Friday, October 13, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Song of Hope and Humor

Lena Horne surrounded by Cecily Tyson, Gregory Peck, Alan King, Liz Smith, Rosie O'Donnell, and Osborn Elliott at "Lena, the Legacy: A Four-Generation All-Star Salute" at Lincoln Center, 1999. Zuma Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

“Joan Rivers Confidential” ... Amy Adams and American Cinematheque ... Ella! A Tribute to The First Lady of Song" ... Esther Williams in "Easy to Love" and Judy and Gene Kelly in "The Pirate" ... Lena Lena sing!

“I DON’T exercise. If God had wanted me to bend over, he would have put diamonds on the floor!” said the late, great Joan Rivers.
FANS of Joan Rivers still miss her terribly — particularly these days.  Oh, what a time she’d be having with our president, and the first lady! (And she’d scorch the earth concerning Harvey Weinstein.)

So if you want to hear some inside dish on Joan, get yourself tickets to the 92nd Street Y, for October 25th. (92nd Street and Lexington Avenue.)  There, Joan’s daughter, Melissa Rivers, with help from Whoopi Goldberg, will chat about Melissa’s coming book, “Joan Rivers Confidential.” Melissa and Whoopi will talk of never-before-heard jokes, share unpublished photos and personal files — letters from fans, famous and just folks, and reminisce about the comic icon, gone way too soon. Visit (Having attended many of these events at the Y, I have a feeling this one is going to be a packed-to-the-rafters evening.)
... AMY ADAMS five-time Oscar nominee, will be feted at the annual American Cinematheque gala on November 10th.  This happens at Beverly Hilton Hotel’s International Ballroom.  Already on board to honor Ms. Adams — Tom Hanks, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Messina, Kristen Stewart and Meryl Streep.  More, more, more are expected.  In the lengthy press release about this event I could not find a phone number or email address regarding tickets. Try 323-466-FILM. This I think will put you in touch with American Cinematheque.
... ON November 12th, at Birdland Jazz Club (315 West 44th Street), the jazzy and eclectic Thana Alexa will perform “Ella! A Tribute to The First Lady of Song.”  The program will feature Ella’s great hits, and given Thana’s eclectic approach to jazz — to all music — there are likely to be some surprises.

This is Ella Fitzgerald’s centennial year, and her smooth, brilliant style is being celebrated all over the county — the world! — special concerts, tributes, museum exhibitions. 

Lately, I’ve been wearing out my vinyls of her “Songbook” collection.  And every time I think I’ve settled on the “best” — Mercer or Arlen or Duke Ellington or the Gershwins, etc. I find myself at a loss. Every album is a complete and ravishing masterpiece. 

“Ella!” is sponsored by the admirable non-profit Music Talks organization. For tickets call 212-581-3080 or visit
I FELL into MGM movie musical fantasy the other night, watching Esther Williams in “Easy to Love” and Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in “The Pirate.”

Miss Williams, swimming champion-turned-movie-queen, was actually considerably more than the famous Fanny Brice wisecrack. “Wet, she’s a star, dry she ain’t.”
Esther was a beauty, of course, and the supposed attraction of her phenomenally successful string of movies, were those elaborate “water ballets” which became increasingly elaborate with every film.  But even back then, audiences needed more from a star than underwater gymnastics.  Williams had real presence, a wry, no-nonsense attitude that took the curse off of the contrived plots of her films. In short, she could really act. 1953’s “Easy to Love” came toward the end of her reign at MGM, but she gave it her all in and out of the water, which wasn’t easy — her appealing leading man, Van Johnson, was saddled playing a character so unlikeable, that is seemed reasonable Williams would drown him rather than fall in love. Had Esther Williams not known a butterfly from a backstroke, she still would have been a star — bone dry.
As for “The Pirate,” Miss Garland’s one famous flop during her eighteen years at MGM, it is indeed an arch and arty thing, though it looks a lot better now than it must have to 1948 audiences.  Garland and Kelly and terrific, deliberately hamming it up, playing to the balcony — in China!  (He is an actor who pretends to be a notorious pirate.  She is a girl from a small village who yearns for excitement.)  Judy is bone thin, but looks gorgeous and her comic timing is superb.  Her famous singing voice, however, is often rough, with no help from the over-arranged Cole Porter songs, which are among the least impressive of his career.
“The Pirate” really belongs to Kelly, doing his send-up of swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks.  He is sewn into a variety of sexy costumes, including an astonishing pair of short-shorts for one number.  (Miss Garland, not at her best emotionally, became convinced that the director — her husband Vincent Minnelli — and Gene were not only undermining her performance, but having an affair!  It must have been those shorts.) 

After the failure of “The Pirate” Judy would return to playing high-strung variations of roles she’d been doing since her teenage years — “Easter Parade” ... ”In The Good Old Summertime” ... ”Summer Stock.”  Mr. Kelly would continue to be sewn into his pants, and go on to greater glory — and an Oscar — with “On the Town” and “An American in Paris.” 
MAIL:  “I know it was Barbra Streisand!” ... “Patti LuPone, 100%!” ... “It was Aretha Franklin!

The debate continues to rage (okay we’ve had about two dozen emails) about who was it who referred to Lena Horne as a “song stylist” rather than a truly great singer. (This occurred during an interview I had with a formidable singer/actress about ten years ago.)

Not Patti!
I’ve dutifully responded to each email, to every person who was certain so-and-so was the “culprit.”  Most of the people who suggested this or that name seemed relieved that it wasn’t.  However, those who put forward Ms. LuPone didn’t seem to want to believe me. (As everybody knows, Patti speaks truth — her truth — to power. Get her started on Madonna, and stand back!)

I’d tell who it was, but this has become very amusing.  (And boy, do we need amusement now!)  I don’t think the lady in question would care or mind or even be aware of it. We are hardly at the peak of our influence these days. And it wasn’t a mean-spirited remark — simply a critique of one performer about another.  I just happened to disagree. So, to use an old-fashioned prompting, keep those cards and letters coming.  This guessing game fascinates me.

P.S. Speaking of Lena, producer Terry Hodge Taylor sent along this: “Regarding Lena Horne ... I have had the pleasure of producing over 100 concert salutes to the legends of show business since 1981. Five of those salutes honored Lena Horne.

“Every concert event sold out. And when she came on stage the  audience always went wild. She was pure class; a star who knew who she was. You could not take your eyes off her.  Today — in my opinion — only Streisand and Bette Midler have that quality. Whitney Houston (while on stage!) could have matched Lena Horne's charisma and style.

“Lena sang for the last time in public at my concert honoring her at Lincoln Center in 1999. She had trouble walking, but when that 22 piece orchestra started and the audience shouted "Lena Lena sing" ... she straightened up, became 20 years younger. She stepped forward and was the star everyone was there to salute! She sang for the last time in public to — of course — a standing ovation.”

Thank you, Terry, for that. I remember the Lincoln Center night very well indeed.  Lena had been pretty active; she’d even recorded a new album, “Being Myself” the previous year.

But after the Lincoln Center concert, she all but vanished from public life, living on until 2010, and not missing, terribly — if at all — the hurly burly of being legendary.

She was born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne.  I think in her final decade, she wanted to be more in touch with Mary Calhoun.  She knew more than she wanted to about “Lena Horne.
Contact Liz here.