It never was you

Laurie Simmons on My Art and pushing boundaries

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Laurie Simmons on Kurt Weill's It Never Was You: "I love the words to the song because of Ellie [Laurie Simmons] assuming all these characters. It has so many meanings."
Laurie Simmons on Kurt Weill's It Never Was You: "I love the words to the song because of Ellie [Laurie Simmons] assuming all these characters. It has so many meanings." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Laurie Simmons has assembled an impressive list of collaborators for her debut feature film My Art, including Barbara Sukowa, Blair Brown, Parker Posey, and Lena Dunham to go along with her film vignette reenactment partners Robert Clohessy, John Rothman and Josh Safdie.

Costume designer Stacey Battat (Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer's Still Alice, Scott McGehee and David Siegel's What Maisie Knew, Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled and The Bling Ring) and production designer Kelly McGehee (Oren Moverman's The Dinner and Time Out Of Mind, Reed Morano's Meadowland and I Think We're Alone Now) dressed up the actors and the sets respectively, and Celia Rowlson-Hall brilliantly recreated choreography from Joshua Logan's Picnic, starring William Holden and Kim Novak.

Laurie Simmons channels Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Morocco
Laurie Simmons channels Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Morocco

Laurie and I discuss her recreations of Richard Quine's Bell, Book And Candle, John Huston's The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe, Irving Pichel's Mr Peabody And the Mermaid, starring William Powell and Ann Blyth which leads to Disney's adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and her daughter Lena, and Barbara Sukowa singing Kurt Weill in the first installment of our in-depth conversation on My Art.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I would like to start with two people you worked with on your film - two favourites of mine whose work I really like.

Laurie Simmons: I know who one of them is going to be.

AKT: Who?

LS: Barbara?

AKT: Absolutely. Barbara Sukowa. And someone whose work I’ve known for maybe two years, and that’s Celia [Rowlson-Hall].

LS: Oh, she’s amazing.

Barbara Sukowa: "I knew Barbara loved to sing Kurt Weill."
Barbara Sukowa: "I knew Barbara loved to sing Kurt Weill." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: She’s great. Let’s start with Celia and the choreography for Picnic - which is so spot-on. I could see William Holden, I could see Kim Novak.

LS: I know, but it’s my most embarrassing moment. Like, that’s the one moment in the movie where I have trouble watching myself.

AKT: Really?

LS: The most. And I tend to sit through every screening. But that’s the moment where I clench my fists and close my eyes and sink into my seat. First of all, I had a brilliant wig maker I’ve worked with. But I found that Kim Novak wig just so embarrassing to wear. The other thing is - I practiced the dance at home so many times and I felt that I was really comfortable with it.

But there was something about wearing the wig and the pink dress and having Celia on set. And Celia is someone who can make anyone comfortable. But I became very fragile - I felt very fragile and very vulnerable. And in the end, maybe it helped the character, it helped the movie in a certain way. But it was one of my most painful self-conscious moments.

AKT: And I jump right to that with my first question! I liked it because it is also what is happening in Picnic. It is the most self-conscious, the most embarrassing moment. I read somewhere that William Holden was drunk and everyone was making fun of his dancing.

Robert Clohessy and John Rothman join Laurie Simmons in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange
Robert Clohessy and John Rothman join Laurie Simmons in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange

LS: This is interesting. First of all, they [Novak and Holden] did not like each other. When they were going to shoot that scene for Picnic there was a horrible hail storm or thunderstorm and William Holden was drunk. They shot it on a soundstage after and William Holden again was embarrassed to dance. He had no interest in dance. They did not get along. There was no chemistry between them.

The thing that drew me to the scene was the fact that all of the beautiful movement, chemistry, dance moves are done by the camera. All of the emotion is sort of brought to us by the camerawork. And as a photographer, as a visual artist, that story - besides the fact that I love the movie - is really significant to me.

The power of cinematography to make that scene happen. My incredible wigmaker came up to me and said “Stand up straight and suck your stomach in,” because my body was just collapsing into a kind of insecure posture.

AKT: I took note of the name of the wigmaker - Witch of Capri.

LS: It’s kind of a pseudonym.

AKT: It’s a good name. Speaking of embarrassment, Blair Brown suggests to the Ellie character at one point: “You should embarrass yourself more.” Did anyone ever say that to you?

On her Picnic vignette choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall: "Oh, she’s amazing."
On her Picnic vignette choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall: "Oh, she’s amazing." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

LS: I said it to myself. And now I say it to everyone. Because when I had my first show in New York in 1979, I had two groups of work. One group were these very dark conceptual pictures that involved little objects and pieces of furniture. And the other group of work were these very colourful dolls and dollhouses. And I was embarrassed of them and I was afraid to show them to anyone.

And my boyfriend at the time, Carroll Dunham, who is now my husband, said “You really ought to show these to someone.” I had an appointment to show them to a woman who ran an alternative space, a very important sort of gallery downtown. And I almost didn’t take that group of pictures and only took the more conceptual ones. And at the last minute I grabbed them.

She had no interest in the darker ones and only the ones that I felt embarrassed about. It gave me the signal early on that if you push yourself into territory where you may not feel stable and you may actually feel humiliated - maybe you should go there. Just try to go there.

AKT: It’s an important line for the entire film. The other line that captures the essence of My Art is the title of the song Barbara Sukowa sings, the Kurt Weill song - It Never Was You. There are so many ways to interpret this phrase.

Kim Novak and William Holden in Joshua Logan's Picnic
Kim Novak and William Holden in Joshua Logan's Picnic

LS: I knew Barbara loved to sing Kurt Weill. And I can’t even tell you how much I love that song. I’ve heard it sung by Lotte Lenya ...

AKT: Did you ever see Knickerbocker Holiday?

LS: No, I’ve not seen it but I have the soundtrack. Have you seen it?

AKT: No, never, but I’d love to. Someone should stage it now.

LS: Yeah, my producer actually was in discussions to work on it, to do it in film. It never happened. I love the words to the song because of Ellie assuming all these characters. It has so many meanings. The scene as I shot it I was trying to show that Barbara wasn’t coming to see me, that character Veronica, because she obviously was flirting with the piano player. I wanted to flesh that out so much more. I do have friends like this - constantly here and there, this younger man, that man.

AKT: I didn’t get that at all. He was just the piano player.

LS: I know! I think that’s in my mind.

AKT: The line It Never Was You clearly relates to it never being you when you are performing scenes from Morocco and Jules Et Jim or Bell, Book And Candle, which is a personal favourite. I love Pyewacket.

Laurie Simmons as Kim Novak with faux Pyewacket in Bell, Book And Candle: "In so many of these movies love is the ingredient that cuts a woman down ..."
Laurie Simmons as Kim Novak with faux Pyewacket in Bell, Book And Candle: "In so many of these movies love is the ingredient that cuts a woman down ..."

LS: You’re the film writer and expert, I’m just another artist cinephile, there’s a million of us but - the whole thing, that trope of movies where women have work and passion and then they fall in love and they lose their power. You know, at the end of Bell, Book And Candle she doesn’t sell these voodoo objects, she runs a little flower shop. In so many of these movies love is the ingredient that cuts a woman down to size and makes her vulnerable and sweet again. Oh, I’m so glad you like that movie.

AKT: I love the early scenes with Pyewacket and the power she has. And James Stewart takes some of that away from her, as you say. Mr Peabody And The Mermaid is another example.

LS: Did you know that movie?

AKT: I have a vague memory of it.

LS: From childhood?

AKT: Yes, seeing it on TV. I really want to see it again. It’s William Powell [and the mermaid is Ann Blyth].

My Art opened in New York at the Quad Cinema
My Art opened in New York at the Quad Cinema

LS: The mermaid never speaks.

AKT: Mermaids don’t, even when they turn human.

LS: There’s another one called One Touch Of Venus where the statue comes alive.

AKT: There is one with Rita Hayworth as Terpsichore [Alexander Hall’s Down to Earth].

LS: [One Touch Of Venus with Ava Gardner] - it’s so beautiful and also kind of mute. It’s like these men dreaming about the perfect woman. The perfect woman is someone who can smile and doesn’t speak and completely bends to your will. It’s amazing. And this is what I grew up on.

AKT: Also in the tales. The mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen’s version not only gives up her voice but every footstep is as if she were walking on knives. And later her sisters give up their hair to get her a dagger.

LS: The Hans Christian Andersen mermaid is so excruciating. Even The Red Shoes.

AKT: It’s also always the feet for women so they cannot move. But actually I like the Andersen version much more than the Disney. Andersen says the female sacrifice doesn’t always necessarily work, whereas Disney promotes the female sacrifice.

Ann Blyth and William Powell in Mr Peabody And The Mermaid: "It’s like these men dreaming about the perfect woman."
Ann Blyth and William Powell in Mr Peabody And The Mermaid: "It’s like these men dreaming about the perfect woman."

LS: I’ve had an interesting experience with The Little Mermaid. It was the thing to do. I took my daughter. I took Lena. At the end everyone was really excited and she was just sobbing. I knew people at the theater and they said “What’s wrong?” And she said [copying her sobbing child’s voice] “She has to leave the father!” Suddenly, to my little girl, she had to leave her really nice father and go live with this guy. The handsome prince kind of looked like a monster to her.

AKT: Really, that’s at the core of the story. It’s also at the core of Beauty and the Beast. It’s the love for the father and the feelings for this man and coming to terms with that.

LS: Right! And for a little girl - I don’t know how old Lena was then - but she wasn’t at all ready to leave her father or her family. All the kids seeing the Disney version were like really excited and she was sobbing!

AKT: That makes perfect sense to me.

LS: I was a little embarrassed because I’m carrying around this weeping child going: “She is leaving her father!”

AKT: I agree with her. Because the Disney version sends the message - Give everything up, lose your voice and you’ll be loved back! Ha, ha, very realistic.

LS: The messages of these movies are really wild.

Laurie Simmons and Lena Dunham will attend the Los Angeles opening at the Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre on January 19.

My Art is currently screening at the Quad Cinema in New York.

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