Betty Buckley

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Wednesday October 12, 2016
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Betty Buckley. photo: Scogin Mayo
Betty Buckley. photo: Scogin Mayo

"I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas and desperately wanted to move to San Francisco for college," recalls Betty Buckley, who returns to town next weekend for what's become an annual engagement at Feinstein's at the Nikko.

"I wanted to be part of the scene," says the acclaimed actress, now 69, recalling the city's then-burgeoning ethos of peace, love and consciousness raising. "My military father, on the other hand, said, 'You will go to Texas Christian University and stay as far away from California as possible."

If Buckley never became a part of the city's hippie hordes, a recent phone conversation revealed that she's nonetheless adapted some of the psychologically-rooted personal spirituality that drifted across the continent from Haight Ashbury all those years ago.

Describing the development of this weekend's program, called Story Songs, Buckley says she used her typical method of song selection and interpretation, approaching each potential number as if it were sung by a different character.

"But," she explained, in a koan-like elaboration, "to be a really good actor, you have to get to a place where you're not acting. It's my soul that ends up illuminating their experiences."

In past engagements at Feinstein's, Buckley has ensorcelled the intimate venue with a level of charisma and commitment rarely matched by other performers. To hear her tell it, her compelling presence is very much rooted in the present.

"There are songs I used to perform," Buckley explained, "that don't feel right now. I've outgrown the characters."

It's unlikely that future audiences will hear Buckley singing some of the repertoire featured on her early records, songs like "Not A Day Goes By," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "The Man That Got Away."

"The music I perform has to resonate with what I know today," she explained. "There's a particular kind of angst that I don't feel right now."

And what does feel right now? Story Songs finds her delivering a piercing, political version of South Pacific's "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" (You've got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose eyes are oddly made/And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade), an urgently optimistic iteration of Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up," and an interpretation of Kurt Weill's "September Song" that upturns the cozy resolution of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole with what The New York Times' Stephen Holden, reviewing the show last month, described as a sense of "impending grief.”

Buckley often sings with an emotional rawness that "is not a style of work you often see in musical theater," she said. But, while well known for her Tony-winning performance as Grizabella in the original U.S. production of Cats, and her haunting, haunted turn as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Buckley has never been particularly interested in the paper-doll personae that populate many old-fashioned Broadway productions.

Betty Buckley as Edith Bouvier Beale with Rachel York as 'Little' Edie Beale in the Bay Street Theater production of Grey Gardens the Musical. photo: Lenny Stucker

"When I was studying acting, the women I looked up to were Gena Rowlands, Kim Stanley, and Geraldine Page," says Buckley, pointing to their emotionally raw performance style with its almost documentary realism. Asked to mention actors she admires in her own generation, Buckley points to Jessica Lange.

Buckley's own latest foray into decidedly new-fashioned musical theater took place last summer at Los Angeles' Ahmanson theater, where she played a character who, indeed, first caught the public's attention in a documentary: the proudly eccentric Edith Beale in Grey Gardens the Musical.

"That's the kind of part I aspire to play," Buckley told the Los Angeles Times, "a raw, naturalistic woman. Our culture is not always kind to women."

In her pursuit of the raw human soul, Buckley has spent many years in therapy and turns to a trusted psychologist whenever she takes on a challenging new stage or film role.

"I go through scripts with her, scene by scene, trying to get a deeper understanding of my characters' motivations."

Betty Buckley

photo: Scogin Mayo.

It seems only natural then, that Buckley will play a psychiatrist in a major upcoming film role. In Split, scheduled for a January release, she plays Dr. Karen Fletcher, whose patient, played by James McAvoy, suffers from multiple personality disorder. Several of those personalities have conspired in the abduction of three teenage girls.

The film, hailed as a major comeback for Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan, marks a return to the horror/thriller genre for Buckley, who played the role of Margaret White, the religious fanatic mother, in 1988's ill-fated Broadway musical version of Carrie, a show Buckley has since since assessed as "ahead of its time."

In another career flashback, Buckley recently accepted an invitation to attend a Manhattan party for Leona Lewis and Mamie Parris, outgoing and incoming Grizabellas in the current Broadway revival of Cats.

"I remember when I was cast in that role," Buckley said. "I was having trouble connecting with the character. So I started to watch some of the homeless women on the street in New York, to try to imagine where they'd come from and how they looked back on their lives. There was something in their eyes that I was able to connect to, some emotional and psychological truth."

Betty Buckley performs at Feinstein's at the Nikko, Oct. 21 at 8pm; Oct. 22 at 7pm. $75-$95 ($20 food/drink min.). Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St.

Betty Buckley's YouTube Channel.