Traveling Magician David Blaine Tricks the Masses but Can’t Fool His Peers

Wednesday, April 14

Who does David Blaine think he is, being all suave and cool, wearing Dolce & Gabbana, dating Fiona Apple, club-hopping with Leo DiCaprio? He’s a magician, for chrissakes. Aren’t they all supposed to be geeks?

Perhaps sensing that he could gain mainstream acceptance only if he isolated himself from the supermodels and hip downtown nightspots, Mr. Blaine recently launched a successful publicity stunt by apparently burying himself underground in a clear-topped coffin under two tons of water. With no food and little drinking water, Mr. Blaine, 26, seemed to lie around for seven days on land owned by Donald Trump between Riverside Drive and the Hudson River. Friends, tourists and gawkers stood over him, trying to figure out if it was a hoax or not. Deborah Norville, anchor of Inside Edition , tried not to get too close to the tank, joking that Mr. Blaine could see up her skirt.

If it wasn’t magic, then what was the point? “This is more than a test of endurance,” said Bill Kalush, Mr. Blaine’s collaborator, who hovered by the burial site for much of the week. “Houdini was successful because he gave people hope when it comes to not being confined. This touches an emotional heartstring. A lot of people connect to him, seeing the fears he overcomes.”

As if on cue, a little girl then came up to Mr. Kalush and handed him a letter for Mr. Blaine. “It congratulates him for trying to fulfill Houdini’s dream,” said the girl, Rachel Quart of Charlotte, N.C.

The main intention of the stunt, other than to hype Mr. Trump’s latest apartment complex, was to promote Mr. Blaine’s television special, Magic Man , airing tonight. In the special–whose credits include Harmony Korine as a segment director and Harvey Weinstein as a production consultant–the laconic Mr. Blaine wanders around the world, performing sleight of hand and other tricks for people he meets. He also manages to show his buff chest several times. Some of the tricks are undoubtedly cool, such as when he asks a woman to think of a name, and a second later a taxicab barrels down the street with the name, “Dawn,” spray-painted on the side. But much of the special feels pointless–and not just the cameos by Tyra Banks and Puff Daddy. Why exactly does Mr. Blaine travel to Haiti and the Yanomamo territories in the Amazon rain forest? To perform card tricks?

Though Mr. Blaine may be able to walk into any nightclub in town, he is not as revered among his magical peers. Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller recently attacked him in New York magazine, and Erika Larsen, the former editor of Genii Magazine , a trade magazine for magicians, says most magicians “think they can do better.”

“Magicians by and large think his television specials are entertaining, but that he isn’t a good magician,” said Ms. Larsen, whose father and uncle founded the Magic Castle, a private club in Hollywood for magicians. “He doesn’t have good sleight-of-hand chops. He uses store-bought tricks, and that kind of thing.” [WABC, 7, 10 P.M.]

Thursday, April 15

Do you know who Terry Farrell, Kathleen York, Cindy Margolis and Traylor Howard are? What about Ashton Kutcher? Jennifer Paige? Shanice? Neither do we. Apparently, they’re all pretty young models, actors or singers, some of the bottom-of-the-celebrity-barrel guests who regularly appear on the late-night talk show Later . Yes, this show is still on, though NYTV could find no one who’s actually watched it since host Greg Kinnear left in 1996 to pursue an acting career. (He was nominated for an Oscar, you know.) Now NBC struggles to remind people of the show’s existence. “That’s our daily battle,” said Neal Kendall, the show’s producer.

After Mr. Kinnear’s exit, the network announced that a series of guest hosts would take over until a permanent replacement was named. Alas, the search for a permanent host was abandoned, and the roster of guest hosts is now filled by second-stringers like Peri Gilpin, Debi Mazar, Judd Nelson, Rita Sever and Daryl Mitchell. (NYTV can identify two of them. How about you?) What do they have in common? Conveniently, they’re all NBC employees. Mr. Nelson, for instance, stars on the network’s Suddenly Susan .

Surprisingly, the show’s ratings are generally higher than they were during the tenure of Mr. Kinnear, who was fresh from hosting Talk Soup and who replaced Bob Costas. Credit goes to Later ‘s lead-ins, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, who seem to attract some viewers who will eagerly sit through 150 minutes of people sitting behind desks. ( Later is only half an hour long.) According to Mr. Kendall, Later is attracting about a million and a half people, with overnight ratings hovering between 1.6 and 2.0. For comparison, Conan usually earns between 2.3 and a 2.9. NBC is so strong in late-night programming that it often beats or matches the competition which airs an hour earlier. Conan , at 12:30 A.M., has matched Letterman , 11:30 P.M., in key demos; Later consistently beat Tom Snyder and has kept pace with new guy Craig Kilborn. Tonight, the host is … David DeLuise (from NBC’s Jesse ), and the guest is … Sean Hayes (from NBC’s Will & Grace ). [WNBC, 4, 1:35 A.M.]

Friday, April 16

Paul Begala loyally supported President Clinton when he served as his assistant and counselor. And unlike some others (that short Greek guy), Mr. Begala has no intention of changing his tune now that he’s no longer on the Federal payroll. So he’s billing himself as a “pro-Clinton pundit” for his new hosting duties on MSNBC’s Equal Time with sparring partner Oliver North. Won’t such a label limit him if the President screws up? “As much as I love the President, if he ever signed a renewed version of the Independent Counsel Act, I’d attack him, because it’s a monstrosity and unsalvageable.” But, Mr. Begala notes, “That’s a hypothetical.” Thanks for the clarification, bub. [MSNBC, 43, 8 P.M.]

Saturday, April 17

The Onion ‘s march into the mainstream continues. A satirical newspaper published in Wisconsin and on the Web, The Onion can no longer be considered just a cult hit. Its first book, Our Dumb Century , debuted at No. 26 on the extended New York Times best seller list; next week it jumps to No. 9, according to its publisher, Three Rivers Press. In other Onion news, former editor Ben Karlin, who had ventured to Los Angeles to write pilots and episodes of Cartoon Network’s Space Ghost: Coast to Coast , has become the new senior producer at The Daily Show With Jon Stewart , replacing head writer Chris Kreski (who’s moving to Martin Short’s syndicated talk show, now in the early stages over at King World). Another Onion alum, David Javerbaum, recently left Late Show With David Letterman to try his hand at–huh?–musical theater. [Comedy Central, 45, 5 P.M.]

Sunday, April 18

Jaws 2 : Un enorme tiburon aterroriza a los turistas en un punto maritimo de veraneo. Roy Scheider. [WNJU, 47, 8 P.M.]

Monday, April 19

As the country eagerly awaits Bryant Gumbel’s imminent return to A.M. television on CBS This Morning , NYTV has been reflecting on its visit to the Today Show near the end of Mr. Gumbel’s tenure there. NYTV was impressed with Mr. Gumbel’s legendary interviewing skills, especially his reluctance to toss softball questions to a buddy. On this particular program in early 1994, Mr. Gumbel spoke about the newly revised SAT with Donald Stewart, the president of the College Board. Before the segment began, Mr. Gumbel and Mr. Stewart chatted amiably about Mr. Stewart’s child and about an event the two men had attended the previous evening. Obviously, they were friends. But then on the air, Mr. Gumbel held no punches: “What say that all of these changes are simply motivated by money? They’re designed to encourage more students to take the test and more schools to use them.” Mr. Stewart was momentarily flustered. Still, Mr. Gumbel ended the segment as he often did, with a banal blessing: “Stay well.” [WCBS, 2, 7 A.M.]

Tuesday, April 20

Thanks to Harvey Weinstein’s massive advertising budget, the battle between Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan was largely fought through the “For Your Consideration” pages in the trade papers. (The real Oscar winners? The bank accounts of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.) In what may be a sly parody or simply a desperate bid for publicity, Universal Pictures took out the back page of Daily Variety on April 5 for its horror-comedy Bride of Chucky: “Hey MTV! Consider this …” That’s right, the MTV Movie Awards, an amusing program that few take seriously, is coming up June 10, and Universal, alone among its peers, is pitching its film as a nominee for best villain, best kiss, best fight, best action sequence and best on-screen duo.

Producer Joel Gallen can’t remember any other studio creating a similar advertisement in the awards’ eight-year history. And there’s a good reason: MTV does not choose the nominees itself. Its viewers do, through a mailed poll sent to 1,000 people. MTV’s audience does not overlap too much with Variety ‘s, but Chucky might get lucky. “That movie did do very well with our audience,” said Mr. Gallen. “Maybe it will show up somewhere.”

Do these awards even matter? According to Mr. Gallen, winning films (like Scream ) tend to get a boost in home video box-office. And Universal may simply want to keep the Chucky series in the public eye, since it has another one– Son of Chucky –in the works. Tonight, see if the advertising paid off, on the MTV Movie Awards Nomination Special . [MTV, 20, 10 P.M.]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

If you like Cary Grant as much as I do, then it doesn’t matter that 1943’s romantic World War II homefront drama, Mr. Lucky [Sunday, April 18, Turner Classic Movies, 82, noon; also, as all others below, on videocassette] , is neither a great movie nor a film from an interesting though flawed director, nor even featuring an unusually fine screenplay. It is, though, a terrific vehicle for Cary Grant, who might therefore be called the picture’s auteur by default.

Contributing to the “happy accident” status of the movie is excellent black-and-white lighting by veteran ace cinematographer George Barnes (Oscar for Hitchcock’s Rebecca ); extremely effective “production design”–which certainly must have included camera setups–from the legendary William Cameron Menzies (designer of Gone With the Wind ); and a script intriguingly knowledgeable on the subject of gamblers’ techniques by first-time scenarist Milton Holmes, cleverly streamlined and tailored for Grant by old pro (and soon one of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten”) Adrian Scott. The director H.C. (Hank) Potter, who started in radio and theater, was generally mild and inoffensive, but this remains by far his best work, his second-best being another (more family-oriented) Cary Grant movie, 1948’s likable Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House [Sunday, April 18, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 4 P.M.] , which co-stars the equally smooth at drawing-room comedy Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas.

The occasionally predictable, but nonetheless engrossingly played, story of Mr. Lucky concerns Grant’s being a crooked gambler who takes over a dead man’s 4-F identity in order to evade the draft and then gets involved in a war relief effort from which he plans to bilk all the group’s money until, of course, he falls for society gal Laraine Day (lovely, but not an exceedingly resourceful actress). At this point, Cary’s own accomplices are none too happy about his change of heart. (In real life, Grant gave his entire salary to war relief.)

The film is constructed in flashback, and contains other stylistic reverberations from the wake of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane of two years before (including Kane’s valet Paul Stewart as main heavy). Whoever injected into the script (probably Grant with scenarist Scott) the charming use of Australian rhyming slang for the gambler added a great deal to the evocativeness of the piece. Having cockney-sounding, Bristol-born Cary explain to Laraine that “tit for tat” means “hat,” “bottle ‘n’ stopper” means “copper,” and “briny marlin” means “darlin'” becomes inspired movie-star magic, and it’s nicely paid off as well.

Seeing Grant play larcenous, edgy and tough (puts a roll of nickels into his fist to strike a better punch) becomes especially winning when shown beside his learning how to knit in order to impress the ladies’ group he’s conning–thus admirably covering both the masculine-dramatic and feminine-comic sides of the actor’s persona. This double whammy, combined with his matinee-idol looks, made him a triple threat like no other male star in picture history.

As is vividly in evidence in the first film (of only two) for which he was nominated for an Oscar (never won), George Stevens’ 1941 tear-jerker with Irene Dunne, Penny Serenade [Sunday, April 18, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 2 P.M.] , where he’s heartbreaking in his big scene pleading for the child he wants to adopt; or darkly dangerous and ambiguous as hell in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 masterpiece with Ingrid Bergman, Notorious [Tuesday, April 20, Showtime, 48, 1:15 P.M.] . Or, conversely, absolutely fall-down hilarious in two of Howard Hawks’ comedy classics, co-starring Katharine Hepburn in 1938’s Bringing Up Baby [Sunday, April 18, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 6 P.M.] , and with Ann Sheridan in 1949’s I Was a Male War Bride [Tuesday, April 20, American Movie Classics, 54, 6 P.M. and 1:45 A.M.]. No other movie star had that sort of range within a very defined personality. How can we not miss dear Cary and all he stood for?