Conversations with Mitchell, Part 1: Justin Timberlake, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Jill Clayburgh, Cary Grant, Don Rickles.

Mitchell and me. Years ago, in a photo booth at Lounge Ax, a grubby music club on Fullerton in Chicago, across the street from the fabled Biograph.

This is an interview that has been in the works, at least in my own head, for a couple of years. My friend Mitchell Fain, actor, director, circus performer, and Hollywood encyclopedia, has a vast wealth of knowledge and passion for performers throughout history, and it is one of the many ways in which we bond. We love to just talk about these people, and hash out why they are so unique and wonderful. I wanted to get him on tape. My idea was: to come up with a List of Names, names that I would not reveal to him beforehand, and then go through them with him, one by one. And so that’s what we recently did, in a series of phone calls. I would throw out a name to him, and ask him to describe said person in just one word. Mitchell then took it from there, as I knew he would. This is the kind of thing that turns me on, that makes me happy to be a part of this vast swirling conversation involving the entertainers throughout history, those remembered, and those somewhat forgotten. Mitchell not only is articulate, but he has a way of providing examples to back up his various opinions that made this a joy to put together. The names I threw out at him were eclectic and far-reaching, and I hope you enjoy our interview. Part 2 will go up in the next couple of days. Please, please, feel free to leave comments about your own favorites, your own thoughts, about these remarkable performers. Thank you, Mitchell, for playing along. It will be a great contribution to my site.

So let’s start with the first name I threw at him.


Sheila O’Malley: One word.

Mitchell Fain: Old-school.

I say that because he’s so multi-talented. He’s sexy. Unfortunately it shows me to be the dirty old man that I am because I thought he was adorable when he was in NSYNC and I predicted that he was going to become as famous as he has become, although people laughed at me. I feel totally justified, which is a pun on his album name, by the way. He’s like Hugh Jackman and Neal Patrick Harris. They all could have been working at MGM. They can sing, they can dance, they can act, they have a personality, they can do a talk show, they can do comedy, people like to see them, they make people happy. I feel like he’s an old soul old-school talent. He doesn’t seem to sweat it. There’s something very grateful about him. Of course, I’m getting a lot of this from Rachel [Hamilton – our friend who writes for Justin Timberlake], in that she says that he’s very grateful for the life that he has. He treats people kindly because of it. Which also makes me love him.

Justin Timberlake’s Emmy-nominated performance at the ESPY’s, written by our friend Rachel Hamilton, who is on Timberlake’s writing staff

MF: I think that we’re destined to be friends, that’s what I’m trying to say about it.

SOM: That’s really the thesis statement.

MF: I think we’re destined to be in each other’s lives.

SOM: [I am laughing.] So you liked him in NSYNC. That was when you first clocked him?

MF: I first clocked him when they were on Leno. Celebrity had just come out and they were doing “Pop”. I remember thinking: A, he was adorable, B, I really like the song, and C, he had a Michael Jackson quality. He was exponentially better than everybody in his group and I felt that he was destined to be a solo star.

SOM: What about him as an actor?

MF: I think I’ve seen everything he’s done. Depending on what he’s cast in, he’s more or less effective. He was really effective in Social Network because they cast him because of how we feel about him and what a rock/pop star he is, and so that was really effective.

He did some stupid movie called In Time which I didn’t like but I thought he was good in it. His best is Friends with Benefits because he’s utterly charming.

If you think about old-school movie stars – like, the difference between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Everyone thought of Bette Davis as The Actress and everyone thought of Joan Crawford as a Star. And that was true of boys, too. There was the serious actors, right? And then the men who were stars, Robert Young, Robert Montgomery.

They were charming. Were they the deepest, weightiest, rangiest actors who ever lived? Probably not. But we liked to see them because they were handsome and charming. Fred MacMurray is a perfect example. When used well, he was very effective, and when used against type, he was very effective, like in Double Indemnity.

But was Fred MacMurray James Stewart? No, he was not. Was he Robert Mitchum? No, he was not. But when used correctly, in type or against type, he’s welcome. And Timberlake is the same way. So few people have that kind of multitude of talents and also are allowed to do it. Neal Patrick Harris is another one, Hugh Jackman is another one. You know, it used to be – if you were a singer, you sang, even if you acted as well. Nobody thought that was weird. And then there was a period of time where it was super weird if you were an actor and decided to be in something goofy or musical. As if artists are only one thing. How many artists or actors or writers do you know that do 8 different things? We all do. We all can do a little bit of everything. Thats what makes us artists. He just isn’t being pigeonholed. My one complaint is that I wish he would go back and do some music.

SOM: I think he’s going for the movie star thing now.

MF: Which is cool, and he’s doing it right. He’s doing it stealthily. He’s taking cool projects, he’s staying in the mix. Maybe he will resist going the action-film route because he doesn’t need the money. He’s a gazillionaire. His body in Friends with Benefits, it’s so beautiful, I’m surprised he hasn’t been asked to do an action movie. His body is almost too much.

SOM: [I start to laugh.]

MF: Do you agree? It’s just a beautiful body.

SOM: It’s a perfect body.

MF: I hate him. I’ve gone to the other side. I hate him. I hate him for everything. I hate him for having it all.

On Lena Horne

SOM: One word.

MF: Angry.

SOM: Talk about that.

MF: It’s almost like she was the Mike Tyson of singers. There was always this idea that she might bite. She bit her words, and she bit her phrasing.

I read that beautiful biography about her, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne. It talked a lot about how she would stand in these clubs as a black woman who was considered pretty. How generous of the white audience to consider her pretty, right? And she wouldn’t be able to go in the front door, but she’d sing for these rich white people, and her friends and family couldn’t come in, and she was so furious that it kind of created her style.

She was angry about a lot of things. She was angry about the fact that she was never really given a role at MGM. All of her roles were AS Lena Horne. Well, not all of them – there were two exceptions and they were primarily black movies. But most of her movies, she was basically Lena Horne singing a song, which they would then take out when the movie played in the South. She was the link between Ethel Waters and Hattie McDaniel and the next generation, with Diahann Carroll.

And she was pissed about it. She didn’t want to be anyone’s missing link. She wanted to be a movie star, and she wanted to be a top-rated concert singer, and she got stuck in the middle. She was very angry politically, when she got older.Totally justified. She was labeled as a female Uncle Tom, in a way, because her career was based on a white world. Her credibility as a black woman, or a civil rights activist was called into question and that made her mad.

I think a lot of people get disappointed when they hear Lena Horne for the first time. They think she’s going to be a soul singer. And of course she had a soulful voice because she sang from the heart, but she was like Sinatra and Dean Martin and Judy Garland and Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney.

Lena Horne sang standards. She sang on the jazz edge of standards, but really, she was more of a pop singer. Not really a jazz singer, not a blues singer, not a soul singer, not an R&B singer. She was a black woman who sang the standards. Nobody else was doing that. You were a jazz singer, you were a blues singer – and she was singing Cole Porter. She was famous for singing Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Harold Arlen. She was also stunningly beautiful.

It was interesting because she married a white man, and then seemed to regret it. She regretted that she had done that because she felt like it took her credibility away. She seemed to die fairly bitter. If you want to get a real sense of her, watch her in Cabin in the Sky (1943).

Then watch some of her TV appearances in the 60s. Watch her sing with Judy Garland on the Judy Garland Show. They do two duets. They do “Day In Day Out”, and then they sing each other’s songs, which is really brilliant.

I think my favorite recording of hers, for some reason, is from her Broadway show The Lady and Her Music that she won a Tony for.

She does “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”, and it’s kind of a throwaway but I think it’s genius. She starts it off by saying, “I’m gonna sing this one …….. cause I like it.” And then she sings “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”, and it’s so good and jazzy and informed and sexy.

To me, that’s a real mark of her artistry, that she could take a lyric and make it very much about whatever her story is, and it didn’t have to do with the context, it had to do with whatever she was thinking about. That’s the mark of a great singer.

I love Christina Aguilera, and I know it’s a different tradition of singing, but she’s so busy acting like she’s singing, which she doesn’t have to do because she is in fact singing better than 90% of the planet. But she’s always showing us that she’s singing, and it’s like “Why don’t you talk to us about the story that you’re telling, and we’ll understand that you’re singing”.

SOM: One last thing about Lena: Could you talk to me about her gestures?

MF: Her gestures really are so unique, so connected to whatever she’s going through, but also really out there. Her gestures are less striking to me, though, than her facial expressions. She would do this wide-mouth to get the sound out, and her weird vowels. Like she wouldn’t say “there”, she’d say “thay-ah”. So if you say that, you can feel your mouth open – and it’s this open-mouthed A, even though that’s not really the vowel sound of the actual word. Her gestures were a lot of clenched fists, but her face – she sort of made her eyes huge, and she would scrunch up her eyes and growl. In a weird way, she had a tightness to her gestures, whereas Judy’s gestures flowed out, or Ethel Merman‘s gestures flowed out. Lena Horne’s was more of a clenched-fist gesture. In comparison to Shirley Bassey, who has the other extreme: the weirdest gestures ever.

I mean, really. And Bassey got validated for it pretty early in her career so they kept getting weirder and more outrageous. She stopped judging herself. She knew she would get great reviews if she did the wildest gestures that anyone had ever seen. I feel like Lena’s gestures were born out of anger. According to a lot of reports, Lena Horne could carry a tune but wasn’t necessarily considered a great singer at the beginning, and she developed her style while doing those club dates that she hated. A lot of her style, which became famous and sexy, was based on her fury.

The biography of her is really good, because it’s about her but it’s also about that time, and what a lot of performers of her time went through. She had a lot of support in Hollywood, except she felt very very lonely, because as much as they supported her they still didn’t have much to say to her. She wasn’t working with everybody like everybody else was. They supported her, they went to see her shows and concerts, but they weren’t on set together. That kind of camaraderie, she didn’t have it. There’s that famous black and white clip showing all the MGM stars having lunch. Watch it again and see that she’s not talking to anyone, and no one’s talking to her. She looks lonely, and beautiful, and stuck there around people she doesn’t know. That’s Lena Horne in Hollywood.


SOM: One word.

MF: Under-rated.

Here’s the deal with Doris Day. She was such a huge star in her day and she’s almost forgotten now, except for being a footnote to mean something about virginity or a 1950s or 60s throwback to virginity and fear of women’s rights or something like that. But that’s so not who she was. She was such an interesting woman. She was a movie star, a pop star, she had a great voice, she could dance, she could act her balls off. She was a triple, quadruple threat for many many years, a top box office star for many years. Imagine a top box office star now being almost forgotten so soon later.

Her singing was swingy and big band-y, but it wasn’t brassy, it wasn’t Lena Horne, it wasn’t Judy Garland, it wasn’t even Peggy Lee. It was softer, it was more Dinah Shore. Once the 60s happened, and the youth revolution happened, her day was over. I think that most people don’t know the difference between Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, Gidget, or Sandra Dee. They’re all lumped in together.

It is so unfair. Look at Doris Day’s work in silly musicals, Doris Day’s work in Hitchcock.

Here’s the deal. That Down With Love movie with Renee Zellweger which was an attempt to re-do a Doris Day movie is a perfect example of how hard it is to do what Doris Day did. Because Renee Zellweger didn’t do it well. And we really believe Doris Day. We think Renee is slumming a little bit, we can see her acting.

And watch those movies again, you don’t see Doris Day acting. You see Doris Day being this character. Those women were also, interestingly enough, often single successful working women. This was not a woman waiting for a man to take care of her.

SOM: What’s her best role?

MF: I think probably her best role that she ever got was in Ruth Etting’s Story where she played the jazz singer and James Cagney was her mobster boyfriend.

But my favorite performance of hers is in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. There’s a scene where their son is kidnapped and James Stewart knows it but she doesn’t know it yet, and so he secretly gives her sleeping pills in her drink so that she’ll fall asleep when she finds out the news so she can’t freak out. The period of time from when she finds out to when she falls asleep is masterful acting. Her fear and her fury at her husband, and the knowledge that she’s gonna fall asleep and she can’t participate, and how dare you do this to me – and she’s playing all of it and she’s playing it gorgeously.

That’s why I say she’s underrated.

Day’s image got tied to Pillow Talk. And here’s the deal with Pillow Talk: Nobody else could do Pillow Talk. Member that big argument we had with you and David and Bobby – we were talking about when Julie Andrews won the Oscar for Mary Poppins and she was up against Kim Stanley in Seance On a Wet Afternoon, a very Method dramatic performance. My argument was: other actresses at that time could have given Kim Stanley’s performance but nobody else could have played Mary Poppins.

SOM: It’s what I’ve been working on with the Elvis Presley movies.

MF: Exactly. There may have been better actors, but they weren’t doing what he was doing, because they couldn’t, because they weren’t Elvis.

SOM: And Elvis certainly felt like “This is the stupidest shit I’ve ever been asked to do”, he wasn’t wacky about it either, but sorry, Elvis, you’re irreplaceable in this kind of stuff, because you’re you.

MF: I can’t even think of any of her contemporaries who could do what she did. Even Debbie Reynolds who was the closest, being a perky blonde – not even she comes close to what Doris Day did. The only movie where you can see Doris Day acting, and it’s because it’s an over-the-top ridiculous musical and she was clearly directed that way, is Calamity Jane. But still, there’s that great scene, where she sings “Secret Love” out by a tree, and there’s this weird lesbian undertone to it, and it’s gorgeous. So in this ridiculous movie where she’s acting up a storm in this over-the-top way, she sings the song, and it’s the only famous moment from that movie, really – and it’s so real and so beautiful, and it’s a classic.

I think that she deserves another looking-at. There’s so much joy from Pillow Talk and Send Me No Flowers and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies or The Man Who Knew Too Much or The Ruth Etting Story. Even her TV show was so charming. She had a situation like Joan Rivers where her husband lost all of her money, and so she had to go back to work when she thought she was set. And she did this TV show, and she was gorgeous, and it ran for 7 seasons, and it was a hit, and then she got the hell out of Dodge.

And the only time she made public appearances in the last 30 years, was when she was there to support Rock Hudson when he announced he was dying, and for animal care and research, she was a big animal rights activist. And that’s it. She’s done nothing else. She’ll only show up if there’s a cause she believes in and that’s been 4 or 5 times in 30 years. She’s like Greta Garbo in a lot of ways. She made her money back, she did it with integrity, she did it with a hit TV show, and then out the door. I love that. Lena Horne left pissed. Doris Day is still reaping the benefits of the life she had lived, and I would love to see a revival of that kind of talent.

You know I love a soulful singer, but I think we live in an era where white singers think they have to sound like black people. Even Adele, or Amy Winehouse. And Doris Day made no attempt to sound like anything else other than herself.

And that’s out of style, too. It doesn’t take away from the fact that she was as good as anyone and as popular as anyone in their day.


SOM: One word.

MF: Awkward.

You know I have this whole thing about the 70s, and 70s filmmaking and 70s actresses. Jill Clayburgh, in much the same way Diane Keaton was, was so awkward. Even when she was playing women who were successful, she was still always a little bit awkward and unsure. She was this beautiful woman who wasn’t a knockout, she was a successful woman who wasn’t always competent. I think my favorite Jill Clayburgh movie is Starting Over with Burt Reynolds. It’s marvelous.

Jill Clayburgh got to be famous in a very brief window of time that was tied to women’s liberation. She wasn’t famous for very long although she continued to work. She made An Unmarried Woman, and Starting Over, she played the first fictional woman on the Supreme Court in First Monday in October.

She got to play grownups. She didn’t have to play child-brides or coquettish victims. She got to play grownup women with all of their power and neuroses intact, and not many people had that. Even Jane Fonda had to start as a sex kitten. Diane Keaton got to do it. The thing with Diane Keaton, of course, is that – not to take anything away from Diane Keaton – but she was Woody Allen‘s muse –

SOM: And Warren Beatty’s. She was tied to the two most powerful men in Hollywood at the time.

MF: She reaped the benefits of her incredibly interesting love life. Not that she didn’t deserve those parts, or that she slept her way to the top, but that the collaboration, emotionally, sexually, professionally, was fabulous, and she did it the way a man would do it. And she didn’t get shit for it. Like, “Look at Diane Keaton fucking to get a part.” She earned it. But that’s what Jill Clayburgh represents to me: the 70s woman. Diane Keaton, Jill Clayburgh, Jane Fonda… They got to play grownups. As the 80s came, and suddenly blockbusters came, and we had Tom Cruise, and Risky Business, suddenly an actress as beautiful and skilled as Rebecca De Mornay has to be a sex kitten for a horny teenager. We went backwards. Imagine if Rebecca De Mornay had become famous in the 70s. Imagine the roles she would have gotten.

Jill Clayburgh escaped that. She started in the theatre, she was in the original Pippin, she comes up on my Shuffle every once in a while. And then she went back to the theatre, basically.

SOM: I loved seeing her in Bridesmaids.

MF: She’s so good and so real. It’s so sad that she passed away, in so many ways. Because, of course she’s playing Kristen Wiig‘s mother. Of course she is.

In some ways, the character that Kristen Wiig is playing is the daughter of the neurotic “I hope I’m getting this right” character that Clayburgh played in the 70s. There’s a continuum there that I think is really great in Bridesmaids, and it would have been interesting to see her have that opportunity to play that in more dramatic parts. You know, play the mother of the daughter that she raised, in the Hollywood sense. There’s a daughter in An Unmarried Woman, and it would be interesting to see: where is she right now? How did her parents’ divorce and her mother’s response to it affect her life? It’d be interesting. One of the things I love about Catherine Deneuve‘s career is that she’s continuing to play interesting women who are the older versions of the women that we loved from her when she was younger.

So many of her films are about what it must have been like to be such a beautiful woman. It is a part of her character. In France, they still revere her, and they revere women of a certain age, and in America we don’t. Jill Clayburgh wasn’t Rebecca DeMornay or Tawny Kitaen or Kelly LeBrock. She was a grownup woman playing grownup women, but after that brief window of time in the 70s, there was only room for Meryl Streep.

Meryl Streep or Glenn Close but Glenn Close was sort of asexual in a lot of ways. She was either a sexual threat or she had no sex whatsoever. Except for the golden age when the studios made women’s pictures, there’s very little room for the female movie star.

In a world that caters to blockbuster fan-boys, using the Kelly LeBrocks of the industry … in that world, there’s no place for Jill Clayburgh.


SOM: One word.

MF: Did you say Cary Grant?

SOM: I did.

MF: [deep sigh] My feelings are … I’m gonna say complicated. My feelings about him are so complicated. I think Cary Grant … is probably … the greatest movie actor of all time.

Talk about never seeing somebody acting. And once you know more about him and you realize that he’s actually acting as another person … like that wasn’t even his voice. He got himself a new voice. Eventually obviously it became his voice, in the same way that I don’t have a Rhode Island accent anymore so I’m not putting on a voice but it’s not the voice I started with.

And, depending on what parts of the story that you believe about his sexuality and his marriages and his relationship with Randolph Scott, it doesn’t matter: he created an image. I mean, to this day, people say, “Oh so-and-so’s the new Cary Grant.” Cary Grant was acting in 1930. We’re talking 70 years ago. Almost 80 years ago, and we’re still referring to people as the “new Cary Grant”. Well, guess what, there’s no such thing. If 80 years later, you’re still trying to find someone to be the next so-and-so, there is nobody. It’s only him.

There was also a cultural zeitgeist – please edit out that word – there was a cultural thing going on that allowed that sort of suave thing to happen with Grant. Cary Grant’s influences – men like Noel Coward, Jack Benny – those types just don’t exist anymore.

Cary Grant built a career that lasted that long with that much integrity? That takes a lot of smarts. There are a lot of rumors about different people being in the closet or gay that I think are apocryphal but – and this is just my theory – I do think that he was with Randolph Scott on and off for 20, 30 years. Between their marriages, they were together, they were best friends and they were lovers.

Like I say, he’s complicated. On some level, he’s the ultimate closet case. And we’ll never know. Although the most telling moment was Betty White letting slip once on The View: “We all knew that he was gay”. She sort of got shit for it, but Betty White does not make a habit of gossip or lying. It’s not her MO as a celebrity.

So I have complicated feelings because how amazing it would be if he had left some evidence. As an actor, Cary Grant could be a buffoon, he could be dapper, you wanted to hang out with him, you wanted to fuck him and get fucked by him at the same time. He had such mass appeal. Men liked him because they wanted to be that suave, that elegant, that charming, and of course he was so beautiful that women loved him. He was the perfect movie star.

Like Joan Crawford was. In a lot of ways, Joan Crawford was the perfect movie star. I think she was a fantastic actress, but I think Grant was a much more consistently good actor than she was, but they both did something first, which was create a movie star image that wasn’t really who they were ultimately, originally, and then we believed it for 80 years. We still believe it.

When I talk to younger people who don’t understand old movies or that kind of acting that you and I recognized very young as a distinct and beautiful style of acting – what they don’t get and which I try to explain is that those actors were making it up. Actors now have a history of film acting to study, whereas someone like Crawford or Grant or Barbara Stanwyck, they were making it up because it was a new artform. Cary Grant was making up how to be a male movie star, and how to deal with lighting and cameras and movement, and all of that. They were the pioneers. And he perfected it in a way that still feels contemporary. It’s like Judy Garland. Even if you watch Judy in a period-piece like Easter Parade, her acting is utterly contemporary.

SOM: That’s my whole thing with her. My feeling is that her acting with the hourglass in Wizard of Oz is a precursor of Brando and Montgomery Clift. She pre-dates all of them. She is saying as a 16-year old in that moment: “This is where we are going in acting. And if you don’t do it this way, if you don’t go this deep, then you’re not doing it.” And she was a child!

MF: That was not acting, what she was doing in that scene. She was having a breakdown on camera, on cue, when they said “Action” and they had to do it 10 or 15 times, which is what we expect now of our actors. She was Method before there was a Method. And I think Cary Grant was doing that too. I think what Cary Grant was doing was what we now think of as casual kitchen-sink acting – so easy. It’s really very difficult to find him acting. Except maybe in his early movies with Mae West, where he was hired as a prop for her to rub her vagina against.

SOM: The only one I can think of is Arsenic and Old Lace and he was pushed into that performance by Capra. I mean, he falls on his ass in Bringing Up Baby on that olive and he does it totally deadpan and mortified and so real.

MF: Or when he jumps up and says “I just went gay all of a sudden” and it’s so real, it comes out of his frustration.

SOM: He was embarrassed by the performance in Arsenic and Old Lace. I think his taste for himself was exquisite.

MF: I think you’re right. I think his expectations of himself were very high.

SOM: Very competitive. An athlete, obviously. He was a tumbler, a gymnast.

MF: You know what I love about him was, he was a tumbler, yes. What tradition he came out of even more than circus was variety, and it was really the lowest form of entertainment. Eventually, vaudeville became excellent performers but most of them were hacks. Variety was the lowest of the lowest form of performance, like performing monkeys, it was a means to an end. That was the tradition he came out of. I’ll do whatever I have to do and I’ll become good at tumbling and falling down and doing schtick so that I can make a living.

SOM: And then he happens to be the most beautiful man who ever lived.

MF: I wonder sometimes if people who succeed on that level have the confidence of their appearance and it propels them forward, and with someone like Barbra Streisand, it was the opposite, and that propelled her forward.

SOM: I think this about Elvis, too. Anyone who’s at that level – John Wayne – there are people who become literally like stars in the sky. Not just the good stars of the day but icons who embody something for millions of different kinds of people. You can’t predict who that’s gonna be.

MF: That’s what I meant by the zeitgeist. You can’t have a new James Dean. James Dean came at a time – and in a lot of ways it’s true of Elvis, too. Elvis was extraordinarily talented but if Elvis came out today, would he even be given a chance?

SOM: He was touched. He was touched by something Divine. It had to happen and it had to be him. Also if Elvis looked like Bill Haley, would it have happened? Bill Haley was the star of the year before, and everyone thought rock and roll was going to break, but Bill Haley looked like a manatee. He wasn’t “the one”. “The One” had to look like Elvis.

MF: I was just talking about this the other day with a friend of mine and we were listening to a Broadway Pandora station. And something from Annie Get Your Gun came on. And so I was singing like Ethel Merman in the back seat and I was saying how interesting it was how that style of singing is so out of style now, and yet every great composer wrote a musical for Ethel Merman’s voice. Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Cole Porter. Jule Styne. They all wrote musicals for that voice, and she couldn’t get a job today.

These people came up in an era when it all worked out for them. If Barbra Streisand came of age now, I’m not sure she’d have the opportunity. Not in the same way.

SOM: She’d be working too much like these young actresses all do and so they dissipate their personas. They don’t take time off. They don’t create careers. They work too damn much, and they don’t work carefully. You don’t need a million colors, you need to be able to bring yourself to the screen.

MF: The thing about Cary Grant is: the fact that I have complicated feelings about him does not take away from the fact that I will always watch a Cary Grant movie. I love him so much, and I think he’s so brilliant and I can’t even figure out how he did what he did, and yet there’s a part of me as a gay man that thinks: What an interesting life that he led and I so wish that he had had a moment at the end of his life where he told the story so that we would get to reap the benefits of that information. He could have put it in a vault and have it not opened up until after his death. I just want to know what happened. I want to know what was going on in Greenwich Village and they were all hanging out, and then Hollywood called so they all went out there and had fake marriages. I think I remember telling you I read this great article about how people in Hollywood used to refer to Jack Benny and his wife as Mary and Mary Benny. In the Village before they all went out to Hollywood, Jack Benny was out. He was gay. And then he married this woman, and everyone loved her, and she was a friend, and then suddenly he was Mr. Old Married Man. So many of them did that and Cary Grant was part of that crowd.

SOM: And they didn’t tell on each other. It was a different time.

MF: It was a different time and I wish someone had written about that time. I wish somebody really in it had written about it. Not somebody on the periphery where we can’t necessarily believe every word they say.

SOM: When you look at Cary Grant’s vast career, if you had to pick a role that was your favorite, do you have one?

MF: Oh, God. That’s a really hard one for me. I really do like him in Notorious. I like him when he’s a little bit darker.

But then of course I love him in Holiday or Bringing Up Baby when he’s so goofy and sweet. I love him when he’s rakish, like in Philadelphia Story. And then I love him when he was sort of distinguished and charming like in Charade. It’s so hard to choose but I think probably him and Ingrid Bergman together in Notorious. That is the image for me of Cary Grant at his hottest. Him carrying her down the stairs.

SOM: Did you read the piece I wrote about that role?

MF: Yes.

SOM: It’s his best work.

MF: He’s so good in it. He’s charming, but there’s a dark side to his charm, which of course he does brilliantly, too. If I wanted to show somebody who wasn’t familiar with Grant a movie that shows him at his best- it’d be Notorious.


SOM: One word.

MF: Me.

To this day, he is my favorite comic. He makes me laugh out loud. He’s a babbling old fool at this point. Sometimes I think he loses focus and he gets laughs on his confusion and people think he’s making a joke and really he’s just confused. But there’s something about the tenacity of his personality … He’s this short funny-looking Jewish guy and he used that ferociousness. I am sure he was a son of a bitch. I am sure that his insult humor came out of surviving in New York as a kid, being short and Jewish, and I fucking relate to that. I grew up in an era of Prozac and Oprah so I took my anger and worked through it in therapy. I think he had the same thing and he worked through it and became a star.

I just think he’s so clever and so funny and he somehow manages to be the most insulting person who has ever lived. He is the only person who could say “fag” and it wouldn’t offend me in any way shape or form, and that’s saying a lot. And I’ve never heard Don Rickles do that much homophobic stuff, although I’m sure that he did. He lived with his mother until he got married at 30 or 40 years old. Loved his mother, lived with her till he got married, and he got married late, and he stayed married to the same woman. She and Don and Bob Newhart and his wife are constant travel companions. They’re besties. I think he’s the best. There’s something about him that makes me laugh the second I see him. His stupid bald head, his barking. The funniest thing is him on Letterman, he’s just vicious. He has no boundaries.

For some reason, he’s very familiar to me.

SOM: His tribute speech to Martin Scorsese at the AFI is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life.

MF: I have a tiny clip of him doing a roast of Barbra back in the 60s. And he was the emcee. He’s so funny. “So we’re here, is this your mother? Listen, you have a dummy for a daughter. She made it and now everyone’s schmeckling her. She’s a dummy. Basically, she’s a dummy.” It’s so funny. There are no sacred cows to him, and yet I think really that everything is a sacred cow to him, and that’s what’s funny.

SOM: At the end of the speech, he brings up Martin Scorsese’s mother and he lets his heart out. He’s a patriarch, in a way.

MF: It’s the same thing, with Barbra. At the end, he sort of concludes by saying, of course he’s joking, and he’s honored to be there, and to see all the amazing people there, what an honor it is for me to be here. He sort of always brings it back around. It would have been interesting if he had been given more acting roles. Obviously he didn’t have the time for it, because he had a busy career, but it would have been interesting if he had been used in different ways, in the way that Scorsese used him.

I mean, he did a lot of movies but they were often forgettable. I can’t even see him without starting to laugh. Some people just have funny bones. Don Rickles has funny bones.

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30 Responses to Conversations with Mitchell, Part 1: Justin Timberlake, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Jill Clayburgh, Cary Grant, Don Rickles.

  1. JessicaR says:

    I like and I don’t like JT. I hate the word overrated so I won’t use it. I’ll just say that I think he’s good. But I look at somebody like Tom Hardy and he just knocks my socks off. I think JT has a limit he can go to and no further, which is not to say that when he’s used well he isn’t very good. Just that Hardy to me all the fascinating contradictions of JT without the sense of trying too hard JT sometimes gives off.

    Tom Hardy has that old school rakish charm, a beautiful body, and that odd, appealing feminine sense about him. That by not be afraid to be gentle he’s one of the few real Men currently around in Hollywood. There’s a streak of insecurity I see in JT, that he wouldn’t allow himself that gentleness, that openness. He has to reassure the audience and himself of his masculinity. He doesn’t have that ease that Elvis did in inhabiting both male and female associated traits.

  2. sheila says:

    Jessica – I think your comparison is off. I think Hardy is in a different “tradition” than Timberlake.

    Hardy is in the Brando tradition, and Timberlake is in the Dean Martin tradition. He’s an old-school performer who wants to be entertaining and pleasing – and there’s not as much place in the industry these days for such folks. It’s a vanished tradition in many respects. Time will tell if Timberlake’s career develops into something more lasting. I think he’s on the right track.

  3. JessicaR says:

    I definitely can see him, JT, finding his groove in movies. Either in eye catching character parts, or “pretty boy” roles that have some thought and teeth to to them like in FWB.

  4. sheila says:

    Jessica – he is certainly the type of guy who needs the right type of material!

  5. Vanwall says:

    Astute observations all. When I was a kid, Doris Day was scarily ubiquitous, along with Julie Andrews, and I developed an ingrained resistance to them, and others of their ilk, (and I don’t mean that in a mean way now, but back then I had that thought in my mind – ilk was a good word for it, I thought) but then I’m watching TV and “Young Man With a Horn” was on and holy cats, I was amazed at Day’s abilities, and I began listening to her early singing, which I much prefer. I had a thing about musicals, and I still don’t watch too many, but the second nail in the coffin of my indifference to Day was a movie touted as a comedy with songs by the local TV programmer (TV Guide was my mapbook to film, I’d mark it up with what I wanted to watch) and I watched “Romance on the High Seas”, mostly because of Oscar Levant and Jack Carson. More than holy cats, sheer awe at Doris Day. Then later I found out it was her first role, cripesamighty, she was good right outta the gate.

    My favorite Cary Grant discovery was a radio play version of “Shadow of a Doubt”, where he plays Uncle Charlie – talk about against type. but great stuff. Plus, when I was a kid, (most of my film viewing has been over the airwaves from way back) I’m watching”Mr. Lucky” and, shit! – he stomps Paul Stewart’s brains in, (off-camera of course) but the look on his face of final judgement and a kind of satisfaction, was terribly frightening for a little kid watching alone. “Notorious” brings home something for me – he had a dark streak sometimes that was his alone, but Grant was always Cary Grant, even then.

    Don Rickles was also ubiquitous back then, too, but not scarily – he’s comfortingly real-seeming, mostly because my group of friends have always been kinda like him. That may say a lot more about me, but he’s like a walking Mad magazine, but with a sharper knife edge. I kinda like that.

    Great post, can’t wait for part the second.

    • sheila says:

      Vanwall – Mr. Lucky! I LOVE Mr. Lucky. I love the scene in the church, too, when he realizes the error of his ways. All in that quiet dark closeup. Very dark film, isn’t it?

      And thanks for your memories about Doris Day. I think “ilk” is probably a good word! I did not grow up when she was ubiquitous although her movies were always playing on Saturday afternoon television, so I saw all of them, or many of them!

      I love those people who make it look so easy that they are constantly under-rated. Doris Day still has not gotten the revival she deserves. I think America likes to pretend it is more sophisticated now – you know, the whole snotty Baby Boomer attitude (“we threw out our parents’ world of the stuffy 50s, aren’t we special”) … so we are “above” Doris Day or something like that – so there is still some resistance to dealing with the vast-ness of her talent, how all-encompassing it was.

      Part 2 will be up in a couple days. It takes me a long time to track down clips, etc. I want to do more of these with Mitchell!

      • Vanwall says:

        Mr. Lucky was always a woman’s gangster film to me, even as a kid – it was a bit too nice, but it had those flashes of dark, like the killing, every so often, true. I always remembered “lady from Bristol”, tho, which is funny, Grant’s from Bristol. I always thought that Greek letter was a smooth piece of propaganda, very effective.

        You cannot imagine the horror, the horror of music classes back then – everything was Very Recent Doris Day, Poppins, Sound of Music, or West Side Story. The overkill killed my tolerance for years. Thank the saints my grade school had a special Ragtime band, we could at least hear something not “contemporary” – as seen by creepy adults. R&R or Blues? Qel horreur! It was the time of non-relevance in schools – political, sexual, musical, literarical, (zat a word? is now) and the asexual music – that wasn’t that when it was new – had become the only accepted sounds in class. Once we had a twist party at a girl’s house in 5th grade – mixed genders! rubbing and grinding! KISSING! – Heaven Forfend we bring that kind of record into class for a share. I’m not kidding.

        I still remember even in HS it wasn’t allowed to be too edgy or contemporary. In one English class we finally broke the chains, tho, because of an interested and interesting teacher: she had us do write-ups on nonsense words in songs – the Do bee, do bee, do papers – and such like, and when we had to do a multi-media presentation, I read the bowdlerized “Ivan Skavinsky Skavar” in Class, then played a taped version of a group of us, some a bit high, sing the original scatological version. Teach gave a me a hard look, but she knew the rest of the class prolly didn’t understand the anachronistic fuck words and other, ahem, words, and the sounds of glasses clinking were surely filled with soda, not beer…wink, wink. Next day brought a Mothers of Invention paper and LP record by a pal, and by the end, the school outsiders were doing a physical reading of Jim Morrison’s “Lizard King.” Yay for us!

        It’s funny, too, because that was right after the time I’d learned to appreciate Day, and a skiddilion other big band and older pop music stylists. ‘Course, if I’d been with the In Crowd, I’d prolly never thought about other possibilities. Thank Favog for being an outsider.

        • sheila says:

          Vanwall – Fascinating references, fascinating glimpse into your time, your background.

          Yes, Mr. Lucky – with the knitting gangsters! Ridiculous!

          I love when he pulls a U-turn on the bridge and goes back to barge into her house and kiss her again. And yes, his whole Cockney rhyming thing, which was so just Cary Grant putting his own background into this film – which he did a lot. I love that.

  6. jennchez says:

    Very much looking forward to part 2 of this post. I would love to hear his take on Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck too of course :)

    • sheila says:

      Jennchez – I was considering asking him about Arthur and Stanwyck … So many names to choose from!! I’ll definitely do more of these if Mitchell is up for it. Anyway, it’s a great excuse to chat on the phone with him for a couple of hours.

  7. Milt says:

    Very interesting and enjoyable discussion. I definitely agree about Doris Day. One of my favorite movies of hers was Teacher’s Pet, one of Clark Gable’s last movies. She’s a journalism teacher at Columbia University and he’s an old school newspaperman. There’s a lot of funny banter between them and the movie has some interesting, intelligent things to say about journalism.

  8. alli says:

    Even though I don’t really get all the references I don’t think there’s anything better than listening to someone talk about something they love. Mitchell is pretty awesome. Smart and funny and totally making me wish I knew more to join in. This is going to be a great series, can’t wait to read the rest.

  9. Kate says:

    Jayseuz! This took hours! Watching the clips, researching (who did Lena Horne marry? Was Jack Benny really gay?) and I LOVED every minute. My Mom is obsessed with old movies and their stars and lived in LA in the 50’s and once told me Doris Day had acne scars and they filmed her with a gauze over the camera so I always found myself looking for that when I saw her. I love how Mitchell articulates the feeling of loss about never hearing from Cary Grant what it was really like. I get those same feelings about Elvis, Jackie O, Shakespeare, Spencer Tracey… I want to KNOW. I remember being surprised watching The Man Who Knew Too Much because it seemed serious for Doris Day and I noticed that as a kid though she was great in it. I have a fond memory of catching Mitchell’s eye at your reading in Chicago when we were both busting a gut over a spoken line. He had such a twinkle in his eye and his look said “Isn’t this great, wasn’t that hilarious, isn’t life fabulous?” Can’t wait for more!

  10. Bill says:

    Love, love, love this commentary.

    Especially the astute observations regarding Joan Crawford and Doris Day.

    Talk about two great talents who, if they’re thought of at all, are stereotyped as The Bitch and The Virgin.

    Myrna Loy always will be my movie wife, but Joan is my mistress and Doris my girlfriend.

    (OK, thanks to TCM, I also see Norma Shearer, Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck on the side.)

    • sheila says:

      // Myrna Loy always will be my movie wife, but Joan is my mistress and Doris my girlfriend. //

      Ha! You are the luckiest man on earth.

      Thanks for commenting Bill and very glad you liked. Part 2 will come at some point this week. Thanks again!

  11. Todd Restler says:


    I certainly haven’t seen that many Cary Grant movies, but man was he great in that. Movie Stars like him and Bogart just announce themselves the second you see them, that’s the only way I can put it. And if you haven’t read the Rob Lowe book there is a great Cary Grant story in there.

    Good luck with everything by the way, I’m rooting for you!

    • sheila says:

      Todd – yes, Gunga Din! What a madcap fun movie, with those three guys cavorting about. So much fun.

      And thanks for the good wishes! Things going awesome!

  12. I really hope this conversation will have more than two parts. I had the good fortune to catch The Man Who Knew Too Much in a revival-theater last weekend (very rare opportunity in this neck of the woods) and, as good as I thought Doris Day was from watching it on a television all these years, her performance really came alive on the big screen. (I finally got that this woman is a PERFORMER…by which I mean, the character Day is playing as well as Day herself, and that’s really the key to the whole movie). Plus, I think she’s turning into my favorite pre-rock singer so I’m all for a second-look or revival or whatever.

    Great comments from MF on the changes in acting and singing and the devaluation of persona in the performing arts. It’s like we’ve become afraid of any and all assertions of human personality. Can’t wait for Part 2!

    • sheila says:

      So cool that you just saw The Man Who Knew Too Much!! Great coincidence!

      // the character Day is playing as well as Day herself, and that’s really the key to the whole movie //

      Great observation. This is a lost art – this is something we don’t have so much anymore, because movie stars are less about creating specific Personae now, and more about “disappearing” into their roles. Not saying one is better than the other – but I sure do love those old movie stars with their strong indelible Personae, which then the directors can utilize, mess with, up-end, comment on.

  13. Brooke Thomas says:

    Well done Sheila and Mitchell! What a wealth of knowledge. I see a book in the future. Can’t wait for part 2.

  14. george says:


    Another freakin’ great post.

    From I didn’t know that – Lena Horne; I was wrong you were right – Justin Timberlake; can you please articulate for me what I feel about – Doris Day; Yeah me too – Don Rickles; and Cary Grant! – Cary Grant!

    Oh, and anyone who will reference Tawny Kitaen to make a point is some kind of freakin’ genius – I don’t know what kind – but some kind of genius.

    Thank you Sheila and Mitchell.

    • sheila says:

      // Oh, and anyone who will reference Tawny Kitaen to make a point is some kind of freakin’ genius – I don’t know what kind – but some kind of genius. //

      hahahaha I know. It’s fantastic.

      I love your categorization of your responses to what we talked about. I am glad you got something out of it. Part 2 is now up!

  15. Kate F says:

    WHEN IS PART TWO? I’m dying over here…

  16. Dan says:

    This was great – really really hope it goes beyond part 2 and becomes a regular feature.

    Although now I’m feeling for bad Bill Haley – poor manatee man.

  17. sheila says:

    Dan – I know. :( However, despite his alcoholism and basically being a one-hit wonder – he was performing that one damn song until the day he died. He was lucky – way luckier than some of those other guys, like Sonny Burgess or Billy Lee Riley – who recorded songs for Sun that I absolutely LOVE – but really didn’t translate into any kind of national stardom.

    But still: you look at that pic of Elvis visiting Bill Haley backstage in Germany – Bill Haley is so clearly still part of that old neat 50s world. And while Elvis is in uniform, and looks quite spiffy – he also looks like freakin’ Gabriel the angel or something he’s so beautiful, and so YOUNG. It had to be someone YOUNG who would push rock ‘n roll to the white kids.

    Anyway. Didn’t mean to call Haley a manatee. :(

  18. Dan says:

    Well he DID look like a manatee, and then had the misfortune to be compared to Elvis, like putting a use-car salesman up against Adonis. There was a great piece in Texas Monthly (of all places) on his life after the 50s.

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