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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02 September 2016

Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder was one of a handful of people I knew I’d have to talk to in order to tell the story of Madeline Kahn, the Oscar-nominated, Tony-winning star whom he described to me as his “most talented actress and favorite co-star.”

A lot of fans consider Gene and Madeline one of the all-time-great movie couples. In reality, they made only three pictures together, and in one of those, they don’t share a scene. That’s Blazing Saddles. But Gene was so taken with Madeline that he hung around the set for every single take of her big number, “I’m Tired.”

Afterward, he told Mel Brooks, “If the entire movie is just that one scene, it will be worth the price of admission.” The two immediately started trying to find a part for her in their next movie, Young Frankenstein.

I was keenly aware that, without Gene, I wouldn’t have a book that would be worthy of Madeline herself.

This accounts for some of my eagerness in our first interactions. Something he said when I first wrote to him, led me to believe that he’d be willing to meet face-to-face. So I offered to meet — and Gene’s response nearly exploded out of my laptop. NO, he did not want to see me! He was so skittish that for several nervous minutes I was afraid of losing him altogether.

I wrote back to say that I’d be willing to ask him my questions any way he wanted. Telephone. E-mail. Semaphore. Smoke signals.

He chose e-mail.

As the Fox, outstanding in his field.

At first, Gene seemed a little … terse. He’d write no more than two or three sentences in answer to any question.

Now, my aim in writing my book was to allow the reader to hear voices — not only Madeline’s voice, because I was looking at her first as a singer — but also the voices of the people she worked with. Gene’s answers weren’t what I’d imagined.

Beyond that … was he brushing me off? I picked up his memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger. And then I understood. This was Gene’s writing style. To the point. Terse, if you will, but in keeping with a man, most of whose writing had been movie scripts.

As I looked over what he’d written to me, and compared it with what he’d said about Madeline in other places, I saw that, so far from brushing me off, he was actually giving me his best material.

I was reminded of one of his early movies, The Little Prince. Gene played the Fox. The Fox can’t be tamed, and he’s very shy. For the first time, I understood: when Gene played the Fox, he was typecast. And so I tried to keep myself at a distance where he’d be comfortable with me. He signed his notes “Gene,” but I never addressed him as “Dear Gene.” Maybe that was a mistake, but it’s too late now to undo it.

Over the years, he continued to give me his best material, always answering me promptly. I seldom had to wait more than an hour for a reply to any of my questions.

He was fastest when I wrote to get his response to Mel Brooks, who insisted, even as I objected, that Gene and Madeline must have had an affair. Quite a few fans still believe this. Madeline herself, Gene had told me, thought it was a good idea. His own stepdaughter believed it to be true. And now Mel — who knew both Madeline and Gene well — told me he couldn’t believe it wasn’t true.

Yet again, Gene’s reply exploded out of my computer. This time in ALL CAPS. NO, he and Madeline never had an affair!

“I want everything I’ve ever seen in the movies!”

When it came time to solicit endorsements for the back cover of the book, Gene obliged. I wrote to thank him, and I never heard back. His birthday rolled around about six weeks after the book was released; I dropped him a note. I didn’t hear back.

Maybe he didn’t like the book, I thought — despite the evidence that he had liked it. (I promise you, my publisher didn’t put a gun to his head when they asked for his endorsement.) Maybe he figured that my book was finished, and therefore that was the end of it.

Or maybe he was only a little more than a year away from death.

Reading his obituary, I realize that our later correspondence followed his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. He must have known that each note to me represented a last chance to express his feelings for a dear friend, whom he missed quite painfully.

He was a helluva guy. Gene was very, very ambitious for himself. But he loved his friends. He made them his co-stars. And he did everything he could to make them look as good as possible.

He wrote The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother specifically for Madeline — and Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise, and himself. Every one of them gets a chance to shine. You see a similar generosity in the scripts he wrote for Richard Pryor and Gilda Radner, too. This was a man who truly cared about the people he worked with.

If you haven’t seen Smarter Brother, I hope you’ll do so soon. It was the first picture Gene wrote and directed, and he also stars. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a beautiful tribute — to Madeline — to Marty — to Dom — and to Gene himself.

Now, Gene didn’t write a movie for me. But he did what he could to help me. And make no mistake — that, too, was his tribute to Madeline.

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14 August 2016

The Florence Foster Jenkins Moment

Queen of Delight? Streep as Foster Jenkins.

At movie theaters, we’re in the middle of a Florence Foster Jenkins moment. Stephen Frears’ film, starring Meryl Streep, has opened in the United States — following Xavier Giannoli’s French film, Marguerite, released just a year ago and based on Foster Jenkins’ life, starring my beloved Catherine Frot in a César-winning performance. In the works is a documentary, The Florence Foster Jenkins Story, in which none other than Joyce DiDonato plays the demented diva.

Why now? Is it merely that, at this historical moment, we happen to have three talented actresses who are willing and able to play the woman widely regarded as the worst singer who ever lived? Is there some vast audience that’s been demanding — for decades, presumably — multiple interpretations of this story? Does Foster Jenkins’ story speak to something current in our society? Is this just a fluke?

Having seen the Frears and Giannoli films, I’m inclined to opt for Answer 1. Streep, who as a child studied with Estelle Liebling, is the right age, more or less, and quite open to the challenge of impersonating well-known women (Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child). Frot has made a career-long specialty of loopy bourgeoises, finding in their stories a measure of comedy and tragedy, and Marguerite offers audiences a taste of both. And Joyce, widely esteemed as one of the greatest singers alive, is also a good sport with remarkable sympathy for those less gifted: I once attended a dinner party at which we played some of Foster Jenkins’ recordings, and while the rest of us writhed in a mixture of agony and delight, dear Joyce refused to say a word against the woman.

The next question, then, is what’s the point? What lessons are we to draw from Foster Jenkins? While I can’t yet address the documentary, I’m prepared to answer for the Giannoli and Frears films. Ultimately, Marguerite is the tragedy of a woman who doesn’t know herself; her delusions are at once her reason for being and her undoing. And Florence Foster Jenkins is a garden-variety biopic, leaving its message to the marketing team (“You don’t have to be good to be great,” runs the slogan).

On wings of song: DiDonato as Foster Jenkins.

Both films present a Foster Jenkins who is entirely unaware of how badly she sings; Frears’ film implies that neurological damage from syphilis accounts for her inability to hear herself as others hear her. Both films disregard the theory that Foster Jenkins was in on the joke, that her over-the-top performances were a sort of performance art avant la lettre — which may or may not be true, but which would make for an interesting movie.

Marguerite comes closer to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, the story of a man who doesn’t understand that his true talent is friendship — not moviemaking. If Burton’s film doesn’t attain the level of tragedy, it’s because the movie doesn’t permit the title character any recognition of his fatal flaw. He remains blithely oblivious to what he’s been doing wrong, and yet the message is clear and (for this audience) meaningful. At those many, many times when my writing career hasn’t gone as planned, I’ve wondered whether I hadn’t been kidding myself all along. Wood’s friendship with Bela Lugosi resembles in some ways my friendship with Dan Rather — and so on.

Marguerite gives its heroine her Aristotelian moment, and so, to a degree, does Frears’ FFJ. But in general Frears is up to something different, and his film may be interpreted as a 110-minute expression of the popular maxim, “Dance as if no one is watching.” Florence does indeed sing as if no one is listening, much less judging. But should she? Music is her passion, and she follows her bliss. Okay. That’s fine for her. But what about the rest of us? Are we really supposed to follow her example? If so, I’ll book Carnegie Hall myself.

Thus, despite all of Streep’s dazzle, the focus shifts to her common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a ham actor who at least sometimes has the self-awareness not to subject other people to his “talent.” Effectively a kept man, he coddles Florence, pays off her critics, papers the house, indulges her fancies, and defends her dream world. Even in private conversation, he can’t bring himself to admit that Florence sings badly — as we see in a nice scene with her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (his real name). And only when he lets down his guard — taking a vacation with his mistress — does Florence set in motion the Carnegie Hall concert that will at once fulfill her dream and bring it crashing down on her.

Ah! Je ris! Frot as Marguerite.

We get more insight into Florence’s character in a single scene than in the entire rest of the movie. On a surprise visit to Cosmé’s apartment, Florence talks about her youthful ambition of becoming a concert pianist, and reveals that damage to her hand cut short her career. Thereupon she and Cosmé sit at the piano and, one hand each, they play a Chopin étude. Suddenly, Streep’s performance isn’t about ticks and twirls, and least of all about her voice: it’s about a real woman who does not happen to be Meryl Streep. The Chopin doesn’t merely show us that music is important to Florence; it shows us why music is important to her, and what music does to her.

Does Bayfield understand this? We never see any evidence, one way or another, and yet that explanation could elevate his behavior from self-interest (so long as he humors her, he enjoys a prosperous lifestyle) or benevolent affection (as depicted here, he really does love her). As the film is constructed, however, we get only hints of Bayfield’s attempt to define the point at which he does his lover no favors by telling her lies.

Those hints come not so much in the dialogue but in the weary blue eyes of Hugh Grant, who plays Bayfield. It’s a remarkable performance, particularly coming from someone whose acting is known more for charm than for depth. He’s coasted on piffle in almost every movie he’s made — and he almost always seems to know it. But here he’s working with Meryl Streep, and he rises to the challenge.

Happy, darling? That’s all that matters.
Streep and Grant.

For those who say Grant isn’t a true actor because he doesn’t (or can’t) play Shakespeare, he offers up a self-aware, truly terrible soliloquy. “No, I’m not Ken Bloody Branagh,” he seems to say, “and isn’t that perfectly marvelous?” In what’s almost a throwaway line, Florence tells Cosmé that she hides bad reviews from Bayfield — just as we know he hides them from her. That’s a theme that should have been explored at greater length. The deceptions are mutual, co-dependent, symbiotic.

Yet even as he’s playing what amounts to a drawing-room comedy, Grant suggests, again and again, how much it costs Bayfield to sustain Florence’s fantasies. The script calls for him to retreat to his bachelor pad — and his mistress, and her bohemian friends — to recharge his batteries. But that’s not enough to save either Bayfield or Florence. Perhaps, then, the lesson of Florence Foster Jenkins is that friends don’t let friends dance like there’s no one watching when people actually are watching.

On The Big Bang Theory, Simon Helberg plays Howard, who (at least in episodes I’ve seen) is often presumed to be gay. Here, he plays Cosmé, who really is gay — though the script doesn’t make much of that, and nothing at all of the immortal paradigm of Diva and Gay Disciple. To this day, Florence’s most ardent followers often are gay men, as they were in her lifetime. Perhaps in a nod to political correctness, the script makes only oblique references to Cosmé’s sexuality — too subtle, I think, since a gay man with whom I saw the movie didn’t understand what Cosmé meant when, arriving late and disheveled (but not bloodied or bruised) to an engagement, he explains that he’s been “waylaid by sailors.”

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Helberg as McMoon.

Seated at the piano, Helberg has to react more than speak, and some of his mugging seems better attuned to TBBT than to FFJ. But he knows how to bring Cosmé’s gayness just to the point of caricature and no further, and he plays piano quite well. He and Streep didn’t dub-and-mime their music, performing directly on camera instead, and their teamwork is inspired — one of many ways in which Frears pays gratifying attention to details that other filmmakers might neglect. But the character is barely sketched, and ultimately his motivation — like Bayfield’s — is summed up with the too-simple explanation that he, too, in his way has fallen in love with Florence.

But why do these men love her? Is it her money, her joy, her vulnerability, all of the above? Ultimately, Florence Foster Jenkins skims along its frilly surfaces, and doesn’t dig terribly deep. That’s not a sin, and yet it’s a shame. The talent is on hand to make a truly superlative picture, one that we’re still talking about seven decades from now — the way we talk about Foster Jenkins herself.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a charming entertainment, perfectly pitched to Streep’s fans and the diehard PBS viewer — which makes it all the more puzzling that the trailers “approved for this audience” all featured phenomenal amounts of violence. Well, I suppose it’s possible that the people who come to see FFJ will also want to see Ben-Hur and Jack Reacher and that other picture with explosions and noise, whatever it was. But really, the tone-deafness (and I use the word advisedly in this context) of the marketers makes it seem almost miraculous that there’s even one Foster Jenkins movie, to say nothing of three.

In this deleted scene, St. Clair Bayfield confronts Foster Jenkins’ critics.
(No, actually, it’s Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher, a film I’m unlikely to see, and less likely to enjoy.

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