Monday, December 19, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Charles Busch — Playwright, Actor, Artist ... Chanteuse! 

Charles Busch and gang at 54 Below.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

“OH, we were the perfect couple, the perfect façade. But façade was all it was. He made me the best known wife of the best known skirt-chaser in the county. I made life hell for him. It ended in divorce. We met outside the court one day. He struck me. I took every cent he had.”   

That is Vivien Leigh as the bitter divorcee, Mrs. Treadwell, in Stanley Kramer’s 1965 screen version of Katherine Anne Porter’s big book, “Ship of Fools.”
Vivien Leigh as the bitter divorcee in “Ship of Fools.”
“Ship of Fools” was not a perfect movie, but then Porter’s book, set aboard a shipload full of dysfunctional characters, headed for 1931 Germany, was a laborious thing itself — powerful but unwieldy and over-elaborate in its allegorical “message.”

However, the movie contains Miss Leigh, brilliant in her final screen appearance (she would die two years later) and Simone Signoret, mesmerizing as the exiled, prison-bound, drug-addicted La Condessa.
Simone Signoret as La Condessa.
This starkly photographed black-and-white entry offers up two of the greatest female screen performances ever, in one so-so movie. (Leigh, as usual, seemed to be living out aspects of her own life as Mrs. Treadwell — concerned about fading youth, the loss of love.)

I am given to thinking about “Ship of Fools” because I sat for tea recently with actor/playwright Charles Busch. Miss Leigh is one of his favorite actresses, and we waxed rhapsodic over Earl Grey about her beauty, her talent and the madness that infused her life and her art. (We agreed that Vivien’s battering of Lee Marvin with her high-heel slipper toward the end of “Ship of Fools” looked uncomfortably realistic!)
I MET with Charles, whom I have admired/adored for years, at a charming (if tiny!) spot in Greenwich Village, Tea & Sympathy. The tables are so small and so close together there was barely room for our elbows and the delicious selection of tea sandwiches. Cozy. But don’t go there if you intend to spill state secrets or brag about hacking into somebody’s computer.

We were supposed to be chatting about Charles’ new (his first ever!) CD, “Charles Busch, Live at Feinstein's/54 Below — With Tom Judson at the Piano” (Broadway Records). But really, we just dished.
Although Charles is not quite like his various fictional characters — usually ladies of dubious reputation or shaky mental stability — he’s not that far off, in terms of his charm and wicked but often wistful wit. He’s also handsome and remarkably boyish. (“Still a girl of twenty” as Bette Davis remarked caustically in “All About Eve.”  “Twenty-ish” countered Hugh Marlowe, warily.)

After praising or eviscerating various people we know — and some we didn’t — Charles handed me his CD.  It is the current distillation of a character he’s been working on for years — a soigné cabaret chanteuse.  Back in 2013, I saw Charles in this mode, at 54 Below.  He’d been at it only a short time, but the show floored me, almost literally.  He had me laughing so hard — reading aloud from Arlene Dahl’s autobiography — that I almost tipped my chair.
But along with the yucks, I was astonished at how moving his new “lady” was — a genuine song stylist, a little light on voice, but deeply invested in sensitive lyrical interpretation.

This is evident in the album. The act has changed, but the commitment to humor and an aching pathos is front and center.  There are sing/speak elements of Mabel Mercer and Sylvia Syms as Busch elegantly works his way through “With So Little to Be Sure Of,” “Too Many Mornings,” “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here” and “Rainbow Connection.”
While speaking or reminiscing (how he revived his career in cabaret ... his marvelous Aunt Lillian ... meeting Elaine Stritch!) he has mastered a voice that is eerily similar to another of his idols, Judy Garland, late in her career — the hesitations, coming down on the odd word at the odd time, the cynicism still mixed with a bit of Dorothy Gale. (Busch also does a great Bette Davis, and a few of her post-stroke cadences pop in for a visit, too.) 
He saves the best for last, a deeply moving rendition of the 1968 hit, “Those Were The Days (My Friend)”.  Even the Mary Hopkins version, produced by Paul McCartney and written by Gene Raskin, could bring up misty, nostalgic tears.  But Busch does Hopkins, and I’d dare say anyone else, one better. He gives the song an emotional and historical heft that is duct-draining as well as empowering — those were the days, oh yes, oh, yes, those were the days!

Charles Busch is the natural inheritor of the lace mantilla — and the camellias! — of the late great Charles Ludlam. He is a genius, an artist.  I thought so in 1984 when I Busch in “Theodora — She-Bitch of Byzantium.” So it surprised me not at all when his brilliant “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” was nominated for a Tony Award in 2001.
And like Charles Ludlam, Busch’s work transcends camp. He is young and old, male and female, vulgar and elegant, ridiculous and serious, always wrestling the funny bone to the ground, always touching, and sometimes breaking, the heart. I am also convinced we have not yet seen the best of Busch — there will be, in the poet Hart Crane’s phrase, “new thresholds, new anatomies.”

Oh, Charles returns to Feinstein’s at 54 Below on December 31st.
ALTHOUGH the great photographer Harry Benson was laid up at home with an annoying cold during the festive opening of his latest show, “Shoot First,” at the chic Staley-Wise gallery in SoHo last week, his wonderful wife Gigi was on hand to greet such guests as Winston Churchill's granddaughter Edwina Sandys. Edwina was pleased to see a shot of her august ancestor chatting up the boys of Harrow.
Harry Benson's photograph of Sir Winston Churchill at Harrow School, England, 1964.
Also decorating the walls were photos of Greta Garbo, Jack Nicholson, Andy Warhol, Halston with Liza Minnelli, Jack Kennedy in a vintage car, Dick Nixon resigning in disgrace, Marilyn Monroe, Ian Fleming, Arnold Palmer, and Dolly Parton.  And the Beatles, of course.
Writer Gregory Speck asked Gigi, "So, You told me there would be shots never before seen in this huge exhibition." "And so there are, Gregory," she replied smoothly, taking his arm. "Here you have art dealer Leo Castelli with his Dalmatian, and the illustrator Maurice Sendak. And of course, here is Truman Capote with a New Orleans transvestite on the hood of a car!"

Mr. Speck had to admit he’d never seen that one.
MEMO TO fretful, often nearly panicked Democratic TV pundits, chroniclers and certain glossy magazine editors.

You guys need to accept that Donald Trump won. If anybody had truly been paying attention, it would not have been such a stunner. (We weren’t stunned, and we continuously urged Clinton supporters to avoid complacency.)

He’s going to be president. Russian hacking, the omnipresence of his family, complicated business holdings and waffling electors won’t change it. Worried? Then stop being so smug/hysterical/arrogant.
Work seriously on the issues that can be tackled. Encourage Obama and Clinton to use their free time to help rebuild a shattered party.

Also — I’m looking at you MSNBC — put the brakes on the inappropriate Tourette-like giggling-laughing-smirking that infects almost everybody over there. (Even conservative Joe Scarborough is often overcome with his own witless wit. What do they slip into his morning cuppa Joe?)
Speculating on “inevitable” Trump scandals, while throwing the word “bribery” around willy-nilly, won’t stop the inevitable. Nor will obsessing over his daily tweets (giving the president elect the attention he seeks). Instead of  gathering “panels” with the usual suspects to discuss such matters, how about an entire day devoted to, oh, I don’t know — Aleppo?  

If you are bound and determined to make Mr. Trump unhappy, ignore him for a few days. He’d go mad. And we’re looking at you, too, CNN. (Every once and a while, one of your anchors will muse, after a fractious, interminable Trump segment: “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this?” But nothing changes.)
Those who oppose Trump certainly don’t need to give up, or necessarily “normalize” him, but they do need to normalize themselves, invest in chill pills and harvest energy, intelligence, sober debate and focused action for what really matters in the tough years ahead.

Winter has come, and we badly need a reliable, steady Jon Snow.
Contact Liz here.