Tuesday, September 9, 2014

There is Nothing Like a Dame: Remembering Joan Rivers, Elaine Stritch, and Ruby Dee

Seems like most of America’s citizens are busy dumping ice water over their heads. I’m all in favor of supporting ALS research, but (as a resident of a drought state) I wonder if the Ice Bucket Challenge should be re-thought. At any rate, the ladies I salute today—all of whom left us over the summer—would doubtless have preferred to reserve their ice buckets for better things, like chilling magnums of champagne.

These three ladies fall into the category of dames. Not dames in the British sense, mind you. In jolly old England, the word is an honorific reserved for the female equivalent of knights. Many of the British theatre’s brightest stars, like Dame Judith Anderson and Dame Edith Evans, have been granted damehood for their artistic achievements. To us Americans, this may sound rather snooty. True, Dame Judi Dench hardly appears to be the stuck-up sort, but for the imperious Maggie Smith the title seems a perfect fit.

The dames I’m thinking of were All-American feisty broads who rolled with the punches and were never afraid to speak their minds. Like, of course, Joan Rivers. I loved her comedy from her Johnny Carson days, long before she became notorious in some quarters as the Queen of Mean. Yes, her humor had an edge to it, but much of it was directed against herself. In her own eyes, I suspect, she remained forever the ugly duckling, unwed, unloved. That’s the thing about tough dames: they’re usually awfully raw on the inside. That’s why they opt for lots of plastic surgery, or lots of booze.

Take Elaine Stritch, who passed away in July at age 89. I first encountered Stritch as a standout guest on the old Pantomime Quiz ( the celebrity charades show that morphed into Stump the Stars). With her throaty voice and raucous spirit, she was hard to forget. Later I learned she had started out as a Broadway baby, featured in classic musicals like Pal Joey and as Ethel Merman’s understudy in Call Me Madam. She also played dramatic roles, nabbing a Tony nomination as the world-weary small-town waitress in William Inge’s Bus Stop. Though she appeared on TV and in movies, the stage was her real home. In the original Company, Stephen Sondheim wrote for her (and about her) the cynical show-stopper, “Ladies Who Lunch.”  It’s a left-handed tribute to those middle-aged gals who, when they get depressed, turn to “a bottle of Scotch/Plus a little jest.”

Stritch knew about both jests and Scotch. I was lucky to see her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, in which she frankly discussed her problems with alcohol, at least some of which connected with her enduring stage fright. Even after decades in the biz, this old trouper—a good Catholic schoolgirl at heart—needed liquid courage before she could face an audience. Toughness on the surface; insecurity inside: that’s what made these dames tick.   

  I know much less about the personal insecurities of Ruby Dee, pioneering African-American actress and civil rights leader, who died in June. But Dee’s Oscar-nominated performance in American Gangster (at age 83) showed her toughness, as did her refusal, back in 1967, to play a maid in The Incident. The film’s director, Larry Peerce, told me how she demanded that he turn her character into a social worker: “Ruby’s a tough dame. I’ve worked with Ruby a couple of times and I adore her, but she doesn’t take any baloney.”

Another Sondheim tune seems to fit all three dames: “I’m Still Here.” Though they’re gone, I hope they’ll never be forgotten. 
 This post is dedicated to HBO’s documentary wizard, Sheila Nevins, whose favors to me over the years have included passes to see “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.” Sheila knows all about great dames, because she’s one herself. 


  1. I have greatly enjoyed the works of all three women and lament their passing - but they all did leave us sizable bodies of work to continue to enjoy in their memories.

    I worked with Larry Peerce twice - he directed two TV movies which I ran first team and basecamp for. I liked him a lot - I think he liked me as well. He certainly seemed happy to see me on the second show at least. That might be because I managed to survive our first show together - an NBC TV movie about Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell starring Shannen Doherty in (I think) her first work after being fired from Beverly Hills 90210. She was a handful and a half for us - but I handled her well enough that Mr. Peerce sought me out after wrap to praise my work. Our second time together was the much easier Holy Joe for CBS, with John Ritter and Meredith Baxter. Neither of them were anything approaching a handful, I'm happy to say. If you run into Mr. Peerce again, please tell him his favorite North Carolina PA says hello!

  2. I don't expect to see Larry again anytime soon, but I liked him a lot: he seemed smart, honest, and an all-around-gentleman. Thanks, Mr. Craig.