Woman on Top

Kim Cattrall remembers the precise moment when she realized the power of Samantha.

“You know when I was in the bathroom stall at Limelight?” she asks sweetly. “And I’m sitting on the toilet crying my eyes out? And the other three are outside the stall saying, ‘What’s wrong, honey? What’s wrong?’ “

Yes, yes, of course we remember.

“‘Because I’ve just met the most wonderful, fabulous man, but he’s got a three-inch dick – like a gherkin!’ “

Cattrall is sipping a cup of peppermint tea at the Three Guys diner on the Upper East Side. “Oh, thank you,” she says to the waiter, who stands frozen with her goat-cheese omelette. The sound guy laughed so hard, she adds, that he dropped his boom and they had to reshoot the scene. This was a good sign. “I mean, when did you ever hear women talking about penis size before? It’s empowering!” says Cattrall. “Because we’ve all … you know.”

Yes, we do know. In the annals of Empowering Moments for Single Women, of which there used to be … well, none, the episode with Little Penis Man was, thankfully, just the beginning. By the time Sex and the City returned for its third season this past summer, it wasn’t just neurotic single women (and their gay male friends) who’d become SATC junkies. Jeez, even straight men were watching. We think this is Samantha’s fault. If the show has, in fact, bravely put forth a rather novel idea – “that it’s okay to be single,” as its creator, Darren Star, puts it – Samantha has taken it a big step further. That it’s okay to be single, screw most of Manhattan, and still wake up the next day, strap on your Manolo Blahniks, and conquer the universe (in her case, as a P.R. executive, but still). Never has a woman character so brazenly, and unapologetically, taken the world quite literally by the balls, gotten what she wants on a nightly basis, and not been stabbed to death or otherwise tortured for it. “I really don’t think there’s ever been a character like this before,” says Kim Cattrall. “Well, there have been. But there’s never been a woman who hasn’t paid a terrible price for being free.”

The beauty of Samantha is that she manages to be both a guy’s woman and a woman’s woman. A creature who can fellate her way through New York and still meet her gal pals for chick talk, Cosmopolitans, and shopping at Barneys. She doesn’t want “commitment”; she doesn’t even want a husband! Where did this come from? Not surprisingly, the character is so, well, male that the biggest debate about Samantha is whether she’s really a gay man or a straight man. “I think this type of woman is so fresh,” says Michael Patrick King, one of the show’s writers (there are two gay men and two straight women, natch), “that the only way people can relate to her is to pretend she’s a man.”

“This type of woman is so fresh,” says one of the show’s writers, “that the only way some people can relate to Samantha is to pretend she’s a man.”

“It’s not just about the sex with Samantha,” he adds. “It’s about the battlefield. Samantha is a warrior.”

Whether caught in flagrante in a firehouse or fending off a starstruck virgin, Samantha has led us through minefields of single life that most could only wish for. “She’s like a role model for bad living,” Star says fondly. Though Samantha, as Cattrall sees it, routinely “gets a pie in the face” – too small, too big, too short, too gay, (and we loved this one) too sensitive – “it never flattens her. That’s the difference. It might momentarily cause her pause, but she recovers.”

Better than we would. Samantha junkies just didn’t know how to react to the scene where Samantha gets stood up in a restaurant by Hamptons Guy (and the Pakistani busboy offers to take her home). Or the time she gets the flu and dials up all her recent one-night stands in search of some affection, or at least some chicken soup. All of them assume she’s dialing for other reasons. How dare they? “Blow you?” she gasps. “I can’t even blow my nose!” Ouch.

Then there was the truly defining moment of the past season, when even the writers realized they were dangerously close to crossing the line of taste, so to speak. “When,” asks Kim Cattrall, “has a woman ever said a man’s semen is not to her liking?” She is, of course, referring to the notorious “Funky Spunk” episode, which Michael Patrick King wrote, but not without some informal focus-group testing. “I asked all the women on the set,” says King, “and they all said, ’Ewww, no! You can’t do that.’ But then they’d take a breath and go, ‘But you know …’ They all had a story. And as soon as I heard that, I said, ‘We’re doing it.’ ” In the episode, Samantha tries to cure her lover’s unfortunate problem by taking him to a health-food restaurant, where drinking shots of wheat grass is supposed to do the trick (she’s researched this on the Web). “Samantha,” as Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie intoned in the voice-over, “was about to find out just how far a man would go for a blow job.”

“You know what the amazing thing was?” asks Cattrall. “Afterwards, everywhere I went, women were coming up to me and grabbing my hand and saying, ‘Honey, it’s not wheat grass! It’s pineapple juice!’ ” “My philosophy,” says King, “is that we’re just a week ahead of people. Right before someone manages to say it out loud, we somehow manage to say it first.”

When darren star conjured up Samantha, he wasn’t really thinking of creating some postfeminist icon (albeit one who spends a whole lot of time on her knees), or the antithesis to Looking For Mr. Goodbar. He just thought it would be neat to write scripts for “a sexually active independent woman in her forties, who basically made the decision to live life on her own terms.” Yes, forties. “Samantha’s my age,” says Cattrall, who’s 44 and proud of it. “But she has more of a problem with her age.”

What Cattrall brought to the role – besides the ability to reach post-40 fame as a truly sexy broad – was a mixture of maturity, perfect comic timing, raunch, and sisterhood. Samantha’s the one swinging from trapezes (sometimes literally), but also the one who’d take a bullet (or help remove a diaphragm) for her girlfriends Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte. Especially poor Charlotte. In the world according to Sex and the City, it’s the prissy, proper Kristin Davis character – not the “slutty one,” as Samantha is routinely called – who gets punished severely. It’s Charlotte who holds out until her wedding night in the quest for true love, only to find that her rich and handsome doctor husband (Kyle MacLachlan) can’t get it up. Samantha is aghast: “Honey, before you buy the car, you take it for a test drive.”

That’s our Samantha, always looking out for the others. We need Samantha to nod knowingly when Miranda complains that her boyfriend can’t find her clitoris, to cheer for Charlotte when she makes out with the gardener, to not be judgmental when Carrie lands back in bed with Big. Or to reel Carrie in when she dates a man who’s living with his parents. (“Oh, honey, dump him immediately. Here, use my cell phone.”) We need her to teach us the finer points of catering, dressing, shopping, and pubic-waxing. (“You can’t just let it grow wild down there. It says as much about a woman as her shoes!”) And we need Samantha to show us what nightly casual sex at 44 with jerks might be like. Darren Star’s favorite Samantha moment was when she sleeps with the old rich geezer, then suddenly “sees his wrinkled ass and runs out the door. She’s the only woman I’ve ever seen,” says Star, “who can have sex comedically.”

Back in ‘97, when Star was searching for the perfect Samantha, he was intent on landing Kim Cattrall. Then 41, she’d achieved sporadic fame in movies like Mannequin, Star Trek VI, Porky’s, and Police Academy but was hardly a household name, let alone an icon. She turned the role down repeatedly; Star had to beg. Today she admits she kept refusing the part that would establish her as a symbol of fuck-you feminist freedom because her boyfriend at the time didn’t like it. He had a problem “with his girlfriend being sexually alive like that,” she says. “A lot of men have trouble with that.” She remembers hiding the script to save herself “from any more arguments about it.” Then she pulled it out of its hiding place one day and thought to herself, “Wait a minute. This is where this relationship is? I’m hiding things?” (It was a very Sex and the City moment. But definitely more Carrie.) In short order, she left the boyfriend – character actor Daniel Benzali, to whom she had been engaged – took the part, and moved from L.A. to New York. “It was a real epiphany,” says Cattrall, “to finally say, ‘Whose life is this, anyway?’ “

“Oh, honey,” Cattrall is saying in a decidedly un-Samantha voice. “Poor Mark,” she coos. “His back hurts from moving furniture in the Hamptons … Honey,” she says, “can I get you anything?”

Okay, so it’s a little disconcerting, this being New York’s “Singles” issue and all, to be sitting here with Kim Cattrall – the poster woman for bawdy single women – and her husband. Her third husband. Watching Casablanca. Well, not all of Casablanca, just “Kim’s favorite scene,” when Ilsa asks Sam to play it. “Oh, honey, I love this,” says Cattrall as her husband of two years, Mark Levinson, turns down the lights, turns up the sound, and scooches beside her on a red velvet couch, putting one hand in hers and the other up her back.

In real life, Cattrall speaks in a soft, breathy voice, cleans her own house (“because I’ve never found someone who can clean as well as I can”), and “mows the lawn in the Hamptons,” says her husband. Levinson, a self-described “audio icon,” designs state-of-the-art stereo speakers at his Madison Avenue store, Red Rose Music. “Red Rose means putting love in the world,” he says. “You know, passion.”

“My husband,” Cattrall explains, “has a very developed feminine side. He’s conscious of what it’s like to be a woman.” At their wedding, he played “Body and Soul” on the trumpet, then cooked her bouillabaisse. “He does all the cooking,” Cattrall says proudly. “Fish, tofu …”

“Whatever she wants,” says Levinson, who carries around a little black satchel filled with his and his wife’s herbal medicines.

In January 1998 (“January 4th,” says Cattrall), while Sex and the City was in development, Cattrall was in New York, closing on her Upper East Side apartment. That night, she wandered into the Blue Note by herself to hear Chick Corea. “I saw this woman moving to the music,” says Levinson. So he inched his way over and made his move. “You know?” says Cattrall. “I don’t think he’d have come up to me if I were with a bunch of girlfriends.” (Lesson from Kim: Go out trolling by yourself.) Cattrall wasn’t looking for a husband, she says. “I just wanted to hear Chick Corea.” But here was this man, kinda cute, kinda interesting, who approached her between sets. “Are you married?” he asked. “Or in a relationship?”

“I didn’t want to waste time,” Levinson says.

Nor did she. Cattrall says that as she hit her late thirties, early forties, she went through a terrible funk, and much therapy, asking herself: “Is this all there is?” She’d already been married twice, was feeling “like a total failure in relationships,” and had more than a few pangs about never having children, (“It’s too late for me now,” she says.)

Cattrall was born in Liverpool and raised in Canada. At 16, she left Vancouver Island to study acting in New York and later decided to head out to Hollywood. She married her first husband at 19, because the thought of going to L.A. by herself “was just so lonely.” Five years later, she met a wealthy German architect, Andreas Lyson, who was (like Mark) ten years older. “We spent about two weeks in the Carlyle,” says Cattrall, “and fell hopelessly in love.” Their marriage lasted five years, during which she moved into his mansion in Frankfurt but kept leaving him for her career, until, during a trial separation, he found another woman in Germany. “I was devastated,” says Cattrall.

She crawled back to L.A. – which she loathes – and spent the next twelve years as a single woman with all the wrong boyfriends. “They were all either newly separated or hated their mothers or had some god-awful problem. I wasn’t willing to play mommy or shrink.”

Then that night at the Blue Note, this guy Mark Levinson, who had no idea who she was, “actually listened to me,” Cattrall says. Then he offered to take her home. “We talked until seven in the morning,” says Levinson. Five days later, they moved in together. He designed stereos “and all I owned was a $299 boom box from the DayMart catalogue,” says Cattrall. She was an actress, “but Mark didn’t even have a TV.”

It was all so Sex and the City that it actually became an episode. Levinson was the basis for the guy in the first season whom Samantha meets at a jazz club and, in a totally un-Samantha-like moment, falls head over heels for. “The dialogue from that scene was exactly what Mark said to me that night,” says Cattrall. But wasn’t this the episode that ends with Samantha sobbing in the stall at Limelight because his dick is too small? Let’s hope it wasn’t all real.

Oh, God, no!” says Cattrall. “That part’s not true. He’ll be the first to tell you. No, I will.”

Both of them laugh and stroke each other. Then Levinson removes the tape of Casablanca and into his perfect sound system pops a tape of “our duet” – in which he’s playing bass and she’s reciting poetry by Rupert Brooke.

It occurs to us that Samantha would eat this guy for breakfast.

“You know, I think it’s time for Samantha to have a real relationship,” says Cattrall. “Fall in love or something. You know?”

God help us.

Woman on Top