June 5, 2013

The Mick Jagger of Jewish Ladies: RIP Helen Hanft (1934-2013)

On May 30th, almost a week ago, the incredible Helen Hanft died in New York City at the age of 79.

I started talking to Helen about two years ago after getting in touch with her for the Divine documentary that I was assisting with. In 1978, Helen co-starred with Divine in The Neon Woman. She played Connie, the loud, brash and miserable older sister of Divine’s character, Flash Storm. It’s a great performance, full of terrific one-liners and her chemistry with Divine was perfect.

Publicity portrait of Helen as Gloria in Women Behind Bars.
If you read any information about Helen, you will find a lot of recurring words; loud, brassy, eccentric, legendary.

She was a goddess of off-Broadway and a darling of playwright Tom Eyen who wrote many plays that featured her, including Why Hanna’s Skirt Won’t Stay Down (where she played Hanna in what many consider her signature role), Who Killed My Bald Sister Sophie?, What is Making Gilda So Gray?, Sarah B. Divine!, Areatha in the Ice Palace, Women Behind Bars and the aforementioned The Neon Woman.

It was her performance in that play that caught my attention.

In 1991 I was in full-on John Waters/Divine obsession mode and was buying anything and everything I could lay my hands on. Through a mail order company called Movies Unlimited, I found a sketchy VHS tape that contained one of Waters’ early short films (The Diane Linkletter Story) and the “only existing performance of the infamous The Neon Woman show”.

Shot on crude, black & white videotape with almost indecipherable audio, I was finally able to see Divine large-and-in-charge onstage in a truly amazing role (and one which actually stands as my favorite Divine presentation). Amidst this performance, I began to notice (and hear) an amazing, obviously older actress that was able to go head-to-head with Divine. Unfortunately, the video had no cast information so I had no idea who she was.

Fast-forward a couple of years to 1993 when the ensemble comedy, Used People, was released. This was a film I was drawn to immediately because of its large cast of unusual character actors (i.e Sylvia Sidney, Doris Roberts, Marcia Gay Harden, Joe Pantoliano, etc.) Surprisingly, a memorable, red-haired woman popped up in a scene showcasing a familiar and unforgettable voice. It was her! Connie from The Neon Woman! At last I was able to place a name to that wonderful personality. Helen Hanft.

Slowly I began to realize who she was, remembering her almost immediately from her bit part roles in other films like Coming to America (1988), Moonstruck (1987) and, most memorably, as the evil Department of Motor Vehicles lady in License to Drive (1988). Her name quickly rose to the top of my favorite character actresses. 

Needless to say, I was excited and nervous at the opportunity to speak with her for the Divine documentary in the spring of 2011. However, the second I heard her voice on the phone, my heart melted and all of my inhibitions flew out the window. We immediately hit it off, talking for over an hour. I found out she collected cookie jars, so during one of my thrift store shopping trips, I found a bizarre “Bobby Baker” cookie jar that I thought was unique and odd enough to send to her. She loved it. We would talk on the phone every few months for the next couple of years.

Like my friendship with the late Susan Tyrrell, our conversations never revolved around her career. There were brief mentions of her roles (I expressed my appreciation for her scenes in Used People in which she stole laughs from Shirley MacLaine) but the majority of our talks were about our families, our pets, politics and life in general. We even talked about eventual visits to meet each other. It was a joy to talk to her and we made each other laugh. I hope she got as much enjoyment out of our chats as I did.

I last spoke to Helen last month, telling her about a photo I had just purchased of her onstage during The Neon Woman. She was surprised to hear that there was memorabilia available of her on eBay. “I never see a penny of that!” she laughed.

Hope Stansbury, Helen and George Patterson onstage in The Neon Woman.

I recently found a fun article by Tom Eyen in a December 1974 issue of After Dark magazine called “The Many Mad Women in Tom Eyen’s Life”. In it was a small profile on Helen that summarized her perfectly. Titled, “The Mick Jagger of Jewish Ladies”, Tom writes that “Helen…was born to scream for the sins of the world. She is a joy for actors and crew to work with and particularly sweet to the little people (that is, anyone under the age of six).”

I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced Helen (albeit briefly) and saddened once more by the passing of a truly unique, irreplaceable personality that we will never see again.

On to the next act, Helen. I’ll miss you.