After her superbly understated performance as Harper Lee in the undervalued film Infamous, I developed a whole new respect for Sandra Bullock. She should have been honored with an Academy Award nomination, along with the unforgettably brilliant Toby Jones, who was light years ahead of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Truman Capote. (They gave the Oscar to the wrong actor.) Anyway, Ms. Bullock, I have decided, is a much better performer than her career has demonstrated. In Premonition, a new psychological thriller that never quite musters enough thrills to cause goose bumps, the material is only so-so, but Ms. Bullock does not disappoint. In the illiterate words of Spike Lee, she got game.
Here she plays Linda Hanson, a perfect housewife with a perfect house, a perfect marriage and two perfect daughters, driven close to insanity by an uncanny ability to experience future events before they happen. One perfect morning after he kisses her goodbye and leaves for work, her perfect husband Jim (played by Julian McMahon, the oversexed half of the plastic-surgeon team on TV’s controversial Nip-Tuck) dies in an automobile crash. Her reaction to this life-altering news is shock, disbelief and restraint. Linda’s depressed, but not hysterical—until she hears Jim’s message on her answering machine, placed after the time of his death. Her mother (the excellent Kate Nelligan) arrives to help and falls asleep in the den; a shrink gives her a prescription for lithium to relieve her anxiety; and Linda leaves a message for her best friend to call her back. The next day Mom is gone, the friend doesn’t remember her call, the name of the doctor who prescribed the lithium has been torn out of the phone book, and Jim himself is sitting at the breakfast table. None of this is very logical, to say the least, and one of the film’s chief problems is the laziness with which screenwriter Bill Kelly neglects to share any information. People who know her keep entering her life, although she doesn’t remember meeting them. The house fills with mourners who drop by after the funeral. Yet every morning Linda awakes to find her husband munching his cereal before dying all over again. Some mornings Jim is there, ready for his close-up; other mornings she awakens a widow. It’s another of those annoying movies where you don’t know any more than the traumatized heroine knows—yet the conceit is that everything seems to be moving backwards. More than once, I found myself asking, “Why don’t they just talk to each other?”
Mostly you just watch Linda’s growing panic and frustration when she realizes everything that’s happening to her has already happened in the past. Is she going mad? Or can she predict things that haven’t happened yet? Will history repeat itself, or can she win the race against time to head tragedy off at the pass? If she lets Jim die, is it the same thing as murder? These questions are not satisfactorily addressed by the film’s insistence that “History is filled with unexplained phenomena.” The German director, Mennan Yapo, lacks the ability to parse those phenomena into cinematic terms that are both exciting and coherent. In an attempt to be unconventional and surreal, the film has no arc, and everyone talks in shorthand. But Ms. Bullock gives Premonition a truthful center, and it ought to be illegal for anyone to look like Julian McMahon.
“Mediocre” is not a word that I have ever associated with Diahann Carroll, but it pretty much describes her disappointing new act at Feinstein’s at the Regency. Poorly assembled and woefully under-rehearsed, it doesn’t fizz like Dom or sparkle like a cosmo, or even grease the arteries like cheap muscatel. It just lies there, like warm root beer. No one could be more surprised, because I love her madly. But this show, which she calls “Both Sides Now” after an ill-advised Joni Mitchell song that suits her jazzy glamour like an old flat-toed shoe, is not her finest hour.
Maybe I’m being too churlish. Let’s face it: Just to be in the same room with one of God’s most inspired human creations is a certain privilege denied most mortals. At her age (she’ll be 72 in July), Ms. Carroll’s still got the beauty and she’s still got the chops. Her energy is boundless: She thinks funny and works her sense of humor into her patter in the most winning way, and she never flounders around onstage looking for a punch line. But the material is tired and hopeless.
There’s no introduction; Ms. Carroll doesn’t need any. The light hits her floor-length black-sequined suit with oversize white collar cuffs and she’s off to the races. But the songs that follow do not enthrall. Despite the daring tempo shifts on “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” those songs have been charcoal-grilled until there’s no juice left to savor. Another Frank Sinatra medley (God help us!) is so forced and pushed beyond the limits of her voice that it loses coherence, and who needs it anyway? What’s Diahann Carroll got to do with Ol’ Blue Eyes? Only a few weeks ago, Ben Vereen was on the same stage, singing the same medley, with the same boring results. “One for My Baby” has its moments, but to experience the ultimate magic that can be channeled by a woman singing a man’s song, it doesn’t come anywhere close to Chris Connor’s unforgettable Atlantic Records recording on her historic Ballads of the Sad Cafe album.
“I Hope You Dance,” a dreary venture into the world of pop treacle, is just a waste of valuable time. And wasn’t there anybody in her circle of advisors with the good sense to talk her out of yet another in a long line of renditions of “Where Do You Start”? Maybe the varicose veins in Vegas still thrill to this overwrought, oversung and overrated tune, but this is New York, and we’ve heard it until we’re ready for the Lenox Hill I.C.U. The first time I heard Shirley Horn sing Johnny Mandel’s unsurpassed arrangement of Michel Legrand’s music and the sad lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, I sat up and nodded, “Oh, yeah.” That was about 100 years and 1,000 singers ago. Now it’s time to retire this warhorse to the cemetery plot where “Send in the Clowns,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Strangers in the Night” are buried six feet under.
I cherish the record albums that Diahann Carroll used to make, particularly a Harold Arlen songbook artfully arranged by Ralph Burns and a Porgy and Bess celebration with only a dreamy trio headed by Andre Previn. There is nothing like that in this act. What’s the crime in singing one quiet ballad with only the piano? Or more of the numbers she introduced in Broadway musicals? The high point of the act is her sublimely sensitive reading of the great Harold Arlen–Truman Capote ballad “A Sleepin’ Bee,” which she introduced as Ottilie, Pearl Bailey’s youngest Haitian courtesan in House of Flowers: The innocence and melodic sweetness of the little girl from the Bronx who electrified Broadway in her youth fills the room once more. Alas, such moments are painfully rare. And the atonal seven-piece band led by pianist Dean Schneider is nothing more than perfunctory noise and clatter. It grieves me to write this, because Diahann Carroll is somebody very special indeed, but nobody that special would end a show with a Sophie Tucker song so ossified it’s got barnacles.
Television has plunged us all into such a cesspool of mediocrity that when I, for one, go to a club (especially one as expensive as Feinstein’s at the Regency), I want to be elevated. At these prices, it’s not too much to ask. Diahann Carroll is capable of much more valuable work, whether she knows it or not.
Mighty Oak Room
The Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel
59 West 44th Street
Through March 17
In the good old days, when sophisticated New Yorkers stayed out after 10 p.m., singer-pianists were working saloons from the Village to 125th Street. Matt Dennis, Bobby Troup, Joe Derise, Hugh Shannon and Bobby Short were just a few of the boy singers who enchanted the People Who Knew Things till the sun rose over the Hudson. They’ve all gone the way of nickel Cokes now, but the tradition still thrives.
Time to meet Tony DeSare, who is holding court at the Algonquin’s august Oak Room through March. 17. I first saw him in the Our Sinatra revue as a singer smooth as glass, phrasing behind the beat, with warmth and a rhythmic drive that was aggressive but not obnoxious. Like two of the other stars of that show, Eric Comstock and Ronny Whyte, Mr. DeSare has branched out to conquer the keyboard wearing a brand-new cabaret crown. At the Algonquin, heading a quartet that includes jazz legend Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar, he knows his oats. His own tune, “Let’s Just Stay In,” may be a poor man’s version of Cole Porter’s “Why Don’t We Try Staying Home,” but the idea is nice, if not exactly original. Fearless and experimental, Mr. DeSare seems open to new ideas, even tackling “Kiss,” a rock tune by Prince that I never want to hear again. Going au courant doesn’t work: Lousy songs remain lousy, no matter how you doctor the chords. Let it be said that these lapses are easily forgiven. Fortunately, for a chap raised on the modern pop junk of the 50’s and 60’s, he’s discovered Gershwin, Kern and Cy Coleman, too. Slowing the usual tempo of Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg’s “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love, I Love the Girl I’m Near,” from the historic score of Finian’s Rainbow, or leaving the piano bench to mount the vocalist’s solo stool with a hand-held mike for a sensitive take on Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean,” Mr. DeSare pretty much runs the gamut of good taste. He’s a welcome new addition to an honorable old tradition.