TV Mini-Series and World War, Too

The other day I saw on IMDb.com that HBO’s World War II drama Band of Brothers is the all-time highest-rated TV mini-series, with the phenomenal score of 9.6/10. The ten-episode mini-series about members of Easy Company, US Army 101st Airborne Division had Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg Band of Brothersamong its executive producers, and starred a mostly unknown, mostly British cast. Though episodic in nature, at the heart of the mini-series was the story of Major Richard D. Winters. For most American viewers, it was their initial introduction to English actor Damian Lewis, who played Winters. Lewis, of course, won the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Emmy Award this past fall for the Showtime drama Homeland, which also won Outstanding Drama Series.

Band of Brothers, which premiered in 2001, was a success in every sense of the word, drawing plaudits from critics, attracting a huge viewership and earning industry awards. Nine years later it spawned a companion piece, The Pacific, also filmed in ten parts, produced by HBO, and with the involvement of Hanks and Spielberg. Whereas, Band of Brothers dealt with the European theater, The Pacific, quite obviously, concerned itself with the war in the Pacific. Although not the juggernaut of its predecessor, The Pacific, was still well received.

Both of those mini-series were made long after the heyday of the format, whose peak was in the mid-seventies to late-eighties.  In fact, Band of Brothers and The Pacific were produced when mini-series were, for the most part, no longer a staple of U.S. broadcast network TV production at all. Chances are The Pacificthat the occasional mini-series that still appears today is on a cable or premium cable network, rather than on one of the broadcast networks. Back in the day, however, the mini-series was commonly used by the over-the-air networks to boost their Nielsen ratings during the all-important sweeps periods.

Dozens of these productions were made in a relatively short period, but no definitive definition of what constituted a mini-series seems to exist, so a working definition may be in order. Generally speaking, a mini-series was no less than four hours long (commercials included) to as much as twenty-five hours, and shown in as few as two, to as many as twelve parts. In order to make the most impact, mini-series were usually scheduled on consecutive nights, or with all parts broadcast within days of each other. In nearly every instance, a mini-series was based on a popular novel. Typically, mini-series boasted large ensemble casts populated by past-their-prime movie stars, TV stars in-between series stints, and/or young actors on the rise.

There are so many mini-series in the DVD collection of the Des Moines Public Library that it’d be all but impossible to highlight the best of what’s available. So, as World War II has already been broached, and as that historical period was common subject matter in the golden age of mini-series production, I’ll continue in that direction. If you’re interested in viewing the best examples of the format dealing with the Second World War, I recommend the aforementioned relatively recent titles, as well as the following highly-acclaimed and popular titles from decades past.

HolocaustHolocaust (1978) 420 minutes, four parts – The Weiss family, Polish émigrés who move to Berlin in the 1930s, ignore the growing anti-Semitism around them to their increasing peril. Meryl Streep and James Woods were among the young stars whose careers got a boost from this production.

The Winds of WarThe Winds of War (1983) 883 minutes, seven parts – Author Herman Wouk’s epic novel became an epic TV production. The story centers on the Henry family, headed by career naval officer Victor “Pug” Henry, played by Robert Mitchum. Numerous worldwide locations were used to film this mix of history and melodrama, which starts with the beginnings of the war in both Europe and the Pacific, and culminates in the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

WallenbergWallenberg: A Hero’s Story (1985) 200 minutes, two parts – Richard Chamberlain (star of several of the most popular mini-series of all time, including Centennial, Shogun, and The Thorn Birds) plays Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who was responsible for saving approximately 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazi Holocaust.War and Remembrance

War and Remembrance (1988) 1620 minutes, twelve parts – If The Winds of War seemed gargantuan, this filming of Wouk’s sequel is absolutely mammoth. Robert Mitchum reprises his role as “Pug” Henry, but, as five years had elapsed between productions, some other cast members from the previous mini-series had to be recast. If you can get past that quibble, then you’ll likely enjoy this tale of the America’s direct involvement in the war.

Lastly, some English television productions set during World War II might also be worth checking out. Technically speaking, Fortunes of War, Sword of Honour, and Piece of Cake aren’t mini-series, at least not in the American sense. The total episodes shot for a season of an English TV series are roughly a quarter of the number shot for a TV series in the United States.  In addition, many English series are written as standalone seasons, with no setup for possible future seasons. As a result, many of these series greatly resemble our conception of an American mini-series. So, if you’re curious about the British take on the Second World War, consider giving those a try.

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Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep

For decades, the gold standard for acting was Katharine Hepburn. That is, at least, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. You may know the organization better as the one who gives out the shiny statuettes known as Woman of the YearOscars. Over her 62-year film career, Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role 12 times. If that wasn’t enough, she actually won four times, which is still a record for all onscreen performers. Frankly, those longtime records were ones that I expected would be forever out of reach.

Enter Meryl Streep. With her nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Adaptation in 2003, Streep surpassed Hepburn’s record for acting noms. She has since added four more, for a gaudy total of 17! Her latest, of course, was for The Iron Lady, which resulted in Streep winning Sophie's Choiceher third Oscar last year. That ended a 29-year span – covering 12 nominations – during which she was shut out. Still, she is now just one win away from tying the immortal Hepburn.

Now, it’s time for a point of clarification, or two. All of Kate’s nominations were for leading roles, while three of Meryl’s were for supporting roles. Nevertheless, that means that Streep has amassed 14 leading role noms to Hepburn’s 12. The edge goes to Streep. All four of Kate’s wins were for lead actress, though one of those, The Lion in Winter, was a rare Oscar tie (with Barbara Streisand for Funny Girl). On the other hand, one of Meryl’s three wins was for a supporting role: The Lion in WinterKramer vs. Kramer. The edge goes to Hepburn. Back on that March night in 1982, when Kate won her final statuette, on her final nomination – for On Golden Pond – it would have been more than reasonable to say that she was in a class by herself. Thirty years later, it’s clear that that class now has two members.

Certainly, direct comparisons of the two actresses are a bit difficult. Although their careers did overlap by over 15 years, they are clearly of vastly different generations. Film acting has changed over the years. Check that, film acting has “progressed” over the years.

The stagy performance that nonetheless netted Hepburn her first Oscar in A Cry in the Dark1934 for Morning Glory, would never win an award now. In fact, as Hepburn matured, as did motion picture acting in general, she became an ever-better actress. I don’t want to sound too harsh here. Keep in mind that “talkies” had only been on the scene for a few years when Morning Glory was released in 1933, and broad gesturing stage actors with great voices were largely replacing broad gesturing silent film stars with often mediocre voices. Hepburn was no worse, and arguably much better, than most other Hollywood actors of the period. She always possessed an obvious intelligence and she grew with the medium. Ultimately, she proved herself a star who On Golden Pondcould really act, not just a great beauty who could topline an A-production.

Streep, by contrast, hasn’t had to change with the times in the same way as Hepburn had to do, as acting hasn’t changed appreciably in the past several decades. Street was a character star from the first moment she hit the screen.  Her rise to stardom was nearly as quick as Hepburn’s, though her first roles were in supporting roles, whereas Hepburn received starring turns from the beginning. That’s essentially the difference between the two. Streep remains a character star, though primarily in lead roles. She merits her fame for The Iron Ladyher consistently nuanced and believable performances, tackling a wide-range of characters and conquering a variety of accents and mannerisms. You don’t watch a Streep film to see Streep as iconic presence. You experience a Streep film to see her lose herself in whatever role she’s playing.

Whether you prefer one over the other probably has more to do with your age, or artistic tastes. Personally, I enjoy both actresses for their individual strengths.  I admire Hepburn for her combination of grace and glamour (as well as for her aforementioned ever-present  intelligence) and Streep for her willingness to tackle challenging roles and her ability to exceed expectations through brilliant acting choices.  Of course, if you want to delve deeper into each one’s oeuvre (hey, there’s a word that I don’t get to use very often!) and make your own comparison, we have dozens of Hepburn and Streep movies from which to choose at the Des Moines Public Library. If you’d like to see which of their performances were Oscar-nominated, investigate the following links. For Kate, click on http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000031/awards, while for Meryl, click on http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000658/awards.

Hitchcock Rises Again

You know those lists that often appear this time of year that say this person is “in,” while that person is “out”?  Well, I’m not sure who’s “out,” but I can tell you that Alfred Hitchcock is “in.” That’s right, Alfred Hitchcock, the long-deceased British director who relocated to Hollywood in 1940 and became the industry’s most recognizable filmmaker. In theaters at this moment is Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins as the witty and rotund director most famous for his suspense thrillers.

Hitchcock isn’t a traditional Hollywood biopic that tries to cover several decades of a subject’s life in a scant two hours. Instead, it’s one of a growing trend of biopic (Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis, is another current example) that highlights a particular event, or period, in a person’s life in greater detail. In this case, it’s the making of the classic horror film Psycho that serves as a window into Hitchcock’s life.

PsychoVertigoThe release of Hitchcock comes on the heels of a related event from a few months earlier. In the September issue of the British film magazine Sight & Sound, Hitchcock’s 1958 mystery/romance Vertigo was voted number one in “The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time” poll. The decennial poll (that means once every 10 years, and, I admit, I had to look up the proper word myself) correlates the personal favorites of hundreds of international critics, programmers, academics and distributors (846 voted in this most recent edition) and ranks them in order. The 70-year old poll is considered the ultimate barometer of filmic art among serious cinema enthusiasts. In rising to the poll’s summit, Vertigo ended the 50-year reign of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which fell to a distant second.

Hitchcock, born in London in 1899, didn’t live to see Vertigo rise to vast critical acclaim. He died in his Los Angeles home two years before Vertigo made its first appearance in the Sight & Sound poll of 1982, emerging in the seventh position. In subsequent polls, the film rose to fourth in 1992 and then to second ten years after that.

The 39 StepsThe Lady VanishesPrevious to the ascent of Vertigo, any number of Hitchcock’s other films were mentioned in various quarters as being his defining work. Among those are The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca (Hitch’s only Academy Award winner for best picture), Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds.  Together with Vertigo, that makes ten bona fide classics.

Did you notice that I haven’t yet mentioned such other key Hitchcock titles as Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rope, Dial M for Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, and Frenzy. Those ten alone would be enough to have established Hitchcock as a filmmaking legend.  Simply put, Hitchcock made more great films than most directors even made good ones.  If you claim that Hitchcock was just a director who thrived in the old Hollywood system that was producer, rather than director dominated, take note that he also produced (though often uncredited) many of his most famous films.

RebeccaShadow of a DoubtSurprisingly, Hitchcock never won an Oscar as best director. That may lead one to think that he was undervalued as a director in his own lifetime, but that was hardly the case. Many of Hitchcock’s films were wildly popular and that box office success allowed him more control over his productions than was typically the case. In fact, in the age before the advent of serious film criticism, Hitchcock was a household name. His films were usually headlined by major stars, but his own name was often used as a main selling point, appearing over the title in publicity items and on the marquees of the theaters in which his movies were playing (think Steven Spielberg or Tim Burton today).

In truth, Hitchcock was also a canny self-promoter. He appeared in cameo roles in many (no, not all) of his films and was often a guest on TV shows. He went from being a great filmmaker to becoming a brand name. In 1955, he became the host (directing several episodes, as well) of a half-hour TV anthology show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran 268 episodes Rear WindowNorth by Northwestbefore ending in 1962. He immediately followed that with The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, whose 93 similar, but longer-length episodes aired from 1962-65. He also lent his name to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, a monthly publication specializing in crime and detective fiction (for which he never actually wrote anything) that debuted in 1956 and continues to this day. Long before shock jock Howard Stern proclaimed himself “The King of All Media,” Hitchcock could have laid claim to that title.

To truly appreciate Alfred Hitchcock, however, one must forget about Hitchcock the public figure and concentrate on Hitchcock the master filmmaker.  For that, I recommend, without reservation, all of the titles mentioned above. The Des Moines Public Library owns over 20 Hitchcock films, including most of the ones listed. Thirty years after his death, find out for yourself why Hitchcock’s reputation is as stellar as ever, if not still escalating.

Reggae Icons

MarleyA Franklin Avenue Library patron told me recently that he was fortunate to have seen a Bob Marley concert in New York City in 1979. Marley was, of course, the greatest star of reggae, a slow-tempo style of Jamaican music in which a guitar and/or piano uniquely accents the second and fourth beats in each bar, while combining with a drum’s emphasis on beat three. The patron said it was one of the greatest live performances he’s ever witnessed, and he claims to have seen a lot of concerts. At the time, however, he didn’t realize just how fortunate he was to have seen the man who remains Jamaica’s best-known individual.

Two years before that NYC concert, Marley was diagnosed with a type of malignant melanoma uncommon in people under age 60. Despite his worsening health, Marley maintained his hectic touring schedule and (for religious reasons) declined treatment.  He continued to tour until early fall 1980, when he no longer had the strength to perform — his final concert is captured on Live Forever: September 23, 1980, Stanley Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA.  He then agreed to submit to a controversial new, non-invasive treatment, but the melanoma continued to spread. Marley died 11 May 1981 at just 36 years of age.

Marley has been described as the Third World’s first pop superstar.  He took reggae out of the slums of Jamaica and brought it to a worldwide audience. Just like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, music stars whose legends seemed to have grown exponentially, at least in part, due to their premature deaths, Marley has become one of the icons of popular music. Marley posters, t-shirts and other paraphernalia are as hot now as ever. Although the genre has survived three decades past his demise, Marley remains the artist most identified with reggae.

As great as Marley was, however, he’s not the only reggae artist worth seeking out. Any casual Marley fan who would like to delve further into reggae, or anyone who is new to reggae altogether should be aware of some of the other titans of the genre.

CliffJimmy Cliff – Cliff was a reggae superstar slightly before Marley. The movie The Harder They Come, (1972), starring Cliff, provided many Americans with their first taste of reggae upon its later U.S. release. Marley soon eclipsed the more pop-oriented Cliff in popularity, but Cliff remained a musical force and is still active today. In fact, his latest disc, Rebirth, released last summer, is being lauded as his best in years. For a taste of Cliff in his prime, try In Concert: The Best of Jimmy Cliff, or a good one-disc career retrospective is Ultimate Collection.Black Uhuru

Black Uhuru – Many personnel changes occurred over the years, but leader Derrick “Duckie” Simpson remained the one constant.  Black Uhuru (taken from a Swahili word meaning “freedom”) was the dominant act during reggae’s second decade and the first reggae artist to win a Grammy Award. Among their finest works are 1980’s Sinsemilla and 1981’s Red.

Peter Tosh – Tosh, with Marley, was an original member of The Wailers. Tosh had ongoing success as both part of that group and as a solo artist from the early sixties to the early seventies.  Always outspoken, ToshTosh’s music became particularly militant as a solo artist during the seventies and eighties, but he continued to rack up hits both domestically and abroad. On September 11, 1987, while in his Kingston, Jamaica home, Tosh and six friends were each shot in the head by a sometime houseguest accompanied by the shooter’s cronies.  Tosh was one of three who did not survive their injuries.  Legalize It is a classic album from his peak, while The Very Best of Peter Tosh gives you the highlights.

Toots and The MaytalsToots & The Maytals – Toots Hibbert is considered one of the most charismatic frontmen in reggae history. Although the group never achieved the success of other reggae stars in the United States (they were, however, very popular in Britain), they were one of the key founders of the genre. Their 1968 hit Do the Reggay (one of several songs released that year using the name of a popular dance to also describe the new music style that was becoming associated with it) helped name the genre. For a good retrospective, listen to The Best of Toots and The Maytals ; 2004’s True Love, on the other hand, pairs the group with some of popular music’s biggest names on rerecorded versions of their classic hits.

The story certainly doesn’t end with those reggae icons. Beyond the artists mentioned above, there are far more reggae musicians represented in the CD collection of the Des Moines Public Library. In fact, several of Bob Marley’s sons – Ziggy, Stephen, Julian and Damian (Jr. Gong) – alone have carved out notable careers in the genre. To see what we have to offer, perform a keyword search using the phrase “reggae sound recording” (or click here) and you will retrieve a results list of over 160 items.  Cool runnings!