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FILM CLIPS / CATWOMAN FOREVER

Dragged Back Into the Spotlight

August 27, 1995|Bryan Mingle | Bryan Mingle is an editor for TV Times.

Julie Newmar gets title billing for less than 60 seconds of screen time, but she achieves much more in the up coming "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar."

Call it icon status.

And it's not just the Catwoman thing from the 1966-68 "Batman" TV series. The title "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Lee Meriwether" wouldn't have quite the impact. Maybe "Thanks for Everything, Eartha Kitt" (which was considered, but that's another story).

There's a scene early on in the drag queen road romp when the leader of a trio of pancaked, wigged-out big New York City girls first sets eyes on a tres glamorous photo of Newmar at age 18, her pinup debut in 1952.

"Vintage Miss Julie," says queen bee Vida Bohemme (Patrick Swayze), glove to throat, in a worshipful whisper that's far removed from Swayze's "Roadhouse" grunts. "Try to describe her and not use the word statuesque. Go ahead." Vida's lovely dining companions, Noxeema (Wesley Snipes) and Chi Chi (John Leguizamo), simply cannot.

Vida then glides the photo into her purse and proclaims it a sovereign token on their journey to Hollywood, where each will try to realize a lifelong dream of being crowned Miss Drag Queen USA. Not before, of course, being waylaid mid-journey in Small Town, USA, where the population, as you can imagine, has never laid eyes on men in pumps.

So what does Newmar--daughter of a former Ziegfeld girl and an accomplished hoofer herself (she appeared in Stanley Donen's 1954 "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers"), but who is still best known for laying traps for a TV bat--think about all this attention? She hasn't received this many requests for interviews since she spiked the catwalk for designer Thierry Mugler at a Los Angeles fashion benefit five years ago. That led to her appearance in a George Michael music video and four trips to Paris runways for the House of Mugler.

We caught up with Newmar while she was gearing up for the film's Sept. 6 premiere in New York (it opens Sept. 8 in Los Angeles). It's her 61st birthday and she is in fine feline spirits about the film and a party in her honor later that afternoon at her Los Angeles home.

Question: Somebody at a preview screening of "To Wong Foo" that you attended told me that the first time your image appears on-screen they could hear you laugh from the front row.

Answer: I think I did at the word vintage. Oh, no, no, no, statuesque . The dialogue by Douglas Carter Beane is so witty you would have to see this movie three times to just get any of it.

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Q: Did you ever think you'd be a guardian angel for three lovable drag queens?

A: Guardian angel, not an icon? I like that, very sweet. The tribute to me, yes, is yummy because Hollywood is the fountain of youth. It's like being reborn again.

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Q: How did your name get in the film's title?

A: Someone who works with me read about the project in the trades. We found Douglas Carter Beane and his agent sent me a script, happily. This script has gone through many changes. Douglas is so good he can rewrite overnight. One of the versions that I had had so many names dropped in the title, it sounded like one of those fanciful parties.

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Q: Name some.

A: Oh, Tina Louise, Eartha Kitt. They used her music.

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Q: Who is Wong Foo and where is his restaurant?

A: The actual restaurant in the film was in New Jersey and was not called the China Ball. Wong Foo would have been the owner. The movie is based on an actual circumstance, but I wasn't there. Douglas Carter Beane, who lives in New York, must have gone to a Chinese restaurant on 44th Street east of Broadway. It no longer exists. It was called the China Ball. And there indeed was a signed photograph of me there that he saw.

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Q: Just not to Wong Foo, I see. The photo is mesmerizing.

A: That picture was taken when I was 18. I was standing on the diving board in my parents' back yard and it looks out over the hills of Hollywood and you can see a lot of fog or smog. And it's one of those sweet, dear little glamour photos. We've resurrected it now.

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Q: For years you've been emulated by drag queens. Don't you expect this film to catapult that?

A: Perhaps so. I'm waking up to this phenomenon.

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Q: Can you explain it?

A: I love it, but I can't explain it because I can't be out there looking at me looking at me.

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Q: How do you describe this movie?

A: It's not a film about homosexuality. I remember some years ago when I lived in New York, I went to the Palace Theater to see a great English farce called "London Observed." And I laughed so hard that I absolutely fell down on the cement floor with tears running down my cheeks because it was so outrageously funny. In a way I compare this film to these great English farces, where they were dressed up like French dandies from the 17th and 18th centuries. Farce is like champagne, you must be light and airy. It takes great courage and immaculate timing.

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