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.

Ewan McGregor

Beauty and the Beast – Live Action Disney Film is a Gem


The Disney magic has struck again.

The studio’s live action remake, with a superbly talented cast, breath-taking sets, lavish costumes, and special effects that enhance rather than detract, surpasses the original 1991 animated classic. With the previous film, as well as the stage version, in the rear view mirror, and with La La Land whetting the public’s appetite for more musical films, Beauty and the Beast’s timing couldn’t be better.


Dan Stevens as the Beast

Director Bill Condon leads a production team that manages to do everything right. Condon, whose film adaptation of the Broadway hit Dreamgirls, won two Academy Awards and three Golden Globes, also knows his way around a script. He won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Gods and Monsters which he also directed. The screenplay by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos builds on the original, filling in some of the backstory about Belle and the Prince/Beast. The score with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Tim Rice, retains the songs in the animated version, while eliminating some from the stage version, and adding several that serve to advance the story in key moments.


Emma Watson as Belle and Luke Evans as Gaston

The cast, many of whom had worked with Condon before, trusted his vision and were eager to sign on for this mission. Emma Watson, known to younger audiences as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films, is radiant as Belle, projecting the heroine’s intelligence and kindness, but also her bravery when faced with danger. Her face lights up the screen and her singing voice projects a sweet innocence which befits her character.

Dan Stevens, the doomed Downton Abbey heir, might seem an odd choice to play the Prince who, because of his selfishness, is turned into the Beast by an enchantress. Yet he attacks (in some scenes quite literally), the role with relish. While the Beast is a fully digital character (according to the press notes the actor wore stilts and a prosthetics muscle suit with a grey bodysuit during filming), Stevens was determined to display the fine line between man and beast, striving to make his live action character “more dimensional than the Beast from the animated film.” He succeeds, revealing the human trapped inside a horrible-looking animal, particularly when singing the lament “Evermore,” a new addition to the score.

Kevin Kline as Maurice and Emma Watson as Belle

Belle’s father has evolved from the zany inventor in the animated version to an artist who creates beautiful, ornate music boxes. Kevin Kline’s mere presence adds depth to any scene he’s in. His Maurice projects a father’s love, but beneath the surface there’s a sadness about the past. (Through the magic of a mirror, the Beast takes Belle back to her life in Paris and she understands the secrets Maurice holds in his heart.) Kline’s Maurice is not without humor, especially when he encounters some of the talking objects in the Beast’s castle, and he delivers a stirring “How Does a Moment Last Forever,” another new song.


Josh Gad as LeFou and Luke Evans as Gaston

Gaston’s resume has been beefed up, transforming him into a war hero who saved Villenueve, the fictional French village, from invaders. What hasn’t been altered is Gaston’s quick-trigger temper, his oversized ego, and his inability to accept Belle’s refusal to marry him. Welsh actor Luke Evans brings his stage presence and booming baritone to the “role he was born to play,” according to Condon. Paired with Josh Gad as Gaston’s sidekick LeFou, Evans takes advantage of Gad’s impeccable comic timing to make the interaction between the two fun to watch. (There’s been much pre-publicity – both positive and negative – about LeFou’s obvious attraction to the manly Gaston.)


The Castle Objects

Those who signed on as the humans doomed to live as various objects in the Beast’s castle until the spell is broken, include a mind-boggling group of A-list actors. For most of the film, they are voicing the characters, but they are seen briefly in the beginning and finally emerge in the flesh at the end. They include: Ewan McGregor as Lumière, the candlestick holder; Stanley Tucci as Cadenza, a harpsichord; Audra McDonald, as Madame de Garderobe the wardrobe; Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as Plumette, the feather duster; Ian McKellen, as the clock, Cogsworth; Emma Thompson as the teakettle, Mrs. Potts; and Nathan Mack as the teacup, Chip. Hattie Morahan who lurks around the village as the homeless woman, Agatha, is actually the Enchantress who casts the spell on the Prince.

Production Designer Sarah Greenwood, responsible for the visual aspect of the film, led a team of more than 1,000 crew members who worked to create the sets that would mimic those in the animated film. These sets built on the backlot at Shepperton Studios outside London, include: the fictional town of Villeneuve; the castle’s ballroom, with a floor made from 12,000 square feet of faux marble; Belle’s bedroom; and the castle’s library holding thousands of books created specifically for the production. The largest set – 9,600 square feet – is the forest surrounding the castle which included real trees, hedges, a frozen lake, a set of 29-foot high ice gates, and about 20,000 icicles.



Costumes are period perfect and eye-catching. Designer Jacqueline Durran’s team, made up of embroiders, milliners, jewelers, painters, and textile artists, worked for three months before filming began. That lead time was necessary since Durran wanted to create sustainable costumes from fair-trade fabrics. The greatest challenge was designing that iconic yellow dress that Belle wears when dancing with the Beast in the castle’s ballroom. Made from 180 feet of feather-light satin organza, the dress used up 3,000 feet of thread. All that attention to detail pays off. Belle’s gown glows in that dance number, a high point in a film with many high points.

In a cynical world, the “tale as old as time,” never gets old. Disney’s new version continues that legacy.

Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Beauty and the Beast opens nationwide on March 17, 2017.

Ewan McGregor’s Directing Debut in American Pastoral


Young people are drawn to a cause and radicalized. They build bombs, blow up buildings, and kill people. African-Americans are marching in the streets and are beaten by the police. Sounds like present time, but Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel focused on the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, college students protested the Vietnam War, militant elements staged violent acts to drive home their anger, and cities were torn apart in the battle for civil rights.

The themes in American Pastoral still resonate, and a film that’s able to bring to the screen the similarities between what happened in the past and what we see unfolding in our country now would certainly be a worthwhile project. Ewan McGregor, in his directing debut, puts in a game effort, but the result falls short.

McGregor plays a Jewish sports star, Seymour Levov, nicknamed Swede, in deference to his light hair and complexion. The story, which sticks closely to the book, is told through the eyes of Swede’s admirer, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), a writer who has spent most of his life living abroad. That plot device becomes a clumsy vehicle for moving the story forward, with flashbacks that only serve to interrupt the narrative flow. Zuckerman returns to his New Jersey high school for a reunion and reconnects with Swede’s brother, Jerry (Rupert Evans), hoping to hear stirring tales about the golden-haired athlete who married Dawn, a former Miss New Jersey (Jennifer Connelly). Nathan is dismayed, not only to hear that Swede has just died, but that the life of this promising young man took such a tragic turn.

Slowly the story unfolds. Jerry becomes a heart surgeon and Swede takes over the glove manufacturing business set up in the heart of Newark by his father, Lou Levov (Peter Riegert). While other businesses begin producing goods abroad to cut costs, Swede retains his work force made up mostly of African-Americans. When protesters burn down white-owned businesses in Newark, Swede, assisted by his loyal employee, Vicky (Uzo Aduba), saves the factory by hanging out a sign saying, “Negroes work here.”


Hannah Nordberg and Ewan McGregor

The riots in the street are mild compared to what Swede confronts at home with his daughter. Merry (played by Hannah Nordberg as a child and Dakota Fanning as a teen) suffers from a speech problem that causes her to stutter. As a child, Merry is close to both her parents and eager for their approval. But when she hits the teen years, she turns on both of them. In New York, she connects with radical elements and soon disturbing slogans are showing up on her bedroom walls. Swede empathizes with her need to influence opinion about the war and encourages her to make her voice heard in her community. Merry takes him up on that challenge, although not in any way he might have imagined. There’s an explosion at the local post office that kills the postmaster, a husband, father, and popular figure in the community. Neither Swede nor Dawn can accept that Merry is responsible for such a violent act. The postmaster’s wife doesn’t blame them, but she makes a prophetic comment: her family will heal, but the Levovs will never recover from what their daughter has done. Indeed, Swede will spend the rest of his life looking for his daughter, hoping against hope to prove that she was brainwashed and not responsible for her actions. Meanwhile, Dawn will suffer a nervous breakdown and blame her husband for everything wrong in her life.

While the casting cannot be faulted, the performances are not what we might expect from such experienced actors. McGregor seems wooden, his reactions not nuanced enough to reflect the various levels of hurt and outrage he must be feeling as his life begins to unravel. Connelly does her best with what she’s given, but her downward spiral is too abrupt and therefore not entirely believable. Similarly, Merry’s transformation from dutiful daughter to revolutionary happens in a nanosecond: one minute she’s happily flipping burgers in the family kitchen, the next she’s hurling them at her parents along with vitriolic words. The best performance belongs to Riegert, who perfectly captures Swede’s loyal father and Merry’s even more loyal grandfather.

Molly Parker plays Merry’s therapist, whose advice should have sent the Levovs rushing for the door. Yet, they continue family counseling, a decision that will place Merry in danger. Valorie Curry seems to be making a career out of playing creepy, fanatical groupies, most famously as Emma Hill in Fox TV’s The Following. Here, as Rita, a fellow revolutionary, she becomes the link between Merry and Swede. There’s a cringe-worthy scene where she tries to seduce him.

What the film does get right is how far a parent will go to protect a child, even one who has engaged in criminal activity. Swede can’t accept that his daughter, his flesh and blood, is responsible for killing people. He also can’t absolve himself of the guilt that somehow he’s to blame for the choices she made. These are tough questions, and the film doesn’t attempt to answer them.

American Pastoral opens nationwide October 21, 2016.

Photo credit: Richard Foreman courtesy of Lionsgate