Wendy Wasserstein on Wendy Wasserstein
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright talks about her career, her plays, and her projects, including a couple of screenplays of her work
WASHINGTON — THE plane from LaGuardia was late. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who packs a Pulitzer Prize for her hit ``The Heidi Chronicles,'' is just settling into her hotel room as the interview begins. Suddenly it's as if a director had yelled, ``Action!'': The phone blares like a submarine ``Dive!'' alarm. She tackles the phone, tells the desk to hold all calls because she's doing an interview. She settles back on the flowered couch, hears the interviewer say ``it's a serious and funny and provocative play...'' when there's a knock on the door. Room service. The interview starts again, when there's another knock and the play's publicist enters, asks ``Would you like some seltzer water?'' Ms. Wasserstein passes on the seltzer, laughs in a little-girl voice . She takes a deep breath, gazes around the green-striped room as if she'd like to re-write this opening scene to be a little less Marx Brothers.
Wasserstein asks about the previous night's audience for ``The Heidi Chronicles'' at the Kennedy Center. She listens with a smile, nods her head, says she's glad they laughed a lot. ``Comedically, it's great to be able to hear when the audience laughs. You fix plays by watching them with an audience. Especially if you've written a comedy and nobody's laughing, then it isn't working.'' A tiny, ironic laugh.
``And I think in terms of movies, you know you sort of shoot all this stuff and then you edit it. It's also not in the province of the writer. A writer fixes his or her play by sitting there with the director.''
Obviously, ``The Heidi Chronicles,'' which was a smash on Broadway, toured the country, and has just closed in Washington april 27 or 28 is not a work in progress for the theater. But there is ``The Heidi Chronicles'': The Movie keep it capped for effect, coming up. And with it the challenge of cramming into a film 25 years in the life of Heidi Holland, the distanced, cool, art historian and lecturer, who has lived through women's liberation, bra-burning, sisterhood, consciousness-raising, the glass cei ling, and the antics of a charming cad named Scoop. By the late '80s she's still championing historic equality for women painters.
The woman who wrote ``The Heidi Chronicles'' does not look even vaguely like a character from her hit play. She fetches a soda with a lilting walk like a dancer's. (Early on, she studied at the June Taylor School of the Dance and likes to end scenes with dancing.) Her long, wildly curly chestnut hair bounces faintly as she walks back to the sofa and plops down. She has brown eyes the color of Hershey's chocolate, is prettier than her pictures, and merry rather than intellectual.
I had been taking notes on what she's wearing: black jacket, green top, red skirt ablaze with daisies, long green socks and low, black-patent shoes. ``No earrings,'' she prompts. She splashes the soda into the glass and talks about her other projects.
The planned movie version of her comedy ``Isn't it Romantic'' is in the pipeline as a play for television this summer. ``They're talking about Gwen Verdon playing the dancing mother - she's just someone I've always admired. It's just being put together now, they're just packaging it'' for TV, network unspecified.
Wasserstein tells about the new play she's writing: ``The lead is a woman who's 53 and I hope I can pull it off.... The play is set in London, and the woman falls in love. I thought it would be very interesting for me to write a play in which people end up together. It could make me very happy.''
Her perceptions of working in Hollywood and what Hollywood wants are vivid and sometimes scathing:
Here she is on the image of women that Hollywood gives: ``Boy, oh boy! I think so much has to do with superficials.'' She mentions a bright, socially concerned niece who loved the movie ``Pretty Woman.'' ``And I kept asking, `What is it you love about the movie?' It suggests,'' says Wasserstein, ``that ... the ultimate woman should be a hooker, and her boyfriend gives her big jewelry.... I think that's dangerous stuff.... So much from Hollywood has to do with youth and attractiveness, and being pleasing to men, [or] on the other hand, saving a farm ... or lifting a truck'' as a Hollywood heroine.
She says she's just finished the screenplay for the movie ``The Heidi Chronicles.'' It was a hard one to write and has been difficult to get produced intact. ``Well, actually it was a movie some filmmakers, some studios didn't want to make, I think because of the episodic nature of it.''
The studio criticism came despite the fact that ``The Heidi Chronicles'' had won a Pulitzer, a Tony Award as best play, other critical acclaim, and had a long run on Broadway, all of which usually has the studios salivating. Wendy Wasserstein explains, ``It's not a `Diehard 2,' it's not an action movie, and it's not a romance.... And it's not your basic classic heroine, either. This is a woman who ends up alone, adopting a Panamanian baby. And that [adopting a baby] is not everyone's favorite thing. So there was Hollywood interest, but it was from people who wanted me to change it substantially. And I didn't want to do that. So I sold it to independent producers whom I like very much, who let me write it as I wanted to write it.''
I asked if she were looking for a woman director. ``Actually that's interesting,'' she smiles, ``because when I went to my agent's office, and we made lists of directors, what was scary was he gave me this list of 200 directors, and there were like two women on it, or four women on it. And when we made the list out I said, `I have to tell you both as a woman playwright and the author of this particular play, that I think [her laugh has an edge on it] we should at least consider a woman.''' She hoots, re membering the exchange. ``Yes, he did give me more women's names.''
She has often been asked if she's Heidi, or like Heidi. She says, ``I'm not much like her.... I'm more show biz than Heidi, I'm more superficial than Heidi. I'm not an academic person like Heidi, but I've known a lot of Heidis in my time. I've gone to school with a lot of Heidis at Mount Holyoke. Later on she says, ``There are basically Heidis all across America.''
Her favorite scene in ``The Heidi Chronicles'' is the one in which Scoop, the self-adoring love of Heidi's life, gets married. Not to her. They are alone in a room at the reception. He smooches around, explains to Heidi why he didn't marry her, that as women go, she's an A, ``but I don't want to come home to an A....'' Wasserstein has gotten a lot of flack from guys on Scoop: ``I had dinner with a man the other night who was telling me about how ... the character of Scoop was overdrawn, and how could I say that about men....
``I mean, I find [Scoop] a charismatic fellow.... And he loves her, in his way. Even after 20 years. It is the heartbreaker: `I can't marry you...' It's so painful, and what do you do in your life, you just move away. But it's really hard, very sad. Ugh!'' She laughs, ``let's not talk about it.''
Wasserstein, who lives in Manhattan, also has a theater home at Playwright's Horizon in Manhattan, where she's a resident playwright. She says, ``Knowing you have a home, for a playwright that's a tremendous thing.'' A Yale Drama School graduate, she went on to write for Playwrights Horizons: ``Any Woman Can't''; ``Montpelier PaZazz''; ``Uncommon Women and Others''; ``Isn't it Romantic''; ``Miami,'' a workshop musical; and ``The Heidi Chronicles.'' A $50,000 grant from the Fund for New American Plays en abled Horizons to produce ``Heidi,'' and a $l0,000 grant to Wasserstein to rewrite the play made it possible.
There's one constant for her as a writer: ``I think you need quiet and I think you need a little time, more than a little time, and it is very hard to find that time and find that distance, 'cause you also have to be part of life and experience it in order to write about. So I think most writers are in many ways observers, 'cause you have an eye on something.... When you're a playwright, you're listening to people. You're watching but you're also even more listening.''