“ONE of the few things to trust about the movies is that pictures seen at an impressionable age mean the most. I was told I was too “involved” with the lives onscreen. Loving them so much, I could not endure the perils. But perhaps I was just empty, anxious to be filled. The children of the dark do not easily give up on their secret love. Or the fear.”
That is writer/film historian David Thomson from his latest book, “Sleeping with Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire.” Thomson is familiar to anybody who loves movies. His many editions of “The Biographical Dictionary of Films” — always updated, jammed with smart, elegant sometimes controversial opinions (if you don’t agree).
He is never unsure of those opinions. His work has meant as much to me as what I consider, still, the greatest book ever written on — to slightly misquote Norma Desmond — those wonderful people, up there in the dark. That book is “The Movie Stars” by Richard Griffith. I still have my original copy, which I “purchased” in 1970. Alright, alright! I slipped it under a voluminous jacket and walked out of Brentano’s on Fifth Avenue. No mean feat as it is a big book! (I was young and poor. I make no apologies.)
Thomson’s new book is a lot of this, a lot of that, more of this ‘n that, meshed. There is memoir, film history, some political allusions, an attempt to reconcile the eternal images of women on screen and the MeToo movement, and — as it was originally intended to be — an exploration of gay influence in film.
Despite quite a few “he was gay and he was not” declarations — several of the “he was not” put my eyebrows well up into my receding hairline — the book seems to lose its way on that subject.
“Sleeping with Strangers” is beautifully and intelligently written but attempts too much, I think. Not that it isn’t worth the ride — there are wonderful essays and remarkable insights, natch.
Perhaps I’m the not the right audience. I’ve never wondered over gay influence in movies or “the gay subtext.” (For instance the famous “Gilda”supposition — was Glenn Ford involved with both Rita Hayworth and her husband and Ford’s savior/mentor, George Macready?) Why? Because I’m gay. As a precocious child I approached movies from what I considered, even back then, a non-heterosexual vantage point.
All female stars fascinated me. (“Why do you always remember everything the women say in movies?” my mother once asked me pointedly.) Or pointlessly. By then I felt sure She Knew.
The men? They were either boring or physically attractive. If the latter, then objects of desire — my particular Male Gaze — but still not very involving. I suppose that’s a cliché, a stereotype — but cliché’s and stereotypes spring from a certain truth.
My truth was that I wanted to be Susan Hayward as the promiscuous Messalina in “Demetrius and the Gladiators.” What was it about Elizabeth Taylor slipping out of her clothes in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” murmuring huskily to Paul Newman, “The heat has made you cross…”? Why, when I saw Judy Garland in “I Could On Singing” (her last movie) did I literally fall off the bed — three times! — as she made a mediocre script and mostly indifferent songs cataclysmic High Art and savage roman a clef?
And why did I know for sure I was in love with Marilyn, after being taken to see “Some Like It Hot” in 1960? (The entire audience gasped when the lights come up and the camera moves in on MM singing “I Wanna to Be Loved By You” — it seems, shockingly, that she is nude from the waist up. The sound of that gasp has never left me.)
So books or essays or ruminations about who was or wasn’t, or is the director slipping in something gay in an otherwise straight movie, didn’t impress me — everything about movies was “gay” to me. I knew I was viewing things differently — and to my mind — far more interestingly. I was smart/wary enough not announce at a family gathering, “I like boys!” But I also felt there was nothing wrong with that. I was sure my “inner life” which included my extreme passion for movies, was far superior to anybody else I knew. (If I sound insufferable, I was.)
I realized I was on a totally different path when I saw, at age 11, “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” on the ABC-TV 4:30 movie. Vivien Leigh plays an older woman, a retired actress, infatuated and taken advantage of by an Italian hustler (an absolutely absurd Warren Beatty). We are supposed to feel sympathy for Leigh, and I did; she’s still ravishing but everybody acts as if she is washed up because the first flush of youth had faded. However, what struck me most forcefully is that I knew that someday I would be Vivien Leigh. No, I wouldn’t be a woman — I had no interest in altering my gender — and I wouldn’t be rich or famous. (Prescient and realistic, even back then!) But the look of interest I’d seen in men’s eyes already, would, I knew, inevitably fade. I would attempt to reignite that look, and it would be painful. It was.
Movies not only endlessly entertained and educated me, but they told me a lot about myself, reinforced what I already knew or sensed.
So I was never terribly interested in what a director had in mind or if an actor was “fluid” or straight or a drug addict or he couldn’t keep it in his pants or she couldn’t wait to get out of her Edith Head costume and get down to it in the dressing room.
Fun gossip, for sure, but not essential to my personal take on films. The movies, the stars, all spoke to me, alone. Or so I thought, then.
So much of “Sleeping With Strangers,” is superior that I feel it’s okay to point out a few things that made me crazy:
No, Judy Garland is not “more beautiful” or “beautiful for the first time” in “Meet Me In St. Louis.”
That is an opinion that became part of Garland mythology, from one of her biographies. She is ravishing in “Girl Crazy” and especially “Presenting Lily Mars.” In fact, she’s starting to show the strain in certain scenes of “St. Louis” and MGM’s Dottie Ponedel had begun a new make-up on Judy that included fly-away eyebrows that would fly far too high in later years.
Marilyn Monroe was pregnant in “Some Like It Hot” not just “very, very voluptuous or out of shape.” (Thompson is disdainful of MM, but a film historian should know that salient reality — which might account for some of her aggravating behavior during that production. She miscarried — for the third time — shortly after the fraught production ended.)
Thomson recalls the account, told in Suzanne Finstad’s compelling biography on Natalie Wood, that Wood was raped as a teenager by a very famous actor. Thomson, without disparaging either Finstad or Wood, examines the facts — such as they are — around the tale and offers a counterpoint. Fine. But he also says he doesn’t know the name of the alleged “villain” of the story. Is that possible? Thompson knows everything.
I know the name of the man in the story. Finstad told me, under the condition that I not publish it. Others have caught on over the years — I see the name linked to Wood. Thomson is so sure on all other matters that this ignorance is disingenuous. But he’s correct — the alleged rape is one of those things, like the circumstances surrounding her tragic death that we can never speak on with definitive clarity.
And while I was glad that Thomson casts a slightly jaundiced eye on the memoirs of one Scotty Bowers, self-proclaimed pimp and hustler for lots movie stars, who “told all” after all who could sue him were dead, I was then a bit dismayed to find a particularly lurid Bowers tale about Spencer Tracy included in Thompson’s chapter on Tracy and Hepburn.
I suppose some things are hard to ignore.
But I will end with this, from David Thomson, which I could not agree with more:
“If you have been moved and formed by movies, respect that; for the experiment suggests that you exist and are of value.”
That was my experience. Movies saved my life in a way — movies and Max Factor Panstik, the best coverage for my troubled teenage complexion. (Also I read in a Liz Smith article for Cosmopolitan that this cosmetic was on Elizabeth Taylor’s dressing room table. So, naturally …)
ENDQUOTE and P.S. “I can’t be spread so thin, I’m just one person. I don’t want to be rolled out like a pastry so everybody can get a nice big bite of me. I’m just me. I belong to myself. I can do whatever I damn well please with myself and nobody can ask any questions … I’m not gonna do it anymore. And that’s final! It’s just not worth all the deaths that I have to die …”
Speaking of Judy Garland — we were, above — this is part of her amazing monologue in “I Could Go on Singing,” in which she plays Jenny Bowman, a troubled concert singer, who is —clearly — fed up. With assist by co-star Dirk Bogarde, Judy nailed it in one astonishing take.
On June 1st at Joe’s Pub, the seventh Annual Night of a Thousand Judys happens. Written and hosted by Justin Sayre and directed by Peter James Cook, the event honors Garland and this year the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. (Yes, yes — I know. Those who rebelled that hot night on June 28th were not upset because Miss Garland’s funeral in New York had just happened. But it’s become a convenient myth because Judy was especially beloved by gay audiences who remained faithful as the night grew bitter and the stars had lost their glitter. It’s all fine, and this is for a good cause, benefiting the Ali Forney Center, which helps homeless LGBT youth.)
Christine Andreas, Nathan Lee Graham, Molly Pope, Amber Martin, Matt Doyle, Brittain Ashford, Julian Fleisher and others are scheduled to perform.
For tickets call 212-967-7555 or visit joespub.com. Or just stop in at the box-office at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street.