Category Archives: Carsey-Wolf Center @ UCSB

Gwyneth Paltrow at UCSB

If anyone could be said to have been “born into show business,” it’s Gwyneth Paltrow. Her parents were film & television producer-director Bruce Paltrow and actress Blythe Danner, whom Gwyneth cites as her main inspiration to pursue acting. Her brother, Jake, is a director and screenwriter; her uncle Harry Danner is an opera singer; her aunt Dorothy Danner is an opera director; and her godfather is Steven Spielberg. With that pedigree, a career on stage and/or screen must have seemed pre-ordained.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Paltrow initially pursed a theatrical career before being drawn into film work. After a number of small roles, including Brad Pitts’ wife in the cult favorite “Seven,” she rose to prominence with an Academy Award-winning performance in the surprise hit “Shakespeare in Love.” This led to notable turns in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Proof,” “Sylvia” as doomed poet Sylvia Plath (the role of which Paltrow is proudest), the television series “Glee,” and as Margot Tenenbaum in Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson’s third feature film and the one that firmly established his now-familiar distinctive style. Following a brief hiatus from her hectic schedule, prompted by marriage and motherhood, Paltrow enjoyed a career rejuvenation thanks to her on-going participation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In this episode of Script to Screen, Paltrow discusses her process of preparing for her various roles, stressing the importance of finding a connection to the material and of placing complete trust in the director – which often requires a high degree of adaptability to accommodate divergent directorial styles and personalities. In the case of “Tenenbaums,” for example, she notes that Wes Anderson had the entire film fixed in his head down to the smallest detail, including set design, props, make-up, and wardrobe; all the cast had to do was “execute it properly.” (Apparently co-star Gene Hackman didn’t have that level of trust in Anderson; in Paltrow’s words, Hackman “just didn’t get it.”) By contrast, her scenes in “Iron Man” with Robert Downey, Jr. were largely improvised by Paltrow and Downey working with director Jon Favreau. Paltrow also touches briefly on her parallel careers as a singer, author, and e-commerce entrepreneur with her web-based lifestyle company Goop.

When asked by host Matt Ryan to give advice to students seeking a foothold in showbusiness, and particularly women, Paltrow notes that “this is a great time” for women emerging in the industry. Studios are finally acknowledging the chronic gender and racial biases plaguing the industry, as well as the pay inequities, and have undertaken a number of corrective initiatives. Above all, Paltrow urges the students to be confident, to be themselves, and to continue to break down doors.

Watch Royal Tenenbaums with Gwyneth Paltrow – Script to Screen

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Comic-Con 2018

San Diego Comic-Con International is the world’s largest convention devoted to popular culture. Emphasis is traditionally placed on the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, but over the decades the convention has expanded its scope to encompass a range of genres and topics in a variety of forms, be it motion pictures, television, print, or digital media.

During the 2018 edition of Comic-Com, “Script to Screen” host Matt Ryan conducted over a dozen interviews with creative talent from television shows such as “The Man in the High Castle,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Mr. Mercedes,” and “Dear White People” – to name but a sampling – and the acclaimed feature film, “A Quiet Place.” Participants run the gamut from actors, producers, and directors to sound editors and composers. (The two latter professions are often underrepresented in industry profiles, so their presence here is particularly welcome.) Though of course familiarity with the programs is helpful, it’s not essential. The interviews focus less on plot details than on initial reactions to scripts and on preparations for the work at hand, be it acting, directing, or scoring. Put another way, the stress is on the individual artist’s contribution to the craft of collaborative storytelling. In this regard, all of the interviewees acknowledge the quality of the writing as the most critical component of a show’s potential success.

Though the shows and personalities highlighted in this program are necessarily just a small fraction of those on display at Comic-Con, they offer a sense of the depth of talent and narrative diversity currently available to the discerning consumer of popular media.

Watch Comic-Con: 2018

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Laraine Newman

“We [the SNL cast] all bore witness to each other’s youth.”
– Laraine Newman

There had been improvisational and sketch comedy ensembles before Saturday Night Live (SNL) debuted in 1975, including the venerable Second City, Monty Python, the Goon Show, the Goodies, the Proposition, Firesign Theatre, and the Groundlings (from which sprang Laraine Newman), but none have had the longevity or wide-ranging cultural impact of SNL. What set SNL apart was the breadth and depth of the show’s on- and off-screen talents, combined with a determination to bring risky, youth-oriented “alternative comedy” to a mass audience. SNL is now entering its 43rd season, and the original cast – Newman, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase, and Garrett Morris – have become the stuff of legend.

Newman had theater experience at an early age and studied mime in Paris with Marcel Marceau, but she notes that it was her work with the Groundlings that provided the best possible preparation for SNL, a show in which scripts were sometimes treated more as useful suggestions than as holy writ. However much the cast would occasionally stray from the prepared text, though, they appreciated the writers’ work; not surprising, considering that several cast members were established comedy writers themselves. As a performer Newman worked closely with the writers and fellow cast members in developing skits and signature characters.

Following her five-year stint on SNL Newman has maintained a busy film and television career in both leading and supporting roles, and is a prominent voice artist on television and in animated features. She’s also a writer and editor who regularly contributes to several online publications, including McSweeney’s, the Atlantic Online, and Huffington Post. When asked what advice she would offer to aspiring writers and performers, Newman’s response is succinct: “Read a book. Make a compendium. Do things differently.”

Watch Saturday Night Live’s Laraine Newman – Script to Screen

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Life After The Fall of Hussein

Join novelist Sinan Antoon and journalist Leila Fadel as they discuss the documentary, Life after the Fall, directed by Kasim Abid, which follows the daily life of a family in modern day Iraq after the fall of Sadam Hussein.

As one family member says, “After the fall, we would sit on our balcony and talk about the future of Iraq. We had high hopes… But in the end everything failed. We didn’t benefit at all. The country didn’t get better or rebuilt, it just got destroyed some more.”

According to Sinan Antoon, there are very few documentaries like this one where Iraqis get to speak about their feelings and desires for more than 30 seconds in American media. “It’s so rare that you actually get to see Iraqis who are not terrorists or extremists.”

As a journalist, Leila Fadel wanted to document what it was like to live and survive invasion occupation. “I told the stories of grave-diggers… I told the stories of pregnant women trying to have their babies without getting shot on roads after curfew… I told the story through marriages and divorces…”

Key to documenting the Iraqi experience is living outside the protected “green zone” and interviewing as many Iraqi people as possible. Says Antoon: “Iraqi’s are like other humans on the planet… are a spectrum, come from different classes, different backgrounds. And they don’t all have one of two opinions – either Saddam lovers or US lovers. It’s more complicated.”

Fadel agrees. “Sometimes when you’re a journalist abroad, they’ll say things like ‘what are people saying on the Arab street?’ — which doesn’t exist and nobody has one opinion and I don’t know where that street is.”

“Without hearing these stories of real people,” says Antoon, “it’s sometimes difficult for people to imagine Iraqis living full lives. So their destruction is not really registered as a loss.”

Watch Life After The Fall – Storytelling from Iraq

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Moms Mabley – Women in Comedy

“If you don’t want your children to know the truth about life don’t send ’em to the theater to see Moms, ’cause I’m gonna tell them THE TRUTH, hear?”
— Moms Mabley

Comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley became a familiar figure to television audiences in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Born Loretta Mary Aiken in 1894, Mabley was a veteran of the segregated vaudeville “Chitlin’ Circuit” (aka Theater Owners Booking Association) who held a residency at Harlem’s Apollo Theater before breaking into the white mainstream in the early Sixties. She released more than a dozen albums, gave a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, and made numerous appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Tonight Show, Merv Griffin Show, and other popular programs of the day. Mabley developed her distinctive persona – a toothless, bedraggled woman in a faded house dress and rumpled hat – in the 1920’s and refined it throughout her career.

This sly persona was one of the factors that enabled Mabley to perform what we now call transgressive comedy – that is, comedy that addresses a range of taboo topics. In Mabley’s case these subjects included race, gender politics, and sexual orientation. It was risky enough for white comedians such as Lenny Bruce to feature such material; for a black woman and avowed lesbian to achieve mainstream success while doing so was nothing short of transformational. Like Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, and other cutting-edge African-American humorists of the time, Moms Mabley was less concerned with “translating” her material for the comfort of white audiences than with expressing essential truths. As she once told an audience, “I don’t know no jokes, but I do know some facts.”

Since her death in 1975 Moms Mabley has gradually receded in the cultural landscape, and her work is now all but forgotten by the general audience. In the episode of the “Women in Comedy” series devoted to Mabley, Bambi Haggins (Film & Media Studies, UC Irvine) makes the case for Mabley’s influence on her contemporaries and the generation of comedians that followed, while arguing that Mabley should not be forgotten though we’re three generations removed from her heyday. Haggins was a consultant for the HBO documentary “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley,” and she shares Whoopi’s view that Mabley helped to pave the way for Richard Pryor, Wanda Sykes, Dave Chappelle, and others, including Whoopi herself. Further, Haggins maintains that many up and coming young comedians who perform socially-conscious material can trace their lineage back to Mabley, even though they may not be overtly aware of Mabley’s influence. In this role as a progenitor Mabley’s nickname, Moms, is an apt one.

Watch Moms Mabley with Bambi Haggins – Women in Comedy.

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