Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Bill Smitrovich)

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first. Patti LuPone: A Memoir does, in fact, contain consonants, and the vowels are mostly unmodified (in hardcover at least – I can’t vouch for the audiobook edition).

I’m not always a fan of Ms. LuPone. On the plus side, she has a powerhouse voice and great presence, she’s a committed actress whose CV encompasses a wider range of work than most, she has killer comic timing, and she’s not afraid to send herself up. The negatives, though, sometimes cancel out the positives. Her work, when not reined in by a strong director, can be excruciatingly self-indulgent, and then, yes, there are those diction problems. Her diva antics sometimes cause consonants to flee the room entirely, and vowels melt in her presence (you can see both her best and her worst sides here in this performance of “As Long As He Needs Me” – the wisecracking, knowingly self-mocking diva in the patter to the audience, then the mush-mouthed steamroller who’ll rip a song to shreds in a self-aggrandizing display of Big Singing in the number itself). She was spectacularly good in “Master Class” in London, despite the thin material, and in the last weeks of her run in “Sunset Boulevard” (I saw it after her Broadway contract had been cancelled), and she was quietly devastating in Mamet’s “The Old Neighborhood” on Broadway. Some of her recordings, however, are painful (the worst, I think, is a rendition of “As Long As He Needs Me” recorded for a Cameron Mackintosh compilation CD that manages to make the performance I linked to above seem subtle and restrained). She’s also an actor who seems to find controversy wherever she goes – the Lloyd Webber incidents, the onstage dust-ups with audience photographers (she’s not the only actor to have done that sort of thing by any means, but it doesn’t necessarily make headlines when other people do it), her justifiable anger at getting inappropriately frisked in an airport, various backstage blowups. She is, for better or worse, a larger-than-life figure who presents a larger-than-life personality to the public.

And now she’s written a memoir (or rather, dictated one to a ghost-writer). It’s a very, very entertaining read, actually, and in some ways I had more respect for her when I’d finished it than I’d had before I started reading it. She clearly put an enormous amount of energy into developing her craft, she’s clearly very serious indeed about the craft of acting and about the theatre as an institution, and she has a sense of humour about herself. Sometimes. She also – and this, I’m slightly ashamed to say, is a big part of what makes it such an entertaining read – really doesn’t hold back when it comes to discussing people who have irked her, mistreated her, or otherwise Done Her Wrong. There are two chapters on the “Sunset Boulevard” debacle, which is to be expected, but she also takes deadly aim at several of her co-stars. Topol grabbed her boobs. She hated Paul Sorvino on sight (with good reason – trapped together in the tryout tour of “The Baker’s Wife”, she describes him as being relentlessly upbeat, like “Howdy Doody at Auschwitz”). Bill Smitrovich, her co-star on the TV show “Life Goes On”, was a bully and, worse, a bad actor. And so on. And she doesn’t just point the finger. She gives examples. Several examples, in fact, for each of the above. I imagine Mr. Smitrovich will not be lining up at Barnes and Noble to get his copy autographed.

It isn’t  all scorched earth. There are a lot of entertainingly gossipy showbiz anecdotes (her Vanessa Redgrave story is priceless – Ms. Redgrave invited LuPone out for tea, then – good socialist egalitarian that she is – insisted on splitting the bill), and her generosity towards people she respects (David Mamet, Mandy Patinkin, Boyd Gaines, Laura Benanti) at least matches the venom she directs towards the unfortunate Mr. Smitrovich (who, if even half of what LuPone says about him is true, richly deserves it). But, undeniably, trouble seems to follow her around, and there are hints, here and there, of a certain darkness and desperation underneath. Getting fired is, of course, a hideous, humiliating experience, and finding out about it by reading it in a gossip column must be truly devastating – but not everybody who gets fired, even so publicly, responds by rampaging around a room smashing things and then throwing a lamp out of an upstairs window. And, equally undeniably, while she is, as I said, extremely generous when talking about people she likes and respects, the most vivid passages in the book are the ones where she turns the knife. There’s more than a hint here of settling scores. There’s also, certainly, more than a hint of someone who is more than a little self-righteous, and whose standards are impossibly high.

That said, it’s fun, and not just for the bitchy parts. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to see a contemporary actor (co-)write an unabashed love letter to the theatre. I still don’t want to play her “Matters of the Heart” CD ever again (her “Shattered Illusions”, I’m afraid, is a masterclass in trampling punchlines), but it’s refreshing, for once, to read a showbiz memoir that doesn’t consist mostly of bland platitudes.

5 thoughts on “Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Bill Smitrovich)

  1. Right now I’m listening to this memoir in my car during commutes. Love your take on Patti. Intresting that she like M. Patinkin as he is also very talented and very quirky himself. I must admit that I LOVE the nasty, bitter, mean, tattle-tale parts. Worth buying it at the Borders close-out!

    • I’m more entertained than I’d possibly care to admit by the nasty, bitter, mean, tattle-tale parts, and part of the book’s appeal, certainly, is that she doesn’t hold back. And I will give her *some* credit: her memoir is less of a monument to rampaging egomania than Kathleen Turner’s. Slightly.

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