Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The man with no strings

Joel Grey. Legend. First crush (almost: there was Maynard G. Krebbs on Dobie Gillis, and the robot on Lost in Space).  It's his birthday, he's 80 years old today. . .

. . . and yes, I did see him perform live once, but it sure was a long wait from that time I first saw him, in 1972 I think, in Cabaret: one of the best movies ever made and still near the top of my all-time-fave list along with Now, Voyager and Mildred Pierce.

Nobody knew what he was doing up there in 1972 because there was no name for what he was doing. But there he was on film pretending to be live onstage, this ferociously sweet, snide, horrible, wonderful thing, this thing that dressed up like a human being and danced and pranced around.  Who even came out in drag, making a quite plausible blonde floozie with hair under his arms.

It was no surprise at all when he won an Oscar for this: he had already won the coveted Tony. I fell in love with Joel Grey watching Cabaret in 1973, became totally obsessed with Joel Grey for years and years, chased down whatever information I could find about Joel Grey (and in those days this necessitated lurking about in library stacks with a sharp razor - I must have looked like a maniac - so I could steal his picture). I compiled him, I filed him, I watched him on The Mike Douglas Show and I often wondered who he really was.

I didn't get to see him doing what he really does, dancing and prancing live onstage in the manner to which he seems born, for another 15 years or so, when a road company of Cabaret stopped in Vancouver. He seemed tiny up there, though his dancer's legs still worked like springs. I remember a song that never appeared in the movie (and the stage version is radically different, the movie having been converted into a Liza Minnelli vehicle): it was called I Don't Care Much, and at one point his disembodied white carmine-lipped face was suspended in the air like some nightmarish ghost balloon.

What did I like about him, enough to stay on that decades-long bloodhound trail?  For the thing is, I never really stopped being obsessed with him. I had memorized his birth date from an LP of his night club act, in which he stepped out from a giant trunk and sang and danced. I knew it was April 11, 1932. Back then he looked almost ridiculously young, more like 25 than 40. 

Over the years I kept following the thread: I saw, sitting in our car at a drive-in, a very strange movie he did with Cliff Robertson in which he played a clairvoyant. A suspiciously diffident, shifty sort of guy given to sudden blasts of rage. I wondered if this was the real Joel Grey. Then I saw an even stranger movie he made with Paul Newman called Buffalo Bill and the Indians (or Sitting Bull's History Lesson), directed by Robert Altman. Notable to Canadians because it was shot in Calgary. He looked dishy in this, with a very Biblical beard that I was sure was real because he appeared on Front Page Challenge, an embarrassing Canadian panel show, and brought the beard with him.

There's no order to this, not really. Forgive me for being all over the place as I try to pin down the popcorn of memory. When the internet came in, Joel Grey was suddenly very accessible again. But in the meantime he had done a jillion things, a quadrillion things, and always seemed to be active. He'd pop up in the coolest and most cutting-edge TV shows. He never seemed to go away.  "Old" didn't seem to stick to him: he was even more than ever like a blob of mercury made flesh.

I couldn't add it all up because it was like one of those Chagall panels made of stained glass. You don't stir those colors together, you leave them to be what they are. Saturated and strange, they should clash and conflict, but they don't. The images: menorahs, flying bulls, violins, Christ on the cross, lovers sailing through the air in sexual rhapsody - they couldn't possibly work together, but against reason, they did.

Joel Grey was Petrushka, he was Pulcinella, he was a little clown being yanked on a string, but when I got rare glimpses of the real person, he was surprising, a real person, almost quiet. I paid attention to everything about him because that's what I do, I extract people, I make essence of them, cook them down. I saw kindness.

It didn't surprise me to find out he takes photographs and has become very famous for them. I remembered that book, I Am a Camera,  Christopher Isherwood's memoir which became the basis for Cabaret. He is an eye.

For quite a while, thinking only of his Oscar-winning keynote performance (I refuse to say iconic!), people began to think of him as "Jennifer Grey's father". Jennifer Grey has had a strange career, a good one, mind, but strange: perhaps peaking too early in Dirty Dancing, altering her appearance for some reason, then becoming kind of obscure. But popping up again in Dancing with the Stars, her famous parents commenting on her performance like the seasoned pros they were.

This is all over the place, I can't get it all in and I shouldn't try. It's 80 years, after all. We shouldn't be surprised - some people do 80 very well, thank you very much, and in spite of his apparent frailty I don't think Joel Grey is frail at all. Petrushka isn't frail, even when the puppetmaster drops him on the stage and cracks his head. Those strings have always been translucent anyway, and he is powered by something quite else.

From what I've been able to gather, all the bits and pieces of recent interviews and performances on YouTube, his main art has been living. I love this clip from Dancer in the Dark: I watched the bloody thing on a rented DVD about six times just to see his dance number, which he did when he was well into his '60s. He was still on springs, still striking sparks with his tap shoes and smiling at the audience in that slightly fierce, slightly vulpine way.

Be around, Joel Grey; be around for a long time, for as long as possible, because we like you, need you, want you. You are a slice of humanity and we find you interesting. You don't embarrass us by flailing around in your success. You are real, even while trying on all sorts of different people, then letting them slide off your shoulders because something else has suddenly come up that is a whole lot more interesting.