Well remembered as Fran Drescher’s mom on The Nanny, Renée Taylor is a hilarious comic actor with a lot of stories up her ruffled sleeve. Taylor will tell some of them in My Life On a Diet, an autobiographical comedy written by herself and her late husband Joseph Bologna (who directed the piece).
In the one-woman show at Theatre at St. Clement’s beginning July 12, Taylor admits to being a “diet junkie” and sheds herself of many tales involving attempted weight loss, while also dropping names like Joan Crawford and Marlon Brando. Says the Bronx-born Renée, “A few years ago, I had the pleasure to work with my friend Nora Ephron on her wonderful play, Love, Loss, and What I Wore. I told her that, as a woman who had worn every size from four to 18 over the years, my version of the play would be called, Love, Loss, and What I Ate. Well, this is that play, but I ended up calling it My Life On a Diet.”
I rang up Renée for some more dish and ate it up.
We’ve got to stop meeting like this.
You remember I’ve interviewed you before! I love you. So, are you on a diet?
I’m on some crazy diet now. Whatever diet I do, people tell me reasons why I shouldn’t do it. They say, “That’s not healthy,” “That’s fat shaming,” “That’s this, that’s that…”
Does your diet involve cutting things out?
Yeah, like I don’t eat dinner. I have berries and an egg or two for breakfast, a salad or fish for lunch, and I don’t eat dinner. I’m wearing a fabulous gown in the show. I try to get it on every day, so for opening night, I can make this gown fit. You get something too small and keep trying it on. That’s a good diet. I said, “Make it in a stretch material because after opening night, I expect to gain weight again.”
Speaking of gowns, is it true that you caught your first boyfriend, Byron, wearing yours?
Yes. We were going to a costume party, and I was going to be Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. You remember that?
Yes. Lana Turner was pure sex in that.
Ugh, I was so sexy. Well, I hid it in the closet and came home from an audition and he was wearing it! And he looked better than me in it.
That’s what really hurt. Did he come out?
No. Just with me. You know the story of [movie star] Esther Williams?
Yes! I read her memoirs. She caught her man, Jeff Chandler, in a gown. [He had been hiding all that from her.] She said, “Jeff, you’re too big for polka dots.”
Well, I told Byron, “You don’t wear stripes with flowers.”
Esther had a problem with Jeff, though I thought maybe she made it all up for the book.
I believed it. But you can be a crossdresser and still be very masculine. That’s not a reason to break up with him.
But Esther said Jeff wanted to have sex with her when he was dressed up, so she tried it and didn’t like it.
Remember Normal with Jessica Lange, when she finds out her husband is a crossdresser dresser [actually, trans] and she won’t leave him? I said to my husband Joe, “If I found out that you were a crossdresser, I wouldn’t leave you.” He said, “That’s good to know.” I said, “But would you leave me?” He said, “Yes.” [laughs]
He’d take your gowns and get out of there! Can we talk about Marilyn Monroe? She looked great in tight dresses, but I feel she was also a wonderful actress. When you studied with Lee Strasberg, she was in your class. Was she outgoing or shy?
She was very vulnerable. The first time she did a scene, she shook like a rabbit. She was so nervous, she broke out all over in a rash. She didn’t even know she had wet her dress, she was so frightened. I met her in the ladies room, where she was putting calamine lotion on her face. Everyone would always give their opinions, which I thought was stupid because we were just starting out. She was a big star at the time, but not getting respect for her work. I asked what diet she was on because of her incredible figure. Today, they’d probably say she was too heavy. I remember they told Mae West to lose weight. The next show, I’m going to play Mae West. She said, “No, the men like me like this. I’m not going to lose weight.” When I did Tyler Perry’s movie with Kim Kardashian [Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor], the cameraman was shooting her up her backside. I said, “You can’t shoot a woman from the bottom. Her behind’s gonna look much bigger!” He looked at me like I was crazy. That was the whole point.
It’s great that you don’t have to worry about what your ass looks like anymore.
That’s the look. Shaped like a pear. The New York Times once said I had the figure of a sausage. I looked in the mirror—I do!
Is it true that Barbra Streisand used to open for you in a Village nightclub?
Yes. When I went to see her a few years ago in L.A., I went backstage and took a picture with her. During her show, she said, “Do some of your act from the Bon Soir for the audience.” Dustin Hoffman was there. Over 50 years later, she remembered my nightclub act. She was doing the punchlines with me. She said she always did my act for her friends.
“Memories light the corners of my mind.” Is it also true that you and Joan Rivers had the naïve idea of going to Fire Island to look for boyfriends back in the 1960s?
Yes! We said, “There’s a lot of guys. Let’s get on the ferry to Fire Island. Maybe we’ll meet somebody.” We get off at Cherry Grove and when we pulled in, we said, “Look at all these men!” We got off and we said, “Wrong.”
But the gays love you.
Yes, they do.
Do you feel you’re best known for The Nanny?
To some people. Some people know me…do you remember the movie Made For Each Other?
Yes. [Critic] Pauline Kael loved it.
It was one of her 10 favorite movies of that year.
Did you get the part of Sylvia on The Nanny because you sounded like you could be Fran Drescher’s mother?
They actually wanted someone Presbyterian. They were interested in Sheila MacRae, a very nice actress, but she really wasn’t crazy enough. Fran said, “Come on as a guest and let them discover you.” I did that and they said, “Hey, Renée could do the mother.”
Actors can play any role, but still, I can’t believe they wanted a Presbyterian.
They used to have non-Jews play Jews. They used to have Jews play Italians. They didn’t want somebody Jewish. They say they want to go against type and have “something different in the casting.” I say, “You mean not funny?” One time, it was between me and Ann-Margret for a part. I said, “She’s beautiful, but she’s not too funny.”
No, that’s not her strong suit. Are you on social networks?
I do Facebook, but people tell me, “You’ve got to put this on it and you gotta do that.” People tell me what to put on it. And they say, “Why aren’t you on Twitter?” I get a lot of prodding from people. It’s supposed to be the other way around. Some people, it’s their whole career. That’s all they do. I think, “Don’t you go anywhere?”
What’s your feeling about this country under Trump?
I don’t understand those people. A lot of very nice people tell me they voted for Trump. I say, “Why?” They say, “For Israel.” I say, “No, it’s not good for Israel.” Or they say, “It’s better for my business.” I’ve never voted for anything because it was good for business, and neither did my husband. I always go with what’s good for working people. I identify with working people and with immigrants because my family came from Russia and my husband’s family came from Italy. His father shined shoes to put Joe through Brown. I really appreciate what immigrants have brought to our country. I wake up every morning and say, “Is Trump still president?”
Well, I’m glad we have your show to look forward to. You’ve had an extraordinary life.
So far. I’m just getting a second wind.
Invaders From Mars
Renée Taylor and Joan Rivers were so right—there are a lot of guys on Fire Island! And they’re all dressed like women! Last Wednesday (July 4th) was the annual Invasion of the Pines by a boatful of drag queens from Cherry Grove, and it was more eye-popping than ever, thanks to gals like Tasha Salad, Rhoda Dendrum, Anne Halfway, Olympia Bukkake, Juicy Clitoure, Jenny from the Cock, Anita Greencard, Wanda Attatime, Megan Whoopee, Dagmar Onassis, Banana Wintour (a Vogue editrix-type with potassium for hair), Levonia Jenkins as Stormy Daniels (complete with a big prosthetic penis sticking out), and Rita George, Miss Fire Island from 1969.
What’s more, there were two sets of drag queens dressed as Supreme Court Judges, one group all done up as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, holding signs that read, “Trump Can’t Handle The Ruth.” Pansi hosted the show with wisecracks, and before that, Shangela had handled the pre-show, telling the crowd that she was made to sissy away from two Drag Race seasons, and then she got bumped off All Stars, too. “But don’t say I was robbed,” instructed Shangela. “I was burglarized!”
Speaking of light pilfering, I hear that, thanks to the drag craze, Wigstock—the long-running outdoor drag fest that stopped, then came back as a cruise, then stopped again—will probably return as a cable reality show. Bring on the tucking.
Takin the Dick Out of Dickinson
Emily Dickinson was not a drag! Though legend has made the late poet out to be a recluse who talked to people through walls, who didn’t want to be published, and who had no love life, the truth is she was a feisty, funny lesbian. A 1998 New York Times article reported that infrared technology had led to the uncovering of previously erased tell-tale parts of Emily’s poetry, most notably her girlfriend Susan’s name. That became the impetus for Madeleine Olnek’s slight but welcome Wild Nights With Emily, in which Molly Shannon plays Emily and Susan Ziegler is Susan, the woman who ends up marrying Emily’s brother, mainly so she can stay close to you know who.
There was a Rooftop Films screening of the movie the other night—held in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetary, maybe because of Emily’s fixation with death, funerals, and the afterlife. The dead were revived with the absurdist comedy, which has whimsical parts (like characters singing a Dickinson poem to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”) and wryness amidst the ardent same-sex smooching. Shannon’s the last choice you’d think of for the role, which works in the film’s favor; the former SNL comic doesn’t make the poet clichéd or predictable. “I’d heard the myth of Emily Dickinson,” said Olnek in a Q&A after the screening. “But she was a very subversive figure in that she lived life on her own terms.”
I had already gotten that when I saw queer Cynthia Nixon play a fiery Dickinson in A Quiet Passion last year. That film was wonderful, though it studiously left out the same-sex relationship. (A quiet passion indeed.) No wonder Cynthia has switched to politics for a while!