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Broadway Chanteuse Barbara Cook: 'My First Memories Are Of Singing'

After starring in Broadway shows like The Music Man and Candide, Cook struggled with addiction, then staged a successful second career as a cabaret singer. Her new memoir is Then and Now.


Other segments from the episode on June 27, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 27, 2016: Interview with Barbara Cook; Review of film Wiener Dog



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Barbara Cook has had two illustrious careers. The first was when she starred on Broadway in the original productions of "Candide," "The Music Man" and "She Loves Me." Then after a period of alcoholism and food addiction, she returned to the stage in the late '70s, but this time as a cabaret singer - one of the best, singing a wide range of songs from the American Popular Songbook (ph). Now at the age of 88, she's still singing, and she has a new memoir called "Then & Now." She writes about her career and her life off stage in which she's faced many challenges, starting when she was 3 and her mother wrongly blamed her for the death of her 18-month-old sister, who died of double pneumonia. Let's start with one of the Broadway songs she originated "Till There Was You." This is from the 1957 original cast recording of "The Music Man." She won a Tony for her performance in that production.


BARBARA COOK: (Singing) There were bells on the hill, but I never heard them ringing. No, I never heard them at all till there was you. There were birds in the sky, but I never saw them winging. No, I never saw them at all till there was you. And there was music, and there were wonderful roses. They tell me in sweet fragrant meadows of dawn and dew. There was love all around, but I never heard it singing. No, I never heard it at all till there was you.

GROSS: Barbara Cook, welcome to FRESH AIR.

COOK: Well, thank you very much.

GROSS: You grew up in the Atlanta area. You were born in 1927. Your early years were during the Depression. Broadway must've seemed very far away. Would you describe your living conditions after your father left, when you and your mother moved in with other women of the family?

COOK: It was not a very good time. My mother and I moved into my grandmother's house - her mother - with several of her sisters. And it was a pretty crowded house. There were three rooms. And my mother and I slept and the middle room with my grandmother and one of her daughters. The other two daughters slept in the living room, and then the third room in the back was a kitchen where my grandmother cooked wonderful meals. The flu was always so good.

GROSS: Unless your dinner was ketchup and white bread (laughter).

COOK: Well, that was not during that time.

GROSS: And when was that?

COOK: That was when my mother and I were living together after all this time - after all the time with my grandmother. And we had already left her house. And sometimes it was, you know, pretty - pretty tricky there with food.

GROSS: I found myself getting angry with your mother as I read your book. But then I had to pull back and say your mother might have been mentally ill and undiagnosed.

COOK: Well, you know, that never occurred to me during that time. And, well, I think that's because people didn't talk about that then, you know? We didn't know that much about mental illness. And I don't want to paint this too strong - with too strong a brush. I think she had something called - what is it called? - borderline personality disorder. I've spoken with a therapist who has corroborated my idea. And, you know, she was a good lady in lots of ways, but she didn't have any idea that she was hurting me sometimes in the things that she would say.

GROSS: Well, she basically blamed you for the death of your younger sister. Your younger sister was 18 months when she died. You were 3 years old.

COOK: Yeah.

GROSS: And explain what happened.

COOK: Well, my sister had pneumonia, and then I got pneumonia and gave her - and I also got whooping cough. And I gave her whooping cough on top of the pneumonia that she had. Now, my very first therapist said something that was so smart. He said, did it ever occur to you that she caught it, that you didn't give it to her? She caught it. And that really helped, you know, because I grew up thinking I was responsible for my sister's death...

GROSS: Because your mother told you that you were, so that must have really been imprinted on your brain.

COOK: Well, I was, and partially - I shouldn't say partially - in a way, it still is, you know? So I sometimes think I don't deserve some of the nice things that have happened for me.

GROSS: I just want to mention your mother also blamed you for your father leaving because after your younger sister died, the marriage broke up.

COOK: Well, you know, she said if my sister hadn't died he wouldn't have left. He wouldn't have gone. And I have believed I was responsible for her dying. So then I became responsible for his leaving as well.

GROSS: Yeah, it's a big burden to carry around. How old were you when you started singing, and what did you sing when you were very young?

COOK: Don (ph) and I always sang. You know, my earliest memories are of singing. And I used to sing - well, I sang from - what the hell is that movie? (Singing) Wishing will make it so - what is that song? - (singing) just keep on wishing and cares will go - something like that. Yeah, I used to sing little songs like that.

GROSS: So early in your career - and I guess you're in your late teens or early 20s at this point - you meet the composer Vernon Duke. He loved your voice. He had you sing at backers auditions. Then he told you to audition to perform at Tamiment, a resort hotel in the Pennsylvania Poconos.

You got the gig, and there you met Jerry Bock, who, with Sheldon Harnick later wrote "She Loves Me," which you starred in. They also wrote "Fiorello!" and "Fiddler On The Roof." In your second season at this resort hotel, you met the man who became your husband and the father of your son. So through...

COOK: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The help of Vernon Duke, you were launched into this new world, then the world that became your home, the world of performing. What was it like for you to make the transition into that world?

COOK: Well, it was scary because I saw a lot of these people performing before I joined them. And I thought they were all gods - you know, theater gods. And when I saw them - you know, I didn't really enjoy the show because I was sitting there being so nervous thinking about oh my god, am I really going to be able to get up there on stage with those people? And so it made me so nervous. I didn't completely - it was - the - "Oklahoma!" was the first thing I saw. And it made me nervous because I was so afraid - God, am I ever really going to be able to do that, you know?

GROSS: Did anxiety continue with you through your stage career?

COOK: Well, yes. I - yeah. I'm pretty much over it now, since I'm doing what I want to do. You know, what I mean by that is I choose the songs, and I do the songs the way I think they ought to be done. Yeah, I've always been a kind of nervous Nellie kind of person - yeah.

GROSS: So let's talk about one of your early musicals "Candide," with music by Leonard Bernstein. And...

COOK: Oh God.

GROSS: ...One of - you know, the piece you became famous for in this was "Glitter And Be Gay," which is a very showy, operatic song. What function does the song serve in the musical, just in terms of being that kind of ornate - with all these, like, high notes and, you know, kind of trilling?

COOK: Well, it was and is very difficult.

COOK: Well, it was and is very difficult. And a lot of singers do sing it now, but not always very well, I think. Particularly the spoken part is overdone, I think, far too often. It's a very delightful, funny song and what they do is try to make it more delightful and more funny. And it just gets silly sometimes.

You know, people think - sound like they're losing their minds when they do this and they (singing notes badly). It's nuts. I don't know why they do that. And they, you know - I was lucky because I was right there when the song was being introduced, and I have - what's the word?

I know personally what Lenny Bernstein wanted it to sound like, certain things that are difficult to do. The ha-ha-has in there - he wanted to really be like separate notes. And so that each one is a little push, and then you have to be sure to really sing very lyrically after that to get you out of the pushing because pushing ain't no good in singing, you see...

GROSS: Right. Then there's a part like - excuse me for - I was going to demonstrate, but that's ludicrous. Can you just talk about the - like demonstrate what the sound is in a lower note of the pushing has?

COOK: Well, for instance, it's written ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba (ph), right? Those are the notes. And many people do it like a run, you know? Da, da, dee - connecting all the things. But that's not what he wanted.

He wanted each one to be a separate ha, so it really sounds like laughter. He wanted it to be ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. It's hard to do. And most people don't do that. They do (singing notes), you know? They do make - they make it like a run or something.

GROSS: So how did you protect your voice? Because even your vocal coach told you that the ha is - why is the ha bad? It forces the vocal chords together?

COOK: It's - well, it's not good to push, and he said if you - in the ensuing phrases, if you sing very lyrically, very carefully and smoothly that you heal yourself instantly, so you don't have to worry about those ha-ha-has. Do what he wants and then sing very lyrically.

Also, he always felt from the beginning that I could do this - well, I don't know about easily - but he thought I wouldn't have any trouble with it.

GROSS: OK. I think we should hear a little bit of this. This is the incredible performance by my guest Barbara Cook from the musical "Candide," and this was recorded in 1956. So here's Barbara Cook.


COOK: (Singing) Born to higher things. Here I drop my wings, singing of a sorrow nothing can assuage. And yet of course I rather like to revel, ha-ha. I have no strong objection to champagne, ha-ha. My wardrobe is expensive as the devil, ha-ha. Perhaps it is ignoble to complain. Enough, enough of being basely tearful. I'll show my noble stuff by being bright and cheerful ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha-ha.

GROSS: That's my guest Barbara Cook singing "Glitter And Be Gay" from the original 1956 cast recording of "Candide" Barbara Cook has a new memoir called "Then And Now."

So to get through the performance of that, you tried self-hypnosis. Why did you feel you needed it and what did it help you do?

COOK: Well, I wasn't having any easy fun with it. It was just a chore. And of course they had chosen me for the role because I didn't make it look like a chore, you now? And it was harder and harder to do, and I got to the point where I was afraid to get to the theater, afraid to start the song, and I wasn't having fun.

So I used to have dinner by myself between matinee, so that I wouldn't talk, so that I'd save my voice. And one day, I thought, you know, to give me something to read while I was having dinner by myself, I picked up a Pageant magazine. And in there was an article about what things they were doing at Duke University about self-hypnosis. And I thought, well, hell, why don't I try that?

So I went back to my room, which I usually did to take my nap and get ready for the evening's performance. And I thought, well, I'm just going to try this. So I knew instantly that I was doing what they had suggested, and I knew that I was in a suggestible state. And so I told myself that I couldn't wait to get to the theater. I couldn't wait to get on stage to sing this song. And I gave myself all kinds of very specific instructions that when, you know - when you put your hand on the stage door, you're going to feel great energy and a great desire to go on stage and sing this song, So forth and so forth.

I gave myself very, very good instructions, and I did it. And for the first time, I had a breakthrough, so that I was able to really have fun with the song. And it actually worked for me. So they were all very pleased and said, Barbara, that's it, so forth and so on.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Cook, and she first established herself on Broadway starring in "The Music Man," "Candide," "She Loves Me." And she went on to perform in "Cabaret" to become quite a star of "Cabaret" - one - just a - such a great singer. And she also performed in...

COOK: Thank you.

GROSS: ...The concert version of "Follies" And in the more recent Sondheim production "Sondheim On Sondheim" Her new memoir is called "Then And Now." Let's take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Cook. She's known for her starring roles in the original Broadway productions of "The Music Man," "Candide" and "She Loves Me." She went on to do the concert version of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" and to become one of the greatest cabaret singer. She has a new memoir called...

COOK: Oh goodness, thank you.

GROSS: ..."Then & Now." It keeps getting better (laughter). So you originated the role of Amalia in the 1963 Sheldon Harnick Jerry Bock musical "She Loves Me." That musical is back on Broadway. It's a wonderful production. It's going to be streamed live on Thursday. So before...

COOK: Oh, that's nice. That's nice.

GROSS: Yeah - no, it's great (laughter). So before the show was written, you ran into Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist. And he told you that he and composer Jerry Bock were writing something that would be perfect for you. So did they, in fact, write this role for you?

COOK: You know, I don't think they did really. They may have had me in mind. I was in Sardi's having dinner between shows. And - oh, maybe a year or so or more before - before the show opened, and he came over and said we're writing something I think you'd be right for. So fortunately, I was, I think.

GROSS: So there are some wonderful songs in this that you got to sing. But the signature song from the show for you became "Vanilla Ice Cream." So I want you to tell us a little bit where this song falls into the show and why you love the song.

COOK: Well, first of all, it's not one of the songs that was written originally when we went into rehearsal. And at some point, Sheldon said we have an idea for a song. It's going to do this; it's going to do that. You know, it's going to be a - great, great, great song. It turns out to be that. But I thought yeah, well, good luck. You know, he's telling them he's going to do this, he's going to do that. And they actually did it.

It is a really, really great song. Stephen Sondheim said he thinks it's one of the best theatre songs ever written. And I think it is, too. It's a lot of fun. And it's - you know, it's hard to do. Some people sing it now, but it ain't easy.

GROSS: What's hard about the song?

COOK: The range - range is a little difficult, but it's great fun. You know, I was so pleased when they first played it for me. I added the top note - (singing) - I added that part.

GROSS: (Laughter) Because you could.

COOK: Yeah because - you know, I think it fits the idea of the song, and - you know, to just rip that off at the end I thought that, well, people will like that. And I think they did.

GROSS: OK, so let's hear the song that Barbara Cook originated in the 1963 original Broadway production of "She Loves Me," which is now back on Broadway.


COOK: (As Amelia, singing) Dear friend, I am so sorry about last night. Last night, I was so nasty. Well, he deserved it. But even so that Georg is not like this Georg. This is a new Georg that I don't know. Somehow it all reminds me of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For right before my eyes a man that I despise has turned into a man I like. It's almost like a dream. As strange as it may seem, he came to offer me vanilla ice cream.

GROSS: That's Barbara Cook from the original cast recording of "She Loves Me." Her new memoir is called "Then & Now." After a break, we'll talk about her second career as a great cabaret singer. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Barbara Cook. She first became known for her starring roles in the original Broadway productions of "Candide," "The Music Man" and "She Loves Me." After a period of alcoholism, she returned as a cabaret singer, one of the best.

GROSS: So some time, I guess it was a few years, maybe, after "She Loves Me," you basically stopped doing Broadway and went through this really bad period of your life where you became addicted to alcohol and food. But then, you managed to get sober. And you had a second career that I'm really grateful for because I just really love your interpretations of songs.

COOK: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: And your voice changed, too. I mean, your voice deepened. And...

COOK: Sure.

GROSS: And even you say in your book that there was this, like, emotional depth that you found in songs that you feel you didn't quite get to in the same way on stage...


GROSS: ...In musicals. And I want to play - I don't know. This is what - I particularly love this performance. And it's you singing "We'll Be Together Again."


GROSS: And I just want to play this so people hear how you sounded in 1998, when you made this, with your longtime accompanist and music director, the late Wally Harper...

COOK: Yes.

GROSS: ...Accompanying you at the piano. So let's listen to Barbara Cook in 1998 singing "We'll Be Together Again."


COOK: (Singing) No fears, no tears - remember there's always tomorrow. So what if we have to part? We'll be together again. Your kiss, your smile are memories I'll treasure forever. So try thinking with your heart. We'll be together again. Times when I know you'll be lonesome, times when I know you'll be sad, don't let temptation surround you. Don't let the blues make you bad. Someday, some way - we both have a lifetime before us, for parting is not goodbye. We'll be together again.

COOK: That's nice. I like it.

GROSS: No, it's so beautiful. There's just such depth in that performance. And...

COOK: Thank you.

GROSS: ...I wonder, like - I know you've sung that other times. And you sang that at Carnegie Hall - was it Carnegie Hall or the Met? I'm pretty sure it was Carnegie Hall. And I wonder if there's anything or anybody that you particularly think about when you sing that song.

COOK: I can't think of anybody specifically. But, do you know, when I sing, I put my - how can I put it? - my whole life into that - in other words, all my memories of the all these things that have happened, good and bad. And by singing, that's what I try to do. And there's a lot going in on that one, I think. It's good.

GROSS: Your accompanist on that version of "We'll Be Together Again" was Wally Harper.

COOK: Yeah.

GROSS: And he helped open the door to a whole new performing identity for you. He led you into the cabaret world and became your music director and accompanist for - and good friend - for about...

COOK: Well...

GROSS: ...30 years.

GROSS: Yeah.

COOK: Well, I had done cabaret - the first work I did in New York was cabaret at a little place called the Blue Angel. And then there was a long time when I was out of work and was having problems with weight and alcohol and everything else. And he really helped me get this second career, if you will. He helped me get that going. It was very, very helpful to me in many, many ways - very generous man, and a good person in lots of ways.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Cook. And she started her career on Broadway in starring roles in "Candide," "The Music Man" and "She Loves Me." Then she went on to an incredible career in cabaret. Now she has a new memoir called "Then And Now." We're going to take a short break. Then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is singer Barbara Cook. She has a new memoir called "Then & Now." So I want to play another song, and this is also with Wally Harper at the piano, your longtime accompanist and arranger. And it's a Stephen Sondheim song. It's "Loving You" from his show "Passion."


GROSS: And this is from your mostly Sondheim concert at Carnegie Hall in 2001. This is a beautiful song that somebody who's very ill sings. She's somebody who she very much - who - she's very much in love with who doesn't love her back, but she wants him to love her back. Can you tell us why you chose to do this song, what the song means to you?

COOK: Well, it's one that I love and loved, and that's basically it. I just wanted to sing it.

GROSS: OK. Well, I'm glad you chose it. So this is my guest Barbara Cook recorded in 2001 at Carnegie Hall, the Stephen Sondheim song "Loving You."


COOK: (Singing) Loving you is not a choice. It's who I am. Loving you is not a choice and not much reason to rejoice. But it gives me purpose, gives me voice to say to the world this is why I live. You are why I live. Loving you is why I do the things I do. Loving you is not in my control. But loving you, I have a goal for what's left of my life. I will live, and I would die for you.


GROSS: That's Barbara Cook, recorded in 2001 at Carnegie Hall singing Stephen Sondheim's "Loving You." You mention in your memoir - your new memoir "Then & Now" that you once ran into Sondheim before you did this mostly Sondheim concert. And he said to you Barbara, how come you never sing my songs? So how come you weren't singing a lot of his songs?

COOK: I'm not sure. After I did the concert - the big concert, the Sondheim concert that I began doing his things. I'm not sure. You know, sometimes songs don't bump up against each other very well. And I think I thought that was true. I probably was wrong, but - because he's written - my God, he's our Kern, he's our Gershwin. And he's it, just great stuff, great stuff.

GROSS: So while - Wally Harper died in 2004 at the age of 63. And I think that was the result of cirrhosis of the liver because he drank so much. Did you feel like you saw this coming and there's still nothing you could do about it?

COOK: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, it's a terrible thing to watch somebody that you care about so much let go, you know? But I don't think he could stop it. I don't think he could stop. I don't know, he was really caught.

GROSS: I won't to ask you about recovering - recovering from his loss personally. But how did you recover from that

COOK: Well, I haven't totally recovered from it personally. I think about him all the time. I talk about him often. Rarely does a day go by that I don't think about him or talk about him. He was such a huge part of my life. You know, we worked together almost 31 years - yeah, 30 full years we worked together. And we were friends and companions, and he did the arrangements and helped me tremendously - tremendously. And he was - my God he was talented, oh.

I was very angry when he died, you know, because I needed him, and I wanted him to still be there helping me. I miss him terribly, you know, still, just as a friend much less as an accompanist. Scott (ph), he was talented. Boy, and so many people depended on him musically, too, so it wasn't just me.

GROSS: Wally Harper was gay. Many of the people...

COOK: Yes.

GROSS: ...You've known from cabaret on Broadway are or were gay. Your son came out to you...

COOK: Yeah.

GROSS: ...When he was an adult. And you write that you wept for days after that. And...

COOK: Yeah, I did for five days.

GROSS: Why? Since you knew so many gay people, it's not like you were homophobic.

COOK: Not at all, but it was - well, this is a huge thing about somebody, you know? It's a big thing. And I thought I knew my son thoroughly, and then I realized that I didn't - you know, that he had this whole way of life that he wanted to join if he hadn't already. And I didn't realize that. And I thought there's something wrong. I have a son I don't know.

And I cried for about five days. And I also thought am I going to have grandchildren? All of that. And then it occurred to me to ask myself what the hell's going on with you? And I realized that all my life, I had felt outside of the - well, I call it the mainstream of life. And by having a son, that plugged to me in somehow in my mind. And then when he told me he was gay, that unplugged me, and that disturbed me.

And then I cried about five days. And then I thought wait a minute, what's going on? And I said to myself look, Adam LeGrant is not here to plug me into anything. And I am here to try to help him to be the fullest person that I know how to help him be. And then I was OK. But I really had a week of just screaming - not screaming but crying like crazy.

GROSS: You know how you were saying that you realized that, you know, the job of your son wasn't to keep you plugged in...

COOK: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Your job was to help him?

COOK: Yeah.

GROSS: That sounds like it was an important revelation because when you were younger, you write that your mother couldn't differentiate between you and her. She really saw you as an extension of herself, and that when your father left when you were young, your mother had you sleep in her bed and that you slept in her bed until you were 20.

COOK: That's correct.

GROSS: When you moved to New York to work on Broadway and to work in clubs, your mother was just, like, bereft, and she eventually came to New York to live near you.

COOK: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And it sounds like, you know - I know you loved your mother very much, but she was also perhaps mentally ill. And I think her attitude toward you must have really been a burden if she...

COOK: Well...

GROSS: ...Relied on you to be her or to be her extension into the world.

COOK: Well, I think so, yeah. She just - there was absolutely no divide between us as far as she was concerned, and that can be difficult.

GROSS: How is your health now? You're 88 now.

COOK: Yeah, I'm OK. I weigh too much, of course, but I'm all right. Yeah. I'm very lucky.

GROSS: So you get around in a wheelchair now.

COOK: I do. I can't walk. I have some kind of - I think it's called - wait a minute - PMR, polymyalgia romantica (ph), not romantica, Barbara - rheumatica.


COOK: Poly - wait a minute - poly rheumatic - [expletive]. I don't know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COOK: I guess you have to do something about that (laughter). Poly rheumatic whatever something.

GROSS: So can you...

COOK: Polymyalgia rheumatica. That's it.

GROSS: And what does that mean? Do you know?

COOK: What does it mean? It means I can't walk.

GROSS: Right. OK.

COOK: It means I have great weakness in my muscles - some muscles. And it's particularly my legs, so it's hard to walk.

GROSS: I was actually surprised reading your book your generous use of expletives in some places for some reason because you're like the ingenue in the Broadway shows that I know...

COOK: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: I kind of didn't - I didn't expect you to know words. Like, isn't that ridiculous that I would think that?

COOK: Yeah it is.


COOK: Unfortunately, I do very well with those words.

GROSS: (Laughter) Are those words you learned early in life or that you picked up later?

COOK: Oh, much later.

GROSS: You worked in a burlesque show. I'm sure you learned some of it there, right?

COOK: Oh, God. My husband wouldn't even let me say damn, you know. Oh, he was very against it. So then when we divorced, I was just saying words all over the place.

GROSS: What does it mean to have a husband who won't let you say certain words?

COOK: It means you wonder if you're in the right marriage.

GROSS: (Laughter) So when you perform, do you still have stage anxiety?

COOK: I do sometimes if it's a big deal. Like Carnegie Hall - I stand in the wings, and, you know - and I worry a bit. But there's something I do when that happens and helps me a little bit. When I'm standing in the wings waiting to go on. I kind of plant my feet and feel a kind of strength coming up from the ground into me.

And then I think about giving back this gift that I have been given. And when I do that, then I get out of ego so much. And then I don't worry so much about what think - people think about how I sing or how I look. And I just try to sing more deeply and more personally, and I really enjoy that. I love singing. I do. I get rid of so much stuff by singing. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do.

GROSS: Barbara Cook, thank you so much for talking with us.

COOK: Darling, thank you very much.


This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic David Edelstein has seen a lot of dog movies over the years. But he says few are as provocative as a "Wiener-Dog." It's the eighth feature by writer-director Todd Solondz, who's best known for his early films, "Welcome To The Dollhouse" and "Happiness." The title character is a dachshund who lives in four successive homes. The film stars Greta Gerwig, Julie Delpy, Danny DeVito and Ellen Burstyn.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Todd Solondz is a difficult filmmaker to warm up to. And some people never will. His characters inhabit an artificial, insulated world, generally, suburban New Jersey, where despair festers in private and America's social injustices are kept at bay, glimpsed only on TV screens in garishly decorated living rooms. His cruelty is cold and contained, though I can't help thinking there's a humanist alive inside him, even if it has been trampled into something unrecognizable.

I love his latest movie, "Wiener-Dog." Thanks to its cute canine mascot, it's Solondz's most outwardly ingratiating film. Still, it's best to keep in mind from the start that Solondz's world is not kind to children or pets. The movie consists of four episodes linked by a female dachshund, which has four different owners and goes by four different names, the first being Wiener-Dog.

Her caretakers appear in order of their age - a trusting little boy, a high-strung young woman, a bitter and volatile male screenwriting professor and an elderly woman whose mind has turned towards death. The first story, set in an affluent New Jersey home, is the most heavy-handed. But even Solondz's cheap shots at his characters carry the seeds of tragedy. A boy named Remi, played by Keaton Nigel Cooke, greets his new pet with delight. But his dad, played by Tracy Letts, a playwright who knows a thing or two about cruelty himself, keeps the kid and pooch apart.


KEATON NIGEL COOKE: (As Remi) Hey, Dad, when do you think we can let Wiener-Dog out of her cage?

GROSS: (As Danny) When she's housebroken.

COOKE: (As Remi) Why do people say housebroken?

TRACY LETTS: (As Danny) Because Remy, you have to break a dog, break their will so that they'll submit to your will. It's a kind of civilizing, so they act like humans.

COOKE: (As Remi) You mean so they go to the bathroom outside instead of inside?

LETTS: (As Danny) Exactly.

COOKE: (As Remi) But when you break a will - well, what is a will exactly anyway?

LETTS: (As Danny) It's character, force of character. It's the thing that makes you, you.

EDELSTEIN: Solondz doesn't underline the idea that the dad's view of pet rearing likely extends to his view of childrearing. It's grimly implicit. You get a bad feeling when Remi finally has the opportunity to romp with Wiener-Dog. He gives the dog a treat that induces buckets of diarrhea, which compels the father to whisk the beast away in the night to be euthanized. The mom, played by Julie Delpy, says the dog had cancer and that death is a natural thing. There is, of course, nothing natural about killing a dog and lying to a child.

But Wiener-Dog lives, impulsively freed by veterinary aid Dawn Wiener, played by Greta Gerwig. That's the name of the heroine of Solondz's breakthrough film "Welcome To The Dollhouse." She's Solondz's female alter ego. And when she bumps into an old high school crush, a druggie named Brandon, played by Karen Culkin. He calls her Wiener-Dog, which creates all kinds of confusing layers. Brandon has to inform his autistic younger brother that their alcoholic father has died. But strong human connections have been forged between Brandon and his brother and Brandon and Dawn.

Danny DeVito plays the has-been screenwriter whose students hate him and agents offer mechanically jolly and meaningless assurances. We'd like him more if he weren't the kind of catchphrase-spouting screenwriting teacher whom Solondz has to find himself against. But Wiener-Dog rouses him to action, however insane. And the story ends on a high.

Nothing can quite prepare us for the finale, though, in which Wiener-Dog's next owner, an old woman played by Ellen Burstyn, is visited by a granddaughter who needs money for her feckless artist boyfriend. The woman has renamed the dog Cancer. But her morbid fatalism gives way to something deeper and more enduring. Wiener-Dog has worked her magic again. You can hardly call the movie's ending upbeat. But for a perverse cynic like Solondz, it might be as inspiring as it gets.

Cinematographer Edward Lachman and production designer Akin McKenzie create a coolly artificial palette, settings from which nature and personality have been purged. But Solondz doesn't show the same arch contempt for materialism he did in his earlier films. It's obvious that he feels the pain of people for whom there's little possibility of transcendence, unless, of course, they get a dog.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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