from Funny Face to Eloise
Kay Thompson
Kevin Killian, author of Impossible Princess, 12/5/2010: A Tempestuous Existence Sam Irvin’s book takes the reader through a kaleidoscopic tour of American show business from the 1920s through the 1970s, through an unlikely prism, the American singer, arranger, songwriter, choreographer and writer Kay Thompson. I ordered the book months ahead of time and when it came to my desk on publication day I sank right in and haven’t been seen since. Maybe the details of Thompson’s career were known to many, but they were all new to me. Her appearances in two latter-day films, Stanley Donen’s Funny Face and Otto Preminger’s Junie Moon, were really all I knew her from, and yet she makes an indelible impression in both. But sort of freakish, right? If ever I thought Judy Garland or Liza Minnelli freakish, they now seem like the girls next door compared to the woman from whom, Irvin argues, they learned all about style and all about putting on a show. Andy Williams’ recent memoir told us a lot about Kay Thompson, who was his mentor as well, and also his girlfriend in a bizarre April- October romance. Irvin gives us all this and more, continually putting Thompson in larger and larger contexts, so that we see 1930s Broadway, 1940s MGM, 1950s Las Vegas and so on as different theaters in which Thompson, apparently, always triumphed. Sam Irvin never met Thompson, and there’s a certain distance in his narration, perhaps reflected in the sort of anti-chronological arrangement of the biography, in which different aspects of Thompson’s life appear not as she lived them, but as Irvin thinks it wisest to narrate, so we learn about Kay’s involvement with Andy Williams in the chapter after she writes Eloise. Not sure exactly what that’s about, but maybe it has something to do with the gradual picture Irvin builds up of a talented woman who was ruined by her own success, a megalomaniac who ran roughshod over the lesser and weaker. After seeing what she did, or tried to do, to the little girl selected to play Eloise in a TV adaptation of her children’s book, you can’t help but hate her! And yet on the other hand, she seems genuinely anguished by her work being ruined by commercial TV. So you sympathize with her. I can’t understand, and Irvin doesn’t give many clues, about why Thompson didn’t take up more of the offers made to her in the wake of her success in Funny Face. He tells us of literally dozens of projects that Thompson worked on that she never brought to pass, and most of them will leave Thompson fans salivating with frustration. How about Who is Sylvia? a planned movie musical version of Irene Dunne’s screwball comedy Theodora Goes Wild, which Thompson and Roger Edens planned as a vehicle for Doris Day! Doris Day and Glenn Ford and Kay Thompson! Oddest detail, Kim Novak was supposed to appear in the movie as herself! (Smalltown girl Doris Day writes a steamy novel about her hometown which is made into a movie starring Novak as the heroine.) Once I learned how close I came to utter movie heaven, in 1958, I shut the book and burst into tears. Keep riding the book out to the end and you will find yourself, as I did, with a grudging admiration for Kay Thompson. She was horrible but she was different, and her last days were stranger than Grey Gardens. If the recent bio of Vincente Minnelli gave us a mean little, nasty and vacant Liza, this book makes her seem almost literally like an angel of kindness toward a woman (Thompson was her godmother) who took away from her nearly as much as she gave. Liza deserves a special award, maybe a Nobel prize for thoughtfulness, do they have such a thing? Read this book, you’ll believe they should. One of my favorite books this year.
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