It’s awfully compelling to muse on the kind of New York and the kind of New Yorker that Dawn Powell used to write about in the forties: men in hats, gals in flats. When carbs were still in engines. When drop-dead actresses—say, Tallulah Bankhead—had the audience at the Belasco in tears and a dinner table at ‘21’ in stitches an hour later. In today’s Manhattan of cross-branded fashion and prepackaged celebrities, everything and everyone seems to have come right from the same factory in China.
“I have a very Dawn Powell life,” says Patricia Clarkson, who, like Bankhead, negotiates between a character actress’s endearing eccentricity and the effortless glamour of a star. “I do have a slightly old-fashioned thing. I’m single, I know everyone in my neighborhood, and people know me. I shop every day. I don’t keep anything in the fridge except rice milk and Champagne, and I’m not kidding. And I like to get dressed up and go out—you know, put on heels and brush my hair and put on lipstick.”
On a recent hot afternoon, she demonstrated how she has carved out a forties-style habitat in Greenwich Village, where she’s lived for two decades. A straw fedora protects that fair skin. Clarkson comes across like a cross between a lady and a dame—the kind who’d pack a pistol, crack a joke, break your heart, and drink cheap coffee. (Three out of four ain’t bad: She likes deli coffee, black, and alludes ominously to the string of fellows she almost- but-never married—but no gun. No computer, either.)
She has her favorite hardware store, handbag shop, pet store (she has an old pit bull named Beaux, who’s gone deaf: “We have an entirely new relationship based on sign language”). Everyone is happy to see Patricia Clarkson. This should come as no surprise: For more than twenty years, Clarkson has always been a pleasure (and often, frankly, a relief) to see onscreen, a volatile cocktail of charisma and chameleon that has sometimes made a fair movie far more memorable and enjoyable than it has any right to be. She has a bumper crop of these of late: In this summer’s moody, unpredictable Cairo Time, she plays a magazine editor who almost has an affair with a handsome Egyptian man. This month, the moody, predictable Legendary casts her as a mother of two wrestling-prone sons. Then there’s her brief turn as a wisecracking mom in Easy A, a complicated, sexed-up update of Mean Girls. We duck into her video store. “There was something I needed to get,” she says. “Now I can’t remember. An old movie. French? It’s driving me crazy. I know I said those five words: My video store will have it. No, six.”
We end up in a little dress shop called Albertine that she loves. She tries on a backless number made of gunmetal-gray silk with a swishy, knee-length skirt. And it brims over with movie-star elegance while still being very hot-cha-cha. “But is it hot-cha-cha, or old-lady hot-cha-cha?” she asks in stage anxiety, giving the skirt a twirl. She buys it.