Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Privilege of Privacy

Joe Pitt (David Marshall Grant) and his mentor and fellow conservative Roy Cohn (Ron Leibman) in the original 1990s Broadway production of "Angels in America."
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

The Privilege of Privacy — Even Stars Deserve It. Britney Attains "Glory" ... Dolly Remains "Pure & Simple." Tony Kushner Explains Joe Pitt — Brilliantly.

“TO EACH their own. I’m not going to talk about my private life with a total stranger, unless I feel the need to. Why would I?  I don’t.”

That's Michael Fassbender in "Entertainment Weekly." (He will soon be seen with his real-life lady, Alicia Vikander in “The Light Between Oceans.”) 
And here’s this from our dear friend — one of the world’s loveliest people — Renee Zellweger, when questioned by The Hollywood Reporter on her love life: “I appreciate you asking. But let’s stop.”  (Renee’s latest “Bridget Jones” movie opens next month.)
Once upon a time, I might have rolled my eyes, literally and in print, over actors — who show themselves for money, after all — voicing reticence over a few simple questions about their undying love or lust for this one or that. 

“All love is vanquished by a succeeding love.” 
But somewhere along the line, the questions became more insistent, more intimate. The public’s “need to know” transcended starry-eyed curiosity and became an aggressive form of bullying mixed with envy, judgment and political correctness. 

Even more amazing, the celebrities themselves answered or offered, the most startling details about the most personal subjects. The rise of social media has taken “stardom” to new levels of forced, and ludicrously self-inflicted, lack of privacy. 

We’re as curious here as the next person about what celebrities have to say.  Many are intelligent, funny, soulful, interestingly depressed, amusingly shallow, politically aware or not. Some love to cook. (I am always open to a new take on mac and cheese.  “Soul mate” talk seems the least interesting subject.

In any case, the wisest things ever said on matters of the heart were uttered ages ago.  Oscar Wilde drawled: “Love is not a clock. You cannot take it apart just to see what makes it tick.”

And Rome’s great poet Ovid correctly observed: “All love is vanquished by a succeeding love.” 

Let’s see Leonardo DiCaprio try one of those on for size the next time he’s asked about ever getting married?
... SAY what you might about Britney Spears’ “triumphant” return to the MTV Music Awards last Sunday, the pop star still has an eager fan base.  Her new CD “Glory” quickly reached number two in the UK.  It is Britney’s seventh album to hit the Top Ten charts in the UK. And considering the reviews overall, the U.S. is bound for “Glory” as well.  Good for her, she is a sweet girl.
... DOLLY PARTON’S “Pure & Simple” album has hit the top of the country charts in the US, Canada, Australia and Britain!  This is the legendary country music star’s 43rd album. One reviewer noted that “Pure & Simple” is “one of Parton’s least schmaltzy, most personal releases in memory.”  Maybe, I haven’t heard it yet.  But there is something so pure about Parton’s voice and delivery, that I’ve never found her wandering in the schmaltz neighborhood. (I interviewed this remarkable woman only once, but I’ll never forget that I felt lighter, uplifted, more positive, for days after! The late great Dixie Carter, whom I knew very well, also had that rare ability to lift you up, even if you didn’t know you were down!)
... ”HOW wonderful that I’m beholding, a never-never land unfolding/Where we polish up the stars and mountains we move/In a life where all the pleasures we will prove.”  So, is there a George Gerswhin/Harold Arlen fan who doesn’t recognize the intro to “It’s a New World” sung by Judy Garland in 1954’s mammoth “A Star Is Born.” 
While it is true that Garland’s musical interpretations in the movie stand alone and apart, on September 28th, at Feinstein’s/54 Below you might check out Molly Pope, one of Manhattan’s most acclaimed cabaret performers. On that night — one night only — Molly will sing the entire “A Star Is Born” score, including “The Man That Got Away” and the ball-busting “Born in a Trunk” medley.  She will be accompanied by a five-piece band and two able song and dance guys. Brian Nash directs. Ben Cameron and Molly herself create the staging. Ms. Pope had a tremendous success with this show in July. For info go to
Molly Pope as Esther Blodgett will return to Feinstein's/54 Below September 28 at 9:30 PM. Photo: Stephen Sorokoff
THE OTHER day, praising the actor (and excellent singer) Patrick Wilson, I mused on a question that has always haunted/concerned/interested me — what happened to Patrick’s character, Joe Pitt, in Tony Kushner’s great Broadway play and HBO film, “Angels in America.” (Joe, a closeted, gay, married, Republican Mormon, gets more than he bargained for in his clandestine affair and his professional relationship with the loathsome Roy Cohn.)  Joe, at the end, appeared to have vanished from what seems a happy reconciliation of the play’s other characters, including his own (initially rejecting) mother.
Within hours of our column appearing, the brilliant playwright himself, Mr. Kushner sent a long explanatory email.  Space does not permit all of his response today.  But I will print as much as I can:

Dear Liz,

When you ask, I answer! I get more questions about Joe Pitt's ‘disappearance’ at the end of "Angels In America" than about any other aspect of the play.  By the time "Angels" closed on Broadway, I'd filled a fairly large box with letters from gay men who'd been married before realizing that they were gay, or who'd married knowing they were gay. A number of them had been Mormon and/or Republican, and some no doubt still are.  They wrote because they recognized something of their own lives in Joe's story, and most wanted to know what becomes of him after the play ends. Several offered detailed suggestions — I think we now call this fan art! 
The two parts of "Angels" on stage have a running length of nearly seven hours, and Mike's film is 6 hours long.  I didn't think I could task an audience's endurance — what my grandma used to call sitzfleisch — beyond that, so I had to write "the end" even though the only one of the characters, Roy Cohn, had in fact ended. 

It's true that Joe isn't in the final scene, which takes place five years after the central events of the play.  That final scene isn't meant to be a reunion of all the characters, it's just a gathering of those who'd remained or become friends.  I didn't exclude any of the characters as punishment. Harper, Joe's wife, who is one of my two favorite characters in the play, isn't there either; we last see her on a plane, five years earlier, flying to San Francisco.  But I don't have a box of letters, or a Liz Smith column (!), demanding to know where Harper is in 1991. So I guess I should ask: Why not? 

All the main characters in the play get pulled apart and reassembled ... Joe resists being pulled apart more obstinately and effectively than any of the other characters in "Angels," because his are the most strenuously protected and effective mechanisms of denial.

Joe needs to reconcile things that simply can't be reconciled, for instance, wanting to have sex with other men while remaining faithful to a politics one of the tenets of which is virulent, institutionalized homophobia; or desperately needing to love and be loved while adhering to a politics among the central tenets of which are individualism carried to a pitch of society-dissolving hysteria, a rejection of community and responsibility, and a valorization of selfishness. 

My version of Roy Cohn, Joe's mentor and fellow conservative, luxuriates in these contradictions and their attendant hypocrisies .... But it isn't true of Joe, who for all his titanic capacity for self-delusion has a coherent heart filled with something other than hate and fear. He's retained in himself a capacity for human connection, and that capacity forces him into a confrontation with the truth. 
Joe Pitt (David Marshall Grant) and Louis Ironson (Joe Mantello) in the Broadway production of "Angels in America" 1993.
I don't feel that, at the end of the play, Joe has been punished. He's begun to change. 

The angel (Ellen McLaughlin) visiting Joe's mother, Hannah Pitt (Kathleen Chalfant).
Change feels like punishment, like something bad is happening, only if you choose to live in rigid fantasies of simplicity, certainty and permanence, always obtained at a monstrous cost, rather than struggle, as adults must do, with life's uncertain, generative dynamism. 

I believe that Joe has begun to do that by the end of the play. His mother rejects him when he initially comes out, but we see her and her son try to come to terms with one another, and I believe that most likely they eventually succeed, and find common ground, as parents and children usually do when both sides work at it.

I don't intend to write another part of "Angels," but if I did, perhaps, to demonstrate Joe's successful transformation into a stand-up good guy, into a mensch, the play would consist of a succession of scenes, each set four years apart, beginning in 1992 and ending in 2016, in which we watch Joe and some guy he's married to go into voting booths to vote for Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama and our country's first female president, Hillary Rodham Clinton.   

Much love, and as always, much gratitude and admiration, Tony K.

Thank you, Mr. Kushner! I am content.

 And to think, people ask me: “Why do you still do this column?”
Joan Marcus.

Contact Liz here.