While this time of crisis has shaken celebrity culture and exposed much of its inherent meaninglessness, there are a handful of show business veterans who have emerged as new icons, like Will and Grace’s Leslie Jordan, whose hilarious, refreshingly candid Instagram videos are an unexpected sensation. And then there’s Patti LuPone. During the COVID-19 quarantine, the stage legend has been posting videos of herself on Twitter giving wildly energetic tours of her memorabilia-filled basement. She also has a juicy role in the new Ryan Murphy Netflix series Hollywood. Patti is having a major moment and I am so here for it.
Of course her icon status was cemented long ago. To call her a Broadway legend is an understatement. She’s won two Tony awards, and she originated the role of Eva Peron in the Broadway smash, Evita, one of my all-time biggest obsessions. Seeing Evita in the movie theatre as a kid changed the course of my life, but I know Patti would slap me for loving Madonna’s performance. She eviscerated Madonna in an infamously iconic appearance on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live, calling her a “movie killer who can’t act her way out of a paper bag.” It remains one of the greatest moments of diva on diva shade.
Even when Patti had everything to lose, she still spoke her mind, as she recently recounted to The New Yorker. “Years ago, when I was doing Evita, I was interviewed in Backstage magazine. And I actually said, ‘I don’t understand what a casting director does. And I don’t understand why there is a casting director. Is the director such an idiot that he doesn’t know how to cast?’ […] And I think I came out of that known as this roaring bitch.”
I have always loved a roaring bitch, and Patti is roaring louder than ever. Her post-workout routine sent gay Twitter swooning. Her video tours through her treasure trove of a basement include one she made hungover, wearing a vintage Rosie O’Donnell Show T-shirt, and she’s returned to Watch What Happens Live for another round of ultimate shade throwing. Again she holds nothing back, including a viral dig at Barbra Streisand, saying she might have been a great Mama Rose in Gypsy 50 years ago. Just how old does Patti think Barbra Streisand is?
It’s always been my belief that the funniest comedians are not comedians at all. Like Fran Lebowitz, Patti is one of the great comedians of our time. Her humour is derived from her completely organic, uncensored bluntness—a bluntness that I believe comes from the unwavering confidence she has in her talent, ability and worth. As a performer myself, I am completely inspired by—and jealous of—that bluntness. So much of show business is about kissing people’s asses but now that we must remain six feet apart at all times, maybe it’ll be a bit easier for all of us to channel our inner Patti.
In Hollywood, a revisionist imagining of the movie industry in the 1940s, she plays Avis Amberg, a studio executive. I wanted to love Hollywood because it’s so rare to see Patti being given the kind of substantial role in film and television she deserves, but it is one of the worst shows I’ve seen (warning: there are a few spoilers ahead). Murphy recasts a historically racist, homophobic, misogynistic Golden Age Hollywood as a place and time of great social progress: Rock Hudson and his African-American boyfriend, Archie (loosely based on James Baldwin), attend the Oscars hand in hand, while the character of Camille becomes the first African-American woman to win the Oscar for best actress in a leading role. In reality, Hudson never publicly came out of the closet and died from AIDS-related complications in 1985. And it took 74 years for a Black woman to win the Oscar for best actress. That was Halle Berry and the year was 2002. No other woman of colour has won the award since.
Murphy’s Hollywood is an erasure of the work, accomplishments and sacrifices of the real trailblazers, and many of the industry changes Murphy fantasizes about having taken place in the ‘40s still haven’t been achieved in 2020.
Despite its shortcomings, Patti still gives a great performance and steals the show. In these continuously trying times, it’s nice that there are still some things we can count on—and we can always count on Patti to deliver. If you want to experience her full glory, listen to the 2008 original cast recording of Gypsy, you will not regret it.