What Sort of Man Reads Playboy

Back in the late 60s, somebody gave my father a birthday present of a jigsaw puzzle. It was a Playboy centerfold of a playmate wearing nothing but argyle socks, and it was packaged in a little canister that he put up on a shelf above his suits and ties. If you were a boy of that era and you wanted to see a girl with her clothes off, and I’ll confess that I was one of those boys, you had to do things like make sure everybody was gone, take a stepladder into your dad’s closet, and give yourself enough time to assemble a jigsaw puzzle. Parts of one, anyway.

You couldn’t just buy your own copy of Playboy (I found out later), because they were sold over at a separate stand that was presided over by a gimlet-eyed old coot who knew exactly what you were up to. You couldn’t even look at the cover, because the stack of copies was behind a wooden plinth with a bunny logo on it. Playboy belonged to Adult World, and it was separated very firmly from Kids’ World. You could peek through the fence sometimes, but it remained remote and tantalizing.

This was the very uptight, knees-together America that Hugh Hefner slowly pried open. Impossible now to recapture the guilty thrill of being a young boy looking at a Playboy centerfold. Not just the photo, but the fact that it was three times the size of the magazine, and if you were actually able to pull it out, you were making a statement. You weren’t just looking at pornography, you were holding a poster of it with both hands. No hiding it. Something about this act of assertion got into your blood, gave you a first taste of what it might be like to be that unimaginable thing: a man.

There’s a moment in the best James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), when George Lazenby is cracking a safe, and in this highly tense moment while he’s waiting for the decoder to finish working, he picks up a Playboy and glances at the centerfold. Just to be cool, you know. Sixties Bond was the Sort of Man Who Read Playboy, and I will risk branding myself as an old coot when I say we lost something when the Bond movies lost their blatant sexism. Yes, women had to endure the Male Gaze, but they were a lot wiser about it than you think. The blatancy of it looks faintly absurd now, but guess what? It was absurd then, too, but people had something back then called a sense of humor. Pussy Galore — that was a joke, son, and everybody was in on it. The joke kind of wore thin by the 70s, and nothing ages worse than a previous generation’s idea of what’s naughty, and of course for me like everyone else, the reality of becoming a man was nothing like the fantasy. Bond cried at the end of OHMSS, cradling the body of the strong, resourceful, beautiful woman he loved. That might have been a clue.

So yeah, we started reading it for the articles. And in fact the articles were often really fine: long, detailed, and informed by the publisher’s intelligence and taste, and Libertarian politics that now look leftist. Slowly and subtly things changed… life became serious and complicated and the forces of Puritanism that Hefner seemed to have vanquished just became meaner, more punitive, and more dangerous. I was reading Playboy on December 8, 1980, in the dim, cavernous basement of the department store where I sort-of worked the night shift. A young man by that point, I was having my own adventures, grimy though they may have been. I was drinking a beer and paging through an epic, exhaustive interview with John Lennon on the occasion of his first album in five years. I was halfway through when my friend Gary called to say Lennon had been shot. There were no cellphones then; he had to call the store and make them find me. The interview went from being a hopeful new beginning to a tragic remembrance right in the course of reading it; that long night of blood and sorrow turned out to be the overture to a decade of ugly new political realities. Culturally, psychologically, energetically, the 60s died that night. How fitting that I had a Playboy in my hands.

Bowie’s in Space

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One of the funniest and most lovable tributes in music is the live version of the folk duo Flight of the Conchords singing “Bowie’s in Space,” aka the Bowie Song. There’s some sweet banter at the start that makes clear how much they love the guy, and then they go into the call-and-response song that’s a perfect mimicry of Bowie’s style: the bitten off diction, the severely affected vocals, the allusions to space and drugs and a strangely divided mind. Both Bret and Jemaine are Bowie, one at Mission Control, the other out in space. “This is Bowie to Bowie. Do you hear me out there, man?” “This is Bowie back to Bowie. I read you loud and clear, man.”

I’ve covered this song with my friend Derek and it’s a blast because I get to do my Bowie impression, which I’ve been doing mostly in the privacy of my car or shower for about 30 years now. I always felt a strangely personal relationship with David Bowie, and the outpouring of grief this week makes it clear that a whole lot of other people do too. Suddenly on social media there’s all this Bowie love, from so many different friends, some of them a surprise. The grief is more widespread, and more profound, than I’d have expected. It hit me harder than I expected, too. And I’ve been thinking about the reasons.

Well for one thing, he was so fearless. Looking like he did, David Bowie could have had a career like his one-time bizarro duet partner Bing Crosby… just coasting on looks and voice and a series of identical-sounding hits. Instead he boldly threw away styles and modes and set off in new directions. Sometimes those new directions were actually alienating — I didn’t always have the courage, openness, or patience to follow him. The fine pop culture writer Mark Harris tweeted something very apt: that Bowie was the first artist to make him feel scared.

Of course, he was also cool. Literally cool, with his bone-straight hair, cut-glass cheekbones and wiry frame. He used theatrical devices like makeup and glitter and wildly fashionable clothes, but not the way most people use them, to get some kind of cheap immediate response. He was removed, distant. He didn’t seem to give a fuck what you thought. But then he’d turn and give you a wink or a smile, and it always seemed like it was just for you. He learned a lot from Marlene Dietrich, who used the same aloof kittycat tools of audience seduction.

Like Dietrich, he had a tantalizing androgyny. He flirted openly with gender bending and gayness, and he did it in the early 70s when nobody else dared. Actually very few male performers dare to do it now. There’s Prince, but what’s interesting is that a lot of men casually despise Prince in a way they don’t despise Bowie. Again, he seemed to be dedicatedly following some internal compass, and that sense of personal integrity was so strong that he wasn’t subjected to the usual disrespect that keeps most bisexual men quiet about it.

Beautiful people get a pass, of course, and he knew he was beautiful. But like everything else, he was distant from his own vanity. He threw it away sometimes, with crazy haircuts or masks or disfiguring outfits. In his final, amazing video for “Lazarus,” released last week, he’s lying on a symbolic deathbed, his eyes wrapped in bandages. There are little metal studs where his eyes should be. It’s disturbing, and it’s frustrating, because we want to look at him. He knows it, too. You watch and you know he’s doing it on purpose. He’s teasing, like he always did.

Then you get to see him without the bandages… he looks ravaged but still beautiful. The voice is thinner, and rougher. The song and the video confront his own mortality very directly, but without a trace of self pity. There’s nothing maudlin; he isn’t trying to make you feel anything, or rather he isn’t trying to make you feel anything simple, like sadness. He’s staring at death the way he used to stare into space with his glassy faraway eyes. He’s seeing something the rest of us aren’t. It might be something terrifying, or it might be something wonderful, or it might be both. He’s not afraid. He’s reaching for it.

It takes a true warrior to make dying look cool. Maybe somehow I could be that strong, that honest, that self-assured and brave. I read you loud and clear, man.

 

 

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!

 

 

 

The Florida Film Festival Begins!

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The Florida Film Festival begins on Friday, April 4. If you’re in Orlando, I strongly urge you to check out the program and see a few of the excellent movies in their two-week lineup.

This year, the Festival asked some of us in the community to be curators of the Festival. I’m one of them, as are my friends John and Kristen.

Here’s a link to us and our fellow curators, with our selections and writeups linked to our photos:

http://www.floridafilmfestival.com/program/tastemakers

(Image above from one of my picks, the moving documentary Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution.)

The Academy Awards, and other disappointments

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“Life is disappointing,” says the Emcee in Cabaret, a movie that should have (and likely would have) won the Academy Award for Best Picture, if it hadn’t been for a little thing called The Godfather. As disappointments go, few things are more reliable than the Oscars, which have been letting us all down since Mary Pickford won the second Best Actress award for Coquette back in 1928.

At the time, Pickford was as famous as anyone has ever been — you could make a case for her as the woman who invented “stardom” as we know it, and who used her fame to gain total artistic control and real industry power. Those are the things she won for, because in Coquette she delivers a performance of astounding badness; she’s like Shirley Temple playing Scarlett O’Hara, minus the charm. That same year, the legendary Jeanne Eagles was nominated as a vicious murderess in The Letter, a high-wire act that 86 years later can still raise the hairs on the back of your neck. But then, Eagles was a drug addict… and more importantly, a stage actress. An outsider. Artistically, Pickford’s win is a sick joke, but in terms of industry politics, the concept of Mary Pickford winning an Oscar just as her era was ending is one of the most right things that ever happened.

That award set the precedent and the template for the Academy Awards: they’re only coincidentally a record of artistic achievement, but they’re a pretty reliable indicator of the history of Hollywood power, popularity, and groupthink. Put the details of the individual winning movies and performances aside, and the patterns come into sharper focus. There are lots of awards like Pickford’s, basically career achievement awards that certify the artist’s high standing with the industry and the public, and have little to do with the actual acting in question. Katharine Hepburn won three of them, in fact. They’re for three of her least impressive performances, as is her first, but the fact that she won four leading actress awards seems very right, and its a record one hopes will never be beaten. She’s Katharine Hepburn, for God’s sake. She should have four Oscars, even if they’re the wrong four.

One of the most consistent awards is the one for “seriousness,” with the examples too numerous to cite. They’re the Big Important Movies that grapple with some significant social issue… racism, alcoholism, anti-Semitism, the trauma of war, the evils of slavery. Many of these movies look pretty dull now, not just because being lectured is tedious, but because we’ve already gotten the point and moved on. Nothing dates faster than a previous generation’s idea of a moral lesson.

Actors vote for these things, so there’s a preponderance of Academy Award performances about one lonely soul’s journey against all the odds toward a state of grace. Matthew McConaughey is up for one tomorrow night, and he’ll probably win it — not as much for the performance, which is solid, as for his own journey from shirtless mimbo to serious Act-tor. Unless Chiwetel Ejiofor wins for his journey from obscurity to fame in one film, and for the Academy congratulating itself on learning to pronounce his name.

McConaughey also benefits from the I Transformed Myself Physically factor, which always helps you win acting awards, starting way back when beefy proletarian Paul Muni put on a beard and a pince-nez and won for playing Louis Pasteur (lonely soul cures rabies). Sometimes the results are phenomenal, like Charlize Theron playing Aileen Wuornos (lonely soul kills people), but would a chubby, homely actress — there must be a couple besides Lena Dunham — have won that Oscar? Probably not. There’s also the Leopard Changes its Spots award, for a performer who does something unexpected, like sweet Shirley Jones playing a whore in Elmer Gantry. The shock value of these performances often wears off fast, leaving future generations to wonder what the fuss was about. Jones is borderline amateurish in Elmer Gantry, but she was never going to win or even be nominated for The Music Man, so what the hell.

Every so often, there’s an Academy Award so perfect and so out of left field that you wonder how it ever happened. How on earth did a movie as awesome as Casablanca win? The Big Serious Oscar-thumping movies of that year were Watch on the Rhine, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Song of Bernadette and Madame Curie, all of them quite unwatchable now. Maybe they cancelled each other out. Casablanca isn’t just a well-made and entertaining movie… it’s a Thing. It’s schlock transfigured into art. It’s magic. These lone examples of timeless perfection intersecting with temporal awards are the real miracles of the Oscars, and maybe more interesting to contemplate than the beautiful losers that are so often cited. Like Citizen Kane or Raging Bull — two movies I find a chore to watch, myself, but which a lot of people find deeply affecting, or whatever. We all have our own lists, right? Mine would include such unlikely items as Kiss Me Deadly, Bonjour Tristesse, I’m Not There, Mysterious Skin, Kim Novak as Best Actress in Of Human Bondage…  Hell, Kim Novak in anything — give the woman a goddam special Oscar, will you? If only for trashing that piece of shit The Artist when everyone else in Hollywood thought it was so wonderful. Kim Novak is on a true lonely soul’s journey, but not the kind you get awards for.*

No, the list of Oscar winners is a very corporate, institutional list. It has the safety and solidity, the banal impressiveness, of a government building erected a century ago. It’s an historical record of where we put our money and our faith at different times, so to speak. Like the movies themselves, it’s way more about commerce than it is about art. If you watch the Oscars hoping for actual achievement to be recognized and rewarded, you’re bound to be disappointed.

As you will be if you go anywhere with that kind of attitude, Mister. So, life is disappointing? Forget about it! In here, life is beautiful, and Roberto Benigni is climbing over the seats to get onstage to get his award for playing a clown during the Holocaust.

 

* A few hours after this was written, Kim Novak appeared at the ceremony. Kim fucking Novak, the only survivor among the great 1950s goddesses. If it had been Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn up on that stage, the crowd would have gone nuts. Novak, who had the bad taste to keep on living, got excoriated for a bad facelift and was generally treated like a leper. Hooray for Hollywood.  

 

Curating the Florida Film Festival

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I’m excited and very honored to have been asked to be a Community Curator for the upcoming Florida Film Festival in April! In this role, I’ll help to recommend some of the 170 films being shown at this 10-day Festival of current, independent, and international cinema — my print and video commentary will be part of the marketing materials included with Festival communications.

The Festival features moviemakers from all over the world, many of whom are premiering their latest works at this event. There are also a variety of special screenings, celebrity guests, and events where film lovers can mingle with with filmmakers and celebrities over hand-crafted cocktails and a locally-sourced menu. The Festival is one more reason to feel great about living in Central Florida.

I’ll be posting more next month, after the announcement of the Festival program on March 12. In the meantime, information about the Festival can be found here:

http://www.floridafilmfestival.com/

“Late Movies” Blogathon: Swan Songs

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I’m pleased to join David Cairns’ Shadowplay for his annual blogathon. This year’s theme is The Late Show, and it’s a celebration of neglected late films of favorite filmmakers and actors. Here, we take a look at Just a Gigolo and Sextette, the final films of two great ladies of the screen. 

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Swan Songs

Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, two of the most famous women of the past century, had more in common than you might think.

Their paths first crossed at Paramount in the early sound era when Hollywood was raiding the stage for talent—the naughtier the better. Their dressing rooms stood side by side until both were purged from the contract list, after increasing censorship had made them more a liability than an asset. They were both on the list of stars famously declared “box office poison” by movie exhibitors late in the decade. Their careers temporarily on the skids, they met again at the second-rate studio Universal in 1939, where they each had a hit. And in 1954, they appeared in succession at the Congo Room at the Sahara in Las Vegas, for one-woman shows which reaffirmed their huge popularity and legendary status. They also liked each other, it seems, and maintained a long-distance friendship into old age.

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As performers, they did have little in common. Dietrich, the worldly Berliner, presented herself with wide-eyed mock innocence; her style was ironic, detached, disdainful. She was mistress of the feline art of pretending indifference, of seeming oblivious to her own impact while remaining utterly self-conscious. Multilingual, bisexual, a cross dresser, she played with gender like she played with everything else. Even men. In one of many letters, her close friend Ernest Hemingway wrote “What do you really want to do for a life work? Break everybody’s heart for a dime? You could always break mine for a nickel and I’d bring the nickel.” In public, he added: “If she had nothing more than her voice, she could break your heart with it. But she has that beautiful body and the timeless loveliness of her face.”

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You can tell a lot about a lady by her admirers, perhaps. Mae West’s most famous tribute came from the surrealist and absurdist Salvador Dali, who painted her face as an eerily empty room. The steely, mascaraed eyes are flat paintings; the flaring nostrils a misshapen fireplace; the pursed lips a sofa that might not be as inviting as it looks. A tough broad who snapped wisecracks out of the side of her mouth in a nasal Brooklyn rasp, West was 40 years old, five feet tall and around 140 pounds when she made herself a legend of the screen by sheer force of will. What Dali captured was her mysterious mixture of attraction and repulsion; her greatest gift might have been for making people extremely uncomfortable.

What Dietrich and West did have in common was that both were important and influential sexual pioneers. Both were women who slept with anyone they chose and paid no price for it (onscreen and in life). Ironists who sneered at men who wanted sentiment to be part of screwing. Aggressors who broke decisively with the Victorian image of passive, pure, weak femininity. And most of all, both were fanatically devoted to maintaining the image of themselves they had created: Dietrich as a sultry, mock-weary survivor, West as a boisterous carnal wit. This disciplined self-concern ensured them both unusually long careers, beginning on the stage in the 20s (earlier, in West’s case) and proceeding to films and concerts through the next four decades.

And each made her last appearance on film in the same year, 1978. Dietrich appeared in two scenes of the David Bowie vehicle Just a Gigolo; West starred in the film of her play Sextette. The amazing return of these two goddesses 50 years after their initial burst of fame should have been an occasion for rejoicing, but the reviews they received, and continue to receive, were not exactly worshipful.

On Dietrich, then aged 77:

“[She] plays the mistress of a gigolo service in a mummified appearance that suggests nothing more than the limitless possibilities of makeup.” “…the old face… in the merciful shadows of a hat… her voice… pains us as a parody of herself.” “Photographed through gauze and a veil from a distant camera, she croak[s] her song and a couple of lines in a pathetic reminder of past glories.”

On West, who was 85:

“[She looks] like a plump sheep that’s been stood on its hind legs, dressed in a drag queen’s idea of chic, bewigged and then smeared with pink plaster. The creature inside this getup seems game but arthritic and perplexed.” “She’s clearly not all there [and looks like] the peroxided living dead… In most shots her features resemble Mr. Potato Head accessories pinned into a shapeless pink blob.”

Ouch.

It’s not my purpose to rescue Just a Gigolo or Sextette from critical purgatory. They’re both dreadful films, in their very different ways, and you should do anything you can to avoid seeing them. Gigolo is a disjointed mess, with somnambulant actors wandering through elaborate sets with nothing interesting to say or do. The script, a series of floating cryptic remarks, is acutely painful to listen to. Sextette is acutely painful to watch: a farce in which the consummation of the 85-year-old West’s marriage with 34-year-old Timothy Dalton is continually, and thankfully, interrupted by her ex-husbands, the male U.S. Olympic team, and the leaders of the free world… all of whom have the hots for her. Sextette tries to get by as a good natured cartoon, but the winces come much more frequently than the laughs.

And yet, the fact that Dietrich and West were still in there pitching as Disco gave way to Punk seems valiant and heroic to me. The scathing reviews seemed to be punishing these ladies for the sheer fact that they’d grown old—not a crime, exactly.* Maybe disappointed expectations played a part in the almost hurt reaction. Dietrich and West were from an era where an entire studio system was devoted to elevating performers to godlike perfection. Everything—scripts, co-stars, photography, lighting, atmosphere—was designed to set off, and show off, personality. When that system began to fail them, they both returned to the stage, where technique, charisma and distance could offset the ravages of time. Having created such intensely powerful images, both were finally excoriated for attempting, and failing, to maintain them.

In a better movie, Dietrich might have pulled it off. She did Just a Gigolo strictly for the money, having been reduced to sad circumstances in the previous years. Forced to retire after being seriously injured in an inebriated fall off a concert stage, she was now old, crippled, drinking heavily, and on the verge of eviction from her Paris apartment for non-payment of the rent. A fee of $250,000 for two days’ work was announced, though in reality she accepted one-tenth of that amount. She had one scene with David Bowie, and these two icons of androgyny might have been able to create some real sparks… if they’d been in the same room. Instead, their scenes were shot in separate cities and spliced together. What with that disconnect, the phony dialogue, and her frailty, the scene has a tentative quality even beyond the zombified ambience of the film itself.

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But then, a bit later, she returns to sing.

“Just a Gigolo” was a popular song in Austria and then America in the late 20s, written originally to express the disillusion of a World War I soldier who is now reduced to being a hired dancer. A rinky-dink song, as David Lee Roth once demonstrated conclusively. Dietrich hated it, but knew it was integral to the film. Despite the intense pain and difficulty of moving, she sidles at a doorway before walking to the piano. It’s late in a deserted nightclub. The camera is very close at first. The piano player looks down, intent, as cigarette smoke rises. With a gloved hand, she pats the back of his head, her own head lowered. For a moment time seems to stand still as we get a glimpse of the face that enchanted Hemingway: a heavy-lidded eye, the familiar nose, lips, and cheekbones. Looking up to sing, she is aged of course, and vulnerable. Her voice is at once rough and thin, the phrasing labored and slow. But it works for her, as the song becomes the valedictory statement of a woman who has sold sex for half a century and now feels the onset of illness and death:

There will come a day
Youth will go away,
Then what will they say about me?
When the end comes I know
They’ll say “just a gigolo.”
And life goes on without me.

“When she was finished,” recalled director David Hemmings, “I was supposed to say ‘Cut!’ and I couldn’t. The moment was so charged and the spell she cast so total that the beats went by, one-two-three-four, until finally I came to my senses and said ‘Cut!’ and there was—literally—not a dry eye in the house.” It was Dietrich’s last moment on a sound stage, and though she lived another 14 years, she never allowed herself to be photographed again. She did make one more film, Maximillian Schell’s documentary Marlene, in which her refusal to appear is made the subject of the film. Schell’s camera seems to be chasing her through the billowing curtains of her empty apartment, as her recorded voice argues with him, insults him, lies to him, and dismisses him, as well as her entire life and achievement, as rubbish—“Quatsch!” She’s still utterly fascinating. And of course, she knew it.

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Mae West was in some ways a simpler personality. She did not drink; she didn’t smoke. She believed in the power of positive thinking, and ascribed her youthfulness to that and the regular use of colonics. Oh, and sex once a day. She chose her lovers from the ranks of prizefighters, gangsters, musclemen—including men of all races in an era when that could get you arrested (in fact she was arrested, but for her raucous play “Sex” rather than sex itself). These mostly anonymous men were not allowed to call her “Mae,” but only “honey” or “sweetheart” in private and “Miss West” in public. None was allowed to spend the night—Miss West slept alone. Famously, she had a mirror installed over the bed in her Hollywood apartment, and her comment on that (“I like to see how I’m doing”) got a late TV interview yanked from the air. Aware, perhaps, that she wasn’t the youngest, thinnest or prettiest woman around, she committed herself to a personal and professional life in which she was the fairest of them all.

Call it self-belief or self-deception, it’s on full display in Sextette. In a previous comeback at the age of 77, the unfairly maligned Myra Breckinridge, she seemed armored in clothing, wigs and hats. But here, eight years later, she wears low-cut gowns and negligees and looks fairly amazing for her age. However, her physical infirmity is evident, and in the end that’s what kills her act. Not so much because she’s not sexy—a good case could be made that Mae West was never “sexy” onscreen, but rather a comedian whose subject was sex. It’s because she’s no longer in complete control. She had the clout to get Sextette made, but at 85, not enough stamina to sustain it. After the premiere of the movie, a pretty sad occasion (I know because I was there, but that’s another story), she reportedly turned to her escort and said “I can’t think about that. I have to think about tomorrow.”

Wobbly as she seems, she does have a couple of lovely moments. The movie features several rock stars doing goofy turns, and they seem the right kind of excessive people to be hanging around Mae West; at one point Alice Cooper is singing something at a piano and she stands behind him with her hands on his shoulders, grinning with pleasure. She seems happy just to be there, though we may not feel that way, exactly. At another point she meets a young athlete who blurts out that he’s a pole vaulter, and she rolls her eyes and murmurs “aren’t we all?” as she saunters past him.

On her funny, loose DVD commentary on Myra Breckinridge, Raquel Welch complains that West didn’t connect with other performers, that she was essentially off doing her vaudeville act in a movie of her own. She wrote most of her own dialogue, and took the credit from any writer who helped. Onstage, she had other actresses darken their teeth so that hers would shine brightest. She fought with her directors, and if she lived in our time she would have probably functioned as her own director outright. She was her own Colonel Parker, keeping “Mae West” front and center and away from other performers, actors, and co-stars in a hermetically sealed universe. Everyone else in her movies is a feed and a stooge—her former lover George Raft, the ultimate stooge, appears in her last movie as in her first, thus closing a 50-year show business circle. This endless self-reference was meant to exalt her but ultimately limited her, and in Sextette it makes her seem a lost and pathetic figure—ironically, the very last thing she would have wanted.

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Better to remember her in Myra Breckinridge, in a musical number added to the movie after filming had wrapped. She plays a talent agent, so why she’s singing in a nightclub is anybody’s guess, but it’s not the kind of movie where you ask those kinds of questions. With men in tuxedos gyrating behind her, she coos and snarls out a kind of rap version of Otis Redding’s appropriately titled “Hard to Handle.” Still vital at 77 and looking more or less like a million bucks, she shimmies in her black and white dress, at one point ecstatically clutching her own hips, waist and breasts. She could have written the words herself; maybe she thought she did:

Action speaks louder than words
And I’m a girl with a great experience.
I know you had you another,
But I can love you better than any other.
Take my hand, come with me,
I wanna prove every word I say:
I wanna love you baby, gonna have you every day.
Good lookin’ thing, let me light your candle
Cause baby I’m sure hard to handle.

As a poet once wrote of West, “she loves herself… and the rest of us, who do not, can only look on in wonder.” This blazing Technicolor rock and roll number is a world away from Dietrich’s past-it-all Weimar fatalism. Youth will go away? Quatsch! But in her strength and sheer life force, West could be singing for both of them—warriors of sex who blazed a trail, took no prisoners, and lived to crow about it. Self-creators. Survivors. And in these last movies, to my eyes at least, more beautiful than ever.

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* There’s sexism at work here too: nobody said anything remotely similar about Fred Astaire in wig, white tie and tails, embarrassingly dance-hosting That’s Entertainment 2 around the same time at the age of 76.

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