24 April 2017

Sympathy for the Diva, or Joan Crawford

Mildred Pierce: The key that unlocks Joan Crawford?

The writer Shaun Considine was a tremendous help to me while I researched Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life. Shaun conducted the two most important magazine interviews Madeline ever gave: her first in a national publication, After Dark, and her only public statement after her departure from On the Twentieth Century. He was a good if not always close friend to Madeline, too, and he generously shared with me his exhaustive notes from the interviews, unpublished photos of Madeline, and copious advice. As an additional, indirect way of thanking him, I bought a copy of his most famous book, Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, and found it so utterly engrossing that I bought James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and devoured that, too.

Naturally, my thoughts turned to Shaun while I watched the first episode of Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette & Joan. So much of Murphy’s series seemed to come directly from the pages of Shaun’s book that I wondered whether Shaun was getting any money out of the project. Then another writer, Dan Callahan (who’s written incisive analyses of Bette & Joan for Nylon every week), broke the sad news that Shaun died shortly before my book came out. Now I know why Shaun stopped answering my e-mails, and why he couldn’t join us for the book party. Without knowing it, I’d lost a mentor.

Shaun Considine.

But the process that Shaun set in motion continued, as Jessica Lange’s performance enhanced my growing understanding and appreciation of Joan Crawford. I never expected to feel anything at all for her: she struck me as a good but not great actor, whose offscreen life didn’t interest me. I did (and still do) admire Bette Davis passionately, and even wrote a fan letter to her (and received a lovely reply), so there was never a question whose side I was on. Thanks to Shaun Considine and Jessica Lange, that’s changed.

Sarandon and Lange as Davis and Crawford.

Shaun suggests that Mildred Pierce is essential to understanding Joan Crawford: if an actor can be an auteur, then Crawford’s Mildred is an autobiographical portrait. Both the character and the actor were driven by ambition to rise above their lower-class origins. For Crawford, this ambition became an obsession. Born poor, abandoned by her father, unwanted by her mother, abused by her stepfather, Crawford endured a childhood like Charles Dickens’ telling of Cinderella. Young Joan was able to attend private boarding school only because she worked, scrubbing, washing, cooking for the other girls — so busy that she could seldom attend classes.

As an adult, Joan was proud of her willingness to work hard, and even she marveled that, rather than developing a horror of housework, she enthused in it. The rest of us may look at her neat-freak tendencies and see an obsessive-compulsive, and Joan admitted that she was a perfectionist: an impeccably clean home was part of her need for control over her environment and a symbol of her aspiration to something better.

As a showgirl and then as an actress, Crawford escaped poverty primarily through her good looks and sex appeal, her talent as an actor, and her growing skills as an actor. In these areas, too, she was a perfectionist, constantly striving to improve herself. Marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., marked the next crucial step in her evolution. Fairbanks was Hollywood royalty, highly educated and cultivated, and the stepson of Mary Pickford — who disapproved of the working-class Crawford. Joan set about compensating for her lack of formal education, reading widely, studying languages, etiquette, elocution, and (later) voice. Pickford grudgingly permitted her daughter-in-law to take a seat at the table, while Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford, once and for all.

The star who could not go to the supermarket without flawless makeup, hair, hat and gloves was a kind of female Jay Gatsby in Hollywood, self-created at great cost — and for Joan as for Gatsby, sex was one means to get ahead. She lost her Texas accent, she personified glamour, and she didn’t stop striving for more. Reading Shaun’s book, I got the sense of Crawford continually yearning for her own version of Gatsby’s green light, staring through the window at a life she wanted. Even at the end of her life, she spoke of getting a formal education, and it’s easy to believe she might crave respect from Bette Davis, whose gifts as an actor, as a fighter, and as an intellect the world seemed to accept without questioning.

By the time What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? began filming, both women had reached an age when Hollywood’s interest in them had waned. There was no Ryan Murphy building elaborate showcases for older actresses. Today Murphy wants to tell a story of Crawford’s looks versus Davis’ talent, and the manipulations of male-dominated Hollywood. There’s truth in this perspective, as far as it goes, and television necessarily requires simplification and condensation. But Shaun’s book makes clear that the reality was a good deal more complex, and arguably more illuminating about the very topics Murphy aimed to address.

Shaun goes so far as to question whether there really was a feud at all, whether it was cooked up by Davis and Crawford themselves to promote the movie. (The book’s title gives you a fair idea what his conclusion is, but he does raise the question.) Again, Murphy’s take is that others imposed the feud on the women, to manipulate the performances they gave and to promote the picture; soon enough, the feud was bitterly heartfelt and authentic. In the final episode, Susan Sarandon as Davis makes clear that the feud is responsible at least in part for the public’s interest in her and for the talk-show appearances that afforded her the largest audiences of her later career: she can’t afford to let it go.

What is an image when people no longer see it?
Lange as Crawford.
(In the background, the peerless Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita.)

At times, Murphy’s pretty-vs.-smart dynamic risked becoming as cartoonish as a catfight between Daphne and Velma from Scooby Doo. But Lange’s performance consistently rose above the hit-or-miss material in the scripts, it enhanced my sympathy for Crawford, and it made me want to revisit the Crawford pictures I’ve seen and seek out others I’ve thus far missed. I’ve also caught up with some of Lange’s work with Murphy in American Horror Story, at once over-the-top and subtle. What struck me here was her ability to ground in realism yet another character who is, in her way, supernatural. Her Crawford is the grandest of grandes dames, a movie star, and yet very human indeed.

What seemed clear as I read Shaun’s book was that Crawford realized too late that she was in over her head. Yes, she tried to assert herself over Davis — particularly during the lead-up to the 1963 Oscars — but she was no match for Davis. By then, it was too late to repair the damage Crawford had done, and her own later career represented a truly pathetic decline, making only a few terrible movies while descending into alcoholism, illness, and solitude. Listening to her audiobook, My Way of Life (which can be heard on YouTube), she blithely describes days spent reading scripts and fielding movie offers — when we know she was putting on a brave face.

She had just made her final feature film, TROG, which really is as bad as everyone says it is. Bette Davis may have become her own caricature, her mannerisms overwhelming her later performances. Joan Crawford never really got the chance to do that — Faye Dunaway did it for her, after Joan died.*

Some lucky ones among you may never have felt inadequate, may never have seen your inadequacies confirmed and shoved in your faces. I envy you. Joan Crawford — who spent so much of her life battling her inadequacies and the insecurities they generated — would envy you, too.

*NOTE: The great Joan Crawford caricaturist is of course Carol Burnett, whose loving spoofs amused Joan herself. “You put more production into that sketch than Jack Warner put into our entire picture,” Joan told Carol after seeing “Mildred Fierce.”

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16 April 2017

Interview: Lauren Worsham

The limitless Lauren Worsham.
Photos from laurenworsham.com.

It’s hard to imagine two works more dissimilar than Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland and David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s Dog Days, but on April 27, when Master Voices performs Toyland in concert at Carnegie Hall, one woman will connect the two. Soprano Lauren Worsham — whose shattering performances as Lisa in Dog Days rank among the finest I have ever seen — will take the ingénue role of Jane. She may not yet be the music-theater equivalent of Kevin Bacon, the necessary link to everything and everyone, but give her time.

Her limpid, vibrant voice commands attention, and she knows how to use it to project the kind of innocence that’s equally appropriate in Little’s Dystopia and Herbert’s Toyland. Already she’s excelled in operetta at New York City Opera and, on Broadway, in an acclaimed turn as Phoebe in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, warbling her heart out and picking up Drama Desk and Theatre World awards and a Tony nomination. She runs an opera company, the Coterie, and is the lead singer in Sky-Pony — a rock band — while also appearing in concert and in cabaret. To this observer, it seems there’s nothing that doesn’t interest her, and nothing she can’t do.

“I definitely try to do many things,” Worsham says, calling herself “a jack-of-all-trades and not necessarily a master of any of them.” (I beg to disagree.) “How did I get to the point where I can? I think it was more that I decided that I wanted to. I didn’t want to focus on one thing. As with most things in my life, my path found me.”

“Mirror, Mirror”: As Lisa in Dog Days.
One of the most astonishing performances I have ever witnessed.

Growing up in Austin, Texas, Worsham sang the music that was in the air around her, rock and blues, and her first voice teacher was a blues musician. She also sang in her high-school choir, and her interest in musical theater led her to audition for a college production of Candide. After graduation from Yale (cum laude, because of course) and a stint in the first national tour of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, she found herself playing Cunegonde again, this time in New York City Opera’s revival of Candide, in 2008.

Worsham had begun to broaden and deepen her understanding of opera, with which she’d been only somewhat familiar. But she says, “I love narrative and I love drama, and at that point opera wasn’t focusing on those things in the way that a college student would have been aware of.” In NYCO’s late, lamented VOX program for new work, Worsham met Little and Vavrek, who were about to change many people’s notions of narrative and drama in opera. “Dog Days is the greatest thing I’ve done, maybe the greatest thing I’ll ever do,” Worsham says — adding, “until the next time I work with David and Royce!”

For City Opera’s Candide, “They double-cast me with a more trained singer,” Worsham remembers. “They set me up with a voice teacher, and I credit her with helping me open up my classical voice.” This training strikes me as crucial to her multifaceted career: the desire to do many things and the talent to persuade people to allow you to do many things will take you only so far if you don’t have the technique to pull it off. (My hat is off to Worsham’s teacher, Virginia Grasso.)

In Gentleman’s Guide, with Jane O’Hare and Bryce Pinkham.

Worsham also respects “good vocal hygiene.” The main thing for me is not yelling in bars. [Presumably when she’s performing with Sky-Pony.] There’s a difference between doing something one night, or every night of the week. Everything requires a different kind of maintenance and paying attention to your body. I definitely learned that the hard way with Gentleman’s Guide.

“When I first started, I had a high, nasal speaking voice for Phoebe,” she continues. “For the first eight months, it was fine, but then it started to catch up with me. In the same way that if you woke up every morning and bend your knees, you’ll get more flexible, but if you sit at a desk all day, you’ll lose flexibility. Using that voice gave my larynx bad habits. I’d never done a show that many days a week for that long. There’s a difference between a long game and a short game.”

While Worsham’s rock voice doesn’t sound precisely like her operetta voice, it’s recognizably the same instrument, and just as irresistible. Her approach to any piece of music, she says, is rooted in character: “Different characters have different ways they carry their body and different ways they use their voice. Different songs have different characters and different textures. Sometimes it’s a choice: ‘This would sound good.’ When it comes to opera, that’s a matter of technique, but when it comes to something like pop music, a lot of the time for me it’s a matter of letting go, of trying to be ‘on the voice,’ just trying to tell the story.”

Rocking out with Sky-Pony.
Worsham’s husband, Kyle Jarrow, is also in the band.

Story-telling is always her principal concern, though “in opera I’m also focused on continuation of the voice and on technique.” Recalling her harrowing aria from Dog Days, she says, “In the same way that I think I wouldn’t be telling the story we’re trying to tell if I belted ‘Mirror, Mirror,’ singing pop songs with perfect technique and vowels wouldn’t tell the story that song wants to tell, in that sense.”

Master Voices likewise believes in “The Art of Musical Storytelling,” and Babes in Toyland has told many over the years. At the time of its premiere, in 1904, it was customary to change the materials in American operetta, to drop one number and add another, or to re-work a scene to suit a particular performer. As the two movie adaptations show, the material is highly flexible: there’s no Laurel and Hardy in Disney’s Toyland. But there’s not really an Ur-text, and Toyland hasn’t seen a major New York revival in generations. Master Voices artistic director Ted Sperling has prepared a score and, with Joe Keenan, cobbled together a script. “It’s hilarious,” Worsham says, comparing it to classic movie scripts. “Everyone seems to have some zingers … there’s no straight man.”

Sperling has assembled a spectacular cast for Toyland, led by another soprano who straddles both Broadway and opera, Kelli O’Hara. Jonathan Freeman adds another villain to his résumé (he’s played Aladdin’s Jafar in every medium you can name) with the role of Barnaby; and Jay Armstrong Johnson, a Broadway favorite who sang the title role in NYCO’s most recent revival of Candide, is Tom Tom, Jane’s love interest. And with the master clown Bill Irwin as the Toymaker and the irrepressible Christopher Fitzgerald as Alan, Jane’s brother, “I’ll be focusing on trying not to pee my pants with laughing,” Worsham says. “I’ve really got to be at the top of my game with those two.”

Is this the face that launched a thousand quips?
It will be on April 27.

The audience can expect “a lot of fun, more than anything. I’m looking forward to that,” Worsham says. “I think we need it. Gosh, reading the news every day, it seems as if a little escape is harder to get to these days.”

Master Voices presents Victor Herber’s Babes in Toyland in concert at Carnegie Hall, April 27 at 7:00 pm. For tickets and more information, click here.

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25 January 2017

Mary Tyler Moore

Lights out.

Mary Tyler Moore has died, and I am taking stock of her legacy. Two brilliant television shows, plus several not so brilliant (including New York News, her short-lived collaboration with Madeline Kahn). An unforgettable, Oscar-nominated performance in Ordinary People. An eternal role model for working women. And a role model for journalists, too.

She often played journalists — even in the TV movie First You Cry — and her influence extends indirectly to Ed Asner’s Lou Grant, Nancy Marchand’s Mrs. Pynchon, and other characters. America seemed to feel differently about journalism in those days. Woodward and Bernstein became national heroes during the run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Dan Rather became not just a reporter but a star. Mary Richards was cut from different cloth, and yet she was to me every bit as much an inspiration.

It can’t really be said that I ever met Mary Tyler Moore. I encountered her once, at the CBS studios on 57th Street. I was walking down a hallway, and as I approached the corner, I heard voices, talking about the Broadcast Center. “It’s an old dairy,” somebody was saying, and I piped up, “Actually, it was a milk-processing plant.” And I turned the corner, and there was Mary Tyler Moore, accompanied by some people from WCBS, the local station, who were giving her a little tour. I was too startled to say anything else, and we passed each other. End of story. Not a meeting to rival Grant and Lee at Appomattox, or Taylor and Burton on the banks of the Nile.

Yet just a glimpse of the woman who played Mary Richards in my own newsroom was intensely gratifying. It occurred to me that afternoon that, although most of us talked (endlessly) about Edward R. Murrow, we were not ever going to be Murrow, or anything like him. We weren’t going to be Eric Sevareid, either, or Walter Cronkite, and only one of us was ever going to be Dan Rather. The rest of us weren’t going to be heroic standard-bearers, or legends or stars. Few of us were going to set examples for the profession, or even break a story. We were mortals. We went to work, we did our paperwork and our petty daily grind, and we were anonymous. Just like Mary Richards.

Mary Richards, of course, had her moments of valor. She went to jail once for refusing to name a source. She coped with outsize personalities — the tyrannical Lou Grant, the idiotic Ted Baxter and even the prima donna Sue Ann Nivens — yet she never seemed to resent her colleagues for making her job more difficult. On the contrary, she loved them and looked forward to coming to work, to being with them.

The people I worked with at CBS held lofty ideals. That’s one reason we held Murrow in such high esteem. Journalism, even TV journalism, was important, a public service, a vocation bigger than any one person: Murrow taught us that, and we believed it passionately. But few of us ever had the opportunity to go to jail for what we believed in, the way Mary Richards did. Many of us grumbled about the outsize personality we had to work with: depending on the day, Dan could embody all the worst qualities of Lou, or Ted, or Sue Ann, or any combination of the three. But most of us admired the guy, and many of us felt affection for him, and quite a lot of us were proud to be working with him.

I went back to my office and wrote a radio piece for Dan, about how Mary Richards was not a bad role model, and that her small-scale, big-hearted professional ideals were ones real-life journalists could aspire to. I hoped we’d hear from Mary Tyler Moore after the piece was broadcast — she might even make a visit to our newsroom, just as Walter Cronkite once visited WJM. But that was the end of it.

And so she touched my life the way strangers sometimes do — and yet unlike anyone else. Then, now, and ever more, she pointed out a path that I follow, and she turned my world on with her smile.

NOTE: Portions of this essay were originally published on this blog in 2007.

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20 January 2017

Meryl Streep’s Hardcore Kitchen, or ‘It’s Complicated’

Empty nest: Meryl Streep contemplates the dining room, while her kitchen lurks in the background, like the shark in Jaws.

Hollywood has long presented audiences with all kinds of glamour to fuel escapist fantasy and aspirational dreams. We lose ourselves in the lives of better-looking, better-dressed people in lavish settings. But sometimes Hollywood gets carried away, and I found a prime example of excess in Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated, a film from 2009 which I watched recently because it was either that or Tank Girl. My roommate drives a hard bargain, though evidently he’s got a thing for blonde protagonists in improbable circumstances.

I’d seen a couple of Meyers’ other movies, and so I thought I was prepared for this one. Meyers would yet again cater to the fantasies and aspirations of women who may be over 35 and therefore who, as far as the rest of Hollywood is concerned, do not exist. I figured Nancy Meyers would yet again give us a heroine of a Certain Age who is prosperous and accomplished and sexually desirable to multiple men, and who makes good decisions after some missteps. People who have seen even more of Meyers’ movies warned me that there would also be really nice kitchens. It’s Complicated goes beyond mere fantasy, however, to the realm of pornography.

But it’s only her 397th glass today!
And it must be four o‘clock by now.

The first fantasy/aspiration I noticed was the wine. About three scenes in, I realized that people had been drinking wine ever since the movie started. Drinking wine is something that women like to do. I know this, and I sympathize — but as the movie continued, the wine kept flowing. Again and again, in scene after scene, we see wine and more wine. (Please note the Special Advisory at the end of this essay.)

I also noticed — and sympathized with — the representation of friendship among women as a sisterhood. This involves drinking wine, talking about sex, and Mary Kay Place. Well, who wouldn’t want Mary Kay Place for a friend? I’m not even a woman, and yet I know for a fact that I would enjoy talking about sex with Mary Kay Place over a bottle of wine. “Hey, Mary Kay Place, my close personal friend,” I’d say, “men are slobs, aren’t they?” And Mary Kay Place would say, “They sure are! This pinot grigio rocks. Let’s get some ice cream, change into our flannel pajamas, and binge-watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

That would be fun. Don’t try to deny it.

Rita Wilson overshares over wine,
while Meryl polishes off her 418th glass of the day.

There are two other gal pals, one of whom I don’t recognize and the other of whom is Rita Wilson, who comes on a little strong and isn’t as non-threatening as Mary Kay Place is. We might not ask Rita Wilson to stay up and watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman with us, though it might be fun to give her a little more wine and then watch Sleepless in Seattle, just to hear what she has to say about that tramp, Meg Ryan. Come on, Rita. Have another glass and tell us how you really feel.

Eventually Meyers gets around to addressing her principal theme, the Sexual Appeal of the Mature Woman — but that’s not where the pornography comes in. Sure, Meryl Streep plays the middle-aged mother of three children who is sought after by two men, one of whom happens to be her ex-husband. (It’s a sign of how far these actors have journeyed that, in this movie, Alec Baldwin is the funny one and Steve Martin is the serious one.) But the Meryl-Is-Sexy part of the movie is pretty realistic. Almost a documentary.

Meryl Streep complains a few times about how awful she looks, now that she’s middle-aged and has had three children, but she’s just fishing for compliments because she looks fabulous and everybody knows it. Baldwin and Martin crave her, but they don’t maul her, because this is a romantic comedy. Baldwin goes in for the side of her neck and the shoulders — you remember those, don’t you, from Sophie’s Choice and The French Lieutenant’s Woman? Of course you do. And they’re still gorgeous. They deserve their own Lifetime Achievement awards. One apiece. There are probably plastic surgeons in Hollywood right now, working hard to make other women’s necks and shoulders look as good as Meryl Streep’s neck and shoulders look.

Just watching you in the bathtub is erotically stimulating
and not at all creepy.

Meyers doesn’t show us any scenes in which Baldwin or Martin gives Streep a foot massage, but you can be pretty sure they’re in there somewhere, maybe in the DVD extras, because foot massages, like sensual shoulder-kissing and Mary Kay Place and a reliably constant supply of wine, are things that women want more of.

Also, and most importantly, both Baldwin and Martin actually talk to Meryl Streep, and Martin actually listens to her, and as I can attest from my own personal experience, this is something that women definitely want more of. Martin’s character likes French movies, which we find out because he listens when Meryl Streep tells him she used to live in Paris, so he invites her to a French film festival, even though presumably that means reading subtitles and staying awake or at least not snoring like a cement mixer through the whole movie — and at this point I’m thinking, “Yo, Nancy Meyers, are you sure this Steve Martin character is straight?” For a lot of straight men, just watching this movie would be a challenge.

We know things have gone to the next level,
because these two have switched to brandy.

Still, in a culture that so often addresses what men want — comic book characters, gun violence, car chases, explosions, women as objects who are under 35 and who don’t care whether you remember their birthdays — it’s nice to see a movie that caters to what women want, for a change. And again, this isn’t the pornographic part.

No, the pornography is in the kitchen.

You see, Meryl Streep — or Nancy Meyers, or both of them — is a kitchen size queen.

Is it just me, or is it hot in here?

When we first see Meryl Streep’s kitchen, she’s taking stock of her suddenly Empty Nest, after her three air-brushed, genetically engineered, fully sanitized J. Crew adult children leave home. The kitchen is very, very beautiful, and it is as if Meryl Streep steps into a magazine. It’s like the way she stepped into Travel + Leisure in Out of Africa, only here the magazine is Architectural Digest, which, as we know, is to kitchens what Playboy is to naked ladies. A scientifically calibrated amount of sunlight fills the spacious room, bedecked with just enough cute personal items to let you know that human beings sometimes venture into this kitchen. There’s music playing, so you can’t quite hear the kitchen screaming “Home! Warmth! Fulfillment!” at the top of its lungs.

However, as we will soon discover, this is not “the kitchen of my dreams,” which Meryl Streep has wanted for ten years. Reflect on that. Ten years. For ten years she has had to suffer with this kitchen, instead of reveling in the kitchen of her dreams. Ten years. With this kitchen.

As we gaze upon this kitchen, we also see at least one of every cooking utensil known. Meryl Streep probably owns the gadget I just saw at Williams-Sonoma the other day, which is specifically and exclusively designed to cut up cauliflower, because obviously paring knives are not good enough for serious cooks, even if you live in Manhattan and barely have storage space for a paring knife, much less a paring knife and a cauliflower gadget. If you were a serious cook, you would find the space and you would own that gadget. Maybe several of them, because who can ever cut enough cauliflower, and who can be bothered to follow methodically the helical growth of the florets with a cheap-ass pedestrian paring knife that came from goddam Target?

Meryl Streep’s character, we later discover, owns a bakery-restaurant-store sort of establishment, and she can tell at a glance when there’s too much powdered sugar on the pastry, so she is a serious cook.

At the kitchen island, which we shall dub “Madagascar.”

But she is also committed to family, which is why the island-slash-table in her eat-in kitchen is as big as a king-size bed. Her three children and her future son-in-law can glide as one from the J. Crew catalogue to gather around that table to share the gourmet-yet-cozy meal that Meryl Streep has lovingly prepared for them. Seriously, it probably takes Meryl Streep all afternoon just to set that table. She has to do yoga and weight training and stretching exercises just to pass around the wine. This may explain why her shoulders look so great.

Now, supposedly we’re in Santa Barbara, which isn’t Manhattan, so I’m not exactly startled by the fact that Meryl Streep’s kitchen is the size of my entire apartment. I mean, when your immaculately landscaped yard is the size of Central Park, that’s what you do, you have a big kitchen. No, the surprise is that Meryl Streep’s big kitchen isn’t big enough. I have been in Williams-Sonoma stores that were smaller than Meryl Streep’s kitchen. But it will not do.

We are in a bakery-restaurant-store slightly larger than a factory warehouse, but we should sit as close as possible, because I find you sexually desirable, you erotically empowered middle-aged woman, you.

Enter Steve Martin as the architect who designs the kitchen of her dreams. Before designing that kitchen, he actually reads her e-mails on the subject. Reading e-mails probably isn’t as sexy as listening, but it shows how sensitive Steve Martin is. He respects her dreams. He wants to know all about them. Once he fully understands her dreams, he will fulfill them. That is what sensitive men do.

Automatically, Meryl Streep knows that if she e-mails Steve Martin an invitation to Rita Wilson’s dinner party next Tuesday, Steve Martin is not the kind of man who is going to say, “Oh, I never saw that. I will be going out with the guys instead. Don’t wait up.” No, no, Steve Martin will say, “Oh, I read that as soon as you sent it. I already marked the date on my calendar. And I just bought a new blazer to wear that night, so that Rita Wilson will be reminded that I’m not one of the slobs like her husband, and besides, I always do my utmost to look good for you, particularly when it is, as Tuesday will be, precisely 147 days to your birthday. Shall I pour you some wine and rub your feet now?”

Yes, Meryl Streep knows exactly what kind of man Steve Martin is. And that’s how we know she isn’t going to end up with Alec Baldwin. Alec Baldwin spends most of his time showing us how much he wants incredible sex with the middle-aged mother of his children, but Meryl Streep isn’t going to settle for incredible sex with the father of her children. No. That is not good enough.

Neither is that kitchen.

I have included several pictures of Meryl Streep’s puny, limp, pathetic, unsatisfying kitchen, because really, there are no words.

That kitchen isn’t even the only kitchen Meryl Streep has at her disposal. Later in the movie, she takes Steve Martin to her bakery-restaurant-store, which is the size of a Wal-Mart, and sadly Nancy Meyers leaves out the part where they have to use a golf cart to get around. However, this may be where Nancy Meyers got the idea to have Anne Hathaway use a bicycle to get around her office in The Intern. (How zany, yet how practical!)

Once again Meryl Streep reminds us that she is a serious cook, by whipping up a spur-of-the-moment batch of chocolate croissants, even though it’s the middle of the night. (How madcap!) And Steve Martin again demonstrates his exceptional sensitivity by helping her in the kitchen — I repeat, helping her in the kitchen! We are not supposed to notice that Steve Martin bruises the dough, though he does, and consequently it will not flake properly when baked, and Nancy Meyers will have to throw it out after she’s finished the take. However, this is not a big deal, because this is Hollywood and wasting dough is routine there.

Also, you can tell we’re not supposed to notice, because obviously Meryl Streep would never favor a man who bruises her pâte feuilletée.

If he’s that much of an oaf, who knows what he would do to her shoulders!

We see yet again that Meryl Streep is a serious cook because she has her very own jardin potager the size of a soccer field, and of course she has a rumpled-yet-adorable straw hat to wear while she is picking picture-perfect tomatoes that are all exactly the same size, shape, and color, and that effortlessly line up in orderly rows when she places them in her basket, while you wonder whether that just happened by chance, or is Meryl Streep really a witch after all, or did Nancy Meyers hire a tomato wrangler for this movie?

And yet we know that Meryl Streep is an ordinary woman, an Everywoman, with whom we can identify and to whom we can relate, because her name is Jane — just plain Jane — and doesn’t every woman have a jardin potager the size of Nebraska and a light-filled kitchen the size of a shopping mall stocked with every item in the entire Williams-Sonoma catalogue and probably Pottery Barn, too, and an impeccably dressed ex-husband with great hair who is literally fainting from the desire to kiss her shoulders and (probably) rub her feet, and who (mostly) listens to her when she talks and who can’t stop praising her incredible sexual appeal, even when she is picking tomatoes in her jardin potager?

And yes, because she is a serious cook and used to live in France, she calls it a “jardin potager,” not a “kitchen garden.”

But Meryl Streep wants more, she deserves more, so she has to find another man who will kiss her shoulders and rub her feet and build her a kitchen the size of Alaska and listen to her when she talks, and who even reads her e-mails.

Because that kitchen is not big enough to satisfy a serious cook like Meryl Streep. Women should never have to settle, and what woman would settle for a kitchen like that? That kitchen is not the kitchen of Meryl Streep’s dreams. Women should fulfill their dreams and own their own businesses and have incredible sex and whip up chocolate croissants in the middle of the night and drink wine whenever they damn feel like it. Women should not only fulfill their own dreams, they should also fulfill Meryl Streep’s dreams, or hire Steve Martin to fulfill Meryl Streep’s dreams, and what woman would dream about a kitchen like that, anyway? Meryl Streep certainly would not dream about a kitchen that is merely spacious, inviting, well-appointed, and flawless.

Sadly, Nancy Meyers seems to have omitted the scene where Meryl Streep moans, “Build that kitchen! Build it! Build it bigger! Bigger! Bigger! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Maybe that scene, like the foot massage, is in the DVD extras. For mature audiences only.

I need more wine.

Because we are your friends, we are laughing with you when we laugh at your tiny kitchen.

SPECIAL ADVISORY: If you watch this movie, do not play the drinking game where you take a drink every time the actors take a drink. Trust me on this one. You may, however, try taking a drink in every scene where no wine is involved.

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30 December 2016

Debbie Reynolds

Taking stock of the treasure:
With costumes from Singin’ in the Rain.

Unlike most of us, Debbie Reynolds never seemed to question her luck. If she hadn’t become a movie star, who knows what would have happened to her? Can you imagine her waiting tables or teaching school? I can’t. Reynolds was one of the last products of the Hollywood studio system, making her greatest mark in cinema when she was only 19 years old, and she spent the rest of her life celebrating her stardom.

If she ever gave an interview when she wasn’t “on,” I haven’t seen it, and most of her appearances in sitcoms were merely variations on the character Hollywood created for her, out of the raw materials she supplied: forever the energetic innocent. Even when times were tough, she seemed to enjoy her lot in life, as few people do. She might be broke, she might be down and out, but she was always a star.

Reynolds returned the favor, though Hollywood didn’t seem to care. Recognizing that Hollywood movies are an essential part of our culture and our history, she set about collecting memorabilia that no one else seemed to value at all. We’re going to be very sorry, one day, that we didn’t hold on to Reynolds’ prizes, and keep them in one place, as she tried to do. Her own museum failed, and the Hollywood studios declined to establish another museum to take its place. She wound up selling the stuff at auction, and her life’s work went scattering to the winds.

With costumes from My Fair Lady.

Maybe Reynolds understood the value of Hollywood better than other people did because, as a girl, movies were forbidden to her, considered profane in the Nazarene church. But oh, what wonders of magic the movies could perform! Not least transforming a poor girl into America’s sweetheart. She’d lived the legend, and she knew it was real.

Hollywood didn’t seem to appreciate Debbie Reynolds nearly as much as she appreciated Hollywood. For two of her best-known roles, she wasn’t the first choice: Gene Kelly wanted a real dancer to play Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain, and just about everybody involved in The Unsinkable Molly Brown wanted Tammy Grimes to repeat the role she’d created on Broadway. When Reynolds made Mother with Albert Brooks, returning to the big screen after nearly a quarter-century, she delivered her best performance, by turns funny and exasperating and dear.

Somehow the Academy didn’t reward her with what would seem to be a reflex, a nomination for an older actress in a good part, a highpoint in a long career. She went unnoticed that year, and Dan Rather and I took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times to protest. Reynolds wrote Dan a sweet note, declaring that the essay was “the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”

Now she’s gone, upstaging her daughter one last time — in perhaps the most flattering way, and certainly the most show-biz. Hers was a grand exit, one that we’ll be talking about for years, and one that left us wanting more.

There’s no place like Hollywood.

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13 December 2016

Lyric Opera’s ‘Les Troyens’

Nuit d’ivresse: Susan Graham and Brandon Jovanovich.
This and all photos ©Todd Rosenberg courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

When Lyric Opera of Chicago announced that Susan Graham would be stepping into the role of Didon in Berlioz’s Les Troyens this fall, I welcomed the news. I’ve heard her each time she’s sung this opera, and I had supposed that her performances in San Francisco last year would be her last — no matter that she had never sung Didon better. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” I said to myself, and made plans to fly to Chicago.

Little did I realize how, days after the announcement, the plot of Les Troyens would come to seem so timely: the opera depicts the collapse of not one but two governments, the demise of one civilization and a prediction of the demise of a second. Yet it wasn’t until the performance began that I fully understood the necessity of what was, in effect, a pilgrimage.

Outside the walls of Troy.

Lyric’s production, the company’s first, featured a vast cast, most of whom but Susan were new to their roles; and a vaster chorus of 94 singers, with Sir Andrew Davis in the pit and Tim Albery providing stage direction. Sir Andrew and the orchestra got off to a blurry start on November 17, when the sheer strangeness of the music simply didn’t come across. Berlioz is creating a sonic environment that’s meant to be like nothing we’ve ever heard, automatically transporting us to another time and place. But within a few measures Sir Andrew corrected course and steered us ably onward. Part of the satisfaction of the performance was the vivid sense that the Chicago musicians had been yearning to play this score.

Albery’s best decision may have been to keep so much of the principals’ action downstage, where we could better appreciate the relationships. For example, virtually every principal in Act II is a member of one family, and the stage groupings and the singers’ interactions made this clear. We weren’t merely watching heroes of legend, we were watching a family, people like us. When my biggest complaint is that the curved wall of Troy should be convex when the Trojans are outside it, and concave when they’re inside (instead of vice-versa), you know Albery succeeded overall.

Goerke as Cassandre (foreground, with Meachem at center).

Singing this opera for the first time in her career, Christine Goerke was the production’s great revelation, so right is she for the role of Cassandre. She sang magnificently, coloring her immense instrument with a wide range of emotions, knowing precisely when tenderness is required and when to let it all hang out. Her acting brought me to tears at the end of Act II, something no other Cassandre has accomplished. Now I may have to become a camp follower for Goerke’s Cassandre, the way I’ve been for Susan’s Didon.

Okka von der Damerau was the wittiest Anna I’ve seen, a gleeful schemer in the scenes where she plays matchmaker for her sister, Didon, which makes for a nice contrast with her sorrow when that match goes awry at the end of the opera. Hers is a plush voice — she’s sung Erda with Lyric — so that vocally this was the definition of luxury casting. Lucas Meachem sang Chorèbe with great feeling, and he and Goerke made a plausible couple, giving the sense of a real history to the characters’ relationship. Annie Rosen was lively and appropriately gamine as Ascagne.

Jovanovich as Enée.

The afternoon began with the announcement that tenor Brandon Jovanovich had a cold. At first my heart leapt — did this mean that my friend Corey Bix would step in to sing Enée, as he did when I heard Troyens in San Francisco? No, it did not; though he did step in for one performance after I left Chicago, Corey sang the role of Helenus this afternoon. Apart from a couple of notes (to which honestly I might not otherwise have paid attention), I’d never have known that Jovanovich was indisposed. His voice has matured so handsomely since I first heard him, and I’m hoping he’ll continue to sing Enée and to grow in the role.

And then there was Susan. Albery’s production sets the opera in a non-specific near-present, and Tobias Hoheisel’s first costume for Didon made her look distinctly more like a prime minister or president than like a queen. Was it compensation — or the cumulative effect of having sung the role so many times — that made Susan’s Didon more regal than ever? The character’s awakening to love (a transition made more gradual by another nice directorial touch, making the “Royal Hunt and Storm” ballet the embodiment of the sleeping Didon’s dream*) became clearer: as she fell in love, she really did let her hair down.

Reine par la faveur des dieux.

For financial reasons — namely, the need to avoid paying overtime — Sir Andrew and the team cut some music, pretty judiciously. Yes, I noticed the absences, but the plot didn’t suffer, and one passage (the long sequence of tributes in Act III) can be theatrically boring, no matter that the music is nice and it’s fun to hear people going on endlessly about how terrific Susan — I mean Didon — is.

But some music in Troyens you wish could go on forever, particularly the duet “Nuit d’ivresse” that closes Act IV. As the music spun out in its dreamy, voluptuous whirls and eddies, Albery made use of Lyric’s new revolving stage, and Didon and Enée’s love carried them beyond all earthly concerns, beyond the earth itself, with stars and planets (projections by Illuminos) looking on. I hesitate to say “perfect,” but this was close to perfect, an entirely apt visual representation of what we heard and the characters felt.

Didon’s dream: The Royal Hunt and Storm ballet.

French repertoire has provided Susan with so many opportunities to revel in the sheer sensuality of her voice, and perhaps none better than “Nuit d’ivresse.” But she doesn’t stop there: then come the blind fury of Didon’s fight with Enée and the anguish of “Adieu, fière cité,” leaving me an emotional wreck. At a talkback after the performance, Susan said she thought she’d sung the aria better that afternoon than she’d ever sung it before — and I was in a position to confirm that she was right.

It’s been a helluva ride, as I’ve followed Susan to Paris, New York, San Francisco, and now Chicago with Les Troyens. A friend estimates that I’ve spent two full days of my life sitting in theaters and listening to her Didon. She has made this music so meaningful to me, and never more so than this fall, when much of the world has seemed to be collapsing around us all. Didon is more, then, than a signal achievement in the career of an artist for whom I feel both admiration and affection. It’s a gift of art that Susan has shared, when we need it most.

So if it should happen that she decides to sing it again — in Brussels or Barcelona or Bug Tussle — I’ll find a way to be there, too.

A gift, an offering: Rosen as Ascagne with Graham.

*NOTE: To a degree, the start of the ballet reminded me of Laurie’s Dream in Oklahoma! — and I mean that in a good way. I’d love to see this staging concept developed further.

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26 November 2016

‘Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life’ and Four Last Words

The welcome return of Gilmore Girls in four new episodes entitled A Year in the Life to Netflix has been for this admirer a tremendous success. Naturally, it helps that Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, Dan Palladino, took charge, because the new episodes’ sense of the history of the show — the lives these characters have led — was just about impeccable. Actors returned to familiar roles, even minor ones, and only in a few instances did their homecomings strike me as contrived. And the look of the show couldn’t have been closer to the original.

No matter that the original interiors had been discarded, no matter that the exteriors for Stars Hollow had been, right up until the day before production started, the exteriors for Grease Live, production designer Denny Dugally and art director Natasha Gerasimova recaptured every detail. When Emily (Kelly Bishop) points out all the changes she’s made to her living room, it’s an in-joke: nobody, Lorelai (Lauren Graham) included, can tell the difference.

Costume designer Brenda Maben had a little more latitude — fashions change over the course of nine years — yet she got everything right, too. There’s never a scene in which you think, “Oh, she would never wear that.” The exception to that rule is, of course, Emily’s T-shirt and jeans, but that aberration is intended to show how badly she’s responding to the death of her husband. The T-shirt and jeans are all wrong, which means they’re perfect.

The reunion of writers, producers, actors, and designers lends a sense of community to the proceedings, and since the community of Stars Hollow provides much of the appeal of Gilmore Girls, the episodes are even more satisfying to watch. When my worst complaint is that each episode doesn’t start off with Carole King’s “Where You Lead, I Will Follow,” we’re in pretty good shape.

We got terrific performances from actors such as Graham, Bishop, and Liza Weil (the indispensable Paris Geller), and Alexis Bledel was charming as ever — though it’s getting harder to ignore Rory’s flaws. We got plenty of Stars Hollow eccentricity and Hartford snobbery. We even got a pig, which only raises the question why we never had one before.

Above all, we got the sense that, while we had left the Gilmore Universe for nine long years, that universe proceeded. And there’s the suggestion that it will continue to do so, whether or not we’re privileged to return.

There follow some plot spoilers. If you haven’t watched A Year in the Life and you’re a fan of the show, please don’t scroll further or click “Read more.” Seriously. Don’t do that to yourself. Do what I did: go to a friend’s house, order takeout, and watch the show. Enjoy it. This blog will still be here when you’re finished.

As for the rest of you — click away.

First, let the show surprise you.

Let’s start with the biggie: the Four Last Words. For years, Sherman-Palladino, who was bumped off the show before its final broadcast season went into production, teased us, telling us that she knew exactly how she would have ended the series. Speculation built as the revival drew nigh, and now I gather that quite a few people are disappointed (or worse) in the four-word exchange between Rory and Lorelai.

It made sense to me. The original idea of Gilmore Girls was that a single mother and her daughter were best friends, and the show explored the ways in which mothers and daughters can be alike and different. Emily factors in, to display similarities and contrasts with Lorelai, of course, to the point where young Lorelai rebels constantly and eventually flees Hartford to keep from being like Emily. Lane and Mrs. Kim were foils to the other mother-daughter pairs. If the show had ended its original run with Sherman-Palladino in charge, then Rory would have announced that she was about to become a young single mother — like young Lorelai.

Now, since the likely father, Logan (Matt Czuchry), presumably can't call off his engagement to the French heiress, Rory is facing the prospect of becoming a less-young single mother. (On the bright side, that means she doesn't have to listen to Logan call her "Ace" all the time.) Naturally, she'll turn to her trusted friend and advisor — Lorelai — for help. Lorelai even alludes to “the cycle of life” earlier. Well, we’re coming full circle now.

And yeah, it does leave open the possibility of another new series (or single movie?).

To support my analysis, I cite Richard Gilmore’s will, which leaves Luke (Scott Patterson) money on the condition that he expand and franchise his diner. A contrivance? A steal from Middlemarch? No, it’s a callback to the early days of Luke’s first affair with Lorelai, when Richard took him golfing. From the start, Richard didn’t believe that Luke’s Diner was a concern large enough to make Luke worthy of his daughter. After seeing Luke and Lorelai reunite, and last for nine years, naturally Richard is going to want to try one last time to instill some ambition in Luke, and the kind of success that Richard admires. The Palladinos really thought this stuff through.

(By the way, there are several references to Luke and Lorelai’s having been together for nine years. Which means that, yes, just as we suspected and hoped, they did rekindle their relationship at the end of the last episode of Season Seven. History!)

All that said, I could never stand Logan and am hoping the Wookiee is the baby daddy. After all, Lorelai got pregnant accidentally. This is a different kind of mistake — but like mother, like daughter....

I also wouldn't be surprised if Jess (Milo Ventimiglia) stepped in and offered to marry Rory or to help her bring up the baby that isn't his own. Clearly he still carries a torch for her. And after all, Luke effectively adopted Rory — and like uncle, like nephew…. That idea probably appeals to me because I thought always Jess was a terrible boyfriend and a wonderful ex-boyfriend (which he proves again in A Year in the Life).

The suspense in a future episode/series/movie, then, wouldn't be “Who's the daddy?” but “Will Rory really do this on her own — with an entire town to help her — the way Lorelai did?”

To ask that question may be to answer it.

In the space of a few minutes, Lorelai goes from becoming a Sadie to finding out that she’s going to be a zaydie.
Oy, with the milestones already.

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