Monday, July 20, 2015

LIZ SMITH: When Elaine Stritch Tried Her Best With Woody

One of many lively discussions between Elaine and Woody on the set of "September," 1987.
Monday, July 20, 2015
by Liz Smith

Remembering — When Elaine Stritch Tried Her Best With ... Woody Allen!

"I TELL the truth, and it has gotten me into a lot of trouble. My father used to say, ‘If you tell the truth every day, you will end up in jail!’” So said the divine — and always truthful! — Elaine Stritch.
THE ACCOUNT here last Friday of the premiere of Woody Allen's latest "Irrational Man" made me remember an interview I once had with one of Woody's most devoted admirers, the late Elaine Stritch. This great comic actress, who had been my pal since the early Fifties, never quite got over the fact that after Woody used her in the 1987 movie, "September," he failed to fall in love with her, in real life. This caused us to have ongoing conversations about the mysteries of Woody Allen. (I went back and looked to see if he ever used Stritch again. He did in "Small Time Crooks" which came out in 2000.)
Stritch and Woody in "Small Time Crooks."
So, here is Elaine talking to me in comments never printed before:

"I was flirting with Woody the other day and said, 'Oh boy, Woody, I don't care what you say — there's just something sexy about high heels. And listen — I got all my courage together and said to him — ‘Woody, if we ever dated, I don't think I could stand it, because I'd have to go shopping and get a lot of low heels, good-looking matching low heels, just so I could go out with you and not be taller than you. But then I'd lose all my sex appeal, because I LOVE high heels…’ , and then Woody answered me: ' Well, I'll wear them!' Liz, the delivery of that line."

I said, "Elaine, the delivery is wonderful, but he DID deflect you from the subject of dating."

Elaine nodded and changed the subject. She referred back to her days in the Stephen Sondheim musical "Company" — saying what a hard time she'd had in singing the lyrics to "The Ladies Who Lunch."
Practice makes perfect — George Furth, Stephen Sondheim, Dean Jones, Elaine Stritch, Hal Prince, Barbara Barrie, and Michael Bennett at a "Company" rehearsal.
She said, "I don't care about people understanding what I’m talking about in real life; but I care about it in my acting. I had such trouble with that song because I asked myself, will the audience know what I mean when I sing ... 'another piece of Mahler!' That's because I didn't know what it meant and I had to sing it every night and matinee. I finally asked Sondheim if it was referring to a piece of pastry? He didn't find my question funny but it’s a chi-chi reference. And I wanted to make the audience understand it."
"Another piece of Mahler!"
I said, "Elaine, you said the same thing to me about the lyrics of the song "Zip!" in the 1952 revival of "Pal Joey." Remember — 'Zip!, I was reading Schopenhauer last night. Zip. And I think that Schopenhauer was right!' You told me you didn’t know who Schopenhauer was and we looked him up for you — a German philosopher. This was to show that Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous stripper, was very intelligent. These things from lyricists are meant to partially educate the audience."

Elaine laughed. But she went back to obsessing about Woody!
Stritch as Melba Snyder in "Pal Joey," 1952.
"When we were starting to make ‘September’ I argued with him about my costumes. And he said, 'Elaine, you do as you're told and wear what I tell you.' So I told him I didn't want to lose the opportunity of working with him and he answered, 'Well, you think about it and then come in and do what I want you to do.' I answered that I wanted to explain something to him! Then I got a tear in my throat. I said, “Woody, what happens to me is I got upset because my costumes didn't make me feel pretty!" Woody said, 'Don't cry, Elaine.' I went on and he said, 'Don't cry; it only makes me madder.'
Arguing about her costumes on the set of "September."
I said, 'I'm trying not to cry. I know there's no femininity that can be used here. There's nothing I can do. The reason I caused so much trouble over those costumes ... and he snapped, 'Oh God. Get to the point." I said, "I'll get to it. But ... it's very hard to be funny if you don't feel pretty.” There was a long pause and he said.

“Elaine, I've never heard that before." I want to tell you, Liz, it was very sweet and he is totally honest. It reads as one of those great curtain lines — 'I've never heard that before.' And it occurred to me that you can be funny and not be pretty or handsome or anything else. But of course his entire life in acting, his success is a testament to that."
Stritch as a former movie star in "September" alongside Mia Farrow and Jack Warden.
I said, "Elaine, you are just thinking about yourself, your vanity."

Elaine: "Exactly. But try telling that to Carol Burnett, or Bette Midler."

Then she added, "I told Woody I would do what I was told, and I have enjoyed coming in doing what he wants me to do."

I asked, "Does he tell you specifically what he wants?"

She answered, "He always does it with humor. And, you know I sometimes rehearse in just a shirt and tights, the way I do for musical comedy, so I’m surprised when the cameramen whistle and carry on like it's something shocking or special or daring.

"But Woody looked at me one day while they were carrying on and said, 'Nice pins!' — that's all and I really enjoyed that. He did it with humor. And what woman wouldn't like it. What red-blooded, Catholic girl wouldn't?”

I encouraged her saying, "If your legs weren't great, it wouldn’t work. We all know what our good points are."

Elaine exploded with joy: "That's exactly the way I feel about my talent. I don't want to show it unless it's good."

Contact Liz Smith here.