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Callas Forever


Callas Forever

Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Runtime: 115 minutes
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Fanny Ardant, Joan Plowright

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Courtesy of friend Franco Zeffirelli, part of the sad final year of operatic grand dame Maria Callas gets a fictionalized soap-operatic treatment in Callas Forever, a hysterically over-the-top backstage melodrama whose temperature seldom falls below overheated. Sporting a ridiculous graying ponytail and leather jacket that drain away much of what's left of his dignity, Jeremy Irons stars as a gay music-business insider who once helped steer Callas' legendary career, but now manages a Sex Pistols-like punk band—in the epochal year of 1977, no less—better known for its criminal record and offenses against propriety than its music.

Irons' heart remains with Callas (Fanny Ardant), however, and after discovering that his friend has been reduced to throwing down pills, chugging wine, obsessing desperately about onetime love Aristotle Onassis, and singing along tearily to her own records, he hatches a plan to get her back in the public eye. Utilizing the same technology that helped disgrace Ashlee Simpson, Irons suggests filming a movie in which Ardant lip-syncs to her earlier recordings. She acquiesces, but before long, she's throwing tantrums and bitching out collaborators.

In the film at least, Callas' most flamboyant performances all seem to occur offstage. When Irons complains that his meal-ticket punk band is at least professional, Ardant indignantly insists, in a sadly typical exchange, "Professional? Zey pees on zey audience!" Ardant throws herself into a meaty role, but her Callas nevertheless qualifies as little more than a shrill caricature of divahood run amok. Zeffirelli's film presents Callas as a larger-than-life icon, diva, and drama queen, but never as a human being. Callas Forever provides the drag-queen take on an opera great, one that promises high drama but instead settles for high camp.