Some people are good at what they do. Other people are better. Bobby Short was the best. Preserving the art of the Great American Songbook was his life’s work, and nobody did more for the cause. When cabaret queen Mabel Mercer, his friend and sometime musical partner, died in 1984, he remarked sadly, “Half of the legacy is gone. I don’t know if I can carry the whole burden alone. These shoulders are elegant, but very narrow.”
Still, he inherited Mabel’s throne and made Cole Porter, Vernon Duke, Irving Berlin and Cy Coleman more popular than ever. When he died unexpectedly Monday at 80, he drove the final nail in the coffin lid of sophisticated popular music. But I believe the purity of what he contributed to the world of popular music will still mean something. He relentlessly pursued do when everybody said don’t, and in a world where music has largely been replaced by jerks and groans and flat falsetto screams programmed by I.B.M. computers that have regrettably gone mad, Bobby Short sang about love-the one thing that will never become camp. Pity the saloon singers who elect to follow in the footsteps of his patent-leather shoes.
For the poor son of a coal miner from Danville, Ill., he learned fast. Robert Nahas, his best friend and the co-executor of his estate, says, “Bobby came out of the womb attached to a grand piano.” He could never read a note of music, but he played the piano in Danville saloons at the age of 9, ran away from home at 12 and landed in New York just shy of 13, quickly becoming the darling of café society. It was years before he found a permanent perch at the swank Café Carlyle, but it was home for nearly 40 years. From the beginning, he didn’t hang out with the cats. He loved to sing and play black anthems by Lil Green and Fats Waller, but was more at home with the Blue Ribbon 400 than the Harlem jazzbos who frequented the old Cotton Club. His apartment was filled with trophies and awards, a testament to the fact that he was an easy person to honor at charity benefits. His society clientele were the high rollers who could afford to write $10,000 checks. Yet he successfully straddled several worlds and remained a darling of jazz purists from Sugar Hill, matrons from Park Avenue and tourists from Little Rock.
In the past few years, even after rap and rock relegated real music to museum status, a visit to hear Bobby Short sing “From This Moment On” at the Carlyle was as de rigueur on a trip to New York as a tour of Ground Zero. Wherever Bobby Short appeared, he brought back an era for his audience of faded glamour girls in their last 40 pounds of unhocked Bulgaris and aging Esquire covers who never wandered west of Fifth Avenue except to sail for Europe. Full of the old paprika, he gave them what they wanted: nostalgia and romance and take-home tunes they could hum. He was always worth the check. A soigné dresser and an eager consumer of the best life had to offer, Bobby was often accused of being too “swellegant” for words; but although he drank the best champagne and spent half of the year at his villa in the South of France, a stone’s throw from the exclusive Moulin de Mougins restaurant, his three favorite words in the culinary legerdemain were “macaroni and cheese.”
I never attended a Bobby Short dinner party that didn’t serve fried chicken or meat loaf. And while it is impossible to imagine an elevator operator on his guest list, his snobbery had charm. He rubbed elbows with kings and queens, yet he told me one of the greatest events in his life was the night I took Alice Faye to the Café Carlyle. He played for her while she sang “You’ll Never Know” seated at the table. He never recovered. Conversely, he was in high dudgeon the night he was invited to sing for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at the Nixon White House. When Bobby was told his musicians would be served sandwiches and coffee in the kitchen, he was on his way to the exit door when they suddenly appeared-the royal couple, escorted along the corridor to the state dining room by Richard and Pat Nixon. They spotted Bobby, broke stride, ran to the kitchen door, swept him up in their arms and dragged him into the dinner, leaving a mortified First Family with their mouths wide open. It was one of Bobby’s proudest moments.
One more anecdote: One cold winter weekend, when we were both house guests at Claudette Colbert’s house in Barbados, Bobby and I were walking on the beach (a sight you don’t want to see) when we passed one of those second-rate surfside motels that cater to the worst kind of British tourists. On the wooden deck, a pudgy woman red as a boiled lobster was waving frantically with one of those floppy straw hats you buy in Caribbean airport lounges. “She knows us,” I said. “Oh, God, ignore her … too tacky for words,” scowled Bobby, whose eyesight was so bad he sometimes mistook C.E.O.’s for head waiters. I moved closer. “My God, Bobby,” I yelped. “It’s Judi Dench!” His mood did an about-face. We took her home for tea.
He suffered from neuropathy, but although he limped to the piano with a cane, the minute the lights hit him, Bobby Short had sparkle and spruce. He made 32 bars sound like an overture. He made noises about retiring from show business, but he had just signed a new contract at the Carlyle. At Chita Rivera’s opening, he was in pain, but we all thought it was the neuropathy. When she introduced him, he got a standing ovation and glowed with Cheshire-cat satisfaction. Last Wednesday, he was diagnosed with an irreversible blood count of white cells and died from leukemia five days later. Hours from death, he was still humming and running lyrics in his head for his next CD of Fred Astaire songs. His treasured legacy of song sheets, big-band records, orchestrations and other historically significant musical memorabilia will go to the Smithsonian, Lincoln Center and a dozen of the charities he generously supported. He left specific instructions that no memorial service was to be held. It’s the one part of his last will and testament that seems unlikely to be honored. Above all, Bobby Short could never resist a good party.
Woody Is Back
I once wrote that Woody Allen on a bad day was better than everybody else on Sunday. In recent years, I’ve had to rescind that appraisal. In one bland, disappointing failure after another, he’s proved that he can be just as bad as the next guy. That is why it gives me pleasure to report that with his charming new opus, Melinda and Melinda, Woody’s got his groove back.
The renewed interest in portrait photography as art, channeled by the Diane Arbus exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, has caused a revolution. Suddenly, everyone is looking at faces in a different way. Whether it’s one of Ms. Arbus’ tattooed carnival freaks or the Lewis Carroll photo of Alice Liddell, his model for Alice in Wonderland, the contours of the human countenance are open to diverse interpretations. This is what I was thinking as I sat enjoyably entertained by Melinda and Melinda, a bright, jaunty comedy in a jazz tempo that mirrors two opposing sides of a single personality, dramatized by two different writers with opposite takes on life.
We open in the trendy Pastis bistro in Greenwich Village, where two of the kind of playwrights you always want to eavesdrop on at a cafe table more interesting than your own are debating the relevance of their plays to real life, and debating the plot for a new piece about a disruptive figure named Melinda. The idea begins as an anecdote and ends as a full-scale production with different sets, characters and punch lines, proving the point that no two people ever see things the same way, onstage or in life. The comedy writer (the overworked Wallace Shawn, the only actor in history, to my knowledge, who has parlayed a speech impediment into a career), thinks laughs, while the other (Larry Pine), who specializes in darkness, sees tears. What follows for 90 blissful minutes (no movie should ever last one minute longer) is two stories about the same woman, interweaving wit and sadness like yellow and black yarns in a needlepoint rug.
In Plot 1, Melinda Robichaux (Radha Mitchell) arrives in the middle of a dinner party at the loft of an old friend named Laurel (Chloë Sevigny) and her husband, an alcoholic actor named Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), and proceeds to wreck the evening by guzzling expensive scotch and launching into an exhausting emotional tirade that drains the guests and wrecks the husband’s chances at an acting job he covets. Ah, but the humorist sees a comedy here with Neil Simon overtones. In his spin, which we will call Plot 2, Melinda is the neurotic downstairs neighbor of a different couple-a bumbling actor and amateur chef named Hobie (Will Ferrell) and his wife Susan (Amanda Peet), who has written an independent film she is also going to direct; the film is about a shrink, and her husband has his heart set on the role. This Melinda, who has taken 28 sleeping pills in the downstairs sublet, crashes in just as the coquilles St. Jacques are being served, ruins the sea bass and wreaks havoc on the lives of everyone present. In both of the parallel plots, Melinda hacks her way through New York with an emotional machete, leaving a trail of misery and woe while you find yourself laughing aloud at her inexhaustible supply of oblivious self-absorption. Sometimes the stories are funny when they ought to be sad, and sometimes your mouth falls open during the sight gags at how horrible life can be when Melinda is around, spreading mischievous chaos.
The two plots play leap frog. Sometimes the transitions are smooth and you don’t see the seams. Other times, they butt heads. But from start to finish, Woody’s dialogue is both formally structural and wryly conversational. In Plot 1, Melinda is like the title character in All About Eve-“Everything,” said Thelma Ritter, “but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.” She succumbed to drugs and alcohol, left her husband and lost two children in a custody battle, killed a two-timing lover with a gun, served a prison sentence for murder and attempted suicide. In Plot 2, she is an accomplished but childless art historian whose husband left her for a beauty-contest winner. In both plots, her friends and neighbors set her up with every available single hunk they know while their own lives collapse, but both Melindas turn down upwardly mobile chances to rise in the Manhattan social dynamic, one Melinda falling for Hobie, of all people, and the other for a black musician named Ellis Moonsong (played by the unpronounceable Chiwetel Ejiofor, from Dirty Pretty Things). The Hobie role is the Woody surrogate, but Mr. Ferrell doesn’t do much with it. After losing the leading role in his wife’s movie and being demoted to the role of “the retarded elevator operator with the cleft palate,” he goes to a shrink himself. The marriage has been in trouble for years (“The last time we made love she just lay there, staring into the darkness, like her parents had been killed in a fire.”) So he tries something new and kinky-sex with a right-wing radical who posed nude for a Playboy spread on naked Republicans. This is Woody writing for himself, and Mr. Ferrell plays it with Woody’s tics, vocal inflections and whining mannerisms, stuttering and talking to himself in funny asides nobody else hears, just like Woody. Too bad he has none of the charm or technique required to sustain the gimmick for 90 minutes. One sight gag, in which he gets his bathrobe caught in Melinda’s front door while peeking through her keyhole, wouldn’t even make it as far as a Saturday Night Live sketch. This is not a Woody Allen film full of all-star turns down to the smallest cameo. Most of the actors do their best without Woody to play off in the same shared camera space. For an actress required to be in almost every scene, Radha Mitchell is a Naomi Watts clone with range and appeal, but she may be the first movie star I’ve ever seen with a wart between her eyes.
But if Woody the actor is sadly missed here, Woody the director spreads his trademark flourishes everywhere. The music is rangy and wonderful, from Bach to “Take the A Train.” No matter how depressed everyone gets, they all live in fabulous apartments with space and atmosphere and antiques and designer sheets. They hang out in all the places nobody in New York can afford except the tourists-and they can smoke anywhere! From Belmont Park to Bowling Green, it’s a fairy tale New York, photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond like a lunar surface in a home show on Venus. Even the emergency room at Lenox Hill Hospital would be the envy of Elsie de Wolfe. But Woody transforms his settings into a part of the Manhattan dream you used to hear about in lyrics by Lorenz Hart. And best of all, Woody knows precisely when and how to end it all (as the final moment attests), with a snap of the fingers. No waiting around to feel your way into and out of things. The ignition starts in the beginning, the action cuts to split-timing black in the end. No bows, baby, just eight bars and out. Woody Allen films are like the short stories in The New Yorker back in the good old days of William Maxwell, Sally Benson and Hortense Calisher. It’s a place I’ve never been, but I know I’m going to like it when I get there.
Very Sad Ballad
Small films about small lives trying vainly to intersect but falling miles apart can sometimes be rewarding. But The Ballad of Jack and Rose, an offbeat tone poem with an atonal dissonance written and directed by Rebecca Miller and starring her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, is a curio that is just too self-consciously offbeat for its own good. In 1986, on an island off the East Coast, an aging hippie named Jack lives in the ruins of an abandoned commune from the 60’s with his 16-year-old daughter Rose. Like the eccentrics from another recent rumination, Campbell Scott’s Off the Map, Jack has sheltered Rose from the outside world and its evil influences, like newspapers, junk-food franchises, TV and sex. Most of their time is spent saving the wetlands and fighting off the developer (Beau Bridges) who is trashing the environment by erecting plastic pre-fab housing projects. But now Jack is dying of a mysterious cinematic heart ailment and realizes that Rose needs the influence of a woman around the house.
When he invites his trashy girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and her two weird sons to join their privileged world of primitive seclusion, Rose feels betrayed and violated. One boy shapes and perms her hair, the other eradicates her virginity. To hurt her father, she hangs up the bloody sheet on the clothesline with a note that drives him to violence. To hurt his lady friend, she conceals a poisonous snake under the bed while you wait for something gruesome to happen. It does, and not a moment too soon. Jack, once a peace-loving man, bulldozes the model house for the new housing project and breaks the arms and legs of the boy who defiled Rose. Rose burns down the house. By the time all of this happens, I had pressed the snooze button, and so had the movie. I mean, Ms. Miller knocks herself out creating a miscellany of eccentrics, all right. But they are also something of a bore.
The actors struggle valiantly to work some three-dimensional energy into one-dimensional roles, but Ms. Miller’s writing is as dusty as her direction is meager. It can’t be easy to be a child of the late, great playwright Arthur Miller who wants to write. I admire the daughter for not emulating the father, but a few basic lessons in character development, cliche-avoidance dialogue and the architecture of trajectory are recommended. As Rose, teenager Camilla Belle looks older and wiser than the grownups. As the trashy, encroaching misfit, Catherine Keener is wasted. As Jack, Daniel Day-Lewis is creepier than his role. Sinewy and emaciated, with bones sticking through his skin like croquet mallets, he looks like he’s auditioning for the insomniac zombie Christian Bale played in The Machinist. He’s accomplished, goodness knows, but his choices here are bizarre. His heavy Scottish brogue, feral tattoos and dangling gypsy earring are dolorous enough, but would a leftover flower child from the grains-and-berries era go around wearing the kind of hat favored by the Marx Brothers? Actors directed by their own wives is a rare category in which I never expected to find the Oscar-winning star of My Left Foot, and I hope he doesn’t make a habit of it. It’s too late in the career of a respected artist like Daniel Day-Lewis to go around singing “What I Did For Love.”
For sewage in a cocktail shaker, there is Oldboy, a noxious helping of Korean Grand Guignol as pointless as it is shocking. What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots, dug up from the grave and then served in earthenware pots sold at the Seoul airport as souvenirs? Directed by Chan-wook Park, a film-festival “comer” in this nation of emerging cinematic schlock, a cheerful drunk named Dae-su Oh disappears from the phone book and is sealed in a room for 15 years. Injected with drugs and forced to sleep every night with Valium gas that hisses through vents in the walls, he has no idea where he is, who put him there, or what he did to deserve such a fate in the first place. He keeps track of the time he’s imprisoned in this hole by etching a tattoo on his body for every year. Suddenly, he’s released in a field from the inside of a steamer trunk, more confused than ever. What follows is an extended two-hour nightmare in which he tries to track down his captors by tracing the takeout food they fed him in his cell, while the voices of his torturers contact him on cell phones and computer chat-room Web sites. What is going on here? Nobody knows. Meanwhile, he defeats an entire gang of killers with a knife sticking out of his back. He eats a live eel. A severed hand rips out a man’s teeth, one by one, with a hammer. Blood flows, there is much vomiting and incest, and more screams than Japanese kabuki. Part kung fu, part revenge-theme Charlie Chan murder mystery, part metaphysical Oriental mumbo-jumbo, all of it incomprehensible. Dae-su Oh is played by Min-sik Choi. I walked out at the point where he grabbed a pair of sharp scissors and cut his tongue off in blood-splattering close-ups. Obviously the actor is still in one piece, but I’d be willing to bet there’s some poor cow somewhere in Pusan who can no longer moo. Oldboy makes strange music, but it’s like a three-hour concerto played on a theremin.