“FOR GENERATIONS, for centuries man had fought on; crying for liberty, dreaming it was won, waking to find himself the slave of the new forces he had generated, burning and being burnt for the same beliefs under different guises…And as the vision of this inveterate struggle rose before him, Odo saw that the beauty, the power, the immortality dwelt not in the idea, but the struggle for it.”
This is from Edith Wharton’s first novel, 1902’s “The Valley of Decision.”
The book, set in Italy, was one of the results of Wharton having drenched herself for years in European and particularly Italian culture and customs—although she is best known for her icy and elaborately incisive books about America’s social climbing and foibles, such as “The Age of Innocence” and “House of Mirth.”
I came across the quote while reading Hermione Lee’s massive 2007 biography on Wharton (I’m on page 111. 700 more to go!)
I can’t say much about Wharton at this point, other than she appeared to hate her mother, and while complaining constantly about her health, lived and worked quite vigorously, even in the years that preceded her greatest fame—which came when she was well into her thirties and, not at all coincidentally, when she was no longer a married woman.)
But I was struck with the concept, that the struggle for liberty—of any sort—is the meat of the matter, as the ideas, ideals, realizations, always seem to fall short, or are so delayed or so compromised they hardly seem recognizable as the bright-eyed noble concepts intended. Everywhere, every day, unavoidably we see and hear “ideas” and ideals of who and what we are, or should be. Some of these are misguided (from my point of view). Others are admirable, although I often have my doubts as to the wisdom in how they are expressed, by whom and for what audience.
But I agree with Wharton—the beauty and power is in the struggle. In the end, nobody really wins for long, and truly not ever as we– or “they”–intend. Victory is never as sweet as we hope; defeat does not last forever. Not in America, anyway. Not even now.
It’s the fight to win that makes history.
OBVIOUSLY, I have not been thinking much recently about the latest Marvel movie, the impending end of the Angelina and Brad divorce negotiations or anybody named Katy, or Cynna, Kendra, Stacy, Taylor or even Justin (Theroux or Bieber) or Jennifer (Aniston, Lopez or Lawrence). Not even about Cameron Diaz, who has announced her retirement from filmmaking. Too bad—I’ve always liked her as an actress. She never seemed to take herself very seriously. (Maybe when Daniel Day-Lewis changes his mind about retirement, he’ll come back in a rom-com with Ms. Diaz!)
Sometimes I just turn away from the internet, turn off the TV and allow the New York Times to sit unopened, at the edge of my overstuffed couch. I attempt to escape by reading 700 pages on the life of Edith Wharton!
So in that vacuum things go by. For example I had no idea until I decided to peruse Billboard’s cover story on Demi Lovato, that Ringo Starr has been knighted! He is now Sir Ringo. I couldn’t be more pleased. He is adorable, still, at age 77, the most likeable, accessible Beatle. The late Lennon and Harrison were too acerbic and mystic, respectively, their genius aside. And Sir Paul is, well…much more likely to insist on being called Sir Paul than Ringo would. (By the way, Demi Lovato seems like a quite interesting young woman, not that I’d ever go out of my way to listen to her music—nor would I know it if I heard it. But in reading about her, I can understand why she is so popular with her fan base.)
Something else occurred during one of my “breaking news” sabbaticals. The great designer Hubert Givenchy died earlier last month, at age 91.
I’d recently had Givenchy on the brain, while watching the glossy 1963 melodrama “The VIPs” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Givenchy designed La Liz’s clothes, and I wondered what he thought when he saw the cushiony Taylor in his beige knit, high-necked, arm-revealing number, or the pink, Empire-waist negligee. I know what I thought! (In this film, the as-yet-unmarried ET and RB suffer the pangs of the end of their 13 year marriage, which was startlingly prescient, as Taylor and Burton would divorce for the first time in 1974, 13 years after the start of their famous affair on the set of “Cleopatra.” The film is stolen, really by Maggie Smith, Margaret Rutherford and Orson Welles. Liz n’ Dick were just there to put backsides in the seats.)
But, of course, it was Givenchy’s relationship with Audrey Hepburn that became legendary—seven films and almost all of her personal wardrobe. They were “just the prefect blendship” as Cole Porter put it. He was perfect for her; she was perfect for him. I read in one of Givenchy’s obituaries that in the partnership between the movie star and the designer, “Hepburn normalized fashion for the ordinary woman.” Hmmm…did any woman actually think she could look like Hepburn?
I think women, overloaded with images of busty sirens such as Monroe, Taylor, and Loren, were relieved to see thin, modestly endowed Audrey elevated. She wore her clothes and floated through her films so effortlessly, perhaps women were convinced that with the right dressmaker, they too could float, and even perhaps project the charm that was Hepburn’s great gift. (She didn’t have huge range as an actress, and she didn’t need it—most of the really iconic ones don’t, by the way.) I was also reminded in these tributes that Hepburn allowed herself to become the face of Givenchy’s fragrance, as a favor! Few stars of her status do favors when there is a possibility that somebody else is going to make money off their name, image, or participation.
I met Hepburn only once, when she was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It was a grand night, spoiled only by too many “My Fair Lady” clips of Hepburn singing. The choice to dub her voice in that film was a heartbreak to her and denied the star an Oscar nod for an otherwise superb performance. (Julie Andrews who did “My Fair Lady” onstage, was nominated and won for “Mary Poppins,” one of the eye-rolling mysteries in cinema history.)
Audrey attended the party after at Tavern-on-the-Green. I was determined to say something, and to put it vulgarly, “Get a good look.” I was with a friend, the writer Michael McWilliams, also an admirer. Stationing myself right near the door, I somehow found a moment within the tumult of her entrance to extend a hand, and introduce myself as a representative for Liz Smith. She took mine, in an admirably firm grip and said, “Oh, how lovely to meet you, and how is Liz?” I said Liz was fine, and then before she was spirited off, I pulled my friend—not usually shy–toward her and said, “This is Michael McWilliams.” Hepburn took his hand, and murmured something about being glad to meet him, too. She was gone and we stood in happy shock.
Her appeal, her human warmth, was no trick of the camera, or a clever script, or expert press agentry. Not even the beautiful Givenchy gown she wore that night could compare with her straightforward personal grace. (And she wore it with the same élan as she had another Givenchy confection in 1957’s “Funny Face,” running down the stairs of the Louvre—“Take the picture! Take the picture!”)
When Givenchy spoke of Hepburn after her death in 1993, his eyes would often fill with tears.
I am sure all of Givenchy’s women met him upon arrival in that great couture house in the sky —Jackie, Callas, Capucine, Garbo, Dietrich, Bacall, Babe Paley, etc.
But first in line was Audrey.
Friday, March 30 2018
“COMEDY is the only hope for humanity,” said Roseanne Barr.
WELL, going against 90% of the professional TV reviews, I’d say if humanity depended on the comedy exhibited in the hour-long season premiere of the “Roseanne” reboot, those who identify as humans are doomed. Or at least, End Times are closer than evangelicals hope.
I really liked, even loved the original show, especially the first five seasons. It was invigorating and quite different—if you don’t count the blue collar occupants of that awful apartment “The Honeymooners.” And it was kind of thrilling to watch Roseanne blossom from awkward stand-up comic to a real actress, bolstered by the great talents of John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf. Then Roseanne and her show went off the rails but there were still pleasures to be found. (It’s interesting to watch people go mad in public.)
So far, there’s no pleasure in the “Rosanne” reboot. Let me say right off—I don’t care much for reboots, although Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” is not entirely bad. In fact, it’s fun. (I ignore “Will and Grace” because the time for minstrel shows has passed; although the time for Botox clearly has not.)
And let me assure you I couldn’t care less if the character Roseanne Connor or the real woman Rosanne Barr voted for our current president. Having believed, fearfully, right from the start that Trump would win, I wouldn’t mind truly funny, supportive jokes about him, or some clever Hillary bashing. Why not? The president is excoriated every day and night in every medium. Tit for tat, fair is fair. (And I don’t care that 45 called to congratulate Rosanne. Of course he did—no surprise there.)
But…the political jokes on “Roseanne” weren’t funny. The family jokes weren’t funny. Everybody looked awkward, out-of-place, not engaged, even the brilliant Laurie Metcalf, mugging and over-the-top. Recreating the Connor’s iconic living room and kitchen is not enough. Nor is throwing in a child of color and also a child who is, shall we say, wardrobe fluid. I got one laugh—when Laurie Metcalf’s character admitted that in her distress she voted for Jill Stein. And Sara Gilbert had a touching scene with her flamboyant son. Otherwise wretched obvious writing abounded.
Just about the only clever aspect of the show is the casting of Emma Kenney as Sara Gilbert’s ornery daughter. Kenney is well known as the messed up Debbie Gallagher of “Shameless.” And as the original “Roseanne” was rather the “Shameless” of its time, I appreciated this nod.
Maybe it will improve. Maybe everybody will learn to act again. Maybe if politics is a continuing issue, somebody can write it funny.
As it stands right now, I will say only that seeing the iconic afghan on the Connor couch, is indeed amusing and cozy.
IF I was a woman (no smart wisecracks) I would have been somewhat appalled last week to click on Salon.com and find two particular stories, side-by-side, prominently featured. One was by Nicole Karlis who declared “Stormy Daniels is a Feminist Icon.” The other, by Mary Elizabeth Williams proclaimed “Cynthia Nixon for Governor—Just Say No.”
Now, the Stormy piece—I honestly believed this until I got to the last line—it had to be a joke, right? It was not. Ms. Daniels is many things, including a working mom, but she is no feminist icon. However accurate her tale might be she is simply looking for a bigger payday, as is her unpalatable lawyer Michael Avenatti, who is for some reason treated by CNN and MSNBC like Thurgood Marshall or Clarence Darrow—or Atticus Finch!
As for Cynthia Nixon, I know little about what she intends to do as governor—she just announced her candidacy. But she has been one of the least “actressy” actresses around and a passionate advocate, a serious woman. One needn’t fawn over her, just because she is a woman, but it’s way too early to just say no or not “be with her.” To see these two stories sharing space gave me icky pause.
And now that I am on the subject, two pieces of advice—as long as Democrats insist the president is “on the verge” of firing Robert Mueller, he never will. He tends to do the opposite of what he’s told he might do or should do. Start saying “he’ll never…” and you might get the results and “crisis” you want.
And I hang my head in embarrassment for Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon—everybody, top to bottom at CNN (in particular) for beating the Stormy Daniels story to death. Aside from the-nobody-cares aspect—and nobody does, who supports the president—there is a 12-year-old child involved, Barron Trump. (Well, no one cared about the feelings of 17-year-old Chelsea Clinton or Hillary, during Bill’s sleazy scandals, so I guess Democrats feel it’s an open, ugly field.)
Real news that affects real people is happening in the world, Jeff Zucker, Anderson, Don, Wolf, Erin. (The census story for example, the horrific mall fire in Moscow, or the ongoing threat to the Veterans Administration.) Leave Stormy and her lawyer to their potential coin-counting.
MAIL! Miss Olivia de Havilland, age 101, still has a legion of admirers out there. I received a boatload of emails most of which come down to the thoughts expressed in this one, from Blair: “I agree with you about Olivia De H and Ryan Murphy…He should at least apologize and wish her well! ?Attention must be paid!!” (The consensus is—Ryan, be a gent. If you can.)
Others expanded. From Karen: “I, too, admire Miss De Havilland’s gumption in suing Ryan Murphy but I don’t believe she really expected to win. She wanted to make a statement and she certainly did, sitting in her lovely Parisian townhouse on the Left Bank. May I recommend her slim but thoroughly entertaining memoir “Every Frenchman Has One” that she wrote in the late fifties? It is back in print and I took it out of our library. The legendary Jack Warner used to say Olivia was ‘as smart as a computer’ and reading this book certainly shows off her wit, knowledge and literary chops.”
From Sue: “Thanks for supporting Olivia de Havilland’s case against Ryan Murphy and the portrayal of her on ‘Feud.’ I think the court was misguided in supporting the 1st Amendment and creativity versus accuracy, failing to take into consideration the fact that despite creative license, there is a responsibility to provide truth and fact where a real person and real events are concerned.
“The court ignored the fact that the audience is interpreting the depiction as truth (due to its factual basis), which should be supported and valued. Creative license should not include fictionalized historical revisionism when the foundation of a depiction is factual and ostensibly presented primarily as such (albeit not a documentary). Creativity shouldn’t include misleading the audience about truth, in the name of entertainment.”
Over my musing about the ancient works of Homer, reader Omar sent info on the ancient Greek tendency toward repetition and also suggested movies based on the epic works: “My favorites are 1954’s with Kirk Douglas and gorgeous Silvana Mangano (in her double role of Circe/Penelope) and a wonderful Italian miniseries version for TV from the 1968, six episodes, with Irene Papas and beautiful Serbian actor Bekim Fehmiu. You can get it through Internet. This one is a masterpiece!” (I have seen the former, will seek out the latter.)
But this was my favorite correspondence. I told the other day how my interest in historical fiction was ignited as boy by reading a pulpy novelization on the lives the Byzantine rulers Theodora and Justinian. Marie, from San Diego went to Google or perhaps her local library and sent me a list of eight possible books. Most were too recent—I read the thing in the fifth grade. And there were works by the ancient Roman historian Procopius—however I recall it was not a straightforward history. (There was some bodice and/or tunic ripping involved.) But one title leapt out at me; “Theodora: Courtesan of Constantinople” by Clara Underhill, written in 1933. I can’t be certain, but it sure sounds like the kind of title that would have attracted me. Thank you, Marie from San Diego.
And thanks to all of you who take the time to write in! I love you guys.
“UNLESS we experience some kind of unprecedented sea change in the pathological tribalism that now defines our politics, impeachment is a dead letter.” The italics are mine; the words are those of Andrew Sullivan in the Sunday Times Book review.
Sullivan was writing about two new tomes—“Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in American” a collection of essays complied by Cass R. Sunstein and Mr. Sunstein’s own “Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide.”
I italicized Sullivan’s words because I do not believe the 45th president of the United States will be impeached. Unless a video/audio tape can be found with 45 saying: “Yes, my Russian comrades, screw up the election and make me president, I will serve you faithfully!,” there seems no path to impeachment, no matter how much that gang of giggling embarrassments at MSNBC “connects the dots” and “follows the money.” (I wonder how Rachel Maddow envisions her life as a gay woman with Mike Pence as president—Mr. Gay Conversion Therapy himself?)
And even if such a tape did surface, the president would declare it a fake, a hologram, Alec Baldwin imitating him. And millions of his fans would believe this. They already believe nothing except what the president tweets, says, and what’s on Fox News. Period. Because of this mass act of gas lighting, his poll numbers are slowly climbing. Sure, he acts guilty, but to give him some benefit of the doubt, a lot of that is because he’s not terribly intelligent or secure or well-endowed. (I don’t know this for a fact, thank God, but come on, isn’t it obvious?)
As for his sex life—nobody cares. If the First Lady is willing to look away, who are we to judge? All that his reputed liaisons prove is that there is a cover for every garbage can. (Two of the women currently “speaking out” appear to be doing it to break their nondisclosure agreements of consensual sex, so as to make more money, now. That garbage can comment goes two ways.)
Also—Trump just brought a guy into his inner circle who wants to right off, bomb everything. Am I supposed to care about porn stars right now? (CNN slobbering all over these women is yet another reason to simply catch your news on PBS or the BBC.)
If you’re for Trump, things are actually looking pretty good—for now, anyway. The daily tantrums and fireworks impress his base. He never truly separates himself from the most extreme elements of the Right, so they remain faithful too. Those are the facts. Want the president gone? Then here is another quote, from David Remnick at The New Yorker:
“For Trump and Trumpism to be rendered an unnerving but short-lived episode, history will require more than cogent critique. It will require that millions of men and women who do not ordinarily exercise their franchise—some sixty percent in off-year elections—recognize the imperatives of citizenship.” My italics again.
It means—get out and vote when the time comes. All the liberal chortling, outrage, snickering, eye-rolling, finger-wagging, “exclusive to us” exclamations and deep exasperated sighs are useless unless you pull that lever later this year, and in 2020.
“Everybody’s private motto: It’s better to be popular than right” said Mark Twain.
IF YOU are the Academy of Arts Sciences, ABC-TV and Jimmy Kimmel these days, their motto might be, “How do we get it right, and become popular again?!”
I managed the Oscars by attempting to watch as if I were a kid, back in the day. That worked pretty well, but it was ominous indeed that I had to re-wire my head to watch the damn thing. Millions of others didn’t care to pretend.
The 90th annual Oscar ceremony—which has been telecast to TV viewers since 1953—was the lowest rated in history. I wasn’t surprised by this, despite enjoying the show reasonably well, in my little fantasy world, nursing my kidney stone attack.
Naturally, our Kidney-Stone-in-Chief in D.C. was delighted, which in itself should be enough for those who put the telecast together to think hard on how to make the show more exciting, amusing and glamorous.
I have some thoughts. First of all, and for the 100th time—get rid of the hosts! Certainly get rid of hosts who appear all week long on TV. Seeing Mr. Kimmel (or let’s say, Kelly Ripa, for diversity’s sake) change clothes and make topical witticisms for three plus hours is nobody’s idea of a good time. Bob Hope, who presided over the show 19 times—beginning in 1939, and moving on through 1977, was a big movie star. Although by the time he ended his reign, he wasn’t; his jokes and presence were less palatable. Still, he was a legend.
In recent years, hosting duties have often fallen to comics, who are then under an obligation to be amusing and do a monologue—one that invariably brings us down to earth because they will ruminate on the state of the world. I know about the state of the world—please let me forget it for one night!
Or, they will take potshots at the sacred monsters in the audience, trying to convince us that privileged movie stars can take a joke. Some can, some can’t, but I’m not interested in their sense of humor. I’m interested in their sense of glamour and what they are supposed to be representing on Oscar Night—excitement, excessive beading, too much Botox, giddy foolishness. And if you want to throw in the great art of cinema—and it is a great art—please do, but for heaven’s sake, do it with fabulous film clips. (For me, there can never be enough vintage clips.)
Think about celebrating all the great stars who never won an Oscar—Richard Burton, Garbo, Dietrich, Monroe, Edward G. Robinson, Peter Sellers. (More wonderful film clips!) I’m leaving out an array of stars who are still working, have been working for decades, but have escaped being honored. Their time may come. So I don’t want to put them out to pasture as a nostalgia act. And, of course, Doris Day has never won an Oscar!
It’s time to jettison the single host altogether. There were a few telecasts that employed a revolving number of hosts—for instance, in 1977, we had Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn and Richard Pryor. I can’t recall if they were any good—probably not, except for the brilliant Pryor—but at least there was some chance at an amusing hosty moment.
And by the way, nobody needs to be witty on Oscar night. Here’s your purpose, movie stars—look great! Announce the nominees and winners. Get off the stage. Next! (But linger long enough so we can properly critique clothes, hair, and whatever you did over the previous week to banish time and battle the cruelties of High Def.)
And who says everybody has to be a movie star? Mix it up. Reach out to Broadway, to the music industry. Sting, Tim McGraw, Nick Jonas (you knew I’d get him in!) Taylor Swift, Dolly Parton, Adele, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Beyonce, Lana Del Ray, Paul and Ringo! Throw in Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Alan Cumming, Charles Busch. (Charles could appear sporadically, channeling great ladies of the screen, upon whom he bases so many of his delicious plays.)
Mariah Carey—OMG, Mariah! The cleavage and shoes alone! (I might actually go for Mariah as the show’s solo host. I’d rather a train wreck than one stuck in the snow for three hours. Listen, “Glitter” has given many movie fans a great deal pleasure, especially with a few drinks.)
Round up Tom Cruise, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Craig, Ryan Gosling, Mila Kunis, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Chris, Luke and Liam Hemsworth, James and Dave Franco, Emma Watson, Jamie Dornan, Charlize Theron.
And, forgive me; maybe even throw in a Kardashian or two. (Not the mother, Kris Jenner. Hers is one rendition of “Rose’s Turn” I can’t get into at all.) I know, I know—but social media would love/hate it, and whether we want to accept our new cultural standards or not, stars are made, records become hits, and faster than you can say, “will ABC-TV abandon Oscar?” millions of people can be alerted to something amusing, amazing or offensive within seconds, and tune in.
Don’t write “funny” patter. It’s never is. On, off, in, out. Move it along. And at the end, put all the stars on stage together, the winners, those who didn’t win, all the presenters, and have them sing “That’s Entertainment!” Pan the camera slowly, so we can get another good look at so-and-so’s awful (or beautiful) dress, and nudge our friends about the star who is most definitely stoned.
Oh, and for the “boring” awards, which we can’t jettison, no matter how much we’d like to, use the most sexy, glamorous star. Distract! In fact, get Mariah Carey—if she opts out of hosting the entire show–to come out for every short subject, documentary, technical whatever—in a different modesty-challenged gown and increasingly high, treacherous heels. Or, Nick Jonas in tighty whities.
Now, I want to hear from you if you care enough to offer suggestions. All will be considered, because all of you are much smarter than I am.
MAIL: LOTS of outrage over the Oscar’s botched In Memoriam segment. Along with those I mentioned on Wednesday, Oscar slighted John Gavin, Dina Merrill and the wonderful Bill Paxton. (Gavin and Dina were wonderful too, but I interviewed Paxton on a number of occasions and he really was a living doll.) Anne Jeffreys and Lola Albright were also dismissed. What a disgrace.
As my friend Hal Wingo remarked: “I fear the pressure to include so many behind-the-camera types has twisted this whole thing away from remembering the faces we actually will miss on the screen.”
A fair number—including women–wrote in saying they didn’t watch the show because: “I support the efforts of MeToo and TimesUp, but I just didn’t feel like hearing about sexual harassment on Oscar night. It’s in the news every day now. We’re all ‘woke.’ I want an escape.”
And here’s this from somebody who must remain anonymous: “While I genuinely admire Frances McDormand, I think she’s suffering from the same syndrome that happens to all outrageous show biz personalities: she has to keep topping herself. The hair must be more unkempt, the dress dowdier, the persona more eccentric, frenetic and impassioned. She’s the A-list Indie Sofia Vergara.”
“Peanuts! Through every city, town, and country lane
You’ll hear him sing his plaintive little strain, And as he goes by to you he’ll say…sing ‘Melancholy Baby!”
Okay, every movie fan knows that moment from “A Star Is Born” (the Judy version, the “Born in a Trunk” number) when Vicki Lester is singing/telling of her long struggle to the top, and how at one point, a drunk will never let her get through “The Peanut Vendor” song. He wants “Melancholy Baby.”
Well, that movie moment has been on my mind a lot because I’ve found out I pretty much have to give up nuts and peanut butter. And make a couple of other dietary adjustments–the better not to have another kidney stone episode. I am a little bummed, but in all my online reading, nowhere did I find the words, “margaritas are out.” So, life is still worth living.
And I want to thank everyone who wrote in expressing concern, and passing on various solutions, including holistic remedies.
I love you guys.
WEDNESDAY, March 7th 2018
“I SHALL ride the parade in a platinum car,
My features will shine, my name will be Star,
Day-long and-long the bells I shall peal,
And down the long street I shall turn the cart-wheel.”
W.H. Auden, “Danse Macabre.”
ON SUNDAY night I was faced with a slight problem. I really didn’t want to watch the Academy Awards. I’d seen all the movies—including “The Shape of Water,” which I found far more palatable than I thought I would; lovely even.
But, and I’m sure this will shock most of you, I am fairly jaded. Not much surprises or thrills me the way movies and their accessories—stars, awards shows, inappropriate behavior on awards shows—once did.
I still love films, and in most ways, I do think “movies are better than ever”—a phrase I believe originated in the 1950’s as audiences stayed home watching TV and Hollywood attempted to lure them back with Cinemascope, 3-D, Stereophonic Sound, Technicolor, and bullet bras.
I’d dutifully watched the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, the Spirit Awards and…something else. Unless a rare and priceless “La La Land”/”Moonlight” moment happened again, or if Meryl Streep won, got up to the podium and yelled “suckers!” why bother?
Wasn’t passing a kidney stone bad enough? (No writerly excess here, I was, and still am, passing a stone.) And then there are the kidney stones that attack every day, via the inhabitants of Washington, D.C., Republican and Democrat. There is no escaping the pathetic performances of the people who govern us, and those who report nightly on that bunch of losers. No Oscars, only Razzies there!
I had other fish to fry Sunday night—watching all of “The Chi” and “Homeland” uninterrupted, and drinking a lot of water.
It didn’t seem possible to remove myself from myself. But shortly after I had to turn away from the ridiculous red-carpet arrivals, I thought, don’t watch the Oscars as you are now—a gossiped-out husk of a man with permanent mental jaundice–watch as you once were; a 10-year-old movie fan, who was dazzled by the stars of his own time, and even more by those of a time past. (As one of my uncles gravely told my mother, “No boy should know that much about Hedy Lamarr, maybe I should take him to a baseball game?’). A kid who wasn’t exactly naïve, but who was years away from having two expressions—eye-roll and side-eye.
So, as I gingery settled in on my couch, I decided I’d try to watch the 90th annual Academy Awards that way.
FIRST OFF, I’d wonder–as I really have since my earliest Oscar-watching days—why a host was needed. They were never funny. This one sure wasn’t. Although I’d have to admit the “you win a jet ski if you keep your acceptance speech short” bit was very funny, and Helen Mirren was a fabulous sport and looked smoking hot. (As a tween I probably wouldn’t describe Ms. Mirren that way, I’d simply think she was very glamorous!)
And, impressed by glamour as I was, I’d certainly have been blown away by the stage! In fact, I’d be almost more impressed by the efforts put into the glitz and glitter framing the actors than the actors themselves. Somebody else might have thought it was too much, gaudy, vulgar. All I can say is give me vulgarity! It’s the Oscars, after all, not a Nobel Prize ceremony.
As a kid I’d realize—because I read the newspapers and kept up, that Very Important Things were being said onstage, in between the orgy of self-congratulation, and my assessing what the ladies were wearing. (Maybe one of the adults would remark that possibly Emma Stone had lost track of the date, and thought she was attending a brassiere optional luncheon.) I’d realize that the Very Important Things were serious business, and a good deal of what was said was sincere and necessary. The self-serving hypocrisies would probably go over my head.
I’d be mighty excited by all the musical numbers, and understand somehow that they were conveying Very Important Things with more urgency and truth, than those who mouthed words they wouldn’t have dreamed of, a year ago. (I am sure I would have wondered why one of the musical numbers began with a guy who didn’t seem to know how to sing—or had a bad cold. But the number picked up after that.)
As a 10-year-old I wouldn’t have seen all of the movies, but I’d know all about them, and feel as if I had. So of course I’d have my own opinion about who should win. I’d have wanted that cute boy who looked all of 15 and was wearing white suit to win, even though I’d be informed he was too young and had plenty of time. The guy who didn’t look like Winston Churchill in real life—he deserved to win. And I sure wanted the short, intense lady to take home an Oscar. The one who always looked like she’d dressed and done her hair in a closet, but was invariably funny and intense. (When she talks Very Important Things she seems sincere.) I’d wonder–did people give her awards just to hear her carry on?
And, as somebody who wore glasses and hated them, I would have been thrilled when the African American actress with the name nobody seems able to pronounce properly, wore her glasses onstage!
As usual, I’d disturb people when the beautiful star who is three years older than Oscar, came out to give an award. I’d rattle off all her famous movies and even some of the naughty things she said to Cary Grant in the one where they spend all that time on the train and then go rock climbing. Troubled glances would be exchanged—why does he know this? How about taking him to a football game?
Finally, I’d be very, very impressed that the two iconic stars (I’d have only recently begun to use the word “iconic”) who were a part of last year’s “terrible mistake” giving out the Best Picture Oscar, were back, giving out the same award. They were charming, although I never understood why it was such a terrible mistake. I knew when I grew up and thought back on all the Oscars I’d seen, that moment would be indelible.
It ended, not too late, the Jet Ski was pulled onstage again, and Helen Mirren was on board the thing, with the winner. She really is glamorous.
I went to bed with a painkiller and the unhappy realization that I’d have to call my doctor in the morning; that damn stone wasn’t going anywhere on its own.
AND that, friends, is how I got through Oscar Night.
Speaking as an adult–or at least a recipient of Social Security—I didn’t think the show was bad at all. I honestly was blown away by the sets and the musical numbers. I thought most of the people who had something to say, said it reasonably well. I was not unhappy with any of the winners, and I was truly glad Timothee Chalamet escaped being over-honored too early. (I’ll bet he was, too.)
I’ll go to my grave wondering about competition and how one can compare “Dunkirk” to “Get Out” or Sally Hawkins to Frances McDormand or decide something or somebody is “the best.” In the end, it’s just a big public relations stunt. But competiveness is part of human DNA.
Nostalgia is a wonderful, blurry thing. Years ago I realized that the Oscar show was always a bit of a bore, overlong, etc. It’s just that I was more interested in the stars that appeared on the show in those days. In that spirit, for a movie-loving, diversity knowledgeable kid in 2018, the 90th Oscars were probably pretty fabulous.
Two outright gripes (what, you thought you’d escape?)
Jimmy Kimmel’s “visit” to unsuspecting moviegoers across the street is the sort of thing that should be saved for his TV show. That said, it happened, and I was a little surprised that more major stars didn’t get in and join in—even if they, too, think it’s tacky. Meryl Streep couldn’t get off her ass? Or Allison Janney, who had just won an Oscar, and should have been up for anything? And lots of others—you know who you are. So, kudos to Gal Gadot, Guillermo del Toro, Margot Robbie, Armie Hammer, Lupita Nyong’o, Ansel Elgort, Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mark Hamill.
Gripe two—really, really, really?? I know it’s difficult to get in every industry person who dies, for the In Memoriam segment, but this year’s omissions seemed particularly egregious. Among the missing: Dorothy Malone, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Dina Merrill, John Gavin, David Ogden Stiers, John Mahoney, Glenn Campbell, Della Reese, Adam West, Robert Guillaume. Oh, and don’t give me that stuff about how some of these stars were mostly associated with TV. We live in a “new time” now—as everybody at Oscar told us repeatedly. These days, TV is just as important as feature filmmaking, perhaps more so, and reruns of classic TV shows are everywhere, all hours of the day and night.
P.S. and BTW—where the hell was LIZ SMITH in the lineup of the departed? While I won’t say this column “made” any careers—although it probably did– it certainly enhanced, defended, glorified and was a relentless cheerleader for many stars and always to films. Liz was nice, too. She deserved to be a part of that list.
P.S.—I apologize for not doing the live watching with all of you. But, honestly, that fucking stone was hurting! Pardon my French. Love, XXXXX Mr. W.
“WHAT’S GOING to become of me?”
“I don’t know; you’ll have to stop getting younger someday.”
“Are you going back to that washed out expatriate in Naples?”
“Yes, and when I marry her I’m going back to doing things.”
“Do you think you ever get me out of your blood?!”
“Maybe not, but love has to stop somewhere short of suicide.”
THAT is the blistering final scene between Ruth Chatterton and Walter Huston in the great 1936 William Wyler movie adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel “Dodsworth.” (Chatterton’s final shrieks, “He’s gone ashore; he’s gone ashore!” are partially muted by the blaring of the ocean liner’s horns—the ship that was supposed to take the estranged couple home to America.)
In a recent burst of movie-watching, “Dodsworth,” a favorite since childhood (remember, I was a unusual youngster) struck me once again as remarkably realistic, astonishingly so, for the time, and brilliantly acted by Chatterton as the dissatisfied wife, Huston as her restless, recently retired tycoon husband, and exquisite Mary Astor as the affectionate woman to whom Huston is drawn.
Chatterton had been a big star on stage and was one of the first actresses Hollywood called on to appear in talkies. Despite being past the flush of youth, she had a successful movie career. “Dodsworth” was one of her last films, and her crowning achievement. Like Norma Shearer, Chatterton had an odd quality of artificiality—a holdover from several early silent movies and her stage work—combined with a striking realism. In “Dodsworth”—much like Shearer’s “Marie Antoinette”—Chatterton’s pros and cons melded perfectly. As Fran, bored—perhaps justifiably—she is petulant, reckless and unfaithful, her pouting affectations a mask for coarse, unyielding rage.
Walter Huston (father of director John Huston) is a miracle of naturalistic performing, and his character Sam, the automobile magnate, despite his unsophisticated Americanism, is startlingly understanding of his wife’s “flings”—if not exactly thrilled. When she refuses him the intimacy of sex, the marriage finally breaks down (“Is this what’s it’s come to, Fran?”) The scene is a miracle of frankness and discretion.
As for Mary Astor, as Edith, she is luminous. Astor, although remaining lovely, grew matronly rather swiftly (she is thickening even in her most famous role, “The Maltese Falcon.”) But in “Dodsworth,” she is as ravishing as she was in her silent films and her voice is a miracle of varying emotions. Although not as famous as many of Wyler’s other movies, in fact it seems somewhat forgotten, it is one of his most expert and daring efforts. (There was some serious talk in the 1970’s of remaking it with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, which might not have been a bad idea. But of course Miss Taylor was always too busy living her spectacular “private” life and making movies such as “X, Y and Zee,” “Ash Wednesday” and “Night Watch.” These films are great fun, but hardly moved the box-office needle of her career.)
“Dodsworth” could be remade, perhaps more from Fran’s point of view, but I’d rather it wasn’t.. It’s perfect as is. Oh, and course, we must never forget Maria Ouspenskaya, as the aged and distressingly candid mother of one of Fran’s younger suitors. “There is the question of children,” says Ouspenskaya pointedly, “Rich or poor, Kurt should have children, can you give them to him?” (Fran had made the case for her own wealth, and taking care of the family, who live in genteel poverty).
“What makes you think I couldn’t?” says Fran.
“I am so much older than you are my dear,” Ouspenskaya utters with icy compassion, “you will forgive if I observe that you are older than Kurt.”
On Friday, I’ll meander down this vintage movie road again—nostalgia is comforting in uncertain times.
THIS ‘N THAT:
…HAPPENING this season the New Jersey’s divine Paper Mill Playhouse. “The Sting” a new musical based on the famous 1973 movie with Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Robert Shaw. This will star Harry Connick Jr. as one of the con men of the piece.
Connick is very appealing as a musical star—acting and singing. Loved him in “The Pajama Game” and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” As and stand alone actor, I find him less interesting, although mighty attractive. He needs music to fully flower.
“The Sting” will play March 29th-April 29th. Broadway looms. The book is by Bob Martin. Mark Hollman, Greg Knotts and Mr. Connick himself have devised the music and lyrics. John Rando directs. Warren Carlyle choreographs. For further info go to www.PaperMill.org
…LATER this year, in September and October, Paper Mill will present the world première of “Unmasked: The Music and Stories of Andrew Lloyd Webber.” This is pretty much what the title suggests—a celebration of Lloyd Webber’s many hits (good grief “Phantom” is still running!) along with new interpretations of songs from the likes of “Evita,” “Cats” “Sunset Boulevard” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Bombay Dreams.” The show has been “created” by Richard Curtis and John Doyle. For tix info call 973-376-4343 or visit www.PaperMill.org. An album “Unmasked: The Platinum Collection” will be released on March 16th.
…AND speaking of Andrew Lloyd Webber, he will sit at Town Hall (123 West 43rd Street) with Glenn Close, his second Norma Desmond of “Sunset Boulevard” for a conversation about his career and his new memoir, titled—surprise!—“Unmasked.” (I say Glenn was his second Norma because some of us recall that Patti LuPone originated the role in London. In fact I saw her in it, and she was very good. La LuPone expected to come to Broadway. She did not. It became quite the little scandal, although Ms. LuPone saw nothing “little” about it. I’ll never forget speaking to her as casting was changed. Her righteous anger burned electrifyingly through the phone wire. It was pretty fabulous.) Maybe Andrew will address that. Sure! Call 212-840-2824.
….IN New York, Nashville and Los Angeles, a terrific photographic exhibition, devoted to the late genius David Bowie is happening at each city’s Morrison Hotel Gallery. Titled “Bowie” the exhibit will display the singer/songwriter/performance artist deluxe in all his varieties over the decades. The show will run from February 22nd to March 23rd. Prints are for sale. The New York gallery is located at 116 Prince Street. Call 212-941-8770.
…WELL, the second episode of “Homeland” has aired, and Claire Danes/Carrie Mathison is clearly having issues with her Lithium—not that the country isn’t still in trouble. I was hoping not see her freak out and compromise herself this season, but the writers took Carrie into a darker, creepier hole than ever. Insane, absurd, but I’m watching.
Also, I’m slowly getting through “Altered Carbon” on Netflix. Everybody seems to be mumbling less—or maybe using the earphones helps. And the basic story—who killed the dead-but-not-really-dead millionaire (James Purefoy) interests me. But all the CGI sci-fi special effects seem annoyingly de trop. I just think it would have worked better as a current day thriller. All hands—Joel Kinnaman, Will Yun Lee, Dichen Lachman, Renee Elise Goldsberry, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Ato Essandoh, are doing good work. But their efforts would be more convincing if the show was set in 2018. I can’t binge it. My eyes and head start to hurt. And there are still things I simply don’t understand. But why should my TV be any different than my life?
MAIL: “NO POLITICS. Keep it light. Not all of us are Dems.” This came unsigned last week in response to our remarks on the Florida school massacre and ruminating on why it is unwise to push so relentlessly to impeach the president, with Mike Pence in the wings.
I replied politely that I surely know that everybody’s not a Dem, and that in fact that column, as do most of my “political” remarks, annoy—to put it mildly—my liberal pals. Why? Because I am ever ready to criticize the campaign of Hillary Clinton, the sniggering children of MSNBC, and the general feeling that if we treat the current president as he and the GOP treated Obama, we’ll somehow persevere. I do not believe this is so. I am no fan of our current commander in chief, but I also do not care for the sport of bear baiting. (Even when that bear perhaps very foolishly attempts to bait Oprah).
But I also received this from a reader named Janet:
“We see through the prism of news and politics very differently, but still I feel there is always hope and everyone should hang onto that.
“Though you are feeling so discouraged, you obviously have read a great deal of history and on reflection must realize that so much is out of our control and most of us all slug away and do our bit day by day in our lives trying to navigate through whatever those “in power” put in motion that affect us, and whether we learn about what they put in motion is ultimately what a free press is about (which is why I sometimes despair for the “echo chamber” out there in most print and broadcast media), but we all have free will and a heart and a soul and a mind and that cannot be altered, we should use them. There have been bleaker landscapes in history and Evil is throughout the ages and seems all powerful but it is not all there is and hopefully we learn something in how to protect ourselves from it.”
I am so often encouraged, impressed and learn from my intelligent readers. Thank you, Janet.
MONDAY, February 19 2018
“ALL THINGS in life are a mingling of bitterness and joy; war has its delights, and marriage its alarms” said La Fontaine.
APPARENTLY, the alarm bell rang for Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux after about two years of marriage. (They have been a couple for seven years.) That’s a more than respectable amount of time for a Hollywood relationship—or any relationship, these days. Especially one that doesn’t involve upsetting children and one in which both parties have plenty of money.
I have to admit, this came as a surprise. I tend to ignore the glossy magazines that endlessly predict doom for couples before they even take the vows. (I tip my hat to Henry Higgins!) So, if US or People or InTouch were doling out tales of unhappiness, I never saw them. Apparently, all is amicable between Jen and Justin.
However, Miss Aniston will now be submerged in ridiculous stories about failing at love (as if Mr. Theroux hasn’t failed as well). And but of course, now that her ex, Brad Pitt is split from Angelina Jolie, we are going to suffer Brad ‘n Jen reconciling stories or—more likely—“Jen Pines for Brad.” Because she’s a woman, she has to pine.
I really don’t think Aniston is the pining type. It was inevitably the press that dragged Pitt’s name into interviews. Jennifer– knowing full well that “I’d rather not go there” would result in “she’s too distraught to even mention his name”–would then give a spare response. That would, of course, lead her to being criticized: “Why does she always have to mention him?” “Why is she such a victim?” There are some things you can’t win. But I think Miss Aniston has been through the fire enough to not let it bother her. (Anyway, she’s got that glowy Aveeno-nourished skin. What, her worry?)
My best to both J and J, whom I like as actors and people, from the little I know of them as people. (It is enough in Mr. Theroux’s case that he wears sweatpants so evocatively, as all who were fans of “The Leftovers” surely recall.)
THIS ‘N THAT:
…“YOU have found me out. How could I hope to deceive you? I have been trying to entrap you, with these (displays shapely arms, and other charms), to bind you with soft chains, so that I may do with you as I will.”
That was Gina Lollobrigida, tempting Yul Brynner in “Solomon and Sheba,” one of the most delicious, hysterical, historically inaccurate Biblical epics of the 1950’s. La Lollo, as the actress was affectionately known around the world was a great beauty, a major international star, and a more than passable actress. She deserves a place in the pantheon if all that survived of her work was “Beat the Devil,” “Trapeze,” “Woman of Straw,” “Go Naked in the World” and “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” (from which “Mamma Mia!” sprang.) The star has about 60 other feature and TV credits, beginning in 1946—her early work consists of films with titles such as “Woman of Rome,” “Beautiful But Dangerous,” “The Wayward Wife,” “Flesh and the Woman” and “Wife for a Night.” She didn’t play virgins.
Well, finally, whoever decides these things decided that it was time that Gina Lollobrigida–now a vital 90 years young—was imbedded as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Good grief! I couldn’t be happier she has received this honor, but what the hell were they waiting for? When I think of the “stars”—much younger and without Gina’s creds, who are placed in the pavement… Anyway, glad this happened. Now—Give Doris Day an Oscar!!!!! (Oh, come on, you knew I was leading up to that.)
…WOW! The season premiere of “Homeland” knocked me for a loop, and I can’t say the series, now in its seventh season, has knocked me much of anywhere, recently. With the country in the hands of a paranoid, vindictive president–uh, on the show–and plots abounding, the bug-eyed hysteria of Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison made sense to me, finally. (She generally plays Carrie with the subtlety of deep cleavage at a 14th century nunnery.) “This is not me off my meds!” she screamed as her logic was questioned. I had to laugh, because every morning I feel that I need meds to get through a day of news. We are, so many of us, Carrie Mathison now.
I’m loving Elizabeth Marvel as the president, Mandy Patinkin as the often battered and beleaguered Saul (in jail but not likely for long) and even Linus Roache as one of the president’s advisers. (I say “even” because I felt Roache was so ineffectual as ADA Michael Cutter on “Law & Order.” I’m sure it was the way the role was written—and whose idea was it to give Cutter a baseball bat as a prop?)
Anyway, the second episode of “Homeland” has now aired and I hope the quality and tension remain. I’m always tense, why should “Homeland” relax?
…SPEAKING of “Law & Order” what a hot mess “L&O: Special Victims Unit” has turned into. Not only have they gotten rid of Raul Esparza as Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba but the powers also killed off Benjamin Stone, who was the Executive District Attorney in the original first four seasons of “Law & Order.” That role was played by Michael Moriarity, who is, by the way, still very much alive. But, no return cameos for him.
An odd decision—and Barba’s farewell paean to Mariska Hargitay’s Detective/Sergeant/Lieutenant Olivia Benson was embarrassing to behold– but no odder than the show is now.
Overly politicized and politically correct; focusing way too much on the home life (irritating baby Noah) and the dramas of Olivia Benson. (I mean, how many times can she be abducted, attacked, or somehow done wrong by a man?) Ice-T as detective Tutuola remains a blessing and Peter Scanavino as Carisi is solid, sexy and underused. The very good Kelli Giddish (Amanda Rollins) has had her character fall into the Olivia Benson well of children and family issues. It’s become a soap opera.
Before you get me wrong, I really admire Mariska Hargitay, who is the executive producer of the series now, and a longtime, passionate advocate for women. Back in the day, I ran into her and former co-star Chris Meloni at a number of events. They were both extremely nice and unexpectedly wacky and hilarious. They had such great back-and-forth I suggested they do a comedy together. (She has not ventured there. Meloni has, on a number of occasions; currently he is triumphantly off-the-wall in the weird, brilliant “Happy!” series.) And, when I wrote affectionately about Mariska’s mom, the divine Jayne Mansfield, Hargitay called the office to thank us, personally. (Mariska also, very kindly, gave us the exclusive scoop on her pregnancy. Ah, the good old days of “scoops.)
I just think “Law & Order: SVU” should get back to you know, law and order. But hey, fans might still love it. What do I know?
…FINALLY, a memo to Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall: Get the hell off Twitter and Instagram and behave like the very full grown adults you are!
In case you are unaware, Cattrall has made it abundantly clear in interviews that she doesn’t like or consider SJP—as Parker is annoyingly known to intimates—a pal. She (Cattrall) has no intention of doing another “Sex and the City” movie. (For this decision alone, Kim deserves a Nobel Prize in her efforts to save humanity.) So, I’d say, stay away, SJP. Wouldn’t you?
Then, Cattrall’s brother died. Instead of—if the kindness so moved Parker—writing a note (I know, but people still do), sending an email or picking up the phone, SJP expressed her condolences publicly, on Twitter. Naturally, this enraged Cattrall, who fired back explosively, on Twitter.
Ladies—and others—don’t you know by now that this insane obsession to express yourself every day, on every topic, to an audience of perhaps millions is a really bad idea?
I have met and interviewed both Parker and Cattrall. Separately. They were amusing, sensitive–and quite intelligent. Apparently, social media kills brain cells. Stop!
P.S. The cherry on top of this sad and silly sundae was listening to SJP’s dear friend Andy Cohen “explain” the situation on his Sirius radio program. Cohen expresses himself like the reality “stars” he has elevated on his “Housewives” franchise. I don’t think he did his pal SJP any favors—although he is clearly in Camp Parker—but I laughed all the way through. And I sure needed a laugh.
FRIDAY, February 16 2018
“YOU ARE like a gorgeous serpent, insinuating yourself through the movie!”
That’s what somebody said to the great actress Patricia Clarkson on Monday night at the party following a Cinema Society screening of director Sally Potter’s pitch black comedy “The Party.”
Okay—that “somebody” was me. I know—but I couldn’t help myself. Clarkson does indeed glide through the movie, tossing off mildly uttered, straight-to- the-marrow insults and saying more with a mere roll of her eyes than other can actors can convey in two pages of dialogue.
I enjoyed this film so much, not the least of it was the brevity (71 minutes) and the evocative and necessary—to me–black and white cinematography. Speaking of brevity, the director, Ms. Potter told me that the entire shoot took a mere two weeks. Sure, all the action takes place in one London flat, and nothing explodes, crashes or requires excessive digital fiddling, but I found that timeline and economy still to be an extraordinary achievement.
“The Party” stars Kristin Scott Thomas, giving a celebratory dinner to mark her election as Britain’s new Minister of Health. Things swiftly go awry. Everybody’s got a problem or a secret; her husband (Timothy Spall) and a tight gaggle of friends (Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Bruno Ganz, Cillian Murphy and the abovementioned Clarkson.)
The machinations, evasions and lies—over-the-top, theatrical and almost surreal—unravel swiftly. It’s a chamber piece that has the feel it originated onstage (it did not.) It’s satire with some neat observations on political and societal hypocrisies thrown in for good measure. This is a “real” movie, despite the deliberate absurdities; one that you have to watch and listen to. Every performance is delicious and spot-on.
“The Party” won’t change your life. You won’t ponder the fates of the various characters. But for just over an hour I lost myself in a rich, witty casserole, quickly devoured, totally satisfying.
AS FOR Patricia Clarkson, she has racked up about 90 acting credits since the 1980’s—including three memorable appearances on the New York stage (“House of Blue Leaves,” Eastern Standard” and “The Elephant Man”). She seems to have been in everything, from guest shots to TV films, to features to acclaimed series such as “House of Cards” and “Six Feet Under.” She is inevitably a stand-out, completely unique in manner, unerringly expert in delivery. She has been grossly under-awarded, in my opinion, although at least she has Oscar and Tony nods (“Pieces of April” and “The Elephant Man” respectively.)
In any case, she didn’t mind at all my comparing her to a serpent—a gorgeous serpent—and she was in a very merry mood, a mood that matched her flirty, fun dress, which was trimmed with feathers. “This is the most surprising thing,” I said to her. “You don’t seem like the feathers type.” She laughed, but didn’t comment on whether or not she was a feathery kind of woman in general. But she was pleased I noticed her trim. (I’m a feathery kind of guy—big surprise!)
“The Party” drew an eclectic mix to the Metrograph Theater, down on Ludlow Street, and the gathering that happened right upstairs. Among those on hand were Alan Cumming…Sergio Kletnoy…Ellen and Chuck Scarborough…Scott Gorenstein…Will Cotton…Mick Jones…Isiah Whitlock Jr…Arianna and Charles Rockefeller and the divine Kathleen Turner (Oh, if only I could repeat the conversation we had about somebody who attended Liz Smith’s memorial—such wicked fun!)
But the best encounter I had came early in the evening. Just as I was alighting from my cab, approaching the theater, I noticed a small blonde woman with a big pocketbook, also heading for the door. Although her face was in shadow, I caught a glimpse of an unmistakable profile—Debbie Harry, Blondie herself! We entered together. I introduced myself, and she sweetly pretended to remember we’d met at various events over the years and that I’d interviewed her and Chris Stein at one point. I told her again, as I had back then, how stunned I was when I saw her perform in concert—her voice was so pure and perfect that at first I thought she had to be lip-syncing. Debbie laughed and answered just as she had ten years ago, “Are you sure I wasn’t?” (She wasn’t. Believe me!) She also had the grace to mention Liz, “She was always so lovely to me, always wrote the nicest things.”
As much as I enjoyed the movie, the night could have ended right there with the living legend herself, the epitome of cool, wry, ironic sex-appeal and unparalleled excellence in her music; and a lovely person to boot.
I did have another conversation about Liz Smith, with the formidable and eternally glamorous columnist Cindy Adams. Cindy was talking to a younger woman and as the woman left, Adams playfully swatted her on the rump. “Cindy! I am going to have to report you, if that poor, traumatized girl doesn’t. Sexual harassment, Cindy! These are new days!” Cindy said she didn’t care.
Cindy asked how I was doing. I said fine, and added, “Liz adored you.”
“No she didn’t.”
“Cindy, she did!”
“No, she didn’t. I know more than you do!”
“Cindy, I worked for Liz for 36 years, I doubt you know nearly as much as I do. But seriously, she always spoke very well of your professionalism and glamour and tenacity.” (And that IS the truth.)
Adams mulled this for a second, and said, with a sly little smile, “Okay, I’ll take that!”
ENDTHOUGHT: This was a difficult column. Not because of its content. I simply didn’t want to write today. Whenever something terrible happens—something terrible that makes the news, because terrible things happen every day—I feel less than human, insensitive and foolish, writing up “entertaining” news.
Two things struck me most sadly about the school shooting in Florida. One—there is almost no shock or surprise. Whereas once you might sit in gaping horror at the TV—and in equal distaste at the crass news idiots trying to squeeze every ounce of graphic information out of witnesses and survivors–now you move on with the day—another mass shooting, as uniquely American as apple pie. Nothing is more horrible, more threatening to our souls, than a shrugging, hopeless acceptance of an evil that can be prevented.
But I was made most unhappy with the knowledge of how distinctly and terribly well-planned this attack was. It could be no mere happenstance that this act was committed on Valentine’s Day. This ancient holiday, this day of love, with its early religious and notably romantic origins will forever be an anniversary of horror for the families of those murdered. The word itself—valentine—which can occur anywhere at any time will bring it back, in all manner of mourning, agony and questioning.
Where are we? Where are we going? And must we continue on this road?
P.S. A huge admiring shout-out to Bess Kalb, a writer for Jimmy Kimmel. Kalb reacted to every Republican politician calling for “prayers” with a tweet showing exactly how much money this or that Senator or congressman accepted on behalf of the NRA. Brilliant! And a strategy Democrats should definitely employ this year, and in 2020. But nooooo…they will all continue pounding Russia, Stormy Daniels, the president’s hair, his literacy skills, etc. and pushing for impeachment.
However—and I never thought I’d write this!—people better listen to what reality TV creature and recent White House émigré Omarosa has to say about everybody so hot to unseat 45. Our current president might be a bad deal in many ways, but Mike Pence as commander-in-chief is a literally terrifying concept.
WEDNESDAY, February 7th 2018
“GET a Shubert Theater!!”
That’s what my friend, mentor and employer of 36 years, Liz Smith, jotted down, in a note titled, “Exit: Ta Da!”
Liz had always insisted she didn’t want a fuss after she shuffled off her mortal coil. She’d always come back from a memorial service or funeral, seemingly ever more insistent on this. (And somewhat caustic about both the dead and the living involved.)
I never believed her. Liz loved to be recognized. She loved performing. She loved getting up on stage and utilizing the full force of her personality toguide a charity event. She loved being Liz Smith and she loved a good compliment on the many facets of her evolution from raw, wide-eyed, ambitious Texas girl to the premiere gossip columnist of her era, a Manhattan institution, read around the city, the country and—it always astonished her—the world. (“Honey, this letter/email is from Berlin…Australia…London…Canada!”). So, it was good to know that I was right. Liz had, indeed made a few plans, toward the end of her life. And a Shubert Theater was on the top of the list.
Funnily enough, many who read the New York Social Diary on Monday, thought that David Patrick Columbia’s very good piece on Liz’s memorial was my work. (I actually wrote that day about my long bout with the flu and what I was able to watch and read while abed. Penned in advance, because I wasn’t sure at that point I’d even be up to attending Liz’s celebration.)
“But, she recovered,” as Judy Garland’s caustic aside goes in “A Star is Born.” And so I sat away from Liz’s friends and family, in the Shubert’s Majestic Theater, just in case I began coughing or otherwise felt overcome. That did not happen.
I knew, in varying manner of intimacy, all who spoke onstage—Cynthia McFadden…Barry Diller…Liz’s niece, Karen Williamson…Spencer Hoge (Liz’s adored, adoring and beautifully composed godson)…Tommy Tune (warbling “The Way You Look Tonight”)…Lesley Stahl…Billy Norwich…Joni Evans…Renee Zellweger…Holland Taylor…Bruce Willis.
I appreciated every amusing, poignant reminisce. But there was nothing new for me to learn about Liz. Given the way she ran her office and her life, I knew all in about two years!
I would go home at night and exclaim frantically, “This can’t be normal. It’s too personal. It’s crazy. I think I’m going to have a stroke!” Gently advised to remove myself from the tsunami at 38th Street and apartment 26-A, I would counter, “And do what?” I couldn’t do anything else, and I really didn’t want to. I learned to live—and lived to learn!—in the eye of a “natural blonde” hurricane.
I was particularly grateful about the references to Liz’s intellect, her tremendous curiosity, her compulsive love of reading. If there was ever somebody whose exterior life and perceived interests were at odds with the person she was, that somebody was Liz Smith. Not that Liz didn’t enjoy and value a good piece of gossip, but that sort of thing was rarely a main subject of her conversation.
I was also lifted up by the wonderful selection of photographs and film clips, complied, designed and edited by Jake Whitman. That dazzling movie star smile, utterly embracing and seductive, the laugh—a raucous cackle that was all-inclusive. It was a Greatest Hits afternoon, reminding me, over and over again of all the good times, what a great life she’d had, how eagerly she embraced it and how she enriched, enlivened and even ennobled the lives she touched.
It was “mercifully brief,” a phrase Liz and I would often use after being blessed with a night in the theater that knew its limits and just how much a backside could take in an uncomfortable seat. I got up, and well–felt cured! Had I ever been sick?
I felt quite good enough to attend the reception at Sardi’s after, to drink and nosh. The place was almost ridiculously packed—and un-mournful networking was rife. I had to laugh, reminded of Holland Taylor having just read a note to Liz from her beloved friend Mike Nichols: “When we meet at the next rat fuck!…”
(The next day, Saturday, the Smith family, along with me, Mary Jo McDonough, Diane Judge, Iris Love, and Rachel Clark, celebrated Liz’s life at her old stomping grounds, the El Rio Grande restaurant, downstairs from her office/apartment of nearly half a century. Guacamole was devoured, wings were gnawed, margaritas were hoisted in her name. It went on for eight hours!)
At Sardi’s Lots of people came up with sad-type faces and commented how terrible I must feel. I’m afraid I distressed quite a few by saying I didn’t feel bad at all, that the afternoon had brought back the good, erased the tumult and left me feeling proud to have known her. No tears. We all live and die. Few make the profound personal impact of Liz Smith.
Her professional life was a triumph, but it was a puny thing compared to approaching her in a ballroom or a living room, surrounded by hundreds, or alone together. Her face–solemn, even stubborn, in repose–suddenly, radiantly creased with apparent joy to see and talk to you, and only you, “Honey, come sit here!”
Liz, darling, I’ll never sit by you again. But you are with me, always.
P.S. Bruce Willis, who Liz adored and vice versa seemed especially somber in his recollection. Perversely, this reminded me of an afternoon some years back. Liz had interviewed Bruce, and wrote up their meeting. Reading it over, this sentence jumped out: “He wore just three items of clothing, a white linen shirt, white linen pants, and sandals.”
“Liz,” I said, “How do you know he was only wearing three items of clothing?” Liz looked up from her book. (Yep, she’d done her work and had moved on to more interesting matters.) “You know, Denis, you’re not the only person here who can tell if a man isn’t wearing underwear!”
Another day in the office; another reason I stayed 36 years.
MONDAY February 5 2018
“I ALWAYS look well when I’m near death,” says Greta Garbo in “Camille.”
Over the past two weeks—down with a fairly significant flu–I’ve thought quite a bit about Miss G. and her most famously tragic role. Oh, not that I’ve been near death, or look well. And no matter how poorly I’ve felt, I certainly have better posture than Garbo, who even in her rare “happy” roles, seems about to suffer a fatal collapse.
But I had to think of somebody while I lay, quite unglamorously, on an over-stuffed couch—pillows, throws, books, magazines, a notepad, tissues, Vicks VapoRub, ChapStick, multivitamins, a good moisturizer, several remote controls, my iPod (I know it’s kind of out of favor, but I still use it because of its wonderfully compact size.) I don’t like being tended to or fussed over when I’m sick, so I isolate myself. I emerge briefly and swiftly, to grab a cracker or an antibiotic. (I have regained the figure of my boyhood. Alas, a pale, thin 65-year-old face hovers above my wasp waist.)
At some point, when I was at my most feverish, I actually managed to dispose of the Christmas tree, an increasing fire hazard. But much of the rest of the holiday decorations remain. Depending on my mood, I think it either looks like the Russian Tea Room or Mrs. Havisham’s digs.
Of course, I also feel guilty that I’m not contributing here, although neither Mr. David Patrick Columbia or Mr. Jeffrey Hirsch have stood over me with a whip. Hmmm, maybe if they had…
I am writing this column on Thursday February 1st. I already know that attempting to write on Friday, the 2nd would have been a foolish endeavor. That day I had to leave Hoboken at 10.30 a.m. to get to Manhattan’s Majestic Theater and Liz Smith’s memorial, where they said the doors would open at 11:15. Blessedly, I was not called upon to speak. But I gave instructions to save a standing position for me in the back, in case a massive coughing jag overtook me while a significant personage was onstage saying something funny or moving, and I had to leave my seat. (“Oh, it’s Denis, making a scene. He probably wanted to be up there speaking. Honestly!”)
On Wednesday, I will, hopefully, let you know a bit about this event.
I HAVE not been totally oblivious to the wonderful world outside my memorabilia-cluttered room. My use of the remote control and my powers of attention have been erratic/sporadic/fever-based. But I still caught a few things.
I tried to watch all of the Grammys, but I kept switching back to PBS and “The Story of the Jews,” which was marvelous and moving.
What did I get out of the Grammys? Lady Gaga and Pink can really sing, and I didn’t mind at all that Gaga was dressed as a dying swan and Pink looked like she just rolled up from a pleasant afternoon with the family. (I also appreciated Pink staying put. Singing upside down, forty feet in the air is impressive, but she doesn’t need a gimmick.) I love the way Nick Jonas’ ears stick out. I didn’t catch a word of what Kendrick Lamar was singing in the opening number. But it looked mighty impressive and I got the theme, based on the powerful visual. I was wretchedly uninterested in various celebrities—and good grief, Hillary Clinton!—reading from the “Fire and Fury” book. I do not understand the reason for James Corden existing—either as host of the Grammys or having his own late-night talk show. (And my goodness, there’s nothing wrong with being zaftig, but get a suit that fits.)
But, of course the high point (for me) was Patti LuPone’s yodeling on “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” LuPone just can’t get over that Madonna made the movie of “Evita.” And she’s made that endlessly clear over the decades. I like LuPone a lot as an actress—she is truly excellent. Her singing is an acquired taste. I have not acquired it. Madonna’s acting—in starring roles–generally makes me want to rush into the screen and take her away before anybody notices. Her singing voice, on the other hand—is an absolutely perfect pop instrument, flexible, urgent and romantic. She did the score of “Evita” proud. But I had to hand it to LuPone. You could almost see the caption running endlessly across the screen as she performed, “This is what you missed! A pox on you, Andrew Lloyd Webber!”
I did not watch the president’s State of the Union Address. Why bother? It is instantly deconstructed and re-played with various numbing, tunnel-vision, partisan opinions. Anyway, watching obviously crazy people disturbs me. (No, I don’t mean Trump. I mean Mike Pence. His adoring gazes at the president lead me to believe Mrs. Pence should take a page from her hubby’s playbook and not allow Mike to ever be alone with 45.)
I have almost blocked out the daily accusations, allegations, ruinations and fantastic hypocrisies that have emerged from the MeToo and TimesUp movements. The genuinely concerned and good people at the heart of these organizations might do well to go to online comments sections as each new story of harassment emerges. Initially the ordinary folk on conservative sites were all aboard, as so many in “liberal, perverted” show biz fell. But even there the mood has changed to eye-rolling indifference and from an unfortunate amount of women, a kind of “Oh, enough already…are all men monsters, should we just all become lesbians?!” This is a potentially fatal mindset, affecting the genuine victims of abuse, harassment and unequal treatment. (The ones who don’t give press conferences, appear on “Ellen” or have the time to tweet endlessly—you know, real people.)
As for Jimmy Kimmel, he can cry all he wants about his sick child, rage about health care and other matters political, but my sympathies for him dried up when he booked Miss Stormy Daniels, former adult film performer and rumored one-time playmate of the president. (I wish only blessings and good health for Kimmel’s son, however.)
I don’t care if any president is unfaithful to his wife. My goodness, John F. Kennedy, so beloved, so tragic, so “if only he’d lived” was a monster of infidelity. But I think he was more or less on the side of the angels, in terms of what he wanted for this country. Ditto Bill Clinton, although his 1994 crime bill wasn’t exactly benevolent. At least he eventually admitted that he’d only made a bad situation worse.
I want my president to have a heart, soul and brain. I don’t want him (or her, hopefully, someday!) to be merely a tool for their party or an empty shell of ego. If there is straying from the martial bed—so long as it’s consensual in nature—I don’t care. And neither should you, Mr. or Miss Perfect.
FINALLY, I got in some reading—Tina Brown’s “The Vanity Fair Diaries” and “Avedon: Something Personal” by Norma Stevens (Avedon’s longtime studio director) and M.L. Aaronson.
I think trying to take in these two books, one after another, was too a la mode, too deluxe macaroni and cheese, too five-alarm chili, too double-fudge brownies, too tequila on the rocks. All delicious, but potentially vomit-inducing consumed at the same time. Names, names, names, bitching, bitching, bitching. Lots of Avedon was a genius but so fucked up and not always that nice. From Tina, lots of I’m a genius and everybody else is so fucked up and not always that nice.
This is not accurate, really. I realize I was reading books too similar, and also in a weakened state, to fully appreciate either. (And Tina is an excellent, saber-toothed writer—hard on herself, too, when she feels she must be.)
But the endless machinations of the fashion and photography worlds and those of magazine publishing—which intersects with seamless, plump, egomania —ground me down. There is a lot of vastly entertaining gossip-passing-as-history or vice versa, and when I am feeling more deluxe and superficial, I’ll have another go at these tales of privilege, power and petulance.
I did read one extremely satisfying book, Will Friedwald’s “The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums.” I will tell more on this, anon.