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America's Best: Artists and Entertainers

Aired July 1, 2001 - 22:00   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: From the big screen to the small screen, the radio and the stage; from music to museums; literature and fashion; artists and entertainers. America's best: Who are they, and what sets them apart?

Tonight, CNN and "Time" magazine unveil AMERICA'S BEST: ARTISTS AND ENTERTAINERS.

Good evening, and welcome to CNN PRESENTS. I'm Leon Harris.

They are as diverse as they are gifted; each a groundbreaking artist or entertainer at the very top of their game. Tonight, CNN brings you the first installment of "America's Best." Twenty-one honorees from the editors of "Time" magazine. We begin with "Time"' choice for best Broadway director, Susan Stroman, the celebrated choreographer behind the smash hit, "The Producers."

Here is CNN's Michael Okwu.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the 2001 Tony goes to Cady Huffman



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They've broken the record.

MICHAEL OKWU, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The hottest thing on Broadway these days, aside from the stage adaptation of Mel Brooks' 1968 movie, is its director/choreographer Susan Stroman.

MEL BROOKS, "THE PRODUCERS": I'd have to say that Stroman is tops in taps. Nobody can hold a candle to her, and we got very lucky when we got Sue Stroman to direct and choreograph "The Producers."

OKWU (on camera): Tell me about how you met Mel Brooks.

SUSAN STROMAN, DIRECTOR/CHOREOGRAPHER, "THE PRODUCERS": Well, the first day I met Mel, I opened my front door, and I was thrilled to death because he's such a legend.

BROOKS: I rushed past them, doing Fred Astaire, down this long corridor.

STROMAN: He launched into a full song, a song called "That Space," which opens the second act of "The Producers"

BROOKS: That face, that face, that marvelous face.

STROMAN: And he sang full out, he went right past me.

BROOKS: Ending up on their couch, and saying hi. I'm Mel Brooks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Susan Stroman, "The Producers."

OKWU (voice-over): The two Tonys Stroman won this year, for choreography and directing, bring her total to five.

STROMAN: Thank you so much.

OKWU: Today, she has three shows running simultaneously on Broadway: "The Producers," "The Music Man" and "Contact." By the New Year, she will have six in production or rehearsal.

(on camera): You are personally not going to admit this. But everyone we talked to, anyway, says that you are the best. You're the best choreographer/director that there is on Broadway.

STROMAN: Well, I feel that I am a writer of dance. I feel that when I am choreographing, I am telling a story. Therefore, every dance step I do is plot-oriented. And it's always about pushing the plot forward.

Alright, next! Uh-oh, sorry.

OKWU (voice-over): Those who work with her say what makes Stro, as they call her, the best...

STROMAN: And one, and two...

OKWU: ... is her style, her persona and her uncanny vision.

STROMAN: Good, good, good. I think you guys...

BROOKS: She sees the whole stage. She knows when they should move.

STROMAN: And you just give them a glance a little bit.

BROOKS: When somebody should look at each other.

STROMAN: Five, six, seven, eight.

BROOKS: I mean, she is so good. If she were a laser beam, she would destroy whatever she was looking at. There is such energy and focus when she's studying it. And then she'll say something like, two ratchets! Nobody knows what the hell she's talking about. Two ratchets? And suddenly, they're moving their knees twice instead of once. One, and two, and turn, and it's just a difference.

OKWU: Mel Brooks' play is a story of two scheming Broadway producers who conspire to make a fortune by staging a flop. To do that, they find the worst script, cast and director, one flamboyant Roger De Bris.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Gary Beach, "The Producers!"

GARY BEACH, "THE PRODUCERS": She doesn't challenge you to be anything but great.

OKWU (on camera): Now Gary, come on. You actors are a sensitive lot. You're proud. You get a group of these people together, with egos that -- and you have this woman, who believes in the rightness of what she does.

BEACH: You never, ever, from Susan Stroman get the artist. That's not what she's about. She puts on shows. You have an actor on the stage.

STROMAN: We need to rehearse.


OKWU: How does it work? Have you actually choreographed it before you actually...


OKWU: ... get to the...

STROMAN: Which a lot of actors don't know about, but before I go into rehearsal, I pretty much have it all choreographed in my head. And that's not something I totally share with them because I want them to feel as if they're making up themselves. I want them to feel that it is spontaneous and coming out of them.

BEACH: There's a word that she used in directing me and in conversation: luscious. That word painted so many pictures to me. There's a moment where the audience first sees Roger De Bris as Adolf Hitler. He is. But all of a sudden, he can't -- he can't control himself for another second. And he just goes gay. So it was easy.

OKWU (voice-over): Susan Stroman grew up in Delaware. Like many before her, she moved to New York to pursue a life on the stage. But she always knew it wouldn't be as an actress.

STROMAN: I grew up in a very musical household, and my father played the piano, he still plays the piano. And so singing and dancing was very much part of the household. But to choreograph and direct is what I wanted to do.

OKWU: Stroman choreographed her way through productions on and off Broadway, for the New York City Ballet, for television, and for last year's film, "Center Stage."

STROMAN: If there's a way to even give me more of, is it Vivian, Miss Marian...

OKWU (on camera): You know, a lot of theater people say that you are the head-to-toe director.

STROMAN: Ah, yes! And we're getting closer to it.

OKWU: You use the entire body.

STROMAN: Yes, and in fact, the dance steps are the very last thing I do when I'm choreographing.

OKWU: How do you make a dancer out of Nathan Lane? How do you make a dancer out of Matthew Broderick?

STROMAN: Well, you know what they need to have? They don't have to be dancers, but they have to have great rhythm. And once I have that, then I can do wonders with any of them.

BEACH: I was so nervous that first day, when she's going to teach me this tap routine. And I come in, and she says start with this. So I'm like. OK, do it again. OK fine, now. OK, and you just do it and do it and do it. And all of a sudden, there's this 50-year- old man up there, tap dancing. Susan did that for me.


HARRIS: Coming up: If Susan Stroman doesn't like something, it doesn't matter who you are.


BROOKS: I've some -- what I thought was a pretty nifty, funny, marvelous little lyric. And I said Stro, she'd go stinks.




STROMAN: Being in the theater is all about collaboration. My pallet are other designers. My tools are the talents of many people.

OKWU (voice-over): Opening night in San Francisco for the national tour of "Contact"; a dance drama many consider the breakthrough piece for Susan Stroman. It was at a performance of "Contact" that she literally cornered her next collaborator into making his Broadway debut.

STROMAN: I read a wonderful novel called "Therese Raquin." It was written by Zola. And I thought this would make a wonderful theater piece.

OKWU: Stroman felt it was perfect for musician, actor and singer Harry Connick Jr. Later this summer, they go into rehearsals on "Thou Shalt Not," their musical adaptation of the dark story set in New Orleans.

HARRY CONNICK JR, ACTOR/MUSICIAN: At first, I brought her like -- you know -- 10 or 15 songs and said, here are the songs. Not take them or leave them, but sort of -- basically, take them or leave them.

OKWU: For Connick, a musical prodigy, Stro was the rare real deal.

CONNICK: I would be playing something on the piano, and all of the sudden her feet would be just sitting there, going. And I'm like, where the hell is that coming from? I look under the table, and she's just kind of -- she's counting in her head. OK, how she's seeing it. She's seeing it in her head. I'm like man, I wish I could be inside her head, seeing what she's seeing.

STROMAN: The way I take the music and arrange it always supports the emotion that I want the audience to feel.

When you're marching here, your marching here has to have that lift to it. If you turn her, then we're going to keep right, and then everyone joins in. So, it had an excitement and a growth to it.

OKWU: Collaborating with Stroman is a high-speed affair.

CONNICK: I would be writing it -- as she's going on to the next eight bars, I would finish that eight bars. Now, I love to work fast; very, very, very fast. But this was fast. I've never had a situation where the level of creativity was so high and so intense that it almost felt like I had been beaten up at the end of the day.

OKWU (on camera): What I see is a very composed, very confident, very serene individual, are you telling me that there's just a maelstrom in there?

STROMAN: There's a maelstrom in there. Yes. That's why I keep my black hat on, so nothing escapes my head.

OKWU: Things might fly away.

(voice-over): Dance instructor Luigi, who has taught everybody, from Stroman to Alvin Ailey to John Travolta, says, it is how she has refined the details that sets her apart.

LUIGI: She's able to use her stage. She's able to use props. She's able to use music.

STROMAN: I have such a passion for music that I visualize music, and ever since I was a little girl, I would imagine hordes of people dancing through my head.

I felt we should run that little scene one more time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: I'm telling you, your mother ...

OKWU (voice-over): That vision means if an idea's not working, she'll change it, no matter who it's from. STROMAN: I'm telling you, your mother -- don't let your hands move either.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: I'm telling you, your mother ...

BROOKS: I had something what I thought was a pretty nifty, funny, marvelous little lyric, and I said, Stro -- and she'd go, stinks. Stinks, she's says, no, you could do better.

OKWU (on camera): Is it ever an issue for you, telling these egos what to do?

STROMAN: It takes some dancing, you know.

And one!

Some people call it diplomacy, but I call it dancing.

BROOKS: I learned an awful lot working with Susie Stroman.

STROMAN: Higher!

BROOKS: I learned that you don't settle for very good.

STROMAN: Thank you very much, folks.

BROOKS: You settle for great.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: OK. You might have a future in this business.


STROMAN: Thank you, sir. All right.


HARRIS: Coming up, America's best songwriter. But first, honors to the others with music in their souls.

Their single of "You Got Me" got them a Grammy. Philadelphia jazz hip-hop group The Roots take rap music beyond the status quo.

Freestyle jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson dares to be different. Diversity is the key to this innovative singer's success.


JANICE C. SIMPSON, ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR, "TIME": We chose her largely because she is such a brilliant stylist. She also impressed by her -- because of the range of her repertoire. She does everyone from the Monkees to Miles Davis.


HARRIS: If classical music has lost its place in pop culture, you'd never know it from violinist Hillary Hahn. At 21, she's already established herself as one of the most accomplished and compelling artists on the international stage.


HARRIS: Welcome back to CNN PRESENTS, as we reveal Time Magazine's selection of America's best artists and entertainers.

We continue now with the hottest in Hollywood -- the best movie star, the best actor, the best talk show host, and the best comedian, which just happens to be Chris Rock, the wickedly funny mind behind such HBO hits as "Bigger and Blacker." Rock's razor-sharp, 1998 routine from the Apollo Theater.


SIMPSON: Chris Rock is a very easy choice for us to make.

CHRIS ROCK, COMEDIAN: What the hell is wrong with these white kids shooting up the school? They don't even wait till 3:00, either.

CHRIS PONIEWOZIK, "TIME": Chris Rock really returns to the tradition of making a humor that was in your face, not just in a way that was cheaply provocative, but that actually meant something.

ROCK: You know who the most racist people are for real? The real most racist people? Old black men.

PONIEWOZIK: Poking, you know, a sharp stick at our assumptions about race. And sometimes, you know, satirizing, you know, some black people in this black audience, but himself. It's something that makes you think, and makes you laugh. And even antagonizes you a little bit.


SIMPSON: It's very hard, isn't it, to come up with a name that's bigger and that makes more efficient use of herself, as an actress, and as a personality, which is what a movie star is.

PONIEWOZIK: Julia Roberts started off in the kind of classic, sort of kid sister role.




PONIEWOZIK: Like the "Mystic Pizza," where you saw her and she was this young, fresh face that you were really drawn to.

SIMPSON: "Pretty Woman" was certainly a surprise, I think, for everyone. It catapulted her into a strata of stardom ...

PONIEWOZIK: "Erin Brockovich," in a way, you could say, is her greatest achievement, in that it combined her tremendous likability, her girl-next-door factor with a sort of harder edge, and acting ability.


ROBERTS: I don't need pity. I need a paycheck. And I've looked. But when you've spent the past six years raising babies, it's real hard to convince someone to give you a job that pays worth a damn. Are you getting every word of this down, honey, or am I talking too fast for you?


SIMPSON: If you're able to please the audience, draw the audience in, and do a good job of acting, that's clearly being on the right side.

RICHARD CORLISS, "TIME": Sean Penn is the Hollywood equivalent of a serious stage actor who does many off-Broadway works. In some sense he might seem limited by his looks or by his voice ...



CORLISS: ... but he will try anything.

PONIEWOZIK: In a movie like "The Falcon and the Snowman," he played this callow, unsympathetic, you know, little creep of a traitor ...


PENN: OK. I swear to God! No money, then that's it. You'll never see me again.


PONIEWOZIK: Who nonetheless you saw as a full person, and could understand his motivations and what made him tick, even if you didn't necessarily like him. There's also, you know, a real range that he's shown from the absolute darkest depths in a movie like "Dead Man Walking," to playing, you know, the ultimate surfer dude in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."


PENN: Danger is my business!


CORLISS: He has a volatility, a surliness, energy that can explode at any time. Yet there's a delicacy of craft that makes him, if not unique, certainly very special.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": Hillary Clinton and Lazio square off in first debate. Here's hoping the next two are equally as exciting ...



PONIEWOZIK: Jon Stewart has really sort of established himself as kind of the thinking person's late-night comedian, and the thinking person's talk show host, the human intelligence, you know, and satire, and bite that he and his crew brought to, you know, the coverage of the elections was, in a lot of ways, a lot more relevant to people, it turned out, than a lot of the mainstream media coverage of the same events.

SIMPSON: Politicians go on Leno. They go on Letterman. They vie to get on these kind of shows. But what Jon Stewart does is not just cracking jokes.


STEWART: What, what does the vice president do?


SIMPSON: He takes the news and he makes it engaging. Then he makes it informative, so you get something worth your watch. You've got to smart. You've got to be savvy. You've got to be knowledgeable about the news. And he's able to walk that line.


HARRIS: Coming up, will success spoil Lucinda Williams?


LUCINDA WILLIAMS, MUSICIAN: I don't think of myself in terms of being a star. And other people have to remind, you know, they say, you know, you're a star now.






HARRIS (voice-over): Got himself a mega hit with "The Sopranos." Now producer David Chase has got himself a place among America's best.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CORLISS: The achievement of "The Sopranos" is that it is more like a novel than like a film. It reads like its own, rich novel of characters who are violent, vile, tender, always surprising, but somehow, in retrospect, true to themselves.

IRA GLASS, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: If Julie Andrews were like ...

HARRIS: Radio's got its winners, too.

GLASS: Three years ago, on my eighteenth birthday ...

SIMPSON: I think you can say that in some ways, that Ira Glass has reinvented radio. What Ira Glass does is actually radio with pictures.

HARRIS: Noises, monologues, documentaries and short fiction wrapped around a common theme. National Public Radio's Ira Glass wins praise for presenting "This American Life."

CORLISS: Clown is a job description probably down there with used car salesmen, mimes and sometimes journalists. But Bello almost makes me love the idea of clowns.

HARRIS: A seventh generation circus performer, Bello the Clown is perfection for all ages. Currently Bello is wowing them in the 131st Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.


HARRIS: Lucinda Williams doesn't really fit into any specific scene or genre, and that makes her music at odds with most commercial radio formats. But that doesn't really deter Williams. She emphasizes the song. And her songs are so vivid, so poignant, that sometimes her words can chill you to the bone. And for that, Lucinda Williams is America's best song writer.

Here's CNN's Bruce Burkhardt.


BRUCE BURKHARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For almost 30 years Lucinda Williams, a Southern girl if ever there was one, has been writing and singing her unique brand of music.

She has built a following with a sound that's nearly impossible to categorize. Lucinda has created her own language of song, simple, spare words that for all their simplicity carry intense emotion and tantalizing mystery.

The song "Lonely Girls" from her just released CD "Essence."


BURKHARDT: It's only her sixth recording, and it was a long time brewing. L. WILLIAMS: I hadn't written any song in five years. It's the longest dry spell I'd ever been through. I went through a break up, came out of a five or almost six year relationship with the last person I was with and so I think it's a combination of having come out of the relationship, I was by myself, not only physically but emotionally alone, which is where I'd find that I have to be in order to write. This song just came out and I wrote 14 new songs in about a six or eight week period of time.

BURKHARDT: "Essence" is her first recording since "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" which propelled Lucinda into the spotlight in 1998 winning a Grammy for best contemporary folk album.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think that you're really sexy and beautiful and strong gritty woman.

L. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

BURKHARDT: Lucinda's still getting used to this notion of success.

L. WILLIAMS: It's sort of taken me by surprise a little bit to tell you the truth. I don't think of myself in terms of being a star and other people have to remind me. You know, they say you're a star now.

BURKHARDT: In a music business somewhat anesthetized by the likes of boy bands and a slick older produced Nashville sound, Lucinda has always followed her own rules. Imagine never doing a music video.

L. WILLIAMS: I don't really like them that much to tell you the truth. I'm not really a big video. I just miss the old days of music and rock and roll. Now people prefer to have videos, and people (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

BURKHARDT: The old days of music like back in Austin in the early 70s when the 17 year old college professor's daughter dropped out of college to play on the streets for quarters. She doesn't play for loose change anymore.

L. WILLIAMS: Is Elvis in the building? Elvis is going to come out and do the song with me. I'm so honored. My God.

BURKHARDT: The audience and record sales have been growing and on a recent night in New Jersey, her fans included a fellow named Elvis Costello, who jumped out of the audience just to play with Lucinda.

Lucinda's love of words and arranging them so as to convey powerful emotions would appear to be something of a family tradition.


MILLER WILLIAMS, POET: Of history and hope, we have memorized America.


BURKHARDT: Lucinda's father is poet Miller Williams, here reading his poem at President Clinton's second inauguration.

L. WILLIAMS: Over the years, I would just show him my songs and he would critique them and make suggestions and that's how I learned.

M. WILLIAMS: This is my study. This is where I write and when I write I, like to be surrounded by my friends, as close as I can get to my friends and from the world of jazz, country music, and literature. Here is Day Blubeck (ph), Reverend Jazz and Robert Frost from literature.

BURKHARDT (on camera): It's like a hall of fame.

M. WILLIAMS: Here's Robert Lowell, Flannery O'Connor, James Dickey.

BURKHARDT (voice-over): Miller Williams is not only a poet but a scholar, an editor, and a professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

M. WILLIAMS: These are friends living and dead, people who have been very important to me, very helpful to me.

BURKHARDT (on camera): They're also people that Lucinda was exposed to.

M. WILLIAMS: Oh, yes. Yes, Lucinda played around the feet of some of these people and as she grew older through her pre-teens and teens, sat her down and listened to our conversations.

All of these people, were you aware that was pretty special when you were a kid?

L. WILLIAMS: Yes, I was that brilliant minds.

BURKHARDT: Well, did you just soak that up?

L. WILLIAMS: I soaked it up, yes. I just think just being around it and hearing them talk and hearing their poetry and ...

BURKHARDT (voice-over): A legacy of words from her father and from her mother, a one time concert pianist, the gift of music.

Growing up amidst the lovers of language, growing up in the South with country and folk music; two worlds that suddenly meld into one when a 12-year-old Lucinda heard Bob Dylan's classic album "Highway 61 Revisited."

L. WILLIAMS: I remembered listening to it and just being just blown away because here was someone who had taken both of the worlds that I was from, the traditional folk music world that I had come out of and the writing world, the literary world and brought the two things together for the first time and I decided right then and there that that's what I wanted to do, at the age of 12. BURKHARDT: Now 48 years old and unmarried, she sings of love lost and of love desired, simple words that somehow pierce to the heart. In "Envy the Wind," she describes a longing so intense it can never be satisfied.

L. WILLIAMS: I deal with that -- with that subject matter, that sense of longing, this sheer frustration, desperation.

BURKHARDT (on camera): What did you have in mind when you were writing that? Anything in particular or anybody in particular?

L. WILLIAMS: Yes, of course there was somebody in particular. I mean all my songs are autobiographical.

BURKHARDT: Would you care to share?


BURKHARDT (voice-over): When she's not singing about the woes of love, she sings about her transient Southern childhood. When her father heard "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" for the first time, he apologized.

M. WILLIAMS: That song described a pretty bumpy life and although perhaps even the bumpiness of the life contribute to the success of the singer/songwriter, I still felt a little -- a little guilty for having given her the life that that song describes.

BURKHARDT: A pretty bumpy life. Her parents divorce. She's raised by an 18-year-old nanny who eventually marries her father and whom Lucinda credits with saving the family, a family always on the move from one Southern college town to another. It is the stuff of poetry and song.

L. WILLIAMS: I have a wealth of material that I can draw from. You know, I have enough to last me the rest of my life. I don't have to suffer any more, you know?


HARRIS: Coming up, America's best film director, a Hollywood comedian.


UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Here's a guy who goes from Jane Austin's England to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the way -- the reason he can do it is because he's smart enough to just hear into the material.



HARRIS: Bold, innovative and conventional, that's what it takes to be one of America's best, requirements that fit film director Ang Lee to a tee.

That story now from CNN's Steven Frazier.


STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The movie theater has always been a place of magic, where we go to lose ourselves in the darkness and be carried away by the vision up on the screen. Moviegoers today want to believe the old magic still exists. Far too often, though, when the lights go down it's nowhere in sight.

But last winter, director Ang Lee gave the film world a gift called "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." It was a movie unlike any other he'd made before, a martial arts art film; hardly the recipe for success in the United States. But once it hit the screen, the audience knew the magic was back. With its stunning wire-assisted flying and fighting scenes, Ang Lee took the visceral appeal of a Hong Kong Kung Fu movie and combined that with fully-realized emotional characters in complex relationships.


CHOW YUN-FAT, ACTOR (through translator): I want to tell you with my last breath, I have always loved you.


FRAZIER: The end result was a double coup many thought impossible. He made a movie any action junky would love. It also engaged in the art house crowd.

(on camera): Which was more difficult the very subtle personal dialogue scenes where emotions were being revealed or the fight scenes where that choreography must have been so difficult to create?

ANG LEE, "CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON": I think you have both the right jabs and the left hook at the same time, and the combination of that is the most wonderful thing. If you do the dramatic scene right, and you can carry that to the fighting scenes, it's just adding a space. You get people all the more excited.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS (through translator): I am getting married soon. But I haven't lived the life I want.


FRAZIER (voice-over): "Crouching Tiger" has often been described as Jane Austin meets Bruce Lee.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: You love him, but...

(END VIDEO CLIP) FRAZIER: Most Americans first met Ang Lee with the 1995 release of "Sense and Sensibility." At the time, Lee was thought to be an odd choice to lead some of Britain's finest actors through the nuances of Jane Austin's Victorian England. His previous films were all in Chinese, and Lee himself hardly spoke the Queen's English.

But producer/director, Sydney Pollack, had seen his last two movies.

SYDNEY POLLACK, PRODUCER/DIRECTOR: They both had a marvelous kind of emotionality. They were both funny. They were touching, without being maudlin, or sentimental, in any way. And, they were examples of a real original , we thought, sensibility.

FRAZIER (on camera): What did you think when we approached you to direct a Victorian English comedy of manners, a Jane Austin novel; something so different culturally from your own?

LEE: In the beginning, I thought it was peculiar. Why were they approaching me? I asked the same question you asked me. But as I was reading on, it started to make sense to me. I feel at home, and I feel that's something I knew the whole time.

FRAZIER (voice-over): One scene in particular shows the subtle skill Ang Lee brings as a director.

Emma Thompson's character is about to break down.




JAMES SCHAMUS, CO-PRODUCER, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY: She's very young in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and character, and getting (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And Ang Lee's direction to her was, you could you just not move your chin past this -- just right here. Just don't move your chin that point. That was it. There was no other direction.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: My heart is, and always will be...


SCHAMUS: And after it, he said I just needed to give her something besides the scene to think about, that she could concentrate on.

FRAZIER: "Sense and Sensibility" launched Ang Lee's Hollywood career. His next film explored another culture and another time, early 1970s America in a movie called "The Ice Storm."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE ICE STORM") UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Dear Lord, thank you for the Thanksgiving holiday, and all the possessions that we have and enjoy, and for allowing us white people to kill off the Indians and steal their tribal lands, and...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: That's enough, all right.


FRAZIER: With the critical and commercial success of "The Ice Storm," there seemed to be nothing Ang Lee couldn't do. He was able to penetrate the essence of whatever time or genre he tackled.

SCHAMUS: Here's a guy who went from Jane Austin's England, to "Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." And the reason he can do it, is because he'd smart enough to just hear into the material as often he is there to craft it and shape it.

FRAZIER: James Schamus, the writer and producer of many of Ang Lee's films, recalls the first time they met. Lee had been out of NYU Film School for six years, and had yet to make a movie.

SCHAMUS: He came into the office and he said, I'm Ang Lee. You probably don't know me, but if I don't make a movie I'm going to die.

FRAZIER: Shamus' company, Good Machine, produced Ang Lee's first three movies: "Pushing Hands," "Eat, Drink; Man, Woman," and "The Wedding Banquet," about a gay Taiwanese-American, who stages a fake wedding to prove his traditional Chinese family.

SCHAMUS: With Ang, the pictures are always bizarre. I remember with "The Wedding Banquet," which nobody bought before we made it. I would go around and say, hi, I've got this great, incredibly commercial movie. It happens to be in Chinese and it's a gay comedy. A lot of people went, ha, ha, ha, ha.

And, of course, "Wedding Banquet" showed up that year on "Variety"'s list of most profitable films, as the most profitable film of the year, which was this little dinosaur movie that Steven Spielberg made.

FRAZIER: Ang Lee seems to be getting better with the years. "Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is the most profitable foreign- language film ever made. It also earns him a truckload of awards, including an Oscar.

(on camera): Why have you made movies in such a varied genres?

ANG LEE: Because I can. Why not? As long as I can, I'll keep doing it. For me, I hope I can live 300 years old, and I can try all the genres, and extend them and twist them, to learn about them.

(END VIDEOTAPE) HARRIS: Ang Lee works in film, but artists take many forms. "America's Best" recognizes the writer, the architect and the sculptor.


HARRIS (voice-over): Artist Morton Puryear is a sculptor with a passion for natural materials and handicraft. In works such as "Ladder for Booker T. Washington," Puryear creates pieces that reduce shapes to their simplest and most pure form.

SIMPSON: Over 24 centuries, I think that all artists in America are grappling with what post-modernistic discussion is about. How do we create art that is regular and beautiful, to look at, but that also engages people.

HARRIS: In the twilight of his career, novelist Philip Roth is on top of his game.

PONIEWOZIK: What's really amazing and admirable, though, about Philip Roth, is here's somebody, you know, obviously in the late stages of his career, who is really for the past several years has been on probably the greatest hot streak of his entire career.

HARRIS: From the wildly comic "Portnoy's Complaint," to the weighty "American Pastoral," Roth weaves the stories of who we are. A writer in a different vein has gone more than words. Steven Holl is the architect's architect, designer such stunning feats as the Bellevue Art Museum outside Seattle.

SIMPSON: Some of the most influential writing in architecture today being done by Steven Holl. He may be not the flashiest, he may not been the best known, but the person who's making the most interesting work right now.




HARRIS: Three-time dance music community world champ, DJ Craze, speaks volumes with his hands. Craze is a master at manipulating records, tweaking and twisting. DJ Craze is driving the beat on the club scene.

They put the spark back in punk. Sleater Kinney is a power-girl trio from Olympia, Washington, that proves relentless driving guitars and drumbeats aren't just for the boys.

If it's American fashion, it's Tom Ford. After almost single handily reviving the Gucci brand, Ford is now applying his winning formulas in the legendary House of Yves Saint Laurent.

SIMPSON: Tom Ford is not only has been an important major designer in America, but is the first American designer who can use two European houses.

HARRIS: Plays like "Seven Guitars" shot him to the top of the American theater. Now, August Wilson is the best known, and most popular African-American playwright in the country.

SIMPSON: These works are so resonant. They are written so beautifully, that they are some of the finest and most poetic language that we have heard on the American stage since Tennessee Williams.

HARRIS: Sometime disturbing, sometimes comforting, always engaging; photographer Sally Mann captures reality in black-and-white.

PONIEWOZIK: The interesting thing that Sally Mann has done throughout pretty much most of her career is to take her personal life and make it be the subject of her work. She started taking photographs of her kids; beautiful, often provocative, and very controversial nude photographs of her children.

SIMPSON: She takes pictures that are about just zoom right in on the truth of that moment.


HARRIS: We hope you've enjoyed our premier of "America's Best," from "Time" Magazine. I'm Leon Harris. We'll see you next week on CNN PRESENTS.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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