24 November 2017

Catching Up With: Jane Alexander

Never lovelier.

NOTE: This is the first of what I expect to be several essays on topics that I should have been writing about on a regular basis, over the past several months.

Writing Madeline Kahn’s biography gave me the opportunity to meet, speak, and/or correspond with a number of people whose work I already admired — as well as coming to admire many of Madeline’s other colleagues, with whose work I had been unfamiliar. In the former category are of course great comedians such as Mel Brooks, Robert Klein, and Lily Tomlin, but also some Great American Actors who worked with Madeline onstage. In the past several months, I’ve seen both Jane Alexander and Kevin Kline return to the boards, offering welcome reminders that, no matter how they excel onscreen, they’re authentic theater animals.

Jane Alexander’s theater background helped me considerably the first time we spoke. When conducting a phone interview, I usually type while talking, transcribing the conversation immediately. Of all those interviews, only Jane Alexander did I trust to put on speaker phone: her diction is so flawless that, even over my crummy cell phone, every word rang clear. Over the course of her career, she’s performed in more than 100 plays (according to her bio in the playbill), so when I heard that she was rehearsing a new play at the Long Wharf in New Haven, I determined to go — little realizing that the play, Matthew Barber’s Fireflies — is set in South Texas, about 30 miles from my mother’s hometown.

I felt as if I were eavesdropping on the neighbors. Based on Annette Sanford’s novel Eleanor & Abel, Fireflies is a slight, sweet tale of a retired schoolteacher taking a late-in-life chance on love. The object of her affection is unlikely, and indeed she finds herself doing all sorts of things that don’t conform to her pre-existing patterns of behavior — even while she is true to herself, perhaps for the first time.

Kitchen-sink zaniness: Alexander and Ivey.

If the play struck me as having more resonance than it actually possesses or deserves, that may be because I saw it at a matinée, where, as the woman sitting next to me observed, I was probably the youngest person in the room. For the people around me, the play’s message — it’s never too late — was as meaningful as it was welcome. And as Jane Alexander flaunted her lustrous silver mane and her character repeatedly told us she’d begun using a new hair product that made her look so good, I contemplated my own grizzled locks and wondered where in the hell I could buy such a product. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

Fireflies called upon both the character and the actress who played her to take chances and to reach beyond our expectations. When discussing Madeline Kahn’s performance opposite her in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, Jane Alexander remarked to me that she’s better known as a serious dramatic actress than as a comedian. One can excuse the people who cast her: when an actress is capable of her kind of command and authority, why wouldn’t you take advantage of that? She’s done more than 100 plays, according to her program bio, so I can’t with any certainty claim that she’s never played scenes of such broad comedy. But I’ve never seen her do anything like what she did in Fireflies. I came to the Long Wharf expecting a reminder of her mastery of the stage, but what I got was a revelation.

At the very least, Fireflies represented a change of pace for her. With the incomparable Judith Ivey playing Eleanor’s neighbor and best friend, the play at times approached the style of a more realistic, grounded I Love Lucy — kitchen-sink zaniness, if you will. Yet stage director Gordon Edelstein also incorporated elements of fantasy (dinosaurs, planetariums) and maintained the play’s emotional foundations with great skill, and he knew how to make certain that every audience member walked out with the lasting image of Jane Alexander dancing in her nightgown. I’ve never seen her lovelier than she was here.

In the Long Wharf lobby, paperback copies of Alexander’s most recent book were on sale, and I bought one — having already shared my hardback copies with friends. Wild Things, Wild Places is unlike any actress’ memoir that came before it, an account of Alexander’s many trips around the world to conduct field research in conservation. She has been doing this without fanfare for more than 30 years. I confess that, when I first saw that she described herself as an “environmental activist,” I originally supposed that she’d signed a few petitions and attended a rally or two. I should have known better.

Of course Alexander engages — actively — in her environmental concerns, just as she committed, body and soul, to her political and arts activism by accepting the (phenomenally difficult) job of chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts during the Clinton administration, as well as by taking on roles in projects such as Testament and Playing for Time. Now I found herself wondering, when she imitated a dinosaur in Fireflies, which wilderness creatures inspired her performance.

The British make it so much easier than the Americans do to identify their Great Actors: the Queen has an honors list, after all, to recognize her subjects for their service to art and society. All we can do is remind one another that Jane Alexander is one of the greatest actors this country has ever produced.

It’s a lucky name for her: Alexander as Eleanor (Roosevelt), with Edward Herrmann as FDR.
This was my first glimpse of her, and I’ve admired her ever since.

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20 November 2017

Joyce Castle Toasts Bernstein, Janice Hall Forgoes Opera at Urban Stages

Lenny and Joyce during the first performance of Arias and Barcarolles.
With Michael Tilson Thomas also seated at the piano, and baritone John Brandstetter.

Joyce Castle captivated me from the minute we met, more than 30 years ago. Since then, I continually discover that she’s had that effect on other people, too, many of whom I admire in their own right. When I interviewed director Harold Prince, for example, we concluded our conversation with praise of Joyce — almost as if we were trying to one-up each other, or competing for the presidency of her fan club.

Leonard Bernstein thought highly of Joyce, too: at one rehearsal, the height-challenged composer was so delighted that he pulled up a chair and stood on it to kiss her. Joyce sang the first performance of his Arias and Barcarolles, and she won the hearts of New York audiences (and a Grammy Award) playing the Old Lady in his Candide at City Opera in the 1980s. Joyce has sung Bernstein’s music all over the world, easily embracing both his show tunes and his “classical” compositions. She’s got the musicianship — and, importantly, the sense of humor — to field anything Bernstein throws her way.

Bernstein’s centennial (officially in August 2018) is already being celebrated by orchestras and other musical groups around the country. When Urban Stages invited me to produce a show for its annual “Winter Rhythms” series, I thought it would be nice to stage a tribute now, before audiences are overloaded with his music. Naturally, I thought of Joyce. Would she be interested in making a “special guest star” appearance in a Bernstein tribute? “Why don’t I do the whole thing?” she replied.

And that is how Joyce Castle will be making her first New York appearance in more than six years, on December 16, at 7 pm, in LENNY! A Toast to Bernstein on the Eve of His Birthday. With her longtime collaborator Ted Taylor on piano, Joyce will share songs and stories, reminiscing about the composer — and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

A long way from Rovno Gubernia: Joyce as the Old Lady in São Paulo, with conductor Marin Alsop.

This year’s “Winter Rhythms” series features 22 shows in 12 days, to benefit Urban Stages’ remarkable educational and outreach programs. The series kicks off on December 12 with a tribute to composer and music director Barry Levitt, whose sudden death this fall hit the cabaret community hard: remembering him in song is the perfect celebration of a much-loved man. People are very excited about the tribute to Broadway book-writer Michael Stewart on December 18, featuring Chita Rivera, Jim Dale, and Charles Strouse. On December 21, there’s a concert performance of Stephen Cole and Matthew Martin Ward’s After the Fair, marking that show’s twentieth anniversary; and the series wraps up with a concert of Disney songs on December 23. Over the 12-day period, more than 100 artists will perform, a who’s who of New York’s musical scenes, and every year, producer Peter Napolitano makes sure there’s something for every musical taste. Click here for a complete listing and descriptions of all the shows.

Janice Hall draws on her own experiences from her operatic career.

I’m especially looking forward to Janice Hall’s “The Opera Show with No Opera” on December 16 at 3 pm. I first saw Janice in an opera, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, opposite Joyce Castle herself, and it was Janice who ushered me into the cabaret community. For this show, Janice will tell the stories of great operas — using songs by everybody from Billy Joel to the Smashing Pumpkins. “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. Just like at the opera,” Janice promises. Peter Napolitano directs, and Matthew Martin Ward is music director.

If you want to see both Joyce’s and Janice’s shows (and you do), you can get a discount by clicking here.

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16 November 2017

Adès’ ‘Exterminating Angel’ at the Met

An “Enchanted” Beginning:
Act I at the Met.

As an event, the Metropolitan Opera’s presentation of Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel has pleased me. Boosted by a rave review in the New York Times and by worldwide press coverage of soprano Audrey Luna’s record-breaking achievement — reaching the highest note ever sung on the Met stage — the production has attracted large audiences, which isn’t always the case for new operas. (Indeed, for any opera written after Madama Butterfly and Der Rosenkavalier, Turandot [1926] being the notable exception.) Even more encouraging: the audiences have skewed younger than is typical for the Met or most other opera companies. When I started attending the opera, I was 13 years old and very often the youngest person in the auditorium. What’s dismaying is that, on many nights, more than four decades later, that’s still true — but not for Exterminating Angel.

Beyond this, I welcome the Met’s casting so many singers whom I admire as artists and whom I know and like as people, offstage. But more on that in a moment.

Audrey Luna’s feat has attracted all sorts of attention.
Seen here, NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers.

About the opera itself, I’m of many minds. It’s a curious choice of subject matter to begin with, and I note that I still haven’t seen Luis Buñuel’s film. Certain choices seem dictated by what was in the movie, rather than the needs of this piece in the theater. An example is the arrival of a massive chorus at the start of Act III; the chorus returns at the end of the act, after a costume change. Yes, the opera does open up as a consequence, and we see what’s going on beyond the claustrophobic confines of the Nobiles’ home. Maybe we’ve had enough of the experience of being trapped in one room, as the principal characters are — though an argument can be made to the contrary, that we should remain trapped, sharing that psychological experience. On a practical level, however, Exterminating Angel — which saw its premiere at the Salzburg Festival, with the same production and many in the cast proceeding to Covent Garden and the Met, with a new cast to follow at Royal Danish Opera — will be prohibitively expensive for many other companies to produce. Is the movie’s precedent sufficient justification? I wonder.

Adès has never been one to eschew attention-grabbing stunts, which is one reason we know who he is, whether or not we’ve seen his work. A musical blowjob in his first opera, Powder Her Face, garnered all sorts of headlines, and more when the opera was recorded, and yet more when the opera has been produced subsequently. Exterminating Angel contains other such épater-les-bourgeois ingredients, and indeed the entire opera both shocks the bourgeoisie and depicts the bourgeoisie itself in shocking circumstances.

To an extent, even those record-breaking high notes are just another stunt. They don’t tell us very much about the character, an opera singer named Leticia, though certainly those notes do contribute to an overall atmosphere of otherworldliness. And nobody who’s a fan of bel canto can argue with the compositional device of generating excitement through feats of vocal derring-do. Leticia isn’t that far removed, really, from Tonio in Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment and his high Cs. (His high notes do make plenty of dramatic sense, however: Tonio is ecstatic at what he believes to be his good fortune.)

Certain of Adès’ compositional choices puzzled me, and while the language in this opera (to a libretto by the composer and Tom Cairns, who stage directed) is infinitely superior to that of the ludicrous doggerel in his The Tempest, he doesn’t seem any more concerned with whether the audience understands the singers (why bother, when there are titles?), whether his prosody mimics ordinary speech or departs from it, or whether he needs to make any clearly comprehensible choices about any of these matters. Another conductor might draw out more meaning from the score, but the composer himself is in the pit.

Deliverance: Act III.

Yet there are vast portions of the score that pleased me immensely. Adès shows mastery in the most intimate (a lullaby, a love duet for a dying couple) and the grandest passages (a hair-raising march number). He gives almost every character a spotlight. He resorts to a few easy tricks (the wind-up toy orchestration of the scene in which some characters indulge their most compulsive behaviors); and while the use of the ondes martenot doesn’t seem terribly original (we’ve heard it, or something like it, in old horror movies), it’s certainly effective. The score may not invite but it does welcome repeated hearings: I’ve seen the opera twice so far, and I expect to see the HD simulcast on Saturday afternoon.

Now, about that cast. When I was a kid listening to Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, it never occurred to me that I would ever know any singers. I mean, I liked Star Trek, too, but I never expected to know any Vulcans. The very idea was pure fantasy. And yet today I know quite a few of these people, my life is all the richer for them, and some of them are on the Met stage right now.

Case in point: Audrey Luna herself, who sang Zerbinetta in Fort Worth Opera’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos, in which I also appeared. She’s one of the loveliest people I know, and a wonderful singer. The role of Ariel in The Tempest, which Audrey sang at the Met, taps into some of her so-high-only-Jesus-can-hear extension, and as soon as she made her entrance in Exterminating Angel, I thought, “Well, Adès certainly got her number when she sang Tempest.” Her ability to extend her upper register while retaining a pleasing timbre and strength is remarkable, and while Exterminating Angel is, as I say, an ensemble piece, it is ultimately Leticia’s show: her big scena is integral to the finale ultimo. “She’s one of only two people on earth who can sing this role right now; the other is her cover,” mused one of her co-stars.

Tenor David Portillo, who sang Tonio in Daughter of the Regiment as part of the same festival season in Fort Worth, has reached an extraordinary level in his singing these days, as further demonstrated in Handel’s Ariodante at Carnegie Hall last spring. There’s an effortless sweetness to his singing that makes him a dream to listen to in the role of Exterminating Angel’s ardent fiancé — and he, too, is a lovely person offstage. As the elderly Señor Russell, bass Kevin Burdette, whom I saw most recently in Santa Fe Opera’s Die Fledermaus in August, adds yet another distinctive portrayal to a gallery that also includes an ogre, a jack-in-the-box, a Mormon patriarch, and an aesthetic poet — just a few among those that I’ve seen.

David Adam Moore with Amanda Echalaz (Lucia Nobile).

But the greatest satisfaction of hearing Exterminating Angel must be the success of baritone David Adam Moore. I've followed his career ever since I saw him in Neal Goren's production of Dido and Aeneas, and in turn his work has introduced me to the work of other remarkable artists, such as the designer Vita Tzykun, the composer David T. Little, and even the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (whom I first heard co-starring with David at Glimmerglass, and whom I heard again recently, singing and dancing exquisitely to Pergolesi).

Every now and then, David and I get together for coffee to catch up on each other’s news. A while back, he told me about Exterminating Angel. The announcement wasn't official (“You can't tell anybody” — and I didn't!), but he was slated to make his Salzburg debut as Colonel Gómez in the world premiere, with a real possibility that he’d follow this by repeating his role for his Covent Garden and Met debuts.

As it was foretold, so it has come to pass. His musicality, his bearing, and his innate authority are ideal for the role. And the rest of us have confirmation that sometimes good things do happen to good people. I couldn’t be happier.

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21 October 2017

The Case for a Recording of ‘Paul’s Case’

The original cast of Paul’s Case, in Kevin Newbury’s staging, with Jonathan Blalock in foreground.

Some operas stay with you. Some performances never leave you.

I had never read Willa Cather’s short story “Paul’s Case” before I read about Gregory Spears and Kathryn Walat’s operatic adaptation. The story is remarkable, poignant, chock-full of secrets and whispers. At its center is Paul, a young man who resembles the tenor Jonathan Blalock in every detail, to such a degree that you wonder what sort of time machine Cather used to visit our era and to meet Jonathan. She gets him, down to his mysterious smile. It’s as if Jonathan springs to life on her page.

I’ve had this sensation before, when reading Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir and seeing the actor Gérard Philipe in the central character of Julien Sorel. It was almost like fan fiction, as if Stendhal admired Philipe so much that he wrote a part especially for him. (Stendhal wasn’t above that sort of thing, I hasten to add.) Then one day I went to the cinéma, and there was Gérard Philipe playing Julien Sorel. The universe aligned, somehow. It was always necessary for Philipe to play this character, and then he did.

Seeing the opera at its New York premiere, part of the Prototype Festival, in 2014, I discovered that the music for Paul’s Case suits Jonathan every bit as much as the character does. His clean, incisive tenor shines as the chamber ensemble slides and scurries around him. In The New Yorker, Alex Ross has written far more eloquently about this opera than I ever can, as is his wont, but allow me impertinently to vouch for him: He’s right. This is a gorgeous, important score.

In an ideal world, we’d have a video of Kevin Newbury’s haunting, poetic production, for Urban Arias, with the original cast. We don’t live in an ideal world, however, and now Urban Arias is coming to the end of a fund-raising drive to finance an audio recording.

Imagine if Maria Callas had never recorded Tosca, if Lauren Worsham had never recorded Dog Days. That’s how you’re going to feel if Jonathan Blalock never records Paul’s Case. This is a once-in-a-lifetime portrayal. Sure, Spears’ opera is so powerful that other tenors will want to sing the role, some day. But they will never be quite like Jonathan, never quite so right and natural and expressive. They may or may not have lived out parts of Paul’s story — Jonathan has. They may never be able to give full voice to this character and his music — Jonathan does. They may never know what Jonathan has done with the role — I do.

In a fund-raising drive like this one, every little bit helps. The campaign is coming to an end. If you can part with a little money, I hope you’ll do so. The link is here.

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12 May 2017

Anne with an Execution

Amybeth McNulty as Anne in the new series.

NOTE: Netflix and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation are producing a “new, darker take” on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved Anne of Green Gables. Called Anne with an E, the series premieres this week. As the success of Riverdale attests, “new, darker takes” are all the rage these days, and there’s really no reason not to push Anne Shirley even further toward the darkness.

We open with scenic vistas of Prince Edward Island. But the skies are ominous, wind tears through the trees, and we hear thunder and lightning in the near-distance.

MATTHEW CUTHBERT: (Voiceover) You stay away from that girl, if you know what’s good for you!

GILBERT BLYTHE: (Voiceover) But — but I don’t even like her! Everybody in Avonlea thinks there’s something wrong with her!

CUT TO: Interior, schoolroom. GILBERT pulls ANNE’s hair. She wheels on him and raises her slate to strike him.

MATTHEW: (Voiceover) You heard me. You just stay away from her!

CUT TO: GILBERT’S lifeless body on the schoolroom floor. Blood pools around his head. We hear a girl screaming.

“That Gilbert Blythe is the best-looking boy in town … or was.”

CUT TO: Interior, Avonlea Town Hall. TOWNSFOLK are arguing. A MOUNTIE enters.

COOPER: Sorry to trouble you folks. I’m Officer Dale Cooper of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I understand there’s a missing person.

CUT TO: ANNE and DIANA BARRY, exterior Green Gables.

DIANA: But Anne! No one has seen Gilbert Blythe since you hit him with your slate! Do you know anything about this?

Wordlessly, ANNE turns and faces the camera. Her hair is green.

CUT TO: Interior, Green Gables.

MARILLA CUTHBERT: Officer Cooper, my brooch has gone missing.

COOPER: Things in Avonlea aren’t as peaceful as they seem, eh?

CUT TO: Exterior, White Way of Delight, thunderstorm.

DIANA: Anne! Anne! Where are you going?

ANNE: I’m going to find Gilbert — dead or alive — if it’s the last thing I do!

The victim was found right about here, eh?

CUT TO: Interior, Avonlea Constable’s Office.

COOPER: Murder in Avonlea? I’m going to need another cup of that damned fine tea, Mrs. Lynde.

CUT TO: Exterior, Lake of the Shining Waters. Rain, heavy fog. ANNE and GILBERT are in a rowboat.

GILBERT: Anne, we’re sinking!

CUT TO: Interior, Green Gables.

COOPER: I take it you two aren’t married.

MATTHEW: (Looks meaningfully at MARILLA, then) We’re brother and sister, sir.

MARILLA: (Gazes inscrutably.)

CUT TO: Exterior, forest. Tight close-up on ANNE. She has seen something unspeakable.

ANNE: (Screams)


It begins….

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02 May 2017

Handling ‘Ariodante’ at Carnegie Hall

Joyce DiDonato at Carnegie Hall,
with Harry Bicket (seated at the harpsichord)
and members of the English Concert.

“You handle Handel like nobody handles Handel,” enthuses a fan upon meeting a famous conductor (Rex Harrison) in Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours, and it’s what I kept thinking throughout Joyce DiDonato’s performance in the title role of Handel’s Ariodante on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall. Mind you, I’ve heard some extraordinarily good Handel singing in my day, but Joyce continues to surprise me, doing things that no one else does. When she sings Rossini, I can picture the composer strutting up and down the aisle at intermission, beaming and boasting, “Did you hear that? I wrote that!” When she sings Handel, I can picture the composer asking, “Hang on — did I write that?”

Even in the hands of some very fine singers, Handel’s emotional and psychological palette used to seem simple to me. Arias expressed one of a very few emotions: joy, anger (usually vengeful), sorrow, determination, love. Somehow Joyce has located psychological depths that, as I say, the composer himself may not have suspected; but she presents them so persuasively that I wind up believing Handel is on a par with Shakespeare, Wagner, and Verdi, a master of theatrical arts to give voice to the soul. Who knew the old boy had it in him?

I can only begin to understand how Joyce does this. For starters, in her arias she doesn’t merely ornament the vocal line. She deploys a variety of colors, and she makes uncanny use of her dynamic range. In piano and pianissimo passages, then, she evokes the thoughtfulness of the character, sometimes suggesting that the words she is singing are ones that her character can barely bring himself (Ariodante is a trouser role) to speak. She invites us to the innermost, most private domain of character.

Joyce recorded the opera with Il Complesso Barocco a few years ago.

Repetition is the foundation of Handel’s arias, in the da capo or “A-B-A” style prevalent in his day: in the first verse, the character makes a statement, repeating phrases several times; in the second verse, the character makes a contrasting statement, also repeating phrases; in the third verse, the character resumes the first verse, ornamenting the vocal line. What Joyce manages to do is not only stylish but thoughtful: it’s as if her characters are working out a problem, considering it from different perspectives, striving to explore and to understand the world around them.

Especially in the long aria “Scherza infida,” on Sunday Joyce outdid herself — and brought me to the brink of tears. No ornament seemed gratuitous or ostentatious, and yet no note, no gesture seemed calculated or effortful. And it all seemed fresh. Indeed, returning to the recordings she’s made of the aria, I found constant affirmation of her continuing exploration of this music, the new insights she’s gleaned, her unstoppable willingness to try new approaches.

Joyce was joined by a cast of excellent singers, including ripe-voiced Sonia Prina in the trouser role of the villainous Polinesso. Prina played her role to the hilt, until I wasn’t sure that certain vocal stunts were part of her technique (which is sometimes eccentric) or part of her deliciously juicy characterization. If she’d worn a mustache, I’m sure she would have twirled it, and it’s a tribute to her work that I came across one audience member at intermission who asked who the countertenor was.

Leading the English Concert from the harpsichord, conductor Harry Bicket tended to very speedy tempos that may have reduced the playing time (the concert lasted about four hours as it was) but did few of the singers any favors, especially in Act I. Still, soprano Christiane Karg made an affecting Ginevra, and sweet-voiced soprano Mary Bevan was a revelation as the gullible Dalinda. Rivaling Bevan for mellifluous tone was tenor David Portillo as Lurcanio, Dalinda’s intended. Fondly remembered for his Tonio in Fort Worth Opera’s Daughter of the Regiment four years ago, David is in exceptionally fine voice these days, as evidenced also in his recent run as Jaquino in Fidelio at the Met; this concert was his Carnegie Hall debut, and the audience cheered him.

The role of Odoardo may be small, even thankless, but it served to make me want to hear more from tenor Tyson Miller, who turned in a nicely rounded characterization and elegant singing. Baritone Matthew Brook made his role, the King of Scotland, seem far more important than I’d remembered it to be, and he invested himself wholly in acting the part — even when (as in the conclusion of his “sorrow” aria in Act II, which found him on his knees) he overdid it. His warm tone beautifully suited his paternal character. Really, in most respects this concert performance was ready for the stage, with the trouser ladies wearing trousers and each singer providing thoughtful characterization in gesture as well as voice.

I thoroughly enjoyed the work of the English Concert, notably Alberto Grazzi’s bassoon in “Scherza infida,” and Ursula Paludan Monberg and Martin Lawrence’s discreetly exultant horns; lutenist William Carter wielded a theorbo the size of that baby giraffe everyone’s talking about lately. The strings managed to be crisp, elegant, and supportive even when Bicket spurred them on to greater haste than I’d have liked. In all, it was an afternoon of memorably glorious music-making.

Post-performance: Backstage with Joyce and a friend.

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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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