It's all about Oprah right now. The first news is that Oprah will tape her big Olympic special in Chicago on Wednesday with all the Olympians. "American Idol" winner David Cook is going to be the only musical performer on the show, which airs Sept. 8 and kicks off Oprah’s new season. More on that in a minute.
The other news is that Oprah’s guru, Eckhart Tolle, has a hidden message in a new film opening Sept. 12. The movie is a remake of George Cukor’s timeless classic, "The Women," produced by and starring Meg Ryan, the actress who first turned Winfrey on to Tolle’s New Age teachings.
Even though "The Women" is directed by Diane English from her own screenplay, I was tipped off during Tuesday night’s screening by a keen observer: there in the middle of "The Women," Meg’s character, Mary Haines, learns how to overcome her husband’s infidelity and father’s insensitivities and achieve fame, success and wealth. She must visualize this sentence: "What do I want?"
And so she does, with the words tacked up everywhere and spelled out suddenly in the middle of this story. It didn’t mean anything to me at first, but of course, this is Tolle’s New Age crock pot calling card. It’s right there on his own Web site, the whole menu of his simplistic gobbledy gook: his book, "The Power of Now," "wanted to be written."
Tolle is clear about his philosophy: "Many times in my life it has been my experience that the most powerful starting point for any endeavor is not the question what do I want, but what does Life (God, Consciousness) want from me? How do I serve the whole?"
Ordinarily I might object to a little dose of New Age voodoo in a film — it’s a little like another of Oprah’s favorite things, Jessica Seinfeld’s veggies hidden in more desirable food. But the remake of "The Women" is so otherwise lightweight and disjointed that a little Eckhart Tolle is almost welcome. Almost.
Diane English, creator of "Murphy Brown," is a funny writer but a director of feature films she ain’t. Unlike "Sex and the City: The Movie," these "Women" have nothing to bind them to each other.
Meg plays Mary, whose husband, Steven, is cheating on her with a "spritzer girl" at Saks, played by Eva Mendes. Annette Bening is her best friend, a women’s magazine editor whose job status is precarious.
The other women include Candice Bergen as Meg’s snarky mom (who almost steals the movie), Debra Messing as her earth mother suburban friend, Jada Pinkett Smith as her black lesbian friend and Cloris Leachman as her sarcastic housekeeper.
It’s unclear how or why these women are friends, particularly Pinkett’s Alex Fisher. They are simply thrown together. In the original 1939 film, The Women were of one social milieu; it was of a high class, and the salon in the department store where they gathered was like their club.
But in this "Women," each character is meant to represent something different. In fact, they have little in common with each other. And the idea of a manicurist (Debi Mazar) in Saks in 2008 repeating damaging gossip to every client about their friends is preposterous on many levels.
As the women in the audience pointed out Tuesday night after the screening, no women at this level go to Saks to get their hair done. Frederic Fekkai or Jose Ebert, maybe yes, or Bergdorf’s. And the manicurist certainly has been replaced by the personal trainer or yoga instructor.
English has gone so far to replicate the original movie that she’s missed the point. Ironically, "Sex and the City" was "The Women" updated. But this movie has been in development for 12 years. It was like a slow-moving train in the distance while "SATC" just whipped through the station. English wasn’t going to abandon her project, but adhering so closely to the 1939 edition leaves the 2008 wanting for contemporary meaning.
In the original, for example, Mary divorces philandering Steven but still wants him, even after he’s married his mistress. By the end of the movie it’s clear the couple will be reunited. English sticks with this premise 70 years later. The new Mary has learned nothing from the old one. What does she want? Even though she writes it out all over the place, you leave the theater never really knowing.
Still in all, "The Women" has strength in its performances and in English’s dialogue. There are a number of good laughs. Bette Midler is welcome relief as Leah Miller, a take-off on real-life former super Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. Carrie Fisher is cute and scary as a Cindy Adams gossip columnist. (Hedda Hopper played herself in the ’39 version.) And Meg Ryan, battling the specter of her old persona and whatever she’s done to her face, acquits herself especially in a funny kitchen scene.
But of all these gals (there are no men in the movie), it’s Bening who really pulls it off. You could have seen her as Mary, too, but she plays Sylvia, the editor. Bening has such a grasp of her character, and such an innate elegance, that she whips each of her scenes into shape no matter what’s going on. Her career and life dilemmas seem more real and immediate than Meg’s/Mary’s, and you kind of wish the movie were about her instead.
So here’s the Oprah-Olympian story: she’s got 175 athletes set for Wednesday's show, which will be taped at the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
The list includes Michael Phelps, Nastia Luikin, Shawn Johnson, Dara Torres, Dwyane Wade, Lisa Leslie, Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh, Jennie Finch and Kobe Bryant, who’s really a mega-star anyway.
It’s the kind of thing Oprah does best, and I can’t wait to see the results next Monday. Here’s hoping the 23rd season (there are two more to go) of this great show will get back to basics this season after a few lofty trips to other planets.
I’m sad to say that I won’t be able to get to Philadelphia on Sept. 9 for the 20th annual Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Awards. Kool & the Gang, the Whispers, Chaka Khan, Bill Withers and Teena Marie are among those getting awards. The great Al Bell is getting the Ahmet Ertegun Leadership Award. Donny Hathaway is being honored posthumously, and the Funk Brothers are getting a Sidemen Award.
I do hope that hosts Bonnie Raitt, Dionne Warwick and Jerry Butler have salutes planned for Isaac Hayes, Jerry Wexler, Al Wilson, Luther Ingram, the Spinners’ Pervis Jackson and the other great contributors to the legacy of R&B who passed in the last year.
The Rhythm and Blues Foundation is now settled in Philadelphia under the auspices of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, after having homes in Washington, D.C., and New York. The foundation hit an apex in 1999 when it put on an Oscar-like, lavish soiree in Los Angeles. The event nearly sent the Foundation into a vat of red ink from which it has barely recovered.
From ’99, things went from bad to worse. They hit bottom in 2003, when the inductees received empty envelopes instead of checks. On the sly, the very devoted Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen made up the difference a few weeks later. The memory of that incident still stings.
According to its Form 990 tax filings, The Foundation finished 2005 and 2006 in the red, even though there was money in individual funds earmarked for Motown artists and Universal Music artists. (There is still no fund specifically for Stax or Memphis musicians, or those from Philly, Chicago, New Orleans or other places from which soul sprang.)
In 2007, the Foundation actually had about a little less than $2,000 left after expenses. (The total amount in the funds comes to $2.8 million.) Technically, any R&B artist who ever had a hit record can apply to the Foundation for assistance. In 2007, the Foundation says it disbursed $128,207 to artists. About $160,000 went to salaries.
But the real mandate of the Foundation — which was created with an endowment by the late legend Ruth Brown after she sued Atlantic Records for back royalties — is to raise awareness of the rich history of R&B. That this is still going owes more to Bonnie Raitt’s persistence and goodwill than anything else. She’s a mensch. Or is it mensch-ette?
The most famous and prolific voiceover artist, Don LaFontaine, died Tuesday at age 68. He was featured on most movie trailers and commercials and often parodied for his delivery of bombastic ad copy. Check out this video that featured him and his buddies poking fun at themselves. ...
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