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Review: Stirring quartet: Four very different performers, four very different documentaries

Michael Ordoña, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Four new documentaries pull back the curtain on noteworthy stage and screen performers you might have only thought you knew -- or didn't know at all. "Kaye Ballard -- The Show Goes On!" looks at the long career of the comic actress and versatile singer whose fame might be described as "superstar-adjacent"; "Olympia" is a personal view of Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis; "Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy" reveals the methods of one of theater's most renowned movement masters; and "Inmate No. 1: The Rise of Danny Trejo" depicts the convincing transformation of a brutal hard case into one of today's most recognizable character actors -- and a jolly guy living his best life.

'Kaye Ballard -- The Show Goes On!'

Kaye Ballard never achieved above-the-title status in Hollywood, but she was a major musical-comedy figure for decades. The singer-comedian-actor worked with the great names of the pop/jazz vocal era. She was funny and brassy. But what really made her special was her impressive vocal instrument: She could go from Ethel Merman howitzer to Judy Garland tender. One wonders, with all that talent and some notable projects (including costarring in a network sitcom), why she never quite reached the summit of stardom.

A slew of legends pay tribute in Dan Wingate's "Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On!" including Woody Allen, Carol Channing, Ann-Margret, Jerry Stiller and Michael Feinstein (not only a renowned performer but a knowledgeable and fond archivist). Though the stories tend to be too brief, it's fun to hear Ballard reminisce about Marlon Brando and others. And it's dizzying to contemplate her many TV, film, theater and nightclub projects from the 1940s to the 20-teens.

Unfortunately, that proves too much to pack into a 90-minute movie. Names and stories fly by. There's no time for context. Most viewers under a certain age (perhaps 50?) will likely not know many of the people and shows referenced at breakneck speed. The lack of a clear chronology makes the story harder to follow. The emphasis is on the professional, not the personal; we learn next to nothing of her family until a brief, touching segment on her grandmother near the end. The Italian American actress was frequently typecast as an Italian caricature, but the fact that she often appeared in skin-darkening makeup to complete the stereotype isn't even mentioned, though repeatedly shown.

Ballard died last year at 93. Perhaps, despite its lack of structure, the film will inspire a new generation to investigate this funny lady who could sing the lights out.

 

'Olympia'

Harry Mavromichalis' look at Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis is, in some ways, the opposite cinematic approach to "Kaye Ballard." "Olympia" is much more about the personal than the professional, crafting an interior portrait of a woman at home in her own skin.

There are fleeting clips from "Steel Magnolias" and "Bored to Death" and theatrical stills -- the stage company she co-founded (the Whole Theater Company) comes across as her life's work -- but the film really feels like a hangout in which some surprisingly personal questions are asked. Rather than delving into her Oscar turn in "Moonstruck," most of the related screen time concerns her prep for the Academy Awards ceremony. Of all her work, "Tales of the City" gets the most air, but in context of her serving as celebrity grand marshal for a San Francisco Pride Parade.

There's little attention paid to creating a cognitive timeline for viewers; the approach is definitely different.

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