"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Life News
Three years ago, according to actress Cynthia Silver’s in-progress one-woman show, “Bridezilla Strikes Back,” its heroine had only two dreams: “To be a fairy-tale bride and a revered television star … the kind that’s invited to cuddle up on the couch with Oprah.”
About that same time, Silver, then 30, got engaged to her stage manager boyfriend, Matt, and two months before their wedding the couple was approached to be part of an eight-part documentary television series called “Manhattan Brides.” Produced by September Films, the project was to chronicle the pre-wedding lives of couples living in high-priced, high-octane, high-strung New York City. Silver, an actress hungry for a break, sold herself to producers in a speech reenacted in her script: “I’m perfect for your show. I’m the downtown bride, the antithesis to the Plaza Hotel bride. I’m artsy, I’m cutting edge, I’m chic, I’m a theater actress running the production department of an off-Broadway acting school … You need me.” And when a dubious Matt expressed his reservations about participating, Silver writes that she cooed back to him, “Hon, listen … this is not that cheesy TLC wedding story crap. It’s not going to be corny, it’s going to be real … It’s a documentary … We’ll have every wedding memory forever. We can show it to our kids.”
Their whole misty-eyed family will no doubt enjoy the segment titled “Life’s a Bitch and Then You Marry One” for years to come.
You may remember “Bridezillas,” the hourlong reality TV special shown on Fox last January. If you don’t — or if you do and have been aching ever since to see more tulle-draped women shrieking hysterically at passersby — the WE (Women’s Entertainment) network is currently airing the full, eight-part series, also called “Bridezillas,” on Monday nights at 10. “Bridezillas” is the retitled result of what was supposed to have been “Manhattan Brides.” Cynthia Silver has now been married for almost two years, and, given that WE repeats “Bridezillas” episodes every Sunday, that the series was in rotation on local New York cable stations last year, as well as in Australia, England and Hong Kong, she has actually appeared on television a lot. Of course, since much of Silver’s screen time involves the last-minute rejection of her $3,000 wedding dress and a lot of sobbing on the sidewalk, she hasn’t become revered or cuddly with Oprah so much as she’s been reduced to a caricature of spoiled urban femininity. But these days, while she is being featured nationally as a bridal harridan who has her designer hack away at the neckline of her dress with shears while she’s wearing it, Silver is also putting finishing touches on her one-woman performance piece “Bridezilla Strikes Back.”
On the one hand, says Silver by phone, “I was very nervous about telling another wedding story. Who’s going to give a rat’s ass about another girl telling her bridal woes?” But after the first reading of her show, she got such varied response — from people wondering who would sign up for a show called “Bridezillas” to others who wanted to commiserate about wedding dress tsoris — that she realized she had hit an intersection of hot topics: marriage and reality television. “Reality TV mocks the people on the show,” says Silver, “but it is also mocking its audience for even watching it in the first place.”
Silver’s script isn’t as much of an attack as its title would imply. It’s a look at how easily she was seduced by the instant fame factory of reality television, and how some admittedly out-of-control event-planning moments got skillfully trimmed into something monstrous, just as easily as the show business bait-and-switch that transformed some Manhattan brides into stars of horror television.
That the show skewed negative should not have been a tremendous shock to any of the participants. After all, one of the great American myths is the ridiculous notion that everyone loves a bride. Sure, everyone loves Jennifer Lopez or Julia Roberts, whose crazy-ass nuptial spectacles can be enjoyed from a distance, through paparazzi telephoto-lens shots in Us Weekly. And who doesn’t enjoy the chance encounter with a bride coming out of a church in a pretty dress on a sunny weekend morning? But no one really loves the brides they actually know. At least while they’re being brides, that is. The all-absorbing logistics of planning and paying for nuptials — big or small — often create brides who are at best boring and at worst psychotic.
Add to that the fact that the 10 couples who agreed to have their lives taped for “Manhattan Brides” were a self-selected bunch of basket cases. Silver’s major diva moment is limited to the wedding dress agida, in which she decided a week before the big day to scrap the multilayered silk gown for a double-sided satin floor-length. She also talks a lot about her therapy regimen, at one point offering that her shrink told her she should come in twice a week during the wedding planning, but that it would only make her schedule more impossible. She comes off far better than, say, Miho, who refuses to let her new husband, Joe, touch her, much less kiss her, at the wedding for fear that he will crunch her dress or muss her maquillage. Vanessa persuades her fiancé to spend the money they were going to use for a house on a big wedding. “I think we both wanted something really special,” she says, as Dan makes a face at the camera that seems to suggest that he actually thought the house might be special too. Vanessa also provides one of the cringiest moments of the show when, while jewelry shopping, she tries on a $15,000 diamond necklace and tells Dan, “But I love it so.” She gets it at her rehearsal dinner. And then there’s fashion publicist Karen, whose dress tailors cannot hide their disgust during her fifth refitting. Karen also distinguishes herself by burning at least 10 minutes of her own special day by berating the caterers at the W Hotel for not serving enough food.
And yet … this is the kind of behavior that the media encourages by pumping pages and airwaves full of bridal industry hot air, fostering the national obsession with the price tags and accoutrements of marriage. So it seems a low blow to record the resulting fits about inadequacy and brand the women throwing them as fire-breathing reptiles.
In “Bridezilla Strikes Back,” Silver recounts just how she got nailed. She writes of the two British documentarians, Matt and Juliet, who followed her to every fitting, tasting and hair appointment. She had cameras at her facialist and eyebrow-styling appointments. She and Matt became friends and drinking buddies with the two-person crew, and she recounts in her show how Juliet gushed after her first fitting, “That was the fastest fitting we’ve been to. Usually they take hours! You’re the easiest bride I’ve ever seen!”
“I was so proud to be the low-maintenance one. Once again, I was distinguishing myself as the anti-bride,” writes Silver.
The wedding, she says, went off beautifully at the funky Angel Orensanz Synagogue-cum-arts center on New York’s Lower East Side. Far from the privileged climes of the Upper East Side, where many of the other couples were getting married, Silver felt she had an offbeat, realistic life to show off. She and Matt share a studio apartment in Greenwich Village. Her maid of honor was her hairdresser, Rick. “I never went to a wedding that was so much fun — and it was our wedding!” she writes in the script.
Soon after the wedding, Silver received the good news that the eight-part show was getting a warm reception with European broadcasters and that Fox had purchased the show from September Films and wanted to air a condensed version. The bad news was that it was going to call the show “Bridezillas,” which, according to a letter Cynthia received from September Films, it called “a more attention-grabbing title.” “It’s a light hearted, tongue in cheek title which illustrates what strong ideas and characters all our brides have,” read the letter. And nowhere was that lighthearted tongue-in-cheek spirit more poignantly illustrated than in the way Fox sold the show. In one promotional segment, the women were called “sugary sweethearts who mutate into matrimonial monsters [and] stars of their own horror movie.”
In October 2003, it was reported that another of the Manhattan Brides, Julia Swinton-Williamson, filed suit against September Films and Fox for $136 million, claiming that they lied to her about the show. Calls to London-based September Films were not returned in time for publication. Silver says she has not made September aware of her one-woman show. A spokeswoman for WE said that the controversy has not tainted the network’s desire to promote “Bridezillas.” In fact, according to a WE press release, next week 10 angry “brides” in green makeup will appear at New York’s City Hall. The release explains — somewhat alarmingly — that the bridal beasts will be “vaulting out of their limousines onto the pavement” (ouch!) to plug the show by warning “real brides” about stress, and passing out a hot-line number for potential zillas. The release defines a Bridezilla as “a poisonous green-faced wedding-dress-adorned expletive-spewing fist-waving bride out of control.”
“I was totally blind-sided,” said Silver of being labeled a monster. She said her initial anger came from the sadness she felt over being betrayed by her friends Matt and Juliet. She says that she was assured that the change in the show’s tenor came only after production was finished, but a blurb for the show in the June 11 issue of Entertainment Weekly made her think differently. “Exec producer David Green says the B-word wasn’t uttered until after shooting was done. During filming, he explains, ‘we kindly called them “high-maintenance” and “high-tension.”‘” “That quote implied that they knew what they were doing while they were shooting and that they tricked us. I still can’t even go there to this day,” says Silver.
Silver writes of how she was so outraged about the name change of the project she had signed up for that she wound up on the phone with September Films president Sally Miles. Miles’ conversation is dramatically reenvisioned in “Bridezilla Strikes Back,” with the executive promising Silver, “Darling, you are the only sane bride out of all of them!” and saying the magic words, that Silver would be sent out as part of Fox’s promotional campaign for the show.
Since Silver is an actress — and a frankly struggling one — she is very upfront in her show about what the appeal of the bridal project was. “It’s a chance for some exposure,” she tells Matt in the show, and writes about how on the morning the Fox show was to air, she woke up “to ‘the day I was to become famous’ with a calm sense of optimism and purpose. I strolled into the office, thinking about how much I’d miss these people once I’d gone off to greener pastures. On the walk home, I started wondering just how Fox would portray my wedding dress disaster.”
Yeah, it wasn’t so nice. The show featured big scary “Bridezilla” graphics, and interstitial images of hand mirrors shattering. The women are divided into “three kinds of bride stalking the streets”: Princess, Neurotic and Obsessive. Silver was Neurotic. She notes in “Bridezilla Strikes Back” that “Fox also had a field day with the whole therapy thing. I found out the hard way that Manhattan is not really a part of the rest of the country. Most of America considers therapy a dirty little secret. Fox took it upon themselves to find every snippet of my referring to my psychoanalysis … I put all the other Neurotic Brides to shame.”
Finding out the hard way meant checking out what her longed-for viewers had to say about her online, on a wedding site where she looked for support. Among the comments she retails in her show: “Can you believe these bitches?” “What a bunch of spoiled brats!”
“My heart started pounding as I clicked on a post entitled ‘Actress Bride’,” writes Silver. She was right to be nervous. On the thread, she found comments like, “What the hell is up with that fish-scale dress?” “Oh, I know, it looked like it was made of toilet paper.” “She’s supposedly an ‘actress.’ Who the hell would hire her?” “She’s clearly nothing but an unstable bi-atch who will amount to nothing.” “What was that guy thinking when he saw that ugly atrocity coming down the aisle?” And “That poor git — he obviously doesn’t think much of himself if he chose to marry that — I give them two years, tops.”
Silver’s response in “Bridezilla Strikes Back” isn’t as sharp-toothed as show editors were with her and her fellow brides. She is, after all, an actress still hoping for her break, and it’s clear that if “Bridezillas” didn’t bring her all the Oprah time she wanted, she’s going to do her damnedest to get something out of it.
“I feel like instead of filing a lawsuit or writing some kind of an Op-Ed piece where I could tell people that we were duped, which I don’t think is effective,” said Silver, “I can tell my story this way. This allows people to have the vicarious experience of being swept away by the whole thing and the exciting romanticism of it only to have it shoved back in their face for thinking it was going to be some great opportunity.”
Silver will workshop the show in early July. She has a financial backer, and plans to have “Bridezilla Strikes Back” onstage by the fall, at which point the most recent television run of “Bridezillas” will have recently concluded.
Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.More Rebecca Traister.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)