconic horseman. Plus, he did his own rigorous stunts, including wrangling wild mustangs on location in the unforgiving Nevada desert. About a year later, Monroe, the then and forever reigning sex goddess, died at age 36 of an apparent drug overdose. Co-star Montgomery Clift, the romantic screen idol who made male sensitivity sexy, passed away at age 45 in 1966.
Long an admirer of the film, Levin got the idea for her documentary when she ran across a book detailing the making of the movie with images by Magnum photogs given complete access to the set. Aware of the rich, behind-the-scenes goings-on of the United Artists release, she immediately saw the potential for a signature the-making-of project. Besides funding, which soon fell into place, she needed to access Magnum’s superb photos, along with excerpts from the film itself, and to record new interviews with surviving principal cast and crew members.
When she began making inquiries about doing a documentary, she assumed she was too late — that surely someone already had something in the works — but much to her surprise and delight she found she was the first in on it. “That was auspicious somehow, because it felt like it was mine to do,” she said in an online PBS interview with writer Gia Kourlas. “I love the notion of being able to approach the creative process on several levels, including the points of view of these photographers. The Misfits is a great film that wasn’t received in that way, but I think it’s so extraordinarily modern and courageous.” She also secured rather quickly the releases needed from Magnum, United Artists, cast and crew. Even the indomitable Arthur Miller agreed to participate without much prodding.
American Masters creator Susan Lacy, actor Jeff Bridges, and Gail Levin
Framing the Image
A film and photography buff, Levin also liked the idea of looking at cinema through the lens of still imagemakers, whose approach she is influenced by.
“I just loved The Misfits,” she said. “And I just love still photography. It’s very influential in my thinking. I do like what a frame does. I would never say I’m involved in formally composing shots, but some part of me is. I am looking at things always in terms of how I can use a frame, how the frame fits with the next image…I’m very informed by it. I think you can see it all the way through my film.”
Levin prefers “portrait-type” shots. “I am not afraid of a talking head. I like a tight shot. I like faces. I want to see them. I believe you hear people better the closer in the camera is.” Tony Huston described to her how his father, The Misfits’ director John Huston, considered the human face “a landscape unto itself” and therefore something to be explored in detail. “And I shoot like that,” she said.
That’s why Levin was furious with herself when she got back to her editing suite and discovered a sequence in which she’d inexplicably filmed interviews with crew members from The Misfits in wide body shots instead of closeups. The seated subjects were paired off in the open desert and the interviews shot using two cameras. Levin was there the entire time, even eying a video feed, and so she can only assume she got so wrapped up in the content of the scenes she lost sight of how she wanted them composed. “I was absolutely stunned by how much I hated it and by how much I couldn’t bear the notion that this was my frame. This was not the way I wanted this to look. I don’t like commonness in anything and I felt like these were common, bad, sloppy documentary shots.”
That’s when inspiration became the mother of invention. “So, I was looking at these pictures when suddenly I lined them up on the editing screen and I saw how I could use the shots like images on a contact sheet.” And that’s just what she did with the footage, breaking up the frame to run streaming, parallel interviews side-by-side. “It was a very still photographic-inspired solution for me to then take those wide shots and make them work as two shots, one next to the other. It was the opposite of the intimate, beautiful portrait shots I prefer, but what it gave you was all the activity of the interaction of these people.”
Airing to good reviews on PBS’ Great Performances in 2003, Making the Misfits satisfied Levin’s intent “to not have it be another one of the zillions of movies about movies. I wanted to make it have some resonance and to mean something to somebody, and have it not be another, ugh, Marilyn Monroe saga.” Her film played on a continuous loop during the Joslyn Art Museum’s 2003 showing of the traveling exhibition, Magnum Cinema: Photograph from Fifty Years of Movie Making.
Artists and Other Projects
Although she loves the documentary form, she doesn’t consider herself strictly a documentarian. Some of her favorite work includes segments she made for A&E’sRevue series that variously featured conversations between artists or profiles on individual artists. She’s particularly enamored with the programs that paired artists for free-wheeling, unscripted discussions. “I did one after another with incredible people. Martin Scorsese and Stephen Frears. Tom Stoppard and Richard Dreyfuss. Francis Ford Coppola and John Singleton. Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin. I just think this notion of giants talking to each other is a very interesting concept. And I actually think they speak to each other far differently than they speak to anyone who interviews them, no matter who you are. It’s just fascinating.” Other notables she’s profiled include Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts and filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci.
She’s revisited the creative landscape with her current film on James Dean. The hour-long Sense Memories examines the art imitating life aspects of the late actor
She’s now trying to secure backing for a couple documentary projects she’s eager to develop. One would explore the price and promise of life on the Great Plains and the other would reveal the real life affairs that inspired a famous author’s literary romances. As always, her excitement about these new subjects consumes her.
“When I discover something, it does fuel me. I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up in exactly the right way…and when that happens, oh, that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”
- THIRTEEN’s Art Through Time: a Global View, a New 13-Part Series, Takes a Thematic Approach to Art History and Appreciation (eon.businesswire.com)
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- Cab Calloway Gets Animated (oup.com)
- Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Film Dude, Nik Fackler, Goes His Own Way Again, this Time to Nepal and Gabon (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Alexander Payne, an Exclusive Interview Following the Success of ‘Sideways’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Marilyn Monroe has been the subject of countless articles, books, and films, and filmmaker Gail Levin, like so many other artists, has long been fascinated by the pop culture icon’s hold on us all these years. Levin made a documentary a few years ago about the Monroe mystique, examining still images of the actress as a way of taking stock of how the starlet and a handful of photographers she posed for over and over again were complicit in creating the intoxicating sex symbol she epitomized then and continues to represent today. I must say that even as a young boy I was completely taken by the Monroe package — her looks, her voice, her manner, her everything. For better or worse, I am still enthralled today. In fact, as I write these words a Marilyn poster hanging on my office wall fetchingly looms over me, her abundant bosom straining against the decolletage of a slinky evening dress, one strap having fallen down, and she lost in the reverie of anointing her porcelain skin with perfume. Marilyn, sweet Marilyn, the embodiment of innocence and carnality that has universal appeal. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Levin’s film is unavoidably also about Marilyn, a subject I don’t mind revisiting again, although I do tire of all the prurient conspiracy theories swirling about her untimely death. I think the truth is she died just as she lived – messily.
Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s New Film Frames the Monroe Doctrine
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Filmmaker Gail Levin is at it again. Only a year after the Emmy Award-winning Omaha native’s documentary on James Dean premiered on PBS as part of the American Masters series, she has a new Masters film set to debut on July 19 that tackles another, larger screen legend — Marilyn Monroe.
Another Monroe treatise? That cynical reaction is precisely what the New York-based Levin, a Central High School graduate, hopes to overturn with her new documentary Marilyn Monroe: Still Life, premiering next Wednesday at 8 p.m on Nebraska Educational Television.
Instead of yet another biopic approach to this much revisited subject, Levin’s “gentle film” examines the persistence of Marilyn’s image in pop culture as filtered through the canon of still photographs taken of her, photos that largely account for the potency of her sex goddess status 44 years after her death.
Long intrigued by how MM and the photogs who shot her crafted an image with such currency as to cast a spell decades later, Levin committed to the film after hearing Marilyn would have turned 80 this year; reason enough to delve into the ageless Marilyn forever fixed in our collective consciousness. The filmmaker dealt once before with MM — for her 2003 doc Making the Misfits, which looks at the intrigue behind the 1961 Monroe feature vehicle The Misfits, penned by her then-husband playwright Arthur Miller.
On a recent Omaha visit to see family and friends, Levin spoke to the Jewish Press about her new project and the Monroe mystique that still beguiles us. She said MM is a much-referenced figure all these years later “not because of the movies” but “because of all the photographs” — photos the image makers and the icon used to their own ends.
“She made herself quite available to photographers and the list is just endless. We sort of picked a path through this huge archive of photographs,” said Levin. In addition to being “perhaps the most photographed woman of the 20th century,” there are MM-inspired books, articles, songs, videos, “and I was interested in what motivates all of that,” Levin said. “The masters part of this American Masters is as much these great photographers as it is her. It’s kind of book-ended by the great Eve Arnold and the great Arnold Newman. These are two giants of 20th century photography.”
Not just noted photographers contributed to her image. The film includes pics by Ben Ross, “whom none of us had ever heard of before,” Levin said. “He was one of these itinerant photographers from the 1950s and his photographs of her are stunning.” At least one of the artists whose images of MM are featured, Andre De Dienes, was also her lover. “He really knew her from the time she was probably about 20 to the time she died, and shot her all that time, and had a big romance with her,” Levin said. “There’s some very beautiful young stuff with her.”
There’s the ubiquitous Andy Warhol take on Marilyn in the film. Some images are quite familiar but others are new, at least to a general viewing audience and, Levin predicts, some images will even be new to Marilyn and photography aficionados.
Besides interviews with top photographers who helped shape MM’s image, Levin’s film features comments from Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem and Hugh Hefner. There are even audio excerpts from the last interview Marilyn gave.
Levin said former Redbook editor Robert Stein provided a key insight into MM when he told her “she was an odd combination of innocence and guile.” As Levin has come to find, “I think a transcendent aspect with her is this real genuineness. I think she was completely approachable and accessible…You could be no one and talk to her and you could get into her bed. I think there’s something about her that is completely open, completely accepting. Burt Stern’s assistant was 22-years-old when Stern took photos of her and he said, ‘I was at the bottom of the totem pole and yet she was so kind to me and so sweet to me.’ And people say that across the board about her. Marilyn Monroe was not an imperious bitch. She was not a diva. That’s not who she was. She was a very real person. She was an Everywoman. She really was.”
The invention of her image did not happen by chance. Nor did she play a passive role in its creation. She owned her image and, if not the negatives, then what they conveyed. “This was very deliberate. This wasn’t an accident,” Levin said. “She got it and she had it and she made it and she knew it. She was not guileless because she was not stupid. She manufactured this image brilliantly. It was a calculated image, but with good heart, with good intent, with good will.”
Levin feels it’s wrong to apply a feminist prism in viewing Marilyn as a victim of misogyny or unenlightened ambition. “This was a guy’s woman. She liked guys. It was not against her will,” Levin said. “I don’t think she felt victimized at all. I think she exploited it in every way.”
The story of the famous calendar nudes she posed for as an unknown, later published in Playboy at the height of her stardom, reveal an MM in charge of her own image. “Hefner makes the remark that nude photos in those days could take you down. But when they came out she stood right up to it,” Levin said. “Her whole attitude toward it was, This is life. She wasn’t ashamed of any aspect of her body or her being.”
Ironically, Levin was forced to pixilate the nipples and other body parts in the wake of the Janet Jackson breast flash, even though, as Levin argues, the MM nudes are “not pornographic, they’re not slutty, they’re absolutely beautiful. They’ve been made ugly by other people.”
What transpired with the nudes, which made others rich while MM never got a residual dime over the $50 modeling fee, mirrored her life in the spotlight, Levin said. “I think people were rather cruel to her and I think she was hurt. But I also think she was defiant in the face of it. She was courageous. I think the soul of her was terribly resilient.”
Much of the film refers to the sessions that produced the images that still transfix us today, including The Seven Year Itch shoot. In these settings MM willingly gave herself over to the camera. She projected a playful woman-child persona, both real and acted, as she also asserted influence over what final images would see the light of day. Perhaps nothing else gave her such a sense of self-determination.
“You see that she loved it. It was her best relationship, really. It was really the place where she was most comfortable and had the most control,” Levin said. “She very much had control of her contact sheets. She would edit them. She was notorious for Xing out photos in red lipstick or marker. Eve Arnold says in the very beginning of the film, ‘This was her way of working and even though I was free to do what I wanted, she really controlled the image.’”
As Marilyn evolved from aspiring actress to star “she understood what it was she wanted” and she pursued specific photographers she knew “could do her justice,” Levin said, “and got herself in front of those people and, of course, those people wanted to photograph her. They considered her a great subject. It was the perfect metier” for a photographer-subject to play in.
A model must make love to the camera for the images to last. MM invested her photos with rarely seen rapture. “Eve Arnold comments there were a lot of four-letter words used to describe the way she seduced a camera. She loved to do it and she did it great,” Levin said. “Marilyn’s take, which I think is the critical take, is she just thought it was great to be thought of as sexual and beautiful. And why not? I think any woman would want to look like that for five minutes of her life.”
For Levin, one particular image encapsulates Monroe in all her complexity.
“We open the film with a dark room sequence in which we print a photograph of her,” Levin said. “It was taken by Roy Schatt during the time she was in the Actors Studio in New York. Her face is completely open. No makeup. You see that sort of Norma Jeane plainness, really. There’s some pictures of her, like this one, that when you look at them you think, Whatever gave her the idea she could pull this off? She’s OK. She has a cute, sweet face, but hers was not a remarkable face. At the same time you see right through that to the whole iconography of Marilyn Monroe. I chose this picture because I thought it emblematic of the whole of her being.”
Like any fine actress, and Levin ranks MM “a great comedienne,” she could summon her public persona on demand. As Levin tells it, “There’s a known story of her walking down a New York street incognito and saying to her friend, ‘Do you want to see her?’” Meaning Marilyn Monroe, superstar sex symbol. The shape shift only took a subtle change — to a more free, less uptight bearing. The power of it bemused and bothered her. “I think she lived in that schism.”
Taking on as familiar a figure as Monroe and all that “we bring to her” scared Levin. “It’s the hardest film I’ve ever made. This material has been so manipulated in so many ways. The challenge and the task is how do I take this and make this something you feel is completely fresh?” In the end, she feels she’s captured the essential Monroe. “We started out liking her and we ended up loving her. We tried not to take anything from her. She looks so beautiful in this film.”
Levin’s Marilyn will have multiple showings, along with her James Dean, the last two weeks of July. Check local NET1 and NET2 listings for dates/times.
With two movie icon subjects behind her, one might expect Levin to tackle another, but her next film may key off a documentary she worked on last fall. From Shtetl to Swing deals with the great migration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe to America and their development, with African-Americans, of the music style known as swing. Slated for Great Performances, the film was delivered in less than airable condition, causing series officials to call in Levin to do some “doctoring.” Her work helped the film get “the highest ratings in New York in years for a Great Performances. One of the things I’m planning on next is something similar to that, but on Latin music and how it’s transmorgified into the culture.”
American Masters is produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET New York. Susan Lacy is executive producer of the acclaimed series.
- The Best Marilyn Monroe Shots You’ve Never Seen (stylecrave.com)
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- Michelle Williams Begins Her Week With Marilyn Monroe and Dominic Cooper (popsugar.com)
- My Marilyn Monroe Moment (comingeast.com)
My friend Gail Levin is a talented documentarian whose award-winning work covers many subjects, although she has a particular knack for portraying artists and creatives. Many of her recent feature length documentaries have appeared on PBS and this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is about one of those films, a look at the enigmatic James Dean, the brilliant Method actor whose bright flame was extinguished far too early. In part because of the resonant parts he played with such ferocity and in part because he did die so tragically young, he remains a symbol of youth angst and rebellion more than 50 years after his passing. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) explores both what Levin tried to capture and what Dean represented on screen. I am posting other pieces about Levin and her work, including one on her documentary Marilyn (Monroe). She profiled a latter day American rebel actor, Jeff Bridges, in a documentary for American Masters earlier this year. Bridges is one of my favorite actors, and I believe he’s every inch the artist Dean was but I must say that Dean had a spell-binding quality that only a few other actors possessed. Marlon Brando was one. Montgomery Clift was another. Both born in my hometown of Omaha, by the way.
Gail Levin Takes on American Master James Dean
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Chameleon. Seducer. Seeker. Rebel. Artist. Icon. The embodiment of youthful angst and the preternaturally old soul in touch with the ages. The epitome of cool. A timeless presence. An original. Seething with curiosity. Sampling life’s diverse offerings. Always running, yearning, racing. Forever young and free.
He’s one of those select figures whose legacy transcends time and culture. In this 50th anniversary year of Dean’s death, it’s hard imagining anyone who doesn’t know of the actor and his story. His coming from a shattered family in rural Indiana to make his way out west, where he pursued the Hollywood dream. Studying acting. Landing bit parts in some good and some forgettable films. Then rashly taking off for New York, where things broke big for him on stage and in live television. Doing the Actor’s Studio thing. The buzz from his Broadway and TV work got the same L.A. suits who barely noticed him before to come courting.
There was the remarkable string of three starring films he made for Warners, each directed by a master, all within a span of 18 months. Then, on the verge of superstardom, he died September 30, 1955 in an auto crash on a remote stretch of California Route 466. Apropos of his free spirit image, he died in a sports car en route to compete in a race. He was 24. His legendary status ensured not so much by an early death as by the enduringly fine work he left behind and the sublime expression he gave to emblematic characters. Three coveted roles came his way. His animus perfectly suited each and he made them entirely his own. Was it coincidence or serendipity or something else?
The art imitating life aspects of Dean and his very real dedication to his craft are the subjects of a new American Masters documentary, James Dean: Sense Memories, premiering May 11 at 8 p.m. (CST) on PBS. Its creator, New York-based, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Gail Levin (Making the Misfits), is an Omaha native and a longtime Dean admirer. In a recent conversation, the producer-director-writer said, “I loved making this film. It felt very true to me make this one.”
Dean is among many noted artists she’s profiled in her 30-plus-year career. With Sense Memories, the Central High graduate’s made an impressionistic film evocative of what made Dean the Beat poet among his acting generation and a style setter over the years. If only an interesting personality with killer good looks, his influence would have faded by now. If not an accomplished actor, his performances would be passe, his films dismissed. No, he’s still a vital presence and symbol because of a kind of genius — certainly, innovation — for exuding truth.
Director Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond), once a struggling young actor with Dean in New York, says in the film, “It was so clear that he was a special person. Every moment that you spent with him you knew you were with an original. Strange and peculiar and arresting — you couldn’t take your eyes off him.”
Sense Memories is fixed in that time and place when Dean emerged on the scene, like Elvis, as a new breed of hep cat straining against convention. Actor Martin Landau, a crony of Dean’s in the ‘50s, describes how Dean personified post-war America’s existential modern man — “a different kind of animal…that represented unrest and dissatisfaction with the status quo.” In sketching Dean’s life to a John Faddis jazz score and a black and white (actually, desaturated color) visual motif, Levin’s made a mood piece eloquent of an age of anxiety and possibility and devoid of the cliche and gossip that can distort an icon as potent as Dean.
“There’s been a ton of stuff that’s been done, and a lot of it is very tawdry,” she said, “which is really never where I wanted to go with this film. I really wanted the point for this film to be that his art and life were so close. Because he was so raw, it allowed him to inhabit these characters and to live those feelings and yet to have that one degree of separation that maybe made it less painful somehow. Although I think he lived that pain in his life, too. And then there was his exceptional collaboration with three directors of enormous stature and his truly good work for them. I think that is…often overlooked in telling the Dean story.”
To flesh out the man behind the myth, Levin filmed reminiscences with intimates of his from those halcyon days of new ideas and spectacular talents. The title,Sense Memories, refers both to the enigmatic portrait painted of Dean by his friends’ burnished recollections and to the Method Acting technique Dean presumably employed to elicit his extraordinary range of emotions on screen.
“It’s Rashomon. It’s just people’s memories, and some of them jive with each other and some of them don’t,” she said. “It’s meant to be interpretive. It’s not meant to be in any way a chronology. It’s not meant to be a biography. It’s just meant to evoke him from the experiences and memories of people who really knew him.”
She said it’s no accident Dean surrounded himself with special people. “There’s this range of exceptional men and women he found as friends and soulmates, and they’re all quite exotic little flowers. They all achieved a level of greatness themselves. They were there when it was all happening. Great music. Great art. Great theater. They were all touched by it and were all in it with him.”
Levin cast, lit and shot her on-camera observers as though characters in a drama of Dean’s life, which in a sense they were. Shot against a stark white backdrop and at an extreme angle, the texture of their faces and the vividness of their personalities come out and create a stream-of-consciousness effect when juxtaposed with the Dean images. “I am not afraid of a talking head. I like a tight shot. I like faces. I want to see them. I believe you hear people better the closer in the camera is,” she said. Tony Huston described to her how his father, The Misfits’ director John Huston, considered the human face “a landscape unto itself” and therefore something to be explored in detail. “And I shoot like that,” she said.
As Levin’s film reveals, Dean embraced life the way a method actor tackles a role, living in the moment and shaping the rhythm of his external self to the driving riffs inside him. His circle of friends was eclectic, cutting across age, race, gender, sexual persuasion, occupation, et cetera. He became whatever the circumstance called for and sought whatever he thought was missing.
Entertainer Eartha Kitt recalls she and Dean hanging out with: “We’d sit on the street benches on Hollywood and Vine and watch the night people. ‘That’s where we get our characters,’ he said.” That close observation and deep curiosity is what great artists have in common. It’s what allowed Dean to submerge himself in character and imbue himself so fully in it that his work rung authentic and fresh, as if happening for the first time. A student of human behavior, he applied research and technique to his creative process and then let his instincts take over.
“He was becoming one of America’s greatest actors,” Kitt says. “He instinctively knew what to do with a character because his spirit was free. It was quite interesting the way he went about it — methodically and then unmethodically.”
Dean was a mass of contradictions who gave and took from others as he saw fit and this ability to be different things to different people is part of the appeal he holds for us as viewers. With Kazan and Ray, for example, he felt protected and appreciated. Given free rein and much nurturing, the acolyte went out on a limb for them. With Giant director George Stevens, however, he was a petulant pain-in-the-ass unhappily constrained and stymied by G.S.’s penchant for many takes.
Perhaps the dichotomy of Dean is best articulated by actress Lois Smith, who played opposite him in Eden and recalls “a sweet rustic person, but on the other hand there was this suspicious, taut, guarded young man — and both of them seemed always present and, of course, that’s a thrilling tension.”
Just as Dean projected the tension of his complex inner life, he was a mimic and sponge who drew on persons, events and places as studies for his art.
“He was very willing to put himself in the hands of people he trusted,” Levin said, “but that trust was hard won. As his friend, writer William Bast, says, ‘he was very needy’ and he knew what he needed. I think he was a very canny guy about all those things. I think he definitely was living on the edge because he was so hungry for experience. He was definitely trying to take of everything.”
Separated from his mother at age 9, when she died of cancer, and spurned by his father, he attached himself to older men like Kazan and Ray and he acted out the demons of his real loss and neglect in the characters he played.
In Eden, Dean was — as we hear the late Kazan say — the incarnation of Cal Trask’s “twisted boy. Twisted by the denial of love.” Following a hunch, Kazan knew Dean/Trask were in “search for love everywhere and in every way.” Landau said Dean “understood pain.” Cal’s search for his lost mother mirrors Dean’s own sense of maternal abandonment. Cal is also desperate to earn his cold, stern father’s love. Dean’s life resonated with similar longing. After his mother died, his father dropped out, not seeing him again until years later. In Rebel, Jim Stark craves a strong father figure in the same way Dean craved one, too. In Giant, Dean plays Jett Rink, the quintessential wildcatter that goes his own way. Similarly, Bast says Dean brandished “a completely independent attitude” toward work and life.
Ultimately, what makes Dean still fascinating is his ageless quality. “He is so timeless,” said Levin. “His androgyny is way ahead of its time because it’s so completely in its time right now. You look at him in those films and in every shot he looks totally modern. He’s the one in Rebel who looks completely timeless, while the rest of them look like children of the ‘50s. The same thing is true in Eden. Every single frame of him could have been taken yesterday. With his shabby yet seductive good looks, you might as well be looking at Brad Pitt or Colin Farrell. That great Times Square picture where he walks in the rain, cigarette in his mouth, and coat collar pulled up — my God, it just doesn’t get any better than that.”
That image has “influenced” Levin. “It’s a perfect picture to me. It’s everything black and white photography should do. It’s full of atmosphere and contrast, lights and darks and varying shades of gray, and then there’s THIS guy. It’s informed the look of my films. I tried capturing that era’s beautiful black and white photography in this film.” The man who made that image, famed Magnum shooter and Levin friend Dennis Stock, planted the seed for the Dean film when he told her: “‘It’s going to be the 50th anniversary, and we should do something.’ So, in a sense,” Levin said, “this project has completed a circle.”
Dean’s only the latest in a gallery of notables she’s documented: Martin Scorsese, Stephen Frears, Francis Ford Coppola, John Singleton, Bernardo Bertolucci, Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller, Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Joni Mitchell, Bobby McFerrin, Paul McCartney, Yo-Yo Ma, Franco Zeferelli, Red Auerbach. Besides American Masters, her work has appeared on PBS’s Great Performances, the A & E network and the satellite channel VOOM.
Her work reflects an eclectic background. She grew up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family with a string of retail clothing stores and a taste for the arts and humanities. Her extended family included a pair of English teachers/published poets and a psychologist pioneer in the field of aging. Levin earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did grad work at Wheelock College in Boston. A die-hard cineast since seeing Fellini’s 8 1/2 at the Dundee Theater as a teen, she was inspired by the heady free cinema movement in the ‘60s to try her hand at filmmaking. She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational media and filmmaking doctorate.
A Boston WBZ-TV kids show internship led to an associate producer’s job that became a senior producer slot. She evolved into the independent filmmaker she is today, going from essaying a rite-of-passage on the open sea to sweating out a shoot in the scorching desert to recording candid conversations in hallowed halls with luminaries from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.
She considers her work a calling.
“I’ve been so blessed. I have had a career that I love and that I hope is not going to end any time soon,” she said. “As hard as it is sometimes, I don’t even care. When you know the roller coaster, you know how to ride it. Besides, I don’t know how to do anything else. You know, you are lucky in this life if you get to do a couple of the things you really want to do, and I already have, so, I think I’m already ahead of the game. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects…and I’ve been able to see them go from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”
Much like her artist subjects, she’s an intensely curious person.
“When I discover something, it does fuel me. I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up in exactly the right way…and when that happens, oh, that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”
One of her dream projects came quite early in her career when, in 1980, she and a small crew filmed a transatlantic voyage made by several young mariners aboard the Lindo, a 125-foot, three-masted, top-sail schooner built in Sweden in 1925. The ship left Boston harbor June 4, docking in Kristiansand, Norway 23 days later, where Levin filmed. Then the ship made out to the open sea for additional shooting before completing the return crossing in mid-July.
Her film charts the bonds formed among a group of Boston-area youths initiated in the maritime traditions of old wooden sailing ships by a crew of seasoned sailors. As soon as she heard about the prospect of this “across the ocean documentary,” she said, “I knew I wanted to do it. I couldn’t go fast enough. I can’t imagine it would happen today. That a television station or even a network would send a filmmaker and crew off for what was a fabulous several-week adventure. This is what you now go out in the world and try to pitch people to finance for you.”
Despite “hitting some particularly bad weather” and nursing a cameraman who “became very seasick right away,” the journey and resulting film, The Tall Ship Lindo, proved satisfying. “I loved every minute of it.” Being ensconced in tight quarters on an old sailing vessel, totally exposed to and buffeted by high seas was, she said, “quite extraordinary. To this day I’m still friends with the people from that voyage.” Her most lasting impression is of being overwhelmed by the ocean’s enormity. “A 125-foot boat is not a very big boat and you don’t know that until you go across the ocean on it. It’s tiny. You are very aware from the very first second…that you are just a speck. You’re out there and you are so tiny and it is so big, and but for the grace of God…You have to be in awe of it.”
The Tall Ship Lindo won Emmys for outstanding cinematography and sound.
For Making the Misfits, her take on the remarkable confluence of talents (actors Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, playwright Arthur Miller, director John Huston) that came together to shoot the 1961 classic film, The Misfits, Levin and her DP, Dewald Aukema, filmed in its Nevada locales. Her doc won a Cine Goden Eagle for and was included in the International Festival of Film in Montreal.
For Sense Memories, Levin and Aukema went to Marfa, Texas, where Giant was shot, and to that barren California spot where James Dean’s flaming life ended and his golden-hued legend began. Her film opens quietly there, with a gentle pan across the desert highway, lingering at the two-pump filling station that was his last stop. Desert and traffic noises rise. An engine revs. And then some jazz licks come in. It’s a haunting, muted elegy for a bright spirit dimmed too quickly, but still holding us entranced in its warm after-glow.
Sense Memories is a co-production of Thirteen/WNET’s (New York) American Masters and Warner Home Video. The acclaimed series is executive produced by Susan Lacy.
My first couple interviews with Gabrielle Union were by phone. She was smart, funny, gracious, and generous with her time. My last couple interviews have been in person, and I found her exactly the same. She’s a sweet person. Yes, her beauty leaves you breathless and is a bit distracting at first, but she’s completely down to earth and after awhile you don’t focus on her looks, you focus on what she’s saying and what she’s about. This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared about five years ago, and in it she speaks extensively about some things she’s passionate about, including the difficulties that actresses of color have in finding suitable subject matter and her efforts to try and change that. More recently, the formation of her new production company, Stew U, with Nzingha Stewart, finds her really taking matters into her own hands.
In the last couple years, she’s made as much news off the screen as on it due to her relationship with NBA superstar Dwyane Wade. The couple have been to Omaha, where Gabrielle’s from, and they caused quite a stir here as you might imagine. I wouldn’t be surprised if they become regular fixtures her before too long, at least during Native Omaha Days. I hope to catch up with Gabrielle again in the near future.
The Gabrielle Union Chronicles
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Let’s face it, the girl can’t help it. With a to-die-for combo of beauty and attitude, Omaha-born and bred actress Gabrielle Monique Union embodies what it means to be fabulous. The It Girl’s parlayed early television-film roles as the sharp-tongued foil and love interest babe into a regal-like, real-piece-of-work brimming with confidence, intelligence and class. This enticing package of goodies makes her a presence in the Hollywood glam machine. Despite The Honeymooners fizzle, her profile is about to explode owing to her work in a handful of new feature films awaiting release that show her in a new light and a starring role in the new ABC series Night Stalker that premieres September 29.
“I’ve been trying to branch out and do different kinds of projects people wouldn’t necessarily expect me to do, and I’m very proud of the work coming out” she said, while in town for Native Omaha Days, looking absolutely fabulous despite no sleep after wrapping Night Stalker that same morning and catching a red eye to O.
Yes, the many sides of Gabrielle are showcased these days. She recently shared the cover of Ebony with Honeymooners’ co-star Cedric the Entertainer, doing her best Alice Kramden domestic next to his Ralph Kramden bombastic. Depending on the gig, she’s whatever she wants to be. But no matter how much she appears all-together, she confided to The Reader some of the anxieties attending stardom and some of the frustrations that go with being black in a white-dominated field. Partly to determine her own fate and image, she’s about to start producing her own projects. Meanwhile, she plays the game, transforming herself into our fantasies.
When on the red carpet-runway circuit, she’s the preening diva in designer wear, perfect makeup and flawless hair who flashes I-love-my-public smiles and blows kisses in classic movie star fashion. In those Nutrogena TV spots, she’s the oh-so-fresh-and-so-clean girl-next-door of our dreams. For magazine spreads, she projects the epitome of style and elegance. She plays it sultry-urban-cool guesting on shows like BET’s Rap City: Tha Bassment, or turns on the charm chatting it up with Jay or David or Jimmy or Regis. She turns serious young artist at events like the NAACP Image Awards. On the big screen, she’s the hottie object of desire of LL Cool J, Jamie Foxx and Will Smith. Lately, she’s taking parts that don’t so much exploit her head-turning attributes and sex symbol defying smarts as display her acting depth.
In the drama Neo Ned, fresh off rave reviews at the 2005 TriBeca Film Festival, her disturbed character gets involved with a fellow patient at a mental health hospital. She’s a victim of abuse somehow under the delusion she’s Hitler. He’s a neo-Nazi hater of blacks and Jews. Upon recovery and release, this odd pair still try forging a life together. InConstellation, which beat out both Hustle and Flow and Crash for the Audience Prize at the Urbanworld film fest’, she’s the matriarch of a troubled Southern family whose secret legacy leads back to her own private crucible. In Running with Scissors, the much-awaited adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ tell-all book, she’s the possessive lover of Annette Bening, whose messy life she makes messier. In Night Stalker, an update of a 1970s show, she’s part of an investigative reporting team examining unexplained homicide cases. With a creative staff from The X-Files, it’s not surprising Stalker casts Union as Perrie, a skeptic trying to rein-in her overly curious partner Kolchak (Stuart Townsend), who suspects the supernatural, paranormal or extraterrestrial in every unsolved murder. Sound familiar? Union was sold on the show, despite “not being a fan of the genre,” by the quality of the scripts and the chance it offered “to grow with my character.”
Ten years after breaking through, she’s sufficiently got-it-going-on to be in the select company of such single name Star Sistas as Halle, Queen, Beyonce, Angela, Oprah and Vivica — adding flava to an otherwise bland look-alike white girl scene.
But a rising career for a black or Latina actress, no matter how talented or lovely she is, is not the same as it is for a white actress. Union bristles at the inequity that gives a Reese Witherspoon or Cameron Diaz carte blanch when she’s restricted from certain roles due to her race.
“It’s the option of doing different kinds of things,” she said. “They have the option of doing any kind of movies they want. Anything that could possibly pop into their head, that kind of script is there for them. Whereas with me, I’m offered the same exact things over and over and over again.”
This relative lack of choices, she said, not only means a more limited artistic palette to pick from, but a smaller financial reward, too. “There is a financial reality in what we do. Those bills, darn it, pop up every month. That dang mortgage has to be paid. You can pass, pass, pass, pass pass and hope for better material, but when it’s just not coming, at a certain point you end up doing the same sort of material. As actors of color we don’t have the same luxury and we’re certainly not paid anywhere close to what they (majority actors) get paid,” Union said.
Then there’s industry-wide casting practices that unfairly limit actors of color. Producers often can’t or won’t hire blacks and Hispanics for non-race specific roles because the suits’ experience/perception of the world doesn’t include racial-ethnic minorities in certain guises, especially opposite whites.
“That just happened last spring. I was told, ‘Gabrielle, you gave the best read. If we decide to go ‘black,’ you’re at the top of the list.’ It’s still a big fight to get people to think someone like me could be the friend or colleague of a white character, male or female. I’m not even talking about trying to convince somebody I could be Angelina Jolie’s sister or something like that. I’m talking about being her friend or associate or whatever. It’s the nature of the business” to stereotype us, she said.
But as her slate of new projects attests, Union’s not backing down or giving up. She’s a fighter and a survivor, instincts that helped her run-off the armed man who raped her in the early 1990s and cope with the trauma of that attack. A former competitive athlete, Union’s lately redirected her fire to her career, where she aggressively pursues the kinds of parts traditionally reserved for her white counterparts. She’s landing some of these jobs, but she wants more.
“You have these little victories and you hope to spin these little victories into a bigger victory,” she said, “and that’s just kind of been the basis of my career. I’m still waiting to sort of win the battle. But I’ve had a lot of fun on the path. Some of the battles I have lost have taught me so much about myself and about my inner resolve and who I am, and the fact that I don’t lay down and just die when I don’t get what I want. I learn to kind of regroup and fight harder. There’s nothing else I can do but stay prepared and stay ready for that opportunity. And I am prepared.”
Far from passively sitting by waiting for that breakthrough role to plop in her lap, she’s actively looking to develop properties and projects via a talent/marketing consulting agency now expanding into film production, Prominent Enterprises. The company is in the family, so to speak. It’s owned and managed by Union’s husband, Chris Howard, an ex-NFL player, in partnership with her former publicist, Alejandra Cristina. Although a new player in Hollywood, Prominent’s raising a sizable film fund to finance productions for Gabrielle to produce and/or star in.
“They’ve put together an investment group that’s put up $20 million to make anywhere from one to five films, so we’ve been poring over scripts. Nothing I’m going to star in yet, but I’m definitely going to produce,” she said. “The investment group has the capability of distributing and marketing a film, all in-house, so we don’t have to go pander our films to a studio to get distribution. I’d rather learn producing through my husband’s company than out there alone. We’ll definitely be putting our friends to work and you’ll be seeing people in roles that you would never anticipate them in. I’m excited about getting to work with my friends. It’s all happening very quickly. A lot quicker than we anticipated.”
Taking charge of her career is nothing new for Union, who’s taken pains in recent years to control her image by virtue of the parts she chooses and the type of pub she does. For her, not doing nude scenes, for example, is not so much about protecting her good-girl persona in the industry as it is honoring her family.
“I think it’s the respect I have for my parents and the respect I have for my husband. It’s also been a learning process. I’ve taken jobs and I’ve done photo spreads in the past I wouldn’t necessarily do now — understanding the reaction and aftermath that follows. My parents are alive and a part of my life and I’m not estranged from anybody. My husband has to go to work and face people. It’s just not worth it to me to do things that are going to embarrass them. My folks raised me to be a certain kind of person and I want my roles to be reflective of that and I want the kind of press I do to be reflective of that. Sometimes I stray, but it’s all a learning curve, and I’m learning I have the power to say no and the world’s not going to end and my career’s not going to stop.”
An example of her emancipation came during her recent Omaha visit, when she refused agent-publicist entreaties to fly her out of town for an ABC affiliate appearance. Instead, she opted to party-on-down with family and friends at the Native Omaha Days festival, where befitting her status, everywhere she and her small entourage went caused a stir. Just the rumor she might show some place got joints jumping and crowds buzzing. Hundreds attended a ceremony naming the Adams Park pond after her. The fans, many of them relatives from her large extended family on both sides, crowded inside the rec center for an autograph or some piece of their “Nikki.” Her appearance marked the first time “when everybody sort of came together since my wedding. They’re all here. More than I expected. People I didn’t even know came back. It’s exciting,” she said.
With such “a big family” and her “time always so limited” when in town, there’s added pressure to please everyone, so they don’t feel “cheated.” It’s also a reality check, not that her parents or sisters would let her get away with a big head. Her folks, Theresa and Sylvester Union, who are divorced, both said their star daughter is amazingly “grounded.”
Besides being selective in how she represents herself, there are the meatier roles Union’s been holding out for. Where she can coast playing brassy characters “cut from the same cloth that I’ve been cut from,” she has to stretch when cast in roles far from herself. “It’s a lot easier to play when the part’s close to who you are.” she said. “I take pride in bringing strong depictions of women to the screen.” With more substantial roles come more challenges.
Although she’s used to playing characters who are hell-on-wheels, Union’s part in Running with Scissors is a departure in that she portrays a drugged-out gay woman. “She’s a lesbian, a speed freak and a psychologically touched young woman who falls in love with Annette Bening’s character and disrupts her life. It’s a great kind of crazy character that’s really challenged me in new ways, and I just had a ball doing it. I think my mom is still getting used to the idea of me being a lesbian, but as long as Annette Bening is my girl friend, she’s OK with it,” Union said, laughing.
“To tackle” the role of an abused woman in Neo Ned, Union reopened the wounds of her own rape by going “back through my journals and to times when I was in therapy and to times when I was completely out of sorts and out of control. I was able to convey certain aspects of my own experience into the character’s, but at the time I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it without going nuts.” She made it through OK, but she said far from being cathartic, reliving her own trauma was harrowing.
“It was only afterwards I found it therapeutic, when at the Q & A that followed the film’s opening, people were saying — and it always happens — ‘Me too, me too.’ It’s always comforting for me and others to know — I’m not alone in my experience. I’m not alone in my surviving and in being able to still lead a decent, functional life. That these obstacles are surmountable.”
Union has long used her celebrity to openly discuss her rape and recovery and to advocate for victims’ rights and the importance of counseling, which she received.
As much as she enjoys educating people about empowering themselves, she realizes she’s still learning both her craft and this whole business of being a star. Therefore she seeks out mentors to school her in acting and in managing fame. Diva soul singer Patti LaBelle is among those who’ve taken Union under their wing, teaching her how to stay “who she is” and keep “what she stands for” amid the hoopla. The more high profile projects Union does, the more seasoned veterans she calls on.
“It’s the only way you’re going to get better. Unfortunately, a lot of young people in our industry lack humility. That whole idea of wanting to be the biggest fish in the pond doesn’t appeal to me. You can learn so much more if you just shut up and watch, which is what I do. I don’t know enough to keep talking. I watch the masters work and try to absorb as much as I can about how they work and how they handle different situations. That’s been the biggest help to me and my career — being able to watch what to do and what not to do.”
Asked if working with a Bening in Scissors, Alan Rickman in Something the Lord Made or Billy Dee Williams in Constellation obliges her to raise her own level, she answered emphatically, “Oh, hell, yes. They make you step up your game. And especially as I’m not formally trained, I don’t have that wealth of knowledge to fall back on. I have to learn from my co-workers.”
To help prep for difficult parts, she works with acting coach Dennis Lavelle, an actor/director who gets her to “fine tune stuff,” like nailing a Nashville accent for Something, and “on point” for portraying characters undergoing emotional crisis.
She’s still insecure and starstruck enough that she gets tongue-tied around her idols, such as Diahann Carroll, whom she “chickened out” meeting. On the set of Constellation, she lost her composure working alongside icons Williams and Rae Dawn Chong. “I got intimidated. I didn’t know where to begin the scene — to not be buried,” she said, “because they were all bringing it.” She uses the work ethic of fellow pros to motivate herself. “When I see them doing their homework, running lines or doing theater, I’m like, I need to go home and study more. The people I look up to never stop growing…never stop working. So, I need to step it up.”
To her surprise, serious theater offers have come her way. Thus far, she’s passed, admitting she feels out-of-her-depth there.
“I’ve been offered things I have no business being offered. I mean Broadway productions — all off the strength of something like Bring It On. But I have too much respect for the craft and for the theater to take a job I’m not ready for and to bring down a whole production. I have too much respect for the amazing talent that’s underemployed to take a job I don’t deserve and I haven’t earned — just because I can. I don’t want that on my shoulders.”
The props, the perks, the offers, the adoring crowds, the intrusive fans and the unwanted stares are all part of the bargain, good and bad.
“It’s weird. I don’t feel worthy of that sort of adoration. Ultimately, it’s nice that people appreciate what you do and to know your work is not in vain,” she said.
Negotiating fame is a-work-in-progress for her and husband Chris Howard. “It’s been a long path to kind of figuring that out,” she said. “When we want a fun, cool time, either with him and I or with our friends, we don’t do it at premieres or parties. We do it at our homes. We keep it private. So that whatever we’re doing or talking about or wearing or not wearing, no one’s going to know about it except for us. That’s how we stay strong.”
Careerwise, she has her thing and he has his. Even with the overlap from Prominent Enterprises, she’s the one out front. He’s in the background, where he prefers it. It’s their way of maintaining separate identities. “When I do travel for work and go to premieres or parties, he doesn’t always come,” she said. “He’s like, ‘That’s your life. I don’t want to stand around and hold your purse. I have my own career and a whole life outside yours.’ And that’s made it a lot easier.”
Being the center of attention, she said, “sometimes is a drag.” Having to look gorgeous, smile, press the flesh, sign the stills, pose for pics, answer questions. Her well-known penchant for slumming at Target has even gotten problematical, with shoppers and clerks wanting to stop and talk. “There’s times you just don’t feel like it. You’re tired. You just want a quiet evening with family. You just want to be. But when they don’t fuss over you, that’s when you go, What happened?”
The spotlight will only get hotter once her new films break and Night Stalker, airing Thursdays at 9 p.m. (CST) on ABC, debuts. There’s also two more features, Donut Hole andSay Uncle, in the can and still another, 32 and Single, in development.
Inking the deal for Night Stalker, which she wanted against the advice of her management, was done partly to get more “alone time with my husband,” she said. “Now that I’m home in L.A. shooting the series, even though the hours are crazy, we have a little bit more time together. It almost feels like we’re starting over because I’m home now.” Starting a family is not a priority yet. “I don’t want to be jealous of a child for taking me away from my man. Once we get enough alone time and we travel and we do all the things we want to do, than we’ll expand.”
- Gabrielle Union & Dwyane Wade: Heat Seekers (justjared.buzznet.com)
- For the Love of The Game (clutchmagonline.com)
- Gabrielle Union FlashForwards to Soho House (justjared.buzznet.com)
- Gabrielle Union & Jamie Foxx Get Cozy In Vegas [PHOTOS] (hellobeautiful.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- PHOTOS: Gabrielle Union Is 39 and Gorgeous! (huffingtonpost.com)