Conductor John Wilson, Grieving for a Lost Star, “Stereophonic Sound” by Cole Porter, and Going Hollywood

It actually would hurt me, John Wilson my beloved, if you ever believed I think of you the way MacFarlane thinks of you—as more or less part of his gig rather than as who you are, which is to say John Wilson. Something I’d like to throttle him for but’ll probably go on watching the pre-2013 Family Guy anyway. Nothing personal against your chum.

John WIlson with MacFarlane

No, I lie, it’s personal.

About ten, no, eleven years ago the best friend of the son of my (now ex-) friend died unexpectedly in New York, and it was a shock to everyone. My own son, who was the same age, was a big, big fan of his—more than a fan, in fact, he practically worshipped this young actor—and was in tears that day. I texted my friend and we shared our shock and grief. Daniel Day-Lewis stopped an interview, sobbing, “I didn’t know him, I have a strong impression I would have liked him very much…and so looked forward to the work he would do in the future.” I’d so like to have witnessed this young man’s progress on screen and stage through the years myself. He was the new Brando—better than Brando, in fact, as he not only acted and directed but wrote as well. And he wasn’t even thirty. He was handsome and vigorous, he had a beautiful speaking voice. He was the most committed actor I’d seen on screen since De Niro in Mean Streets.

So there he was dead in NY. On the streets of Beverly Hills, some roving celebrity reporter from one of the gossip shows was out and about getting sound bits for his show, and came across Rob Lowe and MacFarlane. After some genial exchange of bullshit the rover blurted, Did you hear the news from New York? and without a pause went right into giving them the news. Lowe dropped his mask, truly stunned for a moment, and turned human, while MacFarlane drawled almost offhandedly, “We-ell, this is disconcerting…” And at that moment I started to genuinely dislike the little creep. MacFarlane’s an almost supernaturally gifted dealmaker, Stewie’s a pretty inspired animated character, and the guy seems to have a genuine fondness for the old styles…but that just isn’t enough for my scorecard. If you could say that there’s such a thing as a Seth MacFarlane Tolerance Level, mine’s pretty low I guess.

Anyway, I’m less ironical and more earnest than one would assume at first. And I tend to take things like that hard. Not exactly an asset around here.

On another note:

“Stereophonic Sound”
Silk Stockings, MGM 1957
Janis Paige, Fred Astaire
Rouben Mamoulian, Director

Silk Stockings was the last movie my old boss Mamoulian, aka The Old Man, ever did (at 60—he died at 90), and “Stereophonic Sound” is one of the numbers on John Wilson + Orchestra’s 2014 Cole Porter album. But watch the clip instead. Janis Paige is the focus in this number but Fred Astaire at 58 is still a joy.

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“Ask Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse If Their Mailbox is All Right”

Silk Stockings.jpg
Fred Astaire was 58 when he made this movie. Mamoulian was 60. Cyd Charisse was ageless.

“Red Blues,” choreographed by Balanchine-trained Eugene Loring (who also choreographed the ballet Billy the Kid, with music by Aaron Copland) from the 1957 MGM musical Silk Stockings, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, 1957. Mamoulian hadn’t directed a picture since 1946; after the Cleopatra debacle in the early 1960s, Silk Stockings turned out to be his last completed work in Hollywood.

In winter 1979, Charisse and her husband, singer Tony Martin (“Temptation“) lived in a house up the hill from The Old Man on Schuyler Road in Beverly Hills in tranquil retirement. However, at the top of the hill also lived the Shah of Iran’s 86 year-old mother, and came the revolution Iranian students from all over the Southland marched up Schuyler Road to demonstrate outside her house, indulging in a little vandalism on the way. Mamoulian was, of course, furious, and his lovely wife Zayde, who never left her bedroom, buzzed me on the intercom to fume over the “criminals” (her word) who toppled their sovereign letter receptacle. The Old Man’s second concern—after his own mailbox, of course—was the mailbox of his good friend and former leading lady, and I was dispatched to phone them at once. Happily, the protesters had missed theirs.

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Jake Gyllenhaal Sings “Finishing a Hat” by Stephen Sondheim from Sunday In the Park with George, Hudson Theatre NYC, 1 February 2017

That however you live
There’s a part of you always standing by
Mapping out the sky
Finishing a hat
Starting on a hat
Finishing a hat
Look, I made a hat
Where there never was a hat

Jake and StephenTaken by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (Waterland, Paris Trout) one Sunday afternoon May 2006. Steve gave me this pic the following month and he’s not getting it back. He just doesn’t understand what a good shot this is.

I know, Steve and I are still on the outs but his son sings this song so beautifully (no Mandy Patinkin like above though) I have to share it with you.

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John Wilson Conducts Oklahoma at the 2017 BBC Proms, Rouben Mamoulian Howls In Protest from His Grave, Part 1

It was a late morning about six weeks into my work assignment and The Old Man hadn’t arisen yet, so there I was in the salon with nothing to do except quietly wait for his appearance and his orders for the day (which letters to answer, which bills to pay, which people to call, etc) before getting down to the primary purpose of my being there, which was, in the agency’s words, “to assist Mr Mamoulian in the writing of his memoirs”. None of that memoir writing actually did transpire in the nearly nine months I was with him, other things did, but let’s not jump ahead. Unsupervised, I was forbidden to handle/read books from his voluminous library, but you know what? He never expressly told me not to play the piano, that big black shiny intriguing baby grand in the middle of the room, and I couldn’t resist. Could you?

Richard Rodgers Piano

There wasn’t a sound coming from any part of the house, although I could faintly hear Henry the daily handyman moving his wheelbarrow out in the yard. I’d had enough of examining in painstaking detail the boring watercolors and Russian icons on the wall. I sat down on the bench.

Sense memory kicking in… At that point it was the closest I had gotten to this humongous piece of furniture. I remember the smooth feel of the wood as I ran my fingers on it, gently lifting up the fall board to get to the keys. The piano was a Steinway. That is, I remember it as a Steinway, because I don’t remember it not being a Steinway. I put the fingers of my right hand down in place and began, ever so softly, to tap out the first tune that came into my mind, which happened to be the waltz from Carousel. Three, four bars in I thought I heard a rustle from the back of the house and stopped cold, put the fall board down and stood up.

This was the first time my eye was caught by something on the right side of the music rack, some sort of writing actually carved into the wood of the music shelf that lay flat in the cabinet of the piano. It was in cursive—and it was a name:

Richard Rodgers

It still gives me goosebumps to remember I actually did that. When The Old Man finally did get up an hour later, I was sitting back at my desk in his alcove-cum-office, pretending to read one of the cheap Hollywood magazines I brought to pass the time, although my mind was still on the bars I’d played and where the bars were going musically, and I think I was humming. I must’ve been humming. Because as he came into the alcove I heard Mamoulian exclaim, “Hey, that’s from Carousel.

I looked up. Caught! I was about to apologize when he spoke again, this time it seemed almost wistfully. “You know, I directed that.”

I said softly, as if it were an apology, “I know.”

At that moment our relationship started to take a different turn.

Part 2 “Agnes De Mille” here.
Part 1 On the Table: “Eugene O’Neill” here.

 

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Paris Trout with Dennis Hopper and Barbara Hershey, Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal, 1991

paris trout

Search the term “bottle+rape+scene+dennis+hopper” and you’ll likely be sent to this entire film, my former friend Steve’s second feature directorial effort (at 42, he’s 71 now) and Hopper’s purportedly favorite role. Bottle rape at 42:00. There’s a creepy, dreamy, nasty edge in almost all the sex scenes of Steve’s movies, something I think he picked up from David Lynch in imitation of the form—but not the substance—of Lynch’s genius sex-weirdness… Steve, you might remember, directed the 20th episode of the 2nd season of Twin Peaks. But no, nothing of Lynch’s great vision rubbed off on Stephen; ever a journeyman, he’s more in the same bag with those mediocre, cold “auteurs” of his era John Carpenter and David Cronenberg.

If we were still talking I would probably bring it up, but as he seems lately to have gone completely off the rails I figure it would be pretty pointless.

UPDATE 11/11/19—Looks like Steve’s getting me in hot water again. Check out these now-archived bizarre reactions to this posting in the Hollywood Babylon group on Facebook. These females and their insulting, sexist, racist remarks impressed me so much I used their names in my latest porn novel.

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Dylan Thomas, Rouben Mamoulian, and a Christmas Memory for My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor

22 December. 40 years ago in Beverly Hills I was sitting in the alcove-cum-office that I shared with my boss, The Old Man, Rouben Mamoulian. It was late afternoon, the Friday before Christmas weekend, and I was eager to get back home to my boyfriend Sol and our little room behind Musso & Frank. But there were a few more things to do before I could leave.

Mamoulian Queen ChristinaNot Oklahoma, of course, but Queen Christina (1934) with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. Oklahoma I’ll get to presently.

The Old Man reached behind him on his desk for a volume that had a paper bookmark in it and asked me to read aloud. I found the place and began; it was a poem I’d never read before, called “Fern Hill”:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

After I read the entire poem out loud he sat back in his chair with a dreamy look and, pointing to a passage, asked me to read it again.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden…

And here he sat up and whispered fiercely, “A cock on his shoulder…” And here he leaned over and, laying a hand on my knee, directly looked into my face and said urgently, “Yes, yes! That is what it was like! When I was a boy…” And I want to tell you his eyes were glistening a little bit when he said that but I’m afraid to be mocked for cheap sentiment. But yes, yes, The Old Man had tears in his eyes when I read him “Fern Hill”.

So that was his Christmas present to me (plus a few extra dollars Christmas bonus) and it’s a Christmas present I want to give to you, John, not just because I’m in love with you and want to give you nice things, but because I want you to know something about the man you made such a thoughtless remark about and why I need to spend the rest of my life upholding his memory and reputation.

Everyone else, a very Merry Christmas and Other Assorted Holiday Cheer.

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Mamoulian, The Drunken Woman in the Other Room, and Laura by David Raksin Conducted by John Wilson

This is what I mean when I say that John Wilson, Conductor has invaded every nook and cranny of my inner life. I hadn’t thought of Mamoulian in years until I recently came upon an excerpt of a concert conducted by John in Glasgow, September 2011. The program was Music to be Murdered By with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. (The BBC yanked that clip, but here’s the exact same arrangement in a better recording with The New Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by the composer himself and produced by Charles Gerhardt.)

azadia newman laura
Azadia Newman next to her painting of Joan Crawford for The Last of Mrs Cheney (1937). Azadia’s famous portrait of Laura (that is to say, her portrait of Gene Tierney portraying the character, Laura) hung in the Mamoulians’ bedroom.

“You know I directed Laura,” said Mr Mamoulian to me matter-of-factly one day as we sat in his alcove-cum-study.

Now, I had seen the movie Laura several times—on TV and in the art house—and I remembered practically all the credits, which included one for Otto Preminger, Director…but no Mamoulian. But here was The Old Man sitting knee to knee with me, announcing right out that he was (what’s the Variety word?) the helmer of that glamorous but nutsy picture with Gene Tierney.

So what did I do? I was twenty-three. I was on a job. I nodded.

He sat back, took a couple of puffs from that awful cigar of his and smiled wistfully. “You know, Gene introduced me to my wife.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” I said. That would be Azadia, who Mamoulian called Zayde (a giggle, as zayde means grandfather in Yiddish); she was a woman I never saw except once. She was always in the Other Room.

More later.

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