Interview: Mary Steenburgen and Melissa Manchester

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The unique experience of interviewing two of my favorite artists, Grammy-winning singer Melissa Manchester (“Don’t Cry Out Loud”) and Oscar-winning actress Mary Steenburgen (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) about their collaboration in motion picture songwriting was an early Christmas present. The three of us talked about their mutual work and careers in a lively and earnest conversation. I can attest that the ladies, who let me address them informally, are as lovely as they seem on screen and on record. This is an edited transcript.

New York-born Manchester, daughter of a Metropolitan Opera Orchestra musician and clothing entrepreneur, has studied under Paul Simon, performed as a solo artist in Greenwich Village, played Carnegie Hall and headlined at Radio City Music Hall. Her hit singles include “Midnight Blue”, “Whenever I Call You Friend”, which she co-wrote with Kenny Loggins, “Through The Eyes Of Love” and “You Should Hear How She Talks About You.” In 2010, Ms. Manchester co-created and starred in the ballroom dance spectacular Fascinating Rhythms, and her song “I Know Who I Am” was recorded by Leona Lewis for Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls.

Nine of her songs are highlighted in Dirty Girl, including the original theme song “Rainbird” which she recorded and co-wrote with the movie’s co-star, the widely known and popular Mary Steenburgen, most recently seen in The Help and The Proposal. Ms. Steenburgen (Philadelphia, Back to the Future III, Melvin and Howard, Life as a House) is represented by Universal Music and has been working as a songwriter for the last five years. Dirty Girl is the story of a reputedly “dirty” schoolgirl in an Oklahoma town, circa 1987, who is paired with someone who is secretly gay. Together, they flee to California, and discover each other and themselves. Though the Weinstein Company gave Dirty Girl a brief theatrical release last year, it’s available this Tuesday on DVD. The soundtrack is available on Lakeshore Records.

Scott Holleran: Had you known one another before your collaboration on “Rainbird” for Dirty Girl?

Mary Steenburgen: We had only just met shortly before Dirty Girl. We actually started with another song that had nothing to do with the movie, which didn’t exist yet. I completely idolized Melissa. She narrated many moments of my life—we actually even look a tiny bit alike—including this one day on a bus, when someone thought I was Melissa Manchester. So, everyone that knew me knew I adored her and that her music resonated with me. When I first found out that I might write with her, I was like a little kid. What was so strange about the movie was that she was already on my mind. I had made my list of what I needed to do. The script had been sent to me and I was a little behind in my reading. I started reading the script and it was like a love poem to Melissa—and I thought it was the most beautiful coincidence.

Scott Holleran: Melissa, are you part of the picture’s plot?

Melissa Manchester: Yes. It’s not a spoiler to say that—my work is sort of a muse for one of the characters.

Scott Holleran: Mary, were you moved by the script?

Mary Steenburgen: Yes, and while the press was just catching up with the issue of people being bullied for being gay, it resonated with me on many levels. It’s also funny and quirky and original. I loved the character I was playing.

Melissa Manchester: It’s about this lost young gay guy—[writer and director] Abe Sylvia refers to this film as a vulgar valentine—but it isn’t preachy.

Scott Holleran: The main character is a girl who’s perceived as dirty—?

Mary Steenburgen: —She’s the girl who’s got a bad reputation. Like many of those girls, she’s complicated. It doesn’t ruin anything to say they get thrown together in a parenting class. My character is married to a character played by Dwight Yoakam, with whom I worked in Four Christmases. We’re both terrible gigglers, so we enjoy working together.

Scott Holleran: Is it the girl’s story or the boy’s story?

Mary Steenburgen: It’s even-handed. To me, the film centers on both characters.

Scott Holleran: Melissa, what it means to be female and the art of being feminine is a career theme. Do you see your work as a journey of self-expression?

Melissa Manchester: Oh, yes. My job is totally about the art and craftsmanship of self-expression. I started writing and walking my track of being a singer-songwriter at the height of that [1970s self-help] movement. That’s what we did and I inadvertently became a passing communicator of the women’s [liberation] movement. The unexpected gift is that, when you perform, your work becomes the listener’s version. It’s always a gift.

Scott Holleran: Mary, different points in time are a recurrent theme in your career, from your first film, a Western, to Dirty Girl, which takes place in the 1980s, and the time travel movies. Does this contribute to the perception of you as a versatile actress with a timeless persona?

Mary Steenburgen: I don’t think about how people perceive me. I think it would confuse me and put a pressure on me that I don’t want to have. I’ve never had a game plan. I literally read the things that make me laugh or cry and, if it does, then I want to do that film. Or if [a script] intrigues me or makes me scared that means I will probably do it—it’s like what Melissa said about her music; the receiver takes the work and makes it their own. For every artist, you put your work out there and someone makes it their own. I recently had someone come up to me on a plane. She was a very conservative-looking woman who was a flight attendant and she asked if I would talk with her. She told me her brother was gay and, she said, ‘to be honest, we were not comfortable with that and we kind of banned him from my family—and he was banned from family gatherings and was no longer welcome.’ She said he later became diagnosed with AIDS. In its later stages, she said, he came to them and finally said, ‘I won’t bother you again, please just watch this movie, Philadelphia‘ [1993]. She said they did watch it. After they saw the movie, they saw how the family rallied behind the Tom Hanks character and the family did the same. She told me that it wouldn’t have happened without that movie.

Melissa Manchester: —that is a prime example of what art can do—

Mary Steenburgen: —I lost one of my best friends to AIDS two days before that movie. [Pauses]. Peter.

Scott Holleran: I’m sorry to hear that, Mary. [Pause]. Were you thinking about losing him when you delivered that powerful line, “God I hate this case”?

Mary Steenburgen: Yes. I had just lost him. I was such a wreck when I got there—I was overemoting in every scene and I was struggling so much. When we shot the first scene, I wasn’t good in it. By the time we got to that scene where [my attorney character is] holding the mirror up to [the AIDS patient’s Kaposi’s sarcoma] lesion, [director] Jonathan [Demme] said ‘I think we should add this line’. So, we did. [Pauses]. Philadelphia is really not about AIDS. It’s about justice.

Scott Holleran: It’s interesting and both the lawyer character in Philadelphia and the mother character in Dirty Girl play against the stereotype that the straight woman is the ally of the gay male—

Melissa Manchester: —Right. As with any fear that’s based on ignorance, any time we demonize others, we eventually become the others. The only way to bridge that gap is to humanize them. For example, I work with women in prison. They are largely there for having killed their abusers. When I work with them, the layers are peeled away to reveal their humanity. What’s there is the compassion.

Scott Holleran: What is the musical theme of Dirty Girl and does it match or complement the film’s dramatic theme?

Melissa Manchester: Abe Sylvia comes from the world of musical theater so he understands that, in the world of film, music is an afterthought—and there’s a sort of Greek chorus in Dirty Girl. It’s a whole other texture. It’s a story where music is integral.

Mary Steenburgen: To your question, I can talk about Melissa easier than she can. Just as her music was very personal to me, she is this boy’s muse but she’s kind of more than that. I recently read about this kid who wrote a letter to Lady Gaga about bullying. This boy’s world is not safe, so he related to Lady Gaga—I did this, too [as a youth], by the way, creating a magic world, only mine was in books—and this boy’s world [in Dirty Girl] is not safe and beautiful, so he appreciates beauty and drama and music. He finds all those things in the music of Melissa Manchester. So, his safe place is in his room, with his gigantic headphones, listening to her [songs] and trying to be [like] her and connect with her. In those moments, he can be fully alive. And that’s part of his connection to this girl. So Melissa’s music is the heart of the movie. When you get around to “Rainbird”, for me, it was almost as though Melissa Manchester was speaking in her beautiful, caring, all-knowing voice, saying that it gets better. That is what we are trying to say.

Melissa Manchester: In the end, the heart yearns for the resonance of melodies—it’s what stills that swirling anxiety—and then they can move mountains. Melodies can move kids away from that ledge. The currency of the song can be life-changing and that is no hooey. Mary’s performance occupies as small a space as possible. It left me breathless. The trajectory of her character, who finds her voice and finds a way out, is fantastic.

Scott Holleran: Do you appear in the film, Melissa?

Melissa Manchester: Yes. Mine is a sweet little cameo.

Mary Steenburgen: It’s a wonderful moment.

Scott Holleran: You have something else in common—you both worked on projects with Kelsey Grammer.

Mary Steenburgen: Well, I just did a voice for a call-in on one of the Frasier episodes. And of course [my husband] Ted [Danson] worked with him for so many years [on Cheers and Frasier].

Melissa Manchester: I had a spectacular time working with Kelsey on Sweeney Todd. It was unbelievable working with Stephen Sondheim, who was there, while I played Beggarwoman, so that was thrilling. Working with Kelsey was great but he was still filming Frasier, so it was a bit of a challenge. He is tremendously talented.

Scott Holleran: Mary, how was working with Lasse Hallstrom on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

Mary Steenburgen: I adored that experience. I would be an idiot to say that I didn’t enjoy spending a large part of my day kissing Johnny Depp and I was huge fan of Lasse’s since My Life as a Dog—and of [writer] Peter Hedges, whose book I had read. I wanted to play Betty Carver. I would love to work with Lasse again—he hasn’t asked me. It would be amazing.

Scott Holleran: As established artists, do either of you encounter sexism?

Mary Steenburgen: [after a long pause] Sure, though I feel very blessed and things are getting better. I love seeing so many women crew members. But I just saw some statistics on women writers, what women are paid and the number of women CEOs specific to [the entertainment] business and I was shocked at how far we have yet to come. When I started, sexual harassment wasn’t even discussed as a subject, so it has gotten better. I’m a proud feminist, but I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. If there’s anything that makes me sad, it’s that some women find the word feminist worrisome or objectionable. To me, it means that I want every woman—just as I want every man—to be the best they can be.

Melissa Manchester: I’m with Mary. There are more roadies that are women and life on the road is a very singular experience. There are certainly more bands made of women. The thing that saddens me is that there’s a sense of entitlement among some women and groups of artists.

Scott Holleran: Your collaboration for Dirty Girl is the bittersweet song, “Rainbird”, which combines a sense of melancholy with an upward arc. Any thoughts on the tune in the context of the motion picture?

Mary Steenburgen: I’ve written a number of songs and the experience of writing that song in particular had a sort of alchemy to it. I’m proud of what the song says as a song and in the movie.

Melissa Manchester: Me, too. I really appreciate that Abe got the point of the song for this moment in the movie—it’s a rare opportunity to be given a song to write after everything’s finished. This song is serving such a special purpose.

Scott Holleran: Why do you think Dirty Girl didn’t do well in theatrical release?

Melissa Manchester: I went with Abe on several [promotional press] junkets to gay pride [events] and people were screaming ‘I love this film!’—but in reviews it was just getting its heart broken. Critics didn’t seem to get it.

Mary Steenburgen: I don’t read reviews, with all due respect, and especially the good ones are bad for me. So I didn’t read a single review. I do know that the movie was very successful at the Toronto Film Festival, one of only two films that the Weinstein Company bought there—they currently have The Artist, The Iron Lady and My Week with Marilyn—and I don’t know if they eclipsed Dirty Girl. With some films, they get lost. Europeans tell me that they don’t know how Melvin and Howard [1980] was dumped for distribution and every time I go to Europe, people ask me why it was never released. They couldn’t figure out how to sell this movie that in their minds was about a loser. I think with this film that may have happened, too. I watched it with my family. They loved it.

Melissa Manchester: I watched it with my daughter. I know there’s always an astounding reaction to Dirty Girl. But, sometimes, it takes a whole lot of people to push something up the mountain.

Reference Link: Buy Dirty Girl on DVD

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