James Dean (2/08/1931 -9/30/1955)

dean monkeyI could write a book about James Dean. It probably wouldn’t be a good book, but it would be a long one. Dean spent his boyhood on a farm in the small town of Fairmount, Indiana, an hour north on I-69 from my own boyhood home of Indianapolis.  I don’t know for certain that the proximity of my growing-up place to Dean’s growing-up place explains why I so readily identified with the characters he portrayed in his three major films (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant), but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.

james dean at homeAnd while the characters in Dean’s three main movies were quite different in some ways, they shared one big thing in common: all three young men had unloving, ineffectual, or nonexistent parents.  Dean’s mother died when he was nine and his father sent him to be raised by an aunt and uncle on that farm in Fairmount. I don’t know for certain that Dean’s estrangement from his birth parents by death and abandonment contributed to his effectiveness in essaying young men with similar wounds, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt. Here’s the deal. When you have no parents or shitty parents, you sort of have to raise yourself. Chance the not always reliable counsel of authority figures at school and in the community. Resist the more tempting types of peer pressure. Find family where you can.

It’s a treacherous, anger-making road and there’s always the risk you’ll do injury to self or others along the way. Like Jim in Rebel. Or that, like Cal in Eden, you’ll torture yourself needlessly by continuing to seek love where it can’t be found. Or that you’ll end up drunk and stunted, incapable of receiving love or giving love, like poor rich Jett in Giant.east-of-edenJames Dean ripped through acting the way he ripped through life. It’s hard to believe that he got as good as he got at the age of only 24 and difficult to imagine where he could have gone from there. Dean was a bright guy with aspirations to write and direct, so maybe that’s the direction he would have taken if his road hadn’t proven so short.acting dean

Charlie Starkweather Goes to the Movies

Spree killer commits three murders – on this date in 1958 – in Lincoln, Nebraska

For some reason, one of my bookmarked “this day in history” sites published the above blurb about 20-year-old Charles Starkweather – who (accompanied by his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate) went on a murderous 500-mile rampage across Nebraska that lasted nine days and claimed 11 innocent lives – as its lead item.  I was halfway through writing this when I realized that it’s tomorrow’s date – January 29 – when the last murder was committed and, later the same day, when the only event in this pathetic saga worth celebrating (Starkweather’s arrest) had occurred. But here I am today, with half the text written and my photos picked out, so I may as well finish what I started.

The Starkweather (with Fugate) killing spree was sensational news in 1950s America, receiving media coverage and social commentary at a level and volume similar to what the Columbine tragedy generated in more recent times. And the sex & death tale (I hesitate to call it a “love story”) of Charlie and Caril on the road has been the basis for numerous movies, TV movies, books, and songs including Terence Malick’s first film Badlands (1973), the number “Nebraska” off Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album of the same name, and Oliver Stone’s super-duper gore-fest extravaganza Natural Born Killers (1994).

First, the sad facts, sanitized to reduce the extreme gruesomeness to outline form.  Late on the night of November 30, 1957, young Charles Starkweather robbed and subsequently killed a gas station attendant, who had refused to let him buy on credit a stuffed-doll for Caril Fugate.  He confessed the robbery to Fugate but told her someone else had done the killing, then about two months later – on January 21, 1958 – he argued with Caril’s mother and stepfather, who ordered him to leave her alone. Starkweather killed them both with his shotgun, then murdered Caril’s two-year-old sister with a knife. Fugate wasn’t there when the murders took place, but did help bury the bodies and fled with Starkweather several days later.  Seven more killings would follow, including the three deaths that occurred on this date of industrialist C. Lauer Ward, his wife, and their maid. Starkweather also killed the Ward family dog.

Dead people are all on the same level. – Charles Starkweather

Why did these things happen? Well, prior to further investigation, I think we should take Charlie Starkweather at his word. He got mad at people – in a general way – especially folks whom he thought were better than him or who acted as if they were. Their perceived superiorities – and his own manifold inadequacies – had Starkweather in a nihilistic rage that could only be relieved – he thought – by bringing down the objects of that rage. By putting them all on one level. By making them dead.

Like most serial killers – and I believe so-called “spree killers” are basically disorganized serial killers in a hurry – Charles Starkweather wasn’t 100% certain that killing someone would make him feel better. But then he murdered the gas-station attendant – the poor young man’s name was Robert Colvert – and, afterward, he felt great. Greater than great. Like a new man.  In an interview about the first killing, Starkweather claimed – I’m paraphrasing – that he had “transcended his former self to reach a new plane of existence in which he was above and outside the law.”

Yeah, okay, Charlie. I also think – again like serial killers – he got off on it. He shotgunned the males, but stabbed the women and girls up close. And he attempted, unsuccessfully, to rape the one young woman he killed. He also stabbed two of the victim’s dogs.  Which all sounds like something Richard Ramirez would have done.

Which brings us to my utter mystification that anyone – several anyones, some of whom are deeply talented – could think that a piece of shit like Charles Starkweather was a worthwhile subject for a film, a TV movie, a folk ballad, etc.; that he should be accorded antihero status; that his criminal, sick, coercive “relationship” with an adolescent girl (Fugate was 13 when they met) could responsibly be elevated to a “love affair.”

Let’s take Malick’s Badlands first.  In my memory, it is a great if emotionally sterile film. Visually, it looks more like America than almost any Seventies film I can think of; long lyrical stretches of it have me imagining that it was shot in Kodak color by photographer William Eggleston and his still pictures somehow made to move. Thematically, it is a quieter Breathless (1959), the Godard film that lies behind so many American New Wave flicks, and it also evokes, of course, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which was directed by Malick’s mentor, Arthur Penn, and which announced said New Wave’s arrival.

If the real-life Starkweather/Fugate connection wasn’t specifically referenced at the time Badlands came out, it was certainly something Malick – at 27 – had thought about long and hard. He sought permission to do the film from Caril Fugate, who was still in prison at the time, as well as from her lawyer; and he offered to delay release of the finished film if they felt it would adversely affect Fugate’s chances for parole. But Malick had already sanitized or left out the worst aspects of Starkweather’s crimes, beginning with the murder of Fugate’s family. In Badlands, Kit (the Starkweather character played by Martin Sheen in one of his better young performances) only murders Fugate’s father and does so in partial reprisal for his killing the family dog. Left out is the murder of her mother and little sister. And, in real life, it was Starkweather himself who killed her dog.  The Fugate character, Holly (Sissy Spacek in a superb, aptly banal performance), is 15 not 13 when she hooks up with Kit, two years that make no difference in the law but do affect the ability of the audience to come along for the ride. And having adult actors playing Kit and Holly soon banishes the memories of Caril and Charlie, replacing them with Spacek and Sheen.

Bruce Springsteen’s acoustic album Nebraska has an understated, essentialist quality to it that seems to evoke Malick’s film more than the real life events. I liked it well enough when it came out, bought it, listened to it repeatedly. And I believe that the only line I might object to came from the film not from life. Springsteen has the Starkweather character sing: “I can’t say I’m sorry for the things we done/but at least for a little while we had us some fun.”  Which is what Martin Sheen says in his faked suicide record in the film. I don’t like the implied permission and enjoyment of the Fugate character, who I see as more of an additional victim of Starkweather than fellow perpetrator. She was so young when she came under a psychopath’s sway, was a model prisoner during her 17 years of incarceration, and has led a good and respectable life upon release.

I’ll save the filmic can of peas known as Natural Born Killers, which most decidedly would have affected Fugate’s chances at parole – not that Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone would ever ask permission or care – and which helped usher in an era of hyperkinetic ultraviolence that I (and American movies) could have done without.

In a postscript, and despite what I said just above, I don’t blame movies and songs for violence in the culture. There might be some connection between one movie or song and a heinous act, but we can’t establish that connection with any certainty or censor works in general on the hope of preventing all such acts in the future. Charles Starkweather copied his hair and clothes – and some of his manner – from James Dean, whose character in Rebel without a Cause would have been appalled by Starkweather and his behavior. James Dean as Cal in East of Eden might have been slightly more amenable, but that film is the Bible story of Cain and Abel filtered through John Steinbeck’s novel and Elia Kazan’s lens.

And we can’t very well go around blaming the Bible for murders, now can we?

Scene in L.A. (Drive-thru Polio Clinic)

“Could you patent the sun?” – Dr. Jonas Salk

polio drive-thru jonas salk

Only in L.A. – where people live in their cars – was it possible to get vaccinated against polio at a drive-thru clinic circa 1960. I have no idea whether patrons could order fries and a shake with that, but I’m certain the clinic saved lives.  And the vaccine itself was free.

Which brings us – on this MLK holiday – to the subject of altruism. Which is a noun. And which is defined as “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was familiar with the concept. And I suppose you can argue that his civil-rights work on behalf of others wasn’t entirely disinterested, since he was fighting for his own civil rights as well. But King had expanded his moral charter  in the 1960s to include opposition to the war in Vietnam. And on the day he was murdered, he was fighting for garbage collectors in Memphis, putting his life on the line so that they could have a living wage. And dignity.

i-am-a-man

Dr. Jonas Salk spent seven years developing a polio vaccine, which was donated to the world in 1955 and which has saved countless lives and limbs. Including any number saved because the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis didn’t waste time applying for a patent or trying to figure out the best ways to profit from saving lives. When asked in a TV interview who owned the vaccine, Salk replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” 

You will sometimes read in rightwing journals that lawyers for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis looked into the possibility of a patent (with the implication that they would have made money from it if they could), but Dr. Salk had already provided the vaccine to pharmaceutical companies and the idea of a patent was merely to protect against inferior imitations that others might try to profit from. Decades before Salk, Dr. William Roentgen had also refused to patent the sun – or, in his case, X-rays – and altruistically donated his new medical technology to the world.

Paul Ryan & Friends (inspired by their patron saint, Ayn Rand) will tell you altruism is for suckers. Or that it’s just a different form of selfishness, since giving to others and helping humankind provides the giver with pleasure. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather hang around folks being “selfish” by helping their neighbors or fighting for people’s rights or curing disease than hang around a bunch of GOP pols getting their jollies by cutting food stamps, gutting public education, trying to privatize Social Security, or making a big show of voting down the Affordable Care Act for the one-millionth time.

I wish there was a vaccine against Ryan & Friends. And a drive-thru clinic where Americans could get it. I’d be willing to pay – a lot – for that one. And you can hold the fries and shake.

“You look like Donna Reed …”

Donna Reed (January 27, 1921 – January 14, 1986)

From_Here_to_Eternity_Donna_Reed_1

I was at a wedding reception in the early 1980s – I think it was at a country club in Westlake Village – and I was sweaty and winded from an hour of dancing (to some disco dreck) and drunk, although no more than usual for a night out – not bad wedding drunk – and my one good suit was in decent repair. I needed to sit down for a minute and caught sight of the bride, Pat, still in her wedding gown, seated at a table on the fringes of the reception with an older woman in an expensive-looking black and brown dress. I’d barely spoken to Pat since the ceremony (I considered her a friend by now, but I had met her through Joe, the groom, who was one of my oldest and best friends at the time, although not for much longer) so I sat across the table from her.

I exchanged a few wedding-day pleasantries with Pat, told her how beautiful she looked, how great the ceremony had been, I might have even predicted a long and happy life with Joe although I didn’t believe it … I gave their marriage a year, two at the most, and so did most everyone else who knew Joe. But, all the time I was talking to Pat, I was stealing glances at the woman beside her, who had to be twice my age (I was about 30 at the time) and who, well – I can’t think of a better word – dazzled me. I had already noticed her dress, which was lovely and rich, she was petite and self-composed, she had perfect brown hair, a beautiful barely-lined cameo of a face.

“You look like Donna Reed,” I finally said to her. “I am,” Donna Reed replied. I had forgotten – if I ever knew – that she was like a godmother to Pat, a part of her life since childhood, although I have no memory now of how or why. Pat smoothed over my faux pas with a proper introduction and I shook Donna Reed’s gloved hand.

I think I had enough sense – and tenuous sobriety – not to gush, make hee-haw jokes, wonder what it was like to work with Stewart and Sinatra and Monty Clift, ask her if she kept in touch with Shelley Fabares. (And, of course, she had kept in touch, Donna Reed was an Iowa farm girl who never lost her small-town warmth and decency and was a second mother to a lot of people, apparently, famous or not.) I’m fairly certain, however, that we just talked about Pat and how they knew each other and about the wedding and, then, in virtually my only instance of good sense that night, I realized I’d interrupted a private moment and went back to the dance floor.

I remember thinking, as I walked away, that this is why I came to Los Angeles – one of the reasons – because you can go to a wedding and end up talking to Donna Reed.

Donna Reed – as Mary Hatch – was the only reason for George Bailey to stay in Bedford Falls at the Savings & Loan (instead of packing off to Paris) and I think I knew that even when I was eight or however old I was when I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life (1947). And it was Mary Bailey who people thought they were watching when they tuned in “The Donna Reed Show” (1958 – 1966). Fifties America liked Donna Reed in good-girl roles, despite the fact she had won an Oscar playing a nightclub “hostess” (Hays Code for prostitute) in 1953’s From Here to Eternity. She was never allowed to repeat that adventure.

Pat’s and Joe’s marriage lasted a little more than a year. Pat’s father had decided to give them a fresh start by paying off all of Joe’s credit-card debt in exchange for his promises to cut up his cards and stop gambling. Joe didn’t cut up the cards, which he borrowed against to pay his new gambling debts. We were regulars together at race tracks and card clubs. Joe usually lost and I won enough to keep going for awhile. Keep wasting more time.

When Pat found the bills Joe hid, the balances were up above what her father had paid and their marriage over. I quit being friends with Joe when I quit gambling. And Donna Reed died of cancer on this date in 1986 – sadly, suddenly – at age 64. Not that long after I had met her – the one time – and been dazzled by her. She’s not someone you forget.

P.S. I changed the names of Pat and Joe to protect their privacy and to preserve my ability to turn what I experienced into fiction. (I’m only half-joking.) The woman who looked like Donna Reed was Donna Reed.

Bad Girl from Where the Boys Are

Yvette Mimieux  (born January 8, 1942) – American Actress

yvette  in boysWhen I was a young boy, my regular babysitter – her name was Linda – had a great singing voice but a bad case of stage fright and she couldn’t manage a single note if anyone was watching her. So we’d sit in the kitchen, which was next to the basement stairs, while Linda went to the basement, put a record on the record player, turned the volume down low, and sang along.  Linda’s favorite singer was Connie Francis and her favorite Connie Francis songs were “Who’s Sorry Now?” and “Where the Boys Are,” the theme from the 1960 movie of the same name. My babysitter could sing the hell out of them.

Linda would sometimes be wiping tears when she came back upstairs. Which made sense to my Midwestern parents and their friends in the kitchen: the songs Linda sang were sad. If she’d just finished “Where the Boys Are,” Linda would catch my eye and wink. The wink was because we had a secret and it was my reminder not to tell.  But I also thought  – in my child mind – that she winked at me because I knew the real reason Linda was crying. It had to do with Yvette Mimieux, an actress in the film Where the Boys Are (1960). Yvette Mimieux is 74 today.

Linda sat for me a lot and did things my parents would not have liked. She stole liquor from their liquor bottles, had a boyfriend over for a makeout session on the living room couch (while I watched with inchoate jealousy from the hall), and – on more than one occasion – took me to movies I was “too young” to see. All of which means, I guess, she was a bad babysitter – irresponsible, a terrible influence – but I thought she hung the moon. And I’d never have told on her even if she hadn’t bribed me with quarters, made me promise, winked. Linda’s secrets were safe with me.

where the boys are carOne of the movies Linda shouldn’t have taken me to – and our “secret” – was Where the Boys Are, which tells the story of four Midwestern college girls who go to Fort Lauderdale for spring break in pursuit of romance, fun, and sun. It was a popular coming-of-age film for the babysitters of Laura’s generation and it was the movie – for good or ill, mostly ill – that cemented Florida as a spring-break destination for generations of college students to come. In addition to Mimieux, it starred Connie Francis, Paula Prentiss, and – in the lead role – Dolores Hart, a wonderful actress who quit movies soon after to become a Benedictine nun.  I watched Where the Boys Are again not too long ago and it is a surprisingly good movie. Corny in spots, craven by the end, but well-acted, engaging, and daring for the time in its depiction of youthful sexual mores. My childhood memories of the movie were of young people who seemed only a little older than Linda doing a lot of drinking and kissing. I also remember Linda crying through some of the scenes with Melanie, the character played by Yvette Mimieux.

A quick plot summary. In the movie, back in college, there had been some brave talk – led by future nun Hart – about how young women (like the guys) should experiment with sex prior to marriage. The other three friends seem to agree, but the characters played by Connie Francis, Paula Prentiss, and even Hart return from Florida virgo intacto and it’s only Melanie who takes the bait. She sleeps with her slick Ivy League spring-break fling, truly believes they are madly in love, but finds out different when she goes to a party and is raped by one of his friends. Melanie/Mimieux ends up in the hospital after wandering into the road and being struck by a car. And her three friends come to rue the error of their thoughts. But all that sex talk – and some of the later scenes – pushed the 1960 envelope, which was still more Fifties than Sixties.

yvette in LightA brief bio. Yvette Mimieux was perfect in Where the Boys Are and quite good with Olivia de Havilland and opposite George Hamilton in Guy Green’s Light in the Piazza, but most film buffs will remember her as Rod Taylor’s Eloi love interest, Weena, in George Pal’s version of The Time Machine (1960). She starred or costarred in another ten or so studio films – mostly in the 1960s – followed by TV work and  retirement at the age of 50 to concentrate on her successful business interests. Mimieux grew up in Hollywood and went to Hollywood High. Her first husband was the film director, Stanley Donen.

Linda stopped being my babysitter when I stopped needing one, but our families stayed friends and I would talk to her occasionally.  The last time I remember seeing Linda was at her wedding, a few years later. She was five months pregnant and her father got drunk and refused to dance with her, an act for which I will never forgive him. That was also the last time I saw Linda wiping away tears.

A Wedding to Remember

On this date in 1950, A Member of the Wedding opened on Broadway

Ethel_Waters_Julie_Harris_Brandon_DeWilde_Member_of_the_Wedding_Broadway

Carson McCullers adapted the play The Member of the Wedding from her novel of the same name about Frankie Addams, a lonely 12-year-old tomboy who becomes obsessed with her older brother’s upcoming wedding. The Broadway production was directed by Harold Clurman and starred Julie Harris as Frankie, second-grader Brandon DeWilde (“Shane! Come back, Shane!”) as her cousin John Henry, and the magnificent Ethel Waters as the family housekeeper Bereneice.

The show premiered 65 years ago today and ran at the Empire Theater for 501 performances

Movie director Fred Zinnemann wisely used the Broadway cast for his 1952 film of play. Julie Harris was 25 when she starred as Frankie onstage and 27 in the movie, but she somehow pulls it off.

The top picture is a cast photo from the 1950 stage production; the one below, a backstage shot of Harris smoking a cigarette and Waters with Carson McCullers on opening night.

backstage memeber