The harrumphing began before the ceremony even concluded. Where, fans demanded, was Joan Rivers in the Oscar telecast’s “In Memoriam” segment? Sure, Joan was quite the beloved entertainer, but her contribution to motion pictures was barely more than a footnote. She wrote and directed the allegedly groundbreaking Rabbit Test (1978), starring a youngish Billy Crystal (then at the height of newfound stardom thanks to his role on Soap as one of TV’s first openly gay characters). Alas, the movie was critically drubbed, and tanked with audiences. Rivers also voiced the character Dot Matrix, a CP30ish droid in Mel Brooks’ Star Wars parody, Spaceballs (1987), a moderate hit in its day though now a cult favorite. Finally, Rivers’ next most significant contribution to the wonderful world of film was the 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Say what you will about Rivers’ brashness or vulgarity, this film masterfully deconstructs that bravado and shows what makes the woman behind the comic mask tick, and what I really mean is that it bares for the all the world the incredible work ethic and energy of a tiny, tiny little woman already well into her 70s. Sadly, the Academy took a pass when it came time to nominate films for that year’s Best Documentary Oscar. No surprise there, as the Academy rarely favors documentaries starring millionaires, no matter how fascinating. With that in mind, Rivers was more like a movie outsider who reported–with an often appalling lack of taste–from the sidelines and made just as many enemies in the process as fans. Don’t get me wrong, Joan Rivers kept me in stitches from the time I was a kid watching the likes of Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffith, Johnny Carson, and all the rest, but in spite of her infamous red carpet interviews, her fame sprang more from TV than movies, so I was not surprised that she was not part of the “In Memoriam” clip.
Then, somebody cried “foul” that Elaine Stritch was also ignored. No doubt, Ms. Stritch was a formidable presence with a career approaching legendary status though her biggest triumphs were onstage–including Tony nominated performances in the original productions of Bus Stop and Company along with a revival of A Delicate Balance, not to mention her award winning one woman show and standby/replacement cast status for both Call Me Madam and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Did she make movies? Sure, including Woody Allen’s labored September, clearly inspired by the infamous Lana Turner-Johnny Stompanato murder case–Cocoon 2, Out to Sea (a somewhat guilty pleasure), and Monster-in-Law, with Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez. I think a case for Stritch is easier to make than one for Rivers, but I still don’t see her omission as scandalous by any means.
On the other hand, one of my best friends was livid that Lizabeth Scott, who only passed away this January, was left out of the tribute. Scott, often compared to 1940s fan favorites Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, and Veronica Lake, had a brief Hollywood career. Per the IMDb, she notched a mere 31 acting credits in a career that stretched from the 1940s through the early 1970s though she scored high profile roles in The Strange Lovers of Martha Ivers, Dead Reckoning, and Loving You, opposite Elvis Presley. Her career was thrown a curve during the height of the Hollywood Confidential era when she was rumoured to be a lesbian. Those allegations, by the way, were never substantiated. Scott sued, but the case ended in a mistrial. The scandal might not have definitively derailed the actress’s career, but it cast a pall. The Academy would have done well to include her in its tribute to the deceased.
For me, the most egregious slight was dealt to none other than 60s era singer-songwriter, Lesley Gore (nee Goldstein) who passed away February 16, only days prior to the awards ceremony. There is every reason to be disappointed that Gore was left out of the tribute since, unlike Rivers, Stritch, and Scott, Gore was a former Oscar nominee. Years after her heyday as a pop music princess with such radio smash hits as “It’s My Party,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” and “You Don’t Own Me,” Gore co-wrote “Out Here on My Own” with her brother Michael for the movie Fame. Chronicling four years in the lives of a diverse group of students at Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts (also known as PA), Fame featured a lively cast of newcomers along with rising star Irene Cara (already a vet with such credits as feature film Sparkle and TV’s The Electric Company), an actual PA graduate. Ms. Gore’s lovely, plaintive ballad, exquisitely performed by Cara, while indeed Oscar worthy, stalled in a race dominated by the same film’s pulsating title tune, written by MIchael Gore and Dean Pitchord (also performed by Cara) and Dolly Parton’s rousing “9 to 5.”
Sixteen years later, Gore experienced a renaissance of sorts when her music figured prominently in two 1996 releases, The First Wives Club, a female buddy comedy headlined by Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Bette Midler, and Allison Anders’ underrated Grace of My Heart, a fictionalized account of Brill Building era singer-songwriters like Carole King, Ellie Greenwich, and Cynthia Weill. Among its many subplots, including Everly Brothers soundalikes played by Andrew and David Williams (nephews of the late Andy Williams), Anders’ film featured Gore’s rapturous “My Secret Love,” a shimmering pop tune co-written by lead Denise Waverly (Illeana Douglas) to accommodate a prominent TV ingenue, reminiscent of say, Shelley Fabares, Patty Duke, or even Gore herself, played by Bridget Fonda. The twist–and no reflection on Fabares or Duke–is that Fonda’s lovely Kelly Porter is about to crack under the pressure of maintaining a closeted same-sex relationship. Secret love, indeed. Of course, Gore more or less wrote from experience, coming out of the closet about her decades long relationship around the same time (now, go back and listen to Cara singing “Out Here on My Own.” Plays a little differently, huh?) The Kelly Porter sequence in Grace of My Heart works splendidly not only because of Gore’s talents but also the contributions of Combustible Edison’s Miss Lily Banquette, who supplies Porter’s voice in a style very much Gore-worthy
Unfortunately, despite a passel of wonderful tunes composed by the likes of Gore, Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, and even Joni Mitchell, the Academy bypassed the entirety of the Grace of My Heart soundtrack. Perhaps the movie was overshadowed by the somewhat thematically similar That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks’s splashy directorial debut also set in the early-to-mid-sixties pop music world. The two films were released less than a month apart during the fall of 1996, but only one had the full support of a major studio. If you have not yet caught up with Grace of My Heart, by all means, please, add it to your queue.
On the other hand, during the same period Paramount released phenomenally popular The First Wives Club, in which a trio of spurned women–of a certain age–extract justice from the schmucks who unceremoniously dump them for pipsqueak playthings. The highlight of the film spotlights stars Hawn, Keaton, and Midler mustering their girl group prowess in a snazzy rendition of Gore’s classic anthem to sweet female independence, “You Don’t Own Me.” The First Wives Club is hotter than ever thanks to a Broadway-bound musical adaptation, one, hopefully, that will feature Gore’s tune as part of the finale. In the meantime, a friend has suggested that going as the white-clad first wives should be on our agenda for next Halloween. Ha!
I still can’t fathom how or why the Academy overlooked an actual Oscar nominee in this year’s “In Memoriam,” but I’m glad I can pay tribute to Ms. Gore now, albeit later rather than sooner.