Friday, March 27, 2015

Treasured memories

"Ghost" ship on the Hudson River. 5:50 PM. Photo: JH.
Friday, March 27, 2015. An overcast day with temperatures warming into the mid-50s and finally in the early evening, a balmy 62 with a light fog rolling in along the Hudson. Mother Nature giving us a taste of moderation; something missing  in many parts of humanity’s world. Thunderstorms passing through, however; with snowfall predicted for tonight into Saturday.

Treasured memories. The Lauren Bacall Collection goes under the auction hammer next Tuesday, March 31st at Bonham’s, the auction gallery at 580 Madison Avenue between 56th and 57th Street. The exhibition opens today, March 27th for viewing, and runs through Monday March 30.

I haven’t seen it although I have seen the catalogue which features photographs of the rooms of her famous apartment in the Dakota where she lived for the past half century.

I never knew Ms. Bacall, who was known as Betty to her devoted friends and colleagues. I’d seen her quite a few times around and about including at Zabar's on Saturdays and at benefits and screenings. I had a very brief experience with her when I was a kid and had a part time job working at the door at Sardi’s with Jimmy the maître’d. She had a nettlesome side that was democratic (anyone in her presence at the right moment could see it – or experience it). But that’s not really what I remember about her. I remember probably what you and everyone else remembers: that voice, that attitude, that personal stature and at times when she was younger, that chic. She was sheer talent.

Betty Persky was her name, a New Yorker from north of Manhattan. She was discovered in the 1940s and touched with fame by the photographs of Louise Dahl Wolfe. The rest is the fondest memories for us, the audience. She made an appearance at the 70th birthday celebration for Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood singing a specially written (lyric) version of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s “The Saga of Jenny” with parody lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and called “Lenny.” This was 1988. You see Bacall at her brilliant best: the veteran Broadway baby. 
Which leads me to: looking through our archive for images of Bacall, I came upon this Diary written for November 9, 2004 about a benefit held at the Pierre for the Stella Adler School. It was a starfest, a tribute to the great actress and teacher. It was the kind of benefit that anyone of us could love. So we decided to re-run it for all of those readers who never saw it and for those who will be reminded with pleasure – as it was for us.
Stella by Starlight invite.
Tuesday, November 9, 2004. Turned cold last night. Overcoat time. Over at the Pierre they were holding the 3rd annual Stella by Starlight gala “to celebrate the legacy of Stella Adler and to benefit the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.” I missed the first two for reasons I can’t remember. This year the roster of luminaries appearing was so stellar I thought it would be crazy to pass it up: Warren Beatty, Mike Nichols, Roy Scheider Jessica Lange, Lauren Bacall, Eli Wallach and Ann Jackson, Tony Danza, Ron Howard, Elizabeth Ashley, Tony Kushner, Budd Schulberg, Marian Seldes, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Arthur Penn, Whoopi Goldberg. Really.

When I was a very young man in New York I studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse with the legendary Sanford Meisner whose reputation was born in the 1930s with the Group Theatre. The Group Theatre, which was founded in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg was a pioneering attempt to create a theatre collective, a unified company of players dedicated to presenting contemporary plays. It was both a profound and heady time in American culture with no small thanks to the Depression. People bonded together to rebuild a fallen world. The Group included Elia Kazan, John Garfield, Will Geer, Howard Da Silva, Fronchot Tone, Clifford Odets, Kurt Weill, Lee J. Cobb as well as Stella Adler and her brother Luther Adler.
The hullabaloo at The Pierre for Stella by Starlight. 7:45 PM. Photo: JH.
The Adlers were from a distinguished acting family that had already played an important role in the development of American theatre in the 20th century. Their father Jacob had come from Russia and established the Yiddish Theatre in America. It was Stella, tall and beautiful and royal in her theatrical presence who actually was the only American to meet and study with the Russian director Stanislavsky in Paris. Stanislavsky’s system of training and rehearsal for actors was employed by the Group Theatre company and later became known as the Method and subsequently influenced all acting in the world to this day.

Stella Adler, circa 1937.
Stella Adler teaching acting technique in 1976. Photo: Rue Faris Drew.
This was all history by the time I was at the Neighborhood Playhouse. The revolutionaries had become the establishment. Stella Adler, whom I never met, was teaching acting at her own studio and had a reputation that was large and eccentrically flashy. It was known that two of her protégés – and she was famous in the business for her fondness for handsome young men – were firstly Marlon Brando and then more recently Warren Beatty. By then Marlon Brando was considered by many to be the greatest living actor in America and maybe the world. Stella Adler was given full credit for her role in his artistic development although she herself said that she merely “opened the door and Marlon moved quickly through.”

Last night in the ballroom of The Pierre all of this was recalled in an evening totally devoted to acting and theatre (and of course movies). Roy Scheider, who created this gala with director Gordon Hunt (and father of Helen Hunt) three years ago in an effort to raise money for Stella’s acting studio (now headed by her grandson Tom Oppenheim), opened the evening. Scheider was a disciple of Harold Clurman, once a husband of Stella’s and considered by many as the embodiment of the “spirit and incandescence of the Group Theatre.”

We met Stella’s daughter Ellen Adler, also a lifelong friend of Brando’s (since they were teenagers together) who made the welcoming remarks. There was a Salute to Musical Theatre (after the first course) with performances of Kander and Ebb songs – honoring the late Fred Ebb – by Brent Barrett, Melissa Errico and Marin Mazzie, directed by Gordon Hunt and accompanied on the piano by David Raleigh. Two young actresses Casey Wilson and June Raphael performed a musical skit “Rode Hard and Put Away Wet.” Tom Oppenheim told us of his plans for the development of the studio. He introduced two members of the board, Rita Fredricks and Pamela Newman, and then the presentations began.

Stella by Larry Rivers.
Maybe it was because it was a theatre evening, maybe because it was an evening of actors and directors, but it just wasn’t like any other gala. There was no orchestra, no dancing, and not a lot of the clattering crowd vying with the men and women at the podium. And a lot of storytelling with an audience completely rapt and enthralled.

It was Stella Adler’s evening but somehow, as it would be for an acting teacher/director of her stature, it was about the others too: the playwright – Arthur Miller who received the Group Theatre award; the playwright – Tony Kushner – who received the Jacob Adler Award (from Mike Nichols), and especially Marlon Brando who posthumously received the Stella Adler Award with special tributes to him by director Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty and Whoopi Goldberg.

Arthur Miller was too ill to attend and so was his presenter Zoe Caldwell. Roy Scheider pitched in and Rebecca Miller Lewis (who is married to Daniel Day Lewis) accepted for her father. She said that she’d asked her father what she should say in his behalf. His words were that “he was honored to be receiving an award in the name of Stella Adler whom he deeply respected.” Ms. Miller told the audience that at first it didn’t seem like much to say and then she realized that it was a lot to say.

Nichols told several amusing stories before making his presentation. Kushner read a prepared speech about the honor of the award he was receiving. Then producer Mike Medavoy, a longtime friend of Brando and now one of his executors spoke about the man. Medavoy was followed by Arthur Penn who told several amusing anecdotes about working with Brando on “The Chase” and then “Missouri Breaks.”
Mike Nichols makes his entrance.
Mike Nichols and Lauren Bacall.
Then Warren Beatty who lived on “a minute” away from Brando on Mulholland Drive talked about their relationship. Brando was a man with many friendships, many of which he kept up. He was one who might call at any hour of the night to talk. Sometimes two in the morning. Beatty said that his wife Annette Bening would ask the next day: “What were you two talking about?” Beatty reported that initially it might be something of gravity but often came down to memories, such as lyrics to Broadway tunes, or ... telephone numbers. The two men shared incredible memories for people’s telephone numbers. Give one the number, the other would come up with the name. One night Beatty gave Brando a number that stumped him: Crestview 5-2317. Not a clue, Brando had forgotten his own number.

Warren Beatty meets and greets with fans of all persuasions ...
I’d never seen Warren Beatty “live” and talking before an audience. I was reminded (not surprisingly) of that character “George” in one of my all-time favorite movies of his — “Shampoo.” A combination of sincerity, a kind of intelligent bumbling, a manly yet unyielding boyishness and a modest yet strong sense of self-parody.

Still so charming, so handsome after four decades up there on the screen – earlier in the evening at the cocktail reception he could be seen talking like the very polite host to whomever came up to him, and letting himself be photographed with anyone who had a digital, surrounded by a lot of women eager to be in the picture with the matinee idol. I was watching him putting all that in the context of a man who was close to Brando, who spoke of his friend with loving irony, with amusing affection and ultimately with the actor’s command of the subject and the audience. The Star talking about the Star. No one in the room was disappointed.

Beatty whom everyone knew was also a protégé of Stella Adler, said, as others had said that evening also, that Brando would not have wanted to have an award given to him, or accepted one. Except he said, if he’d heard it was for Stella, he would have conceded. For Stella, Brando’s respect was without peer.

“ Stella …” Brando wrote in his memoir Songs My Mother Taught Me, “left an astounding legacy. Virtually all acting in motion pictures today stems from her, and she had an extraordinary effect on the culture of her time ... I don’t think audiences realize how much we are in debt to her, to other Jews and to the Russian theater for most performances we see now.”

One of Brando’s sons, Miko Brando, came onstage to accept the actual award. The young Mr. Brando, heavyset with long hair brushed back, a Tahitian-American with his father’s quiet bearing and his father’s unmistakable voice, was brief and gracious.

In all this there was the storytelling – with Stella woven through Brando woven through Stella.

Lastly they brought on Whoopi Goldberg. Her presence, she explained, was just as curious to her as it might have been to anyone listening. Several years ago when she was staying in Los Angeles, her agent called her one day and told her that Marlon Brando wanted her to call him. Whoopi said she was so astounded by the message that aside from not quite believing it, she was almost annoyed at her agent for telling her – as if it were some kind of joke. She didn’t call him.

Several weeks later the agent asked if she’d called him. “No.” Because he’d called again and wanted her to call him. Still incredulous, she made the call. As she put it to the audience last night, she was shocked when the voice that picked up on the other end of the line was Brando’s, noting of course that she shouldn’t have been so shocked since she too answers her own phone.

He wanted to know why she’d taken so long. She told him she couldn’t believe Marlon Brando wanted her to call him. For what? He asked her what she was doing. “Hanging out,” she told him. He asked her if he could hang with her. Amazed, she acceded. “Marlon Brando wants to hang with me!” she told to the audience, still amazed at the memory. So they made a time the following day. She gave him her address and told him how to get in the gate, and hung up, still in wonder.

Later that same day, she was upstairs in her house when she heard someone playing the piano downstairs. She herself didn’t play the piano but she had one because, as she put it, every star in Hollywood has a piano in their house – even though they don’t play. She couldn’t figure out who could be playing, so she tiptoed down the stairs and peeked around the corner. It was ... ”MARLON BRANDO!”

He was playing a tune. She knew the words. “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie.” She sang along. He sang along. A few minutes her mother came through the room. She described her mother as a woman who is always very gracious, speaking always in a mellifluous ladylike tone when meeting people. Only once had she ever seen her mother lose her cool and become completely unglued. And that was when they were riding on a bus in New York one day and she saw Sidney Poitier on the street.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jessica Lange, and Lauren Bacall.
Whoopi said her mother let out such a scream from the bus window that her kids thought she was going right out the window. So on this day, when her mother was walking through the living room and sudden realized that it was MARLON BRANDO! at the piano, Whoopi could see that sudden change in character about to break out. She gave her mother a look ... her mother suddenly “clicked” and stayed her gracious self.

Something similar happened a few minutes later when Whoopi’s brother Clyde came through. Later on she could hear him in that back of the house yelling “MarlonBrando MarlonBrando!!!”

Whoopi confided that she too had those late night phone conversations with Brando – although hers weren’t about phone numbers but more about things like growing food at the bottom of the ocean. Uh-huh.

She said that she felt very accepted by Brando, no matter what her faults, things she considered her faults, might be; that he was a wonderful friend. She told us that after he’d passed on, she realized she was never as good a friend to him as he was to her. She didn’t call him as much as she should have. Partly because he was still “Marlon Brando,” and that it was something she never quite got over. But it made her realize that she should pay more attention to anyone in her life who really means something to her because “you never know that the next day might take them away for ever.”

Whoopi was very touched by her memory of the great one, as were all of us in the room. They ran some clips of him, as a very young boy in what must have been a home movie; then a clip from Edward R. Murrow’s Person To Person 50s television series where he played the bongos with a friend and later a couple of interviews, one in which he spoke in fluent French.

“There is no part of the human experience that is beyond Marlon’s understanding,” Stella Adler once said or wrote. “It is his humanity that makes him so great.” We shared in it last night, and in the memory of his great mentor. It was a fabulous, truly star-studded evening.
Mike Nichols with Stella Adler's daughter, Ellen Adler. Katharina Otto-Bernstein.
Eli Wallach. Budd Schulberg.
Michael Medavoy.
Lauren Bacall and Bobby Zarem. Barbara Hearst.
Albert Maysles.
Doug Olear. Jaime de Roy, Elizabeth Ashley, and Cynthia Adler.
Gina de Franco and Tony Danza. Bryce Howard.

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