“Hustlers” — The Latest “Empowerment” of Women? Really?! Also — Ken Burns’ “Country Music”…”The Deuce”…”Succession” and Carol Lynley

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Carol Lynley as Jean Harlow in 1965's Harlow.

“SHE’LL carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleeding,” sang Billy Joel on “She’s Always a Woman.”

This lyric, if not the basic dreamy sentiment of Joel’s ballad, fits perfectly with the latest film in the genre of Women Gone Bad Because Times Are Tough and Men Are Pigs.

I do mean “Hustlers,” starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu as strippers who find that the financial collapse of the mid-2000’s has affected effected even the best bump and grind efforts of a good ecdysiast with a taut tummy and a well-polished pole.

Feeling oppressed and used, and who can’t use some extra cash, Lopez, the grande dame of the exotic dancing game, and some of the other girls devise a plan to drug men, steal their credit cards and max them out.  They are empowering themselves. Whatever.  I am bone-weary of this trope — “Claws,” “Good Girls,” “Widows” “The Kitchen,” etc.

Hustlers Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu.

“Hustlers” is badly written and conceived (based, loosely, on a real story.) Nothing makes much sense. 

But it is, I admit, great to look at and certainly it is fun to savor the well-preserved everything of Miss Lopez, half a century young and still sizzling.  She is good, working her subpar material as if she actually thinks she will be nominated for an Oscar (Yeah, that’s the “buzz.”)  Listen, worse, far worse performances have received Academy recognition — Meryl Streep in “Florence Foster Jenkins” leaps to mind.   So, I’m not dismissing that possibility.

C. Wu and J. Lo Hustling.

“Hustlers” doesn’t so much offend me, morally.  That’s hard to do. It offends for lack of imagination and the new assumption that women committing crimes is an “empowerment” and that being done wrong by men makes it OK.  And even more OK when it’s a group of women.  (So we can have a lot of montage sequences of women partying, shopping and generally having fun with their ill gotten goods.) 

I love a bad woman as much as the next fan of film noir.  But those femme fatales worked solo and took their lumps (because the old Hays Code said they had to) without blaming the men in their lives (who were usually just as compromised.)  

I’d like to think “Hustlers” is the nadir and the finis of this genre, but when last I looked, it was doing pretty well at the box office so we can almost surely expect another stellar collection of ladies who find that only a life of crime will soothe their wounded souls.

A lack of imagination is just about the only thing Hollywood relies on with consistency. 

P.S. on Miss Lopez.  Although I’ve never felt the need to see her perform live, I have always thought she was a good actress, never false, if not inspired and often extremely effective.  I did have the pleasure of meeting her once, years ago at a Time 100 gala.  As usual — although it was actually my business to intrude on people — I was shy and nervous, watching as she was guided through the throng. I never felt comfortable throwing myself into people’s personal space.  Somehow, she was guided right up to me and I was forced to introduce myself. (Jennifer responded by saying how much she “loved Liz Smith” even though the column had had quite a bit of fun at Lopez’s expense during her high-speed romance with Sean Combs and then the incredible saga of being left at the altar by Ben Affleck.)  

We exchanged brief pleasantries and she was soon guided elsewhere.  What I’ve never forgotten is how beautiful — gorgeous — she was.  Drop dead gorgeous. Much more lovely in the flesh than onscreen or in videos.  It was the kind of beauty that stopped the room, literally. One of the great glamour memories of my “career.”

THINGS I am loving:

… THE new Ken Burns PBS series on country music.  I love country music.  It always makes me want to cry or drink, or both.  I don’t drink at home, so I’ve been doing a lot of sober sobbing on my couch.

… Holly Hunter and Cherry Jones guest starring on HBO’s bizarre but compulsively watchable “Succession. (It’s one of those shows with nary a likeable or believable character, but somehow it works.  It’s “Billions” with a pitch black sense of humor and better writing.) The series has also suddenly elevated former child actor Kieran Culkin to full-fledged adult stardom.  He was very good in “Igby Goes Down” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” but his portrayal of Roman Roy in “Succession” is something else entirely.

Holly Hunter and Cherry Jones guest starring on “Succession.

… THE third and final season of HBO’s “The Deuce,” now set in 1985, as New York attempts to clean up Times Square (and as the AIDS epidemic rages.)  I know Manhattan was a terrible place then — that’s what everybody said, and I guess it was — but I kinda miss the grimy glamour that I fell into in 1968, and was still observing with a bit of leer in the ’80s. (By then I working honorably for Liz Smith, but you can’t really take the streets out of a boy.)   James Franco (playing twin brothers) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (who stars as hooker-turned-porn-director Eileen, and who also produces “Deuce”) are sensational.

FINALLY, though it is several weeks past, I cannot recommend highly enough the New York Times magazine essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones as part of the Times’ “1619 Project” which chronicles the history of slavery and the devastating effects of the failure of Restoration, the Jim Crow era and the impact of mass incarceration. Hannah-Jones miraculously managed to convey almost everything that needs to be said and pondered and repaired, in ten pages. Entire books have not been so eloquent, precise and pungent.

I ALWAYS think about Carol Lynley in black and white, and from two films in particular, early in her career. (Lynley died on September 3rd at 77.)  

I recall reading about her in 1962, a Life magazine article about the new crop of blondes who were in line to inherit the trembling crown of Marilyn Monroe. I forget who the others were, although Stella Stevens was probably among the mix. I recall thinking Monroe herself must have loved the article — she died the same year.  But having not seen Carol in any films, I thought nothing of her.

Some years later, two of Lynley’s movies were constants on TV — the ABC 4:30 movie, which I caught religiously after school.  One was “Blue Denim” a tale of the dangers of teenage sex, and the other was “Bunny Lake is Missing,” a thriller about a young mother who insists her daughter has been kidnapped.

Now in the process of full disclosure, I admit that it was Lynley’s male co-stars who initially sparked my interest— Brandon DeWilde (as the clean cut boy who gets his girlfriend pregnant in “Blue Denim”) and Keir Dullea, who plays Lynley’s brother in “Bunny Lake.”  But there was something about Lynley, the more I watched both films  especially the brilliant and chilling “Bunny Lake,” one of Otto Preminger’s better films.

Carol Lynley in Bunny Lake is Missing.

Lynley also appeared in “The Pleasure Seekers,” 20th Century’s Fox’s umpteenth reworking of its three-girls-on-the-loose-in-glamorous settings.  Unfortunately, Lynley and Pamela Tiffin were totally upstaged by the uncontrollable energy and blatant charisma of Ann-Margret, whose screen career seemed to be peaking and unstoppable — yet it would be dead within two years; overexposure and bad material did A-M in, until hubby Roger Smith and manager Allan Carr waited it out and took her in new directions.  (Lynley, in “The Pleasure Seekers,” did at least have a ladies room scene in which she is confronted by her married lover’s wife — the divine Gene Tierney — who calls her  a tramp and slaps her. High drama for this schoolboy!)

Lynley was also caught up in the brief and salacious Jean Harlow revival, after the publication of a highly fictionalized biography of the star in 1964.  The following year two films were released, based on the book.  Carroll Baker starred in the “big” version — Technicolor, Panavision, clothes by Edith Head.  Lynley’s version was a low-budget black and white, filmed in some sort of “new” technology that looks for all the world like bad soap opera videotape. Neither actress was anything like Harlow and the movies tanked.  Carroll Baker soon fled to Europe where she later admitted to having a hell of a good time for about ten years, making interesting bad films and living la dolce vita.

Carroll Baker as Harlow.

Carol Lynley, about a decade younger than Baker, stuck it out in Hollywood, her beauty ripening gloriously, but to little effect. She did a lot of TV and then in 1972 popped up unexpectedly in “The Poseidon Adventure” wearing hot-pants and lip-syncing the films famous song “The Morning After,” (notably re-recorded the following year by Maureen McGovern.)  Lynley looked untouched by time — and she would retain this freshness for quite a few years — but one had to wonder, what had happened to her once- promising career?  More TV, more low-budget films.  She was interviewed from time to time and always seemed to keep a positive attitude.  She wasn’t a great talent — whatever THAT really means.  But she had a little something extra that somehow just never received the proper guidance. (Not everybody was as lucky as Ann-Margret or as cheerfully what-the-hell as Carroll Baker.)  

To watch “Bunny Lake is Missing” today is to be impressed at how remarkably she holds up against co-stars Dullea (trying a bit too hard), as well as Laurence Olivier, Martita Hunt and even Noel Coward.And she is memorably sensitive and touching as the terrified pregnant teen of “Blue Denim.”  Only two films — but enough for me to have been inexplicably sad when word came of her passing. 

Carol Lynley as Harlow.

P.S. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to meet Carol Lynley. If I had, along with discussing her career, I’d always wanted to run a story by her, one told often by her husband of four years, a 20th Century Fox press rep Michael Selsman — from this union came her only child, Jill Selsman.  

Selsman had the misfortune — certainly in his opinion — to have had to deal with Marilyn Monroe during the last, fraught, two years of her life. “Everything with her was a crisis” he once said, “She could have a breakdown over what to have for lunch!”  

In putting a fine point on what a burden it was to deal with Monroe, and “how mean” she could be, Selsman told of showing up one night in 1961 at Marilyn’s apartment on Doheny Drive in California.  

He was there to help her go through photographs taken by Douglas Kirkland for Look magazine — nude under a white sheet.  He appeared at her door with a heavily pregnant Carol Lynley.  He said that in all of L.A. there was nobody and no place to stash his expectant wife.  Nor did he warn Monroe that Carol would be accompanying him. Marilyn answered her door, took a look at the situation and said to Selsman, “You come in.” Indicating that Mrs. Selsman was not welcome.  “Carol sat for several hours in a cold car,” Selsman later commented and reiterated how awful Monroe was.  

I utterly believe this story.  Monroe could be tough and even mean, especially toward the end.  But here’s the rub.  Selsman, as a PR man, surely knew that his wife represented everything that Monroe didn’t have and/or was possibly losing.  Carol was in the first bloom of youth, her career ascendant, she was pregnant.

Monroe was 35, her career in trouble, with a history of miscarriages.  Not to mention Lynley worked at Fox, Monroe’s own studio, with which she had a volatile relationship.  What, in Marilyn’s eyes, did Lynley’s presence mean?  Was Selsman simply clueless or cruel?  Was he trying to push a friendship between the women that might benefit Lynley or himself?  Famously sensitive to being “used” or mocked or dismissed by industry types Monroe was likely outraged by the mere fact of Lynley on her doorstep. (She had never objected to being around pregnant women previously — quite the opposite, in fact.)   She was showing Selsman she was the boss and that whatever he was trying to do — or what she imagined he was doing — she wasn’t having it.

I’ve always loved this story.  Not because anybody is nice — except for poor Carol — but that it shows how potent power, paranoia, insecurity and arrogance can be, when it is least expected.  And when those qualities are used by people who don’t like one another but must adjust and work together. 

 I’ve often pondered what Lynley herself thought?  Was it even exactly as her ex recalled it, and as she (Carol) aged, did she come to understand that Monroe was fighting for her life, and needed all her strength, not a blonde, ambitious, fecund reminder of where it was all going wrong; Carol, a beautiful unwitting vampire, standing at MM’s door, unable to enter without an invitation.

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