The following interview article with Lainie Kazan appeared in the Australian Jewish News on May 11, 2001.
This month’s (May 2001) release of the film “What’s Cooking?” allows Australian audiences to catch a memorable performance by the Jewish actor/singer/entertainer Lainie Kazan in a lead role of the Jewish mother Ruth Seelig. Kazan’s earthy and often touching performance as the wise but imperfect centre of the Jewish family is one of the anchors of the film.
I recently talked with Kazan from her home in Los Angeles about her life, career and the experience of acting in “What’s Cooking?” She pointed out that this is not the first time Kazan has played a Jewish mother; she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her ultimate overbearing Jewish mother role in the Richard Benjamin-directed “My Favorite Year” (1982), and has also played major Jewish roles in the Bette Midler-produced “Beaches” and as the aunt in the television series “The Nanny”.
Lainie Kazan is a contemporary of both Midler and Barbra Streisand (all three of them outstanding Jewish female entertainers who first developed their careers in the 1970’s), and her life has occasionally intersected with each of them. As an upcoming singer of acknowledged talent, Kazan got her first break in show business when she understudied Streisand in the original Broadway production of “Funny Girl” in 1969. When Kazan replaced Streisand for one matinee and one evening performance, the reviews were outstanding and a new talent was born.
Kazan was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1940, and graduated from Hofstra University. Her mother’s Sephardic family had lived in Jerusalem for eight generations, and her father was of Russian-Jewish background. She has ranged widely across singing in nightclubs (places like the “hungry i” in San Francisco and the LA Playboy Club), concert halls and the big stages of Las Vegas, stage acting (“Gypsy”; the Broadway musical version of “My Favorite Year”), acting on television (“Kirstie Alley’s mother in “Veronica’s Closet”) and entertainment programs (“The Dean Martin Show”) movies (“The Cemetary Club”, “Harry and the Hendersons”) and releasing records.
Kazan has long been known as a very sexy and sultry nightclub singer. “I don’t look like the character in “What’s Cooking?”, she said – meaning she is much more glamorous than the frumpy Jewish mama we see on screen. For the cover art of a recent CD “Body and Soul”, she was encouraged to use photographs from her “Playboy” spread during her “hippie days”.
Commenting on her “What’s Cooking?” role of Ruth, Kazan said that she simply “loved that character. She is sympathetic, not a typical caricature, a real person. She is also a gentle person, and a wise woman who could forgive and love”. She felt the “Jewish family dynamics on the set were wonderful. We got on famously and really ‘cohesed’. There was wonderful rapport, and we all felt great exasperation with Aunt Bee (the pushy relative played by Estelle Harris), the real awkwardness, discomfort and problems which that character caused”. Working with Anglo-Indian director Gurinder Chadha was great. “She really understood the Jewish experience. Although we improvised a little bit with the script, what you see on screen is basically what they wrote”.
In addition to her professional life, Kazan has consistently supported various charities and AIDS benefits. She recently received the “Woman of the Year” award from the Atlanta (Georgia) B’nai Brith.
Kazan has been to Australia many times to sing, and vividly recalls visits to Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane, and singing at Leagues Clubs, Easter Shows, the “Melbourne Auditorium”, and the Chevron. In fact she owned property in Hervey Bay in Queensland for many years, although she unfortunately spent very little time there before selling it.
The future? “I have a new film coming out here in the US in August, called “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2009 note: one of the most successful films of all time, in comparison to the cost of production), and is produced by Tom Hanks. It’s set in Chicago and I play a Greek woman”. She is also supposed to come back to Australia for more concert dates in November, but the trip is not firmed up yet.