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Leslie Jones Is Ready to Rock the Boat, Hard

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When Louis C.K. returned to the Comedy Cellar nine months after confessing to sexual misconduct, many criticized the club in tweets and articles, and a few protested and walked out of shows. But the only star comic to stop performing there was Leslie Jones.

She started spending more time at the Comic Strip on the Upper East Side near her home. “They took his picture down,” Jones said of that club, adding: “Mine’s up.”

Over lunch in the Flatiron district, Jones, who has talked to the Comedy Cellar’s management about her disappointment but has returned to the club after a long stint away, said it was a personal decision. “I knew girls,” she said, pausing and holding a stare, “and they got to walk into the club and see him talking to the owner. That ain’t cool.”

Using a metaphor she returned to a couple times in our two-hour interview, Jones said she no longer cared about rocking the boat: “I am at the age when I will get off the boat and get on another damn boat.”

Last year, she exited the biggest yacht in comedy, “Saturday Night Live,” and when asked why, Jones paused, uncharacteristically cautious: “I’m 52 and tired. ‘S.N.L.’ is a hard job. It’s 100 hours a week,” she said. “Also, it’s an institution. I get bored. And I want to do different things.”

So she is, with movie and television projects in the works this year (the “Coming to America” sequel, a reboot of “Supermarket Sweep,” which she will host), along with a just-released special, “Time Machine,” a dynamite hour on Netflix directed by the showrunners of “Game of Thrones,” David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. They were her third choice, behind Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams (both were booked).

Onstage and off, Jones is not short on swagger. “I want to be the next Johnny Carson,” she said. “I want ‘The Tonight Show’ really bad.” But what about Jimmy Fallon? “I love Jimmy, but Jimmy is going to leave in a minute,” she said. “And who are they going to possibly fill that spot with?”

After clarifying “except Seth Meyers,” she answered her question with a roar: “ME!” She then flashed a stern face that pushed defiance into a deliriously funny kind of self-parody.

Leslie Jones thinks a lot about funny faces. She has studied the greats — Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball, who she said had “the best faces in the game” — and developed her own go-to expressions from hours of testing in front of a mirror. There’s the withering glare that writers on “Saturday Night Live” would write into scripts as “the Leslie Look.” It was inspired by the exasperation of her late brother, while a photo of her father serving during the Vietnam War is the model for her most unhinged expression, eyes popped out, one more than the other, a glance she uses to intimidate audiences and tame hecklers.

When Jones kills at clubs — and she can lay waste to an audience in a way that few others today can match — it can seem like a force of nature, the work of raw charisma and a tornado of energy. But make no mistake: She’s a veteran student of her craft, honing her act since 1987 when she started telling jokes onstage as a Colorado college student in a contest before moving back to Los Angeles. However, she describes her new hour as a reintroduction. Since rocketing to fame on network television, she has an entirely new audience, one that’s far whiter than the crowds she played to early in her career.

When asked about the difference, Jones says white audiences are “so much easier,” before cackling and assuring me she loves the high standards of her black fans. “You know how they say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere?” she said. “If you can make it with a black audience, you can make it with anyone.”

In the last few years, Jones’s comedy has also evolved thanks to a collaboration with the comic Lenny Marcus, a bespectacled Jewish tactician of a stand-up who opens for her and gives notes on jokes.

Jones, six feet tall with a booming voice, has always been a ferocious and freewheeling performer, but Marcus convinced her to make a set list for the first time, to stick to the same jokes at every show as opposed to improvising new lines and also to be more strategic with crowd work. “She is also so quick and even when just talking, she’s captivating,” Marcus said by phone.

“Lenny gave me discipline,” Jones said. “He has a whole different way of doing comedy. It’s like merging peanut butter and jelly.”

While it’s common for comics to use writers, it’s unusual for them to give them credit on a special. Jones understands this, but said she hoped to be an example, to give stand-ups permission to help one another. “Netflix was like: It would look better” if she only billed herself as a writer, Jones explained, but she said she would “feel disgustingly sleazy” doing that. She and Marcus are both credited as writers and producers.

(As for the “Game of Thrones” directors, she was a big fan of the show and simply asked, expecting they wouldn’t be available. They were, and wound up using nine cameras to tackle the formidable challenge of translating her visceral live act to the screen, which Jones was especially excited about.)

The funniest moments in a Leslie Jones performance are not really the move from setup to punch line but the radically extreme pivots between emotions. No comic alive travels a greater distance between confidence and vulnerability. In her most ambitious bit in the new special, she dramatizes texting a boyfriend, veering from angry dismissals to heartbreak and desperation in mere moments. “It’s not easy to date Leslie Jones,” she says, a line written by Lenny Marcus.

Being lonely in love has been a common theme of her comedy since the start of her career. Her first reliable joke involved telling women who can’t find a man to visit the produce section of the supermarket, before whipping out a cucumber and later taking a bite out of it. “Do you know how many rotten cucumbers were in my car?” she said, laughing at that early prop work.

“I respect crazy girls,” she said. “You know the woman caught in the chimney trying to go down her boyfriend’s fireplace? I felt her on a whole other level. Every female been there. Every female who says we can keep it casual, she done passed by your house twice.”

She often plays this love-struck obsessive in her comedy (think of her gushing over Colin Jost on “Weekend Update”), but it comes from a real place. On dating, she can sound hopeless, talking about her fear of dying alone. “I’m tall. I got a big mouth. I’m not Beyoncé,” she said, bluntly handicapping her chances. “Everyone is like: There is someone out there for everybody. Nah, I don’t believe that.”

Jones doesn’t hide insecurity so much as flaunt it. She recalls old slights or insults vividly. There was the time her brother told her she wasn’t funny and was an embarrassment to the family. And there was the tour with Kevin Hart in London about 15 years ago, when he told her she would never make it big because she doesn’t do real jokes or talk about herself onstage. He later apologized, and while noting that Hart was a different person back then, Jones said the comment fueled her: “Nobody was following me that night.”

As a famous black woman in comedy, Jones has taken more abuse than most. After the sexist controversy over a gender-reversed “Ghostbusters,” which she starred in, Jones became the target of trolls. Her phone was hacked, and nude photos were spread across the internet.

Jones quickly turned this incident into comedy on “Saturday Night Live,” but she said that the intensity of the backlash got to her, briefly. It didn’t make her stop sending nude photos. “I remember the person I sent it to was like: ‘You ain’t learned yet? You learned nothing,’” she said, letting out a booming guffaw.

And when the trailer for another “Ghostbusters” was recently released, she saw it as vindication for the worst critics. “It pissed me off,” she said. “It feels like: They did it wrong and we know you guys were upset about that little girls’ ‘Ghostbusters,’ so we’re going to do it right now.”

She added that her movie was hurt by studio interference and an edit that took out 20 minutes of strong material, and she wished she had spoken up in protest. “If I was the Leslie I am now, I think it would have went different,” she said, shifting her face into not exactly the Leslie Look but something adjacent. “Big franchise, don’t rock the boat,” she said. “I wish I would have rocked the boat.”

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Editorial

Review: ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ Has Its Ups and Ups

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Let us survey the many moods of Molly Brown: She is perky, chirpy, spunky, bubbly, cheerful. Even stranded on a raft after the Titanic sinks, she can’t help being, ahem, buoyant.

The resilient heroine of the Meredith Willson musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was always an upbeat go-getter, with an action-packed journey that took her from a hardscrabble Rockies mining town to the Denver upper crust. But the Transport Group revival that just opened at Abrons Arts Center has turned Molly (played by Beth Malone, a Tony nominee for “Fun Home”) into a human exclamation mark. The production is simultaneously busy and lifeless — a feat of sorts, if not a desirable one.

The 1960 show was Willson’s follow-up to “The Music Man,” and lightning did not strike twice: There was a Hollywood adaptation four years later, but the stage steered clear, and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” doesn’t appear to have been revived on Broadway or Off in nearly 60 years.

The choreographer/director Kathleen Marshall and the book writer/lyricist Dick Scanlan must have seen an opportunity to give vintage material a fresh start, so they went back to the drawing board: According to the production notes, “none of the characters in the 2020 version appear in the 1960 version. Both have characters called Molly, but she says and does different things. The two versions share three lines of dialogue.”

Fewer than half the songs are from the original show, including the fine “I Ain’t Down Yet” and “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys.” The rest are pulled from Willson’s catalog with a mix of tweaked and entirely new lyrics by Scanlan. (This revisal has been in the works for about 10 years, with productions in Denver and St. Louis.)

The title character is based on the actual Molly Brown (1867-1932), though both Scanlan and his predecessor, Richard Morris, have played fast and loose with the facts. Which is fine, since musicals tend to believe that if the legend becomes fact, it’s best to sing the legend.

The problem is that Scanlan and Marshall give us a one-note dynamo whose needle never leaves a positively aggressive red zone.

Molly, née Tobin, is now a fearless, progressive woman speaking truth to power. The tone is set when, facing an all-male Senate hearing in an introductory scene, she is told, “You have been warned, nevertheless you persist: Settle down.”

That is how the show rolls: with all the subtlety of a Hummer.

And there is plenty more where that came from in this protracted tale of resilient feminist pluck.

Newly arrived in Leadville, Colo., the young Molly wins over the local workers; befriends a pregnant widow, Julia (Whitney Bashor); and ends up marrying J.J. Brown, the manager of a silver mine (David Aron Damane).

“I can be anyone I wanna be, why not be a queen?” Molly muses. She and J.J. don’t achieve royal status, but they do strike it rich. Her folksy, rough-hewed attitude appalls Denver’s ladies who lunch until — you guessed it — she charms them, with an assist from some spiked tea.

And so it goes. Molly becomes a women’s suffrage activist. Molly fights for workers’ rights and helps the needy (“Why shouldn’t one of Denver’s ‘better families’ help Denver’s families do better?,” she says).

Although Malone almost never leaves the stage, she is not given much to work with by either Scanlan or Marshall and compensates with unbridled “I’m auditioning for Peter Pan” enthusiasm.

Eventually Molly learns J.J. had an affair (which took place offstage, lest the audience be subjected to anything vaguely resembling moral ambiguity or dramatic stakes) and decamps to Europe. Neither the decadent old continent nor the Titanic can bring her down, however. Soon she’s back in New York, where she stands up for an indigent immigrant whose entry is blocked by an immigration officer, while a repentant J.J. waits in the wings. You may never have yearned so much for a show’s heroine to calm down, even for a second.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Through March 22 at Abrons Arts Center, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, transportgroup.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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Editorial

Adèle Haenel: France ‘Missed the Boat’ on #MeToo

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PARIS — When Adèle Haenel said late last year that she had been abused as a child by a movie director, she became the first prominent actress in France to speak publicly about abuse in the country’s film industry. By then, the #MeToo movement was already two years old.

Families argued about her story at the dinner table. Colleagues discussed it in workplaces. Brigitte Macron, France’s first lady, said Ms. Haenel, 31, deserved “great respect.”

In a recent interview with The New York Times — Ms. Haenel’s first since she aired the accusations in November — the actress urged President Emmanuel Macron’s government to step up its efforts to tackle violence against women.

“The judicial system needs to change to better treat victims of sexual violence,” she said. “On all levels.”

The director Christophe Ruggia, whom Ms. Haenel accused of sexual harassment and inappropriate contact that she said began when she was 12, has denied the accusations through his lawyers. In January, he was charged with sexual assault on a minor under 15, and an inquiry is underway.

Although Ms. Haenel has stayed quiet since airing the accusations, similar stories have followed, including an accusation by the photographer Valentine Monnier that the movie director Roman Polanski raped her in 1975 when she was 18. (Mr. Polanski denies the accusation, although he has previously pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in the United States.)

Other women came forward in the wake of Ms. Haenel’s account, highlighting abuse in the spheres of literature and sports.

A few weeks before the American release of her latest movie, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Ms. Haenel sat for an interview in Paris. It was followed by a telephone conversation, and the transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

You shared your story three months ago and haven’t spoken publicly since then. How was your testimony received?

My story was like the last gram in a chemistry experiment that made everything fall out of solution. It resonated because French society had gone through a thought process about #MeToo.

I am part of the film world, but today I want to hear from women from other spheres, in academia, in organizations. The enormous number of handwritten letters, messages, emails — from women, but also from men — who had been moved by my story also made me realize that we lacked media stories on survivors of sexual violence in France.

How would you describe how #MeToo has unfolded in France?

There is a #MeToo paradox in France: It is one of the countries where the movement was the most closely followed on social media, but from a political perspective and in cultural spheres, France has completely missed the boat.

Many artists blurred, or wanted to blur, the distinction between sexual behavior and abuse. The debate was centered on the question of [men’s] “freedom to bother,” and on feminists’ purported puritanism. But sexual abuse is abuse, not libertine behavior.

People are talking about it, though, and #MeToo has left its mark. France is boiling over with questions about it.

How did that help you tell your own story?

It helped me realize that mine was not just personal, but one of many women and children, that we all carry. But I didn’t feel ready to share it when #MeToo emerged. It took me a long time to make the personal journey to look at myself as a victim. I also don’t think I moved any faster than French society.

Some politicians in France criticized you for sharing your story in the media without pressing charges initially. Why did you do that?

We have a justice system that doesn’t make violence against women a priority. Some public figures expressed their surprise, but do they know what it takes, today, for a woman to face the judicial system in France? Does anyone take into account the huge challenges that lay along the path of a female victim of sexual violence?

My case is now being treated in an ideal manner, with trained police and investigators who are attentive and well-meaning. I wish all survivors could have treatment like this.

Some women have complained that their cases didn’t receive the same treatment.

Under French law, rape is a sexual act committed with violence, surprise or under constraint: It is centered on the method used by the abuser, not the absence of consent from the victim. But what if during the assault a victim is in total shock? How do you seek justice?

We also have to believe all the women who speak out: Whenever a woman has less power than a man, one suspects her of wanting revenge. We have nothing to gain from coming forward as a victim, and the consequences on our private life are very negative.

President Emmanuel Macron has called French society “sick with sexism” and has vowed to combat violence against women and promote gender equality. How do you see the government’s actions in this regard?

There isn’t enough funding dedicated to changing the situation, and we have in our current government a representative who has been accused of abuse by different women. Keeping him in position sends out the signal that it isn’t so serious.

The government’s sluggish reaction to the #MeToo phenomenon makes you think that the state tolerates an amount of violence against women. It remains accepted to a certain extent.

Many recent conversations about sexual violence in the film world in France have focused on Roman Polanski, who has been nominated for the Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars, for his latest film “An Officer and a Spy.” You’ve been nominated, too.

Distinguishing Polanski is spitting in the face of all victims. It means raping women isn’t that bad.

When “An Officer and a Spy” was released, we heard outcries about censorship. It isn’t censorship — it’s about choosing who one wants to watch. And old rich white men, rest assured: You own all of the communication channels.

No, real censorship in French film is how some people suffer from invisibility. Where are the people of color in film? The directors of color? There are exceptions, like Ladj Ly, whose film has had enormous success, or Mati Diop, but that doesn’t reflect the reality of the film world at all. They remain a minority. For now, most stories take the classic white, male, heterosexual point of view.

But “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” offers a different vision of love and human interactions.

We don’t apply a traditional playbook, which is “falling in love without understanding why.” That usually includes domination and unequal power relations that are often considered like a motor for eroticism.

This film frees itself of that. We offer something that politically, artistically, makes us less submissive. It is a new version of desire, a cross between intellectual, carnal and inventive excitement.

What are you plans now? Are they affected by the impact of your story?

It is too early to say, but it doesn’t really matter if it harms my career. I think I did something good for the world, something that makes me feel upright. I am going to act in a play at the end of the year, but I don’t know yet how it has affected the way people see me.

I walk around Paris on foot — I don’t live in a bubble. Sometimes people thank me for speaking out when they see me in the street. When people thank me, it moves me, since the goal was to help. It makes me proud and joyful.

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Editorial

Diana Serra Cary, Child Star ‘Baby Peggy’ of Silent Films, Dies at 101

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She hated it. “Fighting for $3 a day in the world of extras — it was dreadful,” Ms. Cary told The Wall Street Journal in 2012. “And it was also sort of shameful, because the people who were doing the extra work were the former silent stars, many of them that I knew, who were adults, and for them it was a very crushing blow. I thought of it as being a galley slave.”

The family resorted to food coupons from the Motion Picture Relief Fund. The Los Angeles School Board finally insisted that the girl attend classes, and she enrolled at Lawlor Professional School, which had flexible schedules for young actors, enabling her to continue working. Fellow students included Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Later, she went to Fairfax High School in Los Angeles.

After graduating, she eloped in 1938 with her first boyfriend, Gordon Ayres, a movie extra. They were divorced in 1948. She was a switchboard operator and a bookstore clerk, and then managed a gift shop in Santa Barbara. She told no one of her past, and took the name Diana Serra. In 1954, she married Bob Cary, an artist, and took his surname. They had a son, Mark. Her husband died in 2001. Besides her son, she is survived by a granddaughter, Stephanie.

The Carys settled in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he painted and she became a freelance journalist, writing magazine articles. In 1970, they moved to La Jolla, part of San Diego, and she began a new career as a film historian. Her first book, “The Hollywood Posse” (1975), was a well-received account of stunt riders in film. Her second, “Hollywood’s Children” (1978), recounted the often troubling stories of child actors.

But it was the years of work on her memoir, “Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy? The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star” (1996), that proved therapeutic and redemptive. She re-examined her life in silent films, her parents’ conduct in frittering away her fortune, the studios’ harsh working conditions and the fates of child stars who, like her, were left impoverished, emotionally scarred and largely forgotten.

In “Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star” (2003), she wrote about her old friend, who sued his mother and stepfather in 1938 for spending his more than $3 million in earnings on furs, diamonds, homes and expensive cars.

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