Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Lady Emerges: Cynthia Davis - Brenda from COOLEY HIGH - speaks!

If you were to approach one of the devoted fans of Michael Schultz and Eric Monte's enduring 1975 coming-of-age comedy/drama COOLEY HIGH, and ask them what are the Top Five things they remember and love most about the film, you'll likely hear about Preach and Cochise, the relatable moments of juvenile hijinks, the parade of Motown hits, the poignant finale...and Brenda.


Brenda was the smart girl with plans, and discipline to make them happen. Brenda didn't have time for your foolishness. Brenda was naturally pretty but never played that card or called attention to it because that wasn't a matter of substance. Brenda probably never saw Fellini's I VITELLONI, but she instinctively knew that of her peer group at school, there were the goofs that were never leaving the neighborhood, and she was not going to be in that group. Brenda had her eyes on the prize.


That's why it was special when Preach dropped the cornball jokes, got real with her about his love of art and poetry, and earned her attention. That's why it was romantic when they became a real couple. That's why it hurt harder when he got stupid with her. That's why the tea tasted so good when she got back at him. And for as much as we would have loved to see what could have been, why it was better that at the end of it all, Brenda went her own way.


Cynthia Davis made one film before she was old enough to vote, and never made another. She went back into private life and the quiet milestones of career, marriage, and family, with what appear to be few regrets. But in the 40+ years since the release of COOLEY HIGH, her performance as Brenda has continued to melt the hearts of millions, baffle them as to why she didn't do more films, and to leave them wishing for more.

To date, Davis has never been interviewed at length about her experience on the film. She has never participated in the multiple anniversary reunion shows or retrospective articles that have taken place as it has ascended into the cultural canon. As such, her absence, along with lazy googling from other would-be researchers, have fed an erroneous rumor that she had passed on long ago. Despite the efforts of family and friends posting on message boards, social media, and blogs to assure fans she is alive and healthy, this error has been perpetuated, including in a major TV documentary about the film.

Thanks to the help of one of those proud family members, I was able to make contact with Ms. Davis, who graciously agreed to answer my questions about her history and relationship to COOLEY HIGH. To demonstrate how generous she was in this interaction, allow me a brief sidebar...

I work with limited technological abilities. I do not own a smartphone, I do not have a webcam or Skype capability, even my attempts at using an old-fashioned landline phone-tap and a tape recorder have failed. So when I am doing interviews on my own without the backing of a podcast or other deeper-pocketed client, my preferred method is to send questions via email, receive the answers, and if merited, do a second round from there. (And if you're about to put a comment below that begins with "Why don't you..." or "Have you tried...", don't. Just don't.)

After our initial introductions and decision to proceed, Ms. Davis' computer expired, leaving her unable to engage in long-form email exchanges.

Undeterred, she took the time to hand-write, in lovely penmanship, her replies to my questions, and send them to me via the U.S. Mail.


I took the liberty of making some spelling corrections, but preserved her emoticons and lol's.

After our initial exchange, I had wanted to do some follow-up questions, to expand upon some of her replies and also delve into observations we discussed in private exchanges. Unfortunately, a combination of both technical and health issues did not allow this to happen, and she encouraged me to go forward with what we already had.

Thus, this is hardly a complete portrait of her and her short window of stardom, but it is a warmly felt and honest one, and I feel lucky to share it.

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Davis and Lisa James

How did you become involved in COOLEY HIGH?

I was friends with man who told me he knew Michael Schultz. We went to a place on the North side of Chicago. I walked into a room that was filled with actresses waiting to audition. I was escorted past the young women and asked to sit and read a line from the movie. The line was, “A bet. A bet. I’m nothing but a lousy dollar bet!” I asked if I could say “cheap” instead of “lousy.” I was told yes. I red the line. They filmed it.

One week later I got a phone call and I as told that I got the part. :)

Did you have any previous interest in the arts in general, or movies in particular, before you appeared in the film? 

I was a student at Dunbar Vocational High School. My major was commercial art. I loved to draw and paint. I still do.

Did you have a favorite film or TV show back then?

Back then the [movies] I would watch would be the old movies. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, “The Rat Pack.” TV: "DICK VAN DYKE," "BEWITCHED," "I DREAM OF JEANNIE," "COMBAT," "HOGAN'S HEROES," etc.

What were your feelings about getting cast in such a significant role in the film?

I was happy that I was chosen. However, I really didn’t realize what that meant. I didn’t understand that magnitude and that it would one day be a classic and people would tout and love it so. I didn’t have access to the internet for a long time. I started hearing from my friends and family, “Oh, they’re playing your movie on channel such-and-such,” “Oh, Sinbad wants to find you,” “Oh, look at what the regular fans are saying about you (good and bad).”


Had you ever seen any of the main stars (Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Garrett Morris) in any of their previous TV/movie work before you acted with them?

No, I didn’t know about their other work and I had no clue.

Did you ever talk to writer Eric Monte about your character, did he give you any guidance on how to embody her?

I don’t remember if and when I met with Monte.

No one guided me on embodying Brenda. I do remember being told what line to say, where to stand, stuff like that.

What sorts of things did you do in creating your performance? 

There was no method to my madness. 


Did you study other actors, other movies? Did you lean on personal experience?

No, I didn’t study any actors. As I’ve said, I wasn’t an actress. I was just a girl who lived and went to school in Chicago. I know I heard I was typecast:
- light skin
- shorter than Glynn
- a 17 year old student (I’m not sure how old Glynn was at the time) [He was 28]
- They could get me for SAG minimum
- They didn’t have to pay me per diem because I was from Chicago
- Back then I remember saying that I was ornery and that’s what the character called for I suppose.

My dad said I was just a pretty face, nothing more, nothing less.
I hope I wasn’t just another pretty face. I am my own person. I pray I wasn’t just a face. :(

What was your impression of Michael Schultz and his directing style?

I thought Michael was a very nice man. I thought his wife Gloria was absolutely stunning. She was a breathtaking beauty. She was definitely not just another pretty face. She was a striking beauty.


What was it like on the set? Did you get along with the leads and the other players? 

My memory of the set was, one, that I was fascinated with how organized [it was] in the midst of chaos. It just seemed so planned. They didn’t waste, not one moment. And then the next thing I remember was someone saying that I didn’t need to return to set. My part was done. I kinda felt sad as I walked away. I went to a bus stop and took a bus home.

I’d say I got along well with everyone. I never had any problems.

Were there any fun moments during shooting or off the set?

Fun moments:

1 – I remember while waiting in the trailer for my hair, make-up, and wardrobe to be done. There were 2 young women waiting for make-up. I asked if they would let me do their make-up for them and I did. :)

2 – I enjoyed the school hallway scene when I slammed the locker door in Glynn’s face. That was his idea. I just remember saying I didn’t want to hurt him but he insisted I do it. That was such a funny scene.

3 – In the cafe scene where I was first was introduced into the movie. I loved in watching the movie the scene where I want to get to the washroom. I spoke to [Lawrence]. I thought he was such a nice person. The part when I went to tell Martha they were gambling in back, what I really said to her in a whisper was, “They don’t know I can’t see a thing without my glasses.”
True story. I really can only see a blur of anything outside of 3” in front of my face. I’m nearsighted. You think I’m joking, lol. No, it’s true.

Cast photo: Cynthia, top left, wearing her glasses.

4 – It puts me in mind of the scene on the train tracks and I don’t think they used the scene in the movie. I think it might have ended up on the cutting room floor. Glynn and I were arm and arm walking down the rails and tracks. I know we were not miked. I said to him that he would have to help me because I said I can’t see a thing without my glasses. So yes, the whole film I couldn’t see. Is that funny or what, lol!

Photo courtesy of Chicago Screenshots tumblr

5 – The funeral scene, glancing right and left. One blur to the next looking for Preach. They even wanted me to drive the car I got into at the funeral ‘til I told them I don’t have a license and I can’t see, lol. They actually wanted me to drive.

Did you learn anything from the experience that helped you later in life, in any kind of field or moment that is not necessarily artistic?

Not to be so naive. However, there were a lot of mistakes I made in trusting people; I’d rather not elaborate. You give power away when you let people rent space in your brain. Especially people who don’t have your best interests in mind.

Did this make you interested in pursuing further creative activity, and if so, what sorts of things did you do?

I wouldn’t have turned any work down as far as acting goes. I was offered a part in MANDINGO but it didn’t work out.

What was the reaction of you and your friends when COOLEY HIGH became a hit?

I was proud that I was a part of the movie. Mom and dad, my brother Eric, my sisters Lisa and Norma would tell me that people would refer to them as the mother of the girl who starred in COOLEY HIGH; the brother of...etc. They no longer referred to them by their names for a long time, lol. People would call, excited when it would be aired on TV.

1980 photo credit Mike Tuggle., image courtesy of Cinema Treasures

What kind of attention, if any, did you experience from the film, and did you find it pleasant or unpleasant?

The night of the premiere at the State movie theatre (I think that was the name) [The film premiered at Chicago's State-Lake Theatre on State St., now the ABC/WLS Building], I remember being asked for my autograph. I would write, “To you and yours, Brenda, Cooley High.” Lots of lights and people.
Remarks on the internet, some good, some bad, everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

What is the most unusual encounter, conversation, or life event that has taken place when someone found out you were in COOLEY HIGH?

Some people get excited. Some don’t believe that it’s me.

Did you maintain any further contact with anyone else involved in the film?

No one said anything about keeping in touch, and so I wasn’t able to maintain or further friendships.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Screenshots tumblr

Why do you think COOLEY HIGH has remained popular for 40 years after its release?

I know there were stereotypes in the movie, but for me I saw beyond the label “blaxploitation”. I saw the innocence of a group of young people making their way in life. The projects were a battle ground. People identified with the experience. A real story. Eric Monte’s true life experience. I grew up on the south side of Chicago, so a lot of what Mr. Monte experienced I was exposed to and more. I admire his truth. Truth, that’s what makes it a classic, it’s real.

Would you ever like to work on another film again?

That’s a hard question. One part of me wants the fans to remember me as eternally 17 and pretty. Now I’m 60 soon, grey hair, wrinkled, and unattractive. I doubt there is a market for an old lady, lol.

What will you remember most fondly from being in this movie?

My youth, and meeting all the wonderful actors.


Just want to add a couple of things that people don’t know.


In the opening scene when the boys jump on the back of the bus. If you look into the glass, you’ll see me sitting on the bus.


On my way up the stairs to do the love scene, a black lady asked me if I knew I could ask for a “closed set.” That means only the essential people could be in the room when it was being filmed. I wish I could thank her for that.

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Davis and Lisa James

My deepest thanks to Ms. Davis for being willing to tell me her story, above and beyond the normal process of what is accepted today as regular engagement. Go watch COOLEY HIGH again.


Monday, December 25, 2017

It Won't Turn Green, Damn You Seventeen

2015 kicked my ass. 2016 kicked everybody's ass. 2017 discovered our collective asses were numb from all the kicking, so a series of sucker punches, rope burns, paper cuts, and other attacks ensued. But still we stand, maybe more flecked with red than green today, with wobbly knees, but fully upright.

My experience has been that it's better not to write at length in the midst of an existential crisis - there's too many opportunities for narcissism, bathos, purple prose, and in general, putting something into print that I will regret later. As written, NOT by Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain but by Maurice Switzer, it is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.

So yeah, as has been the pattern over these years of attrition, I didn't see enough movies, especially the ones that would actually benefit from my elevation, thus this list carries an asterisk and a side-eye from the cineastes that matter. Nevertheless, The Top 13 of 2017* (your mileage may vary):

13. I, TONYA

12. SLEIGHT

11. DUNKIRK

10. BABY DRIVER

9. PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN

8. THE SHAPE OF WATER

7. mother!

6. LADY BIRD

5. THE FLORIDA PROJECT

4. GET OUT

3. NOCTURAMA

2. PHANTOM THREAD

1. DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME


"Life's a mess, dude, but we're all just doing the best we can, you know."




(graphic arrangement courtesy of Jeff Gargas)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Rocky Varla Picture Show

(Or: Faster, Frankenfurt! Kill! Kill!)

Respectfully dedicated to all my friends at Sins o' the Flesh and Girlwerks Media

Sometimes, the unexpected pleasures of watching your favorite films more than, well, the average person revisits a favorite film, is that you begin to see wild symmetries and convergences among them that make you appreciate them even more.

If you watch THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW enough times, you'll notice that someone on the production was a Russ Meyer fan. After all, I don't think anyone at 20th Century-Fox was thinking about corporate synergy in such a fashion to pressure the art director into putting a BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS soundtrack album in Columbia's bedroom. This was intentional homage. For that matter, there's certainly a case to be made for kinship between the two counterculture musicals, what with both telling a tragicomic saga of nice kids in a wild new environment of sex and drugs being manipulated by a sociopath of fluid sexuality. At the very least, they're a dynamite double feature.

However, upon a recent viewing of Meyer's other stone classic, FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!, I began to see connections that had eluded me before, little things that made me speculate as to whether just maybe, amidst all the direct allusions to monster movies and Old Dark House mysteries, there was also some buried homage being paid to this chronicle of go-go girls gone-gone amok, at a time when only seriously savage film lovers would have picked up on them...




"I would like, if I may, to take you...on a strange journey..."


"...two young, ordinary, healthy kids..."


"...there were dark storm clouds - heavy, black, and pendulous - towards which they were driving."


"It was a night out they were going to remember...for a very long time."


"Say, do any of you guys know how to Madison?"


"This isn't the Junior Chamber of Commerce..."


"How forceful you are...such a perfect specimen of manhood. So...dominant!"


"That's no way to behave on your first day out."


"Do you want her to see you, like this?"


"He had a certain naive charm, but no muscle."


"You better wise up..."


"Suddenly, you get a break."


"All the pieces seem to fit into place."


"And Paradise is to be mine."


"It's not often we receive visitors here, let alone offer them hospitality."


"I'm sure you're not spent yet."


"Such strenuous living I just don't understand..."


"This in itself was proof that their host was a man of little morals..."


"...and some persuasion."


"What further indignities were they to be subjected to?"


"How did it happen? I understood you were supposed to be watching!"


"Food has always played a vital role in life's rituals: The breaking of bread, the last meal of the condemned man... and now this meal ."


"However informal it might appear, you can be sure that there was to be little bonhomie."


"I loved you...and what did it get me? I'll tell you. A big Nothing!"


"Now the only thing that gives me hope is my love of a certain dope."


{"Rocky doesn't give a fuck, he's hungry!"}


"That's a rather tender subject."


"'Emotion: Agitation or disturbance of mind; vehement or excited mental state.'"


"It is also a powerful and irrational master."


"Oh come on...admit it, you liked it didn't you? There's no crime in giving yourself over to pleasure."


"If only we hadn't made this journey...If only we were among friends...or sane persons."


"Even smiling makes my face ache."


"Well, unfortunately for you all, the plans are to be changed."


"I ask for nothing..."


"And you shall receive it..."


"... in abundance!"


"You won't find [me] quite the easy mark you imagine."


"What a sucker you've been, what a fool. The answer was there all the time."


{"Chest of steel! Back of steel! Shoulder of steel!"}


"And now...your time has come. Say goodbye to all of...this..."


"...and hello...to oblivion!"


"I made you, and I can break you just as easily!"


"And then she cried out..."


"STOOOOOOP!!!"


"The game has been disbanded."


"You should leave now while it is still possible."


"And crawling...on the planet's face..."


"...some insects...called the human race..."


"...lost in time..."


"...lost in space..."


"...and meaning."


"Meeeean-iiiing..."

acknowledgements to blogger/Tweeter @jodamico who, independent of me, previously had a similar inkling, and to Al Ewing and Sarah Peploe at Freaky Trigger, where many of the best images for this essay came from