Callas, Ray Hit High Notes

On cabaret stages and movie screens, the New York ozone has suddenly been invaded by the sounds of music, and applause for the people who made it happen. It’s a coincidence I can live with. Two more polarized musical icons than Maria Callas and Ray Charles would be unimaginable, yet here they are in Technicolor, ready for their close-ups.

Callas Forever is Franco Zeffirelli’s long-awaited tribute to his friend and idol that focuses on a fictionalized account of the legendary diva’s final tragic year as a lonely, terrified and reclusive has-been in Paris. No matter how you view it, and the film has not been generally embraced by European critics, you will go away devastated and raving about the great French actress Fanny Ardant as Callas. It’s a titanic performance that redefines the term “tour de force.”

The year is 1977, when, at 53-a still-vital age for most women-Madame Callas knew her best years were long behind her. Her triumphs were preserved on vinyl, but she hadn’t sung professionally for two decades, except for a disastrous concert tour of Japan that finished off her career for good. Her well-publicized master classes in New York were over; her critically rebuked movie career in Pasolini’s Medea had been shelved in the dusty archives of Italian cinema; her friends had given up trying to reach her on the phone. According to Mr. Zeffirelli, with an intelligent but perfunctory script by respected playwright Martin Sherman, the author of Bent , Callas was a washed-up, chain-smoking, pill-addicted wreck who roamed the halls of her spacious Paris atelier all night, listening to her old recordings of Norma and Traviata , sobbing over silver-framed photos of Onassis, in mourning for her lost voice, her vanquished career, her dead lovers, and wallowing in self-pity. Salvation arrives uninvited when a gay impresario named Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons, as a younger version of Zeffirelli himself, who is now 81) invades the diva’s brocaded cocoon and persuades her it is time for the once-glorious voice she hides from the world to reach a new generation that was too young to see her in her prime. Arrogant and aggressive (and cognizant of the money that can still be made on the Callas name), he proposes a series of films in which she will recreate her great roles, aided by new technologies that can match her lip-synching to a soundtrack of her most famous recordings. “Am I selling my soul to Satan?” she asks. “This is 1977,” replies a loyal journalist friend and protector (Joan Plowright)-”Satan is redundant.” And so they find a way to make Callas live forever, like a vampire.

The role she selects is Carmen, which she recorded but never played onstage, and a major chunk of the movie is devoted to slavishly filming a spectacular production of the Bizet opera, during which Callas soars back to life, fueled by the adoration of the cast and crew, and feverishly elevated by the purity and power of her old recordings. All of which provides Fanny Ardant with the gift-wrapped acting vehicle of a lifetime. The flexing of the neck muscles, the stretching of the vocal cords, the flashing of the eyes all have to be coordinated with invasive close-ups that magnify every dilation of the nostrils. The raw nerves, the hard work, the demands she makes on the crew, ignoring and breaking every union rule, the vivacious warmth and contrasting tantrums-Ms. Ardant plays all of the moods and changes soulfully, lit from within, lavishly gowned by Chanel. The result is a personal triumph of great magnitude for the fictional Callas as well as the flesh-and-blood of the gorgeous Ms. Ardant.

Then the script takes a left turn that diminishes the joy of what precedes it. Callas’ passion for music and faith in herself are restored by the finished Carmen . But instead of lip-synching more filmed operas, she agrees only to a fresh production of Tosca on the firm condition that it is filmed “live,” using her own voice at 53. The financial backers walk out, the contract is canceled, and in addition Callas persuades Larry to destroy the Carmen film, too. “What I had was never an illusion,” she says with steel-eyed logic. “If it was nothing else, it was honest. Even on a bad night-on a really awful night, when you wanted to close your ears and hide your eyes-it was honest. Now you want me to end my career by announcing Maria Callas was, after all, a fraud? You want my legacy to be the opposite of everything I ever stood for?”

This sudden burst of suicidal integrity is noble, but not entirely convincing. Still, it conveys Zeffirelli’s adoring and lasting impression of the woman and the artist, and a happy Hollywood ending would be ridiculous. In life, Callas died in September 1977, shortly after the fictional movie ends. Call it corny, but the final shot of Fanny Ardant walking alone through the Bois de Boulogne is unforgettable.

Callas Forever digs its share of potholes. The film’s unyielding concentration on the conflicts of a tortured diva’s emotional instability robs Jeremy Irons of every opportunity to come alive. His personal relationship with a handsome painter (Jay Rodan) is benign to the point of turning into a vanishing act. Likewise, the unrequited love of Callas’ dashing leading man in the film-within-a-film (Gabriel Garko) comes to nothing more than a kiss on the hand. How long can one sustain interest in a star whose self-obsession obscures everything around her? The renowned Zeffirelli proclivities for sets, costumes and décor are pleasantly opulent eye candy on an operatic scale, but the color and movement in the Carmen movie are as superficial as they are lush.

Still, there is much to enjoy here, especially the magic and beauty of Fanny Ardant (who so shockingly resembles the real Callas that it is hard to believe you are watching an impersonation). Icy, elegant and erupting like Vesuvius one minute, then lost and vulnerable the next, she provides a piercing insight into the sad and wasted private life of the Greek woman born Maria Kalogeropoulou, worshipped by the world but a stranger to herself. In one of her most poignant and reflective scenes, she confides: “I hated Maria Kalogeropoulou. I wanted to be Maria Callas instead. For a time, I was . Perhaps I should have asked to be a woman instead.” Finally, there is the music you never want to end: the soundtrack of Callas arias by Bizet, Puccini, Bellini and Verdi that were, in themselves, self-fulfilling prophecies. Callas Forever is a title better defined by the recordings she left behind than by the yellowed-scrapbook clippings of a cinematic valentine.

Blues Brother

Having already praised the world premiere of Ray , the comprehensive movie biography of soul king Ray Charles, at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, I will only reiterate that Jamie Foxx’s all-encompassing performance in the title role more than justifies the early Oscar gossip it has generated. I also liked the careful and expansive direction by Taylor Hackford that compiles a lifetime of facts without ever losing its grip on a narrative with a strong beginning, middle and end. Mr. Hackford is a firm believer in telling a story, and it is to his credit that the rich procession of swinging Ray Charles hits never distracts from the film’s riveting storyline. Blinded at 7, abused and ridiculed for years on the road, ripped off by blacks and whites alike, battling black church communities that labeled his gospel beat “sacrilegious,” struggling desperately with years of heroin addiction, withdrawal and rehab, narrowly avoiding prison time for smuggling drugs into the U.S. from Canada, he was sued, fined and barred for life in the state of Georgia for refusing to play segregated Jim Crow honky-tonks. But the man who could have ended up weaving baskets if it hadn’t been for his talent died with a Beverly Hills mansion, a recording studio bigger than most people’s retirement homes and platinum records that still bust the pop charts to this day. He was a king, but in Mr. Hackford’s brilliantly researched biopic, the crown has a few thorns. Between the junk, the music, the lies, the wife and two kids, the women and a pregnant backup singer in the Raylettes, his life was a mess, and Ray gets it all down-warts and all. The huge cast is memorable, but Jamie Foxx is living proof that the speed of the leader is the speed of the gang. The unique way he lip-synchs makes him look like the real deal. Like Maria Callas, there was only one Ray Charles, and any attempt to present their lives with anything other than their original recordings would be folly. Mr. Foxx eats this movie with Tabasco, and Ray really rocks.

The Fair Lady Sings

Every Saturday night in November, Barbara Brussell, the wittiest of girl singers, is interpreting the songs of Alan Jay Lerner, the most urbane and literate of lyricists, with the dreamy support of Tedd Firth, one of New York’s most sensitive pianists. This treasure of good fortune is happening at Danny’s Skylight Room on West 46th Street, in the middle of Restaurant Row. You’d be a fool to miss it.

I’d like to share with you a Reader’s Digest condensed version of what she does that is so special, but this relative newcomer to the first ranks of cabaret royalty wears so many hats that I know when I’m licked. Behind that sunny, blond California Doris Day veneer hides the violent mayhem of Betty Hutton. That’s why investing so much energy and sincerity into the colossal repertoire of the equally eclectic Alan Jay Lerner really pays off. He wrote as many different kinds of songs as she has moods, voices and mannerisms. The harvest from such a daunting assembly of styles is bountiful.

Playing around with tempos, buttering love songs with a crusty sob in the throat, sucking the sap out of comedy material like nectar from a honeycomb, Ms. Brussell can fulfill every fantasy with a snap of her fingers. Tackling songs previously claimed by Louis Jourdan, Fred Astaire, Robert Goulet and Maurice Chevalier, she stamps them with a branding iron of her own authentic invention. And she’s such a fine actress that she can shine a flashlight on the subtext of a Lerner lyric in fresh ways that make you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time. Classics from an 18-year collaboration with Frederic Loewe that produced theatrical history are inevitable, but believe it when I tell you they never heard an “Almost Like Being in Love” like this in Brigadoon . The way she approximates the talk-sing style of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady or makes “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot tremble and shimmer with passion, makes me wonder why so many women always stick to the obvious Julie Andrews songs in both shows. The men’s songs were much better.

Exploring Lerner’s partnerships with other songwriters, she unmasks luscious gems by Burton Lane, Charles Strouse and Kurt Weill. From the hilarious “Economics” from an early failure called Love Life to Jane Powell’s evergreen “Too Late Now” from the MGM musical Royal Wedding , Ms. Brussell gives every tune a unique spin, distilling the essence of life’s changing seasons. She is real, she is tender, she is wacky. And the well-researched biographical material that links the musical themes is cogent, pithy and informational, reminding us that Mr. Lerner had one eye and was just over five feet high, yet still managed to write some of the greatest love songs of all time and marry eight wives. I’ve never heard the conversational chatter in a cabaret act inserted so zanily into patter that I can only describe it as Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness fused with bump-and-grind show-business sequins.

The highlight of the show is the hauntingly beautiful Lerner-Strouse ballad “There’s Always One You Can’t Forget” from the one-night misfortune Dance a Little Closer . It reminds me once again that great songs often come from flop musicals. Ms. Brussell and her tastefully chosen, sometimes obscure but always memorable songs make me wonder out loud: Where have they been all my life?