LIZ SMITH: Surviving Harvey; Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara
“RIGHT is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doing wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better.” ― Mark Twain’s Huckelberry Finn.
I DON’T know what sort of “cure” Hollywood’s mammoth pariah Harvey Weinstein went though during his week or so of treatment for sex addiction, but Twain’s admonition should have been stenciled on the walls of his comfy spa. (Of course, for all his skill as a producer and marketer of movies, Harvey seems supremely ignorant, and appears not to know better; a monstrous overgrown, over-privileged child, let loose to intimidate in an unmistakably adult manner.)
As the Weinstein scandal continues to reverberate through Hollywood, and as I watch good men such as Matt Damon compelled to defend themselves about things they were only made partially aware of or who were told, by those harassed by Weinstein — such as Gwyneth Paltrow — “I can handle it,” I wonder where all this outrage is going to lead?
I’d like to think the much broader issue of power in (mostly) the hands of men, in positions as varied as studio tycoons and owners of convenience stores will be addressed. But so far I see that Weinstein has become an all-encompassing ugly face of all of Hollywood. Liberal Hollywood. Nasty Democrats. (Conservatives never have sex scandals.) He is unavoidably convenient.
Not simply because of the apparent length and breadth of his grisly actions, but his unappealing physiognomy. (His habit of appearing naked before these women is astonishing on so many levels, moral and aesthetic.)
For example, to the end of his life, handsome and charming Errol Flynn got away with cavorting with underage girls. He was even put on trial (and acquitted) of statutory rape. So far, nobody has called to have his movies banned from TCM. Anatomy is destiny, as Freud said.
The current atmosphere — with accusations flying and tumbrils packed, headed toward a guillotine set up on Hollywood’s Walk of Stars — reminds me of a particularly sensational period in the heady early years of the movie industry.
In 1921, came the scandal of Fatty Arbuckle, who was accused of so savagely raping a starlet named Virginia Rappe, that she died. He went through three trials — two hung juries and an acquittal. Most who have examined the case, tend to feel he was not guilty. Still, his career and reputation was ruined.
Then in 1922 came the possibly still unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor. Actresses Mable Normand and Mary Miles Minter were destroyed through association with Taylor.
The following year, the great star Wallace Reid died of his drug addiction … in 1926 Barbara La Marr (“The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful”) died of a cocaine overdose … another movie beauty, Olive Thomas, was allegedly reaching for a soothing sleep draught, and accidently, fatally, took poison … Charlie Chaplin married a girl named Lita Grey — she was 16 and pregnant. In 1932, sex-symbol Jean Harlow’s new husband was found dead in their bedroom, an apparent suicide — perhaps.
All this led to the much-hated Hays Code, which was set up “cleanse” movies and their stars. Named after Will H. Hays, a lawyer and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, he became the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.
The Hays Code, at is most restrictive did not fully go into effect until around 1934. But as the brilliant movie historian David Thompson notes, it had: “a chilling effect on the imagination, the vigor, the candor and the artistic potential of American movies.”
Could such a thing happen again? Could Harvey Weinstein’s pathological harassing have a lingering, long-term, negative effect on movie-making-on all manner of the creative arts — in general? In a United States controlled from top to bottom by ferociously tunnel-visioned conservatives, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Not that movie-makers didn’t find ways of getting around The Code, even perhaps benefiting from it in some ways. (Subtle innuendo is not to be despised.) But in this world of partisan social media and 24/7 news coverage with everybody shrieking “J’accuse!” anything is possible.
(The feeding frenzy has just consumed photographer Terry Richardson, known for his highly sexualized portraits of adult women. What next — will the designers of revealing clothes for women be fired, and what about actresses, models and ordinary women who display their bodies in such clothes? A long, winding and dangerously cobblestoned road is possibly being paved. From something good — the fall of Weinstein, the focus on the abuse of power — a less positive domino effect could arise.)
As we wrote a while back, women in all walks of life are dealing with their own versions of Harvey Weinstein, and there’s been a lot of coming forward from many who have suffered harassment and much worse.
But I’m afraid that the image of the unattractive, lecherous studio executive, and an entire entertainment/arts industry tarred with the same broad brush, trumps people equally guilty in the news media, and those who currently reside in our nation’s capital. It’s a bigger, better, uglier, more “cinematic” tale.
SPEAKING OF studio moguls, Alicia Mayer, the great grandniece of MGM’s legendary Louis B. Mayer, has just published an excellent and informative defense of her relative: “Dear Media: You Hung the Wrong Movie Mogul, Louis B. Mayer was no Harvey Weinstein.” (You can find the entire piece on a site called “The Movie Colony.”) Alicia quotes, among others, Daniel Mayer Selznick, the only living grandchild of Mayer and Irene Selznick. David fumes: “This is just appalling!! Louis B. Mayer may have been the ONLY major studio executive who DID NOT engage in intimate relations… This is what my father used to call “cheap journalism”: pick a famous name and throw it around freely.
When my mother took me to see Judy [Garland] at the Palace, we went backstage and Judy was very upset about the negative things she had read about Louis B. She was particularly incensed that some journalist claimed he had caused her to be addicted! ‘On the contrary,’ I remember her clearly saying, ‘I begged him to give me anything that would keep me working: that was my salvation!!’”
There is much more, and for any student of film history, fascinating stuff. And it is true that for all the tales of Mayer’s “tyranny” and fabled crying, reprimanding (and controlling) his stars, he was not known as a libertine. I can think of many others who were, but I’d prefer not to get into wrangles with any remaining members of their families!
AND SPEAKING of that great genius and even greater fantasist, Judy Garland (who usually blamed Mayer, her mother, her husbands, lovers, agents and strangers on the street for her problems) her life is about to be put on the big screen, starring Renee Zellweger. I adore Renee! She looks nothing at all like Judy, but she certainly has the required vulnerability. (Spend a good ten minutes with Renee and all you want to do is hug and protect her!)
My one cavil is that the film is supposed to concentrate on the star’s final year or two, particularly her controversial 1969 stint at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub. According to a press release, the movie will “cast doubt” on whether Judy, recently married for the fifth time to much younger Mickey Deans, should have been touring/performing at all. What doubt? Of course not! Any photo of her at this time shows a woman literally fading from existence — although miraculously, here and there, she could summon the old Garland magic, if not quite the vocals of her heyday.
The script was written by Tom Edge, whose credits include Netflix’s glorious “The Crown” so there’s hope on that score. However, the subject matter reminds me grimly of Peter Quilter’s “The End of the Rainbow,” which inhabited Broadway a few years back. It dealt with the same time period. Reviewing the show in 2012, we observed:
“The dark, white hot/ice cold finale of Judy Garland’s life has been regurgitated in the Broadway show ‘End of the Rainbow.’ This is Judy in extremis, circa London, 1969. Her voice shattered (again) … her career on the precipice (again) … involved with an inappropriate man (again) … fighting with agents and musicians and nightclub owners (again)!
“Those who are old enough to remember, still recall the tremulous wraith who was Judy by that point in her life; nearly emaciated in her glittering pantsuits, still trying to give her all onstage, sometimes achieving a miracle, more often openly asking (expecting) her audiences to forgive their long-lost Dorothy. (Forget Dorothy, Garland had traveled miles even from the paper thin, nervous woman — with the still glorious voice — of her 1963 TV series.)
“It was not a nice time, those months in London; an odd, even unpalatable subject upon which to base a two-hour and ten minute play-with-music. Supremely unappetizing for those with no appetite for a grisly wallow, it is fascinating theater nonetheless. (Tracie Bennett plays Garland, and does her volcanic best to make sense of the ravaged, almost demented, latter-day Judy.)
“It is a niche play for a niche audience about a niche moment in Garland’s life. I kept wondering, ‘Why?’”
ADMIRING the talents — and the great heart — of our friend Renee as much as we do, and given the marvelous offerings of Mr. Edge, via “The Crown,” we hope for the best, and will hold off on wondering “Why?” for now.