16 April 2014

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

There is a certain type of New Yorker who I’ve always admired: she’s an older woman who usually dresses a bit eccentric, is fond of exceedingly large glasses, normally resides on the Upper East Side, and can always be found speaking her mind. The legendary Elaine Stritch is one of those women.

The straight-talking star of screen and stage is a New York treasure who has done everything from being a member of the original Broadway production of Company to playing Alec Baldwin’s mother on 30 Rock. In the new documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa follows the 87-year old Stritch around as she prepares to perform a one woman cabaret show, Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim…One Song at a Time, at the Carlyle Hotel where she lived until her retirement last year to Michigan to be near her family.

The grand dame of the theatre spares no punches, talking candidly about her sobriety (or lack thereof), the loss of her beloved husband to cancer, her frustration with and fear about the diabetes that causes her to have memory lapses, and the famous people she’s known (including a story about a date she had with a young John F. Kennedy). She has no qualms telling people what she thinks of them, including the film crew. In one scene, she gets angry with a cameraman over how a scene is shot (she’s unpacking a box of her Bays English muffins) and demands a reshoot.

The film is filled with laughs and light-hearted moments like calling a late Alec Baldwin "Alec 'Joan Crawford' Baldwin," faking an injury to get out of a parking ticket, or telling John Turturro about the first time she had an orgasm (it was during a performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). Friends and colleagues discuss her skills as a performer and her various eccentricities like the fact that she doesn’t like to wear pants—Stritch's trademark uniform is a white button-down shirt and black tights. One of the people interviewed is the late James Gandolfini, who Stritch clearly adores (the film is also dedicated to him); his appearance on screen brought sighs from the audience.

Stritch may be one tough cookie who is brutally honest with everyone but she is hardest on herself. Nowhere is this more evident than when you see footage from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary Company: Original Cast Album in which Stritch is seen throwing a fit as she struggles to record her signature song, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” while a mainly silent Stephen Sondheim sits nearby.

Yet beneath all the bravado, the film reminds us that Stritch is vulnerable. We watch as a diabetes-related attack renders her temporarily disoriented and scared, crying for her accompanist, the saint-like Rob Bowman, to get her doctor. This scene and one later in the hospital are difficult to watch, leaving you feeling like an 

The film open
s with Stritch walking down Fifth Avenue dressed in a wild fur coat and her trademark glasses. People stop her along the way to say hello or ask to take a photo. “I wish I could fucking drive,” she says back at the hotel. “Then I’d really be a menace.” Love you Elaine Stritch.

14 April 2014

Of Daffodils and Magnolias

After what seemed like endless weekends filled with rain and cold, the sun finally came out and so with camera in tow, I headed up to the 79th Street entrance of Central Park and slowly made my way across to the East Side.

I spent some time wandering around the Shakespeare Garden, which was filled with yellow daffodils, snakeshead fritillary, tiny chionodoxa, and various small tulips. Two bright red Northern Cardinals darted back and forth overhead while the squirrels were busy digging away. Leaving the garden, I walked toward Belvedere Castle, spotting bunches of yellow and white daffodils along the way. They were all lovely but the real beauty queens were the flowering trees.

There was a pretty cherry blossom tree in bloom near the great lawn while the magnolias were out in full force behind the Met, creating canopies of colour. One white magnolia was particularly fragrant, conjuring up memories of the South (or at least the magnolia perfume I found once in an old perfumery in New Orleans), and the saucer magnolias, with their pink and white cupped petals, were absolutely stunning. How wonderful it would be to sit underneath one and read a book or lay down and a take a little nap (preferably without so many people walking by). A little sparrow landed on a branch of one of the trees that I was shooting and just hung out, totally cool with me standing right in front of him. Finally, spring has arrived.

All photos by Michele.

11 April 2014

Cup of Tea and a Biscuit

"Always remember that, nine times out of ten, you probably aren’t having a full-on nervous 
breakdown—you just need a cup of tea and a biscuit." —Caitlin Moran 

Isn't this so true? The next time I start to go into panic mode, I need to remember these words, take a deep breath, and go put the kettle on. Have a lovely weekend, everyone.

10 April 2014

The Great Gatsby

The brilliant original cover by artist Francis Cugat.

Today is the anniversary of the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the novel that so perfectly captured the era of flappers and bootleggers and whose universal themes of self-reinvention, corruption of wealth, and unrequited love managed to appear distinctly American.

The seeds for the story were first planted in the summer of the 1923 when Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, saying, “I want to write something new—something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” Fitzgerald hoped to write a novel that would not only be a commercial success like his previous novels, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned, but would finally earn him a reputation as a serious writer.

His plans to start the new novel were delayed when a failed play, The Vegetable, and mounting debts (always Fitzgerald’s curse) forced him to spend his time writing short stories for magazines to pay off his creditors. It wasn’t until a year later that he could turn his attention once again to his new novel, which he would finish in late October 1924.

Scribner’s published the book on April 10, 1925 but all of Fitzgerald’s hopes were dashed when it received mixed reviews from the critics and saw disappointing sales of just 20,000 copies. Fitzgerald was devastated and felt like a failure. Toward the end of his life, he would write in a letter to his daughter, Scottie, “"I wish now I'd never relaxed or looked back—but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: I've found my line—from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty—without this I am nothing." The great tragedy is that Fitzgerald, who died of a heart attack in 1940, didn’t live to see his book become a beloved classic, one that many consider to be the great American novel, or that the novel, which had received such a lukewarm reception back in 1925, would go on to sell more than 25 million copies around the world.

The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite books, one that I reread every few years. For me the sentences flow like poetry, filled with striking imagery. Take for example this passage where the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, walks into a room and sees his cousin, Daisy, and a friend of hers.

“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”

Isn't it just beautiful? So on this anniversary, if you haven't picked up the book in a while or if you've never read it (shame on you if that's the case), get yourself a copy and read it, now. You'll be happy you did (and please, whatever you do, don't watch the movie instead).

08 April 2014

Drinks at the Midnight Frolic

In 1915, patrons of the Ziegfeld Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre were invited to stick around and attend a new after show, Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, held upstairs at the new rooftop theatre. Originally designed and christened the Danse de Follies in 1914, this more intimate space had a stage and dance floor along with tables, box seats, and a balcony. There patrons could dance, have some dinner and drinks, and be entertained by a floor show that included some of the stars of the Follies: Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Bert Williams, and most importantly Follies girls including the beautiful Olive Thomas.

Margaret Morris, Kay Laurell, and Florence Cripps on the infamous glass walkway in the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic of 1916.

The Midnight Frolic was a bit more risqué than the Follies. For starters, the girls would parade across a glass walkway that ran above the first row of tables, allowing those seated below a unique view of the girls (Ziegfeld reportedly made sure they wore undergarments so it wasn't too wild). Small wooden hammers were distributed so that patrons could bang on the table when they liked something they saw. And then there were the costumes: one of the most notorious involved the girls being covered with balloons and the male patrons encouraged to use their cigars to pop them. 

The show was highly successful and ran every year until 1921 by which time Prohibition had started to take its toll on attendance. Ziegfeld would make one more go at it in 1928 but the show bombed and that was the end of the Midnight Frolic.

Recently I stumbled upon a menu from the show on eBay. The seller only posted two pages (seen here) but look at the choices: Rickeys, fizzes, punches, and lemonades, quarts of Champblanc and Champrouge, not to mention various mineral waters and even Coco Cola. The items listed tell me this menu is most likely from a one of the later shows after Prohibition had taken effect; most of the choices are non-alcoholic or could be made without alcohol (the Highballs, for example). And yes, Budweiser is on the list but Anheuser-Busch de-alcoholized their beer until Prohibition was repealed in 1933. I think I would have chosen one of the punches and slipped some gin in via my flask (oh course I would have carried a flask if I lived in the 1920s) or I may have splurged on a pint of Champblanc. Regardless, it's nice to imagine having drinks at the Midnight Frolic.

07 April 2014

A Doll's House

Dominic Rowan and Hattie Morahan in A Doll's House.

Every now and then you see a performance that utterly engages your attention, one that draws you into the story and makes you unaware of everything else—the people sitting around you and the passing time.

This is what happened to me last month when I saw a production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at BAM. In this often produced play from 1879, Nora Helmer (Hattie Morahan) is a middle-class wife and mother whose husband, Torvald (Dominic Rowan), is due for a promotion at his bank. On the surface things appear to be going well but unbeknownst to him, the wife who he treats like a child has a secret: a few years before when Torvald was ill, Nora borrowed money from a shady source (Nick Fletcher), forging a signature in the process, in order to take the family south for Torvald to recover. Now her fear of being found out is about to come true when the money lender tries to blackmail her. The result is the unveiling of truths and a realization for Nora about who she is and her place in the world.

I had seen many productions of the play before and was actually a little reluctant to see another. But I had heard good things about this production directed by Carrie Cracknell, which had originated in London at the Young Vic. And so off I went.

When Hattie Morahan first appeared on the stage, flitting around the room with Christmas presents and greedily gobbling up chocolates from a bag, I immediately leaned forward in my chair. And so I stayed for the remainder of the play, enthralled by an absolutely mesmerizing performance.

Throughout the play Morahan’s Nora is constantly changing. First there is Morahan's wonderful voice that goes from being high pitched and almost sing-song like to full-on throaty and flirty to downright steely. Then there is her appearance: one minute she appears to be a dainty and helpless little girl, the next she is a sultry grown woman, forever adapting her persona to suite the situation she's in.

She also has a way of taking command of a scene by her mere presence. Whether she is front and center, spinning around the floor dancing the tarantella, or sitting quietly on a bed exchanging stories with Kristine Linde (Caroline Martin), the focus is always on her.

A superb set by Ian McNeil, which allows the Helmer house to rotate 360 degrees, is used by Morahan to her advantage. She flies about the house from room to room, playfully chasing her children or hiding from her husband; she is the symbolic bird caught in a cage. As the play progresses, her flight becomes more frantic, giving the impression of someone spinning out of control.

In the final act of the play the truth about the loan is revealed, and Torvald explodes, accusing Nora of the cruelest things and swearing that she will never see her children again. When the blackmailer returns the note and the threat of exposure is gone, Torvald is ready to forgive and forget, reckoning that Nora, a silly woman, couldn’t have know any better. But Nora is a different woman from the one we met at the beginning of the play and announces that she is leaving him and the children so she can find out who she is. The bird is flying the coop.  

Morahan is absolutely electric in this scene. Finally calm and level-headed, Nora coolly tells Torvald that she has been just a doll for him to play with and that she has never had a chance to think for herself, to have her own opinions. She goes on to say that she doesn’t love him and that she realized that night, when he didn’t defend her, that he wasn’t the man she thought he was. With each pronouncement, you see Nora growing stronger, more confident in her actions while Torvald is stunned and confused. When Morahan turns to leave, her back ramrod straight, you know that Nora will somehow survive.

While the other members of the cast did a fine job in their roles, especially Dominic Rowan who was brilliant as Torvald, the play belongs to Morahan who, without a doubt, has created one of the best Noras in recent memory. I for one can’t wait to see what she does next.

Unfortunately, A Doll’s House has closed but there’s a short film by Carrie Cracknell, Nora, that is a response to the play that you can watch here.

All photos by Johan Persson.

02 April 2014

Hitchcock Roundup

Clockwise, starting top left, I Confess (1953), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Lifeboat (1944), 
Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), and Notorious (1946).

The “Complete Hitchcock” series at Film Forum is over, and I have to say that I feel like a bad cinephile since I only managed to attend a handful of screenings. Even though I had seen the “Hitchcock Nine” (Hitchcock’s nine restored silent films) last year at BAM and some of his other films before on the big screen (Rebecca, The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, Suspicion, Spellbound, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Dial M For Murder, and The Birds), I had planned on seeing more than I did.

The ones I did manage to catch were: Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock’s personal favourite, which is great film with a lovely Northern California setting and Joseph Cotton playing evil to perfection; Lifeboat (1944), which can come off as a piece of war propaganda at times but succeeds due to the always entertaining Tallulah Bankhead; I Confess (1953), a film that should get more attention, especially for the compelling performance by the brilliant Montgomery Clift; Rear Window (1954), which I absolutely adore from its fantastic set to Grace Kelly's unforgettable entrance; To Catch a Thief (1955), the first screening that I saw in the series (reviewed here); The Wrong Man (1956), which was shot on location in New York and is interesting at times but for the most part seems like your run-of-the-mill detective story; and Notorious (1946), my favourite Hitchcock film, which has a great location (Rio), the drop-dead gorgeous duo of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, one of Hitchcock’s greatest MacGuffins, and Nazis, loads of them.

Seeing a bunch of Hitchcock films in a short period of time reminded me of why I enjoy his work: the mix of humour with the macabre, the spot-on casting, the striking use of shadow and light, and the often brilliant scores. It also made me realize that I prefer his films from the 1940s, Cary Grant is at his most handsome when angry, and regardless of what has been written or said about the man himself, Hitchcock was a great director.

Now it’s on to “Tout Truffaut” at Film Forum: three weeks of the works of another of my favourites, the French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, including all of his Antoine Doinel films. It’s a perfect pairing as Truffaut was influenced by Hitchcock and interviewed him in depth in 1962, recording more than 25 hours of their discussion. At the American Film Institute Salute to Alfred Hitchcock in 1979, Truffaut said, "In America, you call this man "Hitch." In France, we call him "Monsieur Hitchcock." You respect him because he shoots scenes of love as if they were scenes of murder. We respect him because he shoots scenes of murder like scenes of love." Film Forum, here I come.


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