Mutti Dearest. Daughter Dullest.

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Hollywood Books (Part Ein): Marlene Dietrich by Maria Riva

Ahh, Veteran’s Day not long ago. The leap of Spring is now long gone, along with the smoked salmon celebrations and the psyche-graveling guilt of Mother’s Day. Back in olden times, when dinosaurs played canasta and ice cubes could speak, AMC aired Mommy Dearest on repeat all day. As a nation we all settled in, savoring every moment as sulky Christina received the cleaning tips and financial abuse she so richly deserved!

But today I have put away childish things to dip my toes in a more sophisticated Hollywood mother/child battle, one in which European sophistication is routinely condemned by American complacency (and alongside each condemnation there floats the heavy, hamburger-ed scent of defensiveness).

I’m talking about the 1993 book, Marlene Dietrich, by her daughter, Maria Riva. If you haven’t read it, it’s a pippin.

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In one corner we have the face, the myth, the joyously intemperate, prudently slutty and self-absorbed monster of fabulous. 

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And in the other corner, Maria Riva. Who likes hot dogs and ice cream and lawnmowers and baseball and shit. But who also can write

This book is salacious in the grandest way possible: Riva’s a writer with no real concept of her own prejudices (she refers to women who are “openly” lesbian; I hear the sealed variety don’t get much action). But she does also provide quality gossip in absolutely clogging doses, each well-salted with a Teutonic tsk of disapproval. From bulimia to abortion to suspicious death, Marlena did it all with casual virtuosity and daughter in tow. In between these girlish hijinks Dietrich also ruined the sanity of her own husband’s mistress and gave Our Boys at the Front several rollicking doses of the clap–meanwhile proclaiming herself the perfect wife and mother.

But honestly, it’s Riva’s lack of self-awareness that brings acid to this mother/daughter Hollywood tale. Beneath Riva’s prickly pride in being a virtuous American wife and mother, in Plain Cooking and Homey Simplicity, is a deep suspicious certainty that her self-vaunted virtues are far less interesting than her mother’s secret vices. Anyone, anything–man, child, dog, cadaver, blades of grass, emery boards, whatever –would rather spend time on this planet being warmed by Dietrich’s hot voodoo madness than by Riva’s cold stew.

Riva is actually an odd sort of genius who both brilliantly depicts her mother’s kaleidascopic, cracked charisma and wetly rages against just how deep those cracks were. And how powerfully overwhelming the charisma.

So while I do acknowledge that life handed Riva a lemon on one front–Dietrich was beyond dispute a sable-coated monster with the face of a fallen angel and the ego of Caligula. One who dragged “the child” around continents, lying about the child’s age and alternating between smothering affection and cool indifference. But Dietrich also got Riva out of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and to a safe country where the child was educated and (as Edith Piaf snottily bitches) even gifted a Manhattan townhouse by her loving mutti. Many daughters have been both victims and veterans of crueller parental wars than this one.

So while my heart does go out, a bit, to poor Riva, always the dark moon to her mother’s blinding sunlight. But like the rest of the world my hat’s off to you, Lily-Marlene! With a coil of my long diamond-braceleted arm I will again pick up your daughter’s book to read, again, about the time you banged old Joe Kennedy. How your seaside antics do make me laugh. . .

 

A Star is Born, Again and Again

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Oh, autumn. I could howl from dread of winter’s approach. Evenings pull in as summer’s romantic dreams fade to sepia, then fall like brittle lace down to earth. Here in Manhattan it’s the season of tourists and torch songs, of ties worn but loosened in the lingering heat of the subway. Of stilettoed boots beating ambitious drumbeats against the pavement.

In this season of twilight the heart hungers for solace–and, brother, doesn’t Hollywood know it! Autumn’s the time for prestige pix, familiar weepies, and the gentling distance of nostalgia. If we’ve been very very lucky–and this year we are–we get a hum-fucking-dinger of a remake.

A Star is Born, 2018. 

That trailer goes down like a swift shot of bourbon after dinner with the ex: you knew you wanted it, you just didn’t know how much. Reviews vary between delirious and effusive. Gaga’s the real deal (somewhere screams ring through the air as Madonna plucks an acting teacher’s eyes out. . .) and apparently Bradley Cooper’s pulled off the kind of directorial debut that turns fox-eyed boys into legends. I haven’t seen it yet, but will be heading to the cinema on Saturday, along with my posse and 48 kleenex.

I first saw the original version of A Star is Born when I was 20, visiting a boyfriend in Boston for Valentine’s weekend.  He had to work, so I slouched around his apartment and rustled my hangover up a meal before flicking on the tube. Rinky-dink music came through, then suddenly I was awash with the soft pastels of early technicolor and — with wonderful lack of fanfare — the 1937 version of A Star is Born began. (It’s marvelous, the abruptness with which 30s movies often begin and end: no goddamn esoteric images or bloated scrolls of laudatory credits. They just bloody well get on with it.)

Anyway, I settled down, plate of eggs and b. firmly on my lap, and for the next 90 minutes rinsed my psyche in those fairytale pastels, transmuting hangover into tears via the enviably simplicity, the inevitable cruelty, of this old, old story.

If you’re one of the twelve people on the planet who haven’t seen A Star is Born in one iteration or the other — there are two previous remakes*; the 1954 one into which Judy Garland sank her genius and her self-pity, and the 1976 crap-fest where Kris Kristofferson fell beneath the death-grip of  Streisand’s acrylics — start with the 1937 version. It’s grounded by the genius of Frederic March, a scabrous script by Dorothy Parker, and real insider events from the Hollywood of the time. This is early Selznick, when he was still capable of irony, before dexedrine and pomposity straitjacketed his abilities. In 1937 he was also still sumptuously married to Hollywood royalty Irene Mayer and Gone with the Wind was firmly in his future. (It would both deify and destroy him.)

You will find many who adore the ’54 Garland version of A Star is Born. Me, I find it almost agonizing to watch, due to Warner’s brutal cuts and Garland’s choice to play Blodgett as the most self-pitying codependent in cinematic history. At times this movie flickers into vivid life, however, the aching brilliance of what-might-have-been. And it does miraculously contain Garland’s and the American film musical’s greatest five minutes of song. This simply-staged number is sui generis and, like Garland herself, made of finer metal than Oscar’s gimcrack gleam any day.

Soon I’ll lay down a few little riffs on how A Star is Born came to be such a deliciously poisoned box of Hollywood bon-bons. But right now, darlings, it’s time for a few beauty treatments.

Janet Gaynor gettin' prettified.

 

*NOTE: There’s also a warm-up to the ASIB movie, 1932’s What Price Hollywood?–also Selznick produced, and well worth a gander.

To Hell with God Damned “L’Amour” (A Letter from Noel Coward)

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By 1956, Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich had been friends for over two decades. One day, Coward received a letter from his old pal in which she lay out her broken heart and told a tale of humiliation. What should she do? How could she go on?

Immediately, the playwright sat down to write an answer. And it’s one for the ages. . .

But first, a little back-story:

Marlene Dietrich, the energetic, ageless iron butterfly of Hollywood + international cafe society, was dealing with something unprecedented: unrequited love. At the tail end of a five-year secret affair with the King of Siam, aka Yul Brynner (then the toast of Broadway in The King and I), she discovered herself behaving as her own conquests always had: waiting for phone calls; sending yearning glances across crowded rooms; receiving airy, dismissive promises of future assignations. Grateful for a drunken visit or a cinq-a-sept pounding before the King cleaned his sceptre and took it back to wifey.

Dietrich had never had to yearn. Yearning was for the ugly and the mortal. All she’d ever had to do was reach out a manicured hand and possess.

But Brynner was different. He proclaimed love, then left with a shrug. He promised forever but couldn’t even give flowers. How could this be? And why didn’t she stop it? Dietrich found herself so humiliatingly obsessed that she repeatedly followed Yul to Hollywood, then back to NYC. She kept herself to her best behavior, merely pausing for refreshing essentials like a brief ongoing affair with Sinatra. And Kirk Douglas. And Harold Arlen, Erich Remarque and Edward R. Murrow.

Lovely and attentive as these men were, Dietrich’s diaries during these years mention only one name with yearning, with passion–even desperation. Yul. 

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The 5:17 to an Ass-Kicking: Million Dollar Baby

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Moody, yet Macho.

We’ve all been reading about Eastwood’s new movie, a particularly Clintian broth boiling machismo down to the savory whiff of destiny. The 5:17 to Paris promises us heroes who’d been in training all their lives, unwittingly and otherwise. It sets itself up as a comforting alternative to our current reality, a world in which to be American is to be ready–and not ashamed. I’ll see the movie, and lick the popcorn butter off my fingers, and remember a time in which that seemed a possibility. ‘Cos it sure doesn’t feel that way anymore.

But all the publicity made me think of my favorite Eastwood movie, one seasoned with the regret and loss of age plus the transformative zest of friendship. Plus pie. And that’s Million Dollar Baby. 

I once read an article in London’s Evening Standard in which a journalist took England’s most famous female boxer, Cathy Brown, to see Million Dollar Baby. Brown had recently knocked out Hungarian Viktoria Varga after just two rounds– exactly the type of fight Hilary Swank’s character, Maggie, excels at in the film. I’ve seen the film again recently and nowadays it’s even more satisfying to watch Swank swing out a meaty arm and knock someone senseless. I just wish we could CGI a #metoo tattoo on her knuckles.

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Another City, Another Life. . .

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Since reading an Economist’s report on the competitiveness of global cities, I’ve been thinking about just what makes a city livable, and indeed how one thinks of cities at all. I have lived in many cities and, as a born romantic, never once asked myself the Economist’s practical question–how does this town compete in terms of physical and human capital? Never mused about what’s up with a burg’s institutional competitiveness.

Or I think I haven’t. As I actually read this chart and took in the (rather contradictory) concept of livability being equated with competitiveness, I began to think about the cities in which I’ve lived–and made a surprising realization.

I’ve always anthropomorphized them. Each city seems to me to have its own very particular personality, to the extent that I can not only give each a gender and an age, but also character qualities and often quite a bit of backstory. These are amusing fancies, though not nearly as impressive as those of my British ex, who has synaesthesia and glamorously associates days of the week with color (Friday is black and therefore suits everyone).

However, I will tell you this about the Economist’s analysis on this subject: compared to my own system, it tells you nothing, nothing, truly useful about a city. The best way to get the vibe of a town before you go is to ask two people — one a native of that town and the second a recent arrival — a single question:

If this city were a person, how would you describe them?

What do I mean? Here are examples from three cities in which I’ve lived:

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The Life of a Sex Zombie

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Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake was in my living room yesterday morning, poised and bored, with the lissome form of a young dancer and the dead eyes of.  . .well, the eyes of someone who’s seen Veronica Lake’s future.

Which wouldn’t be a cheery vision.

In the watchful coolness of this siren’s gaze, you’d be right to sense that although so gleamingly young, this was somebody who’d already encountered choppy waters. After a troubled childhood, Veronica Lake–nee Constance Ockelman–had lost her father to an industrial explosion, and later was kicked out of a Catholic Girl’s School for rebellious behavior (which seems to me indicative both of intelligence and possession of a spine). Lake was moved down south, where she was simultaneously lauded as the most beautiful girl in Miami High and diagnosed with mental illness.  Continue reading

The Great and Powerful Roz

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Hey, Brother–Can You tell ’em I’m no Lady?

Just now, while flicking Jungle Red fingernails through the spammed questions I receive for this blog, I noticed the sort of query I usually relish (since it would lead us straight to Kenneth Anger territory– I am worryingly familiar with that dirty turf).   The question was: “Could you tell me more about classic Hollywood’s grubby underbelly?” 

Why yes, friend, I could.  I absolutely could be a tour guide though Hollywood Babylon, leading you by your soft hand as we stroll by the “Hollywood” sign, where Peg Entwhistle jumped from the “H” to her death in 1932.  Then we’d wander near the house David Niven and Errol Flynn shared, which some wag* nicknamed “Cirrhosis by-the Sea.”  I could talk about Harlow’s Hubby’s death dildo and Jeff Chandler’s yen to wear polka-dot dresses.  Or about how Bogart used to hide under tables while his wife Mayo got into bar fights.  I could talk about all kinds of salacious useless crap, and quite often do.

But, dear reader, not today.  Today my nails are sharp but my spirit is yielding. Today I choose not to focus on the weary negativities of life, the injustices, imbalances, and the thrush-inducing mornings-after the night before.  So I won’t do a tour of syphilitic Hollywood, and not only because that’d be one lo-ong essay to write of a lovely October day.

Today I want to talk about lighter and rarer things than a rollicking dose of the clap.  Instead I want to discuss a truly great comic performance:  A great Female comic performance that is more balls-to-the wall than any other piece of acting in that annus mirabilis of 1939, and which should’ve put all that sexist nonsense about “Are Women Funny” to rest before WWII.  As if Mabel Normand herself didn’t do it decades before. . . Continue reading

The Undertow

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I recently re-read a USA Today article on our national disgrace–no, not that one. This stomach-churner didn’t even make the front page, though it’s moved to the center of many of our lives: Big Pharma is encouraging geriatricians to prescribe—and then keep prescribing—opiates at a feverish pace.

As Dr. Mel Pohl of the Las Vegas Recovery Center points out in the article’s online video, the US has four percent of the world’s population but 80% of its opioid users. And why’s that? Because America just keeps taking out its prescription pad. The video features a number of heartbreaking stories—including that of 67-year-old Betty Van Amburgh, who was prescribed “a constant changing of medications” after back surgeries and ended up  treacherously addicted. Van Amburgh entered rehab with a shopping bag full of prescribed fentanyl, hydrocodone, and Xanax. She was nearly unconscious, yet still in pain.

This medical system is rendering our parents comatose, but no one’s taking responsibility because they don’t yet know what else to do. . .plus there’s just so much money to be made from pain.

And it breaks my heart.

I visited my mother a few weeks ago. It was all the same: The bedroom smelling of urine; the nest of a bed, the tray of pills and white tablets scattered everywhere. I could grab one so easily. I hear they’re—Oh, I hear they’re delicious.

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Monroe: Some Kind of Mirror

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Marilyn MonroeIn just over a decade, she worked with the greatest directors in Golden Age Hollywood: Huston, Wilder, Cukor, and Hawks. Moviegoers paid $200,000,000 to watch her project her trademark combination of atomic-age sexuality and childlike, vulnerable astuteness. She was born into an orphan’s chaos and lived the shadowy Los Angelean life of a Raymond Chandler character—losing her soul in a struggle for acceptance, and then her life trying to re-find it.

I did what they said and all it got me was a lot of abuse. Everyone’s just laughing at me. I hate it. Big breasts, big ass, big deal. ~MM

It took me a while to like her at all. It was clear, early on, that she wasn’t for or about me. She was about Men and playing the game by their rules, contorting herself into their ideal, sublimating her rage into their ultimate frustration. The inimitable Billy Wilder might be the director most connected to the celluloid Monroe image, having directed her in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot. Of working with Monroe he said, “I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and they tell me I’m too old and too rich to go through this again.” Continue reading

Missing the Adrenaline Rush

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(Originally in the Guardian Weekend Magazine, by Dana D. Burnell)

I always knew there was something wrong with my heart. No other kid collapsed on the ground after playing, cradling their chest. It was only me, with a pain I instinctively ignored. At nine, I leapt from windows on to ice-hard lawns. At 12 I played in Chicago streets, tormenting drivers until they swerved their cars towards me.

In my early 20s, at school in Maine, I’d fallen for a broken-nosed Brooklynite who seemed as misplaced in New England as I was. One night I sat watching him play pool in the local dive bar. I had one beer, but felt dizzy. The room around me smudged into rapidly moving forms. Black and white linoleum rolled beneath my feet as I stumbled to the door.

A man’s face loomed enormously. “Honey, are you OK?” Gripping my elbow, he led me to the parking lot. My boyfriend appeared as I fainted backwards, my skull falling like an anvil against the rough cement. Continue reading