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Now your pistol's been fixed so it only shoots blanks; and when the third beer goes down, there's no room in the tank. You've got the forty year blues - Frontpage, Forty Year Blues (a commemoration of certain mortality)

Author Topic: Bessie on HBO  (Read 2974 times)

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Offline banjochris

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #45 on: June 10, 2015, 09:20:18 AM »
I haven't seen the movie yet, but I don't like "biopics" in general, mostly because someone's entire life doesn't necessarily make for well-structured drama, and well-structured drama isn't very satisfactory as a documentary to learn about someone's life. I do plan to watch it.

Mostly I dropped by to say that I don't know if Ma Rainey ever actually dressed as a man to perform, but I'm sure if they included that the filmmakers would have been inspired by this:

scroll down and look at the ad for "Prove It on Me Blues."

Offline Chris A

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #46 on: December 22, 2015, 11:20:45 AM »
Racist? You bet it was?black actors portraying stereotypical uncle toms is as racist as Jolson in blackface, perhaps even more so.

When I accidentally came across my name in HBO press release inspired items in Variety, Hollywood Reporter and other publications (some even had an image of my biography), I called Zanuck's office to find out what was going on. I got an answering machine, but HBO Films called me the following day and asked me if I would read the script and come to their NYC office to tell them what I thought of it. I agreed and promptly received the screenplay (5th draft) via e-mail. It was appallingly clueless, from beginning to end, revealing no knowledge of Bessie Smith, her life, or the era in which she became a major star.

I went to the meeting at HBO. There, seated around a conference room table, were five or six people, only one of whom, the writer/director, Dee Rees, was black. Each had a closed (probably unread) copy of my book before them. They told me how much they enjoyed the book and how fortunate they were to have found Ms. Rees after rejecting attempts by other writers. They also informed me that shooting would begin in Atlanta in six weeks and that Rees was working on the final draft.

Accompanying me to the elevator, the head of HBO Films (a truly charming lady) said she was aware of my negative feelings about the script and asked me to suggest improvements. I accepted her offer of a consultation fee, na?vely thinking that it would lend weight to my suggestions, which filled several pages and covered only the most grievous mistakes but, in essence, highly recommended that Reese suffer the pink slip fate of her predecessors and that a professional writer be given the opportunity to take it from square one. I suggested that, for the sake of expediency, a new treatment be based on Horton Foote's 1974 script.

Horton was commissioned to write a film treatment of my book when one by Melvin van Peeples totally missed the mark. I liked Horton's approach, but thought it a bit old-fashioned, cinematically. Still, it captured Bessie and the era beautifully. After Horton died, his daughter, Hallie Foote, took the script to the Zanuck office, which made a deal with HBO?that's how that came about. The HBO credits contain "book by Horton Foote," but he would cringe if he saw this awful film?just as I did when HBO arranged a screening for me.

Unfortunately, I agreed to sell the film rights to Horton. He had purchased his script back from Columbia Pictures and he needed the book rights if he was going to do anything with it. I made a huge mistake there, but I never foresaw what would happen. I still cannot fathom why Horton's daughter (not in need of money) did this to her father's memory.

There is much more, but suffice it to say that only one of my suggestions was implemented: I told them that Bessie would not have dashed into a bar and ordered "a vodka collins on the rocks"! The other distortions and fantasies were left intact?Rees apparently was determined to make her second film another black lesbian story, and so she did.

That said, the only redeeming factor was the music, but I attribute that to the Music Director, Evyen Klean, the only person involved who showed a genuine concern for getting it right, the only member of the production crew who consulted me.

I had recommended Queen Latifah to the late Richard D. Zanuck back in the Seventies, when he wanted to make this film with Horton as the writer. He gave the then relatively unknown rapper a screen test back then and the result was encouraging. This year, she told interviewers that she had carefully researched Bessie Smith, but?other than the singing?there is not the slightest evidence of that.

Few writers embrace another's film treatment of their work, but nobody can expect to see a literal conversion to film. This HBO production, however, didn't even come close. Horton (with whom I got along splendidly) nailed it with his adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and he came close to doing so again with "Bessie," but they totally destroyed it.

The sad thing is that many years will probably pass before anyone brings the true Bessie story to a screen?if it ever happens.

Offline Gumbo

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  • So Papa climbed up on top of the house
Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #47 on: December 23, 2015, 04:26:23 PM »
It's great to hear your side of the story, Chris. Kind of infuriating, too, knowing how much more realistic it could have been, but better to know than to guess. Thanks for posting.


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