Tag Archives: actors

Women’s History Month 2014: Madame Sul-Te-Wan

7 Mar

MadamSulTeWanToday we honor and celebrate a pioneering actress, who sadly received little of the recognition or opportunity she deserved during her lifetime. Nellie Crawford was born in Louisville, KY on this date in 1873. Today would have been her 141st birthday. Her parents were freed slaves, her mother a laundress who worked for a number of stage actresses. Nellie would watch rehearsals with fascination while picking up and delivering for her mother. She determined that she would make the stage her career.

As Creole Nell, she moved to Cincinnati and formed the theatrical company Three Black Cloaks. She toured the east coast, gaining experience and a fascination with film. Deciding that she wanted to be part of the new entertainment industry, she wrote to director DW Griffith (who was filming in Louisville) and set up a meeting.

As a result, her breakthrough role was ironically in Griffith’s notoriously racist epic Birth of A Nation. Based on that work, however, she became the first African-American to sign a film contract to be a feature performer. During the early years of film she worked with many luminaries including Tom Mix, Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson, and Dorothy and Lillian Gish. She had dropped the name Creole Nell in favor of the mysterious moniker Madame Sul-Te-Wan. As a testament to her strong will and personality, Lillian Gish has observed of the name change,

We never did discover the origin of her name. No one was bold enough to ask.

Madame Sul-Te-Wan made a fairly smooth transition to talkies. She continued to work regularly, alongside a new crop of stars including Barbara Stanwyck, Conrad Nagel, Veronica Lake, and Lucille Ball. Sadly, Hollywood had little room for significant African-American roles and she was almost always cast as a Mammy, slave, or domestic, frequently acting without a screen credit. There were a few notable exceptions, such as her role as Tituba in the Salem witch trial film Queens of Salem, starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert.

She also starred in Carmen Jones, Otto Preminger’s musical adaptation of the opera starring Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, and a cast of mostly African-American actors. As a testament to the underlying racism of the time her compelling performance as Dandridge’s character’s grandmother led to rumors that the actresses must in fact be related.

Working into her 80s, Madame Sul-Te-Wan had her last role in the Yul Brynner vehicle The Buccaneer. She died of a stroke in 1959, in her apartment at the Motion Picture Actor’s Home. She left behind an impressive, determined legacy.

Happy Birthday, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, and thank you!

Women’s History Month 2013: Ashley Judd

11 Mar

Ashley-JuddToday we honor and celebrate a powerful woman who embraces the term feminist and stands strong against double standards. Ashley Tyler Ciminella was born in California in 1968 to Naomi and Michael Ciminella. By the time she was in school, her parents had split and her mother took her and her half-sister Wynonna back to her home in Kentucky. The girls were raised with their mother’s birth name, Judd.

Ashley attended a number of schools, graduated, and went to the University of Kentucky. She studied French and women’s studies, including a semester abroad, while she began to develop an interest in acting. Rather than graduating with her class, she drove to L.A. and worked as a waitress while she looked for acting jobs. She found some television work (including a stint on Sisters opposite Swoosie Kurtz) and quickly picked up movie roles. She has worked steadily as an actor for two decades.

During that time, she developed a passion for activism and civil rights. She is an active member of the Board of YouthAIDS. In her travels for that organization she became increasingly aware of the global problems of poverty and has worked tirelessly to engage with organizations and leaders dedicated to broad political and social change. She has worked with Women for Women International and Equality Now and in 2011 joined the Leadership Council of the International Center for Research on Women.

Fully aware of how Hollywood treats older actresses, she also continued her formal education, receiving a a Master in Public Administration degree (MPA) from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 2010. As a well-known celebrity with strong opinions, Judd has frequently come under fire by the Right and the press. She takes what comes and fires back, brilliantly using any attacks as an opportunity to expose hypocrisy and patriarchy.

Judd has indicated some interest in running for the U.S. Senate; she would oppose Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R – KY) in the 2014 election if she runs. The Teahadists are so afraid of her strong, smart presence that they’ve already started the attacks. Karl Rove is running context-free quotes in ads that slam her as an “out-of-touch Hollywood elitist”–elitist theatre, white power and privileged, sounds like Rand Paul to me. Conservative e-rag Daily Caller ran an ugly piece attacking her for having nude scenes in some of her movies. (Strange that Scott Brown’s centerfold spread didn’t seem to matter to them…)

Judd takes it all in stride, simply repeating that she is a feminist and a progressive and that her values translate well to what the people of Kentucky need.  Given the hollow grandstanding exhibited by McConnell’s junior counterpart, Rand Paul, someone with real values and a dedication to justice would be a welcome addition. The idea of a Sen. Judd joining Sens. Gillibrand, Warren, and Baldwin is pretty exciting.

No matter what she chooses to do next, we can count on Ashley Judd to stand up for women and for the marginalized everywhere.

Happy Birthday, Sigourney Weaver

8 Oct

Happy Birthday, to Sigourney Weaver.  She is not just a brilliant actor, but she is a wonderful social justice activist as well.  While I love most of her work, I have to confess that one of my favorite movies she starred in was A Map of the World, also one of my favorite books. She’s run the gamut, from tough-as-nails woman in space in the Alien franchise ot the delightfully unlikable boss in Working Girl, from the tragic housewife in The Ice Storm to the washed-up action heroine in Galaxy Quest. She made history for her acting in 1988: she was the first person to win two acting Golden Globes in one year (Working Girl and Gorillas In the Mist). She also became the first actor to be nominated for lead and supporiting Oscars in the same year to win neither.

Weaver has built on her work in fiction to improve reality. After her role as Dian Fossey in Gorillas In the Mist she became a champion of Fossey’s work and is the honorary chair of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. She has expanded her animal rights and environmental work, speaking before the United Nations on the threats to ocean habitats posed by aggressive fishing practices. She is also a sponsor of Trickle Up, a non-profit organization focusing on those in extreme poverty, mainly women and the disabled. It’s wonderful to see someone using their talent and fame to make the world a better place.

As an added bonus, Weaver is a woman of 63 who is proud to wear her years. She is famously opposed to plastic surgery and other cosmetic treatments, having observed:

Actors’ faces have to move. I do think life should put lines on your face, or you’re not getting out enough.

In an age of artificial beauty and youth-obsessed culture, that healthy attitude is very welcome indeed. I find her even more beautiful today than ever!

I also want to congratulate Sally Field for being honored by the Human Rights Campaign for being such a strong ally to the LGBTQ community and supporting her openly gay son.

I also want to acknowledge one of my favorite writers.  On October 8, 1993, Toni Morrison became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Beloved is one of the best books I have ever read.  Morrison is a National Treasure.

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.

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