Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rule of Threes

Stars of X Y and Zee:
Elizabeth Taylor
Michael Caine
Susannah York

Stars of X Y and Zee who've died in the last three months:
Elizabeth Taylor
Susannah York

So yeah--if I was Michael Caine? I'd be a little worried right now.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Dark Lady

To quote the critic Northrop Frye from The Anatomy of Criticism: . . .

one very common convention of the nineteenth-century novel is the use of two heroines, one dark and one light. The dark one is as a rule passionate, haughty, plain, foreign or Jewish, and in some way associated with the undesirable or with some kind of forbidden fruit like incest. When the two are involved with the same hero, the plot usually has to get rid of the dark one or make her into a sister if the story is to end happily. Examples include
Ivanhoe, The Last of the Mohicans, The Woman in White, Ligeia, Pierre (a tragedy because the hero chooses the dark girl, who is also his sister), The Marble Faun, and countless incidental treatments. . . .

. . . incidental treatments like Westerns, where the dark lady is the dance hall girl and the fair one is the schoolteacher; or musicals, where the dark one doesn't dance or sing and the fair one does. Because it's not only literature, it's Hollywood; and for a good part of her youth, the dark lady was perfectly embodied by Elizabeth Taylor. Which is why, of all the movies I own in which she appears, the one I watched this weekend was Ivanhoe.

Yes, it’s a brightly colored piece of MGM cheese, with a ton of stunt men getting de-horsed by jousting lances and a battle scene in which volleys of arrows look like they were picked up and flung at people by offscreen PA’s. But like all cheese, it has its own taste and texture, and it can serve, if you dig down deep enough into its ingredients, as a main course of its own. In this case, a dish spiced with not just the whole dark lady/fair lady motif, but the particular appeal of Elizabeth Taylor.

Taylor plays Rebecca, who’s not only Jewish but a healer, and not only a healer but something of a white witch, since she was taught her medical arts by a woman who was burned at the stake for witchcraft. She has second billing in the movie, but she doesn’t show up until the 24 minute mark, after we’ve been introduced to our hero Robert Taylor and his lady love Joan Fontaine, and the premise of the movie has been established (Richard versus John and Saxons versus Normans, which is Hollywood’s way of pitting democracy versus tyranny and Americans versus the British).

None of this really matters, of course. What matters is what we see onscreen. And the moment Taylor appears onscreen, she makes everyone else look lifeless. Especially Joan Fontaine. There is no clearer contrast in film between the allure of the dark lady and the drabness of the fair lady than when Taylor stands next to Fontaine. It’s like watching a peach talk to a raisin.

Cream versus skim milk

To me, this is the essence of what Taylor did best. I have no idea if people were aware of this on the set of her films; all I know is that, when she was at her height, the camera picked it up every time, and recorded it somehow. An intangible presence that is both shyness and confidence—the shyness embodied in the voice, which is 95% breath and 5% tone; the confidence in the way she stands and the way she looks, especially those eyes, which don’t have to be in color to speak volumes. Even in a movie as cheesy as Ivanhoe. You can totally see why George Sanders is nuts about her. And you have to totally wonder why Robert Taylor isn’t. And because he isn’t, he looks wooden and lifeless.

The other great thing about Ivanhoe? The first moment we see Taylor’s Rebecca. Ivanhoe is bringing her father home, and as they come to a halt in front of a dark house, two shutters open on the second floor and a woman looks down into the street. But it’s the way she looks down that always gets me. Because this seven-second visual not only tells you who the character Rebecca is in the movie, it tells you who Elizabeth Taylor is on film:

Did you see that? It’s a complete reversal of what usually happens when a woman wears a veil in a movie. It’s usually a reveal--first she’s covered, then she’s uncovered. With Rebecca, it’s the opposite--instead of “This is who I have to be, this is who I am,” it’s the other way around. And after pretending to hold her veil up the next time we see her, at the tournament at Ashby, she’s uncovered for the rest of the film. In the real Middle Ages, this would be brazen. In Ivanhoe, Taylor makes it seem like a character reveal.

And to my mind, that kind of reveal is what Taylor does better than anybody. She shows you everything, then she covers it up. And she doesn’t do it like a flirt, she doesn’t do it as a tease or a provocation. She does it as a statement of fact. “This is what I have to hide; this is me hiding it.” Which is quite possibly the single most seductive thing a woman can ever say to a man. Because--make no mistake about it--Taylor is always talking to some man, even when she’s standing there doing nothing. Even--and especially--when she’s standing next to Joan Fontaine.

If you’ve watched TCM in the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard Paul Newman’s essay on Taylor, in which he refers to her as a “functioning voluptuary.” Great choice of words. But think about what it means. Think about how, if a functioning alcoholic is someone who drinks a lot and still appears sober, then a functioning voluptuary is someone who vamps a lot and still appears virginal.

Which pretty much says it all about Elizabeth Taylor.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Geek Haiku

Over at The Periodic Table of Awesome's Facebook page, they're running a poetry contest--whoever writes the geekiest haiku wins.

Far be it from me to resist such a challenge. Or you either, I trust. I mean, really--how long can it take to come up with seventeen syllables?

COLIN FIRTH: In The King's Speech? Half the movie.

Here are the entries I posted there in the last couple of days, with titles:


One riddle contest
One ring to rule the others
One missing finger


We all want more life
So we kiss God and kill Him
Like we're replicants


A blue police box
His black bag and ambulance
Time is his scalpel


"You damn dirty apes!"
Whoa! Statue of Liberty!
"No! No! No! No! No!"

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Songs for a Tuesday morning: the 6 o'clock alarm would never ring

We had a 70 degree day here last Friday, followed by a bunch of lousy cold days, which is the weather equivalent of Catherine Deneuve saying she'll always remember you and then looking at you like you're slug slime when you bump into her at BAM and say, "Remember me?" Or like a door opening, and then when you start to step inside, slam! Right in your face. And to add insult to injury, we're expecting snow tomorrow.

So, since it's still too cold to break out the Two Gentlemen score, let's see if we can usher in the warm weather, or at least get through the fecking day, by the power of musical prayer, with a jaunty Old Familiar in two versions. Here's the one you all know:

Daydream Believer - The Monkees

And here's the one you probably don't know, sung by the song's writer, the late John Stewart. Although if, like me, you grew up listening to a good FM station, you probably heard this version more than the one above. God knows I did, listening to WBCN back in the day. And did a total double-take at the last line. As you will too, if you are hearing this for the first time:

Daydream Believer - John Stewart

Monday, March 21, 2011

How to have a better Sunday than I did

Never discuss your ex-girlfriends over dinner before seeing Marie & Bruce. You will walk out of the show thinking that Wallace Shawn read your mind when he was writing it.

Never walk out of a depressing play about marriage thinking about your current social life. You will invariably decide to take the next step with the woman you’re currently interested in.

Never decide to take the next step with the woman you’re currently interested in. She will send you an e-mail within 24 hours entitled “Please don’t hate me.”

Never open any e-mail entitled “Please don’t hate me.” You know exactly what it’s going to say. And you could probably say it better yourself.

Never reply to any e-mail entitled “Please don’t hate me.” For the same reason you don’t offer a shark your left arm after he’s chewed off your right one.

Never delete any e-mail entitled “Please don’t hate me.” You can always use it in a play.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

How To Completely Understand Being Irish In Only 3 Lines Of Dialogue

Scene from Angel, aka Danny Boy, written and directed by Neil Jordan:

DANNY: So are you a Catholic cop or a Protestant cop?
INSPECTOR BLOOM: I'm Jewish, actually.
DANNY: (Thinks about it for a second; then:) So are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?

(Thanks and a tip of the Wells cap & bells to MZ Ribalow for the quote.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tom Waits' Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech

I just want to know if there’s a keychain version that I can keep with me just in case I hear someone say, “Pete, take the cuffs off. I think he’s a Hall of Famer.” Thank you for the kind words, Neil. I’m honored to be honored. And, gee, I don’t know where to begin. Songs, uh, are really just interesting things to be doing with the air. I love working with tunes. I love music, but we really want music to love us. Neil was saying the other night, he said, “When there’s a song approaching it’s kind of like there’s an animal in the room, and you don’t want it to run off.” You know, how did it get in?

I was, uh, fifteen and I snuck in to see Lightnin’ Hopkins. I put white-out in my hair and I drew on a mustache and I put on an overcoat and I stood there and I said, “Ticket for one.” Amazing show. Every time he opened his mouth, that orchestra of gold teeth was just devastating. And then I saw him leave the show and he walked through a door and slammed the door behind him. And on the door, it said, I swear to God, “KEEP OUT. THIS ROOM IS FOR ENTERTAINERS ONLY.” And I knew at that moment that I had to get into show business as soon as possible. So, uh, that was a real big one for me. And I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of playing with a lot of great musicians over the years. Some of you are here and some of you are not here. Some of us are on the wrong side of the dirt, as they say. But any day on this side of the dirt is a good day, for me and for all of us.

Let’s see, what else? They told me I should talk for quite a while, but I don’t intend to. I fully do not intend to. I’d like to thank my family. They know me and they love me anyway. My wife and her incandescent light that has guided me and kept me alive and breathing and sparkling. And my kids who, well, they taught me everything I know. Or maybe they taught me everything they know. I don’t know. They taught me a lot.

Okay, I did the bit about the door and the club. Um, the first time I went onstage, my face felt like it was made of plaster and if I smiled, it would crack off, and I thought, “This is such an interesting [Christian?] experience” and somehow wanted more of it. They say I have no hits and I’m difficult to work with, and they say that like it’s a bad thing. [crowd cheers] The only thing I really can compare this to is I was given the key to the city of El Paso several months ago. It was a really kind offer. They told me there’s only one key to the city, but I found out later there were a whole lot of them, and they fit nothing. So, I’m just hoping there are some fringe benefits that go along with this baby. Thank you very much. This has been very encouraging.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Me on Jack Kirby at Kirb Your Enthusiasm

Over at HiLoBrow.com, Joshua Glenn is running a series called Kirb Your Enthusiasm, in which 25 writers are each given a single Jack Kirby-drawn non-splash comic book panel, and asked to write about it. And I was lucky enough to be one of the 25. As I said in an e-mail to Ava, "I'm going to get paid to write about Jack Kirby? I just died and went to heaven."

The series has been running for a couple of weeks now, so dip in and enjoy. My panel (from New Gods #6) is scheduled to come up this Monday, March 7th.

Scarlet Woman reviews

UPDATED: Here are 3 (count 'em) 3 online reviews of Scarlet Woman (whose last performance is this Saturday at 2:30PM sharp--hint hint).

NYTheatre.com Review

The Happiest Medium

J.B. Spins Review

(I think the guy from J.B. Spins was the fellow sitting two rows in front of me at last Saturday's show who laughed at all the in-jokes.)