Been contemplating things lately. Sometimes I go too deep, quite frankly. Then I found out I have double writer's forks--one on each palm. Associated with natural talent in the written word, it's when the head line ends by sitting into two strong lines. The longer and clearer the fork, the greater the ability. Hmmmmm.
Christine Baranski: ‘I Was Never Beautiful’
Left, Christine Baranski in “The Good Wife”; right, in “The Birdcage”.
By CATHY HORYN
Published: April 15, 2011
CHRISTINE BARANSKI arrived at Michael’s, the media hangout on West 55th Street, at 12:30 p.m. on the dot. A somewhat later arrival would have guaranteed an entrance, a gust of warm curiosity, but as she passed the empty tables at the front, the few patrons nosing their menus, I realized, or perhaps remembered, that such impromptu moments were best not left to chance. I should have reserved for 1 p.m.
Apparently, though, Ms. Baranski didn’t feel the need to contrive scenes, least of all small ones. Occasionally, over the next three hours, her voice hit a haughty key — Diane Lockhart in “The Good Wife” raising a triumphant glass of Scotch — but this was to be expected and savored, like Gilda’s hair. She had on a sparkling cream dress (Saint Laurent, she revealed), with a necklace of gold chains, and her own lustrous mane looked freshly washed. She asked for my portion of bacon on her Cobb salad, which eventually she consented to have wrapped (“I feel guilty”) and a cup of coffee, followed by a cappuccino (“for dessert”).
Between 12:30 and 3:15, when we left the table and Ms. Baranski automatically put on her dark glasses and we walked leisurely up Fifth Avenue to 68th Street, where we said goodbye, she gave the impression that she had nothing better to do. The dark glasses startlingly brought her celebrity to life and deflected a dozen stares outside Bergdorf’s, but during lunch I don’t think she noticed that the news mavens Barbara Walters and Arianna Huffington were seated two tables away, nor they the actress.
Of course, that is how it should be. Who cares, right? Yet she observed something about New York that threw a different light on all those confident people. Although her remark was made about another occasion — a recent cocktail party Ms. Baranski attended at the Time Warner building, where many literary stars and journalists were present — it seemed a valid comment about the cultural shifts taking place, when the world you know is suddenly not the world you possess.
We had been talking in a meandering way about careers and marriage. For 27 years Ms. Baranski, who is 58, has been married to the actor Matthew Cowles, the black sheep member of a family with ties to Cowles publishing and Drexel banking who has made a respectable living playing bad guys and white-trash types, beginning with a small part in “Midnight Cowboy.” “He’s the one you should be interviewing,” Ms. Baranski said.
I asked her how they met. “We did an Ibsen play in Garden City, Long Island,” she said. “And he asked me if I wanted to ride home on his motorcycle one night. He was this shaggy blond-haired guy who smoked unfiltered Mexican cigarettes. He was really exotic. I was in my early 30s. He loved riding around lower Manhattan — back when SoHo was a little dark. Anyhow, that’s how our romance began. We lived in a few funky lofts downtown. I was doing ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in Central Park. That’s the first role I played in New York that got some real recognition.” In fact, Mel Gussow, in his review in The New York Times, raved that her Helena was the show’s “single stylish performance.”
That was 1982. Eventually the couple moved to Litchfield, Conn., where Mr. Cowles’s family had an old homestead, so they could raise their two young daughters with fewer hassles. For several years in the mid-’90s, when she was playing the mouthy Maryann in the sitcom “Cybill,” Ms. Baranski commuted to Los Angeles, while Mr. Cowles stayed home. Today, their daughter Isabel Cowles, 26, is a law student, and her sister Lily, 23, is doing graduate work in anthropology at Oxford.
I said, knowing the answer, “They didn’t want to follow their parents into acting?”
Ms. Baranski looked at me and then toward the busy room of diners, her ski-bump nose coming into sharper view. “I almost consider that an achievement, I must tell you,” she purred in her Juilliard-trained voice.
All this talk about former haunts led Ms. Baranski to observe: “We’re kind of all over-stylized. Did you read the Patti Smith book?” She meant “Just Kids,” Ms. Smith’s memoir of the ’70s and ’80s. “God, I loved that.” She then mentioned the Fran Lebowitz documentary — had I seen it? “Well, she talks about how New York of the ’70s belonged to artists and intellectuals and people coming with big dreams. Now it’s for people with money and tourists.”
Still in this vein, I told her I’d picked up the recent New York magazine issue about apartments, with a touching piece by Gay Talese.
Ms. Baranski grinned. “I was standing behind Gay Talese last week. I was at a screening of the Jerry Weintraub movie. We were up in the Time Warner building, with that beautiful view. I was standing behind Gay Talese, who was waiting to get his martini. I thought, This is such a New York moment. Everybody dressed in black.”
She paused, brooding. “The city kind of doesn’t belong to them anymore.”
“Oh?” I said, interested.
“Don’t quote me on it,” she said, in a higher key.
I preferred to — it was innocuous enough. And, anyway, she can’t be the only person to have this thought. She had begun our conversation by saying, “I got here in 1970,” simple enough words for a girl of Polish descent from Buffalo, but words uttered by a million people with similar dreams and sweltering apartments and, like her, scholarships to prestigious schools. She delighted in recalling how she received $1,000 for being “the most hard-working economically needy student” in her Juilliard class, with the expectation that it was to be used for living expenses in the coming term. “And of course I took that money and was at the passport office the next morning,” she said with a laugh. “I was actually able to go to Europe for two months. I remember 10 days in Paris at the cheapest hotel.” Ms. Baranski sighed. “I just felt such a sense of pride that I did that. I was 19. And I did it alone.”
This first time was legitimate — as Shakespeare’s Helena. Then, in 1995, at the age of 42, with two Tonys, Ms. Baranski took the plunge into sitcoms, finding a new audience with “Cybill.” Fans reacted to her deadpan and taste for fashion as if she had buzzed down from Mars, one writing, “Who are you? Where did you come from?” “Cybill” led to Mike Nichols’s hiring her for “The Birdcage,” the 1996 film in which many people first discovered her charms. The following year, Ben Brantley of The Times opened his review of “Promises, Promises,” a revival that turned on her performance, with a plea: “Christine Baranski, come home!”
When she got the role in “The Good Wife” shortly after finishing “Boeing-Boeing” on Broadway, she said the drama’s creators, Robert and Michelle King, didn’t ask her to read for the part of Diane Lockhart. But she heard that the pilot’s director had some reservations. “He didn’t know my work,” she said. So she decided to meet them in Los Angeles. She was going anyway because her friend Chuck Lorre, the creator of “Cybill,” was getting a star on the Walk of Fame.
“On my way back to the L.A. airport — I love stories like this,” Ms. Baranski said, her eyes shining. “Literally the car was waiting. I went in and met Robert and Michelle. David Zucker, the producer, was there. And I had a great meeting. We talked, and two days later I got the job.”
Although it’s Alicia, Julianna Margulies’s character, who carries the show, Diane has emerged as its surprising moral center — tough, liberal, flawed but essentially principled — and with a sexy boyfriend to boot. The sporadic appearances of the gun-toting, conservative Kurt — who lately suggested that Diane chuck her career and come away with him — have taken some of the cling out of her Dolces, to the delight of middle-aged fans.
“I know!” Ms. Baranski exclaimed. “How cool is it that the writers gave me a love interest. I can’t tell you how many women come up to me and say how cool it is that it’s the woman who says, ‘My job is too important right now.’ I love it!”
By 3 p.m., the restaurant was virtually deserted. Ms. Baranski, who is usually on the set two or three days a week, didn’t seem in a hurry. I asked about her weekend plans. “Oh, spring cleaning,” she said happily. Of course, we discussed clothes — Ms. Baranski, who has a great figure, told me she flew to Paris last summer just to see the Saint Laurent retrospective. But I was more curious to know what she thought of her looks. Not being a beautiful woman, she has had to keep people interested in other ways.
Ms. Baranski agreed. “I attribute the longevity of my career to the fact I didn’t have to carry that mantle. I was never beautiful so I’m not unbeautiful. I may not have been a leading lady, but I had great clothes and funny lines. I think I had more flexibility.”
The next day, Ms. Baranski sent me an e-mail thanking me for lunch. The note began with a line from Tom Stoppard’s play “The Real Thing,” which earned her her first Tony — “Happiness is equilibrium... shift your weight.” She thought that she and her husband had done a lot of weight-shifting in the last 27 years. The missive ended with Ms. Baranski noting that her jaunt to Paris last summer was “my first solo trip to Europe since that adventure at the age of 19 ... in the words of Joni Mitchell, I was ‘a free man in Paris.’ ”