Kees van Dongen - Brigette Bardot - Paris, 1958
Each year, I hate what I wrote last year. It comes every year, like a holiday.
I am not letting go. I am squeezing, squeezing, holding it in.
Somehow, I then have the audacity to become shocked when nothing valuable drips out.
It’s like foul drainage from an abscessed tooth.
Well, not so grotesque, but that’s essentially the equivalent value I ascribe to what’s pouring out of me.
I detest these moments of self-evaluation and judgment.
I should start greeting these annual moments like old friends.
At this point, I dismiss it being a cliche to say that when you finally become completely dissatisfied with yourself you must be getting prolifically fantastic at something.
If you’re manic, you think you’re Jesus. If you’re hypomanic, you think you’re God’s gift to technology investing.
John Gartner, The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America
But forgetfulness does not exist, dreams do not exist; flesh exists. Kisses tie our mouths in a thicket of new veins, and whoever his pain pains will feel that pain forever and whoever is afraid of death will carry it on his shoulders.
Federico Garcia Lorca, City That Does Not Sleep
I only re-blogged the last two images because I saw her head was slumped in a response to listening to the waves.
What coincidence I saw these two images together.
A natural-born mimic, ham, tease, hard worker, stoic follower and out-of-reach babe, Ginger Rogers has proven one of the most difficult to define of all the 1930s Hollywood stars. At her best she was a synonym for fun and high spirits while also conveying a dignified and skeptical kind of resistance to other people, and these contradictory impulses made her one of the most special and ambiguous performers of her time. Rogers excelled in her first seven musicals with Fred Astaire and in several of her comedy vehicles and even in some of the programmers she churned out in the early 1930s. She was beloved, and rightly so.
In Stage Door (1937), Rogers gives one of the most distinctive, most suggestive, and most perfectly judged performances of the period, molding every one of her bone-dry, wisecracking line readings (and what lines she has in that movie!) into something pleasurable, something unexpected, even something profound, delivering them all with her guarded, in-transit sort of face.
I’ve seen Stage Door probably more times than I’ve seen any other movie, but I always notice something new in it, some new line, some new angle. As a kid, I didn’t really understand the source of Rogers’s misgivings here, which is the same source that animates her outrageously and inventively bitchy yet somehow tender and worldly fights with Linda (Gail Patrick), her high-falutin’ former roommate. Linda is the mistress of Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou), a powerful Broadway producer. When Powell sees Rogers’s Jean Maitland rehearsing a dance routine, his little weasel eyes light up with lust. He thinks she’s just playing hard to get when she makes her habitual mordant jokes at him, but she is really just trying to delay the inevitable. She wants no part of sleeping with a man for his money not because she thinks it’s morally wrong, per se, but because she’s basically too tired-out to go through those motions.
Jean is so disenchanted that the disenchantment seems to be leading her to some kind of drastic change. She talks herself into going out with Powell but gets out of sleeping with him by getting, or pretending to get, disruptively yet vaguely drunk. Jean gets drunk the way she does everything else, at some very unusual kind of steady and wary behavioral half-mast. She cracks wise as a matter of course, but she sleeps with a doll and she plays a ukulele. These cute details don’t seem to fit her character, but they do express the divided character of the woman who was playing her.
Jean stumbles home from Powell’s penthouse to her new roommate Terry (Katharine Hepburn), a rich girl with airily la-di-da attitudes about life and the theater. Hepburn had not endeared herself to Rogers with her much-repeated remark about Rogers’s partnership with Astaire: “He gives her class and she gives him sex.” The competitive rivalry between Hepburn’s upper-class pretension and Rogers’s low-burning common sense is the heart of their conflict in Stage Door, and this conflict and mutual dislike reads as pure chemistry on screen, just as it did for Rogers with Astaire.
There is such chemistry between Jean and Terry that Stage Door has always been a kind of closeted lesbian classic just waiting to burst into full-on Sapphic love. Terry has no love interest and shows zero interest in acquiring one, while Jean looks more than ready to give up on poor, unreliable young men and rich, sexually demanding older men like Powell. Jean and Terry, in fact, are perfect for each other and wind up with each other, and in the last scene Rogers reaches a kind of epiphany as she reacts to their friend Judy (Lucille Ball) leaving New York to get married. “At least she’ll have a couple of kids to keep her company in her old age, and what’ll we have?” she asks. “Some broken-down memories and an old scrapbook that nobody’ll look at.”
I first saw Stage Door when I was eight years old. Now that I’m well into adulthood, these last few lines that Rogers tosses off with such face-the-facts casualness have the force of revelation, as if she has finally washed up on the shores of some final philosophy. They predict the real lives of both Hepburn and Rogers (though some people still do want to leaf through those particular scrapbooks) and Terry and Jean, and everybody else for whom the easy way and the conventional way of living will never fit or will never be acceptable.
Rogers was capable of that tough-minded and frank and bleak attitude on screen, but in life and in general she was actually, and alarmingly, one of the most clueless of stars, never quite knowing what it was that people liked about her. Starting as early 1938, the year she made Vivacious Lady and Carefree, something peculiar started to happen to Rogers. After years of the most unlikely and enormous success in her Astaire films, where she was up to any dance challenge he gave her and where her timing in both musical and comic and dramatic scenes was magically sharp, her timing started to go horribly awry. Rogers began to be afflicted by self-consciousness, miscalculation, cutesiness, self-infatuated archness and flashes of deep-rooted mean-mindedness. She slipped back into her best controlled star mode in several films after that year, but she started to deteriorate more and more by the mid-1940s, almost as if someone had put a curse on her.
Rogers was born Virginia McMath in Independence, Missouri in 1911. Her formidable mother Lela Rogers was a writer for silent films and a journalist, and she was seemingly joined at the hip to her daughter. It was Rogers who wanted a career as an actress, and Lela resisted this at first, but when Ginger won a Charleston contest Mama Lela knew which way the wind was blowing. She poured all of her own considerable energy and ambition into making Ginger a star and keeping her one (that first name supposedly came about because a cousin couldn’t pronounce the name Virginia).
At the height of her stardom, when Rogers was sent the script of The Hard Way (1943), she wonderingly said, “This is the story of my life,” and turned it down. In that movie, Ida Lupino works like a demon to get her malleable kid sister (Joan Leslie) into show business, and the comparison is not flattering to Lela, who made a fool of herself testifying before HUAC as an expert on Communist infiltration of Hollywood, citing particularly the time when Rogers had to say Dalton Trumbo’s line, “Share and share alike, that’s democracy” in Tender Comrade (1943). Lela herself actually turns up playing Ginger’s mother in Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor (1942), and she’s a rather low-key presence, but she talks and moves like a woman who has power and feels no need to make any outward show of it.
In that Wilder movie, Rogers spends most of her time pretending to be a twelve-year old, and this uneasy reversion to little-girlhood was one of her most troubling fallback modes. She had made her first successes on stage with “baby talk monologues” written by Lela, and her early style, as seen in films like Young Man of Manhattan (1930) and Honor Among Lovers (1931), was very much a hold-over from the 1920s, a Betty Boop baby vamp persona that was more suited to cameo roles than to leads (Claudette Colbert, the star of Young Man of Manhattan, gently mocks these baby affectations after meeting Rogers’s character).
She churned out lots of low-budget programmers in 1932, and in 1933 she made ten films. In two of those, 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, Rogers nearly steals the show in fairly small parts. As Anytime Annie, a notoriously obliging chorus girl in 42nd Street, Rogers is first seen wearing a monocle and affecting a grand manner accent, and this was the first sign of her aptitude for two-faced disguise. As Manuel Puig once said of Ann-Margret, Rogers is anything but reassuring.
She’s close to surreal in her gold-coin outfit singing “We’re in the Money” with pig Latin verse in Gold Diggers of 1933, looking directly into the camera and not flinching as it travels all the way up to her face. Rogers gobbled up attention like that, and she had what it took, but she needed something or someone to stabilize her. When she strips down to her slip and stockings and gyrates in Professional Sweetheart (1933), an outraged Norman Foster spanks and then punches her, the first in an increasingly ominous series of punishments that would shadow her later career.
In the very horny Pre-Code musical Flying Down to Rio (1933), her first film with Astaire, Rogers is a hot mama, singing and swaying to “Music Makes Me” in a vagina power dress that even Marilyn Monroe might have rejected as too overt. When they dance “The Carioca,” Astaire starts out holding his head slightly away from Rogers, as if she might be diseased, but by the end their electric chemistry has fully kicked in.
Astaire had spent his youth dancing with his sister Adele and didn’t want to get stuck with another steady partner. Rogers had her eye on dramatic parts, announcing to an incredulous press that she wanted to play Joan of Arc. She was an ambitious and competitive person, and she knew that she was not even close to Astaire’s Olympian league as a dancer. But that’s part of the magic of their series of films, in which Rogers improves as a dancer bit by bit until she is fully capable of following his every step.
A scintillating and unorthodox analysis of the iconic Ginger Rogers,
perpetually typecasted as Astaire’s dancing lady and as the pretty musical gal.
Costumer Walter Plunkett said Rogers always wanted to “add a crepe paper orchid or a string of beads or some goddamned feathered thing. She just never could resist little improvements.” But her feather dress in Top Hat does move beautifully when she dances, even if we do see some of the feathers floating away from them, as if she’s molting.
Ginger Rogers: Curse of the Working Class by Dan Callahan
Kees van Dongen sketch