Monday, September 12, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Social faux pas

The Lady Chablis performing in 2003.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Pippa Middleton's Taki Marriage in Quest ... The Lady Chablis — Let's Cry Two Tears in a Bucket ... Cicely Tyson Honored By The Theater Wing. 

“WHEREAS Americans look at ‘Downton Abbey’ as a costume drama and revel in its antiquated  snobbishness, the Brits see it a social commentary, and nothing brings out their inner Dowager Countess of Grantham more than a social faux pas.”

So writes Taki Theodoracopulos in the September issue of Quest magazine.
I use his last name, but like Cher and Madonna, this take-no-prisoners scribe goes simply and terrifyingly, by “Taki.”

He’s a proud native-born Greek, and covers the international scene in the manner of Rome’s ferociously cynical ancient arbiter of style and gossip, Petronius. Taki has yet to encounter an Emperor Nero, who will compel him to open his veins. (Indeed, the Nero’s of his world are more likely tempted to open theirs!)

In Quest, Taki writes about the upcoming nuptials of Pippa Middleton, sister of Kate, who is married to William, who will one day be king. Taki takes it all in with his famous jaundiced eye and pen. (Pippa’s intended is James Matthews “a hedge-fund manager — naturally — and he seems a good sort, not too greedy like some of ours.”)
At one point in his article he joyfully refers to Princess Michael of Kent as “a hustler and a phony.”  Later, in recalling another grand English wedding, he writes: “Once in Italy I had to get up on stage and warn the best man to stop [his speech] or else. The Italian parents  were not happy to hear about their daughter’s promiscuity ... for some strange reason I don’t think this will happen at Pippa’s wedding.”

I love Taki because all the earth beneath him is scorched in his reportage.  He doesn’t play favorites, or as he notes: “Snobbery is the oxygen that fuels British life in general and the upper classes in particular.”
BACK IN 1997, Clint Eastwood directed the movie version of John Berendt’s great book about murder most foul in the wealthy Deep South, “Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil.” It starred John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Jude Law, and Clint’s daughter, Alison Eastwood.  It was just awful, not a patch on Berendt’s delectable work.

However, Clint’s movie was saved — gloriously saved — by the performance of The Lady Chablis, a cross-dressing Savannah, GA., nightclub star.  Berendt’s book was based on a true-life murder case, and the Lady Chablis was a true-life person and a part of that case.  Eastwood invited Chablis to play herself.  She did, and she played it with joyful abandon, projecting outrageousness to the balcony — in China!
So infectious and funny and “real” was Chablis, that she simply took the movie away from its nominal stars. She was not a professional movie actor, but she was a star.

At some point, Clint must have realized he had a dog of a movie on his hands, and he simply allowed Chablis more screen time than the story actually demanded.

I recall attending an advance screening of “Midnight ...”  The audience was noticeably unmoved by what was happening.  Not even the strenuous efforts of Kevin Spacey were enough to hold interest. But from first appearance to last, Chablis evoked rapturous applause, laughter and a wild ovation when the credits rolled.
I wrote, at the time, that this was a performance  deserving of official recognition from Oscar. I figured that was not going to happen, but why not just throw it out there?  It didn’t happen.  (What did happen was a lot of criticism because I casually, innocently,  referred to Chablis as “she/he” in my review.

Chablis had not undergone surgical transition, although she lived as a woman.  But, even before political correctness became de rigueur, I had my head handed to me.)

However, Chablis’ public profile was enhanced, club dates paid big, she traveled by limo and wrote a book, “Hiding My Candy.” 

The Lady Chablis, aka The Doll, died last week in Savannah, at the very young age of 59.  I was especially shocked to hear this news, because “Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil” played not long ago on one of my millions of cable channels.

I watched and was floored again by her effortless-yet-totally-calculated scene stealing. (For once, John Cusak’s annoying, trademarked opened-mouthed look of shock seemed understandable.) The justly famous “Cotillion” sequence, in which she scandalizes all of Savannah’s black high-society,  is the movie’s high point.
R.I.P. Lady Chablis. I’d love to use one of your quotes from the movie, but ... oh, what the hell. Let the editors agonize.   

“It’s like my mom always said” Chablis explains to Cusack, early on, as news of the sordid murder affects the town: ‘Two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it.’”
I HAVE a large impressive invite from the American Theatre Wing, to a celebration starring the one and only Cicely Tyson, it happens September 26th, in NYC.

If a person lives long enough, they start trying to get attention that goes with the expression “I knew them when ...”

Indeed, Ms. Tyson is a grand lady of movies, theater and  TV. She deserves every accolade. But I, Liz, confess that in her early days, I knew her “when.”
Back when Fox Movies were called 20th Century-Fox, they poured a then-astounding $20 million into a remake of Maurice Maeterlinck’s classic children’s tale, “The Bluebird,” to be filmed in Russia.

Russia was still the USSR, under Communist oppression. Americans were not necessarily welcome with open arms.  The man at the helm of this much-touted U.S./Russian collaboration  was the fabled “ladies director” George Cukor. The movie starred Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda and Ava Gardner.
An unimpressed Miss Tyson mulls the directorial edicts of George Cukor.
Cicely Tyson, who had nabbed an Oscar nomination for “Sounder” in 1972, was also on board, portraying a cat to Jimmy Coco’s dog.  (None of the actors actually seemed to know how they’ d been persuaded to do the film, with the possible exception of Elizabeth. She was somewhat past her million-dollar days, but still pulled down an impressive salary and all manner of perks and privileges. Also, as the world's most famous woman, she generated invaluable publicity to any production.) 

Both Tyson and Coco had to actually perform in cat and dog costumes, with switching tails. (Coco would eventually fall sick, and be replaced by a Russian actor. The food was pretty bad.  Miss Taylor, typically, almost died of dysentery! Also typically, adversity served her.  She lost 15 pounds.)   
Liz and Ava in a musical number cut from the final print of "The Bluebird." Come on, film history preservationists, dig up this footage!!
Liz in "The Bluebird," musing on the Chasen's chili she was having shipped in every week from L.A.
Ms. Tyson was not amused by her costume, the conditions or the by-then-shaky skills of Mr. Cukor. She fumed and was furious at the comedy of errors surrounding the making of this movie. She said, “It’s not funny that Mr. Coco and I are made to wear these absurd get-ups, while Cukor shouts instructions, which are then translated into Russian and back to English. And times a ‘wasting as the filming takes forever. And nothing is accomplished. We’ll be here forever switching our tails. It’s the most amateurish production in the world.”  She added, ferociously, “They don’t seem to know how to photograph black people, either!” sending a killing glance across the set at Cukor. “It deserves to fail!”
Cicely and Jane Fonda — casting voodoo spells and engaging the Russians!
And it did. There were no more US & USSR co-producing events.

Cicely was nevertheless a glorious cat. She still is and we love her for it! And her incredible talent. Long may she wag her tail.

Miss Tyson's big night is presided over by Kathy Bates, and everybody who is anybody will be there, in black tie,  at the Plaza Hotel.  For more info contact Jeremiah Hernadez at gala@thewing.org

Contact Liz here.