Monday, January 2, 2017

The name of the game

Looking across the Tuilleries from a suite in Le Meurce Hotel towards the (l. tor.) Musée de l'Armée, Musée de l'Orangerie, and the Eiffel Tower. 12:00 AM, New Year's Eve. Photo: JH.
Monday, January 2, 2017. A sunny day, yesterday in New York, mildly cold but fair. The neighborhood was very  quiet on New Year’s Eve Day. There is now a long line of disposed of Christmas trees reclining on the parkside side walk of Gracie Square, many neatly wrapped in plastic, waiting for their disposal.
I’d spent the New Year’s Eve at dinner as a guest of Charlie Scheips and Tom Graf at their apartment, along with Philip Carlson. All now old friends in this man’s life. Dinner at 8, no loss for things to talk about at this table of talkers, particularly Mr. Scheips and this writer. Charlie is also an excellent cook. He’s literally worn out two editions of Julia Child’s classic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

The menu was simple: roast chicken, peas and baked potato with sour cream and chives (or butter if you must). Very simple, but because of Charlie’s (and Julia’s) sense of taste, it was simply delicious. Libation was a couple of bottles Dom Perignon, gifts to me from generous people, and a California Cabernet, gifts of Mr. Carlson. I’d been saving the Dom for this night, and they gave us a little something special for the moment that it is.
JH and Danielle spent New Year's Eve in Paris. Their night consisted of ordering room service at their suite in Le Meurice Hotel overlooking the Tuileries (with a view of the Eiffel Tower, Mais oui!)
The sudden departure last week of Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds within a day of each other was all over the media, the number one story that wasn’t gruesome or terrifying. Just very sad. Debbie was the kind of woman who would have appreciated that kind of newsworthiness about anyone’s demise. She and Carrie would have been impressed to know that they had both garnered more publicity in that week than either had since Eddie Fisher left Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor.
Publicity was, and remains, the name of the game in their profession. Keeping the persona Out There In Front of the audience for decades is no small matter. Both women respected and used that marketing device very effectively throughout their careers. Their public images were distinctly different in the generational sense. But their intentions were identical: get work. Mother was the teacher. She had learned well from those who knew.
I got a good look at their lives, particularly Debbie’s life and personality, in the late '80s when I wrote the autobiography “Debbie, My Life” (Morrow) for her. I could and can still recall the day, when I was a young kid after school that  I rode my bike down to the Park Theater in the center of town to see “Singin’ In the Rain” on the big screen. I’d already seen her two years before in “Two Weeks With Love” where she sang “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” with Carlton Carpenter. That tune really hit the spot. There are more than a few of us, sixty-five years later, who still know all the words (there were about ten of them) and still sing it to ourselves. I know this because some have confided that to me.
This incident of last week got me to take the book down off the shelf and read it again. In a way, I never I “wrote” it because although Debbie never wrote one word of it and never read any of it until it was finished, it was entirely hers except for the paragraphs, sentences and phrases that kept the continuity. I’d interviewed her for more than 100 hours over the course of a year, transcribed every word, and used much of it to create the story told in her own words, as well as reflect the personality which was at once witty, clever, sharp, hilarious, perspicacious, loyal, kind, and sad.
Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire’s career-long partner in Fred’s choreography, had worked several times with Debbie from early in her career, and knew her well. When he heard I’d been hired to write her book, he described her thusly: “She’s not a great actress, she’s not a great singer, she’s not a great dancer, but she is a great talent!!” Debbie could do everything, and she worked hard at infusing that great talent in a performance that left a sweet and gentle impression and appreciation on millions. As well as often leave them laughing.

In my search for what I’d written about her since then, I came up this Diary entry published the NYSD on May 29, 2013. The occasion was I’d just seen Debbie in the role of Liberace’s mother Frances in the HBO production of Stephen Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra. It came as a surprise to a lot of NYSD readers that that was Debbie in the role.
Debbie in the role of Liberace’s mother Frances in “Behind the Candelabra."
Debbie and Liberace during a birthday party for Tom Jones (left) at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, 1974. Photograph: LVNP/EPA
Seeing it, I knew instantly that Debbie’s Frances was an exacting re-creation of the real person. The Mother. Debbie and Lee had been very good friends. They were neighbors in Las Vegas as well as neighbors in their hotel appearances. Many an after-the-show night was spent in each other’s dressing rooms, with their friends, entertaining each over drinks, and cigarettes, and laughter until dawn.

Lillian Burns Sidney, Hollywood, Circa 1947.
Debbie, circa 1950 in the office of Lillian Burns Sidney on the MGM lot.
Debbie’s performance as Frances Liberace was brilliant in even the classical sense. Debbie’s work reminded me of Lillian Burns Sidney who was her mentor and lifelong supporter of her talent.

Lillian had been the head acting coach at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1938 through 1952 when Mr. Mayer himself occupied the mogul’s suite in the Thalberg Building, and was the veritable King of Hollywood.

Lillian was a tiny woman, no more than 4’11” and standing (always) erect. She bore a natural air of distinction in her presence. She was always smartly dressed, poised; a forthright, plain spoken, right-thinking woman who loved the “picture business,” as it was called, and all kinds of the creative talent that went into it. Especially actors, writers and directors.

In her position during her time at Metro – from 1938 until 1952 when Louis B. Mayer resigned – Lillian was the highest paid non-actress on the lot earning more than $100,000 a year (or several million in today’s dollars) in the industry in the 1940s.

She was the woman who decided who among the contract players would get the star treatment. And who wouldn’t. She didn’t take her job lightly. She was very sophisticated in all aspects of theatre and films – as well as opera and the classics (she read from Shakespeare’s portfolio every night before she went to sleep). And she saw everything. After all, she’d say, “the camera doesn’t lie” so truth is everything.

Her relationship with Debbie Reynolds began when the teenage Debbie went from Warners over to MGM as a contract player, a starlet as it were. Debbie was sixteen or seventeen. In those days, the studios educated their contract people with a regimen that impressed discipline, commitment and focus . They were schooled in not only the arts, but in diction, dancing, walking, talking, smiling, singing, etiquette, and lighting – as well as learning, to maintain that “star’s” image at all times (while in public). Right down to one hour a day with the photographer to get that million dollar smile down to a science. The camera was king.

I was introduced to Debbie after being vetted by Lillian. Lillian and I had met in a circuitous way – the road that writers are often on while pursuing a project. I sent her some “samples” of my writing to consider me for the job. One was the story of my friend Channing Chase and her “Sudden Death” that I’ve since published on these pages. It was that story that “got” to Lillian, who read everything as if she were witnessing it personally on the screen.

Me and Lillian Sidney at a Debbie booksigning in Los Angeles in 1988.
She later told me that as she got to the end of the article in which the then comatose Channing was beginning to show signs of recovery, Lillian found herself saying out loud: “Live ... Live ... Live!!” She told me she then said to herself: “if he can do this for this girl I don’t know, he can do this for my Debbie ...”

When we met (in 1986), Debbie was then enjoying her 40th year in the entertainment/film/television business that used to be known as Show Business. Now she’s a senior veteran with a working career even longer than her MGM schoolhouse mate, Elizabeth Taylor. Considering the length of her film career, she’s worked with many of the greatest film directors (and stars) of the past eight decades. I don’t think there is anyone living who can make that claim, with the possible exception of Angela Lansbury who continues to take on new work. Of all the stars on the M-G-M roster who were developed by the studio, Debbie Reynolds remains the sole survivor, however.

I was thinking of Lillian on that Sunday night watching Debbie’s performance in the Liberace film. Debbie was her star child, her talented daughter. The two women often discussed Debbie’s work on specific projects. Lillian was a keen advisor when it came to creative work. Watching Debbie, I was thinking how Lillian would have been very proud of her student/daughter’s achievement in the role of Mrs. Liberace. Truth.
Lillian with another child star, Margaret O'Brien, in 1942.
Lillian Burns Sidney died in 1998 in her ninety-fifth year. She was a remarkable woman, a great friend, and a great character and loving teacher. There is a series of video interviews with her now on YouTube. They were done when she was in her late 80s or early 90s. The interviewer focused on her career in, and observations of, the American films made in the age of the Studio system. Lillian was one of a kind, an angel to many of us including her Debbi-la – as she referred to her in moments of fond memory.

If you should watch, bear in mind this is a woman who witnessed most of the great stage and film talent of the 20th century, a little girl from Chicago (she pronounced it Chi-caw-go) who became one of the most influential women in the American film industry in its so-called Golden Age. Lillian, our Lillian ...

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