Liz Smith: Woody Allen's Love Letter To Rome. Alec Baldwin and Penelope Cruz Sizzle in the Eternal City
“Well, only if you calculate it by Euros.”
So goes an exchange between Woody Allen, as a retired stage director, and his wife, Judy Davis, in Woody’s latest, To Rome With Love. (Ms. Davis is the driest, most delicious martini on the planet!)
ONCE UPON a time, Woody Allen’s name and work were synonymous with New York City. His most famous (and profitable) film was titled Manhattan. But even The Big Apple can go sour. After a fallow period, Woody reinvented himself, transporting his famously neurotic themes and characters to Europe — London, Barcelona, and now Rome.
Although Woody made a movie back in 1998 titled Celebrity which seemed to be his final word on the vagaries of fame, To Rome With Love surpasses that in every way. It’s funnier, more touching, more trenchant and doesn’t seem to be trying at all. This movie — four stories that do not intertwine, or even take place in the same time frame — is an effortless soufflé. It is unmistakably Woody, but not a throw-away. It’s the work of a master who still has something to say about fame, fantasies, sex and some eventual, haphazard sensibility. And as one audience member exclaimed as the credits rolled, “If I had my passport on me, I’d go to Rome right now!”
Aside from Mr. Allen and Judy Davis, the film stars Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Roberto Benigni, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page. I also have to mention the great (and lesser known) Italian actors Flavio Parenti, Alessandra Mastronardi, Antonio Albanese, Fabio Armiliato, Alessandro Tiberi, Ornella Muti.
Everybody is terrific. Mr. Benigni — who has annoyed me otherwise — is simply adorable as a man, who for no apparent reason, finds himself famous. But I have to give particular kudos to Alec Baldwin, as an architect revisiting Rome (his character breaks the cinematic “third wall” pushing the movie’s fantasy aspect) and to Penelope Cruz, as a pragmatic hooker. Alec is handsome and scathingly funny. But he has one moment toward the end, it’s a long close-up, as he observes a self-centered young actress (Miss Page) close in on herself and abandon Mr. Eisenberg. It’s a devastating moment. Alec knows all about it, in every way. All his cynical comments in the film lead up to this lingering denouement.
As for Miss Cruz, she is magnificent and should never, ever be compelled to speak English. Here, her entire role is confined to Italian and she soars. (Woody used her in a similar fashion in Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona. And she won the Oscar for that!) Oh, yes, already there are complaints that Miss Cruz, a Spaniard, should not have been cast as an Italian. Give me a break. She speaks the language flawlessly and I can’t imagine another actress doing what she does with the role.
This is perhaps Woody’s longest film, but it is also one of his funniest.
AFTER THE screening at the Paris Theater, a mob traipsed over to Casa Lever Gardens on Park Ave. The heat was so suffocating that Cinema Society founder Andrew Saffir stayed at the entrance to assure guests that the party was not confined to the “garden.” Inside, it was cooler, but only momentarily, as the room filled up. Among the perspiring throng: Jon Hamm and his Jessica Westfeldt … Debra Winger … Calvin Klein … Woody Harrelson … Mariska Hargitay … Dylan McDermott … Julianna Margulies … Joy and Regis Philbin … Simon Le Bon … Dana Delany … Judith Light … Linda Yellen.
Miss Light — who just won a Tony for Other Desert Cities — and director/producer Yellen are old friends and the two glamorous blondes fell into each other’s arms. Miss Light revealed her next venture is a jewelry line, and Miss Yellen talked about her coming Margaret Bourke-White project withBarbra Streisand. (Yellen owns the property and has written the script. Miss Streisand intends to direct Colin Firth and Cate Blanchett, who’ll play the famous photographer.) Tiny morsels of food were offered. Nobody ate much. A great deal of water was consumed, however.
Oh, yes. Alec Baldwin was there. He did not shout, throw a punch or pull down his pants. Though the latter act would have been understandable, given the weather.
The Hollywood Reporter and Piaget hosted this night. And even though our friend Roger Friedman felt it was too much of a rodent copulation for his taste, it was still pretty hot. In every way.
LAST SUNDAY, I went to see my longtime friend the comedienne, singer, actress Kaye Ballard in a one-night only appearance at Feinstein’s @ the Regency.
This event starring the 85-year-old Kaye was sold out and rumor had it that they were charging $200 for standing room only.
The room was jammed with Frank Langella, Joy Behar, Phyllis Newman, Rex Reed, Jerry Stiller, Mario Buatta, Polly Bergen and other “mature” souls, like me for instance, and the Tony award winning Broadway press agent Shirley Herz. (She has a theater lobby named after herself.)
Kaye evoked her many comic and singing mentors with memories of her peers from the ’50s to the ’80s, including — Jimmy Durante, Henny Youngman, Mildred Bailey, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Gypsy Rose Lee, Bert Lahr. and she told a very funny story about bombing in Las Vegas with the gifted Larry Storch.
After a particularly silent audience to a number Kaye had done, Larry murmured, “Charming, positively charming!” But last Sunday, Kaye slayed the New Yorkers in the room with her rendition of Cole Porter’s “Down In the Depths,” as sung by the late Mabel Mercer, as well as one of her comedy standards, “Teeney Tiny Violins Are Playing.”
This night at the Regency, Kaye was knocking them dead, singing with Lee Roy Reams and then doing a goodbye duet with Michael Feinstein — “For All We Know.” This touched our hearts.
I love Ms. Ballard who lives now in Rancho Mirage on a street named after herself. I first met her about 1953 when she returned to the U.S. after becoming a star in London. Eventually, I was sent on the road with her by a manager who thought she needed a guardian. She was costarring with Phil Silvers in a rowdy burlesque takeoff called Top Banana. Kaye fell in love with a dancing chorus boy and when I remonstrated that she was spending too much money and time with him, she deserted me in Chicago and I had to come home, tail between legs.
Nevertheless, we have remained friends and she is a one of a kind talent. (If you ever see a record she made with the London Symphony, called “Thinking of You,” snap it up. It was a Marlon Brando favorite.) Kaye Ballard taught me everything I know about timing, appearing in public, selling myself and raising money for good causes. Long may she wave!
This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 6/22/12