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Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN ALIVE

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2009 at 6:50 am

In 1900, it was Lina Cavalieri

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In the second decade of the 20th century, it was Gladys Cooper

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In the 1920s, it was Billie Dove

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In the 1930s, it was Garbo

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In the 1940s, it was Hedy Lamarr

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In the 1950s, it was Ava Gardner

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In the 1960s, it was Elizabeth Taylor

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In the 1970s, it was Julie Christie

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In the 1980s, it was Lisa Bonet

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In the 1990s, it was Gong Li

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In the first decade of the 21st century, it has been Angelina Jolie

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But, through the last 50 years, one woman remains absolutely unparalleled, for sheer beauty and grace…

CARMEN DE LAVALLADE , dancer, actress, teacher

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Bask in her ageless glory with CARMEN AND GEOFFREY, the new documentary about her life with husband Geoffrey Holder – a Renaissance couple if e’er there was – opening at Quad Cinemas.

Read my review in FILM JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL:

http://www.filmjournal.com/filmjournal/content_display/reviews/specialty-releases/e3i781c3e0a48f6c1c2739c9dbc652ac28d

And, just for fun, send me your own personal picks for top beauties of the last century. We’ll tally them up! This is serious business.

MUSICAL COMEDY HEAVEN

In Uncategorized on March 13, 2009 at 5:26 am

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LAUREN GRAHAM, THE BEATING HEART OF A DELIGHTFUL ‘GUYS AND DOLLS,’ DRESSED BY PAUL TAZEWELL

Don’t let the bad reviews scare you off attending the revival of GUYS AND DOLLS at the Nederlander Theatre. The night I saw it on March 8, both cast and audience were having the time of their lives, Ben Brantley of the Times, be damned! His review was just the latest in my on-going query with him, i.e., Did we see the same show? Brantley went on and on about Director Des McAnuff’s supposedly wrongheaded new take on the material. (This show is such a sacred cow to proprietary musical comedy queens of all sexes and ages, perhaps stemming from high school productions they all took part in – like THE PAJAMA GAME – although a show about gambling, drunkenness and strippers would seem kinda questionable kid’s stuff.) Who knows? Maybe his direction was that bad and maybe when the lousy notices came out everyone decided to chuck any overtly conceptual “improvements” and just do a fun show. Or maybe not.

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ROBERT BRILL’S SET

To speak in Runyonesque parlance, all’s I know is the stage was flooded with sheer delight. Let’s get the weaknesses out of the way, namely Oliver Platt, who seems to have unappealingly turned into Edward G. Robinson, physically, and played Nathan Detroit like a weak cross between a Dead End Kid and John Lovitz, with his shifty, plaintive whine. Titus Burgess’ Nicely-Nicely also wasn’t exactly my cuppa: a bit too fey and Caribbean-flavored, with a vocal timbre more given to Mariah Carey meslismatics than true Broadway belt. As Sarah Brown, Kate Jennings, with certain pitch problems, took some warming up-to, but, soon, her energetic spirit and horsey genuineness in the role got to me and, let’s face it, despite Sarah’s songs, it’s not such a great one to begin with: yet another cliched Broadway virgin who gets warmed up, all upright, uptight frost and then drunken uninhibitedness.

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KATE JENNINGS GRANT AND CRAIG BIERKO

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THE REAL CRAIG – OR MME. TUSSAUD’S? OR IS IT BRIAN D’ARCY JAMES?

Craig Bierko made Sky Masterson more appropriately romantic than any I’ve ever seen, with his ardent baritone especially effective on the tune, “I’ll Know.” (But what’s up with the strange publicity photographs of this handsome actor in the ad campaigns, very unrecognizably Mme. Tussaud’s?) Of the four leads, however, Lauren Graham’s profoundly lovable Miss Adelaide is the stand-out and the beating heart of this production. Some have definitely taken issue with her eccentric, halting line delivery, but I found it quite witty and revealing of new nuances in the dialogue. It’s directly the opposite approach from Faith Prince’s now-legendary perfect cartoon approach – imitated by a subsequent generation or two of musical actresses; there’s one in every show quacking and squeaking her Noo Yawk lines out – and I found it perfectly valid and deliciously fresh. It’s as if a lifetime spent stripping, dancing and singing in dingy burlesque houses (before McAnuff’s savvy row of horny, fedora’ed patrons), in addition to Nathan Detroit’s exasperating evasiveness have left her shell-shocked, like someone dropped on their head a few dozen times. Graham’s performance kept reminding me of both Jean Arthur and Judy Holliday, not for any histrionic similarities, necessarily, but more for its pure originality, the way she ferreted out a delicate vulnerability beneath all that brass. “Adelaide’s Lament,” in her hands, was no longer a hackneyed show-stopper – face it: don’t you heave a sigh of resignation whenever it’s hauled out as a showcase number – took on a wholly unexpected fresh vitality, making you realize, once again, the utter brilliance of Frank Loesser’s pen.

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STEVE ROSEN AT THE OPENING (Photo by Joe Corrigan)

My other favorite actor of the evening was adorable, bespectacled Steve Rosen who was unadulteratedly Runyonesque and quite heavenly as Benny Southstreet, like a sexy Arnold Stang, lending an authenticity and spunky performance grace which illuminated the stage with his every appearance. Mary Testa was another welcome presence as General Cartwright, with her climactic caterwauling and carrying-on taking the already delirious “Sit Down Your Rocking the Boat” number to further heights of fun. Spanking herself and shrieking “Bad girl!” may be a tad excessive, not to mention anachronistic given the ’30s setting, but who cares? A wild combination of Margaret Hamilton and Constance Collier here, you just want Testa to go over the top, and, happily, she does not disappoint.

Sergio Trujillo’s choreography was both snappy and very sexy, especially in the Hot Box burlesque scenes and the really sizzling Havana nightclub sequence. Robert Brill’s sets were serviceable (although I wish, if a decision to use rear projected films is made, the images would at least be kept in focus, instead of the distracting, unattractive fuzziness meant, one supposes, to suggest perspective). Paul Tazewell’s costumes for the women were some of the best I’ve seen on Broadway, beautifully detailed with an original, rich color palette, some of them looking cadged from John Galliano (the absolute best person to cadge from when you’re talking ’30s-inspired). His male outfits were drabber, and less strong, not a patch on the psychedilically-hued pinstripe bespoke of William Ivey Long (whose men’s suits are always his strong point) of the 1992 revival of GUYS AND DOLLS.

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A GALLIANO GOWN

And, speaking of that all-hallowed production, I confess to being somewhat more entertained by this newer one, sacrilege though that may be. Admittedly, Prince was brilliant, Christopher Chadman’s choreography truly popped, Jerry Zaks’ very traditional direction had fizz – maybe the last time he exhibited such – and Tony Walton’s set design was scrumptious. But Peter Gallagher was, as always, somewhat of a waxen, bland mannequin as Sky, Jose de Guzman was an indifferent Sarah and Nathan Lane, well…that depends on how much you enjoy this performer, who’s always rather manically the same to me, a little over-convinced of his own devastating entertainment value. He was, indeed, at his best in this and THE PRODUCERS -who knew back in 1992 that we would see these performances many more times, in various other productions?

Just go and enjoy, because you certainly will. It’s nothing like that recent, open-casket Roundabout production of PAL JOEY (although Martha Plimpton was sensational and lead Matthew Risch got a definitely bad critical rap – the kid got the job done and was young and sexy, f’Chrissakes!) Everyone from bus-ferried tourists to fashion designer Zak Posen, who sat in front of me, had endorphins shooting out of their skulls, and both intermission and exits were positively ecstatic. If new audiences manage to discover the show and remove the producers’ worries about the reviews’ impact on box office, I venture to say, that in a decade or so, they’ll be looking back fondly at it, maybe even calling it “legendary,” as well.

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VIVIAN BLAINE, THE ORIGINAL MISS ADELAIDE, DRESSED BY ALVIN COLT, 1950

VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE – OR, AT LEAST, A RAID

In Uncategorized on March 13, 2009 at 4:07 am

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THEY’D REALLY RATHER BE PARTYING

It is still such a pain in the ass to have some simple naughty fun in this city, a dreary legacy from the Giuliani regime, which has stripped Manhattan of its once proud title of freak flag-waving Sin City. Hell, you can find more good clean debauchery in Cleveland, Ohio these days, f’Chrissakes!

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Recent case in point: I had a lovely Valentine’s Day dinner at the cosily romantic, scrumptious Swedish restaurant in the West Village, Smorgas (meatballs, baby!), and decided to follow it up with some kicks at Dionysian Daniel Nardicio’s party, at which he’d promised a special surprise. The joint was jumpin’ when I got there and things really kicked into high gear with the arrival of said suprise, which was a full-blown Mardi Gras band who marched into the room and proceeded to seriously jam.

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Everybody loved it and continue to party in the most energetic sexy way, to the accompaniment of DJ Johnny Dynell’s always smoking spinning.

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JOHNNY DYNELL

And then, suddenly, boom! A cadre of cops, who were undeniably young and cute, but also undeniably cops, stormed in and before you knew it, the party was declared over and a monstrous line assembled at the coat check. There were thankfully no arrests, and, to everybody’s credit, there were no freak-outs or unpleasantness during the wait to properly exit. Everybody had had such a rousingly good Nardician time that spirits remained high and a wry bonhomie continued to suffuse the joint.

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PLUS CA CHANGE…A cop visits Christopher’s End, a bar located at 180 Christopher Street, in 1971

Just another wild Saturday night in Gotham, and there’ll definitely be more similar fun to come after the smoke clears a bit, but I want to let Daniel Nardicio have his say, in a message he sent to me:

“First off, i’d like to emphasize that what happened on Valentines Day wasnt a GAY thing, it was a NOISE thing.
As anyone of the hundreds of attendees can attest, the NYPD handled the entire thing more or less gently, and without any outward homophobia.
I did get a few summonses for noise levels and having no CPR kit, but all that is being taken care of and the attending officer let me know that more than likely these summons will be thrown out in court.
The problem stemmed from me. Being an enthusiastic Louisiana boy at heart, i hired a 20 person marching band to make a Mardi Gras parade thru the loft- hilarious yes, but loud.
And thats what set off the neighbors, who then called the police.
While the whole experience was mostly drama free, i feel really bad about the many people who paid to get in and got asked to leave by the police, and so i am planning on doing something special next month for all the partygoers who were there when the place got shut down.
Lastly, i’d like to say to the gossipmongers:
for the record, this is only the SECOND time i’ve ever had police come to my event. The last time was in 2003 at the The Slide. This is not a common occurence, and i’ve got many more wicked plans for NYC nightlife- check back to thedshop.com to find out!”

READ MY FULL-LENGTH JUICY INTERVIEW WITH THIS NYC TREASURE (HOW DREARY WOULD LIFE HERE BE WITHOUT HIM?):

http://www.gaycitynews.com/site/index.cfm?newsid=20219259&BRD=2729&PAG=461&dept_id=568864&rfi=8

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One truly spicy party

OPERA/FASHION NOTE

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2009 at 6:43 pm

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RENEE FLEMING, GOWNED BY JOHN GALLIANO

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HER PRECURSOR, MARIA JERITZA (NOTE THE RESEMBLANCE)

They are scrambling to complete the costume which will be worn by Renee Fleming, the biggest star in opera right now (as well as the most glamorous), for the Metropolitan Opera’s 125th anniversary gala this Sunday, March 15. Recreations of historic past performances will be featured and Fleming is singing “Marietta’s Lied” from DIE TODT STADT, composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who later went to Hollywood to write rousing scores for Warner Brothers swashbucklers like THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. Designer Catherine Zuber (SOUTH PACIFIC, LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA) has whipped something up for Fleming based on the costume worn by Maria Jeritza (1887-1982), who created the role of Marietta in 1920 and made her Met debut in it on November 19, 1921. Incidentally, if you visit the Met gift shop, you can pay your respects to the life-sized portrait of Jeritza as Octavian in DER ROSENKAVALIER, which once hung in Founder’s Hall and is now gracing the far wall of the store.

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JERITZA IN ‘DIE TODT STADT’

Jeritza was, along with Lina Cavalieri (1874-1944), the most beautiful opera singer of her day, and was constantly in demand for her phosphorescent looks, penetrating, diamantine soprano voice, and acting ability which, like Callas, always favored dramatic verisimilitude over mere, pure tonal perfection, by such as the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria who recommended her for Vienna’s Court Opera after hearing her in DIE FLIEDERMAUS at a summer spa (“‘Why isn’t this ravishing creature singing at the court opera?’ ‘Must I always listen to fat, elderly women?”), and by Richard Strauss, for whom she created the roles of Ariadne in ARIADNE AUF NAXOS and the Empress in DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN (in both of which she was paired with the great Lotte Lehman). She made her official debut in APHRODITE, wearing what was then considered next to nothing, to extraordinary success.

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WITH RICHARD STRAUSS

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JERITZA AS TOSCA

When she sang TOSCA at the Met, opposite a debuting, largely ignored Aureliano Pertile, then Met manager Giulio Gatti-Cassaza, recalled her reception as the greatest he had ever seen. TOSCA became her signature role for her, especially as she sang the aria “Vissi d’arte” while lying on the floor, a move that sopranos ever since have aped.

In a 1958 radio interview, Jeritza recalled that moment during rehearsal: “[Puccini told me] You have to sing it in a way that the people are spellbound and unable even to applaud and find something so they are unable to do so. He told me I should work out something so the people would sit petrified and can’t even move. ‘My dear, you will do it and you have the imagination – I depend on it.’

“I tried, I tried. I racked my brains and couldn’t find anything. Then during the second act Scarpia was carried away with the part … and he threw me down on the floor and I fell down on my nose. I lay there. I thought my nose was bleeding and I was afraid to start my ‘Vissi d’Arte.’ The Konzertmeister thought I lost the pitch and so he start from the orchestra again. But I was afraid to start. He started again – two or three times. I was so afraid my nose was bleeding but I thought, ‘Blood or no blood, you have to start.’ So I started ‘Vissi d’arte’ flat on my nose. After the first bars I managed to reach my face and found out that my wet face was full of tears and not blood. And so I started slowly but surely to raise in a kneeling position.

“All of a sudden I heard the familiar sound of Puccini’s voice – ‘Basta!’ And he came rushing on the stage, took me in his arms and kissed me. And said ‘Cara, carissima, thank you oh thank you so very much for the wonderful idea you had.’ ‘Maestro, that was not an idea of mine, that was an accident. Your Scarpia was carried away in his temper and he threw me on the floor.’ ‘Never mind, promise me that whatever happens you will always sing it in this accidental way.’

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‘ARIADNE AUF NAXOS’

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THAIS

A diva in every sense of the word, she was known as The Moravian Thunderbolt. The 1920s were a particularly litigous time for her as she was always suing to suppress scandalous writings about her love life. Proud of her jewelry collection, she said of her admirers, “‘Flowers! If they had tried to give me only flowers, I would have spit in their faces.” She had fights with tenor Beniamino Gigli, who reportedly kicked her in the shins during a competitive curtain call, causing her to take a solo bow weeping aloud, “Mr. Gigli is not nice to me.” Lilli Lehmann bitchily remarked, “A real artist shouldn’t have to lie on her face to sing a big aria.” During a 1925 Vienna DIE WALKURE performance, mezzo-soprano Maria Olszewska became so annoyed by Jeritza’s distracting offstage behavior that she marched to the wings and spat at her. She left the Met because of a salary cut in 1932 and moved to Europe where, in Austria, she built a lavish palace, known as “Jeritza’s Folly” that was sold in 1989 for $70 million to an oil tycoon.

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ALWAYS A DIVA

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Jeritza had three husbands, including Hollywood mogul Winfield Sheehan, and died in Orange, New Jersey. Terence Cardinal Cooke offered a mass for her at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and she is interred at Holy Cross Cemetary in North Arlington, NJ.

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See and hear Jeritza singing “Du und ich” from Franz Lehar’s operetta THE GRAND DUCHESS ALEXANDRA, filmed in 1933.

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JERITZA BEAUTY TIP: For attractive elbows, soak them in grapefruit juice every day.

DIVA OF THE WEEK

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2009 at 2:23 am

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GENE TIERNEY

Through Thursday, Film Forum is screening John Stahl’s LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), starring that mesmerizing, buck-toothed beauty, Gene Tierney (1920-91), undoubtedly the best actress of the all those gorgeous ’40s glamour girls – Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr, Linda Darnell, Betty Grable, Jeanne Crain. She certainly had a greater range than any of them and, as Ellen Berent, a father-obsessed belle dame sans merci who’ll stop at nothing to get her own evil way, she acts with a cool impassivity that’s a forerunner to Catherine Deneuve’s later hypnotically oblique blank-canvas work for Luis Bunuel in BELLE DE JOUR and TRISTANA. We never are really clued in to the root of Ellen’s basic bad seed-ness, and her uncanny cool composure cracks only once when she expresses loathing for the unborn child she carries at one point declaring, “I hate the little beast. I wish it would die!” an exclamation which had a twenty-something guy sittting behind me once at a screening, doubtlessly accustomed to all manner of modern slasher trash, utter a shocked, “Yikes!”

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EVIL, EVIL ELLEN BERENT

1945 audiences lapped up this heavy dose of Freudian bad behavior, and the film was 20th Century Fox’s top grosser of the ’40s, earning over $5 million. Matching Tierney’s lacquered perfection is the movie’s production itself, with vividly intense Technicolor cinematography by Leon Shamroy, which took that year’s Oscar, and art direction featuring fussy, pristinely decorated interiors right out of a HOUSE & GARDENS magazine of the period. Young Daryl Hickman actually gives the film’s best performance as a hapless victim of Ellen’s machinations, who dies a harrowing drowning death in a scene that’s won kudos from everyone from then studio head Darryl Zanuck to today’s Martin Scorsese, a tireless champion of this lurid noir.

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Read my interview with Hickman in the current GAY CITY NEWS:
http://gaycitynews.com/site/index.cfm?newsid=20275394&BRD=2729&PAG=461&dept_id=568864&rfi=8

For her performance, Tierney received her only Oscar nomination, but the film she most deserved it for came two years later, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, in which she effectively ages and gives a lovely romantic performance of real charm and range, opposite Rex Harrison as the ghost in his best, unusually sexy screen portrayal. Under Ernst Lubitsch’s direction, she was sweetly funny in HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943); John Ford elicited a startling, literally earthy performance from her as Ellie May Lester, happily grovelling and rutting in TOBACCO ROAD’S 1941 hillbilly dirt, and, in Edmund Goulding’s THE RAZOR’S EDGE, she was uncompromisingly cold, conniving and selfish in a W. Somerset Maugham-written role Bette Davis was once considered for, before George Cukor, the film’s original director, put the kibosh on that idea. Goulding, with his canny bisexuality, was able to draw a very distinctive bitchery out of her – watch the way she shrieks, “What?!” when she learns of her beloved’s upcoming marriage before slamming the phone down. It’s a much more complex, subtle portrait of feminine rapaciousness than her work in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, under John Stahl’s stolid, utterly humorless direction.

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DRESSED BY OLEG CASSINI IN HIS 1946 VIEW OF 1930S FASHION, IN ‘THE RAZOR’S EDGE’

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Tierney’s most famous movie is, of course, Otto Preminger’s LAURA (1944), in which she plays the archetypal, successful Manhattan career girl, whose ambitions and inner desires still speak clearly to the latest generation of SEX AND THE CITY female go-getters. Her Laura simply has it all: beauty, intelligence, a carefully honed sophistication, a fully absorbing job, and a raft of men besotted by her, from eminent celebrities and charming gigolo wastrels to blue collar cops and even that ultimate Gotham accessory, stalkers.

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POPPY IN JOSEF VON STERNBERG’S ‘THE SHANGHAI GESTURE’

She was at her most beautiful in her first scene, playing Eurasian bad girl, Poppy, in Josef von Sternberg’s swooningly camp THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941), looking more delectable than anyone else ever did in an upswept coiffure, gowned by then-husband Oleg Cassini, and sitting in Mother Goddam’s house of sin, murmuring, “You can almost smell the evil in this place!” In this early stage of her career, her exotic look typecast her, as Myrna Loy had been a generation before, in “exotic” roles: in SUNDOWN (in which she was Arab) and CHINA GIRL (another half-Chinese).

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HALF-CASTE WOMAN, IN ‘SUNDOWN’

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MYRNA LOY HAD ALREADY GONE DOWN THAT ROAD

And there was a brief stopover into Scarlett O’Hara territory with the Technicolor BELLE STAR (1941), in which she played the legendary hoop-skirted Southern bandit and looked like Vivien Leigh’s sister.

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GONE WITH THE WIND? NO, IT’S GENE TIERNEY AND LOUISE BEAVERS IN ‘BELLE STARR’

In Mitchell Leisen’s delightful THE MATING SEASON (1951), she again displayed her considerable comic chops in the kind of fluffy, misunderstood housewife role Doris Day would later make a more heavy-handed career of.

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WITH WALTER PLUNKETT, COSTUME DESIGNER FOR ‘PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE’

As she aged out of pretty young things, Tierney displayed impressive force and authority as a ruthless Egyptian princess in THE EGYPTIAN (1954) giving Edmond Purdom and Victore Mature hell, that film’s one decent performance, and was wrily no-nonsense/don’t fuck with me as the barely resigned wife of a philandering Brian Keith in THE PLEASURE SEEKERS (1964), holding her own against the nubile twitterings of a new generation of starlets: Carol Lynley, Pamela Tiffin and the ferociously porno young Ann-Margret.

In a 1965 update of the famous powder room sequence from LAURA, taking over the role of the older woman played by Judith Anderson, losing her man to a younger girl, she took a more aggressive approach than Dame Judy did, with her maquillage blandishments and single cutting line. Tierney merely hauls off and bitch slaps the always inept Carol Lynley before declaring, “Don’t you dare feel sorry for me, you little tramp!”

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THE NEW BREED: ANN-MARGRET

Tierney’s offscreen life was, in a word, turbulent, from her well-heeled Brooklyn beginnings, early success on Broadway in THE MALE ANIMAL (1940), which enslaved NY critics Richard Watts and Brooks Atkinson, and caught producer Zanuck’s eye, bringing her to Hollywood. There were rocky love affairs with Howard Hughes, Tyrone Power, Spencer Tracy (during a break from Katharine Hepburn, location filming THE AFRICAN QUEEN), John F. Kennedy and Prince Aly Khan, who took up with “Laura,” after things went kaput with Rita Hayworth’s “Gilda.” Khan’s father objected to him marrying another movie star, preventing Tierney from becoming America’s second princess.

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INTERNATIONAL JET-SETTER, WITH JACQUES FATH AT THE BESTIGUI BALL OF THE CENTURY, VENICE 1951

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WITH MILLINER, LILY DACHE

She suffered from mental depression and nearly threw herself from a building on Christmas Day 1957 before being admitted to Menninger Clinic. Agatha Christie based her story of THE MIRROR CRACK’D on a tragic incident in Tierney’s life. She was doing volunteer work at the Hollywood Canteen when a stranger, a lady fan, kissed her. Her daughter, Daria, was born prematurely and severely mentally retarded after that, and it was only later discovered through a letter from the strange woman that she had had rubela when she embraced Tierney, which was transferred to the fetus the actress was carrying.

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PHOTOGRAPHED BY GEORGE HURRELL

Tierney’s legacy, of course, more happily lives on through her films, and new generations are ecstatically discovering the actress. She is absolutely worshipped in France, with a cult approaching that of Audrey Hepburn’s, frequent movie revivals and three lavishly illustrated books about her. As a photograph seller on Ebay – go to den7 if you want to see what I have- I can also attest that her allure remains as potent as ever, with an army of collectors avid for images of those soaring cheekbones, tilted eyes, leonine raven mane, lithe, elegant body, and, of course, that absolutely devastating overbite.

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GENE, UNRETOUCHED

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DIVA SUMMIT: OLEG CASSINI, GENE, RITA HAYWORTH, BRUCE CABOT OUT ON THE TOWN. GENE WEARS THE GRAPE MOTIF EVENING GOWN CASSINI DESIGNED FOR HER IN ‘THE SHANGHAI GESTURE,’ A PERSONAL FAVORITE

A CHAT WITH QUEEN ELIZABETH

In Uncategorized on March 5, 2009 at 9:21 am

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HARRIET WALTER AND JANET MCTEER IN ‘MARY STUART’ (Photo by Alastair Muir)

The opening night of Frank McGuinness’ play, GATES OF GOLD, at 59E59th Theatre on March 1, was attended by two queens, Elizabeth I and Mary of Scotland, or, I should say, the wonderful actresses who are about to play them on Broadway in Friedrich Schiller’s MARY STUART, Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer. In a so-far lacklustre Broadway season, this play is greatly anticipated, if only for the script and performance possibilities it so richly promises. Of all the female rivalries in history – Marie Antoinette and Mme. Du Barry, Mary Garden and Lina Cavalieri, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, Olivia De Havilland and sister Joan Fontaine, none can match the endlessly fascinating tale of Bess and Mary. I mean, there’s pure hatred, and then there’s beheading your rival…

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HELEN HAYES AND HELEN MENKEN, COSTUMED BY ROBERT EDMOND JONES, IN ‘MARY OF SCOTLAND’ 1933

Maxwell Anderson’s play, MARY OF SCOTLAND, opened on Broadway in 1933, with Helen Hayes as Mary and Helen Menken as Elizabeth. On the first night, Director Theresa Helburn ran backstage, crying, “Where’s Helen? I must congratulate her!” “Here I am,” said Hayes. “No, I meant the other Helen!” Ouch!

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FLORENCE ELDRIDGE AND KATHARINE HEPBURN, COSTUMED BY WALTER PLUNKETT, IN JOHN FORD’S ‘MARY OF SCOTLAND’ (1936)

Onscreen, it’s been done with Katharine Hepburn’s quiveringly tremulous Mary to Florence Eldridge’s cackling, crotchety Elizabeth in John Ford’s lavish snooze of an adaptation, MARY OF SCOTLAND (1936). (Ginger Rogers, if you can believe it, was desperate to play Elizabeth and even did a screen test for it. Bette Davis also wanted a crack at it, but later got to play her twice, anyway.) In 1971, Vanessa Redgrave was tremulously quivering in MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS, to Glenda Jackson’s scene-stealing tough old bird of a Bess.

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VANESSA REDGRAVE AND GLENDA JACKSON, COSTUMED BY MARGARET FURSE, IN ‘MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS’ (1971)

As for GATES OF GOLD, it’s a very talky and repetitive meditation on death, as flamboyantly gay actor Gabriel (Martin Rayner) very slowly expires, while braying all manner of insult, epigrams and anguished cries at his long-suffering lover Conrad (Charles Shaw Robinson), as well as a sister and young, comely nephew who, it seems, is having an improbable affair with Conrad.

A few lines which pass for wit on a slow night (“Dying is remarkably like being stuck in a traffic jam through Limerick”; “Her dress sense is entirely Canadian”) came as a few drops of welcome rain in an otherwise arid landscape of one rather tiresome and disagreeable old man’s twilight. The peripheral plotlines involving that sister and Conrad and the nephew felt like extraneous, wan padding. Rayner was, however, fully up to the part, and did all he could to inject some outrageous life into the proceedings. Robinson was plain dull and woefully underpowered, though. Their characters were based on long-time lovers, Hilton Edwards and Micheal MacLiammoir (Orson Welles’ early mentor and Iago in his 1952 film of OTHELLO), who founded Dublin’s Gate Theater in 1928. How I wish the play had contained more information about their fascinating theatrical lives than the mere generalities we are given.

The party afterwards was far more diverting, thanks to Harriet Walter, who was a total delight. Things got off to a rocky start when McTeer’s purse fell over the bar railing to the flight below. Ah! the glamour of being a Broadway diva, as she had to run to retrieve it and then make sure nothing in it had shattered.

“So you two queens are really friends, after all?” I said to them.

“Oh, no! We haate each other!” McTeer laughed, all six feet of her and uncanny, spooked eyes.

I told her how much I admired her as Gertrude Lawrence in the BBC film about her lover, Daphne DuMaurier, and asked what it was like to attempt to play such a big, legendary star. “But Janet is a big, legendary star!” Walter loyally interjected. McTeer laughed and said, “We did it for no money and I had only a month to prepare, so a lot of my research was rushed. As for Mary Stuart, I don’t play her as a victim, as some see her, as she’s quite a storng woman with the courage of her convictions.” Those aforementioned physical attributes of McTeer’s made her instantly recognizable at the party, and she was soon set upon by various admirers.

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JANET MCTEER AS GERTRUDE LAWRENCE, GERALDINE SOMERVILLE AS DAPHNE DUMAURIER, MALCOLM SINCLAIR AS NOEL COWARD IN ‘DAPHNE’

Walters, on the other hand, seemed to go largely unnoticed, which was divine, as I was able to have a lovely conversation with this never-disappointing, superbly authoritative actress who has given me such pleasure in films like BEDROOMS AND HALLWAYS, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and Stephen Fry’s delightful BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS. This niece of Christopher Lee and recipient of a 1999 Commander of the Order of the British Empire title told me, “I’m here because I’m a friend of Frank’s [McGuinness]. I thought the writing was quite good and the ending very moving.

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HARRIET WALTER

“I have a place in Dorset and people recognize me more there because there’s less to do and their faces are not buried in newspapers, whereas, in London, they don’t care at all, which is great, as I would hate to be bothered. I’m very different from the daunting characters I play. They’re not me at all, and if I was ever to play myself onscreen or stage, no one would be interested, I’m sure. I’m rather shy and retiring.

“I trained at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), which I think was better for me than going to RADA, less intense and competitive. So many people who went to RADA said they envied me for that reason.”

“It’s been three and half years since we did MARY STUART in London and I’m trying to approach it as a new thing. Although everyone else in the cast is much more up in their lines, I’m trying to go more slowly, reinvestigating things. Elizabeth I is such an iconic figure – everyone seems to have played her recently. But Cate’s [Blanchett] work in her first Elizabeth movie really helped me with the groundwork for the younger Elizabeth, so I feel a lot of the work was done for me. But I hope people don’t just want to see these things for the gowns and pageantry. We’re really trying to invest in them as human beings. Mary and Elizabeth were so similar in many ways, and it’s a shame that they weren’t able to relate to each other more in a real way.

“This is not my Broadway debut, you know. I was here 25 years ago in a production of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, as Helena, directed by Trevor Nunn. I love the theatre we’re in now, the Broadhurst. It’s not that big, which I like. I like to be able to be able to look out and relate to everyone sitting there, even in the top balconies, like in the theatres in London.”
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EMILY BLUNT AND HARRIET WALTER IN ‘THE YOUNG VICTORIA’

Given her naturally aristocratic bearing, strong presence and elegance, royal parts are never far from hand for Walter and she is to appear in THE YOUNG VICTORIA, starring Emily Blunt as that other formidable British monarch. “I play Queen Adelaide, Victoria’s aunt. Emily is such a good actress, and is playing her as a young and sexier Victoria. It was directed by this Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee who did a film called C.R.A.Z.Y., that was about a young gay boy. It was very interesting and they gave the project to him thinking he would shake the dust off this historical theme, which he certainly did. As completely different as they were, Victoria actually was rather similar to Elizabeth, in that she came to power very early in a dangerous time, although she didn’t live in such a dangerous era with people losing their heads. I hope the film gets a release here, as it’s very British and I don’t know how many people would be interested in it.”

“Are you kidding?” I said. “We are all abject worshippers of royal history here!”

I’ve always loved Walter’s face, with its truly aquiline profile, an important nose and chin, which are real rarities these days: “I’m part Italian, which is why I look the way I do and I don’t ever want to change anything. I’m working on a book about women’s faces and surgery, and have gotten wonderful quotes from many actresses. I was recently at a do where someone who shall remain nameless was supposed to show up and I kept waiting and looking for her. There was this one woman there who was very typical of that surgically enhanced, eternally youthful look – unfortunate – and then I finally realized it was she.”

I said that Liv Ullman once told me that she would never do anything to her face as “I’m much too vain. I want to see what nature does to me on her own,” and Walter said, “I must see her. I admire that and that’s quite a wonderful thing to say.”

KISSIN’ COUSINS?
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THE REAL MARY

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THE REAL BESS

A CINEMATIC RENDEZVOUS

In Uncategorized on March 5, 2009 at 7:17 am

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THE RAVISHING NORA AZEMEDER IN ‘PARIS 36’

With the economy tanking and our dollar ever-lousy, abroad, who can afford to go to France anymore? Next best thing: book a seat or three at Film Society of Lincoln Center’s anual RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH FILM festival, where you can blissfully immerse yourself in scrumptious-looking meals; gorgeous, sylvan countryside; Cote d’Azur sunbathed luxuriousness; excruciatingly tasteful city apartments; antiques-filled country estates; unbearably chic, witty women and burningly romantic, soulful men, Gauloises dangling from plush lower lips; relaxed full frontal nudity and grown-up sexual attitudes, and of course that city of cities, Paris, with its Eiffel Tower more magically a-glitter than ever.

The opening night feature, justifiably, is Christophe Barretier’s PARIS 36, a richly affectionate evocation of the raffishly enchanting pre-WWII music hall world which evokes the work of Rene Clair, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carne, Jacques Prevert, Marcel Pagnol and Jacques Becker. It’s a film filled with color and romance, which although overlong and a bit too taken with its own charm, contains much of what we crave from the Gauls, film-wise. At the opening night introduction to the film, its ravishing star Nora Azemeder enchantingly sang its nostalgic theme song written by Reinhardt Wagner.

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Agnes Varda’s MySpace Picture

Agnes Varda’s THE BEACHES OF AGNES is an enthralling film about her life – and what a life! From a fascinating childhood to being in the forefront of La Nouvelle Vague, with a funny little stopover in Hollywood, her rewarding marriage to director Jacques Demy (with its revelation about his death from AIDS in 1990), and her present-day, incredibly energetic and curious existence at 80, she has always been a complete artist to her fingertips and her unwavering perceptions on everything from photography and Jim Morrison to the Black Panthers and the conundrum of family are at once completely original and cherishable. Harrison Ford appears in this doc, describing how, as a tyro actor, Varda and Demy once wanted to cast him in MODEL SHOP (1969), but a Hollywood studio head declared, “He’ll never make it in movies!”

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THE GIRL FROM MONACO

Anne Fontaine’s THE GIRL FROM MONACO is a luscious Mediterranean meditation on romance, between a prominent lawyer (the great French treasure, Fabrice Luchini) and an ambitious bimbo of a weathergirl (ravishing Louise Bourgoin), the two of them ever observed by the lawyer’s sexy, taciturn bodyguard (Roschdy Zem). Luchini adds another wonderful portrait to his personal oeuvre, as well as that certain cinematic one of the older man enslaved by a young tart, stretching back to Emil Jannings-Marlene Dietrich in THE BLUE ANGEL and beyond. The girl happens to be obsessed by Princess Diana, as well as Princess Grace, and there’s a scene shot at the very spot, now a memorial, where her car went tragically over that cliff.

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THE APPRENTICE

Samuel Collardey’s THE APPRENTICE is the absorbing study of a young boy with anger issues (Mathieu Bulle), sent to work on a dairy farm in Doubs. Warning: it begins with the harrowing onscreen slaughter of a pig, but if you make it past that, you will be rewarded by Collardey’s thoughtful presentation of the boy’s complex relations with the old farmer who trains him (a magnificent, grizzled Paul Barbier) and his lonely fat frump of a misunderstood, uncomprehending mother. Bulle is a marvelous camera subject, with an uncanny reality to his every move and utterance that recalls Jean Pierre Leaud in his glory days as Francois Truffaut’s boy alter ego. It’s one of the best films ever made about adolescence in all of its mute pain, myriad moments of bored fecklessness, as well as those sudden, unpredictable spurts of joie-de-vivre.

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SERAPHINE

Martin Provost’s SERAPHINE has already swept this year’s Cesar awards for its carefully calibrated portrayal of the artist Seraphine de Senlis (Yolande Moreau), who toiled as a domestic while drunkenly turning out brilliantly original canvases in her hovel of an apartment by night. The visual aspects of the film: the lighting (with exteriors right out of Courbet), the richly detailed period decor and perfectly observed costumes are painterly in their own right, in the best sense of the word, and Moreau delivers a performance, as this uncommunicative slavey with flashes of animal humor, that is utterly uncanny in its total commitment.

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THE CAST OF ‘CHANGE OF PLANS’ AT THE PARIS PREMIERE

Daniele Thompson’s delightful CHANGE OF PLANS is one of the rare films that I did not want to end, so completely beguiling – witty and moving – was her presentation of a group of friends meeting at an annual dinner party, with all of the internecine tensions and romances bubbling under the surface. I adored just about every one of her characters, a tribute to an impeccable cast of French favorites (Karin Viard, Patrick Bruel, Patrick Chesnais, Marina Hands, Dany Boon, Marina Foïs, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Pierre Arditi) all working at top form.

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THE JOY OF SINGING

Ilan Duran Cohen’s THE JOY OF SINGING is a trickily appealing black comedy in which all the characters eventually meet up at a Parisian singing class. There’s something to do with a spy ring and uranium trafficking, as well as music galore, from arias to American pop and gospel (often abysmally warbled), but, like other shaggy dog divertissements like BEAT THE DEVIL or THE BIG SLEEP, it’s best not to tax the mind too much, plot-wise, but just give over to the sexy, amusingly dark outrage Cohen offers in an often startlingly literate script.

All of the above-mentioned are good films, definitely recommended. The following two are not great, but possess redeeming qualities which definitely save them from being a waste of ever-more valuable time:

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COSTA-GAVRAS DIRECTING ‘EDEN IS WEST’

Costa-Gavras’ EDEN IS WEST is something of an old man’s film, but very charming, for all that, in its story of a fugitive immigrant (the very appealing Riccardo Scarmaccio), who winds up in a hilariously chic beach spa and eventually makes his way to Paris. A lot of what he goes through is pretty harrowing but the director’s hand is blessedly light and filled with a sagely mature realization of life’s essential wonder, for all of its brutality. There’s a Chaplin-esque sweetness to the film (and Scarmaccio’s performance) that is very affecting and you’re absorbed by every one of his picareqsue adventures.

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BENOIT JACQUOT DIRECTING ISABELLE HUPPERT IN ‘VILLA AMALIA’

Isabelle Huppert adds another depiction to her gallery of older women, burnt by love and recovering from it, in Benoit Jacquot’s VILLA AMALIA. If, like me, you instictively turn to the novels of Colette when recovering from romantic flame-out, this film offers some reasonable enough therapy. It’s like a modern-day Bette Davis Warners epic, with Huppert a world-class classical pianist who, after her lover betrays her, rids herself of her identity and finds succor in a deserted villa in Ischia where, through the benefits of sun, sea and a dash of lesbianism, she heals herself through solitude. Jean-Hughes Anglade gives a touching performance as her gay friend, in that somewhat hoary tradition of stiff-upper-lip queers – the type who goes on a hopeful Sicilian night on the town only to return thug-beaten and blames only himself for being an old fool.

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CATHERINE DENEUVE AS A SUBURBAN NANNY IN ‘GIRL ON THE TRAIN’ – YEAH, RIGHT!

I was disappointed by Andre Techine’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, about a girl who reports an anti-Semitic attack upon her which becomes a media sensation. The situations and characters were just not that compelling in this ripped-from-the headlines conceit, and Catherine Denueve, playing a resolutely suburban Mom who babysits the neighborhood toddlers, seemed more than a tad miscast.

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DANS ‘BELLAMY,’ DEPARDIEU EST ENCORE GROS

Claude Chabrol’s first film with Gerard Depardieu, BELLAMY, was also a let-down, a sub-Simenon-ian crime tale which felt endlessly talky and too emotionally manipulative.

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ET DANS ‘MESRINE,’ AUSSI

I walked out of the first part of Jean-Francois Richet’s MESRINE. The entire two part film was 243 minutes long and, after more than an hour of lousy music to rival the worst in American film, in-your-face, repetitive violence a la Tarantino and an uncharismatic lead actor, Vincent Cassel, playing France’s most notorious post-WWII gangster, I figured how many more barroom bust-ups, nasty murders and scenes featuring Gerard Depardieu trying to out-do Brando’s GODFATHER could ensue in the next 3+ hours. For sheer incident, this film was the exact opposite of Claire Denis’ 35 SHOTS OF RHUM, in which nothing whatsoever seemed to be happening in a tale of a Parisian train operator (Alex Descas), who has an unnaturally close relationship with his daughter (Mati Diop). You could tell he was a train operator by the endless, extended shots of tracks recurring with numbing frequency. Spare us from directors who get hypnotized by their own “graphic” visuals.