On Audrey, Marilyn, Hattie and Crystal
Tonight you’re mine completely
You give your love so sweetly
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes
But will you love me tomorrow?
Darling, dear darling, how I dream of cinema. An MGM Technicolor chorus line of Ziegfeld girls, tussled curls, prissy and prim and plentiful. When I make work, my love, I look foremost to the silver screen. Grace, beauty, rage, fear, anger, pain. Holly Golightly weeps into goose-feather pillows - her candy pink tiara remains firmly fixed, amidst her shrieking. Within Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), adapted from Truman Capote’s 1958 novella of the same name, Holly is a bird with broken wings, flighty and unpredictable, looking to be loved.
She pines, she yearns, she cries.
She is the Manic Pixie precursor, in tailor-made Givenchy.
The crying white woman continues to be both infantilised and eroticised within visual media, to the degree of wailing-in-pain now becoming eerily synonymous with ‘cries of passion’. We see this misogynistic lense continue to be reflected in online pornography, from both studios and amateurs alike, ultimately bleeding into our interpersonal relationships and, crucially, our sex lives. “I know you’re upset right now, but you look really good when you cry…” he tells me.
Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) dir. Blake Edwards.
I find that mythos shrouds the girls of the Golden Age, with their hair piled high, reciting poetry for the screen. I wish I could resist, dear reader, in spilling my sputtering innards to you, ugly-bubbling at the brim, and ascend to that realm. I often think of Amy, saddened and speaking of love in the midst of Back to Black, harkening back to the besotted Motown girl-groups of the Sixties. Fawning for the Ronettes, Velvelettes and Vandellas, Winehouse broods earnestly:
“I don’t care if you don’t love me, I will lie down in the road, pull my heart and show it to you…”
Babe, baby, baby, how I long to bewitch – to descend the staircase and be cut-throat-devastating, sordidly so. A Hawksian Bacall stands before me, satin-clad, and surveys my form. Taking a long drag from her cigarette, she scowls. I shrink! What I would give, lover, to retreat into that cave, cold, emerald-mossed and muddy, remaining mythic to you, to only return in Lake waves and pearls. Oh, alas, for I remain Funny Face.
I gawk and gaze and Marilyn and Jane in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), a picture I returned to recently in my ongoing blond ambition to watch every musical, ever made. Glimmering, glowing, glossed beneath the softest Tiffen filter, they swish and saunter dancerly, white-hot spotlights washing over sequined bodies. Waist drawn in, chest held high, never once exhaling.
Marilyn glows, truly. Her distinct characterisation of the white, ‘Dumb Blonde’, a filmic archetype which Marilyn herself was instrumental in constructing, is captivating to see on screen. Here, she is bright, sprightly and professionally at her best. We, watcher, witness gut-sucked poise as these twinkling starlets divulge desire, for the affections of men and men only, underpinned by an unrelenting awareness of being both seen and watched, within the scene and beyond it.
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) dir. Howard Hawks.
Throughout my girl-years, I have forever recalled John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the art critic’s arguably most culturally impactful work. Women! Women until forever-death “look at themselves being looked at”, and oh that thought, dear reader, has continued to permeate my life wherever I go, unnervingly so. How do I, my love, contend with the pain of a body I do not want? I will never be a pale frail ingénue, brimming over with luxe lust, only a flesh-ridden beast clawing through the mud, fertile and feral.
Jane and Marilyn, or rather, Dorothy and Lorelai, mutually command the arena. We see in-scene spectators mesmerised, plucked out of their supporting roles and into the real world, unable to disguise their giddying rapture. Within contemporary popular culture, Marilyn, now, is no longer Marilyn – nor, to a lesser extent Norma Jean Baker. An unwitting gilded icon of white, post-war America, Marilyn has become Coca-Cola, Mickey Mouse, Hard Rock Café.
No longer the Golden Age, but rather, the Golden Arches.
Whilst we look to the pantheon of glamour-girls who graced Hollywood throughout the early-20th century, I feel a deep sadness in knowing that women of colour were not often graced the same stage. To Garland, Garbo, Hepburn, Harlow, Dietrich, Monroe, Taylor, Turner, Bergman, Brooks and Ball, we see Baker, Dandridge, Wong and Horne.
I look now to Hattie McDaniel, the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for her role as ‘Mammy’ in Gone with the Wind (1939), an epic romance set amidst the backdrop of the American Civil War, on a cotton plantation in Atlanta, Georgia. In spite of her historic win, McDaniel was unable to attend the film’s premiere, alongside co-stars Clark Gable and Vivien Lee, due to the theatre being ‘whites only’. Upon her Oscar win, walking from the back of the segregated Coconut Grove, Hattie ascends the stage adorned in baby blue and white gardenias.
She professes: “My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.”
Throughout her career, spanning almost two decades, McDaniel was only credited for just over eighty of her three-hundred pictures. As Tessie, Nellie, Queenie and Minnie, Hattie remained a maid, a cook or a ‘house servant’. McDaniel sadly passed in 1952, and shortly thereafter her Oscar was repossessed by creditors. Following a brief period of display within the Drama Department of Howard University, her award was stolen. Seventy years later, it is still yet to be recovered.
My heart beats for Baby Esther.
Crystal LaBeija in The Queen (1968) dir. Frank Simon.
“When I grew up, you wanted to look like Marlene Dietrich, Betty Grable. Fortunately, I didn't know that I really wanted to look like Lena Horne.”
I often sit and ponder the transformative nature of the mid-century Hollywood Star. Plucking a plaything from rural obscurity, who, through bars and dives and Vaudeville, becomes a creature of beauty to be conceptualised, consumed. Dead is Kathleen Ruston. No longer Frances of the Gumm Sisters, but: Judy at Carnegie Hall, up in lights. Drag or ‘female impersonation’, as the art form was referred to at the time, effectively mirrors this dual identity.
Before Paris is Burning, there was The Queen.
A glittering historical document which, beneath stage light, chronicles the unravelling of the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest, held at New York City’s Town Hall, serves as one of the few surviving records of drag culture and trans identity in 1960s America, alongside its voyeuristic predecessor Queens at Heart (1967). Within the theatrical poster, we see ‘mistress of ceremonies’ Mother Flawless Sabrina transform across four frames.
A steady devotion to the It Girl image, with plush palms and a flourish of fingertips, Flawless Sabrina becomes debutante-ready-to-dance.
As the plush procession of queens stand in line backstage, each girl awaits her fate. Tights taut and beehives teased, we watch in ribbon sashes Miss Boston, Miss Brooklyn and, finally, Miss Manhattan herself: Crystal LaBeija. As queens twirl and pose, the pageant then unfolds. Miss All-America was positioned for pale, fair-haired Harlow to be graced with bejeweled crown and scepter. Crystal, clearly, feels hurt and horrified. “I have a right to show my colour, darling! I am beautiful, and I know I’m beautiful!”
It pains me to know, dear reader, that whilst Marilyn in death still lives on as a cultural monument through her films and fashion, I feel deeply that Crystal is yet to receive her flowers in abundance. Whilst I can scrawl the World Wide Web for interviews, diaries, ‘lost tapes’ - anything - for the girls of the Golden Age, the same cannot be said for Crystal. LaBeija has become myth and legend to be forever immortalised, sparingly so, within a singular queer artefact.
I see her: bountiful black curls resting atop her shoulders, adorned in crystal shrouds. She is beautiful.