Tuesday, August 2, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Boys, Men, and Aunties

by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Still Tumbling 4 Boy George — and Elaine Stritch! ... "Mame" mail ... Gearing up for Bette Midler's "Hello, Dolly!" (Boy, will we need it then!)

“FOR THOSE of you looking through your IPhones, I’m up here!  Stop that.  Follow me on Snapchat, later. I post a lot of photos!”

That was pop icon Boy George recently, during the ongoing first leg of his American tour with Culture Club — the groundbreaking band’s first tour in 12 years.

I came to think a lot about Boy George over the weekend because of ... Elaine Stritch.  That seems odd, but the more one thinks about it, not so much. (I said, think about it!)

A friend had alerted me to a video on YouTube of Elaine singing “Why Do the Wrong People Travel” from her big success in Cole Porter’s 1961 musical, “Sail Away.” Part of the song had oddly gotten into my head last week, and I was trying to recall the entirety.

So I went to YouTube, because I was afraid if I didn’t I might be drawn into the endless cable TV postmortems on both late and unlamented political conventions.  I found Elaine’s video and of course it was charming. (“Why do the wrong people travel, travel, travel, when the right people stay back home?/What compulsion compels them, and who the hell tells them, to drag their cans to Zanzibar, instead of quietly staying in Omaha!”)
I was a bit disappointed that the video didn’t show Elaine performing.  It simply had her cast album recording, and a sweet photo of Stritch and Coward backstage.  But, that was enough. 

However on the same YouTube page, for some reason — along with other Stritch videos — was a recent Australian segment of “60 Minutes” with Boy George. I wondered what he was up to? And why was he squeezed in-between Elaine Stritch? I watched the segment and was totally blown away by how healthy, attractive and together Boy (aka George Alan O’ Dowd) seemed. 
Full of wit, good humor and fine sense of himself — past and present.  When the interviewer asked, “What’s different about Boy George and ... Man George?” The singer laughed and said, “Nothing, really. I’ve put in eyebrows and wear a hat, that’s about it.”  True, but there have been other changes.  He’s quite sober now, and unlike some who experienced years of substance abuse, he doesn’t look back fondly on his excesses. “I’m a much better, smarter, more entertaining, creative person sober. I don’t have ‘fun’ memories.”

After watching that interview, I was then off on an hour of Boy searching — other recent chats; wonderfully amusing and composed.  And then I looked back to his early days — with Carson, Letterman, Barbara Walters, MTV, etc.  (Of all new technology, most of which confounds me, I tip my hat reverently to YouTube — a treasure trove of popular culture!)  What struck me was how intelligent and sensible he was back then in the fabulous/terrible early 1980’s — at the tender age of 22 when he became an international sensation. His outrageous appearance was completely at odds with his intelligence and sensitivity.
Boy George making the rounds on Carson, Letterman, Barbara Walters, and MTV.
And I recalled our own interview with him, when Culture Club was at its peak. First off, he was beautiful, and beautifully made-up. (Yes, I asked for tips!)  But he was no silly freak — which I have to admit I was expecting. Boy was amusing, but thoughtful under the paint and publicity — mighty impressive. I found him more sensible than most celebrities I’d met.

We forget that much of what we take for granted in so many ways, musically and in terms of accepting differences in attitude, appearance and sexuality, began with Boy and Madonna and Prince and Cyndi Lauper.  They were the giants compared to the pikers today who think so much of their “inventiveness” and daring, and tell us all about it on Facebook.
Boy George with Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.
Boy George and Culture Club end their 2016 tour February 19th in Temecula, California.  But they will be at Westbury, NY, on August 30th.  As much as that sort of concert “experience” doesn’t thrill me — why don’t people stay in their seats?! — I might try to get over it for Mr. O’ Dowd.
MAIL:  As expected we received quite a few reactions to the news of a proposed remake/update of the classic 1958 movie “Auntie Mame.”  A sample:

“Fascinating! I sort of love the idea of a remake but I can’t imagine Tilda Swinton.  She IS a great actress but I’ve never seen her be funny,” writes author-filmmaker Charles Casillo.
Cat Jagger-Pollon despairs: “Some things can’t be updated; some things don’t NEED to be updated. I offer one vomitous example: the remake/update of George Cukor’s ‘The Women!’  However, if this gets made I can’t think of a better Mame than Tilda Swinton — if talented people are producing it.”  Cat warns that a new “Mame” should not introduce today’s pop culture or technology, and “she has to be rich.” (I tend to agree with this.  Then again, think of the madcap havoc Mame Dennis could cause on social media!)
But the most interesting and touching missive came from a gentleman named “Kurt” — I won’t include his last name or his amusing email address, although he said I could. Kurt wrote:

“’Auntie Mame’ remains my all-time favorite book. It may not be a pillar of classic literature, but it is a charming story and a mélange of a certain point in American 20th century social and cultural history.  And, it literally saved my life.

“I grew up in rural northern Minnesota in the 1960’s, a place where men were men and I was bookish. Too clumsy to be a jock and more interested in Photoplay than Field and Stream. I was 14 when a family friend loaned me the novel. I didn’t understand why at the time.  But I read it and it changed my life. (Later I learned this family friend was gay. I supposed he must have had a clue about me.) The worldly sophistication and humanity of Mame caught me and never let go.

“At that time, Angela Lansbury was appearing in the musical version on Broadway.  I never saw her in it, but I wrote my first fan letter, and she sent me a signed photo in return. I spent my Christmas money purchasing the cast album."
“You are right. Neither Rosalind Russell nor Angela really portrayed the book’s version of Mame, but they got her spirit right. I am curious to see what they can do for Tilda Swinton.  Certainly, she can do no worse than Lucille Ball, whose turn at the role still makes me roil in my seat!”

Kurt added that he’d always hoped Bette Midler might try on Auntie Mame, but now he’ll have to content himself with her inevitable “soaring” in the coming revival of “Hello, Dolly!”
Bette with the one and only Carol Channing.
YES!  Because Bette the Magnificent doesn’t arrive on Broadway until the spring, I keep kind of forgetting this genius will tackle Dolly Levi.  And, like reader Kurt, I do indeed expect her to soar.  Although she’s seen Barbra Streisand’s marvelously miscast film performance, Bette never caught Carol Channing in any of her numerous “Dolly” tours. Or any stage production for that matter. 

Midler went to the New York Library of Performing Arts to watch clips of Channing and Pearl Bailey, purchased a copy of “The Matchmaker,” the Shirley Booth movie from Thornton Wilder’s play — the source for Jerry Herman’s musical.  Bette also studied Gower Champion’s production notes — he directed the original “Dolly!” in 1964.

Bette says Dolly Levi has “more need and desperation” than she realized.

I have a feeling that whatever else we are worrying over in early 2017, Bette Midler belting out “Before the Parade Passes By” will go a long way in repairing our shattered nerves and bitten-to-the-quick fingernails!
Contact Liz here.