Now well and truly down a rabbit hole prompted by Allen Ellenzweig’s GEORGE PLATT LYNES. I’ve just finished Jerry Rosco’s book on Glenway Wescott, the often odd-man-out in the Lynes-Wheeler-Wescott trio. It’s a rich book, benefitting from hours of reminiscences Westcott recorded towards the end of his life, almost a lifetime of diaries, and a well-documented life. Wescott, only vaguely known to me until now, was famous before Hemingway (and the cruel butt of his homophobia. He is ostensibly the model for Robert Prentiss in THE SUN ALSO RISES, of which, according to Wiki, after meeting Prentiss, Jack Barnes, the narrator, says, ‘I just thought perhaps I was going to throw up’); wrote two best-sellers (THE GRANDMOTHERS, 1927; APARTMENT IN ATHENS, 1945) and received quite extraordinary critical praise for THE PILGRIM HAWK, including a two-part appreciation from Susan Sontag in The New Yorker in 2001, where she deemed it, ‘among the treasures of twentieth-century American literature’.
His life is an illustration of a particularly American kind of re-invention. The son of Wisconsin farmers, himself farmed out to relatives when the family didn’t have enough to eat, who went on to become a celebrity, peer of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris, then firmly entrench himself in the upper classes without himself having a penny to his name or indeed working on anything but his writing. He brings to mind Truman Capote but without the dizziness of that particular kind of success, the self-destructiveness, a better internalisation of Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People, and an innate niceness and cheer. In ‘The Loves of the Falcon’a lovely essay on his work in the New York Review of Books, Edmund White writes: ‘He was a confidant who also confided in others (intimacy is not always a two-way street, which egotistical friends don’t notice at first but come to resent in the long run)’
In many ways he is the ideal clubman. Had he not been queer and a writer, he might have made an excellent Elk or Rotary. As he dined with Pauline Rothchild, he also contributed greatly to the Kinsey Institute, not just by being a subject or through donations but by actually working towards the organisation of the archive. He directed many of the writers’ associations of the day; and amongst other ‘contributions to literature’ that don’t have to do strictly with writing, he and Christopher Isherwood arranged for the publication of E.M. Forster’s Maurice.
What interested me most in the book and in his life, what interests me most about biography, is the insight it offers to how people live, the choices they make, how they manage their life. Wescott’s circumstances were inherently difficult, though nothing in this book makes it seems so: people were queer and they dealt with it. On the edges of the book, however, one deduces other stories; handsome, gifted people who intersected with these lives and didn’t manage so well; drugs, alcohol, despair, oppression, suicide, all having an effect that Wescott’s cheery disposition and strong support network circumvented, though they do appear here. As well as being nice to others, Wescott was very honest with himself, particularly in relation to questions of sex…and of love. He was never confused as to which was which and when they coincided; and he was a very loving person, maybe a reason why he was able to maintain such a rich network of relationships right to the end.
The book, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, might have been improved by sharpening the narrative and eliminating ‘doings’ that don’t much enhance our understanding of the man – the post sixties chapters suffer from too much listing of events and activities . I woud have liked more on psychology. Perhaps what surprised me more in the book was that someone so clearly good looking though of himself as physically unattractive, and this despite being regularly in sexual demand through much of his life. I would have liked to have understood this better — Edmund’s White’s explanation that he thought he had a small penis and that a youthful illness resulted in the removal of a testicle are surely a contributing factor but don’t quite fully convince: it’s undoubtedly true Westcott felt this, but why, when, for how long, did this often intermingle with a knowledge of his own sexual pull; how did he he rationalise this with the constant stream of long relationships with much younger lovers as well as with Wheeler throughout and right to the end of his life? I would have liked a fuller account of this.
The book leaves one uncertain of Wescott’s place in 20th Century American Letters but convinced that he is a major figure in a history of twentieth century queer cultures in the West.
So dull. Like a suburban housewife bringing you up to date on the doings of the various members of a hugely extended family circle, none of whom you’ve met or care about. The accent is all on everything is ok, fixed this, organised that, scheduled the other thing, on the resolving of problems rather than an account or exploration of them. In the meantime, her mom has an alcohol problem, her step dad’s a wife beater, her step-mom attempts suicide, her brother has a drug problem, her husband is a hypochondriac film director given to bouts of depression, and she’s seeing a psychiatrist five times a week. You’d think it would all be more interesting. But it isn’t. You can tell she really hates someone when she keeps her fulsome praise short: ‘Rock Hudson was charming, had a great sense of humour and was a real professional. We didn’t see much of him during the shoot.’ You read and read and read and at the end you feel you know her less than when you started.
When life gets busy and stressful, I find comfort in reading a biography and sinking into other people´s lives. This first week back teaching I read Demi Moore´s Inside Out. There’s surprisingly little on the career, a sparkly one that is central to an understanding of popular Hollywood cinema in the ’80s and ’90s, and even less about the films: Joel Schumacher helped her keep her role in St. Elmo´s Fire whilst she got off drugs; people still want to talk to her about Patrick Swayze and Ghost; she thinks Indecent Proposal is a better film than is credited; she gives an insight into how she got that big paycheck for Striptease; the fights to resist the love affair between her character and that of Tom Cruise´s in A Few Good Man that the studio was begging for; she talks of how men in the industry reacted to her G.I Jane body etc. But there´s not much and more space is devoted to the Vanity Fair covers she did with Annie Leibowitz (perhaps rightly). The spine of the story is her relationship with her mother and the best parts of the book are her descriptions of growing up with two parents who were mainly interested in drink, drugs, gambling and a good time, running away from bills and responsibilities all over the country, scamming their way into new houses, and then repeating the cycle all over again every few months with new names, constantly on the move and always on the fringes of criminality. One of Demi´s daughters says she wasn´t raised but forged. And reading the book one understands why. A book I very much enjoyed reading.
Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography by Robert Sellers
London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2015.
It’s always a mistake for any biography to announce itself as ‘definitive’ in the title: it invites contradiction; and on the evidence of reading Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography, it will not be the last word on the great star: the interior life, what drove him at different stages in his life, even why so many of his film performances continue to thrill when the films themselves don’t, are questions the book does not answer satisfactorily.
But to say that it is not definitive is not to say that it is not good. In fact it’s the best one we’ve got so far and Robert Sellers has conducted dozens of new interviews, dug up and clarified essential facts that we did not know or which were not clear before – for example, he firmly establishes that whilst his father was Irish and his mother Scottish, O’Toole himself was born in Leeds – and we even get charming nuggets such as the following: ‘O’Toole left RADA, aged twenty-three, with a little blue book that every student was given upon graduation, The RADA Keepsake and Counsellor. It gave indispensable advice for the rocky road that lay ahead, gems like: ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t get the job as long as the shoes you were wearing at the audition were clean.’
Sellers is very good at contextualising O’Toole’s first steps as an actor. We learn that O’Toole ended up in the same class at RADA as Albert Finney and Alan Bates; actors who would really come into their own and symbolise a new type of British cinema in the sixties. Interestingly, of these, and even if one were to include his great friend Richard Harris, O’Toole is the one who would remain least associated with the dominant currents of British Cinema in this period. He’s got no equivalent to Finney’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Harris’ This Sporting Life and Bates is almost exclusively associated with British Cinema (Georgy Girl, Women in Love, The Go-Between, Far From the Madding Crowd, etc.). O’Toole was different. His first big splash was in Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, where Noel Coward quipped he was so pretty he should have been called Florence of Arabia. It was a ‘runway production’; British story, director etc. but also international money and international stars (Anthony Quinn, Omar Shariff); a typical Sam Spiegel production. And it’s interesting that many of O’Toole’s greatest success or most famous films of the 60s would have strong associations with Britain but all be in one way or another ‘international’: Becket, Lion in Winter, Lord Jim, Goodbye Mr. Chips, even, in different ways, What’s New Pussycat.
Sellers is marvellous at illuminating his work in theatre. He interviews lots of his contemporaries, co-stars, people who worked with him in various capacities and their accounts are vivid and illuminating. We do get real insight into his time at the Bristol Old Vic, his star-making turn at the Royal Court and the West End in The Long and the Short and the Tall in 59, his legendary performance as Shylock at Stratford for Peter Hall, the famously disastrous Macbeth in 1980 and of course late triumphs such as Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. These aspects of the book are excellent .
The personal life, his relationship with his father and with his son, with his two wives and two daughters, all of these are sketched out clearly if a bit unsatisfactorily, though the fault here might be more with this reader’s wanting to know more than with the way the book tells it. Certainly Sellers seems to have had unprecedented access to the family and to personal papers, all of which are put to good use in the book.
The picture is of a star who continues to dazzle, a man with somewhat bipolar tendencies who drank to unconsciousness during one part of his life and until his body could take it no more; a selfish but good man; a literary man who delighted in performing and in the admiration and applause of others. This is all vividly sketched. So why the grumbling? I suppose I would have wanted more on the film career; that’s what we see now; that’s what matters disproportionally now; that was a large part of his life then. As the book makes clear, he loved being a film star. Lastly, I don’t think we get enough of a sense of who Peter O’Toole was as a person; his actions are clearly narrated and well-documented by the book; his fears, dreams, desires still remain opaque. I suppose we can consult O’Toole’s own excellent autobiographies: Loitering With Intent: The Child and Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice. But they’re only partially revealing, and only on that period before he became famous. Nonetheless, these are perhaps the grumblings of a fan: Sellers’ book tells us so much more than we already knew that it’s begrudging to criticise him for not telling us as much as we want to know. Thus the book might not be definitive. But it is essential to anyone who wants to know more about Peter O’Toole.
by Grace Jones, as told to Paul Morley, London: Simon and Schuster, 2015.
It’s out, seems written rather than dictated — a credit to the writing of Paul Morley –full of wonderful imagery and in a unique voice; very intelligent too, with some of the most acute observations on the development of the discotheque and on disco music that I’ve ever read.
Why Grace Jones remains fascinating is clear: throughout the 70s and eighties she was at the centre of a dynamic intersection of art, fashion, music and celebrity culture, with even a short but memorable raid into the movies; as a model in Paris, she roomed with Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange; she was photographed by Helmut Newton, painted by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring designed for her videos, Issey Miyake and Kenzo designed her clothes, Phillip Treacy designed her hats, Jean-Paul Goude directed her videos. She was a star of Studio 54 when it was the centre of Club culture, the same for the Garage later, and Le Palace in Paris after that; she and Dolph Lundgren were the celebrity couple of their day and as visually striking as any duo in the 20th Century. She co-starred with Schwarzenegger and Eddy Murphy in their heyday and is one of the most memorable of Bond villains; and this is all be before we get to the music, which is, justly, what she is most celebrated for — she produced music that has stood the test of time even as it vividly represents it;
The joy of reading this book is that as an intelligent woman, a cultured woman with lots of experience, she’s got a lot of perceptive things to say on all the cultural moments and movements she participated in, and she says it honestly and with warmth and a great deal of humour. ‘I wanted what I did to be entertainment, but the entertainment that is really art that likes to party’. It was and is; and the book vividly demonstrates how and why Grace Jones is an artist.
In his beautiful and illuminating Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions, Guillermo del Toro writes, ’50 percent of storytelling (in movies) is “eye protein,” which is very different than eye candy. They look the same to the untrained eye, but they are fundamentally different’. One could argue that there are few directors who have provided as much ‘eye protein’ as Pedro Almodóvar: Minnelli, Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Del Toro himself, perhaps even others. But it’s hard to think of one who’s given us more. Yet, if that’s the case, why aren’t we more attentive to it?; why don’t we, so to speak, visually chew on that protein and let its nutrients feed and nurture whatever arguments we make on the film to a greater extent than we do now?
For example, on its initial release, there was a lot of debate as to whether and to what extent La mala educación/ Bad Education was autobiographical. Javier Royos, whilst focusing on the screenplay, writes in Cinemania that Bad Education is a film noir ‘born as a rebel yell against something Almodóvar knew from his own experience’. Jonathan Holland’s review in Variety, the trade magazine, highlighted the use of autobiographical material: ‘Pedro Almodóvar’s long-gestated, instantly identifiable Bad Education’ welds autobiographical matter relating to his troubled religious education into a classic noir structure, repping a generic shift from the classy, emotionally involving mellers that have dominated his recent output.’
There’s something interesting in that juxtaposition of the autobiographical and genre as genre is a setting for and horizon of expectations for the telling of that personal story; and, over time, as the story gets expanded, there’s a shift in the choice of genre Almodóvar finds appropriate to its telling: we first encountered the themes and a rough sketch of the characters in Bad Education almost twenty years earlier in La ley del deseo/ The Law of Desire (1987) but in melodramatic form and with more than a dash of comedy. That film too focused on a film director who was gay, who had made films in the early 80s and was part of the Movida that Bad Education also references. It was the film that inaugurated, Almodóvar’s production company, El Deseo, transformed in Bad Education into El Hazar, thus transmuting desire into chance, and, most importantly, it featured a moment in which Tina (Carmen Maura) walks into a church remembering all the times she’d ‘jerked off’ there when she was a boy only to come face to face with the priest she’d had sexual relations with as a child:
‘You remind me of an old pupil. He used to sing in the choir, too’ says the priest.
‘Father Constantino, it is I.’
‘How you’ve changed
‘Self-expression’ was considered an important criterion when evaluating Almodóvar’s authorship in the 1980s. For example, the press in Madrid had long recognized a gay sensibility in Almodovar’s films, even taunting him about not giving it full expression. ‘In the end he’s not prepared to reveal more…directly through (his) own sexuality’, wrote Carlos Benítez Gonzalez in 5 Dias (1982). It was seen as gay work by a director who had not formally come out; and there’s an unpleasant aspect to such comments, to such attempts to drag him out of the, or at least a, closet; as if the ‘coming out’ they sought was not so that his self-expression would be truer or deeper but so that he’d be more vulnerable to attack in what remained a deeply homophobic culture.
The fact that Almodóvar would not put homosexuality, or let’s be more explicit, homosexual characters, at the centre of his films was seen as a block to his self-expression. In turn, this was interpreted as a reason why his films were not those of a true auteur. It’s difficult today to look at films like What Have I Done to Deserve This or Labyrinth of Passionand not see them as key exemplars of gay culture. But Spanish critics then were searching for a more autobiographical form of self-expression. They wanted homosexual stories in a plot about homosexuality. Basically, they wanted him to out himself, even if only via a fictional alter-ego, on film. That, it seems to me, is the ‘self-expression’ they wanted from him.
When La ley was released, Pedro Crespo (1987) titled his review in ABC , ‘La ley del deseo unblocks the career of Pedro Almodóvar’. In the text he added that the world depicted in La Ley was relatively similar to (Almodóvar’s) own’. Thus, it’s not that Law of Desire is any more camp or has any less ‘gay sensibility’ than previous films like Dark Hideout/ Entre tinieblas (1983)or What Have I Done to Deserve This?/ Qué he hecho yo para merezer esto? (1984)that ‘unblocks’, it’s that critics are overly focusing on the story rather than on its telling; and urging him to tell stories about himself. Thus this pressing for the intimate, the personal, the autobiographical — and the insistence on its verification — is something that runs through critical responses to Almodóvar’s work.
So now that we’ve established why this concern with the autobiographical in Almodóvar’s oeuvre, is Almodóvar’s Bad Education autobiographical? According to Jordi Costa in Fotogramas, ‘it’s autobiographical and it isn’t: the game of masks is written into its DNA’. In another note, I would like to explore further this game of masks Costa refers to, how most characters are split into two or three different personas in the film, how some characters pass for others, how the film like any noir, whilst not cheating, guides us through false corridors, and how the labyrinthine narration moves through the perspective of different characters writing a story, reading it, seeing at as a film, remembering. The story is told through masterfully narrated fragments of point-of-view on story, film and memory. Bad Education is a film that wants to tell but doesn’t quite want us to know, wants to show but wants us to work at that seeing, it doesn’t want us to easily come to a fuller understanding.
In Bad Education, as they’ve set in motion the murder of Ignacio (Francisco Boira), Juan (Gaél García Bernal), who we’ve already seen in the guises of Ángel, Ignacio and Zahara, walks out of a cinema during ‘film noir week’ with Señor Berenguer (Lluís Homar), previously and fictionally Father Manolo, as the latter says ‘it seems all the films talk about us’. The camera then lingers on posters of Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Renoir’s La bête humaine (1938)and Marcel Carné’s Thérèse Raquin (1953). Those films definitely have a lot to say about Ángel and Señor Berenguer as characters in the narrative and about Almodóvar’s ongoing conversation with a history of cinema in general and noir in particular. But does Bad Education have anything to tell us about Almodóvar other than in the general sense that ‘all films speak about us’ or ‘all of Almodóvar’s films are an expression, however partial, of his consciousness’?
In the pressbook for the film, Almodóvar writes, ‘La mala educación’ is a very intimate film. It’s not exactly auto-biographic – i.e., it’s not the story of my life in school, nor my education in the early years of ‘la movida’, even though these are the two backgrounds in which the argument (sic) is set (1964 and 1980, with a stop in 1977).
What Almodóvar says in the film does not exactly contradict what he says in the press-book but neither is it identical to it. The very last shot of the credit sequence (see image capture 1-a above) ends with ‘written and directed’ by Pedro Almodóvar. The very first shot of the narrative of Bad Education proper starts with a close-up of a framed picture saying ‘written and directed by Enrique Goded’ (see image capture 1-b above). The cut separating each of those credits thus also links them, particularly since there is the same image of airplanes and stewardesses in the background. Now this could be an accident or a mere conceit except we return to it at the end of the film but in reverse order. The last shot of the narrative of Bad Education is a still image telling us what happened to Enrique Goded after this murderous incident of filmmaking and passion; the title informs us that ‘Enrique Goded is still making films with the same passion’(see image capture 1-c above); then the camera zooms in so close to the word passion that it dissolves (see image capture 1-d) and the start of the end credits begins with ‘written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar’ (See image capture 1-e). Enrique Goded and Pedro Almodovar are explicitely linked at the beginning and at the end; and in the end, linked above all, but perhaps not only by, a passion for cinema.
If the film seems to be saying that Enrique Goded is much more Pedro Almodóvar than the director himself will publicly admit to, then very first image points to another discussion of the autobiographical and that is in relation to the self-referentiality of the development of the oeuvre itself. Doesn’t that credit of Goded’s (refer back to 1-b above), which is also the background for the credit to Almodovar (1-a) also remind you of the poster for I’m So Excited (see below)? And doesn’t it also refer to ‘Girls and Suitcases’, the project that eventually turned into Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) but that is referred to explicitly as ‘Girls and Suitcases’ in Broken Embraces (2009)?
One image attributed to Enrique Goded can thus bring up a whole web of links, cross-referenced, to Almodóvar’s oeuvre that becomes an autobiography on film, not only of Almodóvar but of our own experience and interactions with his work. His filmic autobiography becomes in turn part of a memory of experiences that make up little stories we tell ourselves and others that are in turn transformed into a narrative, a changing one, of who that self is. At least, it does if we pay attention to that eye protein and chew on it.