Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: burlesque

Drop Dead, Diva

 

“That is the gayest thing I have ever seen,” I whispered when I first saw the trailer for the Christina Aguilera-Cher camp orgy ‘Burlesque’. A hodgepodge of ‘Cabaret’, ‘Chicago’ and ‘Showgirls’ (there’s some ‘Dancing with the Stars’ in there too), the film looks horrendous but I think I may have to go see it in order to keep my queer card.

While I worry that Cher’s multiple facelifts have left her unable to act (Cintra Wilson described her as resembling a stuffed, perpetually-surprised geisha), I was pleased to see her again. Cher is that rare creature, a surviving diva who can laugh at herself. When she showed up at the Oscars in a crazy black sequined headdress and a dress that left nothing to the imagination, she joked with reporters, “You can see I’m taking myself seriously as a legitimate actress.” (Would Lady Gaga say something as funny about her outfits, which she treats as conceptional art?)

In her recent Vanity Fair interview she talks about hating the aging process and mentions Meryl Streep, a former co-star and friend: “I think Meryl is doing it great. The stupid bitch is doing it better than all of us!” I pictured her saying this in her quintessential low drawl and laughed out loud.

Not everyone is as happy about the return of Cher. Take Lynn Crosbie in today’s Globe and Mail.

After outlining the term ‘diva’s operatic origins she writes “Lately, to be a diva is to be, plainly, stuck-up, spoiled and deeply unpleasant.” While gay men may cheer their many comebacks, she claims that the persistence of the diva ideal is disheartening to women.

“These women—from Cher to Bette Midler to Liza and beyond—do not persist because of women’s desire or obsessive fascination. Possibly, there are women out there who actually enjoy Cher’s nightmare synth-hit ‘Believe’; women who find Midler’s caterwauling on about the invention of the brassiere in her stage play delicious; women who can watch Minnelli mumble-sing ‘Single Ladies’ in ‘Sex and the City 2’ without feeling shame and revulsion…And while we are gently heartened by the diva’s worldview (‘I will survive!’), by her apparent timelessness and guts, we are simultaneously alienated by such women for they are gay icons who service a queer ideal of women that is, obviously, nonsexual, and rife with cruelty. The diva is not a friend to women.”

While I don’t know what to do with the argument that gay-worshipped divas are nonsexual (Do famous women have to be sexualized? Don’t straight men have that covered?), it is true that gay camp always derided some of its humour from cruelty. How else can you view drag queens recreating whacked-out Marlene Dietrich falling off a stage mid-song, or crazed Joan Crawford brandishing a wire hanger at her terrified children? Daniel Harris in ‘The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture’ has called camp the ‘religion that failed’, a dark mockery by former star-worshippers as they watched in horror as their goddesses aged and faded away.

But there is strength in the diva as well. Harris writes, “to counteract their own sense of powerlessness as a vilified minority, [homosexuals] modeled themselves on the appealing image of this thick-skinned androgyne-cum-drag-queen, a distinctly militaristic figure who, with a suggestive leer and a deflating wisecrack, triumphed over the indignities of being gay… Quite by accident, by pure serendipity, the diva provided the psychological models for gay militancy and helped radicalized the subculture.”

But that’s about the homosexuals, and Crosbie is interested in gay fandom only as it (to her) delegitimizes a diva’s celebrity.

After accusing gay camp of cruelty and divas as being no friend to women, what does she do with the rest of her column? Well, she says nasty stuff about Cher with the relish of a high school mean girl.

She mocks her for making lots of money and not telling ‘20/20’ the exact amount. She brings up a lame joke about “not being born in Poland” from decades ago (because, you know, Cher is obviously racist against the Poles). She judges Cher for the way she handled her conflicting emotions at the death of Sonny Bono, her ex-husband and manager who attempted to control her career. She judges her again for how she’s coped with her daughter Chasity’s transition from lesbian to transgendered male. She even takes the Meryl Streep quote from Vanity Fair out of context, simply claiming that Cher called her friend “a bitch”.

Near the end of this nasty paragraph Crosbie quotes a gay man, flamboyant designer Bob Mackie, who called her a “chameleon”, then, as she did above, dismisses gay fandom as unimportant: “Cher may well be a chameleon, but only in her reptilian demeanour and ability to adapt, cunningly, to her large LGBT following.”

A cunning reptile. Nice, Lynn.

The column reminded me of all the reviewers of ‘Sex and the City 2’ who didn’t see the paradox of cloaking themselves in feminism while criticizing materialism, and then calling the actresses old, ugly and whorish.

It’s fine if you don’t like Cher. And there’s something to be said for questioning gay diva worship and drag performance (even Harris thinks that, rather than being a transgressive force which questions gender roles, drag queens, by exaggerating and codifying femininity as an over-the-top cartoon, actually reinforce them).

But forgive me if I don’t take your feminist warrior stance very seriously when you’ve made a career of writing mean-spirited cut-ups of celebrities, mostly females.

Divas may be no friend of women, but neither is Lynn Crosbie.

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Not about the World Cup

Although I may start rooting for the French team just for kicks: I love how their melodramatic theatrics have turned them into the ultimate stereotypes.

And speaking of stereotypes,

I love musicals. I grew up on Singing’ in the Rain and That’s Entertainment! (parts I, II and III). In first year I read the Judy Garland biography Get Happy and connected her ‘singing through the tears’ emotionalism with my romantic disappointments. I always have ‘The Man that Got Away’ playing somewhere in my brain on a continuous loop. During my Masters, I discovered academics who shared my obsession: finding Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value and the MGM Musical by Steven Cohen in Robarts library sent me into giggly fits of delight.

But, somehow, I had missed Gypsy. The 1962 movie, based on the 1959 Broadway show, was a huge hit when it came out and thought of as the definitive backstage musical, and arguably one of the best. It recounts the rise to fame of real-life actress and burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, pushed into showbiz by her mother, Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mom.

Mama Rose initially put all of her attention on her Shirley Temple-ish younger daughter Baby June with Gypsy playing back-up (I had no idea how much of how much the opening section of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was indebted to Gypsy). But when Vaudeville goes caput and Baby June runs off with a dancer, Mama Rose decides, rather than throw in the towel and live a “normal” life, to turn her shy, elder daughter into a star. It is at this point, stranded at a foggy country railway station, and delivered to her frightened daughter, that Mama Rose sings the famous ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, a song which I never knew had ironic undertones.

Rosalind Russell, fresh from camp-orgy Auntie Mame, was cast as Mama Rose despite not being a singer. The film editors did an incredible job of mixing Russell’s voice and that of contralto Lisa Kirk. I was surprised to learn that Natalie Wood, who had been dubbed in West Side Story by workhorse Marni Nixon, used her own voice as Gypsy. The part of Mama Rose had been originated by Ethel Merman on Broadway but the belter, in the grand tradition of Mary Martin and Carol Channing, had been denied the film role which she had made famous on stage. Although it’s a shame, I think that Merman’s performance would have been too broad for the film, always aiming for the backrow even with microphones, and Russell managed to bring out the character’s grating determination as well as her pathetic desperation (Mama Rose has been called musical theatre’s King Lear).

My dream casting would be Judy and daughter Liza Minnelli, whose ages were been perfect in 1962. It would have been the ultimate art-imitating-life, as Liza knew what it was like being raised in a performing family, and Judy, who started on the Vaudeville stage with her sisters as a toddler, had an intricate understanding of that world and its pressures. Indeed, Mama Rose might have been potentially too similar to Judy’s determined mother Ethel Gumm and playing her may have brought up childhood demons best left undisturbed.

After her mother’s futile attempts to turn her into incarnation Baby June, Gypsy’s career spirals downward until ending up at the Wichita Opera House, which turns out to be a theatre of the burlesque. At first, Mama Rose puts her foot down and refuses to let her daughter perform, but the lure of money and a little fame eventually smothers any ethical concerns. In real life, Gypsy Rose Lee never set out to be a strip-tease performer, but the cheers that accompanied an accidental slip of a shoulder strap inspired her. Although three-quarters of the movie had recounted (often painfully slow) their false starts, once Natalie Wood starts stripping her rise to fame is summarized in the tradition three-shows-each-in-increasingly-glamorous-theatres montage. Wood’s performance is stylish and sexy (and her gowns, tailored to come off in sections, are amazing) and you wonder why, given the return of burlesque via Dita von Teese, Gypsy hasn’t been rediscovered by a new generation.     

Now that she’s famous with all the perks (personal dressing room with gold star on door, ridiculous pink feathered dressing gown, sessions with French photographers in bathtub) Gypsy has little time for her meddling mother, and brushes off the woman who dedicated her life to her daughters’ careers. (Ethel Gumm, after her estrangement from Judy, worked at an airport and died in its parking lot).

“Why did I do it?” Mama Rose asks Gypsy, distracted with posing for pictures in a corseted bathrobe.

“I thought you did it for me,” Gypsy replies.

The movie ends with the incredible ‘Rose’s Turn’, a stream-of-consciousness song in which Mama Rose grills herself over her motivation for pushing her daughters into showbiz:

Why did I do it?
What did it get me?
Scrapbooks full of me in the background.
Give ’em love and what does it get ya?

Mama Rose realizes that it was her dreams of fame and fortune that propelled her, leading to the famous ‘Mama’s Taking Loud, Mama’s Doin’ Fine!’ chant, familiar to Arrested Development fans from Lucille and Buster Bluth’s record-playing. (Lucille’s line, “How do you like those eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?” is also from the musical and one wonders about the Bluth family-Gypsy connection). I was familiar with this song from the Bernadette Peter’s tragic rendition from a Broadway revival and Kurt’s version on an episode of Glee. I can picture myself belting it in front of my bedroom mirror for years to come. But again, I wish Judy had sang it. There were only a few songs which fully utilized her vocal and acting talents simultaneously, and who knows, by placing herself inside the world’s most famous stage mom, she may have finally forgiven hers.