Dreaming of Diane Lane in Sweet Bird of Youth
Only it wasn’t a dream. Unless you call it a dream come true. We make our dreams happen, though; we manifest them. I can only take credit for making it happen, for myself.
You see, I love Diane Lane. It’s funny, too, because I have always tended toward the extreme when it came to devotion to the women known as “my ladies”, no great surprise to anyone who knows a gay man and who has seen the way we devote ourselves to each of our own individual ladies. Yes, I am using my sweeping generalization broom when I make that statement; but the truth of the matter is that the gay men who are devoted to one or more divas outnumber the ones who are devoted to a sporting team. Stereotypes exist in life and in me and the diva stereotype is alive and well and living in my apartment. Katharine Hepburn, Judith Ivey, Lee Remick, Loretta Devine, Helen Reddy, Leann Hunley, Donna Summer, Stephanie Beacham, Deborah Cox, a slew of others, and, of course, the holy trinity, Judy, Barbra, Liza… these are some of the women who make up “my ladies”. I would, though, be lying if I didn’t say that Diane Lane is SPECIAL. My closest of friends know this. My Facebook friends know this. People who know me, who have been in my kitchen, who have read things I’ve written, who have listened to me speak, who have been in almost any situation where people share personal facts about themselves know that Diane Lane is special in my life. Only the closest know why.
It’s more than the astonishing history of her contribution to the art of cinema, which anyone can read about by using the internet, but which die-hard fans like myself have witnessed from the start. It’s more than the fact that, as an actress, she is completely committed in every role, absolutely honest in every reaction, totally individual in every choice. I once told a friend “You know the way Stockard Channing can take any line and say it in a way that nobody else would ever think of? Well, what she does with a line reading, Diane Lane does with a facial expression.” I can think of no other actor who can communicate to me, so absolutely, what Diane Lane can with her face. Yes, there is the fact that we are almost the same age and she looks the way she does; in fact, I have said (often) that I want to be the boy Diane Lane. I want to be my age and still be the most beautiful physical specimen in the room. There is also the fact that she played Paulette Goddard in CHAPLIN (Goddard has always had a particular place in my admiration). There is the fact that there is nothing quite so great as looking at a widescreen close up of Diane Lane, sunlight in her hair, while Christopher Plummer (my favourite famous boy actor) is reciting Yeats (MUST LOVE DOGS). There is the fact that her teenage character in A LITTLE ROMANCE was the same kind of precocious that I was in my teens. There is also the many parallels that her character, Connie Sumner, had with parts of my own life when UNFAITHFUL came out (obviously, not the murderous portions of that film) that spoke, so loudly, to me. Yes. Yes, there are many ways in which Diane Lane’s artistry has left little thumbprints on the mosaic that is my life… most especially with my favourite film UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN.
In 2003 my book of my photographs was published. The Sweater Book, it was called. I had worked on it for several years and spent all our money making it. I thought that, when it was published, it would change my life. Our lives. Nobody bought it and my life, our life, did not change at all. The depression was so overwhelming that I got in bed and didn’t get out, for 18 months, unless I absolutely had to. Like, for instance, if I had to take a gig and make money.. or if I had to (HAD to) do something social to promote the illusion that everything was alright.. or if I ran out of Little Debbie Snack Cakes. Otherwise, I didn’t get out of bed for a year and a half.
In 2003 a film came out called UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN. I tried, several times, to get to the cinema to see it. Each time, something got in my way (on one famous occasion, we actually made it to the cinema but because of the tardiness of one of the members of our party, there were no seats left – I stormed off in anger and the next week the only movie of 2003 that I really WANTED to see was no longer in theaters). Finally, when the dvd came out, the day it came out, I bought it. I spent most of those 18 months watching UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN over and over. You see, at the start of the film, the character played by Diane Lane has a terrible thing happen to her and her attorney says “You’ll get through this and you’ll be happy again”. By the end of the movie, she was happy again. The film told me, every day, that I could, one day, be happy again – all I had to do was stick it out.
One day I was happy again.
Diane Lane, Frances Mays and UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN saved my life.
When I read that Diane Lane was playing Alexandra Del Lago, I stopped breathing. I knew that the production intended for Broadway starring Nicole Kidman (whom I also admire and was excited about seeing in the role) had been cancelled. I did not know that they were looking for a new Princess Kosmonopolis (Del Lago’s alias).. it turned out they weren’t. David Cromer, the director of the intended revival, had taken the project to Chicago’s Goodman Theater, where Diane Lane had been signed the part of the aging movie star and Finn Wittrock (new on the scene and making waves on Broadway and on tv) was to play the not-quite-young-anymore gigolo, Chance. Naturally, I grew heatedly excited because the production was SURE to come to Broadway. After all, Diane Lane was a bona fide movie star, as well as being a great American actress and one of the world’s most beautiful (and exciting) women and Finn Wittrock was THE next big thing. Nevertheless, I couldn’t take the chance that the show wouldn’t come to Broadway, so I announced to my husband, Pat, and my best friend, Brady (with whom I share a brain) that we were all going to Chicago.
Times are hard. Work is demanding. People travel and they get busy. Before I knew it, Sweet Bird of Youth was in performance and no plans had been made to see the play. Brady was out of town for work; a LOT. Pat and I were traveling, when we could, to promote our film MARRIED AND COUNTING. My work schedule was very demanding. It was becoming clear, horribly so, that I would not see my idol play Alexandra Del Lago. It became something about which I spent much time thinking and wishing.
Brady says we manifest our dreams. My friend Danny says that the universe conspires to make what you want happen. I say I do it myself. I once told a friend “I quit drinking all by myself. I quit smoking all by myself. I quit eating garbage and lost sixty pounds all by myself. I dreamed up THE SWEATER BOOK and made it happen all by myself… (that’s not quite true, I had a lot of help along the way; but I was driving the train)”. When I got to see Sweet Bird of Youth it wasn’t all by myself but it WAS because I knew when to ask for help.
Looking at my schedule for next week, one Thursday, I saw that I had absolutely no bookings for three days. I could, easily, fly to Chicago, see the play and fly back the next day. To stay longer would run a risk of missing a return flight and a night at work. I looked on the website for The Goodman and saw they had tickets to the Sunday night show. Before going to bed on September 27th, I reached out to my friend Laura Wells, asking if she could put me up for a night; I posted on Facebook “I will trade a free photo shoot for air miles to Chicago and back to NYC” and I bought the LAST ticket to Sweet Bird of Youth’s Sunday night show on September 30th. The next day, by noon, I had the plane ticket, courtesy of my friend Kenny Burrows. Saturday night I worked a gig, bid my colleagues a joyful and kissfull farewell and Sunday morning I landed in Chicago. Laura met me at O’Hare, we had a tour of the town and some breakfast; then we met Jennifer Houston and Allan Piper at the Obama Campaign headquarters for a tour. After that I saw more sights of Chicago, including the Chicago Art Institute and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Suddenly, I was alone in the arts disctrict of The Windy City. Laura was driving Jennifer back to the airport with a sad-faced Allan, for he was to bid his wife farewell until the next time they would see each other; back to New York she would go and back to headquarters he would go. And I? Off to the Goodman I would go.
In my adult life I have written a handful of fan letters. Not to get autographs. Not to get anything. I write fan letters because I believe that artists need to be told when they have affected someone’s life. I wrote one to Katharine Hepburn in the 90s and dropped it at her home with an enormous vase of Queen Anne Lace (her favourite flower). Two days later, I had a thank you note in my mailbox. It was not something I planned on or even hoped for – which made it all the sweeter. I wrote a fan letter to Jill Clayburgh once; out of it, developed a sweet email relationship. I wrote a fan letter to Joanna Gleason once, enclosing some photos I had done of her in a concert performance of Into The Woods; out of it came a real-life friendship that resulted in her being the ring-bearer at our wedding in Connecticut. I wrote a fan letter to Jane Fonda, thanking her for coming out of retirement. This month I will write another to Debra Winger, saying the same thing. I wrote a fan letter to Diane Lane telling her “you, with your art, have changed my life”. I left the letter with the theater, along with a copy of The Sweater Book and MARRIED AND COUNTING; I hoped, I said in my letter, that by sharing my artwork with her, I could repay the gift she had given me.
It was, though, a gift to grow in size. For her performance in Sweet Bird of Youth was one I will remember. Forever.
Sweet Bird of Youth has been criticized for not being as good as Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It has been labeled a work of Tennessee Williams’ during his decline, when all of his plays were beginning to be ‘lesser than’. My husband studies acting with the great Austin Pendleton who says “third rate Tennessee Williams’ is better than first rate anyone else.” I have always heard the music in a Tennessee Williams’ play, speech, sentence… I get him. I hear the poetry. I have said many times that I will never, ever, go back into acting (a craft I left by the age of 25); but I have a secret — I would go back to work to play Reverend Shannon in Night Of the Iguana. I hear the music.
From the moment the play began, I saw where they were. I didn’t see where they were going because David Cromer likes to take the audience on a journey and all journeys have surprises. As an audience, you simply have to surrender and say “I’m going to go on the trip they are taking me on.” That is what I always choose to do at the theater and this was no exception. Not a reviewer, I will not speak of play structure and the technique of directing plays and designing shows. I can say, as an audience, my five senses were challenged, were dragged to the precipice and left there, at the end of the evening, burning and raw. The visuals were breathtaking, the sounds of the wind and the ocean and the monsters were deafening. The feel of the cold theater made the cool blues of the lighting designer’s morning light, as the drunken Del Lago stirred, chilling. I could even smell the sunlight that streamed through the slatted shades and blinded the hungover poor unfortunate souls. I was in the action; the entire time.
Some of the chatteratti (who I am embarrassed to admit I read, from time to time) had criticized the casting of the play. Perhaps some reviewers did too; but the write ups I saw were all very positive. I will tell you: I know why people think the play was miscast. Alexandra Del Lago is a movie star of the silver screen era; but she is past her prime. Over the hill is an expression one might use. She talks about it, often. She is a fading beauty. Diane Lane is not a fading beauty. Diane Lane will never be a fading beauty – only a beauty. Geraldine Page was not a beauty. Ever. She was, though, a great American actress and she could make an audience see, BELIEVE, anything. As a child I saw Sweet Bird of Youth on television. I had no idea what it was about; but I always (ALWAYS) remembered the hyper-glamourous woman named Alexandra Del Lago. Only after seeing this production did I go back and watch it. Astounding? Yes. Breathtaking? Certainly. Beautiful? No. It didn’t matter. Page WAS Del Lago. A poor tv adaptaion with rather watered down acting was made once with more acceptable casting: Elizabeth Taylor and Mark Harmon. Chance is supposed to be at the point where he is a breath away from losing the only thing he has going for him: his looks. At least Del Lago has talent. Chance has looks. Until the day he died, Paul Newman was one of the most beautiful men in the world; like Page, his acting made it possible for people to believe the desperation of a handsome man about to lose it all. Mark Harmon, much older than the character, was more appropriate but, sadly, the film had no teeth. I never saw the productions that starred Irene Worth and Christopher Walken or Lauren Bacall and Michael Beck. I saw the production that starred Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock. And here is why people thought they were miscast: Lane is beautiful and she is tiny. The Princess Kosmonopolis talks about being a monster and people don’t think a petite beauty can be a monster. What they don’t know is that a petite beauty can be the worst monster; because you don’t expect it. This petite beauty was mean, rude, crude, crass, demanding, belittling, powerful and scary. When she brays at Chance, the entire audience can feel his genitals recede. Here is this slip of a girl screaming at him like a gunnery Sargeant and he has to take it. She stamps her feet and barks at him in that 40’s faux English/American accent and throws thing and ignores him and diminishes him until he really has no choice but to save himself by doing her bidding. Those who underestimated Diane Lane’s acting ability in favour of criticizing her physicality were wrong, very wrong. And, by not taking the journey that she offers them, they miss out on stupefying vistas. And as far as Finn Wittrock is concerned, it is, indeed, a vista. The reason people thought he was miscast is because of all the talk of his fading youth and looks. It can be difficult to hear repeated references of diminishing youth (an obsession of Williams’), all the while you are looking at one of the most beautiful creatures ever put on God’s green earth. That’s Finn Wittrock. Half naked for an entire act, the audience has no choice but to sit and gaze at him, trying desperately to catch their breath. It was like looking at a statue in a museum. Every time he moved, I sighed. But as an audience, you have to take yourself out of your carnality and place yourself back into the text and allow the actor to transport you. And I found myself thinking “Stephen, have you known what it is like to be truly beautiful and to lose it? Have you known what it is like to have nothing more to offer than your beauty and be on the threshold of losing it?” The answer was no. I imagine the frame of reference for such a thing is wide as the Grand Canyon. Maybe to the audience he was still beautiful; but we don’t know what the man that is the character looked like five years ago. Someone else’s best day may well be his worst; and on those days, desperation sets in. And THAT is what Finn Witrock had. Chance was DESPERATE. They both were. Their needs were greater than can be met by anyone or thing, short of an act of God. They didn’t have God, though. They only had each other. Two desperate people, unable to help each other, but trying, with the force of the Almighty. That is why these two actors were cast, just right. Perfectly.
I sat, mouth agape, eyes wide, in abject heavenly transport, those three hours. To hear the poetry of the playwright that was one of my first loves and remains in my top five, spoken by an actor I’ve recently come to know and fall in love with (literally, in a two minute scene on Harry’s Law – that’s how fast he works on you) and an actress I have revered more than thirty years; it was a dream come true. And I made it happen (with some help from some dear friends). But. You know. In this life you HAVE to make it happen for yourself.
Somewhere in Act One of Sweet Bird of Youth, the Princess Kosmonopolis tells Chance to audition for her by telling her his life story while she puts on her face to go out. The cold, hard, Hollywood monster sits at the vanity and begins removing last night’s makeup and replacing it with a fresh coat of paint. She divides her time in the mirror with her beautiful face and his beautiful face; and, while continuing to create her artwork on her palette, her attention shifts, completely, to the man. Without words, with only her facial expression and body language, we see the Monster Kosmonopolis melt and soften and become the woman Alexandra. We see the compassion return to her person and, in that moment, she falls in love with Chance. Not as a woman loves a man; but as a person loves another person. She feels a desire to nurture, to care for, to aid this fellow man.
That moment in the play represented, to me, my relationship with Diane Lane, whom I will probably never meet, which would be nice but isn’t necessary. I’ve told her, in writing, what she has done for me. She goes to work and puts on the face of the character that she is playing; and she helps this fellow man, me, to stay happy and to stay inspired, in a world where it isn’t always that easy. She keeps some of the magic in my heart alive through the illumination of her art. That’s what artists do, isn’t it?
Please note: the photos of Diane Lane, Under the Tuscan Sun, Finn Wittrock and the Goodman Theater’s production of Sweet Bird of Youth were taken off the internet. I did NOT photograph any of these; the only photo in the gallery shot by me is the picture of my own kitchen, where the poster of Under the Tuscan Sun is prominently displayed.