Imagination and the Secondary Art Market
Flan Kittredge (Donald Sutherland) is an art broker who puts together ad hoc partnerships to buy second-tier works by modern masters (Cézanne, Matisse) that he quickly resells, to the Japanese currently, in order to realize huge profits, all without putting up any money himself. He and his wife Ouisa (Stockard Channing) have three children away at school so they’re free to pursue Flan’s deals, which take them to society weddings and christenings, museum galas, luncheons, and such. This lucrative secondary art market has paid for a sumptuous lookout of an apartment on New York’s upper east side. From this perch they can look down into Central Park through a telescope, which brings to mind the 1932 George Arliss vehicle The Man Who Played God about an older concert pianist who goes deaf and retreats to his apartment where he gazes down on people in the Park through binoculars and sends his secretary out to solve their problems--financial, romantic, whatever. But Flan and Ouisa don’t seek trouble, it bursts in on them from the Park while they’re trying to charm two million dollars out of Geoffrey (Ian McKellen), a South African tycoon.
Trouble comes in the guise of Paul (Will Smith), a young black man who introduces himself as a Harvard classmate of their children and the son of Sidney Poitier. He claims to have come to New York to meet his father the next morning (he says Poitier will be in town to direct the movie version of Cats) but to have been mugged in the Park--stabbed in the side and relieved of his briefcase, which contained the only copy of his thesis. At first anxious that the intrusion is going to blow their suave pitch to Geoffrey, the Kittredges find that Paul’s charm actually clinches the deal. He saves them the trouble and cost of a restaurant by whipping up a meal out of nothing, and then by acclaim explains his thesis, which takes off from an analysis of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to become an exhortation to act on the imagination, which in his vision should not be merely a "synonym for style" but "the passport we create to take us into the real world."
Geoffrey, an anti-apartheid South African white, is drawn in by this black prodigy. So are the Kittredges, because his charisma works on Geoffrey, but also in a way that’s more direct though harder to define. They get the two million, plus a little more, yet we can see in Ouisa’s responses that Paul has cracked open another door beside the one into the bank vault. Next, however, the Kittredges insist on Paul’s staying in their daughter’s room for the night, only to find him the next morning having sex with a male hustler in her bed. It would make sense if after this discovery the unfamiliar door were to shut tight. And the movie, like the 1990 play it’s based on (both written by John Guare, spinning off from an actual series of incidents 1 ), begins with Flan and Ouisa frantically checking the apartment to make sure none of their valuables has been stolen and dramatizing their fear of having their throats cut. But Ouisa pauses for the stray thought, "Go to bed at night happy and then murdered. Would we have woken up?" which indicates that this is indeed by Guare and that disconcerting events will lead as much to comic revelation as to disaffection.
The Kittredges themselves might have chosen to forget the incident after regaling a circle of acquaintances with the details at a wedding later that day, but Paul keeps cropping up in their lives. They talk to other parents of children their own kids know who have also recently been visited by "Paul Poitier"; they are confronted by a young would-be actress whose life Paul has devastated by his conning and sexual adventurousness, and whom he told that Flan was his father. Paul keeps coming back--by report, in dreams, over the telephone, though never in person--and at every return provides the Kittredges with more fodder for spellbinding deliveries at their social-commercial outings. At the same time that the anecdote Paul has initiated moves toward completion, however, Ouisa is increasingly moved by the possibility of imaginative living that he represents.
Flan and Ouisa’s prize possession is a Kandinsky painted on both sides of the canvas, in contrasting styles, one "somber and geometric," as Flan points out, and the other a wash of lines and shapes and colors barely holding together in an "image." (The second painting, in which the figural ventures near dissolution, looks like a floral watercolor left out in the rain; in the first, the shapes register clearly but the import looms without materializing. The two are copies made for the movie of "Several Circles"  and "Black Lines I" , respectively, both owned by the Guggenheim in New York. 2 ) Flan spins the painting for Geoffrey as Ouisa explains the connected meanings, "Chaos, control. Chaos, control," a turn of phrase Guare wrote for the movie and which sums up the tension in the entire piece.
What Ouisa discovers by the end is that if the "control" that governs her life as Flan’s helpmeet can’t accommodate a random but intense incursion like Paul’s, then the control isn’t meaningful, and thus isn’t control at all but chaos which passes for control by numbing her to the reality of the life they’re leading. Paul opens Ouisa up to this awareness even as he unintentionally but by the same means drives a wedge between her and Flan. Flan calls himself a gambler but can deal with uncertainty only as long as he’s sure of the game he’s playing. The new idea of control that Ouisa envisions (training Paul as their apprentice, taking him permanently into their lives) seems to Flan, stuck in their previous outlook, as itself a kind of chaos. And it isn’t a question of their needing to break through class snobbery or racism, but, rather, rigidity and reluctance--the great inhibitors of comedy.
The Man Who Played God isn’t the only Manhattan-set comedy that Six Degrees brings to mind. The interaction of penthouse and pavement is an irresistible, much-employed theatrical idea about New York, assuming as it does that the rich have something material to bestow while the struggling can teach them how to live, how to enjoy both the simple things and the heaps they already have. In Preston Sturges’s original screenplay for the 1937 slapstick comedy Easy Living (as close to the model of Terence
as our movies have ever come) a banker throws his wife’s Kalinsky off the
roof of their building to punish her for overspending. It lands on the head of a working girl whose life is transformed--among other things, she ends up with the banker’s son who is in the process reconciled with his father. This kind of comedy as pleasurably as possible acknowledges and compensates for the way in which class society comes to resemble aristocracy. It helps create a national mythology in which the convection currents constantly churn so that the social layers can’t set.
Comedy and Disaffection
Guare mixes the masses and the classes, as they used to put it, with more self-conscious literary intricacy than anyone ever has in our movies, yet without sacrificing theatrical zest. It is altogether true of his work that though he writes against the limitations of the commercial theater, he also sees the life force in show biz vulgarity. Thus, I realized while watching his 1979 play Bosoms and Neglect that some of his one-liners aren’t as different from Neil Simon’s as you might expect. For instance, when the mother in Guare’s play claims not to have attempted suicide but simply to have reached for breath fresheners and grabbed pills by mistake, her son replies, "Nobody takes eighty-six Life Savers. Nobody’s breath is that bad," 3 which is pretty close to this line from Simon’s 1969 Broadway hit Plaza Suite: "My second wife, Carlotta ... She was keeping her Spanish guitar teacher ... I never caught her but she didn’t fool me. No one takes twenty-seven thousand dollars’ worth of guitar lessons in one year ...." 4 In Six Degrees Guare treads near social issues but with taps on his heels. It’s a gorgeous, quirky entertainment.
However, though Guare’s motive in Six Degrees is to provide a communal reconciliation plot--one of the eternal prime motives of comedy--there’s still more blending in the tone than that would imply, which means as much disaffection as comic revelation. First of all, he seems less optimistic about life for African-Americans in 1990 than he did in 1971 when he wrote his multiracial musical adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona. As Guare said at the time of the initial production of Six Degrees, "The most fantastic thing today ... is the lack of interest in the last 10 years. You hear people say, I want to put Bensonhurst behind me--meaning let’s forget it." 5 So when he has Flan say, "Bring back the ’80s," we know this is Guare’s anti-wish. (On the wall of his apartment Guare has a photograph of himself and his wife Adele Chatfield-Taylor with Ronald Reagan in which the President, demonstrating movie violence to them, "has his arm raised in a threatening position" against Chatfield-Taylor. 6 ) In Six Degrees Guare uses fantasy to diagnose (from a social-liberal point of view, of course) rather than forget the Reagan-Bush era. The prognosis is bleak.
Additionally, from the start we can see the fissures in the Kittredges’ marriage. If you read all of Guare in a row you can quickly begin to feel depressed about marriage. When Lydie Breeze asks her husband in his 1982 play Gardenia, "Why did we ever get married?" 7 it echoes through most of Guare’s work, from The House of Blue Leaves (1971), Marco Polo Sings a Solo (1973), and Bosoms and Neglect through Six Degrees, Four Baboons Adoring the Sun (1992), and Lake Hollywood (1999). The question is essential to his work, and shattering because in large part rhetorical.
Guare’s feelings about marriage also tie his work to A Doll’s House, the great precursor text he drew a moustache on in Marco Polo, neither one a comedy of reconciliation. Guare has an almost Oedipal engagement with theatrical naturalism of the kind Ibsen practiced. In his 1996 essay "The War against the Kitchen Sink" Guare objects to the representational Broadway drama typified to him by the works of William Inge 8 :
Great White Way naturalism told you indeed Little Sheba might not Come Back but don’t worry, we’ll learn from this experience and everything will be all right. I was beginning to see that Great White Way naturalism is to reality what sentimentality is to feeling. I was beginning to learn that theater has to get into the deepest part of your dreams, has to show you a mirror you might recoil from, but also show you reality so you might know what to do with it. What’s the best route to that place of our secret voices? Tennessee Williams wrote two one-act plays called Slapstick Tragedies. I loved that title. He showed one way to that part of our brain or our souls. The part of theater that’s vaudeville. 9
Guare is thus an experimental vaudevillian, as was Brecht (after Wedekind), but Guare’s humor from the ’70s on is freer, never didactic. His primary challenge to himself has been to see how much trauma and pain he can get onstage without violating the audience’s sense that it’s watching a comedy. (He can do it in a single line, as in the failed playwright’s comment in Rich and Famous : "I read about O’Neill and I think, Christ, I could have been a great playwright too if my Mother was a junkie and my father was a miser who ran around playing the Count of Monte Cristo all the time." 10 )
It makes sense--comedy is the literary mode of survival, and it’s appalling to think of the blows we are able to absorb, as if no experience could be so terrible it would quench our desire for more. There’s just a problem of significance. At the end of comedy couples assume their place in the restored community; for Guare, the lapsed Catholic, there’s a void where communal values should be. He is thus an ironist, trying to fill the void with collage scraps of fantasy, description, memory, analysis, confession, quotation, whatever comes to his creatively undisciplined mind.
The Ironist in Search of Form
Marco Polo Sings a Solo is Guare’s most brilliant attempt to make a play’s structure convey the intended uncertainty of his material. H.L. Mencken wrote of Ibsen that his
chief interest ... was not with the propagation of ethical ideas, but with the solution of aesthetic problems. He was, in brief, not a preacher, but an artist, and not the moony artist of popular legend, but the alert and competent artist of fact, intent upon the technical difficulties of his business. He gave infinitely more thought to questions of practical dramaturgy--to getting his characters on and off the stage, to building up climaxes, to calculating effects--than he ever gave to the ideational content of his dramas. 11
You could say the same of Guare, with two differences: it hasn’t always been clear that he knows he’s not a playwright of ideas (in retrospect he was surprisingly committed to political sloganeering in such early work as his 1968 play Muzeeka), and his notion of the practicalities of dramaturgy is far more impressionistic and wackier than Ibsen’s. In her review of Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980), from Guare’s original script, Pauline Kael wrote, with Marco Polo clearly in mind, "In a Guare play, the structure isn’t articulated. There’s nothing to hold the bright pieces together but his nerve and his instincts; when they’re in high gear, the play has the excitement of discovery--which you don’t get in ’well-crafted’ plays." 12 Currently he’s the dominant poet of impractical dramaturgy (a son of Thornton Wilder).
At the time of its first production Guare said that he saw Marco Polo "as a journey from childishness to maturity," defining maturity as "a creating of your own structure that allows you to flourish." 13 So I would guess that Guare’s hesitation about A Doll’s House stems from the fact that the end of this naturalistic play, which approaches the problem of the infantilization of women in bourgeois marriage, resolves the dramatic structure (Torvald exposed, Nora liberated) while leaving us with big questions: What will Nora do? and what about her children? As Elizabeth Hardwicke has written about this aspect of the play, "When the curtain goes down it is only the end of Volume One." 14 The play’s tremors don’t end with the play, but the apparatus can’t, or in any case doesn’t, employ them. The play is over.
In contrast, the incident in Six Degrees just keeps opening up, providing the suspense of whether Guare can bring it all together, circumscribe his ellipse. As Six Degrees plays out it involves more and more people, both those who’ve been involved with Paul and those who are eager to hear about him from those who have been involved with him, and suggests wider implications brought to consciousness through Ouisa’s reactions. This means that the cast list swells to a crowd at the same time that the play focuses increasingly on the relationship between Ouisa and Paul. Structurally it’s like some unexplained phenomenon in astronomy, expanding and contracting simultaneously.
To Guare, comedy has not been the genre of magically easy resolutions, though as everyone knows they’re entirely permissible in even the greatest comedy (e.g., A Midsummer Night’s Dream). However, in Six Degrees he is after a stronger sense of resolution. Not as a way to keep from disturbing his audience beyond the final curtain (as Guare said in the press, "We can’t go on living like this...."; "Life just passes through us. I don’t want life to just pass through me" 15 ) but as a way to show a heroic character living with the oscillations of chaos and control. You might expect it to be Flan, the gambler, but his game is to convert art into money and comfort, chance into security, and Guare is suggesting a transition in the opposite direction.
Ouisa is the focus because she’s despondent about the lack of meaningful structure in her life. She sees herself as "a collage of unaccounted-for brush strokes," "all random," and when Flan declares himself a gamesman she says, "We’re a terrible match," before, in the movie, walking out on his latest pitch at a society matron’s luncheon. (She walks out of the luncheon though not necessarily out of his life, but still, Flan is more of a Torvald than any other character in Guare’s plays.) At the climax Guare gives Ouisa a speech about not becoming "human jukeboxes spilling out these anecdotes" as she and Flan have been for the entire length of the play, and that speech does state something like the kernel of the playwright’s intended meaning. Guare has worked up his themes here and cannot leave us to piece them together from intimations as we must while seeing Marco Polo, the entirety of which finally eludes your grasp because of the very stylistic dash that makes it so thrilling.
Guare risks banality in Six Degrees by making his meaning more explicit, but the meaning is certainly one that fuses well with his aesthetic ideas. Perhaps because Six Degrees does not mark the theme’s first appearance in his work. He had dealt with it in his 1981 one-acter In Fireworks Lie Secret Codes in which a gay man at a Fourth of July party recounts how he and a subway car full of people laughed at a woman’s comic distress, and then sums up: "People back to the newspapers of their native language. Some people still laughing. Others no longer laughing. But the laughter had purified nothing. Our laughter had only helped anguish move into anecdote. (Pause.) Which I give to you right now." 16 The caution not to let experience harden into anecdote is itself a highly quotable idea, a potential jukebox number, but is also analogous to Guare’s desire not to confuse drama and dramatic mechanics.
As an idea this warning of Guare’s had changed in the decade between Fireworks and Six Degrees from self-recrimination for our behavior as part of "the crowd" to a plea to let the unexpected and undesired serve as a wave of a wand. Of course, the possibility of reimagining your life has, like it or not, a great destructive power. We see this in the subplot of Rick, the hapless boy Paul seduces. Rick doesn’t want to play the roles set out for him by his father but doesn’t know how to live as openly as he’d need to in order to keep up with the feelings Paul brings out in him.
We also see the destructiveness in the way it alienates husband from wife. This is clearest at that final luncheon when Flan is still doing business by talking about Paul while Ouisa can’t hide what she’s thinking and feeling. (Her seriousness embarrasses Flan in front of potential clients.) Ouisa doesn’t get to hang onto Paul, but Guare’s gamble is that the open, shifting theatricality of the play in itself spurs you to imagine what might have been if she had, or what other form Ouisa’s sense of contact with her fantasizing "son" could take. Walking down Park Avenue at the end, Ouisa recalls a moment when she and Flan used their connections to go up on the scaffolding during the restoration of the Sistine ceiling and an Italian workman encouraged her to slap the hand of God--not to worry, fresco is tough. This moment serves as a symbolic focus for continued musing.
Guare views the details of the Kittredges’ business, social, and family lives with irony, the hallmark of the comedy of manners. But though he could be said to satirize them, the sparkling host and hostess of a luxury ship of fools, he also endows Ouisa with pre-emptive satirical self-awareness. For instance, when Geoffrey offers to take them on a tour of his country’s black settlements she refuses, not out of callousness but because she frankly accepts her inability to affect the world for the better, and she has too much self-conscious good taste to want to be a tourist of misery. Guare is clearly alert to the possibility of falling under the shadow of Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic. The Kittredges decidedly cannot be accused of "pouring white soul all over the black movement," and Guare even provides a switch on Wolfe’s warning that limousine liberals who received black visitors had to contend with the racism of their own doormen. 17
Ouisa is charming and imaginative and self-aware, yet still in need of redemption. At least she’s capable of redemption, which is something, because Guare’s plays have no scarcity of nightmarish mothers: Mrs. McBride in Marco Polo who is a transsexual junkie who had herself impregnated with sperm saved from her previous life as a man (she’s Mary Tyrone and Christine Jorgensen wriggling in one big bag), and her recitation of her back story is followed by these stage directions for her son: "Looks at her and begins screaming. He runs in an ever-widening circle until he’s lost in the dark. He screams and screams" 18 ; Henny in Bosoms and Neglect who physically beat a former suitor using her small son as a club, filling the young man’s dreams with an image he assumes is a distortion requiring psychoanalytic decoding; Lydie Breeze who infects her lover’s son with the syphilis she contracted from his father.
The odd thing is that the children in Guare’s plays are often whiny wrecks who lack the vitality of their dark-souled parents. (In Six Degrees and Four Baboons Adoring the Sun the children become a chorus of stinging insects.) The child’s self-pity is never fully dignified in Guare, but in the conception of Ouisa, who becomes an ideal mother figure for Paul, the playwright is plainly administering to himself some psychic balm. What transpires between Ouisa and Paul is a mutual enchantment: he catalyzes the part of her that can respond to his call for more active imagination, and she functions as a fairy godmother, promising to help him transform himself into the child who, unlike the Kittredges’ own spawn, appreciates what his "parents" have accomplished (or amassed, at any rate).
Guare’s rescue of Ouisa from herself is linked to the fact that he idealizes Manhattan in Six Degrees more than in any other work. Certain preoccupations have recurred over the decades: the prankishly macabre alternative to grim kitchen-sink family drama; the fantastic playfulness with the themes and conventions of naturalism in general; his love of primal show biz energy, often exemplified by show tunes 19 ; a view of Manhattan as the temple of the arts (production, marketing, and consumption), which is at its most starry-eyed in Six Degrees.
In bringing the play to the screen, director Fred Schepisi has only amplified this: has there ever been a more dazzling movie set in New York and shot on location? The sites here include Gotham Bar and Grill, the Metropolitan Museum, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Rainbow Room, and a substitute for the Millbrook Golf and Tennis Club, along with outdoor shots on Fifth and Park Avenues. The toniness of the movie’s style also carries over to such democratic or low-rent locations as Central Park, the Strand Bookstore, and a tiny downtown apartment over a roller rink, without eliding the difference between the two levels. In addition, the Kittredges’ apartment interiors, designed by Patrizia von Brandenstein and built on two floors rented in a building at 86th and Fifth, show us how successful cultural players surround themselves with luxury to make an Eden of their garden (as Goethe put it 20 ). And the entire movie was put together for a mere $15 million (including a replica of the Sistine Chapel), 21 unbelievable considering the glow of money it exudes. Theater audiences had to make do without literal set changes; in defense of the movie Guare has said that "imagining a place and having it be real are one and the same thing," 22 and no movie has ever achieved that feeling more than Six Degrees.
But Guare’s idealization of New York is also open-eyed. As he wrote in his introduction to the published version of Two Gentlemen of Verona: "[T]he city is always the place you escape to, then the place you escape from, but, always, the place you come back to because it’s the place where the possibilities are. Granted, those possibilities are probably lies, but they are just possibly truths. And if the city is a battlefield, a battlefield is the place where, occasionally, a victory can be won." 23 For Guare, having grown up in Queens, in his words "never a borough with its own identity like Brooklyn that people clapped for on quiz shows if you said you came from there," 24 is a lingering taint. I would guess that he identifies with Paul the outsider, and thus that being black and homosexual, in this case, are in part metaphors for looking up at the deluxe apartment you don’t really belong in. This seems clearer when you know that Guare adapted Paul’s thesis on Salinger, which he later admits having borrowed, from a speech he himself made at a Spence School graduation in the ’80s. 25 At the same time Guare has fully imagined his way into that haven. The boy from Queens knows that self-fashioning makes liberation into a grander world possible.
Guare is a literary boy who grew up close enough to New York to go to the theater, which epitomizes for him, as it used to for many people, the cultural glamour of the city: his stage directions describing the lady producer in Rich and Famous read, "She is quite elegant and everything we thought the theater would be when we grew up." 26 He has also called the arts "the true heroine" of the city. 27 Both statements could apply to Stockard Channing’s Ouisa as well, who embodies the sophisticated mother whom the boy transfixed by the arts finds at long last.
The even more important implication of Ouisa’s being an idealized mother figure is her relation to Guare’s wife, Adele Chatfield-Taylor, the supremely socially adept daughter of impoverished Virginia gentry who since 1988 has been the New York-based president of the American Academy in Rome. 28 She has been credited with the "ability to maintain perfect deportment even under the most harrowing circumstances," has to go out every night of the week with people who can do the Academy some form of good, and has based the success of her administration on "uncommonly successful" fundraising, all of which could come off Ouisa’s resume. At the same time, Chatfield-Taylor is educated in art history and fine arts and historic preservation, giving her values in common with her husband. She has said of design that it is a "tool for knitting together a fragmenting culture," which is in essence the goal of Six Degrees, the title of which refers to a theory that everyone in the world can be connected to anyone else by a series of six acquaintances, thus using the word "separation" to suggest how all people on earth are actually linked.
What you see in the transformation of Ouisa is Guare’s own settling of a conflict, his own maturing process. Guare has said that the opening of Bosoms and Neglect, in which the harried son, a permanent analysand, confronts his maddeningly irrational and incommunicative Irish Catholic mother, "happened exactly as written, written down in a stupor on the subway ride home immediately after it happened." 29 In that play the mother is so resistant to introspection that the son can’t even tell her he’s in analysis, much less get her to talk about his childhood or her marriage. Ouisa by contrast is a surrogate mother who can respond to her "son" without even knowing his name.
Oddly, although Ouisa’s married life is exposed and imperiled by this turn of events, we perceive the extent of loving veneration of Guare’s wife in the portrayal. (As well as the gratification of fusing "mother" and wife. If we identify Guare with Paul then this portrait of Adele as Ouisa is distinctly taken by the artist from below, which is appropriate to judge from Adele’s mother’s response to the question of whether she finds her daughter "formidable": "Occasionally... John certainly does.") The transition from Bosoms and Neglect to Six Degrees indicates over time a symbolic shift from mother to wife, from the tough, superstitious old lady waving a statue of St. Jude over the cancerous lesions on her breasts to a cosmopolitan woman whose hope is symbolized by touching God’s hand on the Sistine ceiling in Papal Rome, home of Adele’s American Academy. (And remember, the ceiling is being restored in the play, a likely nod to Adele’s status as a "national authority on historic preservation." 30 )
Guare has written that in the theater he preferred "the great gesture delivered by the clowns [he] was lucky to see: Bea Lillie, Nancy Walker, Judy Holliday, Zero Mostel" to "the Actor’s Studio Strasberg brand of Stanislavski that sought perfection in the small detail of behavior." 31 But what he’s written in Six Degrees is, like Marco Polo, a full-length comedy set among the rich, which means that his high comedy meshes with the setting in a way it doesn’t usually. For instance, when Burt Lancaster’s Lou says of the past in Atlantic City, "The Atlantic Ocean was something then," you realize that Guare has given a bum a punchline of subtle wit. A slapstick audience probably wouldn’t even recognize it as a "line" at all. The difference between hearing this line from Lou and something like it from a character in the Kittredges’ stylish world is that Lou would never consciously deploy it as wit. The Kittredges’ world is the one that Guare himself has come to inhabit (Guare, who paid his wife this characteristic tribute, "[W]hen I met Adele, it was as if the Atlantic Ocean showed up at my door" 32 ), and his melt-away lunacies make sense coming from Ouisa and Flan the way they did coming from characters in 1930s screwball comedies featuring heiresses. They further lead us to expect mirror-quality gloss in the performances, and we get it, especially from Stockard Channing. (The daughter of a New York shipping executive, she grew up on Park Avenue and went to Chapin, Madeira, and Radcliffe. 33 )
Channing has always stood out in movies because her technique is all over the surface. You don’t get Method acting detail but old-fashioned theatrical polish. She always brims with more energy and alertness than her roles call for, and this excess of technique to the occasion has usually resulted in a queer edginess. She comes across as chipper, but in a way that does not convey mirth, with the sour trademark chortle of a cynical chipmunk. Putting it kindly, you could say she’s always generous with her technique.
Unfortunately, she hasn’t had the kind of roles that can use the technique, perhaps because her kind of showiness hasn’t generally been what audiences want from actresses at the movies. Intuitive actresses of her generation--Diane Keaton, Cher, Susan Sarandon, Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange, Debra Winger, and Michelle Pfeiffer--have tended to become much bigger stars, though none has half Channing’s theatrical experience. (Sigourney Weaver is the cross-over.) As technicians go, Channing is not boring as Meryl Streep is, but this means she’s lacked the placidness-as-guarantee-of-good-taste that has made Streep the icon, the fetish, even, of acting technique. In movies technique is not required: Pfeiffer can seep into a role that she’s wrong for, technically speaking, as in Frankie & Johnny, and make it her own.
It has been hard to imagine what role Channing would be right for because her persona doesn’t have the heft for drama, and movie comedies usually don’t require such etched definition. (The great Ina Claire had the same problem in the early talkies.) Channing’s indefinite status as a movie actress may be the cause or the result of her feeling that making movies is "never fun," "interesting, maybe, or difficult. But fun? Never." 34 Having seen the movie of Six Degrees you have to be impressed that Guare "made a financial sacrifice" 35 in order to ensure that MGM would cast Channing. His vision transcends the page and the boards, as well as Channing’s previous appearances on film. Ouisa, an unalloyed high comedy role (even her moment of slapstick confusion, racing around with a book on Cézanne and some gauze in her hands, requires intricate narration), plays to Channing’s strengths and then unexpectedly enables her to extend, shade them.
As her art-dealer husband’s companion Ouisa must play a tense game of doubles to perfection, but eccentrically enough to be memorable. Channing’s voice, with its lulls and swings of energy, is just right for a woman who has to cover the court in this way. It seems she’s not supposed to invest too much in any particular facet of personality, the stricture that finally splits her off from Flan, but still her personality comes through all along in her habit of spilling information to their listeners and of speaking private jokes aloud in the middle of a business pitch. Flan can cover only by saying, "Louisa is a dada manifesto," when what’s really happening is that she’s watching the two of them perform and can’t resist commenting. At times her insides are on the outside.
Ouisa becomes aware of the changes Paul has produced in her as they’re developing, and this is what softens Channing’s style. So when Ouisa gets the speech about "six degrees of separation," Channing brings just the right defensive note to the line, "It’s a profound thought," because it isn’t. It’s an intriguing statistic that somehow gives rise to the kind of whirling, imaginative speculation the play extols. And this speculative atmosphere is finally the one in which Channing can live and breathe on screen--her changes of mood and technique bear the movie from beginning to end. And she doesn’t just carry it, she juggles it, and at varying speeds, suited to the unpredictability of circumstances.
The movie has a special feel because it’s about spiritual resources but set among people whom we usually, with a trace of Marxist coarseness, don’t think of as needing, or sincerely caring about, such resources. After all, they’re rich, they own original artworks, they have plush living quarters (a real jewel box of an apartment, in tropical-fruit reds and oranges), they’re set. For those of us who have spent our entire lives awaiting the day when our external circumstances will match our internal responsiveness to beauty, this is particularly piquant. (I have the same response to the Central Park West interiors in John Koch’s paintings--Let me in!) And the desire to match internal and external aesthetics is made almost unbearable by Jerry Goldsmith’s silvery tango music, which just about filets you with its driving bright strings. (I’ve never wanted my life to have a soundtrack more than when listening to this music. 36 ) But what we see of Flan and Ouisa is the opposite--they’ve expended all their energy on the setting of their life together so that their original responsiveness has dulled. They now love the deals as much as the art. The external circumstances are, in fact, far more beautiful than the internal, and yet they’re decent people. What they value seems to have changed without their noticing it, and their kids at once see their shallowness and appear to us to be the result of it. But Guare isn’t selling cautionary puritanism. Flan and Ouisa aren’t punished, they’re just brought up short.
With the design and music and Ian Baker’s gliding camerawork Schepisi’s movie team has created the atmospheric beauty necessary to make us receptive in just the right way to this particular story. They’ve also hit on a moviemaking objective correlative for the way in which the anecdote opens itself up. In his production note to the published version of the play Guare states, "All I knew about the play was that it had to go like the wind," and that’s exactly the effect Schepisi and his editor Peter Honess get, cutting on dialogue between incidents occurring in the present and incidents being related after the fact. In the play version Guare had Ouisa and Flan turn to the audience, "To us" in the stage directions, and tell their story in direct address. In the movie, they tell it instead to the changing groups of acquaintances and potential clients they see at various gatherings, which in fact strengthens the thematic accounting of the toll that dining out on your experiences takes. And the intercutting is so wide awake and fleet that it becomes a means of wizardly comic timing, when, for instance, we jump to another couple’s reaction to being told that Ouisa and Flan have had the same adventure with Paul that they have. The text has a huge proportion of exposition--inevitable given the storyline--and yet the movie feels like it’s all happening, breathlessly, before you.
The acting in smaller roles really benefits from the overall popping alertness. Mary Beth Hurt and Bruce Davison as this other couple who, with their more pronounced disharmony, don’t get anything out of the experience, provide prickly contrast to Flan and Ouisa. They’re the bickering couple from Bergman’s Wild Strawberries reduced to master chef pinches. The intrusions into the story of Heather Graham and Eric Thal as the young lovers whose life Paul ruins are even direr but brief enough that the mood is faceted rather than shattered. What we remember is their air of wide-eyed hatchlings. Schepisi is able to make Graham’s reaction shot when Thal tells her about how Paul has exposed him to new experiences register as a sad-funny emblem of the ambiguity of what Paul brings to people’s lives. We get exactly the right amount of both secondary couples.
It is also happy to see Anthony Michael Hall again, in the small but key role of Trent, the young gay man who picked Paul up on the streets one night and ended up trading lessons in upper-class manners for sex. Hall has grown up and filled out since he hit the screen a decade before, and his luster has deepened. No longer a kid who’s imitating the style he’s seen on TV, he doesn’t play so wildly off the surface. Trent’s motivation turns out to be pat and moist, but Hall gives a distinctive shimmer to his role as a gay Pygmalion who can appreciate the waywardness of his creation. At one point, exchanging pieces of information about his friends’ parents for articles of Paul’s clothing, he says he feels like Scheherazade on a game show, and that’s about the perfect combination of fairy tale and connery to have set the incidents in motion.
I have reservations only about Donald Sutherland’s performance and even more so about Will Smith’s. Sutherland’s plummy pomposity when lecturing about Cézanne and Kandinsky suits the Torvald side of the role. However, Guare is a lambent jokester who has given Flan his share of laugh lines, and Sutherland just doesn’t have the touch for the dialogue, which is meant to both heighten and leaven Flan’s fatuity, for example, when Paul promises to get him and Ouisa and Geoffrey roles as extras in Cats and Flan insists that they not play felines: "It has to be in our contracts. We are humans."
Smith, as was made most obvious by his teaming opposite Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black, shows the limitations of charm without timing. Considering that he’s a pop recording star, he doesn’t even have that much flair, which is what Paul is all about. Paul’s desire to be someone else is so extreme that he expresses his emotional needs entirely in confidence schemes, most of which are ridiculously short-sighted. Yet it’s the most elaborate and far-fetched of all--getting the Kittredges to adopt him professionally--that works. (He’s a more sympathetic version of Krogstad, Nora’s blackmailer.) Paul is a tortured poet of a con man, but a tortured poet whose style is rococo in its nonchalance. His art is to channel an outcaste’s desperation into a pantomime of gracious ease and entitlement. Smith has nothing like the inspiration as an actor to convey these layers simultaneously. You don’t picture him at either pole when Ouisa says of Paul, "He has this wild quality--yet a real elegance."
Smith is probably as little tormented as any young star now. He’s at ease with his success in a way that suggests no self-awareness, no cost. And when you read what he’s said about the movie, for instance, about the moment when Paul kisses Rick on the mouth, "I tried to block out the homosexual aspect ... but psychologically, I just couldn’t do it" (they covered for him by having him lean in front of Thal, with the camera at his back), 37 you have to figure that he must have been the least important of Schepisi’s collaborators. About the best you can say for him is that his acting is such that you feel Paul’s ideas are just right for a callow adolescent. And to make sense of Stockard Channing’s being moved by a performance like Smith’s you notice even more the maternal qualities of her role.
"I Adore Fred"
All the same, a wide assortment of disparate elements work together in this amazingly sustained movie. And the editing gives it the effect not just of a circus act--can they do it, can they pull it off?--but of an entire three-ring circus--can they do all this, all at once? (It’s that combination of expansion and contraction, of scope and focus, again.)
No American comedy has ever been better designed and shot and edited (even brief bits of exposition, such as Paul’s preparation of the dinner, have been cut with a jigsaw), and yet you may not think of it in terms of Schepisi’s personality at all. Even the magnificent brio of the editing serves Guare’s desire for a fast pace. What’s especially unusual is that Six Degrees on screen remains a theater piece though it’s much more integrated into its locations than a mechanically "opened up" text. For all the movie’s incredible artifice of design, Schepisi preserves the sense of its proceeding from a single author as well as any adaptation of a major American play I know of. (Perhaps because he took the footage back to Melbourne to edit, far from officious studio execs 38 ; it’s even better than Elia Kazan’s 1951 Streetcar Named Desire because nothing was excised or altered for censors.) It no doubt helps that Guare wrote the screenplay himself (he did monkey with the play, especially towards the end) and that he’s a playwright who loves the movies. But the success is also due to the peculiar tact and sensitivity of Schepisi’s wide-screen visionary talent. Guare has exulted, "I adore Fred," 39 as well he, and anyone who loves movies, ought. Teeming New York-set comedies are my favorite kind of Christmas release--Tootsie in 1982, Moonstruck in 1987, Scrooged in 1988, and Six Degrees the best of all. Schepisi’s adaptation comes across as a gift from the two men inextricably, a gift so exquisite and so thoughtful you laugh out loud with pleasure.
- an actual series of incidents: This scam was perpetrated by a conman named David Hampton, and was originally reported in the New York Times on October 18, 1983. Guare is a friend of one of the original victims. (The movie musical Hampton said Poitier was preparing was Dreamgirls rather than Cats.) (return to text)
- copies made for the movie: Reif. (return to text)
- Nobody takes eighty-six Life Savers: Guare House 226. (return to text)
- Plaza Suite: Simon Collected Plays 553. Sometimes Guare’s whimsicality fails and the jokes become conventionally "boffo." Father Shapiro of the Vatican Public Relations Office in Chaucer in Rome (1999) is the most glaring example. (return to text)
- The most fantastic thing today: Harris 8. (return to text)
- Guare has a photograph of himself: Gussow C10. (return to text)
- Gardenia: Guare 10 (Act I, scene i). (return to text)
- William Inge: Guare also has on his wall a framed copy of a letter from Inge in which the older, established playwright refused to help the New Dramatists, a letter which reads in part, "Isn’t helping new dramatists a little like helping people into hell?" (Gussow C10). (return to text)
- Great White Way naturalism: Guare War x. (return to text)
- I read about O’Neill: Guare War 154. (return to text)
- H.L. Mencken: xi. (return to text)
- Pauline Kael: Taking 174. (return to text)
- as a journey: Hewes. (return to text)
- Elizabeth Hardwicke: 48. (return to text)
- We can’t go on living like this: Harris 8. (return to text)
- In Fireworks: Guare Baboons 156. (return to text)
- Tom Wolfe: 12. (return to text)
- Looks at her: Guare War 66. (return to text)
- show tunes: Guare showed up on the set of Six Degrees one night with a catalog of the complete songs of Irving Berlin (Gussow C10); he is into shows tunes enough that in Moon Under Miami (1987) the appeal of Fran Farkus’s raucous "blue" lounge singing far outweighs the political cynicism inherent in the fact that she’s actually J. Edgar Hoover in drag. (return to text)
- an Eden of their garden: The happiest if not most literal translation of the German "sein Gärtchen zum Paradiese zuzustutzen" that I’ve come across (Goethe 31; Book One, 22 May). (return to text)
- $15 million: Story 40. (return to text)
- imagining a place: Story 43. (return to text)
- [T]he city is always the place you escape to: Guare, Shapiro 6. (return to text)
- never a borough: Guare House 3. (return to text)
- Spence School: Michener. (return to text)
- lady producer: Guare War 157. (return to text)
- true heroine: Gussow C10. (return to text)
- Adele Chatfield-Taylor: All unattributed information about Chatfield-Taylor comes from Francine du Plessix Gray’s 1994 profile of her in The New Yorker. (return to text)
- happened exactly: Guare House xii. (return to text)
- national authority: "American Academy." (return to text)
- the great gesture: Guare War viii-ix. (return to text)
- [W]hen I met Adele: Gussow C10. (return to text)
- daughter of a New York shipping executive: Story 41. (return to text)
- never fun: Story 41. (return to text)
- made a financial sacrifice: Story 40. (return to text)
- The soundtrack CD, Elektra Entertainment 61623-2, inventively intersperses the music selections with excerpts of dialogue. (return to text)
- I tried to block out: Story 43. Smith has recently said that he regrets this act of sexual-aesthetic cowardice (Zeman 134). (return to text)
- Melbourne: Story 40. (return to text)
- I adore Fred: Story 40. (return to text)