Friday, January 5, 2007
By David Bret
Carroll & Graf. 299 pp. $25.95
Some years ago, in a very fancy Los Angeles seaside restaurant, I ordered the signature lobster and avocado salad. About halfway through lunch, an enormous fly struggled out from the damp jungle of arugula and frisee. I let out an unladylike "Eeek," and a waiter came over. "He just flew in, right?" "No," I answered hotly. "Look where he's been!" It was true, the fly was drenched, half-drowned in Thousand Island. Only later did I think of it from the fly's point of view, lost in gooey crags of avocado, gluey from unidentified pink stuff. Think of me now as that fly, staggering out from one of the ickiest film biographies I've ever read.
It's not that film biographies, as a genre, lack dignity or even gravitas. Consider Richard Schickel's superb "Elia Kazan" or A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax's equally thoughtful and meticulous "Bogart." Films, God knows, are the key to America's strange, monstrously peculiar id: Celebrities now, and even more then, were at some cosmic level assigned the task of mirroring the public's fantasies. If those fantasies were bizarre beyond belief, well, it wasn't the mirror's fault.
But suppose you gorged on old movie magazines and ghostwritten gobbledygook and pieces of weird gossip you overheard and then decided to rewrite what has been written and rewritten again for 80 years or so, and you picked as your subject Joan Crawford, "gay icon par excellence"? You'd produce something like David Bret's new biography.
When she was young, he writes, "it was widely known that she had crabs due to her hatred of bathing." But at the beginning of her career she had a fortuitous meeting with a woman named Katherine Emerine, who was "quite possibly" Crawford's "first lesbian fling." This would have shown Crawford's "predilection for the casting couch." Then her youth went by in "a blur of steamy sex, booze, torrid dancing, drugs and laughter." Also, there were some "porno-flicks," table dancing and two botched abortions. All this before her first MGM contract.
Then she struck up a friendship with Paul Bern, whose "grossly under-developed genitals" have already received more than their due in Irving Schulman's salacious biography of Jean Harlow more than 40 years ago. Then Joan acted with Tim McCoy, of whom she was said to demurely remark: He had "the fastest draw, sure, and the weapon's got staying power and sure as hell don't fire blanks!" But, according to Bret, Joan didn't always talk like that. Sometimes she talked like this: "Happiness to me means peace of mind, which of course is a mental state. And I know that unless I acquire it pretty soon I'll have a severe and protracted nervous breakdown. And yet, on the other hand, if I should find a certain peace of mind, it would mean that I had come to a point in my life where I no longer cared to develop."
But most of the time, the author opines, when she wasn't thinking these lofty thoughts, Joan behaved "like a sex-starved bird of prey."
Hollywood was not as it seemed -- sexually. That's the author's main theme here. (The "Hollywood Martyr" business of the subtitle is purely an afterthought.) Couples lived in "lavender" or "twilight-tandem" marriages. Many men, even (or especially) he-men such as George Raft, were "Gillette blades," i.e. they cut both ways. George Brent was gay (though we certainly don't need to know this for purposes of the narrative), and Joan once showed up at a British war relief event accompanied by five gay escorts. Clark Gable "was, of course, the archetypal repressed bisexual, the hallmarks of which were clearly evident in his early years."
Although I have carefully supplied the citations for every one of these quotations to the editors of this newspaper, David Bret is not bound by any such bourgeois convention. Quotations abound in his book, but there are no footnotes, and the index indicates only on what page people are mentioned. I think it's fair to say that "Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr" is made up of cryptic, if breezy, assertions, like: "Aspects of Joan Crawford's extraordinary, complex psyche were incorporated into many of her films . . . but such was the naivety of America during the Depression, few made the connection. The same may be said for Crawford, gay icon par excellence. Few people realised, at the time these events were unfolding, of [sic] her fondness for gay and bisexual men -- on account of their fear of being exposed by the media. Three of her husbands slotted into this category, as did many of her lovers, including Clark Gable." This is cheesiness "par excellence," as the author himself might say, and apparently little more than speculation.