Tuesday, July 19, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Not Pretty Enough

Helen Gurley Brown on her first day as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, 1965.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

The Amazing Life and Times of Helen Gurley Brown ("Not Pretty Enough") ... The Enduring Artistry of Woody Allen ("Café Society.")

“MEN AND women should own the world as a mutual possession,” said Pearl S. Buck.

This is a fine sentiment indeed, although I’m sure my old friend and boss, Helen Gurley Brown would have coyly added: “But girls, don’t let on that it’s mutual. Let him think he owns it all!”
GERRI Hirshey’s new biography about Helen Gurley Brown, “Not Pretty Enough,” is a prodigious work!  I don’t use that word lightly.

I worked for Helen at Cosmopolitan magazine. I’d known her even before she’d come to run and revolutionize that publication, back during the time of her shockingly titled (then) book, “Sex and the Single Girl.” (Hollywood bought the book — the title, really. But the resulting movie, starring Natalie Wood, had nothing to do with HGB’s philosophies.)
As Cosmo’s entertainment editor I became one of Helen’s pets — and because I was such a smart-ass, I thought I knew her fantasies, silliness and genuine creativity all too well.

But I didn’t know the half of it!  Helen was a feminist of her own tortured making — often seen by women at the “front lines” of the movement as foolish and counter-productive. However, in reading Ms. Hirshey’s work, I realize that Helen, for all her seeming insanity, was indeed a history-making feminist!  She just went at it a different way — believing that women using their feminine wiles to realize their dreams, personally and professionally, was as valid as the stringent anti-sexual image that was deemed necessary as the Women’s Liberation movement unfolded.
Gerri gives her all as a biographer, and delivers us Helen as a pioneer of female assertiveness and dream-realization.  Like all pioneers she was much-mocked and her quirks were referred to as “vulgar” by moralists who thought they were so smart — I include myself in that brigade. (Who knew the real definition of “vulgarity” in those hypocritical days?)

You can read this book for a look at how far we have come, how much we have changed, how absurd we were in our “civilized” middle-class superiority.  I find myself historically convicted as someone who believed I knew best and better than “sex-crazed, absurd but delightful Helen.”  I apologize to her ghost. 
Helen and David.
This is a wonderful deep read for those willing to study yesterday’s history and popular culture and also willing to entertain a new realization. (Hirshey also includes Helen’s entire, dire Arkansas background and her famous marriage to the Hollywood producer David Brown of “Jaws” and other hits.)

And if you only read for fun, you will have a simply hilarious time with a really influential “character” who was an unbelievable woman (although she famously preferred “girl”) — a woman more realistic, and intelligent than many of her detractors.

Helen more than deserves this splendid re-examination.
Click to order a copy of “Not Pretty Enough." Better yet, buy two!
“SOCRATES said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Let me tell you something, kid; the examined life? It’s not such a bargain.”

If you think that sounds like a typically Woody Allen line, you are correct.  It is one of the many amusing remarks that flow effortlessly through Woody’s latest offering, “Café Society.”  This — Woody's 53rd time in the director's chair — premiered in Manhattan last week at the Paris Theater.  The event, hosted by Lionsgate, Amazon and The Cinema Society pulled in the usual throng of celebs and paparazzi.  Woody doesn’t make epics, but even his smallest movies still generate an excitement that is increasingly rare.  He remains a dedicated and prolific auteur, a comforting, classy genius in an age of depressing vulgarity and stupidity.

“Café Society” tells the tale of Bobby, a nice boy from the Bronx (Jesse Eisenberg) who moves to Hollywood to work with his uncle, a Hollywood mogul (Steve Carell).  He falls in love with his uncle’s secretary/mistress (Kristen Stewart.) Complications arise, love ebbs and flows, life goes on.  Sure, there are some gangsters thrown in (a few literally into cement blocks) and Bobby’s transformation from an innocent observer in 1930’s Hollywood to a more cynical mover and shaker on the New York scene provides color. But it’s the basic boy-meets-girl-with-ambitions-who-is-sleeping-with-his-uncle-and-will-true-love-conquer-all scenario.   
Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby Dorfman and Kristen Stewart as Vonnie.
Woody interjects ...
The movie starts fast, slows down and just when you think maybe Woody won’t pull the cinematic rabbit out of his hat, it ends. And it is the end — which of course I will not spoil — that lifts the film.  Even set in the luscious, hazy nostalgia of that long-ago era, Woody’s fini in “Café Society” rings startlingly true and realistic — gently bittersweet.  I loved it, and I basically loved the movie too. No new ground is broken; it’s very much a Woody Allen movie — those Woody movies where he wants to ravish us with charm.  “Café Society” has a beautiful soundtrack (many numbers performed by Vince Giordano and his “NightHawks” band) and is gorgeously photographed. 
Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast in the eternal “Woody” role ... Kristen Stewart, with lighter hair and more than one sullen expression, is actually appealing (for Stewart’s performance alone, Woody can be credited with a minor miracle!) and there is terrific work by other cast members including Carell, Blake Lively, Parker Posey and (most hilariously) Jeannie Berlin as Bobby’s mother, Rose.
Steve Carell as Hollywood mogul Phill.
Blake Lively as Veronica.
Parker Posey as Rad and Paul Schneider as Steve.
Jeannie Berlin as Bobby’s mother, Rose.
I left the Paris Theater feeling curiously refreshed, amused and comforted.  While not a masterpiece, “Café Society” is like time spent with an intelligent, funny, glamorous old friend. Maybe nothing new is said; then again, maybe nothing new has to be said. Sometimes, embracing the warmth of the long-familiar is more potent and palpable than the brutal shock of the new.
AFTER THE screening, everybody traipsed over to the appropriately appointed Carlyle Hotel for the party.  Woody came and went in a flash, as usual, but despite an apparent breakdown in the Carlyle air-conditioning, the rest of the throng partied on.  I do mean such as Barbara Walters ... Anna Wintour ... Hedi Klum ... Dakota Fanning ... F. Murray Abraham ... Martha Stewart ... Bobby Flay ... Amy Fine Collins ... Ben Shenkman ... Regis and Joy Philbin ... Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia. (Andrew Saffir knows his “eclectic mix.”) Robert Mosci provided soft piano melodies.
Blake Lively outside the Paris.
Woody and Kristen Stewart on the red carpet.
Also: Swoosie Kurtz, adorable as ever — tiny, but not as miniscule as she appears on film.  Swoosie is awaiting word on a new pilot, still talking about the fun of her six years with Melissa McCarthy on “Mike and Molly” and asking of her pants and glittery blouse outfit, “Is this too ‘Liza?’”  (Scott Gorenstein, Liza’s rep, overheard this and said, “Darling, nothing is ever ‘too Liza!’”) Swoosie brought the fabulous writer Meryl Gordon along ("Mrs. Astor Regrets," "The Phantom of Fifth Avenue.")  Ms. Gordon — who styles her hair in an attractive, brisk, wedge — wore black, a strand of good pearls and seemed impervious to the warmth of the room. She is delightful.
Swoosie Kurtz. Debi Mazar with Giulia Isabel Corcos.
Debi Mazar was there, in a tight, low-cut dress that seemed barely able to contain her plentitude. Complimented on the gown, she said: “Doesn’t it look luxurious, but it’s made of cotton!” (by Zac Posen) I’ve known Debi for years, but I never knew until that night that she is really a blonde! I took in the style of her dress and her deep inhaling — perilous to shoulder straps — and remarked that she was “very Marilyn.”  Debi laughed:   “Of course, because I’m really a blonde! I dyed my hair black back in the day and the look worked for me, but yeah, I’m actually a blonde.”  Debi had one of her daughters with her — a beautiful fair-haired child.
Kristen Stewart slipped into something comfy for the afterparty. Jack Ferver and Parker Posey.
Desiree Gruber and Heidi Klum. Bobby Flay.
Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, Vanessa Noel, and Karen Duffy. Richard Kind.
And high marks to Debra Messing, who arrived with a lively crowd that included Carol Kane, Richard Kind, and a cute guy in a porkpie hat.  Perhaps it was the heat, but during a casual, fun conversation, I found myself saying to Debra, whom I had never previously met, “Can I tell you something that always bothered me about ‘Will & Grace?’” Instead of, “Really, at a party? — and it went off the air ten years ago.” Debra said, “Yes, tell me!”  So I told her I’d found it offensive that whenever the subject of having sex with a woman was broached, there was generally some sort of sound or remark or expression of disgust from Jack (Sean Hayes) or Will (Eric McCormack.)  I thought it not only a diss to women, but on gay men, too — expressing a dreary, not-so-comic stereotype that the very thought of relations with females was somehow appalling. 
Jesse Smith, Carol Kane, Patti Smith, and Debra Messing.
Messing replied with genuine (or genuinely artful) thoughtfulness, “You know, I never got that, or realized that.  I have to think, now.”

In truth, I don’t imagine Ms. Messing actually giving that unexpected critique much thought, despite the delicately furrowed brow of concern/interest she offered.

However, I won’t forget her graciousness in the face of air conditioning on the fritz and a columnist with a trivial, now-ancient bone to pick!

Photographs by Patrick McMullan

Contact Liz here.