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Still life
Barry Dunstall visits New York Madame Tussauds
Hugh Grant has a laugh with Cybill Shepherd. Woody Allen sits alone in the corner.

Squeezed among the theatres and cinemas of Times Square, tall and thin as if holding its breath, is Madame Tussaud’s. Opened in November 2000 at a cost of $50m, it would be easy to dismiss the place as just a building full of wax people, and later on I probably will, but the craft on show has to be admired. More than likenesses, the models have been described as ‘exactnesses’. Even as a Brit there is something chilling, heart-stopping, about suddenly finding yourself face to face with President Kennedy. His features are so vivacious, his eyes so intense, I feel I am not so much looking at him as he is looking at me.

One of the rooms in the nine-storey museum has been fitted out as an opulent hall, complete with luxurious furnishings and an ornate indoor fountain, like a matinée idol’s mansion from the golden age of Hollywood, except filled not by Errol Flynn and his friends but party guests from the modern-day celebrity world. Gentle music plays as Elton John chats with Sarah Ferguson and Elle McPherson. Hugh Grant has a laugh with Cybill Shepherd. Woody Allen sits alone in the corner.

Oddly enough, I find the most disappointing models in the museum are the recreations of perhaps the most recognisable American icons of the twentieth century. Somehow Marilyn and Elvis don’t seem anywhere near as breathtaking when standing still. Wax hips neither wiggle nor swivel. The sexual charisma so essential to their legends is clearly impossible to capture no matter how technically accurate the verisimilitude.

A small crowd-pleasing section of the museum is devoted to Madame Tussaud herself and her contemporaries. Apparently Tussaud honed her skills during the French Revolution, making ‘death masks’ (basically life-size replicas) of the heads left behind by the guillotine, preserving the faces of their owners for history. Some of these disembodied heads are on show on poles, but what visitors like most are the grisly recreations of the ‘Reign of Terror’ in action. We hear the screams as the guillotine blade falls. We see the bruised and bloody torsos in the open graves of moonlit cemeteries. A family near me is particularly excited by these displays when, after some discussion, they are almost certain the French Revolution actually happened. "Marie Antoinette was, like, a real queen."

The $20 self-guided tour takes about an-hour-and-a-half to complete, ending with a slightly bizarre and completely pointless film designed to highlight the many wonderful things that have happened in New York over the years. Unfortunately, and I’m not quite sure how, the movie manages to give the distinct impression that nothing much ever has. Does a street party to celebrate the moon landing really count as one of the Big Apple’s finest hours? Besides, I don’t know what all this local history has to do with Madame Tussaud’s anyway. It’s just a building full of wax people.

© Barry Dunstall September 2002

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