Ann-Margret: The Evolution of a Sex Symbol

Watching Ann-Margret dance is watching a woman give herself up to her body. Watching Ann-Margret dance is watching a woman who is not afraid to show her sexuality and her power. Ten to fifteen years prior, Ann-Margret would have been typecast as a femme fatale; a bold, manipulative, and unrelenting female. Her characters would have been killed in order to preserve the status quo. She has all the attributes of the predatory female characters of noir, the knowing and self-possessed glance, the eyebrow raised in mockery and seduction. The femme fatale, a cultural phenomena, was a direct response to social phenomena, or, more specifically, women’s increasing participation in the workforce and the perceived threat to the ideal of domesticated womanhood. But Ann-Margret and all her audacity came up in a decade where sexuality was praised and explored, not condemned, and she became a figure of a new kind of morality, emblematic of a new era. As her career progressed, Ann-Margret was given the room to explore and complicate this image in her later films and, as we shall see, it led to a nuanced image and filmography.

Ann-Margret and her work can be seen as indicative of a shift in the societal and cultural mores of the 1960s, a move away from fear and towards an embrace of the liberated woman. She is her own agent. She exhibits a sexuality on her own terms and for herself alone. Ultimately,  she is not punished for it, setting her apart from previous generations. Her image was cultivated early on, with her starring role in the remake of State Fair (1962). She auditioned for the role of Margy, performing the dreamy “It Might As Well Be Spring”. However, the studio believed that no one would see Ann-Margret as the innocent girl-next-door and instead cast her as Emily, the sultry love interest of Wayne, Margy’s brother. It was with this casting that her image became cemented.

Ann-Margret was often paired with some of the most identifiably cool and aloof womanizers of the 1960s. She is the only conceivable counterpart to these men, the only one who can challenge them at their own feigned indifference. She starred opposite Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas (1964) and Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid (1965). There is a scene in The Cincinnati Kid where Ann-Margret, playing Melba, the wife of Karl Malden, is seen at a puzzle. As Malden asks her why she always cheats, we see that she merely cuts the pieces as she finds spaces she needs to fill. Her attitude towards men is no different. We see in her the image of a woman who doesn’t follow convention, a woman who isn’t afraid to use something and throw it away. She is a woman running circles around her husband and McQueen. She uses them as she uses her puzzle, just for her own enjoyment, a disposable thing to be tossed aside after her pleasure. She is able to complicate and confuse their lives, resisting them until it suits her, and then giving them all the trouble that they often foist onto others. Melba, in her unrelenting indifference, would be the character that would pave the way for some of her films of the 1970s, which include a challenge to the image of uncomplicated sexuality that had become her trademark throughout the sixties.

This sense of sexuality and abandon becomes complicated when we look at the later works of Ann-Margret. In Carnal Knowledge (1971), for example, we are faced with Bobbie, a woman whose extreme vulnerability and sexuality are weaponized against her. They are used to cause her pain, not contentment or pleasure. Tommy (1975) also seeks to complicate this narrative. In the infamous baked beans scene, we see a woman whose identity and sexuality are tied up in wealth and material gain. We see a woman’s sexuality made grotesque as she writhes among her furniture, covered in the slick of the beans. The juxtaposition of an overt sexuality and the tactile nightmare of the beans in a formerly pristine, all white interior creates a haunting and revolting portrait of a woman’s sexuality. I see these two films as indicative of Ann-Margret’s desire to complicate the narrative about herself that was so prevalent that it subsumed the real woman. With these films, Ann-Margret was able to take the image and comment on the wild unreality of it all. We can see these films as part of a desire, on the part of Ann-Margret, to prove herself as an actor, which she most certainly does. It is a crucial point in the evolution of Ann-Margret, the symbol.

I think that the success and the relative ease of Ann-Margret’s career is something worth discussing. It is a rare story of success not marred by tragedy. When we talk about sex symbols, we often end up discussing their tragic circumstances, which are often fed by multiple sources. Sometimes it is a failure on the part of audiences to reconcile the image with the person, a dangerous conflation that can lead to full-blown, mindless consumption. Sometimes it comes from the tendency for sex symbols to be worked for a few short years and then cast aside. Often they are not allowed to pursue serious roles, even if it is what they want, and they are often assessed to be not important enough to the institution of cinema to merit any distinction. Someone’s sexualization on such a large and unrelenting scale, paired with this kind of dismissal, can and has led to dire emotional and psychological repercussions (think Marilyn Monroe). But Ann-Margret is not emblematic of that kind of story. She was, as she tells it, happy. There were moments of fraught upheaval, as in anyone’s life, but by and large she describes her time as an actress fondly. I believe that this is because she did not allow her sense of worth to revolve solely around the image of her sexuality and because she was given the room and the option to challenge the meaning and validity of something as notoriously fickle and potentially dangerous as the idea of the sex symbol. She is a compelling image of unrestrained sexuality, but it was not an image that hindered her, personally or professionally. She became a sex symbol emblematic of the upheaval of the 1960s, of a certain kind of new womanhood, but ultimately was able to pursue a life and a career that didn’t hinge solely on that image. Hers is one of the few non-tragic tales that Hollywood has to tell and it is a joy to watch.

 

Elliott Gould’s Subtle Revolt

I watched The Long Goodbye. And then I watched The Long Goodbye again. And then I watched California Split. And then I watched The Long Goodbye. There was something about these two films that felt similarly alive and captivating, an almost tangible quality. There was something intriguing being said about masculinity and space, a challenge couched in the hyper-masculine worlds of noir and gambling. These are two of the many films which actor Elliott Gould and director Robert Altman collaborated on, and although they are not thematically similar, they do have a kind of spiritual kinship with one another. Their desire to explore the relationships of men and the spaces that they occupy, the way that the spaces are shaped by the men and the men, in turn, by the spaces, all contribute to the compelling realism of the films.

The Long Goodbye (1973) is the classic Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler reimagined. Marlowe, the famous noir detective, is all hyper-masculine crass and bravado, a man almost always devoid of emotionality. For this film, Altman transposed Marlowe, a product of the 1930s, onto 1970s Southern California to create a portrait of a man truly at odds with his environment. California Split (1974) tells the tale of two compulsive gamblers, played by Gould and George Segal, as they attempt to keep their heads above water.

Throughout these films, Gould exhibits a kind of feigned toughness and apathy that serves to cover a real vulnerability, one that is slowly stripped away during the film. In an early scene of California Split, Gould rubs shaving cream on Segal’s ribs after they are mugged in a parking lot. From then on there is no doubt, it is clear how much the men look up to one another. It is this incredibly tender gesture that sets the tone for their relationship. No matter the bravado, no matter the antics, the care that they have for one another has been expressed and they will not shy away from it. It is this that I believe differentiates the film from others of the era (films like John Cassavetes’s Husbands (1970), which seem to revel in masculine cruelty). Secure in its subtle compassion, the characters know that that care doesn’t diminish their masculinity. They do not find it intimidating, in fact, the quickness with which their intimacy grows may suggest that this is the kind of bond that they have been looking for all along. They do not bond over cruelty, but over a shared vulnerability. Similarly, in The Long Goodbye, Philip Marlowe, hardboiled, tough detective, as played by Gould, is simultaneously rougher around the edges and more sensitive. The film opens with Gould asleep in his dingy apartment. His cat wakes him up demanding food. What follows is an endearing portrait of a man attempting to feed his cat at three o’clock in the morning. This sense of care and obligation further sets up the rest of the film and gives us, the audience, a new interpretation of the old, classic Marlowe, a character for whom everything seems to mean close to nothing. Instead, we are faced with a sometimes sentimental Marlowe, one who, even when faced with it, cannot possibly comprehend betrayal at the hands of a friend.

The spaces in The Long Goodbye and California Split work alongside Gould to lend the films a level of complexity and authenticity. Not only was filming often done on location, featuring local Southern California gambling institutions in all their seedy glory, but their accompanying soundtrack is made up of ambient sound. It is the kind of dull, indistinguishable roar that characterizes all public spaces but is so rarely captured on film. The sound isn’t focused solely on our protagonists, it is merely punctuated by them. The sound is immersive. It is palpable and so are the spaces. Gould complements these animated environments with an equally active performance. He is often found wandering around muttering to himself, improvising lines like “it’s okay with me”, all at the encouragement of Altman. It serves to imbue his character with a life that most characters just don’t have. He is the embodiment of frantic, frenetic motion, always chaotic, a coiled spring. He can’t contain his thoughts, there are too many. They are overflowing and we, the audience, are given the excess. He is a character more realized for his foibles and mannerisms and thus more relatable. There is a vitality to Gould and to the spaces he inhabits, you can hear and almost smell them. The musty dank surroundings seep into him and he, in turn, into the surroundings. The smell of days worth of sweat and grime cover Gould and Segal in California Split, the cigarette smoke and stale beer clings to their jackets and we to them in visceral acknowledgement. This is the amazing thing about Altman and Gould together, they are able to create real lived-in spaces and characters that we recognize in such a sensory way. It is made up of so much more than a script, so much more than language.

In less deft hands, the bombastic masculine energy that characterizes both of these films could have overshadowed or completely obscured the intimate moments of care shown by our protagonists. The Long Goodbye and California Split are complex films with complex characters and it is no doubt that Gould excels in these complex areas. He is able to lend the characters and the story a degree of sympathy that would be missing otherwise. There is a challenge inherent in every movement Gould makes; a challenge to traditional moviemaking, traditional leading men, a challenge to Hollywood; it’s slickness and veneer, it’s inability to deal in complexities, its desire to capture an idealized and elevated world. Every moment we follow Gould, we fall a little more in love with him, his behavior rings more true. As he drags us deeper into the grimy, sordid, morally bankrupt spaces he inhabits, we thank him for showing us the truth, a world that though deeply cruel, can also be punctuated by moments of beauty.

 

The Myth of Hughes, the Reality of Women

“The female body has always been a key building block of cinema- a raw material fed into the machine of the movies, as integral to the final product as celluloid itself.”

-Karina Longworth, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, pg 5.

A biography is a very specific, very delicate balancing act. A biography has to walk a fine line of truth, skepticism, and empathy. A biographer needs to be constantly vigilant against the seemingly unceasing tendency towards hagiography and sensationalism. In an era oversaturated with information, a biographer needs to find a compelling way in which to connect and convey information, a way that is unique and that doesn’t render the information stale. Karina Longworth has done just that in Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood. Hughes, an almost mythic figure in American culture, has been written about and dramatized for decades, so it seems an almost impossible task to find a new way to explore his life. But Longworth is able to accomplish this by writing about the women who fell or were forced into Hughes’s orbit. By doing this, she is able to explore the man and his career at various stages. Among the women discussed in detail are Billie Dove, Jean Harlow, Faith Domergue, Ava Gardiner, Jane Russell, Jean Peters, and Terry Moore. These women were often lured into Hughes’s life with expectations of fame and a career in film. They were then molded and groomed into Hughes’s ideal-a woman whose sexuality was up for display and rabid consumption. They were stripped of their autonomy. They were made just for Howard and they languished under his control. He was a man, it is made clear, that manipulated his way into people’s lives, offering them a career or marriage, things that he would never deliver, in order to get what he wanted. The book offers a telling look at Hollywood and dynamics that, until recently, operated without criticism.

Throughout the book, we are shown Hughes as he goes about molding women, their identities, personas, and images, to a disturbingly uniform image of what he thought sexuality and womanhood entailed. The book illustrates how women’s bodies become the site of power struggles and of men’s fantasies. Playing out many of his own desires on screen, Hughes was then able to use the success of Jean Harlow and Jane Russell, the only real successes he had in Hollywood, as a way to lure other young, aspiring starlets into a web of deception and isolation from which it was nearly impossible to get out.

Much of the book is focused on Jane Russell, and for good reason. Russell became for Hughes the ideal woman and further cemented the notion that his star-finding power was unparalleled. In fact, as Longworth is able to show, much of his later predation on young starlets can be charted back to his handling of Russell’s career. Most famously, or infamously, Russell starred in The Outlaw, a film unremarkable in all ways but its publicity campaign. Hughes mounted a campaign based solely, much as the movie is, on Russell’s sultry demeanor and her breasts. His resulting fight with the Hollywood Production Code, a self-policing body that deemed movies either fit or unfit for exhibition based on a code fully entrenched in the morality of the times, further piqued audience interest in the film. Hughes was able to manufacture anticipation by exploiting these things and by holding the film from being shown for years. The film was eventually shown and while it was not considered a critical success, Russell was deemed a star. Through Longworth’s research we are able to see Hughes’s behavior towards the women he had under contract. Russell, Longworth notes, was put through publicity shots and scenes that were both humiliating and grueling, not to mention a whole film arc that rests solely on a rape fantasy. In one story, Hughes demanded that Russell bounce on a bed in a nightgown for publicity photographs. She remembers the day with a deep humiliation. When she asked Hughes for help to end the shoot, he refused (195). Of course, all of this was under his supervision and done at his request. When The Outlaw was released it became a success of sorts. In this, he felt justified in his actions. A woman was reduced to her most basic and anatomical parts, humiliated at the hands of men, and its success only served to fuel Hughes’s behavior and his notions of what a movie-going public wanted. Later on, he would leverage the fame of Russell, and what he saw as his role in crafting said fame, in order to sign aspiring actresses to contracts. While ostensibly taking measures for their careers, Hughes set them up in bungalows that served as virtual prisons. The women were guarded by detectives and chauffeurs that reported their every move to Hughes. Additionally, they were allowed to leave their bungalows only to dine with Hughes. Of course, these women never starred in any films and never had a chance at the stardom they so desired. They were idealistic and trusting, not aware of what they had fallen into. Hughes was able to leverage his persona as a star-maker in order to lure women into his orbit where he kept them for his own use. By telling the story of Russell, Longworth is able to expose the machinations of a predatory man, showing us the threads of his decades long plotting; how one success begat whole volumes of atrocious behavior. Through the book and the research, we are able to see Hughes as a microcosm for the larger film industry, to see that while horrendous, he is not singular. His behavior is a symptom of larger ills.

Raising issues of power dynamics, sexism, the male gaze, and predatory masculinity, Longworth offers us a fresh and relevant portrait of a man who exploited all of these things as well as the Hollywood system in order to act out his own desires. It is apparent that this type of behavior is not a solitary occurrence but should be viewed as a symptom of a system that values women solely for their bodies and the reactions that they are able to elicit in men. Hughes played on and exploited these things and was able, for a time, to become a force in Hollywood. Longworth highlights the women whose lives intersected, for good or ill, with Howard Hughes’s and by doing so, she gives a voice to the previously silenced. These women have lived their lives in the shadow of Hughes, largely and mistakenly considered a boundary-shattering entrepreneur and an all-American hero. These women are now centered in the narrative. It is finally their story, not his.

Longworth, Karina. Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood. New York, Custom House, 2018.

Discovering a Forgotten Gem: Claudia Weill’s “Girlfriends”

“As I grew up in the 50s and early 60s and so forth, there was always the lead girl, who was pretty and smart and pert and so forth, and beautiful figure and perfectly dressed. And then there was the side-kick, the best friend. And she was…usually a little more overweight, maybe underweight, not as conventionally pretty. It was her personality that was interesting. Often she was funny…I guess I wanted to make that person the protagonist. The one who doesn’t get married right away, the person who’s not living the dream life, the person who is having to create a life for themselves. I wanted to see somebody like me in a movie.”

-Claudia Weill on Girlfriends, 2019.

Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978) is a story of the disintegration of a friendship and a search for identity. Its power is in its demand that we center female friendship as the stuff of devastation and profound beauty, a fragile thing just as or more important than romantic attachment. Susan Weinblatt, played by Melanie Mayron, is overcome when her friend and roommate, Anne, unexpectedly announces that she is to be married. Susan and Anne appear to be kindred spirits. They are both aspiring artists; Susan is a photographer and Anne is a poet. Susan’s aspirations, her life and career appear to be at a standstill. The thing that she relies on for a sense of stability is her friendship with Anne. When Anne leaves, it is catastrophic.

The beauty of Girlfriends is in the details, in the signs of care and of loneliness, in the feeling of devastation that follows when someone is finally gone. It’s not theatrical, it’s not dramatic, it’s just silent and empty. The film’s beauty is in its acceptance and display of how hard it is to exist in that loneliness, while at the same time acknowledging the impossibility of living anywhere else. It shows how, even when you think relationships are over, growth can still be fostered between two people. It is the most beautiful evocation of friendship and self-realization that I have ever seen and it is precisely because there is no bombast to it. It is relatable. It is simple and it is kind. It feels the way a monumental loss feels; the world continues and you are just left with your grief. You are left to find your own way out. The film follows Susan as she struggles to find an identity outside of her friendship. She is in a state of almost suspended animation when Anne leaves. The film is able to deftly weave in the complexities of friendship, those mutual feelings of support and jealousy, and the way the two can mingle when you feel abandoned. Weill creates a poignant picture of the intricacies of friendship, how it can be a source of joy and support, but also a site of envy and resentment. She shows how integral it can be to a person’s identity, to their sense of being and belonging, of how much can be at stake when two women commit to each other. Women’s relationships with one another, the film appears to state, are among the most important relationships a person can have. Susan, our protagonist, finds her way, finds herself, and even, by the end of the film, has had her own photography exhibition. It is then that she is able to reconcile with Anne. It is then that their relationship is able to grow.

Girlfriends was originally to be a short film, but when Weill saw the characters, she realized that more time was needed to explore their story. It was done on the most limited of budgets, funded by loans and grants. That is, I believe, why Weill was able to do what she did. She was able to explore the female psyche, female relationships, and to center and find power in the mundane, in the simple. She was able to delve into the previously overlooked, to give it prominence. Weill’s ability to convey the complexity of human relationships is in these details. We realize, for example, that Susan has indeed moved on and into her own life when she begins to decorate the apartment that she and Anne had briefly lived in together. Her inability to decorate, we come to realize, was tied to her conception of the space as both her and Anne’s. Its emptiness stands as a testament to some of the last moments they spent together. But now it is just evidence of her inability to move on and forge a new identity. When Susan is able to heal, she is able to personalize her space and to make it her own, as she finally has done with her life. It is in these pristinely thought out and subtle details that Weill excels and it is for this reason that the film and Susan seem so incredibly relatable and authentic.

Left: Claudia Weill pictured with Melanie Mayron. Right: Mayron in a scene from the film.

“What Inspired Claudia Weill to Make a Different Kind of Friendship Movie.” The Criterion Collection. 2019. Video. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6385-what-inspired-claudia-weill-to-make-a-different-kind-of-friendship-movie

Stories of Resilience: Lee Grant

“Obsession is the most important thing in an actor or a director or a writer’s life, you know. You have to be obsessed and if you lose that obsession, you know, what are you going to do.”

-Lee Grant, in conversation with Robert Osbourne, 2014.

There is both inscrutability and vulnerability in the face of Lee Grant. An indecipherable cool that draws the audience to her instantly, seeking clarity. She is aloof, her aesthetic a perfect embodiment of the sixties. She is an actor whose career has spanned decades of cultural and societal shift. Hers is the story of a career that almost never happened. But it is also the story of a career revived. Lee Grant could have just disappeared, the powers that be and the standards of the day would have been more comfortable with that eventuality, but she, drawing on a deep well of resilience, persisted and had the most fruitful part of her career after surviving the Hollywood blacklist.

Grant, an actor in the theatre, was not particularly familiar with or interested in the inner workings of Hollywood. She was a New Yorker, entrenched in the ground-breaking work of the Actor’s Studio, Stanislavski, and the Method. For those who are not familiar, the Method was a new type of acting, gaining prominence in mid-century America, where an actor was encouraged to draw on the emotions and events of his or her own life in order to create a compelling portrait, a backstory for the character that was to inform all of their movements. Grant had no interest in pursuing a career in Hollywood, but when she was asked to reprise a role she had originated on Broadway, she went. In Detective Story (1951) Grant played a shoplifter and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. But Grant was entering a world that was in the midst of upheaval, one that was marred by fear and apprehension. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had been investigating Hollywood for fear that writers, directors, actors, and producers were inserting subversive, communistic messages into the movies. If the committee found a person uncooperative or deemed them “un-American” in their affiliations or ties, they were put on a blacklist and their career was effectively over. The result was an atmosphere of accusation and fear in which careers and lives were lost, and people often turned on one another to save themselves. After a colleague of Grant’s died of a heart attack, it was her contention that his death was the result of the stress of the blacklist and HUAC. She said as much in a eulogy at his funeral. Mere days later, she found her name in Red Channels, a pamphlet that listed alleged subversives. She refused to name names, the only way to appease HUAC at the time. At age 24, she was blacklisted. Luckily for Lee and for many actors, Broadway and the theatre refused to participate in the blacklist. Although she was now unwelcome in Hollywood, she was still able to perform sporadically in the theatre. However, her husband, who she married around this time, now expected her to stay home and take care of his children from another marriage. This, of course, along with the blacklist, stifled her career. She didn’t work regularly for 12 years. Acting, the place that she had thought of as a home, as a source of comfort, was gone. In her memoir, Grant describes her early days of acting as such. It “was to become my religion. A holy, safe place, a process that took place inside of me and that was to be protected at all costs. Nothing ever was allowed to get between me and the process I had given myself, to create in my own way… My truth. I had at last found my holy grail” (56). But just as quickly as she had found it, it seemed to be gone.

When Lee Grant got off the blacklist in 1964, she was 36 years old. It is on the subject of aging and beauty that Grant is incredibly frank. Lee, knowing the beauty and age standards that existed then in Hollywood, and still persist today, refused to accept that her age would hinder her career. She was finally free of the limitations of the blacklist and a dysfunctional marriage but, unfortunately, she was about to find herself in another kind of prison, one made of exacting and unrelenting beauty standards. Knowing that, by Hollywood standards, she had already passed her prime, she had a facelift, a rare procedure at the time, and speaks of being in a constant state of anxiety that her age would be found out or that her face would betray her, that her beauty would fade. In her memoir, Grant is as aware of the impossible standards as she is of her own involvement in them, and her powerlessness before them. “Nobody on TV or watching TV cared about your quality as an actress or your talent. Talent was my secret weapon. But to survive in Hollywood, I had to physically fit the town’s requirements for a young woman. I had to be pretty, and I had to be cute and funny on set” (207). She submitted to the beauty standards, she had to, but in her examination of them and their effect on her life, she denounces them wholeheartedly. She speaks about her obsession with her lighting, how her face was framed in a shot, and how these concerns often put her in a state of constant conflict with others on set as she attempted to achieve a perfection that, for her, was necessary to survival. All of these things, she knew, could make or break her. She would have to be a vision of perfection, always. There was no room for error. In her films of this era, In the Heat of the Night (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1967), and Shampoo (1975), she is incandescent, she is captivating. It is hard to believe that she was someone who struggled with the unrealistic expectations of Hollywood, that she was forced to mold herself into a more acceptable and youthful form of femininity. It all appears so effortless. But she did. Grant is aware that, in Hollywood, her acting career and her worth as an actor was tied solely to her appearance, rather than her skill. She used this, she benefited from it, but it ultimately restricted and subjected her to a whole new round of anxiety and fear.

When Grant won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Shampoo, she saw it as a bookend. On the one end of her career was Detective Story, on the other, Shampoo. Now that she had proven herself, she could look to new horizons. She had survived. She is the only actor put on the blacklist that managed, once the list had been retired, to build on and surpass her former fame. She had found success after the blacklist. She had proven to everyone that she was worthy. She was done. After her Oscar win, Grant began making documentary films. She chronicled the plight of the homeless and the effect of Reaganomics in Down and Out in America. These were now the stories that she told. And once again, winning awards and acclaim, she was successful.

Lee Grant is the indelible image of cool reserve, an image so related to and of the sixties. She is a woman whose career, as with the careers of so many women, was contingent on her beauty, on her appeal, and not on her talent. But she did have talent. She had so much talent. She had talent and enterprise. Grant was able to continuously reinvent herself. She was not content to disappear. She would survive the blacklist, she would survive a dysfunctional marriage, she would survive the demanding and unrealistic beauty standards of a fickle industry, and she would once again reinvent herself as a director. She is not only the image of reserve, she is the image of survival.

Lee Grant

Grant, Lee. I Said Yes to Everything: A Memoir. New York, Blue Rider Press, 2014. Kindle.

Osborne, Robert. “A Conversation With Lee Grant.” Turner Classic Movies. 2014. Video, 37:02. http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/1033419/Conversation-With-Lee-Grant-A-TCM-Original-2014.html.

Searching for an Idealized Past with “The Swimmer”

A film that begins as a daydream and ends like a nightmare, The Swimmer (1968) is a frank assessment of the vacuity of affluent life and the emotional repercussions of just such a life. It begins as an idealistic reverie and slowly, so minutely it may at first escape notice, it begins to descend into a tormented and claustrophobic reality. Written and directed by husband and wife, Eleanor and Frank Perry, The Swimmer chronicles the afternoon a seemingly untroubled Ned Merrill, played by Burt Lancaster, decides to swim home through the pools of his affluent Connecticut suburb, which he names the Lucinda River after his wife. What begins as an adventurous lark that seems to differentiate Merrill from a mass of dull and indistinguishable neighbors, begins to seem like a hazardous test that is tearing at the very fabric of Merrill’s reality as well as his mental and physical well-being.

At the beginning of the film, Ned seems resplendent and joyful, constantly remarking on the beauty of nature and his surroundings. He is a person apart from the monotony and tedium of suburban life. He comments on the sky, he runs races against horses, and vaults over fences. Everything he does is a physical manifestation of an unbridled joy and possibility. The people around him never seem to understand him, but he doesn’t care, and neither do we. Their materialism and lack of insight render them insignificant. Their identities are so wrapped up in the things they have that they fail to notice the wonder of the world. But Merrill is different and that’s what makes him so wonderful. But ever so slowly we begin to get a glimpse of his life as the insinuations of a recent disaster become more frequent and harder for us, the audience, and Merrill to ignore. Everything is not as rosy as Merrill believes it is and, we realize, the lack of understanding that the neighbors have for him is as much a function of his own self-absorption as it is of their myopic view of the world. But, those few moments before we realize this are glorious, they are freeing, and they make Merrill’s inevitable downfall all the more painful.

In this spontaneous adventure, one gets the feeling that Merrill is striving to retrieve something that has been lost. Some sense of wonder or awe, perhaps? A joyfulness in looking at the world around him? An appreciation for all the minutiae that makes up an existence? These all seem like possibilities in the beginning, but as we travel alongside Merrill, we realize that it is more personal than that, something a little darker and more complex. As he traverses the river of swimming pools, Merrill is confronted with the reality of his life; financial and legal troubles, the disdain his daughters have for him, a crumbling marriage. He is attempting to retreat into a wondrous world, idealistic, nostalgic, and beautiful, one where his family hadn’t yet been torn apart, one where he still has a beautiful home and all the trappings of success. This is where he wants to live, but the world, in its unrelenting coldness and reality, will not let him stay there. His home, and the past, is not something that he can return to. And so, as the film ends, Merrill is crouched on the front stoop, unable to enter the locked home. It is clear the house has been unoccupied for some time. The more reality encroaches, the more Merrill’s body weakens, until he and the house are in a similar state of disrepair. As the credits roll, Merrill braces himself against the front stoop, sobbing as the wind whips rain onto his face and body.

The tagline of the film, “When you talk about ‘The Swimmer’ will you talk about yourself?”, trite and Carver-esque as it is, seems apt. What the film is and where its power lies is in the recognition of the fragility of human existence. You can live in the fantasy world of the past, a world of your own creation. You can block out the present in favor of this idealized past, the way Ned Merrill does, but, inevitably, the past will come back, rushing over you no matter how hard you try to keep it at bay.

Sal Mineo: Eternal Idol

On January 20, 1965, “Patty Meets a Celebrity” aired on ABC-TV. It was a special episode of The Patty Duke Show that highlighted the fame of its guest star, Sal Mineo. In the episode, Mineo returns to his alma mater to perform in a play with the students. Patty, a stand-in for the typical mid-century, all-American teenager swoons her way to a starring role in the play. It is a testament to the fame and teenage adulation that had followed Mineo since he starred in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. He had become a teen idol for his depictions of juvenile delinquents, depictions that resonated deeply with an adolescent audience searching for new ways to assert their individuality and their identities in a larger, conformist world. It is, to this day, the way that Mineo is viewed, in part due to the fact that he was at the height of a fame that he was never able to replicate.

Sal’s story ends with a robbery, in which he was murdered at the age of 37. And, as so often happens in tragic circumstances, his death has overshadowed his life, his career, and his personality. It has informed, incorrectly, the tone and tenor of his life and accomplishments. It is a disservice to a dynamic man to reduce his life to one instant, to believe that one tragic moment indicates a lifetime of tragedy. Sal was deservedly an idol, but he was also a complex man who doesn’t deserve to have his legacy reduced to the story of his death.

With a string of releases, including Rebel Without a Cause, Crime in the Streets (1956), and Dino (1957), Sal Mineo cemented his status as the iconic juvenile delinquent. These films, huge successes, catapulted Mineo to stardom. His stardom was so immense that he was mobbed by fans everywhere he went. Mineo recalls a story of landing at an airport in Australia, saying, “‘By the time we got to the Chelsea Hotel I had lost almost every button, had my tie torn off- don’t know why I wasn’t choked to death in the process-and had some girls’ telephone numbers scribbled on my coat, in ink’” (141). As Mineo aged, he became interested in pursuing other stories, other characters. Unfortunately, he had been effectively typecast and although he tried to distance himself from these rebellious yet soulful characters, he was ultimately unsuccessful. This was the only way that producers and directors saw him and, more importantly, the only way they thought the audience saw him. If anything, Sal was able to imbue these somewhat stereotypical, flat roles with nuance and power that make it clear that he was a capable actor. But the role of rebellious icon became an albatross from which Mineo could not escape, an especially hefty burden in a changing cultural landscape. As the fifties gave way to the sixties, Mineo found it even more difficult to get work. Peter Bogdanovich, a friend of Mineo’s sums up the problem, saying, “‘Sal was an anachronistic reminder of the teenage fifties the chic people preferred to forget; that he was a talented actor seemed beside the point’” (206).

But not to be deterred, Mineo decided that telling stories, rather than acting, was his passion. He followed this desire into other spheres, namely that of producing and directing film and theatre, and was constantly optioning rights for films. He had a true interest in telling stories and in finding ways to convey the multiplicity of the human condition and he was not about to shy away from challenging subject matter. He gave Bogdanovich the Larry McMurtry book that would eventually become The Last Picture Show (1971), knowing that he was too old to play the lead but knowing that the story was in good hands. He was interested in getting James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, a book that deals frankly with issues of sexual identity, made into a movie (a notion that Baldwin was very enthusiastic about). Ultimately, he didn’t succeed, but his failures never deterred him. He always continued to work. Mineo interests expanded to include visual art. He posed for the massive painting The New Adam (1962) by Harold Stevenson. It is a multi-panel male nude that eroticizes the male body for a male gaze. It is sensual and erotic and was particularly shocking at the time of it’s unveiling.

All this is an attempt to paint a portrait of Mineo that isn’t contingent on his death or that doesn’t deal solely with the beginning of his career and the indelible image of Mineo as rebel. That was just the beginning of Sal’s career, and though it is the part for which he is largely remembered, it was by no means the most fruitful or fascinating era of his life. Sal Mineo was an icon, an emblem of disaffected youth whose death often informs our collective notions of his life. But Mineo was also a dynamic, complex man whose ambitions and interests informed his later career in fascinating ways that absolutely warrant examination. Sal Mineo was a driven creative whose ambitions and projects pushed the bounds of acceptability in a restrictive era, and because of this, his path often crossed with some of the most recognizable and challenging works of art ranging across many mediums. He was truly a visionary and he deserves to be remembered as such.

Sal Mineo

Michaud, Michael Gregg. Sal Mineo: A Biography. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010.

Origins of a Subtext: Mineo and “Rebel”

     Rebel Without a Cause is the eternal teenage movie. Released in 1955, it is undeniable that there are things that feel dated and melodramatic, but the undercurrent of tragedy and the sense of listlessness has managed to resonate through decades. The adulation that Plato Crawford feels for Jim Stark, played by Sal Mineo and James Dean, respectively, is one of the most striking and contemporary things about Rebel Without a Cause. It borders on obsession, but is tinged with the sweetness of vulnerability. Nicholas Ray, the director, worked with the two actors for weeks at his Chateau Marmont bungalow before filming in order to perfect the contours and shading of the characters and their relationship. The actors mined their pasts and improvised scenes, further fostering a bond between them that would heighten the subtext and the emotionality of the film.

Although a homoerotic subtext is present in the film, it is in a screen test dated March 23, 1955, where this element of the relationship is stressed. The test is a variation on the existing mansion scene from the film, but the actors are left to explore their characters and the dialogue in a way that feels surprisingly fresh and exciting. The first thing we see is Mineo doubled over in a laughter both excessive and frightening. Dean jumps over the railing of a staircase and lands near Mineo. Mineo then pins him against the staircase and falls into him in laughter. They wrestle and touch each other for increasingly prolonged moments. Mineo can’t keep his eyes off Dean. He gazes at him lovingly, hanging on his every word. He is mesmerized. They wrestle and grab at each other until Mineo rests his head on Dean’s shoulder. It is deeply intimate. Natalie Wood, also present, barely registers to the men. According to Michael Gregg Michaud, Mineo’s biographer, “The filmed rehearsal was important to Ray for several reasons. It provided him with an opportunity to explore the erotic tension he wanted to represent in the film, and it set the tone for the challenging and intriguing direction he intended for the character of Plato. Sal didn’t realize what was being asked of him. ‘I couldn’t understand,’ he said later, ‘couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Something was happening to me. I had no idea or understanding of affection between men. And for the first time I felt something strong’” (44). I find this quote extremely compelling. Here Mineo felt the first stirrings of a sexuality that he would explore later in life. The film was, for him, an awakening, a moment of realization, however veiled and unexamined. Maybe therein lies the power and resonance of this film, the thing that makes it so enduring; its ability to reach people where they are, its ability to feel concern and empathy for the outsiders, its ability to hone in on and help people explore their own emerging identities. The power of that is so immense it manages to break through the heightened melodrama of the finished film.

In the end, Ray was pressured by the censors to alter the relationship between the two men. Ray’s interpretation of the bond between Jim and Plato was seen as too overtly gay. The screenwriter agreed, having become horrified at the interpretive liberties Ray had taken with his script. However, in the finished film, Plato’s love for Jim is still palpable and can be charted through a constellation of increasingly subdued but ever present glances, touches, and movements. Throughout the film, Mineo’s gaze and it’s vulnerability highlights a desire and an adoration much more complex and intimate than friendship or hero worship and it is this gaze that makes the inevitable conclusion of the film all the more wrenching.

Rebel Mineo

Michaud, Michael Gregg. Sal Mineo: A Biography. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010.

The Trouble with Elvis

“He taught me everything: how to dress, how to walk, how to apply makeup and wear my hair, how to behave… Over the years he became my father, husband, and very nearly God.” (15)

-Priscilla Presley, Elvis and Me, 15.

It was not the music that first drew me to Elvis Presley, but the aesthetic: the pompadour, the wife in excessively dark, mod eyeliner, the bejeweled jumpsuits, and the jungle room at Graceland. Everything about it spoke to an extravagance born of newly acquired wealth, to a pageantry of glamour and overindulgence. The aesthetic was intoxicating. I soon became particularly interested in Priscilla Presley, her hair, eyeliner, clothing; all of it working in perfect orchestration with the overall image and mythos of Elvis. But that, I learned, was the point. It was all an orchestration, built by and to serve Elvis.

Drawn to the excess and wanting to learn more, I looked to the source material, to the story as told by Priscilla. In Elvis and Me Priscilla Presley tells the story of meeting and falling in love with Elvis Presley as well as the process of finding herself, the point at which holding onto that love was no longer tenable. They met when she was a teenager, a cringeworthy revelation that isn’t so much a revelation of fact but a revelation of emotional repercussion. In other words, it is the story from the point of view of the woman. From the earliest stages of their relationship, Elvis exercised control over her clothing and her behavior while she gushes over him like the teenage girl she is. It is an eerie evocation especially for any reader who was once a teenage girl, so visceral is the recognition that it gets under your skin and settles there for the duration of the book. Priscilla, showing herself to be a self-aware woman and not one to shy away from realities, makes statements such as, “I was Elvis’s doll, his own living doll, to fashion as he pleased” (134). The simplicity of the realization is a punch to the stomach. It is the girl so eager to please and the man who is molding her into his idea of a perfect woman. It is horrifying. As the years go on, Priscilla realizes the connection and nuance that is missing from her relationship. She realizes the extent to which the contours of their relationship are dictated solely by Elvis. She exists, for him, only as an extension of himself. As she searches for interests outside of her marriage, she realizes how her relationship stood in for a sense of self, one that consists solely of and is not at all separate from Elvis. And here we face the poignancy of loss, the loss of a love that feels just as gutting even in its inevitability. It is here that we see Priscilla contend with the complexities of identity, of self, of toxic relationships. Priscilla does not write about Elvis with the air of veneration that I expected. She is incredibly clear-eyed about the effect that Elvis had on her life, the overarching control he exercised and the devotion that he required of all within his orbit. She is able to hold two things to be true at the same time: that she was and is in love with Elvis, that he had moments of kindness and generosity, and that he was a tyrant who was obsessive in his need to control those around him. She does not exonerate him, but she does not hate him either. She is able to explore the damage that he did to others, as well as the damage that was done to him, seeming to cite the complexity of the situation, of the people, and to caution us from rendering whole lives and personalities in reductive terms. She promotes this gray area, seeming to say that it is here where all of us reside. The book is a testament to the realization that a person holds both good and bad and that although the bad can outweigh the good, it doesn’t alter or delegitimize the feeling that you once had for them. It is a surprising book that forces you to contend with all of these complexities and all of your reactions to them.

I read Elvis and Me because I wanted to hear what a life that lavish was like, a life so divorced from any kind of known reality, a life so fêted that its particulars have lost definition in the ensuing decades, a life as described by someone who lived it. I wanted to hear stories of grandiose absurdity, like this one, where Priscilla describes a standard evening at Graceland. “Our evening appearance downstairs usually resembled a grand entrance. Even when our only intention was to have dinner, we always dressed for the occasion. Elvis might wear a three-piece suit with a brocade vest and a Stetson hat. Under his coat he always carried a gun. He’d given me a small pearl-handled derringer and I carried in it my bra or tucked it into a holster around my waist. We were a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde” (138-139). What I ended up with was a complicated document where the love a person felt for another didn’t obfuscate the realities of  manipulation, isolation, and control run rampant. Priscilla was able to explore these issues and all their cringeworthy manifestations with an honesty that evokes such deep sympathy. To explore the love she feels and the horrors she experienced simultaneously. It is in those complications, in that honesty, that you really learn who someone is, who Priscilla is, and who Elvis was, and it is that space that is so affecting. Priscilla positions us within these uncomfortable spaces and forces us to confront them. It was personal, it was vulnerable, and it was deeply relatable.

When Graceland, the Presley home, was opened to the public in 1982 it had been redecorated. Gone were the garish reds and gaudy golds of the late 70s that had prompted people to comment that it looked like a brothel. Priscilla had returned to Graceland and restored it to the home that she remembered (Marling, 103). Although, to a degree, the restoration was an attempt to lend the house an air of respectability, I can’t help but feel that, on some level, Priscilla had returned to the past and recreated the site where, for better or worse, she had felt an overwhelming and enduring love.

Marling, Karal Ann. “Elvis Presley’s Graceland, or the Aesthetic of Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven.” American Art 7, no. 4 (1993): 72-105.

Presley, Priscilla Beaulieu with Sandra Harmon. Elvis and Me. New York: Berkley Books, 1985.

Women of Horror

“‘The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. All you have to do…is keep writing. So long as you write it away regularly nothing can really hurt you.’”

-Shirley Jackson, quoted in Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, 389.

Shirley Jackson, Mary Shelley, and Daphne du Maurier reside at the summit of horror. Few writers, male or female, were able to create such compelling portraits of unease that drew from the foibles and cruelties of humanity. The macabre was cultivated in the minuscule, to show us all how vulnerable we are to enacting or becoming victim to it. These women defied cultural and societal norms in order to create visions of unease and panic, drawn from and dashing the conformity to which their gender in their various eras cursed them.

Shirley Jackson’s work relentlessly explored and thrived upon female interiority and its tremulous relationship to the external world. She was a woman who believed in the ability of superstition to keep psychic disturbance at bay, if only for a short while. A woman who translated all of her frustrations at being a woman, a wife, and a mother who couldn’t quite subsume herself into these traditional roles into visions of horror. She metamorphosed the grief that she felt at her ostensible shortcomings into a vision of panic and supernatural destruction, writ large upon the female psyche. Her most powerful and haunting metaphor, that of the malignant house that fed off the female psyche until it’s destruction, was one inextricably linked to mid-century constructions of womanhood. And this was where Jackson really shone, in her ability to transfer common anxieties and unease onto a supernatural landscape that rendered it both unspeakable and highly relatable. As her biographer, Ruth Franklin explores all the contours of Jackson’s rebellions and her conventions and thus creates an all-encompassing account of a complicated woman whose work was fueled by the world around her.

Similarly, the work of du Maurier and Shelley rendered the danger of the supernatural more human and thus, more threatening. In their lives, they pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in terms of femininity while at the same time reconfiguring the whole of horror fiction and what it could accomplish. Their biographers, listed below, prove themselves to be more than up to the task of exploring the complicated and nuanced lives of these women and the dynamic work they produced, forcing us to acknowledge their works as unparalleled in their significance.

  1. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
  2. Manderley Forever: A Biography of Daphne du Maurier by Tatiana de Rosnay
  3. Mary Shelley: A Biography by Muriel Sparkshirley-jacksonjpg