"Those famous lovers we'l make them forget / from Adam and Eve to Scarletrt and Rhett. . ."
". . .look at Gershwin, he's as good as Bach or Beethoven. . .best of all it's American"
"Those famous lovers we'l make them forget / from Adam and Eve to Scarletrt and Rhett. . ."
". . .look at Gershwin, he's as good as Bach or Beethoven. . .best of all it's American"
And speaking of Jim Jarmusch's films, I watched "Dead Man" several times when doing research for an essay on poetry in film. After a while, it struck me that, while there many overt references to William Blake, the entire film was informed by Emily Dickinson's "My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun." I wonder if anyone else observes the connection.
-- Stacey Lehman
In the TV show "To Tell the Truth," there were always three individuals pretending to be the prominent or accomplished figure, an adventurer or a football hero, and the panel had to choose who was the genuine article.
But Cary Grant stumped the panel.
Each of the three individuals named Cary Grant was extraordinarily handsome, suave, charming, and irresistible even though one was a glib ad man named Roger Thornhill, skillful at stealing a taxi cab or fobbing off girlfriends with gifts of chocolate and insincere praise. The second Cary Grant was a fast-talking newspaper editor ("Duffy! Get me rewrite!"), who can outwit Ralph Bellamy or whoever the designated rival is and recover the affections of alienated partners such as Irene Dunne and Rosalind Russell. The third showed up at the top of the Empire State Building to meet Deborah Kerr but she, though equally eager, gets hit by a car in the street below, and they do not consummate their affair to remember.
Born Archie Leach on January 18, 1904 in Bristol (England), Cary Grant spoke in an accent that sounds somehow British and yet is not out of place in any set of circumstances in the States. His versatility extended from the globetrotting realm of Hitchcock's thrillers (the England of "Suspicion," the South America of "Notorious," the French riviera of "To Catch a Thief") to comedies with leading ladies on the order of Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly and Eva Marie Saint. Possibly the handsomest leading man in the movies, though not the sexiest, he starred with both Hepburns, Katharine in a whole bunch of films and Audrey in Charade. He ties Jimmy Stewart as the most frequent Hitchcock hero. He became a US citizen in 1942 and never won a regular academy award, although he did collect an honorary Oscar in 1970.
Origin of name: Boring Hollywood legend has it that "Cary" came from his stage role as a guy named Cary in a musical with Fay Wray, and "Grant" was assigned to him by the studio. You and I can do better. "Grant me an hour, and I will carry you over the altar," he said sheepishly.
Marital status: five times, with wife #3 (Betsy Drake) the marriage that lasted longest. He had a genius for screwball romantic comedies and was a natural straight man -- in Frank Capra's "Arsenic and Old Lace," example.
His last romantic hurrah: Charade with Audrey Hepburn in 1963. The Stanley Donen-directed film also exploits the talents of Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, the Marche aux Timbres and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Gene Kelly doing a carefree dance on the banks of the Seine (though filmed on a studio) is lovingly recalled by Miss Hepburn (Mrs Charles Lampert) as the hero and heroine hold hands under a bridge and a bateau mouche glides by. Cary Grant shrewdly insists that the romance begins on the lady's side -- he is acutely conscious of the age difference between him and Audrey Hepburn. But then you think about it and you realize that he is ever the pursued one -- that his good looks trump the ladies and he doesn't even have to make a pass to score. If life were a romantic comedy with a Nora Ephron accent, you could not do better than cast Cary Grant in the lead role.
From Charade: "You know what's wrong with you? Nothing." From North by Northwest": "The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I've no desire to make love to her." "What makes you think you have to conceal it?" "She might find the idea objectionable." "Then again she might not."
There is, however, a blank where an identity should be.
Cary Grant took LSD more than 100 times, having been introduced to the narcotic by Betsy Drake. It helped him more than a posse of doctors in his lifelong quest to confront his identity. Best quote: "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." The plot conceit generating North by Northwest, in which a Madison Avenue executive is mistaken for a CIA agent who doesn't exist, is based on an incident in Grant's biography.
A rose is just a rose: "I never had so much fun since Archie Leach died," he says in His Girl Friday. If you watch Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace, you'll see the grave of Archie Leach.
Posthumous scuttlebutt that doesn't shock anyone anymore: he may have been bi-sexual (LTR with flatmate Randolph Scott).
Dodger Fan Info: Shared exclusive box seats with Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck at Dodger Stadium. Did not pay very close attention to the games.
Retirement job: Became a director of the Fabergé company and promoted the fragrance firm's products.
Vital stats: Rising sign Libra, moon in Aquarius; Water Cat (Chinese astrology); six feet one and a half inches tall.
The well-dressed actor's method was the opposite of the method of Marlon Brando. Brando wanted to find the character within himself. Cary Grant lost himself in the character he was playing.
Like a handful of other Hollywood giants -- Bogart, Cagney, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, John Wayne -- he was always himself and whoever he was depicting. When Bogart or Cagney want to shock you, they act like madmen, Bogart the paranoid ("The Caine Mutiny"), Cagney the psychotic bundle of rage who holds conversations with his dead mama ("White Heat."). Gable is always dashing, Cooper always stoical, strong, and silent, and John Wayne will never lose a fight or a battle. But Cary Grant is at heart a comic actor of supernal charm thrust into a melodrama of high gravity. And what he acts out is invariably a romance. No man is luckier in love than the Cary Grant that existed only in the movies. It is said that Ian Fleming concocted Jame Bond with Cary Grant in mind.
(a) Because Gene Kelly favored the “rule of three”
(b) Because one can sing, one can dance, and one can provide comic relief
(c) Because human kind cannot bear very much reality
(d) Because, according to Freud, “three” is a magic number and a phallic symbol
(e) Because Al tells Fred to lay off Peggy until Wilma marries Homer.
Which movie illustrates the condition described by T. S. Eliot in the garden?
(a) All of them
(b) All musicals except It's Always Fair Weather
(d) The Third Man but only if seen in Vienna on a Friday evening
Who is "the third man" in The Third Man?
(a) Fred MacMurray
(b) Claire Bloom's lover when they reach the Berlin Wall and begin to climb
(c) Harry Lime
(e) Franz Kindler
When Carol Reed made The Fallen Idol,
(a) he understood that he could not be faithful to Graham Greene's story
(b) he asked Orson Welles for advice on casting the butler
(c) he cast his own butler as the butler
(d) he was dating Carol Burnett
(e) he and she sang carols with Carroll O'Connor
The star of the movie was
(2) Ilse Lund
(3) Laurence Olivier as Hamlet
(4)The man who didn't shoot Liberty Valance
Who is the “odd man out” in Carol Reed’s film with James Mason?
(d) Johnny McQueen
(e) Father Tom
(a) Because they appealed to his sense of fair play.
(b) Because he was a queer bird, even for an American.
© Because he has done what Don Draper will do in Korea: he steals the identity of an officer killed in an action that he survives. But unlike Draper he is found out and hasn’t any choice.
(d) Because Holden was a natural hero, the American who has to get talked into putting his life on the line for a good cause.
(e) Because he is depicted shirtless at the POW camp reminding the viewer of Picnic with Kim Novak.
(a) She phoned the number her lover gave her and the voice on the other end said, "City Morgue."
(b) She said we're both rotten and he said only you're a little bit more rotten
(c) She beat Henry Fonda at poker
(d) She saw Addison De Witt commit a murder and tried to pin it on her
(e) When she went to bed with Robert Taylor, he called her Ruby Catherine Stevens
What are the last words spoken in Double Indemnity?
(a) "Round up the usual suspects."
(b) "Straight down the line."
(c) "I love you, too."
(d) "How fast was I going, officer?"
(e) "Sorry, baby, I'm not buying."
(a) favors the navy but lets army and air force get drunk as a skunk
(b) plays "How Little We Know" on the piano for Lauren Bacall to sing
(c) celebrated his birthday on November 22
(d) owns the bar where Dana Andrews meets Teresa Wright
(e) invented the hoagy by shoving in a roll everything he could find in the icebox
A few years ago I wrote a piece for The American Scholar employing the Raymond Roussel method of composition that obliges the author to commence with one word or phrase and end with a meaning derived from a homonym of the initial word or phrase. Noir became No R. Here's how:
Kaminsky got on the noir bandwagon early on.
At Wesleyan he majored in French, spent his junior year in Paris, went to the Cinémathèque Française at the Palais de Chaillot, and watched American movies with French subtitles as a way to learn the language. Many of the films were classic noir efforts of the 1940s and early ’50s. He saw Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, and Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, and Dark Passage with Bogart and Bacall, and The Killing with Sterling Hayden organizing a racetrack heist, and The Lady from Shanghai with Anita Ellis’s voice coming out of Rita Hayworth’s mouth singing “Please Don’t Kiss Me” and meaning the exact opposite, and Pickup on South Street with Richard Widmark as an experienced pickpocket who lifts a woman’s wallet in the subway and the wallet happens to have strips of microfilm that the Communists crave, and Widmark lives on a houseboat under the Brooklyn Bridge and Thelma Ritter gets offed and Jean Peters gets beaten up like you wouldn’t believe, and Cry Danger and The Woman in the Window and Laura and The Asphalt Jungle and the dozens of other notable movies that feature fatal females, mixed-up males with mixed motives, robberies and insurance scams that go wrong, greed that turns lusty, lust that turns deadly.
The dialogue is snappy, witty in the hard-boiled manner. Even cabdrivers crack wise. The fare is a private eye, and the cabbie says sympathetically, “Tough racket.” “Maybe so,” the dick replies, “but cabdrivers don’t live forever.” “Maybe not,” the cabbie concedes. “All the same it’ll come as a surprise to me if I don’t.” In another part of town, Ann Sheridan of the magnificent mane kills a burglar in self-defense, or so she claims. The dame-in-distress sobs to the police: “I’ve told you all I know.” Husband Zachary Scott of the mustachioed sneer knits his brows, but can’t help looking bitchy: “There’s nothing for you to be ashamed of.” Both are lying. But the true noir note is sounded by Eve Arden as Paula, a secondary character, officiating at a party for the suspects, witnesses, and extras. When she has everyone’s attention, she admits to having committed a crime against society some years ago. I “married a man,” she announces. Later the busty broad deadpans that “practically everything” she has is real. “It’s a shame to waste two perfectly good mouths on you,” she remarks when a pair of gossiping girlfriends get on her nerves. Later, still: “Don’t show me out, I know the way. I always look for an exit in case of a raid.”
“Some things that happen for the first time / seem to be happening again”: Lorenz Hart’s definition of déjà vu (from his lyric for “Where or When”) applies with a vengeance to noir. Accidents seem predetermined; events occur as if repetitions of themselves. The gang leader has a heart-to-heart with his dead Ma in the back yard after dark, and the brains of the operation feeds nickels into the jukebox so he can watch a nubile girl jitterbug with a boy her own age. Exhibitionists in gaudy undergarments perform for laid-up photographers across the courtyard. The surgeon with a cigarette dangling from his lips gives the escaped con a new face, and if there’s a knock on the door, the chances are that a man with a gun will enter the room and shoot first, ask questions later. What do you want me to do, count to three like they do in the movies?
A thug throws a pot of hot coffee at a moll’s face or, giggling, rolls an old lady’s wheelchair down a flight of stairs and the wrong man is arrested. The prizefighter refuses to throw the bout and gets beaten in the alley. There's a scheme to do away with one angle of the triangular three, sit pretty, and collect the insurance. bit it doesn't quite work out as planned. The pampered invalid has a panic attack, picks up the phone, and dials the emergency number she has been given. A voice answers, “City Morgue.” The dead return to life. A beautiful murder victim walks into her own living room wondering what the hell the gumshoe asleep in an armchair is doing there. A small-town notary goes to San Francisco, has a drink, feels funny, and spends the next week—that is, the rest of his life—trying to solve the mystery of his own murder before he expires of a slow-working poison. In one scene at a club, a girl singer does a swinging version of “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are.” We go to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Reno, Mexico, the state penitentiary, a lost highway or two, but for some reason we keep returning to San Francisco. There is also a valise stuffed with $20 bills, a crooked cop, a cuckolded husband, a pair of lethal scissors on the desk, a sensitive black man played by James Edwards, a stick-up in the parking lot, a confusing plot, a lot of rain, and a lot of cigarettes.
It was an easy genre to like. The French were crazy about it.
But that's just the noir portion. How do we get from here to "no R"?
Click here to find out.
From "No R" by David Lehman in The American Scholar. Click here for the rest of the piece. [Originally posted 2015.]
Wu Xia works in a clothing factory. She frequently works twelve-hour days or twelve-hour nights. At the age 35, she has been working in various factories for 21 years, or nearly two-thirds of her life. What is striking about Wu Xia, and this comes through clearly in her appearance in the documentary film Iron Moon, is the way she accepts the burdens that poverty and the migrant-worker lifestyle have placed on her and her family, and, simultaneously, how much her poetry resists it.
Bowls Wearing Earrings
The factory cafeteria is lined with
bowls of different patterns. They’re sent one by one up to the counter,
and perhaps one will vanish. That’s disturbing,
because losing a bowl is like losing one’s soul.
Mama bored holes in the sides of her bowl and of mine
and attached loops of iron wire,
so when we pick them up, they shake and clatter.
When I went to get my food, my coworkers laughed and said the bowl
was wearing earrings. But soon they were copying it.
More and more bowls wearing earring appeared in the cafeteria,
like girls just beginning to dress up.
We all worry about losing our jobs,
but the bowls don’t have to worry about getting lost.
This poem reveals much about the migrant worker lifestyle: the cafeteria lined with anonymous bowls, and the way the workers are also treated as essentially anonymous. How mother and daughter work together in the same factory. How the workers here are female, indicating the kinds of internal segregation in workforces these factories perpetrate. How a utilitarian object, even one as seemingly impersonal as a bowl, becomes akin to a “soul.” How these places are pervaded with the workers’ fears of being fired or laid off, and the omnipresent threat of bosses.
Wu Xia’s poetry is often plainly “feminine” and soft in tone. She writes about flowers and sundresses and earrings and sunshine. But underlying all of this is a powerful articulation and rejection of the kinds of depravations workers face in their jobs and lives. In her poem “Sundress,” she describes pressing, folding, and carefully boxing up a sundress that will be sent to a boutique where “it will wait for only you.” This is the kind of store that Wu Xia herself does not enter; she wears cheap dresses that she buys from street markets.
Rather than focusing on this imparity, or on what she cannot have, Wu focuses instead on what she is giving to the world: “unknown girl / I love you” she writes. Her resistance also comes in the form of a deep generosity toward her fellow citizens. In a discussion with the filmmakers after the screening of Iron Moon in Shanghai, one of the audience members stood up with tears in his eyes and said that of everything in the film, he had been most moved by Wu Xia. “You never see people like that in China anymore,” he said.
Over the past several years, China has been undergoing a kind of spiritual crisis, a reevaluation of its culture, values, and common decency. The freewheeling economic development that has brought millions of people out of poverty has also led to a profound interpersonal impoverishment. The social structures that held villages, towns, cities, and the whole country together have been crumbling. The group to bear the brunt of these rapid changes are the ordinary workers in factories, coalmines, construction sites, paper mills, chemical plants.
Within that context, Wu Xia’s resistance with softness is a strategy that should not be underestimated. There are many forms of fruitful resistance, but some messages that will be ignored if delivered with anger or resentment may be accepted if delivered with a lighter touch, as the man in the movie discussion demonstrated. He’d never thought much about the workers that are everywhere in Shanghai, he told the audience. But now he couldn’t help but pay attention.
Many, many thanks to Stacey and David for giving me the blog floor for a week! It’s always great a pleasure. Please feel free to visit my website at www.eleanorgoodman.com and the kickstarter page of the movie Iron Moon at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/963482307/iron-moon-the-poetry-of-chinese-migrant-workers. The book Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry will be out this coming spring.
In the documentary film Iron Moon, quotes from this poem reoccur three times:
Rhapsody on the Advance of Heavy Snow
A snow factory in the sky. Mechanical
assembly line angels, stand day and night in the noise and fluorescent lights
numbly producing beautiful snowflakes
the work overload makes them vomit white froth
while the machines thunder all night. The overload
makes them lose control. The oozing snowflakes
crash down ton after ton. Suddenly my country is a swath of white
and the smiles of thirty provinces are pressed into tears,
the borders are crushed, day and night the army does repairs
and between the earth and sky, only the worker’s white heads
are revealed in the blowing snow,
torches and flashlight factories, overtime production
and the temples’ destruction. The backs of the gods are also broken
and their faithful followers have long since decamped.
The graves give away the game. The comfortable ghosts
have been forced back into the human world
hugging their gravestones and coffins, admiring the snow
while the threatened earth leans toward that snow-burdened edge
and slowly slowly slowly slowly starts to tilt
In a movie about manual laborers, one can see why this poem speaks directly to the issues at stake. Here, angels are overworked assembly line workers in the great factory of the sky. Snowflakes have enough weight to crush borders and bring ghosts back to earth. The temples are destroyed and only the workers are left out in the cold.
Such is the dark fantastical world of the poet Wu Niaoniao. In Iron Moon, we watch Wu in a seemingly endless and fruitless search for work at a job fair in the industrial zone in Shenzhen. The jobs on offer: forklift driver, coalminer, construction worker (skilled and unskilled), truck driver, assembly line worker, electronics assembler. The job Wu hopes to find: poet.
Here in the US, there aren’t very many jobs for poets: there are highly sought after university positions, editorial positions, and freelance writing gigs—all of those exist in China too, of course. But someone like Wu Niaoniao, who was born in rural Guangzhou and does not have a college degree, those jobs are unavailable to him, irrespective of his talent and interests. No one at the job fair is the least bit interested in his writing.
This is one of the overlooked tragedies of these workers, in China and across the world: the indifference of the economy to their aspirations. Wherever poverty exists, there will be a part of the society that works for a pittance and whose basic desires are ignored or frustrated. Here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the cafeteria workers at Harvard have been on strike for the last several weeks. They earn approximately $22 an hour—a fortune to someone like Wu Niaoniao who might expect to earn the equivalent of a few dollars a day for backbreaking work. But a $22 an hour wage is not a fortune in Cambridge; subtracting out health care, basic food, and housing costs, and you’re looking at barely making ends meet. And at the same time, workers in the US and China alike are forced to abandon any pursuit that doesn’t help them make rent. That is a tremendous amount of talent being wasted.
I don’t have a solution. And I’m not sure poetry should be a vocation rather than a passion and an artistic pursuit. But watching poets like Wu Niaoniao struggle with the most basic requirements of survival, barely able to muster the time and energy to write despite their abilities, I think we as a global community can and should do better.
Tomorrow: The poet Wu Xia’s resistance via softness.
The poet Zheng Xiaoqiong does not herself appear in the documentary film Iron Moon, a movie about worker-poets surviving in contemporary China, but her poetry does. Zheng has worked a die-mold factory, a magnetic tape factory, a toy factory, and as a hole-punch operator in a hardware factory. She is one of the rare cases of a manual worker escaping the factories for a literary job by dint of her talent and luck. Now a magazine editor in Guangzhou, she has become known for her long, sinewy lines—some of her work verges on a prose poetry—and for her blunt descriptions of what it’s like to work in the harsh factory environments of contemporary Shenzhen, especially as a young woman.
A Product’s Story
First, it starts with a warped piece of iron sheeting, setting off from a village, iron mine, truck,
steamer, or port, then losing one’s name, getting a serial number, and standing at a workstation;
second is springs and assembly lines, the whinny of nervous motion, pain close by, aluminum alloys,
blueprints, breadcrumbs, cutting machines, familiar sweat, plastic and cardboard boxes,
pleasures and sorrows; third is the pale faces under fluorescent lights, employee IDs, mechanical springs,
gears, card edge connectors, pressure coolants, anti-rust oil, silent overtime;
fourth is certificates, standardized forms, exterior polishing, the lashings of a 3000-degree furnace
the cooling heat treatment of overtime pay, of the raindrops, of being fired, your twisted-up
body appearing in an hourglass; fifth is temporary residence permits, physical exam cards, proof of single status,
migrant worker cards, work permits….they wait in line, silently, leaning on
plastic travel bags with exhausted faces; sixth is young pinned-down arms, back pay
and fines, missed periods, a medical history of flus, listlessness, homesickness
as wide as the sea, noise from the overhead lights, drifting in a far city and paystubs floating on a river;
seventh is the dialects of machines and dorms, Hunanese dreams on the berth above Sichuanese,
Hubeinese is neighbors with Anhuinese, the Gansunese machine bit off half
of the Jiangxinese’s finger, Guangxinese’s nightshift, Guizhounese’s gloominess, Yunanese’s rainsoaked
sleep-talk and Henanese’s dress. Eighth is sticks of fried dough, lumps
of instant noodles, the shape of the city in vegetable soup, masks made of copper, coupling links, certificates of conformity,
a buck and half of fried rice noodles, chili sauce, artificially flavored and colored cola;
ninth is love hidden in stories and fairy tales, shared rented rooms, doors
without keys, iron ladders to upper berths, antiseptic fluids in hospitals, birth control pills, the tears of breaking up,
corroded flesh, baseless promises of love; tenth is train tickets to go home, a door
or a pit, a quick-selling ticket or a possible fake, squeezed in the aisles,
in the toilet, standing on tiptoe, crushed, you just want to find a place on the train or in the world
to live, to love, to slowly grow old
What strikes me first about this poem is the form: the long lines, the lists, the blocky shape. Then the specificity of the nouns and the physicality of the descriptions. Finally, the unapologetically female (though not necessarily traditionally feminine) voice. The majority of publishing poets in China are male, and that is all the more true for worker-poets. Many explanations have been offered to for why this is, and I’m sure there is some truth to the idea that girls, and especially girls from rural areas, are taught traditional values, among them the virtues of silence and modesty. I’m sure some women may be more sensitive to the oppressions of the factory environment, including prohibitions against speech, and internalize rules that then make it more difficult for them to write. But it is also the case that women poets are less likely to be accepted into poetry circles. Their writing is taken less seriously, published less frequently, and overall given less attention and support than work by their male contemporaries.
And what a shame. For in the work of a skillful poet like Zheng, we discover things that are absent from the work of male poets. The question of “missed periods,” a serious and common health issue in these dangerous, high-pressure work environments, is something I have seen addressed only in women poets’ writing, and for obvious reasons. Similarly, birth control pills are an omnipresent element in women’s lives, especially in the only recently loosened age of the one-child policy. Then there is the attention paid to food that is clearly not homemade, the “baseless promises of love,” the “proof of single status” required by some factories for their female employees. Perhaps surprisingly, there are more women working in factories making goods for export than there are men. Yet their words are still being overlooked and suppressed, both deliberately and as an effect of neglect. I hope the selection of work by women poets such as Zheng Xiaoqiong, Lizi, Shu Zhishui, and Wu Xia (whose work I will discuss on Friday) which I’ve translated in the anthology Iron Moon will bring more of these vital voices to the fore.
Tomorrow: the whimsical and the painful in the poetry of Wu Niaoniao.
The poet Xu Lizhi come to prominence in one of the worst possible ways: he jumped from a high-rise in Shenzhen, ending his life at the age of 24. Before his death, Xu was not well known as a poet; he published very few poems during his lifetime, and he concealed his writing even from his parents because, as he put it, his poetry was dark and he didn’t want them to worry. The documentary film Iron Moon includes amazing footage of the cramped, cheap room Xu was living in when he died; all of his possessions can fit into a few paper bags.
Like Hai Zi and Gu Cheng, both poets of tremendous talent who committed suicide at the ages of 25 and 37 respectively, Xu Lizhi vividly expressed his isolation and desperation in his poetry. What distinguishes Xu is the kind of life he led. Both Hai Zi and Gu Cheng were college-educated and made their livings as intellectuals within a university setting. In contrast, Xu began working in factories immediately after graduating from high school.
Xu Lizhi came to international attention because his death was part of a spate of suicides at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. Foxconn is the world’s largest manufacturer of Apple products, and working on the assembly line there, Xu would have handled devices that ended up here in the United States and across the globe. His descriptions of the life he and his fellow workers endured are remarkable not only for their painful realism, but also for their sheer poetic power.
I Speak of Blood
I speak of blood, since it can’t be avoided
I also want to speak of breezes, flowers, snow, the moon
speak of the past dynasty, poetry in wine
but reality makes me speak only of blood
blood comes from matchbox rented rooms
narrow, cramped, sunless year round
oppressing the working men and women
distant husbands and wives gone astray
guys from Sichuan hawking spicy soup
old people from Henan selling trinkets on blankets
and me, toiling all day just to live
and opening my eyes at night to write poems
I speak to you of these people, I speak of us
ants struggling one by one through the swamp of life
blood walking drop by drop along the worker’s road
blood driven off by the city guards or the choke of a machine
scattering insomnia, illness, unemployment, suicide along the way
the words explode one by one
in the Pearl Delta, in the belly of China
dissected by the seppuku blade of order forms
I speak of this to you
though my voice goes hoarse and my tongue cracks
in order to rip open the silence of this era
I speak of blood, and the sky smashes open
I speak of blood, and my whole mouth turns red
What surprises me again and again as I translate Xu’s work is the incredible technical virtuosity of his writing, a combination of raw talent and self-taught skill. The repetitions that underpin the poem, the powerful nouns, the contrasts between the beautiful (breezes, flowers, poetry, wine) and the dark reality (blood, machines, rented rooms), the use of the direct address (“I speak of this to you”)—it all builds into an undeniably moving and forceful work. The fact that he managed to write so impressively while working 11-hour nightshifts and living in what we would find destitute conditions is a great testament to his talent and strength of character. That in the end he found himself defeated in the face of it all is a tragedy for world literature. Xu Lizhi was potentially a great poet in the making.
If you’re interested in reading more of Xu’s poems, you can find a dozen or so in a feature I did here for the China Labour Bulletin: http://www.clb.org.hk/en/content/obituary-peanut-creatively-cynical-world-worker-poet-xu-lizhi.
Tomorrow: Factories, construction sites, and coalmines may be a man’s world, but there are a lot of women in it. I’ll talk about the poetry of Zheng Xiaoqiong, one of the most prominent female worker-poets writing today.
I have long admired these lines in Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Unnameable Heart”: “There are so many / lives of which I know nothing. / Even my own.” As a translator of Chinese literature, I frequently encounter the foreign in various guises, but over the past year I’ve had a chance to become unusually closely acquainted with five lives that bear little resemblance to my own.
The following is a poem by Chen Nianxi, a poet who appears in the independent documentary film Iron Moon, which explores the lives of workers in contemporary China:
Daybreak and my head feels like it’s exploding
this is the gift of a mechanized society
it isn’t the fault of steel
it’s that my nerves have grown old and feeble
I don’t often dare look at my life
it’s hard and metallic black
angled like a pickaxe
when the rocks are hit they will bleed
I spend my middle age five kilometers inside mountains
I explode the rocks layer by layer
to put my life back together
My humble family
is far away at the foot of Mt. Shang
they’re sick and their bodies are covered in dust
whatever is taken from my life
extends the tunnel of their old age
My body carries three tons of dynamite
and they are the fuse
I exploded like the rocks
“I spend my middle age five kilometers inside mountains”—that image alone conjures up a set of experiences that are largely alien to most of America, and especially to most American poets. The darkness, the danger, the arduous labor, the heavy machinery, the grime, the isolation. This is a man who does hard physical labor for little compensation, a person whose life is undervalued in the larger scheme of things. He works to support three generations of his family: his parents, his wife, and his child. Imagine the pressure—the explosive pressure—of doing dangerous work for low pay and with few protections, worried you won’t be paid when the job is done and knowing that even if you are the money won’t go very far, while the next job is always an uncertainty. Unlike in the United States, coalminers in China are piecemeal workers: they work one site, are paid (or stiffed by unscrupulous coalmine managers), and are set adrift again to look for more work. There is no health insurance, shamefully little recompense for injuries, and absolutely no security.
This is not unique to the coalmining industry. The same is true for hundreds of millions of people who have moved from the countryside into the cities to look for work, as China has proceeded down its path of economic development and rapid industrialization. This past year I’ve been translating the subtitles and poetry that appear in the documentary Iron Moon, directed by Wu Feiyue and Qin Xiaoyu. The film follows five workers at the very bottom of Chinese society who also happen to be accomplished poets, including Chen Nianxi. The project combines several things I consider vital: poetry, social awareness, an examination of globalism, and of course, contemporary China. I’ve also been translating the poetry of other Chinese worker-poets, and will publish an anthology of workers’ poetry with White Pine Press this coming spring.
This week I’ll be introducing five poets from the film, talking about their poetry, their lives, and what it means for all of us. If you’re interested in the film, more information can be found here, including screenings in NYC and LA this coming November: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/963482307/iron-moon-the-poetry-of-chinese-migrant-workers.
Tomorrow, a look at the most well-known poet in the film, the former Foxconn worker Xu Lizhi.
More fantabulous answers by superb poets, including some scary responses... Part III of III... Find Part II here.
Question 9: List five events in your life that mattered to you during the writing of your book.
Max Ritvo: I read the book Ardor by Roberto Calasso, which is about the Indian Vedic tradition. This religious tradition encouraged its devotees to spend their entire lives in ritual dance to commune with the gods, to the extent there was no time left over to build permanent buildings of worship. Which feels to me like a life writing poems. The Vedas spent much of their time addressing the creation of the world and the fundamental ecstasy of desire. They do so using hallucinatory Freud-like myths in which a god has sex with his interior monologue, Speech, only to have the child rip out the womb of Speech itself and force it on his father's head as a turban so he may never impregnate such a potent womb again. This is all I could ever aspire to have my imagination create. It also is a religion that focuses around the guilt and complication of eating meat, and I am a vegetarian. So Ardor's blood runs strong through this book. Grazzi, Roberto! On a less literary note: I got dumped during cancer. I got married to the most wonderful woman in the world. My illness is now terminal. I am in great pain and on many drugs. All of these things made me feel very strong feelings, and so I wrote poems about them. Since my mentation has certain very idiosyncratic features, the poems cohered into a meaningful whole with kind of a narrative around them. And this, my friends, is Four Reincarnations!
Chris Santiago: Akita. I wrote the first draft of the long title poem as I was graduating from Oberlin and moving to Akita, Japan, to teach English. It was a relatively isolated part of the country, with even more snow than my home state of Minnesota. That experience of isolation— living in another language, one I could hardly read or understand—was a gift. It gave me solitude, distance, and perspective.
Manila. From Japan, I was able to backpack around Southeast Asia. At least a few poems came out of this, including “Photograph: Loggers at Kuala Tahan,” which is about getting drunk with some loggers we befriended in the Malaysian rainforest. I also traveled to the Philippines a few times. My uncle Flu put me up and showed me around. He took me on some adventures, introduced me to his network, and regaled me with stories, many of them harrowing.
Los Angeles. After Japan, I lived in LA for fifteen years and worked several odd jobs: I worked in a call center; I read scripts and rolled calls at Miramax; I was a substitute teacher in South LA and Long Beach, and a graveyard shift editor for a wire service. I also dealt with mild depression, and would go one or two years at a stretch without writing a poem. When I met my wife, Yuri, it was, as Karl Ove Knausgaard says about meeting his own wife, like day broke. After we had our first son, the poems started coming again.
Minneapolis. A few weeks after I defended my dissertation—which included an earlier draft of TULA, my mother died unexpectedly. Up until that point, it had been a season of joy: not only had I finished the program at USC, but I had gotten a job teaching literature & creative writing. The job was even back in my hometown, where my mother and father were still living when she died.
I was, of course, devastated. Part of me wanted to set the manuscript aside—it was hard for me to look at it. It became clear to me how much the poems had to do with my mother, how she tried to transmit our family’s history to me, through songs and stories. The fact that I never learned her language is the seed the book grew out of: I never learned it, but when I hear it spoken, it’s like a music and a home.
But my circle—from USC, from St. Thomas, from Kundiman—gently kept the pressure up. After Daniel Slager called me to say that A. Van Jordan had picked TULA for the Lindquist & Vennum Prize, I called Yuri and cried for a long time. I’m grateful that my mother was at least able to read a draft of the manuscript.
Megan Snyder-Camp: Falling in love with the Pacific Northwest coast and wondering about the origin of these bleak place names like “Dismal Nitch” and “Cape Disappointment.” The birth of my daughter. Sitting with writer, Native Studies scholar and enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe Elissa Washuta at a bar one night and her rattling off a long list of books I needed to read (she was right). My husband losing his job. Driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike with my dad, a trip we used to make all the time but hadn’t in many years. Encountering the term “ruin porn.”
Clint Smith: It’s impossible to disentangle the poems in this collection from the broader racial justice movement that stemmed from the death of Trayvon Martin, and later Michael Brown. These poems are shaped by and responding to the political moment from which they are birthed. These poems are also deeply informed by my work both a teacher and researcher in prisons over the past two years. I teach creative writing at a state prison in Massachusetts and in my doctoral program, I am being trained as a sociologist focusing on the relationship between prisons and education. My proximity to both the people I worked with in the prison as well as an extensive engagement with the social and historical literature outlining how the prison system came to be very much inform my political, and inevitably artistic, commitments.
Tony Trigilio: The Boston Marathon Bombing. Boston, where I lived for ten years before moving to Chicago, already was a big part of the book. The Marathon bombing occurred very early in the composition process, while I was only a few pages into the manuscript. This is a violent book at times, and it has to be, because it documents the politically turbulent year, 1968, when these Dark Shadows episodes first aired, and the painful world we’re living in now. The Marathon bombing is the book’s first violent act. Even when I wasn’t directly writing about Boston, the bombing shadowed just about everything as I wrote the first section of the book.
Gun violence in Chicago. I’ve lived in major urban areas for almost three decades, and I’ve never seen anything like this. The body count we experience every day is heart-wrenching and infuriating. The episodes I watched for this book originally were broadcast in 1968, and I imagined the book would document the global violence of that year (all but ignored in the show’s fictional, soap-escapist seaport town of Collinsport). I just didn’t anticipate how violent my own city, and at times my own neighborhood, would become as I wrote the book.
Posted by Alan Michael Parker on October 03, 2016 at 12:35 PM in Art, Auden, Book Recommendations, Book Stores, Collaborations, Feature, Guest Bloggers, Interviews, Latina/o Poets, Movies, Music, Overheard, Photographs, Poems, Poetry Forums, Poetry Readings, Poetry Society of America, Poets House, Science, Translation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Hamlet does not utter the words North by Northwest (a compass direction that does not exist.). He does say "I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw."
At 3:15 in the morning, in London, England, on August 13 of the nineteenth century, the great film director Alfred Hitchcock was born, a solid Leo with a macabre imagination (moon in Scorpio). When August 13 falls on a Friday, as it did in 1993 and 1999, you may expect bats to fly in through the slightest opening in the bathroom window, and the phone will ring at 11 PM and it will be someone you have never met, a waitress who writes poetry and is calling from Oregon to ask you for a job. She sounds drunk and promises to make it worth your while. But when you explain nicely that it is very late and not the right time, etc, she says fuck you and hangs up. Then you grab a broom, turn off the lights, and chase the bats out the door. Hitchcock was short (5'5) and stout and perhaps unaware that he shared his birthday with both Annie Oakley and Fidel Castro.
There is a tremendous amount of fire in his natal chart (see below): more than 50%. This accounts for his energy, drive, ambition. The water in his chart, topping 18%, indicates a man of subtlety and sensitivity. He has three times as much yang as yin in his personality, and no one should be surprised to learn that a man whose dominant planets are the sun, Venus, and Mars may luxuriate in bathtubs in the English manner and have an almost phobic distrust of showers, which comes through in such movies as "Lifeboat" (in which Tallulah Bankhead and company survive on a raft in the North Atlantic in World War II), "Vertigo" (in which Kim Novak does not drown in the Pacific Ocean) and "Psycho" (in which Janet Leigh meets her shocking fate behind a torn shower curtain). Leo, Sagittarius, and Scorpio are the predominant signs of a man whose self-confidence can lead him to commit the sin of pride. I hear that Janet Leigh greatly prefers baths to showers and has ever since working with Hitch.
A picture of the master of suspense emerges from a study of Hitchcock's chart. He is a Roman Catholic; a lover of blondes (especially American blondes); and a prankster of the imagination who knows that a straight face is best for effects either comic or scary and that the best way to get an actor and an actress to understand their parts as quarreling lovers is to handcuff them together and lock them in a room overnight, as in the filming of "The 39 Steps." When he was a boy, Hitchcock's dad sent him to the local police constabulary with a note instructing the officer on duty to lock the boy in jail for a few hours. This experience had the desired effect on the lad, who worked out his guilt complex by dispatching heroes, heroines, and villains to their deaths from the top of a church tower, or from a moving train, or in a wood stove, or by an attack of killer birds, or from the top of the Statue of Liberty, or in an out-of-control merry-go-around at an amusement park, or by a nasty piece of goods who uses his necktie as a strangling device, or sometimes with a gun, a knife, or a pair of handy scissors. The leonine Hitchock had his sun and his Venus in Leo. This makes him a most logical man, a constant man, generous in his affections but domineering, and almost tyrannically loyal to his lovers and friends.
Given his stellar combination of assertive confidence and deep-seated guilt, it comes as no surprise to students of the great man's chart that (1) the great Hitchcock actors (male) tend to be old-fashioned types (James Stewart, Cary Grant) rather than the method-trained new breed; (2) in some (not all) of the best Hitchcock movies, the villain is either more interesting than the hero (Robert Walker versus Farley Granger in "Strangers on a Train") or at least complicated in an attractive way (e.g., Joseph Cotten in "Shadow of a Doubt," James Mason in "North by Northwest," Ray Milland in "Dial M for Murder," the birds in "The Birds"); and (3) the perfect Hitchcock heroines are Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Kim Novak, Doris Day, Janet Leigh, and Teresa Wright. Hitch shows us the craziness inside every man and his (almost invariably blonde) fantasy lady.
A tip of the old fedora to Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the music of Hitchcock's mind-- DL
Note: Readers of "astrological profiles" know that the use of astrological terms is laid on pretty thick but with tongue in cheek, firmly so, on the nervy assumption that the horoscope -- like the "haruspicate or scry," "sortilege, or tea leaves," playing cards, pentagrams, handwriting analysis, palm-reading, and the "preconscious terrors" of the dreaming mind in T. S. Eliot's "The Dry Salvages" -- may be a bust at prediction bur may turn out to be not only "usual pastimes and drugs" but the means of poetic exploration.
The multiple-choice form seems to suit a moviemaker as complex as Hitchcock, whose birthday is coming up next week.:
(1) Which of the following did not play the male lead in a Hitchcock movie?
a) Sean Connery in Marnie
b) Cary Grant in Notorious
c) Orson Welles in A Touch of Evil
d) Laurence Olivier in Rebecca
e) Robert Cummings in Saboteur
Answer: c), Orson Welles, who directed and who dominates the screen in A Touch of Evil. Note the difference between Welles and the other four on the list. Each of the others is a non-method or pre-method actor; three are from Britain. Unlike Welles in his portrayal of evil as ugliness, at least three of the Hitchcock heroes named may be said to have an everyman quality in spite of the fact that three are very handsome, while the fourth has boyish good looks, and the same three may be said to be suave. Hitchcock can project versions of himself as Cary Grant, James Stewart, Rod Taylor, the young Gregory Peck, even Olivier as a toff. But it doesn't work with Monty Clift in I, Confess.and it wouldn't work with Welles or Brando.
(2) The title North by Northwest is a reference to
a) The Tempest and magic
b) Hamlet and madness
c) A popular route flown by Pan American Airlines in 1959
with change of planes at O'Hare and Mt Rushmore the final destination
d) Emily Dickinson's poem "After great pain a formal feeling comes"
e) Cary Grant's use of a road map as a disguise in the dining car
Answer: b) Hamlet and madness. Hamlet says he is mad only "north by northwest," reinforcing the doubt that he is truly mad rather than calculatingly capable of an "antic disposition." The plot of Hitchcock's movie is mad, fantastic in the old-fashioned sense. Yet there is method in the apparent madness -- and there is as much comedy in this thriller as that category can hold. The title also encapsulates the movie's locations and its motion. This is a movie of movement: in taxicab, motor cars, train, plane, bus. Cary Grant's journey begins in New York City -- Madison Avenue, the Plaza Hotel, and the United Nations. Then the film takes a trip to the Midwest with its unending fields of corn and finally culminates on the top of Mouth Rushmore, which is north by northwest from New York City. Finally, there is a sense of playacting in the movie and the sort of temporary insanity that accompanies excursions into the absurd. From the moment Cary Grant, advertising executive, is kidnapped at the Plaza Hotel, each scene is more implausible than the scene preceding it. A prodigious amount of liquor is consumed by our hero, who reveals himself to be quite a resourceful, witty, charming, romantic, fast-on-his-feet character as the movie goes along -- whereas, at the start, he is merely adept at stealing a cab, playing the field, and reporting to mother.
(3) Identify Ambrose Chapel.
a) Albert Hall's younger brother
b) The kidnapper in The Man Who Knew Too Much
c) A London church
d) The MacGuffin
e) Montgomery Clift's parish in I Confess
Answer: c) a London church in The Man Who Knew too Much, but metaphorically it is also a) an anticipation of the Albert Hall, scene of the climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Like Albert Hall, Ambrose Chapel is a name that can also be taken to refer to a person, the way James Stewart and Doris Day approach it at first. While b) is incorrect, it is relevant. Only e) is just plain wrong.
a) A childhood crush on Marlene Dietrich
b) Unresolved Oedipal issues
c) See (d)
d) Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Janet Leigh, Kim Novak, Doris Day, Joan Fontaine, Lorraine Day, Priscilla Lane, and Tippi Hedren
e) The idea, which occurred to him with the force of an epiphany, that blond-versus-brunette mirrored the American power structure
f) The belief that in movies an actor's looks are more important than his or her talent.
Answer: d) the actresses named. It must however be admitted that b) and f) are decided possibilities. As for both a) and e), each is random speculation. The birds' savage attack on Tippi Hedren is probably the worst ordeal any Hitchcock blonde endures, though the company is stiff. Kim Novak dies twice in Vertigo. Ingrid Bergman is poisoned to the brink of death in Notorious. And of course there's Janet Leigh's lifelong fear of showers, which originated with the one she takes as Marion Crane in Bates's Motel after she has decided to to return the money, concealed in a newspaper, to the bank from which she absconded with it
(5) Which of these did Hitchcock invest with uncanny significance, and what does that tell you?
a) A glass of milk
b) A shattered pair of eyeglasses
c) A giant Sequoia Redwood
d) The key to the wine cellar
e) A burning mansion
Answer: Some would argue for symbolism. The shattered eyeglasses at the amusement park signify the death of the girl in Strangers on a Train. The key leads to the wine-cellar and its secrets in Notorious. You might say that the glass of milk in Suspicion, like the coffee cup and saucer in Notorious, accentuates the innocence that is menaced. The homely domestic objects contain lethal doses of poison; the threat of murder can be disguised in the least threatening of objects.
(6) Which of the following is not an authentic Hitchcock moment?
a) Grace Kelly cozies up with Harper's Bazaar while her beau, nursing a broken leg, takes a nap
b) Raymond Burr signs a contract to play first base for the New York Yankees after the death of Gary Cooper
c) Ingrid Bergman offers her beau "a leg or a breast" as they stand on the terrace on a tropical evening
d) With one exception, everyone watching a tennis match moves his or her head as the movement of the ball dictates
e) Doris Day belts out Che Sera, Sera at a posh party peopled by diplomats in London
Answer: (b). Gary Cooper played Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees. Raymond Burr had nothing to do with it. In movies he played a minor character, usually a heavy, until he emerged as television's "Perry Mason." God bless his agent. Hitchcock would not have been interested in Lou Gehrig or any element of his story, which lacks a violent death, grounds for suspicion, murderous motives. There are foul balls but no foul play. On the other hand, each of the others is perfect: a) Rear Window, c) Notorious, d) Strangers on a Train, and e) The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is underrated, perhaps a natural consequence of having been made in a period of masterpieces on the order of Vertigo, Rear Window, and North by Northwest.
(7) In Vertigo
a) Who is real, Judy or Madeline?
b) Who is real, Johnny or Scotty?
c) True or false: The age difference between James Stewart and Kim Novak helps explain the nature of their relationship, which is passionate but not exactly sexual -- it is more like an event in the man's psyche, which he is destined to repeat.
d) What does Bernard Herrmann's music contribute?
e) Why does the detective reject fashion designer Barbara Bel Geddes?
f) Why are they both named Charlie, Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, and can you make the case that this, even more than Saboteur, is Hitchcock's most patriotically American movie?
Answer: You're on your own here. Go to town..
8) In the auction scene in North by Northwest, Cary Grant violates the hushed-room decorum by making wacky and contradictory bids in order to
a) attract attention because he is a certified narcissist who thinks he is Cary Grant
b) attract attention and get ejected because the cops were preferable to the kidnappers awaiting his exit
c) fulfill his part of the bargain with Ingrid Bergman, who has done her part by going to Brazil and enduring a near-lethal dose of poison administered slowly so it looks like sickness and not murder
d) warn about an imminent terrorist threat in a way that wouldn't panic the public because only one man present would understand the message
e) arouse the admiration of co-star Eva Maria Saint, who has aired her doubts about his skill as a comic actor
Answer: b) is correct. a) and e) are amusing fictions. d) is Borgesian. c) refers to the plot of a different movie, Notorious.
(9) Which of the following does not qualify as a typical Hitchcock prank?
a) to cuff his hero and heroine during rehearsals, clear the room, and lock the door
b) to pose as the fat man in a weight-reducing ad that is espied if not read on a lifeboat full of the survivors of a shipwreck
c) to employ Otto Preminger to play the commandant of a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp
d) to suggest the act of fornication by showing a speeding train enter a tunnel
e) to kill Kim Novak twice, in both cases at the top of the church tower at Mission San Juan Batista in California
Answer: (c) Refers to Billy Wilder's movie Stalag 17. The rest are pure Hitchcock.
(10) To appreciate Hitchcock's movies,
a) you need to see them
b) you need to take into account that he was raised Catholic
c) you have to consider that he was born British but was American by choice
d) you have to acknowledge that the McGuffin is to plot as psyche is to drama and the dream
e) you have to concede that a joke does not need to be funny to make us laugh
f) you must remind yourself that you, the viewer, are both the male and the female leads in the film
Answer: a) for sure, but a strong case can be made for each of the others.
Note: The multiple choice form, with which we are all familiar, is little used for the purposes of exposition. This is part of a little experiment. -- DL
What follows is a portion of a work in progress examining the way Orson Welles and his films have been appropriated and recast in poetry and fiction. This section focuses on my own experience of writing an unusual kind of elegy.
Finally, it was time to compose my farewell poem on Orson Welles. He had died on October 10, 1985, and public tributes had circulated for a brief period, including editorials, columns, and essays in the entertainment press and intellectual journals, cartoons of homage, and TV network spots featuring the opening scene of Citizen Kane in which the dying tycoon utters the word “rosebud” as he expires. Welles as actor excelled in giving up the ghost in his films, those he directed like Citizen Kane, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Macbeth, Chimes at Midnight, Othello, King Lear, and those he graced solely as a performer—The Stranger, Tomorrow is Forever, Black Magic, The Third Man, Three Cases of Murder, A Man for All Seasons. Marlene Dietrich, as a fortuneteller reading her magical cards in Touch of Evil, delivers the death’s head, figuratively speaking, when she tells the doomed Sheriff portrayed by Welles, “Your future is all used up.” That epitaph before the fact haunts much of the posthumous discourse about Welles.
When the mass media swiftly turned their attention elsewhere, poets were obliged by their reputation as the world’s greatest elegists to continue the obsequies. Few did so, but I pledged myself to testify to Welles’s profound corpus of great works on the screen. I knew the conventions; I had written analyses of numerous memorial poems about people, places, and things. The tradition abounds with POV alternatives for speaking well (and ill) of the illustrious deceased. And yet, the key problem of all such testimonials oppressed me: the sense of apprehension, and timidity, at addressing the glorious, or at least worthy, object of one’s reverence. Who was I to approach the casket and declaim about this shape-shifter, this otherworldly being whose now-bloated body had been screened from me by the screens on which I had watched him move and speak? Why write redundant words of praise about his genius? Why not remain mute and let the reigning bards turn their eloquence in his direction?
Who would that be, exactly? Archibald MacLeish, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Muriel Rukeyser, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Robert Lowell—these had all served their generation as effective elegists, but all had died during the previous decade. Elizabeth Bishop may have been the first significant poet to speak in print, albeit in private, about Welles. In a letter dated September 29, 1936 she offered apologies to Marianne Moore for not including her in a group of friends on a New York outing: “I must tell you that we were going to the theatre that evening; we wanted to ask you to go with us, but it was a play just opening that we knew nothing about and hated to ask you to take the risk. It was so fortunate that we did not . . . because it was very bad, hardly endurable—Horse Eats Hat.” Welles and Edwin Denby had adapted this farce by Eugène Labiche in order to “giggle and make giggle” as Byron said of his work on Don Juan. It was the furthest thing from the somber plays of Nobel Prize-winning Eugene O’Neill they could contrive. Simon Callow reports that the play, directed by Welles, was “full of corny jokes, dadaist riffs, and schoolboy double entendres.” Bishop does not report in later letters that she saw any of Welles’s films. None impacted her, in any case, nor, for the most part, her generation of poets for whom Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers remained the more compelling muse figures, yielding to Marilyn Monroe at generation’s end. (MM is still the most frequent subject of poems about the movies.)
Following upon Welles’s first successes in the theater, months before the Invasion from Mars radio broadcast, TIME magazine placed his photo on the cover of their May 9, 1938 issue. He is disguised behind a large beard and his face is wrinkled into the grotesque visage of Captain Shotover from George Bernard Shaw’s play Heartbreak House. Welles loved to disguise himself as old men, a fact that bears on my comments further on. He was 22 years + 3 days old at the time, and you could not have chosen a more awesome archetype of the enfant terrible, already a major figure in New York theater and nationwide radio, with his sights clearly set on the cinema. The headnote for the Time article was “Marvelous Boy.”
Two points need to be made. First, “marvelous Boy” is the telling phrase Wordsworth chose for Thomas Chatterton, poet and suicide at age 17, in his troubled and troubling poem “Resolution and Independence.” Wordsworth’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge had previously written a full-dress elegy on this self-thwarted genius, who had disguised his archaic-sounding poems as the work of a fictive 15th-century poet, Thomas Rowley. In “Monody on the Death of Chatterton” the 18-year-old Coleridge plumbed the depths of self-pity in strained locutions as he brought to adolescent consciousness the corpse of Chatterton--as Henry Wallis would do in his famous painting in the next century.
Fated to heave sad Disappointment’s sigh,
To feel the Hope now rais’d, and now deprest,
To feel the burnings of an injured breast,
From all thy Fate’s deep sorrow keen
In vain, O Youth, I turn th’affrighted eye;
For powerful Fancy evernigh
The hateful picture forces on my sight.
Chatterton had conspired to deceive the public and earn fame by putting on a mask, and his presumption appealed to the early Romantics. “I thought of Chatterton, the marvelous Boy, / The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride.” Wordsworth’s lament has the effect of a curse as well as a fragment of praise. It is the fate of many ambitious artists to become re-embodied in art works, often as victims. Wordsworth is thinking of himself, and Coleridge, and other aspiring authors likely to be denounced and cast aside by the cultural establishment for daring to re-invent themselves as young heroes of the imagination, immortal bards, “Prophets of Nature.” Time was cautioning the insurgent young Orson even as it was celebrating him.
Second point. One of the likely readers of that issue of Time was F. Scott Fitzgerald, as he languished in Hollywood, tormented by nostalgia for his lost status as the Rising Sun of the Roaring Twenties. As Welles swiftly ascended like Apollo, Fitzgerald was entering middle age, laboring in 1938 as a rewrite man on dismal scripts unworthy of his talent. In his bitterness he published a short story, “Pat Hobby and Orson Welles,” in response to the news that Welles had negotiated a two-picture contract with RKO, with full control of each film down to the final cut. Pat Hobby, whom Fitzgerald regularly exhibited in issues of Esquire, is Fitzgerald’s comic double, a hack screenwriter working, or not working, at MGM Studios, who feels down to his toes the humiliation of the third-rate as he imagines being driven out of his profession by this marvelous boy sporting a beard to enhance his dignity. As Fitzgerald makes clear in the essays published posthumously as The Crack-Up, nothing, nothing, could replace for him the glory of those early years of upward mobility during the Jazz Age. In his droll story of Pat Hobby being mistaken on the studio lot for Orson Welles, because both are wearing a beard, Hobby dissolves into the same melancholy and jealousy that forced Coleridge’s “sad Disappointment’s sigh.” At story’s end Hobby, an embodiment of the superseded author, emerges as both a pathetic spectacle of ruin and, in the final antic scene, a trickster enjoying a momentary triumph.
Contemplating this convergence of themes and figures, I stumbled upon the solution to the question of how to write my elegy for Orson Welles. I would compose a soliloquy in the spirit of fan fiction, borrowing Pat Hobby to front for me as a mourner of the great writer/director/actor. I would constrain the lyric impulse that might make my poem presumptuous—yet still forge a connection to the location and ambition I shared with the actors in this imaginary drama. I grew up in Culver City, home of MGM. On my paper route I had peddled William Randolph Hearst’s signature newspaper, the Los Angeles Herald-Express, in bars on Washington Boulevard including The Retake Room where Fitzgerald drank his way toward debility while trying to finish his novel based on the boy-genius producer at MGM, Irving Thalberg. Like Pat Hobby I had no masterpiece in my vita; he would be my stand-in and shadow. What if he had lived fifty years on, watching Welles’s exile from Hollywood just as he had (in my imagination) grown up watching his own spurned creator decline and fall dead in 1940 of a heart attack? I found the voice I needed in Fitzgerald’s pitch-perfect sequence of slang-filled stories about Pat Hobby, a raffish survivor. So here is the ensuing scenario of envy and identification, my full-throated lament for the makers.
First published in Literature/Film Quarterly in 1988; reprinted in Cold Reading (Copper Beech Press, 1995)
I DOUBLED FOR ORSON WELLES
My creator, the boy wonder
who penned This Side of Paradise
so young it brings sappy tears
to my old jaundiced eyes. . .
at least he never lived to see
how Orson outsmarted himself,
watch Hollywood’s toughest ham
mug his way through fluff
even I could have improved.
Like me, he idled “between pictures”
most of his posthumous career,
like my author, too, shoring up
self-respect a whole decade
with my adventures, or worse,
while glamorizing Kid Thalberg
for his boffo comeback role.
Previews of fading attraction—that’s us,
my maker patching me into
the continuity of the golden age
like the “good man for structure” he was.
I was good enough to survive
thanks to Benzedrine and the races,
good enough to pass, once,
for an American original—
but that insert was a lousy joke
Scott made at my expense,
one of his many jokes on me
who all during deathwatch at the morgue
kept sober reciting his sentences
and touched his wrinkled hands
in the Wordsworth Room, waiting
for the next take or process shot
to lift this ungreyed extra
like Dracula out of his sleep.
He was put to bed with a shovel
and I lived half a century on.
If living is what it was.
The studio gates forever shut,
I drowned my sorrows in The Retake Room,
sponging from East Coast literati
with memoirs of my great original.
I made a pitch to young Orson
but he had his own Gatsby in the can—
a swell picture it was, too—
and roller-coastered out of sight.
Do you need to hear the rest?
A script so full of coincidence,
pathos, bravado, double-cross—
a hack job credits to credits.
And those young squirt producers!
Buttered and served up by the Times
as saviors of the industry,
those overdressed callboys
led him such a dog’s life. . .
Once after some goofy rushes of
The V.I.P.s we talked of Scott;
I said “The poor son of a bitch.”
Orson gazed off, soul-scratching,
and said, “The poor son of a bitch.”
Hollywood made and unmade me.
I learned my craft from The Great
Train Robbery, and I’ve seen all
the classics down to F for Fake—
my heart broke during that flick!
“It’s about you!” I told Orson
at a watering hole on Sunset.
“They’re all about me,” he intoned.
“What happened to heroes?” I shot back.
“Show me a hero,” he smiled hugely,
“and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
I could never script the story I lived;
Orson did, writing behind me,
and that gave us cheer to the end.
No, I didn’t visit his corpse;
I was afraid, if I tottered in,
swollen so fat on medication,
gnarled with disappointments,
I might shock the souvenir hunters.
Like a scene I once wrote for the B’s,
the living dead lurching into view,
the bit players flailing their arms,
gasping out a ghostly name—
“Orson,” they’d cry, “Orson, Orson!”
Laurence Goldstein is Professor of English at the University of Michigan and the author of four books of poetry as well as The American Poet at the Movies: A Literary History (1995) and Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City (2014).
As a boy in Minnesota, Robert Zimmerman listened to a Minnesota girl sing the ballads of Harold Arlen and thought he could travel down the road taken by Dorothy and the Scarecrow. By the time he took up the guitar and changed his name to Bob Dylan, he had wandered so far into Woody Guthrie territory that a reader confronting an article in The Nation entitled “Woody, Dylan, and Doubt” could be forgiven for thinking that it concerned the singer’s relation to Arlo Guthrie’s papa on the one side and the condition of epistemological uncertainty on the other when in fact the piece addresses allegations that Woody Allen had misbehaved with his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow.
Judy Garland had to endure many indignities in her star-crossed career but the heartache of child abuse wasn’t one of them. Born to sing America’s all-time favorite movie song, Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow,” Judy was as natural a Gemini as you will find – totally binary, loyal to a fault yet fickle, happy and proud yet sometimes suicidally desperate, given to coming late to the set fortified by drinking bottles of “Blue Nun,” “Liebfraumilch,” and similar white stuff, which tasted terrible but did the job.
On June 10, 1922, Judy Garland was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, at 6 AM. With her moon in Sagittarius, and her Mercury and Venus in Cancer (her rising sign), the great singer had the heart of a poet, the sensitivity of an eternal diva, and a really good voice. If only there had been more Virgo in her chart, the girl who embodied Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” might have had greater career endurance. The absence of earth signs doomed her to a nervous disposition and the likelihood of an early death.
Born Frances Ethel Gumm, Judy craved the approval of father figures, was easily bruised by criticism, sometimes affected nonchalance but really cared very deeply about other people and wanted to be included in group activities. Her Saturn in Libra helps to explain her outstanding musical talent, and her will to succeed in motion pictures may be inferred from her midheaven in Pisces conjunct Uranus.
The death of Judy's father at age thirteen stunned the young actress, who eventually broke off relations with her mother. The amphetamines helped in the short run. She had five husbands.
An old astrological adage: The stars favor the stars. From the moment the teenage Garland sang to Clark Gable's photograph ("You Made Me Love You"), her astonishing rise to the heights of Hollywood glory was in the cards (Queen of Hearts high) as was, alas, the inevitability of internal conflicts and demons postponed but not resolved by the habitual use of narcotics. She was still in her teens when she and Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr sang as they danced along the yellow brick road leading to the wonderful wizard of Oz. That was in Technicolor. Already in the black-and-white of Kansas cornfields, she sang the anthem of eternal aspiration, “Over the Rainbow,” which was named the greatest song of the twentieth century in a survey conducted bythe National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America in 2001. She teamed up with Mickey Rooney and their versions of “Our Love Affair” and “How About You?” are the best out there. She did “The Trolley Song” in one picture and “The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” in another. She would have made a great Annie Oakley in Irving Berlin’s “Annie, Get Your Gun,” and we still have tape of the one song she did (“Doin’ a What Come Naturally”), but she was too fucked up to do the movie and the part went to Betty Hutton.
In Chinese astrology, Judy was born in the year of the dog. Her element is water. This is consistent with her destiny. Her relation to Minnesota mirrors that of Dorothy to Kansas except that there was no home to go back to. The three farm hands in the dream were almost recognizably there, surrounding her bed, when she awoke in Hollywood. Why did gay men have a thing about her? Because (a) they had good taste, (b) they could identify with her suffering, (c) they could admire her indomitable will, (d) they could smell the tragedy on her breath, (e) even macho boys could identify themselves with Dorothy Gale, (f) where gossip and conjecture overlap, anything goes, or (g) all, some, or none of the above. And remember: she was the mother of Liza Minelli, and all you need to do is see the 2014 revival of Cabaret (2014), good as it is, and compare Michelle Williams’s performance as Sally Bowles with that of Liza in the 1972 movie, and you will see the difference between an actress who is trying as hard as she can and a natural-born diva, with the vocal cords of a heroine and the soul of Judy Garland’s daughter.
In the 1960s Judy was hell on wheels to work with, if Mel Torme’s account in The Other Side of the Rainbow is to be trusted. Mel Torme was the music director on her short-lived television program, “The Judy Garland Show” on CBS, and Torme says she tormented him. Judy would call you in the middle of the night, make you come over and hold her hand, make capricious decisions, stand up guest stars like Lena Horne, skip rehearsals, tell fart jokes on the set. On the other hand she was who she was, and you loved her when she lifted her glass and said “l’chayem.” She was so earnest you couldn’t help pull for her. “This television jazz is all new to me,” she said. “The Blue Lady helps to get my heart started.” She couldn’t stand what she called the Smothers’ Brothers “goyishe humor,” and the show had other guests of that ilk. But when Barbra Streisand was the guest star, it was incredible. The two divas did a duet of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days Are Here Again” that you can listen to over and over again – it is the ideal rendering of two of the Depression’s enduring hits.
Judy sang and danced with Gene Kelly (“For Me and My Gal”) and with Fred Astaire (“Easter Parade”), and the saints of St. Louis marched in and sang "The Trolley Song" in unison on June 22, 1969, the day of her death. At Carnegie Hall in 1961, with composer Harold Arlen in the audience, she sang "Get Happy," "Stormy Weather," "The Man That Got Away," and "Come Rain or Come Shine." Five Grammy awards! She was dead at 46.
If Judy and Frank Sinatra had been lovers, they would have scored very high in passion, high in intimacy, average in synergy, and below average in commitment.
-- David Lehman (2014)
We don't think of her as a singer, but Marilyn Monroe (whose birthday is today), sang. Unlike Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak in Pal Joey, Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, she needed no dubbing. (In another column I will salute the wonderful voices that emerge from Mesdames Hayworth, Novak, Kerr, Wood, and Hepburn in those flicks. Say, does anyone say "flicks" anymore?) See Marilyn making the most of a secondary role in Niagara, or teaming with Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or joining Mitzi Gaynor and Donald O'Connor on the Irving Berlin bandwagon in There's No Business Like Show Business, or cavorting with cross-dressers Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot. She sings in each of these movies and the songs are noteworthy, each and all. The way she pronounces the "z" in Berlin's "Lazy," for example, or the electricity when she strolls among the nightclub plutocrats and sagely notes that "after you get what you want you don't want it. / I could give you the moon, / you'd be tired of it soon. / You're like a baby, / that wants what it wants when it wants it, / ah, but when you are presented / with what you want you're discontented." (Irving Berlin never fails to amaze me.) This lyric was made to order for Miss Monroe.
Some songs with male chorus and big brass solos, such as "Heat Wave," are extravaganzas of sexual desire and energy. There's a heat wave coming in from the south and you can't keep your eyes of the north of her body even as your brain wanders to the tropics. "The way that she moves / the thermometer proves / that she certainly can can-can." No, you can't keep your eyes off her, all of her, which is as it should be, but one consequence is that you don't hear enough of the voice. Listen to her do "I'm Through with Love," or "I Wanna Be Loved By You," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" or "Bye Bye, Baby" -- but listen to the songs without looking at the visuals. You'll hear a melodious voice of limited range, thin but accurate, with a husky low register, a breathy manner, and a rare gift of vibratro. When her voice trembles over a note -- over "you" or "baby" -- the effect is seductive and yet is almost a caricature of the seductress's vamp. The paradox of her singing is that she reveals her sexual power and flaunts her vulnerability -- to flip the usual order of those verbs. She can be intimate and ironic at the same time.
Compare MM's version of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" (in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) with Carol Channing's definitive Broadway treatment, and you get the essential difference between theater and cinema, New York and Hollywood. Channing's is the superior theatrical experience: funny, charming, a show-stopper of the first order. But Channing serves the song where Monroe makes her songs sound like illustrations of her life. Monroe's treatment of "Diamonds" may not be as effective as Channing's in its service to Leo Robin's marvelous lyric for Jules Styne's delightful tune. But Monroe's version is younger, friskier, sexier. When she sings it, the song is about her. Music is the food of love, and sexual ecstasy is on the menu, for dessert.
Nowhere is she better than "I'm Through with Love," which she sings in Some Like It Hot. Gus Kahn's lyric, which rhymes "I'm through" with "adieu," is as apt for Marilyn as "Falling in Love Again" was for Marlene Dietrich. In "I'm Through with Love," the singer feigns nonchalance, affects an uncaring attitude. But melodically during the bridge, and lyrically in the line "for I must have you or no one," the song lets us know just how much she does care. Monroe implies this pathos in "I'm Through with Love" at the same time as she struts her stuff. She vows that she'll "never fall again" and commands Love -- as if the abstraction stood for a Greek god or for the entire male sex -- to cease and desist; don't "ever call again." But we don't quite believe her, because we know temptation is just around the corner. In a sense, her voice thrusts out its hips when she sings. It's a feast for all the senses. -- DL
There was exactly one international movie star who appealed equally to grunts in German, American, and British uniforms during World War II. Born on December 27, 1901 in Berlin at 9:15 PM, Marlene Dietrich spoke English in an accent all her own, with traces of German, schoolgirl British, and a sexy lisp. Acting in movies, performing in clubs, and doing one-woman shows in big West End theaters, she glowed in Der Blaue Engel (Josef von Sternburg, 1930) prior to a long Hollywood career working with von Sternburg again and later with Hitchcock, Welles, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kramer, and other Hollywood professionals. (Of Welles, she told aspiring actresses, "you should cross yourself when you say his name.") She played opposite Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Spencer Tracy, and took pride in having slept with three Kennedy men: Joe Sr, Joe Jr, and JFK. She lived to a grand old age and died in Paris on May 6, 1992, spoiling the birthdays of Tony Blair, George Clooney, Willie Mays, Robespierre, Freud, the aforementioned Welles, and Professor Martha Nussbaum. The deceased Robespierre and Freud, in an exchange of letters, expressed the hope that she would choose between them "as between a ring of the Inferno and an intellectual Eden" (to use Freud's phrasing) set on a campus like that of Princeton but with no politics allowed.
When Rodgers and Hart wrote that "the most beautiful girl in the world / isn't Garbo, isn't Dietrich,/ but a sweet trick," the songwriters confirmed that Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich ran one-two in virtually all international blonde bombshell competitions in the fourth and fifth decades of the twentieth century. Garbo (“I want to be alone”) had the reputation of a recluse and the silence of the lovers on Keats's Grecian urn. Dietrich, on the other hand, never could resist donning a man's top hat and sitting on top of the piano singing a sexy song in her hoarse voice and irresistible lisp. Dietrich sang in three languages (she does Piaf-like French ballads well) with a voice that made up in sheer sexual horsepower what it lacked in vocal range and power. Ich bin von kopf bis fus auf liebe eingestellt is even better in German than in the English version that begins “Falling in love again, / Never wanted to, / What am I to do, / Can’t help it.” She made that song seem autobiographical, the story of the female enchantress who can't blame herself for leading men like lambs to the slaughter. Anyone else singing the song sounds like an imitator. Of how many singers and songs can this be said? Not many.
I believe that "The Most beautiful Girl in the World," the song in which Lorenz Hart rhymes “Dietrich” with “sweet trick,” is a waltz though I heard Sinatra sing it at an incredibly fast tempo in a television concert in the late 1960s. Dietrich had major affairs with Sinatra ("the Mercedes-Benz of men," she said), Jean Gabin, Yul Brynner, and Edward R. Murrow, and was bi-sexual. There is a rumor that she went down on Tallulah Bankhead at a party. In the dictionary of slang that Oxford University Press published, the phrase that most fascinated her was "cock holster," denoting the mouth in the act of oral sex though she could think of other apt uses for the phrase. In 1930 she measured at 35-24-33.
Marlene's natal chart reveals a lusty Capricorn with hard-working Virgo rising. Behind the scenes swift Mercury and blonde Venus play games of cache-cache inspiring all who watch to imitate the frolicking gods of Olympus. Dietrich's Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are in Capricorn, her moon in Leo. This is consistent with her talent for arousing attention, her ability to communicate desire mixed up with wickedness and danger, and her hard-boiled complexity. She can sound sardonic or melancholy, jaded or contemptuous, and this adds a layer of depth to her poker-faced personality. Her eyes say she's seen it all and a lot of "it" was shitty. :Dressed in a man’s suit, tie, and shirt with French cuffs, she holds an unlighted cigarette between forefinger and thumb, waiting for you to light her with your Lucifer. And you will.
The Geneva School of astrology holds that when your mid-heaven is in Taurus and the constellations are in their proper order, the chances are that you will grow to a height of five feet six inches, if you're a woman, and that is exactly how tall Marlene was, and blonde, with lush lipstick that she needed to renew after every kiss she bestowed. Her cards (the Chariot, the Moon, the Knave of Swords, the Nine of Wands) reinforce the impression of a woman of rare beauty and charm. A palm reading indicates a fluency in languages, an appetite for sex, and a pair of shapely legs. The yin in her chart outweighs the yang by a healthy margin. But there is enough stellar ambiguity to make her the object of desire of males across the sexual spectrum. She is a role model for dominant women and an icon of veneration among the submissive. It is said there are two kinds of men. One kind favors Garbo, the Swedish goddess, who played Anna Karenina; the other goes for Dietrich, who would be terribly miscast as Anna Karenina. But you had to live in the twentieth century to grasp all the implications of this statement.
The greatness achieved in the career of Marlene Dietrich implies what Frankfurt School astrologists call a "fifth house dominant personality." I do not know what this means, but it sounds right. As a young woman Dietrich starred as a sultry seductress, the cabaret singer who turns the starchy professor into a lovesick bum in Blue Angel. She is Circe mixed with Carmen, radiating confidence. She demands at least as much from a man. “Give me the man who does things, does things to my heart, / I love the man who takes things into his hands / and gets what he demands.” Ein Mann, ein richtige Mann! The strong and silent type, under a big palm tree (pronounced "twee"). She'll see what the boys in the back room will have and tell them she cried, and tell them she sighed, and tell them she died of the same.
Several notable aphorisms have been attributed to the charming, alarming Blonde Venus: "Most women set out to change a man, and when they have changed him they do not like him." "A country without bordellos is like a house without bathrooms." "In America, sex is an obsession; everywhere else, it's a fact."
Dietrich is the ultimate sex symbol because in any relationship with her the forces of Thanatos are constantly threatening to create a crisis that the forces of Eros must confront. That raspy, intimate, seductive, threatening voice challenged or dared the manliness of any man: you’d pretty much have to be John Wayne to impress her, or Gary Cooper in his prime. Tyrone Power thought he would double-cross her in Witness for the Prosecution. He thought wrong. She could do a “ducky” English accent. During the war she transcended the conflict: Allied and Axis soldiers alike responded to Dietrich’s rendition of “Lilli Marlene.” And she retained her status as a sex symbol well into her 70s. Her appeal is enhanced by her power to do harm or to witness destruction without blinking. In Touch of Evil, she read Orson Welles's palm and knew his future was a blank card. And she kept a straight face while telling him.
Marlene Dietrich added something vital to every movie she was in, from a second tier Hitchcock effort to Judgment at Nuremburg, where, as Spencer Tracy’s confidante, she stands for nothing less than Germany herself, a magnificent blonde who once owned a brothel. -- DL
Born in O'Fallon, Illinois, on April 17, 1918, William Franklin Beedle was the most energetic kid in his class. He was popular among the boys because he was a good teammate in sports. The girls liked his good looks. His teenage years coincided with the Depression that brought his father, a chemist, to his knees. "We didn't talk about it much at home. We walked. My father was not big on talking. My father liked to walk. I liked walking with him." According to some accounts he came from a wealthy family whose fortunes brought them to Southern California in the 1930s but that's just talk.
The peripatetic young man played clarinet, sang in the school chorus, and got his big break when Barbara Stanwyck took a liking to him on the set of Golden Boy in 1939. She saved his job. By then he had changed his name to William Holden, the first of many shrewd career decisions. He and Stanwyck became lifelong pals.
It has been said that William Holden is the greatest celebrity born on April 17, the closest competitor being Khrushchev. It would be nice to have a movie of Khrushchev with George C. Scott in the title role and with William Holden as the hard-drinking, poker-playing (fictionalized) American secretary of state who didn't go to Harvard but averts war because his poker instincts tell him that Khrushchev would back down unless you didn't give him a chance to back down. Firing first was always a mistake with a potato farmer. Call his bluff but at the same time make a secret concession and you all come out ahead, though history doesn't quite work like that. A year after the crisis the young president had his head blown off and a year after that Nikita was out of office.
Holden has many of the traits of an Aries with Libra rising whose moon is in Cancer and whose dominant Venus is abetted by a thrust of Plato. The emphatic Venus in his chart suffices to explain why an able lad with rugged good looks would succeed in his chosen profession, as you would, if you turned twenty-three the year Pearl Harbor was bombed and you were blessed with courage, honor, leadership qualities, and a high libido, unless life threw you a curve ball in the form of a lousy marriage or some other trace of trouble in Tahiti that will someday blow up like a huge aerial photograph to expose the places that were bombed in the war.
Still, if you look like Bill Holden shirtless in Picnic or The Bridge on the River Kwai, you can't miss. You can be a Swedish industrialist who was neutral until he saw first-hand what monsters the Nazis were, or you can be Humphrey Bogart's high-living younger brother, or a journalist in a convertible in Asia, a corporate vice president who resists bottom-line pressures because he values quality, a TV network executive who's seen it all, the head of a band of hombres who rob trains and ride into Mexico just when cowboys are becoming a thing of the past. But the role that suited BIll Holden best was that of prisoner of war: in Stalag 17, captured by the Nazis; in The Bridge on the River Kwai, a captive of the Japanese in the jungles of Burma.
To understand why Bill Holden became a great movie star, emblem of masculinity, and hopeless alcoholic, you must understand that his brother, Robert, a fighter pilot, was killed in combat in World War II. Holden himself served in the army for three years, 1942-1945, and served valiantly. Yet he suffered in silence the guilt of the unworthy survivor.
What William Holden brought to the movies was a masculine ideal. He was a grown up, sometimes a wise ass but never a fool, who had what it takes to make it, whether "it" was an escape from or into danger. But he was versatile. He could as easily be found face down in a swimming pool, dead from the start like the narrator of Sunset Boulevard in 1950. In that movie Holden played Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis who meets a diva from the silent screen star era and becomes a kept man. Others have remarked that it seems as if his fate as a dead man who can't stop talking epitomizes the role of the writer in Hollywood movies.
Set in a German POW camp in a dreary December in World War II,Stalag 17 won him the Academy Award in 1953. Look at all the things he is in that all-male movie: a loner, a shrewd guy who knows the odds, a successful exponent of the free enterprise system, a scapegoat, the victim of a vicious beating, a detective, a skillful interrogator, and an expert planner. He turns the tables on the real traitor in the group and devises a means of escape that allows him, the outcast, to become a hero and save a doomed man from frostbite.
In Executive Suite he is the executive most likely to succeed because he is dashing, decisive, has a conscience and a vision, and is married to June Allyson who plays catch with their son. He has a natural ally in Walter Pidgeon, the world's greatest number-two man. Barbara Stanwyck, playing the sister of the corporate CEO was has suddenly dropped dead, unexpectedly throws in her lot with him, and he carries the day against Fredric March, an antagonist who sweats too much and whose chief ally, Louis Calhern, is unreliable. A pleasure to see them all at work, with elegant Nina Foch as the executive secretary. Also in the cast are Dean Jagger, Shelly Winters, and Paul Douglas.See photo of Holden, Stanwyck, and Calhern below: The cigarette smoke lingers in the air. "Is that what you want on your gravestone when you die -- that you raised the dividend to three dollars or four or even five or six or seven?" And at the end of the movie: "Who won?" "We did."
Holden plays not a cynic but a skeptic and a pessimist whose pessimism is validated in The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean's greatest movie in my opinion. Shears would much prefer to lie on a South Pacific beach with an army nurse drinking martinis. Anyone would. And he deserves it. He did his time in the jungle and escaped from a Japanese POW camp run by a sadist. To escape required tremendous luck. And here they were interrupting his lucky life, blackmailing him into returning there by parachute with the insufferable, hale-and-hearty Jack Hawkins, the Oxbridge-educated Brit who is able to speak seven languages competently. Also on the mission is a Canadian solider, a kid really, capable enough but with a thing about killing. They have to bomb the bridge that the crazy English major Alec Guiness is helping the Japanese construct. I will not give away the explosive climax, but the last word in the picture, spoken by James Donald, is "Madness."
What Holden's character has done that makes himself vulnerable to blackmail by British intelligence is exactly what Don Draper does in the Korean War in Mad Men but again I'm not going to give that away here.
I have written elsewhere about The Counterfeit Traitor, as fine a movie about espionage as has ever been made. In The Wild Bunch, Holden and pals Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson, ex-pal Robert Ryan, and old fogie pal Edmund O'Brien, preside o'er the slow-motion death of the west. Cars have made horses defunct, and machine guns can wipe out the whole lot of them plus innumerable Mexicans in uniforms led by a heartless slob with a vicious streak. The outlaws may be on the wrong side of the law, but they are on the right side of political history. The men know they will die. But they do not falter. After Holden finishes his business with the whore, he puts on his gun belt and his hat, walks outside, eyes the others, and says, "Let's go." Warren Oates replies: "Why not?" Holden's last word in the picture is "Bitch."
Holden was married to the beautiful Brenda Marshall. He served as Ronald Reagan's best man when the Gipper wed Nancy Davis in 1952. In Italy in 1966 he was charged with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence. This added another reason for drunken depression.
Holden was Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy, George Gibbs in Our Town, Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, Stefson in Stalag 17, Shears in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Eric Erickson in The Counterfeit Traitor. It was downhill after his work as Max Schumacher in Sidney Lumet's Network brought him admiring notices in 1976.
Director Billy Wilder said that Holden was a good citizen, concerned about such things as endangered species. "What he didn't realize was that he was himself an endangered species."
Died drunk in his Santa Monica home on November 16, 1981. In 1982 Barbara Stanwyck received a long overdue honorary Oscar. She said, "A few years ago I stood on this stage with William Holden as a presenter. I loved him very much, and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish." -- DL
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.