The gossip queen is a unique expert on the Broadway season
If youâ€™re looking for an expert on this springâ€™s Broadway plays, then start with Liz Smith. Not because she wrote the scripts or designed the costumes, but because she knew the people the plays are about and because sheâ€™s probably having cocktails with the actresses who play them.
Smith is an institution of celebrity reporting and gossip. With almost 60 yearsâ€™ experienceâ€”including her current work at The Huffington Post, NewYorkSocialDiary.com, and Wowowow.comâ€”sheâ€™s gotten to know almost everyone there is to know. That gives her a unique perspective on two Broadway plays: Ann, which was written by and stars Holland Taylor as former Texas governor Ann Richards, and Iâ€™ll Eat You Last, which stars Bette Midler as legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. Smith was close with Richards, knew Men0gers, and is friends with both Taylor and Midler.
In other words, she can answer questions that plenty of other people canâ€™t.
For instance, how might Richards have felt about her life being turned into a play? â€œI think she would have enjoyed it, but I think she would have thought Holland was totally insane,â€ Smith says. â€œBecause Holland knows more about Ann than anybody in the world now.â€
Itâ€™s easy to see why Richardsâ€”who shot to fame after her fiery speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention and went on to spend a term as Texas governorâ€”would make for good theatre. â€œShe was so energetic!â€ Smith recalls. â€œ[Her boyfriend] and I would go with Ann to the theatre, and she would leave us! Weâ€™d be back at the light, creeping along like we were 85, and Ann would be two blocks ahead.â€
Her wit matched her energy. Smith, who is also from Texas, recalls being invited to speak on a panel for comic women in the 1980s. Richards, who was then the Texas state treasurer, was also there, and Smith says, â€œShe was the person who was funny. The rest of us were supposed to be funny, but we werenâ€™t funny at all.â€
Shortly after 9/11, Richards moved to New York City, and she and Smith became much closer friends. She kept her flair, and Smith fondly remembers performing with her at a benefit for the Phyllis Newman Womenâ€™s Health Initiative.
But of course, there was more to Richards than feistiness. Even after she lost the governorâ€™s office to George W. Bush, she continued to fight for political causes she believed in. Smith recalls, â€œI said to her one time, â€˜Ann, why are you working so hard?â€™ And she said, â€˜Liz! I donâ€™t want to have to go back to Austin and live in a trailer in Ellenâ€™s driveway!â€™ Ellen was one of her children. She said, â€˜Ellen just loves old people, you know. The poorer, the sicker: She just canâ€™t get enough of them. And I donâ€™t want to be one of those people.â€™â€
Smith sees that dedication reflected in Holland Taylor, who has poured herself into Richardsâ€™ life and legacy. (This is the first play Taylor has written, and she has performed it several times en route to the Vivian Beaumont Theater.) â€œIt isnâ€™t that she is so like Ann physically, but she gets to the truth of Ann,â€ Smith says. â€œShe researched Ann to the end of the earth. She knows people that Iâ€™ve met once and donâ€™t remember.â€ Laughing, she adds, â€œHer all-or-nothing immersion into what sheâ€™s doing is very irritating to me, because I like to live a superficial life.â€
That one-liner that might be perfect for Iâ€™ll Eat You Last, which was written by John Logan and opens next month at the Booth. The play charts the rise of fall of Sue Mengers, who made her name as the agent for superstars like Barbra Streisand. â€œShe was smart and funny and quick, and people enjoyed having her for an agent because she was fearless,â€ Smith says. â€œShe would say anything: â€˜Oh, I f***ed him. It wasnâ€™t worth it.â€™ She was hilarious.â€ Smith adds, â€œShe was also snarky and disdainful to the rest of us peons. She liked me okay, but I wasnâ€™t important. Even after I became important, I wasnâ€™t important.â€
Still, Mengers reached out to Smith with plenty of juicy tidbits. â€œShe would call to give me news and say, â€˜You donâ€™t know who Mr. So-and-So is? Are you in the business, Liz? Get in the business!â€™ She was always chastising me and saying, â€œDonâ€™t tell people I called you! Donâ€™t say that you even know me!â€™â€
These days, of course, Mengers star doesnâ€™t shine that brightly, especially with people outside the entertainment industry, and thatâ€™s why the play needs a star like Bette Midler. â€œNow, the roles are reversed, and itâ€™s Bette Midlerâ€™s name that will sell the Sue Mengers story,â€ Smith says. â€œIf Bette is witty and good enough and gets itâ€”which she willâ€”she will make Sue more famous than she ever was.â€
Smith has been friends with Midler for a long time, and sheâ€™s glad to see her in this play. â€œI can see that it presents a wonderful challenge to Bette. She gets to play somebody other than Bette, and she hasnâ€™t gotten to do that much. Her public always wants her to be this outlandish thing, and she is not. Sheâ€™s a real dichotomy. Sometimes, when Iâ€™ve been with her, sheâ€™s putting out kilowatts of charm, and the next time you see her, sheâ€™ll be shy and removed. And you can never tell which Bette Midler sheâ€™ll be.â€
Midler, then, may bring balance and humanity to Mengersâ€™ outsized persona. And of course, she can rely on Smith for research: â€œI sent her all my letters from Sue,â€ Smith says. â€œAnd I told her who to see in Hollywood.â€