Tuesday, January 31, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Romance, Art, and Drama

The Coronation of Catherine the Great.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Russian Romance, Art and Drama Lure "The Imperial Wife" ... "The Devil Wears Prada" put to music!  Also, 2017-- troubled but tres gay as "Will & Grace" and "Queer Eye" return and reboot.

“HE LEANS over to kiss me.  A real Russian woman would have taken advantage of this kiss.  She would have opened herself like a flower, kept him tethered under the guise of vulnerability.  She would have stopped at nothing to keep him — phantom pregnancy, guilt, threats. A real Jewish woman would have decided this was the end of the world. A husband taking time to think would be nothing less than disaster because life makes the most sense through a lens of fear, caution.

Young Catherine soon after
her arrival in Russia.
“But in being both of these women, I am neither.”

This is Tanya, one of the two female protagonists of Irina Reyn’s novel, “The Imperial Wife.”  Tanya, a specialist in Russian art, is suffering the sudden emotional and physical detachment of her husband. 

The book’s other heroine is Sophia Augusta Fredericka, later to be known as Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. What links the two women is trouble with their men (Sophie has the worst of it, mated with the pathetic Peter) and an ornament worn by Sophie/Catherine, now being assessed for sale, hundreds of years later, by Tanya.

At a deft and manageable 273 pages, this is one of the most compelling, exquisitely written books of 2016. The see-saw between the modern day career machinations and personal troubles of Russian immigrant Tanya, and the terrifying burdens of Prussian émigré Sophie — her daunting mother-in-law, inept husband, ambitious mother — never clash.

It is a seamless melding of 16th and 21st century female — and male — sensibilities.  On Tanya’s end, there are marvelous examinations of the Russian experience in America. (Author Reyn was born in Moscow.)
Catherine the Great.
There is also, in Tanya’s tale, a stunning Big Reveal.  A Twist.  When this came, I literally gasped with surprise and pleasure.  It emerged from nowhere and made perfect sense. The ideal Big Reveal.  “The Imperial Wife” made me want to visit Russia (really!) ... read again the life of Catherine the Great ... spend more time at museums ... and never accept “I need some time to think” from a loved one, when they withdraw for no reason.
Since I began with a quote about modern Tanya, I want to also give you a taste of the author’s ravishing romantic style when writing about young Catherine:

“For all you know, my heart may belong to another,’ she says, knowing this will only inflame his desire.  He insists he is far worse than the Tatars in her ravages.  He grasps, she slips out of them. They eye each other in darkened corners, her hair flat against walls.  There are touches of affection — he rights a snagged necklace, rescues an earring from possible ejection from her lobe, she adjusts a crooked bow in his hair.  She takes pleasure in burning his letters full of misspellings, watching their edges singe and curl.” 

Romance, history, a thriller element thrown in; ingenious, intelligent, moving.  “The Imperial Wife”, highly recommended.
Click to order “The Imperial Wife.”
“THE Devil Wears Prada” — first a bestselling book, then the hit movie for which Meryl Streep should have won an Oscar for — is on its way to becoming a Broadway musical. This is, well, fabulous news! Particularly with Paul Rudnick and Elton John as the men behind the musical millinery.
The numbers are ripe with possibility: “Cerulean Blue” ... ”Emily/Andy (She Means YOU!)” ... ”The Book” ... ”What’s So Great About Size Six?” ... ”Everybody Wants To Be Us” ... The Devil and Those Jimmy Choos” ... ”New Clothes, New Attitude, Old Friends” ... ”Moving at a Glacial Pace” ... ”It’s Not Abuse, It’s Experience” ... ”Gabbana,  Demarchelier, Dropped Waists for Spring!”  

It could be “Funny Face” with a cyanide-dipped ballerina skirt. Kay Thompson’s fashion editor in that 1957 film, based on Diana Vreeland, exclaimed “Think Pink” and was charmingly eccentric. Streep’s Miranda, based, it was rumored, on Anna Wintour, was an unabashed sadist. But, she has her fans.
Many people feel Miranda, rather than Andy Anne Hathaway — was the film’s real heroine.  Because this was a movie, with exaggerated situations, Miranda seemed needlessly cruel and Andy absurdly obtuse — who interviews for a position at a fashion magazine looking like a refugee from a Balkan revolution?

I’ll be interested to see how Elton and Mr. Rudnick approach the characters. 
THE ANNOUNCED returns of “Will & Grace” and “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy” elicit, for me, a mixed bag of positives and negatives. 

I never understood the appeal or reason for “Queer Eye” — a ridiculous minstrel show of stereotypes, an insult to gay men and also to straight men.  The idea, that straight guys are all unstylish slobs who need the help of “the gays” was absurd.  I know plenty of well-dressed straight men.  I also know a lot of badly dressed gays.  Well, in the new edition of “Queer Eye” there will be a fresh cast, and perhaps a less condescending attitude toward their heterosexual brothers.
As for “Will and Grace” which ran nine seasons, this too, was something I found rife with stereotype. Particularly the character of Jack (Sean Hayes).  He went from fairly average guy to cartoonish screamer in about two seasons.  This unexplained sudden flamboyance did at least match the surreal utterings and actions of his best bud, the perpetually over-prescribed, vodka-soaked Karen Walker (Megan Mullally.)  I was also never a fan of the kind of squeamish attitudes expressed by Jack and Will (Eric McCormack) about women and their bodies and the possibility of sex with women. Even Will, toward his beloved friend Grace (Debra Messing.)   It was, like so many offerings of the times, a “safe” gay project for a straight audience. After all, the possibility of Will and Grace “getting together” hung like a quizzical, bi-sexual sword of Damocles over the pair.
All this said, “Will and Grace” was brilliantly performed.  The four actors were superb and often very funny indeed despite my own problems with their fictional TV characters.  (I stress this because we do become over invested in things that are not real, yes?) 

Looking back, I also appreciate the ribald un-PC attitude.  I wonder if “fag” and “homo” are going to be bandied about among the four pals with such abandon, this time around? 
For the return of the actors, and perhaps some good old fashioned political incorrectness, not to mention making a mark in uncertain times, I look forward to the further adventures of Will,  Grace, Jack and Karen.  (However, as Karen would say, “As long as I’m drunk, what’s the difference?”)
“Queer Eye”?  We shall see. That “eye” is not always the arbiter of what looks good. But in this word of reality-esque TV, LGBT people  have the same right to look just as ridiculous as straight housewives, Alaskan bush people, smarmy bachelors, risk-taking masochists, aspiring singers and dancers and people who insist their life’s dream is to live in a tiny house.
ENDQUOTE: Mark 8:36

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

For centuries we have repeated and reflected on those words from the Bible, often drawing comparisons to this or that in our own life and time. 

But have we ever pondered what it will profit a man who gains the whole world but who has no soul to lose? Now might be a good time to start.
Contact Liz here.