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.