After Ellen , NBC Heads Into Gay Territory … Farewell, Larry Sanders, Your Hair Was Nice

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

The two Humphrey Bogart movies that are quintessentially Bogart–in which that line between a star actor’s screen persona and a specific character he’s playing is most thoroughly and effectively erased so that these become indistinguishably one–were directed and produced back-to-back by Howard Hawks; both co-star Lauren Bacall at her freshest and most defining (her first two films), and both have screenplays worked on by William Faulkner, one based (rather vaguely) on Ernest Hemingway, the other (rather strongly) on Raymond Chandler. The first was 1944′s dramatic World War II espionage romance, To Have and Have Not, and the second starred Bogie as the definitive Chandler private eye, Philip Marlowe, in 1946′s mesmerizingly entertaining The Big Sleep [Sunday, May 31, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 10 P.M.].

This is the crime film with a virtually indecipherable plot, though it doesn’t really matter because the scenes, one after the other, are so utterly compelling and enjoyable that after a while you shrug and think, Who cares what’s going on, it’s all too much fun to worry about details like that. A famous anecdote: During shooting, neither Hawks nor Faulkner nor the other screenwriters (the reliables, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett) could figure out who had killed a certain character, so they wired Chandler this question and he wired back that he couldn’t figure it out, either. There’s a teasingly tongue-in-cheek attitude to the whole affair, a dry, witty approach that is typically Hawksian, as one woman after another (Dorothy Malone, Martha Vickers, etc.) makes passes at Bogart’s implacably insolent Marlowe, who has dialogue like, “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up,” or “You oughta wean her, she’s old enough,” or even “Hmm …” to which Ms. Bacall asks, “What’s that supposed to mean?” and he answers, “Means ‘hmm.’”

Chandler once said, “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it,” and Hawks takes full advantage of this axiom by essentially shaping each and every sequence in the entire movie from Bogie’s viewpoint; he is the beginning and end of every scene, and nothing happens without being filtered through his responses. Of course, the book is constructed that way, but Hawks could easily have altered this, and he could’ve screwed up the lines, but as he wisely used to say, “You couldn’t get better dialogue than Raymond Chandler’s,” so he leaves it alone. Tense and fast-paced, the picture has a pervasive intelligence and honesty that simply doesn’t date. One of my personal favorites for almost 40 years, The Big Sleep holds up well under repeated viewings because the black humor and generally evil atmosphere feel continually contemporary.

On another Hawks wavelength is one of his funniest yet darkest comedies, 1949′s I Was a Male War Bride [Tuesday, June 2, American Movie Classics, 54, 2:30 P.M.] , starring Cary Grant in the title role as a sophisticated French army officer in post-World War II Germany (this was based on a true story) who falls for Ann Sheridan as a U.S. Army officer, and then has to pose as a war bride to get past the red tape involved in emigrating with her to America. An absolutely hilarious tour de force for Grant and Hawks, the film was their fourth of five pictures together and was among the first Hollywood companies to shoot on real locations in Europe after the war. It’s certainly a different kind of war story: How do you get past bureaucracy so that you can go to bed with your lover? Also, previously recommended highly here, is the third Hawks-Grant movie, that remarkably fast screwball romantic comedy from 1940, resexed and adapted from the classic Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur 1920′s newspaper play, The Front Page , and retitled His Girl Friday [Wednesday, May 27, WLNY, 55, 3 A.M.] .

Wednesday, May 27

With a sitcom called Will & Grace , NBC will be following Ellen ‘s lead. The show, with a premise that seems lifted from My Best Friend’s Wedding , has a major gay character in Will. He’s everything Grace wants in a man–well, almost.…

Fox, on the other hand, decided not to get into the gay fray. The Rupert Murdoch network passed on Jackie Frye , which includes a major character who is gay, gay, gay. Big-time talent manager and producer Gavin Polone said the networks’ habit of screening potential shows for test audiences is no good for a show like Jackie Frye . “You sit with a test audience,” said Mr. Polone, “and you watch these dials. With Jackie Frye , they were really liking it–and then when the character started talking about when he came out, it would drop down. Especially the men in the testing. There was a guy in the room and he was quite obviously gay and he was quite offended by it.” …

Ellen DeGeneres leaves the airwaves kicking and screaming at ABC’s treatment of her show. She has a point. Ellen was hard to find this past season, what with all the occasional “hiatuses.” It finished 42nd among shows in the season-end ratings, having lost 18 percent of its audience from the year before, giving the network the chance to attribute the cancellation to poor numbers. But what about Spin City ? That lukewarm sitcom finished 47th in the ratings, having lost 31 percent of its audience from the ’96-’97 season, but it’ll be back.…

Ellen ran into something that could be called the “too gay” paradox. If it dealt matter-of-factly with the lead character’s sexual orientation–Ellen and her girlfriend going on vacation together, for instance–it was accused of overplaying her sexuality. ABC was comfortable enough with the famous coming-out episode, probably because that one fell into the dubious sitcom tradition of “issues” shows, which are meant to leave us all wiser in the end. But week after week? …

Given Will & Grace , how will NBC deal with the “too gay” paradox? We predict lots of Three’s Company -style pratfalls and mix-ups. Will and Grace are roommates on the show, and once you’ve got mismatched roommates, you’ve got slamming doors aplenty.…

Ellen is gone, but there’s a rerun tonight … [WABC, 7, 9:30 P.M.]

Thursday, May 28

On pay-per-view, it’s She’s So Lovely (1997). Screenplay by John Cassavetes, directed by his son Nick Cassavetes. The best line is spoken by John Travolta to his 9-year-old daughter: “Shut up and drink your beer!” Sean Penn plays an insane guy and Harry Dean Stanton is riding shotgun. Robin Wright causes trouble. [Time Warner Home Theater, 60, 11 P.M.]

Friday, May 29

It’s hard not to laugh when John Candy flips that giant pancake in Uncle Buck . [USA, 23, 9 P.M.]

Bob Hope’s 95th birthday. Larry King Live is an hourlong retrospective in his honor. [CNN, 10, 10 P.M.]

Saturday, May 30

Closed-captioning during slow professional sports games on TV can be entertaining in and of itself: misspellings, choppy sentences, weird thoughts left dangling. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed a requirement that within the next 10 years, more than 90 percent of TV shows have to be closed-captioned; only about a quarter are subtitled right now.…

“People are pleased with the growth of the availability, but there are technological deficiencies, especially in terms of live broadcasting,” said Keith Muller, executive director of the League for the Hard of Hearing. “When a news program shifts to the streets, you lose the captioning, and people can’t spell proper names in the news, the wording often doesn’t match, but the fact is, it’s only 15 years old and the technology is still developing … It’s funny, talking to people who used to watch movies without captions and who now see them with, because they are so happy that they finally know what’s going on. Even though sometimes they like the stories they made up better.” …

Read the running commentary of John McEnroe, Dick Enberg and Chris Evert during NBC’s coverage of the French Open . [WNBC, 4, 3 P.M.]

Sunday, May 31

NYTV’s special Larry Sanders correspondent, Jay Stowe, says farewell to a loved one: After six seasons of showing us what it really takes to put on a top-notch late-night talk show, The Larry Sanders Show is going off the air. Seven years of lies, deceit, cunning, conniving, bitterness, pettiness, pathos, bathos, angst, ennui and all the dick jokes a person could ask for. I, for one, will sorely miss it.…

Perhaps the greatest thing about Larry Sanders was that each week as you sat in front of your TV waiting for Garry Shandling’s puffy face to appear on the screen, your anticipation was fueled by the same question: How low will they go this time? For a deep, penetrating, existential TV-show question, “How low can they go?” isn’t bad….

When I say “low,” I’m not talking about Howard Stern playing butt bongo or some cornfed stripper strutting her stuff on The Jerry Springer Show . I’m talking about the kind of low behavior that people–real people–engage in every day, in offices and homes across the nation. The kinds of things you hope won’t rear their ugly heads in public–you know, for civility’s sake–but inevitably do. Like the time Phil, the head writer, got stoned in the office one night, went rummaging for food and discovered a videotape of Larry’s sidekick, Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), having sex with two hookers on his birthday. It’s sad enough that Phil, after stealing it from Hank’s office, screens it for the rest of the staff. But it’s sadder still when you find out that Hank made the video himself. “Shame on you,” he exclaims when he barges into the room full of people watching him getting down to business with a couple of pros. Now that’s low.…

But even as you’re grimacing, you’re wiping away the tears that come from unmitigated laughter, the kind that’s so base, it wells up from your deepest reservoirs of self-disgust. Call it the Laughter of the Damned. For just as you guffaw and cackle and hoot at the misfortune of others–which is, after all, what true comedy is all about–that fateful thought bubble is rising over your head, and you know what it says: Oh God, he’s pathetic. In fact, this whole show is one long parade of pathetic acts. And I’m pathetic for sitting here and enjoying it. Oh, Jesus, am I pathetic. Christ, what a pathetic life I lead. …

Larry Sanders made you laugh that hard because it rang so true. It was fleshed out by a succession of comedy writers who, through their collective wisdom of jokes, gags, stand-up work and literary humor writing, and their keen attention to the million little ways we in the media and entertainment fields try to fuck each other over every day, forged a meta-sitcom that was a sendup of the late-night world and a pretender to the late-night throne at the same time. Presiding over the madness was Garry Shandling, a man who apparently drives almost everyone he works with crazy. (To quote Paul Simms, creator of News Radio and a former head writer of Larry Sanders , whom Mr. Shandling reportedly threatened to sue for leaving the show: “I’d rather spend the next three years in court than spend another day working at the Sanders show.”) …

The whole thing revolved around the unholy trinity of Mr. Shandling’s Larry, Mr. Tambor’s Hank and their producer, Artie, played by Rip Torn. If Larry was the ego and Hank was the id, then Artie was the superego. One part Fred De Cordova (longtime producer of The Tonight Show ), one part Genghis Khan and one part, well, Rip Torn, Artie was a thing of beauty. The way he held Larry and Hank in check and still managed to produce a show helped make Larry Sanders a comedic psychodrama rather than just another sitcom about the trials and travails of a shmegegge and a schmuck. Artie, of course, had his own fits of manic-depression. Spending one particular episode crying into his bottle of Glenlivet over the thousandth slight he’s had to endure at Larry’s hands–this time he had to bump his dear friend Ryan O’Neal–Artie ends up calling Larry’s voice mail and telling his boss off with the aid of Nikolae, the Russian night janitor, who punctuates the producer’s drunken tirade with the line, “I hope your balls fall off !” …

Ahhhh, smell that? That’s the smell of great TV. A place you go to remind yourself that there are people who lead lives more desperate than your own–even if they are fictional. Soon, quite soon, it will all be gone. So tune in on Sunday night while you still have the chance, and find out what happens to Beverly and her baby (fathered in one episode by ER ‘s Eriq La Salle), or where Phil, the homophobe, and Brian, Hank’s homosexual assistant (played with aplomb by former Kid in the Hall Scott Thompson), take their blossoming romance, or whether Jon Stewart really does take over Larry’s late-night throne. And laugh the Laughter of the Damned loud and strong. It’s good for you. [HBO, 28, 10 P.M.]

Monday, June 1

Party of Five finished 85th in the season-end Nielsen ratings (up 12 percent from last year), but it’s coming back for Fox next season. Another dubious hit was Just Shoot Me . The show’s producers were pretty successful getting out the spin that this show might replace Seinfeld on Thursdays at 9; certain publications fell for that one (cough, cough!) . But it ended the season 71st in the ratings. Still, it’s back. And on Monday nights, the awful Suddenly Susan is returning, too, despite having lost 56 percent of its audience (it used to be on Thursday nights). Buffy the Vampire Slayer , WB’s signature series, was up 41 percent, but did not make the Nielsen top 100, finishing in 144th place. It’s back, too. CBS needs JAG and Everybody Loves Raymond , even though they ranked 62nd and 82nd in the ratings, so they’ll be back. Tonight on Everybody Loves Raymond , Ray and the missus try to write a children’s book together. [WCBS, 2, 8:30 P.M.]

Tuesday, June 2

Norm Macdonald is scheduled to take the guest chair on tonight’s Late Show With David Letterman . [WCBS, 2, 11:35 P.M.]