23 December 2009

Westward to Pine Valley

Lucci: She’s going to need those sunglasses.

When counting the cultural landmarks of New York City, I doubt that even the most hardcore soap-opera fan would number the studios where such sagas as All My Children have been produced. That’s a mistake, I think. The New York soaps proved an invaluable training ground for some terrific actors (and some very bad ones) over the years, and they injected a note of populist appeal into an artistic symphony that is sometimes too highbrow, even for those who like it that way. (“Shall we see the Heiner Müller play at BAM?” “Oh, yes, let’s shall!”)

So I read with sadness that All My Children has shot its last scene on a New York soundstage; henceforward, the show will be produced in Los Angeles, and One Life to Live will be the last New York soap on daytime television.

The loss of AMC is a blow to me, because it’s the only daytime soap I ever really watched. I began with an ulterior motive — to impress the girl I was dating — but soon enough I was hooked. No matter that the intrigues were overblown, no matter that roughly three-quarters of the cast were more sexy than talented, no matter that the pacing was slow and the dialogue ridiculous. This was engrossing, possibly irresistible. For years, I’d drop in on Pine Valley every now and then, keeping up with the multiple plot lines. I grew to admire Susan Lucci, who portrayed the series’ central character, Erica Kane, a wily, willful, egocentric beauty.

At one point during Lucci’s famously prolonged quest for an Emmy, I even wrote a little radio piece for Dan Rather, in which he suggested that the Academy just name the award after her: The Lucci for Best Actress. Surely it takes a remarkable talent to sustain audience interest over decades, despite a shifting cast of changing tastes, writers, husbands, and careers. We don’t know (as Dan and I observed) whether Sarah Bernhardt was capable of such a feat. But Susan Lucci has done it again and again.*

The late Ruth Warrick played one of the series’ most entertaining characters, Phoebe Tyler Wallingford.

Beyond actors and writers, many of whom presumably will move to Los Angeles, AMC and other New York soaps provided steady work for a once-vast population of technicians, the salt-of-the-earth types you never see on screen. The loss of all that employment is going to have an effect on New York’s economy — as if any further damage were needed.

That said, the technical aspect of the soaps wasn’t high. Upon meeting the late Frances Heflin, who played Erica Kane’s put-upon mother, I was nearly shocked to discover that she was quite beautiful in person. On camera, she certainly wasn’t. It was the same face, but her own make-up and the lighting in Madeline Gilford’s living-room were superior to what she found on the set of a network television series.

Another favorite AMC actress, Jill Larson, achieved the impossible by stepping into the shoes of Dorothy Lyman in the role of Opal Gardner, a kind of trailer-trash Becky Sharp.

So be it. Each episode took the viewer to so many places, and embraced so many characters, for five hours per week, that there was no time, probably, to polish. Just get the work done. That’s wonderful training for an actor, and that’s why so many good ones came out of the New York soaps. When I studied acting, I used to poo-poo the soaps, but I soon stopped. You learn your craft. You hone your reflexes. You get the work done. (You also build a fan base and draw a handsome paycheck.)

Soaps themselves are an endangered species; AMC’s future welfare will not depend on location. It will be the same show, pretty much, and it will fade away when it stops making money, as almost all the other soaps have done. Yet the loss of the soaps will change the cultural landscape of New York. We may not notice all the consequences right away, but we will see this, surely: the arts in the city will be much less a melting pot, and a little less fun.

*NOTE: Though we sent her a copy of the radio script, Susan Lucci didn’t respond, as I’d hoped she might. Maybe she didn’t know we were sincere — both of us. Dan’s mother-in-law was an AMC fan, and he respected the work, though he didn’t quite understand all the fuss that surrounded it.

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