by James Tuttle
Last Saturday night, my dear friend Lisa and I had the honor of attending the opening night of Bitchslap! in West Hollywood, in which my friend C. Stephen Foster plays Bette Davis. If that doesn’t sound gay enough, just keep reading.
The play traces the legendary rivalry between Davis and Joan Crawford, using gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as an entertaining intermediary, which culminates in the two actresses’ first collaboration on the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
I first met Stephen after doing a reading of his hilarious play Legends and Bridge that fictionally portrays down-and-out Davis and Judy Garland slumming at Crawford’s New York apartment as she tries to pitch a crappy Joan of Arc script starring the three of them. It’s really quite funny and would be playing on Broadway by now except that the only people who find it so hilarious are people very familiar with the lives and work of Bette, Joan and Judy so it might do better in WeHo, Chelsea and Boca instead. Gays and old people, what’s up with that?
Bitchslap! was written by Darrin Hagen, who flew down from Canada for the opening, and produced and directed by L.A.-based Odalys Nanin at the MACHA Theatre on Kings Road, which used to be known as a home of Shakespearean revival when it was called The Globe. I heard one older lady telling another older lady that it was “exact replica of The Globe Theatre in England” and I remember thinking, “Well, maybe for blind, stupid people.”
It’s a charming venue, nonetheless, for small, intimate shows. This play is indeed small with a cast of only three, but I’m not sure if could be called intimate with all the scenery chewing that goes on as these self-involved dames carry on about the struggles and sacrifices they faced as they climbed to the top of the Hollywood pecking order.
After their careers have begun to wane, they join forces on the box-office hit that became a cult classic. Those Baby Jane sequences with Joan and Bette backlit like shadow puppets are the best, fastest and funniest of the show. I had a hard time catching a breath in the scene in which, after many stops and starts, Bette finally gets to slap Joan, and wants to try again and again to get it just right.
The acting overall was spot-on. One or two opening-night slips, like Bette’s uncooperative cigarette lighter, are par for the course and are one of the most exciting aspects of live theatre when handled as well as they were this night.
Therese McLauglin captured Hedda’s annoying Mid-Atlantic drone perfectly and didn’t draw focus from the scene-stealing going on between the Bette and Joan characters, well played by C. Stephen Foster and Michael Taylor Gray, respectively. Taylor Gray was a bit more Crawford and less of the Mommie Dearest that has become the younger generations’ idea of her, yet it was also more drag-like, with the exaggerated eyebrows, shoulder pads and cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor. Foster focused on the All About Eve-era Davis down to the dress and hairstyle. His delivery was energetic and free and the moments when he was spitting with anger were some of the best.
If I had any qualms with this production, one would be that the video montages of the actresses’ work were a little long and too repetitive. The violence in the Baby Jane montage of Jane kicking Blanche on a loop actually made me a little uncomfortable. Also, after filming ends on Baby Jane, the ensuing Oscar race segment was a bit of a drawn-out dénouement, but it didn’t really dampen my enthusiasm for what came before. All in all, I’d recommend that you get your friends together, freshen up on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and catch this show, running only until June 17th. www.plays411.com/bitchslap
In related news (not really), I noticed that the MOCA exhibit “The Total Look: The Creative Collaboration Between Rudi Gernreich, Peggy Moffitt and William Claxton” just closed over the weekend. I regret that I didn’t make it down there because, by all accounts, it was like stepping back into Swinging 60s Los Angeles and that’s not a time and place I think of often.
I feel so familiar with the silent film heyday of the 20s and 30s that I’d might as well live there. I’m pretty clear on the Film Noir 40s as well. Even the 1970s Los Angeles of Charlie’s Angels is something I can picture, but the 60s seem like they belong to Twiggy and The Beatles, who are very much not from here.
It seems that Rudi, Peggy and Bill, though, resisted the siren call of London and Paris and chose to ride out the pop explosion here in southern California—they were all natives—though Gernreich had spent his early childhood in Austria. He was creating his avant-garde pieces in defiance of what he viewed as restrictive European fashion, Moffitt was modeling them and Claxton, a pioneering photographer of musicians, was taking her pictures.
It was news to me that Gernreich was one of the founders of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights groups, along with his then-partner Harry Hay. He then lived with his final partner of thirty-one years, academic Oreste Pucciani, in a modernist Hollywood Hills fortress furnished with Eames and Mies van der Rohe. Aside from all that, he is really best known for designing the topless “monokini,” modeled by Moffitt, which became a worldwide sensation.
Over the years, I’ve run into Peggy and Bill many times and, though they never seemed to remember me, I still respected their talent and vision. I was happy to see that a brilliant short film was recently made about Peggy and her influence in the world of Pop Art, along with a tour of her Los Angeles home that includes so many photographs and paintings of herself that I’m going to stop being embarrassed when people come over to our place.
As I’m sure you know, another of our national divas recently passed on to that great VH1 concert in the sky. Donna Summer’s “On the Radio” was the second album I bought with my own money borrowed from my parents that I never paid back, and I believe a couple of songs from that album are included in a remix that my friends, the fabulous Perry Twins, did to celebrate this great artist. Listen here and enjoy.