By John H. Foote
The first time I saw Lorena MacKenzie, like most, I was at once struck by her exotic beauty. Nearly black eyes that danced when she smiled, she was beautiful, mischievous with drop dead gorgeous movie star looks.
I was a first year acting student soon to discover I had no interest in acting but was to become a pretty good director before film criticism took hold of my soul. Lorena was a second-year student, arguably the most gifted dancer Humber College has ever produced. A group of first terms once asked Nancy Peddie, our chain smoking, hacking, tough as nails Dance/ Movement instructor who was the best dancer that she had ever taught?
With no hesitation at all she answered “Lorena”, she said, “no one is even close.”
I asked Gerry Pearson, who was directing the Mainstage Production of The Boy Friend, if I might slip in to watch rehearsals quietly and he allowed me to do so. There I learned so much about directing and watching Lorena I learned about charisma. The lady owned the stage, the moment she stepped into the lights all eyes went to her. As Dulcie, she was wonderful stealing the show in her number with a dirty old man, “Its Never Too Late”. I saw the play every night it played, and though I might have slipped away for some of it, I never missed that number.
Her name back then was Lorena Cingolani, beautifully musical, it rolled pleasingly off the tongue. She married soon after leaving Humber to work professionally, becoming Lorena MacKenzie, acting being a profession that does not require a degree or diploma, just talent, which Lorena unquestionably had. Thinking back, she had what the great film critic Pauline Kael described as “bite you on the nose talent.”
After leaving Humber I lost track of her, but not for long, because when the first Canadian production of Cats opened in Toronto, there she was in the key role of the hyperactive Rumpelteazer. Her extraordinary dancing and singing had taken her to the upper echelon of the Canadian theatre scene, and she was delightful in the musical.
In the many years since seeing Lorena in Cats for the first time, I wondered what she thought of the film? Savagely reviewed by critics, the film Cats has lost more than $170 million for Universal, the producing studio.
Easy to track down, thanks to Facebook, I found her and contacted her asking her to take part in this article to which she happily agreed.
What I found remarkable was that her opinion of this critically crucified film was not so different than mine! Obviously Cats means a great deal to Lorena as she has been associated with the musical for nearly 40 years, playing various roles, even portraying the plum role of poor Grizabella.
“That music is in my soul” she told me wistfully, “I hear it and I am transported.”
Lorena watched the film a few days before we spoke, and I was cautious with my criticism, because she made clear at the beginning of the conversation how much the musical meant to her as an artist, how she had evolved as a musical theatre actor, dancer and singer, how the musical had stroked her soul. The last thing I wanted to do was offend her, but I had to be true to my very negative thoughts about the film.
“The movie seemed to lack focus” she said, “choosing her words carefully, but honestly, “I am not sure the director knew quite what to do with the material.”
When I mention the film seemed to be one introduction after another she exploded “YES! And onstage it was magical; you suspend your disbelief and are watching cats. I never felt that with the film.”
“And Ian McKellan drinking milk from a saucer? I mean, really?” she said with genuine surprise. “I struggled most with Rebel (is that her name?) Wilson as Jennyanydots, just awful, and Macavity. On stage Macavity is a bad ass, I mean, audiences feared him, we feared him, but on film, well, none of that. He was supposed to be scary, but he wasn’t. He was just sort of there you know?”, she explained.
“Francesca (Hayward) was incredible” she exclaimed, an opinion I share. Watching the lovely Miss Hayward was literally watching a star being born. It took me back to watching Lorena rehearse The Boy Friend so long ago, seeing a mercurial talent for the first time.
“And Jennifer Hudson did alright as Grizabella, I mean we all know she can sing, but can she convince as a cat? I thought she did” the actress explains, which I agreed with.
I found we agreed on much of what went wrong with the film, as well as what worked. The Taylor Swift casting was clearly a gimmick, we both agreed, and they ruined the character of Macavity, turning him into a jealous character, lacking in every way the danger he has onstage. They might have had the right actor, but they blew it in terms of the direction of the character.
In the end, Lorena and I seem to agree the film might have been better not made, or animated, as was the original idea.
It was refreshing to hear a Cats cast member, struggle with the film, it seemed to validate everything we critics said. Some musicals, some plays, belong on stage, not celluloid.
Thanks to Lorena for her opinions, and time.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.