Carol Channing: Larger Than Life (Berinstein, 2012)

Carol Channing with the original Mame headpiece.

Carol Channing is larger than life, but then we knew that from title, didn’t we?

Dori Berinstein’s valentine to the iconic Broadway star is, like its subject matter, always affable. It is occasionally engaging, usually when someone else talks about how he or she feels about Channing. It’s never really probing, though.

Barbara Walters opines how she has never heard another person say something bad about Channing. We see this illustrated in an opening stroll through Broadway when dancers on intermission express love and admiration for the star. Then we see her current husband say how great she always was. Then we see some people who worked with her say how full of life and energy she is. Then we see some people who followed after her and worked with her say how giving she was. Then we see former president Jimmy Carter say how wonderful she was. Then we get some more people who worked with her stating the really, truth be told, she was and is a grand old dame.

Does that sound like I want dirt and lots of it? Not really. Two great documentaries from last year, Buck and Being Elmo both focused on the positive attributes of their subject matter to the point that some critics accused them of being near hagiographies. Neither particularly bothered me on that account since they acknowledged that they were accentuating the positive and that doing so was part of what made their subjects interesting and successful.

That connection is looser in Carol Channing: Larger Than Life. Tyne Daly talks about Channing’s iron will when showing up for her craft. In one of the film’s more startling asides, it is revealed that Channing, during one tour, would return home to get treatment for ovarian cancer in between legs of the production, meeting the tour on the next stop and not missing a performance. One understands that for all the showmanship some performers are reluctant to talk about their personal lives—Channing says at one point that she realized early that center stage was the “safest” place in the world—but the fact that the film spends more time on an anecdote regarding Channing taking a moment to comfort a dancer battling AIDS than it does on her own battle with a life-threatening disease is indicative of the documentary’s oddness. It appears more interested in letting people talk about Channing (and there is no shortage of people who want to) than it does in actually saying anything. In another strange thread that fizzles out, several interviewees mention Channing’s first husband in ominous terms, discussing his controlling nature and attempts to exploit her. Debbie Reynolds waxes somewhat cryptically about how this experience, which is never fully explained or explored, is evidence of the largeness of Channing’s heart in being able to accept another opportunity for love when it comes. Again, it’s not necessary that the bad be the focus of the film, but a good film does have focus. It’s rarely a good idea to allude to the fact that something is important but then not do more than hint at it.

On the positive side, the film is generous with archival footage of Channing actually performing. In one, Channing is alone on stage with the year “1964” in lights. That was two year before I was born, and as I thought about that fact, for just a second I had the same feeling I did in The Muppets when Kermit mentions performing with Bob Hope—that of being in the presence of history. Our performers see so much, and their willingness to be vulnerable sometimes allows us to lower our own masks for a moment. The most emotionally gripping moments of Larger than Life are actually when Channing talks about someone else—Lyndon Johnson being upset at Louis Armstrong using “Mame” as a song, Jacqueline Kennedy’s sadness and how it was lightened by a kind gesture of Channing to her daughter, Caroline. These moments are glorious and worth preserving and revisiting. One wishes, ultimately, that they had been edited better into a more focused and penetrating portrait. Maybe, we don’t want larger than life so much as a lens into how large life really can be.

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