Good Looking

Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden’s Lipstick Battle: Review of ‘War Paint’

Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole play the warring CEOs of two legendary make-up empires in a Broadway musical that welcomed Hillary Clinton on opening night.

Joan Marcus

Fresh from a revealing and rousingly received Women in the World interview, Hillary Clinton, accompanied by longtime aide Huma Abedin, headed to Broadway on Thursday night for the opening night of War Paint.

Just as with another recent Broadway foray for Clinton (to Sunset Boulevard), this is a musical featuring strong women. A loud standing ovation greeted Clinton at both shows.

Along with the rumbling rivalry between Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, as they grew their cosmetic empires, War Paint also hints that the pair—who apparently never met in person—had more in common than they could have imagined. In their own ways they both felt like outsiders, and left behind by the charge of modern times and modern makeup.

As Clinton and Abedin sat there, many rueful nods accompanied lyrics focusing on facing misogyny, and fighting and succeeding on their own terms.

The musical, inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s book War Paint and Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman’s documentary The Powder and the Glory, is a respectful affair, maybe a little too much so if you were expecting the bitchiness of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’s dueling as evoked in FX’s Feud.

The animosity, as sketched in the musical, seems to have extended to years of frostiness, and insults and grievances mostly privately held and voiced to intimates. It also powered two empires.

Just as in Feud, where the larger issue is the treatment of women by Hollywood, a sexism that only fueled the women’s rivalry, so War Paint—as well as focusing on Arden and Rubinstein—has bigger questions to ask about the politics of makeup. Are the duo liberating women, one face cream at a time, or enslaving them?

After a shaky opening, War Paint heats up in the second act. The first zigzags a little fruitlessly in a search for plot and animus between its leads. It begins with a nice idea: An unseen voice baits a group of women about their beauty regimes and why they would benefit from makeup. This mini-circus of insecurities is awkwardly scored, and the orchestra—as happens occasionally elsewhere—is so loud it plays over some of the sung words.

Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden appears first, mistress of all she surveys in her pink palace, with faithful husband Tommy (John Dossett) wanting some recognition that never comes.

Then comes Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein, with her longtime business partner Harry (Douglas Sills). From the beginning, as far as the women are concerned, triumph in the makeup market is indivisible from the destruction of the other.

It is Rubinstein who gets the best lines, with Arden left to say commanding things, but with considerably less sharp talons.

The best scenes of the piece see Rubinstein commanding events from her bed, dispensing insults and demands, armed with a hooked prong, on which she requisitions sundry jewels to be placed in a series of graded boxes according to their worth.

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Her cash offer on a penthouse is refused because she is Jewish. The biggest applause of the evening comes when she reveals she was not cast down by this: She just bought the building.

The men are subsidiary, and know it. They swap sides, and Harry—who is gay, closeted, and has a liking for sailors—also earns a few, unresponded-to homophobic insults, which the performance I attended elicited a few laughs from the audience. (Note to the producers: These insults may be true to the era, but they are being performed, with no countering voice, in 2017.)

If the musical’s intention is to show how different and opposed the women were, it keeps illustrating their similarities. One is no more mean and nasty than the other, so it’s a bit of an extended game of she-said, she-said.

Both men reveal company secrets to both women. Both women reported each other to the authorities, leading to the ingredients of cosmetics having to be listed on packaging. They both made World War II into a consumer opportunity (one of the weirder moments comes when Arden puts lipstick on a shop girl about to do her military service—this is her “war paint,” she is told cheerily). Both women sing “If I’d Been a Man,” noting the sexism they have had to face.

The challenge in illustrating a rivalry with no evidence of the two subjects ever meeting is met by having both Ebersole and LuPone share the stage to sing duets, or eavesdrop on each other but move spectrally around one other.

If we believe the musical, the women also shared neighboring fancy-restaurant banquettes—and so it is that Rubinstein, the victim of anti-Semitism, hears Arden being rejected from a fancy club because she earns money rather than just spends a husband’s.

For all the luxe backdrops of makeup bottles and potions, the jewels and truly amazing hats, there is an austere, slightly stilted feeling to the movement in War Paint, with characters standing at rigid angles to each other, and other odd bits of stiff, confected movement.

This restraint is mirrored in the script and lyrics. The songs never fully capture the supposed power of the women’s animosity. Beyond their light versus dark looks, there isn’t a compelling psychological duality sketched between them, captured in a number like “I Know Him So Well” from Chess.

Still, the wonderful LuPone is given verbal red meat to chew on—and when she does, the audience sparks. Both women sing beautifully, but the songs, with their repeated tropes of ambition and triumph over setbacks, remain unmemorable until War Paint’s impressive final section.

Here, the women reject TV advertising as too common, unlike Charles Revson (a snappy and undeferential Erik Liberman), founder of Revlon. His aggressive approach is contrasted to the two women insisting on some kind of class over crass commercialism. The musical doesn’t query the hypocrisy of their revulsion: They were hardly shrinking violets when it came to marketing themselves.

This renders them now “dinoasurs,” according to Tommy and Harry’s late and brilliant drunken duet together, before Ebersole sings “Pink” and LuPone “Forever Beautiful,” two solo, well-written summations of personal legacy and belief, with Rubinstein’s illustrated by a number of hanging portraits of her done by artists including Picasso.

Audaciously—although it really had to, I guess—the musical has the women coming together at an awards luncheon. No spoilers as to what happens, but they both agree never to mention the meeting—which gives the musical’s creators some latitude in its creation on stage.

How it would have been, they sing, if they could have joined forces; and have they really damaged or empowered women, they wonder. Both of these questions are unanswerable.

Whatever this rivalry was, it made both women lots of money, and the overflowing beauty counters of department stores and our obsession with looks provide their own answer about the products they inspired. One doubts (and hopes in vain) that today’s generation of makeup czars are decreeing lipstick colors from their beds, bedecked in jewels, and bitching merrily about their competitors.

War Paint is at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street, NYC. Book tickets here.