Friday, February 5, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Reading About The Ancients

The Orgies of Messalina, Federico Faruffini, 1867-1868.
by Liz Smith

Reading About The Ancients; Warning Signs For Our Time? ... Len Cariou Brings Songs and Sonnets and Shakespeare to Broadway ... David Bowie Celebrated in San Francisco ... Bob Woodward Says "Shush!" to Hillary Clinton — Voices Carry!

"THAT A woman might be so sexually aggressive as to play the role of a man was certainly, for any self-respecting citizen, a most unsettling possibility; but there was rarely anything so deviant that some would not find it exciting. A woman such as Messalina was presumed to be predatory in her ambitions and demonic in her taste for blood — a figure fit to stalk fantasies as well as fears. Young, beautiful and dangerous, she was the stuff of pornography."

Click to order "Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar." Click to order "Dictator."
So writes Tom Holland in his appetizing, lurid, erudite new history, "Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar." (Messalina was the young wife of lame and unlikely emperor Claudius. She was always up to having a good time — a really good time! Claudius was willing to look the other way. But when she supposedly plotted against him with one or several lovers, well — there are limits.)

Author Holland, while admitting that some of the most outrageous tales of plotting and murder might have been a teeny bit exaggerated by historians of the time, gives more than enough credence to the kind of carrying on that made TV's "I, Claudius" so much fun. Much of the book — which covers the careers of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligua, Claudius and Nero — is quite amusing, with a modern sensibility that is easy to grasp and appreciate.

I read this in tandem with the latest Robert Harris historical fiction, "Dictator" which tells of the last 15 years in the life of Rome's great Senator and brilliant buttinski, Cicero. (As told via the diary of his faithful secretary, Tiro.)

Robert Harris is a master of this kind of thing, and one closes "Dictator" feeling that one has really, truly, read the diary and recollections of Cicero's historian. (Tiro did exist, but what he did write, for himself, has been lost.) This sensitive, moving, dramatic novel — based on historical fact and Cicero's own writings — is certainly the next best thing, and probably very much in keeping with the genuine thoughts, fears and hopes of so many as Rome's Republic died in a sea of blood, betrayal and ambition.

I've been giving a lot of thought to the end of certain freedoms, and how ambitious men and an angry populace can vitalize revolutions, make sweeping changes and then realize the strong men who have encouraged them, don't care, because they don't live in the real world of their "beloved" citizens. They are in fact frauds or demagogues, or both.
The Sabine Women, by Jacques-Louis David (1799).
Len Cariou in "Broadway and the Bard."
LAST NIGHT something unusual opened in Manhattan — the world premiere of "Broadway and the Bard: An Evening of Shakespeare & Song."

This is the brainchild and labor of love of actor/singer/Tony winner Len Cariou. His two great loves have been the works of the Bard, and American musical comedy. (In his debut season on Broadway, he appeared in "Henry V" and "Applause.") So Cariou, along with Barry Kleinbort and Mark Janas have conceived a show combining Shakespearean sonnets and soliloquies and Shakespeare-eque songs from some of the most distinguished Great White Way composers. (Numbers from "Kiss Me, Kate" are possibly too obvious to dominate, but surely that superb Cole Porter score will be somehow represented?)

The show runs through March 6th at the Lion Theater at 410 West 42nd Street.

I won't say "Broadway and the Bard" could only happen in New York. But, let's allow that it's somehow better in New York. Oh, and it runs only a hot eighty minutes. Long enough to absorb some culture, not lengthy to the point of loathing another thee or thou.
HARVEY WEINSTEIN, our favorite genius movie mogul (although we don't hear much from him these years) will be honored at AmFAR's annual Fashion Week gala on February 10th. This happens at Cipriani Wall Street. Among the glittering chairs — some of whom might even attend — Helen Mirren ... Richard Gere ... Robert De Niro ... Bradley Cooper ... Harvey Keitel ... Harry Belafonte ... Steve Buscemi ... Kerry Washington, etc.

Few public figures deserve this more than Harvey who has been stalwart in his support for AmFAR. His yearly Cinema Against AIDS event/auction in Cannes remains a hot ticket. Harvey has long done good deeds in a naughty world. We salute him.

Harry Winston sponsors the New York gala. For tix info email or visit
ON Saturday, March 12th, Saturday, at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, a tribute to the late David Bowie happens. This includes a screening of his 1976 classic "The Man Who Fell to Earth" along with an in-person appearance by Bowie's co-star in that film, Candy Clark.

There will also be Bowie video clips, sing-alongs, a fashion segment, tribute performances by Veronica Klaus with Tammy Hall ... D'Arcy Drollinger's Sexitude Dancers ... Kitten On The Keys and Conspiracy of Venus. (Of course I know who David Bowie was. Kitten On The Keys? Well, we live and learn.)
David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell to Earth."
Organizer Marc Huestis promises a "wild after-party" at Oasis Nightclub. Call 415-863-2098.

P.S. In April powerHouse Books will release a luscious photo book, "Bowie" by Steve Schapiro. Most of the images have never been published and are largely from an epic 1975 session with Bowie, who was — as usual — experimenting with new looks, new sounds, new ways to astonish and pique the curiosity of the world.
David Bowie photographed by Steve Schapiro in 1975.
ENDTHOUGHT: All the time, I keep hearing about how "The Clintons operate by their own rules!" This is meant to imply how devious Hillary and Bill are.

Really? Don't all politicians, TV pundits, actors, bankers, car salesmen, toll collectors, fashion designers, musicians, gossip columnists, secretaries, photographers, game show hosts, reality stars and authors, "operate by their own rules?" Yes, they do, and being on the other side of those rules isn't always comfortable. But, it doesn't mean those rules are illegal. Just ... tough, sometimes.

Also, Bob Woodward says Hillary Clinton should "stop shouting." It makes him uneasy. As opposed to the dulcet, velvety tones of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders?

Well, it's been a long time since Watergate put Woodward (and Bernstein) on the map. Bob's ears, if nothing else, might be more sensitive to the kind of sound and fury that signified his rise to fame and the destruction of a presidency. Everything was so quiet then, yes?
"Okay Bob, mum's the word."

Liz Smith is still recuperating. Denis Ferrara is still pinch-hitting.

Contact Liz here.