Tag Archives: Noches de Casablanca

‘La vie en rose’: Some Thoughts on a Recurring Repertoire Amongst ‘Gay Divas’.

‘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):

Audrey Hepburn:

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:

Martha Wainwright:

 

(Thanks, thus far, to Adrian Garvey, Andy Medhurst, Gary Needham, Kevin Stenson,  Christos Tsirbas , and Phil Ulyatt for their input)

José Arroyo

Sara and Julio Look Back

Watching Spanish musicals of the ’50s and sixties, I’ve noticed how often the protagonists look directly at the camera, and thus at the audience. It’s generally a no-no in Classical Hollywood Cinema, though there’s more of a history of it than is common acknowledged, particularly in musicals and comedy: one need only think of how wittily Lubitsch (and Cukor) deploy it in the opening scenes of One Hour With You (1932) (see clip below)and of course it’s woven into the Crosby/Hope/Lamour ‘Road’ films for comic effect, often as an in-joke the audience is also privy to.

The distancing effect, the alienation effect, the estrangement effect; all of these translations and derivatives of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, and rooted in the Russion Formalist notion of making strange, of de-familarizing,  in cinema as on stage, is supposed to distance the spectator emotionally by making the familiar strange, making them aware of the constructedness of the drama and in doing so allowing for a more intellectual understanding that would empower the individual to analyze and perhaps even change the world. A characteristic device in theatre and in film is the look back directly to the audience, in theatre the breaking of ‘the fourth wall’, a direct address that is supposed to disrupt ‘stage illusion’ and generate a distancing effect.

Spanish musicals offer further proof, if proof were needed, that no one meaning or effect can be attributed to any formal device; that indeed it can be used in multiple and contradictory ways. Seeing a lot of Sara Montiel films I’ve noticed how this look back at the audience is something that she does regularly in her films (Pecado de amor, La dama de Beirut, Noches de Casablanca ), it’s almost a trope in her vehicles. What interested me about the use of that device of looking directly at the camera in La Reina del Chantecler (Rafael Gil, Spain, 1962) is that it seems to me that it does the opposite of what any Verfremdungseffekt is supposed to do, i.e. it sutures in rather than alienates or distances.

As you can see in the clip below, the pre-title opening sequence of the film is a musical number where Sara Montiel performs, ‘Colón 34’, the refrain goes as follows:

Colón, Colón 34
tiene usted su habitación
y una chica muy decente
sin ninguna pretención
en la calle de Colón, Colón, Colón
siempre a su disposición.

Colón, Colón 34/ You have your own room/ and a very good unpretentious girl/ always at your disposal/ in the street of Colón, Colón, Colón (trans. my own).

As you can see in the clip below, the sequence begins in medium long shot, covering her face and figure, the camera then cranes back into a proper long shot so you can see that quite extensive and impressive set. It then moves in to medium close-up as Montiel starts another verse. As the refrain recommences, the camera gets closer to medium close-up. Then it cuts to a plan américain again, but now intercuts with the audience, demonstrating how Sara is heating up the men in the audience with her risqué song.

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At 2.12, the camera cuts to a close-up of Sara, once more singing the refrain, but this time looking directly at the camera until the last line: ‘always at your disposal’. i.e Sara is at the audience’s disposal in the cinema just as her character is in the theatre. There’s meant to be some link between the men in the theatre listening to her character, and the audience in the cinema. It’s a way for the narrative to present the spectacle of Sara, make some structural homologies whilst allowing for particular variations (Sara had a large female following), but also present the film audience as the ideal audience.

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After Sara’s name appears in the credits, and then the name of the film, accompanied by illustrations that are meant to signify period (the twenties, though they look like Toulouse-Lautrec imitations from the French Belle Epoque), the narrative proper begins; and there will be no more looking at the audience then. But this sequence seems to be saying, ‘you can enjoy the spectacle of Sara Montiel even better than the audience in this theatre is enjoying the spectacle of the character she plays. Now sit back and lose yourself in this dream of song, and sparkling Eastman colour, a pre-war Spain of song and romance’. That’s not what any Verfremdungseffekt is supposed to do.

 

 

I was surprised to see an even more overt example of this in La vida sigue igual (Eugenio Martin, Spain, 1969), a film inspired by Julio Iglesias’ real life, a wannabe Real Madrid goal-keeper has an accident, is prevented from following his dream, and whilst he’s recovering chances upon a world of music, enters a singing contest, wins it, and becomes a pop star. The title of the song is also the title of the film and was a hit before the film began shooting. It’s the song that won Julio the Benidorm song contest in 1968 and launched him as a pop star.

As you can see above. The opening sequence of La vida sigue igual is more familiar to us, with a form very familiar to us from MTV videos: Julio singing directly to the camera, a title card telling us this film will be based on Julio’s real life, then intercut with couples and all the forms of love Julio is singing about, a series of shots some of which literalise the lyrics others which allegorise the theme, with cuts on the beat, that return us to Julio singing directly to us so we can then metaphorically enter his life through the subsequent narrative.

Again, rather than make strange, this sequence is more like one of the ‘attractions’ Tom Gunning writes of in relation to early cinema. He writes that it’s  “a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator.” This certainly displays its visibility, it’s Julio Iglesias, pop star, winner of the Benidorm song contest, singing his song for you, in a movie. It solicits the attention of the spectator but it doesn’t so much rupture a self-enclosed fictional world. But create a setting and context for it. Just like Sara does.

 

José Arroyo