Victor Victoria, the adventurously frank, bawdy, and hilarious musical starring Julie Andrews as a poor singer who becomes the toast of Paris when she reinvents herself as gay Polish female impersonator Count Victor Grazinski, turns 30 this year, which officially validates its timelessness. The Blake Edwards-directed romp is equal parts farce and social commentary, and it features unforgettable performances by Robert Preston as Victoria’s gay mentor Carroll “Toddy” Todd, James Garner as nightclub owner King Marchard, and perhaps most notably, Lesley Ann Warren as the squeaky, naughty, and hysterical showgirl Norma Cassady. Norma is Judy Holliday on a horny sugar high, and that coquettish insanity earned Warren a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the ’82 Oscars.
The most famous projects in Warren’s oeuvre are as extreme and unpredictable as Norma herself. As a teenager, Warren played the titular naif in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ’65 TV version of Cinderella (taking over Julie Andrews’ 50s role), burgeoned into adult roles on shows like Mission Impossible and Harold Robbins’ 79 Park Avenue, and eventually landed standout roles in Victor Victoria, Clue (the ne plus ultra of American cinema, as far as I’m concerned), Songwriter, Cop, Secretary, and memorable arcs on Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives, and In Plain Sight. Best of all: She’s one of the few actresses to star in two of AfterElton’s “Best Movie Ever?” selections, which included Victor Victoria.
Ahead of her appearance at tonight’s 30th anniversary screening of Victor Victoria at Los Angeles’ Downtown Independent theater, we caught up with Warren to discuss her memories of the movie, the dynamic between Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews, and her upcoming Clue mini-reunion.
AfterElton: It’s officially been 30 years since Victor/Victoria’s release. Have your feelings about the movie shifted or changed since its debut?
Lesley Ann Warren: You know, I’m so proud of it. So, so, so proud of it. When I first saw it, it was at a private screening at Blake Edwards’ home with the cast only, and I was absolutely mortified. I thought, ’Oh my God, nobody will ever hire me again. This character is way too big and too flamboyant.’ I couldn’t take it in. But then I remember, I went to the very first public screening, which at that time was at the Shubert Theater on Avenue of the Stars, which is no longer there, but the place went berserk for my character and everything she does and the movie. I saw what the reality of the situation was! The ensuing years have made me just more and more proud.
AE: Is it disorienting to be terrified by your own work, then adored for it by audiences? That would confuse me.
LAW: No. The thing is, when you’re creating it and doing [the movie], you’re not outside of yourself. But then when you see it in the context of the film, you’re completely disconnected from the experience of embodying it. I thought she was so big, so flamboyant, so off the charts with her colorful behaviors. I thought no one would take me seriously again! But really truly, once I saw it with an audience, I realized what a potent, fun, fabulous character that Blake and I had created. Then I felt nothing but pride. It wasn’t disorienting. It just shook me out of my own fear and let me enjoy the effect of the work.
AE: You’ve said before that you love making movies because of the collaborative process with the director. How well did you and Blake Edwards collaborate?
LAW: Personally, I think he is a genius. When I went to meet him, I hadn’t read the script and I didn’t know anything about the role or the film, for that matter. We had this really fun talk, and in fifteen minutes, he said, “Do you want to do this role?” Because I had been such an enormous fan — I had seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s honestly 11 times, and I was a huge fan of the Pink Panther movies and The Days of Wine and Roses — I would’ve really done anything. I said yes without even reading the script.
Then I went home and read [the part], I realized she was basically a sketch of a character. She was your quintessential chorus girl. I sat with the script for awhile, for about three days, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have her be blonde?” I made up a history for her. I wanted her growing up in a family of 12 in the Lower East Side, so every time she spoke, she had to yell. She sat selling makeup at the Woolworth’s counter and wanted to be like the movie stars and copy Jean Harlow’s makeup. I made up this whole world for her. I then tried to get Blake on the phone, but he was in London. His producer said to me, “He can’t come to the phone, but he says just go with your ideas, we’ll send hair and makeup people to you in Sherman Oaks, and you create this character.” So we did! We created it without his seeing it, which was terrifying! Really! Then when I flew to London to do the hair and makeup test with all the other actors, I genuinely thought, “He’s either going to hate this and fire me” — because it was a full-blown character we brought to him — “or he’s going to love it.” Obviously he loved it.
LAW: And there was no musical number yet! But one day he turned to me and said, “Do you still sing? Do you still dance?” And I said, “I do!” He said, “Well, I want to see more of Norma.” So he flew Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse in from California, and they wrote this incredible number! What I loved about Blake’s directing — and I love him, period — but what I loved about his directing is that I remember the scene with James Garner, the “Pooky” scene when we’re in bed and I say “imp-u-tent.” I remember Blake said, “Show me what you’ve come up with.” We showed him. Then, very slowly, over the next half an hour, he very gently changed almost everything. He kept the essence of the characters, but he was the one who came up with the blowing on [Garner’s] chest and washing my mouth out with soap. One never felt wrong or not good enough around Blake. He always instilled enormous confidence, so you jumped off the bridge with him. You felt safe to try almost anything. That’s a rarity, and yet his creative vision is always intact and is always the engine.
AE: You did an interview with Miss Coco Peru where you revealed that when you coo “Pooky” to James Garner, you pretend like you were giving thatname to his penis. How did you come up with that?
LAW: I work with [acting] coaches a lot, and she and I came up with that together. We were in stitches and howls, and we didn’t tell anyone during the filming of the movie. Norma’s particular way of being seductive, her lack of awareness about everyone’s desires or needs — it was only hers that she paid attention to — I thought that would be such a fun way to move into that particular kind of sexuality that she imbued. It was a secret, and sometimes as an actor, it’s so great to have secrets. You know what you’re doing, but no one else actually does. It colors it in such a very specific way when you’re doing the work.
AE: One of my favorite things about you as an actress is it seems like you find a lot of your characters through interesting voices. Even when you played Teri Hatcher’s mother on Desperate Housewives, your character had a specific tone and cadence. Obviously Norma has a highly distinct voice; where did this voice come from? Had you done anything like it before?
LAW: You know, it’s interesting. I think the voice, for me, comes out of the character that I’ve built. It doesn’t come as a separate sort of “I think I’ll do this kind of voice” thing — ever. I worked with a man named Robert Easton, who passed away but was one of the greatest dialect coaches ever, and he and I worked on the accent together, but the character of Norma, she dictated the way she spoke. Even on Desperate Housewives, it was the same thing. The girlishness, the desire to be young and sexy — her character informed the vocal behavior. It’s nothing I do separately.
I did Will & Grace for a bunch of episodes, and the only thing the creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan had ever told me before starting was that my character had a crazy laugh. So I had to come up with a laugh, and out of that came a whole character. I once did an A&E production of Tennessee Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and I just couldn’t find the character. Couldn’t find it, couldn’t find it. But then I found this issue of Life magazine, and there was this cover model who was overweight a little bit and had this baby quality. I thought, “Oh my God, that’s my character!” I built a whole character around that picture. That was a great experience for me, because sometimes inspiration comes from the oddest places. You do all the work, and then something magical transpires and it’s inspirational. It’s something from your instinct and intuition, and you take off.
Ray Sharkey and Lesley Ann Warren in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton
But with Norma, I always went back to the history I wrote for her. I had it in a journal and I took it with me, and because I knew her character so, so, so well, I did a lot of improvising too. Sometimes you go back to the source material, and sometimes you’re in the moment and something triggers something and it grabs hold and you go with it. Acting is an ephemeral art in some ways.
AE: The dynamic between Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews must’ve been riveting. I take it you were a captive audience to them?
LAW: Yes, absolutely. Now, Julie was not so comfortable improvising. And Blake likes to do a lot of that. That was difficult for her. She would struggle with that, and like husband and wife, he was harder on her than he was on anybody else. But they adored each other. I mean, a-dored. Being around them was, first of all, like being around film royalty. They were so divine. We shot in Pinewood Studios for three and a half months, and every day at four o’clock we’d stop to have tea and scones. They’re so civilized! Blake also believed that people couldn’t be funny for more than ten hours, that they get tired. So we’d come in at 8 and be done by 6! Which, you know, never, ever, ever, ever happens! He believed that when people’s energy starts to slag, that their ability to be funny starts to leave them. And it’s kind of true, actually. When I’m on a set for 15, 16 hours, all the sudden every scene has tears in it. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s true! Nobody has that luxury today. He was such an iconic sort of individual and he marched to the beat of his own drum so much. They were always locked in together. It must be enormously hard for her now. I spoke at his memorial, and they were just so close and so bonded and such a unit that it’s hard to imagine how one goes on after something like that.
AE: Compulsory Oscar question: Did it feel unfair to be nominated in the supporting actress category against Jessica Lange, who won for what was essentially a leading role in Tootsie? Did it feel like the odds were stacked against you?
LAW: It did. It did feel that way to me. I think what happened was, that was the year that Meryl Streep was nominated for Sophie’s Choice, and Jessica was nominated [alongside Streep in the Best Actress category] for Frances. You know, I think she was so brilliant in Frances and — I don’t know. Who knows, but it seems like — yeah. It felt not fair. But what are you going to do? What are you going to do. But she’s a good acquaintance of mine, I adore her, and she came to my play at the Geffen. I think she’s a brilliant actress. But I think it was a little bit odd that year.
Did you know that Chris Colfer sang “Le Jazz Hot” on Glee?
LAW: No! I didn’t see it because I don’t watch Glee that often, but God, that’s so great!
AE: There are enormous cult followings both for Victor Victoria and Clue. Which group do you hear more from?
LAW: That’s an interesting question. Honestly, I think it’s pretty evenly split. There’s such an enormous fanbase for Victor/Victoria. It’s so enormous. And yet, especially with younger people, like people in their twenties, they are insane for Clue. They’re just insane for it! They recite every line in the movie. I don’t know — it’s just taken on a new life of its own. I wouldn’t be able to judge which one I get more response from, but it’s pretty equal.
AE: I’d like to point out that Clue is one of the few ensemble comedies where the female roles are clearly better-written, not to mention knocked out of the park by the women who play them.
LAW: I just did this episode on Psych, their hundredth episode, and they did a takeoff on Clue! It hasn’t been on yet, but they had me and Martin Mull and Christopher Lloyd, and we weren’t allowed to recreate our actual characters, but we did the whole “Who did the murder?” idea and concept of the plot. But yeah, I thought the women in Clue were just astounding. But Martin Mull kills me though, I must say. We drove the director [Jonathan Lynn] insane, because we’d all be in hysterics at each other’s stuff all day long. We shot that for about three months too, and we would drive him cuckoo. We were absolutely uncontrollable, laughing all the time.
AE: Lastly, you’re playing Steve Jobs’ mother in his new biopic starring Ashton Kutcher. Did you shoot that already?
LAW: I shot it, yes! The movie’s done. The whole movie’s done. I haven’t seen any of it yet, so I can’t really say, but that’s obviously a fascinating topic. It was a fascinating script. We dealt with him from his teenage years through maybe his mid-thirties, so it didn’t cover his entire life. I have to say, the work that I saw Ashton do as Steve Jobs — and I played his mother — was really, really excellent. It was a great cast and a really interesting script. I really like the director, so we’ll see. We’ll see how that goes!