Holding My Own in No Man's Land: Women and Men and Film and Feministsby Molly Haskell
Molly Haskell, one of America's leading film critics, has been delighting readers for decades with her intelligence and insight. Her landmark book, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, praised for its "wit and style" and called "a valuable contribution to film scholarship," is still considered among the most
Molly Haskell, one of America's leading film critics, has been delighting readers for decades with her intelligence and insight. Her landmark book, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, praised for its "wit and style" and called "a valuable contribution to film scholarship," is still considered among the most stimulating and important books on the subject of women and film. In Holding My Own in No Man's Land, a series of pieces written in the twenty years since the publication of From Reverence to Rape, Haskell once again explores the relationship between women and men, and between the movies and those who watch them.
Haskell remains a controversial figure in both feminist and film circles, accused of "uncritically celebrating heterosexual romance"a charge to which Haskell cheerfully pleads guilty. Holding My Own In No Man's Land challenges the conventional feminist wisdom that the classic films of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties were made by a male-dominated industry which reduced women to objects of the "male gaze." Instead, she says that women were better served by the notoriously tyrannical studio system than they are in the "newer, freer, hipper Hollywood of the present." A fascinating interview with Doris Day points out that, despite her current image as a symbol of all that was repressive about the suburban Fifties, she played a series of roles asand was herselfa successful career woman who worked because she enjoyed it. In another perceptive portrait, Haskell describes the mesmerizing power the sultry, self-parodying sex symbol Mae West had on screen, and the financial clout she had off screen. And she writes about Howard Hawks's screwball comedies, such as His Girl Friday and Man's Favorite Sport from the Thirties, where assertive women were equal to men, and more than held their own in the battle of the sexes.
Holding My Own in No Man's Land ranges from interviews with Hollywood legends such as Gloria Swanson and John Wayne, to celebrations of the comic verve of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, to ruminations on literary figures such as Truman Capote and his Holly Golightly, and Jane Austen's Emma. We learn that the cleaning woman of The Carol Burnett Show logo was a reminder of the days when Burnett and her grandmother, "out of spoons and relief money," worked nights as cleaning women in the Warner executive offices. We see Meryl Streep "hiding in the spotlight" in a refreshingly skeptical analysis of Streep's determination to be an actress rather than a star. Finally, Haskell closes with a wickedly funny section on recent fashion and style, including pieces on "Lipstick Envy" and "Nude With Attitude."
Haskell describes Holding My Own in No Man's Land as "a kind of continuing set of ruminations, encounters, insights, and images of people and characters who have had an influence on our lives." With wit and style she illuminates the hopes and fears we project onto these larger-than-life figures the grand dames, the stoic heroes, the dueling couplesand the lessons we learned from them about how to fall in love, how to act as adults, and how to live in this complex world.
Of the profiles, the most farseeing is on Doris Day, who, Haskell says, should be regarded more seriously than she has been for her ability to capture 1950s-style ambition and neurosis in films like The Man Who Knew Too Much and Love Me or Leave Me. Examinations of Gloria Swanson and John Wayne are also satisfying, though for some Wayne is less Haskell's "father figure . . . who made the world safe for us so that we could explore it on our own terms" than a more visceral archetype of male sexuality. "Two Protofeminist Heroines" reminds us of the sexual equality that was possible before the sexual revolution, as seen in two Howard Hawks movies (His Girl Friday and Man's Favorite Sport). Nice takes on literary figures and current social/artistic trendsAusten's Emma, the superabundance of film nudity, the uses of makeup (not to deceive but "to create something magnificent") round out the book. Most invigorating is Haskell's introduction, which spins out many ripe observations: the great authority of female stars despite a "tyrannical" studio system; the forces that still impede gender parity (denying and repressing "the matriarchy into which every child is born"); woman's uncertain place in the No-Man's-Land stretching between film studies and feminism. Haskell is appealingly casual and urbane in this section: Freud, Jane Russell, Nietzsche, and others are tossed in the air. Alas, after 15 pages, the rhetorical balls are gathered up and the articles, thorough but less prickly and wide-ranging, begin.
Haskell chooses the "devious" route of essays rather than a polemic because, she asserts, there is no one right "theory" of film, feminism, or culturea fair argument but one that leaves her work here feeling somewhat lacking.
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Icon of the Fifties
A Terence Davies movie of several years ago, The Long Day Closes, came close to expressing the quasi-religious ecstasy induced in me by certain fifties movies. The story of Davies's Liverpool childhood as the youngest member of a large, close, Catholic working-class family (and, though unmentioned, gay filmmaker to be), the movie shows his young alter ego sitting in church, the liturgical music swelling and metamorphosing into the by no means out-of-place romantic songs sung by Doris Day ("Once I Had a Secret Love") and Debbie Reynolds ("Tammy"). Terence Davies no doubt had a secret love, and so did I (my father? my mother? one as forbidden as the other). The camera is high in the apse, the filmmaker unafraid to link religious loftiness with a popular song. The little boy is transported out of the loving, messy, disturbingly intimate home life and his sexual confusion into a world of clarity and romantic fulfillment.
Movies were at once a substitute and an escape hatch, supplying an emotional release from the sexual confusion of adolescence. I was in the process of losing my religious faith and my father (the first because of the second) and giving up my first career ambitionto be a ministerconceived before I realized preaching was not a calling intended for females. That was a great deal of loss for a teenager to confront head on, and I didn't.
Movies in the still worshipful atmosphere of the large, cathedral-like theaters of the fifties (often with organ music), could allow communion between star and spectator that was like transubstantiation at the altarrail. We drank and ate of their radiance, and, like miniature female impersonators, copied their looks, their expressions, modeling ourselves on women just ahead of us in years and development.
My first movie star crushes were Roy Rogers and Trigger (forget Dale), and the Lone Ranger and Silver, the cowboys (and horses) with whom as rider and horse-lover I could feel both identification and covert attraction. These complex, changing attachments seem to reflect Simone de Beauvoir's idea that "the adolescent girl wishes at first to identify herself with males; when she gives that up, she then seeks to share in their masculinity by having one of them in love with her." All the popular love songs of the day romanticized obsessive love and devotion. Only movies offered something in betweenglamorously active women like Esther Williams and Sonja Henie. And, when the young girl was finally nudged by hormonal and social (and Darwinian) imperatives into the dating arena, stars who seemed to combine romantic desirability with some kind of spunky resistanceto wit, Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn.
I became interested in Day a second time around, in the early seventies, when, thinking about her performances in movies like Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, I saw the repressed ambition and neuroticism that had been there all along. Appreciating the proto-feminist boldness of some of her working-girl characters, I became suspicious of the quickness with which most people dismissed her. Why the refusal to take her seriously? What was so threatening about her? Was it that her all-American wholesomeness in the anti-Amerika sixties had become an embarrassment? Her cheery optimism and determination were not only qualities we had lost but ones we felt ashamed of having entertained in the first place. Or was it that she was too close (for many of us) to something we had been or wanted to be in the fifties and now were running from for our lives?
To many women, she was like a hundred-watt reminder of the excessively bright and eager-to-please feminine masquerade of the fifties. She was that for me, but I had found refuge in the masquerade in ways I had yet to completely fathom. Outsiders could pay their respects unambivalently: she was remote enough from their inner struggles. Men, for example. John Updike, in a long and elegant mash-note-cum appreciation of her career, could admit to being attracted to her as "sheer symbolif a kind of beauty, of a kind of fresh and energetic innocence, of a kind of banality," someone who "fascinates us with the amount of space we imagine between her face and her mask." He touches on her sexiness, the deceptive sexiness of the girl next door, quoting James Garner's memorable acknowledgment that the two greatest, i.e., sexiest and most giving, stars to play love scenes with were Day and Julie Andrews, both "notorious girls next door." For men (and, subtly and subconsciously for women), there is a kind of covert and disguised eroticism, the buoyant readiness, the hourglass figure hinted at beneath the calico frocks or tailored suits. Updike sums it up: "The fact of the matter probably is that star quality is an emanation of superabundant nervous energy and that sexiness, in another setting, would be another emanation."
The Canadian actor Brian Bedford, in an interview in the New York Times, credited his eventual migration to the United States to his boyhood love of Doris Day and the vision of family and domesticity enshrined in her movies. Family and domesticity? This wasn't part of my Doris Day mental scrapbook, but Bedford wasn't the only one who followed the siren call of Day cheerful, if not barefoot, in the kitchen. At a feminist luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria sometime in the eighties, the woman sitting next to me launched into a near-tirade about how her life had been blighted by "those films of the fifties in which Doris Day ended up in the kitchen, glued to the frying pan and her apron." She, following this example, had made a traditional fifties-style marriage, lived the indentured life of the "feminine mystique," and spent a decade undoing the damage.
While sympathetic to the woman's tale of woe and the social pressures behind it, I felt Day was more convenient than appropriate as a symbol of oppression of women. The suburban nesting phenomenon was far more a staple of television shows than movies.
Of course, this woman chose to emphasize the stickier aspects of Day's persona that I had conveniently forgotten, like her frantically domestic doll-wife in Send Me No Flowers. It's as if she has to pay for her seething career ambitions with bouts of hysterical housewifery. My affinity with Day and the selective way I remembered her embodied a kind of denial, and it's difficult for me to read the interview I did with her because, like a schoolgirl diary, it reveals a self I'd rather disown. We weren't so far apartif she had a mask, so did I. She had found in Christian Science a way out of depression that I had found (without yet realizing it) in movies. We both had black belts in stiff-upper-lip cheerfulness. It was the Wasp way.
This was the first piece I did for Ms., and my revisionist view of Day went very much against the feminist grain. Not only was she politically incorrect, but women were now supposed to be above the raptures of fandom; nevertheless, to their credit, a savvy editor and the staff responded to the idea and supported me all the way.
Between 1948 and 1968, Doris Day made some forty films: the first thirduntil roughly 1953as a musical leading lady, and the rest as a star. The fact that as late as 1968 she played heroines who were still "in the running" as far as men were concerned, makes hers one of the longest female careers in the business.
Certainly her method of survival was not, like Joan Crawford's, to adapt herself to changing tastes and mature with her audience. On the contrary, she represented conservative values that went defiantly against the grain of the swinging sixties. Nor did she evolve, like Bette Davis, into offbeat roles. On the contraryagainshe seems to have survived largely by not changing, by remaining fixed in a firmament of shooting stars. But how she survived and what she was fixed as are best explained by what she was not: by not being identified primarily as a sex object or a romantic fantasyshe played mothers, teenagers, and romantic leads in no particular logical, or chronological, ordershe remained invulnerable to the mutability that such fleshly fantasies are heir to.
Like most stars (and movies) who arrive on the cusp of a decade, Day combines qualities of both eras. Her emotional intensity, just this side of hysteria, is a throwback to those tearful, heartbreakingly feminine heroines played by June Allyson and Margaret Sullavan in the forties. But where they were yearning, even masochistic, Day is direct and forward-moving, constitutionally incapable of succumbing to melancholy.
From singing with big bands, she went straight to singing in the big band movies that Warner Brothers was churning out. She was the blonde in the white blouse and pleated skirteven in My Dream Is Yours (1949), with a fatherless son. When paired with other females, it was always they who were tough, or sexy: Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn (1950) and Ginger Rogers as her older sister in Storm Warning (1951).
Next came the tomboy phase, from 1951 (On Moonlight Bay) to Calamity Jane in 1953, the year I tuned in. I had a "secret love" and, at the age of thirteen, was strenuously resisting the pressures to stop climbing trees and convert myself into that passive figurine of womanhood, the "lady." Doris Day's freckles, the lumberjack shirt, the blue jeans, the athleticism, and the occasional shrill notes of incipient womanhood may not have struck movie critics as the last word in art or glamor, but they constituted a shrine at which my barely adolescent anxieties could find relief. If she was to be pitted against the sexually blatant Marilyn Monroe typeas she was implicitly, and later (in The Thrill of It All) explicitlythen I was wholeheartedly on her side. She would not twist herself out of shape to win men's love, and find instead only lust.
Looking at her career with more detachment, it was in the mid-fifties that she played her most dramatically interesting roles: Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me; and, in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, the hysterical American mother abroad, overattached to her son and overdependent on pills.
One of the marks of a great director is the ability to capture the side of an actor that has remained hidden. Hitchcock was a genius at exposing the neurotic underside of his star's image. With uncanny prescience in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock painted a portrait of a woman who wouldn't be defined as a type, or analyzed as a trend, until ten years later. In Day's anxious young mother, we see the neurotic overcompensation of a woman who has given up her career (the stage) for marriage. Obsessed with her son, she has become an emotional invalid of a wife, as if to punish the man (the husband played by Jimmy Stewart) who had forced her to make such a choice. And with further insight, Hitchcock gave to Doris Day, in the song "Que Sera, Sera," what I was to discover was her philosophy of life.
It was in the late fifties and early sixties, when she herself was in her late thirties, that she won her reputation as the eternal virgin, a crystallization of those traits that had endeared her to masses of Americans and damned her forever with the cultural arbiters. The films in which she did accept her years and matronliness with wry equanimity, like Please Don't Eat the Daisies, were not as successful as those in which she resisted her fate. Likewise, her more subtle musicals and comedies (The Pajama Game and Billy Rose's Jumbo) were ignored by audiences and critics for the increasingly abrasive confrontations of the Fox and Universal farces (Pillow Talk, Move Over, Darling, and so on), in which Day and a lover/antagonist would enact sexual duels as horrifying, in their folksy way, as the armageddons of Strindberg.
In these films, virginity and masculinity were the citadels under siege. But for all the coy plot devices contrived by screenwriter Stanley Shapiro to keep Day from turning into Night, the lady herself was willing to surrenderas long as she could cloak her deed with the missionary purpose of reclaiming one faltering soul to manhood. If these films made us uncomfortable, surely it was partly because they touched upon anxieties we all felt, in a society and a decade in which women were little encouraged to expose themselves sexually. To lose one's virginity was to lose everything. Small wonder that Doris Day clung to hers with something akin to desperation.
But when I remember her roles in these films, it is as one of the few movie heroines (and one of the last) who had to work for a living. Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, bless their chic souls, floated through life. Voluptuous Ava Gardner ran barefoot and bohemian through exotic places. Marilyn Monroe was the sexual totem for the various fetishes of fifties America. Kim Novak and Debbie Reynolds and Shirley MacLaine, who, like Day, were not goddesses and hence had to exert themselves, still sought a man to lean on. One never felt in them the driving, single-minded ambition one felt in Daythe very strength that was used as a weapon, in the sex comedies, to impugn her femininity.
She had excellent positionsas an interior decorator in Pillow Talk and an advertising executive in Lover Come Backand she worked because she loved it, was good at it, and needed the money; not just to find a husband. She had come to the big city to make her way. And thus she seemed to be resisting, in a way that would find its voice in the Women's Movement, the creeping paralysis of adult womanhood as it was coming to be defined in the fifties. It is surely from this period of suburban migration and domesticity as a consuming vocation that the reductive notion of being "just a housewife" dates.
But gradually the hardening process set in. Her brisk, no-nonsense approach was institutionalized through farcical exaggeration. Her later filmsThe Ballad of Josie, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, With Six You Get Eggrollwere all of the "Oh, here comes the nutty lady" variety. If her natural talents never left her, neither were they permitted to develop within the coy vehicles and overproduced comedies designed to keep her afloat in the sixties. But in even the silliest rolesfrom damsel in distress (Julie and Midnight Lace) to feminist of the Old West (The Ballad of Josie)she kept her head, and saved her face, when all around her were losing theirs. She remained true to herself: for that alone she deserves more than passing interest.
I had advanced, in public and in print, the novel idea that Doris Day ought to be treated with several degrees more seriousness than has characterized most articles and critiques of thisI thinkunderrated actress. Not only was I defending her talent, but, more preposterously, her moviessomething not even her best friends would buy. "If only her career had been different," they would say, shaking their heads. "If only Hollywood..."
What they and Day's detractors are referring to, of course, is the superannuated virgin of the sexless sex comedies, protected by cameras coated with seven veils of Vaseline from growing old before our eyes. With the aid of the rejuvenating techniques at the disposal of the film industry and her sunny inviolability, Doris Day would seem to remain forever a girl on the brink of experience. With disconcerting obviousness, Hollywood dedicated its know-how to arresting the aging process that, for women particularly, is the nightmare underside of the American dream of eternal youth. The filters, fine as they were, were still too coarse. They reminded a ruthlessly youth-oriented audience that Doris Daywho hadn't the grace to retire like Garbo or the sense of timing to take her life like Monroewas growing old and pretending not to.
But the image of the eternal virgin is one-sided. At the same time, Day was challenging, in her workingwoman roles, the limited destiny of women to marry, live happily ever after, and never be heard from again. The fate of women to contract spiritually and finally to disappear into the miasma of male fantasies, as they did on the screen in the sixties, was one to which she would not resign herself.
And so it was this career, and not some hypothetical one, that I felt was worth examining in some detaila feeling, I am here to report, not shared by Day herself. If she has little desire to talk about her life, she has an almost pathological aversion to discussing her films. As a consequence of which we found ourselves sitting across the table in the charming den of her Beverly Hills home with not much to say.
"I don't want to look back at my movies," she explained. "It's too soon. You just want to do things differently. It's a waste of energy. What you put down was right at the time."
"But you've just been going over them, haven't you?" I asked her. "In the process of doing your autobiography with A. E. Hotchner? I heard it was a painful experience for you."
"No," she replied casually, "not really. I just don't like any of my movies. [The chasm opens, closes again.] I'm sorry to say that, because it sounds like ego. I might be wrong. If other people like them, who am I to say?"
The hope, in my interviewing her, was that if she didn't "tell all," she would at least express feelings, thoughts, and perhaps a self-awareness that had been given little breathing space on the screen.
"Don't they [Ms.] know I don't give interviews?" she said.
"Well, I don't do them either," I said reassuringly, "but I'm a fan of yours and they thought ... you know" Why didn't I say, "Look, you've given interviews to other magazines. And you've just told your life story to A. E. Hotchner in a biography that will surely contain at least a few revelations that don't accord with the official Doris Day." Because, well, I was sitting in her house drinking her home-brewed decaffeinated coffee and eating a coffee cake that her secretary Ruth had gone to the bakery to get.
I was casting about for a common bond, for there was one passionunfortunately, the one dearest to Doris Day's heartthat we did not share: dogs. I had already made a slight gaffe and betrayed, I thought, the hostility I was trying to conceal. But first, let me set the scene.
I passed through the electronically controlled gate and entered the one-story house with some trepidation, having read up on her obsession, and her menagerie. She is tirelessly active in a group called Actors and Others for Animals, which rescues stray and mistreated animals and tries to place them in homes. She has a varied collection of her own, which I can report are an extremely well-behaved lot. Instead of my being greeted, on entering the cheerful, L-shaped living room, by howls and a cascade of tongues and teeth, most of the dogs were out on the patio, their noses pressed against the pane in a portrait of canine harmony.
I was first introduced to Ruth, then Doris Day, then Doris Day's chipper, eighty-year-old mother, and then, at my request, I was presented to "Bubbles," in Ruth's arms.
"How old is Bubbles?" I asked. (I know enough to get the name first, so I don't betray my ignorance of gender, and thus of life itself, by asking "How old is she?" or, worse, the blatantly bluffing "it" when it's a he. If only they wore pink and blue dresses, like humans.)
"Eighteen months," Doris replied. "They're all eighteen months."
I hesitated. "You mean like women are always twenty-nine?"
I was nonplussed. I'll have to tread carefully, I thought. She then told me she'd nicknamed one of the dogs Toughy Brasuhn, after a particularly scrappy roller-derby queen. This sign of humor was encouraging.
There were occasional glimmers of irony, but there were few "slips." A woman totally in command of herself and her every utterance, she consciously projects not so much a self as a state of mind: one of unalloyed harmony, joy, mental health as its own reward.
This determined euphoria, or mind controlfor it is a product of will, not intuitive faithis the end result of Christian Science principles adopted early but since modified to a less orthodox and more personal code.
She was receptive to Christian Science, she said, "because I'd been thinking that I should be happier than I am. This was when I was singing with Les Brown. There has to be a better way, I thought. One ought to be able to control one's thinking instead of having depressionsone day you're up, the next you're down. I didn't want that kind of life, but I didn't know how to change it."
She made her first picture in Hollywood, Romance on the High Seas, in 1948; then her ex-husband (George Weidler, her second, also a musician) came to visit. He seemed completely changed.
"I asked him what had happened, and he introduced me to the teachings of Mrs. Eddy. The essence is that God is spirit. Heor Sheis not material and neither is man. It was a turning point in my life. My husband came and went. I believe he returned to give me this pearl.
"I'm no longer orthodox. Christian Science can be very rigid. I'm not a church person. You can pray anywhere, riding on a bicycle. But it was perfect for me, because it started my life in Hollywood with a whole new way of thinking. It was a complete protection. I've lived happily here and enjoyed all my years, and yet I've no sense of competition. There is no competition."
Her conviction forms an invisible but impenetrable wall around the most frivolous conversation. She is a daisy drawn with a heavy pencilthe border's too thick for a flower, especially one so simple and spontaneous.
Throughout our interviewfour hours one day, two the nextand beneath our bantering, I know she mistrusts me. Perhaps she is rightafter all, I pretended to love dogs. The sense of a barrier is all the more intriguing because of her apparent openness, and our apparent rapport.
Here is a woman who has lived a fascinating life: a singer, married to a musician when she was seventeen (in 1941); divorced in 1943, and, with a small baby, making her way with big bands; married in 1946 to another musician; divorced in 1949; goes into movies and soon becomes a star; married in 1951 to Marty Melcher, who until his death in 1968 manages her career; discovers after his death that they have both been swindled of some $22 million by their lawyer-manager Jerome B. Rosenthal; discovers the IRS has overruled a multimillion-dollar tax shelter, goes to court, wins her case, takes her career in hand; remains active, doing television work, recording her autobiography, adding to and decorating her house, seeing friends and befriending animals.
And yet all her experiences have been converted into spiritual bromides, chopped up and purified in the blender of Higher Understanding. They have merged into a life plan which is ultimately beyond her responsibility." "Que Sera, Sera."
"I never wanted to become a performer," she told me. "But when I was fifteen, I was in a car accident and had to give up dancing. Somebody suggested I take up singing. I ended up with a wonderful coachI used to go over on crutches. She thought I had promise but felt I should have three lessons a week, and we couldn't afford it. She gave me three for the price of one. I feel now that it was simply meant to be."
This woman is intelligent, even shrewd. No vapid, spaced-out star is she, no freak or faddist. There are contours and lines to her mind, and yet she is busy atomizing life's bulk into weightlessness. People and episodes no longer have the thick, nubby texture of whole experiences, but have been shaved to fit a completed puzzle of spiritual beatitude. Her second husband was not (as he was reported to be at the time) the great love of her life, but the man who brought her the "pearl" of Christian Science and vanished.
At least, that is the self she presents to me. And considering that I, after all, am associated in her eyes with the four things she turns out to regard most suspiciouslycontemporary films, her own films, critics, and the Women's MovementI suppose we get along surprisingly well.
The house buzzes with activity. The houseboy comes. Ruth has to go to the dentist. The swimming pool man arrives. Doris is in some pain because a dog accidentally bit her finger two nights before, the same finger she had smashed in a car door a few years back. The housesunny, open, furnished in early American and bright colorsis modest by Beverly Hills standards (though not by mine). If the paintings are not gallery material, we can, according to a recent Wall Steet Journal story, thank the crooked ex-lawyer Rosenthal, who advised the Melchers not to put their money in art and the home, as he had better plans for it.
We began talking about the changing status of women, a subject on which she has conflicting feelings.
"I could reel off a list of the ways women are relegated to being homemakersit starts out early in life," she said. "But I wanted that. At least I wanted a nice house. And I wanted my husband to be the" she looked for a word.
"No, no," she said quickly. "To have the good position. I wanted to be a source of strength and support. And manage a nice home and run it well. Not that I wanted to do all the work. I had the same idea most young Americans havethat you'll have somebody to come in.
"It's not bad when it works. But it's better now that women are getting out of the home and finding fulfillment.
"Between marriages, I stayed at home with the baby. I never lived it up enough. I was always guilty about not being a good mother. Motherhood is a super experience, but it shouldn't take up all the time." (Day has a close, friendly relationship with her son, Terry, a record producer who has recently married.)
She stopped for a second. "My husband was a musician. We were traveling all the time and didn't have much money, so I couldn't just call home to Mother to find out how to do things. I didn't know how to cook a steak or when to put in the potatoes to make them come out at the same time. My husband would come home with four hungry musicians, probably having told them I was a great cook."
Here she stood up and with a natural dramatic flair began acting out the story. "I couldn't eat. I would hover over them [she moves around an imaginary table], they would be ready to cut the steak. The blood was draining out of my face.
"'It's terrible,' I would say, before they'd even tasted it. 'I'm really just not a cook. I don't mean to be learning at your expense.' then I would run into the kitchen. My husband would come rushing back and say, 'You've just got to relax.' I never did.
"Maybe if I'd stayed in Cincinnati those early years and had a nice little apartment near my mother, I'd be the Perle Mesta of Beverly Hills."
What she turned out to be is a beautiful, active woman of fifty who looks forty and is perhaps a little more vain about her youthful looks and sensational figure than she lets on. She is wearing blue pants, a cream knit top, and a scarf that matches her blue eyes. She has thin, well-proportioned legs, a small waist, and an enormous bustthe biggest shock, because who ever knew she had it? She usually wore the kind of gearlumberjack shirts, suits, or shirtwaist dressesdesigned to conceal it. When I suggest this to her, she plays dumb.
(If I had known, in my anxious adolescent years, that Calamity Jane not only had a secret love but also a secret bosom the size of Marilyn Monroe's, I think I would have turned away in misery. She was a tomboy and therefore on one sidemy sideof the chasm that separated the "women" from the "girls" in that most sexually schizophrenic of decades.)
I asked her about her so-called image.
"I don't think I have one. Being blond, blue-eyed, and having a lot of energy is an image that people connect with the girl next door. Actually I'm one of the few women who had children in films. Most women refused to play mothers.
"Also, it might have to do with coloring. Generally, with the exception of Marilyn Monroe, dark women are considered sultry and sexy. There's the old joke about the bank teller with glasses being the great lover."
(Was she suggesting that she was the female equivalent?)
"What about reviews?" I asked her. "What about your ego?"
"I don't have an ego," she said. "I don't read reviews. I was under contract to Warners, and I figured they were paying me, so they would find the right thing for me to do.
"They didn't allow us to see the rushes. They didn't want us to come knocking on the door because a strand of hair was out of place. Still, maybe if we had seen them, it would have enabled us to improve. When you finally saw the whole thing, you wanted to go through the floor.
"I never read critics. I think they ought to simply describe a play or movie, not pass judgment on it. The world will decide."
It was on the subject of critics and current movies that she betrayed the only intimations of anger I was to see.
"I don't go to movies very much. I don't want to see junk. If I want realism, I'll become a social worker. But to come out thinking it's a shitty world ... it's like people who stop to look at an accident; they're not aware of what it does to them. I know what I want, and I know what I don't want. In this country you can do what you damn well please."
One of the dogs came up and her whole manner changed. She leaned over to talk to him, then murmured to me, "They're so spiritual. So perfect. They've got it all together." She tells me the story of a dog that was brought to America from Nazi Germany and taught to love after only feeling hatred.
I asked her what her life was like after losing the husband she'd been so close to, and dependent on.
"The first year was really, really hard. But time heals everything. I didn't think I'd ever get over that and I did. I like being free. Oh, that doesn't sound right. But I like making my own decisions."
"What about the lawsuit against Rosenthal? Was that a terrible ordeal?"
"Yes. But compared to losing somebody that you love, I would say not. Having all your money taken from you is no joke, but you have to put it all in its proper place. I told my son, I have so much to be joyful about. That man is not going to take away my joy for any minute of any day. I'll do what I have to do, but I'll go about it in my way.
"No matter what comes, it's for a reason. With Marty, things got a little one-sided. He took over too much and didn't tell me enough. If I ever get married again, it'll be the best. I would have more insight into what a marriage should be.
"I have grown, and in growing you change your reactions to things. Life is nothing but a series of reactions. I want to do good things, and I want to be used. Do you know how many people have been helped by my case? Women read about it, and they all said, now I'd better check with my lawyer and my accountant, I'd better get involved. If my experience did that for people, then it's worthwhile."
Sitting back in her chair, she seemed to luxuriate in the ordeal and well-being of her world.
"Now I'm a peaceful lady. I love my house, I love being in it. I swim twice a day in my birthday suit. I love my dogs, and I'm glad I can do something for animals. That's all a name is good for."
The next day over breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel she pursued the same theme.
"I always felt that making a living wasn't the easiest thing in the world, and I decided I was going straight ahead and try to be as uncomplicated as possible. The important thing in life is just living and loving. So many people feel that if they're not in show biz or writing a book, they've been cheated, or wasted. People say, 'Oh, you can talk because you're a star.' But I never wanted that. I get the biggest charge when I know that an animal has been placed in a good home. It just thrills me."
Then, as if by design, on the way home from the hotel we encountered a German shepherd, wandering lost and hungry three doors from Doris Day's house. She seized his collar, and they were off with an alacrity that left me trailing in the dust. Was it really meant to be? Could she be right?
FNT[(*)This interview/career essay first appeared in Ms., January 1976. Permission to copy granted by Ms. Magazine. Copyright [C] 1975 by Molly Haskell.]FNT (*)This interview/career essay first appeared in Ms., January 1976. Permission to copy granted by Ms. Magazine. Copyright [C] 1975 by Molly Haskell.
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About the Author:
Molly Haskell is a leading American film critic and freelance author. She has been the staff critic for The Village Voice, New York Magazine, and Vogue. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The New York Review of Books , Psychology Today, Esquire, and Ms., among other places.
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