29 November 2012

What Hepburn Wore

While at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts the other day, on my way to do some research for my biography of Madeline Kahn, I glimpsed from the corner of my eye a familiar dress on display. Then another. Then another. The corner of my eye is crummy — I wear glasses and have no peripheral vision — so I turned to face an extraordinary (and little-heralded) exhibition, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, on view through January 12, 2013.

Small wonder that I recognized the clothes: Hepburn, who died on Pride Weekend, 2003, is by far my favorite movie actress, to whom I once proposed marriage. (She had the good sense — typically — not to respond to my letter.) I’ve seen most of her films multiple times, and there’s only a couple I’ve never seen at all. I’m saving them up, the way one saves a couple of Shakespeare plays, to be sure there’s still some pleasure left before dying.

What even a completist Hepburnite does not expect is to see the woman standing before him, in the old familiar costumes, in the poses she struck in life. Yet that’s precisely the effect that Dressed has.

Calla lilies: Terry Randall’s costume today,
and as Hepburn wore it in Stage Door.

Hepburn’s irrepressible vitality made her seem to pop right off the screen, even in her roughest performances and worst movies. Where can all that energy have gone? It was a force so powerful that even now it seems to inhabit her clothes, and the mannequins are arranged such that you feel Hepburn’s presence, disembodied and yet corporeal, ghostly and yet real, multiplied by dozens around the room.

This is most obvious in the pose of one pair of her trademark trousers — upside-down, as if Hepburn is doing a handstand — but also in the tilt of a hat, just so. You can almost see that strange, beautiful face, the head cocked, the blazing blue eyes probing yours, the mouth set in greetings both welcoming and wary. Playful, then proud, then somehow slightly scornful.

You’d always heard that, when she appeared in a TV adaptation of The Glass Menagerie, Hepburn re-purposed the wedding dress she wore on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story, and here’s the proof: the dress itself, with photos from the play. With a few seams let out and a fabric flower added at the throat, what was once up-to-the-minute fashion for Tracy Lord became Amanda Wingfield’s faded finery, an adornment insufficient to win over a Gentleman Caller.

So many of her films were in black-and-white — as are all the photographs from her early stage appearances — that the living colors of some costumes hold a special fascination. Most notable, perhaps, is a pale lavender dress with lace trim, which Hepburn wore in Long Day’s Journey into Night. We see at once that Mary Tyrone is too timid to seize the royal purple she’s entitled to; in the lace we see her Irish heritage. On screen, the dress never impressed me. In the exhibition, I understand how it contributed to Hepburn’s single greatest performance.

Costumes mattered to Hepburn as an expression of character — even the stuff she wore off-camera expressed the person she wanted to present to others — and throughout the exhibition, various documents testify to her collaboration with designers, striving to make the desired effect. We also see hairpieces, makeup kits, publicity photos, and a watercolor self-portrait — but Hepburn isn’t inside them, not the same way, and so we keep going back to the clothes.

Here are the chic, vaguely Chinese jackets she wore in Coco, and the Edwardian folderol in which she swanned in Love Among the Ruins. Here’s the Gypsy drag she donned as Lady Babbie in The Little Minister, the Soviet uniform she wore in The Iron Petticoat and the elaborate Indian wedding gown from Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry. And here’s the evening dress she wore in Adam’s Rib, probably the last time any camera got a good look at her aging neck (of which she was highly self-conscious) until Henry Fonda kissed it, peeling back her collar in On Golden Pond, more than three decades later.

We see her body changing, from willowy to surprisingly stout, from Alice Adams to Miss Moffatt — but this is perhaps the only thing we see that Hepburn might have wanted to hide from us. A true artist, albeit a collaborative one, she was presenting an image to the viewer. The images survive her — eloquently. This is no mere scrapbook of a career; it’s an almost-living monument.

The exhibition is commemorated in a new book, Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic, and the costumes are part of the Kent State University Museum permanent collections, so if you can’t get to the Lincoln Center Library, you may yet have a chance to admire these extraordinary reflections of a woman like no other.

Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen is at Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts through January 12, 2013. Admission is free.

“Who the devil cares what a woman wears?”
Hepburn as Coco Chanel, a self-portrait.

Read more!

28 November 2012

Julian Fellowes to Create Several More Original Series

Because of course American versions of British series
always turn out so well.
(Actually, I quite liked Beacon Hill, especially Kathryn Walker’s performance as bohemian Fawn Lassiter.)

Following the announcement that Julian Fellowes is creating a new period drama for NBC, set in 19th-century New York, several critics have described the new series as nothing more than an Americanized rehash of Fellowes’ own Downton Abbey, which itself is sometimes described as a rusticated rehash of Upstairs, Downstairs. Stung by this unexpected backlash, screenwriter Fellowes today announced the creation of several new series “entirely unlike anything ever seen on television, and particularly unlike anything ever seen on Masterpiece Theatre at any point in the 1970s,” Fellowes told television reporters.

Several networks, including the BBC, NBC, and BET, are now said to be mulling over options. The series include:

Pwylldark: A dashing Revolutionary War veteran returns to his native Wales — “not Cornwall by any means, that’s right out, it’s Wales, W-A-L-E-S” — where he discovers that his fiancée has married his rival. In later episodes, Rhys Pwylldark clashes with the wealthy Leghorner family and marries his own servant, the spirited but unintelligible Welsh girl, Dementia.

Murder Must Amortise: A dashing, witty, completely original detective, Lord Peter Walmsley, goes undercover in a mortgage office to solve a baffling murder. Starring Marcus Brigstocke, whose portrayal of Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster has been much admired, “unless of course Dan Stevens suddenly becomes available,” and featuring “lots of that nattering about in drawing rooms and evening wear that I do rather awfully well.”

The Eight Wives of Henry VI: Sex, violence, and insanity at the dawn of the War of the Roses! While the historical Henry VI had only one wife, Margaret of Anjou, Fellowes insists that the series is “emotionally true, because poor Henry was mentally ill and couldn’t count. Besides, Margaret was woman enough for eight. Grrraowr.”

Henry the Somethingth.

I, Vitellius: Sex, violence, and intrigue in the court of imperial Rome! Vitellius, third of the “Four Emperors” who ruled in 69 A.D., narrates this gripping saga. A few scenes may not be unsuitable for young children. “I envision the opening credits with some sort of slithery creature, possibly a salamander or newt, or even a BBC executive, sliding menacingly across the screen,” Fellowes said.

I, Vitellius: Fiends and Romans.

Hortense: Celebrated by poets and painters, the beautiful French-born soprano Hortense Schneider soon catches the eye of the Prince of Wales. Fellowes describes Hortense as “by far the most scandalous of all the many mistresses of Edward VII, because she hasn’t been serialised yet.” He admits to wishing her name were “more euphonious,” and holds out the prospect of changing it to something like “Lilian Longtree, perhaps.”

“As a writer, I’ve always longed to make a Hortense,”
Fellowes told reporters.

Other potential series include The Forsythia Saga, The Point of Spoylton, and The Duchess of Cavendish Street, about a feisty kitchen maid who works her way to opening a chic London hotel in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Most promising of all, however, is Pride and Premises, in which a dashing writer, Fitzgibbon Dancy, clashes with headstrong Elizabeth Bonnett. Elizabeth at first believes that Mr. Dancy’s latest television scripts borrow too heavily from other people’s work, while Mr. Dancy for his part insists that he is the most original writer ever to work in television. Since the series is set in the 18th century, Elizabeth cannot disprove his claim.

Pride and Premises.

Read more!

Kristen Johnston’s ‘Guts’

A promotional photo from her TVLand series, The Exes.

As Kristen Johnston admits, early in her memoir, Guts, “‘an actress addicted to booze and pills’ is relatively unheard of. And ‘an actress addicted to booze and pills who then writes a book about it’ is even rarer. And when I say ‘unheard of’ or ‘rare,’ what I really mean is ‘disturbingly commonplace.’” Indeed, the enterprising librarian could easily stock a new wing with nothing but actors’ recovery stories.

It’s the nature of the beast, as I’m hardly the first to observe: drunks are storytellers (at least, until they pass out), and recovering drunks have got at least one surefire story, recited and polished in A.A. and in therapy, in which “hitting bottom” provides a perfect dramatic climax. And what actor doesn’t like drama? Moreover, the recovering abuser has a moral justification, perhaps even an imperative: to share the story may help another abuser to find the path to recovery.

All of these things are true of Kristen Johnston’s Guts, subtitled The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster. It’s a helluva yarn, and it may help others: indeed, her Facebook page* is strewn daily with messages from readers who have found strength and courage — “guts,” dare I say it — in her honest example.

What sets Guts apart is the excellence of Johnston’s writing. That may come as a surprise: most actors, even the ones with great addiction stories of their own, need a script, the organizing discipline and the mot juste that writers provide. Johnston is the real deal, a gifted writer who just happens to be a terrific actress.

3rd Rock Memories: John Lithgow, Johnston,
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and French Smith.

Her authorial voice is so powerful and so personal that you couldn’t mistake it for anybody else’s. At the same time, her prose is so breezy and so funny, so vernacular and (yes) so vulgar that the reader may be forgiven for overlooking its rigorous precision. Her writing may seem chatty, but there’s hardly a word anywhere in Guts that doesn’t hit its mark squarely. She constructs scenes and provides background information with balance and economy, giving the reader exactly what’s needed, no more and no less, to feel along with her. I know very few professional writers who could accomplish anything comparable.

Johnston zips through her early years and her award-winning career onstage and on TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun, relentlessly zeroing in on the moment she hit bottom, while appearing in a West End comedy — and thereupon she lingers, almost exulting in the gruesome spectacle, as if she were a Jacobean playwright. When an ulcer explodes (exacerbated by pills), leading to acute peritonitis (and a godawful, foul-smelling mess), and when she undergoes emergency surgery, Johnston spares nothing, and the reader shares her ordeal in squirm-inducing detail that evokes something close to real time.

If you’re looking for cute stories about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, you’ve come to the wrong place — though John Lithgow makes an appearance, caring and concerned and somewhat bewildered by the force of the demons Johnston kept (mostly) hidden for so long. Fame is part of the story, primarily because Johnston shot to stardom while still in her twenties and completely unprepared for international scrutiny. It’s telling, however, that she doesn’t place the blame on fame,** or anywhere, really. She’s trying to move forward.

Like many viewers, I’d always supposed that Johnston came to 3rd Rock from the world of high fashion, but it turns out that’s not the case at all. Her height (almost six feet tall by the age of 12) made her more the object of adolescent scorn than the focus of photographers’ lenses, and she reports that it never occurred to her that she was good-looking until she started to read the 3rd Rock scripts, in which her utter gorgeousness was taken as a matter of fact.

But Johnston was never just a pretty face, and as she tells it, she developed her sharp sense of humor as a defensive weapon, early on. Indeed, her sheer toughness is so great that her moments of vulnerability are poignant and memorable — especially as she confronts the day-to-day challenge of recovery. The book may be over, but her struggle isn’t, by any means.

Hell, yes, people are learning from this example.

In her career, Johnston learned the value of words, and she wields them deftly, whether she’s acting from a script or writing from the heart. As a person, she’s still growing, in the ways that count, and trying valiantly to make a difference in the world, whether by striving to establish SLAM (Sober, Learning, and Motivation, a New York high school for kids with substance problems), or by teaching at the Atlantic Acting School, or by writing this book. As she points out in the introduction to Guts, “Everyone’s addicted to something,” and she’s got a lot to tell us all.

Guts is now available in hardback and as an audio book; the paperback edition comes out early next year.

*NOTE: Kristen Johnston is trying exceptionally hard to keep her Facebook page personal, and not a sort of celebrity promotion. If you want to be her friend, you need to provide her with a reason — why she knows or ought to know you. (Also, it’s a very good idea to avoid the abbreviation “LOL,” since, as I say, this woman knows the value of words and prefers more expressive language than Internet shorthand.)

**Fame may not be the problem, but it doesn’t necessarily make life easier: Johnston first spoke publicly about her addiction during an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, and even having prepped Dan Rather for innumerable Letterman appearances, I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for her!

Read more!

27 November 2012

A Party with Amanda Green & Friends

Years ago, the legendary book-and-lyrics team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green used to throw parties — or rather, A Party with Comden & Green. On TV or in a theater, they’d get up, tell funny stories, and sing songs from their vast and indispensable catalogue. Two albums record these performances, and they’re among the treasures of my LP collection. They provoke in this listener the irresistible fantasy that he’s sitting in a living room (either Betty’s or Adolph’s, or maybe Leonard Bernstein’s or Judy Holliday’s or some other friend’s), where a real party is going on. You’re soaking it in, listening to smart talk and great music from fun people — and trying not to shout out “Rin Tin Tin” when the pressure to name-drop grows too strong. When one day I finally got to see Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman’s living room, I thought, “Yes. This is exactly what I pictured. This is what life in New York City is supposed to be like.”

The reality hasn’t always worked out that way for me, but every now and then, Phyllis and Adolph’s daughter, the songwriter Amanda Green, takes charge. She did so again last night, at the New York nightclub Birdland, leading a spectacular review of her songs, joined by a pack of her super-talented friends, appropriately called “Amanda Green and Friends.” And when I tell you that it was a great party, I mean party in the very best sense, the Golden Age of New York sense, in which life is what it’s supposed to be.

What she was born to do: Amanda at Birdland.
This and all subsequent photos by Monica Simoes©.

After all, Amanda Green will have two shows on Broadway this season: Bring It On, which closes December 30, and Hands on a Hardbody, which is slated to begin previews in February. She gave us a sampling of both. From Bring It On, we heard the fierce trio “It Ain’t No Thing,” performed by the cast members Ryann Redmond, Ariana DeBose, and Gregory Haney; Elle McLemore wasn’t able to join the team last night, so Amanda gamely performed Eva’s cheerily vicious “Killer Instinct,” with an assist from Broadway’s brightest muse, Jenn Colella. Ever incandescent, Jenn also offered a sample of Amanda’s work from High Fidelity, in which she starred on Broadway a few seasons ago. Another longtime exponent of Amanda’s work, Brooks Ashmanskas, sang what’s become an Amanda Green Standard, “If You Leave Me.”

I am now officially revved up for Hands on a Hardbody, from which we heard several numbers, with performances by cast members Andrea Burns and Jay Armstrong Johnson, both new to me and both marvelous, as well as by Amanda and Trey Anastasio, who along with Amanda has written the songs for the show. What’s especially fascinating to me about her work in these songs is her authentic feel for Texas. She understands the place better than I do, though she’s an Upper West Side girl to her core. She’s also written for the show what is without question the greatest Keith Carradine song since “I’m Easy” — and moreover she announced that he’s signed to do the show. The minute the guitar started playing, I knew she’d nailed it: the song fits Carradine like an exquisitely tailored kid glove.

Authenticity: Because Jenn Colella requires the best.

Really, authenticity may be the key to Amanda’s gifts as a songwriter. Even in purely comic numbers — including the hilarious, semi-demented scenas for First Lady Betty Ford and the actress Fran Drescher (the latter’s “Be Yourself” anthem is almost scarily universal) — Amanda doesn’t talk down to her character or to her audience. That’s the great strength of Bring It On: yeah, the stakes of a cheerleading competition are small-scale to the rest of the world, but to the characters, this is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to them, and Amanda respects that. Her sympathy for the small-town Texans in Hands on a Hardbody shines through every word, too.

This may be the first such evening when Amanda didn’t perform her most personal song, “Up on Daddy’s Shoulders,” the tender expression of a daughter’s love. I missed it — and yet I also understood why it wasn’t necessary. As an artist, Amanda truly is up on her daddy’s shoulders now, excelling in the field where he excelled, and proving that she knows how to throw a party.

The next time Amanda comes to Birdland, I hope you’ll join me there. In the meantime, hurry up and see Bring It On, and start booking your tickets to Hands on a Hardbody.

With a little help from her friends: Colella, Johnson, Burns, and Anastasio join Amanda onstage.

Read more!