Carol Channing: Larger Than Life: Movie Review

A theatrical legend reveals her wisdom in this skillful doc.

The Tony-winning "Hello, Dolly!" star's wisdom is featured in director-screenwriter Dori Berinstein's documentary.

A good documentary tells you much more than you think you know about a familiar subject. What everyone knows about the 90-year-old entertainer, Carol Channing, is contained in the movie’s subtitle: Carol Channing: Larger Than Life. With her saucer eyes, puffed lips and raspy voice, the Tony-winning star of Hello, Dolly! has often seemed perilously close to caricature. Dori Berinstein’s tender but sharp portrait finds a lot of depths in the woman whom many see as a camp figure. This exceptionally well made film will play the festival circuit but could have a long life beyond that.

The first thing you learn about Channing is that she’s a lot smarter than the dumb blonde who first established her stage persona — the character of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (played by Marilyn Monroe in the movie version). Even if you know that Channing attended Bennington, you may be surprised by her candid and cutting insights into the vagaries of show business. Her terse reply when asked about her reaction to the casting of Barbra Streisand in the movie version of Dolly manages to be at once tactful and scathing, and it demonstrates her infallible performer’s instinct. You see the same wit during excerpts from several of her talk-show appearances, in which she regales the hosts with free-form reminiscences that play like jazz riffs.

Channing was the epitome of a trouper. Her understudies recall what an easy time they had when they were hired to stand in during the original run of Hello, Dolly! in 1964. The star never missed a performance. During the various tours and revivals of the show, Channing clocked more than 5000 performances as Thornton Wilder’s singing matchmaker, Dolly Levi. In one candid, affectionate aside, Channing reveals that Yul Brynner begged her not to claim to have topped his record of 5000 performances in The King and I — at least while he was alive.  Now Channing is free to acknowledge that she beat his record.

Channing made only a few movies, earning an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967. Film buffs may have forgotten that her first film, The First Traveling Saleslady, paired her with screen newcomer Clint Eastwood. While many of her professional colleagues — including Dolly composer Jerry Herman, Marge Champion (the widow of Dolly’s director, Gower Champion) and the late Betty Garrett (who performed with Channing in the Poconos in the late 1930s) — offer trenchant insights into her performing skills, some of the most poignant sections deal with Channing’s personal life. She re-connected with a junior high school sweetheart, Harry Kullijian (whom she had not seen in almost 70 years), in 2003 and married him. They make an endearing on-camera couple. One failing of the film is that it gives little attention to Channing’s 42-year marriage to Charles Lowe, her manager and publicist; in the film Channing describes the marriage as “disastrous” but apparently was unwilling to reveal anything specific about their problems.

Despite a few gaps in the story, the movie benefits from well-edited interviews with notables like Barbara Walters, Debbie Reynolds, Lily Tomlin and Tyne Daly, all of whom speak of Channing in warm terms that seem to be justified. Animated transitional scenes inspired by the drawings of Al Hirschfeld add to the movie’s charm. Survival alone is not a virtue, but a 90-year-old survivor who manages to retain her wit and acuity is definitely worth celebrating.

Venue: Outfest
Director-producer: Dori Berinstein
Screenwriters: Dori Berinstein, Adam Zucker
Director of photography: Rob Vanalkemade
Music:  Craig Sharmat
Editor:  Adam Zucker
No rating, 88 minutes