“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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“Love and Mercy”: The Angst of Genius

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California conjures sun and sand, Speedos and surfboards, and yearlong summers high on weed. Girls are blonde. Guys are buffed. Flip-flops drag on pavements, and tank tops show off tans. It’s a utopia of indolence. Ever since the Gold Rush, the American West has been portrayed as the epicenter of bacchanalia. When the earthquake and fire of 1906 razed San Francisco, the East Coast old guards tagged the destruction a retribution for the city’s fabled whore houses, and 60 years later, the land where the Golden Gate shines was again the subject of judgment for its Flower Power Movement. Protesters of the Vietnam War wielded peace signs in the sky. Hippies packed streets, jobless and strung out on acid. Somewhere in the pandemonium, a new sound was born, music that was a scream for rebellion, though not with the brand of activism associated with the tunes of Bob Dylan. For The Beach Boys, being young was a dance by the ocean. “I Get Around,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Surfer Girl,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun”… the song titles alone intimate the spirit of effervescence. Don’t let the frivolity fool you. Brian Wilson, songwriter and lead singer to the band, went through angst to create all that we hear today as The Beach Boys.

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“Love and Mercy” (2015) chronicles to what degree Wilson struggled with both mental and emotional ailments, and they were intense. We’re talking child abuse and hallucinations. As a boy, he lives in a house where violence echoes within its walls. His father, Murry (Bill Camp), would punch him senseless, sometimes in the ear, which leads to his being partially deaf, and later, as a rock n’ roll legend, Wilson falls under the influence of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who pumps him with pills meant to medicate his alleged schizophrenia when, in truth, he is of sound mind. The drugs are a method of manipulation, allowing Landy access to the musician’s will for him to amend so that he would be the inheritor of a massive estate. “Love and Mercy” alternates between a young (Paul Dano) and a middle-aged (John Cusack) Brian Wilson. This so we see that despite the years of treachery, his star ascends and his genius evolves, proof that creative diligence cannot be squelched.

For those of us who lacerate over a part of ourselves that we’d like to share with the world, “Love and Mercy” offers assurance. To make greatness look easy isn’t easy. So deceptive is the effort that the most profound message can come in the sparest package. It’s like a diamond ring in a small box versus a vacuum cleaner in a big box. As the Brian Wilson biopic shows, The Beach Boys repertoire was a product of grueling hours in the recording studio, Wilson’s genius notwithstanding. One scene has Wilson perfecting the string instrumentals to “Good Vibrations,” the musicians driven to exhaustion by his whip cracking of “again… again… again…” and in another, he proves that more than lyrics to a pop/rock number, the words “good vibrations” encompass a life philosophy when he cancels a session because the venue gives him bad vibes, a decision that costs him $5,000 for each musician present. A poignant moment occurs with a backup player. The man claims to have performed with the best, including Sinatra, but it is the numero uno Beach Boy whom he considers “touched”; Wilson is a vessel of melody, one of such transcendent talent that he stands above the others in a category of his own. Still, our hero works his ass off.

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This creed of applying our all to produce the best that we can by the grace of simplicity has been ingrained in me over the years as a writing student. In high school in the Philippines, I suffered from verbal diarrhea. I wrote essays that were a jumble of highfalutin words plucked from the Thesaurus, believing that only by simulating the tone of a 19th century scrivener was I able to create anything of substance. I suppose this happens to all of us once we discover the command of words, especially when the reading syllabus consists of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. The denseness of language might have worked during their time; journals that serialized their writings paid them by the word. For my generation and my culture, and for the sake of being myself, subscribing to the dictum “less is more” would have been to my advantage. College ultimately taught me to trust in my own voice, which presented its own set of difficulties. What a hard task it is to scratch off all the guck in order for me to surface. I’ve often been stuck with a paragraph that has left me in doubt of whatever message I’m attempting to impart. This is why workshops and seminars exist. Even then, they offer no solution given the number of attendees, each with one’s own opinion. Writing remains a stumping experience.

Herein lies Brian Wilson’s gift. A tune needs to be catchy, its accompanying lyrics quick to pick up yet reflective of ourselves, a story of a universal emotion:

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, then we wouldn’t have to wait so long. And wouldn’t it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belong… Maybe if we think and hope and pray, it might come true. Baby, then there wouldn’t be a single thing we couldn’t do. We could be married and then we’d be happy. Wouldn’t it be nice. You know it seems the more we talk about it, it only makes it worse to live without it, but let’s talk about it. Wouldn’t it be nice. Good night, my baby. Sleep tight, my baby.

No space for verbal diarrhea here. The hankering of a young couple to be free to love is straightforward, infused with a desperation that invokes Romeo and Juliet. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/romeo-and-juliet-till-death-and-beyond/) “Good night” and “sleep tight” seem to allude to an eternal union in another world. Whoever thought a commonplace nightly greeting could bear such an implication?

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The challenge of composing a simple and memorable song is tantamount to the challenge a novelist faces in composing a simple and memorable first sentence. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins Vladimir Nabokov begins in “Lolita” and in so doing introduces us to a story of lewd and emotional obsession. In “Love in the Time of Cholera,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, rather like a ship captain detailing in one breath the course of a voyage, wastes no time in filling us in on the 350-page journey to follow: It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. Here’s one first sentence so elementary that any of us could speak and write it at any moment: In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn. This belongs to William Styron in “Sophie’s Choice.” Plain as it is, it sets the stage for a tale of madness, passion, and suicide surprising even to the narrator given that the tragedy happens in a neighborhood we more associate with domestic monotony than with drama.

“Love and Mercy” sheds insight into the mind of an innovator and an artist, and it is frightening to see what cruelty Wilson endured. He reached his zenith with “Good Vibrations” in 1966, after which he spiraled into a pit of drugs and alcohol, culminating in 17 years under Dr. Eugene Landy’s thumb from 1975 to 1992. Wilson could have spent the rest of his life in the shadow of his former glory if not for Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a car salesgirl in whom Landy meets his match; she slaps him with a subpoena upon discovering Wilson’s papers that the doctor has been counterfeiting.

Ledbetter and the genius have now been married for 20 years. Though the man always had drive, through his wife’s love and mercy, he resumed his creative calling. Brian Wilson continues to write songs to this day, and just as it was when The Beach Boys were a chart topper, his productivity is a matter of labor.

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“Bus Stop”: Stardom in the Hollywood Night

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Here’s a familiar story:

Chérie (Marilyn Monroe) is a saloon singer from the outback with a big dream. Her destination is Hollywood. To earn money so that she could complete her journey, she has taken a detour in Phoenix, Arizona. With the one exception that automobiles now own the streets in lieu of carts and carriages, Phoenix in the 1950s hasn’t developed much since the days of the Wild West. It remains a red neck county where men behave like men. Chérie’s boss bullies her. Her audience ignores her. The siren’s sexiness has run dry with the regulars. But she’s got nothing else to offer. Dressed as a mermaid in black net stockings, she performs “That Old Black Magic” with a voice that sounds more like the whining of a four-legged bitch than the treble of a chanteuse. Enter Bo (Don Murray), a yokel from Montana. He participates in a rodeo, where he rides a galloping bronco and lassoes goats, and because Chérie’s bosom wiggling the previous night at the salon upstages her inability to carry a note, he decides he wants Chérie for a wife, so he lassoes her, too, as he spots her at a bus terminal attempting to run away from him. That’s not how to catch a lady, Chérie tells him; ask with respect. Bo does, and Chérie gets what she has absolutely wanted all along – love and respect.

It’s no coincidence that Marilyn Monroe is Chérie. Although “Bus Stop” (1956) could be any girl’s story, it is specifically that of its star. How many articles have been written about Marilyn Monroe infuriated with studio heads over their disrespect of her? How many about her emotional frailty? About her? Too many. Whenever we read about Monroe, the word “vulnerable” is certain to appear. To be called such isn’t flattering in this age of feminism. No matter. When it comes to our movie goddesses of the studio system, politics fall to the wayside. Vulnerability is the quality that makes the most memorable of them – from Louise Brooks to Deborah Kerr – reach out to us from across the generations. “Hold me. I’m lonely just like you,” they declare with pleading eyes and trembling lips for the two hours that they are resurrected on the screen. We can’t resist. Nobody has ever said no to the pull of beauty. What makes Monroe’s irresistibility perdurable is that she wasn’t altogether acting. We all know her life story. What a mess.

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I’ve seen many Marilyn Monroe films, but “Bus Stop” is my favorite, and it seems to be those of other Monroe viewers, as well. “She just shines in it,” I overheard a girl say in art class when I was still in college at Tufts University. She was conversing with another girl, and though both stated that they weren’t fond of the actress, in this movie, they saw she possessed something. In a film and society course I was enrolled in that same semester, the instructor honed in on the scene in “Bus Stop” where Chérie expresses her ideal mate to a fellow female passenger: “l want a guy l can look up to and admire, but l don’t want him to browbeat me. l want a guy who’ll be sweet with me, but l don’t want him to baby me either. l just gotta feel it. Whoever l marry has some real regard for me aside from all that loving stuff.” The instructor’s lecture was on the pertinence of a role in establishing the image of a star. “Bus Stop,” he said, is pure Marilyn – the loneliness, the idealism, the desperation to be viewed as something deeper than an object.

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Drag queens glee in playing Marilyn Monroe. They don a platinum wig, pucker red lips, and half close their eyes in bedroom sultriness. They wear a pink gown reminiscent of Monroe’s rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953) or a white dress a replica of the one she made famous in that moment in “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), where air that emits from a passing train beneath a subway grate sends its skirt billowing above the knees. They vamp. They lip sync. They ham up the gyration of the derriere and tilt of the head. I do not find their parodies entertaining. While it can be a salute to an actress to be so iconic that she is a favorite of female impersonators, when done to an excess, the parodies detract from her value. It would be impossible for camp to capture the profoundness of the Marilyn Monroe who said this: “I used to think as I looked out on the Hollywood night, There must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me dreaming of being a movie star. But I’m not going to worry about them. I’m dreaming the hardest.” (https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/marilyn_monroe_499735)

I first came across the quote 25 years ago while browsing a coffee table book on Monroe. The anthem of every aspiring artist, it has stuck with me ever since. I know the kind of night she refers to. I would have them when strolling across the Tufts campus on a weekend, everyone except me on one’s way to this dorm party or that, and on the steps of the Sacré Coeur when I lived in Paris, with the cathedral domes in front of me shaped like gargantuan white turbans radiant in the evening sky. I miss those nights. Nothing about the future is impossible in our teens and twenties. My name on a book binding and my profile on a book jacket were a certainty. Not that my confidence has abated; it has merely been put to the test with age. Someone who had worked in a literary agency told me that even representation by an agent doesn’t guarantee publication; only 5% get a book out. My response was that I don’t give a damn about the 95% that don’t make it. Otherwise, why even bother with this? Until I am a part of this select group, I gaze in the late hours at the wide expanse of stars and wisps of lavender clouds, and I hope.

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Chérie in “Bus Stop” may not have reached Hollywood, though that’s because she finds something better – a man who sees her as an angel despite her admission to having been around the block. That’s Monroe right there, a sex symbol in search of a guy who could love her as Norman Jean, only the actress’s dreams were too grand for her to dismiss, which is why she speaks to our ambitious nature. Monroe got what she wanted. As evidenced by what happened to her, superstardom isn’t everything glossy magazines and tabloids hype it up to be. Still, we want her dreams for ourselves, regardless of the danger entailed or the lives imperiled. Bad luck aside, the end result is undeniable: Marilyn Monroe is immortal.

Gene Tierney: A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

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When Otto Preminger offered Gene Tierney the lead to “Laura” (1944), she told him he was making a mistake. The film is about a detective who falls in love with the portrait of a New York socialite whose purported murder he is investigating. For the image of a woman to be that entrancing, the script demanded an actress of outstanding beauty, which Tierney felt she was not. She suggested Hedy Lamarr. With her European exoticism, Lamarr was compared to Greta Garbo, which would not have deemed her entirely right as Laura, complimentary as the comparison was. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/flesh-and-the-devil-the-sound-of-an-original/) Laura is American, as was Tierney, and like Laura, Tierney was an East Coast Brahmin. She had attended boarding school in Switzerland followed by Miss Porter’s, spoke fluent French, and had dated a war hero by the name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. She was also more beautiful than she gave herself credit for. Directors being the dictators that they are, Preminger was adamant with his offer. Lucky for us.

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Because it’s Tierney, we see why detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) can’t get a night’s sleep. What happened to the girl next door? he wonders. In inquiring the victim’s friends and relations about her life, McPherson attaches a story to the face above the hearth, and it’s a very American story: through connections that a combination of looks and brains garners, a starry-eyed youngster fresh off the bus rises above the crowd, her gowns slinky and her home a jewel box of a flat with furniture visions of pink and peach even when in cinema black and white. Nothing otherworldly about Laura. She could have been McPherson’s high school sweetheart. Girls from Alaska to Wyoming migrate year round to a megalopolis across the coast to have what she’s got. And it’s the ultimate tribute that when the girl is gone, men are still falling in love with her. One real-life Laura, Marilyn Monroe, regarded the film her favorite of all. Monroe had watched it at least 15 times. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/bus-stop-stardom-in-the-hollywood-night/) Over 50 years after her nude body was found lifeless from an overdose of sleeping pills, every written word, movie, and TV exposé on her continues to be a valentine.

How aberrant it is to be stuck on someone who is now ashes in an urn or in repose in a coffin. Is that even love? To admire a portrait on a wall or in a magazine is one thing… at least we know we are merely drawn to the comeliness of an image, and one most likely altered by the sleight of a paint brush or a camera… but when we decipher words to the image, the secrets behind those lips and the dreams behind those eyes, then we have a person. Affection arises; however, at our own risk. Whether the individual is of the past or of the present, a life story is often edited according to our fancies. Some parts are omitted and others are fabricated. Romancing someone who is alive but whom we know only through these secondhand accounts is no less surreal than romancing the dead.

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We cannot forget the hysteria over Elvis Presley. Footage of fans who scream upon each thrust of his pelvis is on youtube. In a concert later in his career, a woman interviewed choked with emotion as she broadcasted her “love” for Elvis. She claimed to own all of his records and to have photo albums filled with cutout pictures of him. I can only imagine her grief when he died. She probably shed more tears for Elvis than she would have a husband, the latter being a relation of whose fallibilities she would have been well aware. Allegations of substance abuse and sexual proclivity for underage girls have surfaced in the wake of Elvis’ passing, none of which are completely shocking given the King’s courtship of a 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu and the carnival he later became with his puffed eyes behind dark shades and slips into narcotic-fueled rants onstage. The man was a walking pharmaceutical of barbiturates, amphetamine, and tranquilizers. On top of that, he drank and he smoked. Yet for all the signs of self-destruction, those who frenzied over Elvis only saw what they wanted to see: an arch angel from the stratosphere of celebrity, in sequined wings and chrome hair, who descended upon them to trumpet blasts that filled an amphitheater like clarions in the firmament.

And now we’ve got Bill Cosby. The most beloved father of 1980s sitcoms, he was Fat Albert to me during the previous decade. The cartoon aired on Philippine television. I would watch Fat Albert and his gang of ragamuffins find content in friendship no matter their dilemma. They were a dorky lot – faces in the shape of Mr. Peanut, buckteeth, and dazed eyes as if they were sleep walking through life. Fat Albert’s red sweater over a pachyderm belly identified him as a sun around which the gang orbited. Their odd appearance made me feel they were my buddies, too. Each episode ended with a trim and clean-cut Bill Cosby, himself in a red sweater (Fat Albert as an adult, perhaps) relate a moral learned from the story that had just transpired. Altruism, cooperation, respect, patience… he spoke of them all with a voice as soothing as a lullaby. A junkyard never seemed more fun. 40 years later, the media are exploding with revelations that the guy is a serial rapist. A mere month prior to the headlines, a female co-worker told me that as a girl, she had written a fan letter to Cosby asking him to adopt her because she thought he was the coolest dad in the world.

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Gene Tierney joins the list of famous personalities consumed by an image. That visual wonder of a countenance masked a reality of schizophrenia; institutionalization; 27 shock treatments; and birth to a daughter deaf, partially blind, and mentally handicapped. It also gave critics an excuse to undermine her talent. As Pia Lindstrom, the daughter of Tierney’s contemporary, Ingrid Bergman, said of her mother on the 60th anniversary of “Casablanca” (1943) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/casablanca-from-mess-to-masterpiece/): “When you are very, very beautiful like that, you don’t have to act quite as much in a certain sense. People read into your beauty their own emotions.” Lindstrom was not dismissing Bergman’s brilliance as a thespian; rather, she was stating a fact about an audience’s opinion of a beautiful woman – that she is decoration. Bergman’s artistry, said Lindstrom, usurped youth’s effulgence when the latter was no longer a viable option.

Unfortunately, health and psychological maladies prevented Tierney from proving herself in her later years. She did, however, win the praise of Martin Scorsese for a character she played while still in her prime. He pegged her the most underrated actress of her generation on account of her performance in “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945), the film for which she earned her only Best Actress Oscar nomination. (She lost to Joan Crawford for “Mildred Pierce.”) Tierney plays Ellen Berent Harland, a woman so jealous of her husband’s growing attachment to her sister that she orchestrates her own suicide to make it appear as a murder committed by the sibling. Ellen is a crackpot with the anatomy of a mannequin. Given what we now know of Tierney, we can’t help equating the role with her. She may not have been a killer, but it is disconcerting that such a heavenly creature could have had such a hellish life.

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So goes the spell of an image. They say a picture paints a thousand words. That’s about as long as this blog posting, and I’ve only scratched the surface of Gene Tierney.

Maria Callas: Prima Donna Dolorosa

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A scene in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) – the blockbuster parade of superheroes who, scene after scene, torpedo their way out of death’s grip – features scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) absorbed in a moment of calm, the music on his headphones a fortress against the furor that fulminates around him and that seethes within. Banner is an introvert, one so shy that he scarcely has a social life. Due to atomic contamination from a bomb blast at a test site, he transmogrifies into a green giant when losing his temper. This does not always make for pleasing company. As the Incredible Hulk, Banner experiences a 180 degree turn from his reclusive nature. He either lets loose on a rampage of ruination, throwing trucks and smashing building walls, or fights against a villain to save a life. He has no hold on his temper nor is he able to control whether it is the savage or the savior that surfaces. But he tries, and one effort involves listening to Maria Callas in her rendition of “Casta Diva.”

Why Callas? Why not Montserrat Caballé or Beverly Sills? Because of all the Bel Canto stars since Enrico Caruso whose voices have been immortalized in recordings, only Callas with notes immersed in tears can make us feel as if our own hearts are weeping. It is fitting that “Casta Diva” should be Banner’s aria of choice. It is the signature piece to “Norma,” the Vincenzo Bellini opera about a Druid priestess sentenced to burn at the pyre for desecrating her vow of chastity, the title role of which Callas performed 89 times onstage:

Ah, return to me beautiful in your first true love. I’ll protect you against the entire world. Ah, return to me beautiful with your serene sky. I’ll have life, sky and homeland in your heart. Ah, return again as you were then, when I gave you my heart then. Ah, come back to me.

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Norma is mobilizing her countrymen to regain their land that the Romans have invaded. Unbeknownst to warriors and worshipers alike, she has a double life. She was once the lover of an enemy soldier named Pollione, father of her two sons whom she keeps hidden in her dwelling. The Druids later capture Pollione, and as they are about to immolate him as an offering to the god of war, Norma orders them to throw her in the pyre instead. Spare Pollione, she begs, and spare her children. They are as much victims of her treason as the Druids. What occurs is a dual sacrifice: Norma dies for love of country and for love of a man.

Bruce Banner is himself a man stripped of a nation. He is on the lam, not because he is a renegade but because no government understands the Incredible Hulk any more than Banner does. Upon each episode where he hits the roof, his body swells into the dimension of a boulder, his eyes flare with the wrath of lava, and a volcanic roar replaces the coherency of words. He grows so large that his sleeves tear and pants rip. When he reduces to normal size, he is unconscious then divested upon awakening of memories of what just happened. He has only tattered clothes to clue him in, and so he shops (or shoplifts) at the nearest outlet to cover his top and bottom before he flees undetected to the next town. Friendless, loveless, Banner is as alone as a stray dog, running his sole recourse from causing any more trouble.

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The parallels our tormented scientist has to Maria Callas are not remote. Watch footage of the latter in performance. The incendiary of emotions that glazes her eyes, the thunder in her voice as though she were fighting for her soul, a lightning from within that electrifies the stage… she may be present before us in grainy black and white, but we see color. The woman wasn’t born that way. Something must have happened to her for a diva to emerge. Playwright, Terrence McNally, uncovers in “Master Class” a resumé of personal afflictions: obesity; romance with a shady Greek billionaire; the barrage of critics; seclusion; and young death. The circus the paparazzi made of her dolor over Aristotle Onassis portrayed her as a real life Norma. In wanting what any other woman wants – a husband and a child – she betrayed her art. To pay for her crime, she lost not only the man she loved, but also her voice and then her life at 53 from a heart attack (or, as sentimentalists like to think, a broken heart). Like Bruce Banner, she spent a number of years aimless and drifting. Had her role as a tragic heroine been limited to the stage, then we would not have the definitive interpretation of “Casta Diva.” This distinction could have been a consolation to her, though it does raise the question of its worth the suffering.

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The answer is yes. History has already been made and so we must accept it. Terrence McNally would not have written his most famous play otherwise; Bruce Banner in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” would be a different character; and I would be a different person. Although no Incredible Hulk lurks inside of me, the Callas scene in the movie is a case of déjà vu. The first time I heard the soprano sing “Casta Diva,” I was a 20-year-old student in Paris, lying in bed on a sunny morning while surfing the Walkman. I had chosen not to live with a family, the standard mode of residence for a foreign student, because I didn’t want to abide by anybody’s rules. Owing to my father, I had my own apartment. A high school was across the balcony, where trumpets to the triumphal march to Verdi’s “Aida” filled the street for the commencement ceremony at year’s end, and on the wall beside my bed, an oil painting of flowers as plasticized as tupperware jazzed up the pastel upholstery with a touch of the bordello. Withal the tacky décor, I was in the most romantic city in the world. As I gazed at an outstretched arm in disbelief at my physical presence in Paris, I thought: This is real. I am here. This is now. In ten minutes, this will be the past. What next? And that’s when Maria Callas came on.

I caught Callas halfway through “Casta Diva.” I was not familiar with her voice, yet I knew it was hers. I had read enough about her for a bell of recognition to chime in my ears. Music historians elaborate on the texture and coloring of a voice. I have no inkling as to what any of that means. I am aware purely of the visceral. I was already in a nostalgic mood over the passing of time. Hearing Callas made me mournful for it. Young as I was, I wasn’t so young that I was ignorant of heartbreak. Callas seemed to empathize with my longing for an innocence lost when love was a given, rather than my reality of unfulfilled yearnings, because that is how films portray it.

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The impact of her music compelled me to learn about her life, for which I simply needed to turn on the TV. Documentaries on Callas were plenteous, Paris having been where she spent her last days. “Every year brings me closer to the end,” she has said. That was how unhappy the woman was. Nevertheless, all that unhappiness was integral to an artist in the making, and though Maria Callas has been dead for 38 years, she will never be silenced. So profound is her presence that she has a cameo in an action flick as an auditory angel, one who soothes the soul of a left-brain genius with anger management issues that metamorphose him into something big the hue of mold.

Yes, her life had to be the way it was. No life is free of fire and brimstone. Just as Phoenix rises from the ashes, so too does beauty from the embers of tragedy.

“Superman”: A Lasting Legacy

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What happened to Christopher Reeve is known to all. In 1995, he made world news when an equestrian tournament turned disastrous as the horse he was straddling came to a sudden halt before a high jump fence, throwing him off and causing him to land head first to the ground. The actor awoke in a hospital five days later to be told that he was paralyzed from the neck down. He discussed suicide with his wife, Dana, who said that the decision was his to make, although should he choose life, she would never desert him. With her fidelity as his buttress, Reeve became a crusader against paralysis and spinal cord injuries, giving speeches across America as well as founding the Christopher Reeve Foundation, a research center dedicated to improving the lives of those with disabilities. Not since Reeve’s breakout role as the title character in “Superman” (1978) had his name been blazoned on front pages and magazine covers. His activism was a labor of love. It added to his shine, and it brought once more to the fore a romantic in Reeve that first endeared him to us in the movie that made him a star.

The Man of Steel is invincible. Ever since his inception in 1938, comics, cartoons and a television series have ingrained this in us. Only a green crystal called kryptonite can destroy him. Yet even when confronted with this molecular foe, he manages to survive. Being the first superhero movie ever made, “Superman” touts the red-caped wonder according to our expectations. The man who roams among us mortals disguised as mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent, holds up in mid-flight a plane that’s about to crash, carries a tug boat of marauders from the Hudson River to the doorsteps of a police station, and catches Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) midway during her fall down a building. Lois is a tough act. She’s Clark’s co-worker at the Daily Planet whom he’s not only infatuated with, but who also manages to get herself in jeopardy every 30 minutes. She doesn’t know it, but she’s got feelings for Clark, as well, though only when his glasses are off and he’s swooping around the city to save lives and fight crime. Clark must keep his identity secret… revelation would make him susceptible to potential adversaries… so to have a moment with Lois out of harm’s way (okay, a date) he grants her a favor as Superman: she would be the first reporter to get the scoop on this black-haired, blue-eyed, 6’4”, gravity-defying swashbuckler.

Sigh!

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Can you read my mind? Do you know what it is you do to me? Don’t know who you are, just a friend from another star. Here I am like a kid at a school, holding hands with a god. I’m a fool. Will you look at me quivering, like a little girl shivering? Can you see right through me? Can you picture the things I’m thinking of, wondering who you are, all the wonderful things that you are? You can fly. You belong to the sky. You and I could belong to each other. If you need a friend, I’m the one to fly to. If you need to be loved, here I am. Read my mind.

When we fall in love, a fine line exists between what of our affections we expose and what we keep to ourselves. We are simultaneously strong and weak, intrepid and inhibited. Could this be real? we wonder. We want to shout that the view of the world from the stars is as poets imagine. Love has wings. Superman takes Lois above the clouds on a voyage to the moon, regains a hold of her as she teeters, and brings her safely to the ground, both of them in an embrace with lips nearly touching and eyes keyholes to the mysteries of each other’s thoughts. Some interview. We want to shout love. Then again, no. She hardly knows him. He hardly knows her. This is just 20 minutes of a topsy-turvy ride. Maybe, Lois hopes, that given Superman’s ability to see through her dress that her underwear is pink, he could read her mind. With words, we bluff. Behind silence, we hide. But our thoughts never lie.

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Nearly 20 years after “Superman,” Reeve wasn’t doing much in terms of films. He could have been forgotten. No, he didn’t deserve what would happen, but happen it did. Our ultimate Superman was back in the spotlight, this time with a love expressed through philanthropic work that would be his lasting legacy. Hats off to a real life hero. He transformed a misfortune into a lightning scepter that continues to illuminate the globe. Toss aside self-pity and defeat. If a quadriplegic can find meaning to life, then we who are full-bodied and able have no reason to mope over our own setbacks. Listen to the man himself: “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible. Then they seem improbable. And then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.” (https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/christopher_reeve_125724)

Inevitable. You all know what dreams I’ve got – quite simply, to write and to be read; hence, this blog, which serves as an emotional outlet without the complexity of a novel. It is also readily available on the internet – a comfort from the close hits I have had in which the right people have read my more ambitious works, only for disquietude to result as their interest fizzled out. “I admire your persistence,” a neighbor told me the other day. “This is what I set out to do,” I responded. Herein lies the Superman in me, if not in physical strength then in a merciless endurance for rejection, for through the years, with every setback, writing has come to encompass a great deal more than the self. “You’ve got to give more than you take,” Reeve has said. (https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/christopher_reeve) And so I owe it to all whose stories have invigorated my creativity to make it.

Christopher Reeve was truly a man who abided by his own words. He discovered a reason for living in the lives he gave others. Even in a wheelchair, he continued to fly the world in order to right what he believed was wrong. He was Superman to the end, an artist and a lover, and he made us aware of the superhero in all of us: if we could find the strength to unleash the talents we possess that our dreams are made of, then we could fill the world with poetry.

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“Infamous”: The High Risk of Faith

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A literary critic has stated that had Truman Capote not penned “In Cold Blood,” the author would have been relegated to the footnotes of American arts and letters, his prose nothing more than confections of emotions. The tour de force saved Capote from this fate for two reasons: 1) he outdid belletristic convention by formulating a genre that he dubbed the non-fictional novel – fact presented in the format of a narrative, replete with dialogue, dramatic sequences, characterization, and atmospheric details; 2) his research provided a backstory that seized the public’s attention, a chronicle of love and betrayal that itself would be material for a movie – “Infamous” (2006) – 40 years after the book’s publication.

This pairing of professional conquest with personal catastrophe satiates a hunger in all of us. We common people yearn for excitement, if not in our prosaic dealings, then in the scandals of our public figures. For our consumption, tabloids elevate to a Shakespearean grandeur individuals whose lives are as dicey as the roles they play in the world stage of politics, sports, and the arts. That’s entertainment. In Capote’s case, that “In Cold Blood” involves the massacre of citizens in the bucolic region of Holcomb, Kansas casts a baneful light on the all-American value of small town, neighborly trust, and that Capote should fall in love with one of the killers evokes Desdemona, she whom Othello, her own husband, smothers to death with a pillow.

“Infamous” is an American tragedy.

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The movie presents us a Truman Capote (Toby Jones) who is skittish and frivolous, a New York gossip who hops from one socialite and social scene to another, dapper in scarves purchased at Bergdorf Goodman. One morning he opens the papers, and staring back at him is destiny. Not that Capote is discontent with Manhattan… he basks in his position as a celebrity… but destiny being what it is, it strikes when least expected, a kick in the chest, and there it brews into an obsession, only how peculiar that this latest obsession for the darling of high society should be the murders of a family with the drab name of Clutter in the nondescript town of Holcomb.

Or maybe not. Capote came from humble beginnings, the product of divorced parents and a childhood in the dust bins of Louisiana and Alabama. The morning headlines could have been a signal for him to return to his roots, to bring attention to lives that end without reason in the obscurity of a wheat field while his own flourishes. Capote arrives in Holcomb in a tornado of limp wrists and hats and swiveling hips. He employs his talent as a raconteur to earn the trust of the most circumspect of farmers with anecdotes of Hollywood glitterati, interviewing one and all to gather material in order for a masterpiece to emerge. Nothing and nobody stands in his way… until he meets Perry Smith (Daniel Craig), the other half to the murderous duo that includes Dick Hicock (Lee Pace), a boor devoid of Smith’s sensitivity and therefore nugatory to Capote.

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In Perry Smith Capote sees his alter-ego. They both had fathers who were SOB’s and suicidal mothers, and Smith admits to aspirations of artistic illustriousness, having first endeavored as a painter and then as a musician. An avid reader, not only does he correct Hicock’s grammar, but he is also upfront to Capote with his critiques of the writer’s novels. Most suggestive of Smith’s sensitivity, albeit in a manner unsettling, is the comfort he provides his victims seconds before the murders – a pillow for Kenyon Clutter (Austin Chittim) to rest his head before his brains are blown out, and a mattress for the boy’s father, Herb (Brent A. McCoy), because the floor is cold. Although Capote, the man, doesn’t want Smith to hang, the artist in him roots for capital punishment because it would be the suitable conclusion to a novel that aims to bring justice to both a town forever changed and a family gone due to a nefarious crime.

In this, Truman Capote sacrifices his own soul. As childhood friend and confidante, Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock), reveals: “I read an interview with Frank Sinatra in which he said about Judy Garland, ‘Every time she sings, she dies a little.’ That’s how much she gave. It’s true for writers, too, who hope to create something lasting. They die a little getting it right. And then the book comes out and there’s a dinner. Maybe they give you a prize. And then comes the inevitable and very American question, ‘What’s next?’” Very American this pickle may be, but relatable nonetheless to every one of us who aims high and gives one’s all to reach that summit, nationality aside. It exists in my own home. My father has a friend whom he has known since the fourth grade. He was a rascal of a boy, according to my father, with a prurient sense of humor and who, as a young man, experienced a religious awakening that led him on a path to priesthood, while my father veered the opposite direction to a vocation antipodal to one of abstinence: finance. Yet the difference in their callings complimented each other. Father Bart was an occasional guest to our home in Manila, during which he would offer mass and confession. He now resides in the Bay Area. In a phone conversation some years ago, he expressed to me my father’s contrition that perhaps my father had not spent enough time with me while I was growing up since his primary focus had been money. “Not at all,” I said.

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That my father would think this surprises me. He never so much as hinted, either in action or in words, at any remorse for his career decisions at the expense of family time. Still, there it is. For all the faith Perry Smith puts in Capote to vindicate him to readers of “In Cold Blood” with his accounts of an abusive father and an alcoholic mother, Capote could not save him; every word Capote writes ultimately comes at the cost of the person he feels the book would most benefit. So it was for my father; the faith I put in him to provide for the family required a certain degree of his absence from the home.

This leads me to my own responsibility as a writer. My novels are populated with characters based on members of my family, they who have faith in my literary ambition, depict scenes that occurred in real life. Private matters are exposed, quite a few of which my parents and siblings are unaware I know about. To be perceptive and observant while giving the impression of indifference is my duty as a scribe. As a result, I wrestle with the question of limits. At what point am I breaching confidentiality? Risking embarrassment? Misrepresenting actuality? Even with my own secrets, I wonder how much of them do I dare spill on print. And then, with barely a dent on my conscience, I switch gears to Truman Capote mode. What I do is in the name of art, I rationalize, and readers wouldn’t know the truth anyway. Honesty of emotion is more important, the key element that would allow me to fulfill my destiny as the record keeper of my kin so that those whom I write for and about can stay alive on paper long after we have all gone… I suppose.

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“Behind the Candelabra”: What Price Fame and Beauty

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Liberace had it all: cash, fame, furs, jewels, mansions, limos, and men. No fluke, our master showman. He possessed an acumen for business to market his talent, and his talent was prodigious. And yet, he was a tragic figure. In “Behind the Candelabra” (2013), the pianist who runs his fingers on the keyboard with the dexterity of a sprinter can’t shed his flamboyant stage persona once the curtain drops, leading to a life that melds the ghoulish with the carnal. The TV movie presents a portrait of Liberace (Michael Douglas) as a sexual predator  à la Roman Polanski, one who liquors up and sweet talks his current libidinal interest while both are naked in a hot tub. The boy toy de jour is Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), who at 16 is 48 years Liberace’s junior. They meet the standard way a celebrity meets a fan he’s got the hots for; Thorson is invited backstage after a performance. Within weeks, the boy is Liberace’s live-in lover. In addition to bed partner, his duties include those of chauffeur, private assistant, bodyguard, and show fixture. He ultimately adapts Liberace’s flair for sequined Elvis-inspired suits, capes, and diamonds as enormous as golf balls, is assigned trustee to Liberace’s estate, and undergoes plastic surgery to resemble Liberace. Everything Thorson becomes is about Liberace and for Liberace, for Liberace would not have it any other way. Such is the degree of the star’s narcissism and possessiveness.

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The relationship between the couple isn’t entirely superficial, though. As one scene of body humping reveals, the two do have an emotional kinship. Liberace’s admittance of love for Thorson could be nothing more than good acting, but Michael Douglas delivers it with such honesty that we give Liberace the benefit of the doubt: “Why do I love you? I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I’m with you. I love you not only for what you have made of yourself, but for what you are making of me. I love you for ignoring the possibilities of the fool in me and for accepting the possibilities of the good in me. Why do I love you? I love you for closing your eyes to the discords in me and for adding to the music in me by worshipful listening.”

Wow! Elizabeth Bishop could have written those words. Anybody whom such poetry is recited to while sweaty under the sheets would turn into mush inside, and so Thorson does, which makes it all the more dismaying how love this sweet can go sour. As passion wanes, Thorson gets hooked on cocaine and is disgruntled that he is forced to live under the terms of an indentured servant; Liberace gets bored and preys on another celebrity admirer (Boyd Holbrook). Thus, a partner is disposable because of the plenitude of replacements fame and wealth offer like fruits in a cornucopia, of various flavors, proportions, and shades that sprout in different soils and seasons.

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The manipulation works both ways. Even though Scott Thorson may be the subjugated in the relationship, he has as his own currency a handsome face and a smoking bod. The Adonis effect has its merits, indeed. We have all experienced the power of beauty, how it grabs our attention when on the bus, at the Walgreen’s pharmacy, in the airport. A fleeting image beauty may be, but while within our field of vision, it foments in us a tempest of emotions that range from desire to envy, admiration to resentment, stirs in us a wanting to own and to emulate. Going to a club can be overbearing, what with its atmosphere of inflated animalism, and San Francisco leather fairs that celebrate kink of all persuasions, save for those that transgress the law, can put us in a stupor. Amazonian women in dominatrix gear and incarnations of Tom of Finland hyper males trigger cameras to click and tongues to salivate. Their pictures populate Facebook, generate a million views and comments of wanton ravenousness such as “hottie,” “babe,” and “hunk.” We regular folks might as well hide in a burrow. The message: the more fuckable we are, the greater the chance at love.

This, of course, is a misconception. Liberace’s and Thorson’s fucking doesn’t dissipate the growing animosity between them, and while being a hottie fuels fantasies, we would need to prove the rectitude of our character for the appeal to develop past that. I personally have witnessed the downside of extreme beauty. During my clubbing days, Stan was a guy who captivated me from afar. A model for Colt Studios, a company that perpetuates representations of man as a barbell-sculpted Greek god in the nude, he had a footballer’s stature, a luscious beard, and a presence as mind-blowing as the Grand Canyon. He was so drop dead gorgeous that an image of him in underwear was used on magnets on which magnetized articles of male-archetype costumes were placed. I got to meet Stan at the Berkeley Steamworks, a bathhouse in the East Bay, where he confessed to me that at a sex party in Palm Springs a month earlier, he was on a mission to have a guy who had rejected him. He wasn’t even attracted to the guy. He simply needed to feel desirable. “All my life I’ve gotten attention,” Stan said. “I don’t know how I’ll be able to handle it once I don’t.”

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I wouldn’t say Stan and I became friends, although in our subsequent meetings, he did open up about his life. He had had an older brother, a football player with the University of Texas, who died of AIDS, and when the two were just boys, their mother, an alcoholic, would beat the brother as he shielded Stan from the blows. Stan was later diagnosed with cancer. The last time I saw him was about eight years ago, and he was in remission. It was at the gym. The muscles were gone, and along with that, the attention. From every man’s fantasy to a shadow, Stan on the chest fly machine seemed preoccupied with something other than the workout. When he was in his prime, I would see him in the company of a buffed Latino. The arm candy seemed to be out of the equation. A sense of loss cast Stan’s eyes in darkness, and a loneliness pervaded the air around him. Stud on a magnet, big deal. All I thought as Stan sat at the machine was of how much of a nice guy he actually was.

We all know what became of Liberace. “Behind the Candelabra” makes it clear that even though he has others after Scott Thorson, none come close to his heart as Thorson did so that when he lies dying of AIDS, toupee gone and face emaciated, his body a shriveled mass, he summons Thorson and says as his last words to the discarded lover that he was the best, the one who had made him the happiest. Thorson comforts him that he had been happy, too. That, more so than a gold coffin, capacitates us to face the end in tranquility.

This is how it is behind the candelabra. While the flames flicker, we wave our riches – whether it be a shapely backside, a thick wallet, or a name on the A list – as a magic wand to entrance the one who sends our loin aflutter in the hopes that the physical could result in a union more binding than skin deep. It’s an illusion in candlelight. As Liberace says, “No matter how many people are around, I’m all by myself.” Only when the last flame flickers and dies do we know who have been true to us from the very start.

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“Rebel Without a Cause”: Rage Against the Dying of the Light

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How could Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo) resist falling under his spell? The coolness with which he sports that red jacket, the face all-American in its youthfulness yet haunting in its power to express a thousand sorrows, the lone warrior heroism… James Dean as Jim Stark is filmdom’s patron saint of male angst, evidence that emotiveness in a man more so than stoicism can be a medal of courage. Already in the first frame of “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), Jim is stripped of armor. Drunk, blond hair on its end like flames of fire, he is on the ground, a defeated soldier, amusing himself with a mechanical monkey and its clashing cymbals as the police take custody of him for vagrancy. What follows is a tale of three teens at odds with their parents and who in school are misfits. Judy hangs with a rough crowd. Plato hangs with himself. Jim is the new kid. Plato first sees Jim reflected on his locker mirror, above a photograph of Allan Ladd. He turns to the hallway to catch exactly what it is he just got a glimpse of, this beautiful and brooding creature, a kinetic energy in contrast to the static image of a movie star. It’s love at first sight.

When “Rebel Without a Cause” was released in October of 1955, James Dean was dead from a car crash a month earlier along the Salinas highway. He had made a name for himself with “East of Eden” in April of that year, another movie where he plays an isolated teen, but it is the hysteria behind the second motion picture on which his legacy rests. Aside from capitalizing on his untimely passing, “Rebel Without a Cause” is a tragedy, and set in contemporary America, it was at the time every American adolescent’s story, whether jock or bookworm, prom queen or ugly duckling. (It still is; hence, its listing at 59 of the 100 greatest films of all time as compiled by the American Film Institute.) Marlon Brando had auditioned for the role of Jim Stark. It is hard to say what interpretation Brando would have applied to the character had he been cast. The man was a great actor. However, we do know this: young folks in theaters were very much aware that the star they were anointing the icon of their generation, with his mangled heart on screen for all to see, was by then a ghost.

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1985 was the year I watched “Rebel Without a Cause,” in a country across the Pacific. The conjoining of three torn outcasts, each one an emotional time bomb ticking to explode, perturbed me for days. If that was the impact the movie had on me, I can only imagine what it might have been for an audience 30 years earlier, in the maelstrom of a Hollywood legend in the making. Though the feelings Judy develops for Jim is akin to a head-on crash, the kind where a 17-year-old girl sees that special boy as her sole future, the bond that forms between Jim and Plato transcends friendship. Jim is more than a big brother, a father, or even a lover to Plato. He is Plato’s savior. Jim Stark is the first person who has ever noticed Plato, and that’s something.

He is also the film’s moral anchor. A schoolmate named Buzz (Corey Allen), who has been bullying Jim, dies in a chicken game, a dangerous sport in which the first of two drivers to abandon his car as both race to the edge of a cliff is deemed a coward. Jim is the survivor. Buzz perishes because his coat sleeve snags on the window roller, trapping him inside. “They called me chicken… you know, chicken. I had to go or I would never have been able to face any of those kids again,” Jim says to his father (Jim Backus) in explaining his role in the disaster. “So I got in one of these cars and a boy called Buzz got in the other…I want to go to the police and tell them I was mixed up in this thing tonight.“ His mother (Ann Doran) tries to dissuade him. “In ten years you’ll never know this even happened,” she says, a callous statement, especially in light of what comes next – another young death, this time by police bullet, with the Los Angeles Planetarium dominating the background, its dome as formidable as that of a cathedral.

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The film could have been entitled “Death Without a Cause.” Rebellion against parents, the law, and all figures of authority is a futile exercise that can lead to irreparable consequences. No matter how loud the scream, it falls on deaf ears. That’s how insensitive grown-ups are. Death is necessary in the movie to relay this message. But how do we justify senseless tragedies in real life? How macabre it is that film viewers in 1955 were falling in love with a dead man who was alive before them, ten feet tall and ripe with a promising future. We hear of this every day, a person snuffed of life for no reason. Aviation disasters, shootings, hate bombings… headlines of body counts strike home with us because the next victims could be you and me, our children and our parents.

Disaster need not always be this massive. The grim reaper works in insidious ways. We’ve all experienced the sullenness that befalls a room because of a seat left empty by a classmate we are told is never returning. Coming-of-age includes death, though how strange it is that knowledge of life’s preciousness must come at the expense of one who should be learning with us. “Class, Abello died yesterday.” The bluntness of that line whispers among my early memories an eerie chant that refuses to be silenced. I was in the second grade. My teacher, Mrs. Ocava, spoke with a grief that choked. Tears wet her glasses like raindrops on windows. That was the first thing she said as she hurried to her desk to clap her hands for us eight-year-olds to stop our morning yakking, and all she could say. No preamble exists for news of this type. I was in Catholic school, and the custom was that students were called by their last names. The story was that Abello was celebrating his birthday. In his excitement to attend his party, he tripped on a step while rushing down a flight of stairs, stumbled to the floor, where he banged his head against a concrete object. The entire elementary school gathered in the assembly ground to offer prayers to Abello. A prayer sheet was passed out that bore his image: a boy brown as the earth, teddy bear rotund, with bangs and a quiet smile.

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We will never understand the workings of the cosmos that single out those to be excluded from fulfilling the lifespan nature has accorded us humans. In addition to James Dean’s death at 24, neither Sal Mineo nor Natalie Wood made it to 50. He was murdered at 37. She was killed in a drowning accident at 42. Do not go gently into that good night, Dylan Thomas wrote. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. We… men in particular… are taught that when in trying moments, we must bite the bullet, have a stiff upper lip, adhere to maxims of stoicism. Austerity is exemplary of toughness. Sometimes, though, strength is in the outpouring of blood and tears. James Dean would never have become a legend had he not raged his way into our hearts. Even the most solemn of us must rage every now and then, shout at the top of our lunges for our convictions to be heard, our troubles as well as our joys. Given fate’s unpredictability, today could be our only chance.

 

 

John Garfield: Man in the Age of the Superhero

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It used to be that GQ and Playboy were the only magazines that served as guidebooks to being a man. They detailed the art of dressing well, offered tips on gentlemanly behavior, and allowed for fancy getaways (if only through pictures and words) by means of the flashiest sports car or the sleekest jet. Mr. Hefner even provided us men the company of naked ladies airbrushed to perfection. Nowadays the selection has increased exponentially to include those that promote bodybuilding. Male movie stars have adapted to the trend. They have to or else they wouldn’t have an audience. We are in the golden age of the action movie. With terrorism in the Middle East casting a net of destruction across the globe and gun-wielding monomaniacs spitting out bullets in our neighborhoods, we need more than ever to believe in superheroes. On magazine covers, juxtaposed with lines that advertise tighter abs and bigger biceps, are the likes of Chris Evans (a.k.a Captain America) and Henry Cavill (a.k.a. Superman) in form fitting tees, their muscles on the scale of the Hindenburg. Even absent of a cape, our movie stars tout invincibility. In “San Andreas” (2015), Dwayne Johnson maneuvers a speedboat over a tsunami, lifts heavy objects underwater without the necessity of an oxygen tank, and equates landing a spiraling helicopter to a ride in an amusement park. No wonder the guy is nicknamed The Rock. He’s as solid as Mount Rushmore and as emotionless.

This is what it is to be a man in the 2010s – bodacious in musculature and unflinching in danger, a fearless Samaritan willing to plunge into daredevil situations to rescue others. It’s impressive… for Imax. As united as we are in protecting the world, we can’t know for certain what we’d do if a crackpot emerged from a park bush and pointed a .45 caliber to our picnic partner’s head. I, for one, am not equipped with Jason Statham’s karate chops. The predicament can bring out either the worst or the best in us. There’s something, therefore, to be said about old movies. While today’s actors embody our comic book fantasies, those of yesterday exhibit traits attainable on a human level, character over brawn. Name some of the greats: Humphrey Bogart, cynicism plastered on that smirk; stoic Joseph Cotten; James Stewart, the poster boy of small town diffidence; perennially nervous Jack Lemon. Disparate as their onscreen personas were, they shared one quality – nobility. Even when they lost, they walked away as winners, their lot made all the more poignant with a vulnerability that revealed itself with the inflection of a word and a wistfulness in the eyes. If there’s one I would hold as the king of them all, it would be John Garfield, the artist who brought method acting to the big screen.

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“The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) introduced me to Garfield. As Frank Chambers, a lone voyager dulled by the endless stretch of the California freeway, he stops for a rest at a roadside diner, where Cora Smith (Lana Turner) – in halter top, derriere-boosting shorts, and a blonde bouffant as icy as snow on a mountain top – seduces him with a swivel of the hips and lips parted ever so softly to suggest a blow job. He must wonder what the hell a foxy chick such as Cora is doing at the end of the world. Then again, that’s the West, a barren frontier that has gold buried in nooks and crannies, only this bijoux is married to a fat bore (Cecil Kellaway) who is also the proprietor of the diner. Plus, she’s got murder on her mind. The destiny of love being what it is, Frank’s arrival provides the opportunity to rid husband Nick from her life.

Frank’s a bad guy, you might say. It isn’t that clear-cut. As in every gripping story, a complexity imbues the character. Frank is not evil as much as he is flawed, an everyday man enslaved to lust. Bombshell Cora so blasts the sense out of him that he’d do anything for her and he does but with brows a profusion of sweat and face twisted in torment. We could hear his heart beat in his every breath. Poor guy has never loved this much before. He knows what he’s about to do is wrong, but it’s the only way he could have her. We often aver that we would die for love. Would we kill for love?

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This is why I am a John Garfield fan. He’s manly in the true sense of the word – features on the rough side, a blue collar cadence, and a lumberjack swagger – yet he knows how to wear a suit, and he’s got a multiplicity of emotions. He can be as timid as a kitten or as ferocious as a lion. Observe Garfield in “He Ran All the Way” (1951). He’s Nick Robey, a thief on the lam with a stash of dough. To evade the cops, he woos a girl by the name of Peggy Dobbs (Shelley Winters) whom he sidles up to in a public swimming pool so that she invites him to her home, where he takes her family as hostage. Surprise, surprise – the two fall for each other. But there’s a reason for this other than the mating factor on which movies capitalize. In witnessing the Dobbs’s domestic stability and with love now available to him, Nick exposes himself a rejected child robbed of a moral foundation, an injured animal that was cast into the wilderness to fend for itself.

Garfield’s own life didn’t end so well. He died at 39 of a heart attack, some say of a broken heart. His career was terminated when the U.S. Congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities blacklisted him on account of his refusal to name colleagues of possible communist leanings. He had co-founded the Hollywood Canteen, which during World War II offered dancing, entertainment, and free food to American servicemen, had entertained the troops overseas, and had played a soldier in patriotic films. From Hollywood royalty to pariah, Garfield appealed to the committee to consider his numerous acts of nationalism, though he would never snitch.

This is what it is to be a man. Superheroes can do all sorts of sensational feats. They can scale skyscrapers, infiltrate a labyrinth of explosives, hang from airplanes, dodge bullets with the alacrity of a metal target in a shooting gallery. Whatever. We ordinary men have as armory no such abilities but something exceptional even so: our word of honor.

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