Tag Archives: acting

Women’s History Month 2013: Valerie Harper

15 Mar

Valerie_HarperToday I would like to honor another remarkable woman who has been a big part of my life for the past 40 years. As regular TSM readers know, I have always loved the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Part of me wanted to be Mary, but I’ve always had a lot of Rhoda in me. I actually put this in my essay when I applied to the school of social work. Her bold, outspoken nature and very human insecurities made her a wonderful character, and no-one could have brought her to life other than the incomparable Valerie Harper.

She was born in Suffern, NJ in 1939; her family moved frequently for her father’s work (including a couple of years here in Ashland, Oregon). When they left NJ, she moved to New York to pursue her dream of dancing. She obtained her degree and began chorus work, rising to lead roles and eventually moving into television after a bit part in the film version of a Broadway show she had appeared in. The casting agent for MTM saw her and knew that she had found her Rhoda. Nine years later, Harper had four Emmy awards, one Golden Globe, and seven nominations for her groundbreaking role.

More significantly, she had shown another kind of independent woman. Unlike Mary’s clear career path, Rhoda was always more of a free spirit. She had her own life and lived it proudly. She also went through one of the first prime time divorces, showing the difficulties of relationships in an honest way while retaining her quirky charm and joy. Harper also notes proudly that she was one of the first actors to use the word “gay” on prime time network television, on one of my favorite episodes of MTM, My Brother’s Keeper–a must see episode!

While acting on stage and television, she was also a strong advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s rights. She was as outspoken as her famous television persona and helped put a familiar face on these important issues. She also co-founded L.I.F.E. with Dennis Weaver, an LA organization that provided meals for the underserved and marginalized. In recognition for her work, the Women’s Film Institute awarded her their Humanitarian award in 1987.

Sadly, Valerie Harper is back in the news for tragic reasons. A lung cancer survivor, she recently discovered that the cancer has returned in a rare and nearly untreatable form of brain cancer. Rather than retreat, she is using her personal struggle to encourage others. In print and television interviews, she stresses how lucky she has been and encourages everyone to live their lives to the fullest while they can.

Don’t go to the funeral until the day of the funeral!

She also notes how lucky she is to have great health care through her union. Never shy, she reminds everyone that universal health care should be a right and expectation and that unions work hard to create a level playing field for all workers. Yes, it is obvious I love our  Valerie Harper.  I am confident that she will prevail.  I  thank you for your great work and thank you for allowing me to celebrate you during Women’s History Month!

Of Celebrities and Closets: Cooper, Quinto, Cruise, and Company

4 Jul

One of these celebrities is not like the others?

Journalist Anderson Cooper made headlines this week by surprising no-one. The award-winning reporter and television host announced, “The fact is, I’m gay.” This was long-suspected by most people and well-known by his family and close friends. Given the turbulence of gay rights issues today, however, the explicit statement gives the LGBT community another friendly, familiar face. Cooper’s message, via friend Andrew Sullivan on the Daily Beast, is a powerful and articulate statement of both the personal and the political.

Even though my job puts me in the public eye, I have tried to maintain some level of privacy in my life. Part of that has been for purely personal reasons. I think most people want some privacy for themselves and the people they are close to. […] Recently, however, I’ve begun to consider whether the unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle. It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something – something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true.

I’ve also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible. There continue to be far too many incidences of bullying of young people, as well as discrimination and violence against people of all ages, based on their sexual orientation, and I believe there is value in making clear where I stand. The fact is, I’m gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud.

Cooper’s announcement is part of a larger — and relatively new — trend of out celebrities. Fifteen years ago, Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out story was a major media event beyond even what she expected. Today, of course, she is blithely invited into millions of living rooms every day. The past five years, however, have seen a massive spike in celebrities outing themselves, so much so that Entertainment Weekly made the topic into a cover story.

There are as many ways to come out as there are people, and it’s no different for celebrities (although they have to choose a press strategy too). Up and coming star Zachary Quinto simply dropped the phrase “as a gay man” into an interview. Emmy magnet David Hyde Pierce, late of Frasier fame, used the common mention-the-partner strategy. Comedian and activist Wanda Sykes chose a marriage equality rally for her announcement. Neil Patrick Harris opted for an exclusive interview with People, often seen as a friendly environment for LGBT stars. Singer Clay Aiken used the same strategy to defuse the swirling rumors about his sexual orientation.

Because celebrities are by definition in the public eye, gossip and rumors often play a critical role in their coming out stories. Recently, celebrity chef Anne Burrell acknowledged that she was a lesbian after Ted Allen accidentally outed her. Burrell echoed Cooper’s concern about balancing a personal life with a public life, especially as it affects her partner. Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons’ orientation was such an open secret that his coming out was treated with a distinct lack of fanfare.

Other celebrities treat the rumor mill with open hostility. Queen Latifah has a famously “none of your damn business” approach to her sexual orientation. After her recent appearance at a gay pride event had stories about her coming out swirling, she was adamant in her stand.

I’ve never dealt with the question of my personal life in public. It’s just not gonna happen.

That kind of balancing act is getting harder to manage. Just ask John Travolta, a long-time subject of gay speculation, who recently faced a new round of gossip and scandal including same-sex harassment charges and an alleged long-term affair with a male pilot.

Perhaps the champion when it comes to hostility to gay rumors is Tom Cruise. With his third marriage coming to an end, the speculation is amping up again, so much so that gay dating site Manhunt has offered him a lifetime membership. Certainly multiple celebrity marriages do not indicate sexual orientation (just look at Elizabeth Taylor). What dogs Cruise is the intensity of his opposition to the rumors. He has even sued people who suggested he was gay, winning one famous case and getting an out-of-court settlement in another. This strategy won’t work much longer, since a Federal judge has recently ruled that “gay” is not defamation. It is also interesting to compare the way Cruise is treated with another star who gets a lot of speculation.

George Clooney, who has said clearly that he is straight, is also very easy-going about the whole issue. Rather than jump on furniture and file lawsuits, Clooney treats gay rumors casually, saying

The last thing you’ll ever see me do is jump up and down, saying, ‘These are lies!’ That would be unfair and unkind to my good friends in the gay community. I’m not going to let anyone make it seem like being gay is a bad thing.

A celebrity’s field of performance also makes a difference. In general, singers and dancers have a much easier time being out, although this is much less true in country music. Openly LGBT athletes are extremely rare, especially during their active careers. Despite jibes from the right hinting falsely at bias on LGBT stories, Don Lemon and Rachel Maddow are still very successful journalists.

Times are clearly changing. Adam Lambert was comfortable coming out at the very beginning of his career just a few years after Clay Aiken delayed his announcement until after the hits started flowing. Neil Patrick Harris actually saw a spike in his popularity and his hit show has hardly suffered for his being out. This is a stark contrast with someone like George Takei, who heartily embraces his status as a gay icon now but would likely have lost his Star Trek gig if he’d been openly out in the late 60s. Just barely pre-Ellen, Rupert Everett has famously declared that being out has been a major hindrance to his career.

The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business. It just doesn’t work and you’re going to hit a brick wall at some point. You’re going to manage to make it roll for a certain amount of time, but at the first sign of failure they’ll cut you right off.

Everett’s career certainly stalled after one dud film in a way that Travolta’s or Cruise’s did not. The rapid rise in out and successful celebrities indicates he may be wrong about how much impact being out has today. The booming trend in honesty and success should help things get better, not just for celebrities, but for LGBT people in all walks of life.

Celebrating LGBTQ History Month: June 29, Omar Sharif, Jr.

29 Jun

Today we honor and celebrate a man who made a bold statement merely through his honesty. Omar Joseph El Sharif was born in Montreal in 1983. He is the grandson of renowned actor Omar Sharif; as such, he had a privileged upbringing, spending his youth as a socialite. Wanting more, he obtained a Master’s in Comparative Politics from Queen’s University in Canada. Also bitten by the family acting bug, he obtained a role in an Egyptian TV program and tried stand-up comedy. Fluent in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew and Yiddish (his maternal grandparents are Jewish Holocaust survivors), Omar continues to seek out roles internationally. In 2010 Sharif moved to Los Angeles, California to study at The Lee Strasberg Institute of Theatre and Film. He also participated in the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony, joining Kirk Douglas in a skit.

Earlier this year, Sharif raised eyebrows when he was interviewed by The Advocate. He spoke out about the need for civil rights free from religious dogma, specifially referring to the Egyptian revolution. Two weeks later, he published an impassioned editorial in the magazine entitled Coming Out Story: We’re Not in Cairo Anymore. He discussed his reasons for moving from Egypt, perhaps permanently, including this great passage:

One year since the start of the revolution, I am not as hopeful. […] The vision for a freer, more equal Egypt — a vision that many young patriots gave their lives to see realized in Tahrir Square — has been hijacked. The full spectrum of equal and human rights are now wedge issues used by both the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces and the Islamist parties, when they should be regarded as universal truths.

I write this article despite the inherent risks associated because as we stand idle at what we hoped would be the pinnacle of Egyptian modern history, I worry that a fall from the top could be the most devastating. I write, with healthy respect for the dangers that may come, for fear that Egypt’s Arab Spring may be moving us backward, not forward. And so I hesitantly confess: I am Egyptian, I am half Jewish, and I am gay.

That my mother is Jewish is no small disclosure when you are from Egypt, no matter the year. And being openly gay has always meant asking for trouble, but perhaps especially during this time of political and social upheaval. With the victories of several Islamist parties in recent elections, a conversation needs to be had and certain questions need to be raised. I ask myself: Am I welcome in the new Egypt? Will being Egyptian, half Jewish, and gay forever remain mutually exclusive identities? Are they identities to be hidden?

The entire article is worthwhile reading, showing how articulate and insistent Sharif is and how dedicated he is to social justice. He is still finding his voice as an activist and advocate, but with a start like this, great things may come. The courage he demonstrates in outing himself in the face of religious and political exile is powerful. He sums it up in a way that many Americans should remember:

And yet I speak out because I am a patriot.

Celebrating LGBTQ History Month: June 13, Mary Wickes

13 Jun

Today we honor and celebrate one of the most prolific character actors of the 20th Century. Born on this date in 1910, Mary Isabella Wickenhauser hailed from St. Louis. This society debutante had wealthy origins that belied the salty, working-class roles she cherished. Her abrupt, tell-it-like-it-is demeanor made her a consistent audience favorite on every medium for over six decades. She was particularly adroit in film parts that chided the super rich or exceptionally pious.

She originally intended a career in law, graduating from Washington University with a degree in political science. She participated in summer stock on the advice of a professor and fell in love with the theatre. She promptly moved to New York where she landed walk-on and understudy parts. Her first major role was as Margaret Hamilton’s understudy in The Wizard of Oz, for which she received unusually good reviews given she was not the lead.

After nearly a decade on stage, Hollywood came calling. Wickes reprised her role in The Man Who Came to Dinner for Warner Brothers and was fortunate enough to act opposite Bette Davis. The film was a smash and the hits kept coming. As a character actor, Wickes was not as restrained by the studio system and was allowed to freelance extensively. This gave her a chance to develop her chops and to work with a much broader range of talent than most of her contemporaries. She also served as the live-action model for Cruella DeVil in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. She also took on a number of television roles, again being a highly demanded guest. She had regular, critically recognized roles on the Gertrude Berg Show and Dennis the Menace.

A face everyone knew but couldn’t quite put a name to, she lived a quiet personal life. Her longtime partner, Abby Carson, was a playwright. They shared an apartment in New York for decades. She supported a number of social causes without fanfare and on her death in 1995 set up a $2 million bequest in her parent’s names to establish a library to capture the more obscure history of film and television.

I loved her in Postcards From the Edge (she was SO edgy), but for me, Mary Wickes will always be Sister Mary Lazarus in the Sister Act movies. It perfectly captures her unexpected wit and sensibility.

Women’s History Month 2012: Wendie Malick

28 Mar

Today we honor and celebrate actress and activist Wendie Malick. Born in 1950 in Buffalo, NY, Malick graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University and began a career in modelling. She did some political volunteering and then began to focus on her acting career. Understanding the value of her public persona, Malick has focused on the power of bringing light to people’s lives.

I think people underestimate the benefits of laughter.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve come to be very proud of the work I do, because I know how much I value the people who make me laugh before I go to sleep at night, and I know that without Jon Stewart, the world would be a far more difficult place to live in.

She is also a vigorous advocate for many causes. She has spent most of her adult life on Planned Parenthood’s Board of Advocates. She is also concerned with body image and self esteem issues for women. Speaking about those issues and how they play out on her smash sitcom,Hot In Cleveland, she observes:

But what I do think we’ve lost in our culture, and it’s the complete opposite of what our characters do, is embracing this stage in our lives and owning our experience. I think it’s funny because when we first did this show, [show creator] Suzanne [Martin] kept talking about how we’re the late 40-something women.  But I said, ‘Let me play my age. Let me turn 60.’ It’s important to remind women out there that you don’t have to crawl under a rock  at any given age. Also, obesity, which we are dealing with. Now the ways we deal with these issues are as quasi idiots. These are serious problems that we tackle in a comedic way.

Malick is also very involved with PETA and the Humane Society of the United States, passions she shares with co-star Betty White. She has testified before Congress about animal cruelty. Wendie Malick is a woman who is happy being herself and finds pleasure in bringing joy to others. How nice to see a star who is so engaged in social justice!

Black History Month 2012: Phylicia Rashād

24 Feb

Today we celebrate an actress and activist, the wonderful Phylicia Rashād. Born Phylicia Ayers-Allen in 1948, she has blended her long acting career with a passion for celebrating black history and breaking down barriers. As a child, Phylicia, her older brother Andrew and younger sister, Debbie Allen, lived in Mexico to escape US racism. Rashad is fluent in Spanish and upon returning to the United States, became a champion for civil rights. After graduating from Howard University, she made her early career on the Broadway stage. In 1983, she moved to television, starting with a role on One Life to Live.

Rashād took on the role for which she is best known the following year when she was cast as Claire Huxtable on the long-running sitcom The Cosby Show. Playing a wise, practical mother, she also made a point of injecting black history lessons into a number of shows. During the program’s eight-year run, she was nominated for two Emmy awards. After the series ended, she took on a number of other TV and movie roles. She also returned to the stage as time permitted.

While maintaining an active career, Rashād also worked tirelessly to promote the arts in America, especially the contributions of African-Americans. Her work has been recognized with a number of awards and honorary degrees. When she received an NAACP Image Award in 2009, the presenters called her the mother of the African-American community. In 2008, she also won a Tony Award for her performance in a revival of Lorraine Hansberry‘s A Raisin In the Sun. What is shocking to me is that it was not until 2008 that an African-American won a Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play.

Still going strong at 64, Phylicia Rashād has much more to offer and much energy and wisdom to share. Let’s close with her own words:

The stubbornness I had as a child has been transmitted into perseverance. I can let go but I don’t give up. I don’t beat myself up about negative things. There’s always something to suggest that you’ll never be who you wanted to be. Your choice is to take it or keep on moving.

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