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Cynthia Nixon on Emily Dickinson's Sexuality & Her Own

Cynthia Nixon

Cynthia Nixon is superb as 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies’ new film, A Quiet Passion. That’s no surprise to those who know her work—she radiated sophistication as lawyer Miranda in Sex and the City, from 1998 to 2004, as well as shining in Broadway plays, like Rabbit Hole and Wit. Cynthia has two children with her ex, Danny Mozes, and in 2012, she married education activist Christine Marinoni, whom she’d been dating for 8 years. And that’s not the end of her connectivity. In 2013, Cynthia (with the help of performer Nora Burns) got me aboard the bandwagon to help elect Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York, and she told me she and Christine think “he’s doing an amazing job.” So did she in this interview:

Hello, Cynthia and congrats on the great movie. I had no idea Emily Dickinson was so feisty. I pictured her as just a recluse.

That’s one of the first things Terence Davies said: “This is not going to be an austere, solemn Masterpiece Theatre. I want her to be fierce and ferocious.”

She also comes off very witty—not just in her work, but in person.

I think so. You get a little sense of this at the beginning, and I think she’s sort of a social butterfly in her earlier parts. [Later on], she’s still a social butterfly, but written down, not in person.

Would she feel more connected today, in the world of social networks?

This is a really weird thing to say and maybe a little sacrilegious, but I actually think Emily Dickinson would have done very well in the world of Twitter and email and all of that stuff because I feel like she was so eager to connect but didn’t want to be out in the world all the time. I think she would have still needed her alone time and lots of it, but I do think she would fare well in this world today.

When you got into the period costumes and décor, did that help you immerse yourself into her world?

Yes, and of course having her poems around and all of us reading them and sharing them and reading different biographies. And the recreation of the house—they did such a beautiful job replicating all that.

I always thought Emily must have been a lesbian.

I think she was kind of equal opportunity. I really do. I think she had these very passionate attachments to men and to women, and with her sister-in-law Susan, it seems very much like a love story, whether it had a physical component or not, if you read the letters. It’s hard to go back 110 years and get the tone of what people were thinking. But before Susan even met Emily’s brother, she and Emily wrote romantic letters, with lots of fighting and breaking up. And Emily had a desire to spend her life with Susan.

But that’s not so much in the movie.

No.

We need a sequel—Emily 2! Do you personally get discriminated against for being bisexual?

I think it’s more that people don’t really get bisexuality. And they also don’t really believe in it.

Is that frustrating?

Yeah, whatever. There are worse problems out there in the world than whether people get the exact shade of my sexuality. [We laugh]

Speaking of the best of both worlds: On Broadway, you and Laura Linney are alternating the roles of Regina and Birdie in the revival of Lillian Hellman’s familial drama The Little Foxes. How is that working out?

I think it’s pretty great. In order to get us up and launched, we did a number of shows in a row playing one character. That’s a long time to be away from the character you’re not doing. We’re now at the point where we’re starting to alternate. It’s a very exciting thing and I think Laura Linney is a genius to have thought of it. It was completely her idea, and she wanted a partner in crime. It’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me in my career.

Maybe you should both stand there and recite both parts at the same time.

When my oldest kid was little, they had something like the 500th performance of Beauty and the Beast, and I took Sam. They had five different Belles. One from Spain, one from Italy… It was like the Axis Power Belles doing them simultaneously. It was pretty trippy, but great.

Will you be eligible for both Best Actress and Best Featured Actress at the Tonys, or will they just go with the opening night credits and you’ll just be up for Featured?

I don’t honestly know. I’m sure they know, but luckily it’s not my thing to try and figure that out.

You’ve won a Tony, Grammy, and two Emmys. All you need is an Oscar to be an EGOT.

Just one tiny, little easy-to-get Oscar. [laughs]

We have to work on that.

HOPE IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS

Which brings me to my review of A Quiet Passion. In the beautifully appointed film, Dickinson is a self-admitted plain Jane who feels unloved, especially when she obsesses on a man who happens to be married. But she has a burning sense of righteousness, as she refuses to filter her inner rebel to create the placid exterior society expects. She’s open about her contempt for stupidity and hypocrisy, and adamantly won’t tailor her psyche to fit the norm. Alas, this evolves into an ungodly rage that sometimes seems misguided, and even Dickinson catches herself being horrible and disruptive. Through it all, Dickinson’s wry and knowing poetry—which was unrecognized until after her death—is a catharsis for her, an expression of truth that helps her cope with bouts of loneliness and lovelessness.

As I mentioned, this film’s Dickinson becomes a homebound recluse, but is far from a withering vine. Nixon captures her in her wit, ire, and even warmth, along with great turns by Keith Carradine as her contentious father and Jennifer Ehle as her peeved but loving sister. The movie has fewer patches of obvious exposition than most biopics, and it gloriously takes the time to stop and be cinematic, as it probes Dickinson’s oddball brilliance. And I loved the scene when dad complains about a dish being dirty and Dickinson simply smashes it to bits!  

A STAR IS PORN

Another favorite of mine, Michelle Visage, has bagged a role in a feature film about Joey Stefano, the charismatic but doomed gay porn star who died in 1994. Director Chad Darnell tells me Michelle will play Anita, a composite figure of various sensational TV hosts, a character who will provide a running framework for the film. Well, the woman does know how to talk. Also cast is another Drag Race legend, Alaska Thunderfuck, who will play Gender, the makeup artist/musician who was part of the “Porn Rat Pack” of that era. God, I wish I was in this. Oh, wait, I am!

FINNISH-ING SCHOL FOR MUSCELEMEN

More porn-related cinema dish: Tom of Finland was Finnish, but he’s far from finished. The Scandinavian artist—Touko Laaksonen—became legendary for his vivid illustrations of big basketed leather studs flaunting their various muscles. His work blended the lines between porn and art, while fetishizing a certain obsession with authority and masculine role playing within the gay community. I just saw Tom of Finland, Dome Karukoski’s biopic, at the Tribeca Film Festival, and learned more about the artist—how he was a WWII soldier who afterwards grappled with the closet in an oppressive Helsinki environment. (His sister was particularly ‘phobic, especially when his art started catching on.) Tom fell for a beautiful male dancer named Veli, though he was far from monogamous, venturing to California for some time and enjoying its fruits, as it were. And eventually, AIDS entered his persona life, and also called his work into question, since right wingers were accusing it of being an impetus for death. But his legend grew, which now includes this lovingly made movie, with a good performance by Pekka Strang as Tom. I just wished it had been much dirtier and looser!

NIGHTLIFE DOINGS

For 5 years, a DJ collective known as Occupy The Disco has thrown a party at the Standard’s Le Bain, plus on the rooftop, and last week, the weather was suddenly so lovely that we all wondered why were weren’t on Fire Island before realizing we were grateful to be at this swell soiree. A plus for cruisers is that, in the daylight, you can see exactly what your potential tricks look like; in Bushwick, there’s a hangout, called Pizza Party, that’s been getting buzz for fun viewing parties with the Brooklyn drag queens; at Feinstein’s/54 Below, they’re recognizing the beauty of tucking and glossing, having started their Late Night Drag series, curated by a longtime friend of mine, the brassy Vodka Stinger. Among the upcoming attractions are Joey Arias with Sherry Vine, Marti Gould Cummings and, of course, Vodka herself, backed by the scintillating Martha Rayes; and last week, butcher types were populating Rebar NYC, which is the old G Lounge, redone with a more macho-looking décor. I went to one of the previews, where they were handing out fake money and telling guests, “It’s an open bar. We’re just training the bartenders.” Well, judging from the inebriated crowd of survivors and porn stars, the tenders had learned very quickly and very well. Could this place get the gays back to Chelsea? Maybe—if they keep handing out that fake money.

THINK “PINK”

War Paint

On Broadway, War Paint is the musical theater answer to gay nightlife—it’s something the queers should flock to (especially if they like Feud). Directed by Michael Greif, with a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie, War Paint tells the story of real-life beauty titans Elizabeth Arden (a Canadian farm girl who reinvented herself as a cosmetics queen) and Helena Rubinstein (a Polish Jewish immigrant who did the same), becoming arch rivals in their bitter bids to sell creams and lotions to American women. Their parallel stories are told in tandem (though they occasionally inhabit the same room and sometimes sing unwitting duets), and things get bitter with revelations, bad decisions, betrayals, and a court case. The subtext is that these two women rose to power in a man’s world, and paid the price for it, but at the same time were nagged by doubts that they made their fortunes tyrannizing women into feeling inadequate without their products. The show is lavish and well designed, and there’s a gay character (played by Douglas Sills) who “runs in a crowd where women aren’t the only ones who wear lipstick.” The two leads deliver, Christine Ebersole emanating control and singing beautifully, knocking out her terrific 11 o’clock self-doubt number, “Pink.” As Rubinstein, Patti LuPone employs a thick accent, making her first song hard to decipher. She is also directed to overly lean on some of the joke lines she’s been given. But she’s in top vocal form, and when the two ladies are warring it up, this is gay heaven. I won’t give away the ending, but when Rubinstein says “This never happened,” she really means it.

DOORWAY TO NORWAY

The uptown hit of the year is the Broadway transfer of Oslo, J.T. Rogers’ play about the little known story of a Norwegian couple—a diplomat and a social scientist—who were key figures behind the 1993 Oslo accords, having organized hush-hush meetings between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. A sprawling 3 hours, the play is talky but full of history, observation, and entertainment, as heated arguments are peppered with occasional jokes and wisecracks, all on the road to a historic handshake (one whose value is still debated). Tony winners Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays are terrific as the Norwegian couple, and in the showiest role—Israeli diplomat Uri Savir—Michael Aronov is sexy, angry and full of sass. Bartlett Sher’s direction is lively, and Michael Yeargan’s set has spare furniture at the center of an expanse, to make things intimate yet make it clear that these discussions were affecting a large sphere around them. An imposing door looms symbolically, and projections and films are flashed onto the wall, but for once, this sort of thing seems inventive and apt, not purposely scaled down. And having gone all the way from Finland to Norway, let me now quit and go back to Chelsea.

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