10 March 1975: The Village Voice

The Avengeress As She Is

The girl on the stage is decked out in an Orphan Annie hairdo. Her face is Clara Bow and Susan Hayward: petulant lips, Betty boop eyes, inverted nose clustered together atop a Ginny Giraffe neck, like a lollipop on a long, long stick. When she moves, the part of her arms below the elbow twirl independent of the rest of her. When she stands still, her behind moves independent of the rest of her. She is a flirt with a mocking smirk and pity the poet or playboy fool enough to fall for her.

The girl is Diana Rigg, the play is "The Misanthrope," and the place is the Eisenhower Theatre at Kennedy Center in Washington ("The Misanthrope" begins a 12-week run at the St. James in New York on March 12). Whether the world is ready for Miss Rigg and Moliere in modern dress and rhyming couplets is for the drama desks to decide. But in Washington, "The Misanthrope" caters to the "Camelot" crowd. At play's end, the audience files out, a sea of mink soles, Garfinkel midnight blue suits, Cartier jewels - an aroma of Chivas Regal and Jade East Musk Oil permeating the air. I head backstage to an ambiance of cold cream, lighted makeup mirrors, lipstick-smeared Kleenex, and gaiety.

Oddly enough, the air backstage seems purer, Diana Rigg sticks her head out of her dressing room. The makeup is off and the face belongs to the Diana of "The Avengers" and Mrs. Emma Peel. She beckons me in. Her curly wig sits on a stand. Her natural hair is medium length, auburn and straight. She mispronounces my name, which isn't easy, and offers a glass of cold white wine. Only a dressing gown covers her slender body. "Let me introduce you to Alec McCowen. You two can talk while I get dressed." We two talk. Ten minutes later, Diana reappears in slacks and a gray fox fur jacket, the kind which was chic when Brenda Frazier was chic.

She's arranged a midnight bridge game at her suite at the Watergate. Bridge is not my game. We decide to meet for brunch the following day, but walk back to the Watergate. En route, she confides that she's anxious to get back to New York. Four years ago, she subleased Tom Eyen's Village apartment, walked the streets unrecognized, and had the time of her life.

We say goodnight and at noon on Sunday, my phone rings.

"Where are you?"

"It's a little after 12," I say.

"Shit!" she shrieks. "I thought it was 2. I could have slept another bloody hour."

I phone room service. It is two. I call back Diana to apologize. "Never mind," she sulks. "I had a chance to see the end of 'Tarzan and the Amazons' and most of 'Suspicion.'" Five minutes later, I knock at her door. Her eyes are bloodshot. Her mammoth bed looks as if she's finished entertaining the cast of "Sometimes Sweet Susan." Clothes are scattered everywhere. Ethel Waters is spouting homilies from a rocking chair in "The Sound and the Fury" on TV. The sound is 50 decibals above deafening. Outside, rain is coming down in torrents. Diana is edgy. Hotel food is lousy. "Fuck it. Let's go downstairs and drink."

The waiter, an "Avenger" freak", sits us near a window overlooking shopping center terrain. We order Bloody Marys. Diana takes a long swig. "I lost 27 cents last night," she says. "You better go easy with me." So I say again that I enjoyed "The Misanthrope" and zero in on specific bits of business. Like when she talks to Alec McCowen, her lips are never more than an inch away from his. She stops me mid-paragraph. "DON'T! If You make me aware of what I'm doing, I'll freeze for at least three performances."

How can she help but consciously know what she's doing? Don't fans applaud specific gestures? "No." Doesn't she read reviews? "Hardly ever. When I read reviews, a confusion arises become I'm bound ro strike everybody differently. And what does it matter? The product is out and done, a fait accompli."

Then how did she segue into her role in "The Misanthrope" a role unlike anything she's ever done before? Osmosis? Direction? With a look that reads who the hell do I have to fuck to get out of here, she orders another drink and answers "Clothes. I talked with the designer about the colors of the character. I saw her as a golden girl, wearing golden browns and creams, never any underwear. Her body had to be evident, fluid, nothing stiff to imprison her personality, always free. Her clothes had to be an extension of her character."

The hair of the dog is biting again. We order another round. I confess I've seen just one of her films. She confesses she isn't crazy about her movies. She liked working with Vincent Price in "Theatre of Blood" ("we giggled our way through it"), is careful not to say anything about George C. Scott, her co-star in "The Hospital" ("whenever George wasn't around, Paddy Chayevsky and I played Scrabble. Paddy cheated. he made up New York Jewish words"), and boasts that she declined a starring role in "Murder on the Orient Express" ("Which role? Shit, I can't remember"). Daughters of Emma Peel parts are offered daily, "but I can't resurrect that experience. I've got to keep moving." Following "The Misanthrope" she'll do "Phaedra" at the Old Vic with John Dexter directing and next year she'll fence with Paul Scofield in "The Guardsman." More than anything, she'd like to star in a musical on Broadway. "Start the story with that line," she says. "Let them know I have a voice. Don't tell them that it's basso profundo. I'll take off six months to rehearse."

We finish our Watergate eggs and order more Bloody Marys. The waiters stand at attention like typewriter keys waiting to be punched. Diana and I are the only non-waiters left in the restaurant. Doesn't matter. She's feeling terrific. So am I. She says she adores old movies. Adores Carole Lombard. Adores Mae West. Adored "She Done Him Wrong."

"What transpired in that film is that crime does pay. Mae, you know, was a true original. You look at her physically, and what does she have? A thick body, a face of questionable beauty, but what comes across as an incredibly likable, funny woman."

Suddenly, Diana is doing Mae West with a British accent. Then she breaks into a hilarious tale about her adventures at the Tehran Film Festival, a tale of the Iran Runs featuring Ann Miller who carried around a box of little white pills "for prevention" and who found a poor little man to lug her two-ton jewelry case around the country. "I loooove Ann Miller," she says. "She is always a star. I respect and admire it, but I can't do it. Mind you, love, I'll spend days making myself immaculate for a stage part. But once done, I can't help feeling that the rest of the time is mine. People must find me as I am, not what they would like me to be."

As she is, is, to put it mildly, relaxed. Somnolent, sublimely giddy, she admits to a passion for the seamier spots. She admits, too, that a couple of boys in the cast plan to take her to Washington's foremost leather bar before the trip departs for New York. I volunteer the names of three current rat-chic spots in Manhattan. She is delighted, but cautious "since I'm a guest of your country.

"Actors," she begins, "can never be respectable. The wrong ones try, the right ones are much too irreverent. Face it, the establishment still labels us low-lifes, and never the twain shall meet. Well, my dear, a few days ago, Alec McCowen and I got an invitation to the governor's annual dinner. The kids in the company were thrilled for us and wanted us to be on our best behavior. In fact, after the evening performance, they waited outside our dressing rooms like little ducks to see us draped in our finery. So as not to disappoint them, I slipped into a Frederick's of Hollywood type number which somebody had given me: Priscilla Presley pink with black edging, nipples cut out, panties with no crotch. For extra dimension, I added full length black stockings and stepped out of the dressing room dangling a beaded bag. It was not what they expected.

"Subsequently, I changed into something extremely ladylike and off Alec and I stepped. By the time we got to the party, everybody had been wined and dined and we starving thespians saw not a morsel in sight. And there was no booze. And we didn't know a soul. We asked rather loudly, 'Are there any other actors or actresses around?' 'Is there any champagne in the house?' Well, my dear, I saw the top of President Ford's head and the back of Mrs. Ford's neck and that was too fucking sobering so I took to the dance floor and landed flat on my ass. The problem was, I wasn't drunk. I just slipped. An American governor helped me to my feet. 'Are you hurt?' he asked. 'No,' I answered. 'Pity,' he answered, 'think of what you could sue them for if you were.'"

Would Emma Peel have landed in such a position? No, no, no, no. Mae West wouldn't. Ann Miller wouldn't. Martha Mitchell might, yet Mrs. Mitchell is one of Diana's pet peeves.

"A very stupid woman representing the worst in female things I despise." Vanessa Redgrave is another candidate for Diana's "Women to Antarctica" list. "Vanessa is in the tradition of Lenin and Stalin and Hitler. She lacks humor. Total political conviction on an extremist level tends to dictatorship. There's no admittance of the rights of the other. Humor demands a capacity to step out of a given situation in order to see yourself as a little quaint."

In her own quaint way, Diana is totally apolitical. In England, she campaigns for no one. She stays away from the women's movement, recognizing that they need help enormously, but "you can't legislate what goes on in people's heads. It cripples me with laughter when I think of the great libbers who separate from their hubbies and ask for - and get - zonking amounts of alimony. Sexual liberation is a very personalized journey and you have to have the courage to take it by yourself." (Diana's own trip involved an eight year stopover with director Philip Saville, who was married to someone else. Last year, at age 36, she married Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen. They are now separated.)

Woozy, but rosy, we rise to our feet. The waiters have gone. We weave our way through the tables. My imagination begins to play funny tricks. I picture Diana leaping on table tops, karate-chopping her way to the door, catching James McCord in the act. "How would Emma Peel have dealt with Watergate?" I ask.

"Tahdum. Tahdum." She pauses a minute. "Let me see. She'd have done something completely physical and kinky. With Dean and Haldeman and Mitchell, she'd have gagged them and tied them in dentist chairs. With Nixon, she'd just let him talk. She'd raise and eyebrow..."

She raises an eyebrow. "...and just let him talk."

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