I can’t help wondering—if Miss Scarlett had been given a musical number, would Lesley Ann Warren have taken the role of the Witch from Meryl Streep? Warren herself has observed that most roles for women her age, at least most really meaty ones, go to Streep. Which is of course not really Meryl Streep’s fault but cannot be anything but frustrating if you’re, you know, in contention for those roles yourself. And Lesley Ann Warren probably could hit all the required notes—and is certainly talented enough to know when she didn’t. And okay, she’s three years older than Meryl Streep, but if they were going to miscast the role that way, at least put in a woman who can really sing?
And that’s where I first got to know Lesley Ann Warren—singing. There are three musicals that were on the Disney Channel when I was a kid with her, though one of them isn’t Disney and the only reason I know that’s where I saw it is my awareness that no other station we had would’ve played it. She was in The Happiest Millionaire, her film debut (aside from an uncredited role five years earlier) as the bright, cheerful, singing and dancing ingenue, but it was her Cinderella that stuck with me more. And my memory of The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band was for years “that Disney movie about the Harrison-Cleveland Electoral College thing.” Which is fascinating to remember anything as but doesn’t strongly involve Lesley Ann Warren.
And then, in a move I fully approve of, she decided she was done playing the young, innocent, sweet ingenue, and she played Norma Cassady in Victor/Victoria to get away from it. Meaning she could quite nicely serve on my Former Child Stars Panel, along with once-upon-a-time costar Kurt Russell, who made a similar choice right around the same time. And honestly, I really think Warren deserved the Best Supporting Actress that year more than the winner, from the year’s other Cross Dressing For Success film, Tootsie. No slight on Jessica Lange, you understand—just a slight on the role.
Of course, Norma led to Miss Scarlett, and Miss Scarlett led to . . . not as much as it should have, frankly. Lesley Ann Warren is one of those stars I feel we haven’t done well enough by. She’s beautiful (frankly another reason she’d be a better Witch) and talented and funny. I also get the feeling, from what I’ve seen, that the funny is natural—she is actually funny, not just capable of delivering lines in a funny way. That is a skill, and an important one, but still. I’d watch the hell out of a comedy where she played the zany singing grandmother. Wouldn’t you?
Maybe there would’ve been better work for her if we were better at making screwball comedies; that’s really what Clue is, and of course she excels in it. She’s frank and earthy and one of the smartest people in the room, admittedly a low bar, and she doesn’t see anything wrong with sex work. If there were more roles like Miss Scarlett, perhaps we would’ve gotten more great performances out of Lesley Ann Warren. Which is yet another failing of the industry today.