Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On


A couple of showbiz broads remembering when.

(2019) Documentary (Abramorama) Kaye Ballard, Michael Feinstein, Rex Reed, Carol Burnett, Woody Allen, Carol Channing, Joy Behar, Bernie Kopell, Peter Marshall, Elaine Paige, Liz Smith, Jerry Stiller, Harold Prince, Sandy Stewart, Ann-Margaret, Mimi Hines, Mark Sendroff, Carole Cook, Donna McKechnie. Directed by Dan Wingate

Unless you’re a Broadway-phile or of a certain age group that gets special dining privileges at Golden Corral, the name of Kaye Ballard may not necessarily be familiar to you. Those who know her likely remember her from her two-year stint on the sitcom The Mothers-in-Law with Eve Arden, or as a supporting player on The Doris Day Show – in both TV shows, playing a high-strung Italian mom, a role for which she would be typecast later in her career.

She was born Catherine Balotta in Cleveland to Italian immigrants and she knew from an early age that she wanted to be in show business, going to see symphonies at Severance Hall. She started out as a teen singing in Vaudeville shows. One of her performances was caught by Spike Jones, a legendary orchestra leader who Dr. Demento fans remember fondly. As gifted a comedienne as she was, it was her singing voice that was captivating and it was that which took her to Broadway during the Golden Age of the Great White Way.

Throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s she wasn’t exactly the Queen of Broadway but she was one of its most popular singers, leading to appearances on all sorts of talk shows and variety shows on television (including a memorable appearance playing the flute with Henry Mancini on his own show, an appearance she lampooned on a later visit to The Muppet Show).

This documentary features her career from her early film appearances to recordings of her Broadway hits to her television appearances to her late-in-life supper club and nightclub performances (she was still performing in her nineties). It concentrates on her professional life, rarely intruding on her personal life. Ballard is gregarious and a joyful storyteller and Wingate intersperses the archival footage and the lengthy interview with Ballard with testimonials from friends and colleagues, including such luminaries as Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, Ann-Margaret (whom she opened for in Vegas), legendary Broadway diva Carol Channing, Harold Prince (one of the most revered directors in the history of stage musicals), comedian Jerry Stiller, Joy Behar of The View and her friend, longtime gossip columnist Liz Smith.

The footage shows an extraordinary talent – she could belt out a showstopping number with all the vocal power of an Ethel Merman or sing tenderly from the heart a la Judy Garland (of whom she did a dead-on impression). The film packs a lot of info into its hour and a half running time and at times seems to be moving at a dizzying speed – Wingate could have easily stretched this out into a two to three-hour extravaganza and not have lacked for material to fill out the time.

Ballard passed shortly after the film was completed at age 93. She never got the acclaim and success she deserved, but she didn’t seem to mind that so much – she loved the life she led and when asked if she would do it all over again if she had the opportunity, she quipped “You bet your ass I would.” While her recordings are a little bit hard to find and some of her musical appearances sadly out of print, she is worth seeking out and this film not only presents a marvelous introduction to her talent but also takes us back to an era in entertainment that is essentially gone forever and of which we will never see the like of again. Kaye Ballard may have taken her final curtain call, but with this documentary the show will indeed go on so long as there are those who love the music and the performances of a much more innocent era. Quite a legacy for an immigrant’s daughter from Cleveland.

REASONS TO SEE: Shows the talent that Ballard possessed. Reminds of a golden era that we ill never see the like of again.
REASONS TO AVOID: The background music is intrusive and unwelcome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ballard, Channing, Prince, Smith and Stiller have all passed away since this was shot.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carol Channing: Larger Than Life
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Isn’t It Romantic?

Frances Ha


Pretentions, anyone?

Pretentions, anyone?

(2013) Comedy (IFC) Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen, Charlotte d’Amboise, Grace Gummer, Daiva Deupree, Justine Lupe, Lindsay Burdge, Patrick Heusinger, Marina Squerciati, Britta Phillips, Juliet Rylance, Josh Hamilton, Dean Wareham, Maya Kazan, Ryann Shane. Directed by Noah Baumbach  

Since the advent of motion pictures, there has been a hidden conspiracy that is rarely spoken of out loud but exists nonetheless – the attempt to portray being in your mid-to-late twenties in New York as the best existence possible. Of late, that has been a banner eagerly taken up by indie filmmakers.

Frances (Gerwig) is an understudy for a modern dance troupe. She has vague ambitions for something more – mainly to make it on to the touring company, despite being much less talented than other dancers in the fold. The company’s director (d’Amboise) tries to break it to her gently that while she likes Frances personally that she simply doesn’t have a prayer of being anything but an understudy for the company, offering her an office job while she looks for options but that really doesn’t fit into Frances’ plans, what there are of them.

Frances’ roommate is her bestie Sophie (Sumner). The two went to college together, hang out together, play fight in the park, hang out and bitch about boys and boyfriends and smoke on their balcony. Sophie works for Random House and appears to be the breadwinner of the family. Her boyfriend Patch (Heusinger) works in the financial industry, is hopelessly preppie and converses with a kind of fake “Yo, bro!” bonhomie that is at once jarring and irritating to hipster sorts which Frances clearly is. Sophie alternates being smitten with Patch who can provide a stable future and abhorring the compromise in her soul that she has to make to keep him happy. Eventually stability wins and Sophie moves out to Manhattan, leaving Sophie in Brooklyn with no income and no apartment.

She finds a couple of rich hipsters, Lev (Driver) who is kind of magic as she puts it, and Benji (Zegen) who fits her personality like a glove, teasing her as “undateable” and leaping on her bed without warning like a five year old on a Sunday morning. After a trip home to Sacramento for the holidays, she returns having left Lev and Benji and staying temporarily with another friend, only to discover that Sophie and Patch are moving to Japan after Patch is transferred there. Frances is desperately lonely and floundering, caught in the rapids of life and not really knowing where they will deposit her. Even an impulsive trip to Paris (paid for with a new credit card, although she can only afford a weekend there and only the because some friends of the friends she’s staying with offer her the use of their apartment there) turns disastrous and fails to cheer her up. She is forced to find work as a summer Resident Advisor at the college she went to only a few years ago. How humiliating is that?

The admirable thing about Frances is that she doesn’t let life keep her down. She can be flaky sure, and her maturity level is roughly the same as an 8th grader in many way but there is a kind of innate optimism in the woman that is endearing. Frances and her friends are pretentious with the sort of pretention that is native to a twenty-something who has left the cocoon of college and has discovered that the reality of life isn’t what it was living with their parents. Like most of that age group, they discover that the dreams of childhood and high school are not handed over on a plate and aren’t received in a matter of months. There’s that suspicious knot in their bellies that their dreams may not be attainable at all and that the only thing that makes it bearable is liberal use of alcohol, intellectual discussions about authors and books that have the proper amount of obscurity to them and indie music as a kind of soundtrack.

Gerwig is an appealing actress who has become something of the 21st century incarnation of Goldie Hawn – she can play flighty but there is some grey matter there even if the character she’s playing has none. Gerwig co-wrote the movie and one suspects that there is more than a little bit of Greta Gerwig in Frances. While the movie is solidly written, like many indie movies over the last 15 years it sadly mistakes quirkiness for personality.

Baumbach (who in real life is involved with Gerwig as of this writer) is a director with amazing potential; movies like The Squid and the Whale as well as Greenberg show how able he is behind the camera. He chose to film this in black and white, leading to obvious comparisons with Woody Allen’s classic Manhattan (as well as a few with Annie Hall in tone if not in palate) and I’ll admit that the Big Apple has always had a particular appeal in the softness of black and white photography, although there is a curious darkness and harshness to the shades of grey here.

The appeal here is going to be to those in that 20-something age group, particularly those in urban areas who hang out in bars and coffee houses, clubs and cafes, art houses and bistros. There is a certain magic that age engenders and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating it. If older audiences such as myself are put off by it, there is partially a wistful jealousy behind it – my 20-somethings are well in my rear view and that decade is never coming back. The wisdom of my age group (that generally eludes those who are younger) is that every decade of life has something sweet to offer and that each can be as rewarding as any other – the 20s don’t have to be the beginning and ending of life. However when we are in the throes of the passions that 20-something creates, it’s hard to see what lies beyond the intersection.

If hipsters were vampires, they’d never be able to book this as a matinee. That is really who the target audience is here. I’ll admit there has been a hipster backlash of late, largely due to movies like this which can be infuriating (Da Queen, frustrated by flighty Frances, often glared at me throughout the movie and mouthed the words “I’ll kill you” for taking her to see this, a movie she knew from the trailer wasn’t going to appeal to her). However, those who are in that target audience are going to fall in love with Frances and her lifestyle. For the rest of us however, there’s a maddening condescending tone that prevents full acceptance and for that the rating is much lower than it needed to be, plus Frances is a bit too neurotic for my taste. That said, if you can overlook the film’s pretentions and faults, you might just find this to be worth seeking out.

REASONS TO GO: Captures 20-something angst nicely. Gerwig is sweetly effervescent.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too hip for its own good. Largely limits its own appeal to the age group that inhabits its frames.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some drug usage and a good deal of frank sexual conversation as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors playing Frances’ parents are actually actress Greta Gerwig’s parents.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100; critics love this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hannah Takes the Stairs

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Malice in Wonderland