NY Mirror

Footloose turns out to be like Stupid Kids without the irony, but not as bad as that sounds.

The imminent Gods and Monsters is a bizarre little talky tango between faded Frankenstein director James Whale and a lawn worker who taunts him, admires him, and poses seminude for him. The film's use of flashbacks and monster symbolism is often contrived and the on-the-set stuff is not as magical as Ed Wood's, but there's some creepy fascination here, and Sir Ian McKellen is grand and touching as the beached Whale, Brendan Fraser matching him all the way as the gorgeous gardening sprout with a brown thumb.

I caught up with the wryly elegant Sir Ian--who goes one-on-one with another rapt babe in Apt Pupil--at the Essex House, and the stage was set for fun when an assistant stuck his head in to ask him, "Did you have a nice sleep last night?" and McKellen deadpanned, "That's none of your business!" Well, it was my business to ask about Brendan Fraser and how great it was that he didn't condescend at all to his himbo role. Wasn't it, wasn't it? "Brendan's a proper actor," McKellen replied, with great dignity. "It would have been intolerable to him if he'd been just beefcake. The character's more interesting than that. You realize he's more complicated than just a fine figure of a boy." Oh, is Brendan a fine figure of a boy? I hadn't noticed.

Sir Ian's also a venturesome sort, but he's quick to point out that when he suggestively slides a distinctly phallic cigar into his mouth in the movie, "That's acting!" Whale's gay sexuality, however, was for real (and not done just with cigars) and he could get away with it by being open but silent--a delicate high-wire trick that some had to perfect more than others. As McKellen explains it, the press didn't give a crap about directors back then, "but actors had to work harder to keep their sexuality out of the papers. Still, Randolph Scott and Cary Grant were photographed over their kitchen table in their pajamas with their dog, and, this being a more innocent time, the fans could say, 'Oh I'm getting two cute men for the price of one in this photograph!' rather than wonder what the hell they were doing there!"

Today's closet cases can't rely on such blissful ignorance and are often coerced by managers to hetero it up, for the sake of their careers. "But I wonder what career is so worth having that you should spend your time living a lie!" said Sir Ian. He vehemently refuses to do so, and is even honest about his own sometimes eccentric career choices. He admits to having turned down the part of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, but if you say, "So Martin Landau wouldn't have won the Oscar?" he grimaces and answers, "I don't think I would have, either." He also rejected the Alfred Molina role in Prick Up Your Ears because, "I thought it was very much a straight man's take on these two people's lives. I do regret that one."

He doesn't regret having been knighted in '90, "but that doesn't mean I'm a member of the royal family or go around wearing a suit of armor." He's not as pretentious as all that. In fact, Sir Ian's the kind of titled nobility who loved the scene in Woody Allen's Celebrity where Bebe Neuwirth teaches Judy Davis how to go down on a banana. But Sir Ian, it turns out, needs no such help. "If you notice, I have no bananas," he pointed out, gesturing to his potassium-free fruit bowl. Me neither--but only because I used them all.

Now let's go down, not on a banana, but to the chic new Joe's Pub at the Public Theater, where Audra McDonald just reestablished herself as performing royalty. In her Way Back to Paradise act, McDonald--on a night off from Ragtime--not only came off as a perfect singer with the right combination of precision and passion, but as a perfect lady who never rubbed in that she's won three Tonys. Her mission was to highlight the work of young musical-theater composers, several of whom joined her for exciting duets that attempted to stretch the medium. Naturally, some songs were better than others, but the refreshing sense of discovery made us feel far less squirmy to be in a cabaret than we generally are in those "My Funny Valentine"-type places. And McDonald was entrancing throughout, confirming her status as the unofficial offspring of Leslie Uggams and Shirley Verett.

The more traditional kind of material McDonald studiously avoids is typified by Footloose, which turns out to be like Stupid Kids without the irony, but not as bad as that sounds. When the movie version came out in '84, I remember thinking it was so quaint it made Grease look like a documentary (and at least Grease is spoofing the blandness). Now--in the post-Rent era--it seems positively from Mars, but the trip is actually not that painful, once you get over the Archie and Veronica characters and their knack for singing pop tunes at the Burger Blast. The show is studded with spunk and good feelings--and now I'm hoping for an all-male Dirty Dancing.

At the movies, Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful is an instant classic, and I'm tired of seeing Benigni have to defend it because it has humor, as if this was just some feature-length Springtime for Hitler. Benigni doesn't trivialize the Holocaust; his character heartbreakingly tries to protect his child from its horrors, and when the laughs come up, they serve to either inject more humanity into their plight or make wicked fun of the fascists. Anyway, the mostly overwhelming response has made Benigni's life beautiful. The last time I saw the guy, in '93, he was posing in a giant grounded balloon, trying to promote that Son of the Pink Panther bomb. Well, this time, he was floating on air at his movie's party at the Plaza, where luminaries lined up to kiss his ass, and were so into it that they probably would have pleasured his banana too, if asked.

I commiserated with Benigni about those critics who've put him on the spot, and he said, "I don't have to defend this movie because it's so vulnerable. It's like a naked kid--uno bambino nudo. It defends itself. The movie, he's defending me!" Real-life children--clothed ones--certainly get it, and in Italy they've responded to Benigni by embracing him as a sort of life-sized Mickey Mouse. "I'm well known in Italy as a cartoon," he told me, "and since kids are purity, they write me letters, with drawings on them." Which American movies does he embrace? "I like the classics by Scorsese, Tarantino, Woody Allen--he's not Italian--and William Wyler. Ben-Hur was my first movie, but I didn't have enough money, so I saw it backwards. I saw Ruh-Neb." Oh, that's the version where Charlton Heston was the walrus.

Finally, in the get-her department, you may have heard that Martha Stewart was in one of the vehicles held up by last week's protest march against antigay violence, and she didn't look too happy, especially when a few people started chanting, "What do we need now? New sheets!" I guess Martha shouldn't have left Connecticut--and by the way, she also shouldn't go to see Bride of Chucky, because bridey's big moment has her screaming, "Fuck Martha Stewart! Martha Stewart can kiss my shiny, plastic butt!" That's acting!

Michael Musto can be e-mailed at musto@villagevoice.com.

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