The best female performance on Broadway this year is being given by Brian Bedford—yes, Brian Bedford—in the charming revival of Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest.
As the imperious and wacky Lady Bracknell—who spouts more aphoristic advice than an old lady’s pillow selection—Bedford is wondrously witty without ever pandering, mugging, or nudging at the audience like an over-the-hill Cagelle.
The 76-year-old Tony winner, who was mentored by none other than Sir John Gielgud, will reach movie audiences when the filmed version, Earnest Live in HD, surely goes against the next Pirates of the Caribbean at the cineplex. But to get my own high definition, I sat down with the British Renaissance man (who also directed Earnest) in his Upper West Side high-rise apartment, and talked drag, awards shows, and Joan Crawford.
Me: Hello, Brian. The wonderful thing about your performance is that it’s not a stunt. You convince from the second you enter.
Bedford: It’s not me trying to get into a frock and camp around. That’s why I found the idea interesting—because it’s a chance to play a woman. In the original four-act version, Lady Bracknell (who had a different name) is referred to as having a “masculine mind.” But I don’t think she has a masculine mind. It’s an idiosyncratic feminine mind, but it is a feminine mind. Although she is deeply camp because she’s so serious about her delusions! Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were camp because they were terribly serious. I knew Joan a little bit, and I knew how utterly humorless she was.
Me: Hold on. You knew Joan Crawford?
Bedford: I must have been a very brave guy, but when I was touring in Boston with Equus and Joan was there on a book tour, I rang her at the Ritz-Carlton. I don’t know how I had the nerve to do that or how she had the lack of wisdom to pick up the phone. She said, “Why don’t you come over and have a cup of tea?” Then we started being phone pals. I rung her one Thanksgiving and said, “You must have glamorous plans for today.” She said, “Yes, I’m sitting here eating Kentucky Fried Chicken by myself!” Once, I went to the famous apartment, where everything was covered in plastic.
Me: Including Christina.
Bedford: I had to cover the jars with the food she didn’t eat because she was too busy drinking!
Me: A cup of tea indeed. Anyway, I assume you’ll be eligible for the male Tony category rather than compete against Vanessa Redgrave.
Bedford: Yes. I am an actor.
Me: You’ve been nominated six times and won for Molière’s The School for Wives in 1971.
Bedford: When I won, my competition was John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Alec McCowen. So there! But I think John and Ralph canceled each other out. They were both in the same play [David Storey’s Home].
Me: You’re making yourself sound like the original Marisa Tomei.
Bedford: I’m not being falsely modest. It’s true.
Me: Were all those Tony ceremonies a wee bit surreal for you to get through?
Bedford: Awards are absurd and totally pointless until you win one and then it’s the happiest night of your life. But it’s a pretty long, boring process. You know how tedious it is. It’s like a five-hour thing. You have to be there well before the beginning. But it’s nice to see people you haven’t seen for a while.
Me: What changes after you win?
Bedford: The only thing that changes is you seem to have a long period of unemployment. But now I like unemployment. Certainly, after a year like this one, I’m going for serious unemployment next year!
Me: But not until one more Tony ceremony, sir. By the way, is this your first time doing drag?
Bedford: When I was 13, I was in a Christmas play and I played the Virgin Mary. I might say it was an all-boys Catholic school. I don’t remember a thing about it.
Me: I’ll look it up on YouTube.
Bedford: [Laughs.] I don’t think it’s on YouTube.
Me: How do you get dolled up for your part? Do the Priscilla gals come over and help?
Bedford: I do my own makeup now, and I love doing it. When I get into the wig and the hat and the frock and the boots with the heels, I’m more than halfway there. I don’t put the hat on myself. I have a wonderful lady named Nelly. She uses like 20 hairpins to get it on. I drive her mad because I want them to be exactly symmetrical and the hat at a steep, precipitous angle.
Me: Whoa, Nelly!
Bedford: People always ask me about directing, “What’s it like wearing two hats?” I say, “If the hats are by [the show’s costumer] Desmond Heeley, it’s wonderful.”
Me: But what do you do during Act Two, when Lady B rips off her chapeau and is uncharacteristically absent?
Bedford: WQXR! I have a day bed. I lie down and improve my knowledge of classical music.
Me: Do any tourists ever wander in and not know you’re a man?
Bedford: Lot of people. The house manager told me, “At every performance, there’s at least one person saying, ‘Who is that woman playing Lady Bracknell? I thought Brian Bedford was supposed to be in this play.’ ” I take it as a compliment.
Me: And well you should. But I wonder if anyone goes to The Motherf**ker With the Hat looking for you.
[Bedford generously chuckles.]