Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Thoughts on Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall
The deaths of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall so close together had a stronger impact on me than most celebrity passings. Williams' suicide was so shocking, and though Bacall was 89 and her going was not unexpected, it was still very sad because she was one of my first Broadway crushes.

As with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, I had not really been aware that Williams was dealing with depression and addiction. So on Monday night it was a genuine surprise when my husband Jerry gasped as he was reading New York Times headlines on his I phone as I was driving and I said "What's the matter?" "Robin Williams died," he replied, "they think it was suicide." I had seen Williams live on two occasions, in the Broadway play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in which he embodied the ferocious title animal in Rajiv Joseph's bizarre dreamscape of a play, and performing stand-up on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera for an HBO special. He performed for about 90 minutes without a break and was amazing. Friends I'd met on the Long Island beach that morning had an extra ticket and I gladly took it. I arrived on time, sandy and sunburnt, while they were all late (Williams called attention to their tardiness.)

Robin Williams
The outpouring of media grief and tributes the next day was overwhelming and contained thoughtful and much needed examination of the stigma of depression, but there was also predictable bloviating from windbag Rush Limbaugh and thoughtless hypocritical name calling by Fox's Shepard Smith. Limbaugh blamed Williams' suicide on the comedian's political leanings, claiming that the life-philosophy of liberals is dark, dreary, and angry. Apparently, we lefties are always enraged about something which naturally makes us depressed and ready to off ourselves. So by extension conservatives are happy, carefree souls. Yes, if you're rich, white, male, and straight.

Smith commented that Williams was cowardly for allowing his depression to drive him to death and not to consider the feelings of his children. Never mind that depression is an illness. The reaction to Smith's insensitivity was swift and immediate with many tweets and comments labeling the newsman hypocritical for daring to call anyone else a coward when he is a closet case on a reactionary, traditionally anti-gay news machine. I'm tired of people saying it's his own private business as if being gay were a deep dark secret to be hidden from the light of day. These days public people like Smith have very little to fear from being open about their sexuality (maybe a couple of Fox viewers will stop watching him, but not that many) and should not hide it. As far as I know he has NEVER publicly acknowledged his being gay and that's cowardly. He has since apologized for his insensitive remarks, but still no word on coming out.

Then in the middle of the Williams tributes, came news Bacall had passed away. Bacall first came into my life through the original cast recording of Applause, her Broadway musical debut. I was 11 years old and my parents belonged to one of those LP record clubs. Applause was among their first purchases (along with Katharine Hepburn in Coco) and we listened to that record until it wore out. I would dance around the house singing "But Alive" (which should have given a clue to my parents about my being gay). I guess it was her throaty voice, her unshakable confidence, the fact that she wasn't a traditional musical star with a smooth sweet tone, but a real woman bringing Broadway into my home that intoxicated me. We later saw a summer-stock tour of Applause at the Valley Forge Music Fair but star Eva Gabor had broken her ankle and we had to make due with the understudy, but I was hearing Bacall's voice in my head the whole time. I got to hear and see Bacall at the same theater a few seasons later when she starred in a touring production of Wonderful Town opposite George Hearn and Skip Hinnant (best known as the detective Fargo North, Decoder--get it?--on PBS's The Electric Company.)

I later encountered Bacall in person a few times as president of the Drama Desk. She came to the pre-party of the DD Awards when she was in Waiting in the Wings and her co-stars Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg were being honored. She was polite and somewhat caustic, commenting the event was "so well organized" with just a hint of sarcasm because things were a little rushed. I was also present when she presented at the Outer Critics Circle Awards at Sardi's. She was giving the Best Actor Award to Anthony LaPaglia for A View from the Bridge. He thanked her and told the crowd of theater people how honored he was to have her present his citation. "That's Lauren Bacall," he said with astonishment. "What's left of her," she dryly replied.

Everyone is listing their favorite Bacall films, but I will never forget her smoky insolence in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, befuddled adoration of Gregory Peck in Designing Women, brittle, comic vulnerability in How to Marry a Millionaire, and haughty condescension in Murder on the Orient Express.

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