A Crack in Hollywood’s Veneer

Whether you are considering Technicolor spectacles like Singing in the Rain or a more subdued film, it is plain to see that Hollywood is an industry that delights in its own myth making. It has devised for itself the image of the enterprising underdog, idealistic and saccharine. It is obviously false, it has always been false. It’s history is littered with maligned women, individuals manipulated, consumed, and left to disintegrate within their own pain and suffering. It is a rare individual who makes it out of Hollywood unscathed. This is especially true in what is referred to as Hollywood’s golden era, roughly encompassing the 1930s through the 1960s. It is an era of films that can be defined by an idealistic, overly constructed veneer that often belied the grueling realities of movie-making.

As such, I find the films listed below particularly compelling for their resistance to this narrative. Made inside of the existing Hollywood system, they adeptly weave a narrative that shows the kind of exploitation that can occur within a notoriously callous and fickle industry, focused solely on appearances and superficiality. These films are shockingly candid. Two of these films star Judy Garland and Natalie Wood, women who, I believe, embody the psychic violence and related tragedy that Hollywood could wreak. This casting lends these films an additional level of resonance, an undertone of impending misfortune. In a culture that applauded beauty and perfection at any cost, it is no coincidence that the films that were made reflected those things. Actors were often put on strict regimens that controlled their weight and appearance, saddling them with arduous schedules, and pumping them full of drugs until they were no longer deemed desirable, at which point they were on their own. These films explore the darker sides of Hollywood and do so with a candor and delicacy that is both rare and refreshing.

  1. In a Lonely Place, directed by Nicholas Ray (1950)
  2. A Star is Born, directed by George Cukor (1954)
  3. Inside Daisy Clover, directed by Robert Mulligan (1965)Daisy Clover

On James Dean

I have only watched James Dean in Giant three times. It is a comparatively small number of times when I think of how much time I have spent gazing adoringly at him in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden. In my youth, I thought the latter films were better just by virtue of the fact that there was more total screen time devoted to Dean. But I was wrong. Giant is incredible and Dean is incredible in it. We see him as the outsider (naturally), looking in at all the things he craves that are just out of reach: love, money, respect, adulation, and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor. That longing, that intense loneliness is not only evident through blocking, or where Dean is placed within a scene, but through his body. He staggers under the emotional weight of his isolation and despair. The emotional pain is made physical through and informs his every movement, simple tasks become jarring and strenuous, difficult to watch. He is almost incapacitated by his longing. It is an incredibly tender and evocative physicality. A stunning testament to an actor whose beauty often overshadows his immense talent. This physicality is no doubt present in his other films, but it reaches its apex in Giant. The characterization of Jett Rink hangs on this exploration. He has dialogue, of course, but the audience only really understands his misery through his body. Through the time he devotes to his movement and thus to the interiority of the character, Jett is rendered vulnerable to such a degree that it is nearly painful to watch him. I say nearly because it is actually captivating. It creates a depth and an implicit understanding with the viewer that no amount of expertly crafted dialogue could have accomplished. Even when Rink exposes himself to be the closest thing to a villain that the movie has, we remember the depths of his sorrow and, while it doesn’t justify his behaviors, it explains them. Dean’s last scene in the film is a dedication party for his new hotel. Everyone has left the party early after a drunken brawl between Dean and Rock Hudson. Dean stumbles to the podium. We see that after acquiring all of the wealth and the adulation of a community, all of the things that were supposed to give his life value, he has found himself in exactly the same place as he was when he was a despised ranch-hand working on Reata (Hudson’s ranch). All of his acquired bravado has failed him. He is raw. He stumbles up to the banquet table, sits in despair, his hands searching his face for a temporary solace. He stands and begins to address a crowd that is not there, mumbling both incoherent and belligerent. As his final act, he leans into the table and it comes crashing down on him. He is undeniably and unutterably alone. It is a moving, deeply tragic scene. While the film was being edited, Dean died in the infamous car accident and this scene, found in editing to be inaudible, was overdubbed by another actor. I find this an interesting anecdote with which to end a discussion of Dean’s work on Giant. The voice, arguably not his own, isn’t a memorable aspect of his performance. It and the dialogue has become superfluous. What makes the impact is his body, the way he uses it to convey the darkness and agony of his character. It is the most impactful thing about Jett. In the nearly three and a half hours of epic vistas and grandeur, it is the thing that stays with us because it is the one thing that rings true.


Picasso and Kerouac, and Salinger, Oh My!

“Pablo’s many stories and reminiscences about Olga and Marie-Thérèse and Dora Maar [his former wife and lovers], as well as their continuing presence just off-stage in our own life together, gradually made me realize that he had a kind of Bluebeard complex that made him want to cut off the heads of all the women he had collected in his little private museum. But he didn’t cut the heads entirely off. He preferred to have life go on and to have all those women who had shared his life at one moment or another still letting out little peeps and cries of joy or pain and making a few gestures like disjointed dolls, just to prove there was some life left in them, that hung by a thread, and that he held the other end of the thread. From time to time they would provide a humorous or dramatic or sometimes tragic side to things, and that was all grist to his mill.”

-Françoise Gilot, My Life With Picasso, 218.

When an artist becomes an icon, they are stripped of all of the mundane and relatable things that make up a human life. They become a synthesis of metaphor and myth, one that often becomes complicated with and by their work. They become untouchable, their influence rarefied, overbearing, and unstoppable. For this reason, I seek out the books that defy these insurmountable mythologies. They are not written by biographers, who, I feel, often feed needlessly into this type of hagiography. They are written by intimates of the artist. These accounts offer us sketches that restore the former icon to human status, complicating their legacy, and offering us glimpses of their foibles. These are messy, complex, and sometimes grueling stories, but they offer refreshingly life-like portraits that make us question the foundations of veneration and the veracity of certain societal and cultural myths. Finally, they urge us to face the human expense of objects generally referred to as great works of art. These books cover the works and lives of Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, and Pablo Picasso, including their contexts and their influence. They are written by women close to the artists, which, I believe, serves to highlight the expectations that we, as a society, foist upon women, forcing them to become caregivers in service to the often preposterous egos of men. These books reassess those paradigms and force us to complicate our interactions with works of art, seeing the works of these men not as static, but as fluid and variable and deeply complicated. The books that I have listed below accomplish that without sensationalism and with a deftness that, I like to imagine, would inspire envy in their subjects.

  1. My Life With Picasso by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake
  2. Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson
  3. At Home in the World: A Memoir by Joyce Maynard13tmag-francoise-slide-8I4B-superJumbo


In Defense of Tuesday Weld

Tuesday Weld was supposed to be just another beautiful and charming young blonde, like Sandra Dee or Hayley Mills. An ideal, whose tranquil presence would lure an unwary public into the movies. She was to be a symbol of an innocent era, a romantic dream of conformity and prosperity. But the problem with an ideal is that the inevitable cracks in their veneer show us how illusory they always were. From this Weld was no exception.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tuesday Weld was everywhere. In 1956, at 13, she starred in Rock, Rock, Rock! The film, with not even a paltry script, served mainly as a showcase for recording artists. However terrible it is, the film is interesting for the attention it focuses on an emerging teenage culture and the attempts made to create media to market to said culture. The film was a success and, as a result, Tuesday Weld became a part of this culture. During this era, she starred opposite Frankie Avalon in I’ll Take Sweden and secured a recurring role as Thalia Menninger on the television show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. In these roles, she is a vision of perfection, of an idealized mid-century American teenage girlhood, a saccharine symbol of suburban normality. But, as hindsight has taught us, that image of normality concealed a malignant anxiety that infused all of mid-century American society. The story was no different for Tuesday Weld.

Weld had been forced to work from a young age. After her father died and her mother required another source of income, Weld became a model. She was three years old. As a teenager, her mother moved them to California so she could pursue an acting career for her daughter. What followed is a harrowing story of fleeting success coupled with drinking, affairs with much older men, and a sexualization by the larger society that is still appalling. She is quoted in one New York Times article circa 1971 as having turned down the role of Lolita in the film adaptation because “I didn’t have to play it; I was Lolita.” The article goes on in a rather tone-deaf fashion, calling Weld “the frisky teen-age sex kitten of the fifties,” and an “erotically angelic blonde,” further perpetuating her image as “a feather-brained man-chaser, a predatory pubescent, a dizzy blonde,” and describing her roles as “haunting portraits of deadly delicious nymphets…” The author completely ignores the gravity of her statement. It has not even registered. This article, published when Weld was 28, refused to see Weld as she was at present or to acknowledge the truth of her experiences. Rather, it chose to delight in the memory of her sexualization, to relish the vision of her as created by a studio, the vision of her as object.

Weld, understandably, became known for being difficult on-set. This, paired with her refusal to star in films that would later become cultural touchstones, such as Lolita, Bonnie and Clyde, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, led her career to flounder and her celebrity to become largely forgotten. However, I believe that some of her later work, in particular Pretty Poison and Play it as it Lays, confuse these assumptions and illustrate how talented and unique an actress she really was. Additionally, they highlight her willingness to take the risks necessary to make interesting, complex film.

Pretty Poison tells the story of a man, played by Anthony Perkins, recently released from a mental institution. He becomes infatuated with a teenage girl, played by Weld, and tells her he is a member of the CIA. They go on counter-espionage missions together and, predictably, disaster ensues. It is a bastardization of the image that was cultivated for Weld in the earlier part of her career, that of the idealized, innocent, blonde. The film utilizes a beautiful pastel color palette to accentuate the contrast between suburban, domestic banality and the danger that lurks beneath it. It is a stunning movie; visually delightful and intricate in its characterizations. Similarly, Play It as It Lays addresses the complex interiority of a woman. Based on the Joan Didion novel of the same name, this film stars Weld as Maria Wyeth, an actress struggling with depression and overwhelming feelings of futility. It is a stark exploration of the superficiality and exploitation of the movie industry and its effects on a woman. In this tragic story, Maria finds herself grasping at any shred of life that might sustain her. The fragmented visuals follow her similarly fragmented interior monologue, creating an overall feeling of compelling disquiet. These films were not successful when they were released, but I believe they are truly great. They showcase Weld’s ability as an actress and also complicate the narrative that was created for her.

When I watch her early films, I am left with the feeling that Tuesday Weld was being set up to become a star. But she was never as commercially successful as she should have been. She was being sacrificed to the status quo, forced to become a symbol of the decency and innocence of mid-century America, a decency and innocence that never really existed and that she never really knew. It almost consumed her, but in her very marrow she refused it. She was being groomed to be one thing but she became something completely different based on stubbornness alone. She became something tough, resilient, unruly, and difficult. She survived. On The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, Cavett confronted her with a story of her former behavior. As Cavett tells it, she was 14 years old and smoking on set. An adult walked past and berated her. She shot back, “if I’m old enough to have a baby, I’m old enough to smoke.” Weld, 1971 Weld, throws her head back and laughs. “Right on,” she says. I like to think Weld still lives with this unruly former self and I hope she cherishes her.

Flatley, Guy. “Most of All, Tuesday Remembers Mama.” New York Times (New York, N.Y.), Nov. 07, 1971.