Saturday, October 1, 2011

VIFF 2011: “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life”

The term “larger than life” has been taken too liberally these days. It has been used to market fast food, describe strange self-empowerment concepts that even Oprah would find odious, and I read an actual article somewhere where the moniker was attached to a certain Jersey Shore cast member.

Wrong. This is just plain wrong. And it must be corrected.

The term “larger than life” is a descriptor used to describe someone who is completely, utterly themselves, and whose clearly defined persona matches an unmistakably signature look. It also aptly describes performers who are so charismatic that their persona overtakes the roles they play, but whose star quality become so intimately ingrained in the role that you don’t mind that they are really playing an extension of themselves. Correct usage of the descriptor includes Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovitch, Lauren Bacall in just about anything, and Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!

Director Dori Berinstein’s biographical documentary film about the legendary Broadway star whose comic public image belied a good deal of hutzpah and talent is an infectious cinematic confection for those who love the stage. With her smoky voice, matter-of-fact delivery, cherry-red lips and saucer eyes, it’s no wonder she’s so distinctive, and Channing uses it to her advantage. Every inch a star, Channing is a sharp-tongued but never mean-spirited human dynamo. Known for her affinity for mimicry, Channing showboats impressively in the film in Yiddish, French and Russian(!), keeping her tongue firmly in cheek.

The film shows how, in her own way, she is unassuming despite her out-there personality. While the average American in the 1960s saw her on morning local TV shows playing up her kooky image and cutting a rug with the cool kids on Laugh-in, what they don’t know or see is that she would film her appearances after flying in the night before, right after a performance of Hello Dolly! on the road, and get into hair and makeup on little to no sleep, then delivering the goods to the public. Anything to help the show, which she performed on Broadway and took on the road for several years, so solid was her dedication to the role. One dancer she works with quips, “there’s a joke that Carol would attend the opening of an envelope if she thought it would help ticket sales”. Her dedication and sincere belief in the stage play, which she calls “hallowed ground”, is what separates her from the sell-outs who are just out to make a buck. Channing knows that the theater matters, and she wants you to know she recognizes how important it is to her audience. Even at age 90, she participated in a Kennedy Center Honors production and is hoofing it onstage with men half or even a third of her age, and yet every one of those who work with her know she’s the only star. How do we know she’s a dream to work with? In the very successful 1994 Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly!, staged a remarkable 30 years after it took New York and the country by storm and featuring the original star, it’s noted that no one left the production for another job during its entire run. That, folks, is the kind of job everyone wants to have. And no one would have that had it not been for Carol Channing herself.

Playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Carol Channing: Larger Than Life runs a lightning-fast 83 minutes and is the rare all-access documentary where the star truly engages the audience without resorting to a scripted “tell-all”. This is an unfiltered look at her life, her memories and her recollections. Her life is not without controversy and she does address them, including her messy divorce in 1998 at age 77, her muted dismissal of fellow stage legend Barbra Streisand in the role of Hello Dolly! on film, and her battle with ovarian cancer. Berinstein’s film of the charming legend will appeal most to high school glee club kids, gay theatre folk and those with fond memories of Channing as one of the biggest stars around. But for the uninitiated, stick around, and let her tell you the story of her life. It’s larger than life.

Carol Channing: Larger Than Life will play at the Empire Granville Theatre on Saturday, October 2 and on Wednesday, October 5. For ticket information, click here.