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Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

DIVA OF THE WEEK

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2009 at 9:58 am

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IRENE DUNNE in THEODORA GOES WILD

As part of its Depression movie series, BREADLINES AND CHAMPAGNE, very pertinent for how things stand now, Film Forum is screening THEODORA GOES WILD (1936) on Friday, Feb. 27. Directed by Richard Boleslawsky (1889-1937), early advocate and teacher of the Stanislavsky Method and founder of American Laboratory Theater, which eventually became the Actors Studio (home of the insufferable James Lipton), this film, wildly successful in its day, made a star all over again of Irene Dunne, previously known mostly for her noble onscreen suffering (CIMARRON, BACK STREET, THE SECRET OF MME. BLANCHE, MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, and John Cromwell’s ANN VICKERS, her greatest performance and one of the most intelligent, truly feminist films ever made in this country).

Was it Boleslawsky who unleashed Dunne’s comic potential, the way Howard Hawks did Carole Lombard’s two years before in 20TH CENTURY? Or did Dunne have it in her all the time, and just needed the right vehicle to display her brazenly artificial but undeniably effective farcical technique – that festively gurgling voice, the clenched pearly white smile displaying both rows of teeth, coquettish little teasings of the tongue, the just loose-enough body language (but never so loose as to make you ever forget she was a lady) and, most indelibly, that sarcastic little laugh of hers, “Uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh!” Critics James Agee and Pauline Kael found Dunne unbearably arch and irritating, but her energy is a tonic and she is always fun to watch, even when most strenuously conscious of being funny.

As a smalltown girl who secretly pens scandalously lurid pulp fiction, she won the second of her seven non-winning Oscar nominations and established herself as Hollywood’s most versatile leading lady, who could act in both comedy and drama, as well as sing everything from opera to Broadway tunes to pop (her SHOWBOAT came out the same year as THEODORA). She displays another gift here, as one of the great screen clotheshorses, sporting a wildly extravagant wardrobe designed by that Master of Flair, Bernard Newman (1903-66), who came to Hollywood as head designer of Bergdorf Goodman and is best known today for his Ginger Rogers dance frocks in TOP HAT, FOLLOW THE FLEET and SWING TIME. In 1935, he gave Katharine Hepburn the most elaborate wardrobe of her entire career, as a concert pianist in BREAK OF HEARTS, and for THEODORA, he poured Dunne into a welter of frothy print “girl next door” frocks at the beginning which evolve into more citified encrusted beaded evening confections, sophisticated cape effects, soaringly avian hats and a truly outrageous ensemble composed from head to toe of monkey fur (pictured below) which would have had PETA, had it existed in 1936, gnashing teeth. It all merely proved that, with her statuesque carriage, aristocratically retrousse profile and inimitable sense of fun, she could, indeed, wear anything.

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It’s not a great film by any means, but an intensely likable one (from a story written by no less than THE GROUP’s Mary McCarthy), with its sunny, picket fence evocation of small town America, contrasted with sleek Art Moderne Manhattan, with its glass-bricked, cactus-accented interiors, eternal Martinis being shaken in Deco platinum and Melvyn Douglas’ suavely smug, lounge lizard book editor-romantic interest. The supporting cast benefits from beloved character actors like Thomas Mitchell being explosively irascible, Spring Byington being a flighty ding-a-ling, Nana Bryant doing dry urban wife, equine Leona Maricle even dryer and more urban, and Elisabeth Risdon and Margaret McWade revelling in Victorian propriety and outrage as Theo’s maiden aunts. It’s an unabashedly silly film guaranteed to put a smile on one’s face, with its blithe combination of countrified innocence and coy, “aren’t we naughty?” post-Hays Code suggestiveness.

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Although Republican and staunchly Catholic, we still like Dunne, at least on screen, here pictured in later years, with her good buddy, the even more devout Loretta Young. They attended Mass regularly at a Beverly Hills church fondly referred to as “Our Lady of the Cadillacs.”

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HUNK OF THE WEEK

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2009 at 8:30 am

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PIOTR BECZALA (Photograph by Kury Pinter)

You know the opera world has changed – for the better – when a tenor can be designated as a hunk. We’ve come a long way from those strutting little 2×4 bantams with egos and appetites so impossible the redoubtable Metropolitan Opera soprano Frances Alda titled her memoir MEN, WOMEN AND TENORS.

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FRANCES ALDA

Leading this strapping new pack of singers who can now handsomely fit into the category of “a body with a voice,” to paraphrase Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s great ALL ABOUT EVE line is Polish lyric tenor Piotr Beczala (pronounced “BETCH-a-wah”), who stole the show at the Met’s recent revival of EUGENE ONEGIN. From his first entrance in Act I and swooningly romantic air to Olga (Ekaterina Semenchuk), he made you sit up in your seat the way every true star does and wonder “Who the hell is that?”

Tall, dark and comely and possessing a ringingly bright sound, as well as the kind of impassioned ardency no amount of training can buy, he was a dream fit in the role of the tragic Lenski. (He was certainly better casting than an overwrought Karita Mattila as the virginal, sheltered Tatiana, who played the role as if it were the last act of ELEKTRA.) His showpiece aria “Kuda, kuda” was the unquestioned highlight of the evening and old Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky himself must have been smiling down from whatever gay heaven he now graces.

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SENA JURINAC

Beczala received his initial vocal training in Kattowice and counts the great Sena Jurinac as one of his teachers. He made his debut at the Landestheater Linz in Austria and really picked up speed at the Zurich Opera where he started in 1997. He went on to triumph, singing the role of The Prince in RUSALKA at the Salzburg Festival 2008, and took Berlin by storm with his debut in the role of Riccardo in UN BALLO IN MASCHERA. He’s sung at La Scala, Bavarian State Opera Munich, Teatr Wielki Warszaw, Vienna State Opera, Berlin Deutsche Oper, Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, as well as Bilbao and Tokyo. His repertoire includes WERTHER, FAUST, Alfredo in LA TRAVIATA, the Duke in RIGOLETTO, Edgardo in LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, Don Ottavio in DON GIOVANNI and Rodolpho in LA BOHEME.

Coming up for Beczala is the Verdi Requiem at Covent Garden in March; LA BOHEME in Munich and LA TRAVIATA in Zurich in April; DAMNATION OF FAUST in Madrid, UN BALLO IN MASCHERA in Berlin, RIGOLETTO in Zurich in May, and FAUST in Vienna in June.

I hereby exhort all true opera fans to flood the Met with requests to see more of this blazing new talent on our shores.

Just listen, and, as Franklin Pangborn so gaily said in Preston Sturges’ EASY LIVING, “Fall into a faint!”:

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BECZALA, singing the greatest rendition of Lehar’s “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from “Land des Lächelns” since Richard Tauber

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PIOTR BECZALA IN ‘WERTHER,’ BAVARIAN STATE OPERA

OSCAR 2008: HAGS AND HEARTFELT HOMOS

In Uncategorized on February 25, 2009 at 8:10 am

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Hags and Heartfelt Homos -and thank goodness for them, otherwise this year’s Academy Awards would completely have bored us all blind!

The latter category gave the evening its only real substance, with Sean Penn and his MILK screenwriter Dustin Lance Black being gloriously, unabashedly political about gay rights, marriage specifically. (Although was it altogether fair that Black got nominated for Best Original Screenplay? After all, he did not make up the tale of Harvey Milk as, say Courtney Hunt did with FROZEN RIVER, or Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E.

But let’s just cut to those aforementioned Hags, who were far funnier than any of the numerous and repeated lame attempts at scripted humor were the sightings of Goldie Hawn and Sophia Loren, which elicited immediate shrieks of horrified hilarity at the party I attended. The first mentioned actress once received that famous criticism from the late, self-proclaimed fashion arbiter, Mr. Blackwell: “Memo to Goldie Hawn: Cheerleading tryouts were 20 years ago!” Well, you can add a couple of decades to that equation and guess what?

Goldie still hasn’t changed! I imagine the day she cuts off that eternal California bleached mane  of straw, removes about eight tons of eyeliner and covers up her pair of now “udderly” droopy girls will be the day Cher goes grey, Oprah ceases the weight-babble, George Hamilton loses the tan and Michael Jackson gets one. You gotta love her – especially as, with a viselike grip, she clutched the arm of gorgeous Supporting Actress winner Penelope Cruz, 29 years her junior, as they walked offstage. Such a change from, say, Lauren Bacall, who, at a party some years back made sure to stay on the opposite end of the room from an 18-year-old flower named Brooke Shields. No way was Betty Jane Perske (Bacall’s real monicker) from Brooklyn gonna be caught anywhere near so much youth and beauty. Even Sylvia Sidney – from The Bronx, born Sophie Koslow – refused to do ALGIERS back in 1938 because she knew being in the same film as Hedy Lamarr making her American debut would have probably ended her career as a leading lady. (Sidney once told me that this refusal cost her the role of Cathy in WUTHERING HEIGHTS, as Walter Wanger who owned the rights and produced ALGIERS, was so pissed off at her, he sold the Emily Bronte tale, planned for her and Charles Boyer, to Sam Goldwyn.)

No such worries concerned La Hawn and you just had to smile, reading that big thought bubble over her head: “Yeah, Penelope! We’re the hottest chicks here! Everyone wants us – look at ’em staring!” As the evening dragged on to ever lower points of ennui and general production cluelessness, I kept yearning for another giggle-inducing shot of her, as with a hit of nitrous oxide.

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GOLDIE HAWN (WITH KURT RUSSELL), FUNNIER THAN NITROUS OXIDE

And then there was Loren who, from head to toe, encompassed every Fashion Don’t conceivable. Ten years ago, there was an hysterical photo layout of her in the tabloids. She had shown up for a shopping tour of Harrod’s department store and someone thought it was a good idea that she be greeted by a rare, huge white parrot. Well, the creature took one look at her, probably mistook her for a terrifyingly large bird of prey and proceeded to attack her, knocking her to the floor. That day was a precursor of Oscar Night 2009.

In a wig that looked as if it had been lying in a brown paper bag under the dressing table of some fired drag queen, taken out, and, without so much as a good shake (let alone brushing) plopped onto the poor diva’s head. The face now looks like 30 miles of surgically improved, but, nevertheless, very bad road – she did not collagen her already famously fulsome lips, did she? And that yellow beruffled, painfully young dress – worn with pearls and rhinestones – looked like something Carol Channing might have rejected for a bus & truck tour of HELLO DOLLY!

If Mr. Blackwell hadn’t already been dead, this would have surely killed him – or at least rendered him speechless, for once. Oh well, as Ina Claire stated definitively in NINOTCHKA in a line written by Billy Wilder: “I guess one gets the face one earns.” A karmic revenge, perhaps on Hawn and Loren, for crimes against the Great God Cinema?

In Hawn’s case, one might cite the way she ruined her own film SWING SHIFT which, according to sources like the late critic, Pauline Kael, was terrific in its original Jonathan Demme director’s cut, until an insecure Hawn emasculated him and the movie, turning it into a vacuous star vehicle which ended up bombing.

As for Loren, Franco Zeffirelli never tires of excoriating her for conniving to steal the TWO WOMEN role for which she won a 1961 Oscar, away from originally cast Anna Magnani. Loren was originally set to play Magnani’s daughter, raped by German soldiers in WWII but, when Magnani scoffed at this casting of a then quite mature and fulsome Sophia as an innocent virgin, the great actress found herself 86’ed from the entire project by Loren and her producer husband, Carlo Ponti.

You really have to wonder about both of these women. Have they nobody around them – family or friend – to just say no? Is this the absolute downside to attaining such huge, enduring stardom, akin to that of Bruce Springsteen, and, in his case I don’t mean sartorially speaking. Couldn’t someone have pointed out that, in his rather phoned-in dirge of a theme song for THE WRESTLER, the line “Have you ever seen a one-legged dog?” is just ridiculous, not to mention risible, for the image of some poor hound trying to move, thus handicapped, it conjures up?

And was Hugh Jackman’s deal for thanklessly hosting this meandering behemoth of a show a guarantee that this biggest show tune queen in the universe be granted all those truly hapless production numbers? He has everything it takes to be a huge Broadway star (looks, charm, energy), save one thing: a voice. And that covered, annoyingly nasal bleat hasn’t improved a whit since, awash with laurel wreaths of praise, he came over from the West End to do Rodgers & Hammerstein’s CAROUSEL at Carnegie Hall in 2002, opened his mouth and made me think, “What the ….?!”

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WHAT HUGH WANTED TO WEAR TO HOST THE OSCARS

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AND WHAT HE SHOULD HAVE WORN

As for Beyonce, she really does have everything it takes, but is it just me, or does anyone else find her more than a tad plastic? She’s synthesized everyone from Diana Ross to Etta James to all the Hollywood glamour queens (whom she has seriously researched at New York’s memorabilia shop, Jerry Ohlinger’s), but the ultimate effect definitely lacks that certain vital originality which makes a really unique star, however much hard work has gone into it. I”ve loved some of her dance music (“Baby Boy,” “Naughty Girl,” even the hiccuping beat of “Crazy in Love”), but, for me, she’s strictly a radio star, but her flailing, stripper-on-a-pole videos have a tendency to “kill” her. (Remember that song?) 

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DOES THIS WOMAN WORK A LITTLE TOO HARD AT GLAMOUR? 

As for Jean Hersholt Award winner/French Idol, Jerry Lewis, admittedly not in the best physical shape, has replaced that overbearing arrogance he was once known for with an overbearing cloyingness (although he now looks more than ready to perform Shakeapeare’s RICHARD III) . The clips shown featured him at his most gratingly grotesque, winning him no new fans among the legions of unimpressed. (How many people at your Oscar party sighed, “I haaate Jerry Lewis!”? Be honest!) Couldn’t the geniuses in charge of clip choosing have shown his hilarious “Buddy Love” scenes from his masterpiece, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, or even that priceless moment in LADIES’ MAN when he singlehandedly destroyed an entire collection of “priceless” Venetian glass, before Kathleen Freeman’s wailing maidservant?

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“Now is the winter of our discontent…”

No, those aforementioned geniuses kept screwing it up, especially in the Death Montage, usually the one sure-fire, effective Oscars sequence paying tribute to film folk who have gone on to that great Academy Awards ceremony in the sky. The camera kept returning to Queen Latifah singing “I’ll Be Seeing You,” shattering any kind of dramatic momentum, and the fragmented little jigsaw puzzle clip presentation was unbelievably distracting and markedly less effective than one full screen shot which would have paid iconographic dues to the likes of Paul Newman or Evelyn Keyes. 

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EVELYN KEYES (1916-2008), as Suellen O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND

And then there was simian, terminally unfunny Ben Stiller doing a cruel, unfunny imitation of the admittedly eccentric Joaquin Phoenix, as he appeared so bizarrely with David Letterman recently. Deja vu definitely set in during this, because the night before, at the Independent Spirit Award, actor Frank Coraci actor did the same thing, much more effectively, if just as cruelly. I recently picked Phoenix as my HUNK OF THE WEEK for his affectingly romantic performance in TWO LOVERS, citing his “undisguised handsomeness.” Well, after Letterman, I’ve had to rather eat those words, as he completely buried himself under a ZZ Top beard, but this is a human being who definitely has some serious issues, which should more evoke sympathy than easy derision. Cut him some slack, people: after all, his brother River died in front of him that tragic 1993 Halloween night at Johnny Depp’s Viper Clib and, hideously, Joaquin’s frantic 911 call was insensitively released to the world.  (The poor kid had just turned 19 three days before.)

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MOST IMITATED MAN OF THE WEEK

I did like the idea of the five previous winners of acting awards singling out each nominee this year with individual tributes, but wouldn’t it have been nice if they’d done the same for people of “less importance,” like the directors (with, say, Scorsese or Coppola singing praise)? Or, even, God forbid, writers, those lowliest of the low whose work is merely the starting point for everything, and whose speeches might have even had some real eloquence?

In terms of past Oscar winners and, again, film clip choice, it certainly would have been nice if any pre-1954 winners had been featured, thereby imbuing the show with some real historical heft. (You’d never have a clue that silent films once were in the mix, as well.)  My God, Luise Rainer only won two in a row back in 1936-37, the first consecutive Oscar winner, and was recently featured in Arthur Dong’s brilliant documentary, HOLLYWOOD CHINESE, and Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine are still alive and alert (although they’d never appear on the same show, we realize).  

As for what has become — let’s face it – the most important part of the Oscars, the gowns…

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Natalie Portman got my vote for best dressed in her deliciously pink Rodarte and flawless, statuesque grooming, but there was way too much white on the red carpet – a Bridezilla invasion of drag which effectively washed out most of those paler than pale Caucasians. It’s funny how, in the ’30s, even in black and white, wearing dazzling white bias-cut sheaths never erased the gorgeousness of phosphorescent white-blondes like Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard or Constance Bennett. Or was it just because these women were really stars, and uniquely so?

In later years, Grace Kelly was another pale maiden who could carry off a blinding white frock and Best Actress winner Kate Winslet certainly tried to evoke her, especially coiffure-wise. However, anyone who thought her hair was genius, should have their eyes checked. Kelly’s sleek, short bob was flattering, nothing like the cemented helmet covering Winslet’s skull, which looked like the worst offence of the early ’60s, the absolute historical low point for hairdos, all those torturously sprayed, stiff monstrosities which the natural look of hippies and Carnaby Street effectively did away with forever – or so we thought.  

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COIFFURE OR CRASH HELMET?

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KATE’S INSPIRATION: AN UNCEMENTED GRACE KELLY

Winslet’s Yves St. Laurent dress was, like her coiff, a bit of over-designed heavy weather difficult to carry off. I felt rather bad for her, having to do the red carpet solo, as hubby Sam Mendes was already, rather ungallantly, inside the Kodak Theater. Was he miffed that his pretentious yawn of a REVOLUTIONARY ROAD was overlooked this year, or just plain over how much Winslet catered to, and later raved about, co-star Leonardo DiCaprio. It can’t be easy, doing spousal duty, given certain circumstances on nights like these.

Look at Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Broderick: it’s always ALL about her these days, giving poor Ferris Bueller ever more days off…

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SARAH JESSICA “I’M SURE MY HUBBY’S HERE SOMEWHERE” PARKER, IN DIOR

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THE EVENING’S TWO BIG LOSERS: MERYL STREEP AND SOPHIA LOREN (COME ON, YOU KNOW YOU NEEDED ONE LAST HIT OF SOPHIA!)

THANK GOD FOR MICKEY ROURKE!

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2009 at 9:01 am

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ACTOR KEEPS IT REAL … AT AN AWARDS SHOW!

For me, the annual Independent Spirit Awards is absolutely de riguer viewing before the glitzy, bloated Oscars the following night. With its unpretentious bonhomie and array of lesser-known but often far superior films to those nominated for Academy Awards, it’s like a palate-cleansing sorbet before a too rich, lengthy and sometimes sick-making repast. For a hard-working film critic like myself, these selections resonate much more than the big, year-end, costly studio fare which sweeps the other award presentations. Amid all the celluloid dross, coffee-jolted 11 a.m. screenings at Film Forum or IFC and late night DVD viewings at home on deadline, a few rare gems can be found which suddenly make the slog of “be careful what you wish for as a child (i.e., watch movies all the time)”  all seem worthwhile. 

Mickey Rourke’s acceptance speech for THE WRESTLER really encapsulated what this affair is all about, being, in the immortal words of Alex Rodriguez, “loosey-goosey,” often profane and utterly real. After sitting through too many ceremonies only to watch his award go to Sean Penn for MILK (an admittedly superior performance), you could positively feel the relieved joy radiating off him as he savored his moment of victory. Typical of his Regular Joe persona was his lengthy extolling of – and work reference for – buddy Eric Roberts, another troubled Hollywood soul in need of a comeback. “Accept your award!” Roberts shouted at him, but the palpable mix of emotions – gratitude, love and, hugely, embarassment – was the real deal, and I doubt that anything that happens at the Oscars will come close to this particular little passion play. And I’m not even mentioning Rourke’s tearing up over all the sympathy he’s received over the recent death of his chihuahua, Loki. (Funnily enough, that was the name of our family’s fox terrier in Hawaii when I was a kid. Obsessed by mythology of any kind, I told one of my brothers that Loki was the god of evil, and he thought that was a perfect name for the pup, over my strenuous objection.)

Rourke has been on such a roll of publicity ever since THE WRESTLER played The New York Film Festival last fall and it’s been fascinating to watch him, slightly punch drunk in his rock and roll get-ups  from the unfamiliar but now-familiar again glare of the spotlight and answering every journalistic query with a brutal honesty very few celebrities – maybe Cher – have shown. We learned that the authenticity of the strip club scenes and Marisa Tomei’s performance in them was due probably more to Rourke than director Darren Aronofsky, as it was Rourke who came up with the phone numbers of dancers who’d be able to school her right. He mentioned the fact that the actual club they filmed in was so nasty that Aronofsky had it completely cleaned and fumigated twice. (Well, I guess one can only get so indie…) We also learned that he never watches his films, but the camera caught him at the Independent Spirit savoring his onscreen encounter with Evan Rachel Wood as his estranged daughter, and he looked pretty happy about his work for once.

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WALLACE BEERY, WHO WON THE 1931-32 OSCAR. WITH JACKIE COOPER IN ‘THE CHAMP,’ WHICH SET THE TEMPLATE FOR ROURKE AND EVAN RACHEL WOOD IN ‘THE WRESTLER’

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See my FILM JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL review: http://www.filmjournal.com/filmjournal/content_display/esearch/e3i632e90144f07ffd667dc108be6f52acd

 

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And then there was Melissa Leo, who surely gives the best female film performance of 2008 in FROZEN RIVER. Apparently, she didn’t get the memo that this afternoon event is strictly cocktail if not jeans, and wore a flowing chiffon gown, as she gave heartfelt shout-outs to everyone else involved in this wonderful little film, which everyone in America should see, especially in these cash-strapped times, dealing as it does with every day survival. Her Native American co-star, 26-year-old Misty Upham, so touching in the film, glammed up beautifully for the awards show, beaming as Leo praised her. She actually rents a room in Leo’s Los Angeles home and works folding laundry and serving coffee at a laundromat/cafe. Once wanted to be a nun, but after FROZEN RIVER, it’s the actor’s life for her.

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MISTY UPHAM:  THE NEW AMERICA FERRARA?

And how gracious was it of Leo to express special thanks to we journalists, who helped spread the word about this sleeper, resulting in an amazing 8-week run in Manhattan. So many actors look upon us as necessary evils, if not downright lesser, forms of life, so it was particularly gratifying to hear one of them  – and not a European – finally give us some props. I caught the film about a year ago at a special Museum of Modern Art screening and praised Leo afterwards, who seemed almost surprised herself at how well the film turned out and what a powerful audience effect it had.  “What are you up to next?” I asked her and her reply was classic thespian: “Looking for my next job!”

She was then and still is a real, down-to-earth working – but maybe, thankfully, not quite so struggling – actress, who takes as much non-fussy pride in her work as a good mechanic or chef. Her director, Courtney Hunt, also deserved to be Oscar-nominated, but I’m just glad Leo was recognized and dearly hope she upsets Kate Winslet who (like favored Supporting Actress, Penelope Cruz for VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, has stardusted celebrity in her favor above all else, although THE READER, like REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, is one of her decidedly lesser outings. 

The unquestioned best film of the year, THE CLASS, perhaps the greatest film about teaching ever made, won the Independent foreign film award. In another rare case of the Academy getting it right, it’s also nominated for an Oscar and my fingers are crossed for it, as much as for Leo, if only to get more people to see it and bask in its startling, uncanny, lifelike brilliance. See my FILM JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL review: http://www.filmjournal.com/filmjournal/content_display/esearch/e3i632e90144f07ffd6fa76d655858d898d

 

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FRANCOIS BEGAUDEAU IN ‘THE CLASS’ (Photo by Pierre Milon)

CHENOWETH TRIUMPHS

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2009 at 4:42 am

 

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DOUGLAS SILLS AND KRISTIN CHENOWETH IN ‘MUSIC IN THE AIR’ (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

Kristen Chenoweth is an admittedly unusual-looking little thing – tiny, with the almost over-sized head which Edward Albee once told me was common to a lot of the biggest stars of them all: Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Norma Shearer, Gloria Swanson. She has an inexhaustibly perky, impish persona, more like a fun kid sister than a conventionally alluring leading lady. But…

When she opens her mouth and sings, she is instantly covered in stardust and becomes the most glamorous creature in the universe, for the lustrous, perfectly placed sound emanating from her.  All thoughts of “conventional beauty” or statuesque languor disappear and seem but the most synthetic of qualities – the mere possessions of any commercial model – when confronted by the true magic a very special human being is capable of.

She brought all of these qualities and much more to a role which, ironically, the aforementioned Swanson played in a 1934 film version, Frieda Hatzfeld in the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical, MUSIC IN THE AIR, which Encores! revived at City Center. At a charming audience talkback after the show, she confessed how happy she was to finally play the role of a real woman, the older age of which enabled her to employ parts of her voice she ordinarily wasn’t able to use. Her relief was mirrored by many in the audience, including myself, who felt that this potentially greatest of current Broadway stars had finally, truly grown up.

She was obviously having a ball playing a temperamental diva, brimming over with ego and quick to appreciate the charms of a young hunk or two. She wore a brunette wig, which like the dark hair Ingrid Bergman sported in SARATOGA TRUNK, her funniest performance, seemed to unleash her into a sensuality and sophisticated sense of fun she’s never really exhibited before. The comic timing, familiar since her breakthrough role in YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, is honed to a fare-thee-well by now, to a point where she has no need to push for laughs, and her fits of pique or jealousy had a beautifully relaxed, high comedy sheen to them that Ina Claire herself might have smiled upon. 

Her Frieda had a very apt love object in the person of Ryan Silverman, the latest, very special entry in that seemingly inexhaustible stream of talented handsomeness which continually blesses the New York theatrical world. arriving daily on bus, plane and train fulls of starry-eyed hopefuls. Silverman’s fetching voice rang out appealingly on the piquant  “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star,” one of the show’s two best-remembered songs (the other is the swooningly overripe “The Song is You”), and he played the role of schoolteacher Karl with a fresh, innocent seriousness that stripped what might have been a boringly upright, conventional juvenile role of any tiresome corn. The same can be said of Sierra Boggess, who freed from her fishtail and hideous LITTLE MERMAID tonnage, sparkled with dewy ingenuousness and sang like a silver bell, the perfect, adorably clueless mate for Silverman.

Tom Alan Robbins’ charming accent and performance had a rich, Germanic authenticity that was both a blessing and a relief these days, with the cartoonishness of  films like THE READER and THE GOOD GERMAN, not to mention Mercedes Ruehl’s indecipherable jawing in THE AMERICAN PLAN.  Douglas Sills, as the egocentric playwright Bruno Mahler, more or less reprised his performance as Oscar Jaffe in the recent ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY and, if his voice may have been a little shaky, his spirit certainly was not. (He was very funny in the talkback when people from the Oscar Hammerstein Foundation discussed the Byzantine intricacy of the score, especially the cadenced moments of rhymed dialogue. When music director Rob Berman told him how to say, “Look/at/that/regal/eagle/there,” a disgruntled Sills initially said, “Are you giving me a line reading?”) Marni Nixon, in a cameo role originally slated for Sally Ann Howes, got an affectionate round of applause upon her entrance, although it’s sad to say that is she who rather needs to be dubbed these days.

The show, although lighter than air, possesses a definite charm, especially when as adroitly performed, directed and produced as this one was, one of Encores! best efforts in years. Critics like Ben Brantley in The New York Times have been particularly patronizing to it, as so many so often are to anything that even smacks of operetta. The talk back session was particularly enlightening in this regard, with much pointing out of themes here, like the Tyrolean countryside and nature, which would find their way into later works of Oscar Hammerstein’s, like THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and Kern’s inescapable, surging musical mastery. Sure, it’s filled with happy villagers and even – God forbid! – has a sung prayer of goodwill, but, when presented without condescension, its pure, human values and the skill of its execution (we’re talking Kern and Hammerstein, okay??) seem a heaven-sent respite from easy cynicism.

A special member of the talk back audience – the kind of person who make such events so special and so very “only in New York” – was Frances Tannehill, the last surviving member of the original 1932 production, who was ten years old at the time. And then there was Chenoweth, looking smashingly the star in a black satin jumpsuit (Balenciaga?) and killer patent boots, who said she got offered this job at the time when she learned that her TV show, PUSHING DAISIES, was going off the air. “That’s show biz,” she said, “but when I found out that my director was to be Gary Griffin with whom I did THE APPLE TREE and that Rob Berman, who was music director on that, was also involved, there was no question!”

By the way, the subject of the 1934 film of MUSIC IN THE AIR came up, and someone snarkily said, “If you ever have a chance to see it, don’t interrupt any other plans you may have.” Unfair! If nothing else, it was Billy Wilder’s first Hollywood credit (as screenwriter) and the fact that he wrote it for Swanson, playing a temperamental diva 16 years before he did SUNSET BOULEVARD with her, playing an even more temperamental one, is of major interest. If nothing else, the film has that early talkie Fox visual sheen to it and Swanson, at her most lacquered, with her astonishing blinding white grimace and rock crystal eyes (to match her famous Cartier bracelets), a star to her fingertips, luxuriantly garbed by her favorite designer, Rene Hubert, and demonstrating that, along with everything else, she could sing, too. There’s a lovely moment when, disappointed by the men in her life, both old (Bruno) and young (Karl), yet again, she instructs her maid to pack up the Vuitton and sings a liltingly sans-souci “I’m Alone.” (In the Encores! Chenoweth gave it a more powerfully operatic thrust.)

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GLORIA SWANSON, GOWNED BY RENE HUBERT, IN ‘MUSIC IN THE AIR’ (1934)

UNCLE!

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2009 at 3:12 am

O, ANTON WHAT DID YOU DO TO DESERVE THIS?

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MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL AND MAMIE GUMMER IN “UNCLE VANYA” (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

The title of this post is exactly what we feel like screaming after the third abysmal Anton Chekhov production this season, Classic Stage Company’s UNCLE VANYA, i.e., “Enough! No more, please!” Certain lines from the play, as adapted in the flattest, most American-colloquial style imaginable by Carol Rocamora – also pertain: “We’re all exhausted” and, especially, “I’m so bored!” (These seemed to match the thought bubbles emanating from the audience the night I caught it.)

Coincidentally, I saw Director Austin Pendleton the very afternoon before I attended his production, at a favorite Middle Eastern eatery in the West Village. I almost said something to this very sweet man about seeing his show, but decided not to. I’m glad I didn’t. Pendleton, as mentioned, is the nicest person in the world, but of late, a director he ain’t. (He also wasn’t much of an actor in Shakespeare in the Park’s ROMEO AND JULIET two years ago:  as Friar Laurence, he kept forgetting his lines in a most terrifying way.) His enervated stage helming is absolutely devoid of any attention-rewarding brio and, with this production, particularly, the actors seem to have been largely left to their own befuddled devices.

On Santo Loquasto’s unattractive, plank-walled set, which is a repeat of the house he did for those doomed Tyrones in the 2003 Broadway LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, the cast meanders aimlessly about, when not suddenly jumping onto a swing, put there for no good reason, other than to possibly terrify the audience member it comes perilously close to thwacking when in motion. From the very first words uttered, after a curtain-raising interminable, deadening silence, in a haplessly mundane cadence by Cyrilla Baer, as the family nurse Marina, you feel you’re stuck somewhere in 1950s Hoosier-land rather than 19th century Russia.    

Denis O’Hare, full of sudden flaring fits of anger or rueful playfulness, is more antically Jiminy Cricket than poignantly Uncle Vanya, stuck away toiling on a farm when he yearns for a real life and love. It’s a performance that emphasizes the neurotic over the romantic every time, but his lethal lack of weight is more than matched by Peter Sarsgaard as Astrov, the country doctor who is his rival for the affections of the beautiful Yelena (Maggie Gyllenhaal), trapped in a loveless marriage to the rich, older Serebryakov (George Morfogen, not as insufferably deadly as usual, but just about).

There’s no way around saying this: the character of Astrov, as Sarsgaard plays him, is a big old queen. If this was Sarsgaard’s idea of how to interpret a certain genteel, rural elegance, surely Director Pendleton should have mentioned that, along with a possibly fetching whimsicality, the role also direly required a pair of balls masculine enough to attract both Yelena and poor, unrequited Sonya (Mamie Gummer), Serebryakov’s daughter. Baer’s translation is again no help; when Astrov admits his furtive intimacy with Yelena, “Yes, sir. I embraced her. So there!” you practically expect Vanya to respond, “Get her!” As for Sarsgaard’s wildly flailing, supposedly daring drunk scene, well, I’ve seen characters at show tune bars in the Village like Marie’s Crisis behaving in much the same fashion after too many Cosmopolitans. To quote my favorite line of all time from MAD TV, “he was gayer than George Michael sucking the filling out of a Twinkie while sitting on a port-o-potty at an ‘NSynch concert. Literally!” 

Yelena is not an easy role, as she has to be at once, irresistible to all men, and deeply moving, as well, despite an innate, total selfishness. Lillian Gish must have been fascinating when she played the role on Broadway in 1930, directed by Jed Harris, even though her Vanya and Astrov might have been played by more comely actors than Walter Connolly and Osgood Perkins, respectively, and Julianne Moore was at her luminous best in Louis Malle’s 1994 film VANYA ON 42ND STREET. Gyllenhaal, as she demonstrated in HOMEBODY/KABUL (2003), with a shaky British accent, is decidedly no kind of stage actress. She’s attractive enough, in Suzy Benziger’s sweeping gowns, but her flat, girlish, unvarying voice and inescapably matter-of-fact emoting desperately lack the arching, yearning lyricism necessary for any Chekhov heroine. When the placid surface of Varya’s self-satisfaction is finally ruffled and she declaims her frustration, what emerges from Gyllenhaal is a thin, watery gruel.

There’s a lot more liquid emanating out of Gummer as Sonya, however, in the weepiest performance, since well…her mother, Meryl Streep’s… in whatever child-choosing, baby-eating dingo, nuclear threat saga she may have been wreathed in laurels for in the past. Again, couldn’t Pendleton see that this very energetic, determined young actress was on the wrong, one-note track, which only discounted whatever effective moments she might have had in this admittedly mundanely conceived “I’m crying because I’m so happy” turn? 

Louis Zorich as old retainer Telegin gave the only authentic performance, although it must be said that Delphi Harrington, as Vanya’s mother, Maria, was unusually restrained, for once.

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LILLIAN GISH, DEFINING ‘EXQUISITE’ IN THE 1930 ‘UNCLE VANYA’, DIRECTED BY JED HARRIS (Photograph by Cecil Beaton)

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JULIANNE MOORE, ALSO EXQUISITE, IN LOUIS MALLE’S ‘VANYA ON 42ND STREET’ (1994)

MACK DADDY

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2009 at 1:37 am

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When it comes to fashion survivors, no one bests Bob Mackie. After doing career-defining gowns for the likes of everyone from Judy Garland to Madonna, not to mention Cher, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Carol Burnett, Ann-Margret, Liza and every major diva of the second half of the last century, Mackie is still going as strong as ever. Encountered at the after-party of The New York Nightlife Awards on January 26, the ebulliant, uncannily young-looking designer crowed that he not only just did Cher’s costumes for her Las Vegas act and Tina Turner’s for her world tour, but costumes for Pink, as well. Evidently, the young singer was savvy enough to know and admire his oeuvre, contacted him and presto! “She’s really amazing,” Mackie said. “Besides singing and dancing, she’s a total athlete, an acrobat, in fact! Her show is an incredible spectacle.”

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CHER IN MACKIE, CAESAR’S PALACE, LAS VEGAS 2008 (Courtesy Bob Mackie)

With Cher, “I still manage to come up with new ideas, even though we must have already done everything imaginable there is to do,” and as for Tina Turner, “She totally runs the show, in complete control of everything. The energy! And the body – as amazing as ever!”

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MACKIE FOR TINA TURNER 2008 WORLD TOUR (Courtesy Bob Mackie)

For a real Mackie orgy, I suggest you get MITZI GAYNOR – RAZZLE DAZZLE! THE SPECIAL YEARS, a documentary DVD  (www.citylightsmedia.com) which showcases this star’s life and performances from her many, splashy network TV specials. Besides deliciously over-the-top production numbers featuring everything from Mitzi boogeying it out in the disco years in a welter of glittering spandex and hysterically campy moustached chorus boys to old movie parodies of divas like Roz Russell, Doris Day and Rita Hayworth, you have a lengthy chatfest with Gaynor and Mackie. As they pore over his exquisitely rendered sketches of past sartorial triumphs, they reminisce hilariously about their years together. Gaynor was the first big star Mackie designed for and his affection never waned for this diva who, although seemingly rather bland in her film appearances, is a total, bawdy, juicy pistol in real life. At a tribute to the choreographer Jack Cole recently in New York, film footage of her was shown from a West Coast event, in which she did a convulsing imitation of the late, great Cole, berating her during her 20th Century Fox years, with his signature crossed eyes. 

Mackie told me he designed the gowns for her current show, RAZZLE DAZZLE! MY LIFE BEHIND THE SEQUINS, now touring the country: “I did something like twelve outfits for her – for a ninety minute show! Ridiculous – but she wanted them and wants to wear them all, God love her! She’s such a great raconteur and I hope she includes more talking, which really showcases her personality, as well as singing in the show.”

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MITZI IN MACKIE

Mackie designed Liza Minelli’s gown for her infamous 2002 wedding to David Gest and described being in her dressing room in the church before the ceremony as a “Fellini-esque” experience: “You had Liz Taylor there, really in her own world, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross’ little boy, who was doing Michael’s moonwalk dance. Before Diana arrived, Liza said to me, ‘You always know who your real friends are. They’re the ones who don’t hug and kiss you and screw up your makeup before you’re going on.’ Diana swept in and immediately threw her arms around Liza for a big kiss. Liza just shot me a look.” 

 

And for much more on the self-described Hungarian “Mitzi-Fritzi-gypsy”: http://missmitzigaynor.com/

Museum of Television & Radio

MACKIE, MITZI AND HER TV DIRECTOR/CHOREOGRAPHER TONY CHARMOLI

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Bob Mackie and Carol Burnett, 1967 (Courtesy Bob Mackie)

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Mackie with Cher, 1975 (Courtesy Bob Mackie)

WOOING WU

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2009 at 1:10 am

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Jason Wu,  the 26-year-old, Taipei-born fashion designer who has been especially earmarked by First Lady Michelle Obama, is, frankly somewhat shell-shocked from the sudden glare of the spotlight, according to sources. Just a week before the inauguration and the debut of the floaty white ballgown Michelle wore, Woo was avidly calling up various retailers wanting them to carry his line. Post-inauguration, he was strictly incommunicado to these very same people (who were now avidly calling him up) and obscuring black paper was suddenly taped over every window of his Garment Center offices, now besieged by paparazzi. Evidently, PROJECT RUNWAY’s Tim Gunn, his former professor at Parsons School of Design, has also seriously inveighed upon him not to use fur, but whether Woo chooses to heed his words is another question.

 

After that gown and the current Vogue magazine cover featuring Michelle in yet another Wu design, Parsons is only too eager now to claim him as an alumnus, as they have Narciso Rodriguez and Isabel Toledo, both of whom have designed for Obama, and both of whom never actually graduated from the school. In Wu’s case, it becomes particularly sticky as Parson’s definitely flunked him in his senior year. He had evidently missed many classes, being already busy with outside work, including a successful line of high-priced couture dolls, Fashion Royalty, which he has been designing since he was 15. Nonetheless, he was desperate for a degree, but, after a serious closed door session, the decision came down not to pass him.

 

Who’s begging for favor now?

 

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Wu’s Look for Fashion Royalty’s Adele Makeda

 

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Wu’s look for Washington D.C. royalty, Michelle Obama

 

 

DIVA OF THE WEEK

In Uncategorized on February 11, 2009 at 8:20 am

He's Just Not That Into You

GINNIFER GOODWIN, IN ‘HE’S JUST THAT NOT INTO YOU’ EVOKES NO LESS THAN

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MARGARET SULLAVAN, SEEN HERE WITH JAMES STEWART IN ‘SHOP AROUND THE CORNER,’ HER GREATEST PERFORMANCE

Sometimes the critics can be so wrong and the audience can be so right, as witness last weekend’s top box office success of HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU. Ken Kwapis’ romantic comedy was dis’ed by a passel of journos, many of them women, who found the film chauvinistic, foully belittling of the ladies. Bullshit! Methinks most critics are so benumbed by all the recent crap masquerading as romantic comedy (from SEX AND THE CITY to, God help us, NEW IN TOWN, and so many more) that an elegantly well-written, directed and felt observation of modern mating rites completely befuddles them.   

Central to the film’s goodness is Ginnifer Goodwin, who delivers a supremely affecting, huge-hearted performance as Gigi, the girl who wears her heart on her sleeve like an Ace bandage. Her clueless openness and eagerness to connect in the lethal game of Urban Hook-up will leave you both cringing in embarassment for her and reluctantly smiling with rueful recognition. Just watch her in action at the pick-up bar, so tragic and yet so damned true!  She does everything wrong, over and over again, just like two seminal heroines of American cinema, Katharine Hepburn in ALICE ADAMS, and Margaret Sullavan in THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER who, somehow, like Gigi, end up beamingly on top. Indeed, when I mentioned this to her director, Ken Kwapis, he told me that Sullavan was exactly who was on his mind during the filming and that nothing would make him happier than my running a photo of Goodwin alongside the divine, husky-voiced and utterly unique Sullavan. Done!

HUNK OF THE WEEK

In Uncategorized on February 11, 2009 at 7:59 am

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In James Gray’s absorbing, character-driven TWO LOVERS, Joaquin Phoenix gives a heartbreaking performance as Leonard Kraditor, a somewhat damaged guy living with his parents in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Phoenix is here reteamed with Gray, with whom he made THE YARDS and WE OWN THE NIGHT, and the director revels flavorfully in this particular  neighborhood as vividly as he did in his striking debut film LITTLE ODESSA (1994).

Phoenix uses his physical looseness, improvisatory humor and undisguisable handsomeness to erase any pitiable sad sack elements about Leonard, even though he’s attempted suicide and been dumped for a very stupid reason by his fiancee. We’ve all known a Leonard in our lives – you know, the kind of undeniably attractive but depressed type, still mystifyingly living at home, sleeping all day, obviously hiding some tragic flaw, and Phoenix floods this archetype with astounding empathy and soulfulness. Small wonder that “loser” though Leonard may seem initially, true romance fills his soul, and he nonetheless has managed to capture the avid interest of those titular two lovers (Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinissa Shaw). Watch how he behaves in two very different, very New York settings here – a luxe restaurant and a trendy Chelsea club -in which he should be a fish out of water but isn’t. In both, he totally wins over all comers, charmingly proving that Leonard is far from any kind of a Paddy Chayefsky-Marty sad sack. 

Of all the film actors of his generation, Phoenix has maintained a performance integrity so staunchly vital that when it comes down to picking a movie to see, just based on who’s in it, I’ve always said, “Gimme the Wok!” If he does indeed retire from acting to pursue music as has been written, TWO LOVERS is one pretty terrific swan song for him.