Mr. Big Did Drag, and It Is Glorious
On April 18, one Brynn Wallner lit up Twitter with a seemingly simple yet endlessly complex query. She posted images of three of Sex and the City’s essential men — Steve, Aidan, Big — with a classic question. “Okay,” she wrote, “who do we f*ck marry kill?”
The tweet led to widespread debate across the internet, but the answer seemed clear to me. Given the absence of bald mensch Harry Goldenblatt and golden god Smith (née Jerry) Jerrod, one should marry sweet, optimistic Steve (he may cheat on Miranda in the first movie, but to true fans the SATC movies, much like the edited E! reruns, are not canon), and kill KFC-loving, turquoise jewelry-sporting, suffocating Aidan, burying him in the grey mud surrounding his country house. And you fuck Mr. Big against the red wall in his apartment while he plays his favorite Blood, Sweat & Tears records, whether or not he’s married to the "Idiot Stick Figure with No Soul," and when you’re done you sit around while he smokes a Cohiba and wiggles his fiendish eyebrows around, which deserve more of Peter Gallagher’s shine.
As Mr. Big, actor Chris Noth embodies a potent type — he can only wear suits, cashmere sweaters, or nothing; he can call women “baby” with true authority; you suspect he’s never more than five minutes away from his next cigar and Scotch, neat. He pulls it off when he sings Frank Sinatra in that Italian restaurant. He makes politically incorrect meat. He has money.
All of Noth’s most popular roles tend to embody what we might in 2015 have enthusiastically referred to as “toxic masculinity:” the emotionally unavailable financial tycoon on SATC, a gruff cop on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, a cheating politico on The Good Wife, i.e. the Bad Husband. But in his first credited role as Chris Noth (he had one prior, in 1981’s “Waitress!” as “Christopher Noth”), the actor, fresh from Yale’s MFA program, donned drag for a brief cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan director Susan Seidelman’s 1982 punk classic Smithereens, the first American independent film to ever play in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. He is credited as “Prostitute,” and has one line: “Say hi, bitch.”
Smithereens follows the broke, mostly friendless New Jerseyan Wren through downtown Manhattan as she looks for places to sleep and sceney men to sleep with. After she’s spurned and robbed by Richard Hell’s Eric, Wren retreats to innocent Montanan Paul’s van parked in a trash-strewn lot on the West Side Highway, next to a brick wall with graffiti honoring “Max’s KC.” Only Paul has gone, sold his van to a pimp, and the vehicle, painted with cacti and a green outline of America, is filled with sex workers chatting about a magazine article highlighting actress Candace Bergen’s engagement to the French director Louis Malle (one woman says that she’d push her mother “down a ramp on rollerskates for a good marriage”).
Noth is in the back, dressed like a mid-season three Carrie Bradshaw with an ice-blue scarf tied around his head and a low-cut red dress, the neckline highlighting the fine V of his collarbone and a trail of dark chest hair. His eyeshadow is mauve, and a cigarette dangles from pink lips. He looks fantastic.
I first saw Smithereens about four years ago, and was so excited about the cameo that I kept rewinding the movie to look at Big in elegant drag again and again. It put this man in an entirely new context. Maybe he was very cool, someone more likely to pop up in the downtown of Slaves of New York than the uptown of Sex and the City (never mind that Carrie’s apartment building exterior was actually filmed in the even-then sanitized West Village). What was Noth’s life like? Did he live in a squat and go to parties at the Mudd Club and buy porn in Times Square? Does he bear a much stronger resemblance to someone like Hell — who invented punk, Malcolm MacLaren stole his style and draped Sid Vicious in it — than to John James Preston?
It seems like it. Sex and the City, which was always candy but started as salted caramel and ended as Fun Dip, became more and more monied and insulated as the seasons went on, kind of like the narrow subset of the city it portrayed. In a 2014 interview, Noth addressed the idea that SATC, which largely portrayed a white city only shown in a season executive producer Michael Patrick King dubbed “Eternal Spring,” helped ruin the old, good New York that everyone is always romanticizing while we ruin it by buying harvest bowls at Sweetgreen or whatever.
“The New York that Sex and the City depicted is not the New York that I love,” he told a New Zealand news outlet. “New York was a much bigger, more interesting place than just fashion and glitz and all that crap. It’s become its own nightmare — it’s become Dubai, which is why I don’t spend much time there anymore. It’s full of tourists, Times Square is Disneyland … it is safer, and that’s good, but what we’ve lost is the character of the city itself. Manhattan used to have a real rainbow coalition of class and ethnicity, but it’s being pushed out. It’s almost like New York became the [fantasy] city that Sex and the City depicted, which I find particularly boring.” In six years it’s gotten worse, and when the pandemic is over, who the hell knows.
The funny thing is that Seidelman actually directed Sex and the City’s 1998 pilot episode, along with two others in the first season (one of the episode’s performers praised her direction to The Cut, remembering that she told him to play it like his character was “overweight in high school”). She told Vanity Fair that she loved the show, and was excited to work on something for TV that was more cinematic than standard half-hour comedies at the time. The first two seasons are less gauzy and glitzy than the rest, truer to Candace Bushnell’s stinging source material — the clubs are dark and steamy and more men have greasy hair and tongue rings. There’s no Tao.
In Seidelman’s pilot, Carrie lives in a dark apartment on Third Avenue with a plastic blue chandelier, hair shorter and the color of burnt honey as opposed to what’s in the jar. Characters are introduced with cruel chyrons like “toxic bachelor” and “unmarried woman.” It’s no Smithereens, in which people reach for unboxed slices of pizza in dirty fridges with hands covered in unexplained bloody bandages, and women on the highway share chicken salad sandwiches their mothers made, offering to show you their scars for $5, and you can get in a physical fight at Cafe Orlin while a rock star eats a rare burger. But it’s a bit more raw than the rest of the series.
Everybody remembers Noth as Mr. Big telling Carrie that he’s been in love before, “abso-fucking-lutely,” driving away in a chauffeured sedan. But his introduction is fun too. Carrie has just left an ex’s apartment, where she “had sex like a man for the first time,” without emotion. She’s rushing down the street when a man knocks her purse over. She collects her things and comes face to face with Big, who hands over her scattered ultra-textured Trojans with a reservoir tip. “Here you go,” he says with a smile. “Thanks, thanks a lot,” she says, and he responds “Any time.” He gives her a condescending little wave as she stumbles down the street, and you know that something is going to happen.