Sunday, May 12, 2024

R.I.P., Roger Corman

Farewell at 98 to a legend of genre cinema, B-Movie mogul Roger Corman. On this site, I have opined at length about films he directed, like X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES or THE PREMATURE BURIAL, or movies he produced and/or presented, like CANNONBALL!/CARQUAKE, CRAZY MAMA, BLOOD BATH, ELVIRA, MISTRESS OF THE DARK, ROCK N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, or CHOPPING MALL, or even movies he just had a cameo in, like SCREAM 3 (pictured), SWING SHIFT, or John Carpenter's BODY BAGS. There are a lot of great artists, from Jonathan Demme to Jack Nicholson to Jack Hill to Joe Dante to John Sayles to James Cameron (um, I guess he had a preference for dudes with 'J' names?) whose careers he helped launch and cultivate. He handled the American distribution for Akira Kurosawa's DERSU UZALA, Ingmar Bergman's CRIES AND WHISPERS, and Federico Fellini's AMARCORD, keeping one foot in the arthouse while the other was in the grindhouse. R.I.P.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Television Review: THE EARTH DAY SPECIAL (1990, Dwight Hemion, James Burrows, & Gerry Cohen)

Dying Planets: 3.5 of 5.
Running Time: 97 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Where to begin? We're talking everybody from Bette Midler to Will Smith, from Ice-T to E.T., from the cast of CHEERS to the cast of THE GOLDEN GIRLS. Nine Oscar winners and ten Oscar nominees. THE EARTH DAY SPECIAL is not messing around.
Tag-line: "The biggest stars of the '90s in the Most Important Story of our time."
Best one-liner: "Check up on the environment, maybe you'll get some respect."

Folks, I have lot to share with you today. The objet d'art you see before you is called "THE EARTH DAY SPECIAL," and it aired on ABC the evening of April 22, 1990. Heaven and, well, Earth were moved to bring this show together, the largest sitcom crossover of all time, an inter-network parade of celebrity and science and animation and music and government and A-list stars. They clearly thought this was going to be it. "It," perhaps, being The Cultural Moment when we began, as a society, to take seriously the nature of climate change. 

Did it work? No, obviously, it did not. It feels like we're farther than ever from achieving the retrospectively modest goals set forth by THE EARTH DAY SPECIAL, goals which include "becoming more aware of your carbon footprint," "reading books," "being considerate toward others, as a society," and "not leaving the kitchen faucet on." To watch THE EARTH DAY SPECIAL often feels like a window to a less cynical world. A window that Barbara Streisand is belting her heart at (while it's being pelted with rain). 


But ah, I'm getting ahead of myself. Fasten your seatbelts, folks, it's going to be a bumpy night. Let me tell you up front: this is by far the most damning critique of human civilization to ever co-star Rodney Dangerfield and Tweety Bird.


From the cosmos, we descend. To the household of Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman. They are not playing themselves, nor are they playing characters from CHEERS or TAXI: they are "Vic" and "Paula." They are, indeed, us. You see, they, too, are watching THE EARTH DAY SPECIAL. Vic is a climate change skeptic. Paula is a "tree-hugger."

Can Vic be saved from his selfish impulses? We shall see. The SPECIAL begins its task...

...with Robin Williams. He's playing an comedian/evangelical preacher who's dressed like Wayne Newton (or maybe Phil Collins in the "Jesus He Knows Me" music video) and grappling with the contradictions of modern civilization. Also, he's doing that manic "Robin Williams stream-of-consciousness thing," working up an improvisational storm (he describes the Industrial Revolution as "Thomas Edison, playing with his bulbs, then bingo!").

He's doing it all in the middle of an Anytown, U.S.A. set

which I can only describe as as a weird yuppie gazebo in the town square of a giant condo complex. There's a permanent, painted sunset and a DYNASTY-influenced cheapjack opulence to it, sort of like the backgrounds in a Jane Fonda workout video. (Hold that thought.) 

So Mother Earth comes down from the heavens (Robin Williams: "Is it the hole in the ozone? Wear a hat!") and voices her displeasure with humanity.

Mother Earth is Bette Midler, by the way. She begins by chiding the crowd. "You swarmed all over me, pushing the other species out of your way." Choked by trash, she plummets to the ground, showing no signs of life. She is rushed to the ER.

Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) reports on this incredible development. Mother Earth is being treated by the best:

Doogie Howser, M.D. (Neil Patrick Harris), 

Dana Delaney (who at the time was on CHINA BEACH), and James Brolin (who was coming off of the TV series, HOTEL). The prognosis is negative, but there's still hope.

Dr. Carl Sagan explains the diagnosis, which is "The Greenhouse Effect."

Danny DeVito, our cynical peanut gallery, weighs in: "I give you two-to-one she bites it."

He changes the channel to JEOPARDY! where are all the answers pertain to environmental disaster.

Back on THE EARTH DAY SPECIAL, Harold Ramis––as Elon Spengler from GHOSTBUSTERS––founds the "Wastebusters," an organization who ya gonna call when you have forever chemicals that need to be disposed of. He is interviewed about this, for some reason, by MTV VJ Downtown Julie Brown.

Then, he confronts a fossil fuel lawyer, played to perfection by a preening Martin Short.

Later, the children who are the Earth's future come to the hospital to visit Mother Earth. They include BLOSSOM'S Mayam Bialik and LADYBUGS' Jonathan Brandis.

I believe this is the only time that Mayim (who played a young Bette Midler in 1987's BEACHES) has ever shared a scene with Bette.

By the way, that's dot-matrix printer perforated edging stuck in her hair. Stop littering, folks!

Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) arrives from the future in his DeLorean. Hospital Director Edward James Olmos (BLADE RUNNER, MIAMI VICE) attempts to restrain him, seeing only a time-traveling weirdo in a kitschy button-up. The Doc has just come from 2057, where he saw the last rainforest being destroyed. He begs us to read more books about human-caused climate change. 

He tells us, "Isn't it amazing that human beings know what to do, but can't act on it?" Yes, Doc, it is. A simple message like this kinda feels like salt in the wound in 2024, thanks.


The Girls are also watching THE EARTH DAY SPECIAL. Bea Arthur has a bee in her bonnet about polystyrene.

I wish she would have told Estelle Getty that if she didn't recycle, she'd send her to "Shady Pines, ma." Rue McClanahan just wants dinner. Betty White advises us that we can recycle polystyrene as benches in the park, or as cases for videotapes. That's great.

Dennis Miller does a "Weekend Update" about saving the planet. It's fine.

Then Jim Henson and the Muppets show up to explain how human folly is killing off the creatures of the wetlands, and elsewhere. There's a real elegiac quality to this segment, as Kermit and the other frogs discuss the possibility of their own extinction. ("I'd hate to be extinct," says Robin, "even for a few minutes." "You don't become extinct for a few minutes, Robin," Kermit replies. "It's forever.") At one point, the chorus of frogs chants "dead and gone, dead and gone, dead and gone." Jim Henson himself died three weeks after this aired, which, by my reckoning, makes it likely that this was his final performance as Kermit the Frog. As if THE EARTH DAY SPECIAL––an earnest plea to 1990 primetime television audiences to change their ways before a narrowing window closed and it became too late––wasn't depressing enough.

The next segment involves a corporate lawyer (Dustin Hoffmann) and Robin Williams' preacher discussing legal liability. It's set up as if it's Laurel and Hardy routine written by David Mamet, with the lawyer running rhetorical circles around Williams, plying the old "corporations are people" bit and the classic "anyone concerned about climate change is a Chicken Little, relax" talking point. For a comedy segment, it's legitimately chilling and contains a shockingly committed performance by Hoffmann.

And then E.T. shows up, naked in an alley.

It's definitely a shittier puppet than in the movie. He's writing a book about how to solve the climate crisis, which he wants to share with Earth's children.

There's a kind of musical half-time show, with the foremost rappers of 1990 collaborating with the most corporate rappers of 1990 to create a pretty memorable and occasionally subversive medley of climate-related rhyme. Frankly, it's an incredible lineup: Ice-T, Tone Lōc, Will Smith,

HOUSE PARTY's Kid N' Play,

 and even Queen Latifah, at the height of her badass powers, before she got into acting.

Then Jack Lemmon shows up, in one of the more jaw-dropping cameos. As Jonathan Brandis' sports-ball coach, he has read E.T.'s book and has summarized it for viewers of THE EARTH DAY SPECIAL. It's basically a monologue about energy efficiency.

The cast of THE COSBY SHOW, also watching the SPECIAL, comments on energy saving in the home and kitchen.

Morgan Freeman, playing a newspaper reporter, monologues about the importance of climate journalism and the use of recycled paper.

Then, a segment of THE NEW DATING GAME, where contestant Geena Davis interviews three eligible bachelors.

They are NBA coach Pat Riley, actor Dan Gauthier (TEEN WITCH), and.... Rodney Dangerfield.

The gag here is that Riley and Gauthier are interested in naked consumerism and selfish pursuits, whereas Dangerfield cares only about recycling and CO₂ levels. Geena picks him, of course, because she finds him "ecologically appealing." This leads to the wonderful one-liner


This is an A+ moment in television history. I'd say that THE EARTH DAY SPECIAL peaks here, but that would be premature. What happens next, well... you have to see it for yourself. 

This is Michael Keaton giving a monologue, in character, as a repentant executive at a corporation known for polluting the environment. This is a man who helped destroy the planet and now feels regret. 


I believe Keaton thinks this program is Oscar-eligible, because he really goes for it. He probably did deserve an Oscar for this. It's certainly the most powerful monologue ever performed in a variety special featuring Doogie Howser and Porky Pig.

Next is the most half-assed segment in the entire SPECIAL. After they'd seen what level Keaton was operating on, they probably figured they'd dump it here and no one would remember. It's an L.A. Lakers game, and I think the producers of the special just happened to bring a camera and when they spotted Michael Douglas in the front row, got him to sign a release and mumble a few words about recycling to the guy from ARLI$$ (Robert Wuhl) and Magic Johnson.

I still don't know why Michael Douglas brings a portable radio to a basketball game.

As a member of the CAPTAIN PLANET/FERNGULLY generation, all the guidance on plastic recycling really feels like a betrayal, especially in the wake of the official revelation––after decades of whispers––that the plastic industry lied for over thirty years about the viability of recycling plastic so that they could increase their profits. It was greed and fraud at the largest possible (planet-destroying) scale. These ghouls were so very rich, and the influence they paid for was a relative bargain. Ah, well.

Danny Devito drifts off to sleep, and the next segment is his first-person nightmare. In it, his gambling buddies––Rick Moranis, Chevy Chase, and Dan Aykroyd––

joke about poaching mink, mock recyclers, and generally treat the environment with disrespect (we even pan over to their unused sink, the faucet still carelessly dripping!). And so Mother Earth flatlines, her body covered in a shroud,

and dream-Doogie screams at DeVito––and the audience, by extension of this first-person narrative device––



Then the MARRIED... WITH CHILDREN crew weighs in,

the Bundys remain true to their characters as selfish louts, overusing hair spray and saying the end of the world "can't come soon enough." But even they are being convinced to make the smallest of efforts.

Now, stop me if you've heard this one: Meryl Streep walks into a bar wearing a yuppie sweater and a pirate belt... 

and yeah, that's not a joke, it's simply what happens. Meryl is playing a concerned citizen from the town square who's grabbing a beer to clear her thoughts. She doesn't know how to process all of this overwhelming information about the environment. The show itself is allowing us a breather as well, to reckon with the idea that we can't, individually, save the planet. The enormity of the task requires collective action––but how do we prevent ourselves from losing our minds when the collective doesn't pitch in?

She decides to unpack these feelings with the ponytailed bartender Kevin Costner, who is playing it really creepy.

It almost feels like an acting exercise where Meryl was told "you are absorbing all the suffering of a dying planet. You have dipped into an endless well of empathy and trying to process it to the best of your ability. You must represent every American woman who has been told they must also shoulder the burden of climate change on top of her career, her family, and everything else in her life."

Then I think they told Kevin Costner, "you're gonna hit on this lady in the red sweater, but do it with an air of smugness and mystery."

Yeah, it's a weird scene. I wonder if he's thinking about WATERWORLD already.

Jane Fonda gives Michael Keaton a run for his money in the "climate change monologue" department. There was probably a version of this that was entirely environmental testimonials, but nobody was gonna tune in for that. Give us Al Bundy and Dennis Miller and Arliss and Bugs Bunny! It's what the people want, I guess.

Anyway, Jane Fonda––in character as "Hellen"––offers a monologue about her child who was dying of cancer but was cured with medicine extracted from a flower in the Madagascar rainforest, which is why we've got to protect biodiversity. (It's darkly funny that to make Americans care about what happens in Madagascar, they had to bring it home and have it directly impact an American child... but THE EARTH DAY SPECIAL has amply demonstrated that it will use every tactic at its disposal.) Also, this was after Jane retired from acting for the first time (1990-2005), so you know she cares.

Then, the gang from CHEERS!

This would have been during Season 8, firmly in the Kirstie Alley years. It's notable that Rhea Perlman's "Carla Tortelli" is absent, because Perlman is in the meta frame story.

When George Wendt's "Norm" learns that the most common greenhouse gases are emitted by cars, he finds new resolve: "just by sitting around and doing nothing for the rest of our lives, we're doing our part!" You tell 'em, Normie.

Bette Midler takes off her trash headdress and levels with us. She's not Mother Earth, really––she's Bette Midler and that she's part of a movement, We, the People of the Planet.

"It's going to take a whole lot more than one television show and all our good intentions to save Mother Earth." You said it, sis.

Her message gets through to Danny DeVito, at the very least.

Then Barbara Streisand sings at us from behind a pane of wet glass, a bizarre choice that was undoubtedly hers, given the notorious micromanaging of her personal image.

She sings, "The rains will be softer, the winds will be sweeter." The windows will be foggy.

In conclusion: this is an incredible document of pop culture and perhaps an epitaph for human civilization. One day, when the aliens arrive on our barren planet and survey the howling wastelands, one will say, "Why didn't they save themselves? They had all the information. Last I heard, muthafuckin' E.T. gave it to them in a book that Jack Lemmon was going to read and summarize." 

A second alien will reply, "But they never pandered to the people. When the time was nigh, the biggest stars of TV and film and sport and music and comedy never came together to deliver the message in a primetime slot, in the manner to which their simple, ding-dong brains were accustomed."

Then they will find my VHS tape of THE EARTH DAY SPECIAL.

The second alien will say, "Damn, they did? And it starred America's (true) sweethearts, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman? Jane Fonda came out of retirement? Wait... the Golden Girls were in on this, too? You're telling me Meryl Streep was there, and she was giving at least 90% of what she was giving in SILKWOOD? Humanity received a guilt trip from Doogie Howser? Rodney Dangerfield, finally––historically––got Some Respect and it still didn't make a difference? That's a real kick in the sack. Ya know what, these people were terrible. They deserved what happened to them."