Liz Smith: Johnny Depp and Tim Burton

“WE ALL go a little mad sometimes.” — Norman Bates, Psycho

THE JOHNNY DEPP/Tim Burton big-screen retooling of TV’s legendary Dark Shadows isn’t in release yet, though the trailers look fabulous. (This new version appears to be intentionally funny, as opposed to the unintended yucks sometimes generated by the series, which was taped live.)

But another Burton/Depp collaboration is already said to be in the works. These two have paired seven times over the years. They are the Laurel and Hardy of surreal cinefantastique.

Rumor has it that the boys will recreate the famous Vincent Price villain, Dr. Phibes. All horror fans recall 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes, with Price as a mad doctor set on avenging the death of his wife. It was one of the late actor’s most beloved characterizations. (He reprised the role in Dr. Phibes Rises Again.)

Both Johnny Depp and Tim Burton have spoken of their fondness for Phibes. And also for Vincent Price. Indeed, Burton wrote the role of The Inventor in Edward Scissorhands specifically for Price, which was the actor’s final onscreen appearance. Now screenwriter and author William Goldstein has worked up a new Phibes novel, Dr. Phibes: In the Beginning. Goldstein is no stranger to the character, having penned similar novels when the two Phibes films were released in ’71 and ’72.

The book is in the hands of Warner Bros. and producer Jon Jashni, who has pitched it to Burton and Depp.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE WRITERS — and a well-remembered reader at New York’s annual Literacy Partners event — has been the writer Robert Hughes. He is the former Time magazine art expert who wrote the historic The Fatal Shore about how Australia was settled by the British from among the criminal classes and people they considered useless dregs whom they imprisoned for export.

Robert Hughes has a new book titled Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. This is a magnificent study of the fabled city, from its mythical mysterious founding by Romulus and Remus, Troy’s hero Anenas, or the Etruscans. You pick!

As a man devoted to art, his book chronicles the evolutions (and devolutions) of Roman sculpture, painting, architecture. But along with lessons in marbles, frescoes and the triumph of the aqueducts, Mr. Hughes delivers lively, provocative history — from Julius Caesar, through the Popes, to Mussolini and on to Berlusconi.

The art history is woven seamlessly into military battles, politics, religion and the author’s own long personal love affair with Rome, a mistress both wanton and pious. His style is elegant but right to the point. He does not hesitate or speculate, ever. He knows what he knows. And we know he’s correct.

I couldn’t possibly do this masterpiece justice, writing about it myself. I urge it on anybody who would like to be educated, uplifted, moved and amused.

I do want to mention Mr. Hughes’ gigantic disillusion with what has happened to international culture in our modern age. He writes of what Rome has become in the Berlusconi age, even less than it was in the Fellini age — which he admits, he rather liked — a betrayer of all we hold dear.

Romulus and Remus suckled by the she-wolf

He cites European tourism, with people in the Louvre bashing one another as they photograph the Mona Lisa so they can say they were there and about the masses fighting to go through the Sistine Chapel. That sacred place is no longer a cool, welcome respite from the heat of Rome, as Goethe found it, two hundred years ago. Hughes does add that if you long for a measure of quietude at the Sistine Chapel, one must “pay what in effect is a hefty ransom to the Vatican.” (Small private tours go for $500 per person.)

Tischbein's Goethe in the Roman countryside, 1787

Here’s Mr. Hughes:

“You might say that it has always been this way but actually it has not. It has gotten worse since the 60’s with the colossal, steamrolling mind-obliterating power of TV—whose Italian forms are among the worst in the world. The cultural IQ of (nations) has dropped considerably. We’re into a wholly upfront culture of football, reality shows and celebrity games, a culture of pure distraction.”

Hughes believes most people no longer give (his words) “a rats ass.” He adds that one cannot simply write a culture off because it has gone into recession … because recessions can prove to be merely temporary. But he speaks of the dreck and distractions of overloaded tourism and coarsened spectacle. He asks what tourists want or expect: “Something easy and self explanatory like Disney World?” He also notes, “Cultures do grow old, and sometimes one of the ominous signs of this can be their frustrated desire to look young.”

Mr. Hughes, someone I love and respect, is at a cultural wit’s end and he is right to chide the world.

Anita Ekberg in the Trevi fountain in La Dolce Vita

UNLESS YOU’VE been living under a bagel or an onion roll, you know that Barbra Streisand is supposedly readying herself to play Mama Rose in a big screen remake of Gypsy. Her fans are kvelling at the very thought of a Streisand version of “Rose’s Turn.”

But that’s not the only project on Barbra’s plate. Another one, in the talking stage as yet, is guaranteed to drive devotees mad. Get this — I hear Barbra is confabbing with Harry Connick Jr., to help her produce a new album of old songs — songs from Funny Girl in fact!

Streisand wants to “update” the famous Jule Styne/Bob Merrill score, to make it more “pop oriented.” It’s hard to imagine Barbra tampering with the material that made her legendary, or that purists won’t object.

But Barbra has never allowed mere criticism to stop her. If she had, we wouldn’t still be talking about her.

P.S. Whether or not Gypsy or a re-boot of her Funny Girl songs ever happens, at least we do know that Streisand will be back in Brooklyn this fall, set to perform at the new Barclays Center arena. Ticketmaster says so, and they are never wrong.

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 5/9/12

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