Here is another sure shot from the enchanting Eve Babitz. Originally published in the April 1976 issue of Ms. Magazine, it appears here with the author’s permission. (For more on Babitz, ready Lili Anorak’s 2014 Vanity Fairprofile, and pick up Babitz’s two wonderful volumes—Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company.)
“My Life in a 36DD Bra, Or, The All-American Obsession”
By Eve Babitz
When I was 15 years old, I bought and filled my first 36 DD bra. Since then, no man has ever made a serious pass at me without assuring me in the first hour that he was a leg man. Tits! Why, he hadn’t even noticed!
The tacit understanding was that if I did indeed have those giant knockers one hears so much about in locker rooms and sees flopping across magazine covers, why he simply hadn’t seen what all the fuss was about! Instead he had been quietly pursuing his birdwatching of ankles, knees, and nicely turned calves.
For years I believed these men, which goes to show how dumb one can be when on puts one’s mind to it. And for years I felt sorry for the men who, by some sad twist of fate had gotten stuck with me when they’d have preferred legs. On the other hand, I always knew that if I ever really wanted anything, all I’d have to do was lean forward slightly. Suddenly the world was waiting to hear what it was I wanted, how fast I wanted it, and whether they could get a better one for me wholesale.
Now my legs aren’t that great. They’re okay—with feet on the end of them and toenails at the ends of the feet. They’re not the long legs that you see in Vogue magazine, those grasshopper stems glistening out in Vaseline bronze for “this summer it’s white linen, briefly” copy. (And, as for my ass, well it’s so nondescript that one one’s ever presumed to tell me that was what they were after.)
In fact, I inherited my legs from my mother, and her apple-dumplingly adorable (but short) legs used to cause my father to laugh for what my mother described as “no reason.” Then my mother would blush all the way down to her amazingly taut, and gorgeous breasts. Perhaps that was the real reason my father laughed at her legs.
I inherited my breasts from the women in our family, judging from the old photographs taken in Russia in 1905 and old photographs taken in Louisiana in 1907. Only I was what is euphemistically described as a “Late Bloomer,” but which might better be called The-Heartbreak-Hotel-Death-Row-No-Love-Low-Down-End-of-the-World-Blues. There I was 14 years old in Hollywood with all these incredible girls around me bulging out of these powder-blue sweaters, these salmon-colored sweaters, these pink and charcoal-gray sweaters, these full-fashioned cashmere navy-blue sweaters. And I’m in huge white blouses coming out of my skirts because I’d rather have people think of me a pig or a slob than flat-chested. My best friend, who’d spent hours with me in the seventh grade laughing and talking (she was really a smart funny girl and we had splendid times), suddenly turned up after one summer in Lake Arrowhead with beautiful 35C tits, in pink sweaters—and she never spoke to a girl again. (Yes, she did—to the only girl in school with tits bigger than hers. But that girl wasn’t beautiful the way she was, or smart.)
Then, it happened to me.
It was in the summertime, I was 14. I started my period and then I started “blossoming” in the most phenomenal display of glorious last-minute cavalry rescue. It was, as the English say, gratifying. Now, at least I didn’t have that to worry about any more.
Later I noticed that men would view my tits and become aflame with desire for them, and they would fantasize about having a pair of their own: “God, if I had tits like those I could fuck my way into a million bucks…” I also started getting plenty of, “Shit, she must really be horny.” (They get horny so I’m supposed to.)
Recently, in Ralph’s, my local supermarket where anything often goes, there I am trying to decide on some lettuce—lost in thought, idylls of watercress—when I feel a man behind me and quickly, before I can turn around, he says in a low, authorative purposeful salute: “Big tits.” And he’s gone.
That’s like seeing a movie star. You run up—with all kinds of fantasies beaming through your regular thought process—you run up to Cary Grant and say “Cary Grant!”
What’s he supposed to do? You’ve just said his name to him—a tradition, a heritage, a massive plethora of dreams and meanings. It’s the same with men and my tits. They cannot imagine my doing anything that isn’t somehow connected with how big my tits are. And my tits aren’t even that big. I mean…they’re not Cary Grant. They’re more…John Garfield or Dean Martin. You know, there’s that shock of recognition but no the fainting spell Cary Grant would inspire.
The other night I went out on the Last-Blind-Date-I-Shall-Ever-Go-Out-On-Ever-Again. The other night this friend, who keeps saying how smart and funny and wonderful she thinks I am, calls me and says she’s going to fix me up with this smart, funny wonderful ex-lover of hers. I’ll just love him, she says. So I get dressed in these clothes that I wear when I don’t know what I’m about to encounter—clothes vaguely reminiscent of those awful white blouses I wore in junior high to hide whatever was there. This tall, unfunny, unwonderful, stupid man picks me up (I could tell at once he was stupid because he was stupid), and on our way into this restaurant he brushes against my breasts and says, “Why, shit, Jeannie was right! You do have gigantic tits!” Home, James.
He’d have done much better if he insisted he was a leg man and you can see why, all these years, those other guys did.
When a man who I don’t love and am not sexually engrossed in talks about my tits, there’s something that makes me want to pour cold water into his lap and leave a loose cartoon of ice cream on his car seat overnight. Legs are much less tiresome to listen to under those circumstances. However, if I’m beginning to be madly whipped into a frenzy of lust, a polite mention that I have beautiful breasts is a nice touch. And of course, after I’ve known the guy awhile and he’s proved himself funny, smart, an ace lover, and a man of distinction, then he can say any fucking thing he pleases. And only then have I found out what men were really thinking the first time when they poured me a glass of cool white wine and nonchalantly admitted their preference for legs.
“I remember one time,” my gorgeous friend David old me after I told him I was going to write this piece, “I met this girl, Lucy Sander” [I knew her—we’d shared a dressing room in Hollywood High together once and even then I thought it was hilarious because I was a 36DD and she was a 36DD and we’d get our bras mixed up—a truly uncommon coincidence] “and I was like 19 and was 16 and there they just were, you know!…” and his voice softened in memories of things lust, “and I ran home, I mean ran, I pushed people off the sidewalk so I could get home in time to jerk off thinking about her tits…” He started laughing, “And then I asked her out and I was going to kiss her for the first time and she said something about being careful because she was swollen because of her period and I said, ‘Swollen? Where?’ And then I went into a whole thing about how now that she mentioned it I did notice she was perhaps larger than other girls but since I was a leg man myself…”
I love revelations.
So for all those years when I was having to make do with men who were a trifle triste because they were leg men and they had to accustom themselves to all this extra baggage…And then how they pounced when the coast became clear, and those revelations afterward that from the moment I’d come into some party they couldn’t they their eyes off my…But of course they had to. Because if they hadn’t, I would have thought they were pigs and brutes and you know how women are about pigs and brutes. We like them to clean up their routine in polite society at least. We like to at least know they could maintain an air of respectability if they had to.
There are other little tricky situations that arise from big tits. Sometimes other women, a lot of the time when they’re drunk, can’t keep their eyes off them. They think you’re doing it on purpose. It’s like big guys in bars getting picked on for fights. But that’s okay, I don’t really mind about women. Deep down they know I know they can’t help it and eventually they turn their venom on their escorts fro liking women with big tits and leave me out of it.
There’s also all this having to bundle up. Whenever I go into the street, I have to cover myself with clothes that flow and drape. I cannot wear a tight anything on the street if I hope to have a moment’s peace. Suppose, for example, you wanted to go for a nice walk and look at the sunset and breathe in the air at eventide, nice idea, right? No, no, no. Not if you’ve got big tits and you’re not bundled up (Cary Grant can’t do it either).
Putting on disguises is one of my daily tasks. “Now what shall I wear today that’ll billow around?” I say to myself, squinting into my closet. If I’m going to see friends and I have to on the street first, I usually have to wear a coat (“Eve, a coat? It’s eighty degrees out there!”) and then take it off (sweating) upon arrival. If they’re really true friends who won’t make remarks about my tits when they get drunk enough, and if I can really be sure they aren’t going to turn on me for being Cary Grant, then I sometimes really get luscious and I try to dress like Claudia Cardinale in Caratouche or try in some other way to otherwise become a visual social asset to the proceedings.
If I’m with a man I want to entice, then I have a special bunch of immoral things I wear for in-house functions, but only if the guy is six foot seven, do I presume to wear them at large.
There is one other problem—not a problem but a little matter of concern—about having big tits, and that is that a lot of sensitive, smart men are terrified because they’re consumed by lust and they haven’t learned the old “leg man” line. Also they have this nervous feeling that anyone with tits like that must be vulgar. Or insensitive. There I sit, reading my Proust and minding my p’s and q’s and keeping up with current oddities—no slouch more or less—and I see them shrink from my gaze as they I were a tramp.
Having spent the day defending myself from the slings and arrows of outrageous truck drivers and busboys I am sometimes ill-equipped to suddenly assume an air of sensitive melancholy—and a couple of years ago I gave it up for a bad show. I mean, to be given the feeling that one is inelegant after one has just found the strategy for getting form point A to point B without having to walk past a little group of 14-year-old boys…It’s too hard and life is too short, and I want to be happy and laugh…
Occasionally, I sit in a restaurant and I watch as a lithe, long-limbed creature with daises embroidered on a sheer organdy blouse (beneath which she does not now, nor has she ever had to wear a bra) enters. I see the face of the man who awaits her; it has a particularly familiar look and until lately, I couldn’t place it. He kisses her, she sits down, and he reaches over to pour her some cool white wine. And then, I’ll be you anything, he says, “You know, even though we just met, I think I must tell you right off…I’m a tit man.”
Joseph Cornell is one of my favorite artists and Charles Simic is one of my favorite writers so you can imagine how thrilled I am to present a few excerpts from Simic’s charming—and irresistible—volume,Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (NY Review of Books). Reprinted with the author’s permission, and illustrated with photographs by fellow Manhattan-wanderer, Bags, along with a few of my own pictures and collages. Enjoy—Alex Belth]
I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighborhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970. I was either working at lowly office jobs, or I was out of work spending my days in the Public Library on Forty-second Street which Cornell frequented himself. I don’t remember when it was that I first saw his shadow boxes. When I was young, I was interested in surrealism, so it’s likely that I came across his name and the reproduction of his art that way. Cornell made me feel that I should do something like that myself as a poet, but for a long time I continued to admire him without knowing much about him. Only after his death did he become an obsession with me. Of course, much had already been written about him, and most of it was excellent. Cornell’s originality and modesty disarm the critics and make them sympathetic and unusually perceptive. When it comes to his art, our eyes and imagination are the best guides. In writing the pieces for this book, I hoped to emulate his way of working and come to understand him that way. It is worth pointing out that Cornell worked in the absence of any aesthetic theory and previous notion of beauty. He shuffled a few inconsequential found objects inside his boxes until together they composed an image that pleased him with no clue as to what that image will turn out to be in the end. I had hoped to do the same.
THE MAN ON THE DUMP
He looked the way I imagine Melville’s Bartleby to have looked the day he gave up his work to stare at the blank wall outside the office window.
There are always such men in cities. Solitary wanderers in long-outmoded overcoats, they sit in modest restaurants and side-street cafeterias eating a soft piece of cake. They are deadly pale, have tired eyes, and their lapels are covered with crumbs. Once they were something else, now they work as office messengers. With a large yellow envelope under one arm, they climb the stairs to the tenth floor when the elevator is out of order. They keep their hands in their pockets even in summertime. Any one of them could be Cornell.
He was a descendant of an old New York Dutch family that had grown impoverished after his father’s early death. He lived with his mother and invalid brother in a small frame house on Utopia Parkway in Queens and roamed the streets of Manhattan in seeming idleness. A devout Christian Scientist, he was a recluse and an eccentric who admired the writings of French Romantic and Symbolist poets. His great hero was Gérard de Nerval, famous for promenading the streets of Paris with a live lobster on a leash.
THE ROMANTIC MOVEMENT
Poe has a story called “The Man of the Crowd” in which a recently discharged hospital patient sits in a coffee shop in London, enjoying his freedom, and watching the evening crowd, when he notices a decrepit old man of unusual appearance and behavior whom he decides to follow. The man at first appears to be hurrying with a purpose. He crosses and recrosses the city until the aimlessness of his walking eventually becomes obvious to his pursuer. He walks all night through the now-deserted streets, and is still walking as the day breaks. His pursuer follows him all of the next day and abandons him only as the shades of the second evening come on. Before he does, he confronts the stranger, looks him steadfastly in the eye, but the stranger does not acknowledge him and resumes his walk.
Poe’s is one of the great odes to the mystery of the city. Who among us was not once that pursuer or that stranger? Cornell followed shop girls, waitresses, young students “who had a look of innocence.” I myself remember a tall man of uncommon handsomeness who walked on Madison Avenue with eyes tightly closed as if he were listening to music. He bumped into people, but since he was well dressed, they didn’t seem to mind.
“How wild a history,” says Poe’s narrator, “is written within that bosom.” On a busy street one quickly becomes a voyeur. An air of danger, eroticism, and crushing solitude play hide-and-seek in the crowd. The indeterminate, the unforeseeable, the ethereal, and the fleeting rule there. The city is the place where the most unlikely opposites come together, the place where our separate intuitions momentarily link up. The myth of Theseus, the Minotaur, Ariadne, and her thread continue here. The city is a labyrinth of analogies, the Symbolist forest of correspondences.
Like a comic-book Spider-Man, the solitary voyeur rides the web of occult forces.
WHERE CHANCE MEETS NECESSITY
Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.
He sets out from his home on Utopia Parkway without knowing what he is looking for or what he will find. Today it could be something as ordinary and interesting as an old thimble. Years may pass before it has company. In the meantime, Cornell walks and looks. The city has an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of unlikely places.
I WENT TO THE GYPSY
What Cornell sought in his walks in the city, the fortune-tellers already practiced in their parlors. Faces bent over cards, coffee dregs, crystals; divination by contemplation of surfaces which stimulate inner visions and poetic faculties.
De Chirico says: “One can deduce and conclude that every object has two aspects: one current one, which we see nearly always and which is seen by men in general; and the other, which is spectral and metaphysical and seen only by rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance…”
He’s right. Here comes the bruja, dressed in black, her lips and fingernails painted blood-red. She saw into the murderer’s lovesick heart, and now it’s your turn, mister.
CHESSBOARD OF THE SOUL
Around the boxes I can still hear Cornell mumble to himself. In the basement of the quiet house on Utopia Parkway he’s passing the hours by changing the positions of a few items, setting them in new positions relative to one another in a box. At times the move is no more than a tenth of an inch. At other times, he picks the object, as one would a chess figure, and remains long motionless, lost in complicated deliberation.
Many of the boxes make me think of those chess problems in which no more than six to seven figures are left on the board. The caption says: “White mates in two moves,” but the solution escapes the closest scrutiny. As anyone who attempts to solve these problems knows, the first move is the key, and it’s bound to be an unlikely appearing move.
I have often cut a chess problem from a newspaper and taped it to the wall by my bed so that I may think about it first thing in the morning and before turning off the lights at night. I have especially been attracted to problems with minimum numbers of figures, the ones that resemble the ending of some long, complicated, and evenly fought game. It’s the subtlety of two minds scheming that one aims to recover.
At times, it may take months to reach the solution, and in a few instances I was never able to solve the problem. The board and its figures remained as mysterious as ever. Unless there was an error in instructions or position, or a misprint, there was no way in hell the white could mate in two moves. And yet…
At some point my need for a solution was replaced by the poetry of my continuous failure. The white queen remained where it was on the black square, and so did the other figures in the original places, eternally, whenever I closed my eyes.
WHAT MOZART SAW ON MULBERRY STREET
If you love watching movies from the middle on, Cornell is your director. It’s those first moments of some already-started, unknown movie with its totally mysterious images and snatches of dialogue before the setting and even the vaguest hint of a plot became apparent that he captures.
Cornell spliced images and sections from preexisting Hollywood films he found in junk stores. He made cinema collages guided only by the poetry of images. Everything in them has to do with ellipses. Actors speak but we don’t know to whom. Scenes are interrupted. What one remembers are images.
He also made a movie from the point of view of a bust of Mozart in a store window. Here, too, chance is employed. People pass on the street and some of them stop to look in the window. Marcel Duchamp and John Cage use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist. For Cornell it’s the opposite. To submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions. In that sense Cornell is not a dadaist or a surrealist. He believes in charms and good luck.
THE GAZE WE KNEW AS A CHILD
“People who look for symbolic meaning fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the images,” writes René Magritte, and I could not agree more. Nevertheless, this requires some clarification. There are really three kinds of images. First, there are those seen with eyes open in the manner of realists in both art and literature. Then there are images we see with eyes closed. Romantic poets, surrealists, expressionists, and everyday dreamers know them. The images Cornell has in his boxes are, however, of the third kind. They partake of both dream and reality, and of something else that doesn’t have a name. They tempt the viewer in two opposite directions. One is to look and admire the elegance and other visual properties of the composition, and the other is to make up stories about what one sees. In Cornell’s art, the eye and the tongue are at cross purposes. Neither one by itself is sufficient. It’s that mingling of the two that makes up the third image.
It’s raining on Utopia Parkway. The invalid brother is playing with his toy trains. Cornell is reading the sermons of John Donne, and the box of the Hôtel Beau-Séjour is baking in the oven like one of his mother’s pies.
In order to make them appear aged, Cornell would give his boxes eighteen to twenty coats of paint, varnish them, polish them, and leave them in the sun and rain. He also baked them to make them crack and look old.
Forgers of antiquities, lovers of times past, employ the same method.
It ought to be clear that Cornell is a religious artist. Vision is his subject. He makes holy icons. He proves that one needs to believe in angels and demons even in a modern world in order to make sense of it.
The disorder of the city is sacred. All things are interrelated. As above, so below. We are fragments of an unutterable whole. Meaning is always in search of itself. Unsuspected revelations await us around the next corner.
The blind preacher and his old dog are crossing the street against the oncoming traffic of honking cabs and trucks. He carries his guitar in a beat-up case taped with white tape so it looks like it’s bandaged.
The final episode The Night Of, HBO’s engrossing eight-part series co-created by Richard Price, airs this Sunday and if you have not been watching, have a little binge and catch up—you’ll dig it. Price is a distinguished novelist and screenwriter—I love the talk in movies like The Color of Money and Sea of Love—and one of my favorite Scorsese flicks, Life Lessons. Like many of us—thank you, P. Kael—he lost it at the movies. Back in December 1982, American Film magazine published Price’s charming essay about some of his favorite movie theater memories, and, with the author’s permission, we’re happy to now share it with you. Dive in, this will make you happy.—Alex Belth
“Gorgo, Warhol, Rocky, and Me”
By Richard Price
Over the marquee of a beat-up two-dollar movie house in Times Square, there’s an ancient faded sign: “Get More Out of Life—See a Movie.” The visual contrast between that sentiment and the desperate seediness surrounding it would yield, in its bitter irony, a photograph worthy of Walker Evans.
Nonetheless, the sign gives solid advice. Movies have always been a source of self-realization in my life; from Jerry Lewis to James Dean to Woody Allen, the shock of recognition has always signaled the Big Change for me.
But there’s another source of epiphany in a movie house, one much more profound and subtle than the screen—and that’s the audience. And I’ve always felt that the action in the seats was the greater teacher.
Rebel Without a Cause was pure bush-league in the life-lessons department compared with the ever popular torture of trying to worm a finger inside a steel-trap bra while keeping a two-hour, eyes-ahead poker face, or compared with the frantic in-crowd scrambling for who-sits-next-to-whom seating among a group of thirteen-year-old boys. Deep Throat was a rambling, flatulent dirty joke compared with the awesome sexuality of first tongue kiss while watching Topkapi. Psycho was so much “Mister Rogers” compared with the torture of sitting in front of six greaser cretins, who, after ordering you not to turn around, amused themselves through Viva La Vegas by treating your skull to sporadic slaps and buttered popcorn.
Everything—sex, power, kindness, cruelty, love lost and found—was acted out in the dark, no “The End,” and nothing could be exorcised by chanting, “It’s only a movie.”
The following memories are selected from my personal Book of Revelations.
From the age of five to eleven, the highlight of my week was spending Saturdays with my grandmother, who lived in what is now known as the South Bronx. Our itinerary never varied: a double monster-movie matinee at one of the local theaters, dinner at a deli, and then back to her place for an evening of pro wrestling, roller derby, and “Zackerly’s Shock Theater” on the ole Emerson. But the crème de Ia crème was the monster-movie outing. She’d load up a shopping bag with sandwiches, fruit, and a few thermoses, and we’d head on out—nothing could be finer.
But it all began to fall apart two weeks before my twelfth birthday, when we went to see Gorgo.
Seated in the theater, surrounded by kids howling and yowling for the picture to start, my grandmother muttered her usual, “Animals,” a few times, jerking her head in annoyance to all points of the compass. One kid ten rows down from us got dragged out even before the lights dimmed. An eleven-year-old with a cigarette, dragged up the aisle by the tall, bony, gray-haired, tomahawk-faced matron in a white uniform like that of a school nurse, her eyes razors of determination, the kid trying desperately to be cool, trying to drag on his cigarette as he was hustled by his neck and armpit out of the theater, his friends laughing and whooing in a wolf chorus: “Efram, man, she too bad for you.” “Bite her, man.”
My grandmother squinted in admiration at the matron. “She’s a tough one.”
The kids were my age, but in every way it seemed like no contest; they were bigger, badder, louder, definitely not College Bound. As the matron came back down the aisle slightly huffing, my grandmother nodded to her. The matron smiled back a “How are you, dear,” then continued down to Efram’s friends brandishing her flashlight like a nightstick: “An’ if I see anybody else light up a cigarette, ya’s gonna get the same treatment.” That got a chorus of “whoos” as she tromped up the aisle, her face in an “I ain’t kiddin’” expression.
“Watch ’em,” my grandmother murmured. “I see two packs… these little bastards… just let ’em light up… they don’t think anybody’s watchin’.”
Halfway through Gorgo, while a mother dinosaur destroyed London in a search for her baby, one kid bent over the crotch of his friend for a light and both of us caught the brief orange flare reflected off the seat back in front of him.
She grabbed my arm. “We got him!”
The kid sat back in a low slouch, casually checking out his sides, the cigarette cupped inside his palm, lit end between his legs.
“Go get the matron!” my grandmother said, her eyes widening. I hesitated, not wanting to rat on another kid and not wanting to get beaten up. “Go, go! He’s almost finished!”
The matron was lounging against an archway, arms folded across her waist, eyes scanning the crowd. “Excuse me, miss? My grandmother wants to talk to you.”
She tromped down to our seats and bent over my grandmother, who didn’t say a word, just raised her eyebrows, made a slight motion with her head in the direction of that row of kids, and pressed two fingers against her lips as if she were dragging on a butt.
I saw all this from where the matron had been standing. I knew there was a chance that she would hustle this kid past me, that the kid would get a good look at me, and that maybe my ass was grass, but I didn’t really feel that worried. What I felt, more than fear was deep sorrow. For the first time in six years of movie outings with my grandmother, I found myself wishing I was one of her “animals,” wishing that I was sitting right in the middle of those kids, cupping a passed butt, taking a drag, and passing it on.
Much to my relief, the matron decided to lay off. When I sat back down, my grandmother was sitting hand to mouth, eyes wide, staring down at those kids. “Oh, honey, what a world,” she whisper-moaned, shaking her head behind her fist. “What a world…”
For the next several hours, I ate, she drank black coffee, too aggravated to eat, and we watched the kids. Every time one would come up the aisle to go to the john or get candy we would stare at him until our heads were almost completely turned around. We would do the same when he came back down. And we watched the movie. It struck me that my grandmother was a very lonely person and that in the very near future she would get a lot more lonely.
When we got out, it was twilight. The kids streamed around us, my grandmother’s tottering, arthritic bulk like a rock splitting rapids. One kid locked eyes with her, caught her death-ray sneer, and nudged his friend. My heart stopped. I envisioned my grandmother and me back to back fighting them off, but nothing happened, and I wound up watching them bop down the street, counting how many of them wore Keds and how many Converse.
THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH
When we were all thirteen years old, my friends and I would go see any film anywhere at any time. We didn’t go to watch, we went to hunt. We knew that in every movie crowd there was at least one eighth-grade girl just sitting there waiting to put out. We’d go in, take a row, hiss, elbow each other, and snigger for two hours, then head on home calling each other faggots.
Everybody was pretty happy with the arrangement, but during Christmas break, early 1963, things were thrown into chaos at a neighborhood kiddie matinee of The Day Mars Invaded Earth.
Surrounded by seven-year-olds, we scoured the darkness, muttered variations on “I was up for it, too, man” and settled in for a few hours of wisecracks. At some point during the first hour of the movie, I was lurching down the aisle on my way back from a popcorn run when I heard someone hissing out my name. It was my main man, Howie, who, obviously out of his mind, was sitting in between two teenage girls. Giving me a look like he was sinking in quicksand, he said, “Hey, yo’, this is Jackie; she thinks you’re cute.”
Too freaked to think up an out for myself, I took the offered seat and concentrated on the movie. I had never wanted to be sitting next to a guy so badly as I did at that moment. The other girl was Jackie’s sister, Carol. Like the sluts they obviously were, they both had plucked eyebrows and more eye makeup than Cleopatra.
After a debonair half-hour pause to show her I was no beggar, I draped my hand along the back of Jackie’s seat and caressed Howie’s similarly outstretched arm. Howie responded by diddling the hollow of my elbow. I was in stud heaven for fifteen minutes before I glanced down and saw that both of Jackie’s hands were in her lap. Whipping my arm away from Howie’s like it was touching something with teeth, I sat reeling in retroactive revulsion, then made my move. I scored waist right off the bat. After what seemed like days later I made it up to the edge of her bra. Suddenly she hunched over and drawled out, “Hey Carol! I got another rib counter here.”
Carol had a look on her face as though she was at the end of a line at the Motor Vehicles Bureau; Howie was sitting there with his hands tucked in his armpits.
Turning back to me, Jackie grabbed my hand and planted it on her small left breast. My forehead tingled like a tuning fork. Now what? My hand lay on top of her sweater inert and splayed like a starfish until Jackie got up, gave her sister the high sign, announced a trip to the bathroom, took her umbrella and shoulder bag, and vanished forever.
When we all got outside, Howie bolted for a cab and rode alone the three blocks back to his house.
I walked home like Moses returning from a conversation with the Burning Bush. Oblivious to the frantic six-man press conference that circled me from the theater to my building, I was obsessed with trying to keep my wrist curled and my fingers spread in “the exact shape of Jackie’s breast. It had taken thirteen years for me to score, and, fearing that it would be another thirteen before I saw some action again, I felt that I had to preserve the mold of my conquest to tide me over the years.
But by the time I got inside my apartment, my hand was killing me. I began to panic. My first thought was to trace it on paper. Photograph it. Plaster of Paris. Luckily it was too late by the time I noticed the baby shoes on top of the family television. Before I realized that I could have bronzed it, my cramped hand had become unbearable and I had shaken it out.
THE T.A.M.I. SHOW
The T.A.M.I. Show was a rock concert filmed in 1964, at the dawn of the British invasion and the California sound. It was also the epitome of the racially integrated rock show, an amazing mix of three worlds—White America, Black America, and Liverpool—your hosts, Jan and Dean.
I saw The T.A.M.I. Show with three friends and our girls, all of us fifteen years old. My girl friend didn’t really love me, but in our crowd, if you weren’t part of a match, you might as well have a bell around your neck, and I was the only guy available. Unfortunately for me, I loved her madly.
All through Lesley Gore, the Supremes, Gerry and the Pacemakers, I sat there in the Saturday-matinee darkness totally focused on Mary’s hand, which lay in mine like it was carved from wax. Everybody around me was screaming and bouncing, and it pissed me off. I hated surfing music. I hated the British sound. And although I loved Motown, not even the synchronized svelteness of the Miracles could pull me away from agonizing over the implications of Mannequin Hand.
But suddenly, without warning, James Brown came flying across the screen, shrieking like he was on fire, and, without thinking, I found myself standing in a half crouch, pulling Mary’s hand over her head. Backed up by the Famous Flames, he seemed like the Devil in a doo, screeching and doing splits in celebration of his own bad-ass status. I’d never seen such a ferocious refusal to compromise, to “make nice,” and for twenty minutes he turned the world into something best seen from the portal of a Sherman tank.
The crowd was enjoying his set, but with a slight pall of wariness and detachment. There were no teen screams for “Please, Please, Please” or “Night Train” as there had been for “It’s My Party” or “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” James Brown was definitely not cute; no fantasy escort for a sweet sixteen. I felt as if all through the movie I had been at odds with the crowd and now we had just passed each other again. My girl friend stared at the screen like she was being forced to watch a massacre. She pulled her hand out of mine and crossed her arms in front of her chest. To hell with her.
At fifteen I had already established myself around school as a poet, but I was more into the wrapping than the gift. I wrote poems because it made my run-of-the-mill adolescent mooniness seem romantic and intriguing, elevated me from loner to lone wolf. Persona was everything because, allegedly, girls are suckers for uniforms.
But James Brown was a true outlaw artist, and sitting there watching him crooning and yowling, tearing up the boards with the smoking intensity of a flamenco dancer, face twisting and writhing into a catalog of passions, I found myself exhilarated by the making of art rather than the posing of the artist.
Walking out of the theater at two-thirty in the afternoon, I was astonished that it was still daylight.
I still wanted “poet” to shelter me from Mary’s coolness, still wanted “artiste” to rationalize my lovesickness as part of the forging process, but as I walked home, filled with the sights and sounds of James Brown, for the first time in my life I found myself wondering if I had any talent.
1970—Being in Love Means Never Having to Sit Through Andy Warhol
During the late sixties and early seventies, my college years, movies were divided into two categories: “Amerikan propaganda” and “surreal.” Any movie where the cowboys, the cavalry, or the GIs won the battle was Fascist and sinister. Same for anything heartwarming or corny—all “part of the problem.” Surreal became synonymous with Good: Fantasia,Betty Boop cartoons, Medium Cool, Easy Rider, Zabriskie Point, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Bergman, Putney Swope, Mickey One,anything low-budget or starring mainly unknowns or shot in black and white—all surreal, all good.
I saw all the required movies, in part because I was enjoying my new role as a hippie aesthete, but also because I was a devout believer in “no pain, no gain”—Sugar Pops tasted better, but oatmeal made you strong. Outside of the hip comedies, most of what I found myself buying tickets for seemed to me boring, pompous, or just plain incoherent. In my heart of hearts I was still a Sands of Iwo Jima junkie, but I restrained myself for the good of the Movement.
When I was a junior, I had a first date with a coed whom I didn’t know if I really liked or not. Date meant movie. Our choices were The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Nazi Sex Crimes in Third Reich Love Camp Number Seven, Slaves,and Andy Warhol’s Trash.
Five minutes into Trash I felt myself going into a coma. In the first forty-five minutes I left to go to the bathroom three times. I would have died before admitting I was stupefied with boredom. I wouldn’t even turn to my date for fear that she would see my eyes rolling up into my head. An hour into the flick she touched my arm and asked me what time The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly started. I was embarrassed to know, but when I told her she looked at her watch and said, “That’s in five minutes; if we run we can make it.”
I said, “This is starting to mesh,” nodding toward the screen, amazed at my own cowardice.
She sighed and whispered in my ear. “Last year I was handing out flyers for a student-worker alliance rally at some construction site in New York. Some Puerto Rican guy in a hard hat—we’re talking prime-target minority labor here—he took the flyer, read it, and gave it back to me. He said, ‘If you don’t like it here, go back to Great Neck.’ Now we have only three minutes to make it.”
Two blocks into our dead run for the Strand I was in love.
1976—Just One of the Boys
In 1976 I had my own apartment. Being a self-supporting writer and having just finished a novel, I found myself with too much free time on my hands. It was a restless, boring time for me, and I filled in a number of empty afternoons by going alone to the movies. These solo excursions didn’t bother me, because I didn’t really consider myself a lonely person. I rarely had dinner alone.
But I always hated seeing other people sitting in the dark by themselves. Anybody, young or old, three-piece suits or babushkas. I could account for my own circumstances, but I always saw the others as tragic loners, destitute hearts doomed to a life of Chock Full O’Nuts counters.
On one Tuesday morning a few months into my “fallow” period, I woke up with a bad case of the Gregor Samsas. I felt lethargic and aimless; the refrigerator was stocked, the rugs vacuumed, the roaches in temporary retreat. I had nothing to do and the day yawned open ahead of me like a stretch of Kansas highway. A movie day if there ever was one.
I went downtown to see what all the hoopla was about with Rocky. I was supposed to go to the movies that evening with a girl friend, but I knew she’d rather see Scenes From a Marriage minus the subtitles than submit to two hours of Meatball Ascending.
From the moment I sat down in the half-empty theater I knew I was in trouble. I found myself surrounded by lone men, and from the screen credits on, my attention kept shifting from Rocky to the 3-D sad sacks in the seats, all of whom seemed to be perfectly self-contained and enjoying the show. Nonetheless my heart went out to them.
Whenever I concentrated on the movie, I found myself getting hot eyes and golf-ball throat at the most embarrassingly inane moments: Rocky not having the heart to break a longshoreman’s thumbs, Rocky doing push-ups, Adrian slaving over kitty litter in the pet store. It wasn’t Rocky,it was all those guys around me, kicking my ass with their painful solitude.
And then the whole thing blew up in my face.
During the final round of the climactic fight, when Rocky and Apollo Creed were pounding each other to pizza, the Bill Conti score pulsing with Rocky’s superhuman efforts, the audience lost control and people started yelling and cheering for the Italian Stallion, egging him on; a few were on their feet ducking and weaving and throwing punches at the screen. Suddenly, the guy to my left, an enormously fat black man nursing a tub of popcorn, belted out, “For God’s sake, Rocky, you can do it,” his cheeks slick with tears. My first reaction was shock that he wasn’t rooting for the black fighter.
Embarrassed by his outburst, the fat man looked around to see if anybody was laughing at him. When he turned in my direction, I was waiting for him with a commiserating basset-hound face, but when our eyes met, the contact was more than I had bargained for. Neither of us could turn away. We sat there, entranced with each other’s grief, pop-eyed, our mouths working wordlessly like beached fish; then we simultaneously burst out crying. Afraid that he would offer me some popcorn, I bolted from the theater.
Two weeks later, I moved into a huge apartment, splitting the rent with three roommates.
1979—What Ralph Ellison Meant by “Invisible Man”
THE ONION FIELD
AII my life I’ve gone to movies in the Times Square area. The crowds are ethnic mix ’n’ match, the fare usually critical crap, but the action is nonstop. If the movie is going over, the house is pure empathic Sensurround; if it’s a dud, everybody just turns to each other for their five dollars’ worth. People bring in grass, radios, babies, and portable televisions. There are always a half-dozen flakes arguing with the screen and another bunch who have no idea where they are. For years I saw that scene as a major goof; I was proud of my ability to feel at ease in any movie crowd in New York, from the Gold Coast theaters near Bloomingdale’s to the two-dollar roach sanctuaries on Forty-second Street. Mister Manhattan..
One evening I went down to Times Square to see The Onion Field. It was a Friday night and the house was packed. I could have caught the movie in the Village or on the Upper West Side, but I wasn’t in the mood to sit there with people who might applaud cinematography credits. I wanted audience juice.
At first the crowd started out with the usual woofing and cackling, goofing on everything from John Savage’s glasses to Ted Danson’s bagpipes, but as the focus shifted to the relationship between the two cop killers, white James Woods and black Franklyn Seales, the party mood began to fade. Woods played a cool and domineering psychopathic con man, Seales a quivering, spineless petty thief, and every scene between them hammered home their master-slave relationship.
At first, the mainly black and Puerto Rican crowd responded with sullen silence, but after a particularly degrading exchange, someone lost control and yelled out, “Stand up for yourself, chump!” and the audience erupted, cursing out Seales. A spray of popcorn landed on the screen, but nobody laughed. No one cursed out Woods, like I expected. No one cared about the dead cop or John Savage’s slow breakdown. I was amazed at the fury around me, but I didn’t feel it in myself. I felt like a social scientist, an outsider. I realized I was surrounded by people who had no addresses, no childhoods, and no names for me. I was slumming. Always had been.
When the two killers came to trial, Seales finally rebelled. He started cursing out Woods—even tried to physically assault him, and the crowd cheered with humorless encouragement.
But the rebellion was short-lived. Once Seales got to jail, his lawyer informed him that unless he and Woods cooperated in court, they’d both end up in the gas chamber. Blubbering and shaking, Seales confronted Woods in the prison shower room to beg forgiveness, but Woods had his price, and as the black man slowly slid to his knees, the white man’s hand on the back of his neck, the crowd was on its feet shouting, “No!”—pleading and threatening.
A young black guy standing in front of me wearing a knit skullcap bellowed, “Be a man, you punk!” At the end of the scene he remained standing, heaving with outrage, staring’ wildly around the theater. He saw me sitting behind him, slouched down, my face partially obscured by my hand, and before sinking back into his seat, he glared at me and drawled, “You enjoying the show?”
* * * * *
And there are any number of Honorable Mentions:
◻︎ I was taken to see The Ten Commandments for my eighth birthday and experienced my first religious crisis when my father told me that not only was Charlton Heston just an actor playing Moses, but that the guy wasn’t even Jewish.
︎ Experienced another religious crisis years later when I found myself sitting through The Bible a second time just to see the Sodom and Gomorrah part again.
︎ Sat through three consecutive showings of Mean Streets one afternoon, then went home, rifled through a box of family photos, and started the first chapter of Bloodbrothers that same night.
︎ Realized that I was no longer part of the youth vanguard the day I found myself in a revival theater surrounded by a roomful of punky-looking kids cackling at the horrifically dated slang of Easy Rider and Woodstock.
︎ Saw a sneak preview of Bloodbrothers booed by a full house because everybody was expecting the sneak to be Superman.
But the strangest of all my movie house experiences had to be the night I sat in a huge theater and watched myself up on the screen in The Wanderers. I was on for two minutes, playing a lounge lizard in a bowling alley. I talked, I sneered, and I got strangled with my own tie.
Sitting there, I felt absolutely no connection between myself on the screen and myself in the audience; no excitement, embarrassment, anger, or giddiness. I became so unnerved by the numbness of it all that I had to turn my head away from the screen, and in an effort to come back into myself, I put all my energy into watching the crowd watching me.
If you don’t know from Eve Babitz, prepared to be charmed. I wrote about her last week over at Esquire Classic, and can’t recommend her two volumes of memoirs—Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company—enough. For a little taste of Babitz’s talent, check out this 1987 profile of James Woods, which was originally published in American Film magazine and appears here with the author’s permission.—Alex Belth
“Out of the Woods”
By Eve Babitz
Whenever I think about James Woods, it is either as the affront he was in Split Image, where he plays the cure almost worse than the disease for a family who wants to have their kid deprogrammed from some Moonie-type cult, or else—and this is worse, especially since I was about to go to the Beverly Hills Hotel for one of those “interview breakfasts” in broad daylight—or else I see him hovering over Deborah Harry in Videodrome, helping her indulge her decadent, perverted taste for pain, sticking long needles through her earlobes, licking drops of blood as she slinks orgasmically beneath his hot breath, his hot eyes, his hotness—his coldness. Even Pauline Kael calls him James “the Snake” Woods.
“He’s such a sleaze, Eve,” says the only woman I know who’s immune to him. “He’s like the only guy in the eighth grade who knew about sex.”
“But someone had to,” I reply, thinking of the moment in Videodrome when James Woods spots this TV show of torture that at first he flinches from, but from which he cannot turn away.
Which is exactly how I feel about him.
* * * * *
The Polo Lounge (or the room right next to it where they serve their gardeny breakfast) is graced by ladies in pink outfits to match the pink tablecloths and pinkness of the Beverly Hills Hotel since time began. However, most of the patrons are in the movie business with a vengeance not to be denied. If you like this kind of thing, then the Polo Lounge is it.
He arrives looking like something fresh, aslant in the sunlight and breakfast shadows of an L.A. morning. His clothes are light, his feet are light, and his expression is blank. He seems as capable of being blown out the door as a tumbleweed.
An agent clasps him on the shoulder and says in his ear: “How would you like to do Dracula for Ken Russell?” Woods tells me about it as we move into the Polo Lounge, and I feel suddenly that he is as at home here as a hustler is in a pool hall. All that energy he usually uses to punch weasels into High Art is whirling through his bloodstream.
“Dracula,” I mutter, thinking it’s redundant: James Woods as Dracula—he already is Dracula.
“Hi Olivia, do you have some cream, sweetheart?” he greets our waitress as we settle into one of the ivy green booths. “Did you cut your hair? You look adorable,” he adds as he takes a menu from Olivia, whose hair is short, permed, and gray.
“Thank you,” she says, laughing. “It looks nice for about a month, then it gets too long.”
“Then you look like, uh.” He pauses. “Angela Davis.”
Olivia brings us breakfast, which for the forty-year-old Woods consists of a large orange juice, bacon (“real artery jammers, babe”), and a toasted bran muffin. No cigarettes—he gave them up several months before. Not long ago, he confesses, “I actually had one in my mouth and a match lit. And I thought: If God wants me to smoke this cigarette, he’s going to put this match right to the end of it and I’m going to inhale. And that very moment, God, believe it or not, masquerading as a second AD, came to the trailer and said, ‘You’re needed on the set.’ And I thought: Well, it may not be Jesus in a crèche, but it’s good enough for me.”
I am anxious to know how he feels to be nominated for Best Actor in Salvador. “It was the single happiest day of my life,” he says, looking very sincere and very unsnakelike. “It’s hard to explain, because people sort of expect me to be outrageous and cynical—and I am, about things that deserve cynicism. But I’m not cynical about things like having all your colleagues toast you with something like an Oscar nomination.”
“How did you find out about it?”
“I unplugged my phone in the bedroom and didn’t set the alarm clock, hoping to sleep through the nominations because they were at five-thirty in the morning, and I couldn’t imagine getting up to be disappointed one more time in my life. And I kept hearing the phone ringing in the other room. And I looked at the alarm clock and it was, like, five thirty-one. So I picked up the phone and it happened to be a friend of mine who had told me that I wasn’t nominated for the Golden Globes, when I was, because he got the information wrong. So I thought he was teasing. He said, ‘You got nominated.’ And I said, ‘This is not funny.’ And I hung up on him. And then the phone started ringing some more. He said, ‘I swear to God. Turn on CNN.’ And I turned it on and I was stunned.
“Actors pretend to be so blasé about this stuff: ‘Ah, the Oscars. They don’t mean anything.’ And yet I’ve never met an actor who hasn’t been rehearsing a speech every day of his life on his way to an audition.”
The agent bobs back, smiling loudly at Woods. “We just want to know, are you prepared to shoot Dracula in four days in between two pictures?”
“If I don’t have to do any overtime,” Woods replies.
The agent proceeds: “Listen, when we first tried to put this picture together four years ago, we got a call from this rock star and we flew to Washington, D.C., where he was doing a concert, and the guy actually told Ken that he would be prepared to drain his blood before shooting so he could really look the part—and he said he would actually sleep in a coffin to get into the role.”
Olivia serves us coffee, and the agent, at long last, leaves.
“This guy wants to drain his blood and sleep in a coffin’? It’s like Laurence Olivier’s great line to Dustin Hoffman, who stayed up four days to look tired. He said, ‘Can’t you try acting?’ ”
I am wondering whether he felt Platoon had anything to do with the renewed attention being lavished on Salvador.
“Luckily, Salvador was on videocassette at the time, and people started saying, ‘Gee, Platoon was good. I wonder what Salvador is like.’ The problem is that you try to put a film like Salvador in a theater when there’s fifteen hundred theaters with Pretty in Pink playing for the fifteenth week. Even though the theaters might be empty by the fifteenth week. But a lot of times, when you go to these sixplexes in some shopping mall somewhere in Costa Mesa, it’s the same six studio pictures.”
“So now that Platoon and Salvador have made it, are we going to see a slew of movies about Vietnam and Nicaragua and Beirut?”
“You know, for eighteen years of my career, I’d always hear that I wasn’t a leading man. I would say, ‘Well, how about Humphrey Bogart? How about Dustin Hoffman? AI Pacino? How about…?’ Even Bill Hurt is a good-looking guy, but he’s not some classic walking surfboard. Each time, they sort of get it, but they only get it that one time. It seems like they go out of their way to avoid quality, to find an excuse to hire every football player and model they can. It’s almost uncanny how difficult it is to convince them that maybe, instead of a run of movies about kids getting laid in the backseat of the car, maybe you could have a run of movies about Vietnam or Central America. There are two kinds of movies being made: There’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and there’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,you know, John Hughes’s imbecilic movies. Will I get invited to the prom or not? Who gives a rat’s ass.
“Now Platoon has finally done it. But if Oliver had the script of Salvador right now, and he brought it to a studio, they probably would say, ‘God, you’re great. And Platoon was sensational and we really want to be in business with you, but do you have anything else, maybe? Instead of this thing about Central America?’”
Before I met Woods for the first time, his press agent had told me, “The great thing about Jimmy is that you don’t really have to interview him. Once he gets going, he’s off.” It’s true.
“I hate the guy I played in Salvador—I think he’s a total asshole. I don’t hate him; I’m indifferent to him—the kind of guy who is a drunken, boring, disgusting fool who’s always gypping people with money and lying and bullshitting and all the other wonderful things that compulsive obsessives do—but I loved the story. And I found a way of turning that character into a fictional amalgam of what he is and what I hoped he could be in his life, which caused untold amounts of violence between me and Oliver Stone, but the final synthesis was worthwhile.”
“I hear Oliver Stone is pretty intense.”
“Well, he met his match the day he walked on the Salvador set in Mexico with me. But our arguments were over the right stuff. They were about interpretation, balancing the picture, not making it a polemic. Not making the character too heroic, which Oliver didn’t want. And not making him such a loathsome scumbag that the audience would be so turned off that they wouldn’t get any of it, which was my point of view. And so we had two very antithetical points of view that resulted, I thought, in a very constructive synthesis. And I like to work that way. If it’s all peaches and cream, you’re in trouble, believe me. It’s a cardinal rule of filmmaking that if everybody’s happy at the dailies every night, you’ve probably got a piece of junk on your hands. We struggled through that thing like a war. We’re great friends now.”
“Give me an example of a fight.”
“One day Oliver and I were having a terrible argument. And he said, ‘You know, you’re a rat and a goddamn weasel and I hate you and I hope you die!’ I said, ‘This is great—ten minutes before a scene.’ The next day, we’re doing the scene where I’m trying to convince Elpedia Carrillo to marry me. I was supposed to say to her, ‘OK, so I’ve done some bad things in my life.’ Instead, I said,’OK, I’m a rat and a goddamn weasel!’ And I threw it right in. And he said, ‘Oh, you had to embarrass me, right? You have to throw it into the take.’ And that came out of an argument that Oliver and I had. And he was gracious about leaving it in.”
“What did Richard Boyle think of your Richard Boyle?”
“Richard was pretty content to sort of try screwing the extras and having free lunches and free drinks—which I say affectionately. He was always on the set and, in all seriousness, was concerned to make sure the Salvadoran uniforms looked right, and that the peasants looked right, and so on.
“At one point, one of Boyle’s friends there said, ‘Richard would never wear a Hawaiian shirt.’ I said, ‘No, but on the other hand, what Richard really wears is so frigging ugly that if you put it on the screen, people would walk out of the theater.’ I mean, he has the worst taste in clothes imaginable. My shirts weren’t what he would wear in actual fact, but they did poetically capture the spirit of Boyle more than what Boyle himself would actually wear.”
“So I guess you’d work with Oliver again?” I break in, spearing a strawberry.
“He wanted me to do Platoon, but I didn’t want to go get any more tropical diseases this year,”he replies. “I’ll stick by Oliver, even if his next one isn’t courted and wooed by the critics. I know the vagaries of this business. I know that they can turn on him like a lightning bolt. They may; I won’t. You know, John Daly, chairman of Hemdale, is doing Oliver’s film after the next one. When the bigwigs who all turned down Salvador and Platoon wanted it, he said, ‘Hey, John Daly was my friend. John Daly’s got it.’ I had a studio exec say to me, ‘Well, Oliver Stone doesn’t want to talk to me.’ I said, ‘Well, he knows that you hate him. You may work on the premise of “Hey, if it’s big bucks, screw it!” But there’s a moral consideration. You spit in a guy’s face, he doesn’t wipe it off with a hundred dollar bill. You think I’m a piece of crap? Then I’ll just stay a piece of crap and now you can’t have me, even though I’ve been dipped in gold. Oliver believes in something. You don’t. That’s the difference.”’
* * * *
I first met Woods in a nunnery—that’s right, a nunnery—in downtown L.A., built on a giant estate overlooking the entire smog-laden city baking in eighty-five-degreeish desperation. The bougainvillea are staggered on the terraced garden walls; the walls are stained an Italian sepia, like a Leonardo line drawing. The mixture of downtown L.A. and this thrust of pastoral, idyllic Italy is unnerving.
But then, what about Jimmy Woods isn’t.
The movie is called Best Seller and it’s about a Joseph Wambaugh-type cop-writer (Brian Dennehy) who is contacted by a white-collar hit man (Woods) who wants Dennehy to expose the corporation he works for.
When filming stops for resetting the cameras, Woods comes to me in his Armani suit and we begin to walk down to his trailer.
Me: “Let’s get serious. Where do you get your technique?”
Him: “What kind of technique?”
Me: “Do you have any technique other than plowing forward?”
Him: “I don’t even know what you’re talking about—technique for what?”
Me: “Acting, acting, what you do.”
Him: “Yeah, I put batteries in my alarm clock and try and get here on time.”
Me: “Do you have a philosophy of acting?”
Him: “I admire the James Cagney ‘plant your feet on the ground, look the other guy in the eye, and tell the truth’ school of acting. I’m not into the ‘four hours before you go to work pretend you’re a radish’ school of acting.”
By now we’ve reached this kind of luxurious trailer and spend the next few hours facing each other in claustrophobic air-conditioning across a table in a breakfast nook meant for old retired couples to play gin rummy.
Me: “They said you quit the Tavianis’ new film because you were afraid of being kidnapped and wanted a twenty-four-hour-a-day bodyguard.”
Him: “Actually, it was a stronger reaction. It was when I read that France and Italy provided safe havens for terrorists—and had a tacit agreement with them. And I thought: You bastards weren’t objecting when we left half a million American bodies here to protect your grandmas from being raped by Russians drinking gasoline in 1945. You know what, why don’t you rely on Libyan tourism?”
Me: “Are there any kinds of roles that you don’t want to do, or that you wouldn’t accept?”
Him: “I have made a conscious effort in the past year or two to avoid villains, only because I did a couple that were rather well received, even though they were extremely different characters. But the press can tend to typecast you. Best Seller is my farewell to villainy, but it was such a delicious character, I couldn’t resist it.”
An AD comes to summon Woods to the set. He stands in line with the rest of the people, assembling his lunch—pork chops, apple sauce, peas, mashed potatoes with lots of gravy, and chocolate milk. Director John Flynn comes over and says, “He acts with a pin stuck through his muscle. It gives him that edge. Otherwise he falls asleep.”
“Yeah, with you directing, I’m surprised I don’t have narcolepsy.”
“Yeah, when you sit through the rushes—”
“We could bottle those babies and sell them for Valium.”
* * * * *
Fade to pink and the slanting sunlight of a Beverly Hills morning. We’re back at the Polo Lounge. These days, Woods is busy on a new project for Atlantic Releasing Company, except that this time he’s behind the camera, as well as in front of it. He’s coproducing a film based on the novel Blood on the Moon, a murder-suspense thriller in which he stars as a Los Angeles police detective. I wonder whether, in his role as a producer, he is “nice”?
“I’m never going to be nice. Nice is what studio executives are when they’re offering your part to somebody else behind your back after they’ve already made a deal with you.”
“So what’s it like to be a producer?” I ask.
“It’s great, because I treat people the way I would like to have been treated when I was only an actor,” he says, pushing his plate aside. “It’s easy, if you’re honest—if you’re straightforward. If I’m asking somebody to work for less than the usual salary, what I do is bring out the budget and show it to them. I don’t bullshit around with them.”
“There’s been a big stir about David Puttnam coming out against inflated stars’ salaries,” I say, glancing at the movers and shakers at nearby tables. I can talk Industry with the best of them.
“But it’s not just the stars’ salaries, it’s the executive producers’ salaries. I know that people do not go to see a movie because Jon Peters produced it. They go to see a movie because Robert Redford is starring in it. Or Oliver Stone directed it. I mean, the people who make movies should get paid for making movies, and the people who make phone calls should get paid for making phone calls—by the hour. Unfortunately, they’ve got it all backward in this business.”
Suddenly he looks almost remorseful. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “There are studio heads who are friends of mine, whom I like very much. I always dump on these guys and I don’t mean to, because I do not envy them the task they have before them. If I had to answer to the people they have to answer to, I’d probably hang myself. Their job is to make money. The Killing Fields was a studio movie. Terms of Endearment,finally, was a studio movie. And they were great movies.”
This is almost too nice, so I change the subject. “You once told me that it’s usually a bad sign if everything’s going peaches and cream. Do you know when it’s working and when it’s not working?”
“Almost invariably. Not only the performance, but the feeling on the set. I mean, if I see, like, an unbelievably stupid costume on somebody, chances are that there’s five other unbelievably stupid costumes on other actors, because people are either good at what they do or bad at what they do. And usually they’re bad, not for lack of talent, but for lack of dedication. And that drives me crazy. The one thing that makes me want people to disappear from a set is that they’re too busy doing something else and don’t have time to do the job that they’re getting paid for. You know, buying a string of condos in Marina del Rey or whatever else they have on their mind. My attitude is that when you make a film, you eat, drink, and sleep it. And be thankful that you can go twenty-two hours a day, because if you’re spending any time less than that, you’re probably not giving it your best shot.”
“Are you interested in directing?” I ask.
“The T-shirt at Creative Artists Agency—have you ever seen it? It’s an agent sitting behind his desk, holding his head in his hands, and there’s a chair with a dog sitting in it, smoking a cigarette, and the suitcase he has says, ‘Ralph, the Talking Dog.’And the caption is, ‘Of course, what I really want to do is direct’: So, you know. If I ever direct, you’ll know when you go to see the movie, and you can tell me.”
“Is there anything else you’ve always wanted to—”
“—the world? No. I’m fine. See, I wasn’t terrible after all. It’s all a myth.”
[Our old pal Robert Ward has been telling a story about Rod Steiger for years and he's kind enough to drop by and share it with us. For some good ol’ on location movie fun, check this out.—Alex Belth]
By Robert Ward
I was in Durango, Mexico in the 70′s on the set of a movie I had written called Cattle Annie and Little Britches, a comic western starring Amanda Plummer as Cattle Annie and Diane Lane as Little Britches. The male stars were Burt Lancaster as Bill Doolin and Rod Steiger as Bill Tilghman, the sheriff who hunts the gang of outlaws down. The whole tale was pretty much true, about the teen aged girls joined the infamous Doolin Dalton Gang. They were smarter than the boys and ended up planning their robberies.
The shoot was going fine until Rod Steiger showed up. He and Lancaster hated one another because of some financial matter, which had transpired years back when they were going to be in the movie making business together. Apparently, Rod pulled out at the last minute and the whole project nearly fell apart. Lancaster kept it together with other people but there was still bad blood between them. Perhaps that was part of the reason for the ghastly things that transpired that night. That and the fact that Steiger was on the down side of his career and was feeling vulnerable.
In any case we held a first night “welcome to the movie ” dinner party for Rod at a real Mexican restaurant in down town Durango, with real Mexicans in it. Everyone but the movie people and Rolling Stone writer Jack Hicks were local folks. The party started on time but Rod showed about a half hour late. He was seated in the middle of the table next to some of the gang members, cowboys like Kenny Call, who had won every major rodeo award known to man. Rod objected to this seating and demanded to be at the head of the table where the producer Rupert Hitzig was sitting. Under his breath he mentioned his Academy Award for “The Pawnbroker.” Rupert happily gave up his seat to Rod, who was now sitting next to me.
We all started eating, and drinking, trying to forgetthe nasty vibes Rod had laid on the gathering. Things seemed ok, until this young girl got up with her guitar. She was about 14, and sang these earnest love songs in Spanish walking among the tables as she warbled. She was young, beautiful and her songs were heartfelt. Everyone loved her, the Mexican patrons, and our table applauded fiercely. Everyone but one man, Rod Steiger. He looked at me and said, “Do you see what she’s doing?” I said, “Yes, she’s singing a song and doing it quite well too.” Rod glared at me and said “No, she is trying to destroy me! I heard you play the guitar today Ward. Get it from her. We have to top her!”
I tried to reason with him. “Rod, you’re a international movie star. You don’t need to compete with a 14 year old girl.” Rod looked at me, said “You obviously know nothing about competition. You must always compete with anyone who tries to top you.” Reluctantly, I asked the girl if we could borrow her guitar. She was happy to loan it to us. I sat down and started playing some blues licks and Senor Rod got up and began to improvise a blues song which sounded like something Sophie Tucker might have sang.
Hideous would not be too strong a word to describe his singing. He pranced through the tables, sometimes hitting them, and upsetting glasses of wine and beer. Yet, the patrons were kind and clapped for him, some even yelling “Hooray for Senor Rod.” He sat down and smiled in a victorious way and we all began to eat again.
It was then that I noticed these four swarthy Mexican workers staring at us. These guys were muscular and wore grimy shirts. They had obviously just come off some tough job. They didn’t like Senor Rod. They didn’t like me, the guitar player, I was pretty certain. I tried to ignore them. Everything seemed to cool down. That is, until the girl got up and sing again. This time she sang the song of her native town, Durango. Heartfelt sentiments about her home, city of her family, city of her heart. People went crazy whistling, yelling.
Senor Rod looked at me. “Get the guitar, Ward. You don’t understand, we can’t give in!” I looked at Hitzig who whispered that I had to play or Rod might not show up tomorrow to say his lines! So I borrowed the guitar again, feeling like the biggest ass in Mexico. This time Senor Rod got up on the floor and poured Cognac into people’s drinks as he waddled around singing more of his horrible, show tune blues. This time there was practically no applause and the four tough workers glared at all of us. It was now obvious to everyone in the place that Rod was trying to top the local heroine. And failing miserably.
Everyone in our party felt that disaster was about to strike us all so we paid the bill and ran out to the cars which waited to take everyone to the safety of the set encampment. A few seconds later everyone was safely whisked away. That is, everyone but Rolling Stone reporter Hicks and yours truly. We were mere writers after all. Who cared what happened to us? So we were left out in the street outside of a restaurant where inside lay a gang of Mexicans who rightly hated us as the ultimate Ugly Gringos. I prayed a little: “God, don’t let that door open until we can call for a cab.” I put pesos into the pay phone on the corner and waited. And then it happened.
The door to the cafe opened and the four Mexican hardasses who had been eyeing us all night, stepped out, and walked toward us. They walked in lockstep and looked like they were out to kick some serious American butt. As they got closer I whispered to Hicks, “This is it man. I’m hitting the first guy and you get the guy on his left” “What then?”Jack said. You’re your ass off.” Was my clever reply. They came closer, closer still and then the toughest one stopped, only a foot away from me. He stared into my eyes and said: ” Hey man you play Chuck Berry?”
I was so stunned by this friendly request I almost answered with the a hostile reply. Then I heard what he had actually said. Stunned, I smiled and said, “Hell yes, I do.” He smiled and said, “Then come on back in. Let’s have some fun, man!” And Hicksie and I went back in with our new amigos, and played all night. As we drank and sang “Maybelline,” the toughest one, Julio, looked at me, laughed and said, “You know Bobby, we all knew you hated Senor Rod as much as we did.” They were right, I did.
Another huge loss. Prince is dead at 57. He was one-of-a-kind and had what George Frazier used to croon about—he had duende, that special combination of charisma, talent, looks, style and magic.
Back in 1997, Mark Jacobson wrote in Esquire, that Prince “dominated the eighties music scene as Louis Armstrong did that of the twenties, as Charlie Parker did that of the forties. Eloquently exploiting his gender/race dichotomies with a horny sincerity that made him the legitimate successor to such crossover gods as Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, the Artist was indisputably the Man.”
I was never a huge fan myself but liked more than enough of his music and certainly admired his genius—“horny sincerity” is about perfect.
The Hip Hop universe has awoken to some more tragic news this morning; Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg“The Five-Foot Assassin” and “The Funky Diabetic” , a founding member and literal cornerstone of the world renowned Golden Age of Hip Hop era group A Tribe Called Quest, apparently succumbed to the very disease he had made a favored appellation of and in recent years had struggled with. As of this writing, no official announcement has been made yet, but news sources had independently confirmed his passing, first noted on Twitter by legendary DJ Chuck Chillout.
I cannot for the life of me run down the details of his life at this point; having been a huge fan from the beginning and A Tribe Called Quest being on the itinerary of my musical young adulthood, it’s just mind-numbing to have lost someone critical too soon by anyone’s measure. Not to mention, we are losing so many dearly-held artists from so many areas in music these days that I can honestly say that I was shocked to hear about this, but that shock was quickly replaced by that very numbness that such an event would often inspire days later when you’ve had time to process the entirety of a person’s life, impact and death while you compare feelings and moments with friends and fellow fans. If there is PTSD for music, I must be in the throes of it, and it’s not something I would wish on anyone.
Nevertheless, instead of a eulogy culled from multiple news items, I present a link to an article from Vulture.com that was published last November in which Phife runs down his five favorite songs of A Tribe Called Quest; one from each album they made together. Perhaps at a later date I will revisit the idea of discussing the band’s impact on Hip Hop and music as well, as they are certainly worthy. Meanhwile, Rise In Power, Malik Taylor.
Lastly, the title is borrowed from this track I came across while thinking of what to write. Listening to it again, I finally broke away from the numbness I implied earlier and had a moment with my inner self. We all can relate to that moment because we all have someone or something that touches that button one last time before they go on their journey, leaving something for us to think about; what was, what could have been. I just don’t know.