More Gershwin From McCorkle … Damage Spins; Cousin Bette Drags

Everyone’s gone Gershwin crazy, this being Genius George’s centennial birthday and all. I’m not complaining, but, frankly, I’m getting a bit tired of it all. I mean, how many times can you listen to yet another version of “Embraceable You” before your eyes grow moss? I never tire of Susannah McCorkle, however, so if it’s Gershwin she’s deglazing, then it’s Gershwin I’m praising.

In her superbly researched and swingingly innovative new act in the sleekly refurbished and newly reopened Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel (through July 4), a risky “Love Walked In” is an improvised duet with only a bass; “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” takes on a sexy, undulating throb that would make Fred Astaire blush; and even the boring “Someone to Watch Over Me” (which, as overrated and overexposed songs go, is usually right up there with “My Funny Valentine”) shines with an uncommon sincerity when she sings it. Like Mary Cleere Haran, Ms. McCorkle is a brainy performer who gives a running commentary that sets up each song according to the events surrounding the time and place in which it emerged in the composer’s life. Usually called “patter,” her narrative threads rise above the mundane filler in most cabaret acts to provide humor and insight. Since she first appeared on the music scene from her native California via London, this hip and scholarly meadowlark has matured into a first-rate jazz singer with a special interest in the rarefied art of the American popular song.

Her voice is smokier than I remembered-smoldering behind the beat, husky on the vowels, both throaty and sensual-on her new Gershwin CD on Concord Jazz and in her Algonquin show. She can be bright-eyed and clear as a bell, then, with a sip of water and a few deep breaths, change the mood and the beat of your heart with a wrenching ballad. In her Reader’s Digest condensed version of Porgy and Bess , she runs the full gamut of emotions in her impressive dramatic range, evoking joy and pain, sometimes simultaneously. The high point of the show is “I Loves You, Porgy,” in which she skillfully articulates the tragedy of a fallen woman who has finally found love too late. It’s the most astonishingly moving rendition of this jazz anthem I’ve heard since Nina Simone’s classic recording in the 1950′s, both soft and soulful, with a passionate emotional directness that pierces the heart. Seekers of the obscure and offbeat will please note two gems, rare as blue giraffes, called “Will You Remember Me?” (omitted from Lady Be Good in 1924) and “Drifting Along With the Tide” (a pretty antique from the 1921 George White’s Scandals , with lyrics not by George’s brilliant brother Ira, but by Arthur Jackson). And there is comedy, too: Attempting something different with “‘S Wonderful,” Ms. McCorkle sings three choruses in the styles of Lee Wiley, Astrud Gilberto with a Portuguese accent and a lounge singer on a second-class Italian cruise ship. She hits a musical bull’s-eye every time.

What Gershwin has in common with Antonio Carlos Jobim is anybody’s guess, but since the Brazilian composer is one of Ms. McCorkle’s most cherished contemporary influences, she devotes a chunk of her act to him, too. It’s a stretch, but I guess you could call Jobim the Gershwin of Brazil. (What else would you call him-the Marvin Hamlisch of Rio?) No matter. Her fluent mastery of Portuguese, her lilting rhythmic sense and her sumptuous phrasing conjure the perfect imagery of sun, sand and sea, and the gorgeous arrangements give pianist Allen Farnham and bassist Chris Berger ample room to swing with intricate musical chords and tempos. As always, in an evening with Susannah McCorkle, you get your money’s worth. The sound of her voice reminds me of red fingernails tearing through white taffeta. Great singers with intelligence, taste and sophistication are hard to find. She’s one of the best.

Damage Spins; Cousin Bette Drags

At the movies, marquees are changing fast. Here are a few words about some new arrivals. Broadway Damage takes such a buoyant, optimistic view of clean-cut gay life in New York, it might easily have been an M-G-M musical. A group of New York University graduates form an extended-family support group as they seek careers and love in the cutthroat concrete jungle. Mark (Michael Shawn Lucas), a struggling actor who sells theater tickets, takes a six-flight walk-up in Greenwich Village with Cynthia (Mara Hobel, who played young Christina Crawford in Mommie Dearest ), an overweight Cabbage Patch doll from Long Island who craves a job at The New Yorker , while their best friend Robert (Aaron Williams), an aspiring songwriter, stays home with his mom’s meatloaf. Mark is a dreamboat who is only attracted to perfect 10′s. Robert is in love with Mark but is more like a 41Ú2. They all need jobs, and they all need to get laid, big time.

When Mark’s heart is broken by David (Hugh Panaro), a rock musician who moonlights as a hustler, everyone comes to the rescue with

a maximum of Broadway damage. Too young to remember Studio 54 and too old for suburbia, they’re at the awkward, innocent age when all things seem possible, and fairy tales can still come true if life doesn’t get in the way. While Cynthia orchestrates a campaign to get Tina Brown’s attention that only attracts the F.B.I., Mark and Robert discover that sometimes romance can be found right in your own backyard. Everyone is perfectly cast, but Mr. Lucas has the kind of wholesome charisma destined for real stardom. The same thing goes for writer-

director Victor Mignatti, whose sensitive construction and crisp writing give a contemporary spin to an old-fashioned story that might have been dreamed up by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. One of the best American independent films in years.

A startling performance by Ally Sheedy distinguishes High Art , an otherwise dreary and depressing look at the collision of magazine photography and what enemies of Calvin Klein ads call “heroin chic.” Ms. Sheedy, best known for her brat pack flicks and slick, dumb Hollywood comedies, plays a dissolute lesbian photographer who presides over a salon for junkies and seduces her downstairs neighbor Syd (Radha Mitchell), an editorial assistant at the photography magazine Frame . Syd has ambition, focus and drive, but after a few upstairs visits to Ms. Sheedy’s little den of iniquity and one line of horse, her sweet, normal boyfriend (Gabriel Mann) looks like biscuit dough. As the movie turns into a heroin-sniffing All About Eve , Syd’s career zooms as her life collapses. Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko has talent, but all she does here is raise the sewer-hole cover on a counterculture that seems meaningless and wasteful. I guess Ms. Sheedy’s coven of bohemian perverts is supposed to be edgy and alluring, but they all look sluggish and brain-dead. As her lover, Patricia Clarkson plays a monosyllabic German lesbian Rainer Fassbinder protégé like a camp demolition of Marlene Dietrich that is neither amusing nor coherent. From the film rises a vague effluvium of squalor and decay that really stinks up the place. And in the middle of it there is the great Tammy Grimes, serving tea in sunglasses and pearls. High Art will leave you numb and nauseous, but for Ms. Sheedy’s own personal career metamorphosis, nude lesbian sex scenes and all, it holds a certain sadistic fascination.

The Land Girls examines the period in England during World War II when women left their jobs to cultivate the soil and grow food for the war effort while the men were away in the trenches. The film follows three members of this “land army” who are dispatched to the Lawrence farm in Dorset to plow fertile fields, milk cows and experiment sexually with the farmer’s son, whose ambition is to become a pilot. There’s an epilogue, in 1945, that completes the story, showing us what happened to them after the war, who they married and why. That’s all, really. It’s a novel into film, based on facts, sincerely directed by David ( Wish You Were Here ) Leland, without much consequence. Rachel Weisz, Anna Friel and Catherine McCormack are well cast as the “land girls,” but the revelation is Steven Mackintosh, seen earlier this year as a transsexual in Different for Girls and now as a randy, raw-boned field hand. Ah, that British versatility.

In the annals of literature, the 19th-century novels of Honoré de Balzac are not high on the recommended reading list, so why turn second-rate pulp costume fiction into second-rate cinematic soap operas? Cousin Bette sinks a flotilla of good actors in a cesspool of tedium. Jessica Lange plays the barren, bitter country cousin whose pretentious Paris relatives treat her like a scullery maid. While she toils sewing stage gowns for a music hall slut (Elisabeth Shue, woefully miscast), Cousin Bette finds temporary happiness in the arms of a starving sculptor she saves from suicide-a poor sod who eats cheese from the mousetraps in her squalid lodgings-but he marries her niece instead. Weaving a web of betrayal and revenge that eventually destroys them all, Ms. Lange shuffles through this sprawling bore with pursed lips and dead eyes while a supporting cast that includes Bob Hoskins and Geraldine Chaplin vanishes without a trace. While the book gathers dust on library shelves, the movie of Cousin Bette turns into dust right before your eyes.