USA culture

BLAST FROM THE PAST – PAUSE FOR ARGENTINA

ELVIS AND MARILYN MONROE

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Marilyn always attracted intellectuals.  Elvis had his working class fans, the people he called ‘my crowd’.   Both were instinctive performers whose popular appeal depended on glamour rather than cerebral analysis.   Predictably, their lives ended prematurely.   Marilyn has been exalted by Gloria Steinem and others.  Lisa Appignanesi is extremely clever and level headed but the tone of her marvellous book on psychiatry and women, ‘Mad, Bad and Sad’, changes when she writes about Monroe.  We all know that Elvis and Monroe were flawed, vulnerable at best.  But the fans find sympathy for them irresistible.   The difference with Monroe is that intellectuals have been willing to share these emotions about her celebrity.     True, they often pretend that they are being analytical but not always.  They will talk about a special quality that simply touches them.

I have mixed feelings about ‘Some Like It Hot’.  It is a great movie with sharp lines and inspired performances.   Sometimes the film appears to be perfect.  Others, I think the humour against Monroe is offensive.   It can depend on mood.  ’Bus Stop’ is underrated but it works for me because it is the appropriate fantasy for a vulnerable voluptuous waif that I have always wanted to protect.   The man who takes her away from the real world is strong but stupid.  Only the idiot cowboy, Don Murray, will be able to provide a life of respect without molesting her unique female innocence.   ‘The Misfits’ is different.  It is overrated and plodding but it nags.   Even its opening scenes, where a stunning Monroe heads for the divorce court, convince us that she is simply too beautiful for any kind of life that makes sense.  Howard Hawks had his own view of the world and, although cynical, he could be described as an optimist.  His adaptation of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ is very different from the book by Anita Loos and nowhere near as witty but he accepts that the dumb blonde can triumph just like the male heroes of his action films.   All it requires is a world of stupid rich boys.  Hawkes makes sure that there are plenty in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.   Maybe the film should be dedicated to George Osborne and David Cameron.  Now there is a thought.

 

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The rise of feminism in the late 60s is a handy explanation for the appeal of Monroe to intellectuals but inadequate.  Norman Mailer was the first to insist Monroe had significance for human understanding.   Mailer has had his moments and even when being absurd he is readable.  Norman Mailer, though, is no feminist although he was desperate to deify Monroe as a remote existential goddess.  Mailer was obsessed with the unique meaning of America, his troubled homeland, and he sought clues in the lives and appeal of Monroe and Mohammed Ali.   Considering the extent of his epic curiosity it is significant and sad that this literary giant never wrote a word about Elvis.

Monroe married an intellectual and she read James Joyce which must have helped.  She was always curious about intellectuals.  Not that Arthur Miller was any better than the rest.  Supposedly her relationship with the playwright began to perish after she discovered that Miller had written that he would only ever love his daughter.   By the time he was into his next relationship the words were in the public domain.  That relationship prevailed until his death and long after Monroe had self-destructed.  Men like her acting coach, Lee Strasburg, and her psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, rearranged their professional lives so that they could devote themselves to the icon.  Elvis had similar relationships with hairdressers, jewellers and, most famously, his doctor.  Hollywood money played a part but so did the presence of fame and the promise of consequence.   But, unlike Monroe, the intellectuals have mainly scorned Elvis.

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Both Presley and Monroe had to make difficult choices that invariably sacrificed integrity and growth for success and money.   Monroe complained more than Presley.   She described the Western ‘River Of No Return’, which is actually not that bad, as unworthy of her.  She called it a ‘Z grade movie’.   Elvis said nothing about his troubles.  Monroe became difficult on the set and Elvis mumbled and froze.  In Hollywood, the two vomited frequently.   The pills contributed.  But despite the similarities, one still has a sense of woman being comprehensively used by men.  It is possible that Monroe had men on an assembly line ready to exploit sexually but nobody really believes that.  We imagine her being lied to and we sympathise with her misplaced dependency on her lovers who, as Miller later admitted, were simply overcome by lust.    The more powerful the men, the less they worried about their lust and her dependency.   Her treatment by the Kennedys is not important because it is exceptional.   It is more of the same deceit, just more extreme.   And Mailer is right.   There is something America defining about Monroe singing ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ at the birthday gala of JFK.   This is the evening when the arrogant and the powerful willingly shared the stage with a vulgarly dressed, drugged, overweight woman whose sacrifice would concern none of them providing that their secrets and impulses were kept hidden.   And, no, that sentence does not imply that her death was the consequence of conspiracy and murderous intent.   Neither was it accidental.  Marilyn committed suicide.  The sheer scale of the overdose is the ultimate evidence of her angry insistence on oblivion.  The coroner recorded that her dead body had forty to fifty capsules of the barbiturate Nembutal.  A murderer would have been more subtle.

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The death of Elvis was like his career.  Without adequate support from others he failed to nurture himself and his talent.  He lost his grip on his life.   Perhaps there was no final self-destructive act but like Marilyn he was impatient for resolution.   The drugs escalated out of control, and the result was waste, as it was with Marilyn.  Both could be stupid and brilliant.  Nobody who takes movies or music seriously would argue that either of them can be ignored.   Monroe is memorable in a film which is so brilliant that she could be excused for being anonymous.  As the girlfriend of Louis Calhern in’The Asphalt Jungle’ she steals scenes but more than that she defines perfectly not only the weakness at the heart of her sugar daddy but also what makes him sympathetic.   This was a difficult task but Monroe coped so well the world became instantly excited.  In the Henry Hathaway movie ‘Niagara’ her sexiness is overplayed and absurd, and she weakens the film.  There is one scene where the camera follows her walking away into the distance.  The actress, Constance Bennett, said, ‘There is a girl with her whole future behind her.’   Elvis provided the same uncomfortable mix.  Only a bigot, though, would ignore the classic records because of the existence of the dross.

But somehow the sympathy that is automatic for Monroe is withheld for Elvis.  Gender is important.   Most of the women Elvis slept with would have understood his intentions but he would not have had to taste condescension from his lovers.  That only came from the people who owned him.   He may have thought he was making music for his fans but really he was like Marilyn, singing for his supper at the dinner tables of the powerful.    The contempt Monroe experienced riddled her whole identity.  Elvis had more freedom but he still experienced the same contempt.  These two victims had to feed on it throughout their terrible lives.

As Howard Jackson is touring Argentina at the moment, a few blogs from the past will be remembered.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

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BLAST FROM THE PAST – PAUSE FOR ARGENTINA

ELVIS AND CARY GRANT

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This challenge was issued a decade ago.   It occurred on a rare visit to Sheekeys Restaurant in London.  The food was delicious and expensive.  My friend and I sat on two stools facing the bar sipping white wine as dry and crisp as any I have tasted.  Both well-fed and probably a little self-satisfied we talked about Elvis.  I mentioned the ending of the revised edition of the documentary ‘That’s The Way It Is’ and the appearance of Cary Grant in the after show party.  I described how the two men appeared to swap identities as they talked.  Cary Grant had told Elvis that he had been hot.  Elvis had said that he was probably a little too nervous.  Grant was edgy and modern American while Elvis was relaxed and almost haughty.  His southern accent languished into something like aloof English.  ‘Come, come,’ said my friend.

 

My surroundings were no longer quite so enhancing.   The people around me were different, and I suspected the impact of the bill would be less on them than me and that they would return before I did.   It was neither the place nor the time to compare a flash poor white Southerner to a charming English sophisticate once voted the best dressed man in Hollywood.

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The biography ‘Haunted Idol’ which refers to Cary Grant and not Elvis gives plenty of detail.   Archibald Leach arrived in Hollywood a working class Englishman who left home to join a circus.  No, this did not inspire the story of Pinocchio.  Pinocchio was made of wood, and Cary Grant was anything but wooden.   Like Elvis he used his body to enhance his performance and, again like Elvis, he was versatile.  Elvis could rock and sing ballads, and Grant was comfortable in comedy and drama.  This circus travelled to America, and somewhere along the way Grant left the big tent and became a Hollywood actor.   His early films, especially those with Mae West, reveal a different Grant to what emerged later.  Grant is no less confident but instead of the superior sophistication we have a defiant swagger.  This has been not properly recognised because in these films he also had a tendency to overact.  But his defensiveness and street cockiness are plainly evident, as they are in a more charming way in the classic ‘Gunga Din’ by the great director, George Stevens.  Grant was not ashamed of his working class background but like Elvis he wanted more.  Indeed the two men wanted both authenticity and luxury, or maybe something more complicated than luxury that involved status and personal power.   Elvis curled his lip, and Grant talked as if he was breathing rarefied air.  Both mannerisms suggest an insistence on recognition and acknowledgement.  The more conservative could argue this is why the two men became so haunted.  They simply wanted too much, a consequence of narcissism and its always attendant gluttony.

They paid a price.  Both suffered depression and insomnia for most of their lives and both felt entitled to experiment with ‘medication’.   The word entitled is important.  Grant and Presley were not alone in taking drugs but what they did have in common was a belief that their position or their work entitled them to unusual medication.  Elvis shovelled in pills, and Grant tortured himself with LSD hallucinations.

But they began as working class men and though they had an image that insisted on their separate superiority they were always loyal to their class and its habits.  Both enjoyed the taste of basic cooking.   Elvis liked bacon, mash and gravy, and Grant was so fond of bangers and mash he insisted it was served on Christmas Day.  Undoubtedly, a key factor in the loyalty of both men was their devotion to their mothers.  It is not fanciful to assume this devotion was exacerbated by feelings of guilt.  The mother of Elvis died early when he was in the Army, and the mother of Grant was kept in a lunatic asylum for a large part of his life.  When he was seven years old, he had been told by his father she had died.  He was already a superstar when he learned the truth.  He became devoted but their different circumstances meant they lived very different lives.

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To the European outsider it is tempting to think of Hollywood as a home to the successful but it also represents American privilege – the best parties, the most adoration and, last but not least, the most beautiful women.   This was even better than what happened to David Cameron at Eton and Oxford.  The problem for Elvis and Grant was they could only enjoy the privilege with the knowledge that the women they loved the most had been removed from their lives.    Grant, of course, survived into old age but he was of a different generation, one that never understood excess as well as that of Elvis and his peers.  He also had fabulous genes while Elvis was prone to fat.  That is why the scene at the end of ‘That’s The Way It Is’ chills.  If their identities could merge so easily, how much did chance influence their very different fates?

We will never know.  No two personalities are the same, and the slightest tilt in circumstances will have a significant effect.   The English found it inconceivable that Grant leaped across the English class system in the athletic way he did, and it probably would have been impossible if he had stayed in England.  Being an Englishman in America not only helped his self-esteem but helped others to groom him effectively and helped him to re-invent himself as a creature of our dreams.    Elvis dealt in dreams as well but he did not have the luxury of being the unfathomable alien.  He was merely unfathomable.  Grant secured adoration because of the confusion.  He side-stepped European social class while Elvis rejected racial and gender certainties.   For many Americans this was more uncomfortable than their homegrown idealised Englishman.  Elvis also had adoration but he also had to endure contempt.

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Both men were obsessive about fashion to the extent it generated phobias.  Elvis insisted upon high collars, and Grant could only wear jackets with narrow armholes.   The fashion phobias occurred because they were needed for their alternative identities.  Originally, their identities had been liberating, especially as they had attracted privilege but their mothers had been sacrificed so they were obliged to understand the price that needed paying – loneliness, alienation and self-hatred.   When Grant was told by someone, ‘I would love to be Cary Grant’ the actor replied, ‘So would I’.   Towards the end of his life Elvis met his drummer D J Fontana.  ‘I’m so tired of being Elvis Presley,’ he said.  The statements compliment remarkably well.  It is certainly possible that the remarks reflect different core natures, one maybe haunted but ultimately more sunny.   But if there are differences the remarks are all too illustrative of what they had in common.  What united them and, I like to think they recognised in each other, was success and the price that followed.  In their case the price was demanded because of their social class and their punishing family circumstances.  Elvis found the price to be unmanageable.   Grant endured but with significant cost and pain.

All of which makes me think from time to time of that evening in Sheekeys.  ‘Come, come,’ my fellow diner had said.

We had faced the mirror, two middle aged men who had drunk too much and who had clashed for a brief moment, two middle aged men obliged to think about their past and what made them different.

As Howard Jackson is touring Argentina at the moment, a few blogs from the past will be remembered.  

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.