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Kevin Hart blasted for telling Jussie Smollett to ‘stand strong’

Ellen DeGeneres also faces heat for prior support

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Kevin Hart. (Photo Facebook)

Comedian Kevin Hart sent a supportive message to “Empire” star Jussie Smollett, who was verbally and physically attacked on Tuesday in a suspected hate crime, but some people thought the message was hypocritical.

“This is unbelievably sad,” Hart posted on Instagram “Why are we going backward… this is disgusting. WTF is going on [in] the world??? Why are we falling in love with hate??? God damn it people. Choose love. I repeat. Choose love. I will forever choose love and I will continue to teach my kids how to do the same. Stand strong brother.”

Hart’s well wishes came across as ironic for some people as Hart recently stepped down from his Oscars hosting gig after facing backlash for past homophobic jokes. In a couple of the jokes, the punchline was that he would beat his son if he was gay.

Ellen DeGeneres also offered words of support to Smollett but her past support of Hart overshadowed her message for some people. Smollett publicly came out as gay on her show in 2015.

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Theater

Actor finds fulfillment raising money for queer non-profits

Aidan Wharton’s latest beneficiary is D.C.’s Rainbow History Project

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Aidan Wharton (Photo courtesy of Wharton)

‘Girl From the North Country’
Dec. 12-31
The Kennedy Center
$49-$179
Kennedy-center.org

Last summer while travelling with his fiancé to San Francisco and parts of Europe, out actor Aidan Wharton faithfully reported on the queer history of each destination in his newsletter Queer Buffet (Queerbuffet.substack.com). 

When autumn rolled around and Wharton went back to work touring with the Broadway hit musical “Girl From the North Country,” he decided not only to continue writing about queer history but also to raise money for a LGBTQ non-profit in each tour stop. 

He’s rather brilliantly devised a way to combine showbiz with his new interests.

Throughout November in Cleveland, Wharton focused on Margie’s Hope, an organization dedicated to providing resources and services for transgender, non-binary, and gender expansive people in Northeast Ohio. And when the show soon lands at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre (Dec. 12-31), he plans to fundraise for the Rainbow History Project whose mission is to collect, preserve, and promote the history and culture of D.C.’s queer communities. 

Using social media, Wharton, with the help of like-minded influencers, creates awareness while asking supportive folks to give just $5 to the designated organization.  

During a recent chat via phone from chilly Des Moines, he explains that his bourgeoning project stems from a desire to help those doing selfless and often thankless nonprofit work related to enriching the lives of LGBTQ people during this wave of anti-LGBTQ sentiment. And, he adds, “the pandemic hasn’t made it any easier…a lot of the funding has dried up.”  

Written and directed by Irish theater maker/screenwriter Conor McPherson, Tony Award-winning “Girl From the North” is built around 20 songs by iconic troubadour and Civil Rights activist Bob Dylan. Set in a rundown guesthouse in 1934 Duluth, Minn., (Dylan’s hometown), the action unfolds over a week around Thanksgiving, chronicling the triumphs and tragedies that take place in residents’ little microcosm.

Wharton plays Elias, who along with his parents, is staying in the guesthouse. His song is “Duquesne Whistle,” a train inspired “chug song” somewhat reinterpreted. “It’s a sort of surreal moment and my favorite part of the show. To say anything else would be a spoiler,” he says. 

The energetic actor has been on tour since it kicked off in October in Minneapolis at the Orpheum Theatre, an historic venue once owned by Dylan. On Broadway he was a swing, covering Elias as well as five other parts. He knows the show well.

Before playing Elias, Wharton, 28, knew Dylan’s music mostly from repurposed takes on film and TV, and he always liked what he heard. Since joining the show, he’s listened to the original recordings in large part to know just how they’ve been re-imagined for the show.

“It’s a folky musical that still lives in the world of Dylan,” he says. “While a lot of the songs are taken out of his style, audiences seem pleasantly surprised. Not long ago a couple stopped me on the street. They’d been Dylan fans since the ‘60s. They said hearing this show made feel like they were hearing his words for the first time.”

“Some juke box musicals try to shoehorn the plot around songs, but ‘Girl From the North Country’ doesn’t. It feels like a play with a soundtrack. The songs don’t necessarily progress the plot but they accentuate what’s happening on stage; both the script and the music seem to benefit from each other.” 

At 17, Wharton left Hawaii where he was raised in a yurt in the middle of the jungle to attend Pace University in New York for a year followed by Penn State where he finished up a degree in theater and then back to New York City. He’s currently based in Astoria Queens where he lives with his intended. 

In addition to a lot of musical theater, he’s done some film including back-to-back parts in queer flicks “Fire Island” and “Bros.”

“When the tour ends next October,” says Wharton, “whatever this nonprofit venture becomes will become a bigger part of my life, possibly my career. I’ll always love acting and that’s ending for me, but there’s something about this new project in particular that’s made me feel fulfilled in a different way.”

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Movies

‘Maestro’ captures passionate essence of queer musical giant

Cooper’s titanic performance honors the legendary composer

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Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper in ‘Maestro. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

It’s hard to think of a modern celebrity who holds an equivalent place in popular culture to the one held in his day by Leonard Bernstein – the subject of Bradley Cooper’s ambitious biopic “Maestro,” now in theaters ahead of a Dec. 20 drop on producing studio Netflix’s streaming platform. 

A “highbrow” musical prodigy who gained mainstream celebrity after a spectacular debut as a substitute conductor for the New York Philharmonic, he forged a path as an orchestral leader and composer of masterpieces across a range of genres, from symphonies to film scores to Broadway musicals. Youthful, erudite, passionate, and handsome, he brought classical musical education to the masses via popular television broadcasts, becoming identified with the sophisticated culture of intellectual humanism epitomized by the hopeful “Camelot” of the Kennedy era. 

Of course, the Bernstein known to the public in those heady days was not the real Bernstein – or not all of him, anyway – and the story behind the scenes is part of what Cooper, who not only directed and stars in “Maestro,” but co-wrote the screenplay with Oscar-winner Josh Singer (“Spotlight”), aims to illuminate. Picking up the narrative in the early days of its subject’s fame, it conveys the essence of his professional career in broad strokes, but concerns itself mostly with his private life. More specifically, it focuses on his marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), whom we meet as she enters his life in the wake of his sudden success. There’s a definite chemistry – but there’s also Bernstein’s involvement with musician David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer), with whom he shares both an apartment and a bed. 

Nevertheless, and with full knowledge of what they’re getting into, the two eventually marry; through specific episodes in their life, it tracks the inevitable ups and downs – from the soul-mate joy of their special intimacy to the strain imposed on their bond by a parade of male companions brought into the household across the decades – to present a portrait of an unorthodox marriage between two unorthodox people whose bond ultimately transcends conventional notions of love, sexuality, and commitment.

That doesn’t mean things don’t get messy, however, and it must be admitted that the last third of the movie devolves a bit into domestic melodrama tinged with a touch of histrionics, and then threatens to go full tearjerker, to boot. But then, so does life, sometimes, and “Maestro” brings enough compassion, insight, and authenticity to the complex emotions at play that it is able to go deep, in the end, for the save.

Indeed, some of this melodramatic flair might be a function of Cooper’s stylistic approach, which blends fact, fantasy, and flights of fancy – such as a surrealistic “dream ballet” sequence inspired by “On the Town” (Bernstein’s first Broadway hit), as well as shifting from black-and-white to color and presenting much of the movie in an old-fashioned 1:33 aspect ratio – to form a sort of impressionistic view of Bernstein’s life. The elegant flamboyance of the film’s visual and narrative style flows naturally from the lavish mid-century aesthetic that informed the cinema that sprung from the cultural movement of which he was a part; and as for the man himself, his florid conducting style, to say nothing of the sweeping and dissonant passion of his compositions, were ample evidence that he would never be averse to tugging at a few heartstrings before building to a “wow” finale, so allowing a little indulgent sentimentality to assert itself along the way seems perfectly apropos.

At the same time, there is little about Cooper’s performance in the title role that could be called sentimental, or indulgent for that matter, despite the obvious license to “chew the scenery” when playing a flamboyantly bigger-than-life figure like Bernstein. Executed with a clear attention to detail and a fully invested personal connection to the character, Cooper’s portrayal expertly captures his intelligence and charm, as well as a remarkable level of chameleonic mimicry – enhanced by a dazzling physical transformation from makeup designer Kazu Hiro – that never once feels like “showboating,” and wins us completely with an unvarnished candor in depicting his less noble qualities. 

Perhaps most impressive (especially in a biopic), at neither end of the “moral” spectrum does it ever feel as the actor is bringing any judgment to the role, only observation. It’s a titanic performance, even without the reenactments of Bernstein’s conducting prowess, which honors the legendary composer simply by rendering him as a flawed, if exceptional, human being.

Yet as superb as his work might be, and despite “Maestro” being ostensibly about Bernstein himself, the movie’s star turn comes from Mulligan, whose top-billed performance as Montealegre is employed as the story’s emotional core. It’s her journey, from bold best friend to supportive muse to estranged “ex” and back again, that give the film its meat. She takes it from start to finish without a misstep, and in the process almost makes Cooper’s Bernstein a foil in his own movie. It’s a testament to his own artistic integrity that he allows, even amplifies, every opportunity for her to do it.

For queer audiences, of course, it might be a disappointment that the movie chooses to center itself on Bernstein’s heterosexual marriage instead of exploring any of his now-well-known same-sex affairs – little time or development is spent on any of those relationships, not even with Oppenheim. Still, it makes no effort to hide or downplay his sexual identity; indeed, it is at the center of the conflict which drives the entire film, and it reflects with compassionate honesty the reality of living as a queer person in a time and culture in which one’s queerness must be kept hidden as a matter of simple survival. What emerges instead of a cold dissection of a fraudulent “marriage of convenience is an idea of love that exists beyond the constraints of sexuality or gender – and that lifts “Maestro” above such moralistic notions, allowing it to celebrate the commitment between two people willing to live beyond them, even when things get tough.

The film is loaded with memorable performances from others, too; in particular, Bomer – especially powerful in the scene where he is introduced to the woman he already knows will take his lover away from him – reminds us how good he can be when afforded material that stretches him beyond his pretty-boy looks, and comedian Sarah Silverman has some rich moments as Bernstein’s sister, Shirley. So too, it is distinguished by a comprehensively detailed production design, which traces the evolving look and feel of the era it covers in succinctly evocative detail, delivered through outstanding cinematography by Matthew Libatique. In the end, however, it is Bernstein’s music itself that stands as the key element in capturing the irrepressible passion – the “singing of summer” inside him – that made him an incomparable artist and informed his life as a whole.

In the end, that’s what Cooper’s movie wants us to take away, more than any insights into its subject’s musical genius or the difficulties of navigating a divergent sex life among consenting adults in a time where such things were beyond taboo: the importance of embracing and expressing our lives to the fullest, whether by creating art or simply experiencing the raw truth of our existence in the moment, for better or for worse, in all its contradictory, beautiful glory. The Bernstein it shows us is, like all of us, impossible to define in a single quality; rather it strives to depict a life made whole and complete through the interplay of myriad conflicting passions.

“Maestro” might be a big, glossy biopic that – on the surface, at least – sometimes falls into familiar tropes, but it’s worldly and wise enough to get that right, which is enough to elevate it above at least 90 percent of other films in its genre.

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a&e features

Meet the ‘CEO of Everything Gay’ who just bought the Abbey

Tristan Schukraft, who owns Mistr, takes over iconic LA nightclub

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Tristan Schukraft with equine friend at the Varian Stable in Newmarket, United Kingdom in 2019. (Photo courtesy Schukraft)

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Tristan Schukraft laughs when I suggest he’s building a gay empire, but he doesn’t deny it. 

When it was announced last month that the owner of the iconic Abbey and Chapel nightclubs in Los Angeles had entered into an agreement to sell the business to Schukraft, it seemed like a strange move for the jet-setting tech CEO. 

But the portfolio he’s building – founder and owner of the telemedicine app for gay men Mistr, owner of the queer nightclub Circo and Tryst Hotel in Puerto Rico – appears to be bent toward Hoovering up more pink dollars by getting involved in an ever wider section of queer life.

The Los Angeles Blade spoke to Schukraft at The Abbey during its annual tree-lighting fundraiser for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation about what he plans to do with the storied nightclub, and how he became one of America’s most visible gay moguls.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BLADE: Why the Abbey? 

SCHUKRAFT: Well, I wanted to make sure it stayed in the hands of the gay community. You know, it’s an institution. It’s a cornerstone of West Hollywood gay life, but more importantly, it’s I think it’s a cornerstone of the gay community far beyond West Hollywood, right? 

BLADE: Looking at your background in tech companies, your recent shift into the nightclub and hospitality industry seems like a bit of a left turn.

SCHUKRAFT: You know, I’ve been drinking here for a long time. So now, after all that investment, I’m actually gonna start getting money back. I basically bought it so I can get free drinks. 

You know, at the end of the day, I’m an operations guy. I’m a technology guy. I own hotels. With hotels, you have bars and restaurants, so it’s not too far off the track. It’s a little off track. Why not? Right? 

You know, after watching “The Birdcage,” I always wanted my own hotel [like Robin Williams’s character in the 1996 film] and somebody shattered my dreams the other day by telling me it was a nightclub. I’m like, what? It was a nightclub? And then I watched it, and it’s true, it was a nightclub. So, now I have a nightclub. Yeah, so it all started with “The Birdcage.” 

BLADE: You’re known for being a disrupter of the things that you invest in. Is there a disruption plan for the Abbey, or for Weho? Are you planning to change things here? 

SCHUKRAFT: Not a major disruption here at The Abbey. I’m gonna put my touches on it. But yeah, it’s a pretty well-oiled machine. We’re definitely going to focus on our values of being LGBTQ. I got some ideas for new nights and I definitely want to make it an epicenter of the gay community. And I think there’s opportunities to take it beyond West Hollywood.

BLADE: Can you give any kind of sneak peek at what you’re thinking? 

SCHUKRAFT: East Coast. That’s your sneak peek right now. East Coast. 

I think you’ll see in a couple months what I’m gonna do with the Abbey. But you know as far as taking it outside of West Hollywood, I see there’s opportunities on the East Coast right now. 

I think that’s where David [Cooley, the founder and current owner of The Abbey] and I really we both appreciate the value of The Abbey brand. I think it’s world famous, right? It’s the biggest gay bar. It’s one of the longest lasting. Obviously you have the Stonewalls of the world. But this is like a bar where people go on a regular night versus a tourist attraction. Maybe for some it’s a tourist attraction, but I mean, it really is an institution. It’s a community gathering point. It’s a name that people recognize that we can bring into other communities. 

BLADE: Do you have any plans to put a hotel somewhere here? 

SCHUKRAFT: [Laughs] People are like, “Are you gonna paint it blue for Mistr?” Or, “You’re gonna make it a hotel?” But no, we’re not building a hotel here. That would be terrible to build. I mean build a hotel and Abbey would be out. I don’t think the Abbey’s ever closed in 33 years, besides COVID. Minus that, it’s never closed for construction. You know, when David did his expansion, it was always open. 

I was looking at those old photos and I’m like, oh my God, I remember the wall of candles. I’ve been coming here a very long time. 

So you’re more or less like keeping the same sort of operation going here, keeping the team in place?

The team, I mean, I think that’s what kind of really makes The Abbey unique. It’s like a place where everybody knows your name. 

When I bought the hotel in Puerto Rico, obviously I don’t know anyone. Buying here. I’m like, oh, yeah. I know Todd. I know everybody, right? Not everybody, but a majority of people. And I think that’s why people come here. Because it’s their staple. They go every Sunday. They know they have their favorite bartender. So, you know, everybody will be kept in place, no changes to personnel. 

BLADE: You gave an interview to Authority Magazine where you said you promised your partner that you wouldn’t be starting up any new businesses. How did you get him on board with jumping into becoming a WeHo nightlife impresario?

SCHUKRAFT: I broke that promise two or three times since I said that. I mean, no, I just buy him gifts to make him happy.

I work long hours, right? And he’s like, I don’t know why. 

BLADE: You’ve created and run several tech companies. How did you get started in that business? Where did that money come from? 

SCHUKRAFT: I started my very first company at 21 with a $10,000 loan. I was living in Hong Kong at the time. I think my father really wanted me to come back [to California]. My dad’s a corporate guy, not a big risk taker, but he’s like, ‘I’ll give you $10,000 to start your company.’ It wasn’t enough to start the company, so I imported 437 Razor scooters and I thought I was gonna sell out in two weeks. It was very popular at the time – this is like 23 years ago. It took me six and a half weeks. I was selling them out of my truck. I went to every swap meet in Southern California. Sold the last six on Christmas Eve and learned a couple lessons in business from that. But with the money I made from selling those scooters combined with the loan, I started my first company, which was like an Expedia for airline personnel.

And then I got into e-ticketing, and at that time, I didn’t know how to turn on the computer. So, I really surround myself with people that know what they’re doing, that are experts. So, do I know how to run a bar? No, but I’m an operations guy and I hire the talent to make it happen. That’s how I got started and I built that company and others along the way. 

BLADE: Other than that first $10,000 loan from your parents, you’re basically self-made then? 

SCHUKRAFT: Yeah. You know, I looked for investment. I did end up raising $18 million for my second company, but I put in a lot of money. I mean at 25, my first company was going really well, and there was this e-ticketing mandate and I said, oh there’s a real opportunity here. And I had a home and was doing good for a 25-year-old, and I kind of leveraged it all. And I thought, “Oh my God, what did I do? I just fucked up my whole life. Why did I do this?” Anyways, I got that first investor, got that first client, and it just kind of took off from there. 

BLADE: And now with Mistr, The Abbey, your Puerto Rico clubs, are you starting a gay empire? 

SCHUKRAFT: The CEO of Everything Gay, yes. I have a few more things. You know, all the businesses are very complementary, right? So, you come to The Abbey, then you go to the Tryst Hotel or Circo in Puerto Rico, and obviously all of the people that come here or the Tryst, they’re all perfect candidates for Mistr. So yeah, so it looks a little weird. But it is very complementary to our various business units

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