A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I Found It at the Movies

My dear friend Jo Brans published a lovely book called Feast Here Awhile: Adventures in American Eating about 15 years ago. Like (sigh) my own book, Feast Here Awhile is out of print, but it's easy to find a copy from lots of online booksellers. Just Google it.

Of course, I'm biased because Jo quotes me in the book. According to her, I said, "I was rinsing off a bunch of raspberries the other day, when it occurred to me that as a kid I always wanted two things: a machine that would play movies and enough raspberries. Now I've got both."

This is true. But I might note that Jo is more impressed with the raspberries -- which as she notes were available to us in Mississippi back when we were kids only in their frozen form -- than with the wonderful movie machine. It's the other way around for me: Though I still prefer raspberries over any other fruit on my morning cereal, it's the movie delivery systems -- first the VCR, then the DVD, and next whatever technology emerges as dominant -- that blow my mind.

I don't know how I would have survived childhood in a small Mississippi town without the movies. They were my tickets out of the place, out of small-mindedness and racism. If I had a boyhood hero, it was Gene Kelly, dancing down the street in the rain, an emblem of joyful liberation from the conventional.

My portals of escape were the ticket booths of the town's two movie theaters, the Lyric and the Ritz. They divided the film world between them: The Lyric showed films from MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox; the Ritz exhibited Warner Bros., RKO (which meant Disney when I was a kid), Columbia and Universal. Even as a boy, I could identify the house style, the peculiar production values of each of the studios.


I don't go to movie theaters anymore. The last film I saw in a theater -- or what passes for a theater these days, a little compartment in a multiplex that has all the charm and atmosphere of an airline terminal -- was Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. They tell me that I'm missing out on the community in the dark that's part of the mystique of movie-going. But what I'm missing out on is hearing the attention-deficient guy behind me having his girlfriend explain the plot to him. Since the completion of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there has been no film momentous enough to draw me into the theater.

Which means, of course, that I'm behind on this year's Oscar-nominated films. (I can probably squeeze in Michael Clayton before next Sunday's awards show, since it comes out on DVD this week.) But the Oscars still excite me, for reasons I can't quite explain. (Maybe one of them is that I wrote a book about them.) Their record for singling out truly exceptional achievement is poor; they value high seriousness over originality; they reward actors for playing against type instead of for playing well; the craft awards -- cinematography, art direction, etc. -- often go to members of the clique instead of to true innovators, and so on. This week the newspapers will be full of stories about who should have won in the past and why they didn't. Next week, they will be full of stories about who should have won this year and why they didn't.

But that's part of the charm of the Oscars: Everybody knows what's wrong with them, and yet everybody wants one. Ever been to a party where someone brought an actual Oscar statuette? You've seen it happen: Everybody picks it up, cradles it, and gives a thank you speech. One year, the magazine for which I worked received a chocolate Oscar as part of a promotional package for something or other. Our office manager placed it on her desk at the entrance to the offices, and sure enough, everyone who entered picked it up, cradled it, and gave a thank you speech. Needless to say, nobody actually ate the thing after it had been handled so often.

So to celebrate Oscar week, I'm going to post some old reviews of books about the movies. Today, a 1995 review of two movie star biographies -- one of a star who never won an Oscar but probably should have, and one of a star who did win but probably shouldn't have.

GARBO: A Biography
By Barry Paris
University of Minnesota Press, 680 pp., $22.95 paperback

PORTRAIT OF JENNIFER: A Biography of Jennifer Jones
By Edward Z. Epstein
Simon & Schuster, 464 pp., out of print, but available

She was a delicious Ninotchka, a stunning Queen Christina, the definitive Lady of the Camellias, but Greta Garbo's greatest role, which she played for more than half a century, was as Enigmatic Recluse in I Want to Be Alone. As Louise Brooks put it, "Alfred Lunt said Garbo couldn't sustain a long scene. But she has probably sustained the longest scene in theatrical history, ever since 1925 -- her private life."

Garbo made her last movie, a botch called Two-Faced Woman, in 1941, when she was 35, and lived on until Easter Sunday 1990. It was an accidental retirement: From time to time, film roles were offered to her, and she agreed to play some of them, but the deals fell through for various reasons, usually financial. So she lived out her post-Hollywood life dodging paparazzi, autograph hounds, interviewers.

Barry Paris seems to be making a specialty of writing the lives of women who have no lives: He previously wrote about Louise Brooks, who retired from films in 1938 and lived in relative seclusion until her death in 1985. But where Brooks was merely a cult figure, celebrated for her performance as Lulu in the 1929 German film Pandora's Box, but otherwise not widely known outside cineaste circles, Garbo is a legend, one of the most famous women who ever lived. In fact, Paris opens his book by calling her, "The greatest phenomenon in film -- if not all twentieth-century art." (Where, one wonders, would Paris rank Chaplin, Picasso, Joyce or Stravinsky among the phenomena of 20th-century art?)

The success of Paris' biographies is in inverse proportion to the celebrity of his subjects: The Brooks biography is fascinating, a vivid portrait of a gifted, witty but ultimately tragic figure -- a woman whose potential was never fully realized. In Garbo, Paris almost busts a rhetorical gut in an attempt to recapture the magic we feel watching her die in Camille ("perhaps the most memorable death scene on-screen . . . executed in an aura of sublime and ravishing tranquillity") or say goodbye to her son in Anna Karenina ("in their bedside nimbus, the mutual adoration of mother and child is something greater than the passion of man and woman"). But those images speak louder than his words, so the Garbo biography becomes merely a compendium of everything that can be known about the woman, down to her shoe size (7AA, according to Ferragamo). God may be in the details, but Garbo isn't. The more we know about her, the less interesting she becomes: Do we care that she kept a collection of plastic trolls under a sofa, or that she loved to watch Paul Lynde on "Hollywood Squares"?

The obligatory material of contemporary biography is sex, particularly movie star biographies, which typically revel in such matters as the alleged affair of Laurence Olivier and Danny Kaye. But Paris isn't much interested in Garbo's sex life, because -- and this may be the most shocking revelation about a Hollywood star ever made -- she wasn't much interested in it. "Garbo was technically bisexual, predominantly lesbian, and increasingly asexual as the years went by," writes Paris.

Most of what he has to tell us has been told before: She never married, and the one grand heterosexual passion of her life, with John Gilbert, flared for only a few years in the late '20s. She had a relationship with Mercedes de Acosta, a writer who later moved on to Marlene Dietrich. But de Acosta was "one of the great celebrity collectors of the century," in Paris' words, and her own purple-prosey account of the affair suggests that de Acosta's infatuation was unrequited. The best-documented sexual relationship of Garbo's life was with Cecil Beaton, the English photographer-designer, who told all in his published diaries. But Beaton's orientation was predominantly homosexual, and Paris suggests that the diary accounts have an element of fantasy.

Throughout most of Garbo's later life, her relationships with both men and women were predicated on how much she could trust them to maintain her privacy, and not on sex. One such relationship was with New York art dealer Sam Green, who telephoned and walked with her daily, and recalls taking a curious Garbo into a Parisian sex shop in the 1970s. After gazing around, she said, "Ah, the sex thing. I'm glad that part of my life is over."

As for Garbo's celebrated reclusiveness, the fuss she made over wanting to be alone was perhaps the only thing that alleviated the boredom of nearly 50 years of doing nothing after her film career ended. True recluses don't subscribe to clipping services, or accept invitations to dinner at the White House, even when the dinner is kept secret, as one arranged by Jacqueline Kennedy was. Garbo tested out the Lincoln bed, but didn't spend the night in it -- or with JFK. (She apparently did, however, turn down an invitation to tea at Buckingham Palace that bore a handwritten note, "You will be alone, ER," with the excuse that she didn't have a dress to wear.)

If Garbo had been a true recluse, she would have found a hideaway in Sweden or Switzerland, not at 450 East 52nd St. in Manhattan. With her millions, she could, like Marlon Brando, have bought her own South Pacific island. (Brando was, for a while, the male equivalent of Garbo, but in his later years he seemed to have tired of the game. Can one imagine Garbo kissing Larry King?) But with various walking companions such as Sam Green, she made daily excursions through the streets of New York, devising elaborate escape plans whenever she would encounter "customers" -- her word for those who would invade her privacy.

Given Garbo's apparent lack of interest in sex, she might well have made a marriage of convenience -- both Beaton and Gayelord Hauser, who were gay, proposed one to her -- that would have given her a life of quietly luxurious seclusion. But one suspects Garbo would have found life as a trophy wife far more boring than the daily game of dodge-the-customers.

Occasionally, she was unsettled by evidence that she had played the game too well. Once, in an antique shop, a companion suggested that the notoriously stingy Garbo might get a discount on something she wanted if the owner recognized her. But when Garbo asked the owner, "Do you know who I am?" and he said no, she was shocked.

The photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull once printed up an image of Garbo's face superimposed on the body of the Sphinx, and it suggests more than anything else in Paris' book what an icon Garbo became. She was the 20th century's Mona Lisa, older than the rock stars among whom she sat. The intriguing thing is that it takes more than beauty and acting talent to achieve that status.

Jennifer Jones, for example, had beauty and talent, and yet she's nearly forgotten today. "Who's Jennifer Jones?" asked my Gen-X daughter, who was brought up on old movies and is familiar with such contemporaries of Jennifer Jones as Ingrid Bergman, Olivia de Havilland and Lauren Bacall. I was hard-pressed to think of a Jennifer Jones film she might have seen.

The one I finally came up with, The Towering Inferno, was Jones' last, and she's billed eighth (between Richard Chamberlain and O.J. Simpson) in that fricassee of superstars. The film for which Jones won an Oscar, The Song of Bernadette, isn't much seen today, its Hollywood high-gloss religiosity (Linda Darnell plays the Virgin Mary!) having long gone out of favor. Her other big ones include Duel in the Sun, an overblown, campy Western known to wags as "Lust in the Dust"; Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, a high-'50s soap in which she's a Eurasian woman in love with William Holden, and which is best remembered for the title tune and the brief vogue it caused for the cheong-sam; and several flawed adaptations of literary classics: Carrie (the 1952 film version of Dreiser's Sister Carrie, not the Steven King/Brian De Palma shocker), Madame Bovary (see clip below), A Farewell to Arms and Tender Is the Night. Some would add John Huston's wacky 1954 adventure spoof Beat the Devil, a famous flop that has become a cult favorite over the years. In it Jones, wearing a blond wig, plays a conniving airhead and is absolutely hilarious -- it may be her best performance, but it's not the stuff of which film legends are made.

Still, Jones and Garbo have a few things in common. Both came from provincial backgrounds -- Sweden and Oklahoma -- and made a few obscure movies (Garbo was in some Swedish industrial films, Jones had a contract with Republic and made Westerns and a Dick Tracy serial) before shooting to stardom. Both were "discovered" by powerful film makers -- Garbo by Mauritz Stiller and later by Louis B. Mayer, Jones by David O. Selznick. And both were temperamentally unsuited to the fame that befell them: Jones, said her friend and co-star Joseph Cotten, was "painfully shy. Compared with her, Garbo would seem a screaming extrovert. I can't imagine how it ever occurred to her to become an actress." The important difference between Garbo and Jones, however, seems to be that Garbo knew who she was and what she wanted and was very good at getting it. Garbo's niece is quoted as characterizing her as "one of the early feminists -- when you think of someone coming over at 19 and taking on the studio, and not getting into drugs or alcohol." Garbo won her battles with MGM so decisively that Cole Porter could include "Garbo's salary" in a catalog of superlatives in "You're the Top." And she left movies while she was still the top.

Jones, on the other hand, was so self-effacing that she is in danger of disappearing from her own biography: Edward Z. Epstein spends almost as much time writing about Jones' husbands -- actor Robert Walker, producer Selznick, billionaire Norton Simon -- as he does on the life of his ostensible subject. Did Jones' ambition drive her into the arms of Selznick, or did she passively succumb to his desire for a protégée who would give him a triumph that would surpass his achievement on Gone With the Wind? Epstein sheds little light on this central passage in Jones' life, though it precipitated all sorts of misery: She and Walker, who had married while they were both starving young actors and were the parents of two small boys, split up. Walker had a promising career, but drink, drugs and mental illness -- which some, like Epstein, blame on the breakup of the marriage -- precipitated his early death. Selznick and his wife, Irene, the daughter of Louis B. Mayer, also broke up -- marking the lives of their two young sons. And Selznick became obsessive about Jones' career -- forever searching for the perfect property, and constantly harassing the producers and directors to whom he loaned her. The results damaged both his career and Jones'.

After Selznick's death in 1965, Jones' career came to a shuddering halt. In 1969, she made an unfortunate attempt to restart it with a cheesy exploitation flick, Angel, Angel, Down We Go, in which she played a former porn star. When that flopped, she settled for a life as trophy wife to Norton Simon, becoming the crown jewel of his famous art collection. She emerged from retirement for The Towering Inferno, but Hollywood is a cruel place for middle-aged women. Still planning a comeback, she bought the rights to a novel she admired, planning to play the leading role. But producer James L. Brooks wanted the same property, so he bought it from her and made Terms of Endearment, which won an Oscar for Shirley MacLaine.

Epstein is a former flack for Universal who has parlayed his contacts with celebs into a string of books on Mia Farrow, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Jane Wyman, Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando, Lucille Ball and Lana Turner. Most of these are "unauthorized," as is Portrait of Jennifer, which was made without Jones' cooperation, and they draw on Hollywood gossip rather than on Paris' brand of painstaking research. Because Paris is a careful, thorough biographer and Epstein isn't, Garbo, the celebrated enigma, comes across as less enigmatic than Jones, the celebrated girl-next-door.

Apparently unable to find a focus for his biography, Epstein fills it with irrelevant quotes and outlandish speculation. Robert Walker's death, for example, seems to have been a medical mishap -- the wrong drug administered to a man already full of pills and alcohol -- but Epstein tries to hype it into a murder mystery, fingering Selznick and director John Ford as possible culprits. When he can't get inside of what Jones was experiencing, he relies on irrelevant analogies from other celebrities: For example, Jones' feelings on the suicide of her daughter are "illuminated" by a quote from Eydie Gorme about losing her own child. The result of this name-dropping and pasting-together of quotes can be called a portrait of Jennifer, but the medium is decoupage.