The 2013 Oscars were lumbering along as they always do, with moments of fun punctuated by moments of "oh no they didn't," and then the criminally gorgeous Halle Berry came out in a striking metallic creation to introduce a James Bond tribute. Oh, fine, I thought, here they go again with yet another time wasting montage. But the Bond clips were cleverly edited and made you realize why you love James Bond, and then...
The orchestra hit some of the most recognizable notes in film history, the opening of John Barry, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's theme from Goldfinger, shafts of gold light spread across the stage and a shadow rose from the floor that turned out to be Dame Shirley Bassey, the song's originator and, forever, its owner. As she began the song with the gestures she has surely done a thousand times, millions of viewers suddenly didn't know what hit them.
Bassey, born in Wales, has been a huge star in England and and around the world for many years, but is primarily known in America for her Bond themes "Goldfinger," "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Moonraker." She's always had a cult following here, though. I opened for her at the Paramount Theater at Madison Square Garden in 1994, and was especially thrilled that my name was included as her "special guest" in the ads. All I knew about Bassey was her Bond themes and I thought, "Oh, she's still around? How good can she be now?" Her audience was an eclectic mix of Long Island housewives and middle aged gay men. I had no idea how this crowd would respond to me.
Thankfully my comedy set was well received, and at intermission Miss Bassey emerged backstage. I had not yet met her. Most comics who open for singing stars don't get much face time with the headliner, but that's the way it usually is -- you show up, do your set, and then you might meet them or not, and it's always in a hurry. But this night I went up to her and said, "Excuse me, Miss Bassey, but I'm Jim David, and I just opened for you." She looked me in the eye, grabbed my arm tightly, and said, "How are they?" I said, "They're great, they're gonna love you." She rolled her eyes, said "Thank GOD," and then went to the waiting area stage left as the orchestra hit those first notes of "Goldfinger." I then realized: even legendary divas worry about what the audience will think of them.
That was my sole contact with her that night, but as I watched the show, I was astounded. She sang mostly covers of other artists' songs, but with her own brassy take. Bassey is an old school belter but there's really not another singer who does exactly what she does. She takes songs like "This Is My Life," The Beatles' "Something" and even Pink's "Get The Party Started" and turns them into grand anthems. She stands center stage with her arms spread wide and a huge vibrato emerges from her small frame. Subtle it ain't, and campy it can be, but boy, can the lady sing.
As she triumphantly snarled and roared through "Goldfinger" at the Oscars, not only was it an unexpected surprise, it quickly became one of the greatest moments in recent show business history. Here was a 76-year-old singing star, rarely seen on American television and surely not seen live by most in the audience, singing the most famous James Bond theme she has sung hundreds of times with most of the power she had 50 years ago and proving that she's still got it, and it was suddenly what the Oscars should be all about: memorable moments honoring legendary movie moments and performers. Remember when Woody Allen came on the show after 9/11 and introduced a montage of clips from films about New York? Or Federico Fellini getting an honorary Oscar? Or Olivia de Havilland, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman or Katharine Hepburn showing up? This was one of those moments, and it's why we keep watching.
As she belted the final "He loves only gold, only gold" lyrics and the orchestra thrillingly swelled into the four note James Bond theme that has been interpolated into so many Bond songs including Adele's "Skyfall," it was as if movie history came full circle, millions of viewers were reminded who Shirley Bassey actually is and why she's Shirley Bassey, and were reminded why we love the movies. Who would have thought that the most memorable moment of the night would come from a British diva singing the same song she's sung for 50 years? I guess it was a reminder that some pieces of art like "Goldfinger," Bassey's rendition of it, and Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were" sung the same evening, will never get old.