In a front corner table of Mortimer’s on Lexington Avenue, playwright John Guare (silver haired, bow-tied, eyes twinkling with mischief) and actress Stockard Channing (blond-streaked and engagingly caustic in tortoise shell sunglasses) playfully jab at one another over baked apples and crab cakes.
“We’ve known each other for 23 years,” remarks Channing wryly as a photographer shoots away. “Has it been 23?” asks Guare with mock surprise. “I guess so.”
It was, in fact, more than two decades ago that Channing joined the chorus of Guare’s Broadway musical version of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and wound up a lead. They’ve been friends ever since.
In 1986, Channing again stole the show in Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves” on Broadway. Three years later he wrote what would be her defining role: Ouisa Kittredge, the society matron who learns the true meaning of a phrase Guare has introduced into the American vernacular: “Six Degrees of Separation.”
The film version of Guare’s play is in limited release in eight cities, and features Donald Sutherland as Ouisa’s high-rolling husband, art dealer J. Flanders Kittredge, and Will Smith, TV’s “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” as the young con man who invades the Kittredges’ Fifth Avenue apartment claiming to be their children’s school chum and the son of actor Sidney Poitier.
It’s no accident that this meeting is taking place at this Spartan, rather drab and consequently famous bastion of inexpensive cuisine and exclusive admittance: a revelatory scene in the film takes place here. Mortimer’s is one of about 40 posh New York sites (including the Gotham Bar and Grill, Central Park, the Rainbow Room and the Metropolitan Museum of Art) that Guare, director Fred Schepisi and Patrizia von Brandenstein, the production designer, used to illuminate the Kittredges’ Upper East Side milieu.
“The play took place on a bare stage,” Guare explains. “The missing character that had to appear in the film was New York City. It was very important to chart their lives just to see where they went, just to follow them and see where they’re comfortable.”
It was also important to see the people with whom they are most at home. In “Six Degrees,” cameos by artist Chuck Close and socialite band leader Peter Duchin and his wife, Brooke Hayward, lend credibility to the Kittredge social circle. “Peter was going to be in it more, but he had a couple of gigs he couldn’t get out of. And Brooke wouldn’t do it without him.”
Kitty Carlisle Hart, herself a New York landmark, appears as--what else?--a powerful society hostess. “I wanted Kitty in it because we recognize her somehow,” observes Guare of his longtime friend. “Her fame gives you some kind of security.”
The indefatigable Hart, reached by phone later, approached “Six Degrees” with her usual brio. “I loved doing it. They treated me like a combination of Lillian Gish and Eleanor Roosevelt.”
The filming was so authentic, she reports, that after a few hours she forgot she was making a movie. “It seemed like a lunch party at my own house, with some charming people who seemed to be having some difficulty.”
To observe Sutherland and Channing trying to lure a wealthy investor into an art scheme is to see to what may be the first film ever about true despair among the rich. They are not so different from us, after all.
“John knows and loves all these characters,” says director Schepisi later. A few years ago Schepisi had been “desperate” to make the movie of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” but lost out to Brian DePalma. If “Six Degrees” works better than the other film as the official satire of the greed-drenched 1980s, it’s because, he says, “ ‘Bonfire’ was done with more spite. They didn’t embrace the material. They were afraid of it.”
Says Channing: “In this movie, they’re human beings. They’ve been married for 26 years. He spends more than he makes. They’re always on the edge. When he says (after landing the investor), ‘We could have lost it,’ I love that scene. She doesn’t scream. She’s heard it before. She cares about him. And it’s all very subtle.”
And detailed. To replicate a two-sided painting by Vasily Kandinsky, Guare and Schepisi waded through the Guggenheim Museum’s basement and looked at 189 paintings until they discovered the right ones. “It was like we were in D’Agostino’s (a prominent New York supermarket chain),” Guare laughs.
Additionally, Schepisi insisted on having worn sofas in the Kittredge living room. “They’re all cracked, the leather is cracked, but covered over. We--the audience--don’t know the cracks are there, but the Kittredges do.”
The notion behind the plot of “Six Degrees of Separation” is well documented by now: Guare, author of the acclaimed play “The House of Blue Leaves” and the film “Atlantic City,” came across newspaper clippings in the late 1980s about David Hampton, a 17-year-old who had scammed his way into the lives of society types on the Upper East Side. The anecdote became the jumping-off point for Guare’s interest, he says, in “who we let into our lives, our homes.”
But Hampton, convinced that his story had been appropriated, quickly became a thorn in the playwright’s side. At one point, Guare obtained a temporary restraining order against Hampton. Last year, a harassment trial ended in a hung jury.
Knowing all this in advance, would Guare still have written the play? The playwright responds, “It’s like saying, ‘Should I have been born in 1938?’ That’s just what happened. I don’t waste time with that.”
One of the ironies, of course, was that Hampton wound up generating publicity for the play. “He made himself available,” says Guare. Channing interjects: “That’s what he wanted. It has nothing to do with us.”
Hampton’s attorney, Ron Kuby, claims that Hampton is “out of town.” He does not expect his client to resurface with the renewed interest stirred by the film.
That the part of Ouisa Kittredge comes so naturally to the forty-something Channing is an irony not lost on the actress. The daughter of a shipping magnate (her real name is Susan Stockard) she was reared at Park Avenue and 85th Street and inherited substantial wealth when her father died in 1950. She attended the exclusive Chapin School and went on to graduate summa cum laude from Radcliffe. (The Channing surname came after a brief marriage; altogether, she has four ex-husbands.)
In person as well as on stage, her voice has the polish of high society--which is contrasted nicely by her sardonic sense of humor. And it’s the voice that has powered “Six Degrees” into near-operetta; she makes it grand.
“Susie,” says Guare, “ is the play. She is the movie.” Several better known Hollywood actresses wanted the part, he insists. “But it seemed to be ridiculous and suicidal to have anyone else.”
Channing’s career, which began in experimental theater in Boston in 1966, has had a few ups and a lot of downs. Many films followed her early Broadway successes--mostly flops--and it wasn’t until her return to Broadway in 1985 that she hit her stride. She won a Tony Award in 1985 for “Joe Egg.”
“Stockard is a great movie actress,” Guare says, “but she’s been impossible to put in a niche.” There have been some high points, notably “The Fortune” (1975) with Jack Nicholson and “Heartburn” (1986), both directed by Mike Nichols, and the musical “Grease” (1978). “Married to It,” a film she made with Ron Silver and Cybill Shepherd, lingered in release limbo for almost two years while its studio, Orion, was in bankruptcy. When it finally arrived last spring, it fizzled.
“Six Degrees” is clearly the high moment of her career. And even though Tom Stoppard is customizing his play “Hapgood” for her, the offers are not pouring in.
“Women over 35,” she says, “don’t get a lot of offers, much less an aged old bag like myself. So who’s kidding who? This,” she shrugs of her three-year success as Ouisa, “could be it. But I know I can look back in my life and say, Ah, that was good.”