“WHY WAS I not made of stone — like thee?”
Those were Quasimodo’s final words, uttered to one of the gargoyles of the cathedral of Notre Dame, as he gazes after his beloved Esmeralda, riding off with her beloved Gringoire in Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
As I watched, along with millions of others around the world, the historic cathedral ablaze, I thought of these words. Even as the news was at its dire peak — Notre Dame cannot be saved! — I counted on, I hoped, that stone would resist. It did. Notre Dame stands, blackened but unbowed, ravaged but still instantly recognizable.
The mere fact of this has revitalized me in a peculiar way. Good news! Something hopeful! Its restoration is an effort of love to look forward to. Maybe I will even go back to Paris.
I never visited Notre Dame on the occasions I happened to be in France, back in the 80’s, 90’s the early aughts. I traveled to Versailles (to satisfy my Marie Antoinette obsession) … pretentiously wandered the Louvre (attempting to appear deeply interested in Art) … strolled the crowded bookstalls along the Seine (picking up vintage movie magazines, and recalling, as I passed every Jacques, Pierre and Henri, the title of Olivia de Havilland’s memoir — “Every Frenchman Has One”)… went to the top of the Eiffel Tower and dined at the Moulin Rouge. The latter was, I am sure, tremendously tacky and touristy even then, but I am unfussy about food, adore champagne, overpriced or not, and can one really complain about high kicks, bare breasts, feathers, sequins and G-strings? Not this admirer of showgirls and ecdysiasts everywhere.
But I resisted Notre Dame though I stared at it often while pondering the city’s other charms.
Now, I think, go one more time, see it in valiant disrepair, and feel certain it will be restored — call on optimism again. It couldn’t hurt.
I HAVE been away as some of you might have noticed and most of you likely haven’t. I became, well, unmoored by events: the death of my mentor/colleague/friend Liz Smith, a perhaps too-rapid attempt to “carry on” and an inability to remove myself, in this work, from non-entertainment events that I have no control over, events that are impossible to avoid, ignore and make me crazy.
I found myself wildly distracted and increasingly unable to “deliver the goods” on a regular basis. I did not wish to slide into unprofessional behavior. (I was reminded of my early days with Liz, when expressing doubt that I could do this or that: “Well, Denis, do it or don’t do it,” she’d say brusquely, “Just don’t bring me dead puppies!”)
And so I stopped. I found myself less anxious. That was good, yes? Then I realized that I’d been anxious for over three decades and functioned; maybe a little anxiety wasn’t so bad.
It occurred to me as well that for the first time in thirty years I was watching TV, going to movies, reading books and magazines, and having conversations that were strictly for my own pleasure. The four words that had dominated my working life, “Is this an item?” no longer applied. It was interesting.
Of course, my watching, reading, thinking, talking still had meaning, but only to myself. Was that enough? It should be. It’s not. I stayed too long at the fair.
So I am dipping my toe back in. I remain unmoored by current events and wish to express that. (“Oh, just do a podcast, for God’s sake!” somebody said to me recently.)
This is still not a place to break “news” — hasn’t been for a long time. Shortly before I withdrew from the hurly-burly, I was with a friend and I described my efforts as “An opinion column masquerading as an entertainment outlet.” I laughed unselfconsciously. He laughed with a hint of derision. (My friend thinks, and not without a point, that I should be more proactive and relentlessly remind press reps who I, uh, well — never was. Maybe this time? We’ll see.)
I’d decided to come back — or “return” as Norma Desmond preferred — about a week ago. Within a day or two I wavered. Anxiety! Was it really a good thing? Then Notre Dame burned, but did not fall. And I thought, if that old queen can stand the heat, this old queen can deliver a column once a week.
THIS ‘N THAT:
… RIP — Carol Channing. I saw her final Broadway performance of “Hello, Dolly” (the show’s third revival) at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in January of 1996. The audience was in a contagious frenzy from the moment she appeared onstage, and what struck me about the staging is that everything seemed somewhat precarious. Channing, no spring chicken, was remarkably agile, and she obviously enjoyed testing that agility. Her magnetism enhanced by a buoyant “and I can still do this!” bravado. At the final curtain call, the entire audience seemed to forget about the standard “bravos” and “bravas” and just shrieked appreciation — unfettered, unintelligible, unmistakably adoring …
… ADIEU as well to Kaye Ballard, whose recordings of “Lazy Afternoon” from 1954’s “Golden Apple” and “Broadway Baby” from the great 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse revival of “Follies,” get a lot of play on my iPhone (and iPOD – I still keep that more compact device). Kaye was one of the very first of Liz Smith’s friends that I met, back in the day. She had fantastic energy. Whenever she’d call the office, the sound of her voice shot through the phone like a charge of friendly electricity. Elaine Stritch and Ann Miller, whom I also knew through Liz, had that same effect –the sound of their voices alone, on the telephone was enough to remedy a hangover, clear sinuses and revitalize your outlook on life. And they all called me “kid.”
… Farewell, also, to my favorite Monkee, Peter Tork and to actor Jan Michael Vincent, who was much more than the star of the TV series “Airwolf,” which was mentioned at the top of every obit.
… Miscellaneous Musing/Catching Up: the host-less Oscars. It went just fine, as I’ve been saying for years — who needs a host? … In terms of the nominated female performances, they got it right with Olivia Colman for “The Favourite.” But the divine Glenn Close was not given her due after SEVEN nominations and a very fine turn in “The Wife,” so they got it all wrong, too! (I’ll never really understand awards).
… I binge-watched “Hanna” on Amazon, mostly for Joel Kinnaman but it turned out worthy in general … discovered a show on SyFy called “The Magicians,” which is not something to which I’d generally gravitate. I’m certainly not the demographic they’re courting but it is dark and silly—“Harry Potter” with sex and extraordinarily bad language.
… On Netflix I’m browsing through “Versailles” (very good), “Medici” (very bad!) and “Roman Empire” (always a sucker for another version of how Rome rose and fell.) Oh, and Netflix offers back seasons of “The Magicians” which I would call a guilty pleasure except I don’t feel guilty at all.
… I am re-reading “Madam Bovary,” swept up again by the desperate, bottomless dissatisfaction of Flaubert’s Emma, and reminded how exquisitely Jennifer Jones embodied her in Vincente Minnelli’s 1949 film.
… The first episode of the last season of “Game of Thrones” would have been fine if it wasn’t the first episode of the last season! So much ‘meh.” I was more excited about the “GOT” inspired Oreo cookies, to be honest.
… Memo to Hilary Duff (a name I do not think I have ever written here). Please, retire. Nothing can redeem you after the distasteful, low budget, “The Haunting of Sharon Tate.” I assume you are desperate. I am sorry about that. Waiting tables is an honorable profession.
… I hope Michelle Williams has her Emmy acceptance speech prepared! The brilliance of her performance as Gwen Verdon in FX’s “Fosse/Verdon” is beyond control and beyond any expectation that I had. She’s been good (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Blue Valentine,” “Manchester by the Sea”) but she’s never been this — burning a hole right through the screen. Williams’ Verdon more than makes up for her sad impersonation of Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn.” Because this is not an impersonation, it is a vivid possession of the famed performer’s essence. She takes one’s breath away. (I am not feeling the usually wonderful Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse. Too bad, but it doesn’t matter. It’s Michelle Williams’ show, and Gwen Verdon’s.)
Gwen’s Charity Hope Valentine declared, “If they could see me now,” in “Sweet Charity.” Gwen, honey, they really can see you now, thanks to Michelle Williams, and your daughter, Nicole Fosse, who is one of the series’ producers.
ENDQUOTE: “Doris Day has not won an Oscar!!!!!”
This has been a clarion call of outrage here for many years. And we will go on. Fair warning.
Beginning today, at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, California, Miss Day will be celebrated with a celebration of her films. Everything from “Romance on the High Seas,” to “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Teacher’s Pet,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “The “Pajama Game,” and “Pillow Talk,” the smash hit with Rock Hudson that delivered her only Oscar nomination and began the bizarre warping of her image.
I don’t know how you all feel, but it’s nice to be back!