Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Notes on Zoe Heller: Not Wacky, Not Writing About Her Knickers

Zoe Heller
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey.
Last year, to the surprise of the guests at her wedding, Zoe Heller got married. It was her 40th birthday, and her friends – and those of her future husband, screenwriter Larry Konner - were invited to a party with the promise of a celebrity guest.
“For some bizarre reason there was a Winnebago outside our apartment block, so people really did think Eartha Kitt was waiting to come up,” Heller recalls. Instead, the guests were treated to a “minimally Jewish ceremony” with an atheist minister and no mention of God, underneath a chuppah. Heller came down the aisle with her two daughters, Frankie and Louella (now 7 and 3), to the sound of Barry White’s My First, My Last, My Everything. “It was,” she says, “very lovely.”
Such an outcome may also be a surprise to the readers of Heller’s old newspaper column, which chronicled her romantic travails as the single girl’s single girl. She was Bridget Jones before Bridget Jones.
But perhaps her old readers shouldn’t be shocked. There was always an element of artistry in Heller’s rendering of her romantic life. The columns were true, but she exaggerated the angst. “I have a bit of a depressive nature. I may have gone on about it a bit to offset the notion that I’m this wacky girl who writes about her knickers.”
Anyway, she isn’t that girl anymore. Her reputation was secured by her second novel, Notes on a Scandal, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2003. It has now spawned a film which is tipped for success at the Oscars.
We meet in the Little Magazine Café in Tribeca, near her New York apartment. It is a bitterly cold day, and she arrives wrapped in her husband’s Spiewak parka. It is the morning after the Golden Globes, but Heller watched the ceremony on television. She wasn’t invited, but didn’t mind. “To be the sad nonentity in a room full of fabulosity - that would be demoralising.”
There are many things to like about the film of Heller’s novel. There is Dame Judi Dench, playing the frustrated spinster Barbara as a cross between the Queen Mother and Kathy Bates in Misery. There is Cate Blanchett, all willowy and bohemian, as Sheba, the teacher who accidentally has an affair with one of her pupils. And there is Bill Nighy, being Bill Nighy - always a treat.
Heller has a checklist of other things to be grateful for, whilst also regretting that Barbara – as written for the screen by Patrick Marber – is more of a monster, and more of a lesbian, than she was in the book. “I also like the fact that it was very truthful to the North London of my memory. They didn’t glam it up.”
Of course, Heller’s version of North London is largely a memory. She has lived in New York for almost 15 years. But the book holds echoes of her past life. The school is based on Haverstock Comprehensive, where Heller, by her own account, was an unsuccessful pupil. “I was in quite a bad class. There were a lot of naughty boys – a lot of Bunsen burners being thrown out of the window.” She achieved “miserable A-levels” but progressed to Oxford thanks to her English teacher, who tutored her through the 7th term entrance exams.
She has a habit of diminishing her achievements. The best thing about Oxford, she says, was getting in. At the time, her grandmother was dying and her mother was in hospital with cancer. “I remember going up to see my mother at the Royal Free. She was downstairs having tests somewhere in the basement. I told her I’d got in and she came leaping out of the bed like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. After that, it was downhill.”
Her father wrote Hollywood screenplays (including The Dirty Dozen and What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?), and though her mother was active in political campaigns, Heller has said she was always frustrated by the confines of motherhood.
Her parents were separated, and died within 18 months of each other. Heller was in her early twenties. “Obviously it makes you feel a bit alone in the world when your parents go. But, thinking about it since, I realise there is something on your side when bad things happen to you when you’re young, because the whole push of your life is forwards. Things are opening up. When my mother died I’d just started work on a newspaper. Not long after that I went to America for the first time to live.”
This sense of impermanence weighs heavily in Notes On A Scandal. It is, by any measure, a thoroughly unromantic book. The complacency of a stale marriage is framed by the bitterness of a frustrated spinster.
“I seem to write rather gloomily about relationships and also have a rather jaundiced view of romantic love,” Heller concedes. “I don’t think I really do as a person. I’m not exactly Pollyanna but,” – she slips into a cod-American accent – “I believe in love, Alastair. By the same token, people are always saying there’s no one to like in the book. They said it also about the movie. People object to the lack of an uplifting spirit.
“My response is, well go and read Anne of Green Gables. Or whatever Oprah has chosen for her book club recently.
“The other thing is that I never felt that Barbara was malevolent through and through like a stick of rock. It’s a post-menopausal woman pointing out something about the invisibility of her age. Particularly single women without children, without property. It’s a protest against the hostility that those women encounter.”
At the risk of overplaying the autobiographical aspects, Heller’s life does seem to have shifted in recent years from the carefree playfulness of Sheba, towards the stoical steadiness of Barbara. Though a supporter of state education, she recently moved her oldest child (“with reluctance and regrets”) to an Episcopalian private school, St Luke’s, where Kate Winslet and Helena Christensen are among the other mums. “Funnily enough, what it ends up being is the closest thing to my primary school back in London – they have prayers, sing carols, and do proper maths.
“At the last school there was an unbelievable amount of parent activity. Every other day you were meant to go in and make paper-mache or go to the farm. I always took the line that you go to school to get away from your parents, and I send them to school for me to get away from them. Plus I work and it was slightly discriminatory against working parents because it was all these do-gooding mums, who didn’t have much else to do.
“But I’d always felt bad about it, and my daughter would do this whole guilt trip, saying tearfully, ‘Every other mother has come to make Rice Krispie treats, why haven’t you?’ I’m not very good with children, apart from my own. I’m not even particularly keen on them, apart from my own. And I was dragged in to make waffles with this room full of horrible kids. That was my one and only experiment with that.”
She is now emerging from a long period of over-attentive parenting. “Possibly for evolutionary reasons you have to have this fixation on your kids and how they’re doing. Particularly when they’re very small and vulnerable. But it’s a beautiful thing when it’s over! I slightly cringe in retrospect at quite how obsessed I have been for a number of years in the minutiae of their wellbeing.
“My husband and I often look at each other and say ‘Do you think for one second our parents had these earnest conversations about particular ways in which we were being taught to read – fretting over our Play-Doh?’ They just told us to go across to the park, and one of the great things about that was that you had this independent, private life. You’d do things your parents didn’t know about. You went off on your bike – you did your own thing, you were naughty and you got into scrapes. It’s really sad that that’s gone.”
Of course, parental fear is the reason such innocent play is no longer possible – the same fear on which the drama of Notes On A Scandal revolves. How would she feel if her own daughter, aged 15, embarked on a relationship with an adult? “I would be very concerned. But I wouldn’t be surprised. What I particularly object to … at the very same time as the culture accepts Britney Spears dressed up in a school uniform, singing Hit Me One More Time, there’s this great rush to outdo each other in our horror and outrage at people having sexual relationships with young people.”
While she is being photographed outside (shouting “forget truth, think glamour, think Jackie Collins!”) Konner delivers Frankie to the café, so Heller can take her to the doctor. When we return, Frankie is sitting quietly, doing her homework.
“I hope you’re not hanging around to observe me interacting meaningfully with my daughter,” Heller chides, almost as if she is embarrassed at being observed in something as stable and wholesome as family life.
I ask why she got married, when previously she had stated that she couldn’t see the point. She gives a complicated answer about sickness benefits and tax breaks.
“It sounds very unromantic. It is very unromantic. To the extent that you have to get married to have those kinds of rights, I slightly resent it, and I do have a kind of old hippie view of life, that it’s nothing to do with the state. But it’s like private schools and public schools, I’ve submitted.”
I ask to see her wedding ring, and she hides her left hand.
“You know what? A terrible thing’s happened. I woke up this morning, and went ‘Where is my wedding ring?’ I must have taken it off when I was bathing the kids or something. I’ve told them if they find it they get a big prize.”
As a former interviewer, Heller is well aware of the symbolism of what she has just said. “It would be good if you didn’t make too much of that,” she suggests. “I’m a bit afraid of the karma.”

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Southern Belle Dreaming of Fidel: the Freewheelin' Jessica Lange

Two days after opening night, and Jessica Lange’s Midwestern drawl has turned into a weary croak. She is, she confesses, “a little worn out. My voice has taken quite a hit. It’s that thing after the opening, your whole body wants to relax, finally.”
The play is Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Lange appeared on Broadway in a production that was mauled by American critics. London has been warmer, but Lange is unable to compare the productions, except to say that the new interpretation is more “precise”. She claims to have “no memory” of the New York performances. “It’s as though it’s been erased.”
And though she thinks the opening two nights have been good, she hasn’t read the reviews. “Maybe at some point down the road. I never read ’em the day after.”
Perhaps it’s the bleariness of the second morning after the night before, but she sounds more fragile than you might expect of a two-time Oscar winner. She admits to first-night nerves. “There’s this absolute dread that comes over me, and then it moves to this kind of self-defeating ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and ‘It’s never going to fly’. By the time you get to the theatre, actor’s adrenaline kicks in, and if you hit it on the right foot going out there, something takes over and you’re swept along. If you miss that, you’re behind. It’s like how they used to speak about Billie Holiday singing behind the beat, which was what made her so unique. But acting behind the beat does not have the same magical effect!”
In New York, reviewers suggested Lange was miscast, but she has her reasons for trying again. “For me the play is about mothering. All the positive, all the negative, all the insanity, all the joy.”
Watching her at work, playing a deluded Southern belle in yesteryear’s ballgown, it’s hard not conclude that until recently Lange would have identified with Tom, the character Williams based on himself. He is a free spirit, trapped in the suffocating embrace of his mother.
“It’s funny,” Lange says, “because when we did the play in New York, my friend Diane Keaton came backstage. Maybe it’s because we’ve hit an age in our lives, and we’re mothers, and we’re raising children… She said it was the first time she had seen the play from the mother’s point of view rather than Tom, and his desire to break away and be free. Maybe that’s it – it presents itself at a certain time in your life.”
Lange’s reflections on motherhood have been prompted by the fact that all three of her children – Shura (by Mikhail Baryshnikov), Hannah and Walker (by Sam Shepard) have left home.
“It hit me hard. Some people I know were joyous: now they could have freedom and do what they want, not be a slave to the school schedule. But,” she laughs, “that kind of gave meaning to my life. Now I’m not so sure what I’m supposed to be doing.”
She certainly doesn’t look like a grandmother of 57, even in her rehearsal clothes; a dark cardigan and jeans, and black lace-up shoes of the kind that might have been favoured by Miss Jean Brodie. Even in mufti, she exudes a sense of coiled magnetism. There is a blur of ink on her hand, a tattoo from her spent youth. I ask how she handled the transition from bohemia to responsible motherhood.
“By the time I had my first child I was already 31. I had really flown through the Sixties in my twenties, and had lived pretty much as hard and rough and crazy as I could sustain. It was time for me to slow down.
“Coming out of the Sixties, it was quite insane. It was completely peripatetic, never living anywhere – literally living on the road year after year. Moving to Spain, then to Paris, and then back to New York, and the whole underground arts scene. Not to mention the power of the drug culture.” She laughs. “There was a lot going on. The ones of us that are still alive, we’re lucky we made it through.”
Drugs, she says, were “just part of life”, and she is reluctant to specify how far her experiments went. “Not as far as a lot of people that I saw come to an end. By the time I hit my thirties I was really ready to have some responsibility. And to have that thing that connected me to life.”
Lange’s rootlessness wasn’t necessarily rooted in the counter-culture. Her childhood was a tour of small towns in northern Minnesota. “My dad was very restless, so we’d stay in some little nowhere place. [Bob] Dylan described Hibbing, which is where he’s from, as a town that was going nowhere. I lived in a lot of those places.
“I remember having a yearning that was so powerful that it was almost like a physical pain. This yearning to get out, to see something, to do something.”
She enrolled at the University of Minnesota as an art student, fell in with a group of photographers, and set out for Europe. In Spain, her group documented flamenco gypsies. In Amsterdam, they filmed the life of a street person. In New York, she burrowed deep in the underground. Then she moved to Paris to study mime under Etienne Decroux. “The first time I saw Paris – that sounds like a song, doesn’t it? – was in May of 1968, when we were coming up from Spain on our way to Amsterdam, and the streets were like, wow! It was most thrilling thing in the world to me.
“The whole city was under siege. It was as close to a revolution as anything I’ve ever seen. So I thought, ‘This is where I want to be!’”
In some descriptions, Lange’s father sounds like Willy Loman, from Death of a Salesman. “He was a teacher, he sold cars, he was a travelling salesman. He worked on the railroad. He was really a brilliant man. Coming out of the depression and World War 2 just completely screwed him up.”
He always dreamed of owning his own ranch. “There’s some great old colour film from the Thirties, of him in Montana, and that’s where he wanted to be. He wanted to go back to Great Falls, Montana, in the wide open spaces.” By now, Lange’s voice has dropped to a whisper. “He never made it.”
She inherited her father’s temper. “The other thing I got from him, which I am extremely grateful for, was his sense of honesty. And cutting through things. You get a little good and you get a little bad.”
When Lange talks about her mother, who died eight years ago, her tone is mournful. “She was just the most beautiful, gentlest, loveliest woman in the world. Never an unkind word. She was amazing.” She clears her throat. “I should have inherited more from my mother.”
In the midst of her European travels, Lange married her photography professor Paco Grande. She didn’t take marriage seriously. “It’s never meant that much to me, the idea of marriage. I’m not married now, but Sam and I have been together for 24 years. So what does that mean?”
Lange met Shepard on the set of Frances, the 1982 biopic of Frances Farmer which earned her an Oscar nomination. She once said “no one compares to Sam in terms of maleness,” but bristles when reminded of the quote. “I hate talking superlatives. There’s obviously something. I’ve been with the man for 24 years. And I’m still crazy about him.”
Shepard’s plays use the West in the way Tennessee Williams used the South, but is less political than Lange, who considers America to be at “at a low ebb” because of the Bushes’ foreign policies.Yet she is no fan of Hillary Clinton. “I know she’s a good stateswoman and she’s incredibly smart. But I don’t think I could support a candidate who supported Bush’s drive to war.
“With Hillary I get the feeling that it’s all politics. I would love to see somebody who was passionate and who was not scared, not always deliberating: ‘Is this the right move?’ But who had some real sense of ethics and wasn’t afraid to go against the fucking focus groups. That’s what’s killing films, that’s what’s killing politics.”
Despite her Oscars - for Tootsie and Blue Sky – Lange’s Hollywood career has been understated.
“Oh, I think Hollywood just got rid of me!” she says with a laugh. “I was never big box office, so they didn’t have much use for me. At least in the Eighties, and for maybe half of the Nineties, you could still do a studio film that was a good movie. But that’s gone.
“Look, I had a chance to do a lot of really wonderful parts. But in 30 years, how many movies have I done? 25? For the most part, I like the work I did. I liked the experiences that I had. But if I could move on to something else, I probably would. I’m just not sure what else I can do.”
Recently, Lange has revived her interest in photography. She beams at the mention of Rene Burri’s photographs of Che Guevera, who she recently described as her hero. “This is the power of photography, isn’t it? The iconography of Che Guevara really has to do with those photographs. I’m in awe of the revolutionary spirit. And what an amazing journey that kid went on. I just always imagine those moments – can you imagine coming into Havana with Fidel? I mean, God! What a thrill! There’s nothing more thrilling than that. A revolution that works!”
Right now, here concerns are more prosaic. She is looking forward to a day off. “Hopefully I’ll get out a bit,” she says wistfully, and walk around. It’ll be nice to get through this week, because then you can start having a life. A little bit of one, at least.”
Before she goes, she pays tribute to the play’s director, Rupert Goold, and to the rest of the cast. “It’s been a pleasure,” she says. “It’s been very good for me, to get me out of my head.”
What, I ask, was wrong with her head? “You just don’t wanna spend too much time dwelling on things!” she says, laughing. “It’s like my father always said: ‘You’ve got too goddamn much time to think!’”