Mia Madre – Italian Film

mia madre photoThis film is extraordinary. It follows six weeks in the life of a female film director and how she deals with the ordinary tribulations of her life. She’s got a dying mother in a hospital. She’s got a brother who inexplicably quits his job. A daughter from an ex-husband…and she’s juggling these strands while trying to make a film in Rome. The American star (John Turturro) is a neurotic egotist who causes her no end of trouble. In the middle of all this, she has to be emotionally supportive of her teenage daughter and… well, it’s just like life. And that’s the point. And as we go along, we feel for her as she gamely keeps her head above water, and we realize that unlike an American picture – picture does not have an arc…and that’s exactly the point. We are witnessing a life in progress without a beginning, without an end. And the director is telling us, “that’s just the way it is.” And when we realize that’s the message of this film, it becomes unutterably moving. The film has no finish. It just ends. See it. It won’t be here long.

John as actor

Last time I acted was as Rick in my musical adaptation of the film Casablanca.  That’s Leila Martin – Phantom of the Opera – threatening me in an effort to obtain the letters of transit.


20 years later, I am once again acting in the musical adaptation of my memoir, Heartbreaker.  We’ll be giving a reading for the industry in early December.  Details to follow.

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John as Actor

Excerpt from Semi-Memoir in Progress: Joel considers Scallops.

“And we have scallops,” said the waitress, “they’re slightly breaded and pan-seared in white wine with lemon and capers.”
Joel felt that irresistible tug, that tempting, provocative pull.
“You can’t have ‘slightly breaded’” he told her, “that’s like being a little bit pregnant. They’re either breaded or they’re not.”
Beside him, he felt Lessey sigh. Why does he always do this? he could feel her thinking.
The waitress was giving him the kind of smile that says, Oh, Christ, Another Crank. But he wasn’t going to let this drop. There was too much of it going around, these inexact, imprecise, just plain Wrong locutions.
“So, please, don’t keep telling people the scallops are slightly breaded, just say they’re breaded, okay?”
“If it makes you happy,” said the waitress, and he wondered, belligerently, should he call the manager? Because this was just outright Snippy.
“I won’t be here,” he countered. “But it will make me happy to know you’re at least speaking English the way it was meant to be spoken.”

Burgundy Tasting 5/9.14

Gary Fradin, who runs an elegant wineshop, gave a tasting of Burgundies -both red and white. Eleven people attended, it was an intimate group: five couples and a single woman. The tasting was led by a Kentucky girl, Melinda, who spoke with a broad Southern accent and had trouble with the French nomenclature. She and I got into an argument that almost verged on a real battle when I came out in favor of non-filtered wines -and she held the position that, to assure commercial viability, many vintners needed to strip their wines of the grape residues and tannins that result in the depth and substance that characterize the real Burgundy experience. These wines will often throw off sediment -which, to my mind, is a most desirable thing. Filtered wines -while safer to preserve- taste noticeably thinner. “Yes,” she said, “but if you’re shipping internationally, ten thousand cases, you need to guarantee these wines’ll arrive in good shape and stabilize them.” “Well,” I replied, “that’s a commercial decision, not an artistic one.” Neither of us wanted to back down, and the other ten people were hanging on this, hoping, of course that it would escalate. The shop is called Quality House, it’s on 33rd street between Park and Madison…and they have an excellent selection of older vintage Burgundies. images

Moss Hart Celebration 4.20.14

I got to meet the son of one of my idols last night -Christopher Hart, Moss’s boy. Normally, I don’t approach people of renown unless I have something that can enrich them, but in this case I did: in honor of Moss’ 52nd birthday, Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz wrote and performed (on record) a 30 minute original musical of ACT ONE, patterned on Moss’s terrific memoir. And I have a copy of this mini-musical. Except it’s on reel-to-reel and I need to transfer it to CD if I want to  give it to Christopher.Moss Hart

The show was a mixed bag: highlights included David Garrison’s crystalline rendition of the tongue-twister TCHAIKOVSKY (from Lady in the Dark), Malcolm Gets’s charming, British-accented performance, accompanying himself on piano, of Cole Porter’s WHAT AM I TO DO? (from The Man Who Came to Dinner) and Montego Glover (pictured below). Her delivery of Irving Berlin’s HARLEM ON MY MIND (from As Thousands Cheer) was inspired and passionate.  TO BE CONTINUED –below you see Montego, David, Malcolm…and Lewis Stadlen, who portrayed a variety of characters, each expertly, in sketches from the revues and excerpts from the plays. The serious songs were handled by Kelli O’Hara and Victoria Clark.

Montego GloverLewis J. Stadlen

Bricktop, International Cabaret Hostess & Performer


I met Bricktop through Helene DeLys, who’d sung in her club in Rome. I looked forward to meeting this legendary figure, but I soon learned she took up all the air in the room. Everything she said was totally self-serving, justified in her mind by the dropping of a famous name. A sample monologue (which could run on for twenty minutes) would go like this: “Ernest Hemingway used to come in every night. ‘Brickie,’ he told me, ‘no-one can run a room the way you do. That’s why you’re such a success.’ And Mabel, well, Mabel Mercer used to tell me, ‘I won’t sing anywhere else, Brickie, because you make them listen’, well, that was true, if anyone so much as whispered I would give them a warning, just go stand by the table, you know, but they’d get the message, and in Paris, well, Cole Porter, he was in all the time,

        he wrote Miss Otis Regrets for me, you know, and he told me, ‘Brickie, you don’t have what anyone would call a voice, but I’d rather hear you sing my material than anyone else; did I tell you he wrote Miss Otis Regrets for me? Well, he did, he had a fight on the street with Scott Fitzgerald about it, and one night the Prince of Wales came in–” I will admit though, that as a performer she had something. I heard her sing Miss Otis Regrets (Hugh Shannon accompanied her) at the April in Paris ball. She was terrific. Her big number was called I’m a Little Blackbird, Looking for a Bluebird Now. She was great on the club floor, but God forbid you should draw her as a dinner companion. You’d never get a word in edgewise.

Deja Vu & the Firechief’s wife

She was the wife of a fire chief, she was introduced to me as Mrs. McQuayle. I don’t remember the occasion, but we were seated next to each other at some banquet dinner in Westhampton Beach. We didn’t have much in common, and conversation was a bit strained. At some point, recounting a story, I said, “—and I suddenly had a feeling of déjà vu.” “Excuse me,” she said, smiling, I don’t think I know that expression.” “Déjà vu,” I repeated, “like you’ve seen it before.” The smile bcame a frown. “What do you mean?” I tried to explain further: “Didn’t you ever have the feeling, for instance when you walk into a strange room, or turn the corner in a strange town, didn’t you ever have the feeling you’d been there before, that it felt somehow familiar, even though you know for certain you’ve never experienced it? Well, that’s déjà vu.” She blinked at me, as if trying to recall. “Doesn’t ring a bell,” she said.

The Power of Musigny


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My friend Les treated me to a fancy wine tasting in 1992, back when Drew Nieporent was running a restaurant called Montrachet in Tribeca. When I say fancy, I mean it, because admission to this event was $1,195.00 per head.

The evening was run by Daniel Johnnes, who had started as Drew’s sommelier and was now opening a wine importing business. Tonight he was pouring top-o’-the-line Burgundies, wines most of us would never have a chance to taste because bottles at this level were so horrifically expensive –not to mention rare. There were twenty of us, mostly men, seated at a long table in a secluded corner of the restaurant. Before each place had been set a dozen, sparkling glasses. The evening began with a white Chassagne-Montrachet from Niellon, a top producer, and you knew immediately you were traveling first class: the wine reached down your throat and embraced you, caressed you, as if your esophagus was being sexually stimulated by the delicious blend of honey and velvet. Two more whites followed, and then, about eight-thirty, we started on the reds: we moved through Morey-St.-Denis, Pommard, Clos Vougeot. “What do you think?” Les asked me, waving his glass, “Cherry or black plum?” I smiled. “Les, you’re always safe if you simply say, a mix of black and red fruit.” Les nodded slowly, sagely. We were into our second hour, and he was beginning to get a little snookered. Well, he could afford to, but I was determined to keep my wits about me and define every flavor, every nuance. I was keeping a legal pad on the table, making notes to share with my wife, Suzanne, when I got home. “Les,” I said to him, “it’s amazing how sloshed we’re getting, considering the tiny amount they pour us—now what’s this?” Mr. Johnnes had been announcing the line-up. Now he held up a magnum with a yellow-beige label: “Musigny, Vieille-vignes,” he told us. “Nineteen-sixty-nine. From the Comte de Vogue.” The waiters began circling the table, pouring perhaps two fingers-worth into each glass. As I tilted the glass to my mouth I shut my eyes, the better to concentrate. I tilted a small amount onto my tongue… …and suddenly the room dropped away and I was standing on a river- bank, under a moonlit sky. Across the river was a church with the squat onion-spire of a Russian cathedral, and I knew instinctively that this river was the Don. The air was cool and moist and the river made a quiet whoosh as it flowed majestically along, a few yards from where I stood. The grey clouds moved slowly above my head, and I was aware of a great feeling of peacefulness. It felt both foreign and comforting and at the same time it felt like dying. “What do you think, John?” Les’s voice broke into my fantasy. “Raspberries and black cherries?” I thudded back to reality with a jolt –there was the restaurant, the twenty men, Les to my left, looking at me quizzically. “Les, I…I…” It was actually difficult to speak. I had been yanked back from something immense and profound. And it was the wine, this Musigny, that had done it. I needed to tell Suzanne. However, when I got home, Suzanne kidded me about my experience (“You Winos, you’re on another planet.”) I explained the extraordinary vision I’d had, but she was skeptical. “You were drunk, that’s all.” This irritated me: “I was NOT drunk, I deliberately made sure to stay sober so I could record my impressions!” To avoid an argument, she finally acceded. I felt dissed. “Wait’ll it happens to you,” I chastised her. She was about forty years behind me in terms of tasting, so what did she know? To keep herself on an even level with me, she would, through the next two years, make a remark which bordered on the snide: “Oh, John here claims he can detect nutmeg and notes of underbrush in cream soda. Even when he’s drinking water, he swirls the glass.” My smile would grow tighter and I’d say to myself Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait.

And then we got to Paris. We’d saved our pennies to blow on one extravagant meal, and we chose Taillevent.

The restaurant is housed in a mansion just off the Champs-Elysees. There’s a feeling of expansive graciousness that you don’t get in any U.S. restaurant. The waiter was perfect: a smiling formality that let you know you were in good hands, without being overly familiar. Then came the wine steward: they were pouring something special tonight as a bar wine, he said -an Auxey-duresses rouge from the Comte Armand; would we care to try a glass? Well, I knew the producer was one of the best in Burgundy, yet the vineyard location -the appellation- was an extremely minor one, about the third rung up on a hierarchy of ten. But, if good, it would be a value, and save us the expense of a bottle, which, in this place, would cost a lot. “D’accord,” I said, and a moment later two glasses were set on our table and the steward returned with the bottle, carefully displaying the label. He poured, and we each took a sip. Mmm. Very good. In fact surprisingly so. In fact, there seemed to be a lot to examine in this, ha, minor wine. I sipped again, and looked at Suzanne, just putting down her glass. She was staring fixedly at the tablecloth, seemingly lost in thought. “What is it, honey?” I asked her. She didn’t change her focus, she spread her hands in puzzlement. “I hear an orchestra,” she said, with an expression of wonder. “It sounds like Scarlatti; shh, please, I need to concentrate.” Well, I had to hide my smile behind my hand. So, finally, I thought. It’s happened to you. Now we can communicate about wine…and perhaps some other things as well.


Being on Jeopardy: Thrilling, Disappointing.

JeopardyYes, I starred on Jeopardy -but not in the way you might think. First off, you have to audition to get on the show, and this involves the kind of cramming you haven’t done since college: can you name the provinces of Canada? (Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Quebec...any others? How about the Seven Dwarfs? Doc, Dopey, Sneezy…which President, aside from Lincoln and Kennedy, was assassinated?) Anyway, it took me three tries to pass the quiz, three trips in my Honda Civic through the Los Angeles haze to the studio.   I finally made the cut and was shepherded one Monday morning into a set of bleachers along with another twenty-five contestants. They tape five shows in one day and it’s your duty to sit there ’till your show is called. This means you’re watching two, three, four other sets of contestants go through their paces until you get on. In between the taping segments Alex Trebek comes over and chats. He’s as nice and personable as he can be. We watched show Number Two tape its three segments. As it happened, the final category on this show was Playwrights Who Are Also Actors -and the answer contained the names Sam Shepard, Jason Miller and Noel Coward. In the break, as they were setting up for show number three, Alex drifts over to keep us entertained and someone in the second row says, “I know who Sam Shepard is, but who’s Noel Coward?”  And Alex is right there with the definition: “He wrote comedies, the most famous is probably Private Lives -and he wrote songs. Does anyone know Mad Dogs and Englishmen?” Well, this pressed my button. Noel Coward has been an idol of mine since I was sixteen and discovered a volume of his plays in the school library. I can quote you Chapter and Verse. I stood up from the bleacher bench. “I do,” I said and launched into the verse:

In tropical climes there are certain times of day/When all the citizens retire to tear their clothes off and perspire./It’s one of those rules the greatest fools obey/Because the sun is much too sultry and one must avoid its ultry-violet ray. The people around me were open-mouthed. These were all folks from Laguna and Boise, Idaho. Nobody had the slightest sympathy for obscure Brit lyrics: “The natives grieve when the white men leave their huts/Because they’re obviously, definitely NUTS! MAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN GO OUT IN THE NOONDAY SUN/THE TOUGHEST BURMESE BANDIT/CAN NEVER UNDERSTAND IT  I realized I shouldn’t perform the whole number, standing there in the stands, it would take eight minutes, the song has four choruses! I also realized I was making a spectacle of myself. “I think that’s enough,” I said, sitting back down. Alex was kind enough to applaud, and my seat-mates followed suit, though only half-heartedly, I fear. They must have resented my raising my profile in such a garish fashion. Of course, after this display of ego, expectations were high for my performance as a contestant. But I’m afraid here I was a disappointment, most shamefacedly to myself -because I lost in my own category! Musical theater! The query was simple: this Irving Berlin musical gave Ethel Merman one of her biggest hits. The answer is simple, isn’t it? Annie Get Your GutObviously, it’s Annie Get Your Gun, and I was about to press the button (ahead of everyone, I may add) when it suddenly occurred to me that Merman had also had a giant success in Berlin’s Call Me Madam. God, which one?? And before I could ring in, my neighbor had beaten me to the punch. Shit! I’d nailed this! I’d been distracted by knowing too much!! Damn. In the unforgiving, relentless California sunlight I trudged back to the parking lot and my Honda. Defeated in my own field. I’ll never live it down -and I still haven’t.