Wednesday, August 3, 2022

The Face in the Mirror


Ego… a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance… is an important commodity in life, and particularly so for a career in show-business. Talent is nice, but talent is only the autograph on the baseball… you don’t need it to play the game.

I casually mentioned the ego of executive producer Albert Ruddy in a review of The Offer… a dramatization of the making of the great motion picture classic, The Godfather. I got a little snarky (ya think?)  when I alluded to the producer casting an actor with movie star looks to play himself.

In the same column, I referenced the consistency of quality of the product coming out of HBO and I gave a tiny salute to my old pal, Michael Fuchs. Michael, who was there in the early days of this quality platform, pretty much set the standard for what we all now can view on this premium (in more ways than one) television channel.

Not one to allow any salute to be too tiny, Michael wrote to me saying, Yes HBO is different. I wonder why?” Then he reminded me that “FDR’s imprint lasted 50+ years on Dem party.”

There is, I think, a sense of symmetry in Michael’s comparing himself to one of America’s greatest Presidents, coming as it did in such proximity to the Ruddy put-down which, if I were being completely candid, would be attributed to jealousy. It was not, truth-be-told, Ruddy’s looks (though in his day he was a reasonably handsome dude). My envy comes from the belief that The Godfather producing gig might have been mine had I played my cards differently with my then old friend, Peter Bart.

In the long ago, my friend Peter held the number two position at Paramount Pictures and had the complete confidence, as well as the ear, of the then studio chief, Bob Evans. Peter made me an offer I probably should not have refused. It is all blood on the Jersey turnpike now, but I have always believed had I responded favorably to Bart’s generous offer, that I would have been first in line to produce the picture that always heads my list of “Best Movies Ever.” I console myself with the realization that had that happened, I would never have gone on to produce Cagney & Lacey, the signature work of my life.

No column about ego would be complete without my shamelessly introducing that title. (You can read about it in my book Cagney & Lacey… and Me which, although not as readily available as I would like, is very getable if only you would make a minimal effort to seek it out. I know, I know… shameless.)

In its earliest days, Cagney & Lacey was a marginally rated show… oddly enough, that did not hold true in America’s film and television capital. The series was amazingly popular in the hallways of the various Networks. Proof of that was  evident on Monday nights, when CBS aired the show. It became remarkably easy to get a reservation at a top Beverly Hills restaurant, simply because a high percentage of their show-business customers were home… watching what many in the trade termed a “ground-breaking show.”

Do not get ahead of me now by assuming that what was being gleaned by these Hollywood types was that women should play more key roles. That is too obvious (and hopeful). What was more notable was that what these executives saw affected what they bought to put on their respective Networks. And, what they bought was not limited to mere copycat reproductions of women in police shows. Cagney & Lacey impacted the entire spectrum of scripted dramatic shows on TV.

Before Cagney & Lacey, when going to pitch a Network executive an idea for a new series…say, a detective show… you might have said something like “it’s a traditional, by the book private-eye piece, but … here’s the hook… the private detective is (…wait for it…) blind.” That was it. A franchise, a lead role, and a gimmick.

After Cagney & Lacey you might well give the exact same pitch, but this time the Network exec might very well ask: “Okay, but is he married? Where does he live? What is his family life like?” That is the change that Cagney & Lacey brought about.

Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues (pre-C&L) and his (post-C&L) NYPD Blue illustrate the point. The difference between the two police procedurals---made by the same guy----is (you guessed it) Cagney & Lacey.

NYPD Blue is Cagney & Lacey in drag.

I have been known to point out that not only would there not have been an NYPD Blue, but that shows such as Thirtysomething, Designing Women, and Kate & Allie, to name a few, would never have existed without Cagney & Lacey. I think it was Peter Lefcourt, one of the better writers I know, who added to that claim by saying, “Barney thinks that without Cagney & Lacey there wouldn’t have been an Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Having now accounted for two of the main Roosevelts, I move on to my own bully pulpit to modestly present my humble opinion of the most recent shows streamed in the Rosenzweig household.

THE OLD MAN… Finally, something with which I can identify (at least by title). Jeff Bridges, John Lithgow, Amy Brenneman, and Joel Grey lead this conspiracy-laden drama of intrigue and action. Aging movie stars often have just the right amount of gravitas to make them perfect casting for the kind of cynical anti-heroes these series require. As to the rest of the cast, they are all terrific; the concept is solid… but there is a problem when even seven episodes seem as if the whole thing is just drawn out a bit too long. Add to that, flaws of convenience in the script and logic in the staging and it keeps the thing just this side of being the “must see” that everyone seeks. Still, even given its shortcomings, the show is entertaining and is sure to be a winner for the HULU premium platform.


THE DROP OUT… I do not know where I was (actually, I do know… right here on this warm Island where every day is a weekend and reading anything in the newspaper, save for a few headlines and the editorial page, is asking way too much of any of its “citizens”). The point is, I somehow missed the real-life story of Theranos, its founder Elizabeth Holmes, and the con that bilked some of America’s most sophisticated leaders and investors out of more than a half billion dollars. It all took place just a few years back out in California (surprise, surprise). I caught up with it as a HULU mini-series that… even though I came to know it was all basically true… was nonetheless near impossible to believe.

It is a tense yarn of ruthless ambition, betrayal, and one of the largest… and potentially the most lethal… swindles ever perpetrated on the American public, including many of our foremost capitalists. I found the whole thing disquieting. Amanda Seyfried as Ms. Holmes is all but alone on the screen for six of the eight episodes… the entire caper seen through and/or reflected in her bulging, unblinking eyes.

Even as a member of the home audience, the tension of being so tied into a life that is under acute stress, magnified by it being such a complete and total fraud was, at best, unsettling. The last couple of episodes… where other characters get to take over some of the weight of the piece… made it somewhat palatable for me. I dunno… I don’t crane my neck as I pass a car wreck on the expressway. I acknowledge that many people do, and if you are one of those, you just may LOVE The Dropout.

As if to reassure myself that what I had just seen was itself not a con, I next viewed the two-hour documentary on the same subject via HBO (The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley). I cannot say if it is better because I saw the mini-series first, but I can say if you watch the HBO offering to begin with there is little need to watch The Dropout… while simultaneously saving yourself six hours. A definite win/win.

Ego topper of the week award has to go to this 19-year-old girl, who with less than two years at Stanford, had the cojones to bilk the likes of George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, David Boies, to name a few, along with the entire management team at Walgreens, elevating “sure of one’s self” to a whole other level. Barely an honorable mention for Misters Ruddy and Fuchs… let alone this newly humbled scribe.


Barney Rosenzweig

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