Wednesday, June 15, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Champions Revealed

Serena Williams after winning one of her 21 Grand Slam singles titles.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Serena Williams — THE Tennis Champion Revealed in a Great New Documentary ... To the Hunt With More "Little Foxes."

“I GREW up watching Serena Williams play tennis, we are the same age, ‘thirty-fun’ as she likes to say, and I loved her fierceness, but there is another Serena that the press or fans never see on court, she’s youthful and cuddly, infectious and full of fun. I guess that was the big surprise of coming to know her.”

Serena looking like a goddess at the screening of “Serena.”
That’s what Ryan White, the director of the compelling new documentary, “Serena” said about his subject (and friend) after a screening of the EPIX film Monday night at the SVA Theater in Manhattan. Ryan and Serena were interviewed by Gayle King, and indeed the great tennis champ known for her high-voltage, angry-appearing intensity on the court, was, in person, all that her director said, and more. She looked like a goddess in glittery, low-cut gold, and was utterly charming, honest and yes — cuddly!

Even if you know nothing about tennis, or Serena or her sister, Venus Williams, this movie is a riveting behind-the-scenes look at an athlete preparing to break a record, at the “advanced” age of 33. There is some back-story, but the movie concentrates mainly on Serena’s preparations for a series of bouts that will (hopefully) lead to a triumph that she and her team want very badly.

She allows Ryan’s camera to follow her everywhere, which he says stunned him: “There were very few rules. In fact, just about the only thing she said to me was ‘I’m not a morning person’ so we didn’t talk or film in the morning, which was fine because I’m not a morning person either. I filmed every single day, and never did she say, ‘stop.’ Of course I quickly knew when I shouldn’t film. I mean, when somebody puts that much trust in you, you don’t betray it. Sometimes I just put the camera down and was part of the team, having fun. And there was so much of that — Serena relaxing and having fun — that we just couldn’t fit into the movie, unfortunately.”
A scene from “Serena."
There are two important men in the film, Max, her tiny, adorable terrier, and Patrick Mouratoglou, her smoking hot French coach, with whom she has, in her own words, an “insane, unique” relationship. Gayle King immediately jumped, “Well! What do you mean by that? And how can you concentrate on anything he tells you when you are looking into those gorgeous blue-green eyes?” Serena deftly lobbed that one out of the theater with a sly smile, replying: “I am very intense and focused and a perfectionist, and I’ve never met anybody other than Patrick who has the exact same qualities in the same amount.”
Serena and Max.
Aside from the love of her close-knit family, there’s no sense of Serena’s personal life, but now that she has finally moved out of the house she and sister Venus shared, she feels it’s time to “grow up, have relationships and real friendships.” Gayle leapt over the net on the word ‘relationships’ and Serena said “Not just THAT! I mean, real friendships.”

Serena had some recent matches that didn’t go well in France, and she said, “First, I was sad, then I was pissed. I even left my rackets in France!” But she’s prepping for more competition and laughed, “I was just sitting next to Anna Wintour, and I just told her, ‘I am so ready to play, I wish Wimbledon was tomorrow!’”
Serena with director Ryan White and coach Patrick Mouratoglou.
Serena and Anna.
Oh, and to “relax” Serena watches “Housewives of Atlanta” and, as director Ryan White recalls, “Very violent, true-crime stories!” Her “get-up-and-go” song is Irene Cara’s “Fame” and she loves Madonna’s “Crazy for You.” In fact, she loves '80s music, period.

A recurring theme throughout the movie is Serena abiding by tennis legend Billie Jean King's advice and dictum: "Pressure is a privilege." Gayle King asked, "But when does the privilege begin?" Serena really didn't answer. But I think to her to her, pressure is life, and life is a privilege. 
AFTER the screening, hosted by Andrew Saffir’s Cinema Society, everybody headed over to the Top of the Standard on West 13th Street. Among those grooving to the sounds of Prince blasting from the speakers were S. Epatha Merkerson ... Dionne Warwick ... Valerie Simpson ... Bebe Neuwirth ... Bobby Flay ... Sandra Bernhard ... Carol Alt ... Tommy and Dee Hilfiger ... Spike and Tonya Lewis Lee ... Sergio Kletnoy ... Scott Gorenstein and James Dale.

The drinks were potent — no doubles matches for anybody the next day! And the sliders were yummy. So were many of the slider-servers, too!
Serena ready to rock at the after party.
THE OTHER day in writing about the coming revival of “The Little Foxes” with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon (the super-talented stars will swap roles during the run) we wrote that it was the first revival of Lillian Hellman’s play since Elizabeth Taylor’s great Broadway success as Regina Giddens in 1981. But, we were wrong. (I know, you’re shocked, shocked!) I don’t know how I forgot that Stockard Channing starred in a Lincoln Center revival back in 1997. She was wonderful, of course. And it was interesting because Stockard has a kind of tough, smudgy resemblance to La Liz. (I suppose that’s why she agreed to do that “satire” movie playing Elizabeth in the fictitious tale of ET, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando fleeing NYC in the wake of 9/11. Given that it’s a big lie, I still hope the project doesn’t happen.)
Stockard Channing as Regina in 1997.
But apologies to the great Stockard Channing for blanking out on her own sexy fascinating interpretation of the money-hungry Regina.

Program for the original Broadway production, starring Tallulah Bankhead as Regina Hubbard Giddens.
The role, as everyone knows, was originated by Tallulah Bankhead, who was simply brilliant, although by the end of the run, Tallu was camping it up so much that Hellman almost had to be physically restrained from going backstage and wringing the actresses neck. Audiences loved it, of course, and Bankhead performed for her audience, not the playwright.

In the end, however, that audience which adored and encouraged Tallulah’s antics, destroyed her wonderful interpretation of Blanche DuBois, late in her career. They wouldn’t take her seriously, and every one of Tennessee Williams’ poetic lines from “A Streetcar Named Desire” drew laughter. It was a heartbreak for Bankhead.

Oh, and I hear there will be a Washington D.C. revival of “Foxes” in September with Marg Helgenberger as Regina and Isabel Keating as Birdie. Two more of my favorite actresses! Well, September in D.C. should be pleasant, for one day.
NOTE TO our readers from Liz!

We who work here are as horrified as the rest of world by Orlando. But aside from Denis's mention of that terrible slaughter in Monday's column — and his thoughts about the unending prevalence of hate, of all kind — we are not going to join in every day on the turmoil, pain and obvious partisan discussions going on. I think our sympathies and political prejudices are apparent. Frankly, we are so angry and disgusted, that I fear our feelings might turn into a constant screed and I know that most people come here to be entertained. These are hard times to write about "entertainment" but we must, because boy do we need it now!
ON A more lighthearted note, Liz wants to tell one recent anecdote that happened just before the impressive funeral of Muhammad Ali:

“I was in a crowded car of friends and someone asked if I had ever met Ali? I answered, truthfully ‘that, yes I had.’

‘Where did you ever meet him?’ someone asked.

‘I threw the entire car into hysterical laughter when I answered the question, ‘I was introduced to Ali by Donald Trump!’ Trump was always introducing me to sports stars, prizefighters, managers and the like. This kind of embarrassed me, because at the time I didn’t know or care anything about sports — even though I was writing for both Sports Illustrated magazine and the New York Daily News.’”

Contact Liz here.