Expecting a Lifetime Original Movie to not play like a Lifetime Original Movie is a recipe for disappointment, the thing cannot be other than it is. And such is the case with the upcoming “Coco Chanel.” But that does not mean it is all bad! For one, it does star Shirley MacLaine. Though star is a bit broad, MacLaine anchors the biopic by playing Chanel in her later years (1954-1955), while Barbora Bobulova has the lion’s share of screen time as young Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.
But let’s back up. The screening took place at the theater in Hearst Tower, after an hour of wine and nibbles, and preceded by a brief Q&A with MacLaine herself. As the rep from Lifetime mentioned in her introductory remarks, as it is Fashion Week, it is “quote fitting” (zing!) that they are screening it here and now. And as it is MacLaine as Chanel, you would think the event would be a fagnet, drawing gays from far and wide. But since it is actually Fashion Week, the gays had actual fashion-y things to attend, and thus there was just a smattering, notably beret-sporting, mustachioed celeb stylist Phillip Bloch. The crowd skewed more towards the Upper East Side ladies of indeterminate age. As I whispered to my friend in between munching a (remarkably good) scallop, “there’s a lot of tight faces here.” She thought I said “steak faces,” which I guess is not altogether an untrue description either!
The brief Q&A was moderated by ABC’s Cynthia McFadden, wherein MacLaine was as you would want her to be: funny, saucy, and sharp. When asked if she thought Chanel was nice, she replied “Oh God no!”
MacLaine confessed that through her twenties and thirties she wore many a Chanel outfit, but they were knock-offs. And on Chanel’s many lovers, of which but little were featured in the movie: “She bedded every gay man she knew, trying to turn them!” she said archly. On the subject of beauty, McFadden referred to a quote by Diana Vreeland, something about accentuating one’s most prominent (or ugly) feature, MacLaine, who had just acknowledged Chanel’s own, er, lack of physical allure, used Barbara Streisand as an example: “[She] did that and it works for her. It [the famous Streisand schnozz] gets there a half-hour before she does and it works!”
But MacLaine’s barbs (ha!) were also leveled at today’s celebrities, whom she felt were so concerned with their image and presentation that it was to the detriment of the roles they play. When asked whether women today dress to please men, themselves, or other women, she said “Today? To please the red carpet and the television cameras.” Towards the end, there was some mention of her being demanding, of wanting chocolate, and why should she have to get up to fetch it — it was at this point MacLaine pointed to her high heels — when it could be brought to her? “Years ago they would’ve called me a bitch, but now I’m just a senior citizen who wants chocolate now!” And with that the interview basically concluded, and as another person took the stage to thank the sponsors of the event, MacLaine , her mic still live, could be heard through the door stage right where she exited, saying “Oh my yes take this off.” Perfect!
But, to the actual product. While I would have preferred the entire movie to consist of MacLaine as Chanel chain-smoking and tossing off witty bon mots, it was not to be. The failure of the (1954) present — a poorly received collection — thereby necessitated a reexamination of the past. And while the hallmarks of a Lifetime movie were present, the longing looks, the terrible music, the treacly speechifying and declarations of love, there were not as many inappropriate audience giggles as there might have been. She is credibly presented as an iconoclast –she rides horses in trousers! She makes dresses out of jersey! She doesn’t marry! — throughout the length of the film. The character fares best towards the end of her younger days, when she’s been hurt by life, and is thereby hardened and content to smoke and stitch, smoke and stitch. And there are nods to Chanel No. 5 and the “little black dress.“
I suppose if one wanted a more in-depth depiction, they could petition for the full silver screen treatment, but then no snotty studio exec would ever greenlight the project with Shirley MacLaine attached, sadly, and it would end up being made with either Nicole Kidman or Jessica Alba in prosthetics. So I guess be content with Lifetime. Or just read a biography and imagine it in your mind’s eye.
Picking up our gift bags on the way out, we were asked “fine, normal, or coarse?” referring to our hair types. Each gift bag had products attuned to said condition, courtesy of sponsor Vidal Sassoon. Jukie chose normal and as I shave my head, I chose fine. Oh, ha ha. It’s so fine I have none, see? Still, I’m keeping the MacLaine book, “Sage-ing While Age-ing,” and giving the Chanel nail polish to my mom. But the styling iron, that’s up for grabs.