Getting into Cars with Alex

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A business trip took me to San Francisco this week, which gave me the opportunity to look up my old friend Alex. He drove all the way out to where I was staying to have dinner with me, but when he arrived I didn’t get his text right away. So he circled the block and waited until I got it and I hurried out to the nearest corner, where he stopped and picked me up quickly at a corner.

We’ve all had déjà vu, that sense that something happening now has happened before, but you can’t remember what. This was like that except that I did remember: countless other times I’ve stepped into Alex’s car over the last 40 years came rushing to my mind all at once.

We met in 1974, in high school. I was a freshman and he was a senior and at that age, those years are a chasm. He could drive and I couldn’t — a stick shift I might add — he had relationships and I didn’t, he’d experienced controlled substances and I hadn’t, though he took care of that eventually. He liked me and more to the point he approved of me, and that meant the world to me at a time when I was struggling with huge family issues that had rocked my self esteem. We were on the school paper together, and when I’d write something he’d take it into the room where the seniors were and read it to them, laughing and putting it up on the board and telling them I’d be the editor of the paper someday… the first time somebody saw something in me. I didn’t see it until he did.

Alex was this impossibly glamorous figure: whippet-thin, blond hair parted in the center and hanging to his shoulders, handsome in a fierce hawklike way, with piercing blue eyes. He played rock guitar like a star, could write well enough to make a career of it if he wanted to, was gifted at math and science, but disdained and minimized all of his own gifts. I remember one time in the late 70s when he picked me up, he took me to the lab where he was working, because he wanted to show me something. I was itchy and impatient to go start partying but he insisted that I look at this tiny thing on a small sliver of glass. “That’s a microchip,” he said. “Someday that’s going to change the world.” One of many conversations I should have continued but didn’t in my headlong rush to go waste my opportunities.

Another conversation that always sticks in my mind is when we first bought a house. I was still in my 20s and in way over my head with a wife and baby, just a kid trying to be a man. The place was the only thing we could afford, a cool little Art Deco bungalow in a terrible neighborhood, a fixer-upper in need of just about every kind of repair. He came over to check it out and we sat cross-legged on the floor of the empty living room, the cool desert air of Los Angeles blowing in through the open windows, the night sky dark beyond them, and he said “your house is beautiful, man.” Just a small thing but again that glimpse of hope and that seal of approval for a step I wasn’t sure of yet. Awesome.

Alex loved David Bowie and he had Bowie’s offhand indifference to himself, the same chilly remove and distance. Actual, real cool. It can’t be faked, or acquired. I’ll never have it, but I sure do know it when I see it. We can be heroes… yeah. He would have laughed then, just as he would now, at the idea of himself being any kind of hero. Every time we’ve met up since high school, he’s talked about me and my accomplishments and acted like I was the somebody.  Talking cynical and intellectual and pretending he doesn’t have the biggest heart around, like he never saw a suffering mess of a boy and put a hand out. Like it was nothing.

But it was everything.  Thanks, man. I hope you never stop picking me up.

 

The Pope Smokes Dope

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Click here to read Pope Francis’ encyclical
, released last week. Let’s start with my frank admission that I have not had time to read it in its entirety… yet. But the parts I have read are blowing my mind. It’s what the hippies were saying in the 60s, basically, but it’s coming from the Pope.

His points about climate change are getting all the attention, but really this is a stunning critique of modern society and its completely wrongheaded values — consumerism, capitalism, over-reliance on science and technology, social injustice, violence and war, and the destruction of the Earth.

And he shows how those wrong values all spring from the same source. He knits everything together, showing how all of the major troubles of the world can be traced back to us… to individuals… to people like you and me, who have lost (or never had) a basic attitude of humility, of wonder, of gratitude. People who view the world as something to be used and discarded. He brings it all down to selfishness, basically, and shows the irony of how placing yourself above everything else destroys not only you, but others.

This is a deeply spiritual document, and a lodestar of wisdom and guidance. Personally, I’m not a Catholic, or a Christian, but so what? No human being really knows the nature of God (as the Pope has admitted), so we’re all making guesses in the dark there. In the meantime, we live in a physical world, and we’re fucking it up and we all know it, and he shows just how we’re doing it. And why we feel so lost, so alienated, so afflicted.

What’s wrong with humanity and society is what’s wrong with us. The global crisis is our crisis. The answer isn’t even that complicated. It’s love, for ourselves and others and our planet and everything on it. Not conceptual love. Love in action… which is actually not easy. If you don’t find it painful and difficult, you’re not doing it right. Because love in action means subjugating your ego, and recognizing that you’re one among many, no less no more.

I’ll be reading the whole thing. I’ll be thinking about it. I’ll be trying, again, only harder this time, to live it. I hope you will too.

Giving the Bird

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Put a Bird on It
Mixed media
O’Connor, 2015


This is a public art project by my friend Brendan O’Connor entitled “Put a Bird on It.” Brendan is a local artist whose mission is to “art-up” the city of Orlando. His medium, interestingly, is the ugly stuff that’s all over every city… the stuff you train your eye to look past or ignore, like dumpsters, bus stop seats, or in this case traffic signal boxes. It’s subversive in a way, because while it’s transforming something utilitarian into something whimsical, it’s also drawing attention to the very thing everybody is trying to ignore.

Somebody got the message, because yesterday the Florida Department of Transportation took down this signal box on the flimsiest of pretexts. Too close to the road, they said. This despite their having signed a contract with the Mills 50 district to initiate the project. You could ask why they just discovered this now, after the box has been there for decades; you could ask why the box was there at all if it can be removed in a day with no effect on traffic. But of course you’d be asking the wrong questions, because those are questions of logic and this was obviously about something else.

And although I love Brendan, I understand this decision. As an artist myself, I live with decisions like it every day.

One of the central wars of humanity is the ongoing, endless war between the Artists and the… let’s be polite and call them the Non-Artists. The N/As have damaged or destroyed countless works of art in this war. In 1924, MGM producer Irving Thalberg whittled down Eric von Stroheim’s masterpiece Greed from eight hours to two. In 1963, the government of New York City demolished the original Penn Station, a soaring 1910 landmark of breathtaking beauty and elegance, and put a squat, faceless monstrosity in its place… one that could only have been approved by a committee of bureaucrats. In 2001 the Taliban dynamited two enormous Buddhist statues that had stood silent watch on the side of a mountain in the Bamyan Valley of Afghanistan since the 6th Century. And the list goes on.

Art and beauty and creativity are subversive because they draw attention, by contrast, to what is not artistic and beautiful and creative: greed, intolerance, power, control, and the raw fear that lies beneath those things. Many people, the N/As, live in this consciousness of fear, and many of them don’t even know it. And so creativity, with its positive and uplifting vision of possibility and potential, does not inspire them. Art, with its window into new ways of looking at things, does not uplift them. It terrifies them. It makes them aware on some level of what a small game they’re playing, of how limited they are. And so, like children who violently reject what they don’t understand, they feel nothing but an urge to destroy.

And so if you’re an Artist like Brendan, you need to understand that through your work, through your very existence, you are making some people very, very uncomfortable. Angry, in fact. You are stirring up opposition, sometimes very powerful opposition. Often this opposition has a lot of money, because money is often the compensation for people who have turned their backs on larger possibilities. Making some people squirm and begin to hate you for it is part of the job, and in fact it’s a sign that you’re doing something right. You’re inadvertently shaming these limited, unfulfilled, unhappy people, and they will make you pay a price for that if they can.

Art is in a precarious position in this brutal world, but so are love and joy and peace. Maybe we couldn’t appreciate these things so much if we didn’t have the N/As constantly threatening them. The answer is to keep on creating regardless. The answer is to keep on giving those people the bird.

Al Qaeda Job Application

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U.S. intelligence officials on Wednesday released a trove of documents recovered during the 2011 raid on Usama bin Laden’s compound — offering a rare window into the operations of Al Qaeda and bin Laden’s involvement in leading the network from his Pakistan hideaway. 

The documents include dozens of letters, some from bin Laden himself, as well as accounting information and even what appears to be an application form for prospective Al Qaeda members. That form, which asks a series of detailed questions, includes the line: “Who should we contact in case you became a martyr?” 

 

Why do you hate America? Please limit your answer to 20,000 words.

 

How did you learn about Al Qaeda?
Check one:  Newspaper / Radio / Internet / Lying Propaganda from the Decadent Filthy Dogs of the West

 

Do you have any special skills?
Check all that apply:  Angry Invective / Strapping a Bomb to Myself

 

Please list your desired number of virgins in the Afterlife.

 

Why did you leave your last terrorist organization? (Mark all that apply).
Better opportunity elsewhere / Jihad fatigue / Beheaded my supervisor

 

May we contact your previous cell?

 

Are you allergic to any of the following? (Mark all that apply).
Anthrax / Botulinum / Cyanide / Sand

 

Are you legally allowed to work in this country? (We’re kidding).

 

Are you willing to work the graveyard shift? (We’re not kidding).

 

Some Better Questions

In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program, I’ve heard and read a lot of discussions that start with a question whose premise could be summed up as “there are bad guys out there, and what if torturing them can help save lives?”

This question doesn’t need to be answered so much as rejected and shamed as the utter bullshit it is. Torture is immoral and abhorrent to any notion of civilization, and if that’s too fancy for you, it’s illegal in this country and a war crime everywhere in the world. So the question is irrelevant. It’s like asking “what if murdering someone does some good?” or “what if there’s some value in racism?”

The question is not only irrelevant, but it’s predicated more or less on this assumption: that terrorists are inhuman monsters with evil agendas that they will only reveal if we show we’re willing to be even more brutal than they are. And that somewhere, there’s a ticking bomb, thus giving whatever pummeling we choose to administer even more moral force and urgency. It’s a question that comes from watching too many bad movies and TV shows.

And finally, it’s a question with a simple answer. Torture does not work. It doesn’t yield actionable intelligence. This is a widely accepted consensus view in the intelligence community.

Here are some better questions to ask in the wake of the Intelligence Committee report. I’d like to hear some powerful and respected voices asking these questions:

Shouldn’t the words “enhanced interrogation” make us all deeply ashamed of the culture of euphemism that corporations and politicians have fostered? Shouldn’t every “journalist” who ever used those words to describe torture make a public apology?

Have we become so cynical and jaded about our government that we really don’t care what atrocities it commits, as long as we’re “free”? And does “free” just mean free to be left alone to munch on tacos and watch TV?

Why are we so afraid of terrorism? I was eight blocks from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and I saw the towers fall right in front of me, and later I ran through the smoke and debris to safety, and I’m not afraid of terrorism, or terrorists. They’re criminals, that’s all. Find them and arrest the fuckers. Why are we making them into some existential threat? Americans used to have some balls — what happened to us?

If we allow torture to be a policy of our government, what exactly makes us different from “the terrorists” anyway? Our good intentions? Our self concept as noble and good people?

Are we going to do anything about the CIA? It’s a government bureaucracy, just like any other. Are we going to continue letting it do anything it deems necessary, including deceiving two branches of government? Why is the CIA off limits to a thorough housecleaning? Are we simply afraid of the CIA? And if we are, is this still a democracy?

This program was authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration. The names of the people who did so are not a secret. Why is it so unthinkable that they should be prosecuted for war crimes? Why can’t that idea even be floated in the mainstream media? Is it because they are powerful, and more to the point in our celebrity-bedazzled culture, famous?

Why is it that many conservatives, usually so quick to paint everything in stark black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, suddenly see the issue of torture as one big gray area? Right-wingers are always talking about “accountability.” Why don’t we hear any of them using that word in this case?

Why haven’t Democratic leaders been much more visible and staunch in their opposition to this? Why didn’t they loudly call out President Obama when he essentially caved on the issue by issuing an order rescinding the policy and then kicking everything else about it under the rug? Why are Democrats now vocal about the report but largely silent about Obama’s lack of leadership on this issue?

Is it because politics in this country has become nothing more than a sport, with fans rooting for their team regardless of what it does, as long as their team is perceived as winning? Is the conservative silence on torture, or worse, defense of it, simply driven by the fear that it might be bad for Republicans? Is the Democratic position (if there is one) driven by the same cynical calculus?

Those are the questions that I’d like to hear asked in public, but the really tough questions are the ones we should be asking ourselves:

Do we kind of like the idea of torture? Have we been fed so much revenge-fantasy pop culture that we’re into it now? Do we feel so powerless and small, are we so full of impotent rage, that the idea of some righteous CIA dude giving the works to a swarthy foreign guy in rags makes us feel just a little better about the world and ourselves?

Or are we just not paying attention to any of this? Is it just more news and information we can’t really use? Do we think it has nothing to do with us, so fuck it?

And so is torture — the deliberate infliction of unbearable pain that serves no purpose except as an outlet for humanity’s worst impulses —  just one more He Said/She Said, meh I’m really not sure, let’s agree to disagree kind of thing? Because that’s the perspective of a sociopath.

Have we all become sociopaths?

 

 

The Outsider

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“She was impossible. Every suggestion you made, she fought; you fought with her all day long,” said Mitchell Leisen about directing Veronica Lake in I Wanted Wings, her first film as a star. “She was a pain in the ass,” said Randy Grinter, the son of Brad Grinter, who directed her 25 years later in her last movie, Flesh Feast.

Ah, yes, Flesh Feast. A movie about a mad scientist, flesh-eating maggots, and Adolf Hitler. It’s nowhere near as good as it sounds. We’ll get around to it; there’s really no hurry. Let’s talk about Veronica Lake first—the difficulties that made her so “impossible,” and the legacy of performances those difficulties have obscured.

She’s remembered today for two things. Her silky and suggestive teamings with Alan Ladd in a series of prototypical 40s films noir. And her hair, hanging down in luxuriant blonde waves and half-obscuring her right eye. In an era when movies wore a sexual straightjacket, this sultry “peekaboo” hairstyle caused a national sensation. Such is the enduring power of her star image that Kim Basinger won an Oscar for attempting to evoke it a half-century later in the neo-noir L.A. Confidential. At one key point in that film, Russell Crowe’s detective drops his tough-guy act for a second and tells her “You look better than Veronica Lake.”

Nice line. But really—not even close.

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Veronica Lake was gorgeous. Not just the hair, which was indeed spectacular, but also the high cheekbones, the petulant lower lip, the wary narrowed cat-like eyes that could widen suddenly and knock you out. Okay, so Hollywood is lousy with beautiful women and always has been. Lake had more than beauty, she had the mystery of a real movie star—an unreadable something. An amused, distant quality, a withholding that made you lean closer in. An unstable mixture of vulnerability and toughness, empathy and contempt. Even her beauty seemed on the edge of disappearing in a cloud of childlike petulance. Then that would pass, like a child’s bad mood. Warm-cold-warm-cold… like somebody idly flipping a light switch on-off.

This quality reads wonderfully on screen. Off it, not so much. Few liked her; many loathed her. Her life story was an unending series of antagonisms, frustrations, poor decisions, tragedies, scandals and sordid headlines—until it did end, not too long after Flesh Feast. She herself got little respect, not just as an actress but as a human being. She was the original Lindsay Lohan: trainwreck first, performer second. A paranoid schizophrenic, according to her mother. A drug addict, according to her second husband. A bitch, according to many of her co-workers. And a raging drunk, by unanimous consent.

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“I was never psychologically meant to be a picture star. I never took it seriously,” she once said. “And I hated being something I wasn’t.” What she was, fundamentally, was an outsider. Her best roles and most memorable performances all tapped into this quality. She seems most fully herself when she’s bending or subverting her era’s ideas of what a good girl should do. When she tucks her hair under a cap and hops a freight train in Sullivan’s Travels, when she drops out of government work into a noir underworld with Alan Ladd’s haunted hit man in This Gun for Hire, or when she travels across a garden in the form of a puff of smoke in I Married a Witch. “I’m a lot older than you think,” she tells Fredric March in that film, but in fact she’s a lot younger than you think: she was only 19 when Leisen’s movie made her a star overnight.

Too much too soon, maybe. After winning a few beauty contests as a teenager in Miami, she was pushed into show business by her mother Constance, who moved her and her ailing stepfather across the country to get her into the movies. In later years, Constance was the source for the claim that she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, but who knows? When somebody has a biography as fucked up as Veronica Lake’s, it can be hard to sort through the layers of finger-pointing, lurid rumor, repeated gossip, and outright lying (Lake herself was a frequent, flagrant liar). Let’s just say that acting lessons seem a strange therapy for schizophrenia. Also that it’s a bit unusual for a mother to give her daughter the same name—Lake’s birth name was Constance Ockelman, and everyone called her Connie. And then they had a second name in common. “My mother and myself never got along too well and that was from early childhood,” she recalled in a 1969 interview. “My mother’s real first name, it happens to be Veronica. And of all the names they picked [for me], it had to be Veronica.”

“A typical victim of a stage-mother’s dream turned into nightmare. From a miserable childhood packed with broken promises, shoved into the pitfall-littered labyrinths of Hollywood,” recalled her second husband, director André de Toth, in his (also a bit untrustworthy) autobiography.

Whatever the truth, it was a brief leap from dramatic school in Hollywood to bit work in movies, to catching the eye of a producer who changed her name and gave her the plum role in I Wanted Wings, as a bad-girl cabaret singer. Leisen recalled that she couldn’t handle dialogue very well at this point and he had to give her very simple movements. In her first shot in the film, she’s seen singing (dubbed) in front of a band in a nightclub. She caresses her thigh as she’s hit by a spotlight that sets off her clinging, shimmering dress, her cheekbones, her glistening head of hair. Leisen, who usually preferred boys, seems entranced. It’s a wow moment, and his camera knows it; he moves it in and circles her slowly, erotically.

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That shot made her an instant star. Billed seventh, she dominated the posters for the movie and the publicity. The hair got most of it, as the fan magazines shrieked about it and women across America crowded salons wanting the same style. Meanwhile back at Paramount, Lake had already managed to piss off the studio by leaving for Arizona without telling anyone in the middle of filming, after taking childish offense to Leisen’s persnickety personality. With hindsight, it seems her first willful rejection of stardom just as it was being handed to her on a plate… the first of many such gestures.

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For the moment, though, there was no stopping her. I Wanted Wings was Paramount’s highest grossing picture of the year, largely due to her. And the studio’s most successful and high-profile director, Preston Sturges, wanted her for his next film, Sullivan’s Travels. Sturges, a good-natured extroverted egomaniac, knew just how to handle her. The atmosphere on the set of his films was like “a carnival,” one actor recalled. When Lake revealed halfway through shooting that she was pregnant (she had just gotten married, probably to escape from Constance), Sturges didn’t fire her but instead laughed his head off and promised to dress her in baggier clothes. If Leisen is to be trusted about her inability to handle dialogue, Sturges must have taught her well, because she handles pages of his rapid-fire banter, firing back and forth at Joel McCrea in long, unbroken takes. And it’s some of the best dialogue she or anybody else ever had.

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Sullivan’s Travels centers on McCrea’s character, a fatuous movie director who wants to move from comedy to drama, but finds the real Depression-era America a far cry from his privileged, ivory-tower concept of it. Widely regarded as Sturges’ masterpiece, it’s certainly his most personal and probing film. Lake is rarely given credit for her contribution to it, but she’s the emotional center of this complicated movie about The Movies. Her character, called “The Girl” in a bit of meta inspiration by the filmmaker, is bitter and tough on the surface, but genuinely hurt by Sullivan’s selfish obtuseness. Paired with the 6′ 2″ McCrea, she seems even more tiny than she was (4′ 11″), and she’s vulnerable and brave as she pretends to be a boy and tiptoes her way through a land of lecherous, threatening bums. Physically, she and McCrea are a mismatch, but her edginess and his dissatisfied crotchetiness seem made for each other.

Sturges liked her and set up another comedy for her, I Married a Witch. He selected another fine director, the French transplant René Clair. An ideal choice for the film, as Clair was an expert in fantasy and offbeat humor. And for Lake, who spoke fluent French (the Ockelmans had lived in Montreal for a time) and responded to a director who believed in her talent more than she did. According to Clair, Paramount knew they had something special in Lake and didn’t want an ordinary role for her, and it was Sturges who suggested Thorne Smith’s sexy supernatural fantasy “The Passionate Witch.” She’s perfect in it—a wicked sprite motivated by hatred and revenge until she drinks a love potion, at which point she becomes “itchy with sexual frustration,” as Guy Maddin puts it in his loving notes to the Criterion blu-ray. (There was some sniping on film forum boards when Criterion added this movie to its roster of Great Cinema… a curse on those mortals!) The movie is full of subversive fun, and Lake’s funny, mischievous, completely charming performance is her best claim to immortality.

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Between these two comedies came two more films that cemented her stardom and her legacy: This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key. They’re classified as film noir but they came early in that cycle, and so they’re compromised by the movie factory’s conventional efforts at morality and uplift. Just what audiences don’t want. But in both, the half that’s noir is still pretty terrific. In the first, Lake plays a nightclub singer engaged to a cop (Robert Preston), who is secretly recruited by the FBI to gather information on a ring of foreign spies. Contrived and absurd as this is, it leads to her involvement with Alan Ladd as Raven, an emotionally scarred hit man who’s been betrayed by the spies and is out for revenge even as he’s being hunted by the cops. Raven, the ice-cold killer who loves only stray cats, is the role that made Alan Ladd a star. And you can see why: he’s a stray cat himself who’s been kicked around by life and has to run and hide and make his own snarling way in the world. He kidnaps Lake, and while they’re on the run they begin to develop an understanding. Ladd and Lake were both too cool as performers to be able to convincingly act “falling in love,” but here their tentative reaching out to each other feels emotionally satisfying, and the fact that it’s unexpected and transgressive (she’s engaged to his pursuer and he’s more than capable of killing her) gives their scenes a glamorous, sexy tension.

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Paramount recognized the value of this team—they just didn’t quite know what to do with them. (A shame they didn’t give them Double Indemnity, in which she especially might have had a triumph.) The Glass Key was the follow-up, and it’s not as good as This Gun for Hire. Dashiell Hammett’s plot machinations are always a chore to follow, and without colorful characters to be interested in, this movie is all machinations. We want Ladd and Lake, but we get too much of Brian Donlevy as the lead character, a crooked politician trying to get respectable, and she is wasted in the nothing role of the girl both men want. The real romance in The Glass Key is between Ladd and William Bendix, as a terrifying thug. Bendix keeps beating Ladd to a pulp, all the while calling him “sweetheart” and “baby” and insisting that Ladd likes it, which is intriguingly possible. There’s a faint streak of masochism running through Alan Ladd, who in his private life had a house full of paintings of male nudes—less a reflection of his sexuality, perhaps, than of his lusting after size. He was famously short (5′ 6″) and Lake was one of the few actresses with whom he didn’t need to stand on a box. He died, as she did, a lonely and pitiful alcohol-fueled death at 50.

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At this point, Lake had starred in four hits in a row, and the biggest hit of all came next. Unfortunately it led to her downfall. So Proudly We Hail was Paramount’s big patriotic wartime special of 1943, a tribute to the Red Cross nurses who served in Bataan and Corregidor. Claudette Colbert is the tediously sane and responsible head nurse, and Paulette Goddard is the wisecracking good-time girl. Lake, third-billed, plays a sullen, joyless bitch all the other nurses loathe. You can feel the executives at Paramount patting themselves on the back for all this typecasting. The war department had asked the studio to change the famous peekaboo hairstyle, because girls working in wartime factories were supposedly getting their Lake locks caught in machinery (she’s demonstrating the danger in the photo above). So for most of the movie, her hair is pinned up under her nurse’s cap. Going all dramatic, Lake has two big scenes in the film, the first when she breaks down and reveals that the Japanese killed her fiancé, the second when she sacrifices herself to save the other nurses. She appears in a doorway, hair suddenly loose for the sake of the fans, and slips a grenade into her blouse before walking toward the Japs with her hands up. These should be intense, impactful scenes, but they’re muffed by director Mark Sandrich, a ticktock craftsman who was utterly unable to convey emotion on the screen (historian John McElwee reports that one GI responded to Lake being blown to bits by yelling out “I know which part I want!”). Everyone seems to have decided Lake was nothing without her hairstyle, and Goddard got the Oscar nomination.

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Paramount administered the coup de grace with her next movie: The Hour Before the Dawn. (It’s always the darkest, get it?) She plays a Nazi spy, complete with German accent. Skulking around Franchot Tone’s country estate, making shifty evil eyes with her hair up in braids, she’s borderline ridiculous and saves herself only by staying very still in most of her scenes. An actress with more experience and training, e.g. a less honest one, might have camped her way through this farrago. Lake looks utterly mortified. Her voice is soft and quiet, especially when she murmurs “heil Hitler” after a radio broadcast. I mean: of all the things to make an established, glamorous movie star say at the very height of World War II. In this and her other scenes, she looks like she’s physically restraining herself from running off the set. Can a single movie kill a career? This one did.

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Meanwhile, her personal difficulties were only increasing. Miscarriage, divorce, squabbles with co-workers, and more and more partying. Her contract had four years to run, but the studio had already given up. They tossed her into three brain-dead musical comedies with chinless, sexless comic Eddie Bracken, who remembered “they called her ‘the bitch’ and she deserved the title.” But then, who wouldn’t be a bitch if they had to make three movies in a row with Eddie Bracken? Then they put her in a series of cutesy period pieces designed to show off co-star Joan Caulfield’s apple-pie charm, movies which neutralized every single thing that had ever been special about Veronica Lake. Implicit in them is a heavy corporate rebuke for the difficulties she’d caused and the enemies she had made. She was 25 years old, and her career was effectively over.

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She had married de Toth around this time, and he directed her twice for other studios. Ramrod is a tricky, intermittently fascinating noir Western in which Lake plays the willful daughter of a rancher who uses her wiles to get all the men in the story to fight, betray and kill each other. De Toth called this character “a wicked, conniving lady, stronger than a man, with velvet balls,” but Lake really isn’t up to a Barbara Stanwyckish role like that. As an actress she was soft and insinuating; she nails the bitterness but can’t convey the strength. In Slattery’s Hurricane, she has an unattractive part as the girl the hero doesn’t want while he chases after another man’s wife. Her character turns to drugs, but the censors made sure this one interesting aspect of her part was carefully whitewashed. Instead, she just seems jittery, forlorn, and all too believably washed up. It was her last movie in Hollywood.

The drug addiction was an unkind touch; in his book, de Toth alludes several times to her “monkeys.” He doesn’t elaborate, but he does provide the most sympathetic portrait of any of her contemporaries. He describes two Connies co-existing in one person: “One hurt, timid, and scared. Not many—if any—were more insecure, shy and vulnerable. She was afraid and lonely and lived alone with her fear. Too proud to call for human help. The other loud, bitter, boisterous, got lost in ‘tinsel town, the shit capital of dreams,’ where she drowned herself in blind hatred.”

He goes on to say that “actually she, the real She, didn’t exist anymore. ‘That one was sold,’ she told me, at fifteen, as a down-payment for her mother’s dreams.” Around this time, her mother sued her for lack of financial support, as agreed when she’d become a star. The tabloids of the time had a field day. Constance won her suit, but later claimed that Connie sent her nothing but rubber checks. The marriage broke up in a flurry of even more ugly headlines as the couple declared bankruptcy and blamed each other. He got custody of their children. Now there really was nothing, except the one friend who had remained loyal: alcohol.

“She left,” de Toth wrote, “with the ethereal smile of a Kamikaze.”

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Not just unemployable but practically radioactive on the West Coast, she headed East, where there was still some work to be had. On stage and in early blurry television, where if you squinted you could still see “Veronica Lake” sometimes. For Connie, there was only drinking, more bad relationships, professional embarrassments and mishaps. She got tangled in the wires onstage as Peter Pan (another outsider role, and her reputed favorite). Her stage career came to a halt after a dance partner fell on her and broke her ankle. Eventually she found work pasting felt flowers on hangars in a Manhattan factory, and then, more congenially, as a barmaid at the Martha Washington Hotel for women, where the room was free and the booze flowed. She worked for tips in obscurity under the name Connie de Toth, until a reporter from the New York Post stumbled on her and made a story of it. More unflattering headlines. People began sending her money, which she returned with prickly pride, all except a check for a thousand dollars from her one-time lover Marlon Brando (their paths had crossed in the early 50s), which she had framed.

She wrote an autobiography and revealed herself as still smart and tough, if a bit loose with the facts (“the most vicious thing I’ve ever read,” sniffed Mitchell Leisen). And around the same time, she moved to Hollywood. Only this time, it was Hollywood, Florida… just north of Miami. A mutual acquaintance introduced her to Brad Grinter, who was looking for financing for Flesh Feast. She invested in it and was listed as co-producer, and was involved creatively (see “she was a pain in the ass,” above). You can put this down to the shaky judgment of a woman who’d been an alcoholic for a quarter century, but it wasn’t a totally crazy move. A few years earlier, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had made a fortune in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, starting a vogue for horror films starring the decaying leading ladies of the 1940s. And in fact, she made a little profit on Flesh Feast, according to Randy Grinter. But that may have been because the film’s budget was only $100,000—a pittance, even in Florida in the sixties.

And it looks it. The sets are Ed Wood-cheap, the locations are drab. Grinter doesn’t seem to know where or how to place the camera. (She complained about this in her autobiography, written after the movie was shot but before it was released a couple of years later.)  The people on the screen—you can’t call them “actors”—stumble at times over their business and the banal, dead-sounding lines in the barely functional script. It’s a horror movie without atmosphere or suspense, just a few icky close-ups of maggots. The lead role is a lady doctor who has spent time in a mental institution and who is now working on a rejuvenation formula (thus the flesh-eating maggots). The star in this role is supposed to be Veronica Lake, but really it’s Connie Ockelman—a petite, puffy-faced troll who looks 10 years older than her 47 years, and is unrecognizable as a former divinity of any sort. Her voice, once “a tiny mellifluent purr” (Guy Maddin) is now, thanks to years of smoking and trying to project on stage, a coarse rasp. Her exaggerated gestures and facial expressions show a drunk’s lack of control, and her grimace of a smile reveals a mouthful of blackened, rotting teeth. The ruination she has visited upon herself is the only real, the only true horror on the screen.

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And then they bring on Hitler.

It’s the movie’s big reveal. Some shady South Americans have invaded the house and the laboratory, seeking to have the doctor rejuvenate their leader, The Commander, so he can “take over zee world!” In the final, unforgettable scene, the doctor straps him to a table in her lab, and begins to administer the treatment. She speaks of her mother, whose portrait is conveniently on the wall. “She vas a good Cherman voman?” The Commander inquires kindly. “A servant of zee Third Reich?” The doctor sneers at this and growls “oh yes—as a guinea pig!!” The Nazis experimented on her mother, it seems… now the doctor will experiment on him. She brings out a Tupperware bowl full of maggots and begins applying them to der Führer’s face. As he begins whimpering and screaming, she tosses more and more of them onto him, laughing maniacally, uproariously. “What’s the matter—don’t you like my maggots?!” she yells. And suddenly, this idiotic, pathetic scene begins to resonate. Oh, it’s revenge for mother, all right. It’s payback for the stardom she didn’t want that was thrust upon her, for being reduced to a hairstyle and laughed at, for the talent that never got used, for the frustration of years of mediocre work and tabloid headlines and public shame, for the even deeper private shame, for a confused young girl tossed into a machine that chewed her up and spat her out. It’s what Connie Ockelman thinks of show business, of fame, and herself. Heil Hitler!

She died a couple of years later, alone and destitute, of acute hepatitis and renal failure. An outsider to the last. Only one of her children, and none of her ex-husbands, attended her funeral. In fact, she wasn’t there herself—her ashes sat on a shelf at the funeral home for years, until a friend finally paid the $200 bill for the cremation.

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But Veronica Lake had gone long before that. The last the world saw of that particular apparition was in The Blue Dahlia, one final Ladd-Lake film noir Paramount made at the height of her difficulties with them. A last chance, and a last hit for her. The original script by Raymond Chandler is spotty, but it has some nice ideas—none nicer than the scene where they meet. Ladd is a flier who has returned from the war to find his wife first unapologetically unfaithful, and then dead. As the chief suspect and object of a manhunt, he takes to the road. Lake is the mysterious blonde who picks him up one rainy night. She’s the ultimate Los Angeles girl, materializing out of nowhere on the highway, a blonde vision behind the wheel, an outsider angel. She takes him to a hotel, and then they part. They speak in the low, hushed voices that were such a big part of their beautiful chemistry. It’s hard to say goodbye, he tells her. Why, she asks; you’ve never seen me before tonight. “Every guy’s seen you before, somewhere,” he tells her. “The trick is to find you.”

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Special thanks to Randy Grinter for sharing his reminiscences on the making of Flesh Feast.

 

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NOTE: This post was written for the annual “Late Show” blogathon over at Shadowplay, featuring some very smart film bloggers considering the final films of notable directors and performers, all hosted by the wonderful David Cairns. Check it out!

 

 

 

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