‘Neal-ing’ in Pat’s Honor, Pippin’s Pips, Rorem’s Nonchalance

Patrici Neal’s tribute at the National Arts Club on December 2 really kicked off the holiday season in fine fettle. The club was gussied up for the holidays like the house in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” for a true gathering of the theatrical clan: Marian Seldes (“When I first saw Patricia, I thought, ‘She has the eyes of Katharine Cornell!’”); Elizabeth Wilson, working a red turban; Celeste Holm and the much younger husband she hooked up with through their vocal coach; Laura Bell Bundy; Rex Reed; Robert Osborne; Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, who told me, “My favorite film was my first, ‘Baby Doll.’ I am writing my memoirs, and, yes, there will be stuff about Monroe in ‘The Misfits,’ but, like Arthur Miller told me, ‘It may not be your truth, or ‘their’ truth, but it’s my truth!’”

Watching lovingly were Neal’s towering daughter, Tessa, and her even taller supermodel granddaughter, Sophie Dahl, whose father was writer Roald Dahl. It was fascinating to see all three women’s strong profiles in juxtaposition and, with Marisa Berenson also in ultra-glamorous attendance, the event became one sea of perfect bone structure.

Sophie, now sylph-like—although Neal told me she thinks she’s much too thin—seemed surprised when I told her how much I enjoyed her in the under-appreciated film, “People I Know,” which contains one of Al Pacino’s best and quietest performances as a gay press agent inspired by Bobby Zarem. The image of her nude, save for a sable coat, floating through Central Park, was a true symbol of impossible Manhattan attainment, but she said, “You actually saw that? No, I don’t think I’ll be acting any more. I didn’t really enjoy it. It was so different in my grandmother’s day, when you had all that care from the studios and directors.”

Privately, I couldn’t help being struck by the fact that both she and Neal had had notorious affairs with, respectively, Mick Jagger and Gary Cooper, the two male icons of their respective generations, both of them old enough to be these women’s fathers at the time.

I spoke to Rue McClanahan, who told me how excited she was over the DVD release of the first season of the immortal “Golden Girls,” which has kept too many homos happy for too many years. She also mentioned how she will never forgive Isaac Mizrahi for the way he dressed her as the Countess de Lage in that moribund revival of “The Women”: “He dressed his own ego, not the actresses. I liked one of my costumes but the rest… hideous!… Director Scott Elliott had nothing to do with the clothes but it was his idea that we all take the curtain call in our underwear, which I actually didn’t mind.”

The National AIDS Fund benefit performance of “Pippin” on November 29 was brought off quite impressively with an elaborate production, apart from starting nearly an hour late due to the impossible logistics of the Manhattan Center. Michael Arden was enchanting in the lead, like a combo Topher Grace/Toby Maguire, with a smashing voice, and other standouts included Julia Murney, divinely bitchy as Pippin’s mom; uber-hunk soap star Cameron Mathison, making his stage debut and showing off his killer bod and comic skills as dim-witted Lewis; Charles Busch, very Kate Hepburn from “Lion in Winter” as Grandma; and original cast member Ben Vereen, who evidently showed up very late, causing some backstage consternation.

But what a silly show! It definitely has its cult, but the bizarre combo of Charlemagne-era plotting, ‘70s-era “free love,” Broadway razzle-dazzle and Stephen Schwartz’s surfeit of unmemorable songs constitute the kind of stuff that rather makes the uninitiated fear musical theater. Still, “Corner of the Sky,” that sweet chestnut, never fails to raise the rafters at Marie’s Crisis.

“I didn’t remember Pippin’s plot all that well,” Busch told me when I ran into him at the book party for Brian Kellow’s fascinating The Bennetts: An Acting Family, about one of America’s great acting dynasties (12/1). “So, at the end, when I realized that my character wasn’t supposed to be such a sweet old lady after all, urging Pippin to suicide, I just followed the lead of Vereen, who kept making these evil faces at me!”

Also at said soiree was actress Joan Bennett’s daughter, editor Shelley Wanger, proving she has the innate style gene possessed by Mom and Aunt Constance Bennett (the chicest Hollywood actress), in a leopard skin mini. I couldn’t resist asking composer Ned Rorem if he’d seen the latest volume of Cecil Beaton’s unexpurgated diaries (“Beaton in the Sixties”), in which the photographer waspishly wrote, “Don’t know why I’ve never liked Ned Rorem… something under a stone about him physically, smelly, cheesy, snotty.” Rorem laughed this off with supreme good nature: “I barely knew Beaton! But to describe me as smelly?” Was it, perhaps, the sour grapes of unrequited desire on Beaton’s part, or maybe a fellow diarist’s jealousy, although Beaton did add, “He has the powers of analysis and the real talent to write something fresh and startling.” In 1966, it should be mentioned, Rorem, in his diary, was courageous enough to reveal his own homosexuality, something which Beaton, in volume after volume, remained skittish about.

Living operetta legend, 92-year-old Marta Eggerth, sailed in, hauling a suitcase on wheels, which she filled with copies of “The Bennetts.” Eggerth is, simply, a wonder, and if you don’t believe me, by all means go to the next annual Licia Albanese/Puccini Foundation concert, where she traditionally slays the audience with her ravishing renditions of “Vilia” and “Oh How We Danced.” I asked her what her secret was and, in her Hungarian accent, she melodiously replied, “I vill tell you frankly: I don’t know!”

Busch was thrilled to meet her, telling her he had just watched her on TCM in “Presenting Lily Mars,” one of the two films in which she co-starred with Judy Garland. Eggerth told me she loved Judy: “She was so sweet, and so funny! But how zat studio mistreated her. She could not eat!”

Curmudgeon Time: the unaccountably laudatory reviews for Mike Nichols’ film, “Closer” only remind me of what a mediocre director this mandarin has become. His reputation as a great film/theater pioneer seems based primarily on sycophant journalists and his ability to perpetually attach himself to splashy, prestigious, au courant projects with star names.

I found HBO’s “Angels in America” bloated beyond belief, with lousy overwrought performances—Al Pacino and Mary Louise Parker plumbing their usual shtick, respectively—apart from Patrick Wilson’s freshness.

There was that utterly directionless, all-star production of “The Seagull” in Central Park with all the actors, from Meryl Streep to Natalie Portman, performing variegated onstage solo shows.

As for Nichols’ films—“The Birdcage,” Wolf,” “Catch-22,” the overrated “Carnal Knowledge,” “The Day of the Dolphin,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Regarding Henry,” “Biloxi Blues,” “Heartburn,” “Wit”—these constitute auteurial greatness?

And now comes “Closer,” Patrick Marber’s dated play about ruthless sex, which worked onstage in 1999. But Nichols’ claustrophobic direction makes it even stagier on screen. An extraneous, whiny-complaint rock song accompanies Jude Law’s face hovering over Natalie Portman, who has just been hit by a car. Nichols films everything in punishing close-ups, which rob the performances of Julia Roberts, Law, and Portman of any shared rhythm or chemistry they might have possessed. One need only look at his Oscar-winner “The Graduate” to see how badly his technique has aged and how little he’s learned since then.

People have been raving about how this is a “new” Julia Roberts, but Nichols hasn’t offered her a clue as to how to portray her anti-America’s sweetheart selfish bitch of a character. Portman is a little girl, wanly playing dress-up mommy, with assumed, tough attitude. Law is current moviedom’s premiere, if overexposed, male objet d’art, but the exigencies of playing a truly emotionally bereft character are beyond him. His mouth turns into a petulant square and what feeling that does emerge is always thin and shrill.

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com

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