The Essential Jimmy Janowski
by Anthony Chase
hen I think about that game, ‘What 10 movies would you take with you if you were stranded on a desert island?’” says actor Jimmy Janowski, “for me, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds would have to be on that list.”
Janowski is one of Buffalo’s most popular actors. Known for his drag performances with Buffalo United Artists as great leading ladies from Hollywood’s golden age, he is one of the few local actors who always gets entrance applause. This week he opens in his own adaptation of Hitchcock’s 1963 film, called The Birds Attack!, directed by Todd Warfield. Set in Bodega Bay, California, The Birds is a horror story based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 novella about a town that suddenly and inexplicably falls victim to a series of violent bird attacks. Naturally, Janowski will play Melanie Daniels, the character played by Hitchcock blonde Tippi Hedren in the film.
Great screen heroines are the essence of the Jimmy Janowski stage persona. For BUA he has been the second Mrs. deWinter in Rebecca (another Hitchcock classic based on a du Maurier story); as the mother of a child psychopathic killer in Maxwell Anderson’s The Bad Seed; as the mother in Charles Busch’s Die Mommie Die; as Gertrude Garnet in Charles Busch’s homage to espionage films of the 1940s, The Lady in Question. Later this season he will play the Mother Superior in Busch’s The Divine Sister.
What defines a Jimmy Janowski role?
“I think about this a lot,” says Janowski as he eases into a martini at Q after a dress-tech rehearsal. “The movies were everything for me, growing up in Lackawanna. As a child, I looked for glamour anywhere I could find it. I practically lived in the Abbott Theatre near Ridge and Abbott. During that early ’60s period, The Birds gave us a representation of that cool Tippi Hedren sophistication. Now, Mad Men does a whole series anchored in that aesthetic. But in those days, it was new. My fascination with Jackie Kennedy comes from the same place. She was not just sophisticated; There was a cool self-control about it.
“Especially for gay people who had always veered toward the highly emotional and dramatic Susan Hayward and the Bette Davises, the early ’60s brought us a different kind of heroine,” he says.
“I was never a fan of Grace Kelly,” he continues, evoking an earlier Hitchcock blonde, the star of Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. “I always thought she was beautiful. I also thought Marlene Dietrich was beautiful, but she’d be a one-joke show for me. Garbo? Nothing. I try. I try. I think she’s gorgeous, but even her Anna Karenina is sexless. I love to look at her, but I don’t believe her. And Marlene? What would we do? Witness for the Prosecution? No. Destry Rides Again? If I do a Western, I want it to be Johnny Guitar—because that’s mad. Joan Crawford. Kids! If you haven’t seen Johnny Guitar, run! Don’t walk! Because your jaw will drop! It is more than anything you can imagine, and you will say, ‘What the hell is going on here!’”
Janowski returns to the point and sums it up. “For me, there is burning hot emotion inside of Tippi Hedren’s cool veneer. I never really believed that Grace Kelly was vulnerable—not ever. I bet a lot of gay men feel the same way. We love her, but I would be surprised if any gay man chose Grace Kelly as a role model. Straight men love her. Susan Hayward? Gay men love her and straight men don’t even remember who she was! Not at all. She was a volcano waiting to erupt in films like I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Valley of the Dolls, and I Want to Live. I gravitate toward volcanic women who confronted incredible adversity, but with enormous emotion. Almost like Anna Magnani in their intensity.”
Arguably, the careers of some of the women Janowski names peaked before his time. Bette Davis and Susan Hayward, for example.
“I learned these things from my mother,” explains Janowski. “This is an interesting aspect of me. I think if we’d had the knowledge we have now, my mother was probably what we now call ‘bipolar.’ I was far more her friend than her son. She would oftentimes keep me home from school or wake me up in the middle of the night because a Susan Hayward movie was on. She introduced me to so many things. She’d tell me, ‘You must watch this!’ Not in a cultural sense, but in the sense of, ‘This is what I love. You’ll love this too.’ In some ways it was terribly inappropriate; in other ways I benefitted tremendously.
“She would always buy me a new pair of pajamas on Academy Awards night, and it was understood that I would take the next day off from school, as if it were our family religion. Susan Hayward was my mother’s favorite. She is my favorite too.
“I think the women who continue to resonate for me embody the contrast of high emotion and great vulnerability. I think that makes a great role for anybody. Who wouldn’t want to play that part?”
Luckily for audiences, Janowski does not view these high contrasts in an entirely sentimental way. He is a master-mistress of comedy.
“I find the contrast of those emotions hilariously funny,” he concedes. “My mother was Italian. It was not unusual for her to bite her hand at a moment of high emotion, but in the next moment to be on the floor laughing. I think, in my performances, there is nothing that is not the essence of my mother. I wish you had met her. She was every woman I have played. She was a very loving woman, but a damaged person, and not a happy woman for a large portion of her life.
“When I met Marlo Thomas, I told her, ‘Please tell [your husband] Phil Donahue that he saved my life.’ When I came out, there was no Oprah. We had Phil Donahue and he was the only one on television saying, ‘Being gay is not a bad life style; it is an alternate life-style.’ My mother saw those shows and it enabled her to accept me—up to a point. In those days, the gay people who were featured on television could all pass for straight. I cannot. And my mother would say, ‘Jimmy, there was a gay on Donahue. He was in a suit. You couldn’t even tell! Why can’t you be gay like that, Jimmy?’”
Again, Janowski sees this potentially painful moment as powerfully comical. He unleashes a joyful peal of laughter.
“As if it was okay to be gay as long as nobody could tell! I called them ‘Phil Donahue Gays.’
“Then I remember Donahue did a show with more flamboyant men and my mother called me up, so proud. ‘I saw it on Phil Donahue, Jimmy. They’re called ‘Gay Bar Queens.’ You’re a ‘Gay Bar Queen,’ Jimmy!’ And once Donahue had given it a name, it was all right!”
As the times change, so do the audiences, and Janowski notes the shift.
“I love the young BUA audience, but it kills me when they have so little knowledge of our gay cultural history,” he says. “Hollywood will actually remake Psycho or The Birds. Shot-by-shot recreations of the classics. I say, ‘Watch The Birds again!’ It does not need to be remade. What could you possibly do to make The Birds any better?” he asks, and then with a laugh, he answers his own question, evoking the title of Tippi Heden’s other Hitchcock film, “Well, maybe Marnie!
“When they said they were going to remake The Birds, I thought, It’s there. It exists. You do not need to remake it. I live on the Turner Movie Classics channel. It lasts all this time because it is visually arresting. It is not a great story, but it is suspenseful. It keeps your interest from moment to moment, and you care about these people.”
How does Janowski account for his own stage remake?
“In what I have done, I want to celebrate this on several levels. I want us to remember the Hitchcock film, but I also want to comment on it. I want to comment on the whole ’60s thing. I want to explore the whole joke of the psychological patter of a Hitchcock film, and to treasure it.
“[Playwright] Charles Busch is the master of being able to comment on not just one story, but he will take references to 10 different films and put them into a script. I am certainly not that original. My interest is the single film and its impact on our culture.”
Janowski has another important point to make. “I’ve been going to the theater lately and I’ve just not been having fun. And I am concerned about that. At BUA we bring in a younger audience and people have fun. Young people, we have to understand, have all this media available to them, and we must keep their attention. But I also think it is our duty, as gay people of a certain age, to let them know about these people and these films. I was startled before we began rehearsals that half of the cast had never even seen The Birds! They joyously said, ‘Sure, Jimmy, we’ll come do this show with you, because it sounds like fun!’ But they had no idea what I was talking about! I sent them off to watch the movie and then they came back with great excitement in their eyes—‘I watched the movie!’ And of course, they loved it.
“Today’s culture comes from somewhere. Susan Hayward is the Kardashians,” exclaims Janowski, referring to the television reality series. “And she put it in two hours, not eight weeks!”
“Manny Fried, who taught me writing, said, ‘If you want to write, read!’ You need to have a cultural background as a foundation. Watch the great performances! I once asked a young actor who was at school with me who was playing Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, ‘Did you watch the movie?’ He said, ‘I don’t like to watch the movie.’ I said, ‘Trust me, you’re never going to be Paul Newman. But you know what? You might learn something. You will be a different person from Paul Newman, but for the love of God, you’ve got to watch Paul Newman!’ And any Maggie has got to watch Elizabeth Taylor, and if you don’t, you’re foolish.
“We carry our history and our culture from performance to performance. In theater, in film, in drag performances. I discovered Shirley Bassey from a drag queen! I asked, ‘Who has that voice like a frigging lighthouse?’ It is our duty to share this history.
“If we see yet another person do a Bette Davis impersonation, if it makes a young person download Little Foxes and go, ‘Wow! That’s where this all came from!’ Then good! That is our duty.
“You don’t have your Lady Gaga without your Madonna. You don’t have your Madonna without your Eartha Kitt. And it goes back and back and back. We must know where the legacy comes from.”
“The ’50s were repressive times—I love Doris Day, by the way. Why do we not give a Kennedy Center Honor to her? She’s iconic! These were repressive times, but there were people who were showing emotion. People who said, ‘I want to scream!’
“Dorothy Malone! She was designated as a B actress. But I think she was a female Marlon Brando. She was what the ’50s were saying: ‘I want to rebel!’ She was magnificently beautiful. She was a woman of that quality. And nobody did those roles better than she.
“Why does a cool and controlled woman like Tippi Hedren appear in the ’60s, after Anna Magnani? After Dorothy Malone? Tippi Hedren looks perfect, but she comes right after the repressive 1950s and right before women’s liberation. She is entirely perfect and in control, and we’ve got to have birds peck at her! In her appearance she was saying, ‘I want rights, too!’ And so we’ve had to mess her up. That fascinates me.”
In addition to Jimmy Janowski, The Birds Attack! features Michael Blasdell, Timothy Patrick Finnegan, Eric Rawski, Luis A. Rodriguez, Christopher Standart, and Michael Seitz. The production opens this weekend and continues at the BUA Theatre, 119 West Chippewa Street, Saturdays and Sundays through August 28. Call 886-9239.
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v10n31 (Week of Thursday, August 4) > The Essential Jimmy Janowski
This Week's Issue • Artvoice Daily • Artvoice TV • Events Calendar • Classifieds