Hazy thoughts on the transition from real sex to digital hallucinations
The pre-code is alive and well today, just not onscreen. The stars have split their private life off, so the tabloids tell the sordid stories, while the screen shows teenagers trying on clothes to montage pop. But since 1934 America has always liked its love and desperation to be separate. In real life, the love of the desperate is as intense as the love of the genuinely enchanted; in fact in our age of digital hermits and alienation, there is no difference.
Take for example, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, Babs Streisand and Madonna. These are camp icons for a reason, women whose ferocious drive was such that they changed the face of beauty in order to make themselves pass for beautiful. The hallowed hierarchy of class, genes, and style that make us “attractive” is relative, of course; it’s in the eye of the beholder: a very lonely sailor might, for example, fall in love with a dust mop, or mistake a seal for a beautiful mermaid. On the other hand, a jaded rock star might see Sienna Miller as an ocelot or common sea snail.
Take Mae West for another example. Kind of heavy and yet small breasted, short and coarse, but it didn’t matter. She could have been a dust mop crossed with a sea snail and men would still be falling for her. No one could tell Mae she wasn’t a knockout glamour girl, so whether she was or not becomes — with the passing of each new generation — more and more immaterial. She defines beauty because we have seen her on the silver screen being adored. It must be true; we saw it on television.
She’s so startlingly progressive, we presume all of ancient history defined her as the ultimate; it all has the iconic haze of myth, folklore. Mae is like (and would probably sleep with) Paul Bunyan, or John Henry, the steel-drivin’ man. Like them she’s embodying an archetype, she is the elevation of the cathouse harlot to the status of a benevolent, wisecracking Aphrodite. If she was genuinely beautiful, the ridiculous fawning of the men around her would be irritating and immodest. But because it’s Mae, it’s joyous, because we realize that beauty — if it wasn’t already in the eye of the beholder before her — is now. She made it flex and bend until even the shy and ugly kids got some, too. She brought cake out to the guards. She shared her humongous appetites with her next-door neighbor in the Paramount dressing rooms, Marlene Dietrich; they passed guys like Gary Cooper and Cary Grant (above) around like playing cards. West actually launched Grant’s career for him. She had an eye for real moxie — a talent scout like her is sorely missed in Hollywood these days. But at any rate, the disciples of her brilliance live on; there are shades of her in everyone from Roseanne Barr to Diane Keaton, Paula Prentiss and up to Nicole Kidman and Anna Faris. Age, height, weight have nothing to do with it per se, it’s all in the hips and their willingness to subvert the status quo from within, and the genius to know how to make it work and the nerve to pull it off at just the right time. When a girl at the end of her rope admires Mae’s diamonds in She Done Him Wrong, for example, Mae remarks, “Men, it’s their game. I just happen to be smart enough to play it their way.”
What does that mean exactly? It means she doesn’t fight the current, and so has the energy to swim to the front and direct the whole wave. This means Mae is genuinely subversive, which is why the Catholic Legion of Decency was so quick to have her censored (she made only one radio appearance in her entire life, an “Adam and Eve” sketch, which got her banned forever). It’s nothing in her double entendres so much as her complete lack of inhibition and — even more important — the copious admiration and financial gain she shows herself getting, onscreen, for her unmarried sexual congress. If Mae’s characters had died alone and unloved, having sacrificed all for her child to marry a prince, etc., she would have been fine with the censors. But daring to indulge in the forbidden fruits and end the film all the richer and with Cary Grant on your arm and no harm done? It was just too dangerous to a rigid class and sex system like the Catholic delusory 1930s.
Those moralists wanted sex to be served in little teacups to a temperate nation. Mae served it by spreading tea leaves on the floor and flooding the building with hot water. It was like showing the corruptible females of the world a magic faucet by which they could drown their men’s precious capitalist system with a few flicks of their diamond-bespangled wrists. And that doing it was not only easy but rewarding as hell; Mae was a lost generation Tyler Durden!
What was more than a mere threat to the Christian status quo, though, was Mae’s willingness to peek behind the magic curtain where the big deals are made, and to point out that regardless of how much they bellow and bluster, they’re all just men underneath the suits and uniforms. They can be had. If the Christians were reading this right, Mae was training women all over the country to step into men’s affairs and topple them, just to see if they can. The whole social ladder seemed to shake and buckle from the force of Mae’s tsunami hips.
We don’t really have a similar figure to Mae today, right now, do we? Kate Winslet, Vera Farmiga, Naomi Watts, Nicole, they’re all genetic miracles who represent the next step in our evolution, knock on wood, and the sexually active party girls, like Paris Hilton, aren’t really movie stars (the Paris equivalent of the time would have been Peggy Hopkins Joyce).
No, the merely semi-attractive women — the ones for whom finding dates is actual work — have no one to champion them, no one like Mae West or Bette Davis to star in movies where they’re adored as beautiful and desirable beyond words while all the straight men in the room go “What? I don’t get it.” Instead, the non-goddesses have to make do with martyrdom, the dregs of the coffee cup. I guess the closest we have at the moment are those British soul singer tarts across the sea, but I’m too old to know anything about that.
All I know is, I watch Bette in some of these DVDs, like Now Voyager, and I long for the blurriness of VHS. As our world moves more and more to high definition and blu-ray, that eye of the beholder is going to see some things better left obscured by Blanche’s paper lantern, that’s all I’m saying, with all the format changes. Even the most airbrushed and metallic of goddesses won’t catch any fanboys if they can see “that” much. You know what I mean, bro? Do I got to underline it in highlighter marker? Darkness makes everyone equally attractive. It’s key! The high-def future will mean the end of sex for all but the supermodels. The rest of us will punch our way through days so gray and isolated they make Gilliam’s Brazil look like Christmas with Bing Crosby. No matter how lovely you think you are, we’ll be able to see into your pores from the back row.
Spend some time in France or England and you’ll see a whole different approach to casual hooking up for sex. It’s not that big a deal. People feel better, eat better, look better, when they’re having steady sexual relations, say twice a week minimum. In America, somewhere along the line we got the idea that it’s better not to have sex unless the partner is gorgeous, rich, famous, or you’re very drunk; otherwise, we’re “saving” ourselves. If we take home someone unattractive, we slump home the next day, guilty, as if we were so hungry and poor we ended up eating at McDonald’s and now feel sick. But we don’t really feel sick, my friends, that’s social conditioning! That’s why we need a Mae West or a Bette Davis (above) to come along and sashay their weight around, or smile their crooked teeth and still have Tyrone Power or Cary Grant grow mad with desire for them. Maybe we don’t want it, but we need it. We’re a nation that’s grown sexually anorexic. Help us, Mae! Show us how to enjoy our food again.