Red Carpet Chatter: Mike Nichols Gets His AFI Lifetime Achievement Award

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Born in 1931 in what was very soon to become Hitler’s Germany, young Michael Peschkowsky was living in Manhattan by 1939. It was great luck both for the future Mike Nichols and for the country that accepted him.

Nichols is, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, and for good reason. He’s the original, craftsmanlike, and emotionally astute directorial voice responsible for such sixties and seventies classics as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,”  “Carnal Knowledge” and, of course, “The Graduate” (the source of his only directorial Oscar so far) as well as such eighties, nineties, and oughts successes as “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “The Birdcage,” and “Closer.” Even if some of the later films are not on the same level of quality as his earlier films — and several, especially his 1988 box office hit, “Working Girl,” stray into mediocrity — it’s still one of the most impressive and diverse careers of any living director in Hollywood.

That’s just on the big screen. On television, Nichols has rebounded in the eyes of many critics, directing two of the most acclaimed television productions of the last decade, 2001’s “Wit” with Emma Thompson, and the outstanding 2005 miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s brilliant and mammoth epic play, “Angels in America.” With his 80th birthday just a year and a half away, he’s still working hard with two thrillers movies planned, including an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” currently being rewritten by the decidedly counter-intuitive choice of Chris Rock.

Before he directed his first foot of film, Mike Nichols was a noted theater director. That in itself is not so unusual a root for directors to travel. What is different is that, before he was a noted theater director, he was half of one of the most influential comedy teams in show business history, Nichols and May. (His comedy partner, Elaine May, went on to become an important, if less commercially successful, writer and director in her own right.)

Still, from the moment he directed his first major play, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” Nichols mostly abandoned performing. Today, his highly regarded early work is mostly known only to fairly hardcore comedy aficionados.

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A day at the TV Land Awards

Cast Of The Love Boat

The TV Land Awards are not an “and the winner is…” kind of award show extravaganza. They’re more a series of honorary nods to the very popular shows of television’s illustrious, time-killing past with an emphasis on glitz. And so a bunch of us media types were invited to add to the hub-bub at the Sony Studios back lot on a breezy April, waiting on a red carpet for whichever celebrity was escorted to our assigned spots, with those from famed print and broadcast outlets obviously getting the first dibs. In the case of this lowly pixel stained wretch, I felt honored to chat with a few really terrific performers who, each in their own way, had made quite an impression on me personally.

That most definitely applies to Jane Leeves, the comedically gifted actress best known as Daphne, Niles Crane’s Manchester-born one-true-crush and eventual wife from “Frasier.” After confessing that I’d had a crush of my own on her since before her famed “Seinfeld” turn as “Marla, the Virgin” her response was typically blunt-yet-charming. “I’m not that old!”

“Neither am I!,” I blurted. (I later learned that Ms. Leeves birthday was the following day. My own birthday was two days prior. I guess age was on both of our minds.)

Aside from being no non-TV star herself, Ms. Leeves was there to promote her now show, coincidentally to be aired on TV Land in a rare foray into original programming, “Hot in Cleveland.” The show teams Leeves with Wendy Malick (“Just Shoot Me”) and Valerie Bertinelli (“One Day at a Time”). The three play “very L.A.” career women with show business-related backgrounds of various types. (Leeves plays an “eyebrow plucker to the stars.”) Feeling a bit aged out of the L.A. game, they attempt a trip to Paris, but instead find themselves marooned at the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They quickly realize that beautiful, middle-aged women who can refer to celebrities by their first name are actually in fairly short supply in the midwestern metropolis and they decide to stay and be big fish in a smaller glamor pond. Betty White costars as a neighbor, perhaps a wacky one. Cue the glib comparisons calling this a “younger ‘Golden Girls.'”

Nevertheless, fans of Ms. Leeves should rest assured that her character is no retread of Daphne Moon. “She’s focused her whole life on her career and has forgotten to have a life. She’s the sort of smart aleck, wise-ass of the group, so it’s very different.”

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Then, perhaps feeling a bit star-struck, I went with the fallback question I frequently steal from our esteemed Will Harris. What project has she done that she doesn’t feel has gotten enough attention.

“It’s my cooking, quite frankly.”

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Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle Dazzle! The Special Years

After her A-list film career died with the decline of the movie musical in the late 50s, lively dancer-actress-singer Mitzi Gaynor reinvented herself as a hot ticket in Las Vegas and then as the star of a series of eight elaborate television specials that ran between 1968 and 1978. This standard issue video documentary focuses on those specials, consisting entirely of interviews with an assortment of Ms. Gaynor’s friends and admirers cut together with numerous, but very brief, clips.

Sadly, the balance is just plain off. Costume designer Bob Mackie was a crucial collaborator and has plenty of insights to share about the shows’ creation, and it’s nice to hear that she’s an inspiration to contemporary musical comedy star Kristin Chenowith. Moreover, I wouldn’t dare disagree with comedy multi-hyphenate Carl Reiner about her talent as a comic actress (though it’s clear the quality of the gag writing on the shows was weak, at best), and some gushing from ex-critical superstar Rex Reed is to be expected. Unfortunately all this talk about how great the shows were is pretty repetitive and kind of pointless since director David Stern only allows us to see minimal evidence thereof – presenting us with not much more than tantalizing glimpses and some unexpected guest turns from stars of the day, including Michael Landon and Ed Asner, as well as future “Law & Order” cop Jerry Orbach in his song-and-dance man incarnation. Fortunately, a few of the complete numbers are included on the DVD extras, but a simple compilation of much longer highlights, with perhaps some very brief explanations, would have been a lot more fun and just as informative.

Click to buy “Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle Dazzle! The Special Years”

  

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