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.
Continuing on with our series on experiencing the world’s best vacation spots vicariously through the use of books and movies, now let’s take a sojourn to Paris the City of Lights. With its fantastic food, its café culture, its world famous museums, historic architecture and so much more, it is arguably the Ultimate Destination City. Let us explore.
Five Great Movies to See That Were Filmed in Paris
An American in Paris (1951) Vincente Minelli directed this classic movie musical based on the composition of George Gershwin. Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is a WWII vet struggling to make it as an artist while romantically involved with Lise (Leslie Caron). Oscar Levant, Georges Geutary, and Nina Foch also starred. It was a huge box office smash and was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won six. It is ranked #9 on the AFI’s list of Best Movie Musicals.
Belle de Jour(1967) Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel directed and co-wrote this film based on the Joseph Kessler novel of the same name. Severine (Catherine Denueve, in one of her most acclaimed roles) is a young and beautiful housewife married to physician Dr. Pierre Serizy. She loves her husband, but is sexually frustrated and finds release by working as a high class prostitute while he’s at work. Many of Denueve’s costumes were designed by Yves St. Laurent himself and the film won the Golden Lion and Passinetti Award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival.
Amelie (2001) Audrey Tatou shines in the title role as a shy young waitress living in Montmarte who decides to devote herself to promoting the happiness of others. Along the way of course she finds love for herself as well. The movie was a global smash and the highest grossing French language film released in the U.S. to date. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, won two BAFTA awards, four Cesar Awards including Best Film and Best Director, and won Best Film at the European Film awards.
Ratatouille (2007) Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol) directed this animated Pixar offering. Remy the rat (Patton Oswalt) is an idealistic and creative soul who yearns to become a great chef but finds it hard to do because…well he’s a rat. Until that he is forms a partnership with bumbling garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano). Janeane Garafolo, Ian Holm, Brian Dennehy, Brad Garrett, and Peter O’Toole lend their voices as well. To create the food animation Bird interned at The French Laundry restaurant and the production team consulted with numerous chefs. The end result was a visually spectacular and hilarious movie that rightly won the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture.
Midnight in Paris(2011) Woody Allen wrote and directed this comedic fantasy. Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a screenwriter and would be novelist besotted by Paris while his fiancée Inez (Rachel MacAdams) is less enamored. One night Gil discovers a way to travel back in time to Paris in the 20’s allowing him to hobnob with figures like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. The movie is essentially a love letter to Paris and its charms and enchantments which helped win a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
Five Great Books Set in Paris
Le Pere Goriot(1835) by Honore de Balzac. Set in Paris during the Bourbon Restoration, the novel follows how three characters lives intertwine: criminal in hiding Vautrin; idealistic young law student Eugene de Rastignac; and the titular Goriot, an elderly man who dotes on his spoiled and ungrateful daughters. While it received mixed reviews at the time it is now widely considered to be Balzac’s most important and influential novel that gave rise to the term ‘Rastignac’ to denote a social climber who’d do anything to advance their position.
A Moveable Feast (1964) By Ernest Hemingway. A memoir of Hemingway’s early years as a struggling expatriate journalist and author in the 20’s when he was married to his first wife, Hadley. It was published posthumously by his fourth wife and widow, Mary Hemingway, three years after his death based on his manuscript and notes. Hemingway provides specific details on many Parisian streets and cafes still in existence today as well as featuring such notable figures as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Aleister Crowley, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein and many more. For anyone interested in Paris OR literary history it’s a must read.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006) By Muriel Bayberry. Renee Michel is a brilliant and sensitive woman who hides her genius under a shade while working as a concierge at a ritzy apartment building. She is befriended by the precocious and unstable 12 year old Paloma Josse and one day the cultured Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu begins to take an interest in Renee as well. An publishing phenomenon it became an international best-seller and won the 2007 French Booksellers Award, the Prix du Rotary International in France, and the Brive-la-Gaillarde Reader’s prize. A movie adaption starring Josiane Balasko as Renee was released in 2009.
Pure (2011) By Andrew Miller. The novel centers around the efforts of engineer Jean-Baptiste Barrette who is tasked with the removal of the Les Innocentes, cemetery and church from Les Halles, France in 1786. Barratte soon find he has both friends and enemies in this task and Miller draws a colorful cast of characters who wage against each other during a time of incredible political turmoil. It was nominated for the Walter Scott Prize and South Bank Award, and won the Costa Book Award for ‘Best Novel’ and ‘Book of the Year.’
Paris: The Novel (2013) By Edward Rutherford. This historical novel traces the history of Paris from 1261 to 1968 thru the sagas of six core families; the Revolutionary Le Sourds, the aristocratic de Cygnes, the bourgeois merchant Renards, Napolean supporting Blanchards, the Gascons of the slums, and the Jacobs an art dealing Jewish family. Based on real events following two different timelines and set in locales such as Montmarte, Notre Dame, and Boulevard Saint-Germain it weaves a fascinating tapestry.
John McKinney’s play is ½ Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, ¼ Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam and ¼ that of the playwright. Still, it zips along with contemporary spin offering ample whimsy, romance, a dash of darkness, and some clever literary dialogue. It’s not without entertainment value, has an attractive cast, and is likely very marketable.
Dana Watkins and Elizabeth Inghram
Aspiring writer Jeremy (Dana Watkins) lost his beloved wife Kate (Elizabeth Inghram) in a car crash three years ago…or at least her corporeal form. She regularly visits him (first in dreams, later waking) engaging in playful banter and apparently sex. A depressed hermit since her passing, he’s unable to work on his psychological/ fantasy novella and has no inclination to do much of anything else. As long as she’s “there…”
Impelled by good hearted, thoroughly dissipate brother Eddie (Christian Ryan) to get back out in the world, Jeremy joins an acting class. Assigned partner Chrissy (Charlotte Stoiber) is gung-ho about their doing a scene from Anton Chekhov’s Seagull, an author Jeremy abhors. Like many young actresses, she’s always wanted to play the ingénue Nina. Jeremy would be Boris Trigorin, a much older, famous writer with whom Nina becomes entangled. Enter the dandified spectre of Chekhov (Rik Walter) to advise and provoke. (Humphry Bogart – and later Sigmund Freud in the Woody Allen.)
Christian Ryan and Dana Watkins
Later, Kate will parallel Chekhov’s jealous Irina Arkadina, longtime lover of Trigorin. (In Blithe Spirit, dead wife Elvira is pitted against live love interest/wife Ruth.) Jeremy is confused and torn. Things come to a head too dramatically with too little incitement somewhat out of sync with the rest of the play.
Dana Watkins and Rik Walter
Dana Williams’s Jeremy often looks as innocently embarrassed as a Frank Capra character, especially where sexual innuendo is concerned. The playwright seems to have one foot in each of two eras. Williams is, however, all of a piece and sweetly appealing.
As Eddie, Christian Ryan plays indolent hedonist with low key gusto. He’s slick, wryly self aware, and palpably high with every word and move. Able performance, fun to watch.
Director Leslie Kincaid Burby employs the length and breadth of her stage with great naturalism. Playfulness and seduction are completely credible. Crissy’s squealing could be toned down – she’s a bit too adolescent. Her Seagull preparation, however, is priceless. Kate is lovely at the start, but grows increasingly irritating and obviously false as the play progresses. Charm would have made what occurs easier to swallow. Chekhov’s accent may be Hollywood Russian, but it works in context. The actor’s bearing and phrasing are grand.
Christina Giannini’s Costumes for Kate are uniformly awful. A succession of white dresses is old fashioned and unflattering, supposedly erotic apparel looks like a Rockette, her really cheap-looking Russian ensemble appears to feature a bath rug as cape and aluminum foil hat… Contemporary clothes are fine as is Chekhov’s suit.
Scott Aronow’s Scenic Design offers a winning, impressionistic dreamscape reminiscent of Chagall and apartment walls (with alas, little personality) that smoothly revolve between here and the afterlife.
Photos by Arin Sang-urai
Opening: Elizabeth Inghram, Dana Watkins, Charlotte Stoiber
The Chekhov Dreamsby John McKinney
Directed by Leslie Kincaid Burby
The Beckett Theater
410 West 42nd Street
Through February 17, 2018
If you’re unfamiliar with the name Neil Simon, it seems clear you’ve regularly attended neither theater nor film, have an aversion to natural human comedy, or are very young. The author has written over 30 plays, almost an equal number of screenplays, and a handful of librettos. Simon received more combined Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer. His melding of comedy with compassionate drama and situation with characters we feel we know – often heroes in their own small worlds – allows us to laugh even when highly affected.
This is a big book. It combines Simon’s 1996 Rewrites and his 1999 The Play Goes On with an introduction by Nathan Lane and an afterward by wife, Elaine Joyce. Don’t let the bulk throw you. It’s easy, enjoyable reading. For those of us long aware of the artist, references to most work embroiders memories and illuminates well known collaborators. The volume is not a resume. Simon is candid about fallibility and fear, personal life inspiring his oeuvre and vice versa. That he states he kept neither journals nor diaries makes detail impressive.
“If character is fate, as the Greeks tell us, then it was my fate to become a playwright. Destiny seems preordained by the gods. Fate comes to those who continue on the path they started on when all other possible roads were closed to them.”
Marvin Neil Simon (1927-) grew up during the Great Depression regularly abandoned by his father, raised by an overwrought mother who inadvertently taught him to refuse assistance, advice, and comforting. “I have driven myself to the hospital rather than put someone out…” He admits this cut him off from many organic feelings. I would amend the statement by suggesting the difficulty may have applied to his private life, not the author’s prose.
Directly after High School and The Army Air Force Reserve, Simon and his older brother Danny got jobs writing comedy for radio and television. (See: Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound, and later, Lost in Yonkers for which he won The Pulitzer Prize.) The two eventually joined a brilliant staff concocting Sid Caesar’s iconic Your Show of Shows. Carl Reiner, Howie Morris and Woody Allen, who stated that Danny Simon taught him everything he knows about comedy, were peers. (See Laughter on the 23rd Floor)
Simon’s first plays were Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park – the last directed by Mike Nichols about whom he writes with keen-eyed ardor, and the Tony Award-winning The Odd Couple which turned out to be an annuity encompassing film and television. The studio wanted Bing Crosby and Bob Hope to play his characters on film. Instead, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau inhabited the roles. The memoirist writes about both actors with wit and esteem. We hear about producers, directors, actors, agents… There’s neither difficulty nor dirt here. Curiously Simon elaborates on trials in personal rather than professional relationships, the opposite of most autobiographies.
Plays and screenplays (including some adaptations) flowed out of him. The author often juggled two or three projects simultaneously. “Neil the writer had time for only one thing: he wrote…more and more he would take over Neil the person’s time…” Despite incredible success and remarkable early facility “I could almost always tell what wouldn’t work in front of an audience. This is not to say I could tell what would work…,” he remained insecure and strangely guilty. Guilt, a state that contributed to breakdowns and drove him to intermittent analysis, comes up again and again.
Does self reproach stem from a childhood about which he was impotent? Did Simon feel ideas came too easily; that he was unworthy of accolades? Were serial consequences of not paying attention to personal relationships the root of his remorse? Armchair conjecturing.
Neil Simon was married five times. Joan Baim created a stable home life for which he was grateful and about which he was surprised, bore two daughters, and tragically died of cancer. Actress Marsha Mason brought light back into his life, understood and participated in common craft, and is deemed incredibly patient. (See: Chapter II.) Actress Diane Lander, whom he wed twice, eventually adopting her daughter, was fired from a Neiman Marcus job for talking to him. “I have to make it up to you,” Simon entreated. “Dinner isn’t enough. I have to buy you a small restaurant…” (There are endless wonderful quips.) Simon is descriptive, yet discreet. He takes the blame for every nuptial failure.
Falling in love with and wedding actress Elaine Joyce, after both felt finished with marriage, offers a happy ending. “For me, I hope there will be additional satisfactions besides my work…I feel now that while I have fewer years to live, I have more time in which to live them.”
BTW, according to Neil Simon, it was his brother Danny who nicknamed him “Doc” during playtime with a doctor’s kit. Neil was three years-old.
“I had a gift, albeit a simple one-but then fortunately I was not the one who God chose to lead His people out of Egypt.”
With Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen has created an atmospheric period piece with nostalgic scenes of Coney Island on the beach and on the boardwalk, that will stir memories for many who once enjoyed escaping the city’s heat for a day by the sea. The wonder wheel itself looms as a backdrop and ubiquitous presence in the lives of those who live and work in the resort. Coney Island in the fifties was a play land for some, a prison for others.
Ginny (Kate Winslet) was once an aspiring actress, with a husband she loved and a young son. One too many love scenes with another actor led to an affair and the end of the marriage. Now she lives with her second husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), who runs the amusement park’s merry-go-round. About to turn 40, Ginny works as a waitress at a clam bar on the boardwalk while trying to keep her pyrotechnic son, Richie (Jack Gore), under control.
Steve Schirripa, Tony Sirico, and Jim Belushi
Humpty’s adult daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), shows up unexpectedly. She and her father had a falling out when she quit school to marry a mafioso. After singing to the FBI, Carolina is now on the run. She returns home, hoping that her husband will believe Coney Island is the last place she would come. (Two Sopranos alums, Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico, turn up as the mafia henchman looking for Carolina.)
Ginny and Humpty live in an apartment that once housed a freak show. Ginny hates everything about her life, angry that one mistake could have derailed what was once a promising future as an actress. It doesn’t help Ginny’s moods that Humpty, seemingly ignorant of the slight, still calls his dead wife “an angel,” and tells Ginny that Carolina is too smart to be a waitress. Humpty is oblivious to his wife’s unhappiness, puzzled that, unlike the other wives, she rejects his offers to take her fishing or to a ballgame.
Ginny’s hope for a future materializes when she meets a lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake), an NYU student pursuing a master’s degree in European theater. A few casual conversations on the beach lead to drinks, and soon the two are enjoying rainy days making love under the boardwalk. Timberlake is the Allen stand-in, breaking the fourth wall and keeping the audience updated on what’s happening and his feelings. For Mickey, the dalliance is a summer romance that might help provide material for the play he’s trying to write. Ginny, however, sees Mickey as her chance to turn around her life.
When Mickey bumps into Ginny and Carolina, he’s immediately smitten with the younger woman. Carolina, unaware, of course, that her stepmother is having an affair with Mickey, asks Ginny for romantic advice. Ginny, desperate for a way out of her troubled marriage, will do everything possible to keep Mickey and Carolina apart, with disastrous results.
Wonder Wheel is not Allen’s best. An early scene when Carolina tries to justify her return home is too drawn out. And why would the FBI just cut her loose, without protection, knowing she was in danger of being killed? But what’s lacking in the plot is more than made up in the performances. Timberlake is more effective when he’s actually acting in the film rather than talking to the audience. While this narrative device is one of Allen’s favorites, the scenes with Timberlake alone disrupt the flow of the film. Belushi delivers a strong performance as Ginny’s husband. Temple, who might be unknown to many audiences, lights up the screen as Carolina, particularly in the scenes with Timberlake’s Mickey.
Winslet is the heart and soul of the film. There are shades of Blanche Dubois and Norma Desmond in her Ginny. Winslet makes Ginny’s desperation palpable. But while we understand Ginny’s pain, it’s hard to feel sorry for her. She accepts minimal responsibility for how her life has turned out, and is incapable of taking steps on her own to make her life better. Lost in the shuffle is her son, whose cries for attention with his fire setting are met with anger and punishment. Of all the sad personal stories in this film, his is the most tragic.
On August 29 the world became just a little less funny with the news that legendary comedian Gene Wilder had passed away at the age of 83. Gene Wilder performed in several Broadway productions including Mother Courage and Her Children and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest before getting his first film role in the 1967 picture Bonnie and Clyde working alongside Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. But he didn’t really hit it big until The Producers (1968) written and directed by Mel Brooks where as Leo Bloom, Wilder played the straight man to Zero Mostel. Wilder was in a word magical; the scene where Mostel’s Max gets Leo dancing around in a fountain is one for the ages as is seeing the Jewish Leo having to wear a swastika banner on his arm. Wilder was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Mel Brooks (And America!) had found a new Funnyman.
Gene Wilder’s iconic performance in the titular role of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor-Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. No offense to Johnny Depp, but no one, no one could play a peculiar, sad-eyed dreamer like Wilder could with those large haunting, melancholy peepers of his. In 1972, Wilder was featured in Woody Allen’s classic Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid To Ask. In 1974, Wilder starred in two movies for Brooks; Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein both of which are now universally agreed on as not only Brooks best work, not only two of the best comedies of all time, but as two of the best movies of all time. Period. (To this day my father has memorized the whole song and dance routine for Young Frankenstein’s musical number “Putting on the Ritz.”)
Then came the Richard Pryor years following the 1976 hit Silver Streak when Hollywood learned that Pryor and Wilder were a dynamite pairing. The two would go on to make three more films Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1990). The last was the last major film either one of them ever starred in. Pryor became increasingly debilitated due to MS and died in 2005, while Wilder became more retiring in the wake of the death of his third wife Gilda Radner at the age of 42, from ovarian cancer in 1989. He only had a few smaller television gigs, including the role of Mock Turtle in a live action version of Alice in Wonderland, and then retreated to private life completely. But oh what a run he had while it lasted!
Goodbye Gene, and I hope you’re riding off into the sunset now somewhere with Gilda, Richard, Zero, and Cleavon Little.
Every year, like clockwork, Woody Allen releases a new film. And it seems like the quality of his films keeps getting worse. Café Society brings in the usual: The big name stars, the idyllic setting, two people falling in love. These elements are usually enough to do the trick, but Allen has somehow run his creative streak into the ground. Simply put, Café Society is plagued by creative fatigue, dull characters, and side plots that take away from a film that is almost one big side plot in and of itself.
Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) comes from a Jewish New York City family. His mother, in her attempt to help get him a job, calls up her brother Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a big-time Hollywood agent. So Bobby packs his stuff and moves out to Los Angeles for a while. His uncle is constantly busy and doesn’t really make any time for him, but he eventually helps Bobby pick up a job. While working in his uncle’s office, Bobby meets Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), and he’s immediately smitten. Vonnie tells him from the start that she can’t be involved with him beyond friendship because she has a boyfriend. What Bobby doesn’t know, however, is that Vonnie’s boyfriend turns out to be Phil. After finding out, Bobby moves back to New York City and decides to help his older brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), run his nightclubs. Somehow, he manages not to get involved in his brother’s more illegal dealings. While at one of the clubs, he meets, courts, and quickly marries Veronica (Blake Lively), who just happens to share the same name as his former girlfriend. But will he ever move on from loving Vonnie?
To say Café Society lacks any true substance would be accurate. Allen continuously revives the same kinds of characters. Characters who are seeking something, or someone, they have never encountered, always in somewhat of a naive approach. The situations they’re in may be only slightly different, but this isn’t saying much because they’re always, always the same semi-pretentious, surface-level characters no matter the setting. Café Society is set in late 1930s Hollywood, with all the style and glamour that this world encompasses. Yet it feels empty, with Allen going for part cynical and part dreamy, and neither of the two working in the film’s favor. Are we supposed to have sympathy for these characters? It sure doesn’t feel that way. Every scene feels clipped and because there’s no pull toward any singular person, the film feels oddly long for a run time of only an hour and a half.
Allen’s biggest misstep is the narration. His voice carries throughout the film’s scenes, practically giving us a play-by-play of what is going on and what the characters are thinking. His narration is lackluster and is blatantly lazy writing. Instead of showing us and delving further into character development through interaction, Allen chooses to tell us. Through the narration, we also receive loads of information on things and characters that are rather useless to the plot and only serve to waste time. Café Society is filled with ridiculous and horribly cheesy lines that even all the film’s big-name actors can’t save.
Ultimately, Café Society is drab and filled with a lot of problems: Lackluster characters, bad dialogue, too many minor plots, and narration more concerned with telling and not showing. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who I’ve always found to have superb chemistry when they’re together onscreen, are particularly good. Steve Carell is the older man who gets the girl (like in many, many Woody Allen movies), but his character doesn’t bring much to the table. Far more surprising is Blake Lively’s character, who’s barely in the film and exists only to be married to Eisenberg. Together, they have an onscreen dynamic.
In the last fifteen years, Woody Allen has made a few memorable films, but the remainder have been terrible and agonizing to sit through. Unfortunately, Café Society is another addition to that very long list.
Photos courtesy of Lionsgate Top: Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart