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Patricia Clarkson, Deaf-Dog Owner and Village Dame, Shops Daily


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.

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