Stritch at Carlyle: 80 and Singin’

Rumors that Elaine Stritch has a heart of marble are greatly exaggerated. Now in the middle of her sold-out seven-week cabaret debut at the Café Carlyle, she proves once and all, and for all and sundry, what I’ve long suspected: Behind the hard-boiled exterior of a lady prosecutor with the personality of a hanging judge hides the soul of a lover with a cotton-candy heart. This was never obvious onstage, but lower the spots and move her down close to the audience in a supper club where her knees touch the tables, and you get a new perspective on this woman of contrasts and contradictions as touching as it is revealing. She invites you into her exclusive world, and you want to be there.

Surprisingly, she seems comfortable in the close proximity, with no proscenium arch to protect her from the unwashed masses. Of course, she does live upstairs, making this the first job in years for which she hasn’t needed to ask for a car and driver. But the crowd (there is always a crowd) gives her ballast, and provides her frisky brio something to play with. Don’t misunderstand: It’s not that Elaine Stritch has gone soft. She’s still salty as a sardine, dry as gin and rough as a cob. Repeating the word “fucking” half a dozen times in 20 seconds to demonstrate how many ways you can say “fucking” without ever actually fucking isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a convent-bred girl raised on Amy Vanderbilt’s rules of etiquette. But the audience—suits, pearls and no slackers—wolfs it down like Beluga. And even when she’s dancing on a tree limb with a saw in her hand, her seasoned mannerisms and her split-second timing are the stuff that wins at the finish line. The sideways glances that Dame Edna knows so well, the furrowed-brow expressions like biting down on an exotic canapé of pickled rattlesnake—you find yourself laughing even when she just stands there!

Fortunately, she does a great deal more. In a stream of well-rehearsed observations that sound improvised, she muses about everything from self-help books (“Serenity is call-waiting”) to her love affairs with Jack Cassidy, the juvenile lead in a Mame tour, a singer named Tony, and a man ordering a brandy stinger in the reading room of the Savoy Hotel in London. Thank God she leaves Rock Hudson out of this one, but she does tell a funny story about a disastrous blind date with Frank Sinatra. He insulted her. She insulted him. They both survived. In its delightful stream of consciousness, the show is positively Faulknerian. She calls it “Elaine Stritch at Home at the Carlyle.” Like Eloise at home at the Plaza. And not too far away, either. Stritch is 80. Eloise was 6. But they were on the same page.

Oh, yes. She also sings. Renée Fleming isn’t going to lose any sleep about this, but even in her voice of Gravel Gertie sandpaper, Elaine Stritch is such a great interpreter of lyrics that she should be on every young cabaret singer’s see-and-learn list. Accompanied by a six-piece band headed by pianist Rob Bowman, she illustrates why Noël Coward and Cole Porter are her forte, of course, but half-talking her way through the Kurt Weill–Ogden Nash classic “That’s Him” is a graduate course in music education. I’ve never heard Lorenz Hart’s bittersweet lyrics to “He Was Too Good to Me” sung with so much piercing wisdom. And absolutely nobody has found the same truths in Stephen Sondheim’s “Could I Leave You” from Follies, turning it into an aria of moment-to-moment Stanislavsky acting that suggests a cabaret revue at the Actors’ Studio—rueful, cynical and devastating. Interspersing Coward’s catty lyrics to “I Went to a Marvelous Party” with memories of a few drunken parties of her own is undeniable fun, but she knows her way around the serrated edges of a ballad, too.

Hers are the experiences you don’t often find on a cabaret stage. Alcoholism, diabetes, paramedics and meeting the Bushes at the White House can get a bit sticky-wicket, but she self-indulges in it uniquely, marching to the beat of her own tambourine with candor, charm and brittle humor. And why not? She’s crowded a lot of life, love and gossip-column punch lines into 80 years. She can pretty much do and say whatever the hell she wants. Showbiz isn’t always kind to the people who dedicate their lives to it. But with all the wrinkles in her life seamlessly smoothed, her special brand of narcissism is inevitable and easy to forgive. Short of canonization, I can’t imagine what’s left for her to accomplish, but I hope I’m around to watch her do it. Elaine Stritch owes me $14.50. That’s the price of an apple martini at the Carlyle bar, where I was forced to watch her crowded show on a barstool. Just kidding. The drink was worth every penny, and so was she.

Oh, Julianne!

At the movies, some plucky ladies with a lot to give are giving it all they’ve got—and then some. From her rich and versatile scrapbook of women with grit, Julianne Moore deserves a medal for The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. Based on the book of the same name by Terry Ryan, about her mother Evelyn, it’s an American patchwork quilt of a movie, interspersed with humor and tears, and with a fine feeling for the nostalgia of the period. But Lord, let us praise Julianne Moore, who lifts it above and beyond the banality of a TV sitcom until it sprouts wings.

Evelyn Ryan was a bright Ohio housewife with a flair for words who gave up her dream of becoming a newspaper reporter when she married her husband Kelly (played with relish and even some pathos by Woody Harrelson) and turned into an overworked, unfulfilled, housebound mound of fertility whose most stimulating challenge in life was scraping enough nickels together to pay the milkman. Kelly was a cheerful, good-for-nothing drunk who loved his wife and kids, but he spent so much money at the liquor store that there was never anything left of his weekly paycheck to buy groceries.

The movie tells the saga of Evelyn’s struggle to feed, clothe and educate her children while miraculously managing to keep a roof over their heads, in a narrative pop-50’s style. “If I can pause for a moment in the story, I’d like to explain my marriage,” Evelyn says to the viewers, and darned if she doesn’t make it clear as a Mason jar. While the soundtrack plays bouncy retro hits like “Rag Mop” by the Ames Brothers and “Wheel of Fortune” by Kay Starr, Evelyn’s own windfall comes in the form of contests (“I’m glad I used Dial because … ”), jingles, rhymes and slogans. In 10 years, the Ryans won a complete set of Revere Ware, a variety of convertibles and station wagons, a working oil well, two ice buckets, galoshes for the whole family, a supermarket sweepstakes that stacked their fridge with popsicles and caviar, 15 ice crushers, a kennel of dog food, a Brownie camera, an outboard motor, a lifetime supply of bird seed and a pony which they sold to pay the electric bill. Somehow, Evelyn always managed to survive every crisis at the 11th hour of desperation—the film’s tensest scene shows the movers carrying out the furniture when, at the moment of bankruptcy and mortgage foreclosure, the phone rings and Evelyn beats out 250,000 competitors in a Dr. Pepper contest. In the long haul, she sent all of her kids to college, two of the boys became ballplayers with the Detroit Tigers, and the rest turned into nurses, lawyers, businessmen, policemen and teachers. One daughter became a writer and penned The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, the memoir about her mother on which this film is based. This is a nice gesture and an evident work of love, because Evelyn Ryan was a selfless and terminally optimistic woman who gave domestic ingenuity new meaning.

But the author of the original book, as well as first-time writer-director Jane Anderson, who adapted it for the screen, have fallen so in love with this lovable woman’s heroism that they’ve overlooked the sinister violence and mental illness gnawing at her family’s foundation. Even when he trashes the house, deprives the children of the simplest childhood joys and beats up their mother so severely that she ends up in the hospital, Dad is always forgiven as a jerk who didn’t really know any better. And Mr. Harrelson plays him that way. This is a despicable character, and we are led to believe he’s just a real card. The scenes of domestic abuse are matters of no more serious consequence than a tax audit. He even breaks down in tears after he’s through bashing his wife bloody. Some viewers may offer a more aggressively repugnant response. This is a minor caveat.

To be fair, there is much to enjoy. Director Anderson, who helmed the riveting TV movie Normal with Tom Wilkinson as a husband and father demanding a sex change, gets the same kind of unexpected, offbeat reaction to abnormal psychology out of the Ryan family’s dilemmas. Ms. Moore’s radiant central performance makes the movie dance. The period flavors of tacky off-the-rack fashions, vinyl dinette sets, ozone-polluting cars and American home life punctuated by noisy television commercials are carefully brought to life, and at times the jingle singers shamelessly marketing Evelyn Ryan’s musical product placements step right out of the family Philco to chirp away on stovetops and washing machines. This is a thin wafer of a film, but it’s got good intentions and I don’t want to get too testy. There’s still a lot to make you merry, so if you want to relax and have a cloudless escape from routine, pure pleasure is guaranteed.

Fear of Flying?

What Flightplan would be without Jodie Foster, I don’t even want to think about. As an American wife in Germany whose husband is pushed off a rooftop and whose 6-year-old daughter disappears on the night flight from Berlin to New York with Daddy’s coffin in the hold, Ms. Foster quickly and understandably goes ballistic. Worse still, she thinks she’s already spotted the two Arabs in the first row watching her house; they might be kidnappers, but there’s no record of her child on the passenger manifest and she can’t find her boarding pass. With 400 passengers on the E-474 jumbo jet already scared out of their wits, the mystery thickens when the air marshal trying to help her (Peter Sarsgaard) turns out to be part of a much more sinister plot involving hijacking, bomb smuggling and a threat to blow the plane to smithereens.

All of which leaves Mom to break out of her handcuffs, smash her way through the restroom ceiling and crawl through the electrical wiring into every conceivable locked compartment on the aircraft—a job for which she is well-suited, ho ho, since she works as an aircraft engineer who designs planes and knows the architecture from stem to stern better than the pilot. What begins as a credible script with plausible dialogue eventually falls apart somewhere over Newfoundland.

The big problem with Flightplan is that it takes forever to get the red herrings out of the way, then explains so much so fast that you end up saying things like “Huh?” German director Robert Schwentke bulks up the suspense early, but already exploring every scare you can find at 37,000 feet, he runs out of speed fast. With no idea how to get the characters out of all the contrived thrills, he explains everything in the final 10 minutes. Whatever you thought was real in the far-fetched plot ends up stretching credulity to the snapping point. This movie could do irreparable harm to the already beleaguered airplane industry. People who are afraid of flying now will probably never book another flight.

Jodie Foster’s no-nonsense craftsmanship sort of gets you through the turbulence. First you suspect she might be crazy. But by the time she finds out what happened to her child and starts detonating bombs, you begin to realize she’s been spending entirely too much time at the gym. She’s such a valuable commodity that I wish she’d spend her time making better movies. She is also resourceful, but she can’t save Flightplan.