Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword directed by Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) is just the latest in what has been a long Hollywood fascination with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Consider the following.
The Sword in the Stone(1963) This animated Disney classical musical concentrates on Arthur’s boyhood. Young Arthur is a lonely twelve year old orphan known as Wart, under the care of his foster father Sir Ector and serving as squire to Ector’s brutish, bullying son Kay. One day a chance meeting brings him to the cottage of Merlin who declares himself Arthur’s tutor and insists on coming home with him. Thus begins a charming and delightful coming of age story based on part one of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Of particular note is Merlin’s magical duel with arch-nemesis Madame Mim.
Camelot(1967) John Logan (South Pacific) directed the film adaption of the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name. King Arthur (the one and only Richard Harris) prepares for a battle against his dearest friend Sir Lancelot (Franco Nero of Django fame) and sadly reflects on the circumstances that have brought them both to this point. A young Vanessa Redgrave plays Guenevere. It was nominated for five Academy Awards and won three including Best Musical Score. It was also nominated for six Golden Globe Awards and won three including Best Actor for Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Richard Harris.
Lancelot du Lac (1974) Renowned French filmmaker Robert Bresson (A Man Escaped, Mouchette) wrote and directed this take centering on the doomed love affair of Lancelot and Gwenivere. Like most of other Bresson’s films he used a cast of unknowns for the roles and his depiction of the Middle Ages emphasized blood and grime over magic and fantasy. It won the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival and has a fresh rating over 90% on the Tomatometer.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail(1975) This British slapstick comedy parodying the Arthurian legend was the source material for the blockbuster musical Spamalot. With such classic bits as the Knights Who Say Ni, the Rabbit of Caerbannog, and the coconuts…dear god the coconuts. It was the highest grossing British film released in America that year, has a 97% fresh rating on the Tomatometer, and is universally considered one of the most hysterically funny movies of all time. Do NOT try to drink anything while watching!
Excalibur (1981) John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance) wrote, directed, and produced this bloody and brutal British Fantasy drama based entirely on Thomas Malory’s writings of the Arthurian legend. Shot entirely in Ireland with an Irish cast it helped launch the careers of such performers as Gabriel Byrne (Uther Pendragon), Ciaran Hinds (King Lot), Helen Mirren (Morgana), Corin Redgrave (Duke of Cornwall), Patrick Stewart (King Leondegrance) and Liam Neeson (Gawain). The main love triangle is played by Nigel Terry (The Lion in Winter) as Arthur, Cherie Lunghi (King David) as Gwenivere and Nicholas Clay (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lionheart) as Lancelot. It was nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards and Boorman was nominated for two prizes at the Cannes Film Festival winning for Best Artistic Contribution.
For those who remember Jacqueline Kennedy as First Lady, Natalie Portman’s performance in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, will be mesmerizing. During that famous White House tour, recreated for the film in black and white, Portman nails Jackie’s breathy voice and her straight-back posture. That was the Jackie we watched and knew. What the film shows is the Jackie we didn’t see – the one who chain-smoked, who descended into grief as she mourned her husband, and who fought to preserve his legacy, as well as her own.
This is Chilean director Larraín’s first English-speaking film and he has delivered a riveting portrait of a complex woman. The supporting cast is strong, featuring Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig, as Jackie’s loyal aide Nancy Tuckerman, John Carroll Lynch as Lyndon B. Johnson, Max Casella as Jack Valenti, and as JFK, Caspar Phillipson, who bears a striking resemblance to the late president.
Natalie Portman and Billy Crudup
When the film opens, it’s a mere week after the assassination and Jackie has retreated to Hyannis Port, the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod. She’s agreed to an interview with a reporter played by Billy Crudup. (The reporter, while unnamed, is Theodore H. White, author of The Making of a President series, including one about Kennedy, whose interview with Jackie appeared in Life magazine.) Jackie is determined to control the narrative. Several times after sharing her intimate thoughts, she tells the reporter, “Don’t think for a second that I’m going to let you publish that.”
America, in fact, the world, had never seen a First Lady like Jackie. Besides restoring and redecorating the White House, she showcased the arts and fashion. In one scene, Jackie, elegantly dressed in a mint green sheath, along with the president and honored guests, listens to an intimate concert by the Spanish cellist Pablo Cassals. She influenced style with her colorful dresses and pillbox hats.
Peter Sarsgaard and Natalie Portman
No outfit, however, is more embedded in people’s minds than the Chanel-like bright pink suit she wore that fateful day in Dallas. In the film, Jackie is in front of a mirror on Air Force One, practicing a speech she plans to give in Spanish. Stepping off the plane, she’s greeted by Texas Governor John Connally (Craig Sechler) and his wife, Nellie (Rebecca Compton). Soon after, there’s the motorcade, the shots, and the Secret Service agents descending on the limousine, while the car rushes the gravely injured president to the hospital.
On the plane, Jackie resists efforts to change her suit, staying in the blood-stained garments. When she finally is back at the White House, the scene where she undresses, pulling off her ruined stockings, then showering the blood out of her hair, is painful to watch. But it’s when she enters the bedroom that the full impact of the president’s death hits. She’s alone faced with the overwhelming tasks that confront her, explaining Jack’s death to their children, arranging the funeral, and moving out of the White House.
The Funeral Procession
Barbara Leaming, in her 2014 biography, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story, claimed that Jackie suffered from post traumatic stress after witnessing the death of her husband. Publicly, she appeared to be holding everything together during that time. What Larraín purports to show in the film is what she suffered behind the scene, crying, drinking, popping pills, as she wanders through the many rooms in the White House. In one scene, she tries on dress after dress, looking at herself in the mirror, then tossing them aside. All the while, we hear Richard Burton singing the title song to the Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical, Camelot. That was what Jackie wanted people to remember about their time in the White House that “once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
She may have been grieving, but she was determined that her husband have the proper funeral and burial. While Johnson’s people, particularly his special assistant, Valenti, argued that it wasn’t safe to have Jackie, Johnson, and world leaders walk behind Kennedy’s casket from the Capitol building to the church, she insisted. She also fought Rose Kennedy’s desire to have Jack buried in the family plot in Brookline, Massachusetts, instead picking out his final resting place, in Arlington National Cemetery.
Many actresses have played Jackie, but Portman’s portrayal is the one that will be remembered. She’s simply phenomenal.
Lyricist and Librettist Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986) won three Tony Awards and three Academy Awards. With Frederick Loewe and Burton Lane, he gave us such varied musical theater pieces as Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, Camelot, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and the iconic My Fair Lady as well as movie musicals Gigi and Royal Wedding. Lerner also wrote the screenplay for An American in Paris. The irascible artist had a well known amphetamine habit, yet managed to have eight wives, provoking one to remark, “Marriage was his way of saying goodbye.”
Well born Lerner met Frederick Loewe at The Lamb’s Club in 1942. Their first big hit was 1947’s highland fantasy Brigadoon. Harvey Granat begins today’s musical selections with a palpably enamored “Almost Like Being in Love” from that show. Special Guest John Cullum comments, “Thank God, this is a talk show. I wouldn’t want to compete with that.”
Three songs from the Fred Astaire/Jane Powell film Royal Wedding follow. “Too Late Now” arrives a wistful, wounded shrug, not believing the relationship is over. “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?” is delivered in music hall vernacular like yout (youth), trut (truth) and wouldn’t yuz know. “All the World To Me” (the dancing on the ceiling number) is graceful and jaunty. “He paints such a beautiful, lyrical picture,” Granat says. As does the vocalist.
By whom are you influenced when singing in theater,” Granat asks Cullum, “the composer? the lyricist? the director?” “Lyrics,” the performer decisively responds.“They change your personality with every song you sing.”
My Fair Lady, which garnered 2700 performances in 1956, featured Rex Harrison, an actor convinced he couldn’t sing (apparently much like Cullum) and a wet behind the ears, Julie Andrews. We hear a rendition of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” subtly colored by surprise and a deeply romantic “On the Street Where You Live” during which some of the audience quietly sing. “Sing out!” our host encourages.
At the top of the last 16 bars, Cullum joins in and Granat yields the floor. “When I first came to New York,” the thespian explains, “they always asked whether I had a ballad. I said, yes, On the Street Where You Live.” Again and again he was told Give us the last 16 bars. “I’ve had lots of practice,” he grins.
With “Gigi,” Granat expresses puzzlement, unconsciously wrinkling his brow on ‘desire.’ “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” remains affectionately timeless, though our host points out the lyrics would elicit issues today. Having worked in many mediums, Cullum is asked which he prefers. “I have to admit, there’s nothing like a musical, though I wish I had the voice to sing opera.”
Cullum auditioned to play a knight in 1960’s Camelot starring Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, and Robert Goulet. “All the guys over 6’3” were there to audition and I knew they could sing circles around me…” He got the part, also understudying Roddy McDowall and Burton, becoming friends with the latter whom he fondly recalls as generous with the entire company and scholarly. “Burton really didn’t think acting was important thing to do which broke my heart. I think he was lying.”
Granat then sings “If Ever I Could Leave You” during which each season seems to occur to him before our eyes. Cullum continues Camelot anecdotes with Lerner’s request that he sing Sir Lancelot’s ballad for the lyricist in hopes he might understudy Goulet. “I told him I haven’t got that kind of voice, but he insisted. Afterwards, he said,~ John, you’re absolutely right, you haven’t got the voice.’” Sweetly, self-effacingly related.
In 1965, Cullum stared as Dr. Mark Bruckner opposite Julie Harris’ Daisy Gamble/Melinda in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. He sings the title song beginning with the verse, part of a song, he comments, too often overlooked. Every word is meaningful, every thought appreciated. Gentle long notes originate at the back of the performer’s throat, clearing lips with thoughtfulness and emotional waver.
Just before Lerner died, he withdrew from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera having authored “Masquerade,” but losing his memory due to an undiagnosed brain tumor. He was also working on a musical of My Man Godfrey.
As always, MD/pianist David Lahm makes everything seem rehearsed.
Harvey Granat’s The Songs of Alan Jay Lerner is the last of this season’s entertaining midday concert/talks at the 92 Street Y. Next season begins on September 15 with music and stories about Jerry Herman. October 20, it’s Frank Loesser. November 10, Jule Styne. December 8, Burt Bachrach. Each event will feature a special guest. Each will be at noon at the 92Y on Lexington Avenue.