Rock Hudson: Love, Betrayal, and the Fall of an Idol

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His real name was Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. Hollywood needed something more glamorous on theater marquees, so it took two of the world’s natural wonders – the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson River – and baptized the 6’4″ truck driver from Winnetka, Illinois (population of 12,105 in 1950) with a moniker crafted from the first words of each. A star was born. The first matinee idol of his kind, Rock Hudson ushered in the era of the earthy he-man.

Indeed, the hunk was all about the American outdoors. In “Giant” (1956), Hudson is the quintessential cowboy, a strapping figure that races on horseback across the Texas planes amid a panorama of mountains and a vast sky. As Jane Wyman’s love interest in “All That Heaven Allows” (1955), he’s a gardener in jeans and a lumberjack top, with trees building high and a storm of leaves his habitat. Even in his pairing with Doris Day in some of the best romantic comedies ever made – “Pillow Talk” (1959), “Lover Come Back” (1961), and “Send Me No Flowers” (1964) – Hudson is every lady’s stud and every dude’s pal. Yes, guys liked him, too.

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Rock Hudson was easily a film maker’s jackpot. His appeal extended to regions beyond the United States coastline. My mother herself was a fan. A comely 17-year-old in the mid-1950s, she was featured in a Philippine newspaper supplement in which she listed among her favorite things red roses and Rock Hudson flicks. 30 years later, my sister, as well, regarded him as exceptional among the leading men of his era. A wholesome, masculine image could explain the actor’s multi-generational popularity, particularly among females. James Dean was too tortured. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/rebel-without-a-cause-rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light/)  Marlon Brando was too mercurial. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/on-the-waterfront-sin-and-salvation/) Montgomery Clift was too withdrawn. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/a-place-in-the-sun-a-love-worth-dying-for/ )

Personally, I find the vulnerability integral to method acting sexy. The way Dean, Brando, and Clift manifested their soft spots beneath the armor of the classic white tee instructed me as an adolescent that manhood is not about bravado. Manhood is a complex state of being where, under attack, a guy defends his convictions of love and respect towards his fellow humans, unashamed to fall should a punch on the nose impair his footing. The honor is in the fight.

While for a boy, this makes for metamorphic cinema, a girl is reared to view manhood from a different perspective. Let’s begin with the Walt Disney fairy tales. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs-someday-my-prince-will-come/) Every princess needs a prince, for only he has the power to rescue her from life’s perils and only in matrimony will she be assured happiness. Hence, girls grow into women with the notion that marriage is an immutable future. Fairy tales continue to exist for them, although in a different mode: Hollywood.

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This is why Rock Hudson was perfect. He was the alpha male that embodied princely characteristics. No matter the bind he was in, no crack ever appeared on his veneer. Even with hair unkempt, he was immaculately groomed, and that face – the strong chin and eminent nose, the dusky eyes and broad forehead – evoked the artistry of Mount Rushmore.

The irony and the misfortune is that Rock Hudson himself needed saving. He was homosexual. As Hollywood’s premier box office draw, a revelation of his true nature would have lost studios millions of audiences and billions of dollars. Women would have been distraught. Men would have gloated. Everybody would have been disgusted. The attitude in pre-Stonewall America was that being gay was a psychological disorder, a condition that tweaked the brain to blindside a man to a sense of morals. And so the fate of those whose sexual disposition I share – a societal deprivation to love that drove them to dark alleys and public restrooms in search of human warmth.

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According to author Armistead Maupin, best friend to Hudson back in the day, the actor sought refuge in San Francisco. What an earthquake of desire Hudson must have triggered upon treading the city’s seven hills, followed by a blaze of broken hearts in his wake. Who could say no to one of filmdom’s most spectacular images?

Regardless, carnal release is momentary and skin deep, though we try to convince ourselves otherwise. With a hunger in the soul, we continue on our foray to cavernous venues like animals in a burrow scrounging for nourishment. Unfortunately, the subterfuge did not certify discretion for Hudson. Confidential magazine got wind of his secret and threatened to expose him. To protect Hollywood’s cash box, agent Henry Wilson sacrificed Tab Hunter, another closeted swooner, to the gossip mill instead, then married off Hudson to his secretary, Phyllis Gates, whom Wilson’s biographer revealed years later to be a lesbian.

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How crippling it must have been, this masquerade, this lying to the world. A draconian attitude towards homosexuality conditioned Rock Hudson to believe that he was an aberration of a human being. So ingrained was his self-loathing that when he became the most famous face of AIDS in the 1980s, he denied being gay.

My early adulthood coincided with the actor’s return as front page news. I was a freshman in college, a boy from the Philippines new to America, where its liberal atmosphere emboldened me to confront my own homosexuality. Since I was focused on the issue of being in the closet, I was ignorant of the Reagan administration’s refusal to tackle the AIDS epidemic. Politics had no role in my current crush (a German-Puerto Rican skateboarder named Ralph who had a deep voice, a square jaw, and a rounded derriere that a pair of Levi’s 501’s accentuated). Instead, the tabloid headlines of Rock Hudson imperiling “Dynasty” star Linda Evans due to a kiss when he guest-appeared on the TV series seized my attention, as did the jokes that sprouted from Hudson’s ongoing drama to survive. The man was entertainment. His suffering bore no link to me.

I was wrong. I recently watched on youtube an account of Hudson’s last months. While in Paris to receive treatment, he was staying at the Ritz-Carlton, gaunt and bed-ridden. Nobody wanted to hug him. Nobody wanted to touch him. To those who came into contact with him, if only by their mere presence of standing a few feet away, he was the loneliest person they had ever seen. What a colossal fall this was for a man formerly glorified as a specimen of masculine superiority. Then again, such an elevated status is a set-up for rejection. We are all mortal. We all grow old. We all succumb to ailments. The more idealized we are, the harsher the world can be as our humanness betrays itself through every personal setback.

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Farrah Fawcett comes to mind. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/farrah-fawcett-the-kiss-of-providence/) In her middle age, psychotic episodes such as vandalism of a lover’s property and incoherency on “The David Letterman Show” turned her into a stooge. Then news broke out that she was dying. Luckily for Fawcett, the virus that claimed her life did not denigrate her as a reprobate. We kept vigil. We hoped and we prayed. So did she. Ultimately, the bravery with which Farrah Fawcett faced cancer earned her something denied Rock Hudson – our respect.

As much as we’d like to believe in progress, times have not entirely changed. Despite the internet exposure to customs and lifestyles different from our own, allowing for an increased acceptance of openly gay actors such as Matt Bomer and Wentworth Miller, a code of silence continues to muzzle big budget performers whose careers are cemented in a macho image. Number one would be Tom Cruise. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/tom-cruise-the-art-of-survival/) Speculation has hounded him for decades so that every one of my friends is convinced that he’s gay. “He should just admit it,” a co-worker at San Francisco AIDS Foundation said, “Nowadays it doesn’t matter.”

Oh, but it does. Bare in mind that Cruise’s films do not screen in politically correct San Francisco alone, but also in the Deep South and the Midwest, in Russia and China… in places across the globe where homosexuality remains a perversion, and in some countries, a crime. Should it make headlines that Cruise prefers brawn to breasts, then ticket sales will plummet, movie studios will lose money, and Cruise will be jobless. No homophobe wants to see one derided as a pansy kissing a beautiful woman and touting a gun as he embarks on hair-raising exploits to save the world. Viewers would consider Tom Cruise both a fraud and an affront to manhood. Never mind that acting is all about… well… acting. When it comes to cinema icons, the line between fact and fiction is non-existent.

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And so the tragedy that is Rock Hudson. He died at 59. For all his capacity to make men laugh and women fall in love, the press summed up his legacy in a single acronym: AIDS. That was enough for a once adoring public to turn its back on him.

Gong Li: The Garbo of the Far East

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The Asian Greta Garbo. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/flesh-and-the-devil-the-sound-of-an-original/) Such is the agnomen the press has anointed Chinese actress, Gong Li. This is no minor comparison. Garbo is a legend, a screen deity from an epoch where few stars are remembered, what more ona last name basis. Here are the other two survivors: Chaplin (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/city-lights-the-eyes-as-windows-to-the-soul/) and Valentino (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/rudolph-valentino-fire-of-the-silver-screen/). Of course, there’s Swanson, although it was a talkie that earned her immortality. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/sunset-boulevard-the-edge-of-madness/)

Why this honor, you might wonder. Watch “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991), the Oscar Best Foreign Film that brought Li to our attention. Director Zhang Yimou does something reminiscent of a Garbo vehicle. He manipulates his camera to make love to his star. This iconoclastic approach to film making is rare. It isn’t always that a movie so feeds off an actress that her beauty is the nexus of the plot. I’ve witnessed it only in one other film made in my life time, and that would be “Tess” (1979). The object of adoration in the Roman Polanski classic: Nastassja Kinski, who herself inspired critics to link her to Garbo. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/nastassja-kinski-the-eternal-tess/)

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Polanski and Kinski were an item, as were Yimou and Li; hence, the press romanticizing of such pairings as “the artist and the muse.” The collaboration was never more apparent than with the latter couple. Polanski directed Kinski in one film, whereas Yimou directed Li in at least seven. So potent was the chemistry between the Chinese auteur and his actress that it propelled both to artistic and commercial renown with their first film. Their meeting was simple enough. Yimou discovered Li while she was just a student at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, casting the 23-year-old in “Red Sorghum” (1989), where she plays a poor rural lass in an arranged marriage with a wealthy older man. Concubine, mistress, courtesan, femme fatale… these are the feminine archetypes Gong Li has often inhabited. Now you see why the Greta Garbo analogy?

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Typecasting, you might scoff.  If you were in Zhang Yimou’s position, I doubt you’d be able to resist modeling such a discovery after Garbo for the posterity of future film viewers. Lips the sweetness of plum blossom, complexion chrysanthemum radiant, a peony’s commanding beauty… Li on screen is a flower soft in demeanor but that withstands winds and storms. In “Red Sorghum,” she survives abduction and war. In “Raise the Red Lantern,” she schemes for liberation from marital enslavement. From “Shanghai Triad” (1995) to “Eros” (2004), from “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005) to “Coming Home” (2014) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/coming-home-in-love-and-war/), Gong Li plays proud and dignified, no matter that tragedy could be her fate. Though not all of her films feature her under the directorship of Yimou, his influence on her is evident. The message her former Svengali has written in her every expression and gesture is readable to all: this is the plight of the Asian woman; it speaks of the chains that have shackled all women since Eve.

My sister could not get herself to see “Raise the Red Lantern,” its subject of misogyny too personal (as it is for many women). Regardless, she could not be immune to Gong Li’s novel stature as an icon either. She even got to stand in the actress’s place. This because of a dress. Fame brought Li to the attention of Shanghai Tang, the premier brand in the Far East of high-end garments and luxury items and from whom my sister would have cheongsams custom tailored. During one fitting, the seamstress had my sister slip on a cheongsam Li had modeled. It was a perfect fit, save for the bosom of which Li is more ample than the average Asian female. What flattery. Shanghai Tang was swathing my sister in the silk that had caressed the woman consistently hailed as one of the most beautiful in the world, a privilege the brand rarely bestowed on its clients, if ever at all.

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That was the 1990s. It’s hard to believe Gong Li is now 50. Such is existence in the real world. Unlike her Hollywood counterparts, however, she need not bewail the dearth of roles for having reached middle-age. Li is revered enough so that she continues to command attention even when stripped of glamor; thus, her turn as a political dissident’s wife in “Coming Home,” dowdy and demented with only the emotionality of those eyes to rivet us viewers. She is arguably the Mona Lisa of the 21st century, in the most modern medium of aesthetic expression.

This brings me to the endurance of art and the mysterious ways in which a masterpiece comes to fruition. Without Gong Li, there would not have been Zhang Yimou as we know him. The same could be said of all the celebrated artists and their muses in eras past from Dante and Beatrice Portinari to Man Ray and Kiki de Montparnasse. We are born with the capacity for brilliance, yet for that brilliance to explode at full force, its debris glitter in the universe for time immemorial, a missing link is crucial much like a key to a lock. There is truth to the saying that behind every great man is a great woman (or vice versa), and so I wonder what brought Frida Kahlo to her Diego and T.S. Eliot to his Vivienne. Was their pairing serendipitous or preordained?

Whatever the case, they met and fell in love, and their love transcended the commonplace romance to produce art over which the world marvels. As Vladimir Nabokov wrote in “Lolita” of the doomed Humbert Humbert when the child predator authors a manuscript to perpetuate his devotion for the girl vixen: “I am thinking of aurochs and angles, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.” The only way that love lasts beyond the grave is through our celebration of it in songs and poems, in stories and images. The images at our disposal have multiplied in the span of the millennium, from carvings on a cave wall and oil on canvass to camcorders and mobile filming. Cinema, with its fusion of narrative and visuals, remains the most powerful of all, gripping us viewers at the throat and tugging at our hearts.

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For all the political interpretations critics have applied to Zhang Yimou’s output in collaboration with Gong Li, one message is unmistakable: each one is the director’s shrine to his glorious star.

Kelly LeBrock: “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful…”

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Thus goes one of the most famous tag lines in advertising history as purred by Kelly LeBrock. With a flip of the hair and a rapturous smile, she makes Pantene shampoo something for a man to fantasize about. Should we ever wonder how females responded to the commercial, watch “Weird Science” (1985), the John Hughes comedy in which our supermodel plays a dream woman a pair of horny geeks (Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) brings to life by feeding magazine cut outs of her image to a computer. As a teen girl (Suzanne Synder) gripes over LeBrock, “She’s so beautiful, and her body is… it’s gorgeous. I mean, what would I be compared to her?”

The question sums up the enigma Kelly LeBrock must have been to those born in her ilk. However, adulation had not always been the lot of this libidinal creature. Because LeBrock was not all-American, her look was at the start slow to catch on, particularly in the Philippines, where people to this day idealize the United States as one step close to heaven. As a result, I credit myself for having discovered her.

The year was 1983. I was a high school junior when one day my Filipino literature teacher allowed us students to spend recess in the classroom. An issue of Vogue was making the rounds. When the magazine landed on my desk, I opened it to a fashion pictorial, and what graced the pages caused my head to throb as if I had just unearthed Nefertiti’s bust. Those lips – voluptuous, sexy, as delectable as strawberry; the sensuous gaze; the haughty stance… LeBrock displayed the qualities of history’s most fawned upon femme fatale, from ancient queens to the seductresses of the camera, starting with Garbo (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/flesh-and-the-devil-the-sound-of-an-original/) and culminating with the celluloid sensation of the day, Nastassja Kinski (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/nastassja-kinski-the-eternal-tess/).

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“I don’t find her pretty at all,” a girl said. “I like the gloves she’s wearing,” said another. The guys couldn’t get past the lips, and not in a favorable way either. They found the lips flagrantly large. Indeed, they were; hence, my instant attraction. LeBrock was unlike any actress or model before her, and I’ve always been one for a peculiarity, something or someone that doesn’t adhere to a standard edict of beauty but that commands our attention because the object or person possesses a certain je ne sais quoi. That was LeBrock. Contrary to what second millennium film viewers believe, the full lip craze did not begin with Angelina Jolie.

To no avail, I insisted that LeBrock was gorgeous. Nonetheless, I was sure that someday my friends would change their minds; nobody could be that blind for long. The day came with the release of “Woman in Red” (1984). Pre-“Weird Science,” the film was the first to cast LeBrock as a dream woman, this time one in fleshly form, the target of an advertising executive’s adulterous cravings. Set in San Francisco, “Woman in Red” follows Teddy Pierce (Gene Wilder) as he stalks the mysterious beauty through a maze of urban hills and landmarks reminiscent of “Vertigo” (1958). (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/vertigo-in-search-of-the-perfect-mate/) (Trivia: the Brocklebank Apartment Building, which features prominently in both movies, is located a block away from where I live.)

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Suddenly, Kelly LeBrock was a sex symbol to every pubescent boy and CEO. “Woman in Red” was best viewed on betamax, given the machine’s feature that allowed for slow mo. “Kita yung kiki,” gushed my friend, Jonathan, in reference to a scene in which LeBrock flashes her privates as she wraps herself in a bed sheet. We can surmise that the tape section containing the segment must have been marred due to incessant rewinds.

Although I gloated over the realization of my prophecy, the means to the end disappointed me. “’Woman in Red’ desecrates the idealized image of her,” I commented to a guy when the subject of LeBrock came up a few years later in college. He laughed. Herein is the difference between a heterosexual and a homosexual man. A straight male is attracted to a woman on a carnal level. A gay one, such as myself, appreciates her on an aesthetic level. Herein, as well, is the difference between a figure in stasis and one in kinesis. The former invites the spectator to project one’s own ideas onto the subject, endowing him or her with characteristics that ingratiate one’s wants and needs. The latter humanizes the subject. Speech, movement, thought… all factors that expound on an individual’s three-dimensionality… permit less room for fantasy.

In hindsight, no other model could have done what LeBrock does in “Woman in Red” and “Weird Science.” Christie Brinkley is perfect in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983). The role called for a California blonde to pose and pout in a white dress in front of a red Ferrari, white being the color and a Ferrari the flashiness synonymous with the American West Coast. LeBrock, on the other hand, exuded a continental persona – dark-haired, aloof, European exotic. Certainly, other models might have qualified. Joan Severance and Carré Otis come to mind. Despite being American, they were more sophisticated than girl next door. But the lips were a key factor, and only one among the contenders stood at the forefront in that department.

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Kelly LeBrock got was she deserved. The woman reeked of animal magnetism. A pity had she not been cast in either film, thus forever remaining invisible to mankind. Regardless, I can’t help associating her with a passage from the novel “Palace of Desire” by Nobel-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz:

… she has descended from heaven and is wallowing in the mud, after living grandly over the clouds… she’s allowed her cheek to be kissed, her blood to be shed, and her body to be abused.

These are the thoughts an intellect by the name of Kamal harbors for Aida, a woman he is enamored with but whom he holds in such a lofty plane that upon her betrothal to another, he considers it a defilement that she should partake in a physical union with a man, no matter that the man is to be her husband. Kamal can’t even conceive of Aida emptying her bowels. He reminds me of my own early opinion of Kelly LeBrock. The fellow may as well be gay.

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Alas, as a film historian declared of Jayne Mansfield, “Sex is an expendable commodity.” Kelly LeBrock could not be a pinup forever. Not only did she age, but she also gained weight, a ton of a lot of weight. In 2005, she procured media attention as a participant in “Celebrity Fit Club,” undergoing rigorous exercise and diet, all under the specter of her once bombshell statistics of 34-23-36. How reassuring it must have been to millions of women that a Cosmo cover girl, the unattainable ideal, should suffer as they did from negative body image. Of the public’s reaction to her plus size physique, LeBrock has said, “Sometimes people have been cruel, and people aren’t always nice.”

None of us can ever be as we were in our twenties. Such an aspiration is unnatural, inhuman. Fortunately, the goddess who descended to earth in “Woman in Red” and “Weird Science” is an obsession of the past, and the lady behind the image has trimmed down by a method realistic to a human being in her fifties. “I grow all my veggies and make my own cheese and yogurt,” the former model/actress said in a 2013 interview. “To work the land full time keeps me so fit that I haven’t worked out in seven years. I clean the pool myself, muck out the pigs and the horses.” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2402408/Kelly-LeBrock-comes-hiding-photoshoot-reveals-toll-drugs-divorce-took-her.html)

At last, Kelly LeBrock has found peace, a tranquil existence in a Santa Barbara ranch. Life goes on.

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Richard Gere: Love Is Love Is Love Is Love

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Richard Gere belongs in the category that film goers have labeled Gene Tierney (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/gene-tierney-a-picture-paints-a-thousand-words/), John Heard (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/the-trip-to-bountiful-a-vessel-of-breath-and-light/), and Emily Blunt – that of underrated actor. Women associate him with his handsomeness. Men associate him with his handsomeness to women. I plead guilty to being so stricken by his good looks that when I watched “American Gigolo” (1980) in high school, I noticed nothing of his thespian talent. As male escort Julian Kaye, he epitomizes everything I wanted to be: a gym-toned sex god with scarcely a worry other than what to wear. I envied Kaye’s mornings. Like a gambler at a roulette table, Kaye pouts over and ponders an array of Italian made garments snatched from his closet and flung onto his bed. Though a bit befuddled, he’s having fun, for no matter his choice, he struts the streets a champion.

My oh my, how facile life is for the gorgeous. To a zit-ridden teen, the message to “American Gigolo” was clear, that to get ahead in the world did not involve any merit beneath the surface. Richard Gere would never have gotten the role that made him a star had he been born without that face, and without that face, he would never have had the perspicacity to channel a gigolo’s cockiness.

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The mold was cast, and our opinion of Gere was set. The man never failed to deliver, often with a surprise punch that made him even sexier. Here’s the reason “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) was a box office smash. Gere shows vulnerability, the very characteristic that elevated forerunners Brando (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/a-streetcar-named-desire-forever-young/) and Dean (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/rebel-without-a-cause-rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light/) to a level above the generic pretty boys of their own era. As Zack Mayo, Gere is a loner intent on being a pilot. He enlists with the air force, where he undergoes the physical endurance tactics of Sergeant Foley (Lou Gossett, Jr.), all of which fringe on abuse. The tyrant tells Mayo he’s out, and our hero breaks down, yelling as an orphan boy does to stay because he’s got nowhere else to go. How could we resist adopting him?

Women to this day swoon over the finale. Nifty in a navy aviation uniform of white suit and cap, Mayo sweeps Debra Winger’s factory girl Paula off her feet, out of the warehouse, and into a sun blazed future as wife to a dream man. Gere was against the scene. “Sentimental,” he called it, which is why it works. With his freshly minted stature as a bodice ripper in possession of a soul, no other actor could have rendered heartfelt the type of ending more typical of a Harlequin paperback. Gere’s cockiness was at full force once again, although evened by tears he sheds in an earlier scene over his doomed BFF, Sid (David Keith).

The buddy factor in “An Officer and a Gentleman” is what gets me. Zack Mayo cries unabashedly, regardless that the object of his grief is another male. His embrace of Sid, this desperation to hold on to somebody already gone, is a shout to humankind that a display of affection towards a person of our own gender need not be shameful. Love, in its entire spectrum, is a virtue.

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As musical theater composer, Lin-Manual Miranda, said in his 2016 Tony Award acceptance speech, “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept away.” His chant came in the aftermath of a gun massacre perpetrated by a self-identified ISIS terrorist at an Orlando gay nightclub. Not everybody condemned the crime. Pastor Roger Jimenez of Sacramento preached to his congregation, “Are you sad that 50 pedophiles were killed today? No… I think that’s great. I think that helps society.” The Westboro Baptist Church pronounced, “God sent the shooter.” Tweets that the victims received their just due as a result of being “perverts” deluged the internet. “We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger,” said Miranda.

Since Orlando, we’ve had news of white cops murdering black men and black men murdering white cops; gunmen shooting to death 21 hostages at a Bangladesh café; and a truck mowing through a crowd of Bastille Day celebrants in Nice, leaving in its trail 84 corpses. Not all calamities make headlines. My cousin’s house burned down three days ago. Fortunately, he and his family (including four children between the ages of 13 and 21) were spared. Unfortunately, their belongings were not. They are at the moment taking refuge in a neighbor’s room, still in shock and disbelief, as my cousin figures out the first steps to recovery.

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The volatility of the world beyond the periphery of our front yard puts our personal concerns into perspective. How trite my annoyance is that I weigh 160 pounds rather than my comfortable 165. Sillier still is the media coverage on the Kardashian women, the latest scandal involving racy lyrics Kanye West – husband to Kim – wrote about fellow pop star and ex, Taylor Swift. And yet, human nature compels us to resort to the paltry and salacious as recourse to the hardships.

Richard Gere is no stranger to the tabloid mill. In the year that witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Nelson Mendela’s freedom from a 27-year jail sentence, and the Persian Gulf War, Gere proved with “Pretty Woman” (1990) that he had box office potential beyond the decade of the 1980s. Fluffy as the film is, it assured him continued work, the chance for a role that could get people to at last speak of him as an actor. Then came a dose of venom. A rumor of Gere performing an unsavory act with a rodent proliferated like forest fire. The rumor was all folks talked about. If Gere made any films during the ordeal, I have no idea. He became an icon of derision, was speculated to be homosexual, and through it all, kept mum, the humiliation his burden to bear in silence.

However, there were some subjects on which Gere did not cease to be vocal. A Buddhist since the late ’80s, he has become a prominent figure against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, establishing The Gere Foundation to campaign for the region’s liberation. He is outspoken on the rights of tribal people across the globe, giving speeches about their persecution under the authority of certain governments, and stands up for AIDS awareness, particularly in India, where he co-founded the AIDS Care Home, a shelter for women and children infected with the disease. Gere is a gentleman true to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incantation. Still, the gerbil rubbish that led to doubts about his heterosexuality overshadowed everything. Gay men I knew gloated over the rumor. For me, it was nothing more than a cheap shot at convincing ourselves that Richard Gere is one of us.

Well, he isn’t. Even if he was, big deal. I see Gere as he wants to be seen, as an activist and an actor. My favorites of Gere’s second millennium films are “The Hoax” (2006), where Gere plays an author who elaborates a scheme to pen Howard Hughes’s biography, and “Brooklyn’s Best” (2009), in which he is an alcoholic cop caught in a morass of police corruption. I will always watch his movies. I will always be a fan. I fell in love with Richard Gere the instant he held Sid to him, in a desolate motel on a hot day, mourning the loss of a life once rich with generosity and promise. Only an actor confident in his own capacity to give could have tackled this most wrenching scene with integrity.

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“Imelda”: Our Guilty Pleasure

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What’s in a name? If the eponym happens to be “Imelda” (2004), then the answer is a closetful. The mere mention of it generates a universal reaction – those shoes! When in 1986 the Philippines’ former first lady and her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, fled the country for exile in Hawaii, the presidential palace, Malacañang, was opened to the public as a museum of greed. I was there. Among the items I viewed: a receipt from Italian couturier, Valentino, for the purchase of two dresses the sum of $150,000; throne chairs; and a hand mirror that bore the initials IM encrusted in diamonds. The grand showcase was saved for the last. Underneath Mrs. Marcos’s boudoir, racks of stilettos, slip-ons, and pumps in leather or woven in bamboo – many of them of the same style in various colors – lined a basement the size of a department store warehouse. The place could have been a DSW outlet, only with every Ferragamo fitted for one woman and with somebody else footing the bill (namely, the Filipino tax payer).

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For the public’s amusement, the Ramona Diaz documentary titled after one of history’s most infamous consorts depicts much of the excesses. Everybody adores a rags to riches story, especially when the story turns sour, and this is the reason Imelda Marcos feeds our fascination. No ordinary woman can boast a trajectory from a hayseed in a third-world archipelago of a nation to a glamazon bejeweled in Cartier, ballroom waltzing in the arms of Lyndon B. Johnson and Adnan Khashoggi. At the peak of her power, the Marcoses amassed a fortune estimated at $10 billion. Their illegal holdings included such New York real estate as Lindenmere – a Long Island mansion that flaunts 16 bedrooms and seven gables – and the Crown Building. Then the People Power Revolution broke out. Mendicants and millionaires took to the streets in rallying for an end to the 20-year dictatorship. Nuns formed human barriers between tanks and protesters that chanted, “Cory! Cory! Cory!” – the nickname of Corazon Aquino,  the soon-to-be new commander-in-chief and widow of slain Marcos opposition leader, Benigno Aquino, Jr. A nation was being reborn.

That such a shift in politics was about to happen was as overwhelming to me as my transition from adolescence to manhood. The Marcoses had held the number one position in the land my entire life. When the uprising in the Philippines made international headlines, I was on my freshman year at Tufts University in Boston while my sister had commenced with graduate courses in architecture at Harvard University. A higher education in America had been my plan ever since my sister had left Manila when I was 14 for her undergraduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. When she transferred to Columbia University, I stayed with her during two of my summer breaks, and with days spent eating out and nights clubbing, I envisioned my own future as an undergrad to be equally fun-filled.

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The opportunity existed at Tufts. My roommates had the time of their lives – a dorm party here, a frat party there, and cultural clubs that offered a banquet of social activities from barbecues to dances – which for me was the problem. I was so absorbed in an image I harbored of myself as a dandy about town, a trendsetter dressed in black and white, that I struggled to make friends. In reality, I was an average teen dealing with the issues of self-image and sexuality. So what that I wore Benetton and Calvin Klein? No designer label could conceal the pockmarks and the body that lacked even a hint of athleticism. The lying was worst of all. I lived in an all-male dorm. My two roommates – one from Puerto Rico and the other from a town 40 miles southwest of Boston – griped that slots to the co-ed dorms had all been taken, so there they were. I voiced the same fate. The truth was that I had opted for an all-male boarding situation, motivated by hopes of a boy meets boy romance.

As I spent weekends at my sister’s place to escape the Tufts campus, the People Power Revolution was brewing. My mother wrote of my father’s and her involvement in a letter:

On January 7, the Management Association of the Philippines (Daddy is the president this year), the bishop, Businessman’s Conference, and the Makati Business Club had Cory Aquino as the speaker during their combined meetings at the Intercon. The affair was flashed briefly… A picture came out in the USA Today paper, January 8th. Daddy was in the picture. He gave the closing remarks on that day. Cory’s speech was very good and she intelligently answered questions from the floor… People are clamoring for change that a big number are volunteering to help Aquino. On my part, I volunteered for NAMFREL (National Movement for Free Elections) and we help any way we could. 

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By the end of February, the revolution swelled. The news featured scenes of military helicopters landing on Aquino territory as their pilots renounced allegiance to President Marcos and of citizens that numbered in the millions thronging Manila’s main thoroughfare, Edsa Avenue, the banners they waved and confetti that danced in the air yellow, Aquino’s official color. Suddenly, I was no longer invisible. Guys in my dorm would ask, “What do you think about what’s happening in the Philippines?”

I have no recollection of what I might have answered. In the midst of a personal coming-of-age saga, the current events of the day were the least of my concerns, until the afternoon my Puerto Rican roommate showed me a New York Times picture of Imelda Marcos taken during her husband’s 1965 inauguration. She is pristine in a bubble do and a white gown. Her smile is serene and her eyes are limpid with conquest. I wondered what must have gone through her mind at that instant. A decade earlier, she had been a salesgirl in a music store. Now… “She was beautiful,” my roommate said. She was, indeed. She was also omnipotent and omnipresent. Everyone from high school classmates to my mother’s friends had an Imelda anecdote to tell: Imelda once ordered a Philippine Airline carrier to be available at her disposal, leaving the passengers stranded at the airport; Imelda had reserved two floors at the Waldorf Astoria; Imelda would throw $100-tips to the bellboys.

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I most relished my father’s anecdotes. Malacañang Palace would call our home every so often to extend an invitation to a social function, all of which my father would decline. Nevertheless, Imelda Marcos would summon him for a so-called discussion on the Philippines’ economic state, during which he along with other businessmen would ride in a van to the presidential palace with the first lady as a fellow passenger. She was always seated in an elevated section at the back. “I’d be right in front of her,” my father once told me. “Whenever I turned to say something, I’d be talking to her knees.”

What did I think? I was all for Cory, but Imelda was one colorful character on the par of the evil queen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs-someday-my-prince-will-come/), as comical as a Disney villainess, and because of her, the People Power Revolution bordered on entertainment. The jokes were non-stop: raise Imelda Marcos’s 500 brassieres on a flagstaff and salute, “Erin go bra”; Imelda Marcos makes Marie Antoinette look like a bag lady; Did you hear that Imelda Marcos committed suicide? She piled up all her shoes then jumped.

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And this brings me back to the footwear. I visited Malacañang Palace during vacation from Tufts. A pair of sandals was on display on a pedestal. In transparent platform heels, bulbs flashed with the zaniness of lights in a pinball machine. “Madame’s disco shoes,” the curator said. Ideas of my own purpose in life percolated right there. Adolescent blues, goodbye. They were momentary stuff. The factor intrinsic and everlasting to my being was my identity as a Filipino man. It’s no coincidence that I was born two years after the Marcoses ascended to power. The stories about their exploits became my stories. The nationalism that led to their debacle was in my blood. Write it, I thought. Hence, my calling.

Farrah Fawcett: The Kiss of Providence

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Before Madonna and Princess Diana, Farrah Fawcett was the most famous blonde on the planet. What makes her particularly interesting is that she had harbored no ambition to be a celebrity. Stunning as she was, her pre-“Charlie’s Angels” vocation, though far from simple, would have kept her out of our sight. Fawcett appeared in 1969 on “The Dating Game” as a bachelorette presented with a choice for a date among a trio of bachelors hidden from view behind a wall. The show host introduced her as such: “A former beauty title holder, she creates beauty of her own on canvass and is an accomplished artist and sculptress who hopes to open her own gallery. She’s from Corpus Christi, Texas, and finds relaxation in many outdoor sports. We’re delighted to welcome to ‘The Dating Game’ Farrah Fawcett.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDXZNmoCmBA)

When Bachelor Number 1 was told to greet her a good evening, he asked, “What was the name, please?” Shocking. Fawcett has become so ingrained in pop culture that she needs no introduction. She is as singular to our consciousness as Marilyn, Jackie, and Oprah, women who are identifiable without a surname. Of course, nobody back then could have foreshadowed her future, not even the bachelorette herself. She was just another pretty girl who happened to be on TV, and a rather shy one, besides.

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It’s bewildering that choices seemingly insignificant can result in outcomes that alter the direction of our future. That red bathing suit pinup – the tan, the Colgate smile, the nipples outlined through spandex – was a work of divine intervention. In prepping for the pictorial, Fawcett, who styled her own tresses, wasn’t on a mission to create the signature look of the 1970s, and certainly Bruce McBroom, the man who snapped 40 rolls of film as she lounged by her house pool, didn’t anticipate the best selling babe poster of all time. For whatever reason, the sex symbol of the decade was born, the kind of icon the media exalt with the phrase: “Men want her. Women want to be her.” Had Fawcett opted for a bob, had she worn a towel instead, we might never have heard of her.

Tales of small steps and accidental turns that lead to the summit of Mount Everest tickle our tongues. We imbibe them as our wine. They make us drunk on the hope that we can do it, too. And these tales are ceaseless. Here’s a Fawcett counterpart from a decade earlier. A 16-year-old girl in Neasden, England by the name of Leslie Hornby walked into a salon to have her locks shorn in the fashion of a boy’s cut. A photographer who worked with the salon liked what he saw and asked her to pose for him. “Then I went back to school because that should have been the end of it,” Hornby would reflect over 40 years later. “It was a picture of a haircut.” That might have been the case, only an editor to a journal spotted the picture on the salon wall, asked to meet the model, then printed an article entitled “Twiggy: Face of ’66.” (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/twiggy-the-flowering-of-a-waif/) The title was an understatement. The exposure put an end to high school. London, New York, Vogue, Newsweek… grander things summoned. Twiggy’s face would be synonymous from that moment onward not only with 1966, but also with the other nine years that would encapsulate the mod revolution.

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Hope sustains us, what empowers us to wake each morning and to survive rejection. Our confidence is indomitable. Show business is replete with stories of people whose instinct has told them they’re going to make it. Ali McGraw was a model when called to audition for “Love Story” (1970) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/love-story-love-means/), the mega-hit that would inspire American girls as they matured into motherhood to christen their daughters after her character, making Jennifer the most popular name of 1979. Four years ago, McGraw was interviewed onstage at San Francisco’s Castro Theater in conjunction with a Valentine’s Day screening of the film, and when asked about her experience during the search process for the lead actress, she positioned her hand vertically on the level of her forehead and motioned it closer. “I knew I was going to get the part,” she said. “It was like a train coming towards me.” Lea Salonga, the Philippines’ most distinguished vocal export, recalled at a concert in San Francisco her own gut feeling when, as a 17-year-old college student in Manila studying to be a doctor, she auditioned for the principal role of “Miss Saigon.” The panel of listeners consisted of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, both composers to the musical, and producer Cameron Mackintosh. After she performed for them her rendition of “On My Own” from “Les Miserables,” another musical of their creation, they requested her to sing a song of her choice. That song was “The Greatest Love of All.” Salonga was nervous that the score sheet available at the studio would not be in her key, and then, she said, that as the pianist struck the first note, “I knew my life would never be the same again.”

But at what point are we so drunk that our vision of reality blurs? For every success story, a multitude is about disappointment. I wish I could find the name of the following actress to do her justice. Alas, I cannot despite google’s omniscience, which all the more seals her fate of obscurity. I saw the actress on a TV program in the early millennium about the making of “Red-Headed Woman” (1932). A contract player for MGM Studio, she was up against Jean Harlow for the title role. Though the film was her last shot at stardom, she spoke of her loss with a smile and a laugh. And yet, a cloud passed over her eyes as she uttered that her dreams had been crushed. Warbled voice and creases on face aside, she was that young woman once more, reliving the instant when the news she had dreaded struck a gong in her that she had reached the end of the road in tinsel town.

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Life afterward could not have been bad for the once hopeful to survive the rest of the century in order to tell the tale. Maybe Hollywood was a necessary diversion so that she could discover her true calling. She might have had a family, something that Harlow never had, children and grandchildren to populate a playground, and with longevity, some unpleasant elements, too. For all her joviality, the defeat in her voice could not hide a yearning for an answer to the unanswerable: why does providence shine upon one and not the other?

As history unfolds, we, in turn, ask why the chosen pay for the privilege at such a high price. Jean Harlow died at 26 from kidney failure. In reimbursement for her tenure among us mortals, films with titles such as “Bombshell” (1933) and “Libeled Lady” (1936) memorialize her platinum vamp persona; her hand and foot prints are cemented at Grauman’s Chinese Theater; and in 1960, she was inducted into the Walk of Fame. Her star lies at 6910 Hollywood Boulevard.

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Farrah Fawcett’s own star is at 7057 Hollywood Boulevard. Those of us who witnessed her ascent will never forget the seismic tremor she created across the globe. She was as huge as disco, the skateboard, and puka shells. She was also no fad, remaining in the public eye through the 1980s and beyond, unfortunately not always for reasons becoming to an angel. Her incoherency on “The David Letterman Show” in 1997, lending to speculations that she was drunk and drugged, overshadowed the finesse of her acting in “Murder in Texas” (1981) and “Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story” (1987), while an argument with a lover, director James Orr, led her to smash the windows to his home and him to slam her head onto the driveway as he attempted to choke her.

Fawcett’s last act was cancer. How the disease knocked her to the ground, three years of agony and ultimate defeat. Nevertheless, she did not fight her battle in vain, and in this she found her redemption. At heaven’s gate, having earned her wings, Farrah Fawcett left us with a gift as compelling as her smile – a documentary to inspire all to die with dignity, for our end will come soon enough, no matter how strong and beautiful we are. Until then, we must continue to hope and dream and to believe in our life choices. All this has got to amount to something.

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“Flesh and the Devil”: The Sound of an Original

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“When the devil cannot reach us through the spirit, he creates a woman beautiful enough to reach us through the flesh.”

The temptress imputed above is Greta Garbo in the motion picture that catapulted her to international renown, “Flesh and the Devil” (1927). She is Felicitas, a countess who seduces to her boudoir a soldier on furlough by the name of Leo von Harden (John Gilbert). The tryst results in the death of Count von Rhaden (Marc McDermott) in a duel between husband and paramour. As Leo is recalled to duty, he promises Felicitas marriage upon the completion of his service, only for her to give her hand to his best friend, the irresistibly rich Ulrich von Eltz (Lars Hanson). Leo is pissed; however, not for long because no man is immune to the wiles of Garbo, and this puts him in the position of Judas to his childhood blood brother. “Aren’t you afraid of what she may do to you a second time?” the family pastor (George Fawcett) asks Leo, though not before his warning about Satan’s legerdemain to possess a man through the groin. Leo does not answer. He doesn’t care.

We, too, are speechless and in heat, no matter that it is now the 2010s. The media’s remembrance of Greta Garbo upon her passing in 1990, 49 years after she had renounced Hollywood to become history’s most famous recluse, already assured her place in the galaxy as an indestructible star. “She’s sexy,” a friend said with the excitement of a teen presented a Porsche. He was 40. “She has boobs.” I was in Paris for my second year, having returned after my junior year there followed by my final term back at Tufts University to get my degree. Since the French have a high regard of film actors as artists, the attention given to Garbo was such that she might as well had been a national hero. “Queen Christina” (1933) was the tribute film aired on TV and the one which caused Quito to gush. As the title character, Garbo in 17th century negligee, an Adrian creation of chiffon that silhouettes her mannequin lankiness, walks around a chamber, gazing at and caressing a bedpost, a spindle, a painting as if they were parts of a lover’s anatomy. “I’ve been memorizing this room. In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room,” she sighs to the man (John Gilbert) to whom she has surrendered her heart. “How romantic,” Quito said.

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The most iconic moment is the last, that close-up of Garbo as she stands at a ship’s aft, hair windswept, unflinching eyes focused on the distance. A bar in Paris had a wall of TV monitors that each featured news announcements from different countries, in different languages, of Garbo’s death. All ended in synchronization to the actress’s image in the conclusion to “Queen Christina.” The camera adored her. The press in her heyday had nicknamed her “The Face.” The face aged splendidly. My French tutor said of Greta Garbo that she had a look recognizable in the present, be it on the street or on the metro, at the Champs Elysees or at the Garnier Opera. We were perusing a Garbo memorial issue of Elle magazine. Garbo in beret, Garbo in flapper hat, Garbo in a bob… in every photograph, the woman exuded the timelessness of style.

Nobody could have predicted during the making of “Flesh and the Devil” the legend the Swedish Sphinx would become. When she had arrived in Hollywood, MGM didn’t know what to do with her. Studio head, Louis B. Mayer, ordered her to lose weight, scolding, “In America, men don’t like fat women.” The publicity department then promoted her as the modern athletic female before tailoring her into the archetype that would be her trademark – a European exotic, one whose sculptural features and imperial carriage harken the heroine of a 19th century roman à clef, an ice princess, her façade turned to jelly in the heat of passion. This anachronism was a hit with audiences, and through the 1930s, on account of America’s need to escape the Depression, her heavy accent in talkies all the more captured a hankering for romance and chivalry.

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Jacqueline Kennedy would be a phenomenon three decades later for a similar reason. A rare bird fluent in French, her debutante and finishing school background anomalous to the average American, Mrs. Kennedy was initially considered a liability to her husband while on the campaign trail. But he won the presidency, and as first lady, she touched the public as youth and class personified, an ideal that young women could look up to and young men could hope for in a wife. No need for a European import. That Jackie was one of us made America believe that this land has its own monuments to parallel the Neuschwanstein Castle.

Now for a real anomaly that became a hit in America, there’s the wonder called Bruce Lee. He was Asian. He was short. He fought karate. And he became a superstar. As Kato in “The Green Hornet” TV series, he so upstaged his Caucasian co-star, Van Williams, that the big screen was inevitable, all of which showcased his mastery in the martial arts. With his flying fists and killer kicks, Lee singlehandedly destroyed pervasive Asian stereotypes of geek and pidgin English speaking Charlie Chan types who spout fortune cookie phrases. “Always be yourself,” he once said. “Express yourself. Have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”

Garbo and Jackie themselves lived by this creed, surmounting detractors to rise above the crowd as originals. It isn’t easy. We’re all encouraged to conform. When I started writing, the advice frequently given to me was to research the publishing market then to pen something that adheres to the trend. I refused. My conviction has perpetually been to write on a subject I care about, to create a story distinctly my own, whatever the latest fad, because only in this would sincerity reflect in my words. Audience, money, and recognition will follow, for people always respond to matters of the heart. An instructor in a fiction course I took at the Berkeley extension agreed: “If you want to be remembered, write something that isn’t out there.”

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Here is another Bruce Lee dictum: “One does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity.” This sums up a large part of Greta Garbo’s enigma and that of Jacqueline Kennedy, as well. Garbo never attended any of her film premieres, granted few interviews, and eluded the paparazzi, donning dark glasses just as her first lady counterpart would later do, she whom Oleg Cassini, a former Hollywood couturier, dressed in clothes of pure lines and zero ornamentation to create the aura of a silent screen star. Neither woman is notorious for excess. On the contrary, their reticence and minimalism so piqued our imagination that we will forever wonder what they truly thought of themselves for all they had witnessed and experienced as crucial players in some of the 20th century’s defining events.

Sealed lips can certainly be a virtue. How often I have been told to refrain from loquaciousness. Readers would rather decipher the emotions transmitted in a story rather than to be told what to feel. It’s like love. Love can’t be forced on us. Love grows in the way a budding flower is nourished to bloom. This is why Greta Garbo is unforgettable. In a single blink she conveys love’s essence, and we are transfixed.

“A Streetcar Named Desire”: Forever Young

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“You don’t see acting like that anymore, not nowadays,” my sister once marveled. She was speaking of Vivien Leigh’s performance as Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951). I was a senior in high school, while my sister had come home to Manila for a year after having graduated college in New York. The two of us with our mother would watch betamax tapes of studio era classics, and “A Streetcar Named Desire” was requisite viewing, masterpiece that it is. I have seen it on a few more occasions ever since. True to the movie’s stature, the fusion of story, star power, and talent grows more outstanding with each passing decade, a rarity among the CGI-generated spectacles of the second millennium, all produced for the consumption of an audience medicated on Adderall.

For those who have witnessed Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski melt the screen, he a creature of brawn, sweat, and swagger, you understand his effect on a young me as a beast that offsets an aging Southern belle. Blanche herself dubs him a “subhuman animal,” which is precisely what makes him irresistible. The way she scopes his torso as he throws off a perspiration-drenched tee speaks of a crippling desire. She can barely contain herself. “I was played out. You know what played out is? My youth was suddenly gone up the water-spout,” she cries when the truth of her leaving Mississippi for New Orleans to stay with sister, Stella (Kim Hunter), and Stella’s husband, Stanley, surfaces. The denizens of Auriol have driven Blanche out. A woman of ill repute, she would ensnare men to a motel she shacked up in, after which her livelihood as a high school teacher was terminated due to a scandal that involved a minor. Back then, the ephebophilia went over my head. I was 17. Now…

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“I’m at a strange age,” I told my friend, Wendy. “I don’t know whether to feel young or old.” I turn 49 this month, January. Withal back cramps and knee stiffness from hours of sitting sedentary in an office, I weight train four days a week, boast a full set of naturally black hair on my head, and walk with agility. I’ve been told that I could pass for my thirties, and compared to my contemporaries, I am a kid, wrinkles none. Although I’m flattered at the dismay folks express at my age, the inconsistency of my actual years to my appearance frustrates me. I sense I’m a fraud whenever guys I meet a decade or more my junior assume I am a contemporary. I don’t dare mention the truth. Sensitive as women on the subject, we gay men are insensitive on hook-up sites about our discrimination against mature men. (“Young guys only. You know who you are… No fats. No fems. No oldies…”) If I am young, it is to someone who is at minimum age a septuagenarian. To my statement that I feel like a dirty old man when eying a vicenarian, Wendy said, “You are.”

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Strange age, indeed. Take my gym buddy, Ed, who celebrates his birthday every October. Ed was born in 1966. He is 12 years his boyfriend’s senior, and based on the two years he and Julian have been dating, he swears that a generation gap need not be a factor for a couple in love. He also advises that I play around while I’ve still got the wares to catch a fellow’s eye. In other words, I am near the end of my shelf life. I’ve had a long run so far, one that far exceeds Blanche DuBois’s. Vivien Leigh was 35 when she starred in the stage production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at London’s West End, 37 in the Hollywood film version. Since she was cast to play Tennessee Williams’s most troubled heroine, we can assume Blanche is within Leigh’s age range, and like Leigh, she remains lovely. A magnolia delicacy along with a flourish of the hand to recitations of poetry charm Mitch (Karl Malden). Mitch is unique among Stanley’s group of poker cads. He is urbane and complimentary, a gentleman in a fedora hat who courts Blanche with dinner, music, and flowers. They are on their way to the altar, until Blanche has a nervous breakdown. “Let’s turn the light on here,” Mitch threatens. “I don’t mind you being older than what I thought, but all the rest of it… Christ!”

Blanche has been lying about her past and she’s been concealing her age. I may not have a shady history that needs a glossing over, but I am guilty of the latter. I used to quote my birth year at some years south so that I could be permitted into bars. Then I switched to quoting it at some years north. Now on certain online sites I block the information. So I have encounters with guys of the “like awesome like” generation. Once the moment is over, it is over. No harm done. A date, however, is something else. In this, I am no fabricator; I believe in honesty. The instant I sense a rapport, I declare that I’m in my late forties. Men have responded favorably, no matter that I don’t fall into the age criteria stipulated on their profiles. Herein is the irony: none of them might have rung my doorbell had I been upfront about being close to 50. Then again, they never asked, and because they never asked, I never told. That I should take the initiative to lay my cards on the table has garnered me points. If I had lost, it would have been worth the risk. Love is too fragile of a gift to be earned with a lie.

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Blanche DuBois’s fate serves as a cautionary tale. Her deceptions chew her to threads and swallow her in one gulp like lion’s meat. What loneliness. What unfulfilled longings. The Southern belle of aristocratic lineage and exquisite beauty could have had it all. More tragic is Vivien Leigh’s own fate. The actress would later say that playing Blanche “tipped me over into madness.” She so identified with the role that in film projects that followed, she would slip into Blanche’s character and speak lines from the Tennessee Williams piece. She was institutionalized for schizophrenia and bipoliarism, during which she received electric shock treatments that scarred her temples, and with her marriage to Laurence Olivier having ended in divorce, she indulged in sexual relations with sailors and cab drivers, the kindness of strangers her only solace.

Of course, dirty old whatever is a matter of individual. For these couples, age takes the back seat to love: Humphrey Bogart (born in 1899) and Lauren Bacall (born in 1924); Carlo Ponti (born in 1912) and Sophia Loren (born in 1934); Robert Wolders (born in 1936) and Audrey Hepburn (born in 1929). They were together through ailment, separating only in death, and thus silenced skeptics on the pairing of naiveté and wisdom. Their counterparts today are Percy Gibson (born in 1965) and Joan Collins (born in 1933). “You go, girl,” was posted all over Facebook upon news of their nuptials. I admit that I didn’t think they would last. “She’s rich and famous. She can buy any young bloke she wants,” I posted to a friend. Collins and Gibson have been married 13 years. No fluke, those two. Now lest I forget, here’s a duo that lists as one of my favorites, Christopher Isherwood (born in 1904) and Don Bachardy (born in 1934). Slightly over 30 years apart, the author and the teen met at a Los Angeles beach party. Isherwood was 49. Bachardy was three months shy of his 19th birthday. The attraction was instantaneous, Bachardy would say in a documentary that chronicles the magnetism of their union, “Chris and Don: A Love Story” (2008). With one kiss, they embarked on a voyage that lasted over three decades.

The irony in “A Streetcar Named Desire” is that our heroine isn’t really that old nor would she ever be. She is immortal as Vivien Leigh at the zenith of the actress’s creative prowess, skin as incandescent as ever and eyes crystalline hypnotic, a candle that blazes the screen. “I don’t want realism,” Blanche says. “I want magic.” She achieves this, her deepest desire. As the cardinal force in a story that defies death, Blanche DuBois is forever young.

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Tom Cruise: The Art of Survival

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Here’s the thing about Tom Cruise – I was never a fan. Too much of anything can be counterproductive, and Cruise is one dude who has had too much of everything. Too much typecasting. Too much big budget Hollywood flicks. Too much Scientology. He’s handsome and wholesome, which has garnered him roles as the boy next door (“All the Right Moves” (1983)); the idealist, short of a red cape, who throws punches in defense of the democratic principle of truth and justice, the American way (“A Few Good Men” (1992)); and every male archetype from a pool hustler (“The Color of Money” (1986)) to a race car driver (“Days of Thunder” (1990)). When he plays angry, he yells. When he plays happy, he smiles. He’s got to. That smile is his calling card, teeth the white and evenness of piano keys and dimples as arresting as a pebble drop in still waters.

Tom Cruise was made for the camera. We know what to expect of him. His very predictability rakes in the dough, no matter the scandals. His attack of Brooke Shields for her use of drugs to treat postpartum depression (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/brooke-shields-the-prettiest-baby-of-all/) and estrangement from daughter, Suri, and ex-wife, Katie Holmes, both instances of which his association with Scientology have functioned as a factor, have led us to wonder if the guy is all together up there. Nonetheless, we can’t stop looking at him. “Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation” (2015) would never have been my choice for a Sunday matinee, but when a friend mentioned it, I couldn’t say no.

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I was impressed. I have to applaud Tom Cruise his staying power. The “Mission Impossible” franchise is action-packed entertainment, and it is reported that Cruise performs his own stunts. In the latest installment, he clings to the side of a plane as it takes off, duels with a sniper on rafters high above the stage of the Vienna State Opera, and holds his breath for six minutes in a metal vortex filled with water. To remain top billing, an actor needs to reinvent oneself. Cruise seems to have found his opportunity to do so by impressing us with his derring-do in one breakneck scene after another. No mere excuse to show off, the stunts are in keeping with the character of espionage agent, Ethan Hunt. They have also become characteristic of the actor himself. Cruise didn’t start out as an action star. Somewhere along the path of his career, he became one. That this should happen to him at the stage in life when theater marquees give way to younger names provides those of us who came of age in the 1980s someone to emulate. Tom Cruise as a role model… this is one impossible mission accomplished for which he deserves an award.

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“When did Tom Cruise turn 40?” a co-worker once asked in disbelief. “How did that even happen?” When did any of us ever turn 40? In 1985, I was a senior in high school. Tom Cruise had just crossed the threshold of fame with “Risky Business” (1983). He was a kid and looked it, too, with cheeks pudgy and body half-man, half-boy. A classmate one day during recess said, “I like being young in the ‘80s. This is the best era.” I agreed because it was indeed mind-blowing to be in the frontier of technological developments and pop culture breakthroughs. The Walkman deafened us to the yakking of our parents, and computers were introducing new words to our daily lexicography. The Virgin Mary was no longer the only Madonna revered, and Tom Cruise would strike the moon right in the eye a year later with “Top Gun” (1986). We stood at the forefront of the second millennium, googly eyed in our youth and optimism.

The ‘80s hasn’t quite ended. Nowadays we are googly eyed with nostalgia for the decade. Its optimism lacks in the 2010s, this era of drones and suicide bombers who detonate in concert stadiums. We had Glasnost, the system of civil communication between the Soviet Union and the United States, two world powers until then rivals, which thawed the three-decade Cold War, and AIDS victims had a chance at survival upon the introduction of the first HIV antiretroviral medication. Prosperity was in the horizon. Cinema today bows to the ‘80s. “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010) is one such film. Silly as it is in its plot of middle-aged sybarites in a jacuzzi that transports them 30 years back so that they could relive their youth, it captures the party spirit tangential to big hair, cell phones the size of a blackboard eraser, and fluorescent everything – from sneakers to magazine fonts, from lipstick to key chains. The 1980s was, without match, a decade that dazzled with the colors of a Rubik’s Cube. (http://www.rafsy.com/art-of-storytelling/eighties-eruption-reflections-on-a-dazzling-decade/)

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Today we’ve got a terrorist color chart. Among the shades are toothpaste blue for guarded alert, mango yellow for high, and jelly bean red for severe. Never did we imagine that the tinctures of the most ubiquitous objects would someday breed fear. To parlay mass tension into entertainment, Hollywood has given us 3D viewing. This is what it is to be in the midst of mayhem. Fires ingurgitate buildings with the force of a tornado. Guns blast brains to smithereens. Rubble and guts come hurling at us. However, we need not dread for long. Look at who’s fighting on our side – Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis… and our indispensable Maverick. Though advanced in age, they’re still going strong, and with Cruise at 53 the most junior of the lot and the one who commands the most headlines, he’s the leader of the pack. For the duration that he jumps at us from the big screen, we can pretend that the world has a chance at once more being a better place. We are young again.

No small feat, this celluloid heroism. It vindicates the man. That Cruise continues to rule the box office italicizes one important fact, that whatever bad press he has been getting is for the moment. The gossip mill will stop to churn as it did for Charlie Chaplin, Ingrid Bergman, and Lana Turner (statutory rape, adultery, and murder with regards to each respectively), and Tom Cruise will be remembered for what he does best – the art or survival through the making of motion pictures.

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“Sixteen Candles”: It Just Hurts

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In a People magazine article circa 1987 that paired the stars of the day with their Hollywood counterparts of the past, Lillian Gish was identified as the predecessor of Molly Ringwald. The two were supposed to be photographed together and involved in a joint interview. For whatever reason, Ringwald was a no show, which led the silent screen grand dame to comment on the lack of respect youngsters demonstrate for their elderlies. (“I guess she doesn’t care because I’m old.”) The article turned into a monologue by Gish – her remembrances of a fledgling film industry in New York, where boarding houses displayed signs that stated “no dogs or actors allowed,” and of her first meeting with D.W. Griffith, for whom she would lie on a slab of ice with her hand and hair in freezing water during the filming of “Way Down East” (1920), causing permanent damage to two fingers. Had the missing company been present, Gish might never have mentioned such memories, each one a gem to film apostles.

I myself was never a Molly Ringwald fan. She was too cute, too Pollyanna, for my taste, and a tad bit whiny. This had never been Gish’s public persona. Mary Pickford would have been a more suitable match, only Pickford had been dead since 1979, half a decade before “Sixteen Candles” (1984) delegated Ringwald America’s sweetheart, and although Pickford herself had been Pollyanna onscreen, that she is of another era allowed me to appreciate her from a historical perspective. Ringwald, she was more the girl on the Tufts University campus we guys joked about – all glossy lipstick and hairspray, pretty enough but high maintenance. She was also full of excuses. Gish later received a note from the teen explaining the absence: she banged her hand against a door in her rush to leave, needed to ice the injury, couldn’t find a cab, and had the wrong address. Rather than legitimizing forgiveness, the string of alibis reinforced her guilt. Why didn’t Ringwald call for a taxi? Get information on the right location from her agent? Cell phones may not have existed then, but phone booths sure did. They were on every other block along with the yellow and the white pages dangling from a cord.

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America’s most darling carrot top might be flinching at the memory; in slightly over two years, she hits the half-century mark. I think she’s earned the right to be forgiven. Hey, that’s adolescence. Now that three decades have passed since my first viewing of “Sixteen Candles,” I am able to confer Molly Ringwald her position in cinema as I have Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. I’ve developed affection for her, too. “Sixteen Candles” has stood the test of time. For those such as myself who were that age when it was raking in the plaudits of a box office smash, it lives as something that was young when we were young and that over the years has become a mirror in which we see a reflection of ourselves getting older. The poodle do, over-sized earrings, and high-top Reeboks might be cause for personal embarrassment, and we may identify a box TV in that scene and a 16-ounce Coke bottle in this as former fixtures in our homes, but the story remains as fresh as a first love.

Who doesn’t go through what Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) does? She’s turning 16. Nobody remembers her birthday because they’re wrapped up in preparations for her sister’s wedding. Worse yet, she’s developed feelings she can’t control. The source of her daytime abstractions and bedtime tears is no ordinary guy. He’s Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), and what a torment the dreamboat is. With a GQ model cast in his role, Jake is the exemplary tall, dark, and handsome boy-next-door. My sister’s friend described his impact best during the summer of ’84, when I was vacationing in New York and “Sixteen Candles” was generating lines to the ticket booth: “If I look at him any more, I’m gonna cry.”

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The scene where Samantha sobs to her dad, Jim (Paul Dooley), continues to activate my own waterspout to this day. She’s been consigned to the sofa in the family den (my lot whenever relatives visited) since an aunt (Billie Bird) and an uncle (Edward Andrews) are occupying her room. Jim notices her agitation. Alas, she vents her grievance. She sees herself as a “ridiculous dork” who follows Jake around “like a puppy,” and she grumbles over what chance she’s got with a guy who’s so flawless that he’s got a girlfriend (Haviland Morris) equally as flawless. Samantha is in such a state that it’s debasing the one guy who wants her is Geek (Anthony Michael Hall), a scrawny number with braces that flash upon every cocky smirk. So slimy is Geek that he steals Samantha’s panties (how, I don’t remember; perverts always find a way to commit such atrocities), and he brandishes it as a victory flag in the boy’s room for other guys to glimpse at for a fee. Jim’s words are as follows: “Well, if it’s any consolation, I love you. And if this guy can’t see in you all the beautiful and wonderful things that I see, then he’s got the problem.”

Cliché, for sure. When I was new to San Francisco and I would express my chagrin to friends over a romantic letdown, they supplied me with their own version of Jim Baker’s line: “It’s his loss.” Baloney. It’s the guy’s loss only when he knows that it’s his loss. I’m the rejected dork, not him, so it’s my loss and mine alone. Maybe had my own father dispensed Jim’s words, my reaction would have been different. My father is one man who loves me unconditionally, my faults included, and who has experienced since I learned to walk and talk every one of my virtues. For this reason, Samantha is in a more fortunate position than I have ever been. And yet, a father’s support doesn’t alleviate the burden of a heart breaking for the first time. As anybody would do who has a sibling of the same gender that’s a knockout, Samantha compares herself to her sister, Ginny (Blanche Baker), she of the dizzy blonde mold: “But if I were Ginny, I’d have this guy crawling on his knees.” Here we see why Molly Ringwald has to be our Samantha Baker. No fox is Ringwald, but in the wrenching honesty and the magnitude for giving with which she portrays Samantha, she’s our winner. “It just hurts,” she says.

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At last, Jim rises above cliché: “That’s why they call them crushes. If they were easy, they’d call ‘em something else.” We can end right there. How does a scriptwriter top that? Still, there’s the issue of Ginny, and we can’t leave it hanging; it’s a big one. Neither can Samantha, and this Jim knows because he’s Dad: “Sometimes I worry about her. When you’re given things kind of easily, you don’t always appreciate them. With you, I’m not worried. When it happens to you, Samantha, it’ll be forever.”

Forever. That word. A hyperbole it may be, yet what importance it holds. Forever is a vow we make at the altar. We utter it in solitary moments to the one we hold in our thoughts and into the ear we have often caressed with our lips. Forever is a conviction the first swelling of the heart conditions in us because no matter how many blows to the heart in the years to come, we continue to believe that someone was made for us with whom we could work towards a splice of immortality. We never quite outgrow being 16. Physicists have sparked debates among us over the Higgs boson. We have theories surrounding the end of the world and the eradication of the universe. Facts available on the internet have made us smarter, some of us so smart that we’re able to predict the stock market. But when a Jake Ryan crashes into our lives like a meteor, all this braininess amounts to nothing. We find ourselves sitting up in bed in the wee hours of the morning, our mind, body, and soul in a jumble.

It just hurts.

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