Thursday, March 27, 2014

Talk Radio


Norman's memorial service was held yesterday in the 'Our Lady of the Overexposure' chapel at Forest Lawn. It was a lovely little celebration of his life; the Studio Kids turned out in full force to honor one of their own, many giving glowing tributes to his life and work. I had thought about doing a dance tribute to him down the aisle to Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead, but Joseph, my manager, thought that might be misconstrued by some of the attendees. We substituted a lovely funereal version of Get Me To The Church On Time as a processional instead. The only real hitch in the proceedings was when the assistant priest swung the censer just a bit too hard and knocked over the urn. Fortunately, someone had a dustbuster handy and we were able to get Norman back in with a minimum of fuss. 

After the service, I hosted an intime little gathering for four or five hundred of our closest friends at the Polo Lounge. Margo Channing, of course, crashed the party, downed six lime daiquiris and promptly fell into the pool and had to be rescued by the LAPD. Other than that, people were relatively well behaved, although poor June Allyson kept having grave difficulties making it to the little stars' room in time. I heard tell that Kim Novak and Tony Curtis were guilty of some gross improprieties with a bottle of Chateau Mouton behind the bar but it was out of my line of sight. Even darling Liz only ate her way through two trays of canapes rather than her usual three. 

Cocktail chatter and condolences were very much on my mind by the time I returned to Chateau Maine and was able to descend to the home theater for some peace and quiet. Netflix had sent me the film Talk Radio with Eric Bogosian so I popped that in to the DVD player to see someone else's take on words and speech. Talk Radio is based on Bogosian's 1987 play of the same name and he and director Oliver Stone adapted it for the screen the following year, retaining many of the stage cast members. The play and film are based vaguely on Denver talk show host Alan Berg. 

The film concerns a late night Dallas talk radio host, Barry Champlain (Bogosian), who is a mixture of Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and Ralph Nader. Champlain's gift is for the insult, the put down, and the twisting of his callers ideas to the illogical extreme. Conservatives, liberals, racists, environmentalists, little old ladies - all are flayed by his caustic wit and his gift for the gab. He revels in being the man you love to hate and lives to push psychological buttons. His ratings are impressive and there are plans to take his show national which would make the fortunes of his station boss (Alec Baldwin), his engineer partner (John C. McGinley), and his producer girlfriend (Leslie Hope). Underneath it all, however Champlain is deeply troubled and unwilling to sell out to the corporate interests (represented by John Pankow) who want to package him as a commodity and he turns to his ex-wife (Ellen Greene) for help and support. The majority of the film takes place in the claustrophobic confines of the radio station recording studio where Champlain reveals much more of himself than he ever intends as personal and professional crises begin to intersect. On top of everything else, he's receiving death threats from white supremacists for his libertarian views, his willingness to always champion the underdog and his abilities to make pinheads seem like pinheads on the air. 

Bogosian, in the central role, is phenomenal. He, along with Spalding Gray, remains the best of the dramatic monologists working in today's theater. The film is at its best when he's allowed to use words and language to their full potential, playing off the dozens of callers to his show. His mesmerizing delivery along with his hangdog face make the film incredibly watchable. It also shows how much better Champlain is at coping with disembodied voices than with flesh and blood people. His relationships with the important people in his life are nowhere near as alive as the ones he has on the air. When he invites a listener, a drugged out metalhead (a hilarious Michael Wincott) to join him in the studio, we see finally that Champlain is all about words and cannot live beyond them. 

The supporting cast are uniformly fine but none has that much to do. This is Bogosian's film through and through. Ellen Greene, as his ex-wife, makes the strongest impression with her ability to cut through all the layers of defense that Champlain tries to throw up against the world. Even Alec Baldwin, often stiff and awkward in his later roles, comes across well as someone trying to balance tremendous egos against each other. 

The film is highly political, but in very subtle ways. The messages, like in other, better known Oliver Stone films, are those of the nature of society and its interaction with ideas. The themes here are about the power of words and how words, especially words isolated from context, can hurt and destroy. Jabs are also made at the corporatization of the media, the need to push the envelope in a quest for ratings, and how a taste of fame and power and consume and destroy. The low budget and confined setting kept Stone from the over the top effects of which he is so fond and allows the film to move inexorably to its explosive conclusion. 

The DVD contains the film in wide screen. The picture and sound transfer are adequate. There are no major extras other than cast biographies and some brief production notes. 

Bad flashback wigs. Angry sports fans. Dimwitted phone voices. Corporate back stabbing. On air breakdowns. Murderously bad teeth. Gratuitous Megadeath references. Holocaust denial. Polyester suit selling.

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