One of the best things about doing this column is that I get to meet some of the most fascinating people in the world by sheer coincidence because, as I’ve said many times, among certain circles in this city, all roads lead to Michael’s. That’s how I met this week’s lunch date, Brenda Vaccaro. Several months ago, I stayed up very late one Tuesday night binge-watching the Netflix series, Gypsy. The show starred Naomi Watts as a therapist with some serious issues – and some equally troubled patients. In a bit of inspired casting, one of those patients, a clingy mother who was desperately trying to stay connected to her adult daughter who wanted nothing to do with her, was brilliantly played by Brenda Vaccaro.
Imagine my surprise the next day when I showed up at Michael’s to do my column and saw Brenda sitting with my good friend Mickey Ateyeh. When I went over to say hello, I told her I thought I was seeing things because first off, this seemed so random. And secondly, I went to sleep with a particularly heartbreaking scene Brenda had done in the show in my mind and when I woke up, I was still thinking about it. Her character, trying to hide her pain, disappointment and embarrassment was left standing outside the apartment building that her daughter had just moved from without telling her mother. When I told Brenda she had moved me to tears, she was very gracious, and we chatted briefly. I’d seen her a few times since then with Mickey and a few weeks ago, we finally made a date to have our own lunch.
In preparation for our meeting, I spent several hours yesterday on YouTube watching snippets of her incredible performances in Midnight Cowboy, Airport 77, The Mirror Has Two Faces and HBO’s Kevorkian bio pic, You Don’t Know Jack where she starred opposite Al Pacino. (Much more on what she had to say about her costars later). I also happened to find some award show footage with Brenda from 1974. Suffice to say those award shows were a lot more fun back in the day when the stars were real stars not pop culture curiosities, (largely) unscripted and not styled and ‘handled’ within an inch of their lives.
The clip from the 1974 Emmy Awards where Brenda won Outstanding Supporting Actress in Comedy-Variety was particularly riveting. Wearing a flowing, low-cut gown and a messy updo, Brenda was the epitome of seventies sexiness as her boyfriend Michael Douglas (just wait) got up to let her out of her seat. She floated on to the stage and playfully offered her thank-yous in that voice.
“That was James Reva,” recalled Brenda when I described the dress to her in that same wonderfully throaty voice that instantly turned heads at the tables around us. “It was Greek [style]. And white.”
Let me just say that I wish we could have had our lunch run into dinner. This is a woman that has stories. Real stories. About Pacino, Hoffman, and Streisand. And strong opinions. She’s smart, thoughtful and hilarious and completely unconcerned what anyone thinks about what she says. I loved her.
I barely knew where to start, so I thought I’d ask her about the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. “It’s absolutely brilliant. It’s where we should be,” she said after we dispensed with ordering (Korean tacos and a Sprite for her, Chicken paillard and Diet Coke for me). She was at last weekend’s Women’s March in the city. “The age of silence is dead.” As for actors using award shows to speak out on important social issues she told me, “Any occasion there is a chance to speak up, you should do it. If it’s a celebration, you hope it’s done with grace.”
I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that Brenda had experienced sexual harassment in Hollywood. “Everyone has got a story,” she continued. Hers involved director Paul Wendkos when she was working on a play with Hal Holbrook in the late sixties. “It was during a rehearsal and Hal had just left the stage. [Wendkos] walked over to me stuck his tongue down my throat. I heard some of the crew go ‘whoa.’ I froze. I was in shock.” But she said nothing. “That was a time where women felt they had to let it go. They did that for a lot of things like staying in bad marriages. I said, ‘Let it go.’ I wasn’t going to call [the producer] and halt production.’ Afterwards, when she told Holbrook (“He was the best!”) what had happened he offered to confront Wendkos but she declined his offer. That doesn’t mean she’s forgiven her attacker. “I never spoke to him again. I hope he’s dead.” (Wendkos died in 2009).
Given the impressive roster of leading men Brenda has starred opposite during her career, I asked her if I could throw out a few names and get her take on each one. It proved to be the liveliest part of an already incredibly animated discussion.
Dustin Hoffman (Midnight Cowboy): “He kept me laughing. He was always pulling gags. He once did this [she raised her arm and made a fist] and ran back and forth on the set. No one knew what he was doing and when we asked, he said, ‘Jerking off a dinosaur.’ We couldn’t stop laughing. He was the cutest and the funniest.”
Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy): “Very serious and very into himself. So young and vulnerable.”
Jeff Bridges (The Mirror Has Two Faces): “Sexy. I had such a crush on him.”
Jimmy Stewart (Airplane 77) “I brought an egg sandwich down to the dock every day [some scenes from the film were shot in the water and actors were taken to the set by boat] and he would show up with a suitcase. One day I asked him, ‘What’s in the suitcase? He said, ‘You never know if you’re coming back.’ I told him I was going to start bringing a suitcase.”
Although she didn’t say so, it was clear that Al Pacino ranks at the top of Brenda’s list of her favorite leading men. “I adore him,” she told me. “He is a rehearsal dragon.” The actor used to host marathon sessions in his New York City apartment with Brenda and actor Danny Houston who would gather at Pacino’s home on the weekends during production. “We’d start at noon and go until 7 o’clock and sometimes much later.”
Brenda recalled as shooting went on, she and Pacino “became The Bickersons” explaining, “We were in the car [shooting a scene] and he said, ‘Stop the car!’ and I said, ‘That’s not a line.’ Then I asked him, ‘Are you mad?’ He said, ‘I’m working!’ He was improvising. He blew my mind. He’d pull that shit all the time.”
It turns out the film’s climatic scene shot in Flint, Michigan where Brenda, as the doctor’s sister Margo, confronts Pacino’s Kevorkian was entirely improvised. The day of the shoot, director Barry Levinson told Brenda to put the script aside and then just let the cameras roll. “When I yelled ‘Who takes care of me?’ That was my Aunt Marge. I was thinking of my Aunt Marge. [After the scene] I walked out and kept walking. I think it was a single cut. When Al asks, ‘Where’s she going?’ He was actually talking to Barry, but the angle was right, so Barry left it in.”
As much as I loved that story, I liked this one about Pacino even more. “If Al doesn’t like you, you rest with the fishes. I once told him I was going to work with a certain actress and he just looked at me and [wagged his finger]. I didn’t.”
|Michael Douglas & Brenda Vaccaro|
But it was Brenda’s four-year, live-in relationship with Michael Douglas that had always intrigued me. They were the hip Hollywood couple of the seventies. Think Jen and Brad but much, much cooler. In that YouTube clip of the Emmy Awards, it was Douglas, with his feathered hair and wearing a ruffled blue tuxedo shirt, who was seated next to Brenda in the audience.
“Look at this,” she said holding out her phone to me. “Someone just sent me this on Instagram.” The stunning black and white photo shows Brenda and Michael in all their youthful glory. “Look at his beautiful hands. I sent it to Michael and said, ‘Look how beautiful we were.’ He loved it.” It was clear from listening to her, they have stayed close. “One of the great regrets of my life is that we didn’t make it.”
These days, Brenda is loving living in New York City (shockingly, she did not grow up here – she was raised in Texas) with her new puppy, a four-month old pug named Christina Maria Pavia (“Pavia is in northern Italy near Milan, where my mother is from – we call her ‘Christina’”). In 2016, Brenda had one week to relocate from Los Angeles after landing her role on Gypsy (“I had to read and send in a tape. I think that’s important for young actors to know that you’re never finished”). With the help of assistant Gina Biscotti (who was with her today), she found the perfect apartment just in time. Gina, it turns out, used to work for Brenda’s dear friend Barbra Streisand’s production company. “I’ve known her since ‘I Can Get it For You Wholesale.’ I was doing ‘Cactus Flower’ [on Broadway] and she was doing that. I adore her. She is one of the most incredibly loyal friends ever.”
When our coffee arrived, I asked Brenda what she wanted to do next. “I’d like to do another series [Gypsy was not renewed after its first season]. Netflix was a class act. I’d love to do something else with them. And Broadway, I’d like to do Broadway.” We’ll be there on opening night.
Seen & Heard Around The Room
GIII’s Morris Goldfarb presiding over a table of ‘suits’ on Table One … Andrew Stein on Three … Robert Zimmerman and Fox 5 ‘s Baruch Shemtov … The Imber Gang: Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Michael Kramer and Andy Bergman at their usual perch on Table Six … Town & Country’s Vicky Ward and PR powerhouse Chris Taylor in Seven … New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia on Eight.
Dr. Robi Ludwig on Table Nine … Joan Jakobson on Eleven .. Simon & Shuster’s Alice Mayhew on Fourteen … Joan Hamburg and pals on Sixteen … The Paley Center’s Maureen Reidy on Twenty … Entertainment scribe Roger Friedman and Jill Brooke on Twenty-one… and Cindy Lewis in the Garden Room.