My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene

Above all, glamour:
A Conversation with Edith Head

There will be, “Just a whisper of gossip, As Edith said, 'I enjoy gossip from time to time but I never repeat it,'” says Susan Claassen who created and stars in A Conversation with Edith Head. “As Lucille Ball said, ‘Edith knew the figure faults of every top star. And she never told - Edith always knew how to keep a secret.’” Fortunately Claasseen is not necessarily as discreet, “Well, in this cozy conversation some secrets might be revealed ... And fashion tips freely given.”

Claassen has a long list of theatrical achievements but for the last few years she has been performing, and winning awards, as renowned costume designer Edith Head. “I first got the idea in 2001 when I was watching a television biography of Edith Head,” she explains. “I literally did a double-take, my physical resemblance to Edith Head seemed uncanny. And what's even more bizarre is that we are the same height and both born in October but 50 years apart. The more I watched, the more I knew there was a great story to be told. Edith Head’s story is as fascinating as the history of the film industry itself, filled with humor, frustration and, above all, glamour. This diva of design helped to define glamour in the most glamorous place in the world.”

There was a lot of research to be done, “I madly read anything I could find when I came upon Paddy Calistro’s book Edith Head’s Hollywood. I called telephone information for Santa Monica, where I thought Paddy lived, and voila, she was listed. It was kismet. At our first meeting, we knew the connection was right and we agreed to collaborate.  Paddy had not only written the book but had inherited 13 hours of taped interviews with Edith Head - it was truly a gift from heaven. We can honestly say that A Conversation with Edith Head is based upon the words and thoughts of Edith Head - the ‘Edith-isms.’ In hearing her speak, it struck me how bright she was - and she did not suffer fools lightly. She had to keep up a strong exterior in order to mask her vulnerability. Her longevity is a direct result of her tenacity.  We have worked very hard to create an intimate portrait that reveals the complexity of this fascinating woman.”

Head won eight Oscars, had two marriages and dressed (and undressed) the most beautiful women and men in Hollywood. She is also rumoured to have had a long list of lesbian liaisons including Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck and Tallulah Bankhead (for whom Buddies’ cabaret space, where A Conversation with Edith Head will make its Canadian première, is named). Claassen is relatively circumspect, “Tallulah was under contract to Paramount so they did work together. An incident in Tallulah’s life was also the inspiration for the 1950 movie All About Eve in which Edith Head dressed Bette Davis. Edith’s designs were a definite homage to Tallulah and won Edith an Oscar.”

Edith Head is a household name, at least in gay households (after all Bette Davis gave Head’s eulogy), but A Conversation with Edith Head has a universal appeal. “What audiences take with them after having seen the performance is truly dependent on what they bring to it,” says Claassen. “Film buffs get immersed in hearing stories from someone who has lived through the evolution of contemporary film, older audiences remember always seeing the closing credits, "Gowns by Edith Head," and it evokes a bygone era. Younger audiences think of the Pixar animated film The Incredibles and Edna Mode, designer to the superheroes. Most recently Edith was the subject of a Google Doodle. Everybody can remember a film they saw or the first time they saw Grace Kelly in that gorgeous gown, or Elizabeth Taylor in the A Place in the Sun dress. It brings back something that in some way touched them. And that is a connection that I just treasure.”

Claassen’s portrayal is not only hilarious but also uncanny, “Norman Lear and Barbara Rush, who both worked with Head on Come Blow Your Horn, came to see us and said, ‘You are more Edith than Edith!’  Jean-Pierre Dorleac, a costume designer who was one of Edith's contemporaries, came to opening night and said, ‘I just felt I was with my friend again.’ The list goes on from Joan Rivers to Anthony Powell to Tippi Hedren to Elke Summer, and to Kate Burton who said, ‘I am having an out of body experience. I used to come to your fittings Miss Head, with my stepmom.’”

Claassen does have an encyclopedic knowledge of Head factoids and gossip. When asked about a lesser film of Head’s that features a iconic diva performance, Classen responds instantly, “About young star Karen Black, whom she dressed for Airport 1975, Miss Head said, ‘She had always played a tough, kookie character before, but she made the transition to a very smart-looking senior stewardess who wore clothes beautifully. The clothes, plus her own talent, of course, have changed her image.’ Head knew how to play the game better than anyone. She herself said, ‘I knew I was not a creative design genius, I am a better diplomat than I am a designer. I was never going to be the world’s greatest costume designer, but there was no reason I could not be the smartest and most celebrated.’”

Despite achieving a spookily accurate incarnation Claasen’s feet are planted in real life when offstage. “I know I'm not Edith. And the audience knows I'm not Edith Head. But there's a shared moment.” Even when it comes to Head’s legendary libido and high profile conquests. Who of Head’s glamorous paramours would catch Claassen eye?  “I have the most astounding partner in the world and she is the only one I am unable to resist,” she states firmly.

A Conversation with Edith Head runs from Fri, Jan 17 to Sun, Jan 19 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St.,