Wednesday, 29 April 2015

A Star Is Born

Only yesterday I discovered Judy Garland, and more importantly, Judy Garland in A Star Is Born.
I had been having dinner with three friends who are all very successful in their fields. I have a lot of friends who are successful in their chosen fields and I'm very happy for them. And somewhat bewildered and ashamed of my own failure. There is the risk or fear perhaps of eventually becoming a person who is around success but that no one any longer expects anything from.
To get to the knot of the thing; I missed my last train and stayed at the house of one of my friends. A wonderful man in his early fifties.
I woke in the morning and my host put on some Dusty Springfield. He starts telling me an anecdote about when Dusty came out.
'She was gay?' I mutter.
'Are you FUCKING kidding me?' He screams. 'You are the worst fag hag EVER. I'm telling everyone on Facebook immediately.'
Which he does.
It's only a short skip from there to him remembering my admission, a year previously, of having never seen A Star Is Born.
'You're watching it right now,' he insists.
'But I -'
It's the original three hour plus version where all the lost scenes are replaced by stills photographs and what remains of the sound clips. Take my eyes.
At first I'm just humouring him. To me Judy Garland was the girl I watched every christmas day afternoon skipping up a yellow brick road with a bunch of hangers on and a can do attitude. I've always kind of loathed Technicolor. When I was very little I loved watching black and white films. I believed, for far longer than I'm willing to admit, that the world was monochrome until about 1950. And all the more glamorous for it.
As soon as the film starts I'm struck by how ahead of its time it is. There's a fly on wall quality to the filming that makes it feel more real than I'd anticipated. And then Garland's voice sounds a few moments before we see her. And there's no big entrance. Same for James Mason, he just kind of sidles in mid action and becomes a part of the scene.
As we're watching my friend gives me little snippets of Garland's biography. By the time this film was made she had already suffered a great deal. Divorces, breakdowns, problems with addiction. She was constantly haunted by the notion that she wasn't beautiful enough, a notion that had been firmly planted by the big cheeses who shaped her career. Did you know that the blue gingham dress she wears as Dorothy was specifically to 'blur' her figure? No, me either.
Mason, from the very beginning, touches her in a very moving way. He strokes her face, moves her around by her tiny shoulders with a distinct familiarity.
'He looks like he owns her,' I say. 'Or rather that she belongs to him.'
'Spot on,' my friend says.
There's a scene in the film where she's given a make over by three exasperated men who have no idea what to do about her problematic nose. She comes out to meet Mason looking like a Geisha in a terrible wig. He takes all the make up off and pulls a strip of rubber from her nose. She looks fine just the way she is as far as he's concerned. Whilst reading about her life later on in the day I discovered that she had been treated in the exact same way in real life; forced to wear rubber on her nose, something or other over her teeth. I remember her face in the film as she tells Mason that she's ugly, she doesn't look right, just before he scrapes all the make up off and disabuses her of the idea. She looks in the mirror desperately. She doesn't look in character. She looks real and so sad. This happens several times in the film. You see her experience the immediacy of love, its desperation, her unwillingness to give up on it despite the damage it wreaks on her life. She's a sponge, porous and vulnerable and utterly compelling. My friend says that she was one of those who could never fully be a person, she only existed within her art. Or something to that effect. Well, I thought, child stars, it so rarely ends well. A director once told me those moments of truth in acting are called 'leaking' and casting agents love them. Garland was one big leak. How can you not love someone who stares out at you from a screen and begs for you to really see her?
And then of course there's her singing voice. There's so much power coming from such a tiny vessel and beneath it the constant catch of a sob.
She produced this film and starred in it in 1954. She was dead by June 1969 at the age of 47.
Seven years older than me. I feel like my life is barely beginning and she was already on the decline, worn out by a world she had no clue how to live in.
Three hours plus later I get it. I finally understand why she is the icon she is. Why Rufus Wainwright re-created her Judy At Carnegie Hall show, why Somewhere Over The Rainbow is so tragic, why she is still so loved.
For me she had always been just another talented mess brought down by alcohol, or Liza's mum, or a gay icon because well, she was so camp! She wasn't camp. She was utterly sincere.
Obviously I was weeping like a sore by the end. For the sadness of the film, for the briefness of her life.
'See,' my friend says. 'I told you so.'
I'm thankful that no one made me live my life so fast, youth rushing past in a blur. No time to figure out who you are, what you want, who to love or be loved by. I was a terrible writer at twenty. I'm a better writer now. I'll be even better in twenty years time I suspect.
I wanted to be a success at twenty but I was a child. I couldn't understand why my peers seemed so much more able to navigate their worlds. I could never get going, move past a certain point. My twenties were spent moving from job to job treading water. My thirties were much the same. It's only in the last couple of years that things have started to make sense. I still have no idea what I'm doing most of the time but I am much clearer on what I want.
My friend Kate told me a theory the other day, though I may be recalling it inaccurately; We have four rings on the cooker. One is family, one friends, one career and one love. To be successful you have to disregard one ring. To be really successful you have to disregard two. If you become a success when you're still a child then those rings are decided for you aren't they? And then how would you ever get them back? I'm not successful. Not yet. But I know better now what is worth and not worth having.
Thirty five years ago I watched a pretty young girl click her heels together and intone that there was no place like home. And at forty I know what she means.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Young Men and Ladies Groups


I stumbled across an advertisement on Facebook for a 'Ladies Group' in my town. The only necessary qualification for joining is that you're aged between 18 and 45. So, not quite the Women's Institute, and apparently un church related. Perhaps it's a precursor to the WI? What can it possibly involve? It claims to be a way of making friends and trying new things. I suspect 'trying new things' means reading the bible from front to back. I posit another twenty or so possibilities before actually clicking on the link and taking a look.
The cover image is of ten or so women, none of them under thirty, sitting around a dining table smiling stiffly. I try to visualise myself amongst their number. I can't see it. They all have colourful ladylike clothing on and shiny neat bobs. And I can't help but notice that whilst their plates are full there is a bottle shaped hole in their midst. What kind of hellish cult is this?
18 to 45. 18 to 45? What happens when you turn 46? A final dry meal, a nervous pat on the back and then you're thrust back in to the lonely chaos of Cath Kidston and day drinking?
I notice they have a calendar of events and click on it with feverish finger.
They meet on two tuesdays a month for 'fun and informative' dates.
I check the next one and blanche. In May they are having a special presentation by Katie from 'My Hymen Has Entirely Regrown'. She will be teaching the ladies how to pack for a two week holiday.
It's 8.45am and the gin bottle is blinking at me peripherally.
I skip through the events over the coming months, they are booked up and busy as bees until APRIL OF NEXT YEAR. Though some of the later dates have a 'tbc' on venue.
There's a historical walk of Winchester. Take my eyes. I've actually done this walk. Kate came to visit from Australia and as I know next to nothing about my home town it seemed like a good idea. To her. All I remember from that hot afternoon is that the red bricks in the old walls may look modern but are in fact Roman. And the river Itchen is the fastest river in Hampshire...or the UK....or the world. I also remember walking past six pubs and staring at them longingly.
There's nothing you can't learn about Winchester if you're willing to pay for the drinks and sit in front of the mumbling nutter with the beard. Every pub here has one. A sort of unofficial hallucinating guide if you like.
There's also Croquet, Archery, a games night, clay pigeon shooting, cocktail making and – good gods tell me it isn't so – Cooking for the Round Table. Yes. We have a round table here. It's because of the round table in the museum and that stuff about King Arthur.
I have an uncomfortable sensation that I know what this is but I click for details anyway:
'Preparing breakfast for those hungry men building the bonfire.'
Oh fuck off.
No, really.
I want to build the bonfire!
I don't want to stand in a dank kitchen perfecting my poached eggs in a 1950's housecoat hoping against hope that one of these knuckle dragging arsonists deems me worthy.
That's not fair. They might be very nice men who never asked for anyone to make them breakfast. But still.
I toy with the idea of joining. Somehow. Maybe employing a disguise that makes me look like one of them. I try to picture myself looking sunny in a flowing maxi dress with a basket of flowers over one arm. The reality comes crashing through: Psoariasis on the elbows flaking gently in the breeze. Tattoos ruining the effect of my empire line frock. My hair. All of it.
But if I could join their ranks I'd show up for breakfast making duties with a litre of hard liquor, some ice, NO FUCKING MIXERS and a copy of The Female Eunuch.
'Sit down ladies, we need to talk about Emmeline Pankhurst. Sit the fuck down.'
Don't get me wrong, I love women. But the women I love don't have girlie nights in, worry about cake or take tips from magazines on how to keep their men.
The women I love are sometimes shy and quiet, sometimes bold and aggressive, young, old, big, small, but always, I'm certain, unwilling to band together and make breakfast for a load of men whilst they take care of the men's work.
They might provide a drink but only if they were already fixing one for themselves whilst suggesting that the fire will take better if we place all the bras around the top tier.
I've noticed lately that a lot of younger women I know don't identify themselves as feminists. They cite all kinds of reasons, most pertaining to image. They think of feminists as butch, aggressive, angry.
'But surely', I weep in to my beer. 'These are ideas perpetuated by men?'
There's only one question you need to ask any women who's unsure about feminism:
Do you think women and men should earn the same amount? Of course you do. You are, therefore, a feminist.
Don't get me wrong, I love men. There are some fine feminists amongst them. Bill Bailey and Joss Whedon to name but two.
I spend a lot of time with men. More recently, young men. The reasons for this are blatantly obvious. When you get to my age and are neither married not have children you're left on a kind of social shelf. The young are still available to do what you want to do. And the gays obviously. If it weren't for my gay friends life would be very dull indeed.
Young men are free to sit in the pub until 2am talking nonsense. They also look really pretty. Yeah, I can be sexist too. It's also really good fun to go out with a beautiful young man and wait for the hordes of young girls to circle. This happened with Jack once (And by once I mean always). He was having a shitty time of things and we'd gone to the pub to talk things through. Jack is particularly lovely looking and charming and very clever. He's also a little shit. We had our heads bent in discussion and he was entirely unaware of the circling beauties until they were sat at our table inching closer with every boldly taken sip of wine.
'Hey,' one of the girls smiled. 'You two are such a cute couple!'
She knows we're not a couple. It's blatantly obvious we're not a couple but she's looking for an opening. She has either assumed I'm draining his blood to remain youthful, or there's an outside chance I was a young mum. Not that young though.
Normally we'd have a bit of fun with this but tonight neither of us are in the mood.
'We're not together,' I say. 'He's 22, I'm 40.'
She fake gasps.
'Never! You look SO young.'
'I know. I'm blessed that way.' I sip my drink and silently congratulate her on her tactics. Get me on side first – direct path to the bait.
We try to continue our talk but the girl and her friend shuffle up the bench until one is pressed up against Jack and the
Well this is a new turn of events.
I look down to find her hand on my thigh.
She's about 20, maybe 19. I look at her pretty unfinished features and want to take a cloth to her face. Remove the drawn in eyebrows, the hot pink lipstick the overly rouged cheeks. She's so fresh and lovely and she's ruining it with paste. When she gets to my age she'll be trying to do the reverse, wearing nude make up to try and look the way she does naturally now. Not me though. I'm in Coco Chanel's camp. I read somewhere that she felt red lipstick only looked good on women of 30 and over. I actually just tried to find the quote on Google and ended up with a list on 'How to convince your parents to let you wear make up!' Which was a pleasant trip down memory lane. My mum didn't let me wear make up when I was a teenager and lived in Malta where other kids had their ears pierced and wore make up by the age of four. My aunt used to hide me an eye liner and some mascara in the post box downstairs, she even included a tiny mirror.
I own every red Mac lipstick available. And some other brands too. The ones that you paint on and they do not come off. Not for days as it turns out. What is elegant and stylish on day one is invariably ghoulish and terrifying on day four.
Anyway, I digress.
We eventually get rid of the girls by simply refusing to engage. Jack is at that age where he still separates women in two camps: The ones he wants to talk to and the ones he wants to sleep with. He's still looking for one that he wants to do both with, and fair play to him. At least he's looking. On this night he wants to talk and so he can barely even acknowledge these young girls and I have his undivided attention. We end up getting very drunk and find ourselves sitting in the park at 3.30 am trying to roll that last cigarette under a tree. He wakes me and I spit grass out.
'We have to go home, Thea.'
'I'm comfy.'
'Noooo, we're in the park. We HAVE to go home.'
'I'll sleep here.'
'We can't sleep in the park. Grow up!'
Bloody hell. A 22 year old is telling me to grow up. Maybe I don't have it all figured out just yet.
In the last week he has decided that we're going to LA together on holiday, we're going to see Book Of Mormon for his 23rd birthday (poor old thing), we're having dinner at at least three of his favourite restaurants in London:
'Yeah it's called Lobster and Burger...or Burger and Lobster.'
'What do they serve?'
'Lobster. Or Burgers.'
'One or the other?'
'Both if you want. Fuck it.'
He made me download Whatsapp. Yet another means of communicating directly. He likes to record little insulting voice messages and send them to me.
'Jack, enjoy your looks whilst you have them. I suspect it's a small window. You're not going to age well. I just seem to get better with age.'
'You say've looked better. You have that aspect of someone about to have a breakdown and get a dog.'
'NEVER say that to a forty year old woman!'
'Hahaha. Coffee tomorrow? 11?'
I'm taking him to a friend's gig next week. It's like a cultural exchange. I don't really know where I fit in anymore. It's definitely not the Ladies Group. I'm not one of the gays (I've been told I'm the shittest fag hag ever). I'm not young. I don't know how to be forty. I sometimes think everyone is faking it. But friendship and a shared sense of humour does seem to be blind to the details. And like my Mutti says: A handful of good friends is far better than one adequate lover.