Three New Exclusives

Comedienne Julia Sweeney’s back and I saw her new one-woman show, Older & Wider, last weekend in Westwood. I’ve always found her humor to be unique, relevant and compelling, so I was interested in seeing her return to show business after a break to be a wife and raise her daughter on Chicago’s suburban North Shore.

Happily, Older & Wider is topical, intelligent and hilarious. While I incessantly hear about “diversity and inclusion”, I rarely hear about demand for rare, intelligent artists of ability such as Julia Sweeney, who’s making the most of being an older woman in her new theatrical work. I am glad to know that she’s currently starring in a new show on Hulu. I’d love to see her get more work in Hollywood.

I’ve posted my review of Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider here.

Also, read my new interview with screenwriter and director Robert Benton here. We met during Turner Classic Movies’ 2018 Classic Film Festival at the site of the first Academy Awards, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, on Hollywood Boulevard. I’ve met and interviewed Benton before and found him to be incredibly sharp, thoughtful and engaging.

This time was no exception. The subject was his Oscar-winning Best Picture, Kramer vs. Kramer, a groundbreaking movie about men, parenting and divorce which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. We discussed his original choice for the crucial supporting role of Joanna Kramer, which eventually went to Meryl Streep, propelling her career. But Benton, who’s talked with me about working with Nicole Kidman, Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins, also went into detail about working with Sally Field, who won an Oscar for her performance in what’s probably his most personal film, Places in the Heart.

Robert Benton, whose Texas-based Places turns 35 years old this year, has created, written or directed some of the most iconic movies of the modern age, from Bonnie and Clyde to Superman (1978) to Kramer vs. Kramer. I consider it a privilege to interview this former journalist again in the heart of supposedly “inclusive” Hollywood where this masterful storyteller should be invited to create more movies.

My newest classic movie review honors the 70th anniversary of a film about great baseball legend; the story of Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton, portrayed by James Stewart. Like Places in the Heart, the Academy Award-winning motion picture, The Stratton Story (directed by Sam Wood and released in the same year he was robbed and died) partly takes place in the Lone Star state and involves tragedy, overcoming adversity and a single act of gun violence.

The picture also stars Agnes Moorehead as Stratton’s tough-minded mother and June Allyson as his romantic partner. I don’t want to spoil the experience of the 1949 film about Monty Stratton, whom I’m afraid has sadly fallen into relative oblivion. But I found this movie about rising to one’s hardest challenges inspiring. It’s about baseball, of course. It’s also about what happens when the most hardworking type of person fails, falters or makes a potentially deadly mistake — and the character of one who chooses to recover — and the type of person who loves him.

But, like the best sports-themed movies, it’s also very much about living life; the daily hustle and grind of it in simple yet daunting steps. Read my review of The Stratton Story here.

Stage Review: Julia Sweeney Older & Wider

“Make America laugh again,” comedienne Julia Sweeney tells herself in front of an audience during her new one-woman show, “Older & Wider”, which I recently saw at LA’s Geffen Playhouse. Despite being afflicted with a case of laryngitis, the artist took the Westwood stage last week with a good blend of realism, wit and humor. By the time she’d said it, Ms. Sweeney had the audience laughing.

This is no small feat. Julia Sweeney, a former cast member on NBC’s decrepit Saturday Night Live broadcast, who writes and performs her own material, including bestselling monologues and memoirs, makes everything better. From her asexual SNL character Pat and her needy character on NBC’s Frasier to her Showtime program Letting Go of God, the cervical cancer surviving atheist from Spokane displays a keen sense of timing and a biting sense of humor.

Julia Sweeney’s “Older & Wider” builds on her brand with refreshingly rogue results.

Beginning with a hilarious tale about going to the theater while growing older and the perils and advantages of feeling invisible, she launched into a recap of her professional and personal life. The wife and mother says she took a break from Hollywood to move to a Chicago suburb north of Evanston called Wilmette. Stay at home parenting gets skewered, as does everything else, including Tesla’s eccentric Elon Musk, to whom she not disparagingly compares to John Galt from Atlas Shrugged.

The show takes off with a dig at vagina-themed spaceships and other modern peculiarities. It’s easy and natural to follow. The material is often unusual. In crisp lines, Sweeney delivers thoughts with her signature searching, freeing tartness.

After referring to President Trump as a “petulant circus clown”, Sweeney turned to the DNA test to satirize behavior by her mother, husband and child. Whether sharing her experience of telling alcoholic jokes to an Irish audience or having Chicago’s SNL alumni Don Novello officiate her wedding as Father Guido Sarducci, she’s more lively and emboldened than bitter and cruel. The show’s middle portion, which includes stories about her leaving LA like Homer in an Odyssey minivan, culminates with sharp and hilarious observations about the pleasure of having a glass of wine countered by the risks of having another…and another.

This is balanced, integrated comedy for people with brains. It’s neither an anti-Trump tirade nor a pop culture palooza.

When Sweeney recalled the time she contemplated resurrecting the non-binary Pat for a brief return on NBC’s Today Show with Matt Lauer — with Pat emerging either as looking the same following sex reassignment surgery or as totally homophobic — she sends up the utterly ridiculous. When she cleverly contrasts the selflessness of mass at St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church with the implicit virtuousness of selfishness at an Al-Anon meeting, Julia Sweeney takes on the status quo.

But that Sweeney does so with skill, tact and fidelity to facts is an amazing accomplishment in a world going — some might say already gone — mad. The self-described secular humanist, who does funny bits on driving with her kid, whose blond boyfriend voted for Trump, for which someone dubs him Rolf from The Sound of Music, and watching The Wizard of Oz with Syrian refugees, roots her show in passion for life.

Julia Sweeney: Older and Wider, part of the Geffen Playhouse’s Spotlight Entertainment series, closed this week but catch her act if you can. Hopefully, Older & Wider leads to new career turns for an actress and comedienne, currently in a show on Hulu, whose witty and satirical insights are exactly what Americans need.