Alan Cumming Took Ecstasy to Quell His Nerves on Tony Night, ‘and It Worked’

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By Dana Stevens

BAGGAGE
Tales From a Fully Packed Life
By Alan Cumming

“No one ever fully recovers from their past,” writes the actor, singer, author and nightclub impresario Alan Cumming in his second memoir, “Baggage.” It’s an observation that might feel pat, until you contrast the appalling past he has survived with the enviable present he has made from it. Cumming’s first memoir, the 2014 best seller “Not My Father’s Son,” concentrated on the early part of his life: a bleak childhood on a rural estate in Scotland with a sadistic father, the head forester on the property, who beat and insulted him and his older brother for the slightest perceived infraction.

Despite this painful history — including a moment in his mid-40s when his long-estranged father reappeared in his life to tell Cumming he was not his biological son, a claim later disproved by a DNA test — the adult Cumming has created a rich and meaningful life. He is happily married to a man he has been with for 17 years. As a performer, he moves easily among styles and genres — theater, film, television, cabaret, voice-over work for animated movies — and maintains a wide circle of what appear to be genuine friendships with people both in show business and outside of it. It’s easy to see why he’s so popular: Cumming is delightful company, urbane, self-deprecating and mischievously funny, not above a dishy anecdote or a throwaway dirty pun. Explaining that many of his short-term flings have resolved into lifelong friendships, he muses, “What is a dalliance but an alliance that begins with a big D?!”

With winning resilience and buoyancy, Cumming revisits a stretch of his young adult life book-ended by two marriages: one straight, one gay. The story opens in 1994 as his nearly eight-year marriage to the English actor Hilary Lyon is dissolving — even while, on the London stage, she plays Ophelia to his Hamlet. The combination of channeling perhaps the best-known conflicted son in the Western canon, and feeling pressured by his wife to start a family of their own, throws Cumming into a prolonged crisis. Long-repressed memories of his father’s abuse begin to resurface in confusing fragments; he moves out of the house he shared with Lyon into a “dark bedsit” in London’s Primrose Hill neighborhood. There, in between co-writing (and starring in) the BBC sitcom “The High Life” and flying to Hollywood to voice the horse in “Black Beauty,” Cumming starts to wrestle with the childhood demons treated in his earlier book; though those formative events are briefly summarized here, some familiarity with the first volume is useful in making sense of this one.

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    It’s a common phenomenon in show-business memoirs that after a performer finds fame, he suddenly has less to write about, splitting the book in half between a hardscrabble Horatio Alger tale and a contented catalog of successive triumphs. By telling his story in two separate volumes, Cumming has made that tonal shift feel less awkward. But the suspense that drove the narrative of “Not My Father’s Son” Would Alan escape the brutality of his childhood home without too much psychic damage to function as an adult? Was his father lying when he told him the story of his supposed illegitimacy, or simply in thrall to a long-held delusion? — is mostly absent from “Baggage.” This book is less structured, an episodic and sometimes rambling collection of reflections on fame and self-discovery, with a modicum of gossip thrown in for good measure.

    A visit to the home of Gore Vidal and his longtime companion, Howard, turns into an unflattering portrait of what Cumming calls a “bitter old queen,” as Vidal spends the evening getting sloshed and picking fights with Howard and Cumming alike. An especially harrowing chapter describes the dysfunctional set of “X2: X-Men United,” a superhero blockbuster directed by the now-disgraced Bryan Singer, who spent much of the shoot high on painkillers and holed up in his trailer while the all-star cast — Cumming, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry — sat around in full mutant makeup waiting to work. Cumming’s description of the cast’s attempt to stage an intervention is compassionate toward the troubled director, but his portrait of Singer’s mistreatment pulls no punches. (Though no mention is made of the sexual harassment and abuse scandals that would later bring the director down.)

    Most of “Baggage” is lighter in tone, with Cumming’s life-affirming philosophy smoothing over the rough patches. He describes a period in his life when he used Ecstasy, including on the night he won a Tony Award for his role as the M.C. in “Cabaret,” as a form of “self-prescribed anti-anxiety medication.” Just at the moment when a different kind of memoirist might detour into a gritty addiction confessional, he puts an end to the whole topic with a cheerful, “And it worked.”

    Cumming’s second marriage, to the American illustrator Grant Shaffer, is narrated only very briefly in the book’s final pages. Though Cumming has been a prominent figure in L.G.B.T.Q. activism since he came out as bisexual in 1998, the book de-emphasizes this angle, eliding that much-publicized revelation altogether. As a reader, I would have liked a more extended reflection on what it has meant to Cumming to see himself become a queer icon as the world changed around him.

    Still, as he takes his leave of us in the epilogue, the 56-year-old Cumming remains the irresistible “cheeky chappie” who has survived horrific trauma to become a beloved show-business institution, and a perhaps unlikely fount of wisdom. “The time that separates full enlightenment and comprehension of an event from the event itself will continue to expand the older I get,” he writes, in a thoughtful acknowledgment that the process of self-discovery is never complete. “And that’s OK.”

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