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Bittersweet Kaye Ballard

She was either present at or the motivating factor behind many defining artistic moments

Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On - Ballard goes out with a roar.
Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On - Ballard goes out with a roar.

There are those whose knowledge of Kaye Ballard is limited to the caricatured screaming Italian she playing opposite demure Eve Arden on TV’s The Mothers-In-Law. Ballard’s ball-shaped eyes, radiating angst from beneath a perfectly manicured pageboy, clung for dear life as the stirred-up signora stormed the stage with half-gnawed index finger firmly clenched between her teeth. Kaye Ballard - The Show Goes On, well, goes on to showcase a performer of incredible range who never received her due.

Born Catherine Gloria Balotta, she originally went under the name Kaye Ballad because that’s what she sang. Most people, when pronouncing her name, instinctively added the “r,” so it stuck. She got her first legitimate break via an old showbiz cliche: a Detroit club owner introduced Ballard to bandleader and satirical mangler of the classics Spike Jones. “If you ever come to California,” said Spike, “give me a call and I’ll give you a job.” Acting under the guise of what she called “the authenticity of innocence,” Ballard bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles.

Sure enough, after three days making calls to Paramount, man of his word Jones got back to 16-year-old Ballard and gave her a job as a singer/impressionist. Was Jones miffed when, a short time later, Ballard ditched the band for the lure of the Broadway stage? You bet he was — but Ballard wasn’t the type to hitch herself to a proven commodity, particularly at an age where she was just discovering how to expand her reach as an artist.

She was either present at or the motivating factor behind many defining artistic moments, but like Forrest Gump (with brains), she never received the credit due her. She was in the audience the night Elia Kazan had to push her friend, a nervous Marlon Brando, on stage for the premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire. Richard Avedon photographed two LIFE Magazine covers, and Ballard was one of them. It was Ballard, not Sinatra, who introduced the world to “Fly Me to the Moon.” And while “Maybe This Time” was not in the Broadway version of Cabaret, that doesn’t mean it was composed expressly for the movie. John Kander and Fred Ebb originally wrote the song for Ballad with an R, not Liza with a Z.

Some have wondered if Ballard’s agita-inducing signora pazza was in part inspired by Sara Berner, a radio and cartoon mainstay of the 1940s best remembered as the voice of Beaky Buzzard’s mother in Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid. If so, Ballard elevated the stereotype to an art form. She was also an accomplished actress, singer, mimic, musician, champion of animal rights, stand up comedienne, and what her dear friend Jerry Lewis would have called, “a funny broad.”

Woody Allen, Ann-Margret, and Carol Burnett — celebrities who generally shy away from providing biopic testimonials — all turned out for Ballard, but none of what they say can top the lady herself. “‘You’ll Never Know’ never took home an Oscar,” she observed before prickedly adding, “but ‘Shaft’ did.” A clip from The Mancini Generation where bad mother-in-law Ballard riffs on Issac Hayes’ racy funk anthem kept me laughing for days.

It’s a pity Ballard doesn’t allow director Dan Wingate to peel away enough layers of the showbiz mask to allow the real person to peek through. And the only family member given more than passing mention is her maternal grandmother. Still, the look of love and pride in Ballard’s face as she sings to her in the front row of The Mike Douglas Show can be felt to this day. Ballard never married, and while I’m not fishing for dirt, the only hint of intimacy here came in passing. While discussing her relationship with Brando, she noted, “I’m Catholic and afraid of sex.” She was a performer capable of generating love and affection among millions, yet was unable to speak of love in terms of anything but her audience. The show goes on. ★★★★

Video on Demand New Release Roundup

Greyhound — Toward the outset of World War II, a devoutly religious but in-over-his-head Navy captain (Tom Hanks) leads a military escort of Allied ships though the North Atlantic — with a wolfpack of six Nazi U-boats hot on their tail. At a time when starring roles for middle-aged heroes are at a premium, Hanks chose to script a plum part for himself by adapting novelist C. S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd. It’s Hanks’ show, and while the dialogue rings authentic — the source material was used as a text at the Naval Academy — the ancillary seamen spend most of the show in the service of shifting eyeballs. Between “Yes sirs!” and “No sirs!” second-in-command Stephen Graham displays an uncanny flair for wielding a compass while Elisabeth Shue’s five-minute appearance contributes nothing. The CG work is impressive, and considering all of the prolonged running times behind him, Hanks carefully corrals his action-packed story into 91 minutes. As for the director, Hanks left the driving to Aaron Schneider (Get Low). 2020 —S.M. ★★★

The Last Day of American Crime — Four years up the road, and a new branch of law enforcement run out of out D.C. is about to take the training wheels off its latest enterprise: the American Peace Initiative, a signal that acts as a “synaptic blocker,” prohibiting people from intentionally performing unlawful acts. A trio of outlaws (Edgar Ramirez, Anna Brewster, Michael Pitt) can buy 30 minutes of time the day the signal is enabled, just long enough to pull off a billion dollar heist and make it across the Canadian border. Lest you get too excited by the promising premise, it clocks in at an unwieldy 148 minutes. It might have worked had director Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3, Taken 2) focused more on the last crime committed in America rather than yielding to the comic book trappings that surround it. Michael Pitt seems to be having the most fun, but considering how muddled things become, you’d swear he’s relying on overacting as a crutch, simply because the actor, along with the audience, doesn’t know what the hell is going on. 2020. —S.M. ★

We Are Little Zombies — Four orphaned Japanese teenagers who meet at the crematorium on the day of their parents’ incineration go on to form a rock band. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Why must a tale of at-times-unrelenting despair be cast in shades of an overcast winter’s day? Prepare for a chromatic overdose: this tale of four seemingly unemotional characters is told with a range of cinematic expressions the likes of which we haven’t seen in...too long. First time writer-director Makoto Nagahisa has a way of transforming the everyday — the side of a building, the tip of a smokestack, etc. — into a unique worldview. And it’s not all frivolous angles and style without substance: at its core are four kids looking to replace a parent’s love with online “likes.” But don’t allow downer me to detract from the fun. Experience it firsthand. 2020. —S.M. ★★★★

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Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On - Ballard goes out with a roar.
Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On - Ballard goes out with a roar.

There are those whose knowledge of Kaye Ballard is limited to the caricatured screaming Italian she playing opposite demure Eve Arden on TV’s The Mothers-In-Law. Ballard’s ball-shaped eyes, radiating angst from beneath a perfectly manicured pageboy, clung for dear life as the stirred-up signora stormed the stage with half-gnawed index finger firmly clenched between her teeth. Kaye Ballard - The Show Goes On, well, goes on to showcase a performer of incredible range who never received her due.

Born Catherine Gloria Balotta, she originally went under the name Kaye Ballad because that’s what she sang. Most people, when pronouncing her name, instinctively added the “r,” so it stuck. She got her first legitimate break via an old showbiz cliche: a Detroit club owner introduced Ballard to bandleader and satirical mangler of the classics Spike Jones. “If you ever come to California,” said Spike, “give me a call and I’ll give you a job.” Acting under the guise of what she called “the authenticity of innocence,” Ballard bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles.

Sure enough, after three days making calls to Paramount, man of his word Jones got back to 16-year-old Ballard and gave her a job as a singer/impressionist. Was Jones miffed when, a short time later, Ballard ditched the band for the lure of the Broadway stage? You bet he was — but Ballard wasn’t the type to hitch herself to a proven commodity, particularly at an age where she was just discovering how to expand her reach as an artist.

She was either present at or the motivating factor behind many defining artistic moments, but like Forrest Gump (with brains), she never received the credit due her. She was in the audience the night Elia Kazan had to push her friend, a nervous Marlon Brando, on stage for the premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire. Richard Avedon photographed two LIFE Magazine covers, and Ballard was one of them. It was Ballard, not Sinatra, who introduced the world to “Fly Me to the Moon.” And while “Maybe This Time” was not in the Broadway version of Cabaret, that doesn’t mean it was composed expressly for the movie. John Kander and Fred Ebb originally wrote the song for Ballad with an R, not Liza with a Z.

Some have wondered if Ballard’s agita-inducing signora pazza was in part inspired by Sara Berner, a radio and cartoon mainstay of the 1940s best remembered as the voice of Beaky Buzzard’s mother in Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid. If so, Ballard elevated the stereotype to an art form. She was also an accomplished actress, singer, mimic, musician, champion of animal rights, stand up comedienne, and what her dear friend Jerry Lewis would have called, “a funny broad.”

Woody Allen, Ann-Margret, and Carol Burnett — celebrities who generally shy away from providing biopic testimonials — all turned out for Ballard, but none of what they say can top the lady herself. “‘You’ll Never Know’ never took home an Oscar,” she observed before prickedly adding, “but ‘Shaft’ did.” A clip from The Mancini Generation where bad mother-in-law Ballard riffs on Issac Hayes’ racy funk anthem kept me laughing for days.

It’s a pity Ballard doesn’t allow director Dan Wingate to peel away enough layers of the showbiz mask to allow the real person to peek through. And the only family member given more than passing mention is her maternal grandmother. Still, the look of love and pride in Ballard’s face as she sings to her in the front row of The Mike Douglas Show can be felt to this day. Ballard never married, and while I’m not fishing for dirt, the only hint of intimacy here came in passing. While discussing her relationship with Brando, she noted, “I’m Catholic and afraid of sex.” She was a performer capable of generating love and affection among millions, yet was unable to speak of love in terms of anything but her audience. The show goes on. ★★★★

Video on Demand New Release Roundup

Greyhound — Toward the outset of World War II, a devoutly religious but in-over-his-head Navy captain (Tom Hanks) leads a military escort of Allied ships though the North Atlantic — with a wolfpack of six Nazi U-boats hot on their tail. At a time when starring roles for middle-aged heroes are at a premium, Hanks chose to script a plum part for himself by adapting novelist C. S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd. It’s Hanks’ show, and while the dialogue rings authentic — the source material was used as a text at the Naval Academy — the ancillary seamen spend most of the show in the service of shifting eyeballs. Between “Yes sirs!” and “No sirs!” second-in-command Stephen Graham displays an uncanny flair for wielding a compass while Elisabeth Shue’s five-minute appearance contributes nothing. The CG work is impressive, and considering all of the prolonged running times behind him, Hanks carefully corrals his action-packed story into 91 minutes. As for the director, Hanks left the driving to Aaron Schneider (Get Low). 2020 —S.M. ★★★

The Last Day of American Crime — Four years up the road, and a new branch of law enforcement run out of out D.C. is about to take the training wheels off its latest enterprise: the American Peace Initiative, a signal that acts as a “synaptic blocker,” prohibiting people from intentionally performing unlawful acts. A trio of outlaws (Edgar Ramirez, Anna Brewster, Michael Pitt) can buy 30 minutes of time the day the signal is enabled, just long enough to pull off a billion dollar heist and make it across the Canadian border. Lest you get too excited by the promising premise, it clocks in at an unwieldy 148 minutes. It might have worked had director Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3, Taken 2) focused more on the last crime committed in America rather than yielding to the comic book trappings that surround it. Michael Pitt seems to be having the most fun, but considering how muddled things become, you’d swear he’s relying on overacting as a crutch, simply because the actor, along with the audience, doesn’t know what the hell is going on. 2020. —S.M. ★

We Are Little Zombies — Four orphaned Japanese teenagers who meet at the crematorium on the day of their parents’ incineration go on to form a rock band. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Why must a tale of at-times-unrelenting despair be cast in shades of an overcast winter’s day? Prepare for a chromatic overdose: this tale of four seemingly unemotional characters is told with a range of cinematic expressions the likes of which we haven’t seen in...too long. First time writer-director Makoto Nagahisa has a way of transforming the everyday — the side of a building, the tip of a smokestack, etc. — into a unique worldview. And it’s not all frivolous angles and style without substance: at its core are four kids looking to replace a parent’s love with online “likes.” But don’t allow downer me to detract from the fun. Experience it firsthand. 2020. —S.M. ★★★★

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