22 October 2008

Who’s Afraid of Andy Weems?

Make it a double: Andrew Weems and Deborah Hedwall

I realized belatedly that by writing about Andrew Weems after his play Namaste Man had closed, I may have denied some readers who live in the vicinity of Seattle’s Intiman Theater the opportunity to see the show for themselves. I didn’t mean to cheat you: the fact that I couldn’t get to Seattle was so cruel and all-consuming to me that I ignored what was possible for others.

Now Andy is playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Baltimore’s Centerstage, 22 October–30 November. Although Andy didn’t write the play, it is a very good one, and I have been yearning to see him in the role pretty much since the day we met. I have often said I would kill for the chance to see him play George, and now the chance is upon me. Need I therefore commit murder? It seems a comparatively easy (and morally upright) task merely to take the train to Baltimore, especially since I am already in the U.S. at the moment.

After all, part of the fun of knowing performers is actually getting to see them at work. One can watch a chartered accountant at work, too, but it is much less fun, both for you and for the accountant. For your friends who are actors or singers, getting watched comes with the territory. Moreover, those moments are awkward when you try to explain to your friend why you didn’t see her latest show, which is why I just ordered a ticket to hear Susan Graham at the Metropolitan Opera. I need to hear her sing Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust.

I can write it off my taxes. As a medical expense. (Faust is a doctor, after all.)

Famed Andrew Weems Celebrity Impersonator Rick Burtone (left),
with costar Shirley Himmelfarber,
in a scene from his touring Weems Tribute Revue

If you’re planning to be in the Baltimore area, why not join me for Virginia Woolf on November 2? We’ll make a theater party of it!

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Field Guide: Enfants Sauvages

Wild Child: Testud in Aime ton père

Though the French film industry is remarkable in offering leading roles to actresses past the age of 40 and 50, there are plenty of younger women onscreen, too, and two of these — Sylvie Testud and Ludivine Sagnier — promise to become durable stars.

That said, Sylvie Testud might go into politics or marine biology. She’s completely unpredictable. Already branching out beyond cinema, Testud played real-life novelists Amélie Nothomb in Stupeur et tremblements (Fear and Trembling) and Françoise Sagan in the recent Sagan: now she’s a published author in her own right. I’ve yet to read her work, though from a quick glance it appears to be closer to Nothomb’s work than to Jackie Collins’: it may be beach reading, but it’s not celebrity trash. A fierce yet feline presence onscreen, this Lyon native exudes restless intelligence, raw sexuality, and not a little rebelliousness; these qualities served her well in two early roles, Albertine in Chantal Akerman’s updating of Proust, La Captive, and one of the sisters who inspired Genet’s The Maids in Les Blessures assassines. She is always exciting to watch, always strange and surprising. Look for her as Edith Piaf’s sidekick in La Môme (La Vie en Rose) — and anywhere else you can find her.

Testud in Stupeur et tremblements

Another of my favorites, Ludivine Sagnier has proven herself phenomenally versatile already, excelling in comedy (8 Femmes), drama (Swimming Pool), mystery (A Girl Cut in Two), and a musical (Les Chansons d’amour). She even played Tinkerbell in the 2003 Peter Pan! Though she’s generally playing a sex kitten, she’s wily, and she bends her art to suit the material. To my surprise, she popped up in Claude Miller’s A Secret (2007, currently playing in New York, where I saw it this week); here, she plays not the sex kitten but a young Jewish woman under the Nazi Occupation, whose doubts about her marriage have disastrous consequences for her child. When you go to see her pictures, you honestly don’t know what to expect. Her precocious track record comes as a relief, because even in cinemaniac France, we get flash-in-the-pans, one-note wonders, dropouts and flameouts. There’s every reason to think that Sagnier will be around for a long time.

Sagnier, as one-third of a couple in Les Chansons d’amour

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21 October 2008

Field Guide: Sandrine Bonnaire

Hitchcock blonde? Bonnaire, in Confidences trop intimes

Another very beautiful actress, Sandrine Bonnaire got an early start (the lead in Agnès Varda’s Vagabond), Bonnaire may be following the example of Simone Signoret and Jeanne Moreau by aging fearlessly. She’s still slim and barely 40, but look — she’s got crow’s feet! And darn it, she still looks great. What’s more, the openness and brilliance of her smile serve her in a variety of roles: her characters often begin with goodwill toward all — until somebody pushes them too far.

With Marina Foïs, in Un coeur simple

Highly intelligent offscreen, Bonnaire plays naïve beautifully: her gradual revelations of toughness or savvy lend extra interest, even mystery, to her films. She made banality terrifying in Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie, opposite the more overt Isabelle Huppert; she struck plausibly Hitchockian notes in Patrice Lecomte’s Confidences trop intimes (Intimate Strangers), in which nothing turns out as expected. Recently, she starred as one of Flaubert’s most curious creations, the simpleminded housemaid Félicité in Un coeur simple, and she directed a well-received documentary, Elle s'appelle Sabine, about her sister, treated (not always gently) for what was diagnosed as autism. She seems remarkably well-poised to benefit from French cinema’s liberality toward leading ladies: plenty of important pictures are made here starring women over 30, and opportunities exist for actresses to bring their talents to other fields, such as screenwriting and direction.

With my beloved Catherine Frot in L’empreinte de l’ange,
An autumn 2008 release I haven’t seen!

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18 October 2008

Discovering Ruth Draper

There is really no excuse for my failure to acquaint myself long ago with the work of Ruth Draper (1884–1956). Up until this week, I could have told you that she wrote and performed comic monologues, that one of these inspired a short opera (The Italian Lesson, by Lee Hoiby), and that she inspired Lily Tomlin. But I’d never heard any of Draper’s work. That’s changed, because as I begin to research the life of Madeline Kahn, I’m told by her brother that she, too, was inspired by Draper, and almost before I could say another word, he pressed into my hands Madeline Kahn’s own audio cassette tape of Draper monologues. What could I do but listen?

That Draper mimics a variety of voices, I knew, but I was unprepared for her formidable powers. Though some of her society matrons are clearly related, no two characters sound entirely alike: they are fluty, gruff, dull or piercing. Beyond the timbre, however, it’s in the accents that the most striking distinctions lie. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that the monologues are performed by one woman and not by a battalion (or perhaps a cotillion) of ladies. A monologue called “In a Church in Italy” is not a monologue at all, but an ensemble piece for an English watercolorist, an Italian beggar, a German tourist with children (interested primarily in the fact that the Kaiser once visited, and in whether chocolate can be obtained nearby), a philandering Italian lady, and a group of American sightseers — all played by Ruth Draper.

These folks come and go, and each speaks her native tongue. I’m dazzled by the audacity: whole chunks of Draper’s work are given over to French, Italian and German, automatically excluding even bigger chunks of her audience. As if that weren’t risky enough, in “The Actress,” she interrupts speeches in Russian-accented English and French for a long rant in a made-up, Slavic-sounding language that nobody speaks — though it is, in its way, entirely intelligible. Approximately 48 percent of my writing and my (now forgotten) performing careers has been devoted to listening to editors and directors telling me that I was “on the verge of losing the audience.” Either no one told Ruth Draper that she might lose her audience, or else she simply did not care. If you are open to this sort of thing, you will get it, or you will have patience for her to resume speaking a language you understand. If you’re not open to it, Miss Draper will manage, somehow, to carry on without you.

Her material is at times impossibly subtle, focusing on the most mundane activities and requiring the listener to pay close attention. Sometimes the humor lies in the accretion of detail, other times in the adroit insertion of incongruity among those details, for she wields irony like a scalpel. And those details are profuse, too, for she paid close attention, too. I am reminded, particularly in her portraits of New York society, of the work of Edith Wharton, and thus it’s no surprise to learn that Draper, like Wharton, was born into New York’s upper classes, and that her earliest performances were offered not in theaters but in Manhattan drawing rooms. Like Wharton, Draper is a satirist but only occasionally a jokester.

Outright comedy does emerge, though. In “Doctors and Diets,” a certain Mrs. Grimmer bends over backward to get a table for herself and three friends at a fashionable restaurant; once the ladies are seated, they discover that they’re all on diets and thus won’t be partaking of any of the specialties of the house. Instead, they lunch on boiled turnip, or the juice of 11 lemons, while discussing — avidly, even reverently — their fad diets and the doctors who recommend them.

Because I’ve only heard Draper’s work, and only a little of it, I can’t quite imagine her stagecraft. I read that she used no props, and that her only costume was a shawl. It’s almost unimaginable, or would be, if I hadn’t seen Lily Tomlin and witnessed her ability to transform herself into whole throngs of people using only her voice, face, and body. At times, I’ve thought Tomlin was wearing elaborate makeup and a costume, so completely did she insinuate the character in my mind’s eye. I gather that Draper could manage the same trick, and with both artists I sense layers of background, beyond what’s presented — the sense that Lily Tomlin knows exactly what Edith Ann’s living room looks like, for example, or what Ernestine the operator ate for breakfast. Entering a Draper monologue is, in the same way, entering a fully realized and inhabited universe.

And I’m beginning to grasp that, if I’d asked Madeline Kahn about the background of some of her characters — the education of Lili von Shtupp, or the reading habits of Eunice Burns — I’d have gotten not only an answer, but a monologue. How sorry I am to have missed that!

NOTE: More information can be found, and compact discs featuring Draper’s monologues can be purchased, here.

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16 October 2008

The Politics of Joe

I was not in the least surprised by the constant invocations of “Joe the Plumber” in last night’s debate between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. This is because I lived in France during a referendum on a proposed Constitution for the European Union, during which time a fictitious “Polish plumber” became a central figure in almost every discourse. This character was going to drive across the unguarded border in his shabby little Chayka or Trabi and steal the jobs of hardworking French people by repairing their sinks. Or something like that. The fact was that by the time the debate started, it was already legal for Polish people to work in France, and they’d been doing so for a couple of years. Le plombier polonais was so much discussed that some clever folks went out and found a real Pole and made a pin-up calendar of him. (See photo.)

Of greater interest to me was the proliferation of Irish men and women who were opening up “Irish pubs” across the length and breadth of France, yet in the normal give-and-take of French politics, I’ve yet to hear a single complaint about le bar-man irlandais. This despite the significant ramifications: consi- der, for example, that American tourists are now guaranteed at least one spot in every major French city where English will be spoken with native fluency. The effect on international relations, and on France’s sense of its snooty self, has yet to be calculated.

So it’s a step forward for American politics, or at least a step toward France, that the Senators last night took a real man, who lives in Ohio under the name of Wurzelbacher, and projected onto him every manner of jeopardy and aspiration, making of him a kind of real-life straw man to build up or tear down in argument, a cudgel with which to whack one’s opponent. It’s now possible to see that Senator McCain continues to espouse “trickle-down” economic policies that (have we paid attention the past 28 years?) don’t work, because he is thinking of leaky faucets.

In today’s Europe, debating can be fun!

Neither of the candidates bothered to point out that, even in a major recession, a plumber’s lot is relatively secure: our pipes will back up whether we have jobs or not, and the rescuing plumber will charge us whatever he can get away with, just as he always has. Neither of the candidates talked about Joe the Teacher, Joe the Environmental Scientist, Joe the Solar-Energy Entrepreneur, who might actually help this country. Neither candidate talked about the Joes who resemble the rest of us, Joe the Unemployed, Joe the Uninsured, and Joe the Foreclosed. A little variety would have been nice, instead of hearing only about a plumber, but then, time was limited.

And what of Joe the Shrubber?

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14 October 2008

Guillaume Depardieu

With Jeanne Balibar, in Ne touchez pas...

Guillaume Depardieu has died, at age 37. The oldest son of Gérard Depardieu, France’s most important actor, Guillaume himself became an actor. Yet if he drew any advantage from his family connections, if his life was made in any way easier by being a “fils de” (“son of,” which designates a separate social class in France), he seldom showed it. He struggled with drugs and alcohol, lost a leg following a motorcycle accident, and ran afoul of the law the first time at age 17, when he was imprisoned on drug charges. He was also a musician, a composer, and a father.

Starting now, he’ll likely be called the James Dean of modern France, though such a title will gloss over the important differences in origins, status, and talent between the two men. Dean was a great actor; though Guillaume Depardieu was not, he remained a troubling presence onscreen, darkening and deepening any character he played not through technique but transparency. Even before we knew his real-life fate, we could see his turmoil.

In his youth: I’m not sure what movie this is from.

I first saw him in Tous les matins du monde, a fascinating historical picture in which he plays the young Marin Marais, studying composition with Monsieur de Sainte Colombe, about whom almost nothing is known. Far from a glossy costume drama, the picture makes strong statements about art — but never explicitly. What is the power of music? The young Marais pesters Sainte Colombe for answers in words, but the old man can answer only in more music. Guillaume Depardieu was 20 when the film was made; Marais in old age is played by his father, Gérard. Nitpickers note that, among the cast, Guillaume is the only actor who approximates correct bowing on the viola da gamba; he studied cello as a boy.

Not fake: With Yekaterina Golubeva in Pola X

A few years later, Guillaume earned the dubious distinction of not faking a sex scene in Léos Carax’s Pola X, an adaptation of Melville’s novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities, a book I find unbearable. (The film’s title is an anagram of the novel’s title in French, the “X” signifying that this is the tenth draft of the screenplay.) Beyond its voyeuristic frisson, Depardieu’s performance, like the movie, is compelling, and his rapidly aging face bears a haunted expression that serves the character well. At the time of filming, in 1999, he’d already sustained the injury and staph infection that led to the loss of his right leg; it was amputated in 2003.

Last year, haggard now and playing a French general who hobbles on a wounded leg, Guillaume Depardieu delivered his most impressive performance (at least in movies I’ve seen), in Jacques Rivette’s Ne touchez pas la hâche, an adaptation of Balzac’s novella La Duchesse de Langeais. One sensed in him a barely controlled force, more striking opposite the reed-slender Duchess of Jeanne Balibar, and in his performance the lines between anger and sexual desire were blurred intentionally.

Beyond his years: In Ne touchez pas...

He’d grown as an actor. Was he transforming his talent, or was it transforming him? Easy enough to say that his personal troubles found expression in his art, but that’s reductive and possibly untrue. He’s said to have written an opera while he was convalescing from the amputation: does it necessarily follow that his opera is brilliant? Nonetheless, I’d like to think that he was on to something, and that as an audience member I’ve been cheated.

He was never the next James Dean, and he might never have become the next Gérard Depardieu. But watching him become the greatest Guillaume Depardieu of our time would have been a rare opportunity.

With his father

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12 October 2008

Carry Me Back

The Rotunda of the University of Virginia

I greet the new day from the vantage of Charlottesville, Virginia. The leaves are beginning to turn here; the air is fresh, the sunlight so far abundant. Yesterday I saw a wild turkey on the road. In all, it’s one of the prettiest places I know in America, and for a long time it was the focus of all my youthful aspirations. I was meant to go to college here — at the University of Virginia, on the brink of which campus my motel sits. And I was meant to be a Virginian. It was my certain idea of myself. Now I visit that idea, even more than I visit this place.

My boyhood idol was Thomas Jefferson, my view of him uncomplicated either by adult perspective or by more recent historiography. I knew I had been brought up to be a Southern gentleman, a type of which Jefferson was a paradigm, with all the rougher Texan edges polished smooth. Really, Jefferson’s embodiment of that dubious ideal was the very summit of human achievement, I thought: he was a farmer who read Latin and Greek, a scientist who played Mozart on the fiddle, a patriot who served his country without taking up arms, a lawyer who died broke. One could fault him for nothing.

Granted, I have since learned better, but I strove from that day forward for a kind of Jeffersonian sophistication, and particularly when I was young, there seemed no better place to pursue my goal than at the university he founded, among the hills and woodlands he loved.

Just down the road, toward Lynchburg, is where the fictional Walton’s Mountain would lie, and where its creator, Earl Hamner, Jr., grew up. Thus this area is home to my other great boyhood role model, John-Boy Walton. Although the Jefferson model was one I seized for myself, the Walton model was pushed on me a bit, by my mother most especially. It wasn’t hard for either of us to see me in John-Boy, the sensitive writer in eyeglasses, and whether to please her or myself, I adopted John-Boy’s flawlessly respectful manners, learning in time that they work to get you what you want even from snooty French bureaucrats, provided you do the translating. When John-Boy wants a thing, he wants it “purely,” and that became a goal for me, as well.

The writing came of itself. I don’t think anyone gets very far with writing simply because he saw someone else do it on television. The process may look attractive from the outside, but once you get closer, it’s messy, ruinous to your interpersonal relationships, and very, very difficult. The best comparison I can draw is to Disney’s Snow White: if you think housecleaning really is attended by cute little birds and squirrels, who will help you to dust in those hard-to-reach corners, go ahead and clean house, and good luck to you.

But the model of John-Boy was powerful. More than one Christmastime, my mother gave me, almost shyly and once with tears in her eyes, a Big Chief notebook. She knew what it meant, and so did I.

The intervening years have taken me far from Monticello, and farther still from Walton’s Mountain. That’s not a bad thing, perhaps. One must grow — one must “put away the things of a child” — one ought not be too happy to see one’s earliest dreams come true. But here in these hills, I remember a time when the idea of growing older made me happy, and the idea of being tall and proud, honorable and pure seemed just within my reach.

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11 October 2008

Field Guide: Catherine Deneuve

It wouldn’t be Cannes without her

In the United States, Catherine Deneuve is and has been for many years the best-known of all French actresses. In France, she’s a monument — literally. Several years ago, she was the model for Marianne, the symbol of the Republic, on all the stamps and statues. It’s an honor that’s bestowed periodically on prominent beauties, and it’s not always clear that the government takes it seriously: a couple of years after Deneuve posed, the nod went to Laetitia Casta, who as a professional fashion model was distinguished primarily for her ability to be born pretty, and who did not reside in France at the time. (Why not Naomi Campbell instead?)

More than one might expect, Deneuve understands and respects her status in this country, I think, and she attempts to use her power for good. Though she makes several movies a year, the majority aren’t blockbusters, but worthy projects that might go unnoticed or unmade, were she not to lend her name. Rarely do you see her in a movie and think, “Well, she must have needed the paycheck.”

With almost every picture, you can identify a technical challenge Deneuve has made to herself, an area of her craft that she seeks to refine. In her youth, she was more a presence than an actress; today, she’s still a presence, but she’s an actress, too. Not always a good one, it must be said. She doesn’t always meet the challenges she sets herself, yet one has to concede that she refuses to rest on her laurels.

Meeting of the Monuments: Deneuve and Depardieu in Les Temps qui changent

She has pushed her emotional range far beyond the narrow circumference of her youth; her vocal range has expanded, as well, and her line readings have taken on a truthfulness and resonance she lacked as a girl. She’s not a natural comedienne, but she was amusing in Valérie Lemercier’s semi-farcical Princess Diana allegory, Palais Royal!, and the great André Téchiné helped her to locate a warmly humorous exasperation in Les Temps qui changent (Changing Times).

In that picture, Deneuve plays a woman whose stable life is capsized by the reappearance of an ex-lover, played by Gérard Depardieu (her co-star in The Last Métro and a French institution himself). Téchiné approaches the screen as a novelist approaches the page, and though Les Temps qui changent isn’t his most fully realized film, he guides Deneuve through a carefully paced descent, as Depardieu obsessively wears her down. At times he seems like a stalker, she like an ice queen — and yet we like them more and more.

In Jacques Démy’s musicals (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, etc.), Deneuve’s singing voice was dubbed, but she’s bolder now: in François Ozon’s 8 Femmes and in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, she sang fearlessly, for herself. The roughness of her musicality suited von Trier’s drama, particularly. In Gaël Morel’s Après lui (After Him), she plumbed the confused grief of a mother, irresistibly drawn to the best friend of her late son. Deneuve doesn’t hit all her notes — Isabelle Huppert would’ve been ideal in the role — yet her occasional lapses in technique reinforce our idea of a character who’s lost control, and the performance is more poignant as a result. What’s more, her presence inspires the best work yet from Morel, a young man who began as an actor (in Téchiné’s Wild Reeds) but has now devoted himself to direction. What it must mean to a young artist to work with the muse of Buñuel and Truffaut!

With Thomas Dumerchez, in Après lui

I can think of few other movie-star actresses — only Katharine Hepburn, really — so determined to continue learning and improving, well past the blush of youth and long after fame has been achieved.

Unfortunately, like many former sex symbols on both sides of the Atlantic, Deneuve is engaged in a war with her own aging body. She’s had cosmetic surgery and seems unable to reconcile herself with her mature figure. It’s not always easy to watch her these days.

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04 October 2008

Madeline Kahn

As I prepare to write the authorized biography of the late singing actress Madeline Kahn, I would appreciate hearing from anyone who knew or worked with her, or who possesses material relevant to a critical assessment of her art. My e-mail address appears after the jump.

Please contact me at billmadison(@)mac.com — first removing the parentheses, of course. I look forward to hearing from you.

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03 October 2008

You, the Commentariat

Walter Lippmann, Your New Role Model

As the sharp-eyed will note, I have recently altered the format of this blog to allow comments from my readers. I’m conscious that not everyone who visits this site is a college classmate or elderly relative of mine. Though you may not know me, you may have some thoughtful observation or criticism to share with me. And I may have the courage to read without trembling or tears whatever it is that you have to say.

So please, make your voice heard. I hope you will abuse neither your privilege nor me.

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