The Reward of Being an Author: It Isn’t Money

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Publicizing my first novel, “Potato Queen,” introduced me to places and people whose paths I would otherwise never have crossed. B.D. Wong was among the 100 listeners for a forum that the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York sponsored featuring me and a Canadian writer named Daniel Gawthrop, who had penned a memoir about his love of Asian men entitled “The Rice Queen Diaries.” At the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans, I was a member of a community of writers and publishers united for a weekend to give credence to the LGBT voice. And at Books on the Square in Providence, the store manager – a grandmotherly woman in gray bun and a knit shawl – told me that I was sitting in the chair that a then-unknown Dan Brown had sat in and had held court to an audience of zero. One of the most rewarding experiences, however, would have to be my talk with the students at the Providence Academy of International Studies (PAIS).

PAIS is a high school that consists largely of immigrant kids from economically challenged families. The PAIS librarian had learned about me through my publicist and invited me to speak. Given that “Potato Queen” explores the segregationist relationship between gay Caucasians and Asians in 1990s San Francisco, I was concerned about the students’ openness to the subject. My high school in Manila never had a gay awareness curriculum of any sort, and guys would taunt me for my soft appearance. As such, my perception of adolescents was that they could be myopic and mean.

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Not so with the students at PAIS. It turned out that the librarian, Peter, was gay and out as was the mayor of Providence. Sexuality was not even an issue of discussion, although some of the kids did ask if I was dating anyone and if I had ever been with a girl. With my answer to the latter a no, one boy cheekily questioned how I could possibly know that I don’t like girls if I hadn’t tried them.

The talk was in the library with the audience gathered around a table. There were about a dozen students, which made for a conversational atmosphere. Yet I was nervous. When I was their age, I believed adults of authority in my school to be above the travails singular to the very young. That was why we called them teacher, guidance counselor, and principal. Insecurity was meant to be the burden of adolescents alone. Now here I was, 20 years out of high school, with a book on an adult man who experiences alienation and bouts of negative self-image, the stuff of teen angst.

So that I wouldn’t be stumped on what to say, Peter had e-mailed me guide questions: Why did I become a writer? How do I prepare for writing? How do I develop a voice? How do my characters speak through me? What should the students think about doing now while in high school and later in college?

I had prepared my answers and I had practiced them. I had won the gold medal for an oratory competition in high school and the first place cup for one at the American College in Paris during my junior year abroad. And still, I was nervous. I sat at the head of the table with hands clasped together in front of me. Peter must have introduced me. A pen must have tapped. Paper must have rustled. Yet the only sound I remember to this day was the hum of silence that permeated the library, like silence before a storm, in anticipation of my rattle-ridden speech:

“I became a writer because of my need to be heard and seen. Being gay and being Asian, I was invisible or I felt I was. We all feel a sense of isolation. Certainly, each and every one of you does, particularly at this stage in your life where you’re forming your identity, discovering where you belong, what groups of friends you fit in with. You may not always feel wanted, but it’s precisely this feeling that fuels your drive, your ambition to prove yourself. If the world were a perfect place, then what would you have to fight for, what need would you have to prove yourself?

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“I started with a journal. That’s the best advice I can give all of you, whether or not you’re interested in writing. Record your thoughts for the day, an experience with a friend, a teacher. Express on page your dreams, your hopes, your hardships. Don’t think too much about what you write. Write in your journal as you would an e-mail to a friend. Write the way you speak. Writers are known to have a so-called written voice. Writers don’t consciously think of this voice. It’s something that’s inherent in them, as second nature as breathing, eating, and sleeping.

“Whatever stories you have to tell will come out in these pages. You don’t need to look far for a story. You need only to look within yourself. The stories your parents tell you about themselves when they were young, your brother’s or sister’s story about getting into a fight with someone, your own stories about the emotions you go through over someone you like… all this is material. Every day of your life is a story waiting to be told. From the moment you wake up, each decision you make each minute leads to something. You are the author of your life.

“When I write, I think of the people first that I would like to write about. I get my ideas for characters from my friends, my family, people I don’t know well but have sparked my interest for whatever reason. A little of me exists in all of the characters I create. I tend to project my frustrations and desires and dreams onto them, and from there my story is born. People make stories. Stories don’t make people. It’s the decisions that people make that lead to events. People caused the Iraq war – Bush, Hussein, Conde Rice, bin Laden. It didn’t start on its own. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr… they propelled the Civil Rights Movement.

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“My advice is for all of you to look at every day as a learning experience. The films you see, the songs you listen to, the TV shows you watch, the materials you read from People magazine to the newspapers to a book – have an opinion about them. Do you like something? Why? You don’t? Why not? Take the time to understand why you react emotionally to an experience. Don’t just say, ‘I’m sad…I’m happy… I’m pissed’ and then leave it at that. This is the best way to develop your analytical skills. And you will certainly come across as a more intelligent person and a person worth listening to and believing in.

“Be good students. Study hard. Put pride into your work. There are times when it will be tough. You might not do well in a test, have a major argument with your parents, a falling out with a friend. That’s part of life. Those are obstacles you need to overcome. To experience the joy of success, you need to fail. To be a winner, you need to lose. To believe your worth something, you need to be rejected. That’s the yin and yang of human existence. “

The students clapped. They smiled and they thanked me. On the drive to the train station for my ride back to Manhattan, I made a straightforward remark that generated from Peter a straightforward reaction:

“I wonder if I made a difference in their lives.”

“You did. I know you did.”

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Eighties Eruption: Reflections on a Dazzling Decade

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Published on the International School Manila website for the 2003 reunion:

It’s been nearly 20 years since I last signed a Kawayan yearbook, and the further into the millennium I get, I think of a comment a fellow senior made: “The ‘80s is the best era to be young.”

We were seeking guidance with the Barron’s directory of colleges in planning the course of our future. She was Korean. I’m Filipino. She could have returned to Korea and I could have stayed in the Philippines, but we were to venture west, no matter what, because we could. For us, an earlier generation had already mobilized the Civil Rights Movement, ended two world wars, and invented the computer. We believed that with betamax, MTV, and Glasnost, technology in the ‘80s was evolving and social upheavals were rapidly occurring for us and because of us. No decade before had offered so much entertainment and so much freedom.

Man’s first walk on the moon was boring history. Michael Jackson’s moonwalk was a spectacular feat of human dexterity.

A TV with a channel dial was an antique. A touch-tone telephone was a piece of modern ingenuity.

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The fall of Saigon was a chapter in a textbook. People Power was a bloodless revolution that triumphed with the strength of our voices.

So we had international baccalaureate courses and advanced placement courses. For those of us who cared anything about the possibilities they offered, the International School Manila endowed us with high ideals to shape the future as magnificently as our predecessors had built the foundations of our present. The guarded gates that enclosed our premises protected us from the appalling reality of the starvation in Ethiopia and the litter-congested sewers of Tondo.

No dream was impossible.

Sometimes the worst of the outside world infiltrated our bubble. Classes were interrupted because of mysterious bomb threats that required us all to evacuate the school. The bombing of a Korean Airline by a stray Soviet missile and a hobie catting accident left a few seats empty in our classrooms.

Our parents might pronounce the ‘50s the best era to have been young. Rock n’ roll idealized the innocence of love with songs of heartfelt men in heartbreak hotels as they serenaded their women to love them tender, of shy affections blossoming into eternal devotion at twilight time. We just wanted someone with whom to get physical. If that enraged our elders, then we simply whined for our papas not to preach.

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An 18-year-old today might argue that nothing can beat coming of age in the midst of the 21st century’s miracles of communication. E-mail and the cellphone have made dear ones far away accessible at any time, any place. And who needs to step out the door when all that’s needed to survive can be purchased on the internet?

Valid points all. But the ‘80s will always be the most dazzling of decades. Red flags flew over Tiananmen Square. Edsa Avenue radiated the yellow of the sun. Benetton celebrated the racial eclecticism of humankind. Spandau Ballet declared that we were gold and indestructible. Every dawning day, the world erupted with the vibrant colors of a Rubik’s Cube.

The first question that arises in a high school reunion is if any of us has succeeded in painting the wide canvass of the world with the brilliance of our youthful ambitions. Then follow comments and questions of how dramatically we have aged, how youthful we have remained, how many children we have, who our spouses are.

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Of myself, I will say that I haven’t a strand of gray hair nor am I bald. I eat cookies, chocolate, and ice cream, but my waistline is still a 29. I dream and I anticipate tomorrow because, at 36, I feel younger than I ever have.

In Defense of Flaubert and Austen

A letter to the editor of Frontiers Magazine (2002):

Thank you for featuring “Writer’s Block/ Queer Authors of Note” as your cover story in the May 16 issue of Frontiers Magazine. I was particularly drawn to the article on poet JC by Mikel Wadewitz. I admire that Mr. C is creating fiction that is moving beyond the commonplace subject of an American-identified Asian discovering his or her parents’ heritage. Although the theme of biculturalism will always be crucial in voicing the lives of many an Asian-American, not all of us Asians in this country relate to it, for not all of us are American born and raised.

However, while I support Mr. C, I am confused as to his reference to the works of Gustave Flaubert and Jane Austen in explaining his use of cultural icons in his writing. Of “Madam Bovary,” Mr. C says, “What does she want to do? She wants to take drugs and go shopping!… It [Flaubert’s novel] was all about trends and fads.”

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To say that Madame Bovary simply wants to take drugs and to shop is to trivialize Gustave Flaubert’s creation; worse yet, his genius. Her psychopathic extravagance is more deep-rooted than a mere concern to keep up with current trends and fashion. Emma is a woman so clouded by illusions of love and beauty that she is obsessed with living a life possible only to the heroines invented by the serial romances in which she indulges. Nowadays, a small-town girl who fancies great extravagance has Cannes and Hollywood to flee to or a presidential aspirant of a third-world country to seduce. Emma has the misfortune of having been born at the wrong time (19th century France), in the wrong place (an obscure province named Les Bertaux), and in the wrong class (the daughter of a shepherd). Her sole recourse of escape from the doldrums of her everyday existence is the hapless doctor who mends her father’s broken leg. Onto him, she projects a future of satin ball gowns and velvet divans.

Mr. C is right about one thing: Emma would go mad with all that shopping and those parties, and indeed she does, which is the whole point of the novel. Her inability to cope with the reality of her husband’s limited medical skills and his modest income drives her to the brink of madness. Her romantic aspirations consume and destroy her; she literally shops till she drops. And yet, through all that madness, I cannot find one passage in “Madame Bovary”where Emma gets high on the abusive substances of her day. The only high she ever truly suffers from is a delusion of grandeur that persists 24/7.

Hence, “Madame Bovary” isn’t “all about trends and fads.” It is about the emotional and psychological toll that a fixation on trends and fads can have on an individual because of the idealized lifestyle that such superficial trappings represent. Fashion and furniture are not mere props that Flaubert uses to ground the reader to the setting of his novel, the way Mr. C claims to do so in his own writing. They are Flaubert’s primary means of character development.

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Mr. C also integrates ‘70s and ‘80s entertainment with his poetry and fiction to “illuminate how seemingly absurd things like pop songs can actually mark a very important and even serious moment in one’s life.” To justify his use of this technique as a long standing literary tradition, Mr. C states, “Look at Jane Austen: [Her characters] kept going to these dances and balls, and it’s like, ‘When did that become literature?’”

Jane Austen depicts in detail the absurdities of parties and of social gatherings among the 19th century British bourgeoisie not so much to manifest their importance of a moment in a character’s life than as to emphasize the absurdities of a very society, way of thinking, and way of living. Ever since “Mansfield Park” and “Persuasion” have claimed their thrones in the annals of world literature, Austen’s novels have been hailed as some of the greatest social satires ever published. As such, they transcend the personal realm of Fanny Price and Anne Elliott to embrace that of humanity at large. Pedigree, economic status, social standing – these are factors that have obsessed every society in every culture through the ages and will remain to do so for ages more so long as avarice is a human folly.

It seems that some of the queer men and women of letters have yet to thoroughly understand their responsibility to the world. Literature is one of our most potent forms of asserting our pride for who we are and for the diversity of experiences that our community encompasses. Once this era of online dating has passed and the last of the Black Parties has short-circuited, our legacy to future generations will be our words. Upon these words, the transgenders, lesbians, gays, and bisexuals of tomorrow shall build their own forum for recognition and acceptance. If today’s queer writers are to speak and to write of the historical correlation between literature and society, then they must do so not at face value, but with great enlightenment.

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My Genesis as a Writer

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I was 14 when I read my first novel, Jeffrey Archer’s “Kane and Abel.” If my high school English class hadn’t required me to present a book report, I would never have picked it up. Reading 600 pages seemed too tedious a task, and my literary taste then leaned more toward non-fiction mysteries such as those that chronicled the fate of the lost island of Atlantis or that profiled the world’s most famous ghosts (one being the benign spirit of London’s Drury Lane Theater, who would give encouraging pats to lead actors on opening nights). I don’t remember how long I took to read “Kane and Abel,” but I do remember the principal characters and I especially remember the plot: In 1918, Abel Rosnovski migrates by ship on steerage class from communist occupied Poland to Turkey and then to America, where through hard work and an anonymous benefactor, he rises from rags to riches as the owner of a chain of hotels. During his climb, he meets Arthur Kane – a six foot-tall, blue-blooded Bostonian educated at St. Paul’s preparatory and Harvard – with whom he forges a bitter rivalry over possession of the hotels, only to discover in old age that Kane was his mysterious benefactor. Underscoring the main story line are the sweeping sub-plots from the death of Kane’s father on the Titanic to the rape and murder of Abel’s sister, Florentina, by communist soldiers to the Crash of 1929. By the end, the novel no longer seemed too long, but too short. How, I marveled, could so small of an object contain so much?

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I attempted to write my own novel. I didn’t make an outline, had no idea what the beginning, middle, and end would be nor who the characters were. All I had was an image of a 17-year-old boy riding steerage class on a train from Yugoslavia to Paris, surrounded by sun-wrinkled women dressed in dirty head scarves and floor-length aprons and carrying vomiting babies. My hero, in his newspaper boy hat, would somehow reach America from France to be the next Abel Rosnovski. My attempt lasted less than an hour. I would write two lines, scratch them out, then write another two lines, until I had a page of scribbles. Finally, I gave up altogether. Yet I’d keep on reading for years thereafter, first a few more of the day’s best-sellers followed by the classics, starting with Alexander Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Every time I closed a book, I’d think, I wish I had written this. I wish I could write like Dumas… or whomever it was whose words were the last I’d read upon going to bed.

Soon, I was harboring the same wish with regard to films. I imagined that “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) (, “A Place in the Sun” (1951) (, and “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) ( were adapted from stories and novels I had written. The drama and the performances compelled me to read Hollywood biographies so that after a while, fantasizing that I had been the creative force behind those films wasn’t enough. I imagined I was the characters themselves. I was brooding Montgomery Clift, whose doomed love for Elizabeth Taylor leads him to the electric chair; James Dean, so emotionally tortured, yet so cool in his white tee shirt and red jacket, that he’s only capable of half a smile; and Sal Mineo with his smooth skin and eyes close to tears in yearning for acceptance. I drew no distinction between the actors and their roles. Neither did their biographies. Their film personae were an extension of their personalities; hence, the only reality for me, the only truth, was the cinema. And that was how I wanted to pattern my life. God knows how much I wanted to look like Clift and Dean and Mineo, to be a creator, a lover, a hero, a star. I truly believed that I would be all that once I turned 18 and moved for college to the States from the Philippines. There, I thought, I would learn about the world, bloom into a man with Dean’s sexual presence, and fall in love with someone who would love me just as Clift did with Taylor. I was plotting the novel of a life I fancied. But when I finally did move, my prediction didn’t pull through. So I thought maybe at 19… maybe at 20…

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20 came. I knew by then that I’d never be the man I had hoped to become. I had acne that scarred and I stopped growing at 5’7”. I had fallen in love with a boy named Ralph, but he could never love me back because he liked girls. I vented my disillusionment through art – I drew, I took a short story writing class, I kept a journal, I listened to opera – and once more, as I did six years before, I wanted to write a novel, only now I was wise enough to realize that I didn’t yet have the craft or the training or the subject. Again, I would wish of the writers I read that I were the true creator of their works. It seemed that was as far as my literary aspirations would go – wishing. I would be a copywriter or a graphic artist upon earning a BA degree, but never an author.

Then, one summer night, I went to a gay bar in Boston named Chaps. The lights were on low and mirrors surrounded the dance floor. The place was empty, save for four other men. Whether they were two pairs of lovers or a quartet of friends, I wasn’t sure. They all looked alike – tan, robust, Caucasian, and very, very tall. They dressed alike, too, in white tennis shorts and pastel tee shirts. One was standing against a mirror, watching the rest dance. I was standing by the bar, watching him. He’d smile every time one of the three – a square-jawed man with thick eyebrows and thick black hair – would look his way. Whenever the man dancing would turn back to the group, the admirer’s smile would linger for seconds more. I ordered a glass of soda water to appear more preoccupied with a drink than with them. Not that it mattered, for not once did they so much as glance at their surroundings. Yet I stayed and I drank, hoping that I’d receive a smile, a long, endearing smile that would compensate for all those celluloid manufactured illusions.

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To get back to a studio I was renting for the summer, I had to cross a plaza where stood a building with granite columns and ceiling-high windows. It was drizzling. Rain drops made soft indentations in a fountain that extended the plaza’s length. I walked by the colonnade to keep dry, and mid-way across, a man ran on the rim of the fountain, his yellow raincoat sun bright against the night sky. As he disappeared into the distance, I thought of the men at Chaps, wondering where their lives would take them, if I’d ever see them again, though instinctively knowing that I never would. It was a sad thing, obscurity. As brief as my stay at Chaps had been, those men were now a part of my life and they didn’t even know it. I looked up at the monumental columns to the sky. The rain drops were thin and short like pins of cellophane. I prayed to God that I could face a life of solitude so long as I could give the world something of myself that would last. That would be my claim on Ralph, the men at Chaps, and everyone else who would break my heart in the years to come – to write for and because of them. It didn’t matter anymore that I knew not on precisely what subject to create a novel. This, I was sure, was something I’d discover in time by no great design other than by simply being alive.

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I moved to Paris that fall for a junior year study program abroad. During those 12 months, I rode a camel in the Sahara Desert, walked on the cobble-stoned streets of ancient Constantinople, and drank myself to sleep with ouzo on the white sands of Santorini. With every land I trod, I was possessing yet a little bit more of the world through my camera, my memory, my pen. I am still a traveler, and the more I possess, the more years that come between me and my 20-year-old self, the closer I am to fulfilling my prayer.

Nastassja Kinski: The Eternal Tess

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In 1981, I hardly went to the cinema. Betamax was the rage in the Philippines. Every neighborhood had a betamax store that delivered film cassettes at your doorstep within thirty minutes of phoning for a title. Since most of the foreign films were not yet released or not released at all, the cassettes were pirated; some were filmed by a video recorder snuck into a theater. You can imagine the quality – static lines across the screen, muffled audio, widescreen shots that resulted in characters omitted from view as dialogue was spoken. So you might assume that my sitting through “Tess” (1979) was a drudgery. It was. I spent half the time rewinding a scene to catch the dialogue and adjusting knobs for a widescreen shot to be condensed, often to no avail. Nevertheless, I had been compelled to watch the film due to a single image that had seduced me when shown at a televised airing of the Academy Awards ceremony weeks earlier: Angel Clare (Peter Firth) gazing with ardor into the eyes of Tess D’Urbervbille (Nastassja Kinski) as he carries her over a puddle, the world surrounding them an explosion of sunlight and vernation and violins and bass.

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I was 14 years old. The TV was in my parents’ room, and so both my father and mother happened to be watching “Tess” with me. My mother was especially upset that I would rent an R-rated film. “Why do you like films like that?” she asked. She must have been expecting something akin to “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (1981), which features softcore starlet Sylvia Crystal in many scenes of erotic arousal and which I would later rent. My response: “It’s a good film. It was nominated for an Oscar. What do you expect me to watch? Disney cartoons?” I made no mention of the actress. I neither knew her name nor did I remember her face from the clip presented at the Academy Awards. All I remembered up to that point was the spring backdrop, the longing in the eyes of the lover for the beloved, and the theme song as dramatic as the rumbling of the earth.

My mother’s disapproval of the film and my unfamiliarity with the actress would change within minutes. When Nastassja Kinski occupied the screen, whether in close-up or in distant shot, she dominated it. How to describe her visual impact? My father said it best: “She looks like Ingrid Bergman.”

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My father was not alone in his comparison of Kinski to Bergman. The New York Times film critic, Pauline Kael, herself bestowed that compliment onto the actress. Director Roman Polanski no doubt must have seen the resemblance, too – the sensuous pout and noble nose, the dignified carriage and eyes that oscillate between pride and vulnerability. For all the tragedy that permeates “Tess,” Polanski manages to create a work of tenderness and subtlety. In every frame you get the impression that he is making love not only to the story’s heroine, but also to the actress who is personifying her. He is paying tribute to a beauty so startling that Kinski drew comparison to yet another actress of inimitable stature: Greta Garbo.

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Before you conclude that Kinski was nothing more than a pretty figure, bear in mind that she was 18 when she filmed “Tess.” For an 18-year-old to play a woman who is impoverished, raped, impregnated, loved, rejected, scorned, kept, entrapped, and sentenced to death at the gallows for murder takes more than a visage of photogenic perfection. “Tess” is one helluva heavy drama, yet with what grace Kinski carries the burden of such woes. There are tears, but no histrionics. There is emotion, but no sentimentality. The most climactic moment is the quietest. Tess – dressed in a gown the red of fury, blood, and passion – rises from a slumber on a Stonehenge altar, a sacrificial lamb resigned to her fate. The sun lights the sky. The gendarmes close in on her. Angel Clare, hair as curled and golden as that of a cherub, begs the gendarmes to allow Tess peace. But Tess is already at peace. “I am ready,” she says, her voice lilting with the softness of a morning drizzle.

Tess D’Urberville is free at last from the curse of beauty.

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Nastassja Kinski starred in other films of note – “Cat People” (1982), “Unfaithfully Yours” (1984), “Paris, Texas” (1984) – but with the exception of the last of the aforementioned, none did her justice. Too exotic, too European, and too anachronistic, she was best in the period piece that made her a star. She wanted to play Evelyn Nesbit. The project never materialized, which is a tragedy in itself. She would have been magnificent as the turn-of-the-century femme fatale who drives a man to insanity and then murder. For the rest of Kinski’s career, roles in which she would have been perfect constantly eluded her. The actress deserved more than that, she who possessed a loveliness that inspires art and an emotionality that weakens hearts.

Where Hollywood fell short, fashion magazines compensated for; Kinski was a photographer’s muse. She made a big splash in a Richard Avedon photograph that featured her as Eve surrendering to the serpent’s kiss. That image hung as a poster on my dorm wall during my freshman year at Tufts University. I spent a total of $75 on the poster and the framing – an extravagance well worth it. I lived on the ground level, and the poster hung at an angle from the window so that it was visible from across the lawn. In the evening, I would direct my table lamp at the image so that it shone like a jewel-encrusted mosaic. Through 30 years of traveling, I have lost “Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent.” I recently searched for a replacement on the internet and found one, but it is beyond my budget.

Selling price: $700

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“Vertigo”: In Search of the Perfect Mate

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I have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) about five times, but only in my last viewing a couple of years ago did I have a visceral reaction to it. I’ve always been intrigued by “Vertigo” – the mesmerizing images of San Francisco bathed in fog and mist, the beauty of Kim Novak, the chronicle of an era now lost – and up to this point, I saw it as nothing more than a thriller. In actuality, the genre element is merely incidental to the underlying theme of objectification, passion, yearning, and unrequited love.

“Vertigo” is a dark spin on the Pygmalion story.

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Here you have Madeleine (Kim Novak), the suicidal wife of millionaire Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who hires Detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) to watch over her. The task has Scottie trailing Madeleine through a vista of San Francisco landmarks from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Legion of Honor, on hilly streets and in winding alleys. In muted colors like a painting cloaked in a veil, San Francisco is the perfect place to stalk a woman and to fall in love. Scottie finally meets Madeleine when he saves her after she jumps into the bay. He takes her to his home, keeps her warm under sheets and by the fireplace. A series of rendezvous follows, hugs and kisses, but Madeleine is cryptic in her talk. She ultimately lures Scottie to a mission outside the city, where she falls into a delirium and plunges to her death from a belfry. Scottie has a nervous breakdown, a logical reaction when you consider reality. Half the world has Scottie in them -men enamored by beautiful, loony women who stir in each male a desire to save and protect. A man fails, then he crashes into a wall. Scottie’s dead end is the psychiatric ward of a hospital, enclosed by walls as sterile as a strait jacket.

Fortunately for our doleful detective, Hitchcock gives him a second chance. Upon his release, he meets Madeleine’s doppelganger in the body of a woman named Judy, whom he molds after Madeleine’s image by dressing her as Madeleine dressed, dyeing her dark hair blonde, and ignoring her pleas of acceptance: “I remind you of her, the one that’s dead… I want you to love me. If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?”

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We hear it all the time, the platitude that true love means embracing a person in the form that he or she already inhabits, flaws included. Coercion to change a partner is a hornet’s nest. Scottie is not entirely alone, though. He has Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). Talented and pretty, nurturing and comforting the way a best friend is, she is the kind of woman who keeps a man anchored in the sensibilities of life. She even has a job and wears glasses, which means she must be bookish. This is the problem: Scottie doesn’t see her for the blessed things that she is because she’s earthy rather than goddess-like.

Talk about the odyssey of one man’s search for the glorified woman ending disastrously. History abounds with tales of passion that had risen because of the vision of perfection the admirer bestowed upon the admired and then had collapsed once the vision tarnished – the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy, Samson and Delilah… Think of how often idealization of a mate occurs in our own lives. Ultimately, the ideal is a figment of the imagination.

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“City Lights”: The Eyes as Windows to the Soul

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Rhett and Scarlett, Rick and Ilsa, Tony and Maria… in every list of cinema’s most iconic couples, these duos always make the grade. Even though other couples may not have the ubiquity nor the pop cultural standing of the aforementioned three, they merit mention at one point or another, which makes the constant omission of my personal favorite – the Tramp and the Blind Girl – all the more an injustice.

“City Lights” (1931) with Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in the lead roles is a film that transcends a genre. It’s a romance and it’s a comedy, yet to call it a romantic comedy would not be right. “City Lights” is not structured according to the prescribed formula of boy meets girl/conflict separates boy from girl/boy and girl reunite as they resolve a series of humorous misunderstandings. A courtship doesn’t happen. Nobody’s love is scorned. The Tramp and the Blind Girl both get what they want in the end. All ought to be sunshine and daisies. It isn’t.

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The Tramp and the Blind Girl meet on a street corner where the Blind Girl is selling a basketful of flowers. Upon hearing his passing footsteps, she offers the Tramp a flower to buy, which he does with money he scrounges from his pocket. He realizes that she assumes he is a wealthy gentleman when the door to a car parked in front of them opens and shuts, for she calls out to the real gentleman who has boarded the car and driven away that he has forgotten his change. The friendship that develops between the two with subsequent visits to the street corner takes a turn as the Tramp chances upon a newspaper notice for an experimental surgery that restores vision. From then on, the Tramp and the Blind Girl share one dream. Still, there is a grave matter that needs to be settled; the Blind Girl and her grandmother are about to be evicted. To raise rent, the Tramp falls into money-making schemes, all of which prove to be preposterous because that is the life of the Tramp.

“City Lights” was made when talkies were exploding. Charlie Chaplin, however, wanted a silent. The result is a love story so delicate that it flitters across the screen as if it were a dream. Regardless of how many times the Tramp falls on his ass, he gets back on his feet, ennobled by a selfless desire – for a blind girl to have the comfort of a home and the blessing of sight while he asks for nothing in return. Such nobility in the face of humiliation was a matter of survival during Depression Era America. Men labored under the sweltering sun, picked grapes for a pittance, no matter that the future promised nothing; their families depended on them. So it is with the Tramp. He knows from the start that he might never get the girl. It is her happiness that matters, not his, and knowing that he would be the man to grant her that happiness is enough of a future for him to endure any indignity.

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As with all films that celebrate the most coveted communion between two people and the sacrifices it entails, “City Lights” makes me mull over what I would do for that person:

  1. I would give him the single parachute in a plane about to hit a mountain wall
  2. I would face a firing squad without a blindfold
  3. I would hold him close on a cold night for my heat to warm his blood
  4. I would tickle his ear with my tongue to make him laugh when he’s sad
  5. I would author a novel dedicated to him

I do have my limits, however. I wouldn’t use his toothbrush, and to take the fall on his behalf for something of which I am guiltless, I’d have to think about that. A life behind bars could be worse than death; death is a form of freedom. Decisions. Decisions. Should any of us find ourselves in this crisis, we have Charlie Chaplin to teach us a thing or two about the right choice. Again, “City Lights.” Time passes. The Tramp is in worse condition than before. Coat torn at the seams, holes in pockets, he wanders the streets an object of derision as boys shoot pellets at him. He is annoyed, nothing more… not angry, not bitter… no matter what atrocities life had done him. Even then, his annoyance passes. Such is the nature of the Tramp – upbeat against all odds – which makes the finale to “City Lights” the most poignant in all filmdom.

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I wish you could experience it as I did, to the movie score Chaplin had composed as performed live by the San Francisco Symphony, only words for the pounding of drums and clashing of cymbals in simulating the beating of a weeping heart are beyond my vocabulary. Instead, I offer you another Chaplin treasure:

Smile though your heart is aching. Smile even though it’s breaking. When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by. If you smile through your fear and sorrow, smile and maybe tomorrow, you’ll see the sun come shining through for you.

On his way the Tramp goes, past the flower shop where the Blind Girl works, she prettied up in a lace-collared dress and heels. Everything he did for love has paid off. The beauty of the world is now hers to relish, an existence far from shabby dwellings, poverty, and homeless riffraff. In her joy he has found his own. That’s the way it is. Sometimes we need to lose in order to share with the person we most care about a piece of paradise. In other words: when you love someone, free, free, set them free. Sorry for the hokum, but Charlie Chaplin was the first to visualize it in a story unique to him. And when these words appear before us in a cloud thought to sum up a situation we’re in, the jab to the heart really does puncture.

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50 Great Hollywood Romances: A Personal List

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In 2011, a friend watched a TV special on 50 great Hollywood romances. Since I unfortunately missed the special, I googled to find out who were on the on list. The only names that popped up were Taylor and Burton, Bogey and Bacall, Jolie and Pitt. Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks also appeared, though no scandal has ever been associated with them nor are they tabloid material. I decided to compile my own list of who the remaining 46 might have been.

  1. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn
  2. Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner
  3. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard
  4. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth

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  5. Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller (as opposed to Joe DiMaggio. Aside from being a playwright, Miller also wrote screenplays, his most famous being that for “The Misfits.” It was during the filming of “The Misfits” that his marriage to Monroe experienced the last stages of its dissolution.)
  6. Greta Garbo and John Gilbert
  7. Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst
  8. Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal (They fell in love during the filming of “Fountainhead.” Cooper refused to leave his wife. He got Neal pregnant and he forced her to have an abortion.)
  9. Cary Grant and Sophia Loren (They fell in love during the filming of “Houseboat.” The climactic scene was a wedding, and Grant proposed that the wedding be a real one between him and Loren. Loren had second thoughts, so the marriage was staged. At the end of the filming, she broke off her relationship with Grant. He implored her for months to come back, but she told him that she had fallen in love with Carlo Ponti and was going to marry Ponti.)
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    Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer

  11. Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick
  12. Grace Kelly and all of her leading men + Oleg Cassini
  13. Gene Tierney and Oleg Cassini
  14. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Mary Pickford
  15. Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neil
  16. Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini (Scandalous, this one. Bergman was exiled from Hollywood, for this had originated as an adulterous affair. She was married to Petter Lindstrom. The House Senate lambasted her as an “Angel of Sin.”)
  17. Kim Novak and Sammy Davis, Jr. (They were in love, desperately in love. They wanted to marry. This was racially segregated 1950s America, and the mob-owned Paramount Pictures, for which Novak was a top money-maker, hurled death threats at Novak and Davis should they tie the knot. The mob knew that if their blonde princess married a black man, the public would no longer endorse her pictures and Paramount would fall into financial troubles.)
  18. Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman (Not a good marriage. It lasted 30 days. In her autobiography, Merman dedicated one chapter to her ex. It was a blank page.)

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  19. Sean Penn and Madonna
  20. Bo Derek and John Derek
  21. Robin Givens and Mike Tyson
  22. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward
  23. Martin Scorsese and Isabella Rossellini (Yes, they were married in the late 1970s, before she became a sensation in the 1980s as the face of Lancome.)
  24. Burt Reynolds and Lonnie Anderson
  25. Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields
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    Cybill Shepherd and Peter Bogdanovich

  27. Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate
  28. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
  29. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh
  30. Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem
  31. Courtney Cox and David Arquette
  32. Robert Pattinson and Kristin Stewart
  33. Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot
  34. Roger Vadim and Catherine Deneuve
  35. Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda
  36. Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner
  37. James Dean and Pier Angeli
  38. Woody Allen and Mia Farrow
  39. Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn
  40. Jack Nicholson and Angelica Huston
  41. Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neil
  42. Warren Beatty and Annette Benning, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Julie Christie, Leslie Caron, Joan Collins, Michelle Philips, Diane Cannon, Cher, Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Onassis, Twiggy, Elle McPherson, Isabel Adjani, Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot, etc., etc., etc.
  43. Ellen Degeneres and Porsche de Rossi
  44. Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro
  45. Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford
  46. Bert and Ernie

Add the fab four to my list: Taylor and Burton; Bogey and Bacall; Jolie and Pitt; Wilson and Hanks.

Total: 50 Great Hollywood Romances

Who would be your choices?

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