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.
FRIDAY, January 19th 2018
“GOOD health and good sense are two of life’s greatest blessings,” said Publilius Syrus
I REALIZE it is arrogant in the extreme to wonder if any of you wondered where I—this column–was on Wednesday? Probably not, but I am going forge ahead as if you did.
Last Friday, just as I finished writing up my night out seeing Trudie Styler’s “Freak Show” movie, I was knocked sideways by the flu. It had nothing to do with Trudie’s film. I suppose I was just susceptible to the current bad flu epidemic going around, and flu shots that have been, this year, notoriously inadequate.
At one point, feverish and wracked with body aches, I was sure I had somehow entered that “Law & Order” episode where the flu vaccines were replaced by saline solution. (Don’t pretend you don’t know that one—we’ve all seen all the L & O’s multiple times, know the guilty party but stick to the end anyway. Like Pavlov’s dog, as soon as the familiar thumpy Mike Post theme music comes on, we are inevitably conditioned to keep watching.)
I am writing today hunched over and feeling as if I’ve been beaten with a rubber hose from head to toe. So–an improvement!
Illness also prevented me from going to an episode screening of the new TV series “The Alienist.” This included dinner at NYC’s fabled Delmonico’s, where I have never been.
I am very annoyed at my flu!
I DID manage, in between a lot of “Whhhyyyyy?” cries, to keep up with some of what’s been going on. Nothing fun, alas. More careers damaged or ruined, in ongoing sex abuse allegations.
So I will talk about harassment—from a different angle.
First– Mark Wahlberg, inexplicably the highest paid actor in the U.S. right now. I met Mark years ago, during the height of his crotch-grabbing underwear fame, but he behaved like a soft-spoken choir boy with me. He was charming. And smart.
In recent years, he’s come to Jesus and says ridiculous things like he hopes God can forgive him for making “Boogie Nights,” in which he played a porn star.
In reality, Wahlberg should fear the Deity loosening the lightning of his terrible swift sword because of Wahlberg’s participation in the “Ted” films, his “Transformers” re-boots, “Daddy’s Home,” 1 and 2. Not to mention “The Happening.” That one should put Mark and director M. Night Shymalan in the fiery pit for eternity.
My opinion aside, he manages to make enough hit movies to garner him astronomic salaries. Fair is fair—he’s worth it.
Then the time came for Mark to re-shoot some scenes in Ridley Scott’s current “All The Money in the World” (Kevin Spacey, career in tatters, was edited out and replaced by Christopher Plummer.) Wahlberg has a terrific agent, who negotiated a million plus for his client’s additional work. Michelle Williams, another of the film’s stars, worked for scale, by choice. When this news broke, Wahlberg was torn to shreds by all the perfect people in the media—he was a monster for actually having good representation. In the end, he was forced into donating his salary to charity. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want to do this. No matter how much money one has, one always feel more secure with, well, more. But Mr. Wahlberg could see the nail polish on the wall—his very successful career might be in jeopardy. He was seen as somehow abusing his position as a man. He had to give in.
“All the Money in the World” has not made all the money in the world. It might have made more if they’d kept Spacey in, actually.
Wahlberg is the only member of that cast who has box-office power, and making deals based on that power is what show business is about.
Male actors are not required to give up their salaries because their female co-stars are poorly represented or not as popular. If women want parity in payment, they need to work smartly and proactively with producers and agents—it’s not the responsibility of their male counterparts to deprive themselves.
Oh, and as always, this movie star kerfuffle has NOTHING to do with ordinary women being abused and harassed and underpaid all across this country. Does Michelle Williams think the female cashier at some supermarket, or the waitress in a diner, can summon up the courage and garner press attention to be better paid, or to be left alone by her lecherous boss, etc.?
A MORE unhappy situation, as far as I am concerned is that of Timothee Chalamet. The extremely talented 21-year old star of “Call Me By Your Name” was—in my opinion—bullied and harassed into giving his small salary on Woody Allen’s upcoming movie, “A Rainy Day in New York” to the TimesUp organization.
Unlike Mr. Wahlberg, I bet Timothee actually is missing that money. But, his extraordinarily promising career was threatened. He had to give in. Now he can safely journey to a well-deserved Oscar nomination. (I wonder in the current climate if Woody’s film will even see release?)
Here’s the rub. The accusations against Woody Allen—that he molested his own adopted child, Dylan– were made in the aftermath of his horribly bitter split from Mia Farrow. We’ll never know the truth of it. What we do know is that Allen has never been accused by any actress he has worked with of inappropriate behavior or verbal abuse. So, his situation—shatteringly ugly as it is–inhabits an entirely different realm than what TimesUp and MeToo are working so diligently for. (Of course many people will simply never forgive or forget the extreme creepiness, and cruelty of how Woody’s relationship with Mia’s adopted daughter Soon Yi Previn rolled out. Soon Yi has been his wife since 1997, but that hardly changes the terrible beginning.)
But we also know this: in Mia Farrow’s life there are two known sexual predators—her own brother John Charles Villiers-Farrow, who was arrested on charges of child molestation. He is now serving 25 years in jail. And there is Mia’s good friend, the “Rosemary’s Baby” director Roman Polanski—who drugged and raped a 13 year old girl in 1977. Farrow has never denounced him. And right now would be the perfect time, yes?
But I guess Mia is simply leaving Roman to heaven, and will spend the rest of her life attempting to consign Woody to hell.
ONE MORE abuse note. I had to laugh watching Stephen Colbert grilling James Franco about allegations that surfaced about the actor, hours after he won a Golden Globe for “The Disaster Artist.” Colbert, age 53, and having worked all his life in the notoriously misogynist world of comedy, is of course a perfect human. (Likewise Seth Meyers, another moralist from the famously female unfriendly “SNL.”)
Colbert, so evolved, sees nothing degrading, abusive or harassing in presenting “comic” skits about Melania Trump. I mean, what the hell does mocking this poor woman have to do with… anything? Nor are his monologues critiquing the Trump marriage—whatever it is—anybody’s business or vital to our current battle against dangerous autocracy.
As far as I am concerned, this is a man with power, abusing a woman who actually has none.
Friday, January 5th 2018
“YOU WANT the truth? He dumped me. An’ ya know why he dumped me? Because I wanted him to kill you and he wouldn’t. Now, get outta here, and let me unpack!”
Those are the last—and most unwise!—words that Gloria Grahame spits out at Broderick Crawford, in Fritz Lang’s grimy 1954 masterpiece, “Human Desire.”
Adapted from the French, “La Bete Humaine” directed by Jean Renoir, this is Grahame’s greatest performance, in a brief career studded with stand-out work, her Oscar win for “The Bad and the Beautiful” actually being the least impressive of her performances—the briefest, anyway. But as Hollywood is wont to do, it decided 1952 was Grahame’s “time,” having appeared also to great effect in “Crossfire,” “Macao,” “In a Lonely Place,” “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Sudden Fear.” Not to mention her role as Violet in 1946’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” which was all but forgotten. (Television exposure eventually transformed that Frank Capra flop into a Christmas classic.)
Grahame blazed briefly but brilliantly, her career in premature free-fall by the time she appeared in the 1955 screen version of “Oklahoma” as a delightful Ado Annie. Her personal life was almost as fraught, dramatic and occasionally sordid as her screen roles. With wildly exaggerated lips, and a voice of insinuating brass, what set Grahame apart from other film noir heroines was her complicated vulnerability. That is most apparent in “Human Desire.” She’s not good, but she’s bad—very bad–for a reason; she’s married to Broderick Crawford for heaven’s sake! When her lover, Glenn Ford, who also partnered her in “The Big Heat,” gets a conscience and won’t do Crawford in, one can’t help feel powerfully moved by Grahame’s rage, frustration and fear.
This paean to Miss Graham leads me—as I’m sure many of you already suspected—to the current movie, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” It is based on the memoir written by Peter Turner, a young British actor who became intimately involved with Grahame toward the end of her life, as she valiantly eked out a career on stage, mostly forgotten, and, as it turns out, also dying of cancer. Despite the grim subject—and few things are grimmer than the once-glamorous, dimly-remembered star, fatally ill or not–the movie, which stars Annette Bening as Grahame and Jamie Bell as Peter Turner, is saved from despair by their performances.
Ms. Bening, still Oscar-less, after four nominations and about three other performances that also should have been acknowledged with nods, wisely does not imitate Grahame in any way. That would have been an impossible and thankless task. But she conveys the odd, perverse delicacy and the sensual vibrancy that made Grahame so unique. It is wise, deeply felt portrayal.
However—and this is an amazing thing to say in a movie that features Ms. Bening—“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” really belongs to Jamie Bell. Mr. Bell, now 31, and still most often recalled for his adolescent role in “Billy Elliott,” is now a fully grown leading man, and fully formed as an actor of abundant nuance, substance and authenticity. His great performance holds a slim tale together. It is work that should be honored by more than merely flattering words. I’m looking at you, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (I’ve admired Bell also in “Eagle,” “Jane Eyre,” “Defiance” “Snowpiercer” and the TV series, “TURN: Washington’s Spies.”)
I ventured out to see another movie, in-between avoiding most of cable news and binge-watching everything from Turner Classic Movies to Amazon and Neflix.
I took in “Molly’s Game.” This is another fact-based tale, starring Jessica Chastain as an Olympic-class skier who morphs into a very tough cookierunning high-stake poker games, and gets into trouble with the law. Directed and written by Aaron Sorkin, I was resistant to even try this one. I know that Sorkin—of Emmys and Oscars and other tributes–is considered a god, and his rapier writing skills and unrealistic but fascinating-to-some dialogue is worshipped. I am not among the flock. But as I am a great admirer of Idris Elba, who also stars as Chastain’s lawyer, I sucked up my reluctance and paid my money. Mr. Elba manages, somehow to rise above, or does not become totally entangled in Sorkin-speak. Or maybe he does, and I just forgave him. (It’s true, I’d forgive him anything.) Ms. Chastain, who is a good actress, but so very chilly, always, embraces the material with garrulous gusto. Not only does she talk, she narrates the movie. By the end, I wanted to punch a hole through the screen, and for the next two days, perhaps in reactive shock, I spoke slowly, and only in monosyllables. I’ve now read many positive reviews on “Molly’s Game” and I suppose I’m just simple-minded or a cinematic Luddite. Look, I like fast, snappy dialogue as much as the next guy—who doesn’t adore Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday.” But Sorkin’s work generally pains me. I know I’m in the minority here!
ON SUNDAY night, the Golden Globes will be telecast over NBC, and although it’s been decades since I was truly excited about an awards show, my feeling this year, is that I’d rather be out, and not watch it at all. From the inevitable political jokes by host Seth Meyers to the ridiculousness of actors saying they will wear black in solidarity for harassed, abused women, I can’t think of two or three less palatable hours. I will only note, to any of those who decide to drape themselves funereally for the event, that the truly powerless, oppressed, abused and harassed women of this country and the world, are likely too busy working to be impressed by your One Shade of Hypocrisy and Fear choice of clothing. (When Meryl Streep is bullied into repeated apologies and a wardrobe alteration by the likes of Rose McGowan, things have gotten pretty bad.) Of course, I will watch.
AS SOMEBODY who believes that Kathy Griffin hasn’t been truly funny for fifteen years, I say with some surprise that CNN made a mistake in firing her from its annual New Year’s Eve celebration with Anderson Cooper. Yes, her beheaded mannequin pic with the president was massively stupid, but now, especially in the wake of Cooper and Andy Cohen hosting the New Year special, CNN—which doesn’t know its ass from its elbow anyway—acted too quickly on Griffin. She was funny with him, or seemed funny, which was enough.
I don’t know how smart Anderson Cooper is. But if intellectual ability was comparable to weight training, I don’t think he’d be power-lifting. Andy Cohen, despite his huge success as the man who has helped so much to coarsen the culture with his lucrative “Housewives” franchise, just seems cheerfully dumb and shallow. (Maybe he is a closet intellect and actually reads Proust in-between baiting the savagely plastic-surgeried “stars” of his shows.)
So there they were, two simple friends, freezing, struggling. They even dragged out a few of the old subjects Griffin had used on Anderson—his childhood modeling, etc—to much less amusing effect. Cohen pimped “Housewives.” They both had tequila shots late in the evening. They should have started sooner. It was not quite as grisly as I expected, but bad enough. Never thought I’d say it—bring back Kathy Griffin. (It would be great next year to have her rag on Cooper as to what a poor friend he was in supporting her. Then again, I doubt they really were friends.)
SWEET CHARITY: Tomorrow night, at Radio City Music Hall, Dave Matthews, The Trey Anastasio Band, Aaron Neville, Hurray for Riff Raff and others join for “A Concert for Island Relief.” Proceeds will benefit hurricane relief efforts in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and the almost totally devastated Puerto Rico. Well, somebody has to do something! I don’t know ticket availability on this show, but if you’re of a mind, you can also go online and choose from such varied sources as Global Giving, Go Fund Me, United Way, etc. if you want to help out. Every little bit helps.
ENDQUOTE: “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is,” said Winston Churchill.
These are words to live by, work for and believe in, more than ever.
“WHY, YOU poor pathetic garbage picker, you’re an even bigger loser than I am!”
That’s downtrodden Lana Turner, snarling at sleazy Burgess Meredith, as Turner’s 1966 entry, “Madame X,” spirals down into delicious sordidness and beatific, self-sacrificing Mother Love.
Oh, I know, you all thought I was going to begin 2018 with mournful, angry memories of last year, and chipper pack-up–your-troubles-in-your-old-kit-bag (and smile, smile, smile!) Not to mention calls for activism, as our democracy is threatened.
Well, I have 12 months—God willing—to do all that. And some will perhaps roll their eyes and say, “Enough—aren’t you here to entertain?” (Or as Noel Coward’s 1929 “If Love Were All” song goes—always the Judy Garland version—“the most I have is just, a talent to amuse…” To be honest, I’m not sure I even have a lot of that. But sure as hell I am not going to depress you guys straight out of the gate, as a new year arrives.
I SPENT a good deal of vacation time decorating my house for Christmas—as you all know, it always ends up looking like a bordello, and I keep adding to it. Too much is never enough!
I also remained glued to Turner Classic Movies, where Miss Lana Turner was the Star of the Month. And what a star she was!
Her career, if not as prestigious and Oscar-laden as, say MGM sister Elizabeth Taylor, was rather epic in length and saw her through a number of transitions, not to mention a scandal that, looking back, was a miracle she survived. No star—save perhaps Joan Crawford–ever enjoyed her stardom more. And Lana did it with considerably less obvious desperation. Nobody is happy when a career begins to go south. Lana drifted away, buffeted by her own glorious belief in “Lana Turner” and—for many years—the comfort of liquor. Crawford, rolling her Rs to the very end, made a lot of noise. (And 100 proof vodka cushioned her disappointments.)
LANA, who was not discovered at the soda fountain Schwab’s drug store—but why bother with the truth, it’s the iconic tale—appeared first in the 1937 movie “They Won’t Forget” as a busty teen-age girl who is the victim of a killer, her screen time was brief, but her apparently well-filled-out sweater was memorable. Turner, then under contract for Warner Bros., and only 16, became well-known as “The Sweater Girl” and renowned for a bosom she didn’t really have. Turner filled out her clothes well enough, but she was tiny, trim and neat.
A year later, MGM, still suffering the shock of 26-year-old Jean Harlow’s death, brought Turner into the fold, put her through the usual apprenticeship to see what she did best—they almost made her a musical star—bleached her auburn hair blonde, and used her as both a sex-symbol replacement for Harlow, and a glamorous young leading lady, of various careers and traumas, to offset the maturing and less potent Joan Crawford.
Right off the bat, Turner was a big hit—she was luscious, baby-faced, relaxed and very appealing. She was paired with all the studio’s big leading men—Gable in “Honky Tonk” (they would go on to make five more films) Spencer Tracy in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr, Hyde, Mickey Rooney (of course!) in an Andy Hardy film and Robert Taylor in “Johnny Eager.” When MGM put her in “Ziegfeld Girl,” opposite gorgeous zombie Hedy Lamarr and budding genius triple threat Judy Garland, it was Turner who most impressed studio execs. Her role was expanded. And variations of this role echoed throughout most of her career—a basically good girl, sweet, if spoiled and headstrong, easily led to the sordid side of the street. (In “Ziegfeld Girl” she not only gets smacked around by dead beat boxer Dan Daily, she also has one of the great movie queen moments ever, attempting to glide down a long staircase, recreating her glory days as a stage beauty.)
Turner’s disordered private life was fodder for fan magazines and gossip columns. In the end there would be eight husbands, including musician Artie Shaw, millionaire Bob Topping and Tarzan actor Lex Barker. None of the hubbies seemed anything more than adjuncts to Lana’s fame and her career as a star, required to wed many times. The rumored—and factual—lovers were more interesting.
Blessed with a slimmed-hipped, perky-assed, broad-shouldered body, Turner wore almost anything thrown on her, beautifully. She had, without a doubt, the most perfect, regal posture of all the MGM girls—Ava Gardner, perhaps, came close.
Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor generally played Women in Love. Taylor was the privileged little bitch (eventually rehabilitated) and Gardner the soulful, sometimes cruel sensualist. (She often died.) Turner, on the other hand, for all her breathy blonde beauty was frequently a career woman—she played nurses, soldiers, secretaries, spies and—of course—actresses. She didn’t seem out of place doing ordinary things. Of course, the public adored her as the murder-on-her-mind Cora in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” but even there she was just trying to make her tacky roadside café into something better.
The years rolled on, and Turner, who took tremendous pride and care in her appearance, seemed to stop the clock for a long time. She became, as good roles began to dwindle, increasingly lacquered and posy—a divine clotheshorse. Or, as in the case of “The Prodigal” a divine who wore three beads and a prayer. But under that persona always there was a certain roughness, a coarseness, that was very exciting. It was in those moments, that her talent, which was not inconsiderable, was most obvious. (All fans recall her fabulous hysteria in Vincent Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful” going nuts in a careening car, after Kirk Douglas rejects her.)
As her MGM career neared its end, still glam, but less profitable—“Latin Lovers,” “The Flame and the Flesh,” “The Merry Widow,” “The Sea Chase,” “Diane”– 36-year-old Lana was cast as the sexually repressed mother of a teenage girl in the screen version of the then-shocking best-seller, “Peyton Place.” Under any circumstances, give the novel’s notoriety, the film would have been a hit, but as luck would have it , just as “Petyon” was finishing its general release, Lana was plunged into what remains to this day, one of the most stunning scandals ever. Her own teenage daughter, Cheryl Crane, had stabbed her mother’s gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato to death, in Lana’s pink boudoir. He was attacking Lana, and Cheryl was defending her mother. It was beyond lurid in every respect. Lana was clearly unfit, screamed the editorials—and some other Hollywood stars.
But Turner’s love letters to Stompanato, released to tabloids, and signed “Lanita” revealed not a rank sensualist, but a little girl, besotted. Then, with close-cropped platinum blonde hair and a severe suit, Turner took the stand at Cheryl’s trial. Her televised testimony, sobbing, heaving—but regal and motherly even in her distress, won the day. Cheryl was acquitted—justifiable homicide. Cheryl would have many troubles for years to come, but in the end, mother and daughter held their bond. “Peyton Place” had been a huge hit, and Turner nominated for her only Oscar.
But now, could Lana Turner continue? Yes, she could. Producer Ross Hunter approached her with that old chestnut about mother love and racial discrimination, “Imitation of Life.” Although the relationship between Turner and screen daughter Sandra Dee, came ominously close to what people suspected about Lana and Cheryl, Turner—offered a big slice of the profits—accepted. Thin and tense, covered in glorious clothes and jewels and given multiple emotional outbursts, Turner was good. Susan Kohner, who played the tormented bi-racial daughter of Turner’s maid—Oscar nominated Juanita Moore–was even better. The movie was a gigantic hit and secured Lana financially. She was forgiven, and had risen, phoenix-like from the ashes of the dead body on the floor of her bedroom.
NOW, mostly under the guidance of Ross Hunter, her roles reflected her notorious reputation—she was “By Love Possessed”…her “Love Has Many Faces”…she was the picture of duplicity in “Portrait in Black”…she was in “Another Time, Another Place” (with another woman’s husband). There were even a couple of silly comedies, “Bachelor in Paradise” and “Whose Got the Action” which revealed a still slender and glamorous Lana, but robbed of most of her youthful vivacity. Comedy, which she’d performed delectably as a young woman, was now beyond her. She had seen too much.
Then, in 1966, a threshold year for Hollywood films, the year that Elizabeth Taylor got fat and cursed up a storm in “Who’s Afraid of “Virginia Woolf?” Lana Turner, similarly deglamorized herself—for about 25 minutes—in her final Ross Hunter production, another oldie, re-tooled, “Madame X.” Turner, although very adept, was hard to take as the young “inappropriate” wife of rising politician Robert Forsythe. But soon enough, bored and neglected, Lana is dallying with Ricardo Montalban, killing Ricardo Montalban (it was an accident, natch), battling with her evil, freshly face-lifted mother-in-law Constance Bennett (“So, you killed your lover, my girl!…you can’t help being what you are any more than you can help being what you aren’t”), and forced to abandon hubby and child, for “the good of the family.”
Lana changes her hair color several times and travels the world, miserable, of course, falling into snowdrifts and bad habits. (Absinthe is her poison.) But, once she gets to Mexico, she is at her nadir, and it is from this point onward, Lana Turner gives a performance than in another time, another place, would have earned her an Oscar nod. But in ’66, the “woman’s picture” was dead.
It’s not just that Turner allows herself to look like crap—which disturbed her greatly in real life—she gets to the heart of the matter. She alters her voice, the way she moves, degraded in Mexico, ennobled at trial, when she tells only so much of the truth, to protect her child—who thinks she is dead. It’s brilliant stuff. Truly.
It was more or less the official end of her major starring career. There were a few more films, better left unspoken of, some TV, and eventually a spiritual awakening that was rather touching, if off-putting for those who expected a bawdy old movie star, riffing on her love life. (Check out Robin Leech’s extraordinary interview with Lana—battling cancer—a year before her death.) She appeared at peace, after a life where peace was something she rarely seemed to pursue.
Turner died in 1995, aged 74, in a Century City apartment complex. Fittingly, it had once been the back lot of 20th Century Fox. (Where she made 1955’s “The Rains of Ranchipur”as an amoral lady luring holy man Richard Burton.)
During one particularly fraught moment, earlier in her career, Lana exclaimed, “My life has been a series of emergencies!”
For a while, yes. (After the Stomanato killing, although she continued to marry, there were no more personal headlines. Unlike Taylor, Turner did not hold onto to obsessive media interest.) But to fans, her life had been a series of dazzling screen appearances, a never-disappointing goddess, who gave all she had, all she wanted to give.
As she said in the person of pagan high priestess Samarra, in “The Prodigal”—“I cannot belong to one man. I belong to…all men!”
Maybe not all–but enough. Lanita, you were quite a woman, and a great star.
AND FOLKS—the year will go on, and these columns won’t always be so giddy. Fair warning.
FRIDAY, December 15 2017
“NO ONE wants to look sexy!”
That’s what Hollywood stylist Elizabeth Stewart told The Hollywood Reporter’s Booth Moore recently, in the matter of how the ongoing Fall of Alleged Harassing Men will affect fashion choices at the coming Golden Globes ceremony on January 10th.
Wow. Is this what “empowerment” has come to? That cleavage, a long well-exposed leg, a tight fit, will somehow be counter-productive to women who are bringing truly serious accusations of harassment, coercion and rape against powerful men? Are we going to go back to “she asked for it” because of how she was dressed?
The GGs are an awards ceremony—and without a doubt the silliest and most fun. People tune in for the cameras sweeping the ballroom, to catch pleasantly liquored-up stars make faces, mingle, cuddle and (if your lip-reading skills are good enough) say wonderfully terrible things. People also tune in for–cleavage, long legs and a tight fit! That’s entertainment. That’s female glamour since the old days of the Nickelodeon. It will be a sad thing if women feel they have to cover up to convey solidarity with their abused sisters. The show itself is likely to be a nerve-racking, overly political self-righteous mess anyway. At least give us something to look at.
Designer Prabal Gurung, described as “politically outspoken” also contributed to this Hollywood Reporter article. He said, “Women can dress however they want, to show their body or cover it.” Then he added, “being sexy or not is an individual choice—the problem is the gaze.”
The gaze? The male gaze, which will always objectify a woman? (Just thinking, or saying, “she’s hot!” doesn’t make you Harvey Weinstein.) Or the female gaze, that surveys a woman critically or enviously or admiringly? And let’s not forget that over the past twenty years or so, women have been much more open in their own objectifying gaze of men. If Zac Efron and Hugh Jackman came onstage at the Globes and performed a “Magic Mike” routine, few women would look away.
The atmosphere right now is a French Revolution-style cross between “The Twilight Zone” and “The Crucible.” PBS’s Tavis Smiley is the latest to be eliminated—he says he’ll fight back. More disturbing is the Netflix executive who was fired after one of actor Danny Masterson’s accusers approached the exec in public—he was coaching a soccer game. He did not know who she was. (Masterson has been accused of rape by several women; he was fired from Netflix’s “The Ranch.”) The woman said, “Why hasn’t Danny Masterson been fired?” The exec said “Netflix does not believe these allegations.” Which, at that point, prior to Masterson’s firing, was likely what he thought he was supposed to say. Now he’s out. So, nobody can say “we don’t believe this” without the fear of losing their livelihood?
We live in interesting times.
I SAID above that The Golden Globes is the silliest awards show. Always has been. Put on by the Hollywood Foreign Press, it is often mind-bending in its nominations and wins. But, the event itself is fun.
This year is no exception. I won’t run through every category, just a few particular nods or snubs.
First off, the exclusion of “The Big Sick” from Best Picture, Comedy or Musical category is criminal. No other word. I love this movie. It made me happy this year–a huge achievement.
“All the Money in the World” which nobody has seen except members of the Hollywood Foreign Press, received three nominations, Michelle Williams for Best Actress, Drama, Ridley Scott as director, and Christopher Plummer in the Supporting Drama category. Maybe they deserve it, but it looks more like the HFP wanted to honor Ridley Scott for erasing the ruined Kevin Spacey in the role of J. Paul Getty, and replacing him with Plummer, so swiftly. It was quite a feat.
I’d prefer to see Timothee Chalamet win Best Actor in a drama, for “Call Me By Your Name.” But because Daniel Day-Lewis has announced that “Phantom Thread” will be his last film—honest, this time—he might snag it. Timothee is very young. Time is on his side.
I am totally on board for Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” The movie is a totally wild black comedy and McDormand’s performance is epic, baroque, searing. Ditto one of her brilliant co-stars Sam Rockwell, who is justly nominated in Best Supporting. Rockwell has been chugging along, doing amazing work for years. He has been grossly under-honored. (Woody Harrelson is also terrific in this. Woody seems to get better every time he sets foot in front of a camera.)
Best Actress, Comedy? Margot Robbie, hands down for “I, Tonya.”
Best Supporting Actress? I adore Laurie Metcalf, and she almost walks away with “Lady Bird.” But she has been well-awarded over the years. Allison Janney is monstrously good in “I, Tonya” (as Tonya Harding’s mother.) She, too, is award-laden. But I’m a little off the great Ms. Janney so long as she continues to appear in the lamentable sitcom, “Mom.” So, I go with Mary J. Blige for “Mudbound,” a powerful film, in which Blige transforms herself admirably in attitude and appearance.
In the TV drama category, Elisabeth Moss will probably take it for “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But I’d not object to delicious Claire Foy for “The Crown,” Caitriona Balfe for “Outlander” (I love a good supernatural bodice-ripper!) or the amazing Maggie Gyllenhaal in HBO’s otherwise VERY unfairly overlooked “The Deuce.”
Lastly, let’s consider Best Actress, Limited Series or TV Movie. I’ll be fine with Nicole Kidman or Reese Witherspoon in “Big Little Lies.” Or the exquisite Jessica Lange in “Feud: Bette and Joan.” (I’m afraid I lost interest in Jessica Biel and “The Sinner” halfway through.)
As for Susan Sarandon, who played Bette Davis in “Feud,” I couldn’t have been more impressed by her performance—she was great. So great, in fact, that now, every time I see her, I always somehow see Miss Davis.
But—and here we become openly childish and peevish and, yes—unfair. I kind of got over her stupidity in voting for Jill Stein last year. Que sera, sera. But recently she went down another rabbit hole of imbecility by declaring that if Hillary Clinton had been elected we’d be at war! Look, I voted for Mrs. Clinton without much enthusiasm. I don’t think she should have run at all. But I sure don’t think she would have led us to war, no matter how else she would have inevitably disappointed us.
Susan Sarandon is a great actress. And she has a right to her opinion. And I have the right to say I don’t want to see her win a Golden Globe. I guess that makes us both idiots.
ON SUNDAY evening at New York’s Film Forum, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s epic and notorious 1963 film, “Cleopatra” will be screened. According to legend, it was a “bomb.” According to the facts, it was the highest grossing film of the year. It simply could not, at that time, make back its $40 million-plus cost.
Film fans will recall that there were two productions of “Cleopatra.” First, there was the London production, which was scrapped because the star, Elizabeth Taylor almost died of pneumonia. Many millions had already been spent. ET’s near death only increased her popularity—so much so that she won her first Oscar for “Butterfield 8.” The Rome production, a year later, was equally fraught, for different reasons. During filming Taylor became, for the second time, the world’s most notorious husband-stealer—snatching married co-star Richard Burton, and tossing Eddie Fisher’s scalp in the singer’s face. (Fisher’s betrayed ex-wife, Debbie Reynolds couldn’t stop laughing.)
The scandal–Taylor denounced by the Vatican!–the enormous costs, and the tenuous financial state of 20th Century Fox, all colluded to undermine the film itself, which was elegant and literate, with a lot of spectacle thrown in. “Cleopatra” looks a lot better now 50 plus years later. And The New Yorker’s Richard Brody gives the film a long-overdue positive review in the current issue.
The movie has a hypnotic quality based very much on the fact that Mankiewicz, who knew Taylor well—he had directed her in “Suddenly, Last Summer”–began to tinker with the script as he watched Taylor and Burton become increasingly besotted. There is eerie prescience in the scenes between Taylor and Burton (she and Rex Harrison—as Julius Caesar—also click very well.) La Liz and Richard not only seem to be playing out what was happening to them at the time, but in many ways, how their real-life relationship would flower, bloom and if not quite wither, then become depressingly laden with too much excess. As Elizabeth herself would state, after their first separation in 1973, “Perhaps we have loved each other too much.”
Go see “Cleopatra” as it was meant to be seen, on the big screen. (Call 212-727-8110). And you are made of stone if you are not affected when Taylor/Cleo desperately clutches Richard/Mark Antony and cries out, “How it hurts. How love can stab the heart!”
ENDTHOUGHT: This has been on my mind for a year. The year’s almost done and I simply can’t help myself.
I don’t know the personal habits of Steve Bannon—thank goodness. But no matter how closely aligned he is to the president in matters of policy (I use that word loosely), I find it hard to believe Bannon was ever in the same room with 45. No matter his issues, the commander-in-chief is famously a germaphobe and a clean freak. He hates shaking hands, etc. He admires well-put-together people. Steve Bannon looks like he hasn’t showered in months. His hair is greasy, his skin is perpetually blemished. He dresses like a rag-picker. (Believe me, considering my own haphazard wardrobe choices critiquing somebody else’s clothes is a daring leap for me to make, about anybody!)
Mr. Bannon doesn’t seem to care what he says or how he says it, but right now he’s suffering some pain in the wake of Doug Jones’ surprise win in Alabama. Bannon might consider, while he plots his next outrage, trying to make himself appear…neater. (I heard some speculation on one of those pointless eight-people cable news channel panels, that Bannon always looks like he’s just come off a bender. But like the president, Bannon is abstentious. Lips that touch liquor, and all that.)
Even Bannon’s slavery-loving friend Roy Moore wore a suit and tie–along with that handy gun. Bannon is a sinister guy. But smart. Surely he is smart enough to know his unkempt appearance makes him seem more sinister. Perhaps that’s what he wants to convey? Or maybe he just thinks his casual approach to grooming will endear him to the “working class.”?
Does he not realize that once work is done, these good people bathe?
WEDNESDAY, December 13 2017
“AND YET, there is a solitude which each and every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea; the solitude of self. Our inner being which we call ourself, no eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced. It is more hidden than the caves of the gnome; the sacred adytum of the oracle; the hidden chamber of Eleusinian mystery, for to it only omniscience is permitted to enter.
Such is individual life. Who, I ask you, can take, dare take on himself the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?”
So said the great women’s suffrage activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in her epic resignation speech from the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1892. It was titled “The Solitude of Self.”
OVER a restless, sleepless several days, I gave in to my chronic insomnia and decided to binge watch documentaries on Amazon. I avoided mysteries, thrillers and action flicks. Sometimes, a documentary, no matter how interesting, can lull one into at least a semi-doze. (I’d tried reading the wide-awake away, by flipping through “a little” of Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra.” Although I’d read it before, I ended up engrossed all over again from the rug roll-out to the asp—or more likely, poison. What a woman!)
I finally settled on a two-part “American Lives” entry, Ken Burns’ “Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.” Produced in 1999, I must have seen it before, but perhaps not. If I had, I certainly watched and listened intently this time, albeit in a more appreciative, if profoundly anxious mood.
Stanton and Anthony were friends and fighters in the women’s rights movement for half a century. Susan B. Anthony, the more famous of the two, was a staunch, never-married Quaker, whose battle for women to get the vote was so intense it would lead, toward the end of her life, to some unwilling compromising, to making “deals” with a few devils to get the support she needed.
Stanton, married, mother of seven, was vivacious and equally uncompromising. She could not, even temporarily, sacrifice her belief in equality for all, or to denounce the chains of religion from which sprang so much hated and fear of women—the latter belief resulted in Stanton’s remarkable book, “The Woman’s Bible” which challenged the ingrained religious notions of women’s subservience. This led to some strain between the two suffrage icons toward the end of their long, mission-packed mutual endeavor. It also led to Stanton being ostracized by some of the very groups she helped found and by many of the younger suffragettes she and Anthony molded to carry on the fight after they were gone. (They were correct in sensing the power of women to vote would not come in their lifetime. Stanton died in 1902. Anthony in 1906. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the vote, would not be in place until 1920.)
I was overwhelmed at the dedication and passion of these two, so very different, but so passionately in tune with elevating the rights of women. Although they did not live to see women cast their first ballots, they were directly responsible for a sea-change in women’s lives, during their fifty years of ceaseless educating, writing, lecturing, petitioning, organizing and inspiring.
I suppose—well, I more than suppose—that I watched this moving documentary with a more than usually troubled soul. No fight for civil and human rights is ever over. There is never a finish line. Women struggle on, as does every person classed a “minority” or an “other.” (Other than a straight, white, conservative man.) Don’t be fooled by the liberating “freedom” and license of TV and movies. Or even the real lives of some of those successful “others.” No amendment to the Constitution can ever erase the hate, or at the very least, lack of compassion or ignorance that must be “carefully taught” as Rodgers and Hammerstein eloquently declared in “South Pacific.”
I write awaiting the results of an election in Alabama. Today, as you all read this, we’ll know the outcome.
No matter the result, this person, this candidacy, the support of this candidacy from the highest perch in American politics, is a horror, but it is no aberration. It is not the majority, but it is not inconsequential. That it is not inconsequential is enough to drain the life blood out of those who hope for humanity and who fight for legal protection when humanity, as it so often does, fails us. (How to make sense out of a potential senator to the world’s greatest democracy who thinks “life was better’ during slavery, and that “so many problems” would be solved by abolishing all amendments to the Constitution after the Tenth.)
I NEVER had to fight for my rights. I left home at 15 and avoided those particular conflicts. (And as the only child of a single mother, those conflicts themselves were considerably lessened.) When “liberation” came in 1969 after the Stonewall riots, I enjoyed all aspects of a freer life in a cosmopolitan, liberal East Coast city, without ever lifting a finger to help others. (Sure, I marched. And I marched when it was truly a march, not a parade. But to a 17-year-old, it meant less to me as a transformative moment, and more a long, sunny afternoon, out with friends.)
When I eventually decided to straighten up and fly right—in the matter of working for a living—I fell into a world where my “lifestyle” as some still insist on calling it, was never an issue. I never knew discrimination. To recognize, just from that alone, that I have lived a remarkably lucky, even blessed, life, is beyond understatement.
But my luck has not made me indifferent. I am sometimes ashamed I didn’t do more, in a truly activist sense. On the other hand, though my work—in all its surface frivolity–and thanks to an enlightened employer, I—and she—could make the more than occasional pertinent point.
Today—no matter where the ballots have fallen—I stand with every woman, all people of color, every religion or lack of religion, with all who have been to made feel ostracized or fearful, because of those they love, or who they want to be. And I even stand with those who fear and hate, because I am human and nothing and no-one human is completely alien to me (to paraphrase good old Publius Terentius.)
Over the past two years I have relentlessly awakened and gone to bed, if not to sleep, with a heart devoured by hopelessness, equally as angry at those I might class as “enemies” as with those who so often behave with such cluelessness as “friends.”
But I cannot allow myself that hopelessness, or indifference, although in late mid-life, that is the easier road. Why can’t I allow it? I’m still here. We all are.
On Friday, I’ll go all Golden Globes nominations and other fun stuff. I’ll even be a little bitchy.
You will forgive me, I hope, today’s rumination and allow this final quote from Elizabeth Cady Stanton:
“Nature never repeats herself, and the possibilities of one human soul will never be found in another. No one has ever found two blades of ribbon grass alike, and no one will ever find two human beings alike. Seeing, then, what must be the infinite diversity in human character, we can in a measure appreciate the loss to a nation when any class of the people is uneducated and unrepresented in the government.”
P.S. So, Doug Jones won the Alabama Senate seat. I will not gloat. I’m too cautious for that. (Although I have been told a little gloating is good for the skin.) Tonight, however, sleep will come more swiftly.
“IS IMMORTALITY theoretically possible?”
When I opened up my email just minutes after receiving word that my friend Liz Smith had died, the above words were the first thing I saw. It was from Quora Digest. I don’t even know what that is, really, and automatically delete such messages.
But something about the possibility of immortality struck me as very fitting, at that moment. You see, in the 36 years I’ve known Liz, I was sure, beyond anything I was sure of, that she was literally immortal. It was a long-running joke between us that she would most certainly out live me, despite the 30-year gap in our ages. I begged her NOT to write my obituary. She won’t now, and I’m not feeling very good about it, actually.
She enjoyed talking about her “great age” as she put it, and predicting it was all soon to be over. At every significant birthday—65, 70, 80, 90–she’d suddenly become a woeful priestess lamenting a descent into Hades.
I would be obliged at that point to remind her that in fact she was in disgustingly robust health, had a fabulous career, was enjoying a great life, and was worshipped by almost every human she knew. She’d cheer right up. That’s exactly what she wanted to hear. Then she’d fall snugly into her proper place as an undeniable life force—a bawdy, laughing, fiercely intelligent, infuriatingly impatient, always curious blazing sun—a sun around which so many circled and flourished. For sure, that was my experience.
I will dispense with boring you all about my own life, Before-Liz. (You think B.C and A.D. are significant markers of history? Forget it. B.L. and A.L. are the real deal in my book.) It is enough to say that I was not professional in any way, or inclined to work. One half year of high school was enough for me. But I read a great deal. Good books, the Great Works, trash and everything in-between. It was the in-between that introduced me to Liz Smith. Because, of course I read Cosmopolitan! How I enjoyed Liz’s saucy celebrity interviews, how much more did I enjoy it when she became a gossip columnist in 1976? And then—the unexpected but ridiculously juicy cherry on top of the sundae–she joined the slap-happy gang on “Live at Five” during the newspaper strike? Like everybody else, I thought I “knew” Liz—surely she was writing and talking just for me, to me!
While I dozed through my life, working at a broken down antique store in Hoboken, New Jersey, I also amused myself by writing long letters to Liz Smith. Handwritten. I had many opinions about stars, scandals, what Liz wrote and said. Sometimes I chastised her and told her she was just all wrong about this or that. I even passed along little bits of gossip, culled from friends who worked on the peripheries of show biz. This went on for several years, with no reply from Liz. Well, she couldn’t rely, because I never signed my name or put down a return address! Passive aggressive to the max.
But one day during the summer of 1981, I changed my life. I decided to look directly at the sun, without blinking.
Elizabeth Taylor was in town, with “The Little Foxes.” Since I was more or less able to make my own hours at the antique store (“broken down” hardly begins to describe it or my employers) I spent a good deal of my time hanging around the then-Martin Beck theater, watching Miss Taylor come and go, running after her limo—something I’d been doing since 1973, actually—observing, listening. So, in my excellent hand—nowadays an unreadable scrawl—I wrote down all my “adventures” and what I’d heard was going on behind the scenes of La Liz’s big Broadway hit. I signed my name and put down my address. Things happen when they’re supposed to happen, I guess.
Two days later a small, neat envelope arrived with Daily News letterhead, and “Liz Smith” typed above the name of the paper. Well, this was it. I was about to be told how truly insane I was, how annoying. She was gonna sic the cops on me if I didn’t cease and desist. I almost threw the note away, unopened, so sure was I that exposing myself had been a pathway to my eventual residence at a mental facility. Of course, reader, I opened it: “Dear Denis, at last! What has taken you so long to sign your name? I think you are smart and funny. Stay in touch. Call my office! If I’m not in, speak to St. Clair Pugh. Do not be afraid of him. Call!”
I called. I spoke to St. Clair and was indeed properly terrified. “Liz says come in to see her tomorrow after she’s done with ‘Live at Five.’ Wait for her in the lobby of the Murray Hill Mews.” He paused and added “Certainly took you long enough.” Click! (St. turned out to be a doll, and was perhaps the first and only gentleman I ever knew. But he did enjoy his fearsome reputation.)
Ah, but the day of meeting turned out to be far more interesting than I’d even imagined. Because when I got up and opened the Daily News to Liz Smith’s column, there were all my words, all about Miss Taylor! Well, my words neatened up, grammatically corrected, written to flow; written as a column. But it was unmistakably “my stuff”—two words I’d use endlessly, and often peevishly, in years to come. I was shocked.
When we met up in her lobby, after I’d given her frosted lips and frosted tips the once over, and she likewise my tatty sneakers, jeans and tee-shirt, I blurted, still clutching the paper: “You put it in print. I mean, how could you? How do you know I’m not crazy? Maybe I made it up?” She laughed, cackled, really. “Oh, honey, I was just waiting for you to sign your name. I can tell what’s real. But for God’s sake, you have to learn how to type. Your thoughts will flow much better. I’ll pay for it. You are old enough to drink, right? Come with me to the El Rio Grande. It’s right here in the building. We’ll have a margarita. Good thing they don’t have a dress code. Hold these things for me. I have a book for you upstairs.”
I had a drink, I held her things, and she gave me a book. I learned to type. I did not allow Liz to pay for it, although she would later say she did. She would also say in “The Tale of Denis” that she’d put an item in the column urging her “anonymous fan” to please sign his name. Liz was the sun, remember, and in telling her story—and yours!—she had to be the life-giving force–the source of your energy. (She was that, but she was also a star that couldn’t help gilding her own lily just a bit.)
To be honest, I thought my little adventure in journalism, my tequila tete a tete with Liz, was just one of those things, something amusing to dine out on, at a cheap diner. I hardly imagined she’d really stay in touch. She did. She sent me books, she sent me to movies, to plays, and she asked me what I thought about this or that. And she urged me to keep on writing. I saw what she did with what I sent. I learned how to compose an “item.” I tried to learn where to put the commas. I learned her voice—which luckily coincided neatly with the one I already had, in rough, unpolished form. (That we had much in common— politics, films, favorite and un-favorite people, a passion for history and for reading in general–was a tremendous help. It was the glue that would hold us together, personally and professionally for three decades.)
In time, she would also send my mother, dying in a hospice, gifts and encouraging notes about a wayward son. “You don’t need to worry about him anymore” was one message, which accompanied a gift basket of fruits and chocolates. My mother couldn’t believe it when I told her I was surprisingly OK. She believed Liz and was greatly comforted.
She sent checks (“Darling, you have been so helpful…”), she introduced me to her friends, she tried to get me decent work. This was not easy. I fled in needless terror after a few hours with the Broadway agent Shirley Herz (“I’m going out to get a bagel” were my last words. Later, when I knew her, “I’m going out to get a bagel” could always make Shirley laugh.) But I managed to hang on for the six months that Joe Armstrong’s magazine The Movies lasted, courtesy of Miss Smith’s talking me up to Joe. I didn’t do much but run errands and collect what seemed to me an impossibly handsome salary.
After that debacle, Liz called me to El Rio Grande yet again. “Honey, my friend Iris Love, the archaeologist is coming in from China. She’ll be staying here for a while. She needs help, she needs an assistant. She can be difficult, but I can’t seem to find you any other work. And you can help me out a little too, if you want.”
“If I want.” Poor Iris. While I did act as an assistant to the estimable Miss Love—not very ably, truth be told!—my real job was for Liz. I became, finally, in the spring of 1984, “Liz Smith’s assistant.”
With my mother gone, no siblings and the rest of my family too dysfunctional to carry on with, I found another family with Liz at 160 East 38th Street, apartment 26-A. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that Liz became a mother figure—and one with whom I would have an even more tempestuous relationship than I did with my own. And there were siblings, at last!—St. Clair, Diane Judge, Rachel Clark, Iris Love, Mary Jo McDonough.
In the early years, Liz never asked me to do anything. She told me—cover that damn show, go here, write that, improve this shit if you can. She knew that given a chance to dither or think too much, I’d falter–or flee! Later, when I had enough confidence to tell her what I wanted—and what I didn’t want—she was both pleased and unnerved. As Auntie Mame said, “Why the hell did I buy him those damn long pants?” We struggled mightily at times. I could loathe her at noon and be willing to die for her at six. Boredom was not an option. Quitting was an option, or so I thought. And when I did it lasted nine months. Like a Texan Corleone, just when I thought I was out, she pulled me back in. (It helped that she was pulling me back in from antidepressants and analysis—expensive time in which I talked about—her. Yep, she was a force to be reckoned with.)
Save for one person—my guy Bruce, who has put up with me since 1976—everyone I know and love today, I met through Liz, or my work with Liz. Because of Liz I saw London, I saw France. I saw Madonna’s underpants! I even got to formally interview Elizabeth Taylor, the woman who sort of started it all. Taylor was vastly unimpressed by me but that hardly mattered. I forged ahead, during the course of our uninspired chat, and told her of my “Little Foxes” letter and what it had wrought. One of Taylor’s perfect circumflex eyebrows moved slightly, and her freshly painted mouth uttered “Cute.” The best part of the Taylor experience was telling Liz about it, over fried chicken wings, laughing.
I’ll miss the laugh most of all. The energy. When you sat with Liz and she focused all of her attention on you, you existed only to please her, to impress her, to make her laugh. They should retire the word “Charm” now that Liz is gone, or put her photo next to it in the dictionary.
Ditto for Curiosity because right to the end, she never stopped wanting to know more, and was always willing to change and expand her mind, to hone her outlook. She never went anywhere without pen and pad, three newspapers, a book, and the latest issues of Vanity Fair and The Week. There was always something new, interesting, funny or horrible to write up or just tell you about.
There would also have to be a Liz portrait next to Impatience. Once she knew you, Liz believed you could read her mind. That precise words were sometimes necessary and that her thoughts traveled faster than the speed of sound—and certainly faster than your own!—was a burdensome thing. But she handled most of the mental sloths in her life with pretty good grace.
We will never exchange books again. We will never spend a lunch hour pondering the Tudors or the unhappy lives of Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette. (Which could then morph into stories about Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Vanessa Redgrave or Norma Shearer.) We will never…oh, all the little things. The big things are nothing. Like Blanche DuBois’ beauty, they are transitory, and Liz knew it.
She worked hard, and made something unique, human and powerfully instructive out of a mere “gossip” column. But she knew she also lived under a lucky star, that she’d been blessed. She never took her blessings for granted, or coveted the power of her column for the sake of power. In fact, she laughed at the concept of herself as a fear-inducing dragon of the old Hedda/Louella days. She enjoyed her fame innocently, like a child. It was fun! A “zest for life” doesn’t begin to cover it. She didn’t even care much about gossip. She’d interview the big movie star because it would be good for the column. But she’d rather sit at the table with writers and philosophers. And she’d rather her readers knew what those writers and philosophers were saying.
It’s too soon for me to attempt to be eloquent. In fact, I doubt I ever will be, on Liz. And I won’t be sentimental. Love, respect and loyalty aside, we didn’t have a sentimental relationship. It was more “if-your-blood-pressure-gets-any-higher-you’re-going-to-have-a-stroke” kind of thing. Liz herself wrote, in her autobiography, “Natural Blonde”: “I want to remain, not sentimental, but full of sentiment. So I still cry at the 23rd Psalm, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and at the movies.” Me too! So I’ll still cry when the deer is shot in “The Yearling” but I won’t cry over Liz. I know for sure she’d rather I have a drink.
Liz had a great life; she lived it more than fully; with incredible energy, intelligence and self-awareness. And she allowed me to live my own life far more expansively than I could have possibly imagined as a 7th grade dropout and teenage runaway. You don’t weep when such a gift is inevitably taken. There is only gratitude that you were wise enough—most of the time–to appreciate what was being offered, so generously.
In fact, the best last word on Liz is by Liz. It is the final chapter of her book, in which she looks over her life, what she wanted (everything!), what she got (almost everything!) and contemplates, as she puts it, “The End.” Pages 441 to 445 to be exact. I urge all who admired Liz to check out this last chapter. It is as perfect a summation of a life richly lived—and with almost twenty more years to go!–as I have ever read. Liz will have the last word, circa 2000:
“When the Fates ladled out their stuff, they said: ‘We’ll make this one insecure and give her an inferiority complex. She’ll end up behaving as if she has a massive ego, so no one will know the difference. Let’s also give her lots and lots of luck.’
“They did; so far.”