Candid Camera Dupes Critics … Sitcoms Are Hiring … Koppel’s in the Clink … South Park ‘s Easy Way Out

Deirdre Dolan and Peter Bogdanovich

Candid Camera Dupes Critics … Sitcoms Are Hiring … Koppel’s in the Clink … South Park ‘s Easy Way Out

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Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

Since the Museum of Modern Art has been doing a long overdue Otto Preminger retrospective, and New Yorkers have been rediscovering what an impressive filmmaker he was, it’s fitting to single out the one picture he did which virtually everyone–even diehard anti-Premingerists–have always agreed was brilliant, his 1944 romantic murder mystery-suspense classic Laura [Sunday, March 29, AMC, 64, 2:30 P.M.] . Set among trendy Manhattanites, the movie’s exceptional screenplay evolved from a clever twist in a Vera Caspary novel. Though Preminger as producer had developed the material, 20th-Century Fox’s studio head, Darryl Zanuck, had been infuriated by Preminger on another movie (Otto had only directed four passable programmers) and was not allowing him to direct, hiring instead veteran Rouben Mamoulian. Yet Preminger as producer persisted and prevailed in all casting decisions, including the use of Broadway star Clifton Webb, whose first film this became. But neither Preminger nor Zanuck liked Mamoulian’s footage, and eventually the director was fired and Preminger allowed to take over. The unusual film still did not go easily and almost got recut and dumped until legendary New York newspaper columnist Walter Winchell saw it at a private Zanuck screening and told the studio chief that it was a terrific, sophisticated East Coast job that the public would like. Winchell proved correct, and the success of Laura assured Preminger’s directing-producing career, which resulted in at least three other masterworks, Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Exodus (1960) and Advise and Consent (1962). Exceedingly ambiguous, Laura has the modern advantage of continually surprising the viewer with the twists and turns of the various characters, none of them predictable: The cold, acerbic newspaper columnist (Webb at his best) is madly in love; the beautiful murdered career girl (Gene Tierney in one of her loveliest performances) turns out to be anything but what she seems to the tough no-nonsense cop investigating the homicide (a defining role for Dana Andrews), a cop who finds it easier to fall for a dead woman than a live one. With as memorable an opening line (Webb’s voice: “I’ll never forget the weekend Laura died …”) as its closing quote from an Ernest Dowson poem (Webb’s voice again: “They are not long, the days of wine and roses …”). But since you may not have seen the film, I don’t want to spoil it by explaining how these two moments also turn out to be by no means what they seem. The famous musical score was done by newcomer David Raksin, dominated of course by Laura’s theme, which, when lyrics were later added (after the film’s release) by Johnny Mercer (“Laura is the face in the misty light/ Footsteps that you hear down the hall …”) became a pop and jazz standard. In the plot, the tune is an instrumental record Laura used to play over and over; Vincent Price (in a superb straight performance) refers to it condescendingly in the movie as: “Not exactly classical–but sweet …” That sort of hip self-awareness informs the whole piece–Webb responds to a question about his using a fountain pen: “No, I write with a goose quill dipped in venom …”–and vividly shows the sort of good influence New York used to have on Hollywood. Of Preminger, Laura reveals his sharp intellect, good taste, wit, sense of craft, ease of delivery, incisiveness and economy. Otto was a pro, and one of the finest and most influential filmmakers of the 40’s into the 70’s, who almost single-handedly broke down the walls of movie censorship and blacklisting. To the end, he believed firmly in what he called “the intelligence of the audience.”Also on: Preminger’s controversial 1958 drama in color (the past) and black-and-white (the present), shot in Paris and on the French Riviera, starring David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Otto’s discovery, the divine Jean Seberg, based on Françoise Sagan’s best seller, Bonjour Tristesse [Saturday, March 28, Bravo, 64, 11 A.M.] . But check out MoMA’s schedule and try to see these or some other Premingers on the big screen.

Wednesday, March 25

The Scout (1994) is Albert Brooks’ most unloved movie, but it’s not really so bad. Mr. Brooks, in a porkpie hat, keeps away from his usual obsessions (BMWs, his mother and girlfriends) and tries to bring along a mystic, goofy, undisciplined pitcher, played by Brendan Fraser. [Comedy Central, 45, 8 P.M.]

South Park gets away with murder. Not because it’s a cartoon that uses filthy language, but because its writers are content to settle for making anti-jokes rather than actually trying to be funny. They seem to think it’s sentimental to go for a real joke. But isn’t it really more clichéd, albeit in a kind of “alternative” way, to write a scene in which a mild-mannered character aims a high-powered rifle at Kathie Lee Gifford? Tonight: Is Stan’s pup gay? [Comedy Central, 45, 10 P.M.]

Thursday, March 26

What the hell kind of message is Ted Koppel sending? For the 18th-anniversary edition of Nightline , he’s having himself locked up in solitary confinement in the W.J. Estelle Jr. High- Security Unit near Huntsville, Tex. This oughta be good, seeing Mr. Koppel in an orange jumpsuit. Wonder if his producers will muss up his hair before tossing him in the joint.…

“I still want to be a reporter,” Mr. Koppel said in a recent interview hyping this very special broadcast. “I don’t want to lose that.” …

Ahhhh. So that’s it. It goes by the name of Dan Rather Disease. Specifically, it’s what strikes a highly paid anchorman who suffers from the delusion that he wishes he were some rough-hewn correspondent banging away at a manual typewriter.…

The solitary-confinement ploy shows just how desperate Mr. Koppel is for his colleagues and viewers to think of him as a gritty, old-school reporter, rather than just a coifed master of ceremonies. But guess what, Ted. Having yourself thrown in the clink for a few hours is not exactly reporting. Reporting would involve, oh, I don’t know, maybe ferreting out some new information about a topic of interest to people. It doesn’t necessarily require that you make yourself the center of the story, right? Sure, it’s fun to pretend you’re a hardened outlaw for a couple of hours, and we’ll certainly be watching to see if you crack (“Warden! You call this food? It’s slop! You bastards will never break my spirit–hear me? Never! “), but let’s do each other a favor and not pretend that this stunt has anything to do with real news gathering. If anything, it’s a special subcategory of broadcast journalism. (Really, Ted, Diane Sawyer had herself locked up about a year ago for Prime Time –and she didn’t crack a nail.) [WABC, 7, 11:35 P.M.]

Friday, March 27

Peter Funt, the unlikely hero of CBS’s newly coherent Friday night lineup, called NYTV from a plane over the Midwest. He was flying home to Los Angeles after an appearance on Oprah , where he was promoting that recently revived old favorite, Candid Camera . Tonight, the show’s pranksters go beyond trying to fool the unsuspecting man on the street and instead target the unsuspecting television critic.…

“We thought if we could catch the greatest skeptics of all, we might prove our point,” said Mr. Funt. “So at the Television Critics Association Semiannual Conference in Pasadena, we arranged a room at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel, where we removed the television set. They fit me in a bellman’s outfit so that I could be the one who took the critics to their room, where I sort of casually point out that there’s no TV. Then they bring in a nine-inch black-and-white portable with rabbit ears.” …

The prank was not a complete success, said Mr. Funt, because the “geniuses at CBS publicity” gave him the wrong check-in day for most TV critics at the convention. Still, he managed to trick Joanne Ostrow of the Denver Post , Gail Shister of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Mike Hughes of Gannett Newspapers.…

“They did everything you’d expect them to do, like talking to me like I was a moron,” recalled Mr. Funt. “Hughes said, ‘You don’t understand , I’m a professional TV critic. I must have a television to do my work. I have to watch closed-circuit feeds.’ When they brought Joanne the nine-inch portable with rabbit ears, she said, ‘This won’t be possible,’ and I had this delivery boy standing with me and right in the middle of her tirade I say, ‘Would you care to tip the delivery boy?’ I said, ‘Maybe if you slip him 20 bucks, we can get him a bigger set.’ And she says, ‘No, I’m not going to tip him …’ We proved nobody’s safe, even hard-boiled critics can be good sports, and a funny situation’s a funny situation. We were just thrilled and Les Moonves showed it at the press gathering. An added footnote was that right before we finished, the front desk calls and says we don’t have any more critics, but Fred Rogers is checking in. And sure enough, I tell him where the ice bucket is and I say, By the way, there’s no TV, and in the sweetest voice he says, ‘I don’t mind, I have enough TV in my life.'” [WCBS, 2, 8:30 P.M.]

Saturday, March 28

To avoid the pre-game schmaltz, tune in at tip-off time, exactly 5:42 P.M., for Kentucky versus Stanford in the Final Four college basketball tournament broadcast from San Antonio. North Carolina plays Utah 30 minutes after the end of the first game. Bookies are saying that Kentucky and North Carolina are both eight-point favorites. [WCBS, 2, 5:42 P.M.]

Sunday, March 29

More than ever, The Larry Sanders Show is reflecting life. In the last episode, Larry Sanders fired his agent, who was demanding an executive producer credit while cutting nasty deals behind Larry’s back; meanwhile, backstage at this backstage comedy, Garry Shandling is suing his agent-cum-executive producer Brad Grey. Tonight: Larry follows up on his promise to shut down “The Larry Sanders Show” talk show within The Larry Sanders Show (which Gary will be shutting down, too). [HBO, 28, 10 P.M.]

Monday, March 30

Melrose Place junkies, be warned: The show goes on hiatus until July after tonight’s two-hour episode. By next fall, Andrew Shue (Billy), Brooke Langton (Samantha), Linden Ashby (Coop), Lisa Rinna (Taylor) and Alyssa Milano (Jennifer) will be gone, partially to save on the show’s budget. For the ’98-’99 Melrose season, Josie Bisset and Thomas Calabro will be the melodrama’s only remaining original cast members. [WNYW, 5, 8 P.M.]

Tuesday, March 31

Out of ideas, guys? NYPD Blue ‘s getting a little saggy lately, with this story thread involving Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz. The guy has already gotten married and seen his angelic son murdered just before his new son was born; then he went on a drunken binge and got suspended from the force. What’s next–prostate trouble? Well, yes. Tonight, the headstrong Andy finally goes to the doctor and gets it checked out for cancer. [WABC, 7, 10 P.M.]

The kids used to dream of suffering in that room in the woods as they wrote the big novel. Now they’re content to cough up a professional-looking sitcom script and make a few hundred grand as a Hollywood sitcom writer. What’s the point of all this? Well, right now it’s “spec season” in Los Angeles, meaning that aspiring sitcom writers and sitcom writers who want to switch from one show to another or find themselves in limbo because of a cancellation are writing like mad and trying to get their agents to return their calls. The idea is to get the spec scripts into the hands of as many show runners (read, executive producers) as possible for the springtime sitcom-hiring season.…

To show off their stuff, sitcom writers have been hard at work on spec scripts of the shows Just Shoot Me , King of the Hill , Drew Carey and Dharma & Greg . That’s a big change from a few years ago, when everybody was writing their own half-hours of Friends , Frasier and The Larry Sanders Show (before that, it was Seinfeld and The Simpsons ).…

NYTV asked Ari Posner, a former New Republic writer who has been working on the ABC midseason show Something So Right , why people are using Just Shoot Me as spec script material. “I think it has a realistic work setting and yet is glib and meta enough to feel like it belongs in the post- Seinfeld era,” he said. “It’s a show that’s aware of itself as a TV show, but it also has a pretty consistent warm side, which makes it more appealing than something that is just funny and nasty like, say, News Radio .”…

What do TV writers have in common? “Aside from being angry Jewish males?” said Mr. Posner. “There isn’t that much that defines them as all that different than the smart-aleck journalist or novelist or playwright, except that the lucky ones have an astounding amount of money at an absurdly young age. They tend to be ferociously competitive and verbally playful people who don’t mind sitting in a room, eating takeout together for 18 hours a day.” …

Please describe a typical writers room. “The thing about the writers room is it’s not a democracy,” Mr. Posner said. “A good writers room encourages everyone to speak up and lash out and be funny and really try to entertain each other, but ultimately the room is run by someone, the executive producer, and that person is deciding what will ultimately go in the script. There are a lot of different people that flourish in a writers room. Some people have a good feel for telling a story, others can pitch jokes really well, and usually there is someone who is just a funnyman, and it’s most always a man–staffs tend to be male-dominated.” Tonight on Something So Right : Sarah’s tired of her dad. [ABC, 7, 8:30 P.M.]

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