“West of Eden” and the Myth of Paradise

“Hollywood is very powerful, and very real. No matter how make-believe it is, it is real, and it moves and shakes and it is not something to mess around with. It is a real force.”

-Wendy Vanden Heuvel, quoted in West of Eden: An American Place, pg. 309.

     West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is an oral history that attempts to take on some of the most pervasive myths from one of the most influential parts of American society: Hollywood. To do this, Stein charts the history of five influential families, whose personal histories intersected the history of Los Angeles, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape. Eden follows the familial sagas of the Dohenys, the Warners, Jane Garland, Jennifer Jones, and the Steins. Stein forces us to reckon with the repercussions of fame and money, the pain they cause and how that pain can be transferred through generations. In a place where fame, money, and prestige are lauded above all else and are set up as the sole worthy objective of a life, we are shown what their actual price can be. We are shown people throwing their lives towards this objective, attempting to reinvent themselves in order to fit the role of the mogul or the starlet at the same time as we are shown people attempting to escape, to formulate lives that are not dependent on these powerfully pervasive notions. Take, for example, the story of Jennifer Jones and her family. Stein begins the story with Jones visiting her grown son at a campsite in Trancas Canyon, where he lives with his family. Having experienced firsthand the damage that a life in Hollywood can inflict, Bob Walker, the son of famed starlet Jennifer Jones, decided to search for a different kind of life. With this framing, we are then taken back in time and shown the history of the Jones family in Hollywood. These details force us to assess the real effects of a world based solely on appearances and wealth. With this framing in place, we are forced to come to terms with and assess the world of Hollywood, an alleged paradise that has failed to live up to its promises of joy and fecundity.

Oral history as a format challenges the way we look at truth and at stories. It is, by its very nature, a convoluted, intricate endeavor. When we read an oral history we are forced to contend with the emotional investments of all of the people that make up a story. It is an exercise in empathy that complicates the dominant narrative by further exploring the way time, place, and perspective influence a narrative. It is a way of telling a story that demands that the reader be able to hold multiple and sometimes contradictory statements to be true simultaneously. Stein uses this form because it lends her the space to examine larger concepts on a more intimate scale. The rhythm and pacing of the oral history differs vastly from that of traditional historical or nonfiction accounts, including an engaging interplay of stories. As Stein proves in this work, it is a form of storytelling, not merely a form of dictation. It involves an understanding and formulation of multiple thoughts that express bigger concepts. Stein uses every minute detail in the stories these families tell about themselves in order to express the nuance and character of a place, using these histories as a kind of stand-in for a larger historical inquiry.

Trying to capture the essence or aura of a place is a massive and seemingly impossible task. It is history with too wide a scope, but Stein is able to do this by consolidating the story of Los Angeles into the stories of five families and the ways in which their lives intersected with and permanently influenced the landscape around them. From the oil industry and the founding of the city with the Dohenys to Jack Warner and the formation of Warner Bros. and Los Angeles’s most enduring industry, the legacies and myths of Los Angeles are explored. West of Eden: An American Place seeks to chart and define power and the ways in which it impacted the landscape physically, psychically, socially, and culturally. Throughout West of Eden, Stein shows how hollow myths feed off the aspirations of the people who seek them out until they are left empty, the effects of which can be seen for generations. Stein shows how lives are transformed by a toxic sludge of expectation, unfulfilled hopes, and the glorification of these pervasive myths. Stein’s explorations show the way the facade is kept up by exposing what the myths really mean and what they are really made up of, which, as it turns out, is very little; merely some old photographs and ephemera that all serve to bolster an ideal that is much more complicated and dark than its image would have you expect. This is all Hollywood is. What is real, Stein seems to say, is the human price of this illusion.


Stein, Jean. West of Eden: An American Place. New York, Random House, 2016.

Facing the Unknown: Occult Horror and the Upheaval of the 1960s and 70s

Nothing exists in a vacuum, especially not horror films. Horror and its creators have always been adept at synthesizing our most innate fears, writing them onto the supernatural and offering us momentary catharsis. Sometimes, however, the fears are more situational than they are innate. Sometimes horror serves as a reflection of a society’s fears and values. It is impossible to see the films being produced and disseminated from the late 1960s and into the 70s and not notice a trend. There is an emphasis on witchcraft, covens, satanic cults, the devil, vampires, astrology, and demons. It stretches across all media, from the high-budget and exalted to the low-budget and barely remembered. But it all feeds from and into a mutual obsession. When you think of the ongoing and often necessary upheaval that characterized the 60s and 70s-the exposure of Watergate and the release of the Pentagon Papers, the Vietnam War and the resulting protests, the feminist and civil rights movements- the films of this era make a bit more sense. They are all filled with a disquiet; a sense that the world is not what it was previously believed to be, that institutions can no longer be trusted, and that one’s place in society is not as secure as once thought. And that’s where horror comes in, because with massive upheaval comes deep and complicated anxiety that often can’t be fully articulated or understood, anxieties that then get digested into the culture and writ large in metaphor. In this case, the metaphor is covens and satanists, the occult, and supernatural phenomena.

It is not exactly a stretch to notice a parallel between the threat of the coven and the threat of feminism. These two groups rely on gatherings of women who challenge the status quo and find strength in the companionship of other women. It is a threat to power, to the established modes of power, and to those who hold the power, namely men. Beginning in the 1960s, as an outgrowth of the nascent feminist movement, women began seeking solace and an understanding of the mutual conditions of sexism in what were referred to as consciousness raising groups. These groups encouraged women to speak about their lives in order to cement the idea that women were not alone in their experiences of sexism. Through discussion, they sought to expose the structural realities of misogyny, showing attendees how their personal experiences related to a larger world. What the horror films of this era do is relocate the fear and the threat that was posed by groups such as these onto the supernatural. To do this is to render them evil and thus punishable. It is a way to regain control without ever having to admit that you were losing it.

Similar concerns arise when you look at the prevalence of the satanic cult in horror films of the 1970s. Films like Race With the Devil (1975) highlight the fear that there is someone out to get you and although there is no way to understand who or what your attacker is, they are nevertheless all around you, posing a threat to your way of life. This notion of the unknown but hostile and ever-present enemy is one that seems to have clear origins when we think of the chaos of the seventies. Hippies and other counter-cultural movements that were a challenge to the very fabric of American society and life were omnipresent. Additionally, it was not uncommon in this era for reckless and ill-conceived revolutionary groups to make bombs and distribute them at will. The resulting chaos, fear, and extreme violence of an unknown enemy could be seen as one of the origins of this trope. Similarly, in these films the violence of the satanic cult is always highlighted, for example the ritual killing of a woman through which the plot of Race With the Devil begins. For a society coming to terms with the irrefutable knowledge of violence on a scale not previously known or even imagined, but now impossible to ignore because of a televised war and the senseless and sensationalized murders at the hands of the Manson Family, it was necessary to transpose the threat, to create a dichotomy of good and evil that would explain ever so simplistically the complex world unfolding around them. These films gave the audience a definable evil outside of themselves so they didn’t have to think critically about corrupt systems or their complicity in them. It was a way to make sense of a traumatized and uncertain world, to regain composure after the initial shock of discovering a senselessly violent world. As these films asserted, the threat is everywhere but it is often indistinguishable from the mundane.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker premiered in 1972 as a television movie that was later adapted into a series. It focused on a reporter who solved mysteries with an occult undertone. In this I see a desire to explain the incomprehensible. To me, Kolchak is a manifestation of the uncertainty of the times. The show starts with a murder or an unexplained event. Most people shrug it off and move on, but Kolchak investigates and finds an explanation for these things. Everyone ignores him, but he knows the truth. This desire to apply some kind of order in a completely chaotic world is emblematic of the fear and anxieties of the era. Here, as in other occult horror films, we see real fears being translated into something supernatural that can then be solved and the threat eliminated. In a time when everything felt newly horrifying; an endless war, people being shot and beaten by police and soldiers, and institutions and authority figures caught disseminating falsehoods, to say it was a moment of great upheaval could be seen as an understatement. But, in moments of great upheaval, we often create metaphors to deal with our panic. In this case, it was the occult.

Much like the era they were created in, these films are essentially pessimistic. Even when they end with evil vanquished, the victory feels hollow. It came at a great price and while the feeling of immediate threat is over, it has opened the possibility that all manner of unknown horror could spill into our lives at any time. The audience, now more uncertain than before, knows that there is no way to go back and pretend that they didn’t see the things that they have seen. These films offered explanations as a temporary balm for the unshakable realization that nothing is ever knowable and that we are hurtling through a life that has no predetermined order and over which we have no control.

Art is often a reflection of our greatest concerns. It is a way to process our fears, insecurities, ideals, and passions. From a distance, it can be a way to understand people, a place, or an era. Whether it is exalted portraiture or the films of a low-budget studio that is simply catering to thrills, it makes no difference. These things are artifacts of us and they will always show our imprint. This is particularly true of the surge in occult horror in the late 1960s and 70s. Films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Race With the Devil, Satan’s School for Girls (1973), The Sentinel (1977), Suspiria (1977) and television shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75) show us the anxieties of an era and the desire to make sense of a world that has seemed to descend into absolute, utter, and irredeemable chaos.

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.

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.

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.

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.