Tuesday, February 23, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Truth to Power!

Lana Turner, Producer Ross Hunter, and Constance Bennett at the premiere of "Madame X" in 1966.
by Liz Smith

Cyndi Lauper is Making a Country Music "Detour" — Soon, She'll be in the Honky-Tonk Funnel of Love ... Remembering Lana Turner's Madame X" ... HBO's John Oliver REALLY speaks Truth to Power!  (And to the Brutally Powerful.)

"WHAT the hell are you doing here?"

That was beat-up Lana Turner to sleazy Burgess Meredith at her grittiest, in the down-and-out Tijuana portion of the legend's 1966 version of that old dramatic warhorse about mother love, "Madame X."
Lana Turner and Burgess Meredith in "Madame X."
Produced by Ross Hunter — who had given Lana several big hits, including "Imitation of Life" and "Portrait in Black" — this one, which wedges Lana in what seemed like 46 costume changes and nearly as many wigs, didn't do particularly well. Audiences were changing, and Lana's brand of glamour — which she'd been peddling since her teens — was palling.
I was reminded of "Madam X" by reader David Cuthbert; he noted our column citing so many 50th anniversaries, and thought he'd include Lana's great — and I do mean great — performance here. It takes a while to get going, as the matronly Lana is no longer adept at pulling off the old shopgirl-from-San-Francisco-snaring-a-rich-hubby bit. (He is played with staggering blandness by John Forsythe.) Also, Lana was dealing with the on-set crisis of an older, but freshly face-lifted Constance Bennett, playing her cruel mother-in-law. ("So!" declares Connie against a literal backdrop of lightning and thunder, "You've killed your lover, my girl!" It was just an accident, but who'd believe perceived gold-digger Lana?)
Lana Turner, John Forsythe, and Constance Bennett in "Madame X."
Sent away for a price, faking her own death, to protect the family reputation — "Think of your son!" whispers Miss Bennett insinuatingly — Lana, tastefully dressed, travels the world, miserable. By the time her character reaches Mexico, she's a total mess, and Lana, for once, allows herself to look a mess — bloated and ravaged, in filthy bathrobes and cheap kimonos. And although she hated looking that way, the physical alteration, brought out the best in Turner. From that point on — murder, a trial and a defense attorney who just happens to be her own son — Lana is splendid. Had the culture not been changing with such lightning speed, Turner's performance, if not the film itself would have garnered awards.
Pauline Kael famously wrote that Lana Turner "Isn't 'Madame X' she's Brand X." Dear Pauline. So very wrong.

The actor Keir Dullea, who played Lana's adult son, once said that he received more requests to sign "Madame X" memorabilia than for his epic space film, "2001." I believe it. "2001" is brilliant and impressive, but when the final credits role, I am not weeping unashamedly as I am at the climax of "Madame X" when Dullea says: "There was something about her ... I loved her from the moment I saw her!"

Tissues, please! Happy 50th, "Madame X."
Clayton Anderson Jr. (Keir Dullea) consoling Lana Turner's Holly Parker in "Madame X."
OH, and Cindy Crawford turned 50 over the weekend. She looks great and it's all because of those products she uses. Unlike Lana in "Madame X," Cindy stays away from absinthe and other things that take a toll.
First day at 50.
"YOU'RE The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly." That's the title of a pretty fabulous Loretta Lynn song, which she recorded with Conway Twitty.

Now, that tune and 11 other country ditties are being revitalized by none other than Cyndi Lauper.

ON May 6th, Lauper — winner of the Grammy, Emmy and Tony — also possesses one of the most powerful and distinctive female voices of the past 40 forty years, will release "Detour." This is her first album for Sire Records.
"When I was a really young kid, country music was pop music, so this is what we grew up listening to. These songs are part of some of my earliest memories..."
The record is produced by Sire's legendary Seymour Stein, and includes Cyndi's take on such classics as Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love"…Patsy Cline's" I Fall to Pieces"…Skeeter Davis's "The End of The World…and "Hard Candy Christmas" from "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Lauper is accompanied on some of her numbers by Jewel, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss.
Cyndi in Nashville with Emmy Lou Harris.
Cyndi with Willie Nelson and producer Tony Brown.
I love Cyndi, for so many reasons — her talent, her total commitment to being herself, her activism, her lack of a bitchy, pointless presence on social media. (At least I haven't been aware of that.) First, with her wacky persona, so at odds with that phenomenal voice, it was said she would be a flash in the pan. Then, once critics looked past the image, they declared she was going to be the greatest pop star of the 80s and 90s — it was Madonna who would be the flash in the pan. (The two singers rose to fame at approximately the same MTV time.)
As it turned out, Cyndi was no flash in the pan, but Madonna, less talented but whose image was more accessible (sex sells!) did become the icon.

No matter to Miss Lauper, who has simply gone on making sublime music, if not creating tidal waves of publicity. Her 2003 album, "At Last," remains one of my all-time favorites and gets heavy play on my iPod.

Welcome to country music, Cyndi, we'll all be "Walkin' After Midnight" with you.
WE RECEIVED a marvelous letter from a lady who describes herself as "69-year-old black woman." She was responding to our item here on diversity in Hollywood, in terms of African Americans.

I will quote in part: "I have to admit to having mixed feelings about Hollywood and minority entertainers. Often, the quality and subject matter of movies having a majority black cast leave a lot of be desired ... We have contributed much more to this country that could be explored other than being slaves or downtrodden people. How about a movie that is simply a well-written story about people who just happen to be black? ... I'm convinced that nothing meaningful will change in Hollywood until writers don't specify the race of a character and casting calls don't use race and preconceptions as the main criteria for deciding who can audition."

This lady mentioned that her daughter is an actress in musicals. She (the daughter) is often asked if she can "repeat a line 'a little more sassy ... a little more edgy' (which is code for 'Ghetto black woman'.) When she realized what they are really looking for, she sometimes replies with 'This is as edgy as I can be!'"

So much to this note — I don't have the space. But it touched me deeply when my correspondent ended with: "I like that you are a truth-teller."

I try to be.
SPEAKING OF the Hollywood diversity "issue" make it your business to find Sunday night's episode of HBO's "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" where he hilariously reminds us that "whitewashing" casts is absolutely nothing new in Hollywood, and that it all comes down to money. Among the many, many ludicrous examples he showed were Katharine Hepburn as an unconvincing Asian in "Dragon Seed" and Mickey Rooney, offensive beyond believe as a Japanese man in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." More recently we had Johnny Depp as Tonto in the disastrous "Lone Ranger."
Katharine Hepburn in "Dragon Seed."
Also, and frankly much more seriously, Oliver devoted a good 20 minutes of his half hour program to the increasingly draconian abortion laws across the USA. Of course, he used his typical humor and (unnecessary) profanity, but he made vital and terrifying points. Points that many of you should think about in this election year.

Bravo, John Oliver.

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.