If Frasier Crane is a troubled patriarchal flamingo, determinedly butting his teacup-shaped head against the unforgiving wall of heterosexuality, Niles Crane is a graceful flock of peahens who have mastered the art of telepathy, moving as one over a brunch-strewn field. What is Niles Crane? A boy Anne of Green Gables – a sexual Cogsworth from Beauty and the Beast – Little Lord Fauntleroy as played by Mary Martin – part sylph, part lesbian, part fussbudget, part nonesuch, part Martin Prince, part prix-fix lunch at Neiman Marcus – a nervous flapper and a sweater-baby – together they two of them were the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn of the 1990s, and I’d argue that gay-straight fictional brothers made roughly as much sense, chemistry-wise, as Tracy and Hepburn did together. But Niles is the key; only next to Niles can Frasier pass for anything remotely resembling a brute, because Niles is thrillingly redolent with spirited heroine energy, all up-tilted chin and passionate defiance. She thinks you no gentlemen, sir, when she thinks of you at all – which is never! Jordan Baker? NEVER HEARD OF HER. Niles Crane is the New Woman, bicycling and voting as hard as she can into the twentieth century.
The four pillars of Niles’ reedy-yet-resilient sexual thrillery are as follows:
BETTE DAVIS AT TENNIS
Cool, determined, elegant, the spirit of New England, with a couple of fresh oysters in her pocket for a light lunch, trouser legs as wide as her pride, effortlessly cool after winning seven matches in a row – a female Antaeus – bouncing back from a court of clay or turf bursting with wholesome seaside American spirit – a real picnic lunch of a gal – supple wrist and light-elbow’d – has her Daddy’s permission to marry any man she sees and likes on her daily swims through the Atlantic.
GRACE KELLY, EN GUARDE
Panting lightly – thoroughly offended but smiling through her teeth – you forget yourself, sir – footwork tidy as a cat’s – underestimate her at your peril!
GRETA GARBO THREATENING THE SEA
Wide-browed and unrepentant either in her affairs with pretty ladies-in-waiting or taciturn groundskeepers – a glove for every occasion – top-booted and well-turned-out, nineteen different varieties of lapel, most of them fawn, Cousin Independence, mistress of a pearl-handled pistol and leveling it at your ugly mug as cool as you please – answers to no man, and no woman neither, but the Sea ––
HEPBURN AGAIN, SPRAWLING
“Come, then, and master me if you can!” Ready to lunge across the Nile, or exclaim in spirited triumph over a late-night card game – a girl ready for the lads, but made for the lads never! – her rings and her cheekbones are hers alone! – commands total devotion among her staff – linen-breasted and ready to slap at the slightest provocation.
Someone come and build a Humphrey Bogart worthy of gathering Niles Crane in his arms! She awaits your pleasure, sir, but stands on no man’s time but her own!!