LOS ANGELES - Television tends to distort people. There are some it absolutely punishes. Elisabeth Moss, for example, looks almost exactly the opposite of the character she plays in the series "Mad Men." First of all, Moss, who plays Peggy Olson, the secretary who became a junior copywriter, is thin. On the small screen she looks plump, but in life she is almost gaunt. And also a lot better looking than Olson, more vital, sarcastic and amusing - very sexy. Without a shadow of a doubt, the disparity between the character she plays and a face-to-face encounter with her is shock-inducing. If she were aware of the scale of the shock, she might consider leaving television, even if she is in the best dramatic series of the past five years, the most influential and talked about since "The Sopranos." After all, television totally distorts her.
But there are other cases, cases of exceptional distortion. People who on television look more beautiful, smarter, more complex, more cordial, more gallant - an amazingly improved version of their real self. It was in pursuit of one such woman that I traveled last week all the way to Los Angeles. (At the airport in LA, a sanitation employee carried out a cleaning operation such as I have never seen: he sprayed soft-cover books with some sort of material to make the covers shinier and then rubbed them vigorously, to create a polished, glitzy look. It was weird and wonderful. Thrilling and depressing. Exhilarating and excruciating. A little like an episode of "Mad Men." )
Anyway, I went all the way to Los Angeles only to discover that this woman belongs to that group of people who are distorted by television in a unique way, for the better. This woman's name is January Jones, but everyone knows her as Betty Draper, Don's wife, or maybe as "Grace Kelly's double." On the cover of GQ's November 2009 issue, January Jones wore a black leather coat, open on both sides, exposing the two inner curves of her white breasts and below, almost to the inset of the belly button. She smiled a smile that Grace Kelly probably never showed, even to Prince Rainier on the eve of Valentine's Day.
Okay, so I set off in her wake, because from the first episode I thought to myself the same thing the Golden Globe people thought in the past two years and that the Emmy people concluded this year: The role of Betty Draper - the neurotic housewife from the suburbs, the childish, capricious wife who is almost always embroiled with life and with herself - is not only the role of a lifetime for Miss Jones, it's also one of the most desirable female leads in the dramatic series of recent years. On August 29 we will find out whether she won the prize she merits or makes do with another photo in a glittering party dress on a red carpet and the sour smile reserved for losers. One way or the other, January Jones deserves the prize.
One of the finest
The man behind "Mad Men" is named Matthew Weiner, but everyone on the set insists on calling him Matt. This is partly to broadcast a pleasant family atmosphere in which everyone calls everyone else by pet names, but also, to a degree, to hint that the person who controls every detail of the production and creation of the series (he is creator, chief scriptwriter and executive producer ) is concealing other sides of his personality: dictatorial sides, obsessive sides and other unpleasant behavioral sides - like the lead character in the series, Don Draper, originally Donald. These abbreviated names don't necessarily reflect fondness, and Matt Weiner himself doesn't go overboard in describing the affection prevailing among those involved in the series. "We're like a family," he says, "but a family with issues."
"Mad Men," which has been broadcast in Israel since 2007 (the fourth season can now be seen on cable TV ), is indeed "a series about Don Draper," as Weiner has said in the past. But at least in its third and fourth seasons, it was equally a series about Betty Draper - the mother of his children, the wife he cheated on, the model who gave up a career in Italy to marry the promising young copywriter and play the role of her life: the perfect suburban housewife. A housewife who, in "Revolutionary Road," for example, Sam Mendes' film based on the book by Richard Yates, which is located in geographical, cultural, historical and psychological regions similar to those of "Mad Men," was played by Kate Winslet. An almost perfect role by a perfect actress in a perfect film, but still, January Jones plays Betty Draper better than Kate Winslet played April Wheeler, and "Mad Men" is a far better television series than "Revolutionary Road" was a film.
I suppose that by now, the reader understands that what I am getting at is that January Jones is one of the finest television actresses of her generation and has already won her small place in the history of the medium - just as Edie Falco secured an eternal place for her portrayal of Carmela Soprano.
It's a peculiar thing in America that film stars will always be ranked higher in the glory hierarchy than even the biggest television stars. Jon Hamm (who plays Don Draper ) can be the most charismatic, gifted, most handsome and most versatile man on TV in America now (and a candidate for two Emmy awards: for his superb dramatic role in "Mad Men" and his superb comic role in "30 Rock," as the gorgeous but dumb doctor friend of Liz Lemon / Tina Fey ), yet still be considered far less of a star than a pale movie star like Shia LaBeouf ("Transformers" or whatever ) or the expressionless, dull-as-dishwater Sam Worthington ("Avatar," "Clash of the Titans" ). It's the same with Miss Jones, at 32 one of the most beautiful women in America: she's considered far less of a star in the United States than Minnie Driver, for example, an actress with a film presence less intense than sage leaves and femininity that stimulates less of an appetite than sliced parsley. Jones is looking toward the cinema with great hope, almost imploringly, and as a first step toward realizing her fantasy, she has chosen to adopt the mannerisms of an insufferable talent, long before anyone in the film industry lets her truly feel like one.
Lady with an attitude
She entered the conference and screening hall of Central LA Film Studios - where the journalists' meeting with the "Mad Men" team was being held - sixth in the order of the interviewees, one ahead of Jon Hamm. Hey, it's still his series, with all due respect to the Blonde. Her head was covered with a light, carelessly placed hat, her body with a thin blue dress - simple and classic but flattering to her narrow shoulders and surpassingly tender neck. She wore little jewelry, none apart from two rings, and was made up with almost authentic imprecision, though that could be attributed to the fact that this was a working day and that she, like the others, had been summoned from the set to talk to the reporters.
She wore exaggeratedly high heels, drumming the floor with long, quick steps, as though to broadcast to all and sundry, "Let's get straight to it and get it over with already." She is far thinner than she appears on television. Almost withered. Her face was hard, maybe even a bit sullen, and if you had to sum it all up in less than five words, she was a "lady with an attitude." Still, without a doubt a woman of striking presence, a woman in whose name you launch a thousand ships and set sail to fight Troy.
One reason I'm lingering a little on the attitude thing - or on the semblance of such - is that it stood out in comparison to the positive approach of all the other actors. Even the "mad man" himself, Matt Weiner (who was a senior scriptwriter for "The Sopranos" - and you could write an encyclopedia about the many points of resemblance between the two series ), was marvelously cordial, willingly cooperative and frank; well, all right, until a lady from Brazil asked him about the gradual decline in ratings experienced by "Mad Men" since the first episode of the fourth season.
"I don't know what ratings means. I don't know how ratings are measured," Weiner said, suddenly losing his cool rather unexpectedly (and to think that the Brazilian lady prefaced her question with a compliment: "I personally think 'Mad Men' is a dreadfully excellent series!" ) and wandering off into a baseless comparison between the ratings of "American Idol" and "Mad Men," in which he claimed there are 250 million televisions in America and that if only 12 percent of the viewers are watching "American Idol," as compared to 3.4 percent who are watching "Mad Men," that means that "no one is actually watching anything. Certainly not 'American Idol' and certainly not 'Mad Men.'"
In a slightly choked-up voice he added, "I hope I don't sound too defensive," displaying the most defensive body language possible and telling a weird story about people who run into him on the street before Christmas who say they have bought a DVD package of all the seasons of the series as a holiday gift for their family.
Just as everything was about to fall apart, the Brazilian woman said, "I didn't mean to attack you," and Matt bounced back, talking admiringly about the influences of Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard on his writing and vision.
At this point we have to go back to Jones and the disturbing attitude thing. An attitude that everyone found problematic, not only because of the possibility of comparison with the other actors who were presented to the 38 journalists from around the world (have I mentioned how beautiful, glowing and very intelligent Elisabeth Moss was? ) but also because, despite being the most talked-about dramatic actress on TV in the United States, it's still only TV. It's true that the series - which is set in 1960s New York - is shot in Los Angeles, but Los Angeles is not always Hollywood. Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Miss Jones' birthplace, which she left at 18 to model for Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs after working at an ice cream booth, is even less Hollywood than Los Angeles. So take off that hat when you sit down at the table. Ah, yes, she's taken it off. Very nice of her, really.
In New York she did a little modeling, mostly for catalogs, landed no parts and was known mostly as the hot girlfriend of Ashton Kutcher, who advised her to drop acting, because she would not find her future there. By then he had already scored on "That 70s Show" and from the lofty heights of his status and experience declared that she would be better off doing something useful with her life, such as more modeling.
Two months later Jones broke up with him and started to get very small guest slots on television series ("Law and Order" ) and in films ("Anger Management," "American Wedding," "We Are Marshall" ). She also appeared occasionally in men's magazines in the role of a woman whom it's important to show in a bikini, to which end she was given some sort of fictitious title, such as "Maxim girl" (referring to the magazine ), or placed on the list of the 100 sexiest women in the world, thus becoming what is known, in slightly debased jargon, as a "babe." Still, that's definitely a reasonable opening position for someone who wants to enter the public consciousness, because as soon as you get on lists of babes your chance of finding an agent who will get you better auditions improves. Your name is mentioned by more people, your picture is printed in more magazines and you have made it out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota (well, there's a place you won't read about in tourist guides for the States ) and positioned yourself on a shelf of the American consciousness. From there, the way to wherever is a lot shorter. Also to nowhere, as it happens. But that, of course, is not the story we're telling.
The right blonde
The story of January Jones begins the day her agent offers her an audition for the pilot of "Mad Men." Here, in the envelope, she will find a few pages of script for the screen test, to be done for Matt Weiner and Alan Taylor, director of the pilot and of some of the best episodes of "The Sopranos." The role you have to learn is of a young woman named Peggy Olson, the secretary of the lead character. What do you have to lose?
Jones hesitated. True, she had heard terrific things about Weiner, but AMC wasn't a successful cable network. It competed with Ten Turner's TMC and broadcast mostly movie classics, so what was the likelihood that a series would do well on such a marginal network? But she did the audition. And failed. Weiner thought she was too beautiful the moment she entered the room, thanked her for her time and said he would be in touch, because he had an idea for a different role for her. She said, "Of course," but knew they were empty words - polite, but empty.
She would not be in "Mad Men," about which she had heard only that it was about the everyday business, cultural and social life at the start of the golden age of the advertising industry, many of whose firms were at the time located on Madison Avenue in New York, hence "Mad Men" with its wordplay. Charming, for sure. But Weiner was serious. He had been trying to find a home for his script for five years. The first door he knocked on was HBO, the bold cable company that had redefined the standards of television with the series it had broadcast in the past two decades ("Carnival," "The Wire," "Deadwood," "Sex and the City," "Six Feet Under" ). But HBO said no.
That was surely the worst negative reply in the history of a channel that's known for its smart decisions and courageous choices. Some say it was a reply that would change the balance of power within cable television and erode something of the strength of HBO, which had become, simply, too big and too strong, with too many successes and too many paying customers. Weiner also heard a no from Showtime (which was working vigorously on "Dexter" ), and even FX ("The Defender" ) showed him the door.
Weiner understood that no good would come of the script at that time (he didn't approach the big networks, knowing they would not allow him to fulfill his artistic vision ) and accepted an offer from David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos," to join the program's team of writers. Weiner has two small children to feed and a mortgage to pay. His and Don Draper's day would come. And in the end, it did. There were many others who owe the series no less than it owes them. Jon Hamm, for example, who 15 years earlier had left New York for Los Angeles with $150 in his pocket and dreams of glory, worked as a barman and in a garage and had a plethora of setbacks until he met Weiner. The latter knew at a very early stage that "we have our man. Jon Hamm was born to play Don Draper. He's exactly as I imagined Don Draper when I wrote the series." Weiner and "Mad Men" got their chance, unexpectedly, from AMC, and Weiner leaped at it. "My agreement with them is simple," he says. "They give me unlimited artistic freedom and I don't go a cent over budget."
A week before the shooting of the pilot began, Weiner called January Jones and told her he wanted her to play Betty Draper, Don's wife. January was delighted at first - there would be no need for an audition. "I saw enough," he told her. "What are my lines?" she asked. There are no lines, Weiner explained. You have to be asleep in bed when Draper comes home in the last scene. He kisses you on the cheek and gets into bed, showing the viewers that this man, who throughout the episode behaved like a debauched bachelor, is actually a family man. Jones' face turned ashen.
By the middle of the first season it was obvious that the critics were wild about "Mad Men." It was equally clear that Jones was extraordinary in the role of Betty Draper. She looked like someone from a different era, like someone making America nostalgic without irony - but still, her resemblance to Grace Kelly was truly amazing. So much so that Weiner devoted a separate story line to it: A client of Don's falls in love with Betty because of her resemblance to Grace Kelly and casts her in a commercial - as someone whose name and looks are new and fresh and surprise everyone who knows something about the television industry.
The whole cast seems to have come out of nowhere, and the series, for which no one had high hopes (other than Weiner, of course ), has won nine Emmys in three years (ironically, more than "The Sopranos" ) and has been praised to the skies by The New York Times and The New Yorker. AMC, the cheeky little network that could, now has two extraordinary series, "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," and is pretender to the crown of "the next HBO."
One thing leads to another: January Jones is on the cover of Vanity Fair, photographed by the renowned Patrick Demarchelier, and chooses the charity she wants to be identified with (spokesperson for Oceana, which campaigns for marine conservation ). Now she is invited to anchor "Saturday Night Live" and there she meets Jason Sudeikis (Floyd from "30 Rock," ex-boyfriend of Liz, who's moved to Cleveland ). They become an item and here she is on the cover of British GQ and then of the American edition. She has become the right Blonde.
A little humility, please
Last month we had a date scheduled, January and I, in LA, one on one, for a whole day. I talked about that day with everyone who would listen three months before it was arranged, two months after it was finalized and a month after it was canceled. Some people found it a little embarrassing. A 39-year-old guy is talking about going to Hollywood, meeting the TV star of his dreams, a woman with a name that sounds like the pseudonym of a sex doll. And the glitter in my eyes when I talked about her! Hey, is journalism the profession to be in, or what? People thought I had lost my mind.
Wait a minute - did I say "canceled"? Ah, yes. Six weeks ago, as Jones was driving home from a charity function in Los Angeles, she sliced into three parked cars with her CRV Jeep. She got out of the Jeep, checked the damage and called her boyfriend. He told her to hightail it out of there. He would go to the scene and deal with it. She drove home and the next day turned on her computer and almost choked. The headline on every self-respecting gossip and entertainment blog was: "Did January Jones drive while under the influence of alcohol? Was Betty Draper involved in a hit-and-run accident? Who is the mysterious man that showed up to help the blonde princess from 'Mad Men' at 3 A.M. and why didn't she do a breathalyzer test?" It was awful. When asked about it last week in Los Angeles, she looked at Laura, the PR woman who was about to get up to silence the journalist, but January raised her hand and said, "No, I'll answer."
"When you're an actor," she says, "people think they have the right to know everything about your private life. They ask questions about things they would never dare ask you if you weren't famous. I am currently in a position in my life where I am asked all the time about things like that, but I can choose not to answer them. So I choose not to answer you and not to talk about it at all."
Hey, Miss Jones, a little humility, please, even if you have to fake it for the audience at home. And in the meantime, the gossip columns. They are not letting up. That's what happens when you become the new Blonde of America. People want to read on the Internet who you are going to sleep with at night and who came to clean up after you when you did battle against three parked cars at three in the morning. A month ago they were preoccupied with the road accident. A week before that, Jones' name was linked with that of the Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody, with whom she spent (or not ) a night in New York while she was supposed to be dating Jason Sudeikis, for heaven's sake.
A week after the accident, a paparazzo took her picture getting out of a taxi early in the morning, her hair messy and in a dress identical to the one she had worn the previous evening at an Oceana event. She did what's known in the gossip columns as the "walk of shame," in her case a long walk from the taxi to her front door. It was all a little too much for Miss Jones and her PR people. They sent an apologetic e-mail canceling the day that had been scheduled for us. It was very disappointing, but I recovered pretty quickly.
On the contrary, I figured, even a meeting in the presence of 37 other people from around the world, in which half an hour of Miss Jones' precious time has to be divided equally among all the journalists - even that is something that not everyone is privileged to get. Like a dog happy with his lot when his master slides the dish of bones under his nose, a moment before he starts chewing. My turn came to ask Miss Jones a question, and I asked if she wasn't afraid of being typecast permanently in the wake of her phenomenal success in playing Betty Draper, a role that was liable to become a trap for her, just as the role of a lifetime had hurt other acting careers.
Don't get me wrong: I opened my remarks with authentic good wishes for her Emmy candidacy and my assessment that she deserves to win. That elicited a faint smile, a smile that beautiful women reserve for an adoring fool from whom they hear, for the millionth time in a day, that they are - how to put it - beautiful. Thanks very much, really. My name is January Jones and I am a beautiful woman. Thanks for pointing that out. Or whose indifference to beautiful words derives from the culture of empty compliments that Americans have turned into an art form.
The long and the short of it is that she took offense and chose to go on the offensive. "Do you mean that I will get stuck in a housewife role?" she hurled sarcastically. At me. And no, she is not afraid of being labeled an eternal Betty Draper, and every actor dreams of playing a part like Betty, and so on. And anyway, she is ready to do any part in any genre, other than porno. She threw in the porno remark jestingly, but in such a serious tone of voice and with such a hard look on her face that for a moment the listener was struck by a suspicion that maybe she suspected him of suspecting her of really considering a career in that realm, because of her unusual name. (The reason for the name? There are two reasons: she was born in January, and her mother read Jacqueline Susann's "Once Is Not Enough" during her pregnancy and liked the name of one of the characters, January Wayne. ) Many people think she got her name from a wily agent, but it was given to her by her parents and it's real. And so is she. As far as she is able.
Okay, I got the point. Kowtowing is not the method. Sarcasm certainly not. The class differences between Miss Jones and her surroundings make it almost impossible for her to conduct a substantive dialogue. The proof: someone else also kowtowed to her. And she gave him a piercing look, too. A look that you reserve for people in the long line on the way to getting service in a government department - at some point they lose their faces and their personalities and blend with the furniture, with the floor tiles and with the fluorescent lighting. They become transparent objects, like obstacles, which it's best not to run into, because you might trip and get bruised. The same rule holds for pillars and doors. So, as we said, that was the look in the eyes of January Jones.
Then she left, because her time was up, and again, when she stood up on her heels she was the tallest person in the room. A few journalists asked for an autograph and someone mustered the courage to ask for a photograph with her, with this grim-faced woman (ah, that's the phrase I was looking for: "grim-faced"; sitting there for half an hour opposite 38 people, stuck in a state of grim-facedness ), and for the camera she drew a kind of weary line across her lips, which from the side looked like a dying smile, and agreed with unwilling willingness to wait the three seconds needed to complete the photo ritual - and I remained at a distance of five, maybe seven meters from her.
I chose not to approach, even though I could have easily stretched out a hand for a handshake, maybe asked her to autograph my right buttock or something adventurous like that, which would make her remember "Shai from Israel." Maybe I could have reminded her of our day together that had been scheduled and then canceled because - well, how shall I describe the circumstances of the "cancellation"? After all, you don't talk about rope in the house of a hanged man. Maybe she and her staff lied from the outset and never intended to allow me to meet with her one on one? Maybe that too was part of some ritual of courtesy whose rules I had completely missed? While I was trying to figure out what to do, she left the room with those same long, annoying steps of hers, which took her to a place where, possibly, she feels comfortable. A place where the lines a person utters are placed in his mouth by someone else. A place where no one asks you questions.
On the way to the hotel, an SMS from Yaron, "Nu, how's the bride?" And a reply, "Out-of-this-world gorgeous, but annoying in the same degree. In the end, just another blonde with a nose way too high in the air."
Yaron wrote, "Ditch the bitch," as though she were mine. As though I had actually wanted her from the outset. As I approach the hotel I begin to doubt my original desire to meet her, to spend time with her, even if the rules of the ritual are known and limited from the outset. I cast doubt on the reason that made me even want to get on a plane and make that long trip for half an hour in the presence of a woman who is a fantastic television actor.
Suddenly I am able to define for myself the exact difference between her and all the other actors who showed up to meet with the journalists: all of them looked distorted for the better, compared to the characters Matt Weiner writes for them. All of them presented an improved self, compared with what we see on TV. The only person in the whole cast who seemed to be playing the role of her life, simply because she was playing herself, was January Jones.
Television did not distort her. It presented a character very close to being faithful to the character I met in Los Angeles last week. And if so, it seems to me that this means she's not such a great actress after all. How complicated could it be for a person to play himself? And on second thought: If she is not playing herself, and if in the press meeting she played an invented character she reserves for people who take an interest in the character "January Jones," then I have to retract what I said above and conclude that not only does she return in one fell swoop to the status of truly acclaimed actor, but probably gets upgraded to the persona of someone far more complex than what her sublime beauty allows to be seen at first and second glance.
And such a complex person - the genius of whose mask lies in the fact that it is made of layers of transparency on transparency on transparency, which in the end creates a grayish layer of separation between the person and his masks - I would never be able to get to the bottom of such a person even if I spent a whole day with her. Such a person is one of those about whom unforgettable television series are made. W
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now