24 April 2017

Sympathy for the Diva, or Joan Crawford

Mildred Pierce: The key that unlocks Joan Crawford?

The writer Shaun Considine was a tremendous help to me while I researched Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life. Shaun conducted the two most important magazine interviews Madeline ever gave: her first in a national publication, After Dark, and her only public statement after her departure from On the Twentieth Century. He was a good if not always close friend to Madeline, too, and he generously shared with me his exhaustive notes from the interviews, unpublished photos of Madeline, and copious advice. As an additional, indirect way of thanking him, I bought a copy of his most famous book, Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, and found it so utterly engrossing that I bought James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and devoured that, too.

Naturally, my thoughts turned to Shaun while I watched the first episode of Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette & Joan. So much of Murphy’s series seemed to come directly from the pages of Shaun’s book that I wondered whether Shaun was getting any money out of the project. Then another writer, Dan Callahan (who’s written incisive analyses of Bette & Joan for Nylon every week), broke the sad news that Shaun died shortly before my book came out. Now I know why Shaun stopped answering my e-mails, and why he couldn’t join us for the book party. Without knowing it, I’d lost a mentor.

Shaun Considine.

But the process that Shaun set in motion continued, as Jessica Lange’s performance enhanced my growing understanding and appreciation of Joan Crawford. I never expected to feel anything at all for her: she struck me as a good but not great actor, whose offscreen life didn’t interest me. I did (and still do) admire Bette Davis passionately, and even wrote a fan letter to her (and received a lovely reply), so there was never a question whose side I was on. Thanks to Shaun Considine and Jessica Lange, that’s changed.

Sarandon and Lange as Davis and Crawford.

Shaun suggests that Mildred Pierce is essential to understanding Joan Crawford: if an actor can be an auteur, then Crawford’s Mildred is an autobiographical portrait. Both the character and the actor were driven by ambition to rise above their lower-class origins. For Crawford, this ambition became an obsession. Born poor, abandoned by her father, unwanted by her mother, abused by her stepfather, Crawford endured a childhood like Charles Dickens’ telling of Cinderella. Young Joan was able to attend private boarding school only because she worked, scrubbing, washing, cooking for the other girls — so busy that she could seldom attend classes.

As an adult, Joan was proud of her willingness to work hard, and even she marveled that, rather than developing a horror of housework, she enthused in it. The rest of us may look at her neat-freak tendencies and see an obsessive-compulsive, and Joan admitted that she was a perfectionist: an impeccably clean home was part of her need for control over her environment and a symbol of her aspiration to something better.

As a showgirl and then as an actress, Crawford escaped poverty primarily through her good looks and sex appeal, her talent as an actor, and her growing skills as an actor. In these areas, too, she was a perfectionist, constantly striving to improve herself. Marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., marked the next crucial step in her evolution. Fairbanks was Hollywood royalty, highly educated and cultivated, and the stepson of Mary Pickford — who disapproved of the working-class Crawford. Joan set about compensating for her lack of formal education, reading widely, studying languages, etiquette, elocution, and (later) voice. Pickford grudgingly permitted her daughter-in-law to take a seat at the table, while Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford, once and for all.

The star who could not go to the supermarket without flawless makeup, hair, hat and gloves was a kind of female Jay Gatsby in Hollywood, self-created at great cost — and for Joan as for Gatsby, sex was one means to get ahead. She lost her Texas accent, she personified glamour, and she didn’t stop striving for more. Reading Shaun’s book, I got the sense of Crawford continually yearning for her own version of Gatsby’s green light, staring through the window at a life she wanted. Even at the end of her life, she spoke of getting a formal education, and it’s easy to believe she might crave respect from Bette Davis, whose gifts as an actor, as a fighter, and as an intellect the world seemed to accept without questioning.

By the time What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? began filming, both women had reached an age when Hollywood’s interest in them had waned. There was no Ryan Murphy building elaborate showcases for older actresses. Today Murphy wants to tell a story of Crawford’s looks versus Davis’ talent, and the manipulations of male-dominated Hollywood. There’s truth in this perspective, as far as it goes, and television necessarily requires simplification and condensation. But Shaun’s book makes clear that the reality was a good deal more complex, and arguably more illuminating about the very topics Murphy aimed to address.

Shaun goes so far as to question whether there really was a feud at all, whether it was cooked up by Davis and Crawford themselves to promote the movie. (The book’s title gives you a fair idea what his conclusion is, but he does raise the question.) Again, Murphy’s take is that others imposed the feud on the women, to manipulate the performances they gave and to promote the picture; soon enough, the feud was bitterly heartfelt and authentic. In the final episode, Susan Sarandon as Davis makes clear that the feud is responsible at least in part for the public’s interest in her and for the talk-show appearances that afforded her the largest audiences of her later career: she can’t afford to let it go.

What is an image when people no longer see it?
Lange as Crawford.
(In the background, the peerless Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita.)

At times, Murphy’s pretty-vs.-smart dynamic risked becoming as cartoonish as a catfight between Daphne and Velma from Scooby Doo. But Lange’s performance consistently rose above the hit-or-miss material in the scripts, it enhanced my sympathy for Crawford, and it made me want to revisit the Crawford pictures I’ve seen and seek out others I’ve thus far missed. I’ve also caught up with some of Lange’s work with Murphy in American Horror Story, at once over-the-top and subtle. What struck me here was her ability to ground in realism yet another character who is, in her way, supernatural. Her Crawford is the grandest of grandes dames, a movie star, and yet very human indeed.

What seemed clear as I read Shaun’s book was that Crawford realized too late that she was in over her head. Yes, she tried to assert herself over Davis — particularly during the lead-up to the 1963 Oscars — but she was no match for Davis. By then, it was too late to repair the damage Crawford had done, and her own later career represented a truly pathetic decline, making only a few terrible movies while descending into alcoholism, illness, and solitude. Listening to her audiobook, My Way of Life (which can be heard on YouTube), she blithely describes days spent reading scripts and fielding movie offers — when we know she was putting on a brave face.

She had just made her final feature film, TROG, which really is as bad as everyone says it is. Bette Davis may have become her own caricature, her mannerisms overwhelming her later performances. Joan Crawford never really got the chance to do that — Faye Dunaway did it for her, after Joan died.*

Some lucky ones among you may never have felt inadequate, may never have seen your inadequacies confirmed and shoved in your faces. I envy you. Joan Crawford — who spent so much of her life battling her inadequacies and the insecurities they generated — would envy you, too.

*NOTE: The great Joan Crawford caricaturist is of course Carol Burnett, whose loving spoofs amused Joan herself. “You put more production into that sketch than Jack Warner put into our entire picture,” Joan told Carol after seeing “Mildred Fierce.”

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16 April 2017

Interview: Lauren Worsham

The limitless Lauren Worsham.
Photos from laurenworsham.com.

It’s hard to imagine two works more dissimilar than Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland and David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s Dog Days, but on April 27, when Master Voices performs Toyland in concert at Carnegie Hall, one woman will connect the two. Soprano Lauren Worsham — whose shattering performances as Lisa in Dog Days rank among the finest I have ever seen — will take the ingénue role of Jane. She may not yet be the music-theater equivalent of Kevin Bacon, the necessary link to everything and everyone, but give her time.

Her limpid, vibrant voice commands attention, and she knows how to use it to project the kind of innocence that’s equally appropriate in Little’s Dystopia and Herbert’s Toyland. Already she’s excelled in operetta at New York City Opera and, on Broadway, in an acclaimed turn as Phoebe in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, warbling her heart out and picking up Drama Desk and Theatre World awards and a Tony nomination. She runs an opera company, the Coterie, and is the lead singer in Sky-Pony — a rock band — while also appearing in concert and in cabaret. To this observer, it seems there’s nothing that doesn’t interest her, and nothing she can’t do.

“I definitely try to do many things,” Worsham says, calling herself “a jack-of-all-trades and not necessarily a master of any of them.” (I beg to disagree.) “How did I get to the point where I can? I think it was more that I decided that I wanted to. I didn’t want to focus on one thing. As with most things in my life, my path found me.”

“Mirror, Mirror”: As Lisa in Dog Days.
One of the most astonishing performances I have ever witnessed.

Growing up in Austin, Texas, Worsham sang the music that was in the air around her, rock and blues, and her first voice teacher was a blues musician. She also sang in her high-school choir, and her interest in musical theater led her to audition for a college production of Candide. After graduation from Yale (cum laude, because of course) and a stint in the first national tour of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, she found herself playing Cunegonde again, this time in New York City Opera’s revival of Candide, in 2008.

Worsham had begun to broaden and deepen her understanding of opera, with which she’d been only somewhat familiar. But she says, “I love narrative and I love drama, and at that point opera wasn’t focusing on those things in the way that a college student would have been aware of.” In NYCO’s late, lamented VOX program for new work, Worsham met Little and Vavrek, who were about to change many people’s notions of narrative and drama in opera. “Dog Days is the greatest thing I’ve done, maybe the greatest thing I’ll ever do,” Worsham says — adding, “until the next time I work with David and Royce!”

For City Opera’s Candide, “They double-cast me with a more trained singer,” Worsham remembers. “They set me up with a voice teacher, and I credit her with helping me open up my classical voice.” This training strikes me as crucial to her multifaceted career: the desire to do many things and the talent to persuade people to allow you to do many things will take you only so far if you don’t have the technique to pull it off. (My hat is off to Worsham’s teacher, Virginia Grasso.)

In Gentleman’s Guide, with Jane O’Hare and Bryce Pinkham.

Worsham also respects “good vocal hygiene.” The main thing for me is not yelling in bars. [Presumably when she’s performing with Sky-Pony.] There’s a difference between doing something one night, or every night of the week. Everything requires a different kind of maintenance and paying attention to your body. I definitely learned that the hard way with Gentleman’s Guide.

“When I first started, I had a high, nasal speaking voice for Phoebe,” she continues. “For the first eight months, it was fine, but then it started to catch up with me. In the same way that if you woke up every morning and bend your knees, you’ll get more flexible, but if you sit at a desk all day, you’ll lose flexibility. Using that voice gave my larynx bad habits. I’d never done a show that many days a week for that long. There’s a difference between a long game and a short game.”

While Worsham’s rock voice doesn’t sound precisely like her operetta voice, it’s recognizably the same instrument, and just as irresistible. Her approach to any piece of music, she says, is rooted in character: “Different characters have different ways they carry their body and different ways they use their voice. Different songs have different characters and different textures. Sometimes it’s a choice: ‘This would sound good.’ When it comes to opera, that’s a matter of technique, but when it comes to something like pop music, a lot of the time for me it’s a matter of letting go, of trying to be ‘on the voice,’ just trying to tell the story.”

Rocking out with Sky-Pony.
Worsham’s husband, Kyle Jarrow, is also in the band.

Story-telling is always her principal concern, though “in opera I’m also focused on continuation of the voice and on technique.” Recalling her harrowing aria from Dog Days, she says, “In the same way that I think I wouldn’t be telling the story we’re trying to tell if I belted ‘Mirror, Mirror,’ singing pop songs with perfect technique and vowels wouldn’t tell the story that song wants to tell, in that sense.”

Master Voices likewise believes in “The Art of Musical Storytelling,” and Babes in Toyland has told many over the years. At the time of its premiere, in 1904, it was customary to change the materials in American operetta, to drop one number and add another, or to re-work a scene to suit a particular performer. As the two movie adaptations show, the material is highly flexible: there’s no Laurel and Hardy in Disney’s Toyland. But there’s not really an Ur-text, and Toyland hasn’t seen a major New York revival in generations. Master Voices artistic director Ted Sperling has prepared a score and, with Joe Keenan, cobbled together a script. “It’s hilarious,” Worsham says, comparing it to classic movie scripts. “Everyone seems to have some zingers … there’s no straight man.”

Sperling has assembled a spectacular cast for Toyland, led by another soprano who straddles both Broadway and opera, Kelli O’Hara. Jonathan Freeman adds another villain to his résumé (he’s played Aladdin’s Jafar in every medium you can name) with the role of Barnaby; and Jay Armstrong Johnson, a Broadway favorite who sang the title role in NYCO’s most recent revival of Candide, is Tom Tom, Jane’s love interest. And with the master clown Bill Irwin as the Toymaker and the irrepressible Christopher Fitzgerald as Alan, Jane’s brother, “I’ll be focusing on trying not to pee my pants with laughing,” Worsham says. “I’ve really got to be at the top of my game with those two.”

Is this the face that launched a thousand quips?
It will be on April 27.

The audience can expect “a lot of fun, more than anything. I’m looking forward to that,” Worsham says. “I think we need it. Gosh, reading the news every day, it seems as if a little escape is harder to get to these days.”

Master Voices presents Victor Herber’s Babes in Toyland in concert at Carnegie Hall, April 27 at 7:00 pm. For tickets and more information, click here.

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