Friday, July 29, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Can a Camp Classic Be Updated?

Darling, I'm your Auntie Mame now!
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Tilda Swinton as "Auntie Mame?" Can a Camp Classic Be Updated? Hollywood is Going to Try!

“BUT Patrick, darling, you know that your happiness is of paramount importance to me.  I live for nothing else. Why, if it wasn’t for this weekend with the Upsons — which I am doing just for you — I could be out at Fire Island with some of the most amusing boys in…”

“And I wouldn’t mention Fire Island, either if I were you.”

“But would you have me falsify myself darling?”

“In a word, yes!”

So it went between Patrick Dennis and his only living relative, in the 1955 novel, “Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade.”
The book, written by Patrick Dennis (aka Edward Everett Tanner III) was publicized as something of a memoir, based on Tanner’s real-life aunt, Marion Tanner.   

Auntie Marion might have been on the eccentric side, but “Auntie Mame” was essentially a work of fiction. It was also a huge bestseller; so huge that Broadway beckoned, and then Hollywood. Rosalind Russell starred as Mame onstage and onscreen, the role she was born to play.
Rosalind Russell in "Auntie Mame" on Broadway, 1956.
Rosalind Russell as Mame onscreen.
Years later the tale was transformed into a musical, “Mame,” which revitalized the career of Angela Lansbury, propelling her to a level of stardom she’d not enjoyed previously (but which she maintains to this very day!)

The singing/dancing Mame Dennis served many actresses well after Lansbury’s departure — with the grim exception of a no-longer-appealing Lucille Ball, who bought up the movie rights.  But only Roz Russell had ever played the real “Auntie Mame.” 
Angela Lansbury in "Mame."
Or at least the version created for her, and which she created for herself, using and exaggerating every mannerism she’d acquired over a long, successful career.  So indelible was Russell’s performance that nobody has ever seriously thought of remaking the original film. After all, who is Auntie Mame if not Rosalind Russell?  

Well, how about Tilda Swinton?
MOVIE fans and “Auntie Mame” aficionados were startled early this week when word arrived, via Vanity Fair magazine, that Annie Mumolo, who co-wrote the hit film “Bridesmaids” and the upcoming “Bad Moms” is adapting/updating the original Patrick Dennis book into a vehicle for Miss Swinton, a great and most unusual actress.

Patrick Dennis dedicated the 1958 sequel, “Around the World With Auntie Mame” to Roz Russell.
Already there are cries of sacrilege, as if material, once it is brilliantly presented and made famous, is done for the ages, case closed.  Of course, the case is never closed, even on something as particular as the character of Mame Dennis.  (I mean, how many Jane Eyre’s have we had over the years?)

Rosalind Russell became so immediately and successfully associated with Mame, that Patrick Dennis dedicated the 1958 sequel, “Around the World With Auntie Mame” to her.

And yet, if you read either of the “Mame” books, you’ll find a significantly different Auntie.  Sure, many of the adventures and a good deal of the most famous dialogue found its way onto stage and screen, but “book Mame” is sexier, tougher, somewhat less sympathetic — although still a devout liberal. On the page she is an “unforgettable character.” Roz Russell delivered an unforgettable camp caricature, suffused with sentimentality.  It is unlikely that the novel’s initial fans envisioned Miss Russell as Mame. 

It is also unlikely that until this moment, anybody would have envisioned Tilda Swinton as a Mame Dennis for the 21st century.  But Swinton is a genuine chameleon of an actress.  She can look plain, glamorous, alien-like — there is no other face like hers, and frankly, no career like hers.

She’s played everything from a nobleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth I (“Orlando”) a frenzied mother trying to protect her son (“The Deep End”) a witch (“The Chronicles of Narnia”) a vampire (“Only Lovers Left”)  and almost anything else that she finds interesting — whether it’s a leading role or a voiceless cameo.  She’s an art-house actor with a blockbuster reputation. 
Tilda as Orlando.
As Margaret Hall in “The Deep End."
As a vampire in “Only Lovers Left."
Since there will never be another Rosalind Russell, and her performance in “Auntie Mame” can never be equaled for what it was at that time — and for all time! — I am therefore enthusiastically fascinated imagining a modern take on Mame.

Perhaps it will be something subversive, more realistic, more timely?  I’d say “more gay” but the source material couldn’t be any gayer! (In that florid, old-fashioned, wink-and-nod manner.)  A modern Mame would have to realistically address issues of fluid sexuality and civil rights in world of same-sex marriage.  (Fire Island references are no longer giggle-inducing. Lots of LGTB youth don’t even know that history.)
Not to mention how the roles of women have altered since the mid 1950’s. Mame’s celebrated liberalism and her sensuality (muted in the movie) was inextricably linked to her wealth and privilege; she could afford to be liberal and speak her mind and live life on her own terms.  

What about an Auntie Mame sans luxurious trappings; a fabulous force of nature without a bankroll? Or absent a man to replenish her wealth, as happens in the original story, via Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside.

And would Patrick Dennis, Mame’s orphaned nephew really grow up to be, “a beastly, Babbity, bourgeois little snob” or would a new take on the tale show him as far more influenced by his madcap upbringing? Would Patrick be less the careful curmudgeon he seems to transform into, as the narrator of “Auntie Mame”?  
Right now, all we know for sure is that Ms. Mumolo is collaborating with screenwriter Stan Chervin (“Moneyball”) on the new “Auntie Mame.”

Tilda Swinton has three films upcoming, including a remake of the legendary 1977 horror movie “Suspiria.” 

Now, there’s many a slip twixt the lip and Miss Swinton declaring “Life is a banquet!” (or some variation of that) but the more I ponder a new Mame for a new age, the more I think it’s a fabulous idea.  
Contact Liz here.