Rock the Oscars 2019: A SOLDIER’S STORY

A SOLDIER’S STORY, Denzel Washington, 1984

A SOLDIER’S STORY, Denzel Washington, 1984

In September and October of 1983, Norman Jewison and the cast of A Soldier’s Story filmed the movie at various locations in Arkansas.  Little Rock’s Lamar Porter Field was the site for the baseball scenes.

Adolph Caesar would receive an Oscar nomination for his performance in this movie.  Howard Rollins had recently been an Oscar nominee for his performance in Ragtime.  Future Oscar winner Denzel Washington was also featured in the cast.

Based on Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Soldier’s Play, the movie was directed by Jewison from a script adapted by Fuller.  The film was nominated for three Oscars: Best Picture, Caesar in the Best Supporting Actor category and Fuller in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.

While the movie was filming in Arkansas, Governor Bill Clinton visited the set.  He had also been instrumental in making the Arkansas National Guard and some of the military facilities in the state available.  In addition to filming at Lamar Porter, scenes were shot in Fort Smith and at Fort Chaffee.

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Rock the Oscars 2019: James Earl Jones

Actor James Earl Jones has made several appearances in Central Arkansas over the years.  He has appeared at Robinson Center with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.  On February 12, 1999, he narrated Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” and Alexander Miller’s “Let Freedom Ring” with the Symphony in a concert at Robinson Center.  (It was the 190th birthday for Lincoln.)

Born in Mississippi, he spent most of his childhood in Michigan.  After service in the Army during the Korean War, he moved to New York to study theatre.  In the late 1950s he started alternating between Broadway (where he often played a servant) and Off Broadway (where he played leading roles).  His first film appearance was in Dr. Strangelove….  From the 1960s onward he has alternated between stage, film and TV.  In the 1980s, he added voice work to his repertoire.

In 1969 and in 1987, he won Tony Awards for Actor in a Play (The Great White Hope and Fences, respectively).  His other Tony nominations have been for revivals of On Golden Pond and The Best Man.  He was nominated for an Oscar in 1970 for reprising The Great White Hope on film.  He received two Emmy Awards in 1991 – the only actor to ever win two in the same year.

In 2008, he won the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2011 he was given an Honorary Oscar.  In 2002, he was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient.

He is probably best loved for his work as the voice of Darth Vader in many of the Star Wars films as well as his voicework in The Lion King.

Rock the Oscars 2019: THE HANGING TREE

On February 11, 1959, THE HANGING TREE was released.  This film was the first Hollywood movie in with Little Rock native Ben Piazza appeared.  For the film, Piazza received a coveted “and introducing Ben Piazza” credit.

The movie starred Oscar winners Gary Cooper and Karl Malden, along with Maria Schell.  Future Oscar winner George C. Scott, was fifth billed for his scenery chewing role of a religious zealot.

The title song, “The Hanging Tree,” written by Jerry Livingston and Mack David, was sung by Marty Robbins in the film.  It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Song.

Filming began in June 1958 in Washington state.  Shooting took place from June through August 1958 mainly near Yakima, Washington.  The film was directed by Delmer Daves, who was probably best known as screenwriter of Love Affair and director of 3:10 to Yuma.  In conjunction with filming The Hanging Tree, Piazza appeared in a TV special on western movies.  Most of the others appearing in the special were well-established Hollywood western personalities including Little Rock natives Bronco Billy Anderson and Gail Davis.

The Hanging Tree had a budget of $1.35 million ($11.5 million today—about half of the typical modest film budget).  A good portion of this expense was the construction of a mining town.  Once production began, Daves became ill and had to be hospitalized for ulcers. Co-star Karl Malden was approached to complete the film.  He had recently finished his first directing assignment.  He had reservations, but agreed to direct because of support of Cooper. (There are discrepancies as to the length of time Daves was out of commission.)

Ben received positive notices.  One reviewer referred to him as being a “laconic, doe-eyed rebel.” Another said he was a “handsome and mean-looking boy…with curls like a golden poodle.”     Several reviewers referenced James Dean when discussing Piazza in a positive light.

The film was released to respectful notices in February 1959.  It earned around $2.2 million, which meant it turned a profit.

Rock the Oscars 2019: Opening of the Clinton Presidential Center

Probably the largest gathering of Oscar winners and Oscar nominees in Little Rock’s history took place in November 2004.

Though some Oscar winners and nominees had been present for the Clinton election night parties in 1992 and 1996, the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center brought luminaries from Hollywood en masse.

Among those present were Oscar winning actors Barbara Streisand, Robin Williams, and (of course) Arkansan Mary Steenburgen.  Future Oscar winner Morgan Freeman was also in attendance. Among the Oscar nominees who were present were Bono and The Edge (who performed at the ceremony) and Alfre Woodard.

Senator John Glenn, who had been featured as a character in the Oscar winning film The Right Stuff was also present for the festivities.  Former Vice President Al Gore did not actually win an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth (the documentary awards go to the director), but was closely identified with this Oscar winning documentary.

There were plenty of rumors about other Oscar winners and nominees in town, though they were not true.

Rock the Oscars 2019: SOUTH PACIFIC

Written for the stage by Oscar winners Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, along with Oscar nominee Joshua Logan, in 1958 South Pacific was the fourth Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical to make it to the Silver Screen.  With the female leading character, Nellie Forbush, hailing from Little Rock, there are references to Arkansas and its capital city throughout the film.

Mitzi Gaynor, played the Little Rock native, opposite Rossano Brazzi (with singing help from Giorgio Tozzi). Others in the cast were John Kerr, France Nuyen, Ray Walston, Juanita Hall, and Russ Brown.  Only Hall had been in the Broadway cast.

Though the film was financially successful, it was criticized at the time for its plodding direction (by Logan) and its use of tinted washes to reflect the moods of the characters and the movie.  (If the film was in a bright moment, the screen would take a yellowish hue; during tense times, it might get a blueish tint.)

Ironically, given the criticism of the film’s look, it did receive an Oscar nomination for Cinematography-Color.  It also received a nomination for Scoring of a Musical Picture.  South Pacific won the Oscar for Best Sound, which went to Fred Hynes.  He had previously won an Oscar for work on Oklahoma! and would also win one for The Sound of Music.

Rock the Oscars 2019: Mary Steenburgen

It is Oscar month, so it is fitting to highlight at Arkansas’ own Academy Award winning actress, Mary Steenburgen on her birthday.  She was born on February 8, 1953, in Newport, Arkansas.  After moving to North Little Rock as a schoolgirl, she had her first starring role as Emily in the 1971 Northeast High School production of Our Town, which was the new school’s first play.

Her big break in the movies came when Oscar winner Jack Nicholson picked her to star opposite of him in Goin’ South.  This was followed by Time after Time before she appeared in Melvin and Howard.  For that film, she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  It also marked the first of three times she starred with Jason Robards (the other two being Parenthood and Philadelphia).  Over the years, her films have run the gamut from period piece (Ragtime, Cross Creek) to sophisticated comedy (Romantic Comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy) to fantasy (Back to the Future III) to holiday comedy (Elf).  She has been hard to pigeonhole into a specific “type” of actor because she has played so many different types of roles.

Throughout her career, Mary Steenburgen has been a champion of the arts in Central Arkansas.  In 1986, she starred in and was executive producer of End of the Line, filmed in Central Arkansas, directed and co-written by Arkansan Jay Russell, and also starring Kevin Bacon, Wilfred Brimley, Levon Helm, Barbara Barrie and Holly Hunter.  More recently, Steenburgen has also been an active supporter of the Oxford American magazine as well as South on Main restaurant and performance venue.

She has been an active supporter and a board member of the Arkansas Cinema Society.  During the 2018 FILMLAND she appeared in panel discussions on comedy and on her TV show “The Last Man on Earth.”

Rock the Oscars 2019: Geena Davis

On February 7, 2012, Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis spoke in Little Rock.  She was hosted by the University of Arkansas Clinton School for Public Service and the William J. Clinton Foundation.

Davis founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004. The institute is the only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate and influence the need for gender balance, reducing stereotyping and creating a wide variety of female characters in entertainment. Davis won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “The Accidental Tourist” in 1988.

She was again nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for her performance as Thelma in Ridley Scott’s “Thelma and Louise,” in which she co-starred with Susan Sarandon.  She received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her portrayal of baseball phenomenon Dottie Hinson in “A League of Their Own.”

Geena Davis is the founder of the non-profit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and its programming arm See Jane, which engages film and television creators to dramatically increase the percentages of female characters — and reduce gender stereotyping — in media made for children 11 and under.  In 2015, she founded the Bentonville Film Festival.