Monday, May 15, 2017

LIZ SMITH: The Divine Ones

Louella, with Hedda lurking behind.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Bette Midler is Queen of Broadway, But Who (If Anyone!) Can Inherit Her "Dolly" Crown? "Feud: Louella and Hedda" That Could be a Thing, Ryan Murphy.

“BROADWAY HAS been very good to me.  But then, I’ve been very good to Broadway,” said a justifiably un-modest Ethel Merman.
HOW BIG, how successful is Bette Midler in “Hello, Dolly!”?  So big that people are already wondering and worrying who will take over for Bette when she leaves the production?  “Dolly” is a star vehicle that exists and rests entirely on the vibrant personality of the lady playing the musical matchmaker.

Will the behemoth now occupying the Shubert Theater wither and die without The Divine One?  Or, as happened with Carol Channing, will the show go on, with fabulous replacements (the most famous of those being Pearl Bailey, who came in with an entirely new African-American cast and got herself a special Tony Award, too.) 
The wondering over Bette/”Dolly” actually began last week on Facebook, via our friend, PR man, Scott Gorenstein, who asked his FB “friends” to submit their ideas.  Names ranging from Melissa McCarthy to Linda Eder to Tyne Daly were offered.   But it was Scott’s pal, sound designer Matt Kraus, who came up with what would surely be the best media choice (and no slouch in the singing/acting department, either.)  I do mean ... Dolly Parton!  Dolly as Dolly!  The commercials alone — which have been so effective and brilliant for Bette — would be out of sight!   It’s a great idea.  So great that it was actually picked up by an online gossip site, under the headline “Bette Midler Being Replaced By Dolly Parton.” 
Neither Mr. Gorenstein or Mr. Kraus were credited — nor are the producers actually, to my knowledge thinking so far ahead now. (How can they, at this point?  They are dizzy from the staggering box-office Bette has generated!) But when they do, and if Miss Parton is thought of, let’s be on record that it began with Mr. G.’s Facebook page.  (He reps, among others, Liza Minnelli.)

Scott also thinks that if anybody looks to recreate the Pearl Bailey experience, Patti LaBelle is the go-to diva. Queen Latifah and Diana Ross also scored high. (Those who saw the glorious Ross recently at New York’s City Center would exclaim, YES to that!)

And let me add my own suggestion. Want something totally different but sure to be great?  Charles Busch. (Marvelous to imagine Dolly Levi with Busch's favorite Norma Shearer shadings!)
NOW THAT the first season of the FX series “Feud: Bette and Joan” is over — but for the Emmy nominations for Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon — it got me to wondering if producer Ryan Murphy has thought about a Hedda Hopper/Louella Parsons season?

Just as the writers of TV’s “Feud” clearly dipped into the deep well that was Shaun Considine’s book “Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud” about Davis and Crawford, Mr. Ryan and his minions might search out the delicious 1972 book, “Hedda and Louella” by George Eells. 

Along with memoirs penned by the gossip queens themselves: “Hedda’s “Under My Hat” and Louella’s “Tell It To Louella.”  Miss Parsons’ first book was the wonderfully titled “The Gay Illiterate.”  That one, published in 1945 was somewhat before the word “gay” automatically indicated homosexual. (Knowing eyebrows were raised, still and all.) And the title was also meant as a swipe at herself.

From the start of her career, Parson’s grip on grammar and sentence structure was tenuous, and she knew it. Like Hopper, she didn’t mind making fun of herself, a bit, but woe to others who did!

The story of the real-life competition between Hopper and Parsons would make a fabulous “Feud” season (Think of all the big names of today they could drop in as big names of yesteryear.)
Hopper was a beautiful, frustrated, sexually prudish, failed actress. (Was it any surprise that many of Hedda’s most criticized targets were beautiful successful actresses?)

Parsons was a dowdy, plumpish, eager, ambitious journalist and lover of movies from practically the get-go. She affected a deceptively cozy persona that hid shark-like tendencies. Hedda reveled in her blatant bitchiness.
Bogie and Bette lock eyes over Louella.
The rumor was that Parsons secured her position with the Hearst syndication because she knew how a live body became a dead body during a yachting trip with her boss, William Randolph Hearst. It’s likely just a myth, but it dogged Parsons her entire life.  (Check out the juicy little 2001 movie, “The Cat’s Meow” which spins its own version of Louella, Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies, Elinor Glyn and victim Thomas Ince, afloat.)
Hedda and Louella.
DURING their long, often terrible reigns, Parsons and Hopper made stars, producers, directors, and other columnists lives’ miserable with secrets held (for a price!) career-rattling scoops headlining columns and their intrusive demanding politically conservative ways.  (If you really stood up to either, you could survive. But as Hopper herself noted of her lavish mansion, “This is the house that fear built!”) 

In fact, their rivalry was made into a very witty little TV movie, 1985’s “Malice In Wonderland” with Elizabeth Taylor as an improbably slender and glamorous Louella, and Jane Alexander as the acerbic Hopper. (Taylor had a particularly high old time playing Parsons, even though Louella had been much less an enemy than Hopper.  Hedda, once a “friend,” had turned on La Liz after the Eddie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds scandal.  That Liz’s career only seemed to benefit from scandal drove Hopper nearly insane!)
ET as Louella and Jane Alexander as Hopper in “Malice In Wonderland."
But the story of these two remarkably successful, toweringly ambitious women deserves to be told, in “Feud”-like fashion. Would it, like “Bette and Joan” be rife with inaccuracies and exaggerations?  Sure, but I came to accept that, and in the case of Hedda and Louella, as Elizabeth put it, during the “Malice” production: “I could have gained weight again, and put in her terrible false teeth, and all that.  But who even remembers what Louella or Hedda looked like, or WHO they were?”  At this, Taylor gave a little survivor’s chuckle — no matter what, the world would always know what Elizabeth Taylor looked like, and who she was.
My boss, Liz Smith — who agrees that a “Louella and Hedda” project would be amusing, at least — recalls her sole encounter with Hedda:

“I only had one run-in with Hedda Hopper when I was writing for the New York Journal American for Igor Cassini.

One night I drifted into El Morocco to see who was sitting in the first VIP booth. It was usually Lyndon Johnson or Aristotle Onassis. As I walked around and a gorgeous woman, all in furs and a netted hat, stopped me. It was Hedda. She said, with a hand on my arm, “You must be Liz Smith, the new girl in Town!”
Hedda and Igor.
I was nonplussed. I stammered, “It’s so nice to see you Miss Hopper.” She looked me over. “Yes, you must be the one who gave my friend Mrs. Lowell Guinness the pip!”

With that Hedda moved on. I could swear she was chuckling, but whether by my attack (“the pip!”) on her friend, or at me and my homespun looks!  (I had not yet become a “natural blonde.”)

“In ‘Feud’ Hedda was played wonderfully by Judy Davis as an unapologetically partisan troublemaker. Ryan Murphy sure got that right!”
Hedda played by Judy Davis.

Contact Liz here.