Ladies We Love: Stockard Channing

3.23.2011

By Bill Keith

When she arrives for her photo shoot, Channing glances at the clothing rack and says politely, "There's really no need for me to change." She's perfectly sexy and vibrant in the black leather jacket, tight black jeans, and T-shirt she's shown up in. It's two days before her 67th birthday and though she may be fighting her age -- asked what she does to keep her body in such fantastic shape, she replies with a smirk, "Everything I fucking can" -- she's also entirely comfortable discussing it. And why shouldn't she be? In addition to that body, her eyes are as beautiful and expressive as they were when she made her leading-lady debut in the 1973 Joan Rivers-penned TV movie, The Girl Most Likely To' playing a murderous teenager hell-bent on revenge. "There are no degrees of separation between Stockard Channing and Joan Rivers," she laughs, referring to Six Degrees of Separation, the 1990 play and 1993 film that earned her nominations for a Tony and an Oscar.

In the basement of Lincoln Center a few days later, Channing is pondering why it is that she has such a tremendous gay following. She admits she's befuddled. When I point out that in lesser hands many of her most famous roles easily turn into drag, but that in hers never do, she accepts the awkward compliment easily. "I know exactly what you mean. I try to get away from stereotype as much as I possibly can without being chickenshit, because that's not what you have to do," she says. And there's really nothing quite like hearing Stockard Channing use the term chickenshit, except maybe hearing her just as aptly use the word Bildungsroman.

Having just wrapped a production of Jon Robin Baitz's brilliant play Other Desert Cities, in which she played a ferocious (her word) Palm Springs matriarch, she has started filming on a futuristic cop TV drama created by the team behind Battlestar Galactica. She relishes the opportunity to take a turn less maternal, even if the show's Vancouver production keeps her far away from New York City and her converted ashram of a home on the coast of Maine. She doesn't make pronouncements as much as keen observations that, thanks to her Park Avenue-bred, Harvard-educated delivery and easy irreverence, hold the listener captive. When she speaks of roles for women her age, there's no sense of sour grapes. Instead, she offers a carefully considered analysis from her own unique point of view.

"You get to a certain age, and you start playing a lot of mothers. Maybe if I had children I'd feel differently, but I really hate bumping up against all these guys' memories of their mothers, which, trust me, aren't so hot," she laughs. "Or maybe they watched a lot of The Golden Girls, you know? And I may be very grateful for someone who was raised on The Golden Girls. But they aren't hanging out with women this age now, and I'd like to think the world has changed since then."

Lately, she may be best known for playing mothers: First Lady Abigail Bartlet in NBC's The West Wing and Judy Shepard in The Matthew Shepard Story (both roles earned her Emmys). But it was in 1978 that she stole the show in Grease as Rizzo, the ball-buster -- a word Channing doesn't love. "Someone in the business said to me, 'That's your brand,' and I said, "What?! What does that mean? I think I play emphatic people," she says.

One consistency she will acknowledge? She doesn't want to be bored. "I prefer to not repeat what I think I've done before. I like to think that there are still more variations on the theme that is me as a physical human being. After Six Degrees, I did Too Wong Foo. So you see, I happen to like this variety thing. As long as I can keep doing that, I'll be very happy.'

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