The Huffington Post: At Lunch With Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts

By Regina Weinreich

La Grenouille experienced a British invasion yesterday for a lunch celebrating the film Far From the Madding Crowd, based on Thomas Hardy’s beloved 19th century novel. Carey Mulligan, currently starring in Skylight on Broadway, plays Bathsheba Everdene, a strong-willed and occasionally wrong-headed heroine, a pre-feminist, you could call her. Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts portrays Gabriel Oak, the pre-feminist hunk who protects her. He is loyal, kind, brave, talented, hard-working, and dreamy. When I asked Schoenaerts, memorable for his performance opposite Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone what he thought of this character, he enthused, “I can learn from him. I want to BE him.”

The film shares with another fine recently released period film, Effie Gray: the actor Tom Sturridge. In FFMC, he’s a soldier, a lout, who briefly wins Bathsheba’s heart, “beneath her” in Gabriel’s estimation. She marries him anyway, bringing on a set of misfortunes. In Effie Gray, about the wife of essayist and art historian John Ruskin, Sturridge portrays the sensitive artist with whom Effie Gray (Dakota Fanning), another pre-feminist, truly connects.

The luncheon being a Peggy Siegal affair, Amanda Foreman (who goes by Bill) interviewed Mulligan and Schoenaerts, with Finding Neverland’s Matthew Morrison, Julie Taymor, Tina Brown, Stefano Tonchi attending. Sir Peter Westmacotts, British Ambassador to the United States and Danny Lopez, British Consul General in New York, introduced her, noting her contribution to literature. Everyone always asks how Foreman does it, writing her books, managing a household including her five children, and hosting House of Speakeasy which that night would convene at City Winery featuring authors Elif Shafak, Tom Robb Smith, and House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon. By working all the time, she says.


The Huffington Post: Atwitter With Dan Stevens: House of SpeakEasy

By Regina Weinreich

“Are there any thespians in the house?” asked Simon Doonan at City Winery for the second annual House of SpeakEasy gala on Wednesday night, looking for sympathy. The writer and window dresser long associated with Barney’s (he’s now the store’s creative ambassador at large), had launched into his story about having been tapped for the part of Nigel in the movie of The Devil Wears Prada, a good choice in everyone’s estimation, but he had reservations. “It’s the role of the helpful homosexual,” he quipped, “and I’m not that helpful.” Concluding they were merely picking his brain, “Nigel” did in fact go to a thespian, Stanley Tucci, and yes, there were at least three thespians present in a roomful of writers and other book lovers: Uma Thurman, Jim Dale and Dan Stevens.

Riffing on the theme of Runnin’ Wild, Doonan was one of three featured performers for the event celebrating an organization dedicated to supporting writers, building new literary audiences, and connecting the two in entertaining ways. Another speaker was Susan Fales-Hill, a memoirist and writer for television who began her career as an apprentice on The Cosby Show. A mixed salad of genetic material, she revealed that though she is married for 18 years to the same man, and therefore not wild in the least, she secretly yearns for Downton Abbey’s Mr. Bates. Only Dan Stevens from that cast, a heartthrob to many as the ill-fated Matthew Crawley, attended with his wife Susie Hariet. A sometime writer, known to tweet, he’s editor-at-large of a literary magazine, The Junket.

Humorist P. J. O’Rourke went wild on the subject of baby boomers’ absorption in the self. This entertainment was leavened by Jim Dale’s skillful recitation of familiar quotes from Shakespeare, two of John Dewar and Son’s Last Great Malts, Aberfeldy and Craigellachie single malt whiskies, and a literary quiz masterminded by the evening’s M. C. Amanda Foreman. A mother of five who goes by the name of Bill, Foreman’s latest credit is with BBC2. She will present a show called The World Made by Women, based on a book of the same title that will be published by Random House in 2016.

Thank goodness! The word is alive and well!

The Huffington Post: ‘Belle’: An Austenesque with a Racial Twist

By Regina Weinreich

The name of this utterly charming movie conjures images of the Disney cartoon feature with a brunette cartoon star singing in the library. Dido Belle, however, was a real life mixed race woman, smart enough to have had a career in the law, but for 18th century England, she went far. The talented Amma Asante’s movie is an Austenesque comedy of manners, keenly involved with who shall marry whom, and whose fortune is more plump than so and so’s social standing, but here’s the delicious twist: Belle is desirably financially endowed, but as a mulatto, and illegitimate, she is of dubious position. Thoughtful and daring, she influences an important decision, changing the course of British history.

Born in a slum to a black woman and a high-born white navy captain (Matthew Goode), Belle’s fate takes a turn when her father takes charge of her, and brings her to his family’s stately mansion. There, surrogate parents, Lord and Lady Mansfield (excellent Tom Wilkinson and a witty Emily Watson), manage Belle’s education and upbringing. Her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) is a constant playmate. Belle’s father disappears early on, and in many ways this romance becomes a father-daughter piece, with Wilkinson beaming proud of his ward as Belle shows intelligence, not only in helping to adjudicate a
famous legal case involving the Zong slave ship vs. an insurance company, but also insisting that when she marries, her race would not be an issue of conciliation and embarrassment. Sam Reid plays the suitor, a kind of Mr. Darcy.

At a recent lunch at la Grenouille, hosted by British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant and W Magazine’s Stefano Tonchi, Phyllicia Rychard, Star Jones, Tamron Hall, and others were introduced to director Amma Asante and her leading actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Diners also heard historical novelist Amanda Foreman flesh out the legalities of the Zong slave ship matter. Foreman, originator of the popular and entertaining House of Speakeasy nights, where writers are invited to extrapolate on a theme, knows how to make history and literature engaging and fun. The discussion went down with the ease of the delicious striped bass: in the case of Belle, and the lovely actress who plays her, a refreshing gem in the season of sequels and action hero blockbusters.

The Huffington Post: Uma Thurman Reads from Moby Dick and Salman Rushdie Wins a Prize at House of Speakeasy

By Regina Weinreich

Good news: the written word thrives downtown. The brainchild of Doctor Amanda Foreman, the author of historical works like Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, “House of Speakeasy” was founded to keep writers visible, engaged with audiences, and earning money for their craft. At a sold-out salon at City Winery on Monday night, the first of a series, some writers who do, also showed another side of their chops as performers: moderated by humorist Andy Borowitz, authors Adam Gopnik (The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food), Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief), Simon Winchester (The Men Who United the States), and songwriter Dar Williams sang–in other words, working writers at The New Yorker magazine and other venues– who also earn a living–told stories on the theme of “plays with matches.”

Wit, particularly in the form of irony, has not died. Gopnik told a tale of addressing a crowd on the topic of “pluralism and the individual,” whatever that means, understanding finally that all such speeches are really variations on that subject. Orlean recounted her observations upon first moving to New York, on the city’s proliferation of Papaya Kings. Winchester’s piece was about working in a morgue, the perfectly explosive accompaniment to the evening’s comfort dinner: chicken on mashed potato.

The four hundred or so guests included Dick Cavett, Steve Croft, Barbara Goldsmith, Kurt Andersen, Marina Rust, and Salman Rushdie who picked up a prize for knowing three famous but not obvious passages from world literature–from Mary Shelley, Robert Frost, and Herman Melville– read to this erudite group by Uma Thurman. His prize: books by the entertaining authors. In something of a summation and echo of his talk, Adam Gopnik said he did not know what he was getting himself into. He just showed up and to his surprise, “It was a big deal. Everyone was there.”

The Huffington Post: Survival in Pre-Civil War South: 12 Years a Slave Honored at the Lotos Club

By Regina Weinreich

The subject of race was addressed head on at a luncheon celebrating the film “12 Years a Slave,” easily the film of the year in an awards season gathering momentum. “I’m a black man, as if you didn’t notice, and part of the global identity of slavery” said director Steve McQueen on a panel led by Amanda Foreman at the Lotos Club on Tuesday. The director was seated between two of his stars Chitwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o and in front of guests who included the luncheon’s host George C. Wolfe, Geoffrey Fletcher, Spike Lee, Thulani Davis, Walter Mosley, and many more of the city’s cultural and industry elite, but the context of McQueen’s remark was an answer to a question about his being a British citizen making art of a particularly American experience, and embarrassment. With family from the West Indies, he pointed out, we are all part of a diaspora, and that understanding makes the horrors of plantation life witnessed in his powerful movie all the more dreadful, and close to home no matter what your color or ethnicity.

Others attending included the actors Tovah Feldshuh, now in “Pippin,” and Nikki James, Tony winner for her work in “Book of Mormon.” James, soon returning to “Mormon,” and slated to play Eponine in the coming revival of “Les Mis,” said she had read for the part of Patsy, the love object of the cruel, psychopath plantation owner played by Michael Fassbinder. While James acknowledged that it is always a disappointment when a part goes to someone else, she admired Lupita Nyong’o’s work as Patsy, especially as this is the young actress’ first film and she was chosen fresh out of Yale. Beaten and tortured, Patsy picks cotton by day and prays for death by night. One of the most heartbreaking scenes is when Solomon (Ejiofor) leaves the plantation, a free man at last, but he leaves her, a soul mate, behind.

In many ways, the story of Solomon Northrup, based on his memoir of the same title, who, as a free man was kidnapped and sold into slavery, has a happy ending. He does return to family and loved ones. But Patsy as a character is emblematic of the huge numbers that never lived free lives. Despite the relief of seeing Solomon with a grandson named for him, the searing images of where he has been are unforgettable.

One of the movie’s producers, Dede Gardner (she’s partners at Plan B with Brad Pitt who plays a heroic role both in the film as a Canadian abolitionist, and beyond, getting the film financed and green lit) noted that one of her jobs was protecting the film, fighting the fear that the subject is not commercial, is too difficult in its most extreme violent moments. Gardner is clearly building a career with fine films that have this edge. Her current project is a movie of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” starring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts. As in matters of race, the politics of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980’s, pose questions of conscience and humanity that we are all only beginning to address.