First it was kids killing each other, then it was yanks patronizing Japanese culture, and now the hot movie trend is biopics of writers, whether the scribes are earnest and harassed (Veronica Guerin), ass-kissy and sociopathic (Stephen Glass), or just plain depressed (Sylvia Plath). Get a writer to write about a writer and you’ve got a green light to write home about, as the screen becomes filled with notepads, and moguls’ offices get cluttered with the contracts of stars who normally take out restraining orders on reporters but are suddenly desperate to play them.
No writer I know has a problem with this process, so pens were out at a special screening of the Hollywood poetry slam Sylvia at the Tribeca Screening Room, which is co-owned by star Gwyneth Paltrow‘s frequent boss, Miramax. It helped to know that backstory because, when the screening turned into a big literary love-in, there was clearly a subplot. “A great American artist played by a great American artist” is how the co-president of the distributor (Focus Features) gushily described the film. Gwyneth promptly returned the favor by cooing, “Focus is the best place to work. I don’t give a fuck what building I’m in right now.” (As an esteemed literary icon, let me here interject: ouchy-wouchy-wow-wow!)
The movie? My favorite part had Gwynnie trying to get mom (played by real-life mama Blythe Danner) to like her pesky boyfriend; it resonated of that whole Brad Pitt experience. My least favorite had a fire alarm, complete with flashing lights, accidentally going off in the screening room for the last 15 minutes. It made you want to gas yourself along with mopey Sylvia.
The after-party was at Soho House, which is a natural draw for celebrities since the lobby and elevators are mirrored from top to bottom and the library only has paintings of books!
But back to the last gasp of the kiddie-violence trend: At the New York Film Festival party at Gabriel’s for Gus Van Sant‘s rivetingly detached Elephant, one of the nonprofessional teen stars gleefully announced, “I only drank water today. Even though it’s HBO’s money, I still didn’t want to spend it!” (That’s not the kind of thing you’d normally hear J.Lo saying.) Over pricey sodas, grown-up co-star Timothy Bottoms—who played Dubya in both That’s My Bush! and a TV movie—told me, “I’m so glad to get away from the whole Bush thing!” But apparently he hasn’t gotten that far away. As he put it, “These kids committing suicide and killing each other are showing that the adults in their world deal with disagreements with high-altitude bombing and violence. That’s what the president is teaching us.” That’s my Bush!
Camping out by the exit, Van Sant taught me that “storytellers are like plate spinners—they’re always keeping things moving—but I thought, ‘What if you didn’t worry about that part?’ ” (Well, worry about this: The movie has to do with the proverbial elephant that no one notices in the room, but the film’s poster has an actual elephant, as if this were some kind of big-top flick for the whole family. Oy.)
High-altitude bombing made for another fun bash at the same boîte—I spun plates of salmon—when the fest toasted Errol Morris‘s The Fog of War, in which Robert S. McNamara‘s Vietnam talk sounds eerily like Rumsfeld explaining his way out of Iraq. Morris’s interviewing approach? “I wasn’t interested in a kind of Mike Wallace dueling match,” he told me. “Well, I am. Fuck you!” I interjected, smirking, and though Morris ignored that and kept going, our interview was never quite the same afterward.
“Planes and electronic mishmash”—i.e., high-altitude you-know-what—also jazz up Golda’s Balcony, the Golda Meir play that William Gibson pared down from his more populated Golda. (Maybe he can also rework one of his other classics into One for the Seesaw.) In this eager-to-please version—a/k/a Lend Me Meir—Golda does lots of voices and characterizations, acting as both prime minister and prime impressionist. But Tovah Feldshuh is priceless and the play will surely sell out, at least until Fiddler on the Roof opens.
In the audience, political-spawn-turned-yep-writer Maura Moynihan told me she’s working on an op-ed piece about how she started smoking like a chimney to protest Bloomberg. Maybe she’s the one who set the alarms off down at Sylvia.
The days when you could even inhale came back at omnipresent shutterbug Patrick McMullan‘s so80s book party at Bergdorf Goodman, which brought together all the old strivers, nightmares, wackos, and fabulosities. (Disclosure: I’m photographed in the book, though writer Cookie Mueller looks better in her open coffin than I do; and as an esteemed literary icon—remember?—I also wrote a foreword, but gratis, so hush.)
Eighties music played as if there were still cum on Eileen, but the bash’s real soundtrack was a giddy, cross-cultural swelling of me-talk. Overheard: Sylvia Miles: “I saw your one picture in the book and my 6,000.” Lypsinka: “I’m not in the fucking book because no one bothered to take my picture in the ’80s!” Sydney Biddle Barrows: “That’s a bad picture of me. I look better now!” And, conversely, another subject: “I looked so much better when I was a junkie!”
As flashes popped and everyone resumed their self-promotion as if time had frozen on New Year’s Eve ’89, it took Deborah Harry to serve up some contempo reserve. Debs told me she rejected the offer to be a judge on American Idol because “I’m not a good judge. I give everything a thumbs-up.” When pressured, she added, “They can all sing their asses off, but the songs are terrible. They should do some rock songs and stop fucking around!”
(By the way, ex-McMullan employee James Ransone didn’t turn down the chance to jerk off while asphyxiating himself in the upcoming Ken Park—another of the “Tsk-tsk, look how these rotten parents are making their kids violent” flicks, which I loved, though I promise it’s the real last gasp.)
So ’50s, the Radio City Sinatra tribute show—a/k/a Ol’ Blue Eyes for the Straight Guy—may have seemed like flinging open another coffin to pull out some pocket change, but actually it was lovingly done and was way better than seeing Clay Aiken alive (though I had to leave before “New York, New York”—sorry, kids, that’s my Liza‘s song).
Which brings us to the big dead-pop-star homage of the week—The Boy From Oz, a/k/a Secrets and Liza—which is an “And then I sang” show, with Peter Allen’s songs uncomfortably crammed into his tutti-frutti life. But what a life! Between flounces, Allen faced advice from mom-in-law Judy Garland (“Sometimes your heart is on Venus, but your penis is on Mars”), sexuality issues (“He comes off like a fag? That’s because he is a fag”), and delusional drama (“You have the flu, for Chrissake!”). It’s not lost on me that the real Allen bombed big-time on Broadway in Legs Diamond, but now that he’s played by hunky Hugh Jackman, people are lining up with their tongues out. He’s also been watered down and sweetened for the matinee ladies—the real Peter Allen made people, especially gays, very uncomfortable—but I guess you can’t have the guy singing a song demanding respect for Judy Garland, then gleefully bonking her husband.
Still, Jackman has liquid hips and Golda Meir-like charisma for days, and the entertaining-despite-itself show has people dying, then coming back to sing Allen hits, all ending up in pineapple hats on a lit stairway for the very sick finale. It also has a big shock up its ruffled sleeve—Judy’s actually played by a woman. A writer couldn’t make that shit up.