Like with the greatest of films, every time I see the 1954 version of A Star is Born, I notice something new. This time, the great shot above, which seems a noir rendering using as background the shade of green so often deployed by Edward Hopper in his paintings (see below), and even in his rural or landscape works:
What makes the shot so poignant is that the shadowy embrace against the Edward Hopper green is their entrance to their honeymoon hotel. The first night of their marriage is already imbued with suggestions of sadness, loneliness, alienation, of imprisonment in/and shadows. This had already been foreshadowed earlier by the notice of their marriage dissolving into an image of prisoners behind bars (later turned into a joke with the knowledge that the room the judge is marrying them also contains a jail). See below:
Prison bars feature heavily in the film, particularly and most obviously in the scene where Norman Maine (James Mason) ends up in jail:
But the whole film partakes of aspects of a noir aesthetic, from the Bleue Bleu nightclub to shadowy lighting to LA nights where neon illuminates the darkness (see below)
The film also contains as many references to then ´Modern´painting as Minnelli´s An American in Paris (1951). Rousseau, Dégas, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, all are referenced backstage in the Shriner Auditorium sequence, and later on we even get a Mondrian image from the ‘Born in a Trunk’ number (see below):
The film is made up of such purposeful patternings both in referencing a history of art but also in deploying particular aspects of noir lighting as part of its mise-en-scène. What the first image shown above tells us is that this marriage is doomed from the very beginning. It will have passion, it will have beauty, but it will also be full of the darkness where addiction and self-hatred create a prison from a home, one that even love can´t breach. It´s all there in that first image that marks the start of their honeymoon.
Do museums disdain cinema? One need look no further than the uses they make of it. A recent visit to the Queen Sofia Museum demonstrated that it deployed cinema throughout its various exhibits and in various ways. But nowhere in the museum is the cinema exhibited so as the equal of any other art work. There’s a lip service paid to cinema as an art. But the museum’s practices in relation to it convey quite another message.
There was Gene Kelly in a snippet of An American in Paris in the ´Lost, Loose and Loved: Foreign Artists in Paris 1944-1968 exhibit (see picture above), which, by the way, is one of the worst instances of translation I’ve ever come across. The original ´Paris pese a todo´translates more closely to ´Paris in Spite of Everything,´a sexier, catchier, more accurate title. And there was an audience around it, finding it just as captivating as ever, in spite of the light dimming its images, the sound barely heard.
There was Yves Montand in Costa-Gavras´L´Aveau (1970) at the entrance of ´The Eruption of the 20th Century: Utopias and Conflicts´exhibit; and Gilo Pontecorvo´s The Battle of Algiers at the entrance of the´Is the War Over: Art in a Divided World´ exhibition (see below). The clip frames the entrance to the exhibit but merely as something undeserving of attention, something one walks through to get to the ´real´art.
There was a little makeshift cinema were the public wandering around the collection of surrealists might sit for a while and wonder at the Dalí/Buñuel Un chien Andalou (see below). And again, a small audience sat rapt. The museum keeps showing films as something for audience to glance at or pass through; yet, the walked at a fast clip through all the Dalí paintings whilst sitting for the film (though to be fair, seats are always at a premium in museums).
There were snippets of Hans Richter and Chris Marker and animated films and documentaries on the artists showcased by the museum such as Dorotea Tanning. Cinema was everywhere as document, as illustration, as complement to the more important art and artists. But never there as art in and of itself, the greatest produced in the last 150 years.
A museum that will spend hundreds of thousands of pounds transporting, insuring, hanging, lighting, designing a visual showcase for any old Warhol piss painting treats cinema like shit.
Nothing demonstrated this better than the space given to Almodóvar´s Entre tinieblas/Dark Hideout in the ´The Poetics of Democracy: Images and Counter-images from the Spanish Transition.´ As you can see below, the film gets a whole room. The poster is well represented. The work of Ceesepe, who designed the poster, is well represented…
But the presentation of the film itself, as you can see below, is disgraceful:
It seems that when a museum conceives of an audio-visual project as high art, no expense is spared. One need only see the room and context which houses Christian Marcla´s The Clock currently on at the Tate Modern, though even there all aspect ratios of the original works are eliminated in the interests of having the edited collection fill in the same amount of space, the beauty and value of the original popular art sacrificed in the interests of the type of art that is considered to rightly belong in the museum.
This is not just a disdain for the form itself, and I reiterate, the very greatest of the popular arts, but of the people who watched it, people of all walks of life who sat moved, enthralled or bored, who found beauty and relevance in the works so cavalierly treated by what are meant to be the repositories of our collective culture. Why don’t they just pin a photocopy of a Monet, with the colours changed the way they do in the postcards they sell at the shop museum? The idea is appalling no? Well so is showing film in this way. Pricks.
‘La vie en rose’, the classic written and made famous by Edith Piaf, is the opening musical number in Noches de Casablanca (Henri Decoin, Spain/France, 1964). Sara Montiel sings it in her leisurely suggestive way (see clip below), so easily imitable by drag queens across the Spanish speaking world, in a camp staging that’s a low-budget hodge-podge of the ‘Stairway to Paradise’ number in An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951) and every MGM musical that had any staircases, candelabras and semi-clad women, which is to say quite a few, many by Minnelli, and sometimes even surrealistically deployed by him like in The Band Wagon so that the semi-clad women *are* the candelabras.
The number led me to wonder if there is an international repertoire that ‘Gay Divas’ share. And I write this both as a statement and as a question. Do you know of any more? Off the top of my head, aside from Sara Montiel, La vie en rose is sung by Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, the superb version by Grace Jones. Eartha Kitt covered it. Donna Summer, who was one, was bumped off her throne by the time she made her version, which is not particularly good, due to homophobia. Peggy Lee does a lovely duet with Aznavour. Madonna and Bette Midler have performed it in concert. I’m not sure if Celine Dion qualifies as a gay diva but she sang it also..and well. Audrey Hepburn who is everybody’s icon, sang it in Sabrina (Billy Wilder, USA, 1954). It’s a staple of cabaret and theatre divas such as Ute Lemper. And in the forthcoming A Star is Born Bradley Cooper finds Lady Gaga singing ‘La vie en rose’ in a drag bar. See how a case builds?
‘La vie en rose’ was a big hit then and now. Marion Cotillard won the Oscar for playing Piaf in the film of her life called La vie en rose (Olivier Dahan, France, 2007). Ostensibly, according to wiki, there were seven versions of the song that made the 1950 Billboard charts. Now neither Bing Crosby, Tony Martin, Paul Weston, Louis Armstrong etc. are gay divas. So we can’t say everyone who sings this song is one. And likewise, we can’t say that if it’s not in their repertoires they’re not gay divas as lots of other gay divas have, as far as I know, not done a version: Garland, Minnelli, Cher, Diana Ross, Beyoncé, Britney. Niente!
Andy Medhurst told me that ‘Some landmark diva-songs seem welded very strongly to me to one particular diva (‘The Man That Got Away for Garland’, ‘People’ for Streisand etc etc) so much that other versions are overshadowed. Even though your ‘Vie En Rose’ list shows the opposite, for me it will always belong to Piaf.’ To this Kevin Stenson has also added Doris Day and ‘Secret Love’ also seem welded whilst noting that songs like ‘I’m Still Here’ and ‘Broadway Baby, both by Sondheim, are part of a shared repertoire amongst the ‘more mature divas’.’
All this I agree with, so we’re talking about intersections rather than absolutes. But isn’t it interesting that whilst each diva has songs that are entirely associated with them, and that are part of an appeal/address to a gay audience, so many also tend to add to their own unique repertoire by gravitating to particular songs that help constitute a shared one? Can you think of other covers of this song by gay divas. Are there other songs that seem a particular magnet to gay divas and and whose performance might constitute part of their appeal and address to a gay male audience, in turn helping consolidate the place these performers occupy in gay male cultures?
Is there a shared or intersecting repertoire? Do please let me know your thoughts.
Enquiring minds want to know.
You can look at some of the versions below:
Marlene Dietrich sang it in Hitchcock’s ‘Stage Fright’ (and I’ll post a clip from the film in due time):
Eartha Kitt did a growly cover:
Grace Jones classic dance version was the closing song of the first gay bar I went to.
Donna Summer in Tribute to Edith Piaf album:
Chrstos Tsirbas directed me to this lovely version by Bette Midler:
Adrian Garvey directed me to this version by Madonna in concert:
Peggy Lee with Charles Aznavour:
Celine Dion. Is she really a gay diva. Qua importa? She sings it well.
Matthew Motyka has pointed out to me that ‘Iggy Pop’s also covered it, and his sexually subversive persona I would argue, makes him qualify for queer cult if not full fledged icon status’. In my view he’s got a greater claim than Celine. But what do I know.
K.D. Lang duets with Tony Bennett on it here:
It’s a staple for Cabaret and Theatre divas like Ute Lemper:
.and, Kevin Stenson tells me that calling Gracie Fields a ‘Gay icon is pushing it but her records especially the comic ones were used by drag queens and played by DJ in gay pubs in lighter moments’.
Other versions include:
(Thanks, thus far, to Adrian Garvey, Andy Medhurst, Gary Needham, Kevin Stenson, Christos Tsirbas , and Phil Ulyatt for their input)