Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Month: October, 2011

Private Parts

“There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, although recent years have provided a number of exceptions. Figures as varied as Al Gore (former V.P. and failed presidential candidate, now international environmentalist icon), Steve Jobs (Apple founder, then Apple exile, then Apple savior) and Rosie O’Donnell (interrupting her sporadic career as a bubbly daytime TV host with bouts of angry activism) all demonstrate why the obsessives who update Wikipedia biographies get so little sleep.

And while an actor would love to get a regular part on a beloved, long-running TV series, it is a mixed blessing: with fame and financial security comes the straightjacket of being trapped in a specific character in the public’s mind. While Kramer, Niles and Phoebe may now exist only in reruns, they cast long shadows on the careers of Michael Richards, David Hyde Peirce and Lisa Kudrow.

It’s probably why Sarah Jessica Parker, who had an interesting if not A-list movie career as a young character actress prior to ‘Sex and the City’, has had a difficult time since taking off her Carrie Bradshaw shoes. In her latest film ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ she played a financial advisor who was also a mother, two positions very difficult to imagine Sarah Jessica/Carrie filling.

But, as the giant ‘Sex and the City’ nerd that I am, I only want the best for those ladies. So when I first spotted the fabulously art deco posters for a revival of Noël Coward’s ‘Private Lives’ starring Kim Cattrall (alongside ‘Due South’s Paul Gross), I felt it my duty to attend.

I should admit, though, that, unlike a lot of gay boys out there, Cattrall’s Samantha was never my favourite. I related to Carrie’s romantic yearning and idealism about how life should be (as well as her occasional incoherent incompetence) and cheered on Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda as she provided the show’s feminist voice and demonstrated that beneath toughness can be insecurity. But the cartooniness of Samantha (her porno situations, her over-acted orgasms, the garishly bright colours of her outfits) seemed to personify the worst things people thought about the show.

But my Mother (yes, my Mom and I stay up late watching old ‘Sex and the City’ episodes together), noted an occasional softness in Cattrall’s performance. As the oldest character she suggested a wisdom and far-sightedness the other ladies’ in-the-moment reactions lacked.

When I bought tickets to ‘Private Lives’ for the two of us online, my Mom made me paranoid that Cattrall might sit out some performances. While I understand that every actor needs an understudy and that ‘the show must go on’, as the date of the performance drew nearer, I feared that little piece of paper stuck in the program which would inform us that “Sitting in for Ms. Cattrall…”

There’s the paradox of it: while I support Kim Cattrall moving on with her career and playing different parts, I, like many people at the theatre, bought tickets because I was familiar with her from TV. She could win the Nobel Peace Prize and in the first paragraph of the news story would be the sentence, “best known for her role as Samantha Jones on ‘Sex and the City’…”

The rain was pouring down as people crowded under the illuminated marquee of the Royal Alexander theatre. As we stood in the lobby, Mom in a scarf and me in a bow tie (my nod to the fashions of the 1930’s), we flipped though our programs.

“Oh no,” Mom said, discovering a little slip of white paper.

“At this performance,” it read, “due to the indisposition of Paul Gross the role of Elyot will be performed by Gareth Clarke.”

I audibly sighed. “Thank goodness it was just him,” I said.

“I’m disappointed,” my Mom said. “I wanted to see Paul Gross.”

The play itself is a painfully witty and sophisticated concoction, at once as classic and of its time as a 1930’s martini glass. It begins on a luxurious hotel terrace in Deauville, France. Two couples are celebrating their honeymoons next door to each other. The audience learns that the wife of one pair, Amanda (Cattrall), and the husband of the other, Elyot (not Paul Gross), were not only both married before, but married to each other. When they discover one another what follows is one of the funniest exchanges of awkwardness and mounting anger ever put on the stage, and it reminds one how much sitcoms owe to their drawing room comedy forebears.

Most of the past revivals of ‘Private Lives’ have stuck to the dry, deadpan delivery of Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward in the original production. (Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery even based their performances for the 1931 film version on a recording of that show.)

Cattrall delivers her lines both broader and more realistically, speeding up when she’s upset and occasionally dropping into a demonic shriek when muttering something nasty. Her voice, which sometimes sounded stagey on ‘Sex and the City’, fits nicely with a British accent. (Cattrall was born in England, but grew up in British Columbia.)

It must be noted that Cattrall, who’s playing a part she’s twenty years older than, looks beautiful and incredibly youthful on stage. Although she spends much of the play in dressing gowns, when she steps out in a bias-cut gold evening column, you could almost hear the audience gasp.

And since we’ve admitted and accepted that Kim Cattrall will never fully escape Samantha Jones, what is it like to hear Coward’s sophisticated lines (“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”) coming from the mouth which once declared, “My boyfriend has the funkiest-tasting spunk”?

With Cattrall in the role, we can better see Elyot and Amanda for their modern hedonism, contrasting with the boring traditionalism of their new spouses. Elyot has a speech defending treating life “flippantly”, which could almost be a founding manifesto of Camp, and Amanda keeps up with her desires to be “wild”. Dare I even suggest that there are some proto-Samantha lines, such as when Elyot claims it’s natural for women to have less affairs and Amanda shoots back, “It’s useful for men for women to have less affairs!”

As they took their bows, Cattrall grabbed Clarke’s hand and allowed the cast and audience to give him a special round of applause, to which he humbly nodded. As a survivor of stage and screen, she knows that, as difficult as it is to be in the shadow of a TV character, for an understudy to emerge from the shadow of the absent star is even harder.

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Jessica Rabbit

I love this photo of a Barnum and Bailey circus performer in 1946. Isn’t she pretty? And her fur is as sweet as cotton candy. It reminds me of a photoshoot you’ll see in the upcoming WORN Fashion Journal No. 13. There’s more pics like these, and many others of equal interest, on the How To Be Retronaut blog. I have been wasting a lot of time there.

Hey McFly!

Read my post about Marty McFly’s awesome shoes in ‘Back to the Future II’ on the WORN blog. Great Scot!

“Constructed truth; very much in vogue these days. Construction workers too.”

— James McCourt, Queer Street 

Happy, Happy Turkey Day

The film makers of the Addams Family movies had a difficult task; how to keep the spirit of the original 1960’s sitcom, which was inspired by Charles Addams’ macabre cartoons for The New Yorker, while moving past the one-joke premise (“They’re creepy and they’re kooky…” the cartoony theme chimed.)

Their solution was brilliant. They simply rotated the perspective. So while the 1990’s versions of Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester and the rest of the clan were still “creepy and kooky”, they were the ones we related to. They were a foil for mocking the superficiality and latent racism of conformist, suburban, Republican America.

Even the title of the sequel, ‘Addams Family Values’, subverts a conservative catch phrase, while acknowledging that the family, despite their ghoulishness, does actually have values; Gomez and Morticia are lustily devoted to each other; the Addamses promote family pride and tradition; Wednesday and Pugsley enjoy playing together, albeit at killing one other.

The Addams Family as stand-ins for society’s outcasts is never made more clear than in the Thanksgiving scene in the sequel. Wednesday and Pugsley are sent to the conformist Camp Chippewa, where the Fascistically cheerful counselors force them to play sports, watch ‘The Sound of Music’ and take part in the end of session play, which commemorates the first Thanksgiving despite it being late summer. All of the rich, blonde, rhinoplastied kids get to be the pilgrims. All of the Jewish, black, middle-eastern, overweight, bespectacled and children with disabilities are cast as the Indians, with Wednesday as their leader, Pochahontas.

When Christina Ricci commits her sweet revenge (the likes of which hadn’t been seen on film since Carrie was crowned Prom Queen) she is acting for everyone who ever felt like the underdog. For this reason, the Addams Family can be seen as ‘queer’ while featuring no homosexuality, although I have my suspicions about Wednesday.

‘A Lady Is A Lady, After All’

At the WORN office the other day we were talking movies, like we do, and the much-maligned ‘Sex and the City 2’ came up.

“It is literally the worst movie ever made,” one of the Wornettes claimed.

“No,” I sighed. “It is not literally the worst movie ever made.”

My objection came less from loyalty to Carrie and company and more from my problem with the continued watering down of the word ‘literally’. It does not mean ‘really’. ‘Literally’ literally means literally. That’s all.

Sure, you may balk at ‘Sex and the City 2’s materialism, it’s stiletto-heel-thin plot line and its treatment of an Arab country as an exotic backdrop for frothy fun, but are the shadows of the camera men visible? Does the story, unbelievable as it may be, at least make logical sense? You may not be laughing at the jokes, but at least you’re not laughing at the serious dialogue.

There are hundreds of films worse than ‘Sex and the City 2’.

Literally.

Two movies, both alike in indignity, in Fair Hollywood where we lay our scene: ‘Glen or Glenda’ (1953) or ‘Myra Breckinridge’ (1970).

On the surface, the pair would seem to have little in common: one was a low-budget exploitation flick to titillate drive-in audiences in the conservative fifties; the other, a would-be blockbuster from a major studio, based on a best-selling book, staring a sex symbol and a couple of fossilized Hollywood legends.

But the two films, which both deal with cross-dressing and gender confusion (albeit, making opposite points), have more in common than just their inanity. ‘Glen or Glenda’ and ‘Myra Breckinridge’ redefine what it means to be bad. And the stories of how they were made are as interesting as what ended up on screen.

In the early 1950’s, inspired by the public’s interest in Christine Jorgensen, the first person to make news for having sex reassignment surgery, B-movie producers rushed to get sex change movies into the theatres while the story was still hot. Ed Wood, the unknown scriptwriter with no previous film directing experience, pushed his way in to direct what was then called ‘I Changed My Sex’. Along with wanting to be a legitimate director, Wood had a secret motivation: he was a secret cross-dresser and wanted to show the world that that was no great sin.

The resulting film, which is one part preachy public service announcement and one part coked-out nightmare of devils, vampires and sadomasochistic porno, must be seen to be believed. Wood stars as a regular, all-American guy named Glen (the narration makes a big deal that his character is heterosexual) who happens to feel comfortable in women’s clothing. Playing his oblivious fiancé was Dolores Fuller, Wood’s real life girlfriend who, in an incredible bit of art imitating life, didn’t know about Wood’s cross dressing while making the film.

In Tim Burton’s loving tribute movie ‘Ed Wood’ (1994) she is played by Sarah Jessica Parker, a reminder that she once had a successful film career.

Hovering above the action is Bella Lugosi, the original Dracula, who by this point was a drug addict and un-hirable. Wood befriended him and gave him the part of ‘The Scientist’, a would-be narrator who doesn’t narrate so much as sit in an armchair and yell, through his Hungarian accent, insane things like “Pull the strings!” and “Beware of the big, green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys, puppy dog tails and big, fat snails.”

At the end of the movie, Glen confesses to his fiancé that he enjoys wearing women’s clothing and she, after a pregnant pause, (spoiler alert!) hands over her angora sweater. One can only imagine all the thoughts which went through the producers’ heads when Wood dropped off the film roll, but we know at least two complaints: the film was too short and featured no sex change operation. They had ordered a movie to cash in on people’s interested in (what was then considered) a freakish operation. Wood had given them the opposite: a movie about a normal guy who just happens to like angora sweaters.

“Glen is not a homosexual,” the narrator intones. “Glen is a transvestite, but he is not a homosexual.” This line is delivered as the viewer is shown shady men, presumably gays, lighting cigarettes for each other under street lights. One of the greatest ironies of ‘Glen or Glenda’ is that, fifty years later, homosexuals are winning the PR war, while straight men who cross-dress (not transgendered people) are as little talked about and understood as they were in the 1950’s.

To fill up the rest of the movie, they tacked on a second plot (‘Alan or Anne’) which featured a sex change operation, and an extended fantasy sequence with women writhing around on sofas in their underwear. By the time Bella Lugosi’s is cross-cut, supposedly reacting to the sexy ladies with arched upside-down ‘V’ eyebrows and pursed lips, my friend Jeremy and I were laughing so much we had pause the DVD.

Which leads to an interesting conundrum: the movie is undoubtedly horrible, but if you get so much pleasure from it that you are practically crying with laughter, should it really be considered bad?

‘Glen or Glenda’, though bizarre, is watchable. ‘Myra Breckinridge’ is not.

Based on the slim but engrossing novel by Gore Vidal, ‘Myra’ was 20th Century Fox’s attempt to tape into the Swinging Sixties youth market. But by 1970, when the film came out, the killings at Altamont and the Charles Manson murders had cost the flower children some of their bloom. But that was only the beginning of problems for this cursed production.

The book told the story of Myra, a knock-out beauty who is obsessed with old movies (she alleges that the entire range of human emotions was filmed by Hollywood between 1935 and 1945) and who is on a mission to exterminate the traditional male. She claims to be the widow of an effeminate man named Myron and blackmails his uncle, a former cowboy film star, into hiring her as a teacher at his mediocre acting school. Myra takes an interest in a hunky student named Rusty, graphically penetrating him in the climax scene. By the end (spoiler alert!) we discover the beautiful Myra is actually Myron after a sex change.

It seemed to everyone that the plot was unfilmable, but one of the most frustrating things about the making of ‘Myra Breckinridge’ is the movie that could have been. Gore Vidal wrote the first toned-down screen treatment, which was promptly rejected by the studio for being too conservative. Vidal disassociated himself from the production and has said bitchy things about it ever since.

There was also talk of getting legendary director George Cukor (who, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, made the type of movies the character Myra cherishes). Instead, Fox hired Michael Sarne, a novelty song-writer and occasional actor from England with one film credit to his name. Fox wanted a director who wouldn’t follow established rules; Sarne wouldn’t even follow the elementary rules of movie making.

Until you submit yourself to ‘Myra’, in which entire scenes are incomprehensible and seemingly pointless, you don’t know bad movies.

Although he auditioned drag queens and transgendered actors for the lead, Sarne eventually approached sex symbol Raquel Welch, who was eager to be taken seriously as an actor. Although I admire her chutzpah, why Welch ever thought playing a former-man who rattles on about Tarzan films and rapes people would make her a legitimate actor God only knows.

Wearing brightly-coloured, 1940’s inspired outfits with matching hats (looking like some whacked-out drag version of Joan Crawford), Welch digs into the role with energetic gusto. You can sense her desperation for this to be a good picture just below the surface, and hers is the only performance which matches the cartoony camp-ness of the film.

In a smaller part, Sarne coaxed Mae West, queen of the suggestive double entrendre, out of retirement. West, of famous lines like “Is that a rifle in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”, was the original Samantha Jones. In her seventies and blanketed in black and white Edith Head gowns and a high-piled blonde wig, West delivers her dirty jokes in the exact way she did in her twenties (in the ‘20s!). She was fanatically jealous of Welch, and legends abound of her stealing her costumes and refusing to share a scene with her.

Everybody on set was on edge. Nobody trusted anyone. They began shooting before the script was finished and Welch ran to her dressing room in tears, perhaps sensing the train wreck she had attached her career too. Sarne would spend hours tinkering with the props for unimportant scenes, or would disappear to “think” about his next step. A heavy haze of marijuana smoke engulfed the lot.

Sarne became convinced that the studio was going to take the film away from him. Remarkably, they didn’t, even though they probably should have.

Fox even allowed the director full access to their archives, so to punctuate certain scenes Sarne inserted old clips of Laurel and Hardy, Mareline Dietrich and Judy Garland. At the climax of a scene featuring a blow job, he placed a clip of little Shirely Temple milking a cow and getting sprayed in the face. This clip got an especially warm reception from the test screening in San Francisco, but a letter was sent from the White House on behalf of Ms. Temple (who was an ambassador) and the scene was pulled.

One wonders what the character of Myra would have thought of Sarne sullying classic movie clips and Old Hollywood actors by using them to make dirty visual puns.

Obliviously buoyed by the good reception in San Francisco (studio execs had not yet realized that the taste of gay men wasn’t always the same as the taste of the mainstream), the film makers began to think that, despite all the drama that had gone into its making, they might remarkably have a hit on their hands.

“About as funny as a child molester,” cried the most famous review. Although curiosity spurred some early attendees, ticket sales plummeted soon after ‘Myra’ opened, and took purchases of the book down with them. Everyone involved allowed Sarne to take the blame and, having become a leper in Hollywood, he went back to England.

I’m most sympathetic towards Welch, who wanted so much from this movie and got so little. Her career survived (although she never became the acclaimed actor she wanted to be), but she did get to do a duet with Miss Piggy. Interviewed for the DVD release, looking remarkably similar to have she did in the 1970’s, Welch is candid and self-effacing about the disaster which was ‘Myra’.

Interestingly, ‘Glen or Glenda’, made during the red-baiting early 1950’s, is the film which argues that people who cross dress are just like everyone else. Although a satire, the cross-dressing character in ‘Myra Breckinridge’ is as large a threat to tradition, normalcy and the manhood of everyday blokes as conservatives would fear. Glen may wear angora because he likes the feel, but Myra pulls on pumps to start revolution.

You could claim that certain aspects of ‘Myra Breckinridge’ were ahead of its time, like the recycling of old movie clips and the movie’s proto-post-modern editing. Its mixture of the elevation of the frivolous (Myra’s love of old movies and retro fashions) with its questioning of the traditional male foretold the creation of Queer Studies, which would combine these disparate ideas. ‘Myra’, of course, has garnered a cult following. For a movie as bizarre as this one, it would be surprising if it didn’t.

But ‘Myra’ is bad. It’s a bad film. While ‘Glen or Glenda’ is unintentionally hilarious and ‘Myra’ is a terrible movie.

Remember it next time you’re ready to judge Kim Cattrall purring “Lawrence of my labia” in the desert.