The Great Life of Ida B. Wells … The “Wayward Lives” of Saidiya Hartman’s Women … Musings on Anne Baxter, Joan Collins, Lincoln Center, Annie Lennox, Piaf and … me.

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Anne Baxter in Yellow Sky, starring Gregory Peck and Richard Widmark as outlaws taking refuge in a ghost town inhabited only by Miss Baxter and her grandfather.

“THE ONLY way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion” — Albert Camus


MEMO
to Lupita Nyong’o or Regina King or any talented African American actress out there — do some research on Ida B. Wells and put her story onscreen!

I knew nothing about Wells until I caught PBS’s “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War,” which is based on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s book Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy and the Rise of Jim Crow.


Ida B. Wells Barnett, in a photograph by Mary Garrity from c. 1893.

Wells was an investigative journalist and civil rights activist of steely, unrelenting courage and determination.  Fearless in the face of death threats, she packed a pistol and headed off to face an enraged all-white mob that had destroyed her newspaper office in Memphis. (Ida’s pamphlet, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases” hadn’t gone over too well!)

Hers was a life of tireless commitment to civil rights and women’s rights, a life that included an equally engaged and supportive journalist husband and four children. She attempted to have it all, like so many women — if she succeeded or fell short, well, that’s up to a screenwriter and researchers to figure out.  She became one of the most famous African-American women of her time.

Oh, and let me suggest a screenwriter for Ida’s story — Saidiya Hartman, author of “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval.”  This is an astonishing, passionate chronicle of young black women escaping the brutality and hopelessness of the South in the early 20th century, imagining better things up north, only to be beaten down again. Written in lush, lyrical fever-dream-style the book is a beautiful nightmare of women (and their men), who wanted to live freely, in every way, but could not.

The episodes of brutality and unending disillusionment are heartbreaking. But breathtaking and glorious are the radical souls of these women — unknown to us, disregarded and abused in their time — reaching out eagerly for recognition, respect and focus in a world that enslaved them, “freed” them and then enslaved them again. This is adventurous compelling literature and bone-deep, bone-crushing history at its best.  “Wayward Lives…” would also make a magnificent series.  HBO, Showtime, Starz, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu — get on this!




“A Shepherd girl?
  What can she be to you? Unless the desert sun had dulled your senses?  Does she grate garlic on her skin, or is it soft, like mine? Are lips chaste and dry like the desert sand or are they moist and ripe, like a pomegranate? Is it the fragrance of myrrh that scents her hair, or it is the odor of sheep?”

“There is a beauty beyond the senses, Nefretiri…” 

So it goes between Anne Baxter and Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” which I watched yet again on Easter, during its annual airing over ABC-TV.



I never tire of this movie.  For one thing, it is dazzling to look at; pristine in its color and clarity. One can get lost counting each individual bead on Baxter’s gowns. You feel as if you see too much — like a really good acid trip before it goes really bad.  But mostly it’s fun for the over-the-top performances of Baxter and Yul Brynner as Rameses.

Brynner has endless bits of flamboyant business with the various capes he wears (all his shirts seem to be at the cleaners) and Baxter carries on as if to persuade us that the exaggerated pantomime of early silent films are ready for a comeback. (Don’t ever attempt a drinking game based on how many times Baxter feverishly groans “Oh, Moses …”  You’ll never get to the parting of the Red Sea!)



Most compelling are the final scenes between Baxter and Brynner, as they bitterly tear each other apart over the body of their dead son. It is Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in ancient Egypt (“The priests say that pharaoh is a god.  But you are no god. You are less than a man…”)



I was always amused by Anne Baxter, if not entirely convinced.  She won an Oscar for her elaborate over-emoting as the drunken Sophie in 1946’s “The Razor’s Edge” and it was her complete obviousness in “All About Eve” that gives that great movie its oddly surreal atmosphere.  Nobody and nothing in the film is realistic, but Baxter’s ambiguous, ambitious Eve is like an alien — you don’t believe for a minute she’s the great actress she’s supposed to be, so she must be exerting mind-control!



However, not long ago, I came across a western on TCM, “Yellow Sky,” starring Gregory Peck and Richard Widmark as outlaws taking refuge in a ghost town inhabited only by Miss Baxter and her grandfather. Normally, I’m not one for westerns and almost switched it off before Baxter appeared. Then I was hooked.

As a rough and ready, denim-clad, no-nonsense girl, she is startlingly natural and appealing. So much so that I had to wonder what director William Wellman did to get that performance out of her.  Maybe nothing, perhaps she just should have had more of this sort of thing. (Not that Baxter’s career suffered for her consistent style. She worked non-stop from 1940 to 1985, dying suddenly of a stroke in Manhattan, a very young and still glamorous sixty-two.)  It’s always interesting to rethink and reassess what we think we know all about.



SPEAKING
of old Egyptians — which is how we began here — Joan Collins continues to tell her tale that if only she’d put out, she would have won the role of Cleopatra. Oh, dear, oh dear.  Joan Collins is an enduring beauty, has a lot of talent (great underused comic gifts) and is full of energy and zest.  She more than deserved her late-life stardom in “Dynasty.”

But Walter Wanger, the producer of “Cleopatra” always intended the movie as a big-budget epic starring Elizabeth Taylor.  It was his passion project, so to speak.  Joan did test for “Cleo” (very amusing!) but Taylor was the ultimate goal. So much so that not only did they pay Taylor a then-unprecedented million bucks, but 20th Century Fox mounted a completely refurbished second production of the film, in Italy, after ET became ill and almost died in London, during the first production.



Aside from the fact that Collins wasn’t worth a dime at the box-office, she had already done her Serpent of the Nile bit to a bosom-heaving fare-thee-well in 1955’s “Land of the Pharaohs.” This is a performance of epic camp, of which Miss Collins should be proud.  

Everything happens for a reason, Joanie.



THIS ‘N
That:

YOU can still catch the remarkable Billy Lykken in the last performance — tonight (May 4th)! — of his very exclusive run at Don’t Tell Mama (343 West 46th Street). It is titled “A Faggy Resistance! A Queer night of protest and music, featuring the songs of Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Laura Nyro, Sam Cooke, and more.” 

I saw Mr. Lykken about a year ago in his show “Sacred Monster.”  He is an electric, eclectic, talent.  Call 212-757-0788 or go to www.donttellmamanyc.com.



ALSO today (May 4th) — Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts marks the 60th anniversary  of the Center’s groundbreaking with a free block party. Activities and performances “for all ages” are promised; the eleven organizations that compromise Lincoln Center will participate. Music from jazz to opera, dance from ballet to the artistry of the Redhawk Native American performers will be on tap.  There are food trucks, too.  Let me repeat — it’s free.  The weather is supposed to be good. Get out of the house and away from cable news!



SWEET dreams are made of this: On May 8th, singer/songwriter/activist/philanthropist/goddess Annie Lennox will be honored by the Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) at the organization’s first “Education Changes Everything” gala at 583 Park Avenue at 63rd Street.  CAMFED is the leading non-profit supporting the education and empowerment of young African women.  Ms. Lennox has been a champion for various humanitarian endeavors for as long as she has had the power of stardom—she performs truly good deeds in a naughty world.  If you’d like to try for a ticket, make a reservation or simply learn more, go here.



IF you happen to be in Florida on May 15th, why not catch Karen Oberlin performing “Secret Love: A Tribute to Doris Day,” 7:30 p.m. at Wold Performing Arts Center. Like her acting career (never won an Oscar!!) Miss Day’s effortless, velvety voice — as evocative on the upbeat as it is on the sad and sensual — as evocative on the upbeat as it is on the sad and sensual–has never been appreciated as it should be, in my h has never been appreciated as it should be, in my humble opinion.  She’s right up there with Peggy Lee, Garland, Billie Holiday, etc.  DD is as powerful and as moving as the more obviously complicated, dramatic vocalists. What was it — her freckles?  Call 1-561-237-9000.


Photo by Russ Weatherford.

WHILE musing on dramatic, complicated singers, Edith Piaf, the fabled “Little Sparrow,” will be celebrated at New York’s The Cutting Room (44 E. 32nd Street) via Raquel Bitton’s one-woman tribute “PIAF — her story, her songs …”   Bitton, backed by musical director and pianist Michael Rafter, presents Piaf’s short life (dead at 47) through all those intense, tortured, torchy ballads, as well as the merrier side of the chanteuse. (She had a merrier side, really!)  I doubt Piaf genuinely had “No Regrets,” but she lived life on her own terms, giving a winsome Gallic shrug to the consequences.  Ms. Bitton performs May 29, 30, 31. Call 212-691-1900 or go to thecuttingroomnyc.com


Sparrow Productions, Inc.


ENDTHOUGHT: 
I’m glad to say that more people than I had anticipated are pleased that this column, whatever it is, is back — especially as I disappeared so abruptly. I gave a fuller explanation to some who emailed me at the time of my monastic retreat. I had been tempted to compose a “farewell” column at the time, which immediately seemed like a bad idea. Remarkably I recognized a bad idea, which means I must be making progress.

Yesterday, I heard from a longtime reader who posited that my reemergence means I’m “happy” now. Well — what’s happy?  My world outlook remains dark.  I am driven particularly mad by those who claim my side of the ideological fence, but rush like lemmings over a cliff dotted with signs that say, “Bad idea! Treacherous rocks below! But at least you had the high moral ground.”  

“The hip that I shake doesn’t make people stare, But I got such health, what do I care? The sight of my props never stops a thoroughfare, But I still got my health, so what do I care?”

There’s no stopping a lemming.  I’ve tried. They bite!   

However, I’ve still got my health. (Take it away Ethel Merman and/or Ann Sothern!). My guy Bruce still got his health, although he’s still got me so there’s always the possibility of  B. facing justifiable homicide charges at some point.  The cats are fine. My friends are few, but I cherish those few, and I am aware that relationships change and that’s just how life goes. No bad, insecure or indignantly “forgotten” feelings need apply. In the right light (“fill lighting” as they call it in movies) I don’t scare myself or others. I’d still like some work done on my neck, however.

I’m more Epilogue than Prologue right now, but who knows, life’s a funny thing—I’ve certainly found it so!  Maybe I’ll become a resistance fighter in what I see as an encroaching apocalypse. (David Patrick Columbia and Jeff Hirsch have just reached for a tumbler of Jack Daniels and whatever passes for their metaphoric pearls!  Don’t worry guys, I won’t “resist” here.)  

I’m 66.  If I’m “happy” about anything it’s that I realized I’m still too young to retire completely. Let’s see how I feel at 67.

In the meantime,

Love, Denis.


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