Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Dance Party: "Put Your Lips Together and Blow"

The clip below is pretty campy by today's standards, but let's deal with that in a moment. The star of this week's Dance Party is Lauren Bacall, one of the last superstars of the Golden Age of the Studio System left standing. Along with so many others from her milieu, she found her film career drying up once the studios lost creative power and independent productions took hold. Film stars like Bacall were known for their very specific personas; I can't think of very many who were actually versatile actors. As such, they became irrelevant to the filmmakers of the late 60s and 70s; nobody wanted an actor to overshadow their project with a larger-than-life reputation. So, those dinosaurs were relegated to television appearances (remember Fred Astaire as Richard Wagner's dad in It Takes a Thief? Charming!) or the occasional big-budget disaster epic which required recognizable names to buoy the ludicrous plots (remember Fred Astaire in Towering Inferno? Charming!)

Bacall was one of the youngest of the stars of the Golden Age (she was a tender 19 when she debuted in To Have and Have Not), and once her film opportunities shrank, she chose a different path for her career: Broadway. Her performance in Cactus Flower was well-received, then her unlikely performances in two subsequent shows cemented her reputation as a musical theatre diva. In 1980, she headlined the Kander and Ebb musical Woman of the Year, adapted from the old Hepburn/Tracy movie, and won a Tony for her work. It was no surprise at that point that Bacall could carry a big musical, as 9 years earlier, she had turned a fair-to-middlin' musical into a smash with her starry performance.

Applause was also based on a well-loved film, the Bette Davis starrer, All About Eve. The flamboyant role of Margo Channing became an iconic one in Davis's hands, and this central role in the musical required a personality equally outsized. Bacall provided that personality, and by the sheer force of that dynamism, turned in a memorable performance. The woman can barely carry a tune, but she carried the score with panache. That score, and the book surrounding it, are pretty standard fare (the music team of Strause and Adams provided a much brighter effort with their earlier smash, Bye Bye Birdie), and without a personality as strong as Bacall's, the musical falls a bit flat. For that reason, attempts to revive the thing have been stymied. In a neat bit of stunt casting, Ann Baxter, who had played the two-faced Eve Harrington in the original film, took over the central role from Bacall in the original production of Applause. There was no national tour, though the Encores series in New York presented a concert version in 2008, with the terrific Christine Ebersole in the lead. An effort for a major revival starring Stephanie Powers toured the country in 1996, but failed to make it to Broadway.

I'm not sure there is a star out there today with the over-the-top panache necessary to make Applause work. The music, as I said, is serviceable at best (you can judge for yourself in the clip below), though Strause and Adams provided one huge show stopper in the title number. That song, introduced by Bonnie Franklin, became a show business anthem.

The clip below shows off Bacall's strengths and weaknesses. She is clearly no singer, though her pitch problems don't seem to matter. At the age of almost 50, she flings herself into this dance number in a pretty abandoned way. This is from a television production of Applause which aired a year or so after the stage show closed. As a network program, some adjustments were made (TV star Larry Hagman replaced original stage star Len Cariou, for example). The sequence here takes place in a gay bar, though there is no direct mention of the fact. One wonders if Mr and Mrs America even noticed that it's filled only with men, and pretty flamboyant ones at that. All notice of homosexuality was sanitized for the television audience, including the over-the-top antics of Margo's dresser Duane, who is a larger presence in the stage version. The scenic designers slipped one past the censors: the neon letters which form the backdrop of the bar seem to be random, but actually spell out "Gay Power."

For this week's dance party, please enjoy Lauren Bacall hamming it up in the campy clip:

Lauren Bacall is still going strong, for her age, and continues to work. She has won many prestige awards throughout her long career, including Lifetime Achievement Awards in Scandinavia, the National Book Award for her memoir, and a Kennedy Center Honor in 1997. Surprisingly, she has earned only one Oscar nomination, also in 1997, for The Mirror Has Two Faces; she lost the award to Juliet Binoche in that snorefest The English Patient. More recently, she played herself in a wicked send-up of Hollywood excess, when she was mugged by one of The Sopranos. Bacall turned 85 on Wednesday, and will be receiving an honorary Oscar during next year's awards.