Monday, July 29, 2013

Celebrity Lives: Untold Stories and I’ll Eat You Last

In Untold Stories, a pair of reminiscences by Alan Bennett that moved from the National Theatre to the West End in the spring, the actor Alex Jennings does an uncanny job of getting both Bennett’s owlish Oxford don’s look and his distinctive sound, the Yorkshire rhythms and the slightly high, thin tone. The title of the play comes from Bennett’s book of (mostly) autobiographical musings; the latest edition is bulked up to more than 600 pages, almost all of it highly readable. (I admit to skimming the 150 or so pages of diary entries.) Both “Hymn” (directed by Nadia Fall) and “Cocktail Sticks” (directed by Nicholas Hytner) are based on anecdotes in the book, but you have to read around in the volume to find bits and pieces of them, and most of “Cocktail Sticks” was constructed for the theatre. Untold Stories is small-scale – my companion described them aptly as aperitifs – but tremendously winning and affecting. I love Bennett’s style, more descriptive here than in his other work for the theatre, and his tone, which is observant without being detached, allusive but not rambling, emotional without being sentimental. And Jennings (best known on this side of the pond for playing Prince Charles in the movie The Queen) renders that tone with impeccable precision. It’s an impersonation but not merely one: he slips inside Bennett as he burrows into his prose.

Both halves of the bill – actually “Hymn,” which runs half an hour, is more of a curtain raiser for “Cocktail Sticks,” which is about seventy minutes – are accompanied by live music (composed by George Fenton), but it’s thematic only in “Hymn.” This monologue is partly a grateful tribute to the role music played in Alan’s life from his childhood in Leeds, when he sang hymns every day in the forties and fifties in school assembly and listened to his father, a butcher and amateur violinist, playing along with them on the radio on Sunday evenings – and when Alan and his schoolboy pals attended Yorkshire Symphony concerts at the town hall and reveled in the English composers who were the orchestra’s specialty. (There’s a wonderful moment when Alan remembers how surprised he and his friends always were to see the musicians afterwards at a local café, doing what ordinary folks do at cafés, “those people who half an hour ago were artists, agents of the sublime.”) Mostly the piece is about Alan’s relationship with his father, who, at his ten-year-old son’s behest, tried to teach him the violin. The lessons weren’t a success; both man and boy were dismayed by Alan’s lack of musicality, and they generally ended with his father placing his grown-up fingers on top of Alan’s small ones and playing the music, in Alan’s estimation, as it should be played. This image is simultaneously intimate and divided, as the narrator recalls his conviction that “I am a disappointment to my father, and that this disappointment will outlast the violin and go down into the grave.” That’s a little boy’s perception, however; “Hymn” isn’t really a portrait of a child’s feelings of inadequacy but a loving eulogy for his father. Toward the end he sits a cup of tea listening to the radio, the chair across from him empty and covered up with a cloth, but as the violin swells he gets up and clears a curtain upstage to let in the light, as if to turn his father from a reminder of death into a living legacy. And then, unexpectedly, the monologue transforms itself: the music Alan recalls at the end is from the hymns he heard in church, where he used to stare at the photographs of the young men from Leeds who died in the First World War. He quotes Wilfred Owen, and suddenly “Hymn” is a eulogy for other dead men he never even knew.

Alex Jennings in Untold Stories
Bennett pulls off even more prodigious (and delicate) shifts in “Cocktail Sticks,” which is principally a remembrance of his mother, anxious, garrulous “Mam” (played with great charm by Gabrielle Lloyd), who, when the piece begins, has descended into dementia, her own memory wiped clean. Alan and his brother have just put her in a facility near his brother’s house, and Alan has taken up the task of cleaning out her kitchen. There the discovery of an unopened jar of cocktail sticks at the back of the cupboard generates a discussion of the tension between her modesty and class consciousness (her very British sense that her lower-middle-class status somehow disqualifies her from certain kinds of experiences) and her innocent desire for the world that cocktail sticks conjured for her (her dismay that fancy names for some items “make you feel left out”). Moreover, her lifelong tendency and that of his father (who finally appears in this part of the evening, played by the excellent Jeff Rawle) to keep to themselves rather than “joining in” prevented her from entering even the most modest kind of social world. The narrative is also about her history of depression, her loving – and, to Alan, mostly mysterious – relationship with her husband, and their bafflement about Alan’s own life once he left Leeds for Oxford and then became an actor and writer in the hit revue Beyond the Fringe. Then, again unexpectedly, “Cocktail Sticks” ventures into Alan’s teenage discovery that he’s homosexual, though it takes him years to acquire a sexual life because of his religious devotion in high school and mostly because, ever his parents’ son, he’s too shy and retiring to do more than wander the streets at night hoping for a connection that he lacks the confidence to spark.

As an aspiring writer, Alan tells us, he worried that his childhood was too banal and lacking in neurosis to furnish him with enough material. (This is a running gag in “Cocktail Sticks.”) Untold Stories proves that the opposite is true. But then, as readers of the book know, Bennett’s greatest play, The History Boys - I’d say it’s the greatest play of the last quarter-century – distills elements of his own high school education, and both Posner (the gay kid with the crush on the most charismatic of his classmates) and Scripps (whose love affair with Christianity has put his sex life on hold) embody parts of his own adolescence. “Hymn” and “Cocktail Sticks” get at his life in Leeds more directly and furnish moving portrayals of his parents. At the end of “Cocktail Sticks” Alan has a fantasy conversation with his now-dead and still inextricably coupled parents in which Dad asks him if he’s found anyone to share his life; when Alan answers in the affirmative, Dad wants to know if that person is “a him or a her.” After a tiny but distinct pause (Jennings plays this moment superbly) Alan answers, “A him,” and Dad admits laughingly that he always thought so but Mam was sure that their son was just “sensitive.” I can’t imagine a sweeter or funnier affirmation.

Bette Midler in I'll Eat You Last

Bette Midler closed her one-woman Broadway show, I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, a month ago after a sold-out engagement. The play, written by the busy John Logan – its run overlapped with that of his West End show Peter and Alice – and directed by Joe Mantello, is set in the Beverly Hills home of Mengers, the larger-than-life talent agent, in 1981. Her social and professional association with Barbra Streisand has dissolved in legal hassles upon the release of All Night Long, directed by Mengers’s husband Jean-Claude Tramont and starring Streisand and another celebrated client, Gene Hackman. Officially the dramatic impetus for the play is Mengers’s awaiting a phone call from Streisand that will, she hopes, mend their relationship, but that’s only an excuse for ninety minutes of Bette Midler as Mengers, dragging alternately on a cigarette and a joint as she relates stories about her life and career, sketching her metamorphosis from an émigré German-Jewish kid with a thick accent and a suicidal father into the hippest and most legendary of all Hollywood agents. The title comes from a Mengers gag about the survival of the fittest in Hollywood; her cynical humor about the culture she reveled in, understood thoroughly and of which, in her prime, she played on the top rung, was one of the traits she was famous for. (“Gossip is the lube with which this town slips it in,” she quips early on.)

Midler, looking fantastic in a blue muumuu with a silver print (designed by the indefatigable Ann Roth), is planted on a sofa throughout the production; Mengers, who was large and wobbly, didn’t move easily. (Twice during the show she calls on someone in the front row to get up on stage and fetch things for her, an audience-pandering touch I could have lived without.) The luxurious set, designed by Scott Pask, consists of two curved walls of picture windows, one inside the other, with two palm trees climbing up through an atrium; we glimpse the décor of another room through the window behind Sue’s sofa. That set, and Midler, are the only things we have to look at, but God knows Midler has the knack of holding an audience. In the first half, though she got her laughs, she rocked through the dialogue with a kind of efficiency that felt a trifle overrehearsed. (I don’t know whether this was a feature of Midler’s exhaustion at this point in the run – I saw one of the last performances.) She didn’t relax until the marvelous anecdote about how Mengers landed Hackman the role of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, which is followed by another one, almost as good, about her tussle with producer Robert Evans when she wanted him to give the female lead in Chinatown to Faye Dunaway.

I never saw Sue Mengers, who died in 2011, so I have no way of knowing whether Midler has appropriated any elements of her vocal style. The “nyah, nyah” ejaculation during a phone conversation with Sissy Spacek (whom she’s trying to poach from CAA, the agency ruled over by Mike Ovitz, her most powerful rival), which suggests a “yes” that really means “no,” is very funny, but it may be a Midler invention. After all, you don’t hire Bette Midler to do an impersonation of anyone else; she’s sui generis. And I’ll Eat You Last, especially the second half, is a compendium of the qualities you love in her (her dynamic personality, her raucous humor, her miraculous timing, her amazing energy) that also includes her major flaw: her sentimentality. Eulogizing her father, Midler’s Sue sums up, “He died of a thousand dreams, my father,” and you hear the tears in her voice; you hear them again when she remembers quoting poetry with Julie Harris, her first and favorite star client. When she lists all the clients who have left her over the years, she plays the melodrama card. She doesn’t need to: she’s not only a great comic but also a great dramatic actress. You see it when she lists the four rules of success as a talent agent. You see it when she talks about Ali McGraw’s letting her career fade when she fell madly in love with Steve McQueen, who treated her like dirt: “This was her heart, and it lied to her. Or maybe this is what love looks like close up.” (I think that’s the best line in the script.) And you see it when she finally gets off that sofa at the end, with difficulty, to prep herself for the fête she and Jean-Claude are throwing that night. Suddenly she looks exhausted and old – and then she pulls the rug out from under us by shifting into an ironic diva turn, daring us to feel sorry for her.

I’ll Eat You Last is Sue’s party, so for a highly entertaining hour and a half we see the world entirely through her eyes, and though she’s nobody’s fool, they’re emphatically Hollywood eyes. Her adoration of Hackman and Streisand, Faye Dunaway and Julie Harris makes sense, but you have to wonder about her worshipful attitude toward Ali McGraw, who may be the worst major actress in movie history. As for All Night Long, let me offer an alternative view. Well, it bombed at the box office, and I suppose Mengers knows what she’s talking about when she says that it was a public humiliation for Streisand; that it prompted the two women to part professional (and for a while social) company is Hollywood history. Tramont never got to make another picture, unless you count his TV movie As Summers Die. But this unconventional romantic comedy about a middle-aged executive who discovers who he really is after he loses his job and finds work as the night manager in a super-drug mart is an unknown gem. It has a wonderful, quirky script (by W.D. Richter); it contains one of Hackman’s best performances; and Streisand, cast against type as the working-class doll he wins away from his own son (Dennis Quaid), is enchanting. At one point in the play Sue bemoans the fact that Streisand, for all her phenomenal talent, has no taste in movie roles, and though I don’t agree with her example (Yentl), by and large it’s been true for much of her career. In this case she was right to trust her agent and Mengers was right to trust her husband, but in Hollywood box office is the only means by which quality is determined. What a shame that is.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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