Liz Smith: “Sister Act” Raises Heaven’s Roof on Broadway

And more from our Gossip Girl: What becomes a legend most? Elizabeth Taylor knew!

“HERESY IS usually quite sophisticated, actually has meaning, and is to be taken seriously,” said theology professor Carl Trueman.

Yes, and it can also be very, very funny!

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AS THE week ended last Friday I was writing about my friend Whoopi Goldberg and the upswing in her fortunes. Then I went to the opening night of Whoopi’s own produced musical, “Sister Act,” and, of course, she was helped along by Stage Entertainment, the Shubert Organization, Disney Theatrical Productions, Joop van den Ende, Bill Taylor and Rebecca Quigley. This musical has already been produced and seen on the London stage to great acclaim.)

I just want to brag on the moment at the opening night curtain call when Whoopi herself modestly appeared onstage to congratulate the cast. It was thrilling. (As you know Whoopi starred in the movie version, which takes its tone from events in the 70’s.)

The Times critic, Charles Isherwood, must have a grudge against popular entertainment. So I am going to ignore his largely negative review and hope you will as well. I don’t want to burble on about this; I’m just telling you that “Sister Act” is a splendid production with fast moving scenery, imaginative costumes (ponder how you make a nun’s habit “different”), swift pacing from director Jerry Zaks, wonderful hot, and sweet and soft music from Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. The book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner with additions from Douglas Carter Beane seems to me an improvement on the movie story.

Let’s add of “Sister Act,” fabulous actors you probably never heard of before. How about a realistic “chorus line” of Mafia-type hit men, some fat, some unintelligible, some as fey as Michael Jackson. The “nuns” of all stripes are wonderful and the Mother Superior, award-winning Victoria Clark, completes the rosary. Then there is leading lady Patina Miller; she is to die for and even thanks her mom and grandmother in her credits. Heaven can’t wait and this show is heaven.

The musical skirts the lines of heresy and tastelessness when it comes to religion, but always neatly dances back across the horizon to heartfelt sentiments and rousing church music enlivened by rock ’n ’roll. The theme seems to be “Jesus is love,” punctuated with harmless vulgarity and profanity. (Probably Jesus would approve of modernization of a faith that sometimes seems stultifying.)

If you want to have a rousing good time at the theater and get your money’s worth, I’d say stop looking for Ibsen in modern dress or Brecht as the new god or any of that stuff. Go to see “Sister Act.” Then go to see something really silly like “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” Let yourself relax and have a little fun.

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SPEAKING OF going to the theater, here’s a tip: When entering, pause at the theater bar. And pay, in advance, for specific drinks for yourself and companion. That way, at the crowded and hysterical intermission, you can go to the bar and your drinks will be ready and waiting.

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NOW the memoirs and titillating tales have begun to trickle out in the wake of Elizabeth Taylor’s death.

The Burtons’ London chauffeur for two years kept a diary, his family says. (The man himself died a few years back.) Britain’s Daily Mail got the first peek.

The driver chronicled all the excesses, battles and insecurities that beset the famous couple even before they wed, during the filming of “The V.I.P.s” — and later when Elizabeth went with Richard to Mexico while he and Ava Gardner were filming “The Night of the Iguana.” The most poignant tidbit is Elizabeth’s confession to her staffer: “It’s ironic. I had two children with a man I didn’t love nearly as much as Richard [presumably Michael Wilding] but here I am now, and I can’t give him a child.” After the difficult birth of Elizabeth’s third child, Liza Todd, it was considered too dangerous for ET to become pregnant again — her tubes were tied. Reading the chauffeurs tale one wonders if they really should have wed at all?

A much bawdier, happier anecdote came my way the other day, from somebody who worked with Elizabeth when she was posing for her Blackglama “What Becomes a Legend Most” photo in 1982.

“Of course she promised to be on time, but we all knew that was a joke. She was extremely late, however. And already feeling no pain. She didn’t need the champagne we had on hand. But she drank it anyway. She was in a fabulous mood, very funny. But after a while she began to get impatient. Francesco Scavullo was taking a lot of pictures, and Elizabeth had posed in two different coats already. When he asked her to try a third one, she said ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake!’ She opened the coat. She wasn’t wearing much under it. And then she grabbed her bosoms and shrieked, ‘Fuck the fur, these are the legends!!’

“Unfortunately we didn’t get a picture of that!”

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MISS TAYLOR didn’t really need the fur coat offered by Blackgama. It is said she had at least 385 fur coats in storage.

10 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Barbara says:

    Ah Liz – the best tip I’ve gotten from After years of going to plays, it had never occurred to me to prepay for a drink to have it waiting for me at intermission. Fabulous. Thanks!

  2. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Who needs the books when we have The Daily Mail?  The real “read” is the interview Larry Fortensky gave them. It has left some of the proverbial “egg” on quite a few faces. Ironic that he had to turn to a tabloid to counter a tabloid story.  But then many “legitimate” media outlets ran with the “Deadbeat Larry Hits on Dying Liz for Cash” headline and probably didn’t want to admit they shouldn’t have.  Arianna Huffington among them but of course she will blame AOL.

    The interesting thing was the photos. The one in the snow in particular.  Without the makeup she was no longer “Elizabeth Taylor.” Her best “disguise” was always herself. Without the makeup. And the photo of the living room.  Along with the Van Goghs and Warhols, she had the junk on the bookshelves and tabletops just like the rest of us. But then somehow in a way she was just like the rest of us. Here and there. Without the makeup.

    The real legend was her mouth. Oy.  She could make a sailor blush.  But then she would cackle and you would realze she was Earth Mother. Just being earthy.

    • avatar rick gould says:

      Hey Baby–
      I read that article too…and I thought Larry and his sister were quite genuine.
      And I loved those candid shots, too. No longer the wow, but at 60 and everything ET had been thru, stlll recognizably Liz. And it made me smile to see her having fun being silly in the snow.

      Frankly, I believe his version of their closeness over whoever is running the ET estate. In her last interview with Barbara Walters, Elizabeth made some very sweet and touching comments regarding Larry and their life together. It reminded me a bit of Cher and her “regular guy” Rob Camaletti, much mocked as the “bagel boy.” Except he’s had a much happier ending. And he never wrote a tell-all, either. Which, to me, is very telling.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I was told “Uri with the Uzi” was still answering the phone at the house so I suspect no one is running the estate at this point but the estate so to speak. What was, as they say, ain’t no more.

        Sounds odd but I think Larry Fortensky was the high school sweetheart her mother never allowed her to have. The wedding may be have been just a “media event” in Oz but the marraige appears to have been quite a happy one. In Kansas. On the back of a Harley. The marriage fell apart as she fell apart and I believe Mr. Wow mentioned this once. Confirmed now by Larry Fortensky.  She decided to part friends and allow him to have a life at that point she simply couldn’t give him.  And friends they obviously remained.

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Rick…up till age 63, with the warpaint on, she was still very much recognizably LIZ.  After the first hip replacement, and then the brain tumor…not so much.

        I saw her once without make-up.  Back in 1981.  She was late (as usual) at a weekend matinee for “The Little Foxes.”  The barricades were up, the crowd was big and noisy.  Everybody had a camera.  The limo slides to the curb, the door opens, and out pops Miz Liz in her skintight jeans, high heels, sweater without a bra, cowboy hat, no sunglasses and a naked face. 

        At first I thought, “Where’s her face?!”  But then, as she ambled to the stage door (she took her sweet time this day)  I saw it–the perfect nose, the still-good skin, the immaculate forehead, the piercing eyes: blue/gray/green/kinda violet.  She was 49 and not yet face-lifted.  You needed to be up close to get the impact, without the fabled paint, anyway. 

        And then, just before she entered the theater, she turned to wave to the people across the street, hanging out their windows to get a glimpse.  Back went the head.  The flesh under her chin vanished and  suddenly, in profile,  it was the perfect face of her youth. 

        • avatar Baby Snooks says:

          I think you mean “not yet noticeably face-lifted.”  Sometimes the  body gets back some “muscle tone” when it loses the fat. And she was, well, fat. The face?  Not so much.  And so it needs a little “nip and tuck.” And she had a little “nip and tuck” before she hit the stage so to speak. She’d always had a “second chin.” But, well, the rest of the chins had to go. It was just just not as noticeable as the one later prior to the “dating game” which culminated in her marriage to Larry Fortensky.  And I suspect her face was not the only thing that was “nipped and tucked.” As for you recognizing the face without the face, well, you knew it was Elizabeth Taylor emerging from the limo.  If you’d seen her on a sidewalk, you might have wondered. But not really known. Especially during the “National Velveeta” period which may explain why she sort of joked about it.  She couldn’t have been happier that she could go out and no one knew who she was simply because no one would believe it.  I think some really didn’t catch the “Hi, I’m Elizabeth Warner. ”

          I always hoped secretly she had written an autobiograhy. A real one. And “had at it” finally with so many. Closest she came was last year on Twitter. With Arnie Klein. I suspect the “entourage” got an “SOS” from someone and rushed in and grabbed the laptop. Shame they did. She might have decided to “have at it ” with everyone else.

          Time will tell if it hasn’t already but I was told there will be no memorial service. Too many people she wouldn’t have invited at the end.  And so she didn’t want one.  

          Too many remember her fondly anyway. You knew Chen. And back then, well, to know Chen was to know her. You interviewed her.  She sent you a note.  She didn’t send notes to everyone. Somewhere along the way you touched “Earth Mother”  So she probably would have invited you and Liz Smith. But then like everyone else you don’t need a memoral service to remember her. Share the stories.  In all their glory.

          • avatar Mr. Wow says:

            Dear Baby…it seems silly to argue something so silly, but having already watched, in person, the Taylor face morph from 1973 to 1981, I’d seriously doubt she’d had a lift at that point.  She was much trimmer than her high Mrs. Warner years, but hardly slender.  IN comparison to the infamous squeezed-into-the-limo with Steve Rubell night, she looked great. 

            Her face was fleshy but had its contours back.  She had to keep that head high.  And onstage her throat was heavily shaded.  Sometimes she used tapes to pull it all up.   After Foxes” closed in London, it was Roddy who reportedly told her, “baby, it’s time!”  She had her first (to my knowledge full lift) and the results were instantly apparent if not terribly long lasting—the weight flucuations and drinking didn’t help.  Later, after Betty Ford, she had another “minor” tightening.  And still later, before the Fortensky wedding, the works with a new doctor. 

            But, you know–unless you’re under the bed.  (Chen herself disapproved of ET’s final round of surgeries, but…”you know it’s pointless to argue with her.”)

  3. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    I didn’t say she had a face-lift.  I said she had some “nick and tuck.” After the first visit to the fat farm. Before she decided to try her luck on stage. 
    She listened to Chen Sam more than people realize.  It was probably just easier to ignore her at the point Chen was not in the next room so to speak.  She was many things. Mediator and referree I suppose at times as well as secretary and then publicist. But always friend. 

    I called her twice to “referree.”  First time she told me to send the little Lalique fishes and forget it. The second time, well, all I know is I got the “Miss Taylor agrees with you that _____ were treated unfairly” note from the secretary. Which started World War III with my least favorite gossip columnist. More to that story of course.  Just not for public consumption. 

    I adored her. I had a friend who ran things for her for the other clients. Restaurants mainly and some art galleries if I recall correctly. Some tried to “trade” for “scoops” on Elizabeth Taylor. I was told Chen removed them from the Rolodex so to speak.  In the end, well, again, a friend.