Friday, February 28, 2014

Ralph Kiner and Elizabeth Taylor

Ralph Kiner and Elizabeth Taylor

(from Sag Harbor Online, 2/28/14)

Ralph Kiner and Elizabeth Taylor on their one date.
RalphandDanny2Danny Peary and Ralph Kinter Photo: Carol Summers

Like many of you, I was deeply sadden by the death this month of baseball’s legendary Ralph Kiner, a Hall of Fame player with the Pittsburgh Pirates (and Cubs and Indians) and broadcaster for the New York Mets from their inception in 1962 to the present.  A baseball treasure, New York City icon, and an all-around great guy. Ralph was one of the first ballplayers I was aware of as a kid.  I loved his 1953 Topps trading card with his handsome face on the front and the impressive stats and bio info on the back that confirmed he was the postwar era’s preeminent slugger.  Forty years later he autographed that very card for me when I interviewed him for one of my baseball books and we became friends. In 2004, I had the privilege of collaborating with him on his autobiography, Baseball Forever: Reflections on 60 Years in the Game. 
Last Saturday, as I was eating a pricey smoked salmon omelet that, annoyingly, had almost no smoked salmon in it, at the Dockside Bar & Grill in Sag Harbor, I thought about the memorial being held that day for Ralph in California, near where he lived for years in Rancho Mirage.  I was unable to go but got reports from those who did that it was special.  I was glad to hear that our book was mentioned.  Surely, someone rehashed a funny story or two we included about his beloved post-game talk show, Kiner’s Korner.  I hope someone also recalled his famous date with Elizabeth Taylor, as arranged by Bing Crosby, then a minority owner of the Pirates.
People forget that when Ralph was leading the NL in homers for a record seven consecutive years between 1946 and 1952, he was one of the game’s superstars and gate-attractions, up there with Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, and Bob Feller.  He made $90,000 a year, drove a Cadillac, dined at every famous night club in New York when the Pirates came to town, and hobnobbed with movie stars in Hollywood when he returned to California in the offseasons.  Strong, good-looking, and classy, he got to know and even date a number of actresses during his man-about-town years.  He would unabashedly relate stories about them on the air, particularly when the Mets were losing.  The story of his date with Elizabeth Taylor was always in demand.  You probably heard it a few times yourself.  But a good story is worth repeating and so here it is again, as Ralph told it to me for our book:
After the 1949 season, I went back to Alhambra and stayed with my mother in the house she’d had built when I was in high school.  One day, I paid a visit to Crosby in his office on the Paramount lot, and my timing was impeccable because he asked me if I’d be interested in having a date with Elizabeth Taylor.  He explained that she needed someone to accompany her to the premiere of the Gregory Peck war film Twelve O’Clock High at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.  Of course, he didn’t have to ask twice.
By then, I had dated several women in the entertainment industry, though only one had any degree of celebrity.  Her name was Monica Lewis, and her big claim to fame was that she sang the Chiquita Bananas ditty “Don’t Ever Put Bananas in a Refrigerator.”  She was being interviewed, and when asked to name her favorite baseball player, she said,“Ralph Kiner.” So I called her up at the theater where she was performing and introduced myself.  After that we saw each other for awhile.
However, nobody I dated had remotely the fame of Elizabeth Taylor, and I was nervous about meeting her.  She was 17 and being touted as one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood.  After being a child star, she was on the verge of making the transition to romantic leading lady in Father of the Bride, as the daughter of Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett.  Life would imitate art, because before she turned 18, she’d leave home and marry wealthy hotelier Nicky Hilton.  However, at the time we went out—I believe she also dated Howard Hughes that year—she still lived with her parents in a small suburban home, and that’s where I picked her up in my Cadillac convertible.  I mention the car because it would play a major role in our evening together.
The premiere of Twelve O’Clock High was a star-studded gala affair with searchlights along Hollywood Boulevard and makeshift bleachers there for fans to watch the movie stars arrive and leave on the red carpet.  Of course, when we pulled up and got out of the car all the fans went wild for Elizabeth and hadn’t any idea who I was.  I’d hit all those home runs, but major league baseball wasn’t played west of St. Louis yet.  We arrived late, so I let a parking attendant take my car and thought no more of it.  We were the last of the invited guests to enter the theater.
When the movie ended, everyone filed out of Grauman’s and lined up for their cars.  One by one, the big stars were announced and their cars were brought up to them immediately.  They’d wave to the crowd and depart.  I moved to the front of the line and said to the attendant, “I would like my car paged, please; my name is Ralph Kiner.”  So the attendant paged “Ralph Kiner’s car.”  And Elizabeth and I stood there waiting.  Ten minutes later I inquired about my car.  Ralph Kiner’s car was paged again, but it never arrived.  Now I was really hot and marched up to the attendant and snapped, “Dammit, my car isn’t here and I’m waiting with Elizabeth Taylor!”  And he said, “Well, your chauffeur must have fallen asleep.”  And I said, “I don’t have a chauffeur, I’m driving myself.”  And he said, “In that case, your car is there…” and he pointed with a very long finger in the general direction of a huge unattended parking lot a block or two away.  So after hearing the bad news, Elizabeth, in her fur, gown, and heels, and I, in my tuxedo, trekked all the way to the parking lot. Then for a long time Elizabeth Taylor and I ran around this parking lot looking for my car.  Of course, I was embarrassed, but thankfully she was a great sport and didn’t put on any Hollywood airs.
Finally we found the car and drove over to Romanoff’s, where there was an after-movie party with a lot of celebrities in attendance.  I was sitting with Elizabeth when Louella Parsons, the Hearst gossip columnist who could make or break an actor with a few strokes of her poison pen, came over to us.  She said hello to Elizabeth and…she had no idea who I was.  We told her I played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and she nodded.  It so happened that the Pittsburgh Steelers were in town to play the Rams at the Coliseum that Sunday, so she told me, “I hope your team wins tomorrow.”  I thanked her.
 I managed to drop Elizabeth at her home without further incident.  And that was it.  I have vivid memories of that night, but if I ever need real proof I had a date with Elizabeth Taylor I can look it up quite easily, because it was written up in all the newspapers.  It’s too bad that night was such a mess because I never had the courage to ask her out on a second date.  In fact, I never saw her again except in the movies.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Zoe and Jenée on "The Pretty One"

Playing in Theaters

Zoe and  Jenée on The Pretty One

(from Sag Harbor Online 2/6/14)

By Danny Peary
The Pretty One opens theatrically this Friday, and it’s always worth noting when a new Zoe Kazan film is released.  I’d say no actress gives more feeling when playing underdogs than the immensely talented Indie star, which is why we always fall in love with her characters.  This was true two years ago when she played the lead in The Exploding Girl, a jilted young woman with epilepsy.  She deservedly won the Best Actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Now Kazan (who also wrote and starred in Ruby Sparks) brings tremendous sensitivity (and a lot of humor) to two characters with identity issues in Jenée LaMarque’s debut feature, a light comedy with a touch of sadness.  The two young women are identical twins: Laurel, a wallflower who remains home to look after their widower father (John Carroll Lynch), and the dynamic Audrey, who is a successful realtor and has men chasing after her.  When Audrey is killed in a car accident, Laurel assumes her identity as her way to cope with her loss and also experience being “the pretty one” finally.  She doesn’t even tell her grieving father that she is the one who is alive. Laurel moves into Audrey’s apartment, takes her job, and deals with all of Audrey’s acquaintances–including Basel (a bearded Jake Johnson from TV’s New Girl), the quirky neighbor Audrey detested but Laurel is attracted to; and her boss’s husband Charles (Ron Livingston), with whom Audrey broke off an affair. She then has to face the dire consequences for her deception. The following is a roundtable I took part in with the personable Kazan and LaMarque (who gave birth in August).  I note my questions.
Danny Peary: Jenée, I didn’t see your short, Spoonful, which is also about sisters and a death in the family.  So did this evolve from that?
Jenée LaMarque (pictured, left): It does share the sister aspect, and it’s sort of darkly comedic in a similar way. It didn’t come from it but it has a similar tone.
DP: Can you tell us a little about the writing process for this?
JL: This was actually the first screenplay that I ever wrote. I wrote the first draft when I was pregnant with my daughter who’s now five, so it’s been quite a journey. During the process, I went to AFI and studied screenwriting.  I wrote most of the draft of the script when I was in film school, and then continued revising and writing afterwards. So it was a long process. One of the wonderful boons for the movie was Zoe, who is not only a great actress and very funny but also an incredibly talented screenwriter.  She contributed a lot as a writer and storyteller.
Q: Zoe, talk about your part in the collaboration.
ZK: I asked Jenée for something which was above and beyond.  I asked her to sit down and talk through the entire script with me. We had the luxury of having the time to do that. I came out to L.A. multiple times and we would sit down and I would say, “Where did this line come from? ” Or: “How funny is this supposed to be?” Or: “Is this moment supposed to be sad?”  And we really talked through every moment of the script before we ever shot it, so I had a good idea of what Jenée wanted. And also, during that process, if I got to something that I felt was not going to sound right coming out of my mouth, I would ask to talk about it.  Jenée was great about making revisions and also sticking by her guns when she thought we could make something work or if I didn’t understand what her intention was.  We did a good job of balancing that.
JL: I think Zoe and Jake Johnson also had great chemistry and could improvise off one another. There are some scenes where the way they communicate is very playful.
ZK: She really encouraged us to do that.
JL: Yes, I really wanted them to follow the structure of the script, but along the way to improvise and make it their own. The moments that I find the most fun are those that I didn’t plan to happen.  The improvised moments are funny and real.
ZK: Having that freedom was really cool, because often first-time writers are really cautious about every word in their scripts.  I know that I was cautious with my first script for Ruby Sparks.  We always tried to do justice to the script, so it was never about trying to make the script better.  It was just about letting organic things happen.
Q: Zoe, because you were the screenwriter on Ruby Sparks, were you particularly attached to that movie?
ZK: Yeah, that was a very special experience because that was the first time I had written a script and I’d never been involved in something from start to finish like that before, and I was making it with my boyfriend [Paul Dano] and [the directors] Jonathan [Dayton] and Valerie [Faris], who’ve known him since he was a teenager.  It really felt like a labor of love in a different way.  But every time I do a movie, I think it has to be worth investing in completely and I need to love it like it’s coming out of me. I didn’t start writing because I felt I always needed to be in charge but because I felt like I had stories to tell.  I do that through acting, too.  When I read Jenee’s script, there were parts of me that I felt like I could address through her words better than I had been able to express them through anybody else’s words before.  I think Jenée and I both connected on a personal level to the loss experienced in the film.   I felt like that was a part of me that I wanted to be able to express.  That was a really cool thing.  For me it was about connecting to Jenée’s world.  She had a very specific vision. She knew what she wanted to do with the camera; she knew what she wanted in terms of tone. That’s something that in a first-time director is really rare.
DP: And did you connect to Audrey or Laurel?
ZK: I connected to the idea that these twins are sort of two sides of one coin.  There’s a kind of duality to both characters that was intriguing to me. Audrey is very forward and very confident but is also feels some self-hatred. Laurel is buried inside of herself but has creativity and joy underneath that.  I hadn’t been asked to do a lot of really sexy stuff on film before, and that’s a big part of my life–I’ve always been a really sexual person.  I went through a period of time when I was “sleeping around,” and I honor that part of myself, rather than calling it immoral.  And I was able to show the part of me that still feels like a gawky 13-year-old. There’s a part of me that’s never going to feel pretty, that’s never going to feel like a grown-up, and I liked being able to give life to those parts and say they’re beautiful too and  worth looking at.  I was just thrilled that Jenée wanted these things, and I was really trying to connect to that.
Q: Playing the twin sisters, did you think of other actresses who’ve done the same?
ZK: I grew up on Hayley Mills’ The Parent Trap because that was one of my mom’s favorites from being kid.  I loved that. And, well, Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap. She’s so good in that movie it’s crazy!  After doing what we did in our film, I can’t believe an 11-year-old could do what she did.  I watched a lot of movies for inspiration, including a couple of Jane Campion films.   Jenée turned me on to some videos this woman made of identical twins who are posed in the same clothes and the same place. Jenée gave me a reading on twins, explaining what it’s like to lose an identical twin–that was probably more helpful than those movies.
Q: Since you play both twins, did you find it hard to perform opposite yourself, particularly with getting the timing right?
ZK: It was really hard, we had to work on that together.
JL: It’s difficult.  It took three times as long to shoot the scenes where she was playing both characters. She acted off of a body double, and it was about trying to create a connection between the two of them. There’s a lot of math and calculating.  It’s challenging because you create a performance for one twin and then you have to do a second performance.
ZK: And if my body double did something accidentally with her hands that was in the shot, I’d have to match that in my performance. That was hard because it limited me, and I probably became a little Napoleon on set. Do not do that with your hands! Because you’re trained as an actor to be really generous with your scene partner and vibe off of what they’re doing, but I’d watch her with half my brain going, is that going to be in the shot? That’s kind of a challenge. I got so much better at the technical aspects of building scenes after doing that.
DP: In The Exploding Girl and this film, you play young women who underestimate themselves. Did that appeal to you on a personal level and did you identify with them?
ZK: Yeah. I have to put on makeup for a living, it’s part of what I have to do. I grew up essentially an enormous book nerd and I never felt I was the pretty one. I always felt like an odd duck. I think there are parts of yourself that you put away to become a grown-up. You protect yourself. But it’s really wonderful in your acting to be able to bring those things out. I’m not a very shy person but there’s a shy part of me and being able to let that part be is a relief. For instance, on The Exploding Girl, I didn’t wear makeup throughout that whole movie, I did my own hair and those clothes were mine. There’s a release in feeling that you’re not the girl and don’t have an obligation to be pretty.  I really felt that on this one. We all go home and throw on sweatpants and take off our makeup and put up our hair up and we look like opossums. There’s a part of all of us that doesn’t feel good about ourselves and this movie deals with that. Audrey went out and convinced the world that she was beautiful and sexy and an adult.  But there’s a conundrum because all those insecurities also exist in her–in us–so how do we reconcile that?
JL: There’s the side of us that feels insecure and scared and doesn’t want to take chances and believes we don’t deserve anything.  But there’s also the side of us that’s brave and goes out there and takes risks and maybe puts on makeup. There’s value to both sides.   I’m not saying that if you’re brave all your problems are going to be solved.  That’s not what this movie is saying.  I think women deal with that sort of duality and ask, Where do I fit on the spectrum of being a woman?; and Am I going to choose to wear makeup or am I going to not choose to wear makeup? I hope that people honor both sides.
Q: Zoe, what’s next for you?
ZK: I’m just writing a bunch of screenplays right now.  And, oh yeah, I wrote a play.
Q: What’s it about?
ZK: An affair.
Q: What about you, Jenée?
JL: I’m also working on a couple of screenplays.  I really focused on this movie for the last five years. It’s such an honor to finally be putting it out in the world.
ZK: I’m going to brag about Jenée for a second. After this film came out of Sundance, her script got put on the Black List and was a big deal.  I think, Jenée, you’ve had a lot of pressure on you, and now it’s really cool that you’re going to be creative again.
JL: Thank you, Zoe, I’m really excited about that.