The playwright and filmmaker Mike Leigh was recently in New York for three days, and on the Thursday he had lunch at Balthazar with Scott Elliott.
The New Group often presents Mr. Leigh’s plays in New York, and their artistic director, Mr. Elliott, always directs: now the dark comedy Abigail’s Party, with Jennifer Jason Leigh; a few years ago Smelling a Rat; maybe eight years ago Goose-Pimples; and a decade ago, at the inception of the New Group, Mr. Leigh’s Ecstasy.
Mr. Leigh, 62, ordered oysters. “It’s too early for me,” said Mr. Elliott.
They met while Mr. Leigh was rehearsing his 1996 film Secrets & Lies. “I had to call this guy,” Mr. Leigh said, “he was either going to be a perfect wanker or he’d have the goods. I was very cautious, and very distracted. Then I came to New York with my son, my youngest, he’s named Leo, and his friend was named Leo, the two of them. They’re now writing films together.”
“Then we met at Coffee Shop,” said Mr. Elliott, 42. “Then we went on to do Goose-Pimples.”
“Well, I’ve actually withdrawn the license for Goose-Pimples,” said Mr. Leigh. “It’s a comic play, an anti-farce, they all think he’s a rich oil sheik …. It could all be misunderstood. It’s not The Satanic Verses, but it could be misunderstood.”
“If it wasn’t for Ecstasy, I’d probably be in obscurity,” said Mr. Elliott.
“Oh, I doubt it,” said Mr. Leigh.
“Everything in my creative life came to me as a result of Ecstasy,” said Mr. Elliott.
“We did an interview on the radio before, and at one point they called you Paul Elliott,” Mr. Leigh said. He tucked into his oysters.
“I’m fascinated by this group of women,” Mr. Leigh said of a neighboring table, some of whom were obscured by a tower of their own shellfish. “Very attractive.”
In 1970, Mr. Leigh directed a disastrous production in Bermuda, an experience that left him swearing to only produce his own work. That cast bought him a present, however: a ticket to New York. “It was fantastic,” he said. “The Village was very much the Village.” He saw James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee in Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena. “And I also saw Richard III.”
“I’m just now getting the money together for another film,” Mr. Leigh said, “but I can’t tell you anything about that. I don’t have a script, I won’t say what it’s about, and I won’t cast ‘names.’”
“It’s not a studio movie,” offered Mr. Elliott.
“But I’ve got an amazing producer,” said Mr. Leigh. Mr. Elliott was trying to find out on his Treo who might have been in that Richard III in 1970.
“It’s like my friend,” Mr. Elliott said of his Treo.
“How disgusting,” Mr. Leigh said.
“I love it,” Mr. Elliott said. “Everything’s in it.” Mr. Leigh had ordered some fish, it came dotted with capers.
“We’re having fish tonight, too,” Mr. Elliott said.
“Now you tell me,” Mr. Leigh said.
“Tonight we’re having dinner with Wally Shawn and Deborah Eisenberg,” said Mr. Elliott. “He’s translated the Threepenny Opera that I’m doing on Broadway, and they’ve never met.”
“Well, we’ve met but … ,” Mr. Leigh said. It would be Mr. Leigh’s last night in New York, he would fly home to London the next morning.
“Charlotte [Holdich], my partner, is a costume designer, and she’s working with the worst director she’s ever worked with,” Mr. Leigh said.
“Who is it?” asked Mr. Elliott.
“I can’t remember his name,” Mr. Leigh said. “He’s completely inept. She’s been around the block and back a few times.”
“She’s a great lady,” said Mr. Elliott.
They talked for a while about Mr. Elliott’s schemes to bring downtown actors and performers to Broadway, and David Thewlis’ long climb in Hollywood after starring in Mr. Leigh’s 1993 film Naked, and roles, and things they had seen or wanted to do.
“I would like to do, one day, Macbeth, or King Lear. Those are the two I’m attracted to,” said Mr. Elliott.
“Pinter?” asked Mr. Leigh.
“No,” said Mr. Elliott. “I like Pinter.”
“Beckett?” asked Mr. Leigh.
“No,” said Mr. Elliott.
Mr. Elliott had, however, recently enjoyed the production of Billy Elliott in London. “Is Billy Elliott related to Paul Elliott?” Mr. Leigh asked.
Mr. Elliott laughed. “You would have laughed at T.S. Eliot,” Mr. Leigh said. “Do you know who G.H. Elliott is?” Mr. Leigh riffed. “He was known as G.H. Elliott, the Chocolate-Coloured Coon. He was a blackface performer.”
Mr. Leigh finally tapped the shoulder of one of the nearby pretty girls. “What’s the occasion, I’d like to know?” he asked.
“It’s Debby’s birthday,” said one of the girls.
Mr. Elliott was still working at the Richard III thing. “Maybe it wasn’t 1970,” he said.
“It was 1970, don’t give me that,” said Mr. Leigh.
“Who’s Donald Madden?” asked Mr. Elliott.
“So hold on—why can’t it have been Donald Madden?” asked Mr. Leigh. “It just means we don’t know him. This is very time-consuming and very arid.”
“It was Donald Madden!” said Mr. Elliott.
“He was terribly good,” said Mr. Leigh. “I think Donald deserves a mention. Is he still with us?”
“Huh. Maybe he got out of the business,” said Mr. Elliott. “There’s not much on him. Well, you liked it?”
“It had an amazing characteristic,” said Mr. Leigh. “They had neck microphones and there were speakers built into the set, and the sound was panned from one speaker to the other. Now, I hate open-air theater, so that was great. And the stage was steeply raked.” He paused. “Don Madden. Great guy! Call him up, see if he wants to come to the show.”
“It says here ‘was,’” said Mr. Elliott. “He ‘was’ an acclaimed actor.”
Mr. Leigh then had to leave for an interview. His face, mostly his big beard, appeared just a few moments later outside Balthazar’s window, and a little questioning finger pointed north and east and then west, and, through gestures from the other side of the glass, he was sent in the right direction. He nodded sharply, and disappeared.
“I want to do all of them,” Mr. Elliott then said of Mr. Leigh’s plays. “I don’t want anyone else to do them. I want to do them all.”
Sag Harbor Diary
… IN WHICH I RETURN TO THE VILLAGE FOR ANOTHER COZY WINTER …
Dear Clan of Mine,
Just after 6 a.m., as I approached Sag Harbor, the sun broke over the winter horizon like God shining an icy flashlight–almost as if He were searching for His lost keys on the wintry yet oh-so-cozy earth somewhere down by East Hampton.
Oh yes, it was bitterly cold, but the very human warmth of the morning after Thanksgiving suffused the sleepy hamlet. Why, I could very nearly hear Angela Lansbury belting out “We Need a Little Christmas”! Slice up the fruitcakes indeed!
On the way into Sag proper, I saw that all alongside the cemetery on Suffolk Street heaps of toasty russet leaves were piled deliciously high, perfect for pouncing! In the charming old graveyard itself, a number of smiling Mexican fellows pushed a giant leaf-blower over the plots, clearing the way for visits with old friends long since peacefully passed. But, on a sadder note, along the road, an otherwise very robust-looking squirrel was flattened down by some careless (lady?) driver, just a little point of blood in his mouth, as if he’d died while eating some delicious cranberry sauce. Poor lil’ guy!
Anyway! Had things changed in Sag Harbor in my absence? On foot I headed straight downtown alone for some answers–and for all the fun and camaraderie I’d long missed as well.
How happy it makes me to report that downtown was looking spick-and-span and utterly shipshape! The nip and delight of Christmas was in the air already! The hardware store has been rebuilt since that nasty fire. The new brick building is, to be honest, just a little modern-y for my tastes–but, then again, time does pass here! It’s not as if we all spend our days in Sag out hunting whales anymore now, is it? Ha-ha!
All was quiet in BookHampton when I popped in to browse–but that quiet would be “not for long,” according to the woman eagerly stocking the shelves for the greatest shopping day of the year! Busy, busy! A help-wanted sign in the window of the Schiavoni’s store, too, and, at the Whalers Cleaners and Tailors, the traditional OPEN sign had an utterly hilarious little white sign dangled from it, reading “Hung Over.” Naughty!
Yes, and as I ended my rounds, folks were beginning to emerge from hearth and home. Wreaths were already hanging on their opening doors as they peeked out, like little mice just born, their eyes squinting in the bright light of the gorgeous morning.
And so full of news: I quickly found out that our nice if misguided lesbian mayor was long gone, replaced with some good fella–but was reassured that Hunky Page is still on duty to tickle the ivories at the American Hotel, and huzzah for that!
I also heard that up the road a bit, at 127 Main Street, the little dentist’s office has been sold, and this man named Jon Gruen wants to build some very big building there, so big that it’ll block Gingerbread House from view. Apparently that’s been one of the very hot topics in town. (I don’t like to be crass, but apparently he bought the lot back in 1998, according to The East Hampton Star, for all of $410,500! Goodness.)
Later, I would settle down with the old phone and call up an old friend intimately familiar with city business. Well, he told me all about Mr. Gruen’s project! “He contends that it’s not monstrous,” he said of Mr. Gruen’s plans, “and it’s a modest building, and so forth.”
Apparently some in the village wanted to see a model of this building, but Mr. Gruen said that would be too expensive–which is a pretty silly thing, it seems to me, when he’ll be paying so many lawyers to help get his building approved. Why, how much could some Popsicle sticks and glue cost anyway???
The other thing everyone is twittering about is the fate of the old enormous Bulova Watchcase Factory. Apparently it’s almost detoxed, or whatever they call it, and the day is coming when it won’t be a nasty Superfund site any longer–probably in the middle of this winter! A petition has been circulated around town to save the building from demolition by its owners after the cleanup is complete–and that petition has already gotten 600 signatures, I hear! I saw one of the petitions up in the five-and-ten myself, and four more people had signed up! The building is as good as saved, I’m sure.
Feeling a bit nosy, I set uphill from downtown. Behind Union Street, sweet Judy Miller’s sporty little car was tucked into her garage, her “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker blazing proudly. She was parked alongside an adorable little winter woodpile.
And all over town, in fact, wise grasshopper-types have already laid in some wood–while we just know all you ants are only thinking of turkey dinners and Christmas presents!
Down at the harbor, old Pat Malloy’s boat was the only one to be seen, if you can imagine the harbor all empty. His Intuition II was riding a little high, its purple bottom bits revealing a strip of mustard and raspberry jelly color at the waterline. (I do believe I was getting hungry!) Men drove down in their jeeps to gape at the huge thing–though it’s not exactly an unusual sight, as Mr. Malloy owns the whole wharf! Well, I found out later that she’s the 19th-largest yacht in the whole wide world, at nearly 200 feet. Now that’s a lot of boat! Imagine setting sail in that for Christmas!
Oh, but who’d ever want to heave off for warmer climes? Next I strolled down the lovely half-moon of Hempstead Street, where a young father unknown to me was pushing his delighted daughter on her training-wheeled bicycle–so sweet–and I could see that Jon Robin Baitz had also put some quite nicely chopped lumber up to keep him warm as he tippy-types away on his New York plays all winter long. (Or does this eligible bachelor have a ladyfriend by now for these chill winter nights on the bay? One wants to know!)
Ahh! How good it was to be at home again, everything so the same despite all the differences. I do think I shall enjoy this winter season in Sag Harbor ever so much.
And finally, a brief note to the nice folks at 18 Suffolk in the white colonial, whom I’ll be too polite to name. Friends, it’s a month after Halloween now, perhaps it’s high time to send that enormous pumpkin on your front porch to its happy end! We’re sure your down-the-street neighbors, like Harry Hurt and family, would appreciate it! Just a thought! Perhaps you could bake a pie?
Until my next report, I remain, your always-honest friend,
P.S.: Only 24 days until Christmas, and if you can’t figure out what I want, I’ll be sure to tell you!
But What Were They Wearing?
Dame Judi Dench arrived from London on Monday for a screening of Mrs. Henderson Presents, in which she plays Laura Henderson, a rich widow who buys a London theater and decides to stage an all-nude show for entertainment during World War II.
“Our job is to try to find the character and use our own observation to do it,” Ms. Dench said in the lobby of the MGM screening room in midtown. “A little bit of you is in everything you do.” This inspired an idea of the real-life Ms. Dench operating a burlesque house, an idea that will keep The Transom awake with excitement for many nights to come.
“I was 5 or 6 when World War II broke out,” Ms. Dench said. As The Transom feels similarly about the current war—were we not but infants when it began?—Ms. Dench was asked what her sentiments were about war, in particular, the so-called “situation” in Iraq.
“Well, I, like a lot of people, wish we never interfered there,” she said, with her usual precision. “We put ourselves in an invidious situation because of it. I wish we hadn’t decided to get involved. It would have been better that we hadn’t.”
While in New York, Ms. Dench planned to do press for the movie and visit friends before leaving Saturday for Los Angeles.
“I love being on Broadway,” she said, although she admitted the jet lag was tempting her to go facedown. “When I hit the deck, you’ll know.”
Eighty people or so stopped by to see the film, including Joan Collins.
In a long white coat, Ms. Collins sashayed in with her hair well coiffed, her lips painted a magnificent red, and her handsome husband in tow.
She said she is working on a comedy called Legends!, which is bound for Broadway.
“I’m playing a character named Sylvia Glenn,” she said, sliding off her black gloves. “She’s very glamorous, very 80’s, with big shoulders and big hair, which I still wear. Well, not the big shoulders. Just the big hair.”
Kathleen Turner walked in, breathless, her left foot in a cast.
“I had a terrible taxi,” she said, wiping beads of perspiration from her forehead. “The driver didn’t know what he was doing. I finally got out and ran!”
Ms. Turner’s foot should be healed well in time to take her production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to London in January. But really, Ms. Turner: How are you enjoying the war?
“It’s like the quote in the movie,” she said, and paraphrased, “Every man’s death is in vain. It’s the same for this war.”
Give Them the Chair
On a recent Wednesday evening at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the focus of attention was a chair, a ratty, threadbare yellow armchair listing hopelessly to one side, with its stuffing a-poof and an ages-old inspection tag sticking out its tongue. This was the work of Californian Rodney McMillian, who had lifted the discarded chaise from a Los Angeles street and plonked it, virtually untroubled, into the museum’s upstairs gallery.
“The only thing that was done to it was by the art handler here, who had a platform made for it,” said curator Christine Y. Kim. She was looking ravishing in her black décolleté frock. “I mean, it’s so direct.”
But who would end up atop a tarnished throne such as this?
“I don’t know!” she said. “Maybe someone who does end up on a couch like this is going to be very, very happy, because [the artist] is doing well now.” She noted that the big-time collector Peter Norton had happily acquired an item by the same artist, a “broken-down couch, very much like this, a double sofa piece with romance novels stuck in as its cheese wedge.”
The chair, the chair. What to make of the chair?
“It’s like Duchamp’s Urinal meets Rob Rauschenberg’s Monogram,” said the fashion designer Peter Som, just in with a very tall friend.
“It’s about memory, it’s about decay, it’s about comfort,” said Alvin Hall, who designs training programs for the financial market, “and how comfort becomes distorted over time …. ”
When Tod Roulette, who runs a gallery and nonprofit artists’ space on 135th Street, laid eyes on the chair, he thought of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s landslide re-election and what to expect over the next four years. “There are going to be more of these on the sidewalk because the spaces that they just came out of are being gentrified,” he said.
“No, I’m not thinking about Bloomberg,” said an attractive middle-aged woman who peered at the chair from a safe remove. “I’m thinking about the weight of the lives that sat in it. It looks to me like it’s been filled with a lot of nice smells.”
The sound artist Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. D.J. Spooky, said the chair stood in for the history of American television, recalling Archie Bunker and Sanford and Son’s junkyard.
Oh, everyone has an opinion. “What do you mean, ‘Do you get it?’?” asked a painter.
Or hey! “I’ve got one of these at home,” said a woman. “Let’s switch!”