Bernadette Peters Leaves Stage, Returns to Film
Mar. 21, 1989
NEW YORK (AP) _ On a recent stroll around New York's Upper West Side, Bernadette Peters was greeted by shouts of appreciation from passersby. For Peters, a Broadway star whose performance in ''Song and Dance'' earned her a Tony, it's her part of town.
But cross over to the East Side and head down about 60 blocks and the bright lights give way to the lofts and underground art galleries of SoHo. It's a world depicted in Tama Janowitz's collection of stories, ''Slaves of New York,'' a new movie in which Peters stars.
It's also a world that the actress, a native of Ozone Park in Queens, knew little about.
''It was a unique experience doing the film,'' Peters said in a recent interview. ''There were lots of areas I had never gone to before - the burned- out buildings, Avenue C and D with people living in burned-out cars. I never realized how much of that there was.''
''Slaves of New York'' was developed by the producer-director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, whose long list of credits include ''A Room With a View'' and ''Maurice.''
Peters stars as Eleanor, a copyreader at an East Village newspaper who lives with her boyfriend, Stash, a manipulative and highstrung artist. Dressed in layers of colorful clothing and designing outrageous hats, Eleanor seems to share the same offbeat outlook as her bohemian friends, yet feels inferior.
''She doesn't appreciate herself,'' Peters said. ''She doesn't realize what she's capable of. Everyone else is concerned with what will sell, but Eleanor just makes hats because she enjoys it.''
Peters recently turned 41, but her soft features, squeaky voice and long, curly, blond hair make her appear much younger. She has been in show business since age 5 when she was a regular on television's ''Horn and Hardart Children's Hour.''
But she was a fan as well. Peters recalled seeing the film version of ''Auntie Mame,'' with Rosalind Russell reprising her star stage role.
''My girlfriends rang the bell and I said OK, and asked my mother if I could go. I realized that when I got home how much I loved the movie. What I love right now is that with each film I'm learning more about being in front of the camera. It's about making that moment immediate. I love that.''
Movies were even more important to Peters than the newest craze of the 1950s: rock 'n' roll.
''I used to come from school and there was a four o'clock movie on. I grew up on them and watched them after school instead of 'American Bandstand.'''
She was 9 years old when she joined Actors Equity and 13 when she had her first major stage role as Baby June in ''Gypsy.'' Peters limited her performing during high school, concentrating on her studies, and didn't have any major success until the late 1960s when she starred in ''Dames at Sea,'' an Off-Broadway spoof of the Busby Berkeley musicals that were popular 30 years earlier.
When her theater career sagged in the early '70s, she turned to television and film. She was a regular on ''The Carol Burnett Show'' and also appeared on ''All in the Family.'' Her work on screen was less notable, with a minor role in ''The Longest Yard,'' a prison comedy starring Burt Reynolds, and parts in a pair of forgotten films, ''Ace Eli,'' and ''Rodger of the Skies.''
But at the same time, she was putting together a solo nightclub act to highlight her considerable skills as an actor and singer, and in 1974 she earned a Tony nomination as the lead in ''Mack and Mabel,'' a musical about silent film director Mack Sennett and his leading lady, Mabel Normand.
In 1977, she met comedian Steve Martin and the two began a heavily publicized personal and professional relationship, starring in the films ''The Jerk,'' and ''Pennies From Heaven,'' during which they broke up.
'''Pennies From Heaven' came out during Christmas and it was advertised as this wonderful Christmas musical,'' Peters recalled of the 1981 film for which she earned a Golden Globe Award. ''It was not just a happy musical.''
Although the movie failed at the box office, Peters' popularity was just about to take off. In 1984, she triumphantly returned to Broadway, receiving rave reviews for her performance as Dot in Stephen Sondheim's production of ''Sunday in the Park With George,''
She earned a Tony nomination for ''Sunday'' and won the award two years later as the star of Andrew Lloyd Webber's ''Song and Dance.'' The actress talked about the unique experience of appearing alone in front of a live audience.
''You're there and I'm here and we're together,'' she said. ''We're here to have an experience. The audience was the other character, really. I was very lucky. It felt very odd to be up there with nobody.''
After completing a stint as the Witch in the Sondheim-James Lapine collaboration, ''Into the Woods,'' she began working on ''Slaves of New York,'' for which she had plenty of fellow actors but no audience. Peters, however, enjoyed the experience and is anxious to make more movies.
''You connect with the moment and the other character and whatever's happening. I'm trying to surprise myself all the time. I think you're always learning, you're always surprising yourself.''