Once upon a time on the Bowery
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
Being part of an ensemble on a show like “Sex and the City” can’t be easy. Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie is, of course, the star, and don’t you forget it. She certainly hasn’t, clattering around in her impractically spindly shoes and haute-bag-lady outfits, playing a character who used to be dazzlingly offbeat but who is now something much stiffer and duller: a preening, posing, self-made icon. Over the past few seasons, both Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda (the bright, sensible mother and lawyer who has trouble expressing emotion) and Kim Cattrall’s Samantha (the freethinking, sexually open, slinky beauty) have proven to be far more interesting characters than Carrie, maybe because they’re allowed to make sloppier mistakes with much more surprising, and often pleasurable, consequences. (Every time Carrie learns a lesson about life or love, Parker makes a little moue with her mouth and changes into yet another freakazoid ensemble. Parker, who used to be a supremely likable comic actress, no longer has to act at all — she could just lip-sync her role from across a crowded room.)
But what about Charlotte York Goldenblatt, the dreamily romantic former WASP who always wears delicate cardigans and full, floaty skirts whether Prada is showing them that season or not? The one who, fearlessly, has been known to leave her Upper East Side apartment in a velvet headband that — miracle of miracles — actually looks nice on her? Of the four women on “Sex and the City,” Charlotte has always been treated as the whipped cream on the sundae. She’s light and charming, but she doesn’t wear the same readily identifiable character tags the others do: Carrie is the (alleged) wit, Miranda’s got the knife-edged smarts, Samantha’s sex drive is a force of nature. Charlotte is simply sweet.
But only if you haven’t really been paying attention. As “Sex and the City” rounds the bend toward its last episode ever, this Sunday, I’ve become convinced that the unsung hero of the show, and the one who has almost single-handedly saved its final season, is its most overlooked actress: Kristin Davis.
While the other actresses have all been praised, rightly, for their comic timing (in the show’s early years, Parker may even have been the best of them), Charlotte is the one who’s more often deemed simply adequate, when anybody bothers to take notice at all. That may be because most of us think we know, or may even be, a person like Charlotte — an essentially sweet-natured woman who likes her job well enough, but who harbors romantic dreams of marrying a nice, preferably rich guy and having beautiful children, and who believes there’s one “right” person out there for everyone.
On paper, Charlotte seems ordinary enough to be a clichi. But Davis has always played her with no-frills, no-nonsense determination, a kind of Yankee thriftiness that actually clears more room for complexities rather than less. There may be a springtime crispness to Charlotte’s skirts, but there’s a jumble of old clothes in her heart, an apparent contradiction that Davis has always played with ease. She’s the show’s stealth actress, and the one whose character demands the utmost compassion and openness from us. Face it: Who wants to admit that Junior League types are people too?
Davis is gifted in a different way from the others. She has a knack for stylized farce that’s both broader than what the others do and yet subtler and much harder to pull off. She’d be perfectly at home wrestling down the wriggly charms of elegant ’30s romantic comedies. Her face, with its delicately chiseled nose and alert brown eyes, is 100 percent high-society, but her smile has the fresh earnestness of a farm girl, and she seems to know it: She plays uptown and out-of-town against each other as if there were no difference between them.
And her timing catches you like a cartoon cloud of perfume — it may be brightly colored, but the fragrance is subtle and delicate. A few Charlotte moments from an earlier season prove it perfectly: Charlotte finds herself strangely attracted to her divorce lawyer, Harry Goldenblatt (the marvelous Evan Handler, Prince Charming-owitz), a bald, stocky regular joe who wears loud ties and sweats a lot. He’s mad for her — he will, of course, eventually marry her — but for now, she doesn’t know what to make of him, even though whatever it is he’s got has already gone to work on her, subconsciously at least.
He’s just helped her finalize her divorce. She’s thinking of moving out of the palatial apartment she’s won in the settlement, and, eager to help her further, Harry is showing her around a leather-and-chrome bachelor pad belonging to a friend of his, which is available for rent. This very pretty girl and extremely nervous boy are having a look at the tacky bachelor bedroom when Harry lets it rip: He’s so attracted to Charlotte he can’t think of anyone or anything else. It drives him crazy to look at her. He wants her desperately.
Charlotte, standing there in her spectacles and one of her trademark girly-girl flared dresses, is taken aback. “Harry,” she stammers, flustered and flattered in equal measures, “don’t be ridiculous — I’m wearing my glasses!”
That peculiar Charlotte logic is what makes the character so much frothier, and yet so much more intriguing, than the other women on the show. In her own way, Charlotte is sexier even than the oversexed Samantha. Later, after she has tumbled into bed with Harry (and has also had, as she states unequivocally, the best sex of her life), she offers a friend a perfectly viable explanation of why Harry can’t possibly become her steady boyfriend: “He’s not very attractive. He’s sweaty and pushy. No, no, I could never date him.” Her eyes gleam, her brow furrows; she waits a beat. “But maybe just for the sex. How does that work, exactly?”
I’ve heard women remark that of all the women on “Sex and the City,” Charlotte tends to be the favorite among their male friends, ostensibly because she’s the most conventional, the least threatening, perhaps the prettiest, at least in the cheerleader sense. Miranda, Samantha and Carrie all want so much out of men; they’re complaining all the time. Charlotte just wants someone to take care of her — doesn’t that make things simpler all around?
But the reality, as both Davis and the show’s writers (who have done Davis justice, finally, in the last few seasons) have driven home, isn’t nearly as simple as all that. Charlotte may actually be more complicated than the others; at the very least, she has certainly faced her share of trials. You could argue that of all the characters, she’s grown the most: While it’s true that Miranda has had a baby and Samantha has recently battled cancer, Carrie’s biggest problems have been embodied in a parade of close-but-no-cigar boyfriends.
Charlotte, on the other hand, married her dream man (Kyle MacLachlan), only to find that although he loved her, he was incapable of sexual passion. (While Charlotte has never advertised her love of sex as broadly as her friends have, she’s dropped plenty of not-so-subtle hints that she just might be the most orgasmic of all of them. Samantha may make the most noise, but it’s Charlotte who smolders.) She has faced, and continues to face, the reality that she probably won’t be able to conceive a child (a subject that the show has dealt with intelligently and sympathetically and with no obnoxious hand-wringing). She met a guy who she thought was all wrong for her and, by opening up not just to him but to the deepest parts of herself, realized he was exactly right. She even went so far as to change religions for him, converting to Judaism, an act that could be seen as a way of subsuming herself just to please a man, although it’s impossible to watch Charlotte singing a shabbas prayer without seeing that her new faith has brought out something that was inside her to begin with.
In one of the loveliest moments in the show’s history, Charlotte quizzes Harry on why he refuses to marry a shiksa (in other words, her). In the course of the conversation, she explains to him, anxiously and mournfully, that she’s unlikely to be able to bear children. He tells her, without even taking a breath, that he loves her no matter what, and that they can adopt a child — they’ll be just as much of a family that way. His response is so kind and so compassionate that Charlotte recognizes it as fundamentally “Jewish” — in other words, she sees him as the kind of person that she herself would like to be. Of course, she already is that kind of person, but the moment cements them as a solid match, a case of two people reaching out toward the best in each other — the very sort of romantic realism that a good marriage requires.
Some of Charlotte’s wants and desires do seem retrograde. She loves Elizabeth Taylor, and like Taylor, she also loves big engagement rings. It troubles her that it’s inappropriate for her to have a big second wedding (although, at Carrie’s sensible urging, she goes ahead and has one anyway). You get the sense that she romanticizes motherhood in ways that none of the others do, least of all Miranda, the only one who’s actually a mom. Although it’s not so hard to picture Charlotte changing a poopy diaper. She’d probably wrinkle her nose and come out with a wry little joke about how yucky it is, even as she’d gingerly, and tenderly, get the job done.
Does that necessarily make her the perfect mother and wife, the dream of every man who’d prefer not to be challenged by a woman? I suspect that more women viewers than men see Charlotte as the show’s least-threatening character. Many of us like to think that “difficult” women are somehow superior to easygoing ones (when, in fact, sometimes they’re simply more of a pain in the ass, without necessarily being smarter or more interesting). But even if — or maybe because — Charlotte has sometimes seemed blindly hopeful and optimistic, she’s the show’s most demanding character. Her attitude toward love and sex isn’t as casual as that of the other three, and her expectations are definitely higher — she seems to want more out of life than any of them, a tough bill for any ordinary man to fill.
Of the four women on “Sex and the City,” Charlotte is the one who has historically demanded the impossible out of romance. But instead of being disappointed, she has ended up being happier than she ever could have imagined. That sounds more like the direct opposite of guileless simplicity. Throughout the run of the show, there’s always been something resolutely sensible about Charlotte. She’s like a Jane Austen heroine transplanted to modern Manhattan, coming around to the fact that having a plan is not only useless, it’s plain old boring — not nearly as thrilling as welcoming the surprises that life cooks up for us.
And in playing Charlotte, Davis, more than the other actresses in the ensemble, has helped maintain the tossed-off urban spark that the show started out with, which was the very thing that made it such a delight through its first few seasons. “Sex and the City” has lost much of its lightness over the years, not necessarily because it has taken on more serious themes (cancer, motherhood, infertility, divorce), but because it started to groove too heavily on its own status as a hit: It’s now a ritzy supper club, whereas it used to have the fuzzy-sexy warmth and improvisational vibe of a smoky bar. One moment in last week’s episode recaptured some of the show’s early loose jazziness: Unhappy over Carrie’s decision to move to Paris, Samantha calls her a cunt — and Charlotte, recognizing the affection nestled within the epithet, bursts into tears.
As “Sex and the City” has wound down over the past season, each of its characters has come closer to finding some version of romantic happiness. Charlotte and Harry are contentedly married (although she still dearly wants that baby). Miranda has finally realized how much she cares for Steve (David Eigenberg), her baby’s father. Samantha, who never wanted to settle down in the first place, has one of the sweetest boyfriends any woman could ever hope for (played by the astonishingly endearing Jason Lewis). Carrie is the last one left, flittering and twittering as she bumbles toward her romantic destiny, whatever it is. Will she stay in Paris with her sophisticated Russian (Mikhail Baryshnikov)? Will she end up with Big (Chris Noth), who seems newly reformed? Or will she end up with the great city of Manhattan as her only true partner (a theme the show has tangoed with again and again)?
These are the big questions. The problem is, Who cares? I prefer to remember the show as it was in its glory days, when its trash-talking, high-living breeziness made it one of the most pleasurable comedies of manners of late-20th-century TV.
That said, I can’t help hoping that Charlotte gets the baby she hopes to adopt, so I can send her off into that great beyond, where all fictional characters must eventually go, having everything she wants most out of life. But baby or no, I’ll always treasure the moment when, depressed over her childlessness, she’s jogging through the park and meets a winsome King Charles spaniel in a Burberry dog coat. This is the dog Charlotte will eventually welcome into her home and name (what else?) Elizabeth Taylor. For now, though, Charlotte is desolate; her face is streaked with tears. But when this exquisite little mop scampers toward her, she instinctively swoops down and cuddles the dog’s lush, floppy ears. “Look at your little coat! Did you go shopping?” she asks the dog, a very silly question that this particular creature looks as if she could actually answer.
The moment is pure Charlotte and the sort of thing I’ll always remember Davis for. A dog isn’t part of Charlotte’s plan at all — it’s the last thing she was thinking of, really. And yet here’s the perfect one for her, right down to the stylish coat, and she has instantly fallen in love. Happiness can cut across your path at any moment. Sometimes it’s wearing a little coat, and scooping it up is all you can do. Say what you want about Charlotte York Goldenblatt: She was never too proud to scoop.
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.
This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”
No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.
Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.
This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.
Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.
“The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.
Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.
Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.
Dictators, Bowery 1976
Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.
Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!
Bowery view, 1977
The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.
Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.
Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.
Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”
Legs McNeil, 1977
Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.
Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.
Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.
Tommy Ramone, 1977
Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.
Bowery 4am, 1977
End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.