Sunday, September 27, 2015

A belated 30th birthday tribute to The Golden Girls: It really WAS the new Maude

In one of the early episodes of The Golden Girls -- even possibly in the 1985 pilot -- Dorothy Zbornak said something that's stayed with me all these years. She and her BFFs Blanche Devereaux and Rose Nylund were sitting around the kitchen table (of course) talking about the trials of getting older. I don't think Dorothy's "ma" Sophia Petrillo was in the room for this particular declaration.

Dorothy acknowledged that she was at an age (55 when the series began, though Beatrice Arthur, the actress who played her, was closer to 63) when 40 actually seemed young. I never thought I'd reach an age where I'd understand exactly what she was saying.

In honor of The Golden Girls' 30th anniversary this month, I've done far. I couldn't think of anything I could do that every gay blogger under the sun hadn't already done...until now. As I was thinking of Dorothy's take on 40 this morning, I remembered a blog post I started writing about two years ago when I began revisiting old episodes of Bea's pre-Golden Girls series, the groundbreaking '70s sitcom Maude.

As I started watching those old Maude episodes during a trip to Johannesburg in 2013, I noticed some interesting similarities between not only the shows but also the characters Bea played in them, Dorothy and Maude Findlay. Yes, there were major differences: Maude, unlike Dorothy until the Golden finale, was married...sometimes happily. She was also less restrained and less gullible than Dorothy. Remember that haughty author that Dorothy befriended and Blanche and Dorothy hated? Maude would have had her number from the first sentence.

But one look at Maude's kitchen, and I noticed that it looked almost exactly like the one in which Dorothy offered that memorable take on 40. That's when I started to realize that if you replaced Maude's husband Walter with Stanley Zbornak, The Golden Girls could have been a kinder, gentler Maude's life after divorce and a relocation from New York to Miami. Remember, Dorothy was from New York, too.

Were Maude Findlay and Dorothy Zbornak the same person in different decades and zip codes?

Among the similarities and overlaps between the shows and the top-billed characters...

1. The biggest one is the presence of Rue McClanahan, who played Maude's bestie Vivian, who often came across as Rose in Blanche's body.

2. Both Maude and Dorothy pronounced "despicable" DES-pic-able.

3. Maude performed "Hard-Hearted Hannah" is season 2 episode 10, as did Dorothy in the final Golden Girls season when Blanche was consumed by jealousy after Dorothy became the hit of her favorite watering hole.

4. Two episodes of Maude were dedicated to Maude getting a facelift. Dorothy once admitted to having had her eyes done.

5. The polygamist that Blanche almost married in The Golden  Girls' pilot was played by the same actor who played the older man that almost married Maude's daughter Carol. Incidentally, both Blanche and Carol got involved with younger men over the course of their respective series.

6. Season 2 episode 11 of Maude featured an appearance by the actor who played the man Sophia met in the personals whose dying wife wanted Sophia to replace her.

7. The actress who played wife of the guy who died of a heart attack in Rose's bed appeared in the third episode of Maude's fourth season, "Maude Gets a Job."

8. "What fools these mortals be." That's a Shakespearean line Dorothy once pretentiously quoted, as did Maude in the ninth episode of the second season.

9. Remember when Rose announced that she always sang the song "Over There" when she was scared and the gang broke into it as Blanche was being wheeled into the operating room to have a pacemaker installed? Well, Maude also sang it in season 2 episode 14.

10. In season 3 episode 1 of Maude, the one with a guest appearance by John Wayne, Maude uttered the line: "I for one, intend to question Mr. Wayne on the important issues of the day." Dorothy said the same thing about President George Bush when she learned he'd be coming to their house.

11. Both Maude and The Golden Girls devoted an entire episode to a supposed UFO sighting.

12. There was an episode of Maude in which one of Maude's friends was fighting with her daughter over an inheritance that the younger woman's deceased dad had left her. A similar scenario played out between Rose and her daughter over Rose's late husband Charlie's estate.

13. A character by the name of Miss Devereaux popped up in Maude's "Business Person of the Year" episode. Eerie, right?

14. Both shows had amazing theme songs. Maude's was sung by the late Donny Hathaway, who had Top 40 hits with Roberta Flack in the '70s. Meanwhile, The Golden Girls' "Thank You for Being a Friend" was written by the late Andrew Gold, who had a Top 40 hit with it in the '70s.

15. In addition to the aforementioned double-dipping guest stars, a number of others appeared in episodes of both sitcoms.

Edward Winter appeared in the Maude episode "The Ecologist" and later as the blind guy Blanche dated.

The actor who played with fire when the girls were held hostage by Santa on Christmas Eve in the help center where Rose worked also appeared in the Maude episode "The Gay Bar."

Herb Edelman, who had a recurring role as Dorothy's ex-husband Stanley, was in "Maude the Boss," season 3 episode 11 of the earlier series.

Conrad Janis who played the host of Beat the Devil in the Maude episode "The Game Show" (sounds a bit like The Golden Girls' game show Grab That Dough, no?) was also the dance-off emcee in "One for the Money" on The Golden Girls.

And the winner is...all of us! Maude and The Golden Girls were two of the best sitcoms of all-time, and Bea Arthur remains a national treasure. We're lucky to have had her as a regular in our homes...twice.

Friday, September 25, 2015

9 classic songs that wouldn't go away…and they're not the ones you think!

I recently listened to a 1981 episode of Casey Kasem's American Top 40 countdown, and one of Casey's trivia moments changed the way I view pop history.

When I think of the biggest vintage songs of the rock & roll era, a few immediately pop into mind: "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones, "Respect" by Aretha Franklin -- you know, those usual 1960s suspects.

When Casey listed the five songs that made the Top 40 via different versions in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, he kind of blew me away. They were songs that were so beloved they entered the Top 40 again…and again…and again, but not one of them come to mind when I think of the quintessential classics from the last 50-plus years.

I mean, the Stones' "Satisfaction" is the band's signature single, and it's been covered by artists as diverse as Franklin, Otis Redding, Devo, and Britney Spears, yet it's only enjoyed one Top 40 trip. How is that possible?

There are a couple of those triple players that I'd consider to be bonafide classics, though none of them on par with the aforementioned classics. I suppose, however, that I could imagine a post-millennial choosing a few of them as audition songs on any of the reality-show talent contests. Then again, Stevie Wonder's "Lately" was an American Idol staple for several seasons and Stevie's original only made it to No. 64 on Billboard's Hot 100. Not a particularly iconic chart showing.

After some careful consideration, I threw in the '90s and added four songs to Casey's triple-play list (all of which joined the club after the August 1981 AT40 episode aired). Hmm… I'm still scratching my head and wondering, These are the songs that Americans loved so much they sent them into the Top 40 at least once in at least three consecutive decades? Huh?

Well, who said there are no more surprises? There are a number of them among Billboard's biggest decades-spanning hits.

(Interesting aside: The title "Venus" has topped the Hot 100 in three non-consecutive decades -- the '50s, '70s, and '80s -- via Frankie Avalon's 1959 classic, a completely different 1970 Shocking Blue hit, and Bananarama's 1986 Shocking Blue cover. Despite the No. 1 success of "Venus" by both Shocking Blue and Bananarama, would anyone consider it to even approach the classic status of, say, Aretha Franklin's iconic "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," which went to No. 8 in 1967, never to grace the Top 40 again? Mysteries!)

"Stand By Me": 1) Ben E. King, 1961, No. 4, 2) Spyder Turner, 1967, No. 12, 3) John Lennon, 1975, No. 20, 4) Mickey Gilley, 1980, No. 22, 5) Ben E. King, 1986, No. 9

"Cupid": 1) Sam Cooke, 1961, No. 17, 2) Johnny Nash, 1970, No. 39, 3) Tony Orlando and Dawn, 1976, No. 22, 4) The Spinners, 1980, No. 4

"The Loco-Motion" : 1) Little Eva, 1962, No. 1, 2) Grand Funk Railroad, 1974, No. 1, 3) Kylie Minogue, 1988, No. 3

"Hey There Lonely Boy/Girl": 1) Ruby and the Romantics, 1963, No. 27, 2) Eddie Holman, 1970, No. 2, 3) Robert John, 1980, No. 31

"I Only Want to Be with You": 1) Dusty Springfield, 1964, No. 12, 2) Bay City Rollers, 1976, No. 12, 3) Samantha Fox, 1988, No. 31

"The Way You Do the Things You Do": 1) The Temptations, 1964, No. 11, 2) Rita Coolidge, 1978, No. 20, 3) Hall & Oates featuring David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick, 1985, No. 25, 4) UB40, 1990, No. 6

"I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)": 1) The Four Tops, 1965, No. 1, 2) Donnie Elbert, 1972, No. 22, 3) Bonnie Pointer, 1980, No. 40

"Everlasting Love": 1) Robert Knight, 1967, No. 13, 2) Carl Carlton, 1974, No. 6, 3) Rex Smith and Rachel Sweet, 1981, No. 32, 4) Gloria Estefan, 1995, No. 27

"Baby I Love Your Way": 1) Peter Frampton, 1976, No. 12, 2) Will to Power, 1988, No. 1, 3) Big Mountain, 1994, No. 6

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Dear white people (and Nancy Lee Grahn): There is no criticizing Viola Davis' beautifully human Emmy speech

What is it with daytime soap actresses I love putting their feet in their Twitters? Several years ago, it was Days of Our Lives' Melissa Reeves defending the right of the powers that be at Chick-fil-A to hate gay people.

Now General Hospital's Nancy Lee Grahn has tried to turn what was a beautiful historic Emmy moment -- How to Get Away with Murder's Viola Davis becoming the first black actress to win Outstanding Lead Actress in Drama Series -- and turn it into something ugly.

I will admit that for one moment, the one where Viola was quoting Harriet Tubman, I was a bit perplexed. Wait, when were beautiful white women reaching out to you from across the great divide? I wondered. But once she attributed the lovely quote to Tubman, I recognized it for the amazing analogy that it was.

I was right with her for the rest of the speech. I'm pretty sure I must have stifled a tear. I was surrounded by colleagues at work. I didn't want them to see how touched I was. I try to be tough like that in public, but had I let the waterworks flow, I'm convinced they all would have understood.

Thank God, I don't work with Nancy Lee Grahn. She probably would have been rolling her eyes while crafting her tweet in her head.

Here's what she ended up writing:

"I wish I loved #ViolaDavis Speech, but I thought she should have let @shondarhimes write it. #Emmys"

Of course, you can't go there and just run away. NLG didn't. She wrote a succession of follow-up tweets criticising Viola for singling out black women and not making her speech about all women. She griped about Viola getting better roles than she does, paid her some backhanded compliments, then delivered the zinging kicker:

"She has never been discriminated against."

Whoa! I thought as I read her series of tweets, wondering how it was possible that she could have survived the half hour-plus it took for her to write them without any oxygen getting to her head.

But after Matt Damon's lesson on discrimination last week -- he had the nerve to tell a black director that it doesn't matter if you have diversity behind the camera as long as there's diversity in front of it -- I'm convinced that when it comes to racism, white Hollywood (including many who consider themselves to be hyper-aware liberals) just doesn't get it.

Unless you know what it's like to be denied opportunity because of the color of your skin, to be denied jobs and housing, to be told you are not as good as everyone else, as beautiful as everyone else, because you happen to be a minority, you simply cannot tell me how racism works.

Yes, there is discrimination against women in Hollywood. But Viola Davis is not contractually obligated to speak for all women. (And didn't Patricia Arquette already cover that -- painfully so -- after winning her Oscar earlier this year?) Nancy Lee Grahn is a fantastic actress -- one with a pair of Daytime Emmy Awards, by the way -- and I certainly think she's talented enough to be a major movie star. Why she isn't is a discussion for another night.

But on the night when Viola Davis becomes the first black woman in history to win an Emmy Award in her field, yes, I think the discussion needs to be about black actresses, not actresses in general. (P.S. Since The Jefferson's Isabel Sanford won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1981, she, Gimme a Break's Nell Carter, and The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashad have been the only black women to be nominated in that category, the last black nominee being Rashad in 1986.) Despite what NLG sees as her professional deprivation and Viola Davis's privilege, this is an award for which women, most of them white, have been competing for decades, and it took decades for a black woman to finally win it.

What does that say about the Academy? What does it say about Hollywood? What does it say about the United States? For all the discrimination against women in general, the fact remains that white women have it much better than women of color. Yes, they don't receive the same pay as men. Yes, in Hollywood, they struggle to find work after turning 40.

But black women have a tougher time climbing over that brick wall. How often do we see them headlining movies, being cast as the romantic lead, being cast at all in roles that aren't specifically written for a black character? Things have gotten much better on TV in recent years, but Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to female minorities.

In the 13 years since Halle Berry became the first black woman to win a leading actress Oscar and Denzel Washington became the second black leading actor to take the prize, two black men (Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker) have won, but there have been no follow-up black female winners and only three black female nominees (one of which was Viola).

Viola Davis may be highly employable these days, but she was no overnight success. How dare NLG tell her that she has never been discriminated against? She is a 50-year-old woman who has only just begun to hit her stride in film and TV. As NLG said in one deleted tweet, she herself has been an actress for 40 years, and she's been a gainfully employed one since the 1980s, well before anyone had ever heard of Viola Davis.

Unless she's actually walked in Viola's shoes, how can she say what Viola has experienced? Unless NLG has experienced racial discrimination firsthand, how can she address it with any real expertise? Rather than using a landmark moment to bemoan her own status or perceived lack thereof in the industry, perhaps she should have put her hashtagging effort to better use and congratulated Viola.

A win for black women is a win for all women. Who knows? If NLG had put aside her sour grapes and really listened to what Viola was saying, she might even have learned something.

Later NLG apologized for her comments, but she kept defending herself at the same time, proving she hadn't actually learned anything at all.

Dear white people: Stop wigging out and getting so defensive when black people start talking about racism. If you're not racist, bravo. But it's not just about you. So shut up and listen. You might learn something about us. You might learn something about yourselves, too.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Strangers in the night (or day): Is it really necessary to acknowledge all of them?

The other night I had an interesting conversation with a man at a party that had a familiar effect: Like so many others before him, he left me wondering if I'm actually a terrible person, after all.

We all have our insecurity things. For some, it's "Am I ugly?" For others, it's "Do I look fat?" Still others dwell on their dancing, their cooking, their walk, or their talk. I have my moments of uncertainty regarding all of the above and much more, but the self-doubting question with which I most often plague myself is this one: Am I actually a terrible person?

It's not something I typically ask myself unprovoked. While no one has never called me a terrible person outright, the question usually pops into my head when I'm in or have been in the company of another person.

The latest instance was on Friday night, and it began with a conversation I was having about social mores in Japan vs. social mores in the Western world...or something. The guy I was talking to expressed a people pet peeve that I can't say I'd ever heard before. He said he can't understand how people can share the same air space without acknowledging each other. Just a "Hello" or a little nod would do.

The way he explained it, you shouldn't enter an elevator without acknowledging the people in it. You shouldn't pass someone in the hallway without a gesture...or silently walk by anyone on an otherwise empty street. In short, it's common courtesy to let everyone you see and who sees you know that you see them and you're glad they're there, even if you couldn't care less.

I couldn't believe my ears (and they're probably the one thing that's never caused me a moment of insecurity). Most of the time when I'm in public, I'm deep in thought, wearing my headphones, or both. Is it really necessary for me to nod to everyone who passes? And furthermore, isn't "the nod" a black thing? Aren't there enough white people in Sydney for none of them to ever really feel alone?

"Sorry, I'm not that guy," I said once he'd finished. "I'm the one who drives you crazy by not even looking at you."

I could see the judgement start to cloud his view of me. We probably wouldn't become besties after my revelation, but someone had to break the news to him, just in case I ran into him on the street at a later date, and didn't see him...or recognize him. Chances are I'd probably pass by him without a word. That's what I do. Is that such a terrible thing?

He challenged me by asking me this: "But doesn't it always make you feel better when you have a pleasant encounter with a stranger, even if it's as minor as a nod?"

Well, to be honest, I don't care what people whom I probably will never see again do as long as they don't invade my personal space. If they do, then the only acknowledgment I expect is "Excuse me." Frankly, the less strangers have to say to me, the less I have to say to them. That's a pretty great arrangement.

He was looking at me like I'd lost my mind, so I quit while I was behind. But please, allow me to continue...

I can play the social game, but in general, I like to be left alone. One of the reasons why I avoid group dinners with mostly strangers is because I hate the moment when I arrive (usually late) and have to meet every single person seated at the table. It's not like I ever remember more than one name, and in Buenos Aires, I used to have to kiss each of them on the cheek, too.

I'd rather just quietly slip into a seat unheralded and strike up a conversation with whomever is in my immediate vicinity...or not. I figure that if I'm meant to meet anyone in particular, we'll naturally gravitate toward each other. There's no need for the host to interrupt all of the conversations already in progress to announce my arrival. He (or she) is the reason I'm there and the only one whose acknowledgement I require.

That said, I do remember thinking what a lovely person Sarah Jessica Parker was the time we passed each other backstage at David Letterman's late-night show, and she said, "Hello, how are you doing?" as she walked by. I thought it was a thoughtful gesture, and after that day, every time I watched Sex and the City, I always found myself rooting for Carrie Bradshaw, even when she was behaving abominably, as she often did.

There was that other time on Christmas Day in Buenos Aires when I was walking home after my morning run, and an elderly woman appeared out of nowhere and embraced me (without a cheek kiss, Gracias a Dios!). "Feliz Navidad," she said before going about her day.

As much as that kind, unexpected gesture made my morning, it was extra-special because it was so kind and unexpected. If everyone went around hugging me and wishing me a Merry Christmas, the heartwarming effect would eventually be diluted...and I'd probably get seriously annoyed.

So if you see me on the street and you feel like nodding, go ahead. I'll nod right back. But if, like me, you'd rather stay in your own world and get from point A to point B with as little fanfare as possible, it's OK. In the immortal words of Hal David (via Dionne Warwick), walk on by.

I promise I won't think any worse of you. And if you can do the same for me, that's really all the courtesy I need.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Last lasting impressions: 20 random observations in Japan

1. Cool, sleek architecture that occasionally flirts with being geometrically OTT

2. Doors that slide open when you press a button -- Don't push or pull...just a touch.

3. Taxi doors that open and shut automatically...Be careful not to touch!

4. No garbage bins on the sidewalks...How do they keep Japanese cities so clean and litter free?

5. Semi-communal restaurant dining at long shared counters or tables...I tried it once, but my meals in public are meant to be enjoyed in the privacy of my own table, thank you.

6. A preponderance of pizzerias

7. Smoking in restaurants

8. Cashiers in even the finest dining restaurants

9. A wet washcloth before every meal

10. Weak cocktails. No kick. Stick to beer, wine (plum -- if you can find a restaurant/bar that serves it), and tequila shots that are twice as big as the ones bars charge $10 for in Australia.

11. A Family Mart on practically every block selling some of the yummiest food you'll eat in Japan

12. Weirdest language moment: When I had to communicate with an Ueno massage therapist in Spanish because she (like nearly every local I encountered in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka) didn't speak English, and I don't speak Japanese.

13. Tower Records...I thought they'd gone out of business.

14. Free public WiFi that you need an Internet connection to access...How else are you supposed to get the code that they email to you?

15. Public vending machines selling refreshments in Kyoto

16. Bicycle riders in Kyoto that give me Berlin flashbacks -- Look out!

17. Impeccably dressed and manicured women who all look like they're on the way to the same audition

18. Older men who dye their hair a rather unflattering -- and unnatural -- shade of reddish

19. Quite possibly the smallest four-star hotel rooms in the world

20. Low sinks clearly made for a general population that's under 160 centimetres tall...If you see a black guy walking around Sydney with a stoop, he's probably me.