Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Mysterious Disappearance Of An Enormous Talent

I remember going to see the movie version of Hair the day it opened in 1979. I had reached the end of my senior year in high school and was in full slacker mode, so that Friday my girlfriend and I took the afternoon off and saw it. I remember enjoying it a lot. Over the years I've seen it quite a few times and have remained impressed.

Last night I watched it again. It had run on TCM over the weekend and bless Tivo's heart, it snagged it for me. I was impressed all over again. Though the plot has some holes, they aren't bad for a musical and compared to the stage version, which really had no plot at all, they are insignificant. The stunning integration of visuals and music preceeded and informed the rise of music videos that followed. Twyla Tharp's innovative choreography (one number features a pas de deux with horses) feels fresh and alive. But it's the extaordinarily naturalistic performances that director Milos Foreman got out of the young actors, especially in a musical, that have always stuck out in my mind.

The film is a smorgasbord of dazzling breakthroughs and debuts. Treat Williams would only equal his work as the tribe leader, Berger, in Lumet's Prince of the City the following year. Beverly D'Angelo would never be better and it's a pity she'll be remembered primarily from National Lampoon's Vacation. John Savage, though impressive in The Deer Hunter the previous year, gives an even better performance in Hair. Annie Golden, recruited from the NY band, The Shirts, is a knockout as the charming and delightful Jeannie. Don Dacus (guitarist at the time for Chicago) and Dorsey Wright, fresh from a great performance in The Warriors, warm up the ensemble with just the right tone.

Even small cameos stand out - from Charlotte Rae to the late Micheal Jeter to the director Nicholas Ray to Nell Carter to the exquisite Antonia Rey as Berger's mother - they make the film richer and more wonderful.

Amidst all this greatness, however, there is one element that actually stands above everything else. More than halfway through the movie, we are introduced to one more character - a woman confronting the man who fathered her child and then abandoned her. The character doesn't even have a name - in the credits she is simply referred to as Hud's Fiancee. She is played by an unknown named Cheryl Barnes, and in one of the most amazing debuts in film history she steals the movie. She tears into the song "Easy To Be Hard" with such bravura and depth that at the film's gala premiere in Los Angeles, before a cynical industry crowd, the movie had to be stopped - yes, stopped - because the audience in the theater gave her a 10 minute standing ovation - at a movie! The remainder of her performance in the film, though small, proved that her acting instincts were equal to her singing. Natural, subtle, honest - she was simply amazing.

If you have never seen it, or for some reason don't remember it (How?!) here it is.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

Ok, you watch it? Because if you didn't, you won't get what I'm trying to say, so seriously, watch it... I'll wait.

Ok. Are we agreed? Is that impressive?

Here's the story behind her... and the mystery, as I understand it. That young woman, Cheryl Barnes, had never worked professionally. She was eking out a living as a maid in a motel in New England when she accompanied a friend to an open audition for the movie. At her friend's insistence she auditioned too. She got the job instantly.

The scene above was shot in New York, in winter, and the temperature was 25 degrees. It was her first day, in her first movie. Though they shot many angles that day - medium shots, reaction shots, extra takes - Foreman used the first take of Barnes. He knew it would be the one.

The last scenes in the film were shot near Barstow, California, and when the film wrapped she stayed there, in Barstow. She took jobs waitressing at a Dennys and teaching piano. She recorded a song the following year for the soundtrack to American Gigolo. She accepted an invitation by Milos Foreman to visit Prague while he was shooting Amadeus there, but otherwise she never really got close again. Hair was her career.

She remains a mystery. There's very little information regarding her whereabouts or her life for the last 30 years. She just disappeared.

How does that happen? How does someone with so much obvious talent just not do anything else? And is that what happened: offers rolled in, but she declined them all? Where did this woman go?

In a movie where so many young talents gave knockout performances and launched their careers, Cheryl Barnes stood out. Yet, she went no further.


Cheryl Barnes was actually in the movie theater that night in Los Angeles when the audience stood as one and roared their approval. She had been coaxed to come down from Barstow for the event by Foreman. A witness, a dancer who had been in the film and was at the premier, said that as the crowd's applause thundered through the auditorium for those ten long minutes Ms. Barnes remained in her seat, weeping uncontrollably into her hands. Perhaps, that was all Cheryl Barnes ever needed... or maybe, it was more than she had wanted in the first place.

After all, where do you go from there?

A quick note: If you want to watch the whole film (for free) Hulu has it here, and if you want to see a longer version of the clip above with better context, it hits at about 1:17:00 into the movie.

Addendum: Ms. Barnes had been scheduled to play the role of Effie in the original production of Dreamgirls on Broadway after Jennifer Holliday quit the workshops, but Ms. Barnes had a run-in with the director, Michael Bennett, and zap - Barnes out, Holliday back in. Barnes later went on to play the role in Long Beach to great acclaim.

She also performed in Bernstein's Mass on Broadway.

So there's something.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is the same Cheryl Barnes:

Anonymous said...

There is video out there of Cheryl Barnes (along with the late Laura Brannigan) singing backup for Leonard Cohen on tour throughout Europe in the late 70s.

Vijit Coomara said...

I too watched it when it came out at the University Theatre in Toronto. I was 17 at the time. I remember being absolutely mesmerized by this performance. Of course the movie is a family staple now. All my kids know every scene by heart. It really is amazing that she never went anywhere after this movie. Mind you I have never seen anything musically from Treat Williams since then either.

Anonymous said...

Happened to catch it last night for the 1st time in a while; Barnes' performance is searing.

Flash I said...

Every time I see her sing Easy to be Hard (100 times at least)I am just floored.One of the greatest performances ever

Rick Buckle said...

Simply, perhaps the most powerful performance ever.
I have tried to add it to several playlists, but alas, the
original film version is the only one I can listen to all
the way through.

Noone said...

Her performance is remarkable, her pain compels and her passion powers. Wish she had been able to share more of her talent with us.

Pablo from L.A. said...

Im a big fan as well, and infact created a fan page on facebook several years ago... it is there a friend of hers reached out and told me that she is married and living in Finland, "enjoying her life."