Helen Mirren is under no such constraint. She says that Taymor just allowed her to play Prospera instinctively. “She assumed I could take care of the verbal and intellectual aspects myself. But you have to understand that Julie’s an amazingly driven, energetic woman. Egotistical in the correct way. The brilliant thing about her is that she also is incredibly girlie-girl, which I love because I’m a girlie-girl, too. When our husbands came at the same time to visit the set”—The Tempest was filmed mostly in Hawaii—“we independently of each other let out these ridiculously girlish squeals like 16-year-olds.”
It’s not just the long hair, the stripy sweaters, the colorful sneakers that make Taymor seem so youthful. She still maintains the air of a girl getting by in another culture, even if that culture is her own. What seems to rankle Riedel and chat-room snipers is the sense that such a creature is at liberty, unchaperoned, spending men’s money with no excuses. “I’ve got my foot on its neck,” Riedel recently wrote about the show, “and I’m having too much fun to take it off.” But Riedel’s feelings about Taymor turn out to be more complicated. He is, he says, a huge fan of her work. “I saw Lion King at an early preview in Minneapolis, went in very cynical, thinking Beauty and the Beast was horrible and Taymor is brilliant but weird. And I remember sitting there in the show-me pose with my hands across my chest, and when that giraffe came loping across the stage, my hands were down by my waist and my mouth was agog. Then the elephant came by and brushed my ear. By the end, people were standing on their chairs screaming, and I was right up there with them.”
Keep in mind that this is a man the cast of Spider-Man has taken to beating up in effigy, in the form of a ten-foot-tall inflatable villain otherwise called Bonesaw McGraw. “I’m not out to shoot her down,” Riedel insists. “I’m out to write a fun, juicy column. I cover a business—I’m not doing God’s work here. And they’re not doing God’s work either.”
Taymor might debate that. Though she’s “as happy as anyone” if a show makes money, her aims are not, God knows, commercial; they are not even primarily about personal artistic expression. Like the Indonesian performers she lived among so long ago, she seems to view art as an act of devotion, complete in itself, which is why the sides of sets never seen by the audience are finished as beautifully as the fronts, and why, as her mother puts it, “all those beads on the lions”—in The Lion King—“were hand-sewn. Did they really have to be?”
Well, yes: Costumes, like life, should look as good close up as far away. In fact, the point of Spider-Man—whose subtitle, Turn Off the Dark, was something Bono overheard a friend’s child say—is that the two perspectives are fused. “It’s that tug and pull,” Taymor says. “To live your everyday life and yet to have more required of you. Sure, you don’t want to have to think about slaves in India, aids in Africa, but once you have that newspaper in your hand, once you have knowledge, you are responsible. We want to say this in a musical because it is something very powerful to get across to young people. It’s not simplistic: It’s archetypal.”
“Tug and pull” might as well be her archetype. Among her upcoming projects, if she gets her way, are both a film adaptation of the Thomas Mann fable The Transposed Heads, which she directed onstage in 1986, and a stage version of Across the Universe, which she directed on film in 2007. Even her equanimity turns out to be the result of having kept herself in a productive state of tension for something like 40 years. Glen Berger says she hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months—and that the show can’t afford for her to.
“I can handle a lot,” Taymor says. “The harrowing experiences I had very young allow me to step outside and look at the situation from somewhere else. You either have a good life with people you love or nothing’s worth anything. And look at my life! That I’m a woman living in America in the 21st century is already a huge plus. Elliot and I have been happily unmarried, we like to say, for 25 years”—they met through a friend who thought they’d like each other because their work was “equally grotesque.” “And though I didn’t have children in life, not by choice, I don’t know if I could do all these things I do and be a good mom. But these are our children”—she means her shows, which is apt enough, for they grow and grow and cost a fortune and no matter how well you raise them, who knows how they’ll turn out?
But that is actually not the question Taymor asks herself, even with Spider-Man, which may prove to be a great gift to audiences or a great write-off to investors (or both). What matters to her is how to do each day what she does. She’s the girl who knows what wallpaper she likes, and always has. “People say I’m driven,” she says, “but I don’t see myself as driven because I have nowhere to go. I’m there.”