Chanteuse to the Stars

At the Viper Room, Beverly D'Angelo displays her true, bluesy colors.

By Michael Gross
Originally published in the November, 1996 issue of GQ Magazine

Johnny Depp’s Viper Room on Sunset in West Hollywood is steeped in history — and I’m not talking about what happened to that poor Phoenix kid on the sidewalk, though that’s undeniably part of the joint’s seedy legend. In the ’40s, this was the Melody Room, where you ended your night in the company of “Don’t Call Me” Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, two glitzy gangsters reputed to have had an interest in it.

Half a century later, Beverly D’Angelo is headlining with her jazz band, Blue Martini, as she does every Sunday when she’s in town. She fits right in. Bev may be best known for her portrayal of Ellen Griswold, the repressed wife of Chevy Chase’s stumbling Clark in the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, but in real life (or as real as it gets for an actress) she’s a bridge from Bugsy to Deppski. A genuine throwback with a Lava-lamp bod, blonde, blue-eyed D’Angelo is a one-woman Rat Pack, making movies by day and Viper cabaret by night. Ever since Tony Bennett hit MTV, newly hatched lounge lizards have been buying cocktail shakers, smoking smuggled Cohibas and listening to re-releases of high-fidelity cheese-ball music. But until Beverly D’Angelo hit Mr. Phat’s Royal Martini Club, the Viper’s swing club within a club, all the hipsters and hipster chicks had only been shaken — not stirred.

Bev’s not just another ironic revivalist. Neither is she a mere “new” sophisti-kitten. Her showbiz rŽsumŽ is awesome. In the ’70s, she sang with Ronnie Hawkins, whose band gave birth to the Band; acted in rock musicals; made her movie debut in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall; had a leading role in Milos Forman’s Hair. She went on to work with such directors as John Cassavetes and Neil Jordan and to act with Peter Falk, Sissy Spacek, Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood and Michael Keaton. “So why aren’t you a household name?” Larry King demanded of her not long ago.

The answer is, she doesn’t really want to be one. She’s a Hollywood heavyweight, a full-fledged member of the club, yet her taste for interesting as opposed to popular films has kept her a commercial also-ran. Clearly, it’s her choice. She has no publicist, no manager. She follows her heart, not her agent’s advice. She refuses to conform or compromise or go quietly into the night playing Ellen Griswold for bags of cash. She’s an original — uncategorizable, slightly dangerous, difficult if not impossible to package and market and all the more precious for all of the above.

It’s hard to imagine most of today’s self-conscious stars taking the Viper’s stage and letting loose the way D’Angelo does. In a musical universe ruled by downer rock and whiny college-girl pop, hers may be a voice in the wilderness, but it’s unmistakable, unforgettable and unimaginably entertaining. She’s a wounded veteran of the era of instant gratification, but she’s proud of her passionately purple heart and never evinces an ounce of regret. Typically, Hollywood does no more than give lip service to the maverick ideals D’Angelo embodies. So it seems perfectly appropriate that she’s become the entertainment in-crowd’s favorite entertainer.

The curtain rises on the Viper Room’s stage. Bev steps out in a long black dress, dark glasses and bedroom slippers, smoking and purring. Her act ricochets from jazz to pop to country and hack, sometimes recklessly, frequently raunchily, always with an off-kilter knowingness. Musically sophisticated — mixing Chet Baker’s mood with Patsy Cline’s swing, lit by Julie London’s torch — it is also a wildly comic romp through D’Angelo’s quirky psyche. Even her serious songs, most of them original, are set Lip by farcical introductions, delivered by a mix of voices that makes you wish some studio exec would concoct a Musical comedy version of Sybil for her. But then, what do you expect from a woman who’s played everything from a debutante-turned-hippie in Hair to the Pterodactyl Woman From Beverly Hills?

“I cannot he trusted in the throes of looooooove,”‘ Bev moans throatily, early in her set. “DO NOT OPERATE MACHINERY WHEN UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF ESTROGEN should he emblazoned across my breasts.” Then she sings a jazz ballad. “I’ve only loved men that I hated,” it goes. “I need a man that I can live without.”

D’Angelo first sang the country standard “Walkin’After Midnight” when she played Patsy Cline in Coal Miner’s Daughter. She introduces it as 11 the song that took me from the hills … and Put me on the Pill.” Intimations such as this fill her set, and if they are even half-accurate, she’s a formidable female. Somehow it figures that Warren Beatty had one of the few extant tapes of the album Beverly made — but never released — a dozen years ago. He didn’t respond to a call to ask him if he still has it hidden away. Probably does, though. Consider the lyrics to Beverly’s signature song, unless of course you’re fainthearted, in which case, avert your eyes.

I can’t fuck without falling in love.

It happens every time I see the ceiling above me,

Every time I get shoved, wee ooh ah.

I can’t fuck without falling in love.

I can’t grind without losing my mind.

I can’t squeeze a gland without seizing a wedding band.

I can’t mate without wanting to set a date.

I can’t screw all day blue,

I can’t hump on my rump,

I can’t give head without wanting to wed.

I can’t sit on a bone without wanting to pick up the phone,

To say, “Mama, I found Mr. Right.”

Makes you want to please her, doesn’t it? She’s sure not a woman you’d want to disappoint; her sexual history is grist for the mill of her comic cabaret. “It’s good to have something in your hip pocket in case the person you love freezes up on you,” she’ll announce. “I write these little ditties to get my revenge.” Take “Killing Town,” which is aimed at a particularly constipated fellow.

C’mon baby, tell me something.

Say I piss you off.

Say I’m just a prima donna with a smokers cough.

I’m not trying to drag you down.

I’m not trying to tear you in half.

I’m just killing time in this killing town.

And I’m looking for a good laugh.

Like the one she gets at the expense of the male muse she’d “had this off-and-on thing with for about a year. I could never close the deal with him, y’know? And then I found out why. He was suffering from anencephalia, born without a brain, empty skull, all the way back, just gone.”

D’Angelo doesn’t sing only about sweet romance. She’s also got a Country ditty about suicide (“A hundred Darvon / A little Jack Daniels/Howdy, Jesus/I like yer sandals”) and a takeoff on Hank Snow’s world-weary “I’ve Been Everywhere,” recast as “I’ve Worn Everything,” a three-minute history of contemporary women’s fashion:

From shantung to gabardine, man,

Sharkskin to blue sateen, man…

Midis, maxis, minis, micros,

A-lines, fishnets, crotchless panty hose.

I’ve worn everything, man.

Encores are Bev’s best bit. Every night, the members of Blue Martini ask their audience to suggest a title for a song they then improvise on the spot. This night, when the crowd includes Sir Ian McKellen, directors John Schlesinger and Bryan Singer and bicoastal art dealer Larry Gagosian, the winning title booms from the Viper’s back booth: “Brain-Dead Man Walking.”

“Once there was a fellow who was hittin’ on too many bimbos,” Bev begins, as the band searches for a groove behind her. “They were gonna execute him for it. But it wasn’t his fault. He was brain dead… but I knew I could save him.” With that, Blue Martini’s noodling turns tuneful and D’Angelo starts crooning. “You’re not to blame,” she begins.

“You’re not insane,

It’s just that your brain

Is less than functional.

If I can assist

With my tender kiss,

It’s something I will do for you.

It’s compunctual.

I’ll be there for your midnight confession.

I’ll he there for all your talking…

You’re a brain-dead man walking.

* * *

A month later. It’s midnight in Las Vegas and brain-dead men are walking up and down a blockaded corridor at the Treasure Island hotel, on the Strip. “Who’s producing this picture? You should fire him!” announces a tall, tanned and handsome but red-eyed fellow. “What kind of hours are these?” He’s Jerry Weintraub, producer of Vegas Vacation, and like everyone roaming the set, he’s a little punch-drunk halfway through fifty-five nights of filming. Finally, at 1:30 A.M., Bev and Chevy Chase emerge from their dressing rooms, he in pajamas, she in a nightgown. They are going to work.

In this scene, the Griswolds have returned from lounge legend Wayne Newton’s show. It’s gotten Bev all turned on. Chase sits on the bed, hypnotized by a baccarat lesson on the hotel’s closed-circuit TV. D’Angelo slinks from the bathroom, scatting “The Wedding March” en route to bed. “Feeling lucky, Sparky?” she coos to her hobby, who is in a trance, parroting the lessons in losing money: “Bet with the player; bet with the bank; nine is a natural.” D’Angelo jumps him, and they wrestle on the bed, fighting over the clicker until she finally switches off the set. There’s a blackout, then Chase’s punch line: “Hard six coming out!” he hollers. “Hit me! Hit me!”

They rehearse for a half hour, then do the scene for the cameras half a dozen times. Despite the lateness of the hour and the repetition, it keeps getting funnier, Finally, the producer and the director agree they’ve got what they want. At 3:30 Weintraub stumbles into the hall muttering, “I’m going to sleep in the bus.” D’Angelo still has to shoot close-ups. But she’s as bright as everyone else is bleary. “It’s magic!” she trills with a wicked glint as she returns to the set.

Out of earshot, director of photography Bill Fraker watches, admiring. “Magnificent,” he mutters. “She’s a pro.” Weintraub snorts. “He’s having an affair with her,” the producer jokes, “so everything he says is tainted.”

But Fraker isn’t alone in his opinion. “The pleasure of meeting and working with Beverly is extreme,” says director John Schlesinger, who casts her at every opportunity. “She’s fearless. She looks at the world askew. I’m sure she takes herself seriously — and yet she doesn’t.”

* * *

Bev always had music in her. Before he settled down, her father was a big-band musician who played tuba with Tony Pastor and Rosemary Clooney. Her mother was an amateur violinist. But her brother Jeff, who plays bass in Blue Martini, was the family’s musical child. Bev was more … artistic.

In high school, she “discovered some things about intimacy precociously,” as she puts it. In reaction her father suggested she transfer to the American School in Florence, Italy. He probably didn’t intend the result: Bev decided she couldn’t go back to Columbus, Ohio. So in 1970, at age 17, she hit Hollywood, where her father helped her get a summer job at Hanna-Barbera, drawing puffs of smoke in the background of The Flintstones cartoons. She lived with a guitar player.

Like everyone young then, Bev was captivated with music and the romance of the road. That fall in New York, she joined a rock band. At a cooperative in British Columbia, run by a faction of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, she sang in a square-dance band. Then she got work as a studio singer in Toronto. “I also sang in a topless bar called the Zanzibar between two girls who were on oil drums with the tops replaced with Plexiglas and lights shooting up,” she says. “Every forty minutes, I’d say, ‘And now, gentlemen, it’s swing time,’ while they swung over the patrons and I sang ‘Girl From Ipanema.’ It was just the best, the perfect blend of hot and cool.”

Singing with Ronnie Hawkins wasn’t bad, either. That got her a job as Marilyn Monroe in a radio musical. She won an award for that and segued into a rock-musical Hamlet. Bev played Ophelia. “Hamlet was black, Meatloaf was playing a priest, and for my mad scene, I strangled myself with a microphone cord,” she says. “It closed.”

Unfortunately, Bev didn’t sing in public again for years. Instead, on a casting call, she won a line in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and became an actress. Her next picture, The Sentinel, was directed by Michael Winner. “I told him, ‘I’m not interested in movies,'” she says. “‘And on page sixty, I’m eating the brains out of a guy’s head.’ He said, ‘My dear, you are eating Chris Sarandon’s brains, and he’s just been nominated for an Oscar.’ I said, ‘But on page eighty, I’m in a lesbian masturbation scene!’ And he said, ‘Yes, but your partner will be Sylvia Miles, and she’s been nominated twice.'”

Hair was her big break. She got both a part and a real-life role as girlfriend of the director, Milos Forman, twenty-two years her senior. “In the most childlike way, I felt the ideal director-actor dynamic was one where you have so much trust and belief, your goal is simply to please,” Bev says. “A desire to please was … uh … you know … love.”

In the film’s glow, she had her first taste of stardom. But Bev was never entirely comfortable with that. “As an actor-for-hire, when you walk into a room, one of your great responsibilities is to allay the fears of the people that hire you,” she says. “Are you somebody who’s going to walk in and say, ‘Everybody else in town is shit. I’m the only person that can do that’? You can only say that from truth or from utter, ignorant egotism. I don’t live at either one of those extremes.” Not only that, Bev wouldn’t — or couldn’t — commit to acting.

Problem was, she kept falling in love. After Forman she married an economics student, Lorenzo Salviati, a descendant of Lorenzo de’ Medici. She made the first Vacation movie in the early days of their courtship. But it was another missed ring. By the time the movie came out, she’d decamped for Italy, where Salviati had several homes, including a huge Tuscan estate. A few years later, their marriage went sour, and she returned to Los Angeles. Soon she met novelist- turned-indie director Neil Jordan at a party. They went to Mexico the next day and then moved to Ireland. “I was concentrated on my relationships and getting further and further away from Hollywood,” Bev admits. “I wasn’t adhering to the Protestant work ethic.”

D’Angelo and Jordan broke up just after they made The Miracle, a movie with unfortunate parallels to their lives. Jordan had fathered a child by another woman. The Miracle was in part about child desertion. She found her situation intolerable. “I felt like I was in a bell jar,” Bev says. Again, back to Los Angeles. And again she got involved — this time with Anton Furst, the brilliant set designer of Batman and Full Metal Jacket, whom she had met through Jordan. “I was reeling; he was reeling. We got together, and he continued to reel,” Bev says. Introducing “Some Day,” her prettiest torch song, she sometimes tells the story of their chilly breakup. Furst committed suicide soon thereafter.

Though she’ll talk at length about almost everything else, Bev is brief on the subject. “I had a very strong reaction,” she says. “In Hollywood you start doing a movie, and before that movie comes out you get another movie. As opposed to doing that, I just decided that I would deal with whatever it was, let myself breathe and kind of just get it resolved.” She’s done a dozen films and TV movies since. But when they weren’t undistinguished, they were obscure.

Ironically, Jordan’s Miracle turned out to be one for Bev’s career. She had never stopped singing. Indeed, just after the first Vacation, she signed a four-album recording deal. But she didn’t get along with her producer and decided not to release the results, and the deal was canceled. However, while promoting The Miracle, which was built around her rendition of “Stardust,” Bev got several chances to perform.

She refused one. On Larry King Live, the host took a call from Chevy Chase. “I just want Bev to sing that one song that I love so much, if she would do it on the air,” Chase said, offering $10,000 for “I Can’t Fuck Without Falling in Love.”

D’Angelo demurred. “I’m not going to do it,” she said. “I’m not going to do it!”

Then King asked Chase why Bev wasn’t a household name. At that, she began to hum the song and snap her fingers.

She was also booked on The Tonight Show, and this time she did sing, “Stardust.” Her brother Jeff, a substitute bassist in Doc Severinsen’s band, accompanied her. That night Blue Martini was born. Bev had found her voice. She wouldn’t have to hum and snap anymore.

* * *

Beverly D’Angelo isn’t blue these days. She has a new guy she won’t name (it would later turn out to be Al Pacino), a lot of money, thanks to Vegas Vacation, and a rambling house in the Hollywood Hills where she can paint and make music between films. She brushes off most of the movies she’s made in recent years as “the opportunities I had,” but adds, “I’m always trying to get on the good foot; I’m open for business. What I really want is a television series.” Her friend John Schlesinger has a different idea. “She should be singing more,” he says. “She should have a much wider audience.”

Despite her TV dreams, D’Angelo gives the impression she’d be fine with a singing career. At the Viper, she plays castanets on a tune called “Get Out of Town.” Now, sitting in her Vegas breakfast nook, being interviewed in a teeny aqua bikini, she says the clicking castanet sound is symbolic for her. “Pure flamenco is never a planned thing,” she says. “It’s the celebration of the moment when you can go no further but to break into song. That is really relevant to where I’m at in my life. Because I can’t go any further, but I could just start singing.” If she does, her wicked bedroom voice may yet get her that household name.

©1996 Michael Gross