Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: camp

The Harvey Girls, Judy and the Limits of Camp

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Illustration found here

Every Millennial at one point or another will have to answer the inevitable question, “Are you a hipster?” (Every Millennial who wears glasses and has some sort of interest in the arts, at least.) I faced the question at a wine party last year and replied in the negative. I admitted some of my fashion choices may fall in with the cliché of the hipster (though I never succumbed to skinny jeans, aviators or wolf sweaters), but my music taste is much too ‘top forty’ and my personality too earnest.

“Oh, come on, Max!” my friend Amy shot back. “You’re such a hipster! You read the New Yorker.”

“Since when is that a hipster publication?” I cried. “It’s not VICE.”

“The hipster thing wouldn’t be VICE anymore,” someone else chimed in. “It’d be the New Yorker.”

Obviously, we settled nothing that night. I bring this up to illustrate that identities are complicated and how others see you is often vastly different from how you see yourself. While I will continue to shriek in protest against the label ‘hipster’ until my dying breath, there is one label I’m totally at ease with.

I’m gay.

And I use that word purposefully. I’m not a ‘man who sleeps with men’. I’m not ‘attracted to masculine performance’, as one guy I met convolutely defined himself.

Every generation has to redefine sexual identities for themselves and it’s a wonderful development the struggle for equal rights has expanded to include lesbian, bisexuals, transgender, two-spirited and intersex individuals, among others. (Lesbians were a part of the gay rights movement from the very beginning, but men managed to hog the spotlight. It’s what men do.) A scan of news headlines, from Russia to Uganda to Toronto’s City Hall, demonstrates the fight has only begun.

But speaking personally, I like the word ‘gay’ and I’m proud of gay culture and history. All sorts of pieces have claimed the death of that word or identity, from Foucaultian academic treatises to blog posts. But I’m not done with it yet. If anything, like the child of immigrant parents, learning about gay history and culture helps me feel connected to my past forebears. It helps me understand who I am.

For example, learning about gay history put my camp humour into perspective. I can’t tell you if I was born with it or it was somehow learned (these are debates too big for WordPress) but I do know from a young age I acted with a little camp performance. By ‘camp’ I don’t necessarily mean effeminate, although that’s part of it. Rather, it’s living life as though you were on stage, doing things as though they were in quotation marks. There’s a home movie of my little brother and me sitting on the kitchen floor, banging on coffee tins with wooden spoons as if they were drums. When my mom asks me what I’d like to play, 6-year old Max taps his fingers on his chin and looks off dreamily.

“Let’s see,” he says, overacting the process of thinking. “What should I play?”

In contrast, when it’s my brother’s turn he immediately starts banging the wooden spoons like he’s Animal from the ‘Muppet Show’.

Performativity is a part of how I speak to this very day. Every third sentence that comes out of my mouth is in quotation marks. Sometimes they’re direct quotes from movies or TV, but mostly they’re the type of thing you’d hear in fiction. I’m asking the listener, with exaggerated language and tone of voice, to understand I mean them as clichés.

On occasion, this habit gets me in trouble or someone fails to understand the joke. It’s probably more difficult when English isn’t your first language. When I lived in Dublin I worked with a girl named Daria who was from Mongolia. She spoke English very directly. Once she told me, “I didn’t like you at first, but now I like you.”

When I got a minor promotion at work (I don’t even think a raise was part of it), I turned to her and, waving my head around flamboyantly, said, “Now that I’m the ‘coffee master’ for the café I don’t want you to treat me any differently. I’ll never forget where I came from. I want you to know that, truly.”

She stared at me blankly. “Why are you saying this?”

Camp is very complex to define, but one of the most succinct summaries comes from Steven Cohan, author of ‘Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical’: “Camp can be defined as the ensemble of strategies used to enact queer recognition of the incongruities arising from the cultural regulation of gender and sexuality.” In an era of deep oppression, camp allowed gay men to both engage with the discriminatory dominant culture while mocking it in a manner invisible to outsiders. Sociologist Esther Newton, who interviewed drag queens in Chicago and Kansas City in the 1960’s, said the main tenets of camp are incongruity, “its subject matter”; theatricality, “its style”; and humour, “its strategy.”

By treating a minor promotion at Starbucks as a Broadway star would talk about landing the lead role, her name emblazoned in glittering lights, I gently mocked the absurdities of being a minimum-wage-earning barista. Camp also might explain why, when I have to be assertive, I imagine myself as Joan Crawford, Margaret Thatcher or Elizabeth I (as played by Cate Blanchet), rather than any of the aggressive male personalities available. I’m playing at being angry so I can float above it.

Which leads me to Judy. In first year university I read Gerald Clarke’s biography of Ms. Garland, ‘Get Happy’. I became a bit obsessed with her and I couldn’t figure out why. I grew up on MGM musicals it’s true, but I watched ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘American in Paris’ far more than ‘The Wizard of Oz’. (Gene Kelly’s ass is just as likely to turn you gay as anything Garland ever did.) Perhaps, I thought at the time, I related to Judy’s personal struggles, often the explanation people give as to why gay men appreciate her. At the time I was a popular undergrad with many friends but no boyfriend, which sometimes plunged me into feelings of loneliness and unattractiveness. Judy Garland was loved by countless fans but never felt intimately loved enough. It’s a human tragedy with no solution.

Lastly, as a cultural history buff, I liked the era that Judy’s career spanned and the change you can see in American pop culture from Rooseveltian patriotism to 1960’s cynicism. (It’s probably a good thing that near the end of her life Garland was fired from ‘Valley of the Dolls’ in which she had been cast as Helen Lawson, a cruel caricature of herself. It may have damaged her reputation in the manner Joan Crawford’s was bludgeoned by Faye Dunaway’s wire hanger.)

But ten years on, after watching ‘A Star is Born’ every year and reading everything I could get my hands on camp and gay history, I think I have a better explanation. Judy Garland performed with a camp attitude, including her over the top singing style and her delivery of lines as though they were in quotation marks (which of course as scripted lines they were). Her singing voice gave more emotion than her films usually called for, while her awkward, fidgety acting suggested discomfort with the Ohioan girls-next-door she was often asked to play. Unlike Joan Crawford, who is appreciated as camp but not a camp performer herself (her caramel voice always oozed sincerity), Garland wins out with gay audiences because she seemed in on the joke.

Why Judy performed this way is up to debate, although I think Roger Edens, musical arranger, gay man and longtime friend of Judy who taught her how to sing for the camera, along with Kaye Thompson, another music arranger and author of the Eloise books, who taught her how to move, have a good deal to do with it. Garland was a mimic who entertained her friends by impersonating people they knew. Not hard to imagine, given all the gay men surrounding her (including a couple husbands) that she would start acting camp.

I like the Garland-as-camp-performer theory better than the Garland-as-sad-sack-and-gays-are-also-sad explanation because it gives Judy agency. As well, it explains why gay men who grew up long after the Stonewall riots, when camp was supposed to disappear with the smashing of closet doors, might still be interested in her. (I know I’m not the only one.) As David M. Halperin wrote in ‘How to be Gay’, times have changed but little gay boys still need strategies to cope with and find a place within a dominant heterosexual culture.

Re-watching films I’d grown up with I saw Garland’s campiness over and over again. I also saw myself. In ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ Judy’s character is a lovesick teenager and the part would have been dull if played by another musical actress. Director Vincente Minnelli got mad at Judy when they started filming for mocking the lines. The story goes that Judy eventually came to trust Minnelli, turned in a sincere performance and the pair ended up married. But watching the movie now I see traces of Garland’s tongue-in-cheek attitude, as though she’s whispering to the audience, “Oh, as though I’m supposed to be silly teenager from Missouri!”

Before a dance, while Judy’s character Esther and her sister are getting ready, she folds her hands and says in a matter of fact voice: “I’ve decided I’m going to let John Truett kiss me tonight.” Her sister is scandalized and says you’re not supposed to kiss until after you get engaged. (It’s supposed to be 1904.)

“Men don’t want the bloom rubbed off,” she claims.

“Personally, I think I have too much bloom,” Esther says as her sister walks away. “Maybe that’s the trouble with me…” She then pinches her cheeks (turn of the century rouge) and flutters her eyelashes at herself in the mirror in a mock pretty-girl flirtation. She then drops the mask, sighs at herself and gets up from the desk. It’s the type of thing I’d do.

 

But there are limits to my fandom. Judy couldn’t single handedly rescue every picture. I finally made it through ‘The Harvey Girls’ (1946), a movie which I tried to watch years ago but gave up after it completely lost steam after its big “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” musical number. Set in the 1890’s, and oh you should see the size of their puffy sleeves, what little story there is centres on a group of waitresses for the Fred Harvey restaurant company, the first chain restaurants in America. (Sadly, unrelated to the hamburger joint Harvey’s.)

According to the film’s introduction, “When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants farther and farther west along the lengthening tracks of the Sante Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had know… the Harvey Girls…these winsome waitresses conquered the West as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons…Not with powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee.”

‘It’s a good thing the land was empty for all these white people to come and serve beefsteak,’ I thought. Then in the big “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” number, when all the “winsome waitresses” arrive at the sleepy cowboy town of Sandrock to bring civilization and coffee, the filmmakers dare to include Native Americans as extras, or at least actors meant to be Native Americans.

‘Oh,’ I said to myself. ‘There’s the civilization that white people eradicated by way of railroads and chain restaurants!’ As the Native American extras bob around merrily to the song, the women sing about all the different states they’ve come from. They’re in the Old West to be waitresses but really to be wives, and the cowboys of the town leer at them approvingly while tightening their brightly coloured handkerchiefs.

‘But wait,’ you ask. ‘Weren’t there women in the town before?’ Not really, unless you count sex workers as women. The movie is from the 1940’s so it doesn’t call them sex workers. But at the end of musical number the waitresses look up to see a group of feather headdress-wearing, corseted showgirls glaring down at them like vultures from the balcony of the saloon. These are the ‘bad girls’ who entertain the single men with booze, gambling, and whatever else. They’re threatened by the arrival the Harvey Girls, who may marry their customers and straighten out the town. The extinction of their way of life, and not that of the Native Americans, is the subject of the film.

The most fun casting is that of the head bad girl. She’s played by Angela Lansbury, who puts on a tough, world-weary accent. (Sadly, they dubbed her singing voice. It would have been fabulous if she had performed her songs like Mrs. Potts!) She gets the best outfits, though—sequined monstrosities that make her resemble a Christmas tree. MGM let the gay men in the costume department go a little far. 

As Judy becomes a Harvey Girl and their schoolmarmish boss instructs them on always having a clean apron (they look like freakin’ nuns) and the rules of costumer service, I rolled my eyes and shouted at the screen, ‘Oh, shut up!’ When Garland and Lansbury start competing for the same man you can’t help but route for Lansbury. Who decided that a movie about goody two shoe waitresses was more interesting than one about showgirls?

Most disappointing, Judy doesn’t subvert any of her characters lines, nor does the film undermine any of its sexist and racist themes. In real life, Fred Harvey chose the prettiest girls as waitresses (something the film implies), which doesn’t seem that far off from pimping. He also hired actors to play Native Americans to provide ‘local colour’ for tourists. While it was still going on, the Old West had to be faked for white audiences. Even for MGM of the 1940’s, this is an insanely conservative Americana movie, managing to combine Manifest Destiny, fast food, and the post-WWII move to shove women back into the home.  

I would love to remake ‘The Harvey Girls’ as a stage play/drag show, using the same songs and basic plot but with the opposite point of view—the ‘bad girls’ as the protagonists and the priggish waitresses as the villains who ruin all the fun. Although there may be some movies, Judy or no Judy, that are beyond rescue. 

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‘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.

Carmen Miranda and Mickey Rooney, sometime before filming this, presumably.

Camp-ing in the Outback

Starstruck

Jackie Mullens (Jo Kennedy), the lead of the Australian musical ‘Starstruck’ (1982) wants to be famous. She’s a singer, but her real talent is for getting attention. She pairs her bright red hennaed hair with flamboyant New Romantic crinolines. She walks a tight-rope at her Mom’s pub. Her 14-year-old cousin Angus, who fancies himself her manager, convinces her to replicate the stunt between two office towers in downtown Sydney. He phones up reporters telling them to cover the event because “it’s the type of news you write about when you don’t want to cover the real news.”

When her mother (a tough broad with an immobile Pat Nixon bouffant) questions Jackie’s talent, Angus leaps to her defense:

“She’s got star quality!”

“And what is that?” the pub patrons grumble, to which the two cousins both recite, “That little something extra.”

The quote is from ‘A Star is Born’ (1954), just after James Mason has witnessed Judy Garland singing ‘The Man That Got Away’. Responding to her overwrought singing style, Mason concludes Judy has “that little something extra” to make her famous. Steven Cohan in Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value and the MGM Musical argues that what Mason is enjoying is the campiness of Garland’s performance: her twittering emotionalism, her indulgent vocal bursts, and the manner in which she ‘acts’ the song (despite it being a sad number and her seeming almost-hysterical whilst singing, she smiles as its concluded).

Camp can be defined as a deliberately over-the-top, stylized attitude which, in its irony and incongruity, subverts the traditional cultural products it draws upon. Cohan’s book shows how Old Hollywood musicals, with their heteronormative plot lines, cheesy songs and outdated values, are invested with a queer subtext for a select audience who relish the outlandish sets and costumes, the flamboyant choreography and the overacting leading ladies.

When done intentionally, camp is a ‘wink’ to the audience that what they’re viewing is a performance, a forgery of real life. In this way it can be viewed as a very early example of post-modernism.

Starstruck

The Garland reference is not accidental, as the makers of ‘Starstruck’ meant the film as a deliberate tribute to the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland ‘backyard musicals’ of the late 1930’s and 1940’s, in which the pair would inevitably “put on a show!” in order to save their parents’ careers, or stop a theatre from being knocked down, or build a home for British war orphans. Often, the show would include a black face number. Stuck with two young stars of an awkward age, MGM accidentally invented film’s first teenagers.

While ‘Starstruck’s plot mimics that of an MGM musical (Jackie eventually has to put on a show to save her Mom’s pub) stylistically the film is more ‘Rocky Horror’ than Mickey/Judy (it shares ‘Rocky’s production designer Brian Thomson). With its outlandish costumes, garish primary colour scheme, accented over-acting and message that all problems can be solved once you get on a stage and perform, ‘Starstruck’ is a direct precursor to a string of movies in the early 1990’s I’m going to call Australian Camp: ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (1992), ‘The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ and ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ (both from 1994).

Fans of his later camp classic ‘Moulin Rouge’ (2001) will see early traces of Baz Luhrmann’s style in ‘Strictly Ballroom’, about the sparkling but intense world of competitive ball room dancing. Gawky wallflower Fran (Tara Morice) is transformed into a sexy, sequined swan when she embraces the tango traditions of her Spanish parents.

Strictly Ballroom

The transformations of ‘Priscilla’ are more pronounced, as Hugo Weaving, Guy Pierce and Terence Stamp don unbelievable wigs, costumes and make-up while crossing the Australian outback, lip-synching to opera and ABBA atop of their shiny silver van (one of film’s all-time unforgettable images).

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert

A pre-stardom (and pre-skinny) Toni Collette also uses ABBA as an escape from the drudgeries of everyday life as the title character in ‘Muriel’s Wedding’. As a depressed pre-spinster, Muriel hides in her room from her family’s taunts (“You’re terrible, Muriel!”) and repeatedly listens to Sweeden’s favourite pop band on audio cassette. Only with the encouragement of her new best friend Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) does she later perform ‘Waterloo’ on stage in a blond wig and white jumpsuit.

Muriel's Wedding

These films not only share a camp style (with overly made-up faces being shoved into the camera and general artificiality softening hokey dialogue and plot lines) but they are about camp as they demonstrate the transformative power of performance, be it ballroom dancing, drag, karaoke or New Wave pop. Significantly, these movies are set in a gritty, working-class Australia in which burly female pub dwellers are as scary as the male ones and people microwave their tea.

They also share a witty take on the history and culture of Australia, such as when the ‘Priscilla’ drag queens perform dressed as lizards, ostriches and the Sydney Opera House, or when ‘Starstruck’s Jackie bursts out of a kangaroo costume to sing at a hip club.

While camp arose out of a queer subculture, questioning gender roles through drag and heterosexual romance through camp readings of mainstream fare like movie musicals, the irony, incongruity and wit of camp can help liberate non-queer identities as well. When the drag queens of ‘Priscilla’ interrupt some Aborigines having a bon fire, one of them joins them in a rendition of ‘I Will Survive’ (complete with didgeridoo), their shared mistreated, outsider statuses helping the two groups to bond.

But most of all these films use camp to challenge society’s expectations for women. ‘Starstruck’s Jackie bombs on a local music show when she gives up her hairdo, clothes and backup band (ie. who she is) to perform like a docile lounge singer. Only when she embraces her wildness, and wildly teased hair, does she achieve stardom. The villains of ‘Strictly Ballroom’ and ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ are traditionally-attractive dancers and bridesmaids, whose pretty faces mask ugly characters. In the last scene of ‘Muriels’ a blonde ‘frenemy’ screams at her as she drives away, “I’m beautiful!” looking anything but.

Strictly Ballroom

It is interesting that the three non-drag queen movies feature ‘ugly ducklings’ who transform themselves, but not in the terrible way of American teen movies (take off glasses, undo pony tail). For the record, Kennedy, Morice and Collette are attractive women, just not in the standard Hollywood way, just as young Garland was beautiful despite being nicknamed ‘the little hunchback’ by the MGM brass.

Muriel's Wedding

It leaves the question, why Australia? My understanding of “down undah” is that it’s a pretty conservative, patriarchal society. How did it give rise to these sequined classics? Perhaps the conservative ethos pushed the film makers to extremes (if you’re going to do something different, might as well go all the way and use drag queens!). Or maybe their distance from America, unlike in Canada, allows them the space to develop a camp appreciation for the silliness of Hollywood.

The makers of ‘Starstruck’ admit that Australian audiences didn’t really ‘get’ the film when it came out but, like the other three, it has had a second life as an international cult favourite. Who would have thought that, along with Vegemite and sexy bad-boy actors, Australia would export camp around the world?

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.

I Shop therefore I Gay

While I’m all over the WORN blog, my absolute dream would be to get a story in the actual magazine. I entered my internship thinking I had all sorts of ideas, I quickly became insecure that none of them were good enough. WORN only comes out twice a year, so we have to be very strict about what goes to print. I eventually remembered that queer history was the focus of my Masters and that, as the first gay male intern, it would also be good representin’ if I wrote something about gay men and clothing.

So here’s what I’ve got so far, and to help me get moving on it (the pitch is due in October) and to act as a sounding board, I’m going to tell you what I’m thinking.

The stereotype that gay men like clothing and fashion is so entrenched in our culture that we rarely question it, and at times act as though it is somehow biological. Remarkably, the persona of the Oscar Wildean dandy from the end of the 19th century still holds sway. Daniel Harris, in his amazing book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture,  which heavily influenced the way I think about all this stuff, argued that shopping and clothing was a more economical way of asserting snobbish queer sensibilities than art-collecting or going to the opera, the preoccupations of the aristocratic dandy.

“We have devised an ersatz aestheticism that we cultivate, not only through our involvement with the arts, but through our involvement with department stores, through shopping, the purchase of expensive toiletries, vintage wines, fashionable clothing, and designer accessories like Rolex watches and Ralph Lauren eyewear. The display of our refinement as consumers…easily replaces the display of our refinement as art lovers. In the course of the twentieth century, homosexuals have turned the aestheticism of art and culture into the aestheticism of products, the commodities that spill out of the Macy’s bags constantly swinging from the arms of the urban homosexual, a figure laden with the spoils of his spending sprees, an image that has largely replaced that of the monocled fop twirling his cane and sniffing the carnation in his lapel.”

In the same essay, Harris, like many other scholars, focuses on the desire of gay men to find each other as the motivation for a lot of gay culture. From cruising at bars, dropping cinematic hints (“Are you a Friend of Dorothy?”), and even attending Judy Garland concerts simply as an excuse to “act gay” in public, explanations of gay traditions have often focused on identifying oneself to others, either for sexual or communal reasons. This has also been the case with gay fashion, be it leather and jeans, pink mohair sweaters or the legendary colour-coded handkerchief symbols. (And, okay, I can’t really get into this here, but apparently a houndstooth bandanna sticking out of your pocket means you’re into biting, and if you stick a doily back there, you like doing it in public restrooms! Amazing!)

But what about shopping for one’s self and dressing as a means of asserting identity, as sociologists now think about it? Cara Louise Buckley wrote “In the transition from modernity to post-modernity, the notion of an essential self…has been displaced by a far more fragmented, fluid, and contingent understanding tied to image, style, looks and hence consumption.” So, it’s not so much ‘I Shop therefore I Am’, as Barbara Kruger’s photo has it, as ‘I Am because I Shop.’  

Rather than focus on who gay men were trying to attract with their clothing, I would consider clothing, consumption and fashion as an important step in their development of a gay identity, both personally and collectively.

And there’s no escaping the seventies, the decade when queer culture crossed-over,  gay politics went mainstream and people were encouraged to come out of the closet en masse. The 1970’s are to gay men what the 1770’s are to American patriots: a founding era whose traditions, style and legacy are still drawn upon today.

In Forging Gay Identities; Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco 1950-1994, Elizabeth Armstrong presents a useful breakdown of the three phases of the gay rights movement: the early, conservative ‘homophile’ activism of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the radical leftist revolution of 1969 and the early seventies, and the ‘lifestyle’ era of the mid-seventies onward, in which homosexuals (mostly white, middle-class gay men) asserted their identity through shopping, clothing, music, clubbing and interior decorating. I would use Armstrong’s framework and place clothing and fashion into the context of 1970’s gay identity formation, arguing that dressing up has been an essential aspect of accepting one’s homosexuality and coming out of the closet for many gay men since.

What I’m still wondering about is whether I should focus mostly on the 1970’s and make it a historical piece, or if all that should be the background leading up to a series of interviews with gay guys now. It might make sense to focus on the seventies, but I would have to do a lot of primary research (scanning every copy of The Advocate from that era, say, for articles about fashion and photos and illustrations of clothing). On the plus side of doing interviews, I off hand can think of twenty gay guys I could ask about clothing, their personal style and their shopping habits, but with no guarantee of useful answers.

Thoughts?

 

Yes S/he Can!

 

For those of you who missed this during the election, here is drag queen legend RuPaul as both Barack and Michelle Obama. What I love most of all is that he looks more like the First Lady than the President!

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.

The Room

When my friend Emily invited me to watch what is generally thought of as the worst movie ever made I couldn’t say no.

I had been interested in The Room since a film colloquium at UofT on ‘bad’ movies (my topic was black comedians doing effeminate gay characters). I learned that it was a horribly misguided vanity project by one Tommy Wiseau, a scraggily haired European whose origins are just as shady as his financial backing. The movie, which Wiseau wrote, directed, produced AND executive-produced, views like a giant revenge fantasy against his ex-girlfriend. What an amazing way to get closure, although considering how it turned out, she may be the last one laughing. The presenter did not dwell on the awfulness of the film (although I do remember him mentioning the set breaking every rule of interior design and the sex scenes being “anatomically incorrect”), but rather the cult following the movie has developed since its release in 2003. Here was a Rocky Horror Picture Show for the post-modern age: whereas Rocky Horror is deliberate camp, The Room is totally sincere. I worried that the audience’s laughter at the awkward dialogue, grotesque sex scenes and ludicrous plot twists would be mean-spirited, the bully laughter that greets ‘Star Wars Kid’ or the overweight people on epicfail.com. I feared for Wiseau when I learned that he attended some of the screenings, doing post-show Q&A sessions and hocking DVDs and t-shirts. Little did I understand that the movie’s followers actually love him.

The line outside the Royal Cinema on College went down the block, but luckily Emily’s boyfriend and his buddy had gotten there early and were in the front. The buddy was wearing a tuxedo and I overheard him explaining, “I’m not dressed as any specific character, but there’s a scene where they are all wearing tuxedos for no reason.” Also in the cue were people wearing long black wigs, others dressed like drug dealers in toques and shades, and a young woman wearing a necktie around her forehead. Lots of people had plastic spoons. What had I gotten myself into?

I am not a fan of Rocky Horror. In fact, I know the final quarter of that movie off by heart because I’ve counted backwards the scenes until the end. It’s an odd dislike, because I really love camp (have written whole essays on it) and can understand that Tim Curry created a legendary character never seen before. I think it’s the fans that make me uncomfortable; their costumes; their screaming of rehearsed lines; their forced hedonistic writhing. I guess it’s a tad too literally ‘cult’ for me (writes the person who actually wore a sequined flower to Sex and the City 2).

After we took our seats, and a group in front of us began throwing a football around in a deliberately incompetent manner, someone in our group handed me a plastic spoon. “You’ll want this.” I only learned what it was for when the Royal Cinema guy who said a few words before the film started (don’t you love how these midnight screenings have that? Takes one back to the old time movie era, when seeing a film was an Event) asked us not to throw our spoons at the screen. The lights dimmed and the movie began. The first shot was the production title ‘Wiseau Films’ (or some such thing) with a graphic that looked like I had designed it on my family’s old 1995 Mac. The audience cheered. They clapped even louder for the first (of many) credit cards for Tommy Wiseau, shown against what appeared to be stock images of San Francisco landmarks. A couple of the other actors received applause, but poor Juliette Danielle, who plays Wiseau’s untrustworthy (that is the kindest word I can use) girlfriend, received boos.

The Room principally takes place in a room, the set looking more like that of a third-rate sitcom than a feature film. It has many framed pictures of spoons (they must have been on sale at Pier One or something) and quickly us virgins learned that every time you can see a shot of one you throw up your spoon and scream “SPOON!” As three hit you in the head, you are thankful that they are plastic. Emily’s friend who sat next to me, who had also never experienced The Room got particularly into this part, bending over to scoop up as many as she could off the floor to be ready for the next time. Afterwards I realized she had totally missed the spoon portraits and had no idea when or why we were throwing them. The manic fun of launching a handful of plastic spoons in the air or at someone was reason enough to do it on its own.

Watching a bad movie (and I mean a truly bad one, not one you simply don’t like) engages you in the process of film-making in a way that good movies don’t. Much of the lines yelled out from the audience (and they were thankfully not in the scripted-sounding way of Rocky Horror) had to do with editing, inconsistencies, plot holes and props. “Who are you? Where did you come from?” yelled the audience when a new character appeared, acting as though she had been there the whole time. “What happened to your cancer?” was screamed at the mother, who announced she had cancer in the first scene but was never mentioned again. “That scene was so useful!” someone said sarcastically after a scene which served no purpose or plot development. Perhaps my favourite audience line attacked the disconnect between the script and the production assistants: as Danielle attempts to seduce Wiseau’s best friend, he comments on things that do not appear on screen. “What are you trying to do?” he asks. “Candles…” “WHAT CANDLES?!” yells the audience. “…romantic music…” “WHAT ROMANTIC MUSIC?!” “…nice dress…?” “WHAT NICE DRESS?!”

Since the plot is rumoured to be heavily based on Wiseau’s life, it is easy to conflate his character with the real person. In the movie, Wiseau is a completely innocent man, a gentle soul hidden in the body of a KISS rocker sans make-up. I felt so on his side that I began to forget his creepy aura and his Dr. Nick from The Simpsons accent. It’s not just the character that endears you, it’s the real man himself, or rather, the total sincerity and naïveté in which he made this travesty. He spent so much time and money on something that was terrible, pulled along only by his commitment, that you almost have to admire him. By the end, and I won’t give away the finale but it’s a doozey, the entire audience stood up and cheered, exiting the theatre with the mass-euphoria of a revival tent meeting (speaking of cults…).

Wiseau now claims that the movie was not meant to be serious, that he always meant it as a black comedy, which cast members decry as bullshit. At first this would seem to hurt his masterpiece’s reputation of sincerity, but it doesn’t because it adds yet another layer to the film maker’s innocence: by insisting that the movie was meant to be laughably-bad he continues to miss the entire point of the phenomenon, that it’s his movie’s (and his) authenticity, impossible to fake, which has audiences rolling in the aisles and cheering him as a hero.

Despite not understanding why, Wiseau has written himself into cinematic history. I wonder what his ex-girlfriend feels about leaving him now?