My father always said, "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity."
Little did he know, he was quoting a Roman philosopher from a time when emperors decided gladiator fates with a Siskel & Ebert "thumbs up or down."
When I started at WTOP in 2008, I had no idea I'd wind up being our movie critic. My job was (and still is) to write the morning show for Mike Moss and Bruce Alan, chugging coffee while running scripts into the Glass Enclosed Nerve Center. Movies were just a passion dating back as far as I can remember.
Growing up in the '80s camcorder era, homemade movies were the norm in our home in Libertytown, Md. Before we could read or write, my twin brother and I shot a series of Mel Brooks wannabe "Home Alone" spoofs under the highly unoriginal title "Boy By Himself." This soon shifted to more serious efforts, including high school football highlight reels set to music. But it wasn't until college, while studying journalism at the University of Maryland, that I fell in love with film theory, thanks to Professor Joseph Miller, whose analysis of "The Searchers" opened my eyes to a new way of seeing: through the cinematic eye.
Suddenly, those simple "Cowboy and Indian" flicks became "mise-en-scene" masterpieces, where shot size, angle, framing, lighting and blocking told a symbolic tale beneath the surface. I had been bitten by cinema's bug, and the frontier genius of Ford quickly spread to the boy wonder of Welles, the charm of Capra, the noir nightmares of Wilder, the voyeur obsessions of Hitchcock, the marionette mastery of Coppola, the mean streets of Scorsese and the comic carnage of the Coens.
Without even thinking, I began setting my alarm for 3 a.m. airings of "High Noon" on Turner Classic and hobbling out of rec-league sports to watch two-reelers of "Duck Soup" in the campus library. I checked off countless turn-of-the-century best lists, wore out multiple rewind buttons and filled numerous notebooks with chicken scrawl notes to write hundreds of in-depth analyses of history's movie classics - just for the heck of it - all of which eventually became The Film Spectrum.
In 2008, I decided to make my cinephilia public, embarking on a three-year master's degree at American University. WTOP News Director Mike McMearty was a constant supporter of my thesis film, "Liberty Road," while Professors Larry Engel and Claudia Myers expanded my horizons to overseas masters like Murnau, Lang, Kurosawa, Bergman, Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kar-Wai and Haneke.
All the while, mentors Michael Sragow (Baltimore Sun) and Desson Thomson (Washington Post) proved the need for trained film critics amid the cacophony of internet bloggers, while mainstream friends insisted that movies are meant as much for entertainment as they are for art. "What we had here was a failure to communicate," and bridging this gap would become my life's movie mission.
Finally, in June 2011, the preparation my father (my Atticus) had articulated suddenly collided with opportunity, as the WTOP Newsroom discovered I could see movie dates like Will Hunting visualizes math equations. Colleagues Adam Tuss and Mike Gartell put it to the test, yelling out random years, to which I was supposed to spit back the Best Picture winner:
"Alright, Jay Fray, 1946." "The Best Years of Our Lives."
"1973." "The Sting."
"1988." "Rain Man."
It's not a bad party trick, but little did I know a Washington Post reporter was visiting the newsroom that day to do a feature on WTOP. Upon publication, boss Jim Farley (my Fezziwig) came in, excitedly waving the newspaper and reading this excerpt: "Fraley, a film buff, is known for his savant-like ability to name every Best Picture winner in history, by year!"
Three months later, WTOP Entertainment Critic Joe Barber passed away at the young age of 53. Why such a sweet man would leave us so early, I'll never know. His loss hit me hard, as I had listened to Joe on the "Tony Kornheiser Show" growing up. The eulogy by WTOP's David Burd was a great tribute, and to this day, I keep a copy of Joe's funeral program in my desk drawer at home. I was thrilled to see the Washington Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) name an annual award in his memory: The Joe Barber Award for Best Youth Performance.
That very award suggests that sometimes young up-and-comers just need a shot. And so in December 2011, after months without a movie critic, WTOP Program Director Laurie Cantillo called me into her office to discuss my blog breakdown of "It's a Wonderful Life" and decided, "Let's give the kid a shot." She asked me to pick a review of a movie I thought would win Best Picture, and thus I took a "silent" gamble and made my first review an in-depth look at "The Artist" (2011). Jackpot.
Since then, it's been a wild ride. I still write the morning news for Editor Mike Jakaitis, but now you can hear my on-air reviews Friday mornings and catch me occasionally on "The Arch Campbell Show" on News Channel 8. Since only a handful of great movies are released in a given year, my favorite pieces are round- ups of classic movie moments, like the Top 100 Movie Quotes and the Top 25 Hollywood Romances, or long-form features, like "Keeping the Drive-In Alive," which won the 2013 Virginia Associated Press Broadcasters Award for Best Feature.
While it can be tough to wake up at 3 a.m. to write the morning news after an 11 p.m. screening, the gig certainly has its perks. I've gotten to interview Kevin Spacey, Linda Blair and Jesse Eisenberg; emcee a screening of local Oscar winners at the Avalon Theatre; and see Martin Scorsese speak at the Kennedy Center, where he summed up my all-time favorite flick perfectly: "You haven't seen 'Vertigo' until you've seen it again."
In my spare time, I love picking blue crabs, cheering the Redskins and spending time with family and friends. I've also written four feature-length scripts, because, well, you know what they say about preparation and opportunity.
See you at the movies!
Fraley on Film