Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Lipstick bliss

Bionic queen mothers and walking fish fill the strange, delightful world of British comedian Eddie Izzard.


Charles Taylor
October 20, 1998 7:50PM (UTC)

Every brilliant performer finds his or her own style. For British
stand-up comic Eddie Izzard, it's in lipstick and nail polish. Paint-free,
playing the sharky, snarky manager of a glam rock star in Todd Haynes'
"Velvet Goldmine," he looks squat, surly, almost thuggish. Wearing full
make-up in "Glorious," the filmed record of his 1997 one-man show, his hair
cut into a soft shag with blond highlights, Eddie (calling him Izzard just
sounds too formal) is a thing of beauty.

Eyeliner brings out Eddie's expressive round peepers, and lipstick his sly
sideways grin. He's dressed in a three-button, red
satin suit -- topped off by a velvet choker -- that sleekens his stocky
build, emphasizing the comically sinuous grace of his limbs. In "Glorious,"
Eddie's legs are a show in themselves. Imitating his grandmother going out
to buy a pack of cigs, or how a fish might walk if he were English, Eddie
strides across the stage in precise, deliberate steps, mimicking the
movement of people (or fish) who live their lives in careful increments.
Turning himself into a speedboat shooting across the water (driven by Sean
Connery playing Noah -- but that's another story), or an office worker
flirting with a new employee, he appears to have springs attached to the
soles of his chunky black high-heeled pumps.

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Eddie Izzard is a descendant of two not-so-long-ago cultural trends -- the
'60s stars who bucked traditional notions of how stars were supposed to
look and the gender-fuck of the glam-rock era, when boys as well as girls
reached for the eyeliner in order to live out their most glittering
daydreams. That ability to be completely yourself and also to transcend
yourself is part of the enormous freedom Eddie imparts on stage. He seems
like a regular guy who early on discovered that he just looked better in
make-up. Flirty but not fey, he has none of the bitchiness that
full-blown drag comics usually rely on. His presentation suits the subject of his comedy -- the
strangeness of ordinary things. Grandmothers and carpet sweepers and
toasters and bees and chocolate biscuits don't seem quite so familiar when
they're being discussed by a bloke in eye shadow.

Eddie Izzard is everything we don't expect in stand-up comics -- not
because of the drag, but because his comedy is almost entirely devoid of
hip attitude, distanced irony and rage. Anger rears its head in Eddie's act
only to be made ridiculous, as when he parodies the impatience that comes
over him when he can't get his computer to work, or when he goes into a
snit on a tiny commercial airline flight because the pilot has hoarded the
chocolate biscuits and handed out bland digestive ones to the passengers.
(He's even amused by the absurdity of what happened when a group of guys
kicked the shit out of him following a performance.) Eddie doesn't scream
at his audience. He's not out to shock or deliberately offend. His material
isn't blue. He swears, but no more than most of us do every day.

In the place where most stand-ups usually store and stoke their rage, Eddie
has built up a large supply of bewildered amusement. Many of his funniest
bits don't translate because they're dependent on nuance, inflection, body
language. You may laugh less at "Glorious" if you watch it more than once,
but your pleasure in Eddie's physical and vocal performance grows. You may
even find yourself looking forward to an inflection more than a specific
bit, loving the argot as much as the jokes. Eddie's style of improv, rooted
in the non-sequiturs English comedy thrives on, has the wonderful oddity of
stray private thoughts presented publicly by a man who sees no reason to
believe that others won't share his logic. He's a bit like a kid in the
school cafeteria trying to relate the plot of a movie he watched the night
before while being distracted by a hundred things around him.

It might suffice to list some of the ideas that zip through "Glorious": Old
ladies are imbued with the life force and can, with some help from medical
science, live forever. Thus, the queen mother, kitted out with artificial
hips and the like, is Britain's equivalent of the Six Million Dollar Man.
Archaeology would be more exciting if participants were given power diggers
and a 15-minute time limit. Even then, all they'd eventually unearth
would be "a series of small walls." Achilles could have made himself
invulnerable if he'd encased his foot in a block of cement and added a
hovercraft to the bottom for mobility. The man who invented potpourri
(pronounced pot-porey) is a genius: "I will take stuff that fell from
trees, put underarm deodorant on it and sell it to posh people." Diana's
sudden death was like an episode of "The X-Files" run at 2 a.m. on a Monday
morning where Mulder and Scully were killed off and the public's reaction
was "Whaaat? I was watching that!" If humans have flying dreams, birds must
have car-driving dreams. Carrying your bags across a tarmac to a plane
makes you feel like one of the Beatles.

The ordinary can seem very strange in Eddie's world. Boys watch girls play
hopscotch from a distance as if observing some mystical rite; the settings
on toasters never tell the truth. The flip side of these common mysteries is
that the most extraordinary events take on a workaday familiarity. As
impersonated by Eddie, the Greeks sailing away from the Siege of Troy sound
less like mythical heroes about to unleash their masterstroke than kids
being called home to supper: "We're going now, bye! You've won, well done,
bye! We're in our ships, bye! We've left you a big horse. As per usual."
God (who, of course, speaks in the voice of James Mason) is as
indiscriminate about creating the world as a bargain hunter filling up his
basket at a 99-cent store. The accomplishments of his first day
are a jumble: "light and air and fish and jam and soup and potatoes and
haircuts and arguments and small things and rabbits and people with noses
and jam -- more jam, perhaps -- and soot and flies and tobogganing and
showers and toasters and grandmothers. And Belgium." Inevitably, by the
seventh day, He's cutting corners like anyone on a deadline: Rwanda, the
Tower of Pisa, English football hooligans, Mrs. Thatcher's heart.

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Something about that fills Eddie more with relief than existential angst. A
God as harried and perplexed as the rest of us, a well-meaning fuckup,
confirms his view of the world. Given the state of divine craftsmanship,
who down below could be blamed for trying to make some improvements to his
handiwork? In the world according to Edward J. Izzard, reaching for the
nail polish seems like one of the more sane things you can do.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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