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A Tribute to Aznavour, French Lesbian Shocker OLIVIA Gets Revived

In Uncategorized on October 7, 2019 at 7:03 am

Salut Aznavour!

Jean Brassard pays fitting tribute; the most beautiful lesbian film

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Of all the great songwriters of the last century, one of the greatest, most distinctive, and — to Americans — least well-known is Charles Aznavour, who died a year ago at age 94. Astonishingly prolific, he was the writer of some 1,000 songs — with countless recordings; music poured out of him. He was born in Paris, the son of a pair of Armenian immigrants who, as members of the Resistance during World War II, hid refugees from Nazi persecution. The family was awarded the Raoul Wallenberg Award in 2017 for risking their lives in this way, and that spirit of humanity always informed Aznavour’s work.

He began performing as a child with his father who was a singer, then became an actor on stage and in the film “La Guerre des Gosses,” finally turning to nightclub work as a dancer. In 1944, he partnered with actor Pierre Roche and began writing songs, and was encouraged to sing by his mentor Edith Piaf, who hired him as her opening act. His ability to sing in numerous languages gave him the kind of international appeal sought by major venues like Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall, exacerbated by the success of records like “She,” “The Old-Fashioned Way,” “Sunday Is Not My Day,” “Après l’amour,” “Sur ma vie,” and the great, harrowing “Yesterday, When I Was Young.” That last was Mickey Mantle’s favorite, sung by the Yankee slugger’s request at his funeral. Aznavour’s music had remarkable reach, with some 180 million records sold in his lifetime.

Though not gay himself, one of this all-encompassing artist’s most beloved songs deals specifically with queerness, “Comme ils disent” (or, as it is better known, “What Makes a Man”). This 1972 work, covered by innumerable artists from Marc Almond to Aznavour’s great friend and champion Liza Minnelli, tells the story of a drag performer who lives with his mother and gets fulfillment from fooling his audience nightly about his gender, while pining hopelessly for men who prefer women and enduring a time when homosexuality remained too widely forbidden.

The rules that some of us must break

Just to keep living

I know my life is not a crime

I’m just a victim of my time

I stand defenseless

Nobody has the right to be

The judge of what is right for me

Tell me if you can

What makes a man a man.

That’s how the song ends, and, in its way, it might be the first-ever gay protest anthem. I am so looking forward to hearing it again soon, when the wonderfully gifted Jean Brassard brings his Aznavour tribute show, “I Have Lived,” to Pangea on September 23, with a run to follow in London at The Pheasantry October 11-12.

I met Brassard for an interview in the charming secret garden of the Village church St. Lukes in the Fields, and he observed, “Aznavour strikes me as a playwright, or even filmmaker, who just happened to write in short form — songs. For a performer like me, who approaches everything from an actor’s point of view, his world offers a realm of possibilities. He specialized in love, a recurrent theme, and there isn’t any aspect of it that he didn’t cover, from the very beautiful to the very ugly.”

I first met Brassard when he did his luminous salute to another French music (and film) icon, Yves Montand, and was then struck by his compelling stage presence, charming voice, and pure artistry in the way he deftly wove Montand’s music and career into memories of his own life, growing up in a close and loving family of French Canadians. He has only gotten better since, and I cannot think of a better interpreter to introduce me and so many others to the kaleidoscopic oeuvre of Aznavour.

Brassand is marvelously knowledgeable about the rich tradition of the French chanson, and other singing contemporaries of Aznavour’s, most of them new names to my ears, such as Boris Vian and Leo Ferre (“another tremendous poet, darker, critical as well as apocalyptical and at times tremendously sad”). I have always adored Charles Trenet, most known here for his indelible, mellifluous “La mer,” who came before Aznavour’s generation, but was very popular — and gay. Brassard told me that Trenet was a big influence on Aznavour, who loved him and bought his entire catalogue.

“People forget how brave and out there it was for him to do ‘Comme il disent’ at a time when being gay was far from an accepted thing. But he knew himself what it was like to be an outsider and treated with prejudice, as an Armenian and as a short, not conventionally handsome leading man type of performer… Many singers have done this song — some go really over-the-top — but I love the way Aznavour did it, very simply, all the emphasis on his face, his eyes, with just one hand framing it.”

In a 2012 interview, Aznavour said, “I was the first to write a song in France about homosexuality. I wanted to write about the specific problems my gay friends had. I could see things were different for them, that they were marginalized. I always wrote about things that others might not have written about. We don’t mind frank language in books, the theater, or cinema, but for some reason still to sing about such things is seen as odd.”

Originally, his entourage implored him not to release the song, which went to the top 10 in France. But, Aznavour continued, “I wanted to write what nobody else was writing. I’m very open, very risky, not afraid of breaking my career because of one song. I don’t let the public force me to do what they want me to do. I force them to listen to what I have done. That’s the only way to progress, and to make the public progress.”

Brassard is not a big fan of the song “Yesterday When I Was Young,” telling me that he found the lyrics hard to relate to. It basically is a rueful meditation on a life lived with total self-centeredness and entitlement, leaving its protagonist alone on a stage without a single friend or lover — Aznavour’s “Je regrette tout,” if you will. Brassard — though a marvelously versatile character a actor who works constantly (he really sparkled in J.C. Khoury’s indie farce “The Pill,” as the daunting paterfamilias) and has had the most intriguing side gig as a commentator for the WWE — has always struck me as a most un-actory, down-to-earth person, so I guess it’s small wonder that he has no affinity for this chanson of assholery, however brilliantly wrought by a master. He has also been very happily partnered for years with the eclectically talented artist DG Krueger. I suggested he sing “Yesterday…” not as any version of himself, but as any formerly designatedly “hot” Manhattan strutting stud muffin finally coming to realize that karma does in fact exist. I detected a gleam in his eye when he said, “Let me think about that.”

Sticking to things French, “Olivia” (1951), the greatest lesbian film you’ve never heard of, may have just wrapped an engagement at the Quad, but the good new is that it will soon be available on DVD from Icarus Films — after being decades out of circulation. Directed by the pioneering Jacqueline Audry (also deserving of more modern renown) and adapted from an autobiographical novel by Dorothy Bussy, it is set in an elite 19th century French girls’ boarding school, dominated by two teachers Julie (Edwige Feuillère) and Cara (Simon Simone), who compete for the deepest affections of their student body while harboring an intimate history of their own. Pupil Olivia (Marie Claire Olivia), newly arrived, finds herself torn between these two alluringly Gallic Miss Jean Brodies, but finds herself leaning toward Julie. Her teacher’s imperial reading of a passage from Racine’s “Andromaque” is what clinches her crush, while poor, ever more neurotic Cara can only offer less elevated enticements like shared bon-bons to specially invited girls in her exquisitely appointed chamber, where she languishes, nursing various psychosomatic ailments.

Audry’s triumph is creating an entire, hyper-elegant, and high-minded organic universe, where men are largely non-existent and the exaltation of the love of women for each other is merely seen as the natural way of things. What is striking is not only its shocking boldness for its time, but the fact that it is completely devoid of homophobia, with not even one of the young girls recoiling in disgust or shrieking about the perniciousness of dykes. No outsiders ever appear to oppress this happily insular Sapphic league; any oppression comes from within their ranks, born of overweening narcissism and the inevitable human thirst for power and control. The movie is lovely to look, its rich period decor and details akin to the opulent productions of Max Ophüls, with whom Audry apprenticed.

Four superb performances add to the novelistic richness. Marie Clare Olivia in the title role is initially a dewy innocent but learns the lay of the land in a trice, going after what she wants with fierce determination, while touchingly conveying the delicacy of a girl’s heart and loins being stirred for the first time.

Yvonne de Bray wonderfully opens the film as the all-service housekeeper, giving Olivia the full 411 as she drives her to the school from her train. As Cara, Simon Simone, prettily encased in the beautiful fin-de-siècle gowns (by Desvignes and Leydet), brings her full panoply of kittenish allure, that soulful, inimitable pout, caressing baby voice, and liquid grace. But it’s the great diva eminence, Edwige Feuillère (France’s first Blanche DuBois and a legendary Camille), who dominates the film, as well she should, as the school’s superstar player. You can absolutely understand why her charges worship her so, this rara avis who stalks her turf with such magnificent authority, gotten up like a queen and flinging little compliments and sharp observations at them with that legendary voice, which they eagerly grab like so many flung diamonds. The actress navigates her way through the tricky but ever-present elements of not only lesbianism but also forbidden intergenerational love with a kind of miraculous, seeming nonchalance that is, nonetheless, ever wary and careful.

I HAVE LIVED: JEAN BRASSARD SALUTES AZNAVOUR Pangea, 178 Second Ave, btwn. E. 11th & E. 12th Sts. | Sep. 23 at 7 p.m. | $20 at pangeanyc.com

https://www.gaycitynews.nyc/stories/2019/20/jean-brassard-olivia-2019-09-12-gcn.html

In Uncategorized on October 7, 2019 at 6:28 am
 Screenshot 2019-10-07 at 2.21.04 AM
When I first saw the promotional ads for JUDY, I thought, “Whoa, Zellweger has captured the look at least,” not easy for an actress with the smallest eyes in the world playing the one with the biggest. But, such is the weird alchemy of a performer’s will and determination (see the chameleonic Michelle Williams) and Zellweger’s transformation in the film is even more uncanny, as she definitely apprehends Garlands behavorial essence, facially: the transmitted near-constant nervousness, the mobile mouth with those lips pouting or pursed, the squinched-up expressions of affability especially when she’s trying to charm a person, the frantic rakings of her hair, the overall mercurial moodiness with near split-second transitions. I truly believed her as this end-of-days, beat-out Judy and she definitely transmitted every inch of the pathos and crushing loneliness, sans dialogue, through a multitude of mesmerizing closeups showing her deep in doubtlessly cascading thought if not near hopeless despair.
 
The singing is just passable, JUST. It has spirit at least, if nothing like the simple, elemental richness of the original, and there are moments when, in mid-song, the focus goes slack which never happened with Garland, good, bad or indifferent. They would have been wiser to have made the musical selections shorter as Zellweger, being an untrained singer for the occasional musical, cannot sustain long reiterations and reprises of songs (as clearly demo’ed in the Get Happy duet with Rufus – or is it Sam- which just falls to embarrassing nothingness in the reprise, no build, nothing.) What Zellweger does definitely lack is Garland’s ineffable, often inspired movement (which ironically she gets in the rest of the film including the hunched posture that brought her to the chiropracter’s eventually), and I think maybe Lysinka should have been hired to give her, move-by-move, the necessary athletic elan that was a huge part of the Judy magic. A solid actress like her could have slavishly aped those familiar gestures and then made them her own. She seems to have been left to her own devices and mostly concentrated on the singing, because the cliched gesticulating with the arms and shambling, too generic dance moves are nothing like the explosively,kinetic energy of Garland live, a fireball of miraculously organic action, working her mic cord like a lasso, posture, stance and sassy hoofing into one gloriously eye-riveting and thrilling spectacle.
 
Rupert Goold’s direction is adequate, never inspired but the biggest advantage this film gave itself was almost completely jettisoning the crap, beyond trashy Broadway play which is credited as the original source material. What they have substituted is infinitely less vulgar,and sometimes very moving and perceptive, indeed.
 
The presentation of her two younger kids is mawkishly uninspired, and her daughter Lorna is saddled with an atrocious flip wig. However, the scene in which she hides with them in the wardrobe of her custody-foe ex, Sid Luft, is truly touching, all of it due to Zellweger’s convincing maternal passion. The filmmakers seemed almost determined not to present Liza as a caricature, so she comes across as a doe-eyed if slightly too zaftig bland starlet, which the real thing might actually enjoy, for a change.
 
The actress playing the young Judy is affecting (how could she not be, poor victim that she is) but is presented as far too surface normal, just another gawky adolescent seeking love and the loss of weight. The filmmakers went pretty far with Louis B. Mayer, not only giving him unconvincingly pretentious and florid diatribes about the movie industry and its potential for the masses, but also extreme suggestions that pedophilia was involved in their relationship (give me good ole Howard da Silvas’ far more benign, if insensitive, cut-and-tried asshole Mayer in MOMMIE DEAREST, any day). His cruel nickname for her was ‘the hunchback,’ and he was always on her to lose weight so he would have been the most desperate and extreme kind of child molester to be pawing her. A severely un-handsomed Rufus Sewell brings some much needed force to the flick as her once-loved, now-loathed ex hubby/manager Sid Luft: he and Zellweger make compellingly fierce adversaries. I’m glad the Mickey Deans they chose was at least comely and fun – poor Judy deserved something good at that stage, particularly – more hapless than hell-bent in her case. There are also two female retainers for Garland who seem interchangeably hawk-nosed and devoid of any individual personalities
 
From this film, you would think that her only gay fans in the UK were a very sweet and very sad middle-aged couple she befriends and goes home with for a disastrous pasta dinner. Although I am glad the movie addresses the topic, did they have to be quite so fucking weepy? One of them, in fact, gets so bathetically teary, I just wanted to shout, “Shut up! Yeah, things in the 60s are bad but wait til AIDS sets in! Then you’ll really have somethng to weep over.” It was all very much of the song “All the Sad Young Men”which bar owners at the time would sadistically put on as their last call melody. So, perhaps these scenes could be deemed historically accurate but, as they are executed here, I don’t just don’t want watch them. I know Garland didn’t suffer fools or bores, and her gay male friends had to have been and were a lot more fun than these two very sad sacks. Instead of lightening up the quite depressing circumstances of this tale, as gays have always done in adversity, they merely add to the stereotypical period litany of woe.
 
I was quite happy to see that this is no el cheap-o production: the production design was handsome, Garland’s costumes were glam and right, if maybe a tad too fashion-y (but a memorable recreation of her infamous 5th wedding dress), the photography beautifully clear-eyed, and even poetic at moments, and the film was definitely blessed by Gabriel Yared’s subtle, lovely score.

COPPOLA’S ‘COTTON CLUB’: THE RESTORATION, AT LAST!

In Uncategorized on October 7, 2019 at 6:12 am

Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, ‘Stormy Weather’ is a great torch song. It was great when Ethel Waters introduced it at the Cotton Club in 1933. It was great when Lena Horne covered it (much to Ethel’s displeasure) a decade later in the film of the same name. And it was great again this afternoon at the NY Film Festival world premiere of Francis Ford Coppola’s fully restored COTTON CLUB, when Lonette McKee sang it in a gloriously extended scene that was criminally cut from the original 1983 release. It’s the definitive movie mounting of this ballad (Lena’s was admittedly a little tacky, visually, in her movie.)

Oh my fucking God. For years, I had heard of the tantalizing musical scenes left on the cutting room floor and many as well, which featured the story of Gregory and Maurice Hines’ fictional dancing brother team. As Coppola, who got a standing ovation from the exuberant crowd (as did Lonette after that number), told us, during the q&a, the shady-ass, racist higher-ups who financed the troubled film felt there was too much music and too many black people in the movie.

Those scenes have been gloriously restored and it is truly like another movie -richer, more lucid and although not great because of a decidedly shallow, surface-y script – it delivers more sheer entertainment in its dazzling evocation of Deco era Manhattan certainly than any other movie around today. While Richard Gere retains that mannequin-like hollowness he never seemed to shake, he’s at least more palpably passionate than he ever was (maybe his being allowed to do his own cornet playing helped, and quite decent he is, too.) Diane Lane seemed a bore back in 1983,but here, with scenes which give you more of an idea of her Texas Guinan-like character, she’s fairly dazzling, an archetypal flapper vamp, immensely aided by Milena Canonero’s genius period gowns (no better evocation of this era exists – just for her jet beaded fringe headdress, alone, which was one of my very few memories of the film). And the most amazing people pop up, like Jackee Harry doing an uproariously sassy number telling off her no account man.

In the big Grand Central Station climax, Coppola wonderfully gives Gwen Verdon – as Gere’s mother, whom I’d forgotten – a solid moment showing some kids how to do a buck and wing. Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne, both deceased, were so good together, bringing real pangs of nostalgia. But those were as nothing compared to seeing the late Gregory Hines doing his fabulously noisy stuff on the huge screen and his rapprochement with brother Maurice – in genial person today, as well – was even heart-piercing than I remembered, his suddenly stopping their reunion dance to kiss Maurice on the mouth, with an “I’m sorry” that is the most devastating scene in the film.

I’d forgotten how imperturbably handsome Joe Dallesandro was as Lucky Luciano, and then you get to see Honi Coles and his tappin’ clan busting loose in one huge smile-fest. And what about Julian Beck of all people, playing a mobster? Coppola recalled that he had a long ponytail down to his waist but the actor assured him he would still look right for the period without having to cut it. He just swept it to one side in a bun depending on the camera angle and you never saw it.

The restoration rights a mighty wrong – I have been obsessed with this period and subject all of my life and had friends who worked at the Cotton Cub, as well as on the movie, filling my ear with tantalizing accounts of what they’d witnessed day to day during the shooting. When the film came out, so lavish, and yet so choppy and unaffecting, I was like Morales in A CHORUS LINE, I felt nothing. It was devastating, and a sure sign of how the the movies were changing to become the arid, kiddie-aimed desert they are today. So many giants of talent – whom Coppola richly extolled today – once walked this NY earth and so damn many of them miraculously got cast in this film, which you must see when it goes into general release.

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