Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thoughts on Part 1 of the First Season of 'How to Get Away with Murder'

Annalise Keating is maddening. How does she frustrate me? Let me count the ways…

1. She's grumpy. She spends much of each episode of the ABC series How to Get Away with Murder in a foul mood.

2. She's a hypocrite. She blasts her white husband for screwing a white girl when she was doing the same with a hunky chocolate brother.

3. She's crooked. She not above breaking the rules -- and the law -- for the sake of winning a case, or saving her husband's ass, or her students', or her own.

4. She's a queen of artifice. For all her brutal candor, she's a bit of a fake. She's all steely armor, hiding behind a mask and under a wig that hides her fierce natural hair.

Annalise Keating might very well be the most infuriating woman who can be called the heroine of her own TV show right now.

But Annalise Keating, a defense attorney and law professor who's never encountered a rule she wouldn't bend, is played by Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis, which means it's impossible not to watch her. I can't take my eyes off her. I'd probably still be into How to Get Away with Murder if it was just one hour of tight shots of Viola's face.

The one scene that will probably secure her Emmy nomination next year is the one at the end of the fourth episode in which she removes her wig, pulls out her false eyelashes and wipes off all her make-up so that she's staring into the mirror, stark naked from the neck up. She then turns to her husband, and in a tone that's a mix of weary and threatening, she asks, "Why is your penis on a dead girl's phone?"

It's a shocking scene and not just because of the penis question. It's reminiscent of the sequence in the 1992 film Damage in which Miranda Richardson stands in front of Jeremy Irons totally nude and asks why she wasn't enough for him. Why did he have to have an affair with their son's girlfriend (Juliette Binoche), leading to the son's death? Miranda wouldn't have scored her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination without that one climactic scene, but Viola is lucky enough to have so many other riveting moments besides the one with the penis question.

She's naturally the main reason to watch How to Get Away with Murder. I keep wondering what the show would have been like had its creator Shonda Rimes hired another actress to take the role. There's so much loaded subtext in that penis scene -- what it says about masks, vulnerability and black female beauty. I can't imagine anyone other than Viola playing it so note-perfectly.

I also can't imagine anyone other than Viola playing Annalise so perfectly. If I close my eyes, I can picture someone like Alfre Woodward filling in for Viola in pretty much any of Viola's big-screen roles and doing each one justice. But I couldn't see anyone else, not even Alfre, pulling off Annalise. What if the character had been white? Would Annalise have worked so well, as a comeback vehicle for, say, Oscar winner Geena Davis? My answer: only if the show's other ingredients were stronger… a lot stronger.

The cracks in Murder show when its MVP isn't onscreen. The supporting cast that plays Annalise's students is capable enough, but aside from Connor, the gay student who has never met a guy he wouldn't screw to secure evidence, the characters are all fairly vanilla, straight out of Felicity.

That's not a color call. The two black students are the plainest ones of all. I love the hint of sexual-ish tension between Annalise and Wes (Alfred Enoch, overdoing the wide-eyed in his character's innocent and tilting his head too awkwardly), but that has everything to do with Viola. She could create sexual sparks with a chalk board.

I've found myself more involved in each case of the week than I am in the murder mystery that's the season-long story thread and the show's main hook. The fallout from that particular murder -- actually, the two murders -- is far more interesting than the whodunit aspect. I kind of haven't cared who killed either of the victims or why. I've been sticking around to watch Viola -- I mean, Annalise -- react to the latest bit of damning evidence against her husband, and to see what sexual/social taboo Connor (Jack Falahee, growing on me more each episode) can shutter next.

My favorite scene of the entire series so far was probably the episode-nine showdown between Annalise and her husband Sam (Tom Verica, a good actor who can convincingly switch from staid and stand-up to calculating and creepy to vile and dangerous in a matter of moments). When Sam tells Annalise that she was always just a piece of ass to him, it speaks some uncomfortable and unfortunate truths about the nature of many interracial relationships. Cheers to the script for actually going there rather than white-washing things.

Cheers to Rimes for creating such vibrant, riveting and complex portraits of both black female sexuality and gay male sexuality. Television hasn't offered nearly enough of either. Some might argue that Connor is a dangerously negative representation of gay male sexuality, but anyone who lives in the real world or has logged on to Grindr realizes that his behavior, though exaggerated, is hardly unfathomable. If a female character can use sex to get what she wants, why can't a gay man play the femme fatale role for once?

When the show returns after the winter break, I'll be tuning in not to find out what happens next. I'll be tuning in to see what Viola does next, to see whom Connor screws next, and to see if they ever let Annalise permanently lose that wig so that Viola can be the beautiful natural black woman she was born to be onscreen. I love the show for at least giving us glimpses of her.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Reflections on Throwback/Coming-Out Thursday with Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman

It's been such a gay week. In some ways, it feels like my career suddenly came full circle, and it had everything to do with Thursday's coming-out announcements of two retro country stars, Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman.

I'll get to why in a moment, but first, let me just say, what perfect timing! A day or two before Ty and Billy both came out, I turned in my latest Huffington Post essay. Title: "Why I Hope One Direction's Harry Styles Is Really Straight."

Also, there's the gay-country-singer-with-a-bratty-but-(surprisingly) talented- wife storyline on the ABC nighttime soap Nashville. It's currently my favorite arc on the show, and it's the most timely one, too, with the reality-TV angle and all. Too bad it's spent most of each episode on the backburner this season.

It's such a perfect cautionary tale about the dangers of being gay in country music. It hurts my soul that the first music l genre I ever loved, one that has been a part of my life for as long as I've been able to mangle a tune, doesn't have much use for me or my kind.

The reason why Ty's and Billy's coming outs make me feel as if my career has come full circle, though, has nothing to do with a fictional prime-time character or homophobia in country music. It has everything to do with how both Ty and Billy factored into my career at key stages in it.

One of the most memorable stories I worked on during my early years as a staff reporter at People magazine was the one we did on Ty Herndon's arrest for allegedly soliciting sex from a male undercover cop. At the time, I remember wishing that the implications of the story might be true. I so wanted Ty to just come out already.

It had nothing to do with political or social concerns. I was in my early 20s at the time, and when it came to sexuality, I didn't really think much about the world outside my bedroom. Not yet. I wanted Ty to be gay because I secretly fantasized about going to Nashville to interview him, falling in love and living happily ever after with one of the hunkiest guys on the country charts. It seems pretty silly now that I look back on it, but I've always had a weakness for that slow southern style, and it's not like country music was overflowing with eye-candy bachelors who were eligible for me.

While I firmly believe we all should have complete control over when we come out, and yes, better late than never, I'm going to hold my applause for Ty -- or keep it muted. It's disappointing that he had to wait until age 52 to publicly declare himself "an out, proud and happy gay man."

It's a shame that he had to go through two marriages to women. It's too bad he had to spend as much time as he did living behind a curtain, though from what I've read, he's been pretty much out in his private life for a while. He says he realized that he had an important story to share five years ago, so why did it take him five years to share it?

I'd be more likely to extol his courage if he were still in his commercial heyday and therefore was risking a hot career by publicly coming out. As it is, Ty's chart peak is nearly two decades behind him. So when he made his announcement, ironically enough, in People magazine, my old alma mater (like I said, full circle), I was more impressed by how great he looks than by his belated coming out. Sadly, I still don't have a shot with him. He's taken.

I never had any designs on Billy Gilman. After all, I met him when I was an editor at Teen People, and he was only 12. I'll never forget the time he visited the Teen People offices with his publicist and mom. He was such a sweet, chatty tween. Before he treated my colleagues and me to a live performance of his then-hit "One Voice," he spent some time hanging out with the entertainment department.

Two things about Billy stand out in my mind to this day. First of all, he was obsessed with the movie Arthur, which I found pretty odd for a 12 year old. Dudley Moore was never a tween sensation, and the movie was released nearly a decade before Billy was born. I was surprised he didn't belt out the chorus from "Arthur's Theme" right then and there.

The second thing that stood out was how he took an immediate and particular liking to me. At the end of the visit, he even invited me to a Broadway performance of Reba McEntire in Annie Get Your Gun that he was going to that evening. I politely declined because as nice a kid as he was, I wasn't really interested in socializing with a 12 year old. When he left, my colleagues joked that the little boy had asked me out.

I think we were all pretty sure Billy would turn out to be gay. I'm not saying that Billy knew he was gay back then, or suggesting that he secretly wanted me. What I am saying is that he must have known a kindred spirit when he saw one.

Although Billy credited Ty Herndon with giving him the courage to come out, I love that he did it a quarter of a century earlier, so to speak. I also love that like a true post-millennial, he didn't release a public statement through his publicist but rather came out via a YouTube video. I also love that he referred to his boyfriend of five months as his "partner."

I know. That's so 26. But it confirms something else I suspected when he was 12. I always had a feeling he'd grow up to be a great guy and an unjaded romantic. Welcome to the party, Billy.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

10 of My "Favorite" Things: ABBA to John Lennon

What's your favorite song by [insert popular band/singer] here?

As ice-breaking music-related questions go, I actually like that one more than my long-time standard: What are your Top 3 favorite bands/singers of all-time. For one thing, I tend to find the specifics of someone's taste (favorite songs, movies, cities, etc.) to be far more revealing than more general preferences (favorite singers, actors, countries, etc.).

An example: When I recently posed my Top 3 question to someone, his inclusion of Prince didn't say nearly as much about him as when he later named Purple Rain as his all-time favorite movie. His cool cred suddenly skyrocketed.

For another thing, as long as you stick to popular artists with massive discographies, everyone is likely to have an opinion.

Or so it seems every time my Facebook friend Dan J Kroll poses another "$2.99/gallon KROLLSTION" (that's Kroll + question). His latest one was Lionel Richie themed. To make things more interesting, Dan allowed Richie songs, tunes by his old band, The Commodores, and Richie compositions for other artists, like Kenny Rogers' No. 1 smash "Lady".

My picks: "Zoom" (The Commodores), "Love Will Conquer All" (solo) and "We Are the World" (songwriting -- but mainly for the Ray Charles parts). Had I been able to pick from songs that Richie produced but didn't write, Rogers' "I Don't Need You" would have been my one and only choice. I may not love it quite as much as I do "Lucille" or "Love Or Something Like It," but at this very moment, I'd rather listen to "I Don't Need You" than anything Richie ever wrote or sang, with or without The Commodores.

Inspired by the Lionel Richie-themed KROLLSTION, I've decided to do a mix-tape blog post featuring my favorite songs by 10 of my favorite bands/singers, A to J.

How can I possibly choose one song when there are so many great ones by each act? I think of it this way: If I were on my death bed, and I was told that I could hear one song only by each act before I die, which track would it be? A morbid thought, yes, but at least I'd kick the bucket with a kick-ass soundtrack.

ABBA: "When All Is Said and Done" On a different day, it very well could be "Waterloo" or "Take a Chance on Me" or "Voulez-Vous". But on most days, it would be ABBA's final U.S. Top 40 hit, possibly because it's one of the group's few singles that haven't been overplayed to death in the various ABBA revivals over the decades.

Billy Joel: "The Longest Time" We all know Joel is an excellent songwriter, but for me, this is the one song that proves without a doubt what an amazing singer he was during his peak years. And he performed it entirely a cappella. Those impossibly high notes at the end still give me the goose-bumpy chills.

Chicago: "Old Days" Chicago doesn't get enough credit for being musically daring. Aside from probably Three Dog Night, I can't think of another band from Chicago's creative-peak era (1969's "Questions 67 and 68" to 1976's "If You Leave Me Now," which kicked off the band's still-musically remarkable but considerably more predictable era of Peter Cetera-sung mellow ballads) that offered so many singles that were so distinct and un-cookie-cutter. "Old Days" might not be the best one, but it's the one most likely to make me press "repeat" because its ever-changing mood always makes me think I've missed something. As the clip below shows, even a band as great as Chicago and a singer as skilled as Cetera struggled to recreate the complex and intricate sound of the single live.

Depeche Mode: "Barrel of a Gun" Normally I would have gone with David Bowie (and "Sound and Vision," of course) or, like a recent KROLLSTION, Donna Summer (and "The Wanderer" or "Lucky") for "D," but I was just raving about "Barrel" to my friend Dov (speaking of D's) on a straight tequila night. The video is everything, one of my all-time favorites, and it's a large part of why I've never been able to get enough of this song for more than 17 years. Still, even without the odd clip, this still would deserve a spot in the band's pantheon of greatness.

Electric Light Orchestra: "Telephone Line" I'm a sucker for a fairly mainstream band going Top 10 with a strange-as-fuck-song. Will someone please tell me when ELO, The Moody Blues and The Steve Miller Band will finally get nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We're already onto '90s acts like Green Day and these seminal bands from the '60s to the '80s have yet to score even a measly nomination.

Fleetwood Mac: "Tusk" See above. Though Christine McVie has always been my favorite FM vocalist ("Think About You" would probably be No. 2), and Stevie Nicks my favorite FM solo act, Lindsey Buckingham actually sang/wrote more of my favorite FM songs. Honorable Lindsey-sung/penned mentions: "The Chain," "Walk a Thin Line," "Empire State" and "Big Love".

Grace Jones: "My Jamaican Guy" Too bad I didn't know this song back when I was a kid and certain people would erroneously peg me as being from Jamaica and mean it as an insult. Now Jones's classic makes me prouder to be a Caribbean queen than Billy Ocean ever did.

Hall and Oates: "Sara Smile" As huge a fan as I am of Daryl Hall and John Oates in the '80s, nothing they did that decade -- not "One on One," not "Say It Isn't So," not "Out of Touch" -- can touch the sublime timelessness of the duo's breakthrough hit from 1976.

INXS: "Heaven Sent" At a mere 3:18, proof that size doesn't always matter. Sometimes the best things come in unusually short packages.

John Lennon: "#9 Dream" Look, I'll probably never live this down, but Lennon was never my favorite solo Beatle. That honor would go to Paul McCartney. Lennon wasn't even my second favorite. That honor would go to George Harrison. And neither McCartney nor Harrison nor Lennon recorded what is my favorite solo-Beatle single. That honor would go to Ringo Starr, whose "Photograph" I'd rather listen to over and over and over than any Beatles song I can think of. But in a solo career that wowed me intermittently and, from "Just Like Starting Over" to "Nobody Told Me," consistently (albeit posthumously), "#9 Dream" probably would always be the last Lennon song I'd want to hear. Doesn't it actually sound like something Harrison would have done around the same time?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rose McGowan Needs to Brush Up on Her Gay Culture!

Clearly Rose McGowan has never met a gay man.

How else to explain her having the audacity to make a comment as preposterous as this one: "Gay men are as misogynistic as straight men, if not more so. I have an indictment of the gay community right now, I'm actually really upset with them"?

Well, guess what, Rose: Most of us probably never gave you a second thought before, but now the feelings are entirely mutual.

The unenlightened actress made the comment to author Bret Easton Ellis (of course!) in a podcast last month. Then she went even further, taking gay men to task for not mobilizing politically in support of women's rights around the world. Hmm... And what exactly have straight men collectively done for the female cause lately?

The biggest problem with McGowan's comments is that they completely ignore the fact that women are such a huge part of gay culture. Drag queens are basically an over-the-top celebration of women, and gay entertainment revolves around female artists, from dance divas to pop divas to R&B divas to Broadway divas to soap divas to our obsession with Oscar-caliber actresses. (It's all about actresses.) Every single one of our icons from the beginning of time has been a women. What's so misogynistic about that?

McGowan did make one decent point when she mentioned an unfortunate tendency of oppressed groups to ignore the plights of other oppressed groups. I've seen it in the way some gay men disregard minority gay men, in the way some blacks dismiss gays, and in the way many women treat other women. But I don't think the gay movement has to simultaneously be a women's movement to not be anti-women. And for her to say that gay men have most of what they've fought for shows how little she knows.

It sounds to me like McGowan was grasping at straws, trying to justify throwing a party at the Brunei-owned Beverly Hills Hotel. Brunei is notorious for its anti-gay laws, but that's no problem since, in McGowan's eyes, gay men hate women. We deserve to be stoned to death. I wonder if she's checked Brunei's record on women's rights.

She'd be way better off in a gay club. If any of them would welcome her after spouting such misguided drivel.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Ill Communication: If You Want to Make Me Nauseous, Say or Write These 10 Things

Griping about things I wish people wouldn't say (or write) never gets old, or irrelevant (because people keep saying -- and writing -- them), so here we go again. Today's Top 10 conversational pet peeves:

1) "Everyone's entitled to their opinion." Um, duh.

2) "Let's agree to disagree." A true cop-out by someone who doesn't have a wobbly leg to stand on.

3) "a fresh start" The past always comes back to haunt, especially when one of you gets mad.

4) "Deal with it." So dismissive, so nasty.

5) "She's had (a lot of) work done." This cosmetic-surgery/Botox shaming has got to stop. Does Renée Zellweger's face shock us because it looks different or because we think it wasn't just the handiwork of time? Who cares? She looks great.

Who cares if current General Hospital star Donna Mills, 73, has her (excellent!) plastic surgeon to thank for not looking a day older than she did when Knot's Landing ended in 1993? If she looked her age, we'd be slamming her for that, too.

Are make-up, wigs, hair extensions and highlights more authentic agents of attractiveness than nips and tucks? Do they make Beyoncé (at least the one we see on stage, in videos, on red carpets and in publicity photos) more real than Renée? In episodes four and five of How to Get Away with Murder, Viola Davis showed us how what we see is rarely what we get with women in Hollywood, nor do they generally wake up like that, despite what Beyoncé sings.

Constantly putting women on the defensive for pursuing an airbrushed standard (forever youthfulness and impossible beauty) is like punishing them for following the rules that society set. If you don't have something nice to say, then just don't say anything when someone else does.

6) #Anythingwithahashtaginfrontofit. I'm not just annoyed with hashtags because I'm still not sure what they do. I'm annoyed with them mostly because they symbolize a society of communicators who believe words are useless, especially sentences (of 140 characters or less), unless they're "liked" and "retweeted" by the masses. Even condolences are offered with "reach" in mind. "RIP" and a hashtag should never be in the same vicinity!

7) "[Insert absolutely "amazing" thing here] is giving me life." What I used to say -- "I'm living for [insert absolutely "amazing" thing here]" -- was kind of the same thing, but then, hardly anybody else used to say that. Along with other stale staples of blogosphere-speak -- like "Co-sign," "Fail" and "Epic fail" -- it was probably clever when one or two bloggers or blog commenters used it, but now it just comes across as hackneyed and bandwagonesque.

8) "Let's grab a drink/dinner sometime." I get what people who say this are trying to do (make an invitation sound as casual as humanly possible), but I can never shake the image of crying over spilled vodka or picking up chicken parma off the floor, for who "grabs" a drink or dinner without making a total mess?

9) "What did you do today?" One of the best things about starting a new job on Monday is that people will no longer ask me this unless it's the weekend.

10) "Brekkie" I adore Aussie-isms ("buddy," "mate," "heaps" and "nah," "tomoz" for tomorrow, "arvo" for "afternoon," "How are you going?" for "How are you doing?" and "as" in lieu of an exclamation point, as in "Hot as" for "Hot!"). They're giving me life (wink wink) as I settle into my new city. But what's the point of shortening a word ("breakfast") to something with just as many syllables ("brekkie")? Plus, "brekkie" doesn't sound particularly palatable, especially not first thing in the morning.