Monday, April 2, 2012

Sex, Death and Jean Arthur


Jean Arthur has been on my mind today. I'm not sure why, except that she is one of those movie people (Lizabeth Scott, Robert Mitchum, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman) who seems to have staked a claim to a certain portion of my mind. So, in a way, I'm always thinking about Jean Arthur.

She was a huge star in her day, but over the years the luster of her fame has dimmed considerably. I guess that's the way of things. It's only our own solipsism and narrow focus that allows us to talk about the "immortality" of movie stars. That kind of talk in nice for Oscar speeches and TCM intros, but the truth is that Jean Arthur was world famous at one point and since her death her fame has shrunk and shrunk with each passing year. She will be all but forgotten one day. Movies are still a young art form. In just another hundred years will anyone know who Jean Arthur is? Or will she exist only as a shadow on a data file in a computer somewhere, accessed once every few years by some bleary-eyed film student writing a master's thesis on Subtextual Transfiguration in the Works of Frank Capra--or whatever the hell they'll be writing about in the year 2112? What about 2212? Keep adding on increments of 100 years. Immortality becomes less achievable the more you think about it.

So this is a lament then. I hadn't planned it that way, I assure you. Someone mentioned Iowa today and it made me think of my favorite Jean Arthur moment, the scene in FOREIGN AFFAIR when she strikes up the Iowa state song in a dirty little Berlin nightclub. The thought, as it always does, made me happy.

Yet here I am talking about--well, if not her passing, then about her absence, about the fact that she is gone and has been gone a long time. Yet I know her, or I know that flickering shadow. I saw that movie for the first time in a theater, saw it for the first time in the dark with her face high and wide and silver on a wall.

I've long thought that cinema is an intrinsically erotic art form. We are allowed to stare at people without them staring back, without them telling us to stop. This is one reason why movie stars tend to be beautiful. But this is also why movie stars tend to be a little odd. Millions of gorgeous people are turned away from Hollywood every day. Beauty is not enough. There has to be something worth looking at besides tan skin and muscles.

Jean was beautiful and odd. She had a tomboy quality. Pretty and scrappy, capable but halting, she was a movie star because she was just so damn interesting. Looking at her is indeed a happily erotic occupation. Classic movie geeks often talk about being "in love" with certain actors and actresses. This is more than a crush, more than simple lust, more than the usual projection of erotic fixation one has for a contemporary celebrity. It's closer to necrophilia.

That's a gruesome way to put it, isn't it? But if being an "old movie buff" is largely the matter of being obsessed with women many years dead, then this obsession touches that bizarre intersection of sex and death, eros and thanos, which is not the creation of cinema but is its essential creator. Life, after all, is largely a matter of sex and death. Movie stars are no more immune to these forces than the rest of us. We may regard them as sexual objects, but they are people and people die. When they die, then, what becomes of the sexual object left flickering on the wall? It becomes an object, oddly, of both sex and death.

All this from the Iowa corn song.

See Jean singing here. For my review of the glorious FOREIGN AFFAIR read here.

2 comments:

Scott Phillips said...

Yeah, I have a weird necro thing going on with old Jean. Also Kay Francis. Damn, you have nailed my particular perversions.

Mike McGuire said...

Beautifully morbid post. For me, it was Natalie Wood. I remember watching her in "Brainstorm," then finding out she was dead. I felt loss, sadness . . . and shame. Respect for the dead colliding with lust -- I'd never experienced it before. For a long time I tried to avoid her image, just seeing her brought up echoes of the shame.

Of course, age has changed all of that. Call it a coarsening of tender feelings or adjustment to the idea of death, but I can watch Wood's films again and marvel at her image. And that's it, isn't it? It's all an image. A careful presentation of the woman, a staging. Do we ever see the real woman? The flesh and blood that drowned? Perhaps in candid photos the paparazzi capture a bit of their reality, but those are far and few and not really how we form our ideas of the actresses.

Thanatos and Eros. Perfect. We fetishize the living even when they are alive, objectifying them. When they die, strangely, we become more aware of them as human, but that realization is overlain with the morbidity. With an actress that lived past her "prime," we can even sift through her decades. Joan Blondell, for instance. From the fresh faced girl -- albeit already debauched, those eyes . . . -- to the matronly role in "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter" to the gray-haired waitress in "Grease." There's a certain thrill in going from one age of the woman to the other. Maybe that's just one more objectification?