Monday, May 14, 2018

To be yourself

Linda Lavin’s Café Carlyle debut. Photos: David Andrako.
Linda Lavin Knows How to Be Herself — Most Charmingly! — at the Café
Carlyle. Also — Linda Yellen ... Ryan Murphy ... Leonardo da Vinci, "Billions" and "Westworld."   

by Denis Ferrara

you know.”
“Now I know what?”
“To be yourself.”

Those were Linda Lavin’s mother’s only words to her, after Lavin, around age twelve, at some school talent show, decided to sing Doris Day’s big hit, “Secret Love” in the manner of ... Judy Garland! 

Lavin’s new show — her Café Carlyle debut — is full of humor and charm, but honestly you haven’t lived until you’ve seen and heard Lavin perform “Secret Love” in overly dramatic, vibrato-heavy Garland style. (It’s safe to say those who attend Café Carlyle performances know the legendary styles — smooth and intense, respectively — of Day and Garland.)
Sporting thick tawny hair and an agile, slim-hipped body, Lavin presents an act which is rich with Gershwin, Rodger and Hart, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, etc. It is not perhaps the most transcendent evening at the fabled room I’ve ever experienced. But it is sweetly jangling, jazzily off-center, full of modest humor, an embracing good will and almost casual, but not off-putting confidence. At this point, although her cabaret experience is not quite as extensive as her stage TV and movie life, she knows what she’s doing, and how to make the most of her personality and her voice — not a soaring instrument, but rich with tenderness, some surprising choices on notes, and a — what to call it — a “vocal smile.”
With the expert help of Billy Stritch at the piano and also providing a few vocals, Lavin builds her set from Porter’s “I’ve Got My Eyes on You/You Do Something to Me” to Ellington and Strayhorn’s “I’m Checking Out Goodbye” all the way to “How High the Moon” (Hamilton and Lewis).  There’s a delicious sense of her awe at the being in the great space, combined with a dexterity and style that announces she is at home with the daunting, disparate echoes of  Bobby Short — the man who defined and “made” the Carlyle — Barbara Cook, Woody Allen, Judy Collins, Eartha Kitt, Dixie Carter, Alan Cumming, Debbie Harry and the incomparable Elaine Stritch, whose final performance there, slightly more than a year before her death, remains seared into my mind and on my heart. 
Billy Stritch on piano.
Lavin will be in residence at the Carlyle until the 18th.  Judging by audience reaction, she’ll be back.  Her musical taste, her way with a great lyric, needs no improvement.  Next time, perhaps, a few more stories.  It’s been quite a life, and one senses there’s many a tale to tell.

I’d be criminally remiss not to mention Ron Affif on guitar, Tom Hubbard on bass, Steven Bakunas and Lavin’s “special guest” violinist Aaron Weinstein, a baby-faced 32-year-old who twice brought the room to tumultuous applause, pleasurable hoots and appreciative hollers. 
Ron Affif on guitar.
Steven Bakunas on drums.
"Special guest” violinist Aaron Weinstein.
There’s nothing quite like an evening at the Café Carlyle. Even in the best of times — you pick your own “best” — one feels uniquely civilized, cosseted.  These days, it’s like life-saving  oxygen up on East 76th Street, in that charming room still graced by the murals of Marcel Vertes.
THIS ‘N THAT:  While my great and talented friend, director/writer/producer Linda Yellen puts the finishing touches to “Fluidity” her sexy, stylish, feature film tale of young moderns looking for meaning in a world disconnected by too much connection, Ms. Yellen’s great labor of love, “The Last Film Festival” — which was Dennis Hopper’s final appearance on screen — has been sold to the foreign distributor Glasshouse, and has its own booth at the Cannes Film Festival.  Linda has poured her heart, soul and her own money into this project, which also stars Jackie Bisset, JoBeth Williams, Joseph Cross and Chris Kattan.  Linda is thrilled! Knowing her belief in this film — in all her films, from “Playing for Time” to “End of Summer” to “The Simian Line” to “Sweet Bird of Youth” (Elizabeth Taylor’s last plunge into the fevered world of Tennessee Williams) — a place at Cannes is so well deserved.
... BECAUSE I can’t quite make up my mind about Ryan Murphy or his work, I dutifully read every word of Emily Nussbaum’s lengthy profile of the hugely successful producer of “Nip/Tuck,” “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story,” etc.  He is a great big colorful mix of much-needed truth-telling, snobbery, old grievances, high camp, not much humor, too much humor and an unabashed need to succeed commercially and critically (he has had more of the former than the latter, and it seems to irk him.)  It’s a terrific read because one minute Murphy is charming, and in the next, not so much. Nussbaum captures his duality with expertise, admiration and sympathy.
But one story Murphy told of his childhood — a childhood he found sufficiently unhappy as to be unable to totally forgive his parents — made me smile broadly in recognition.  He recalled watching “Gone With the Wind” as a kid, and was eagerly reenacting the Wilkes barbecue scene.  His father asked why Ryan was only performing the female roles.  The boy who would become a man who would elevate so many grand leading ladies as an adult replied, “Because they’re the better parts.”  Ryan says his father smacked him across the face.  An awful tale.
But I remembered a very similar scene from my own childhood.  I might have been reciting something from an old Betty Grable movie — her films were often shown endlessly on the “Million Dollar Movie.” (I might even have been performing “Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” from Betty’s “Wabash Avenue.”)   It was my aunt and my mother, who kind of cornered me and asked the very same question — why only the women?   I replied, “Because they’re more interesting!”  This answer provoked grave expressions but no physical attack.  The fix was pretty much in, at that point.  (I was never asked why I liked all of Johnny Sheffield’s “Bomba” movies.  Nobody wanted that answer!)   So, what the hell, I feel a little more connected to Mr. Murphy.  And I’m sure that makes him feel much better!
... I WAS amused by Beth Landman and Rhonda Richford’s piece in the Hollywood Reporter on the differences between French and American women on the matter of plastic surgery.  One French surgeon said “My patients live in fear of the Hollywood look!”  And another declared, “We think if a facelift shows, it’s a disaster.”  This same doctor revealed “Isabelle Huppert just had a facelift and looks healthier and more relaxed.”  Well, good for the lovely Ms. Hubert, but one wonders if — French or not — she’d have rather had people think she was simply “more relaxed.”   However, even in France, social media is having an effect — more women are approaching their plastic surgeons with altered images of themselves, using Snapchat or Instagram filters. (Ridiculously inflated backsides and lips, courtesy of the Kardashians.)   And currently, Meghan Markle’s nose is “the one” to have.   Because, naturally, every hot, ginger-haired, fabulously wealthy prince in the world is going to want you, because of that Markle-like nose. 
... I READ Walter Isaacson’s great big biography on Leonardo da Vinci, and came to love da Vinci more than I’d expected.  Along with his expansive genius and almost supernatural curiosity, I liked (I related?) to the artist’s tendency to be easily distracted and a great procrastinator.  I’d love to say I share at least one of his finer qualities but I’ll take what I can. (Leonardo was a vegan, or at least vegetarian in a very meaty world, but that road I could never take. Burger King’s Double Whopper is my Mona Lisa.)   And if you want to know — as Leonardo did — the workings of the tongue of a woodpecker, stick with this book.  Absolutely splendid in every way.
I found Leonardo more palatable than Edith Wharton — after 700 pages of Hermione Lee’s biography on the “Age of Innocence” author, or another 700 pages about the life of Lord Byron. (I have to admit, I was attracted to the Byron book because of the title, “Child of Passion, Fool of Fame” by Benita Eisler.)  

Although I came to the decision that Ms. Wharton was not somebody I’d care much to know — she was a woman of her time, place and certain prejudices — her work ethic and a prodigious and varied output fascinated me.  Yes, I’ve ordered “The Complete Works of Edith Wharton.”  Byron I couldn’t get into at all.  For one thing, I really don’t like poetry, so even attempting the book was foolish, as it is packed with his poems.  And while I felt for his miserable childhood, acerbated by the handicap of a club foot, his endless sexual dramas — which included beautiful boys, the famously crazed Lady Caroline Lamb and his own half sister — began to pall.  He just wasn’t very nice.  I might have misjudged him however, simply because the book included so much of his work — it irritated me.  I do indeed have the soul of a Byron-esque reprobate but not, alas, of a poet.
... FINALLY, I am watching the latest season of Showtime’s “Billions” with Damien Lewis as an oddly shrunken-looking ruthless billionaire businessman, and Paul Giamatti as his well-cushioned, ruthless attorney foe.  It’s a maddening show because there is not ONE person to root for.  Everyone is vile or stupid and all aboard talk in taxing, unrealistic, ugly, smart-ass aphorisms. (Aaron Sorkin without the sanctimony.)  And how to relate to characters who don’t think sums such as $40 million or $300 million are just not enough to “get by.”   I yell at the screen a lot.
“Westworld” is back, and with so much more violence, now that the robots have rebelled, it is more interesting and slightly less confusing.  Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores finally seems to be giving a performance.  Thandie Newton (Maeve), who was the show’s saving grace for me last season, remains riveting, if not yet given as much to do as the vengeful, pistol-packin’ Dolores.
Contact Denis here.