Stockard Channing appears in the downstairs hotel conference room wearing a black leather jacket, black top and slacks and some heavy black eyeliner that brings a little too much exaggeration to her face. Since she will not be posing for a photograph for the Independent (she’s careful about the unkindness of cameras) I feel obliged to tell you how she looks. Frankly, she looks like the kind of person who breakfasts exclusively on coffee and a packet of Camel Lights. She has the sweetly crumpled air of the late sleeper. I can imagine her wearing sunglasses in dark rooms, in that stylish but raddled kind of Jackie Onassis way. Unlike the yoga-toned Sigourney Weaver who shares a similar Uptown New York debutante background, there’s a bit of mess, a bit of a frayed edge with Stockard Channing. Perhaps that’s why we love her so much. She’s quite the grande dame.
The actress is in town to promote her new movie The Business of Strangers, a striking psychodrama by young New Yorker Patrick Stettner where she plays a successful businesswoman having a ‘breakdown’ in an airport hotel egged on by an evil Julia Stiles. Her long career (in which she ‘couldn’t get arrested’ before the age of 32 in Grease) is full of roles displaying what David Thomson describes as ‘sturdy perversity’ in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. In Stettner’s script Stockard plays a company director, recently promoted, who gets drawn into a scheme to wreak revenge on a man Stiles claims raped her friend in the past. The boozy enthusiasm with which her character decides to go for a wild ride in la-la land at the moment of complete and unadulterated career success is clearly one that appeals to the actress. ‘In a Hollywood film she would either be punished or redeemed, but here she just walks away from it unscathed’.
If the 58 year-old film star has any kind of image created over many years of hard work and career highs and lows its one of picking her teeth with neophytes, wiping the floor with the callow and the dumb. Her best-known role remains the fabulously mouthy Rizzo in Grease (‘where are you going?’ she bawls at an awestruck John Travolta ‘to flog your log?); it’s one that continues to haunt her, to her slight chagrin. But she’s also known for rather smart (in both senses of the word) performances – some bearing the mahogany shine of her of her rather grand background. A Harvard graduate, her father was a wealthy shipping magnate until he was financially ruined and died of cancer when Stockard was still young. In another life, Stockard would have been a Society Hostess who summers in Long Island and sits on the Board of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.
There’s certainly the clink of diamonds and privilege in many of her roles. She’s convincing, for example, as a wealthy heiress in a ménage-a-trois with Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson in The Fortune (1975). She was Oscar nominated as a trendy Society matron in Six Degree of Separation (1993) and of course we know her best as the US first lady, the President’s prickly physician wife in the huge TV hit The West Wing. Her onscreen chemistry with Martin Sheen saw her tiny early part developed into one of the biggest of the show, and she apparently is the envy of the cast, most of whom have golden handcuffs to the lucrative series, by a contract which allows her out to make a couple of movies a year. Movies like Business of Strangers.
Stettner, a genial Columbia Graduate whose father is a famous photographer and whose uncle is a Beat poet, had made a short graduation film that featured actress Allison Janney – who plays the press attaché at the fictional TV White House (and with delicious inevitability, has been now offered the job in real life). Since Stockard has declared on several occasions that her idea of a nightmare job is anything to do with working in an office (despite and probably because of two failed marriages to businessmen, arranged around two failed marriages to writers) I was intrigued that she should have taken this role as a battle-bruised demented businesswoman in psycho-sexual overdrive (‘when I attack the man it’s like I’m humping him’). An office drone?
‘The West Wing is about people working in the office,’ Stockard counters with a that patrician neutrality to her accent so often mistaken for a monotone, the bespoke linguistics of an East Coat grandee of a certain age (her language peppered with such old-fashioned upper-class English phrases as calling someone ‘a perfect pill’ or further mentioning that as a child he dressed up as characters in Kind Hearts and Coronets like some latterday Edith Sitwell recording a childhood at Knole). But don’t be fooled – this woman has a first class brain. ‘There are these caricatures of female executives and they’re brisk and bitchy, and often semi-villains, and that’s certainly how I begin the film. She’s such a bitch and so neurotic that I had to forgive her, since I realised it made her very human’
How did she respond to the allegations that the film is a man-hating piece of feminist triumphalism? ‘I don’t think it is at all,‘ she says. ‘It could have just as easily been about an older and a younger man ganging up on a woman, a story which seems kind of familiar, doesn’t it? You know I see these male executives on the plane all the time, and hear them talking about how they never even had the chance to drive the last car they bought, how they have to walk the walk and talk the talk. But we just thought it would be more interesting if the characters were women. We never talked about it in feminist terms’.
Actually she’s been a wonderfully vengeful vamp before in an early success, a Joan Rivers-scripted TV movie called Girl Most Likely To.. (1973) in which she plays a Fay Weldon-esque character who after plastic surgery does away with all the people who were nasty to her (‘any Channing fan should hound the airwaves for this one,’ pants David Thomson). ‘That was a rough and tumble comedy,’ she says, positioning a cushion on her lap and drinking her coffee. She has a lovely smoky laugh, which she uses often. ‘I had this Marilyn Monroe wig and I killed everybody, and I was just so green as an actress I just threw myself into it.
‘With Business of Strangers it was like being in a Chabrol movie, and it’s an ancient story, Dionysian and Apollonian, in which this antic person comes in and my character doesn’t look worse at the end of it she looks – refreshed! It’s just this emotional bungee jump, which I wasn’t sure I could pull off. Doing any film is like getting dressed in the dark but this one – well, I wasn’t sure whether the film would ever come together. It was a draining, gruelling experience because of having so little time and so little money to make it with, and a lot of very earnest young people who didn’t have a tremendous amount of experience’.
Perhaps she was still walking around with her character’s traits, despite the purging experience of having just made a Roger Spottiswoode film about the murdered American gay teen Matthew Shepard. Now she’s zooming off to do a Merchant Ivory film in Paris, but first she’s returning to the States for the season finale of West Wing (‘she could go down in a plane crash for all I know, but I hope not’). Would she be prone to a Bacchic frenzy? Defacing hotel mirrors with mad scrawls of lipstick? Did the Covent Garden hotel where she was staying have any idea of her film’s attack on hotels? ‘‘I don’t think I could ever be that bitchy or neurotic,’ she says carefully. ‘I’m sure I have been’.
Then she chuckles, nervously. She feels the need to answer honestly. ‘I like to think I’m not like that all the time – I know there are times when I’ve been short, bitchy and disagreeable, and I know there have been times when I’ve behaved stupidly and neurotically.’ So the effects of the film didn’t linger? ‘I tried to be as nice, polite and congenial as I could for at least a month afterwards!’ Heaven forbid such a phase would last to long. Too much sugar in Stockard Channing and not even a Marilyn Monroe wig (or a reprise of her role as a nurse on Sesame Street saying ‘next’ to a room full of puppets) could save one of our most cherishable actresses.
You can see more of Stockard Channing here and here