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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Among last year's top movies one goes behind the words and music of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the other stars a magnetic British actress in her first American film. Give three cheers for the backstage world of Topsy-Turvy and the glorious Janet McTeer

And give a standing ovation to Lauren Bacall, Rosemary Harris and the delightful ensemble of the veteran actresses of Waiting in the Wings.  Now on Broadway, the Noël Coward comedy is not his finest work. As for the  cast, they are old theater pros with undiminished zest. 

The late Willie Morris dedicated My Cat Spit McGee to every person who ever loved a cat. They will be charmed, and so will canine fans. 

A celebrated man faces charges of adultery. Careers are ruined and editorial writers gloat. Sounds familiar, but it happened more than 100 years ago in Brooklyn and involved America's pre-eminent preacher. Trials of Intimacyrevisits the scandal.

Topsy-Turvy  Written and directed by Mike Leigh 

Tumbleweeds  Co-written and directed by Gavin O'Connor

Toward the close of 1999, there were more new movies than popcorn in the lobby. Among the glittering names: both Toms (Hanks and Cruise), Winona Ryder, Jim Carrey, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ralph Fiennes. Oh, and don't forget Gilbert & Sullivan and Janet McTeer. 
     Gilbert & Who? Janet McWhat?
     No, they aren't not necessarily marquee names, but Topsy-Turvy, a movie about the two 19th century geniuses of comic opera, and Tumbleweeds, a mother-daughter buddy movie starring McTeer, landed on the best-of-the-year lists of movie critics around the country. And for good reason. 
       Mike Leigh, who directed Naked and Secrets and Lies, made his reputation with gritty, photo-realistic films of people teetering on life's margins. Topsy-Turvy moves in another direction, but Leigh is still the canny observer. His film has only a passing resemblance to the classic Hollywood bio-pic: theater folk face obstacles to put on their show and finally emerge triumphant at the last minute with--Ta-Da!-- an up-beat number with everybody smiling. Music swells, cymbal crash, The End. 
       The key to Leigh's movie is the title. "A world of topsy - turvy - dom'' is how a contemporary critic dismissed Gilbert's librettos, and Leigh has taken the phrase to heart. Everything is turned on its head, and what you see is not always what you get. To quote a Gilbert lyric from H.M.S. Pinafore, "Things are seldom what they seem.'' Leigh teases out the real behind the artifice and convention of  theater and of Victorian sensibility.  The film begins with a crisis in 188.  Arthur Sullivan (the splendid Allan Corduner) is physically unwell, and more to the point, despite the success he and William Schwenk Gilbert (the equally wonderful Jim Broadbent) have had, is consumed with a passion to return to classical composition. An opera perhaps. Undeterred by his partner's vacillations, Gilbert plods ahead and writes a libretto only a shade different from their past hits. 
      The two men who so brilliantly join melody to rhyme could not be more different. Sullivan, the serious artist, is a sybarite who indulges in cosmopolitan and sensual pleasures. Gilbert, the sardonic writer of light, witty verse is a brusque, cantankerous taskmaster who disdains displays of emotion or affection. Their collaboration, which has enriched both as well as their producer Richard D'Oyly Carte, has turned frosty and is about to end. Mrs. Gilbert, performed with heart-breaking sincerity by Lesley Manville, gets her dour husband to view a novelty: an imported exhibition of Japanese life complete with actors, weavers and everyday people. In the exotic, the proper Victorian finds inspiration, and Sullivan surrenders his lofty ambitions, for the moment, carried away by Sullivan's faux Japanese world of Titti-Poo, a lord high executioner, a wandering minstrel and a schoolgirl named Yum-Yum. 
     The rehearsals for The Mikado and the backstage life are hilarious, affectionate and often painfully true to life. Egotism and insecurity, snobbery and generosity co-exist. Gilbert, as unmoving as granite, is all a-jitter on opening night. He cannot bear watching and arrives for his curtain call as if making an appearance on the guillotine. Having stubbornly persevered to bring Mikado to the stage, he finds success "inherently disappointing.'' 
     Throughout the movie, Leigh interweaves scenes from Gilbert and Sullivan's hits, and the climax, as might be expected, is the riotously successful Mikado first night.  By then we have come to know a lot about the show's performers. The diminutive dark-eyed soprano is trying to keep under control  "a little weakness'' that threatens to cut short her career; the preening comedic star hides a dangerous addiction; a bluff and blustering character actor has a child's sensitivity.  Onstage in wigs, heavy and many-layered costumes, and extreme makeup, they labor mightily to bring Gilbert and Sullivan's grand songs to vivid life, while Leigh's close-up camera let's us see the distinctly non-glamorous work of actors, straining and sweating in the  fleeting moment of performance. There's no Hollywood that's - entertainment fakery here about the theater. This is Mike Leigh's own world of topsy-turvydom. It's true, and unexpectedly bittersweet. 


     An all-too-predictable plot could have keptTumbleweeds off those top-of-the-year compilations. Ultimately, the movie is saved--and redeemed--by the glorious British actress Janet McTeer. She's already been nominated for a Golden Globes Award, and there's loud buzzing about an Oscar. The classically-trained actress was a Tony-award winner for the put-upon bourgeois wife of A Doll's House on Broadway back in 1997. Big, with broad shoulders and a wide grin, she gets into the skin of whoever she's playing.   Here she is Mary Jo Walker, a Southern good old girl with poor taste in men and a propensity to hit the road when things start to get bad. They usually do. 
      Along for the joy ride is her pre-pubescent daughter Ava--named for Mary's Jo's ideal Ava Gardner. They argue and make up, giggle and share jokes. Mary Jo's mercurial moods send Ava veering from admiration to exasperation. They trade responsibilities; Ava is more often like a mother trying to keep up with a wild child.  Mary Jo can't help but flirt and in her scattered, hopeful way trusts that this time everything will work out. Ava is wiser at times, more practical.  When her single mom takes up with somebody new and they  pretend to be just one big happy  family, Ava plots her escape route just in case there's trouble.  She's gone along on so many flights from relationships-gone-sour that the two have reached California, the continent's end, and Ava is determined this time to stay put. 
      There  are a few stock characters: a truck driver boy-friend, a boss with kinky tastes, and a man who's too good to be true. He's shy and decent, and--conveniently--a widower. As written, they are cardboard characters we've seen a dozen times, but when the actors play off McTeer's abundant vitality, they catch her energy, and make the scenes believable.  As Ava, young Kimberly J. Brown is a direct look - you - in - the - eye  little actress, and her solidity gives ballast to the buoyant McTeer. 

Waiting in the Wings, 
Directed by Michael Langham

     The query is apt: Why can we remember everything that happened at the turn of the century and forget what happened last week? 
     Maybe we'll all be wondering that in about two years. Be that as it may, in this case questioner is talking about the calendar change of December 31, 1899, and she's a former actress of a certain age and now retired to The Wings, a charity-run home for aging thespians in the English countryside. Written by Sir Noël Coward, Waiting in the Wings is a cheery Valentine to older actresses and to the theater. Born in 1899, Coward is being celebrated on his centenary, and while this is far from being his best work, it is a reminder of how many memorable women he created, from the sophisticated ladies of Private Lives and Blithe Spirit to Brief Encounter's  heroine who chooses hearth-and-home duty over passion. 
      The time is the early 1960s, and a new arrival is expected at The Wings. And not just anyone: the great Lotta Bainbridge. If that isn't enough to put residents and staff on edge, she happens to be the ancient and mortal enemy of their fellow "inmate'' May Davenport.  For some mysterious reason, the two rivals haven't spoken in 30 years.  Yes, it's a hoary contrivance, but it kicks the story off. After several starts and fits, May and Lotta discover they have more in common than they knew. Peace is restored to The Wings. 
      Broadway wouldn't dream of producing a play like this any more if there weren't a star. Here, there are two--Lauren Bacall as Lotta and Rosemary Harris as May--and together they outshine entire constellations. Though it's difficult to imagine Bacall, smart in black with her blond hair swept back from that terrific face, moving to a retirement home, there's so much pleasure in just beholding her that you suspend disbelief and bask in her presence. With the smaller role, Harris has an uncanny ability to command attention by remaining absolutely still. When she does speak and move, it is with imperial grandeur. Famous in her heyday for overly dramatic exits, May is a paragon of exaggeration, and Harris makes her royal and melodramatic departures funny and touching. 
     There's a melancholy undercurrent flowing throughout the comedy, and it's expressed best by the veteran actresses portraying The Wing's denizens. Here's where Coward's warmth for his women is most apparent. There's the fiercely nationalist Deirdre O'Malley (Helena Carroll), who declares Shakespeare would have been an even better playwright had he been Irish. Little Maudie Melrose (Patricia Connolly) was once in musicals, and in her light-as-a-reed voice recalls the old songs of yesteryear.  The home's superintendent is Miss Archibald, formerly in the military, and Dana Ivey makes her a female equivalent of General Montgomery.  Even the most crotchety residents are endearing because of their essential high spirits and good hearts.  For all their quirks and follies, the women who inhabit The Wings know exactly what they are waiting for. One death opens the play, and another closes it. In between, there is song, celebration and the friendship of women. 

And Consider This

My Cat Spit McGee by Willie Morris
(Random House; 144 pages; Amazon: $13.27)

Willie Morris' memoir, My Dog Skip, is a classic for canine lovers, and a filmed version opens this month.  A self-described dog man, Morris discovered after many years the many virtues of the domesticated Felis catus. So white he almost disappeared in sunlight, Spit McGee was the final four-legged companion of the writer, who died last August in Mississippi. This tender and reflective evocation of catdom reflects the contentment Morris found in a late and happy marriage. Pondering the difference between the company of dogs and cats, he writes about Spit McGee: "It could be that my friendship with him over these years, somehow suggests that I myself have become a little more forbearing and, perhaps, complex.'' 

Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal by Richard Wightman Fox
(University of Chicago Press; 376 pages; Amazon: $21)

A scandalous affair between a famous married older man with a much younger woman! Accusations and denials in the courtroom! Scathing editorials and a trial by newspaper! This is not from yesterday's news: it all happened in the 1850s when America's most celebrated minister, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, was charged by his longtime friend Theodore Tilton with seducing his wife Elizabeth.  The author of Trials of Intimacy is a history professor at Boston University, and he re-visits  the circumstances of the scandal to examine changes in post-Civil War America, the shifting views of divorce and women's rights were up-ending middle-class complacency, and a religious  landscape whose dominant figure preached a feel-good ethic. The complex non-chronological structure--Fox tells his story backward -- makes the reader work hard, but it's worth the labor.

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