Monday, April 25, 2016

LIZ SMITH: The First Time Ever I Saw Her Face

Barbra in "Funny Girl" (1962).
by Liz Smith

The First Time Ever I Saw Her Face — Barbra Streisand, 1962.   Also — Sheila Nevins ... "Cagney" ... and the 50th Anniversary of "Mame."

"STARDOM ISN'T a profession, it's an accident," said the accident prone Lauren Bacall.
Click to order "Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power."
WE'VE BEEN throwing a lot of BS around here lately — I do mean Barbra Streisand, and all the chat and gossip and opinions about her determination to bring "Gypsy" to the big screen again.

So, with Miss Streisand much on my mind, I was particularly interested in Jennifer Senior's review of Neal Gabler's new book about Barbra in the New York Times last Thursday April 21st. ("Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity and Power.") Senior opened her article wondering: "What a revelation it must've been to see Barbra Streisand for the first time in a night club or on stage."

Ms. Senior, via the work of Mr. Gabler, chronicles all the way the ways Barbra's "differences" — her proud nose, her proud Jewishness, her unabashed brashness, her often-maligned perfectionism — astonished the public, way back then and right now. (Senior, who liked Gabler's book, although she found him a tad too smitten with the star, writes: "Ms. Streisand is a diva almost without peer, and her narcissism could dwarf a glassy nebula.")
Don Hunstein's photo of Barbra in 1962 at Cafe Bon Soir.
Well — to the matter of "revelation" and Barbra — I happened to be present the very first time she appeared at The Bon Soir supper club. She wore a long red dress. She belted out (I think) "Happy Days Are Here Again." The Bon Soir was on 8th Street near 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village and was probably Mafia owned. In those days that meant its predominantly gay clientele were well behaved. And uptowners "went slumming" downtown. The crowds experiencing Barbra for the first time were staggered. She had already been trying out only a few blocks from there at The Lion saloon. The Bon Soir was more upscale and it was often compared to uptown's ritzy The Blue Angel supper club in the mid 50's of the East side. Nichols and May would eventually reign supreme here.
Nichols and May at The Blue Angel.
Soon, I, as the Entertainment Editor of Cosmopolitan magazine saw Barbra in "I Can Get It For You Wholesale" — and then in "Funny Girl" which was, of course, a smash. Barbra sang that she was "the greatest star." Who were we to argue?

Because I was a friend of the amazing PR giant, Patricia Newcomb, who knew everybody who was anybody in Hollywood, I found myself doing the first "big" interview with this new star. We became "friends" (in as much as one could consider oneself a "friend" to such a giant star.) A few years later, when she was making the movie "Hello Dolly" I went to her house several times. Once I recall sitting for what seemed like hours while Barbra put up one photo after another of herself, asking what I thought and paying no attention whatsoever to what I said. Naturally, the journalist becomes a safe outlet and is given access until they offend.
Barbra in "I Can Get It For You Wholesale."
But the negative stories about Barbra's peculiarities have been reported mostly positively by me. (I think. She has, at times, disagreed.) After all, she was and is unique — as we wrote here the other day, the last truly unique female star.

Only a few years ago I was blown away again by her superb presence when she was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. She keeps on keeping on, ignoring her critics. (Well, to a certain extent. Like all stars, she remembers and is hurt by every negative review or remark.)
Barbra in 2013 upon being honored by The Film Society of Lincoln Center.
So, much to the public's excitement and some eye-rolling astonishment, Barbra perseveres in her desire to bring her version, her vision, of the legendary Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurent's hit "Gypsy" back to big-screen life.

I say, let her begin it, for heaven's sake, and long may she wave!
Barbra with Funny Girl's songwriters Jule Styne and Bob Merrill.
ON May 2nd, HBO's genius, Sheila Nevins will be honored at the Fountain House symposium and luncheon which tackles issues of suicide — preventing, understanding, educating, counseling those left behind. (Fountain House deals with all aspects of mental illness — which affects one in four people in the U.S. — working on wellness, employment and housing.) This happens in the Grand Ballroom at NYC's The Pierre Hotel. For more info on this event, and/or the fine work of Fountain House, call 212-874-5457 or click here.
AWARDS MATTER! "Cagney," the acclaimed and wonderfully entertaining off-Broadway musical about legendary movie star/song-and-dance man, James Cagney, has been nominated for three Outer Critics Awards — for the show itself, the choreographer, Joshua Bergasse, and the brilliant leading man, Robert Creighton. "Cagney" was already doing very well, but the nominations have breathed even more life into show, and it has been extended through September. Call 212-239-6200 for tickets.
IT'S HARD to believe — well, it's certainly hard for me to believe — that 50 years ago, Angela Lansbury stepped onto the stage of The Winter Garden Theatre in "Mame" — the musical adaptation of the 1956 play, "Auntie Mame" — and made theater history, as well as totally transforming her own career. Although highly regarded as an actress, three times Oscar-nominated, Lansbury was one of those players who was perhaps too versatile for Hollywood to handle properly. By the time she did "Mame" she was nobody's idea of a red-hot star, despite being only forty years old. In fact, the producers of "Mame" thought they were taking a big chance casting Angela, although she'd been well reviewed in Stephen Sondheim's musical "Anyone Can Whistle" in 1964.
Angela Lansbury as "Mame."
In any case, Lansbury conquered Broadway — shaming Hollywood in the process — and became one of the greatest stage stars ever. In fact, the six-time Tony winner still is! So, on May 26th, Miss Lansbury and other surviving members of the original company of "Mame" will gather at Sardi's in Manhattan and celebrate this golden anniversary. Producer John Bowab and choreographer Diana Baffa Brill are putting the event together. (Sorely missed will be the late great Bea Arthur who appeared with Angela as her "bosom buddy" Vera Charles.)
Lansbury with "bosom buddy" Bea Arthur in "Mame."
Together again at the 1987 Tony Awards.
"Mame" ran four years on Broadway and had many lives and leading ladies. After Angela took the show on tour she was followed by Janis Page, Jane Morgan and then — explosively! — by Ann Miller. (The show revitalized Miss Miller's career as well.) Others who tackled the fabled Mame Dennis included Ginger Rogers ... Susan Hayward ... Ann Sothern ... Carol Lawrence ... Juliet Prowse ... Edie Adams ... and Elaine Stritch. (Stritch, at one time or another, actually played both Mame and Vera! This makes total sense, if you understood the force that was Stritch. The wonder is she didn't play both of them at the same time!)

P.S. Lucille Ball did the movie version of "Mame."
Stritch as Mame.

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.