She does look as though she might get too hungry for dinner at 8, and she certainly gives the impression she'd never bother with people she'd hate, but it does seem unlikely she's all alone when she lowers her lamp. That's only a tiny part of why the lady is a legend, however; the major reasons are a spellbinding and stylish talent, showcased in "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," acquired for the PBS "Great Performances" series and airing tonight at 9 on Channel 26.
The Lena Horne comeback concert, which played Broadway for months and toured the country for months more, was taped for presentation on Showtime, the pay-cable network, last year. Now it gets around to public TV, but it will not be offered for free. Three separate pledge-break spaces have been built into the program so that local stations like Channel 26 can torture and torment poor souls viewing at home.
Yes, it's time for another descent into Tote-Bag Hell . . . Ghastlier than "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"! More infuriating than "Body Double"! More excruciating than "Heaven's Gate"! One's worst nightmares come true.
Worse even than the prolonged interruptions is the fact that the tape has been trimmed from the two hours and 15 minutes it ran on Showtime to a mere 90 minutes for PBS (though with the pledge breaks it will take up roughly the original running time). The contempt thus being shown an artist like Horne, whose career-capping performance really is a landmark, is topped only by the contempt being shown the viewing audience.
What's left of the Horne concert includes prime stuff, choice stuff and lots of chic stuff. From "From This Moment On," which opens the show, through "Believe in Yourself," which ends it, the production is a dazzler, and Horne is impeccable. She can make eccentric phrasing sound utterly correct, potentially banal material scintillating, old songs ravishingly new.
The event is more than a concert, though, since Horne weaves the songs and her remarks into a live montage of her professional life, told with the kind of classy defiance anyone who ever thought Horne was terrific would expect. She sings "The Lady Is a Tramp" soon after recalling the demands the movies made on her -- among them, keeping in mind the position of the key light while performing. Looking up into that light, and basking in it as she sings into the microphone she holds aloft, Horne is an elegant spectacle. She struts, she frets, she even sweats (and jokes about it), and you can feel every little synapse standing up and taking notice.
Respect for the songs does not preclude the occasional updating or personalizing. A reference to "Beatrice Fairfax" in the Gershwins' "But Not for Me" is changed to "Dear Ann Landers." The innocuous "I Want to Be Happy" is juiced up with a sassy, "I'm gonna getcha happy if it kills me." In the song "I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," Lena Horne does something casually sly with the mere word "epistle." It becomes "eeeee . . . pistle." It's exxxx . . . quisite.
But Paddy Sampson, the director, was unequal to the task of translating Horne with maximum fidelity to television. Although this is the most intimate visual medium, and Horne is, as always, flawlessly photogenic, there are virtually no intense close-ups, and few if any artful dissolves, not even during ballads. Sampson has a daffy fondness for long shots, even when Horne is at her compelling hushiest, as during the introduction to her reprise of "Stormy Weather." The only advantage to seeing the show on TV as opposed to seeing it in person is the ability to get very very close to the singer. Sampson stands stubbornly in the way.
"Lean Horne," in short, is not up to the production standards the commercial networks would have if the commercial networks were still in the business of producing television shows like this. "Secrets of Surviving"
Watching one of George Schlatter's TV shows is like having a deck of cards flipped in your face. All these little messages are hurtling toward you -- you're bombarded -- and yet you do see, and may even remember, the identities of some of the cards. A joker, a queen, the occasional ace.
"S.O.S. . . . Secrets of Surviving," the latest NBC special from the man who produced "Laugh-In" (with Ed Friendly) and "Real People," airs at 8 tonight on Channel 4. Schlatter cranks up his visual blitz machine for a one-hour informational entertainment investigating some of the problems that plague modern kids and their parents. There's hardly a breather, and there are usually at least two different pictures on the screen at the same time, but for all the pyrotechnical hysterics, occasionally a glimmer of content breaks through.
"It's really almost a survival kit for kids and parents," said Schlatter the other day from Los Angeles about the show. Schlatter thinks it could help "open communication where there is none," between parents and teenage children, on such topics as drug abuse, runaways, sex education and rock music. He praised the many stars who appear ("Nobody I asked said no") and thinks that indicates "a new surge of responsibility and responsiveness" in Hollywood.
How many lives will actually be changed, or even affected, by Schlatter's (and producer-director Bob Wynn's) electronic smorgasbord is debatable, but the program is certainly not dull, and it means well. Among those appearing are Erma Bombeck (whose advice to couples is, "Never have more children than you have car windows."), pollster George Gallup Jr., MTV's cutest and brightest veejay, Martha Quinn, and hideous mutation Dee Snider, lead singer of Twisted Sister.
Comments of the great Bill Cosby carry the most weight, even when they're funny. Ricky Schroder asks him, "Have you discussed sex with your kids?" Cosby replies, "Yes, and they don't want me to have any more." His secret of survival, Cosby says, is "ducking." And he says of life with his children, "This is my first time living with rich kids." Cosby's NBC comedy show wouldn't be as good as it is if not for Cosby's wry, warm, unsentimental sensibility.
Some viewers may be uneasy with "S.O.S.'s" quirky quantum leaps from the ridiculous to the grim. But a segment on teenage drug abuse, taped at facilities of The Life Program, a rehabilitation center in Sarasota, Fla., is quite powerful. Teenagers, some as young as 13, recall their bouts with drugs and state their resolve to survive. The traumatic tales even have a moderately humorous side, as the kids recall some of the places they routinely hid drugs from their parents and siblings: in the amplifier of a guitar, in record albums, in electrical wall sockets and, sadly and symbolically enough, in a stuffed animal.
Schlatter thinks the program is valuable because it offers suggested solutions to problems, not just dramatizations or depictions of them, as in documentaries and TV movies. But some of the advice is less than revelatory. Olympic diver Greg Louganis says, "My secret of survival is to be happy." Uh-huh. Mr. T advises young children who are approached by strangers to start kicking, screaming and biting, which could result in bruised shins for a lot of innocent adults.
But on the subject of giving up smoking, gold medalist Louganis recalls meeting a 12-year-old who smoked partly because he wanted to be like Louganis, his hero; Louganis gave up smoking soon after that. Gymnast Peter Vidmar is also seen in this segment. The program also deals, not comprehensively, with teenage suicide, runaways, and superficially, with rape. It's a little like watching 14 Phil Donahue shows rolled, or Cuisinarted, into one.
Schlatter hopes "S.O.S." (terrible title) will be enough of a success that NBC will want to do more. That's doubtful. Even if one accepts the jangliness of the format as suitably attention-getting, there's something wrong with the show's flow, visually and thematically, and it's more often frustrating than edifying. Still, it does have moments that suggest again, as other shows have suggested in the past, that television may yet be the medium that will help society solve some of the problems inflicted upon it, or seriously aggravated, by television.