Dean Martin: King of Cool


Dino in his element.

(2021) Documentary (Creative Chaos) Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Jon Hamm, Dick Cavett, Barbara Rush, Deana Martin, RZA, Alec Baldwin, Frankie Avalon, Lanie Kazan, Norman Lear, Tommy Tune, Bob Newhart, Regis Philbin, Tom Dreeson, James Woods, Scotty Lewis, George Schlatter, Ron Morasco, Josh Homme, Peter Bogdanovich, Tony Oppedisano, Anne Hayen. Directed by Tom Donahue

Everyone has their own idea as to what “cool” is. Maybe it’s someone who is up on all the latest fashions and trends. Maybe it’s someone who always seems calm in the face of difficulty. Maybe it’s just someone who runs with the cool kids. But there are those who all of us agree has that special something, that degree of cool that everyone instantly recognizes.

Dean Martin was one of those guys, although that wasn’t always the case. He was born in Steubenville, Ohio, a Rust Belt town where his Italian immigrant parents (his birth name was Dino Paul Crocetti and he was often referred to affectionately as Dino throughout his life) had settled. He didn’t speak English until he was six, often being bullied in school for his accent. He dropped out of high school eventually and after trying his hand at several careers that didn’t pan out (including boxing and as a blackjack dealer) until he found one that stuck – as a singer.

Martin had a warm, inviting voice and his style was influenced by that of Bing Crosby and, in particular, the Mills Brothers (a clip from his TV program shows him performing with the Brothers and he looks absolutely tickled pink). He was a steady performer, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with up-and-coming wunderkind comic Jerry Lewis in 1946 that he found fame and fortune. Their partnership lasted ten years but ended acrimoniously. Lewis had always been assumed to be the genius of the duo, and many felt Martin would sink into obscurity, but that didn’t happen.

Instead he mounted a comeback, starring as a pretty fair dramatic actor in films like The Young Lions and Rio Bravo while his singing career continued to blossom, even though the age of the crooner was waning with the advent of rock and roll. He became close friends with fellow singer Frank Sinatra and became a member of the Rat Pack, a legendary group of performers who often dropped in unannounced at each other’s shows, and made a group of movies together, including the original Oceans 11 and Robin and the Seven Hoods. Martin also hosted a long-running TV variety show which cemented his image as not only a wonderful performer, but also a strong comedian, poking fun at his own drinking and smoking.

This documentary does a very thorough job in documenting Martin’s career, concentrating on everything from the Martin-Lewis years on. The interviews are with performers who knew him well (Angie Dickinson, Barbara Rush), family members (his daughter Deana who was also a producer on the film), and contemporary admirers like RZA, Alec Baldwin and Josh Homme. There are some audio interviews with Martin’s ex-wives but only one interview with Dino himself – taken shortly after the death of his son Dean Paul in a plane crash in 1987, an event which devastated him. He himself would pass away on Christmas Day, 1995 from complications from lung cancer, a legacy of a lifetime of being a heavy smoker.

One of the interesting takeaways from the documentary is that Martin was an intensely private individual. His second wife Jeanne, who probably knew him better than anyone, once remarked that despite being married to him for more than two decades, she didn’t really know him – nobody did. He was affable and genial in his public persona, and a loyal father who spent long stretches away from his family, but often seemed to be alone in a crowd.

For fans of Martin, this is definitely a must-see. It is currently airing on Turner Classic Movies (it’s second broadcast will be on November 26th as part of a celebration of Dino’s movies) and is likely to show up on HBO Max or TCM’s subscription streaming service afterwards. Otherwise, this is a pretty standard biography, although one should admire how well the life of the entertainer is covered.

REASONS TO SEE: A very thorough look at the life of an American icon.
REASONS TO AVOID: A whole LOT of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and a whole lot of smoking (and drinking).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At 29, Martin was ten years older than Jerry Lewis when the two began their collaboration.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It


Rita Moreno is not above publicizing her own documentary.

(2021) Documentary (Roadside Attractions) Rita Moreno, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Morgan Freeman, George Chakiris, Whoopi Goldberg, Hector Elizondo, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado, Mitzi Gaynor, Norman Lear, Sonia Sotomayor, Frances Negron-Montaner, Gloria Estefan, Tony Taccone, Fernanda Gordon Fisher, John Ferguson, Jackie Speier, Tom Fontana, Terence McNally, Chita Rivera. Directed by Mariem Perez Riera

 

When most people think of Rita Moreno, the first thing that comes to mind is her Oscar-winning part as the sizzling, seductive Anita in West Side Story. That isn’t so surprising, but she has had a nearly 70 year career in entertainment, and is the first (and so far only) Latina actress to win the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards in their career. That’s an accomplishment that is exceedingly rare few actors can make the same claim.

Moreno grew up in poverty in Puerto Rico, but remembers her childhood as idyllic. That came to an end when her parents divorced and her mother moved her to New York City. She developed an affinity for dancing and dropped out of school at 16 to become the family’s sole breadwinner. She did get noticed, though and was eventually signed to a contract at MGM by Louis B. Mayer.

The documentary, at a snug 89 minutes, covers most of the highlights of her career; the any reinventions, such as her time on the seminal children’s PBS program The Electric Company and her dramatic role as a nun-prison psychologist in Oz and more recently her starring role in the reboot of One Day at a Time (sadly canceled) and up to her forthcoming appearance in Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story which she executive produced.

There are also some of the struggles she underwent; the typecasting as an ethnic actress, often requiring her to wear skin-darkening makeup to play Asian, Pacific Islander and Hispanic roles. There is also the misogyny, as when Columbia co-founder Harry Cohn told her point blank at a cocktail party that he wanted to have sex with her (in much cruder terms) which as a fairly sheltered teen from Puerto Rico was quite a shock.

Through much of the film, Moreno is seen watching the Christine Blasey Ford testimony at the Neil Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. These seem to resonate with her in particular; she then talks about her own sexual assault at the hands of an agent. She then says that she still kept him on as her agent, as he was the only one willing to believe in her “so-called career” as few agents would represent anyone of Latin origin as they tended to be typecast in a narrow variety of roles.

Although much of this can be found in Moreno’s 2013 memoir, it might come as new information for those who haven’t read it – including myself. For instance, I’d forgotten that early in her career she’d appeared in both The King and I and Singing in the Rain (in one of her rare non-ethnic appearances). What is more telling is the effect her career has had on those of the Latin performers who followed her and speak about her with reverence, including her One Day at a Time co-star Machado and Broadway emperor Lin-Manuel Miranda. America Ferraro is also seen giving a heartfelt speech at an awards ceremony honoring Moreno. It is a touch hagiographic, but I can’t help but think that if anyone deserves that kind of hero-worship, it’s Moreno.

REASONS TO SEE: A squidge better than the average Hollywood biodoc. Moreno is an engaging storyteller.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times on the hagiographic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual content and a description of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moreno was the first actor of Puerto Rican descent to win an Oscar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews; Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Olympia
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
It’s Not a Burden

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You


Little Norman at the lectern.

Little Norman at the lectern.

(2015) Documentary (Music Box) Norman Lear, Rob Reiner, Amy Poehler, John Amos, Russell Simmons, George Clooney, Louise Lasser, Mel Brooks, Bob Saget, Carl Reiner, Bill Moyers, Jon Stewart, Lyn Lear, Kate Lear, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Jay Leno, Martin Mull, Jimmie Walker, Bud Yorkin, Sally Struthers, Mary Kay Place, Valerie Bertinelli, Adrienne Barbeau. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Florida Film Festival 2016

One of the giants of the television landscape is Norman Lear. While there are those who criticize his politics (he’s an unabashed liberal who brought progressive thought to the airwaves back when it was dominated by conservative sorts) nobody can deny the success that he enjoyed (the only man to have six shows in the top ten simultaneously) nor the legacy he left behind.

This documentary is mainly aimed at the glory days of Lear’s career in the 70s, as we follow the creation and execution of shows like All in the Family, Maude, Good Times and The Jeffersons among others. There are some interesting things worth noting, like Carroll O’Conner had a very hard time reconciling his own liberal beliefs with the racist dialogue his character had to say. He often fought Lear on certain elements of dialogue because he felt so uncomfortable about saying it, even as a character not himself. Generally, Lear prevailed and as such we got Archie Bunker, America’s favorite bigot as TV Guide once termed him.

While there are plenty of talking head interviews, the most interesting are with Lear himself who even as a nonagenarian is clear-eyed and a charismatic raconteur. While some of the interviews come a bit close to fawning, certainly if anyone warranted such treatment its Lear. As we hear from such modern comedy icons as Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart (as well as Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal) one gets a real sense of just how influential the man continues to be. Certainly the modern television landscape would be a very different place without him.

Best of all, we get to see a goodly amount of clips of some of the various shows’ best moments. For those like myself who grew up in that era, the sense of nostalgia is palpable, and very welcome. While I didn’t religiously watch these shows (I grew up in a conservative household with a dad who thought Lear was too political and certainly too much of a leftie for his tastes), I did watch them often and enjoyed them.

There is a bit of a misstep; there are some linking devices here with a young boy, wearing a hat similar to the one that Lear has become known for wearing (for more than 50 years, no less) apparently playing Lear as a young man re-enacting some of the events of Lear’s life on a bare stage. While I give the filmmakers props for at least trying to get out of the typical talking head/archival footage mode that characterizes most profile documentaries, it just doesn’t work.

What does work is Lear himself. He had a difficult relationship with his own father, who was jailed when Lear was just nine years old. One of the more powerful moments is when Lear unexpectedly breaks down when discussing his relationship with his dad. It’s one of the times we get to see inside the inner Lear.

And there’s the rub. I don’t think we get a very complete view of who Lear the man is, but you’re not really going to do that in an hour and a half in any case. Thinking that any documentarian can do so is simply unrealistic. We do get a good sense of Lear’s accomplishments and what he means to modern television in general. We also come to the understanding that as influential as Lear is, and as much as his work echoes into the modern day small screen ethos, nobody makes ‘em like the master anymore and there is a hint of the bittersweet in that fact that is inescapable. There will never be another quite like him.

REASONS TO GO: Some very powerful emotional moments. A trip down memory lane. Really gives you an idea of how influential Lear is.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure we needed Little Norman.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lear was 93 years old when interviewed for this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score found.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Wrestling Alligators