1. “That’s Entertainment!” Once again, Turner Movie Classics ran all of the “That’s Entertainment!’ series as its New Year’s Eve programming. Last time TCM did this, primary host Ben Mankiewicz won ethics points for having the guts to say, as his fellow hosts were gushing about MGM musicals between “That’s Entertainment!” 1 and 2, that he regarded movie musicals as in the same category as super-hero movies today: diverting fluff, but not cinematic masterpieces. I don’t completely agree with him, but as Mankiewicz has shown before, he has integrity as an expert analyst, and does not hesitate to register opinions that his audience might not like. (Where Ben is wrong in his comparison is that the old movie musicals showcase astonishing talents that we are unlikely to see the like of again—Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, Julie Andrews and others—while the super-hero movies merely display special effects that we are doomed to see repeated for the rest of our lives. In support of Ben’s point, I have to admit that watching “That’s Entertainment” one is struck by how few truly great movie musicals there were.
Last night, Ben scored again as a truth-teller. After mouthing the conventional wisdom that Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were regarded as the greatest dancers in Hollywood history, he added, “Of course, Eleanor Powell and the Nicholas Brothers might disagree.” As an early clip in “That’s Entertainment!” shows, a dance-off between Astaire and Powell, she could match Fred step for step. The Nicholas Brothers, who only appear briefly in TE1, never had a chance to impress white audiences, but when you watch them, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they could perform feats of feet that neither Kelly nor Astaire could match.
2. “That’s Entertainment!” (cont.) The series is as good an example as one could find of why sequel are cheats most of the time. The first in the series was perfectly conceived: at a time of national cynicism in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, during a period where movies were becoming violent and bloody and MGM, once the “Dream Factory,” was being sold off. Jack Haley, Jr, the son of Judy Garland’s Tim Man and an MGM executive, had the idea of using old clips and old stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age to show a new generation what thrilled their parents and grandparents. In part because of Haley’s clever choices of material and his editing, the movie worked better than anyone could have imagined. I saw it in D.C. grand Uptown theater (it just closed it doors forever, killed by the lockdown) with a packed house of Baby Boomers. During the opening credits, the audience broke into spontaneous applause as each names of the co-hosts, past their primes all (except for Liza Minnelli), appeared on the screen. Donald O’Connor! (Applause)…Mickey Rooney! (Applause). I’ve never witnessed anything like it.
The film was box office smash, so the profit motive being what it is, MGM had to put out a sequel. Sequels promise the same joys as the originals that spawn them, but that’s literally impossible, because sequels usually lack originality by definition. In the case of “That’s Entertainment!,” since the original was conceived as representing the best of the MGM musicals, the sequel could only be a compilation of not-quite-as-good material, or, in a few cases, material that was identical to what had alredy been seen in “That’s Entertainment!” “2” was bad, and “3,” over a decade later, was, predictably, worse. Anyone gullible enough to purchase tickets to either sequel was the victim of a scam. Instead of “That’s Entertainment! 2 and 3, the films should have been called, “That’s Not Quite As Entertaining!” and “That’s Kind of Entertaining You’ve Got Nothing Better To Do.”
3. Speaking of bait-and switch movies…a Critic’s Notebook column in the Times recounts how Bruce Willis, since around 2015, has made one cheap, violence-filled B action movie after another, often sent straight to streaming services. Though he is usually billed as the #2 star (or sometimes getting the honorific placement following “and” at the conclusion of the credits), Willis’s screen time is typically 15 minutes or less, and his role is typically superfluous or passive, He is literally selling his name to bring audiences to bad movies.
4. Fat actor ethics. Apparently some of her fans are angry with Rebel Wilson, the defiantly obese and sassy comic actress who has starred in the “Pitch Perfect” films as well as such diversions as “Cats.” She’s not obese any more, having devoted 2020 to dieting and exercise.
Those who saw her as a champion of the less-than-svelte and an icon of the fat-shaming resistance regard her as a traitor. Melissa McCarthy faced similar backlash for her weight loss, as has British recording star Adele.
But celebrities have no obligation to comply with their fans’ demands and needs, and if the feminist standard of women having control over their own bodies means anything, it should mean that a woman has an absolute right to lose weight, or not, as she chooses.
If history is any guide, two alternate fates likely await Wilson. The first is gaining the weight back. The second is finding no career as a thin actress. Kathy Najimy, Wayne Knight and Mo’Nique are among the performers who had thriving careers filling specialty “fat actor” niches until each lost the flab and became just another pretty face, of which Hollywood has an abundant supply.