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Theatergoer Tallmer casts his votes
BY JERRY TALLMER | Here they come again — the Tonys.
Allow me to cast my votes herewith for two extraordinary candidates — two endlessly fecund artists of two disparate generations — whom I not only knew and from time to time wrote about but could, I think, each be called friends of mine over the long haul.
They are playwrights Nora Ephron and Horton Foote.
There were some years when, as a newspaper’s theater critic, I was what’s called “a Tony voter.” This came to a screeching halt after the season in which on my ballot I wrote in: “Dr. Rose Franzblau, Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Comedy.”
You don’t remember Dr. Rose Franzblau? No? Well, Dr. Rose Franzblau was for many years the Freudian-slanted agony columnist — the Miss Lonelyhearts — of the New York Post. Her answer to everything was: Go see a shrink. Getting fat? See a shrink. Lost your job? See a shrink. Scared of heart attack? See a shrink. Hate your mother, your husband, your wife, your kids? See a shrink.
One day at my desk at the paper, the phone rang.
“Hello, dollink. This is Dr. Rose Franzblau. You write like an angel. I told Mrs. Schiff you write like an angel. Dollink, this Joe Papp, he’s got a Shakespeare play about to open in Central Park. I have four important people coming in from out of town. They want to see it. I don’t want them to have to stand in line. Can you call this Joe Papp and fix me up with six tickets?”
I said: Gee, Dr. Franzblau, it’s for free, but Joe Papp makes everybody stand in line. I don’t think he’ll —
So I tried. The answer was: Tell Dr. Rose Franzblau to go eff herself. I conveyed that, more politely, to Dr. Franzblau. Who came back with a cajoling: “Listen, my dear. Are you a nice Jewish boy…?”
This was the same Dr. Rose Franzblau, showbiz angel and, at a guess, herself a Tony voter, who at every Broadway opening night could be observed standing erect in the second row on the aisle, her back to the stage, counting the house and waving to friends while all around her had taken their seats as the curtain was rising….
Nora Ephron and I reached the New York Post at roughly the same time in the 1960s, myself a few years ahead of her. She was the oldest daughter of highly successful Hollywood screenwriters and Broadway playwrights Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who had put Wellesley teenager Nora into their “Take Her, She’s Mine” both in film and on stage — but their daughter had carved her own way into the Post by way of writing for Victor Navasky’s parody issue, The New York Pest. Far from being shocked or angry, celebrity-conscious publisher Dorothy Schiff told her editors to get that Ephron girl, and fast.
Of course it didn’t hurt that Nora’s parents were Hollywood stars in their own right, but a movie career for daughter Nora seemed nowhere on the horizon. Indeed, when I did a magazine piece on Nora just a few years ago, and asked her if she’d ever as a kid thought she’d end up writing and directing movies of her own, the screenwriter and/or director of “Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally” and a dozen other motion pictures replied:
“No, that was the last thing I wanted. One of the reasons I left L.A. was because I hated L.A. and hated the movie business or anything to do with it. I wanted to be a, quote, real writer — a journalist — forever.”
Hated having anything to do with it? Well, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who ended up as hard-core alcoholics, had something to do with it, and though I never in a million years would have thought Nora (1941-2012) would be dead as I write this — nor did she, I can tell you — a poignant confession of hers atop the script of “Lucky Guy,” the unmade movie that has now turned into the Broadway play that I’m nominating for Best Play in this year’s Tony Awards, reads as follows:
But for many years I was in love with journalism. I loved the City Room, I loved the pack. I loved smoking and drinking Scotch and playing dollar poker. I didn’t know much about anything, and I was in a profession where you didn’t have to. I loved the speed. I loved the deadlines. I loved that you wrapped the fish [in yesterday’s newspaper].
And there’s also this:
I’d known since I was a child that I was going to live in New York eventually, and that everything in between would be just an intermission. I’d spent all those years imagining what New York was going to be like. I thought it was going to be the most magical, exciting, fraught-with-possibility place that you could ever live…a place where I might be able to become the only thing worth being — a journalist.
And I’d turned out to be right.
Then there’s this. Phoebe Ephron, a tough cookie, left her daughter just two precepts:
1) Never buy a red coat.
2) Everything is copy.
Nora promptly went out and bought herself a red coat, but she lived (and died) by Precept No. 2: Everything is copy.
“Lucky Guy” is a City Room play that ranks right up there in toughness and know-how with “The Front Page” and all those other old black and-white “Hello, sweetheart, give me rewrite” movies that Bruce Goldstein runs at Film Forum from time to time.
Only this one is about real people with (mostly) real names, starting with Mike McAlary (1957-1998), the New York Daily News and New York Newsday reporter and columnist who, shortly before his death from cancer, won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for his exposure of the brutality of a handful of Brooklyn cops for the torture and anal rape (by mop handle) of a 30-year-old Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima.
The volatile, ambitious, neurotic McAlary is played by first-time-on-Broadway Tom Hanks, a Nora Ephron regular (“Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail”) who is up for a Tony Award of his own.
“Lucky Guy” is a black-and-white drama in more than one sense, because it co-stars Courtney B. Vance as James (Hap) Hairston (1949-2002), the Daily News city editor who as much as anybody else shaped not only McAlary’s copy but that restless soul’s whole professional life.
Here is what, for me, is the high point of “Lucky Guy.”
Mike McAlary and Hap Hairston, separately hospitalized, are having a phone talk, miles apart, hospital bed to hospital bed.
“I always knew I was going to live in the city,” says McAlary — echoing playwright Nora. “Knew I was going to write for a newspaper. Didn’t know which one, but I knew. I even knew I was going to be edited by a balding black man who drank almost as much as me.”
I don’t know who was Nora Ephron’s own Hap Hairston. Maybe nobody — just herself. But if this is the last play we’ll ever get from her, and I think it must be, I wish it well, Tony or no Tony.
* * *
I did not need FCC chairman Newton Minow to tell me, and the nation, back in 1961, that television was, even then, “a vast wasteland.” I knew it just from watching — as much as I could stand, which wasn’t much. But even then, there was one name that popped up from time to time on “the crawl” — the endless list of production credits — whenever a program of some quality had reached the small screen.
And this had been true as far back as 1953, when NBC aired a short, quiet, powerful drama called “The Trip to Bountiful,” starring Lillian Gish as Carrie Watts, the lonely old lady who just wants to go back to take a look at the small town where she grew up.
The name on the crawl was Horton Foote. “Written by Horton Foote.” But who was he? It was a good many years before I found out that Horton Foote (1916-2009) was a real person, indeed a very real, authentic, forthcoming person who lived right here in Greenwich Village where the Meatpacking District hits the Hudson River.
It was when I got to know Horton better, review his openings, interview him from time to time, that I one day wrote this:
Some people get up in the morning and go to Wall Street. Or to their job in a department store. Or a supermarket. Or a newspaper office. Or to fly an airplane.
Horton Foote gets up in the morning and writes plays.
Lillian Gish was followed over the years by Geraldine Page, Eva Marie Saint and many another prizewinning brilliant actress, and now an all-black “Trip to Bountiful,” with gorgeous Cicely Tyson as Carrie Watts, is up for a Tony as Best Revival of a Play. The competition includes Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — which makes it tough for me, but I will stick with Horton on grounds of seniority. When he left us at age 93, up in Hartford, Connecticut, he was still hard at work on future projects with daughter Hallie.
You can sit down now, Dr. Franzblau.
Written by Nora Ephron
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Through July 3
At the Broadhurst Theatre
235 W. 44th St., btw. 7th & 8th Aves.
For tickets ($87-$152), call 212-239-6200, or visit telecharge.com
A TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL
Written by Horton Foote
Directed by Michael Wilson
Through Sept. 1
At the Stephen Sondheim Theatre
124 W. 43 St.,
btw. Sixth Ave. & Broadway
For tickets ($42-$142), call 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge.com
THE TONY AWARDS
Sun., June 9
8pm, on CBS