La La Land. January 2017.

Dear Rowley,

It is always a mystery to me why it comes a shock to movie producers that musicals score like Reinaldo at the box office. Director/writer Damien Chazelle’s  La La Land  is a case in point. London in January is as black and cold as a Victorian chimneysweep so department of no surprises that Curzon Soho was sold out for last night’s showing.

Musicals are how we dream life is supposed to be. Sad? Face the music and dance like Fred and Ginger in Top Hat. Falling in love? Waft round Central Park at twilight in a diaphanous dress like Cyd Charisse in The Bandwagon. Disappointed with the crap life throws at you? Plant both feet wide apart in your highest heels and belt like Mama Rose in Gypsy. Whatever emotion humans feel, the great songwriters of Broadway and Hollywood have already orchestrated it.

Is it any wonder that musicals broke box office records during the Great Depression? We naturally want cinema that takes us into a world where endings are happy and blues are shaken away with song and dance numbers that lift the spirits and gladden the heart. Over Christmas I watched Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin’ in the Rain, The Pirate and The Wizard of Oz in moments when I needed eight bars of bliss.

La La Land does blow a kiss to aficionados of the great Hollywood musicals. There’s a bit of Bandwagon in the flying observatory dance, a nod to Sweet Charity when Emma Stone and her girlfriends sashay through LA, a complete visual steal from Singin’ in the Rain towards the end of the picture and not a little Hairspray in the opening number.

By casting Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as the romantic leads Chazelle has taken an executive decision to go for cute and charming over blinding musical talent. Both can hold a tune and sell a dance but neither could touch the MGM triple threats Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell, Frank Sinatra or Anne Miller.

I am sure it was a conscious decision to make the singing and dancing in La La Land impulsive and instinctive rather than allowing every number to stop the show and make it difficult to ease back into the story. Personally, I like the artificiality of the golden era musicals when the ridiculously talented stars are allowed to show their chops in one major production number after another.

The musical La La Land reminded me of was Scorsese’s underrated New York New York starring Robert de Niro and Liza Minnelli. This is a story of two creative people trying to balance their relationship with their ambition. New York New York was made in the 1970s and yet Scorsese gave Minnelli  a lavish production number that told the audience why her character became a star. Lara Stone needed this in La La Land.

I do have a soft spot for Ryan Gosling. Like Gene Kelly, he has those dimples that we all dote on and can sell a number. Lara Stone’s big Bette Davis eyes are striking but the choreography made her look like Bambi on Ice.  The public have been going potty for the dance number where Stone wears a yellow dress and dances with Gosling high above Los Angeles under the stars.

It all started with promise: that classic park bench prelude to a romantic waltz. Then Stone removed her heels and put on a sturdy pair of block-heeled correspondence shoes. It was like Leslie Caron putting on a pair of galoshes to dance the ballet in An American in Paris. All I could hear when watching the number was Craig Revel Horwood drawling ‘leg extensions darling? A disaaaaster’.

My major beef with La La Land was the forgettable songwriting and lyrics. A big Hollywood musical guaranteed genius writing from Rogers and Hart, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein or Irving Berlin. The melodies lingered on long after the songs had ended. I don’t remember a single note from La La Land.

I hope La La Land sees a slew of romantic musicals going into production. The most successful musicals in recent memory for me were the dark, cynical Chicago and the exuberant, camp and knowing Hairspray. Both films subtly sent-up the genre. What I loved about La La Land was that it committed fully to being unashamedly romantic and musical even though there was a huge dry spell in the middle without anyone singing a note.

On reflection, Gosling and Stone could have done with support from ‘second leads’ like Anne Miller and Peter Lawford in the Judy Garland/Fred Astaire classic Easter Parade. The greatest MGM musicals produced by Arthur Freed were a showcase packed full of talent. Nobody really got a look-in apart from the leads in La La Land. 

The genius of the old Hollywood studio system was that all of the talent was tested and supported by the best in the business. Can you imagine how many all-time-great musicals Catherine Zeta Jones, Nicole Kidman or Julianne Moore might have made by now had they been in the hands of Freed, choreographer Hemes Pan and vocal coach Kay Thompson?

We know from Strictly Come Dancing that intense training can turn a novice into a pro so it is disappointing if the stars of a movie musical don’t knock the song and dance numbers out of the park. Clearly this hasn’t hurt La La Land at the box office. The film is a very sweet musical but it does not show off the most talented singers and dancers in Hollywood today. Maybe that’s not the point but I so wish it were.

 

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Stage Fright. January 2017.

Dear Rowley,

While researching Italian film and stage director ‘Maestro’ Franco Zeffirelli I happened to watch his last film Callas Forever: an autobiographical film starring Fanny Ardant as the prima donna assoluta and Jeremy Irons as Zeffirelli. The film blurs fact and fiction and is all the more poetic for it.

Set in Paris in the 1977 – Callas’s twilight year – the film meets the diva when her voice has betrayed her after she had squandered her gift in thrall to her lover Aristotle Onassis. Ari had broken Maria’s heart when he deserted her to marry Jackie Kennedy by which time the most dramatic soprano of the 20th century effectively fades to silence.

in Callas Forever Maria is living the life of recluse, popping pills and mourning for the loss of a gift she considered God-given. Her last disastrous 1974 concert appearance in Japan had brought-on crippling stage fright from which the Zeffirelli character tries to lift her with films of her greatest operas dubbed with her greatest past recordings.

As we know, the Callas stage fright proved to be fatal. She died aged fifty-three in 1977 from a suspected overdose of prescription medicine. Watching the dramatisation of her decline in Callas Forever, Ardant mercilessly describes Maria’s agony and the creative deaths she has to die tortured by recordings of the diva in her prime.

Zeffirelli’s film about Maria Callas made me ponder the theory that stage fright is not confined to those who perform in the opera or theatre. I would describe stage fright as a crippling doubt that on this occasion you are incapable of performing a role or task that you have nailed a thousand times before.

I am the first one to admit that I have suffered from stage fright over the years. There were mornings when I opened a blank word document and rewrote a first sentence for the best part of a day. Calling it stage fright sounded a lot more glamorous than anxiety and blind panic.

But that fear that begins with doubting talent and engorges itself into doubting everything is one and the same whether you dress it up as anxiety or stage fright. Conquering stage fright is still a work in progress for me.

After extensive research I can say with confidence that retreating to your dressing room and pulling that blanket of blue with a sinfully black border over your head is neither consolation nor solution. The temptation when you choke in front of an audience is to run and hide. But I do know that on the rare occasions I don’t get up at 7am and go swimming in the Bloomsbury pool is a day wasted.

When performing – or producing work – is your reason for getting up then gifting yourself a lie-in is not an indulgence. It is the white flag of surrender. Isolation might be the natural reaction to a perceived public humiliation but it only allows the voices of doubt in your head a microphone and a bigger venue.

It takes guts to straighten your tie, take a deep breath and get back out there but it is terribly rewarding. I recently met a charming chap for drinks in one of the Inns of Court who gave me five bright ideas for books just by listening to his intelligent conversation.

A symptom of stage fright is a loss of hope which, as it turns out, is like swindling yourself. On any given day, particularly in London, nobody knows what life is going to throw your way. If you allow yourself to believe there is no hope then you’ll probably have your back to it when hope is doing a shimmy and shaking the money tree.

Just by stepping out in London your chances of being pleasantly surprised are multiplied ten fold. However much I complain about living in small Bloomsbury rooms I know that even walking a few steps into WC1 will lift my mood. I had coffee with neighbour Tomster this morning and that bit of chitty-chatty did me more good than having a Mexican stand off with a computer screen for an hour.

There are those in the thespian profession who say that if you don’t have stage fright you’re not feeling the adrenalin that will guarantee a good performance. Granted, a certain amount of modesty about one’s talent is appropriate but I do not think the white heat of fear as one steps up to one’s mark is entirely welcome after so many years in the business. The test of course is whether you feel the fear and move forward or feel it and freeze. On this occasion I choose to move forward. Until next time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Superstition. January 2017.

Dear Rowley,

As a tribe, writers are suspicious. We all have rituals necessary to get from bower of bliss to desk; necessary as it happens when nobody is watching and one only has self-discipline and a January tax bill for motivation. If I don’t spring up like a scolded cat with the alarm and start brewing a pot of hot chocolate – love in a china cup – the day is over before it has begun.

Though I love the thought of writing in a silk jacquard Turnbull & Asser dressing gown and a pair of velvet Trickers slippers, it doesn’t work. An actor will tell y0u it all starts with the shoes and the same goes for me. If I’m not looking down at a pair of Loake Chelsea boots planted under the desk (mine I hasten to add), I’m not ready to even attempt a line of golden prose.

That said, repetition is death. If I’m not at large in London for at least a day or two away from Bloomsbury Towers I start to feel like a battery hen. Hence you found me happy as a clam at Henry Poole yesterday photographing the formal portfolio for my new Thames & Hudson project Sartorial Treasures with the supremely talented Andy Barnham.

Andy and I go some way back working on features for The Rake when I was editor-at-large. He shot a lot of pictures for my Perfect Gentleman book that were quite simply outstanding. All the jewellers will tell you that photographing gem-set pieces is an absolute nightmare for the light. I think Andy and I got through about forty pieces yesterday loaned by Van Cleef & Arpels, Grima, Theo Fennell, Shaun Leane, Wartski, Bentley & Skinner and Hancocks. I’m quietly thrilled with the results. I’m sending you some of my amateur snaps from the day to give you a flavour of the aesthetic we’re going for.

As you’ll see, the pieces I’ve chosen are not shy. Because I’d done my appointments in December and made the choices for the shoot, every piece was a favourite. Naturally, you never know how they’re going to register on camera when positioned on a suit or in a shirt cuff. Turns out the boldest pieces I chose looked spectacular rather than clownish when shot on black tie, white tie and smoking jackets.

The biggest surprise was the pearl and diamond spider with ruby eyes set by Hancocks, the antique jeweller in the Burlington Arcade. Insect brooches are usually made to scale so this particular spider must have been a fearsome beast because it loomed rather large on a grosgrain lapel of a Henry Poole dinner jacket. But the scale is the making of the jewel.

We were scuppered trying to shoot cuff links on Poole’s Stockman mannequins because in order to show the jewel, we had to flash a ridiculous amount of cuff that looked totally wrong. So we decided on still life to explain the dimensions of the links and the mechanisms. To give an idea of the scale, we photographed them on Poole’s historic hand-written customer ledgers.

Anyway, we made a sterling start and I am delighted with the photographs so all is well with the world. Well, I say that if you discount the inevitable January blues that I sincerely hope don’t descend into the mean reds (salve Truman Capote) or the ink blacks. Successful work always tends to shake my blues away so here’s to it.

Are you attempting Dry January this year? Quite frankly I think it’s like trying to shoot the rapids when you’ve burnt the paddle. January has to be the most melancholy month in London when you need all the help you can get to make it through the month. Naturally one doesn’t order a crate of Plymouth Gin, lock the door and only come out on the 1st of February  when it’s all over. But if you can’t enjoy a glass of Prosecco on a cold, dark January evening then when in the name of Elaine Stritch can you?

Do you know what really helps to power on through January without getting depressed? A complete blanket ban on news. Politics in the British media has become an industry in much the same way that red carpet events have for fashion. Debates about both fill an awful lot of time. Nobody to my knowledge outside the Palace of Westminster has the insatiable interest that merits blanket coverage of every cough and fart about Brexit.

Speaking of repetition being death, there is something to be said for stepping out of one’s comfort zone and keeping the mind challenged. Of an evening you are likely to find me with my nose in a biography of Queen Marie of Romania, Sir Philip Sassoon or Dame Edith Sitwell. But Hilary Mantel aside, I’m not exactly up to speed with contemporary fiction.

So I bought the new Jack Reacher thriller by Lee Child the other day. Granted, I kept turning the pages of Night School and appreciated the pace and the veracity of the plotting. But I can’t say the story thrilled me. Violence and terrorism in Hamburg doesn’t exactly make a January night any the pleasanter.

My guilty pleasure at the moment are M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin murders read by Dame Penelope Keith. My God she’s marvellous as a narrator. I did read one of the books and didn’t enjoy it half as much as when Dame Penelope is describing each character with evident relish for the many accents she performs.

Can you remember I recorded an audio tour entitled Marilyn Monroe’s London a while ago? I absolutely loved recording the half hour script including all of the accents required. It would be heaven to do more this year. Much as I love writing I think variety is the key to a happy career in 2017. Until next time…

 

 

 

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Postcards from the Edge. December 2016.

Dear Rowley,

I do believe that symmetry in time is never purely coincidental. A day after her daughter died, Hollywood musical royalty Debbie Reynolds has also passed away saying she wanted to be with the brilliant actress/author Carrie Fisher. Can one discount a broken heart being the cause? I think not.

Debbie Reynolds is one of those stars who, like Liza in Cabaret and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, will always be defined by her first starring role. Singin’ in the Rain is a competitor for MGM’s best musical of all time and Miss Reynolds was nineteen when it was released in 1952.

Interesting that Gene Kelly didn’t trust Debbie Reynolds for the romantic lead and yet the kid learned how to dance in six months and was easily punching at equal weight with Kelly and Donald O’Connor when they shot their first scene: the Good Morning number in which Reynolds shines.

Revisiting Debbie Reynolds’ career, it is a mystery why MGM didn’t cast her in more musicals. Another twelve years passed before the 1964 one-woman-show The Unsinkable Molly Brown that earned Reynolds a nomination but not the Academy Award as Best Actress.

Reynolds came late to the golden era of the Hollywood studios but remained in the public eye thanks to Broadway, television then cult television. The theft of her husband Eddie Fisher by Elizabeth Taylor after the death of Mike Todd gave Debbie Reynolds a frisson of scandal and the sympathy vote that tallied with her wholesome Hollywood image.

I saw Debbie Reynolds’ greatest legacy in the very early 1990s. I’d been sent to Las Vegas by an editor to do an interview with Liza Minnelli (nothing camp about that) and had a couple of days so went off to visit Debbie’s Hollywood Hotel where she displayed all of the classic movie memorabilia she’d collected over the years since the 1970 MGM auction.

Very few of the tributes to Debbie Reynolds mention the heroic job she did rescuing costumes, sets and photographs from the studio archives at a time when the film industry’s history was considered worthless. It was only in the last decade when she was forced to sell her collection that it became clear what a remarkable crusade she’d embarked upon.

Debbie Reynolds saved Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Marilyn’s subway dress from The Seven Year Itch and a vast collection of costumes and sets from her rival Elizabeth Taylor’s doomed epic Cleopatra. She’d lived it so she knew the value of Hollywood’s past. That said, the movies do offer symmetrical closure and Debbie Reynolds’s was to co-star with Elizabeth Taylor in the 2001 TV movie These Old Broads with a screenplay by her daughter Carrie Fisher.

Retrospectively, the symmetry of Carrie Fisher’s screen career was also neat. Like her mother, she was defined by her first starring role as Princess Leia in the 1977 film Star Wars. Her work as a script doctor and screenwriter far outweighed Fisher’s acting roles in between Star Wars and the revival of her role as Leia in the 2015 film Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Again like Reynolds, Carrie Fisher’s greatest legacy was away from the screen. A self-confessed card-carrying member of the high/low club with addiction issues, Fisher was very vocal and very amusing about living with manic depression. I appreciated her attitude and her thoughts on a subject that has troubled me for years.

‘Think of bipolar disorder as an opportunity to be heroic – not ‘I survived living in Mosul during an attack’ heroic – but an emotional survivor. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder’. There were few opportunities that Carrie Fisher missed to laugh at a deck of cards she’d been dealt that would have others weeping with despair.

Carrie Fisher’s attitude to mental disorder – not illness please note – is inspirational. As she says, ‘this is my way of surviving, to abstract it into something that’s funny and not dangerous. Having had this illness my entire life, I accommodated it by developing a very big personality’.

In later years we saw Carrie Fisher’s personality on talk shows such as Graham Norton and documentaries like Stephen Fry’s about manic depression. In the round of media to promote The Force Awakens she was particularly funny advising young co-star Daisy Ridley ‘don’t go through the crew like wildfire’ intimating that that’s precisely what she did on the original Star Wars sets.

It takes a lot of balls for a child of Hollywood to say she avoided suicide because she was taking so many drugs or to hint that she got the Star Wars role on the casting couch despite being too out of it to remember who swung it for her. Fisher’s books Postcards from the Edge, Wishful Drinking and The Princess Diaries are equally uncompromising.

Postcards from the Edge, the 1990 film written by Carrie Fisher and co-starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, has often been mistaken as pure autobiography. True or false, it is something of a gay camp classic for the barnstorming female leads and one-liners that fire like a Gatling Gun.

Carrie Fisher described her character thus: ‘I act like someone in a bomb shelter trying to raise everyone’s spirits’. This is infinitely preferable to the manic depressives who act like someone in a bomb shelter reminding the rest of the world that the incendiary device is moments away.

If her daughter was the wit, Debbie Reynolds was the pragmatist. Looking at their lives in words and pictures today, one quote leapt out for me and it was Debbie’s: ‘doing the impossible is possible. It’s just not fun’. That’s the secret – and the curse – of a long career.

 

 

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Last Christmas. December 2016.

Dear Rowley,

Family Christmases do tend to open the floodgates for nostalgia but not half as much as the news that George Michael had died on Christmas Day, aged fifty-three, from heart failure. I always find it rather a bore when a great artist dies and someone says ‘they wrote the soundtrack to my life’. You feel like replying ‘it’s not all about you!’ But for someone of my vintage, George Michael has the magic to take you time travelling.

George Michael did not write the soundtrack to my life – Stephen Sondheim has that one covered – but I have to admit a great fondness for his Wham! years being of an age to remember he and Andrew Ridgeley first appearing on Top of the Pops in 1981 when I was ten years old.

Wham! were like perma-tanned labrador puppies flashing pearly teeth, knowing eyes and muscled thighs in ludicrously short-shorts while singing feel-good bubblegum pop songs such as Wham Rap, I’m Your Man, Last Christmas, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and Club Tropicana. It was all so gloriously exuberant and innocent.

I love the fact that Club Tropicana, that anthem to sun, sex and Sambuca, was written in a council flat in Peckham Rye. I loved that George had streaks you could drive a truck through as did I in 1983. We all wanted the Choose Life slogan T-shirt George wore in the Wake Me Up video and the white jeans that I still cling as tightly to as my youth.

I definitely wanted a Choose Life rather than a Frankie Say Relax T-shirt. As preteens we were too young to know that Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s infamous single Relax was dirty let alone why. It was played at our school disco but I don’t remember dancing to it whereas I do remember singing every line of Wham’s I’m Your Man at said disco with not one iota of self-awareness at that age.

I do wonder whether there’s a mouldering cassette recording somewhere in the attic at home of my rendition of Wham’s  Freedom. The instrumental was on the B-side of that particular single and I vividly remember doing take after take on said cassette until I thought I sounded as good as gorgeous George. Loved buying singles, didn’t you?

Can’t say that I particularly lusted after George Michael until Wham! split-up in 1986 and he went into his jeans and biker jacket look for the 1987 Faith album that won him the Grammy. George’s music from that era was mature, sexy and classy particularly Father Figure, the Aretha Franklin duet I Knew You Were Waiting and the smooth croon that was Kissing A Fool.

Were any of us particularly surprised a decade later when George Michael was arrested in an LA gent’s loo in 1998 and charged with lewd behaviour? I suppose the only shock was that someone of his stature and success in the music business would be so reckless. Maybe it wasn’t so reckless and George was simply playing Russian roulette knowing at some point the secret would out.

Interesting, isn’t it, that George Michael had had a major falling out with record label Sony in 1996, two years before his very public arrest by the LAPD. Much the same thing happened to MGM actor William Haines who was No 1 at the Box Office in the early 1930s.

Like George Michael, Haines became outspoken and unreliable so Louis B. Mayer instructed the MGM fixers to cut poor Billy loose and allow him to be caught with his pants down in the Los Angeles YMCA thus ending his acting career. George Michael’s outing didn’t end his music career. But his last studio album was made in 2004 two years before the first of many high-profile arrests and an imprisonment for drug offences.

I admired George’s outspokenness and reluctance to apologise for things that he rightly felt were nobody’s business but his own. After the 1998 cottaging arrest, he released the dirty disco single Outside with him dressed as a cop and filmed it in a Studio 54-style gent’s convenience.

George Michael was always very vocal about the redemptive nature of talent. No matter how many newspaper front pages showed him whacked-out on marijuana, he persistently said ‘I never had any feeling that my talent would let me down’. Well, no but his albums, tours and live appearances did become increasingly few.

It was gratifying to read that George Michael gave millions of pounds anonymously to individual causes and charities while never capitalising on his generosity for PR purposes. As many a star knows, charity work is an easy way to stay in the public eye. He obviously maintained a connection to life outside what seemed to have become an increasingly reclusive existence.

Reading many quotes from George in the past couple of days, I have been struck by one: ‘There is no such thing as a reluctant star. Stars are almost always people that want to make up for their own weaknesses by being loved by the public and I’m no exception to that’. And there it is. No self-pity, just a matter-of-fact analysis of why a sensitive man like George Michael moved like a heat-seeking missile towards fame and public life.

As we now know, on what was to be his last Christmas, George Michael was in a relationship and the man he called the love of his life, Kenny Goss, was close once again. He was planning a film project about his life and a reissue of the 1990 album Listen Without Prejudice. I find his death particularly bitter-sweet because it seemed he was willing if not yet ready to step back into the spotlight.

 

 

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