Oscar night: Big deal, big stars and ... well, little movies


Every Academy Award telecast is interesting ... but some are much more so than others. Now comes the this year's show Sunday (March 4), with a clever host and batch of movies that are big in quality, but not in drawing a crowd. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

It's Academy Award
time again, offering everything that viewers want -- almost.

Sunday's ceremony is
likely to have glamour, glitter and great gowns. It will have humor,
via Jimmy Kimmel, and music, via Mary J. Blige, Andra Day, Common and
more.

And big, popular
movies? Well, that's the tricky part.

Before the
nominations came out, Kimmel had a basic desire: “I want movies
that people have seen.”

He got a few, but
not many. Two best-picture nominees -- “Dunkirk” and “Get Out”
-- are box-office hits; the other seven fall somewhere between fairly
successful and thoroughly obscure.

For quality-movie
fans, this is good news. It was a year filled with modest-budgeted
gems.

And for others? As
Variety, the show-business trade paper, put it, this “should send
shivers up the spines of ABC executives.”

They simply want a
big audience for their telecast – something they get when the
movies are well-known. Kimmel wants films he can joke about.

Last year -- in his
first time hosting -- he sensed that the studio audience “hadn't
seen a lot of the movies that they voted for.” A joke about the
“Moonlight” movie “fell somewhat flat, because people didn't
get the reference.” Ironically, “Moonlight” then won for best
picture.

Certainly, Kimmel
will have other things to joke about Sunday, including:

-- Last year's
mix-up, which at first had “La La Land” -- not “Moonlight” --
announced as best picture. “If it happens again, literally everyone
at ABC should be fired,” he said.

-- The sexual-abuse
and gender-equity issues that have rocked Hollywood. At the Golden
Globes in January, host Seth Meyers found ways to make a dead-serious
subject funny. “I was like, 'I have to see what Seth says and how
it is received,'” Kimmel said. “And I do thank him for being that
litmus test.”

-- And his mock feud
with Matt Damon. At the Emmys, Damon kept pointing out that Kimmel
was a loser; at the Oscars, Kimmel mocked the “Chinese pigtail
movie” Damon made. “He was okay with it,” Kimmel said. “I'm
not sure why he was okay with it, but he does have a very good sense
of humor.”

But joking about the
nominated movies? That's tough if the audience hasn't seen them.

The biggest Oscar
audience, the Nielsen ratings say, was in 1998, with 55.2 million
viewers. That was when “Titanic” -- which would eventually gross
$659 million in North America – swept the awards.

The smallest were 32
million in 2008 and 32.9 million last year; those were when the
winners were less popular -- “No Country For Old Men” ($74
million) and “Moonlight” ($28 million).

This year's films
are a mixed lot, according to North American estimates by
boxofficemojo.com.

“Dunkirk” and
“Get Out” soared to $188 and $176 million, but the others are far
behind. That's $78 million for “The Post,” $54 million for “The
Shape of Water,” $49 million for “Three Billboards Outside
Ebbing, Missouri,” $47 million for “Lady Bird,” $41 million for
“Darkest Hour,” $18 million for “The Phantom Thread” and $15
million for “Call Me By My Name.”

Those numbers are
fine for indie movies ... but hardly enough to draw a big Oscar
audience. Add them up and you have $666 million; “Star Wars: The
Last Jedi,” alone, has made $619 million.

Yes, “Jedi” was
nominated for its score, sound, sound-editing and visual effects.
“Beauty and the Beast” ($504 million) is nominated for costumes
and production design .... “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” ($390
million) for visual effects .... “Coco” ($208 million) for a song
and best animated feature.

Each was more
popular than any best-picture nominee. So was “Wonder Woman,”
which drew praise, $418 million and zero nominations.

For fun, Kimmel
might have to scramble – to concoct something like last year, when
a Hollywood tour bus ended up at the Oscars. “You must keep the
show interesting, have an element that could go etither way,” he
said. “That could have been an absolute disaster – and some feel
it was.”

 

"Good girls" do bad things in grocery stores and in Hollywood

Keywords

After weeks of people swooping down hills, we're definitely ready for something new from NBC. It has a lot of shows to offer, some very good ("Rise"), some quite bad ("A.P. Bio") and one that's flawed but interesting. That's "Good Girls," which debuts Monday (Feb. 26); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

There's no good
time, perhaps, to rob a grocery store.

Still, there's a
great time to write a show about ordinary women who rob a store.
That's now, in a Hollywood that's reconsidering its habits.

In the five months
since allegations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein surfaced, TV has
pondered the roles of women onscreen and off. For “Goosd Girls,”
the timing is ideal.

“Three suburban
moms get tired of making ends meet and being taken advantage of,”
Jennifer Salke, president of NBC entertainment, said last month
(before being hired to head Amazon Studios). “So they decide it's
time to stick up for themselves.”

Their solution –
armed robbery – is ill-advised. It's “definitely illegal,”
actress Christina Hendricks grants. But it represents more; these are
“women being sort of backed into a corner and forced to take their
power back,” said writer-producer Jenna Bans.

Bans spent a decade
putting complicated women into moral dilemmas on ABC, from “Desperate
Housewives” to “Grey's Anatomy” and “Scandal.” Now she
likes the irony of her “Good Girls” title.

“It's something my
parents in Minnesota used to always say .... I would be mad about
some injustice at school or something and they'd be like, 'Just be a
good girl about it.'”

Like Bans (from
Minneapolis), these three women are Northerners; in Michigan
suburbia, their worlds crumble.

Hendricks has been
in complex moral turf before, in cable's “Mad Men.” Mae Whitman
(“Parenthood”) has tended to be pigeonholed; “I'm always like
the weird girl,” she said.

Retta (“Parks and
Recreation”) knows all about being typecast. “As a large black
woman in Hollywood, you tend to get stuck in certain tropes.”

Hollywood has had a
lot of lingering attitudes toward its female characters. Now may be
the perfect time for them to rob a grocery store.

-- “Good Girls,”
10 p.m. Mondays, NBC; debuts Feb. 26, after the opener of “The
Voice”

Black colleges bring soaring past, uncertain future


It's a huge subject -- much too big for one documentary or one fictional series: The historically black colleges bring more than 150 years of soaring history and complicated sociology.

Still, a PBS documentary Monday (Feb. 19) is a good starting point; so is the fictional "The Quad," which returns to cable's BET on Feb. 27. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

At first, the idea
was modest: Slaves were free now, but uneducated. Create some
colleges for vocational skills.

Then things got much
bigger. Historically black colleges “are producing an extraordinary
number of new leaders in this country,” said Michael Lomax, head of
the United Negro College Fund.

Their graduates
include icons of the past – Martin Luther King, Jr., Booker T.
Washington, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois – and present,
including Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee and a new wave of elected
officials. The schools are “carrying the responsibility and the
weight of producing black scientists overall,” said Mary Schmidt
Campbell, president of Spelman College.

They also face
plenty of problems, which TV viewers can see via a documentary (on
PBS Monday) or cable fiction (“The Quad,” returning Feb. 27).
Enrollment is down; money is tight.

Such problems
confront schools of all types, Campbell said. “Over the past 10 or
20 years, there have been many colleges and universities that have
gone out of business. HBCU's (historically black colleges and
universities) are no different.”

Overall, their
impact has been shrinking. The Pew Research Center found that in
2015, 8.5 percent of all black college students were at HBCU's; in
1980, the percentage was twice as high.

The total number of
such schools has shrunk from a reported 121 in the 1930s to 102
today. Some are wobbling; the PBS film briefly visits Morris Brown
College, which once had 2,500 students over 34 Atlanta acres; now,
after a financial scandal, it has fewer than 50.

Still, there's the
flip side. “Spelman is thriving,” Campbell said. “Howard is
thriving, Hampton is thriving, Xavier is thriving. There is a whole
slate of HBCU's that are thriving.”

And the overall
effect is still huge. “This is a big community – 102
institutions, over 300,000 students,” Lomax said. “They produce
50,000 graduates a year.”

And in a way, their
success helped create the problem: Thurgood Marshall, from the
prestigious Howard Law School, successfully fought the concept of
“separate-but-equal” education; his court victories opened up
fresh possibilities for black students.

Where do the HBCU's
stand, in an era of wider choices? Some people see them as starter
schools.

“About 70 percent
of the students ... are low-income,” Lomax said, “versus about 34
percent of all colleges .... I would say around 50 percent are the
first in their familes to attend.”

But others see them
as much more: Given lots of choices, they still prefer the HBCU;
consider three people who chose Florida A&M:

-- Anika Noni Rose
was a lawyer's daughter from Connecticut who wanted a fresh
experience. “It was probably the only time in my life when I was
completely surrounded by my own culture,” she said. Now she's a
Tony-winning actress, playing an HBCU president in “The Quad.”

-- Roy Wood Jr., a
comedian and “Daily Show” correspondent, chose an HBCU school,
just as his parents did. “I'm a 17-year-old kid and I need to
prepare myself for a different America than most white kids will
see,” he recalled.

-- Peyton Alex
Smith plays a “Quad” student and aspiring rapper. “I've never
been around that much black excellence,” he said of his Florida A&M
years. “Everybody wanted to succeed.”

That's typical of
the black-college experience, Campbell said. “It's a safe place,
and it's also a demanding place. HBCU's have very high expectations.”

That wasn't always
the case, said Stanley Nelson, producer-director of the PBS film.
Many of the schools had white leaders, strict rules and low
expectations. The extreme was the Fisk president in the 1920s. “He
was afraid of black sex .... He had canceled fraternities, canceled
some of the sports teams.”

Then the school
invited Du Bois – a Fisk graduate whose daughter was a student
there – to be a speaker. “Du Bois goes there and ... says, 'Go
out in the world and be wonderful.' He tells the students to protest
... The students hold this massive strike and the president is
removed.”

It began an era of
unrest – first aimed at the colleges, then at society. “Black
colleges have always been politically engaged,” Campbell said,
starting with “the lunch counter sit-ins in the early '60s.”

Now this isn't
always politics from the outside. “This January,” Lomax said,
“four new mayors in this country are graduates of historically
black colleges.”

Three are in cities
– New Orleans, Atlanta, Birmingham – once segregated. The other
is St. Paul, Minn.

Melvin Carter grew
up there, the son of a St. Paul cop and a county commissioner. He
graduated from Florida A&M, then returned to Minnesota for
graduate school and stayed.

Now he's mayor of a
city that the 2010 census listed as 60 per cent white and 16 per cent
African American. HBCU grads have gone far from the vocational-school
days.

-- “Independent
Lens: Tell Them We Are Rising,” 9-10:30 p.m. Monday, PBS

-- “The Quad,”
10 p.m. Tuesdays, BET; it returns Feb. 27

 

The boy-next-door at 76: John Davidson's still cute, still busy


Sitting in the audience one night, I spotted the name "John Davidson" in the program for a touring production of the "Finding Neverland" musical.

That's odd, I thought. I wonder if he's related to the famous John Davidson; maybe he's a son or a grandson or ...

Actually, this was THE Davidson, the classic leading-man of a previous TV generation. He's still busy at 76, doing strong work in "Neverland," while also taping some bits for the Game Show Network. The latter may be his ideal niche; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Game shows seem to
be eternal. So do game-show stars.

“I can still look
cute when you clean me up,” John Davidson, 76, said after a Game
Show Network gig.

He said that
whimsically; Davidson has had a mixed relationship with his
cute-choirboy look.

“In my mind, I was
a rebel,” he said. Other people only saw the handsome
boy-next-door, a perpetually polite guy who was the son of two
ordained Baptist ministers. (Yes, two.) That made him perfect for
musicals and game shows ... both of which he's still doing.

Most 76-year-olds
are readily available for employment. But when GSN wanted him to tape
some appearances, he had to squeeze it into his regular job –
touring in the “Finding Neverland” musical.

“I shot it all on
a day off,” Davidson said. “Then I flew back on the the red-eye.”

During his GSN day,
he taped bits for a couple “Classic Saturday” nights -- one aired
Feb. 10, the other is pending -- and for “Daily Draw.” He also
pitched ideas to the network's development people.

“I thought they'd
want some young guy to host,” Davidson said. “But they said, 'You
have to realize, our target audience is over 50 ... I guess that
explains Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak.”

Sajak, 71, and
Trbek, 77, still dominate early-evening ratings with “Wheel of
Fortune” and “Jeopardy.” The games – like the stars – seem
to go on forever.

CBS' “The Price is
Right” and ABC's “To Tell the Truth” started 61 years ago. At
least four ongoing games are in their 50s, three in their 40s. That's
in TV, where five years is considered a triumph.

The games have
thrived by filling the variety-show void, Davidson said. “This is
the new variety.”

His mentor, Bob
Banner, first spotted him in a stage musical. “He said, 'I want to
fashion your career as a variety star. I think you could be the male
version of Carol Burnett.'”

Banner starred
Davidson in the TV version of the “Fantasticks” musical and even
created a summer show (“The Entertainers”) around Burnett and
Davidson. From there, Davidson guested on lots of variety shows and
did some acting – co-starring in the Sally Field series “The Girl
With Something Extra” and with Lesley Ann Warren in two Disney
musicals.

“I had a crush on
(Field) and on Lesley Ann Warren,” Davidson said. “I was married
at the time, but they were both challenging and intellectual women.”

Meanwhile, variety
shows were fading. A few (Burnett, “Saturday Night Live,” “In
Living Color”) survived with great sketch comedy; the others ended.

Davidson did talk
shows – his own in the daytime, guest-hosting for Johnny Carson at
night – and games. On “Hollywood Squares,” he was both a master
bluffer and then the host; he also hosted “$25,000 Pyramid,”
“That's Incredible” and “Time Machine.”

Increasingly, stars
were glad to do games. “You can be seen with your name right below
your face.”

It's been a busy
life for Davidson and for people close to him. (His dad performed
weddings for Dick Clark, Kenny Rogers and other celebrities.) By all
logic, he would have retired long ago.

Instead, he's done
nightclub shows and musical tours – first “Wicked” and now
“Finding Neverland,” with “just the best role I've ever had.”

In strong voice,
Davidson does the double role that Kelsey Grammer tackled on Broadway
– a producer discouraging J.M. Barrie from writing “Peter Pan,”
Captain Hook telling him to write it.

This isn't just
gimmick casting: In some cities, “Neverland” doesn't even promote
the fact that he'll be there. “People open up their programs and
see my name and say, 'Wow, what's he doing here?'”

Occasionally, he
asks that himself. Traveling with his wife, Davidson is working six
days a week.

“A year can be a
long run,” he said. “You start to look forward to the end ....
I'm looking forward to being back home (in New Hampshire) and playing
Scrabble with my wife by the fireplace.”

Or, to doing a Game
Show Network show. By game standards, he's sort of in his mid-life.

Finding Davidson

-- On stage:
“Finding Neverland” is in Detroit though Sunday, then Milwaukee,
Kansas City, more

-- On video:
Musicals “Fantasticks” (1964), “The Happiest Millionaire”
(1967), “The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band” (1968).

-- Also: Albums (see
www.johndavidson.com),
occasional reruns on the Game Show Network.

 

 

Hey, dogs get their Olympics too


As I sit here watching the Winter Olympics -- tough start, lots of guys plunking on the ice -- I realize that others need their chance in the spotlight ... especially dogs. Now one cable channel has its Barkfest, another has the Westminster show. I had a chance to talk to two interesting dog owners; here's the story I sent to

By Mike Hughes

Sports fans know the
story: You have years of work and worry; at the end, you get a trophy
or a scholarship or a big paycheck or ... well, a ribbon.

“A 40-cent
ribbon,” said Brandi Ritchie.

That's the prize for
the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which is the centerpiece of a
doggy week on cable. Owners might get other rewards – especially
good breeding fees for a winner.

Still, Remy
Smith-Lewis said, this isn't something to do for profit. “It
doesn't come out. (You figure) the time that we spend, the travel. I
don't think I even share that with my fiancee. She'd probably kill me
if she saw the receipts.”

Smith-Lewis and
Ritchie both have dogs in this year's show and are featured in a
“Road to Westminster” documentary. Both of them – a black man
from California, a struggling mom from small-town Texas -- counter
the dog-show image of wealthy WASPs from New England.

They also contrast
with each other. Smith-Lewis is a front-runner; his dog, Manly, is
the No. 1-rated water dog, making his final trip to Westminster after
twice being runner-up. Ritchie is an underdog; after decades of dog
shows, she's finally landed her first trip to Westminster.

“My parents
dabbled in dog shows when I was young and I was in the ring at 5
years old,” she said. “It was a passion that really grew inside
of me. It was like a fire.”

That fire would face
steep odds, especially when she was a single mom who could only
afford to enter one or two shows a year. Now she's 38, married, with
a kennel business and sons (21 and 17) who are almost grown. She can
go to shows, but has to do the grooming and handling herself; a
couple years ago, when she was 5-foot and 252 pounds, that became too
much.

“It's very
taxing,” she said. “I told my husband, 'I can't do it any more.'
I was crying.”

The answer was
gastric bypass surgery. Today, 101 pounds lighter, she seems vibrant;
so does Donkey Kong, her Chinese crested dog.

Smith-Lewis didn't
grow up with a dog, but he was fascinated. “We'd be playing T-ball
in the park and I would drop the bat and go pat a dog.”

He was intrigued by
the fact that Bill Cosby had a dog in shows. Then his mom took him to
one “and I was just blown away.”

Remy-Lewis began
working at kennels and meeting the handlers, especially Bill
McFadden. “When I was 12, I needed a ride to a dog show. I
cold-called his wife.”

A relationship – a
mixture of mentor, parent and friend – was forming. Now Remy-Lewis
has day jobs (he has a spa business and a jewelry business ) and is
co-owner of Manly; McFadden is the handler.

Usually, both are
there. Remy-Lewis grooms, encourages ... then paces like a nervous
stage mom. “We work hard all week and then you have this 20
minutes,” he said. “And then it's all over.”

Yes, it's stressful.
“For those couple of minutes in the ring, it's everything,”
Ritchie said.

But both insist that
they – and their dogs – are enjoying themselves.

“It's happy, fun,
treats, love,” Remy-Lewis said. “Manly is my dog. He sleeps on my
bed; he runs in my backyard .... Win, lose or draw, I think we are
still winners. We get to take these dogs home.”

Lotsa dogs (all
times ET)

-- Westminster
Kennel Club Dog Show, 8-11 p.m. Monday (Feb. 12) and Tuesday, Fox Sports 1;
reruns, at 8 and 11 p.m. Thursday and Friday, NatGeo Wild.

-- The daytime
portion of Westminster is on NatGeo Wild, from 1-4 p.m. Monday and
Tuesday.

-- That's part of
the NatGeo “Barkfest.” A “Road to Westminster” documentary is
8 and 9 p.m. Sunday (rerunning at 11 p.m. and midnight) and 6 and 7
p.m. Friday.

-- Doggy doings start at 5 p.m. Friday (with the new "Science of Dogs" at 8 and 11); 7 a.m. Saturday (with a Dr. Pol marathon at night); 7 a.m. Sunday (with "Road to Westminster" at 8 and 11 p.m.); noon Monday (with
“A Dog Saved My Life” at 8 and 11 p.m.); noon Tuesday (with a
Cesar Millan marathon from 4 p.m. To 2 a.m); 7 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m.
Thursday; and noon Friday.