Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: A Star is Born

Orange Crush

Where did this come from? Is it all a dream? The election no one wanted, the election no one cared about, the election that must fight for air time against what dress an unemployed British girl may or may not wear to her wedding, might now become historic seismic shift, a transformative moment in Canadian politics.

I’ve been following it pretty closely but even I was caught off guard by the NDP’s ‘surging’ poll numbers, the ‘orange crush’ that swept Quebec and is now moving across the country. Even dyed-in-the-wool supporters were shocked with the polls this weekend that show the New Democrats ahead of the Liberals and poised to be the official opposition. Never before has this happened and it’s still difficult to believe it will.

Up until recently, Jack Layton was  treated as a third party/third wheel, patronized by reporters who didn’t understand why he still didn’t get it was a two-person race. After the debates, as he claimed that more and more Canadians were hearing his message, a reporter in a yuppie suit (taking notes on his blackberry) snapped “But you say that every time and you still lose!”

“Are you kidding?” Jack replied. “We’ve won more seats in each of the last elections.”

How did this happen? Well, people obviously like Jack. He is an appealing fellow. He’s also been around enough that voters think they know him and what he’s about. EKOS pollster Frank Graves referred to him as that kind of average, Tim Hortons guy. While Americans pick a president who they’d like to get a beer with after hours, we Canadians, of a milder temperament, prefer our elected leaders to dunk Tim-bits. Graves also credits Jack’s cheeriness, the inspiring story of his battle with cancer and the overall positivity of the NDP campaign. Ads like the one below pratically scream ‘Yes We Can!’

But even as an NDP supporter, I must admit that a vote for Jack is also a vote against the other leaders. The Green Party’s numbers collapsed early on and haven’t rebounded. And, even though his core supporters stay loyal, only the most dedicated Conservative voter gets warm and fuzzy thinking about Stephen Harper.

But the biggest drop is inarguably that of Michael Ignatieff and the hapless Liberals. He must be wondering why the Trudeau-mania-style excitement which was supposed to be his has ended up boosting his opponent. I must once again quote James Mason in ‘A Star is Born’: “A career is a very curious thing. Talent isn’t always enough.” Timing is, of course, essential (seeing your chance and seizing it) but most important is that “little something extra”, that difficult to define but impossible to fake star quality. Jack has it. Ignatieff does not.

It looks like the Liberals, once Canada’s ‘natural governing party’, will witness their third disastrous election in a row, and their second leader who will be unceremoniously dropped once all the ballots are counted. A man who probably should have stayed in the ivory tower of academia will most likely return to his essays and books, his head spinning from his tumultuous foray into the messy world of politics.

Who knows if it will last, but for now, my Mom is running around the house, ruing that “the one election I don’t work in is the one we win!”

Still, there’s five days to go.

And Kate might choose ivory.

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Macbeth and Macarons

When it rains, it pours, which is how in one week I went from desperately begging for jobs (I even considered going back on the ol’ Vaudeville circuit) to having two at the same time. This is why my posting has been sparse in the last little while, as I’m sure you, my loyal reader, have noticed.

Suddenly, my life is very busy and it’s all about Macbeth and macarons.

I’ll start with the macarons. Finding a job is not just about talent. Talent is often not enough. As James Mason says in ‘A Star is Born’ you have to recognize an opportunity when it comes along and grab it. When a fabulous new Wornette mentioned that her chocolate shop had lost three workers in a row, I guessed that they were probably hiring. I showed up the next evening with my resume, the manager was right there and I was hired on the spot.

It is the fanciest place I’ve ever worked. It is also the most beautiful. I would describe the decor as that of a gay interior designer in the early-1960’s who was given the budget of an Old Hollywood fantasy and took that as his inspiration. And I mean that complimentary. It’s Audrey Hepburn and Paris in gleaming white and neon pink.

One of our specialties is our macarons, which I’ve been instructed to pronounce in the French way and never ‘macaroons’. They are soft and chewy, made fresh daily and come in all the colours of the pastel rainbow. They really are a bit of flaky heaven.

I had already started there when I received word that I got a job as an usher at a theatre which performs Shakespeare for high school kids, a job I applied for completely on a whim. I thought, if I’m going to be getting paid minimum wage for standing around (and yes, I had given up finding a ‘grown-up’ job again, here defined as any job in which you get to sit), I might as well be learning Shakespeare. And anything to be closer to the stage…!

I showed up for my first day and asked the other usher which play we were doing.

“Mackers,” she replied.

I almost uttered the name of the play she had avoided, caught myself and said “Oh, the Scottish play!”

For those not in the know, theatre people are quirkily commited to their traditions and one of the oldest is that ‘Macbeth’ is a cursed play and to say its name in a theatre is to bring on bad luck. Supposedly, it all goes back to the rumour that Shakespeare used some actual witches’ spells for the chants of the ‘Weird Sisters’ and a litany of productions that suffered some kind of catastrophe followed.

Now, stuff goes wrong in theatre all the time and, as one actor put it, “it’s a play where people run around in the dark with swords,” so some accidents are inevitable. While I enjoy the theatrical culture (it is partly why I took a job in which I herd teenagers into straight lines, a more difficult task than one expects), I am a die-hard skeptic and I have to scoff a bit at anyone who tells me what not to say based on superstition.

Turns out one of the actors felt the same way and made a big point of yelling the name of the play during a Q&A session after the first performance. That very afternoon, the trap door on the wooden platform where most of the action takes place broke open just as Lady Macduff was being strangled, sending her two feet down towards the stage. With a cord around her neck, she could’ve been killed, but because the actor who was ‘murdering’ went down with her, she was fine.

Like a trouper, she kept acting, which meant yelling “MURDER!” so, as her accompaning actor said, “I had to keep the scene going as well and continue to strangle her.” Amazingly, everyone was fine, but they still sealed up the trap door.

So now, when keener students ask about ‘the curse’ the company all chuckle and knock the wood of the stage. One of the actors points out that, considering what could have happened, the fact that nobody was injured is more of a blessing than a curse, but the others see it as a “warning”. As one of the actresses put it, “Weird shit happens with this play.”

Next week we start ‘Romeo and Juliet’, so the only M-word I’ll have to worry about accidentally slipping out is “macaroon”.

The Pilgrimage

Emily Dix and I love Judy Garland. During our second shift together, after learning that she enjoyed classic cinema, I eventually ventured “How do you feel about Meet Me in St. Louis?” We’ve indulged in our obsession ever since. Our coworkers became quickly frustrated with our multiple conversations on the backstage drama of The Wizard of Oz and joked that the first interview question put to potential-hires should be “Do you like Judy Garland?” We took to talking about her furtively, but on closing shifts when it was just the two of us we’d stack the CD player and then drown it out singing along. This also turned out to be the fastest way to empty the store at the end of the night.

So when she found out that the Cinematheque at the AGO was showing A Star is Born, Judy’s melancholy masterpiece, we had to go.

No matter what.

The last time I saw the film was right before I left for Ireland. I spotted a photocopied poster on Queen West with an illustration of Judy doing the famous ‘framing face’ gesture, next to a design for Battleship Potemkin.  Reg Hart, who was described to me, by a member of Team Macho no less, as “prophet without a flock”, was showing the two movies as part of a “GAY FILM MAKERS TRIBUTE FOR PRIDE”. (A Star is Born was made by George Cukor, a great director from the golden age who specialized in ‘women’s pictures’ and was surprisingly open about his homosexuality).

I invited my friend Jeremy and only as we had dinner at Mars diner on College before hand did I tell him that the film wasn’t being shown at a real movie theatre. Rather, Reg Hart shows them on a big screen in his converted living room, with movie posters and bookcases with Edward Gorey memorabilia crowding on each side. He let us bring wine, though: “Pretend you are in Europe” read the poster.

Jeremy is not a huge musical person, and I feel very protective of A Star is Born, so I was nervous. But he liked it, and wrote the whole experience off as a crazy, Toronto night, and we remained friends.

But I was really excited to see it on an actual big screen and with a real audience. Emily and I had planned to go for at least a month, plenty of time for me to come up with an outfit. I ended up wearing a bright red shirt (bold, 1950’s lipstick-red is a thematic colour throughout the entire film) and a twee bow-tie, my version of Judy’s boyish look.

Then, just as they did on the set of that production, things started to go wrong. They switched the schedule at work and Emily discovered that she was supposed to close the store that evening. We both wrote frantic letters to a co-worker (mine went along the lines of “Emily and I are sick, we know, and we’re trying to get help, but our psychologist thinks it would be detrimental to our well-being if…”) and she kindly agreed to switch shifts with Emily.

Then, as I was working on a piece about retro eyeglasses for WORN, basking in my personal air-conditioning, the power went off. This was an hour and a half before I was supposed to meet Emily downtown.

“Is the power off down there?” I asked frantically on the cell.

“No, I think it’s fine,” Emily said.

“Well, I’m coming. The show must go on!” And I slipped my recently-purchased DVD (“Nearly 4 hours of special features!”) into my bag as a back-up plan.

My neighbourhood was all out, but the buses and subway were still running, thank God. My bus driver muttered insults about the other drivers to himself (“Really nice driving there, fella!”) and I wondered if it was too much to ask for the TTC not to employ public servants who act like crazy people. Probably.

Oh, and I walked straight into an old Chinese woman at Spadina station. It was her fault. I was getting off the subway and she was getting on, and left practically no room for me to walk past her, and that to me is breaking the covenant of the TTC, so I just boldly walked forward and ended up pushing her. She let out a loud ‘guffaw!’ and I thought, ‘Well, maybe next time you’ll let the other passengers off first!’

Then I got karmic retribution when I was getting on the streetcar and the doors closed on me.

Also, just before I got off in Chinatown, the streetcar rear-ended the one in front of it. Power was out along Spadina and cops were directly traffic and yelling at old Chinese men and Kensington Market hipsters who crossed whenever they wanted.

Luckily, the power was fine further east and the AC inside the art gallery was nirvanic.

Emily was nine minutes late (“Five on my watch!”) but I forgave her because she was wearing a home-made t-shirt with a young Judy on it, emblazoned with rhinestones.  

“So many things could have prevented us from being here,” I said. “So many things… But we made it!”

And the movie did not disappoint, despite having seen it ten times. It was shot in cinemascope, so it really benefited from the big screen, and having never watched it with an audience before (the viewers were mostly young gay guys, older gay guys and middle-aged AGO members) I learned from their laughter that some scenes are actually quite darkly funny, and during dramatic moments there was perceptible tension in the room.

The movie, which shows the two sides of fame through the rise to stardom of Esther Blodgett (Judy) contrasted with the end of her husband Norman Maine’s (James Mason) career, is meta double tragedy. Despite the sadness of the plot, at least Judy is the winner in it, although biographical ironies abound. It has been suggested that the film is really a portrait of Garland split in two: Esther is the talented one everyone loves, and Norman is the alcoholic bent on self-destruction. “Sometimes I hate him,” cries Judy in one of the most gut-wrenching scenes captured on film. “And I hate me too, because I failed him!” And she points at herself through mascara-smudging tears, a possible clue to the audience about who the scene is really about.

But I called it a double tragedy because, interestingly as a movie about a sudden rise to fame, the film was meant as a grand comeback for Garland, the definitive Hollywood survivor. But it didn’t work. No matter how many suggestive lines they threw into the script (“All they want is more of your pictures,” a producer informs Judy) and how many well-wishing celebrities came to the dazzling opening, the movie had cost too much and the Warner brothers destroyed it through editing. The final straw came when Judy lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly, a pretty but useless actress not dissimilar to the phoney dumb starlets in the movie Norman Main dated before meeting Esther.

Despite making three more movies, A Star is Born signalled the end of Judy’s film career and, in many ways, the end of the big-budget musicals of Old Hollywood.

Perhaps it is all that pathos that led Emily and me to feel that we had to go, braving heat-spells and black-outs, to pay devotional tribute at our musical Mecca.