How do we mortals experience a little glimpse of heaven on Earth? For some, it's a certain recipe for beef bourguignon, published in 1961, that reputedly transformed the eating habits of America. For me and many others of my generation, it begins with a unique drum figure first heard in 1963, in two bars of music that announced one of the wonders of the rock'n'roll world: bum-bum-bum-BAP, bum-bum-bum BAP!
This opening salvo (played by legendary studio drummer Hal Blaine) at the top of the Ronettes' Be My Baby has been a part of the genetic code of popular music ever since. People have been cooking Julia Child's beef perhaps more than ever, with the release of Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia; no doubt many have recently dusted off their copies - or purchased their mp3s - of the Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry-penned classic single (produced by Phil Spector) to savor in the wake of Greenwich's death. I happened to catch up with Julie & Julia only days after Ellie's passing, and was struck by the juxtaposition of master songwriter with a master thespian.
Love her or hate her, Meryl Streep's artistry is undeniable, and hard as it may be to believe, she is the only contemporary actress in America whom studios can currently depend on to open a movie - at the age of 60. How exceptional is that? Watching her as Julia Child, lighting up and wiping up the screen with her younger co-star (one feels bad for the delightful Amy Adams, in a thankless role that was even less sympathetic on the page), I found myself thinking of Ellie Greenwich.
With her partner Jeff Barry, Ellie entered a predominately male world in the early '60s, and proceeded to kick major butt, almost single-handedly creating the wildly popular "girl group sound" that dominated American airwaves at the time of the British invasion. Mike Ragogna's informative Huffington Post tribute quotes some eye-witnesses:
"Ellie was a real pioneer both as a songwriter and producer," Tommy
West explained. "She was one of the first women to break through the
exclusive men's production club. Sometimes she had to get down to a
man's level to get them to listen, and there were times when she would
cry after a session because they wouldn't listen to her as readily as
they would a man. But her legacy is one that will never be duplicated."
Meryl, when she first came on the scene, was up against similar resistance. Famously dismissed by Dino DeLaurentis when she auditioned for his King Kong remake ("She's ugly," he commented to his son in Italian, "Why did you bring me this thing?"), she had an uphill climb in the Hollywood trenches, even after winning her first Oscar (Supporting Actress in The Deer Hunter). Here's an interesting bit from Wikepidia:
Asked to comment on the script for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), in a meeting with the producer Stan Jaffee, director Robert Benton and star Dustin Hoffman,
Streep insisted that the female character was not representative of
many real women who faced marriage breakdown and child custody battles,
and was written as "too evil." Jaffee, Benton and Hoffman agreed with Streep, and the script was revised.
That Streep will inevitably receive yet another Oscar nom for her turn as Julia seems only fitting, given the similarities of gender struggle common to both famous women (the movie chronicles how Child out-cooked the men at her Cordon Bleu classes and overcame male publishing prejudices - with the help of some smart female editors - to get her eventual bestseller published).
So where is Ellie's movie? You could say that in a sense it's already been made, in the form of Allison Anders's Grace of My Heart, which was loosely based on a fictionalized version of songwriter Carole King's career, Brill Building days and all. But there are some choice nuggets in Ellie's own saga I'd love to see on the screen, such as the time producer Jerry Wexler asked Ellie to work on the back-up vocals for Aretha Franklin's Chain of Fools (the result is another piece of pop music history).
To contemplate Julia, Meryl and Ellie is to behold power (Put on River Deep, Mountain High today and it's still like... stand back!) Yet Streep's anecdote about being cast in Deer Hunter ("They needed a girl between the two guys and I was it") sounds like almost any young actress discussing the vagaries of casting, circa 2009.
Same as it ever was and ever will be? Maybe not for long. From Beyonce to Imogen Heap, women to be reckoned with are still having at it, in spite of it all. There may never be another Ellie Greenwich, but her spirit (a-woh-oh-oh) lives on.