Brandeis creative duo's PBS documentary told story of 'War Paint'
By Brian Klotz
Ann Carol Grossman ’69 and Arnie Reisman ’64 knew they had a story that needed to be told: At a time when few women ran businesses, cosmetics pioneers Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden created an industry, but their ambition was matched only by their rivalry. It was a drama worthy of Broadway, and soon, thanks to these two Brandeis alumni, that’s exactly where it will be beginning next month.
Grossman and Reisman first connected when they served together on Brandeis’ Student Media Advisory Committee in the early 1990s. A few years later, they combined their talents to produce a video commemorating the University’s 50th anniversary. As collaborators, they clicked immediately.
“It’s like we share a brain,” says Grossman, citing their common point of view as a possible result of both being Brandeisians of the ‘60s.
“We easily form a team where egos hide in the closet,” adds Reisman. “We are both willing to see another way to do something, and we can count on each other.”
In the ensuing years, Grossman and Reisman worked together on several projects, specializing in short films for nonprofit organizations.
The genesis for their biggest endeavor came about when Reisman and his wife visited the New York Historical Society to see a Jules Feiffer cartoon retrospective. The exhibit turned out to be in the rear of the museum, and on the way they encountered another display, “Enterprising Women: 250 years of American Business.”
“It chronicled just about every woman from Betsy Ross to Martha Stewart,” Reisman recalls. “My imagination was touched, however, when I saw the posters for Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.”
Both arrived in the United States as immigrants with little resources, but went on to help build what is today a $150 billion global health and beauty industry. Rubinstein and Arden were fierce rivals for more than 50 years and never met in person, although they lived and worked only a few blocks apart.
“This, to me, sounded like a wonderful documentary subject,” says Reisman. “A great business story, a great women’s story, a great American cultural explosion and a drama!”
Reisman brought the idea to Grossman, who was equally intrigued. In conducting research, they discovered the book “War Paint” by Lindy Woodhead, and reached an agreement with the author to use her book as source material for a documentary, which they pitched to PBS. In 2009, “The Powder & the Glory” premiered on the network, where it has since become a Women’s History Month staple.
The idea of a musical based on the film came from Grossman’s then-teenage daughter, Abby, who saw its stage potential. Robert Brustein, founder of the Yale Repertory Theatre and Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre, agreed.
“He told me, ‘You’ve got dueling divas, Arnie!’ ” Reisman recalls.
Grossman and Reisman connected with David Stone, one of the producers of “Wicked,” who optioned the musical rights and hired the creative team behind “Grey Gardens,” a musical that similarly was based on a documentary. Broadway veterans and Tony Award winners Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole were cast as the leads.
“War Paint” opened in the summer of 2016 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where it was met with critical acclaim and a sold-out run, becoming the most successful production in the legendary venue’s history. Grossman and Reisman were in attendance to see the show inspired by their documentary come to life on stage.
“At the end, I burst into tears,” says Grossman. “They did a great job.”
The show’s success solidified its next destination: Broadway. “War Paint” begins previews at the Nederlander Theatre on March 7, with opening night on April 6. Grossman and Reisman will be in attendance.
Looking back, both alumni credit their alma mater with shaping their identities and career paths, fueling the inquisitive minds that made projects like “The Powder & the Glory” possible.
“Brandeis in the ’60s was an amazing incubator of courage and creativity,” says Reisman. “I came there as a budding independent spirit, and Brandeis taught me how to fly.”
Grossman remembers classes with Professors David Keith Hardy and Gordie Fellman sparking her interest in film, and documentaries in particular. “At one point Professor Fellman showed ‘Triumph of the Will’ followed by ‘Night and Fog,’ and I was so struck by the power of those films.”
Reisman, who now describes himself as “fairly retired,” has been the poet laureate of Martha’s Vineyard since 2014. He has published two books of poems and art, and continues to be a regular panelist on the NPR comedy quiz show “Says You!” with his wife, Paula Lyons.
Grossman manages a number of ongoing tasks related to “The Powder & the Glory,” including a variety of promotional activities such as administering its website and Facebook page. She also plays lead guitar in a folk/rock band. A Brookline resident, Grossman enjoys returning to Brandeis every five years for her Reunion.
“The Powder & the Glory” was likely the final film for the creative team. “We’ve had the careers we want to have,” she says.