Liz Smith: The Champagne Tales of James Toback — A Sneak Peek at His Memoir?

Toback tells of Brando generosity and Darren Criss "Succeeds" on Broadway

And more from our Liz: Darren Criss conquers Broadway … Jean Dujardin loves George Clooney’s “perfect ears”

“MY ONLY regret in life is that I did not drink enough champagne!” said the British economist John Maynard Keynes.

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WELL, THAT could not be said of director James Toback. Mr. Toback, along with dozens of other show-biz denizens, appeared at New York City’s Monkey Bar this week, invited to honor director Michel Hazanavicius and his gorgeous, silent, black and white film, “The Artist.” Harvey Weinstein, Diane von Furstenberg and George Stevens, Jr. were the hosts. Dom Perignon sponsored. I told you all this yesterday. Today is a big, gossipy P.S.

When the charmingly garrulous Mr. Toback took his seat, next to actor Tony Lo Bianco and choreographer Leontine Snel, he noted that each course of the menu came with a different champagne. Toback turned his glass upside down, waved away the wine, and then said, merrily: “I used to drink ten bottles of Dom a day. I was a total champagne alcoholic. When I was making one of my films, the producer called for me, complaining: ‘Look at this, look what it says here in the daily production notes — ‘the director swilled champagne throughout the day.’ What do you have to say about that?’ And I said, “It sounds about right!’”

Apparently, Mr. Toback was never impaired professionally by his habit, but he did stop, “Thirty years ago and without AA. I went to my doctor and he simply said, ‘Your liver is shot. You can choose champagne or just one more year of life and a very painful death.’ So I decided I’d rather live.” Toback, whose credits include the screenplay for “Bugsy,” also said he “tried to work Dom into all my movies — product placement. Then I’d get more!”

Mr. Lo Bianco and Mr. Toback are old pals, but there were others at the table too, whom Mr. Toback had not met. Yet he was perfectly relaxed, enthusiastic, even, to share this, and dozens of other glamorous, intimate and entertainingly narrated tales of his long career as a director/writer/producer/actor and friend to the famous. Names such as Marlon Brando, Orson Welles, Elvis (and his girdle), Judy Garland, Alain Delon, (and his gangster connections), the notorious David Begelman (“When we met, he just up and told me, ‘Let’s be honest, I’m a crook!’”) whizzed over the various bubbly vintages, the appetizer, the salmon (or pork) and the dessert.

Mr. Lo Bianco, who looks like a million beautifully groomed bucks, was absolutely floored by Toback’s insider knowledge. He kept gasping, “You’ve got to write a book, you have got to write a book!” Mr. Toback assured Tony that his memoirs are “halfway done.” Judging by what was revealed over a casual luncheon, this one should burn through bookshelves, or cause Kindles to explode.

(Tony, by the way, is prepping to bring back his one-man show about Fiorello LaGuardia, and looking into movies, after a hiatus. He teaches acting, here and in Italy, and has an unusually sensitive grasp of how to “encourage creativity.”)

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BACK TO Mr. Toback’s tales. Perhaps the most revealing one involved Marlon Brando.

As Toback tells it, Marlon arrived early on the set of “Reflections in a Golden Eye” and peered into the dressing room of actor Robert Forster, who played the young soldier in the movie. Marlon saw that Forster’s trailer had no bar, stereo, or other stellar amenities. When Forster showed up, Brando said, “I want you to go to Ray Stark (the producer) and ask what I have in my trailer, and demand you get the same.” Forster said, “Marlon, thank you, but I just can’t. That’s not me.” Brando replied, “Then I will.” When Ray Stark appeared, Brando reproached him for stiffing the young actor. Stark immediately said, “Oh, but of course, we’ll have him all set up right away!”

Toback concluded, “Actors like Marlon have to assert themselves over the producer. To be honest, most actors don’t have much respect for the producer, and if the actor is big enough, they like to torment them!”

This reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor pestering producer Martin Ransohoff, forcing him to buy her jewelry during the production of “The Sandpiper.”

But it wasn’t all reminiscences. When Jean Dujardin, the handsome French leading man of “The Artist,” was introduced to Toback, the director instantly tried to persuade him to come in on a new movie he’s making. It was impressive, because DuJardin’s English is only fair, and Toback’s French nonexistent. But one of Peggy Siegal’s assistants was translating, and it was classic Hollywood deal-making and hustling, despite the language barrier.

Mr. Toback is a fascinating Hollywood character. I await his memoirs eagerly. (He was once married to Consuelo Sarah Churchill Vanderbilt Russell, the granddaughter of John Spencer-Churchill, the 10th Duke of Marlborough.)

Oh, at some point during the lunch, a fan told Mr. Dujardin that he was “the George Clooney of France.” The actor laughed and said, “No, no I’m much better than him,” and comically puffed out his chest. But Jean was just kidding. He then went on to say Clooney “has the perfect face, even his ears are perfect.”

His ears? I’ll have to check out the Clooney lobes when next we meet.

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DARREN CRISS, heartthrob of TV’s “Glee,” got a big laugh the other night during a performance at NYC’s nightclub/eatery The Darby. Criss, who has replaced Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway, said: “It’s funny that I’m in a show called ‘How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,’ because I’m really trying!” (Apparently, his efforts are paying off. His appearance has “reignited” the box office at the Hirschfeld Theater.)

Darren’s gig at The Darby was a one-night-only special event, sort of “introducing” him to New York. He sang, played piano and guitar, melding smoothly with the club’s marvelous five-piece band.

To the point of succeeding in show biz — or any biz! — Darren opened with “I Want More” from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” (Susan Sarandon, who was in the audience, explained the song to her good friend Jonathan Bricklin: “It’s about shopping, dear.”)

Criss’s entire set was enthusiastically applauded, but his slow, sexy “My Funny Valentine” had fans comparing his tempo and phrasing to Streisand and Sinatra. (Perhaps Darren was channeling Frankie? He performed with a glass of Johnnie Walker Black on the side; his suave sipping at odds with his adorable baby face.)

When somebody called out wanting to know about Criss’s trademark eyeglasses, he took them off and then squinted painfully at the frames. Finally, he exclaimed, “I can’t read who made them without my glasses!” With help, it was discovered they were Dolce & Gabanna. Darren looked mighty relieved to get them back on, the better to see his ecstatic audience again.

Among that throng of fans were Alan Cumming, Parker Posey, William Ivey Long, Mo Rocca, and Alan Rickman.

Now, as Liza Minnelli sings: “It’s up to you, New York, New Yawwwwwwwwwwk!”

4 comments so far.

  1. avatar French Heart says:

    I love Parker Posey. Remember her in ‘House of Yes’? No? She was hysterical.

    Ten bottles of Dom a day?! How can one even survive that?!

  2. avatar sevillomatic says:

    Little Mermaid?
    I Want More?

    Didja mean Part of Your World?

  3. avatar Liz Smith says:

    Dear sevillomatic…

    Thank you very much for attempting to help me out, but no…Google “I Want More–The Little Mermaid” and you will find the song and lyrics.  

    But you are  sweet to be so concerned.

    Thank you, Happy New Year

    Liz Smith 

  4. avatar Sheridansq says:

    Glad to read about the success Darren Criss is having on Broadway. He’s a great talent who is destined to be around a long time.