She's a nonagenarian who, when dressed in black, looks a little like a bobble-head with a pipe-cleaner body.
But, at the age of 91, entertainer Carol Channing has amazing energy and a rare spirit for life. As filmmaker Dori Berinstein shows in Carol Channing: Larger than Life, Channing is still eager to communicate with a live audience, whether she's performing in a Broadway benefit, or doing talks where she offers the story of her life and career.
Berinstein has plenty of face time with Channing and her latest (and now late) husband, Harry Kullijian. Indeed, the late-life reunion tale of the couple, who were childhood sweethearts in San Francisco before he went off to military school, is one of the film's sweetest aspects. They visit the old neighborhood, 70-plus years removed from their childhood days there ("Oh, they painted the house!" Channing exclaims in surprise).
There's generous archival footage of Channing in Hello, Dolly!, a legendary Broadway vehicle that indelibly etched the character of matchmaker Dolly Levi on Channing's persona. There's even an old kinescope of Channing performing Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend as part of the original Broadway cast of the show, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."
The historic witnesses to Channing's success and popularity generally are the ones who helped her get there: Jerry Herman, who wrote Hello, Dolly!, and Marge Champion, whose husband Gower directed that epochal hit; Betty Garrett, who was a rising star with Channing in the 1940s; and even longtime friends like Barbara Walters and Debbie Reynolds.
What you come away with is a sense of Channing as someone who really was larger than life, even before she'd adopted the signature look of blonde puffball wig, enormous false eyelashes over mammoth kewpie-doll eyes, and that great smiling mouth, highlighted with luminescent shades of red and pink. She had a quick wit, a startling gift for mimickry as a raconteur and a gameness to do just about anything for a laugh.
Where does the persona stop and the real Channing start? You leave with the impression that each fed the other during her career, but that there are long-lasting elements of herself in her work.
I wonder who the audience for this film will be, given the deep myopia of cultural literacy these days. Carol Channing: Larger Than Life offers a look at someone who was as big as they came at her moment, who is still an icon to some. Here's hoping another generation will take a look at a life that's even more impressive for the fact that it continues to be a work in progress.
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