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Once Upon a Time in the Big Apple . . . : Real-life tales behind ‘New York Stories’

<i> Dwyer is a columnist for New York Newsday</i>

Two Sundays ago, Rosanna Arquette breezed into the Museum of Modern Art for the premiere of “New York Stories” wearing a full-length white coat with little Mickey Mouses pandas stamped all over.

Fur? What’re you, nuts? It’s man-made,” she shrieked when someone in the press corps asked about the coat.

“Here,” she said, extending an arm. “Feel it.” The photographers availed themselves of her arm to certify that the coat was, indeed, man-made.

Arquette stars in “Life Lessons,” Martin Scorcese’s one-third ration of “New York Stories.” In it, Arquette, lithe young art thing, and Nick Nolte, flabby modern art king, battle over her body and soul.

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“Rosanna, why is this a New York story?” asked a man with a British television accent.

“It’s a New York story in that it takes place in New York, aaannnnd . . . ,” said Arquette as her thoughts circled overhead but did not put down their landing gear, ". . . it’s a Life Lesson story.

“Am I making any sense at all?” she asked.

Oh yes, she was assured.

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Oh yes, it’s a New York story--even “Life Lessons,” which uses the least of the city’s physical geography of the three short films that make up “New York Stories.”

Scorcese, Francis Coppola, and Woody Allen each made a short piece of 40 minutes or so. The producers tied them together with a title. New York, after all, is the world’s greatest movie set, the city where people--well, me, to be precise--have come downstairs to move the car in the morning because the Sanitation Department might be sweeping the street, only to find that it has been picked up by a crane and carried a block away on orders of some director.

“It wasn’t planned all about New York,” said Sofia Coppola, 17, daughter and co-writer, with her father, Francis, of “Life Without Zoe.” “It just happened that way.”

Personally, I was outraged by “Moonstruck” because it seemed Cher walked around a corner in Little Italy in Manhattan and next thing was opening a door in Brooklyn Heights. Come on, already. And where’s my car, I want to know.

Besides the hard-to-counterfeit locations, the city has a psychic geography. And “Life Lessons,” a tale of obsession in the art world, plays true to its neighborhood--at least by the landmarks I know it by.

One of those was a party in an art gallery on West Broadway for a Name Brand SoHo Certified paint splasher, and good red wine in glass vessels was served with filet mignon on baguette slivers.

This, after all, was not the Cheddar-on-a-Triscuit crowd: these were serious patrons of the finer things. Investment Bankers. Venture Capitalists. Merger Masters. Artists in Their Own Fields. People Who Could Sink $70,000 or So into Art Wares.

The Name Brand artist being Opened was an old man. He was parked on a throne like Santa Claus at Macy’s and received a line of visitors on a promise that they wouldn’t shake his hand. For a while, this provided the only excitement: Would some daring millionaire make bold to touch the wizened hands of genius?

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But this was a sport without much sex. No one gave a damn about Name Brand’s paws. Eyes wandered. Clothes were rated. With the men black-tied up, the women wore skins of sable, mink, beaver, raccoon, sheared and unsheared.

In fact, a troop of anti-fur demonstrators had arrived, late but loud, massing in the old cast-iron shadows of the SoHo street.

“Boooo,” called the crowd when a woman half-clad in a pelt unfolded herself from behind the smoked glass and stepped into the glittering evening.

“Yaaay,” they bellowed when all parties in a car emerged in garments that appeared to have been scalped from a non-persecuted Dacron.

“Booooooooo,” they roared when riders arrived in full-length furs. “Killerrrrr.”

Soon the money mob realized the louder the taunts, the better, at least by their lights, the fur.

“Hold my drink,” one woman said to her date. She had a full-length sable sitting in the coat check. It was quite a bargain, she had been told, but the fur people only tossed a few catcalls when she came in. Now old raccoons were getting more heckles than she did with an authentic White River Russian Sable.

“I’ll be right back,” she told the girl at the coat check. She threw the fur over her shoulders and stalked out the door, down to the corner, and then turned back to slice her way through the protesters. The clamor reached epic heights.

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“Murderess! Killer! Blood sucker! Booooooooo,” screamed the anti-fur people.

The woman smiled regally and waited for the gallery door to be opened. Even old Name Brand in his throne was craning to see who had drawn such high decibel derision. The champion sable brought sighs from every corner of the gallery. Its owner tossed it, triumphantly, to the coat-check girl. Soon, prized coats were promenading along West Broadway. Torrents of scorn rained on the fortunate few.

The terrain of “Life Stories” is obsession: successful artist Lionel Dobie, by Nolte, is awful and manipulative to his assistant, Paulette, played by Arquette. She throws it back at him.

At a major gallery opening of his work, everyone pays homage to Lionel. Except Paulette. Which drives him nuts. Which brings to mind something else about that gallery on West Broadway.

A beautiful young woman came to the opening for Name Brand. She was 24 and in love, or at least, in fixation with him. She didn’t wear a fur. She wore white: a wedding dress. The veil trailed as she waited to be received at the throne. In her arms she cradled a dozen blood-red roses. These she offered to Brand Name. He did not touch them but nodded, kindly, to a table where she could lay them.

That was it.

Step this way please, others are waiting. A tray of chocolate truffles was moving through the gallery. The Woman in White reached for one, somewhat blindly, and bit into it. Tasted funny. She looked at the sweet and noticed it had been gilded with gold leaf. The real metal.

Heavy.

At times the depravities of the rich seem to be the signature of New York in the 1980s--whether at an art gallery or scenes from “Life Without Zoe,” the Coppola section.

A fabulously wealthy child, Zoe, pours a bag of Hershey Kisses on a man living in a box.

But Zoe is no more offensive than the people on the board that runs the subways who sat down a few months ago at a private club for a thousand dollar feed. Shortly after the dinner, they met to deplore the stinking homeless, hungry people in their subways.

“Eggplant mousse with caviar,” said the slim young man squiring Mae Questel through the party for “New York Stories.” She came out of the Hunts Point section of the Bronx 70-something years ago and in “Oedipus Wrecks,” is the New York bedrock of the movie.

“Wha?” she said.

“Eggplant mousse,” said the young fellow. “It’s good.”

“Corned-beef sandwiches they don’t have here, I guess?” she asked, without too much hope.

She nibbled the canape then parked it on a table edge.

Before the picture and the party, a publicist announced highlights of the arriving celebrity. “Mae Questel is next. She plays Woody Allen’s mother in his segment.” No reaction. “She was the voice of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl in the cartoons,” she added. Tapes rolled. Mrs. Questel obliged with an Olive Oyl sound bite.

In the party afterward, people did somersaults to get near her--and not to talk Popeye, either. She had swiped the movie from the entire gang of auteur directors and slinky stars.

“It’s going right to my head--excuse me, so glad you came,” she said, waving off a young couple. “They’re old friends. They do movie-star lingerie.”

Questel plays Mother, the Queen of Kvetch, who wants to sabotage her son’s love life. Naturally, the son is Woody Allen, under the nom de cine of Sherman. Naturally, his girlfriend is Mia Farrow, here as Lisa.

Mother tells Lisa that Sherman wet the bed. She shows off naked baby pictures of Sherman. He wishes Mother would vanish. During a magic show, she does. Sherman is so relieved that he becomes a dynamo in bed. So we are told.

Then Mother reappears, but not just to Woody. She now looms over the entire city, an image that fills the 14 inches of sky not eaten by tall buildings. In front of the 7 million professional debaters of New York, she scolds Sherman. Don’t rush into marriage.

He cringes, but everyone else talks back to Ma in the Sky.

“Let them live their own lives,” hollers a guy.

“He should listen to his mother,” one woman shouts.

“I ad libbed,” explained Mrs. Questel. “Woody said, ‘Keep talking.’ I kept talking. Why did I have to learn the lines? No, he didn’t pay me enough.”

“Sheldon! There you are,” Mother says from 5,000 feet up.

Which brings to mind Sukhreet on the Subway.

Sukhreet Gable loomed over New York for a few weeks last winter like Sheldon’s Mother--only in real life, the child was ruining the mother. Sukhreet was the dumpy woman who stole the show at the trial of Bess Myerson, the ex-Miss America and city commissioner.

Bess gave Sukhreet a job working for the city. Then Sukhreet’s Ma, a judge, did something good for Bess’ boyfriend in a divorce case. Sukhreet helped turned this into a bribery case by starring as a witness against Ma.

She brought Ma a rose for the defense table, then climbed into the witness box and tried to do her in. She posed on the steps of the courthouse. She did all the talk shows. You walked down Third Avenue, looked up into the sky to see if it was raining, and there was Sukhreet, insisting that she was not crazy. Sukhreet’s Ma and Bess beat the rap.

There was one other trial going on then, a bad dream of a child-abuse case involving Hedda Nussbaum, beaten woman, Lisa Steinberg, dead girl, and Joel Steinberg, accused killer. Hedda’s face, cauliflowered ears and nose, was everywhere Sukhreet’s wasn’t. And sometimes places where she was.

One afternoon when the trials were on, Sukhreet boarded the Lexington Avenue train. Soon she was very happy because someone, shooting the slit-eyed side-glance of the subways, recognized her. The other rider kept the stone face on, pretending not to look. Sukhreet gave a big puppy-dog grin to encourage more peeks. Finally, the other rider spoke up.

“I know you--you’re Hedda, right?”

Sukhreet laughs when she tells the story. She had been mistaken for a battered wife, when she really was a battering child , another face in the crowded skies of New York, in the subways, everywhere we looked, raining potions of nightmare and nuttiness.

Woody and the other two directors cast their segments without her, but here she is roaming the set. The fiction of a scolding mother, hovering at 5,000 feet, is far more comforting than the sight of Sukhreet perched on the other side of the subway car.


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