Low-Key Lustre, Elegant Beyond Price: Women’s Magazines of the Sixties

Beauty Shop

[Revised from an article originally published in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

I recently purchased a great selection of vintage magazines dated from 1960 to 1971 and I’ve been enjoying stepping into the past each time I sit down to read them. My latest vintage magazine adventure has been with the June 1966 issue of McCall’s, the long-running popular women’s magazine. It’s been fun to compare it to the Good Housekeeping magazine from 1960 I wrote about a few weeks ago. In just that six-year span, the advertising copy grew much more florid, less concerned with keeping a perfect household and more concerned with personal sex appeal. I don’t know if it was the popularization of the birth control pill in the early 1960s that caused the subsequent cultural obsession with sexiness that sprouted in the 1960s and 1970s (as many social historians suggest), but the move from wanting a sparkling oven and a perfect meatloaf for one’s husband and children to the quest for bouncier hair, more luxurious nails and more kissable lips for an unnamed man is quite pronounced.

I love the over-the-top ad copy: “Suddenly everyone’s all eyes (and sighs!) over [Max Factor] Shadow Creme. The new glowy-eyed eye shadow that slips on like a dream, because it’s cream!” Adjectives morph into ad-copy-ready verbs to try to add youth and vigor to a phrase: with dreamy creamy eye shadow one can “sleek on a shy narrow line of color.” Or how about the nail polish which will apparently change your life with its heart-stopping, eye-catching beauty? You don’t just brush it on, you slither it on. Not slather, slither: one must apply it sexily, with the thrilling undulations of a snake. Yes, with Revlon Crystalline Nail Enamel, “Even before you slither it on, you’ll see the big difference. . . . On your nails it glows with a soft, low-key lustre. A quiet kind of chic. You’ll be smitten with the deep, velvety quality of it. The plushness. The cover. The delicate—but definite—color. Elegant beyond price.” I’m practically having palpitations just thinking of it.

Not getting enough action, you brown-haired beauties? The problem is with your makeup: you need Clairol Flicker Stick. “This is only for the brunettes who rather enjoy having their hair mussed occasionally. The very first lip gloss for Brunettes Only. Give your lips a lick of something new.” That’s wildly suggestive compared to the ads of 1960 and before. Another rather bold ad features a photo of a man in a business suit with his head and one hand both cropped away and his other hand holding a telephone. The focus of the photo is the man’s crotch, which is shown splay-legged sitting on an office chair. The headline? “If your husband doesn’t lift anything heavier than a telephone, why does he need Jockey support?”

The ad goes on to say that “During a normal day, a man makes a thousand moves that can put sudden strain on areas that require male support. Climbing stairs. Running to catch a bus. Bending. Reaching. Simple things, yet they are the very reasons why every man needs the support and protection that only Jockey brand briefs are designed to provide.” Otherwise, what, he might get a wedgie? Or lose his ability to sire a child because he ran up the stairs too fast? They seem to imply that his very manhood is in peril should he wear the wrong underpants.

The fashion emphasis by 1966 is on younger, fresher, livelier styles. The concern isn’t so much about using the latest and greatest (and shortly-thereafter-to-be-determined dangerous) drugs, pesticides and cleaning agents around the house in an effort to be more chemically controlled and germ-free, as had been so popular in 1960. By 1966 there was more of a desire to spend money and time on disposable products that made living more convenient and fun. The hedonism index rises dramatically during the 1960s, and there’s more of a desire to consume new, specialized products and live for today without concern for the cost or waste involved. There’s definitely a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses kind of jonesing for the latest, hippest disposable new thing.

For example, paper napkins and towels and coordinating tissues and became popular, and having one’s scented, dyed toilet paper match one’s scented, dyed facial tissues was a must. Ads offered bright, bold bath towels with garish flower power colors and patterns, then showed coordinating Lady Scott bathroom and facial tissue with colored flowers printed onto the paper in Bluebell Blue, Camellia Pink, Fern Green and Antique Gold. It’s a “color explosion in towels and napkins.” “Pop! go the colors of Scotkins—newly pepped-up to bring zing to table settings” and “gay bordered towels.” Don’t forget to “Scheme your tables with the vibrant new designs in the first cushioned paper placemats by Scott.” Scheme your tables?

Best of all, “Color explosion flashes into fashion with the paper dress!” For $1 plus a 25 cent handling fee you could buy a paper shift dress in a red and white bandana print or a black and white op-art geometric design. Original “Paper-Caper” dresses, still folded in their original envelopes, are now quite collectible; one of the bandana print was recently available on eBay for $25; another auction house is asking $150 for the op-art version. “Dashingly different at dances or perfectly packaged at picnics. Won’t last forever . . . who cares! Wear it for kicks—then give it the air.” Campbell’s soup cashed in on the disposable dress craze while demonstrating their pop art cred: they sold their own Andy Warhol-inspired paper “Souper Dress” printed with images of Campbell’s soup cans. Each sold for $1 plus two Campbell’s Soup labels in the sixties. Want one now? Ebay recently listed one with a starting price of $749; it sold for $1,125. Missed out on that one? Don’t worry; another has been listed for sale for $2,000.

Paper dresses were available in very simple styles, which were much like most fabric dresses of the day. Most women did at least some home sewing in an effort to economize, and almost all girls were taught to sew and cook in school, so essential were those skills deemed for females of the day. Many dresses were shapeless, boxy shifts, easy for any home sewer to whip up with a pattern bought at the nearest department store. My mother, an accomplished seamstress and knitter, never stopped with simple shifts; she made me wonderful pintucked blouses, perfectly tailored little coats, intricately cable-knitted sweaters and lovely dresses. We spent many happy hours in all the department stores’ sewing sections from as far back as I can remember. We visited the fabric departments of five-and-dimes like TG&Y (which was affectionately nicknamed “Toys, Garbage and Yardage”), popular stores like Mervyn’s and Penney’s, and slightly tonier establishments like the Bay Area’s Emporium-Capwell stores. Every good department store had a fabric section with a wide variety of materials, notions and patterns. Nowadays it’s hard to find fabric stores that aren’t superstore fabric-and-craft chains, and sewing is a niche market attended to by specialty stores only.

I don’t mean to get too personal, but do you remember spray deodorant? Wet and smelly, it got all over everything, spewed fluorocarbons into the air and ended up wasting a lot of product due to overspray, but it was oh, so popular in the sixties and seventies. But how do you market something like that to women? Like this: “Slim, trim, utterly feminine, hardly bitter than your hand . . . new cosmetic RIGHT GUARD in the compact container created just for you.” “Elegant . . . easy to hold, Right Guard is always the perfect personal deodorant because nothing touches you but the spray itself.” What a prissy little product, huh? And for those not-so-fresh moments that can’t be discussed in polite company, there was Quest, “a deodorant only for women.” It was a powder that “makes girdles easier to slip into,” among other things.

Having a separate female version of a product with prettier packaging was very popular: all sorts of spray cans and discreet boxes featured what looked like miniature wallpaper designs, floral themes and delicately drawn feminine profiles of wispy women who appeared unaware that they were being watched while they sniffed daisies (which are rather stinky flowers, actually).

I wish I could still send a quarter to Kotex for the fact-packed booklet titled “Tampons for Moderns.” One can only imagine the bouncy, well-groomed young women in the line drawings that must have illustrated the booklet, which I see in my mind’s eye as having a turquoise cover bearing a confident-looking brunette wearing a fresh white dress. (Such products are often advertised by women in white to emphasize their fresh, clean, pure quality and the idea that you won’t be the unclean mess you’ve been made to think you are if you’ll just use their products.) The booklet must have read a lot like the brochures and booklets I got at school during the seventies, full of “gee, it’s great to be a woman!” ad copy that played up the ease with which one could stay well-groomed, pretty and presentable even when afflicted by the horror of the condition that could barely be hinted at but which every female experienced. A “really, it’s not so bad!” tone lay behind every phrase and the subtle instructional nature of each conversational paragraph was supposed to allay concerns. I think it actually emphasized the unmentionable quality of the subject matter: this stuff is so important and secret, the text implied, you need official instruction books to deal with what every woman from time immemorial has gone through—but we still can’t address any of it head-on.

Before reading this magazine I’d forgotten just how popular hairpieces were in the sixties. They were quite common accessories and supplemented many women’s wardrobes, often with rather ridiculous results. Remember, many women still went to the hairdresser for weekly perms, blow-outs, cuts and curls and slept with their hair in hard plastic or itchy metal-and-nylon brush curlers or pincurls every night, spraying their coifs afresh with new coats of sticky Aqua Net hairspray each morning and avoiding washing their hair for as long as possible between beauty parlor visits. Adding fluffy, braided, curly, straight or poufy switches, falls or wiglets (don’t you love that word?) to the mix wasn’t a big stretch. Long hairpieces, braided or twisted, or fluffy poufs added onto the top or back of a hairdo weren’t uncommon; teasing hair up into domes, small head hillocks or B-52-large beehive cones was a regular thing. I remember women with hair that rose a good four to six inches above their heads and never moved, no matter what the weather did. Women only entered swimming pools without bathing caps in movies; public pools wouldn’t allow a woman or girl to swim unless a rubber cap, often covered in ridiculous colored rubber “petals” that came off and floated in the water, completely covered her head.

Of course, a women’s magazine couldn’t be simply about making oneself prettier for one’s man. A good housewife also had to feed him (using lots of prepared food products) and heat or chill the leftovers in appliances that came in sexy new colors and promised easy-care features. The Admiral Duplex Freezer/Refrigerator ad features eight—count ’em! eight!—exclamation points on one page, so you know it must have been a sensational product. With this fabulous appliance’s automatic ice maker, there’s “no filling, no slopping, no mess.”

But what to feed a hungry man on a hot summer night when you don’t have time to whip up a big batch of sloppy joes with Shilling’s or Lawry’s sloppy joe mix? Meat-laden salads! When housewives of the sixties grew tired of the same old coleslaw, Best Foods Mayonnaise had the answer: hollow out a cabbage, scallop the edges of the emptied cabbage head (with kitchen shears, apparently) and pack it to the brim with coleslaw into which you’ve mixed canned tuna. Or maybe you’d prefer to dollop cottage cheese, celery seeds, shredded carrots and green peppers into your coleslaw? Cottage cheese was plopped on everything in the sixties and seventies, as I remember. The iconic healthy breakfast depicted on TV shows or in ads always included a half-grapefruit with a mound of cottage cheese astride the fruit flesh and a maraschino cherry popped gaily on top. Why anyone would want to consume those three items at the same time was always a mystery to me. What if you’re not into tuna slaw or cottage cheese and cabbage? California coleslaw includes crushed pineapple and quartered marshmallows. To wow the guests at your next picnic, serve this candy-sweet coleslaw in a cabbage cut to look like an Easter basket, complete with orange peel “bow,” as shown in the ad, and you’ll “perk up wilted appetites.”

Of course, not every woman alive in the 1960s was a housewife. Many, like my single mother, worked, whether out of pleasure, necessity or both. But the jury was still out on whether those who didn’t strictly need to work to pay the basic bills had either reason or right to do so. Paying women less than men for equivalent work because it was assumed that their work wasn’t essential to their family’s income was common; refusing to promote them or extend them personal credit that wasn’t cosigned by a husband or other man was also an everyday thing. When my mom bought her own house with her own savings in 1970, it was quite an accomplishment and unusual among the people we knew.

This issue of McCall’s has a letter related to an article about working women published in a prior issue. A reader writes of having worked steadily her whole life out of necessity, but angrily derides the choices of women who work out of a desire to serve, for career fulfillment or for personal satisfaction. “I have nothing but contempt for the wives of prosperous men who, in their own boredom and greed, take jobs away from those who really need to work.” She can’t see the validity of working for personal satisfaction or from a desire to help others or to extend one’s world beyond one’s husband’s sphere. These opposing arguments played out regularly in the court of public opinion (and in courts of law) throughout the next couple of decades as women fought to be allowed the same access to education, employment and advancement without respect to whether they had as much “need” to work as men.

When the woman of 1966 worked too hard and felt depressed over her inability to get ahead on the job, whether at home or out in the world of paid employment, what could she do to find the vim and vigor she needed to get through the day when her get-up-and-go and gotten up and gone? McCall’s had the answer for that, too. Anacin, then a popular over-the-counter headache medicine (and still available at drugstores today), was touted as not just a pain reliever but a mood elevator in an ad with the headine “Casts away gloom, depression . . . as it relieves headache pain fast! Anacin has a combined new action that actually casts away gloom and depression as headache pain goes away in minutes. . . . [F]ortified with a special ‘mood-lifter’ or energizer that brightens your spirits, restores new enthusiasm and drive. With Anacin you experience remarkable all-over relief.” Wow! How did this remarkable wonder drug effect such miraculous changes? What super-effective secret ingredients were at work? Anacin’s remarkable active ingredients amounted to nothing more than aspirin and caffeine. Yes, taking two cheap aspirin and a few cups of coffee would “cast away gloom” and relieve headaches just as quickly. After all these years, now you know.

Sunday on the Pot with George

Sunday on the Pot with George

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog .]

We’ve all seen ghastly paintings and prints at garage sales and thrift shops—sad clowns, unflattering portraits, homely florals and trite landscapes—and wondered not only why someone could have considered hanging them in the first place, but also who in the world could have wasted time making such things?

Most bad art is regrettable but forgettable, something we look past rather than at. But some masterpieces of bad art are so remarkably awful, so tasteless, awkward or outlandish that they deserve to be displayed in all their horrific glory. Pieces that bad deserve to hang in a museum of bad art. Happily, there is such a place, just outside of Boston.

The Museum of Bad Art is an actual physical place and is also a wonderful virtual space with its own highly entertaining website. Established in a Boston basement in 1993, MOBA moved to Dedham, Massachusetts, and has expanded and grown into one of the most entertaining sites on the Web. Their collection runs the gamut from shockingly bad portraits to awkward landscapes to disturbing animal pictures. MOBA’s website states, “The pieces in the MOBA collection range from the work of talented artists that have gone awry to works of exuberant, although crude, execution by artists barely in control of the brush. What they all have in common is a special quality that sets them apart in one way or another from the merely incompetent.”

Oh, they’re special all right. An early acquisition and one of two masterworks in the collection is “Lucy in the Field with Flowers,” a vivid and stirring portrait of an elderly woman whose head looks uncomfortably like Norman Mailer’s. Lucy prances through a field of flowers, her legs arrayed as if seated but her body clearly in motion. Her breasts sway in opposite directions under her bright blue dress, which appears to be floating off to one side for no apparent reason.

The Athlete” features a discus thrower described by MOBA’s curatorial staff as “A startling work, and one of the largest crayon on canvas pieces that most people can ever hope to see. The bulging leg muscles, the black shoes, the white socks, the pink toga, all help to make this one of the most popular pieces in the MOBA collection.” I’m also quite fond of “Peter the Kitty,” a painting found in a Salvation Army store, which is, I agree, “Stirring in its portayal of feline angst. Is Peter hungry or contemplating his place in a hungry world? The artist has evoked both hopelessness and glee with his irrational use of negative space.”

Of all the pieces in the collection, my favorite has always been a pointillist tour-de-force done in homage to the genius of George Seurat, whose “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” was the inspiration for the beautiful Stephen Sondheim musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” MOBA’s “Sunday on the Pot with George” features an rotund older gentleman wearing naught but Y-front underwear sitting on top of what is either a chair swathed in thick blue folds of fabric, or perhaps a melting blue toilet. George’s sagging flesh drips slowly toward his nonexistent feet in cascading red and peach colored blobs of paint, the canvas sizzling and jittering before our eyes. The painting has a lively, psychotic quality. I love it so that I’ve enjoyed it in book, calendar and notecard form—items from the MOBA online store make excellent holiday gifts!

Much as I love the images, the oh-so-serious “interpretations” of the pieces are equally enjoyable. Here’s the caption from a pastel and acrylic piece titled “Inspiration“: “The organ master stares, transfixed by twin mysterious visions: the Neanderthal saint in the setting sun and the Gothic monk proceeding out from the cathedral’s sanctum, each framed by a halo of organ pipes, reminiscent of #2 pencils.”

MOBA truly lives up to its tag line: “Art too bad to be ignored.”

Uninsulated Wires Laid Bare: The Genius of Joni Mitchell


In 1993, Joni Mitchell painted an impressive self-portrait in the style of Vincent Van Gogh, with Joni wearing the same clothes, in the same position, and even with the bandaged ear shown in one of Van Gogh’s most famous self-portraits. The following year, she released an album with this self-portrait on the cover: Turbulent Indigo. The song of the same title is a dark, angry, stunning homage to Van Gogh. Bold strokes of surprising bass, the brooding undercurrents in Joni’s guitar playing and Wayne Shorter’s splashes of golden sax shimmer throughout the song, sparkling as Van Gogh’s yellows do against his swirls of indigo.

Even without lyrics it would be delicious to listen to, with the roiling darkness and the occasional splash of reedy sax, but the words are some of Joni’s best. She taunts the people who know Van Gogh only for his cheering sunflowers and golden wheatfields and who want a mindless, untortured, chirpy version of Van Gogh in their homes, an easy, breezy Vincent. She mocks those who can afford to collect him now, who have his work in their homes and feel as if they’re somehow close to him as a result, but who would have bolted their doors against the actual man, the depressive, angry, brooding Vincent who sometimes fell into bouts of insanity. In the final verse, she lets him speak:

“I’m a burning hearth,” he said” / People see the smoke / But no one comes to warm themselves / Sloughing off a coat / And all my little landscapes / All my yellow afternoons / Stack up around this vacancy / Like dirty cups and spoons / No mercy Sweet Jesus! / No mercy from Turbulent Indigo.”

Some found Joni bold to paint herself into his most pained self-portrait and to allow herself to speak in “his” voice, as if she were equating her genius or her pain to his. The self-portrait is startling, but well-executed and witty; the song is evidence that she is a genius in her own right.

Those who only paid attention to Joni when she had big radio hits in the 1960s and early 1970s but found her too hard to follow during her later, jazz-infused period missed out on a whole world of beauty. The reedy soprano of her “Blue” album (sometimes touching, sometimes too piercing painful for me to listen to) and her marvelous 1974 album “Court and Spark” mellowed over the years into a burnished, glowing alto. I can hear the cigarettes in her voice, which saddens me, but I do love the richness and warmth of the register she slid slowly into over the years like a hot, perfumed bath.

Her lyrics are intricate, dark and sometimes upsetting, but they’re true poetry, not singsongy filler, like so many songwriters’ words. Some work better for me than others; several songs on the “Turbulent Indigo” album have lyrics that feel forced in places (such as “You Were Not to Blame” in which she lashes out at men who abuse women), while one, co-written with her old friend David Crosby, is a real gem: “Yvette in English.” The tune and words are lyrical and lovely, but the lyrics are especially captivating and poetic. Mitchell and Crosby write of a “wary little stray,” a woman who slips into a Paris café and catches the eye of a man who falls for her instantly, taken by her fragility, her insecurity and the delight of dancing with her. We feel his sadness at having her leave him by a “bony bridge between left and right,” one of the lovely, slender bridges that cross the Seine between the left and right banks. The words and images of this song, the rhythms of Mitchell’s guitar, and Wayne Shorter’s ethereal sax floating above it all make it a song I can rarely listen to without listening to it again, immediately afterward, because I so hate hearing it end. A little taste of it:

“Burgundy nocturne tips and spills / They trot along nicely in the spreading stain / New chills, new thrills / For the old uphill battle / How did he wind up here again? / Walking and talking / Touched and scared / Uninsulated wires left bare / Yvette in English going, / ‘Please have this / Little bit of instant bliss.'”

Mitchell writes movingly, painfully, hauntingly about depression and loss. She can write with humor and joy and raw power, too, but the deep understanding she has of difficulty and vulnerability, of those uninsulated wires laid bare, and the way she underscores them with that slightly ravaged voice, those amazing tunings and chord voicings on her guitar, the surprising rhythms, the way she leaves us hanging with unresolved lyrics or chords at the end of a line—she’s so much more than the folkie of “Both Sides Now” or the esoteric jazz fan of her Mingus years.

Wild Things Run Fast from 1982, and Night Ride Home from 1991 are perhaps my favorites among her albums. Wild Things Run Fast was a revelation after hearing the sometimes screechy, folky Joni of the 1960s. It was an delightful, sometimes funny, sometimes pensive mix of rock and jazz and pop, not what I expected at all. Night Ride Home is an album I can listen to endlessly without tiring of it, especially “Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free),” a surprising song about the relationship between Mary Magdalen and Jesus; “Cherokee Louise,” about having a best friend from the wrong side of the tracks who lives a life in turmoil; and the lilting, contented “Night Ride Home,” about the joy of riding through a dark night with a lover over the open road, with the thrumming of crickets all around. When I haven’t heard the rolling, insistent guitar that ripples through “Passion Play” for a few months and I listen to it once more, I get chills all over again.

[Revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Joaquin Phoenix Rising


[Originally published as “Phoenix Rising” on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Some actors have a gift for making audiences uncomfortable. They know when to hold a gaze too long or whether to avoid eye contact altogether; how to let panic, malice or discovery flit across their faces almost imperceptibly; how to touch their faces absentmindedly, betraying their anxiety or concern. We who watch them thrill to the feeling that we alone have discovered their secrets or noticed the tell-tale change in their mood that everyone else has missed. But sometimes the naturalism of their discomposure makes us worry that they are not really actors at all, but rather embodiments of the troubled characters whose lives they inhabit for our entertainment. James Gandolfini‘s Tony Soprano was so commanding and charismatic that the world believed the actor and the character must be two sides of the same being. Seeing him interviewed and hearing his intelligent, slightly shy delivery expressing insights with quiet, wry humor was disorienting. When speaking in his own voice, Gandolfini betrayed a tenderness and self-deprecation we would never have expected based on the behavior and body language of his most famous creation. When Bradley Cooper is asked about his mentor and co-star Robert De Niro, he describes a thoughtful, articulate and generous man who is nothing like the belligerent and threatening characters he is best known for playing in the movies.

Joaquin Phoenix is such a modern master of discomfort. As a child actor then known as Leaf Phoenix, he had steady television work and was in occasional movies, like “Parenthood,” but he grew up in the shadow of his talented older brother, River. The two were together when River died of a drug overdose in 1993; a 911 emergency audiotape featuring Joaquin’s anguished voice asking for help for his brother was played incessantly on television and radio for weeks after River’s death, and the trauma and the constant media hounding so devastated Joaquin that he retreated from acting for a year. In 1995, however, he got a big break playing an important supporting role in the Gus Van Sant film “To Die For.” Phoenix played Jimmy, a lonely, slow-witted, desperate boy who becomes obsessed by a perky local news television personality played with sociopathic relish by Nicole Kidman. Kidman’s manipulative character strings the Phoenix character along and wraps him dangerously around her finger. Kidman plays her part with an earnest yet sprightly quality that’s meant to be outsized, colorful, almost cartoonish, along the lines of the characters in “Edward Scissorhands.” By contrast, Phoenix plays his role as Kidman’s pawn with great vulnerability and realism. His confusion feels painfully real as he slowly tries to make sense of the situation he’s been drawn into. A lesser actor could have played Jimmy as a sap or stooge not worth worrying about, but Phoenix gives him a shape and a heart; his character is the one touches us the most and makes Kidman’s transgressions feel especially chilling.

It was his performance as Commodus, the twisted, desperate young emperor who ruins the life of Russell Crowe’s Maximus in “Gladiator,” that drew the world’s attention and earned him his first Oscar nomination. The performance holds up powerfully all these years later, despite his on-again, off-again attempts at a British accent. His character is by turns vulnerable and tyrannical, and like a Shakespearean villain, his evil deeds are offset by scenes in which we see him squirm painfully as his father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (played with appropriate disdain by Richard Harris), and the gladiator Maximus humiliate him emotionally and physically. We can’t help but feel a measure of pity for him as we see the contempt heaped upon him by his father; evil-doers are always so much more fun to watch when we get a glimpse at what twisted their souls in the first place. Phoenix alternates a pouty, whiny narcissism with dangerous hubris in what is, to my mind, the most compelling performance in the film.


Phoenix as Emperor Commodus in “Gladiator”

His second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor came five years later in 2005 when he starred in the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line.” Though he didn’t win the Oscar that year, it was his strong performance that allowed Reese Witherspoon to play off him so effectively that she won her own Best Actress award. Johnny Cash had a jangling agitation in the way he sang and in the way he held himself, and Phoenix tapped into that perfectly. There’s a low hum of anxiety and suppressed energy in Johnny’s seemingly straightforward songs, and while Phoenix doesn’t look particularly like Johnny, nor is his singing a spot-on impersonation of Cash as Jamie Foxx’s impersonation of Ray Charles was in the film “Ray,” Phoenix nonetheless gets the feeling right, captures Cash’s charisma and energy and makes the story flow along a satisfying and seemingly inevitable path.

In 2010 Phoenix played a bizarre fictionalized version of himself in Casey Affleck’s mockumentary “I’m Still Here.” Where his odd, seemingly addled character ended and Phoenix himself began wasn’t clear as he appeared barely coherent and gave conflicting stories about himself in talk show appearances and in written interviews while the film was being made. Like comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufman in the 1980s, he challenged people to recognize that he was playing tricks on them. Happily, his statements that he was quitting acting to become a rapper were false, and he was back costarring with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “The Master” in 2012.

Phoenix played Freddy, an amoral, emotionally stunted deviant who regularly swilled cocktails concocted from shots of fuel and paint thinners. The character was so disturbed and outrageous that the rumors of Phoenix’s own emotional instability spread. His portrayal of Freddy was simultaneously over-the-top odd and yet believable. To inhabit this broken and frightening man’s persona, Phoenix turned memories of his own physical injuries into tics, and he slurred and mumbled his way through lines in a parody of his own shambling speaking style. (For a fascinating description of how he created his character, listen to his highly entertaining interview with Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.”) His intensity and rawness make the character of Freddy hard for the audience to spend time with; he has no boundaries and no filter, and his recklessness makes him appear capable of anything at all. When Phoenix plays off the hale and hearty, but no less frightening, charisma of Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s character, who is based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, there are almost literal sparks on the screen, so exciting is the contrast between their styles. These two actors were so fiercely focused and totally in the moment with each other that you believe everything they say occurred to them for the very first time as the cameras roll. Despite the loathsomeness of their personalities, they are so compelling and their performances bounce off each other so thrillingly that the resulting film is worth the discomfort of spending over two hours watching them behave atrociously.

Considering Joaquin Phoenix’s history of playing one disturbed, fragile, inappropriate man after another, I feared that his character in the Spike Jonze film “Her” might be more than a little creepy. He is, after all, a man who feels such awkwardness among real human beings that he spends his days pretending to be other people and writing their most personal letters for them as a ghost writer. He then forms his most intimate attachment to a simulated woman, a disembodied, computerized voice, because he can’t make a go of actual human relationships. Yet, despite the extreme oddness found in the careers of both Phoenix and writer-director Jonze, there is a beautiful, gentle quality to Theodore that drew me in and made me care for and want to protect him. Phoenix portrays Theodore with an immense vulnerability that builds up through small gestures: the way he presses his glasses back up his nose; the joyful, relieved smile that spreads across his face when he converses freely and delightedly with his computerized companion; the way his body seems to crumple inward when he has to interact with actual three-dimensional people. Theodore is fragile and scarred by life experience, and he is awkward and confused about how best to handle other people one-on-one, but he doesn’t lose his basic decency even when others take him for granted or unleash their own rage or fear on him. He may be shy and scared, but he is also brave enough to be vulnerable, to try something altogether new, to pick up the pieces after a heartbreak. There is joy in watching this stunted soul open his heart and set aside his pain, and great sadness at seeing him struggle when adversity strikes. In another actor’s hands, Theodore could have been too dark or too off-putting, or embarrassingly dorky, but Phoenix plays him with a gentle touch and the understanding of one who has himself been misjudged or or written off.

The willingness to lay oneself bare for others to view can be either narcissistic or generous; for many actors, it’s both. Joaquin Phoenix and Spike Jonze seem to have found perfect partners in each other in creating “Her.” While the story is Jonze’s very personal vision, the process of making Phoenix disappear into the part was very much a collaboration. Initially, Jonze hired the talented English actress Samantha Morton to be the voice of Samantha. Morton, herself an indie film favorite who played Agatha, the senior precog in “Minority Report,” is often described as quirky, sat in an uncomfortable little wooden box while on the set, far away from Phoenix, and the two of them communicated only via earpieces, like their characters. They did the entire film that way, and then Jonze realized that, lovely as their performances were, there was something not quite right in the chemistry between the two of them. He is circumspect about explaining what the problem was since he doesn’t want to denigrate anyone’s acting, and he and Phoenix have only praise for Morton’s work on the film, which they say was very helpful in inspiring Phoenix’s performance. The only thing Jonze has implied is that Morton’s voice may have come across as too motherly, and that rather than instilling a belief in the audience that there could be a romantic spark between them, she may have sounded a bit too nurturing instead of sexy in her interactions with Phoenix. As a result, in post-production Jonze recast the computer love interest with Scarlett Johansson. As Spike Jonze put it, “[Joaquin] was speaking to Samantha Morton the entire time—she was in his ear, in another room, and he was in her ear. Samantha is a big part of the movie because she was with us, and gave Joaquin so much and gave the movie so much. And then in [postproduction,] when we decided that what we did wasn’t working, and we ended up recasting with Scarlett [Johansson]. [Joaquin] worked with Scarlett in post—but to help her do her part, so off-camera and off-mic with her.”

Phoenix was generous in coming back onto set to work with Johansson to make sure her performance sounded like a true, emotion-packed conversation; some actors refuse to run scenes with other actors once they’ve shot their own close ups and recorded their own looping (voice dubbing). Less generous actors leave the set after filming their own scenes, expecting crew members to read lines for other actors to react to, which can, unsurprisingly, result in less convincing results. By all accounts, all the actors in “Her,” including Amy Adams, who plays Theodore’s dear friend and confidante with warmth and tenderness, were generous and devoted to making the communication in this film feel genuine and organic. Their work underscores the theme of true connection with another being not depending on looking into his or her eyes.

There is a sadness beneath all four of the feature films Spike Jonze has directed, the threat of a dark underworld that drags all of his characters into melancholy. This Jonzian undertow brings a depth to stories that are often populated with slightly cartoonish, overdrawn characters who are going through midlife crises and react by turning their worlds upside-down. In his first two films, “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” this depressive quality played off a sometimes manic, off-kilter humor. There was an occasional meanspiritedness to the characters that left me feeling admiration for the skill involved in the films’ creation, but distaste for most of the people portrayed. “Where the Wild Things Are,” though based on the classic children’s book by Maurice Sendak, is more wryly bleak and dark than many filmgoers seemed prepared for. Max, the boy in his wolf suit who tames the the wild things and becomes their king, befriends Carroll, a depressed wild thing voiced touchingly by the late James Gandolfini. Although “Wild Things” is more moody and adult than audiences expected, it is a worthy effort with some moving performances.


Director Spike Jonze (right) in a rare onscreen role as Conrad in David O. Russell’s 1999 film “Three Kings” alongside Ice Cube (left) and Mark Wahlberg

This tender quality continues in “Her,” and the film feels very personal to Jonze, who is an amiable and charming man, but who says that he spends vast amounts of time alone as he gets into the heads of his characters and creates his stories. He is a ruminator and a dreamer, which is surprising for a man who made a name for himself by directing kinetic, quirky music videos for groups like Weezer (and a brilliant one featuring a dancing Christopher Walken for Fatboy Slim), creating clever advertisements for Ikea, Adidas and The Gap and establishing youth culture magazines Homeboy and Dirt (the latter of which was once described as “Sassy Magazine for boys”). He was producer and co-creator of the MTV TV series “Jackass” and he produced “Jackass: The Movie.” He’s an occasional (and talented) actor as well. He makes a cameo appearance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but his finest role was as Conrad, the dim but loyal redneck soldier in the excellent David O. Russell film “Three Kings,” which also starred George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and rapper Ice Cube. The film is by turns seriously dark and outrageously fun, and it is the initial jovial oddness of the characters, especially Spike Jonze’s Conrad, that makes the later, rougher scenes even more poignant.

Jonze himself is ever affable, open and approachable in his interviews, and is known to foster a collaborative, creative atmosphere on set with his actors. He is well-liked by the film community, but his work points to a darker, sadder person within who enriches his films by incorporating his awareness of the melancholic side of the human condition into works designed to entertain and encourage connection, no matter how odd and unorthodox, between lonely creatures who hope to find homes in the hearts of others. Jonze was fortunate to find a partner in Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance in “Her” should have easily qualified him for a place among the five Oscar nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role this year. His is a stunning and unusual performance in one of the more thoughtful films of 2013.

Of Wolves and Hustlers: American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street

American Hustle

Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle”

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Of this year’s contenders for the Academy Award for Best Picture, two of the nine feature constant frenetic movement, explosive bursts of speech, uncontrolled intensity of feeling and unrelenting, feverish, heedless action. “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” both of which are based on true stories about risk-loving con artists, were directed by two of the most lauded and original directors in Hollywood, David O. Russell and Martin Scorsese. Their ability to keep up the hyperactive pace while moving their stories forward with constantly thrumming energy is laudable. There are moments of broad comedy in each movie, and fine actors get to strut and display their big-time acting chops like peacocks. However, the frantic energy of each story kept me from engaging with or feeling much concern for the characters, nearly every one of whom is profoundly, even dangerously, self-absorbed. The manic movement of each story, the outsized and all-consuming appetites of the characters and their frequent disregard for the serious impact their actions had on others made me itch to leave the cinema so I could escape the company of these heedless narcissists.

I have few complaints about the quality of the acting in either film. Each is well cast over all, and the dynamic performers chew their scenery powerfully, bug out their eyes on cue, thrash at each other, spew metaphorical venom and sometimes actual spittle with gusto. They mime their egregious behavior quite capably in scene after scene. But the pace is relentless, the hustle is constant, and the inflated egos bump up against each other with such regularity that I felt they were invading my personal space as well.


Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey in “The Wolf of Wall Street”

This cinematic overkill, especially “The Wolf of Wall Street,” felt assaultive instead of merely entertaining. These films feature some of the most skilled and intuitive actors in movies today, and I love their fervent energy, which seems to have been the major element that Russell and Scorsese cared about this year. However, I also value these actors for their intuition, for the quiet intensity that each has shown in prior work. Neither film allowed these actors to show this end of their range, and it is range of emotion displayed in a single story that really wows me, not just intense, unbridled feeling overwhelming scene after screaming scene.

We have seen these actors give outstanding performances, so we know what they’re capable of. Christian Bale is a force of nature and has been carrying massive films on his capable shoulders since he was twelve years old. In “Empire of the Sun,” young Bale led an epic Spielberg movie on the strength of his performance and made us believe in and fall in love with him. In “Her,” Amy Adams must convey emotional exhaustion and fragility as well as inner strength and resourcefulness—and she does. In “The Departed,” an undercover cop played by Leonardo DiCaprio lies his way into a dangerous organized crime leader’s inner circle, and seeing the cost to his psyche of living in terror is excruciating. Few actors could play that role with such tormented intensity. In “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell’s hugely successful and moving Best Picture nominee from just last year, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are misfits with huge hearts and huge tempers. They hunger but hold back, explode and then retreat. They bob and weave and engage, connect and then just miss each other. The audience shares in their yearning to find a safe harbor in each other.

But in “American Hustle,” the actors rush at each other, scream and punch, and the mascara runs, the hair gets pulled, and the poor Steadicam operator whirls in 360-degree circles to amplify the mayhem going on around him because of the intense, no-holds-barred way in which Russell films his movies. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Scorsese overloads us with scene after scene of excess: offices filled with screaming, raving, swearing stock traders oozing testosterone and pumping fists, anxious to defraud any patsy they come across; hotel rooms full of hookers and blow; drug-fueled orgy scenes so full of outlandish spectacle that our eyes roam wildly over the screen as we try to focus on a single episode of decadence at a time. It all blurs together in a giant Quaalude-fueled, Armani-clad, cocaine-covered slurry of outrageous excess.

There are rich and enjoyable scenes in each film, of course. “American Hustle” was written by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer; “The Wolf of Wall Street” was penned by Terrence Winter, creator of “Boardwalk Empire” and frequent writer and producer of “The Sopranos.” Both provide lively, vulgar, rapid-fire dialog, and their actors relish every syllable. Jennifer Lawrence’s drunken, desperate, boundary-free turn as con man Christian Bale’s wife Rosalyn in “American Hustle” is a knock-out performance. She mixes cockiness with desperation as she warns Amy Adams’s character to stay away from her man, and she struts, lures and confronts with stunning confidence and charisma. Lawrence has the instincts and impeccable timing (both dramatic and comedic) of a much more experienced actress. Her performance makes it clear that having won a Best Actress Oscar last year (with the same director and one of the same co-stars) with a self-assured performance at such an early age was no fluke.

Amy Adams’s performance here is less successful. She’s a talented actress and a very likeable woman; her interview with James Lipton on Bravo’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio” last month showed her to be a thoughtful, disciplined, generous actor, articulate and devoted to her craft and to those with whom she works. But I never bought her in her role as Sydney, a lying, manipulative homewrecker with nerves of steel who is vital to the con artistry involved in bringing down corrupt politicians. She brings a quiver and insecurity to all her roles which often gives them a spark of life, but here that vulnerability undermines the ruthlessness of her character. The British accent she adopts for part of the film was so uneven and unconvincing I could never believe that any character would buy it; throughout the film I was always aware that she was a playing a role. Adams has a natural softness that suits her well in most of her films, and while she was surprisingly effective as a foul-mouthed barmaid in Russell’s earlier and extremely entertaining film, “The Fighter,” here she plays too much against type. Her character in “American Hustle” is so conniving and happy to use any and everyone that she left me cold—like nearly every other character in this over-adrenalized movie.

However, I do applaud Russell for providing rich and chewy roles for women in most of his films, roles that allow women to be as lively, influential, exciting and messed up as the men. Scorsese’s films are usually all about the men, and in “Wolf of Wall Street,” the women are again  primarily foils for stories about over-grown boys gone very, very bad.

Bradley Cooper shows angst and confused anger as well as anyone; he used these skills to great effect in “Silver Linings Playbook,” behaving erratically and often badly without losing our sympathy. In “American Hustle,” his character is so violent, duplicitous, vain and selfish that despite the good performance, I couldn’t care about him and didn’t enjoy spending time with his portrayal of nasty, erratic FBI agent Richie. Similarly, Christian Bale (whose Oscar-winning performance in Russell’s film “The Fighter” was sensational) gained over 40 pounds and sported the worst comb-over in the history of cinema to become Irving for this film. While he has more heart than the rest and even experiences moments of regret, those fleeting episodes of conscience rarely interfere with his putting his interests first. Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of Mayor Carmine Polito is one of the more sympathetic characters here, but when the lying, law-breaking politician is one of the better-behaved members of the ensemble, you know you’re hanging out with the wrong people.

The behavior is even more outrageous and consideration for the safety or well-being of others is completely lacking in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” As in “American Hustle,” the story is told in a nonjudgmental way; indeed, in the character of Jordan Belfort, a corrupt stockbroker who was convicted of market manipulation and fraud, Leonardo DiCaprio narrates the story of his rise and fall himself. Audacious behaviors that threaten people’s livelihoods and even lives are presented as sources of amusement and are seen as sexy and exciting. Matthew McConaughey’s cameo early in the film as an enthusiastically despicable character is heartily enjoyable, but what seemed like over-the-top self-absorption in that scene proved to be reined in and subtle compared to the rip-snortingly outrageous fever pitch the film builds to over the following two hours. Jonah Hill plays DiCaprio’s sidekick Donnie Azoff with relish and delight; Donnie provides much of the comic relief of the film, but Hill plays him not just as a clown but as a man in over his head. Donnie was clearly not born with the gifts of  suave, slick, sick-hearted Jordan, so watching his decline hurts more than seeing Jordan’s fall. For dramatic purposes, Terrence Winter was wise to emphasize the relationship between these two men above all others in this film since there is a strange and interesting chemistry between them, but I notice that, again, Scorsese has chosen to present a story in which women are noticeably peripheral to the action, except as sexy visual filler.

Scorsese is an interesting case; he is capable of great restraint and beauty in a film like “The Age of Innocence,” and even his most volatile and violent characters live in worlds that are beautifully designed, lit and filmed. He has one of the most aesthetically sophisticated points of view of any director working today, and we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for his many years of efforts to support film preservation. But his enthusiasm for extremes of behavior and expression, and his desire to make viewers not only experience but wallow in assaultive excess, cause me to view his work with a wary eye. Much as I admire a Scorsese classic like “Goodfellas” and admire his guiding touch in the excellent HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” I must always prepare myself for a barrage of ugliness when I enter a cinema that presents his films, for violence is inherent to most of his greatest work. He is famed for working with the meticulous editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and they certainly know how to build tension. But fine filmmaking involves more than bottling up rage until it is compressed to such a point that the bottle shatters. Nobody does explosive rage better than Scorsese, but in his latest film, he does it at the expense of the quieter moments that allow an audience to breathe, to relax, and to get inside the workings of a character so that we can feel enough about him or her to care when something happens to change his or her world. In this film he works more in words than in blood, it’s true, yet the energy behind the story feels as violent and visceral as the energy in his more deadly works.

My favorite Scorsese film, “The Departed,” features a crackerjack cast (Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga), including one of the director’s favorite actors, Leonardo DiCaprio. Leo has become to Scorsese what Robert De Niro was to the director’s earlier films. He is at his best when he channels his vulnerability alongside his rage; we must see the bruised boy within the powerful men he usually plays in order to be drawn into and care about his characters. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” he has a chance to express his explosive power unchecked, and it’s damned impressive, but the role misses the element that makes DiCaprio a truly great actor: his range, his fragile core, the pain his characters generally feel when they harm others. His performance here is powerfully ugly, and the character moves along his nasty trajectory so quickly that we get very little time with him before he becomes a monster. DiCaprio deserved his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (and perhaps the Oscar itself) for his amazing work in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and gave exceptional performances in “Revolutionary Road” and “The Departed” and wildly entertaining performances in “The Aviator,” “Catch Me if You Can” and other fine films. But “The Wolf of Wall Street” is not the film he should win his first Oscar for.

DiCaprio, like Christian Bale, is one of the finest actors of his generation, and Leo is, over all, a more versatile performer than Matthew McConaughey, who has proven his own mettle over the past four years. However, McConaughey’s performance in “Dallas Buyers Club” is the more moving and astonishing feat of acting; his is the performance I would like to see win a Best Actor Oscar this year. In “Dallas Buyers Club” he was able to show range, raw vulnerability, and a talent that moves from abject deathly illness and despair to victorious, cocky success, all in a brittle, emaciated body that is as far as a man can get from the muscled, oiled, powerful physique he displayed in “Magic Mike” just two years ago. Christian Bale is a remarkably realistic actor, and he gives his all here, but the character is limited in his range of emotion and expression as well. Bale whispers, shouts, cajoles and generally shows much more versatility that the other actors in “American Hustle” are allowed, but his role cannot provide us with a breathtaking conversion from lost soul to redeemed hero the way McConaughey does in “Dallas Buyers Club.” I don’t blame DiCaprio or Bale for not being worthy of Oscars this year; they did what they were hired to do admirably and often enjoyably, but they did not have the opportunity to reinvent themselves on the scale that McConaughey did, and he proved himself as adept and committed any actor alive.

As explosive as the characters directed by Scorsese can be, director David O. Russell is famous for his own scary relationship to anger. He was involved in two of the most famous altercations in movie-making history with two of Hollywood’s best-loved movie stars. His ego and temper are legendary. During the making of his wickedly funny, surprisingly moving war film “Three Kings,” George Clooney was so appalled by Russell’s contemptuous treatment of the film’s crew that Clooney and Russell got into an argument so heated it broke down into physical fighting between the star and the director. During the making of his mediocre film “I Heart Huckabee’s,” Lily Tomlin, with whom Russell worked successfully in the funny road-movie farce “Flirting with Disaster,” found Russell and his style so difficult to work with that their disagreement quickly rose to a shouting match that was recorded and shared widely the world over. They’ve since made up with each other, and in his interviews (as well as in most of his films) he shows a self-deprecating wit, enthusiasm, devotion to craft and (occasional) sensitivity that allow one to see how all-consuming his passion for movie-making is, and how difficult it has been for him to allow a single element of it to elude his control. He is still famously touchy, tightly coiled and sometimes turns adversarial with surprising speed. However, with his great recent success he seems to have learned some element of humility; he credits his becoming more patient and loving to the fact of his having a severely bi-polar son for whom he has had to sacrifice much. He says it was his experience with his son that drove him to make “Silver Linings Playbook,” and he certainly brought great love and passion to that project, which deserves its great success.

Perhaps it was his having moderated his expression of anger in his private life that led Russell to find an appropriate professional outlet for his extremes of emotion and led to the boisterous “American Hustle.”  As many reviewers adore the film as were overwhelmed by it. Audiences were certainly seduced by the disco-era costumes, interiors and, especially, hairstyles; it is a visual feast of seventies tackiness. But it is the film’s energy level that either delights or repels audiences the most. Russell works differently from most directors, and that shows up on the screen. Jennifer Lawrence calls Russell’s style “weird and instantaneous,” Robert De Niro says it’s “spontaneous and chaotic.” Russell likes to film in enclosed spaces and to use a Steadicam (hand-held camera) operator to follow the action around the room (or even inside a car) and to film multiple takes of a scene in quick succession without turning off the camera. Actors have to keep their energy levels up and their characters intact because at any moment they might have to repeat, react to, change the dialog in or continue a scene without knowing in advance. (This process is what Lily Tomlin found so unnerving during the filming of “I Heart Huckabees.”) Some find it exhilarating, and the energy certainly shows up on the screen. David Denby of the New Yorker says, “‘American Hustle’ is built around many acts of cynical manipulation, but it is generous, even kindly, in spirit. … What he puts on the screen here is faster than life and more volatile than common realism, but it’s definitely not farce. His characters act stupidly because they want something desperately, and his actors, all of them taking enormous risks, form an ensemble that is the equal of anything from Hollywood’s golden age.”

I did not find it so. I was able to enjoy some of the film as it progressed, but the more I think about it in retrospect, the more it disappoints me. The selfishness of nearly every character wore me down and left me cold. Because the script for “American Hustle” bounces from one fraught, intense scene to the next, the viewer never gets to relax, either. I found this frenetic pace, along with the inherently unlikable qualities of the characters, distanced me from them and made me weary of all the niggling details of their exchanges. The film is ostensibly about the famous Abscam sting operation run by the FBI in the 1970s. The operation set up and entrapped public officials who were on the take by involving known swindlers working on behalf of the government. Since a story that relies on backroom political bribery is not always inherently gripping, the real heart of the film is in the personal entanglements between the people who entrapped the politicians and their motivations for doing such work. I found the explanations of these intrigues overly detailed and the histrionics of the five primary characters tiring enough that I started checking my watch halfway through the film. I was relieved to see Louis C.K. portray the only reasonable, normal person on screen, but Bradley Cooper as the FBI agent treated him so badly that I began to cringe in anticipation every time Louis’s face appeared. Christian Bale’s character, for all his many flaws, is the only one who shows actual concern for the people he harms along the way, but it came too little and too late for me to enjoy his characterization much.

There is more to a great film than the alternation of emotional compression and explosive rage, and there is more to a great director than the ability to prod an actor into spewing and screaming. While I look forward to future projects from all of the actors, writers and directors involved in these films, I hope that at this year’s Academy Award ceremony their directors are not rewarded for these exhausting, overwrought paeans to excess.

The Little Guy

Short people

[Revised from an article originally published in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

You’d be shocked if a coworker said she could gauge the intelligence of a member of your company by the color of her skin, wouldn’t you? If your child’s teacher said Muslim kids aren’t trustworthy, you’d notify the principal at once. If your favorite cafe’s owner said he disliked gay people, his blatant bigotry would ensure that you’d never eat his risotto again. You’re careful not to stereotype people in wheelchairs or wheatgrass juice drinkers, lesbians or limo drivers, Estonians or the elderly. You see how ridiculous it is to ascribe personality traits to whole groups, or make generalizations about ability or behavior based on so little information. You expect your friends, family and coworkers to show the same respect to others that you do.

So, why are so many otherwise sensitive, multiculturally aware folks so willing to put down the little guy? Why does society hold such contempt for short men? Why are smaller-than-average fellows passed over for jobs, relationships and pay raises at higher rates than other men? And why are jokes and snide asides about short men being less confident, virile or capable so pervasive?

Easy laughs at the expense of men who are mere inches shorter than average are commonly accepted in daily conversation, in ads, in TV shows and films, at work. Even the rare man who shares my own height of just five feet two inches is only 10% smaller than a man of average stature in the U.S., and most men who are publicly berated for being short come within 5% of average height. Why do we ascribe so much social importance and status to such a small variance in size?

My own height is below the 25th percentile for American women, so I’ve always been aware of society’s preference for taller people. But as a petite female, I sometimes benefit from stereotypes about small women. Short women are often assumed to be cuter, nicer or more approachable before people even get to know us. Our stature is less threatening, so strangers often assume our personalities will follow suit. Because people expect us to be friendlier, meeker and weaker than average, they might let down their guard more easily with us and be more willing to help us. However, they also condescend more, sometimes assume we’re less capable or even less intelligent, and not infrequently they offer assistance we haven’t asked for and don’t want, sometimes insistently, as if being smaller than they are means we can’t be trusted to gauge our own strength and ability appropriately.

In study after study, the majority of men say they much prefer dating women who are smaller than they are. Shorter-than-average women make men feel bigger and stronger in comparison with taller women. Tall women definitely find it harder to find men who are comfortable dating them, and they say overwhelmingly that they prefer to date men even taller than they. They then hear fewer comments about their height and get less attention for sticking out in a crowd. But tall women also have a lot of positive characteristics ascribed to them. They’re assumed to be more capable and powerful in social, academic and business settings, so they earn more money as a group than their smaller sisters. There are various advantages to being taller than average, of medium height or even shorter than average height for women, and men of taller-than-average height gain noticeable benefits in social, financial, academic, business and governmental realms. But short men? They’re at a social disadvantage across the board.

Surveys of attitudes reveal that people both perceive and treat people of shorter stature as inferior. This is particularly notable in the business sphere. International university studies have shown that short people, male and female, are paid less than taller people, with disparities similar in magnitude to those ascribed to race and gender gaps. Tall people have significant advantages when it comes to hiring, pay, promotions and prominence within their companies. A 2005 survey of the heights of Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs revealed that they were on average six feet tall, approximately three inches taller than the average U.S. man. Fully 30% of these CEOs were six feet two inches tall or more. Ninety percent of CEOs are of above average height.

In the U.S., taller candidates have the advantage in electoral politics, though heightism isn’t a problem in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin is just over five feet seven and former President Dmitry Medvedev is just over five feet five inches tall. France’s former President Nicolas Sarkozy is just over five feet six. He is married to the former model Carla Bruni, who is five feet nine inches tall, and throughout his tenure this fact was constantly remarked upon throughout the world. Endless jokes were made about his power being enough of an aphrodisiac to make up for his lack of height, which many assume would otherwise make him appear weak and sexually less desirable. As if a man’s attractiveness, sexual skill or ability to be a good husband had anything to do with his height!

Shockingly, heightism has been cited as one of the underlying causes of the Rwandan genocide, in which approximately one million people were killed. One of the reasons that political power was conferred on minority Tutsis by the exiting Belgians was reportedly because Tutsis were taller and were therefore seen by the Belgians as superior and more suited to governance than Hutus. That’s a horrifying price to pay for baseless prejudice, isn’t it?

Why do a few inches of height matter so much that over 90% of women say they wouldn’t want to date someone shorter than they are? Why do men and women find being of short stature so risible? Film and TV directors often elicit laughs by having a short man make an entrance in a scene when a man of power, action or attractiveness is expected, playing off the audience’s expectation that a charismatic individual must be tall. Think for a moment about how often people laugh at the mere idea that a short man could be considered worthy of their admiration, just as people used to laugh at the idea of showing respect to women, black people or gays and lesbians.

Much loved actor Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones and was so moving in the film The Station Agent, has made a career of playing bright, serious men with dwarfism in a world in which people make constant assumptions about their ability, their personalities or their manhood based on nothing more than height. The brilliant economist Robert Reich met Bill Clinton while they were Rhodes Scholars; he went on to be Clinton’s labor secretary and is now a professor at UC Berkeley. He is a particularly witty and pleasant fellow, and is quite willing to make jokes about his four-foot-ten-inch stature. He has to be a good sport about this; it is cited as a relevant fact about him far too frequently. Reich is wise to let this roll off his back; when short men show fatigue or frustration at the frequent comments and stares, the public that so enjoys razzing them about this inane fact is all too quick to turn nasty and attribute a panoply of bad characteristics to them based on, yes, their lack of height.

We’ve all heard that short men are supposed to be prone to the Napoleon Complex, or Little Man Syndrome, an alleged type of inferiority complex said to affect men of short stature who attempt to overcompensate for their height in other aspects of their lives. Yet this supposed syndrome or complex does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Ironically, Napoleon Bonaparte was, at five feet six, taller than the average European man of his time. Yet how many images have you seen of Napoleon depicted as unnaturally short, and how many times has that trope been used for comic effect? He and countless men of less-than-average height have been depicted as angry, pompous and much shorter than they are, and the negative characteristics ascribed to them are often assumed to be related to a burning desire to overcome supposed embarrassment and self-hatred brought on by their height. Interestingly, research by Britain’s University of Central Lancashire shows that the supposed Napoleon Complex (described by them in terms of the theory that shorter men are more aggressive and try to dominate those who are taller than they are) was not in evidence in their experiments. In their studies, taller men were more likely to lose their tempers and be aggressive than shorter men. The Wessex Growth Study, a community-based longitudinal study conducted in the UK, monitored the psychological development of children from school entry to adulthood which found that “no significant differences in personality functioning or aspects of daily living were found which could be attributable to height”; this functioning included generalizations associated with the Napoleon Complex, such as risk-taking behaviors.

Think of how often this cliché appears in television, film and especially advertising. When people need visual shorthand to express negative characteristics, isn’t it remarkable how often they resort to using height as a signifier for social, sexual or business failure? The primary villain in the popular animated movie Shrek is Lord Farquaad, whose most notable physical characteristic is his extreme shortness. He is repeatedly made the butt of jokes about his stature, even in his presence, despite his power and authority. His every entrance is made more ridiculous by his attempts to conceal his lack of height. The idea that his dastardly and grandiose gestures are all efforts to compensate for shortness (or his supposed lack of virility) is not only alluded to tacitly but is explicitly mentioned numerous times. His small stature is, if you will, visual shorthand meant to allow the audience to detest and dehumanize him so that he can be made more hateful and ridiculous in our eyes.

Michael J. Fox has been an extremely popular actor and public figure for over 35 years. He is talented, likeable, attractive and witty, and his articulate and impassioned advocacy for stem cell research brings a huge amount of attention and funding to his cause. He suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, which often causes embarrassing physical tremors and even difficulty speaking, but he has been willing to brave the snide remarks and derision of people like Rush Limbaugh in order to help his others, no matter how difficult or exhausting public speaking are for him, and no matter how much travel and public scrutiny and exhaustion aggravate his symptoms. Yet, despite his remarkable efforts, which have allowed his foundation to fund over $450 million worth of research to help people with Parkinson’s to live better lives, public figures and private ones continue to make jokes about his height and caustically remark on his shortness, as if his size should in any way impact our ability to take him seriously.

Tom Cruise’s having had several wives taller than he is has gotten nearly as much press as his dismaying affiliation with Scientology, and has garnered much more press than stories of his actual acting talent or business acumen. His over-the-top demeanor and outspoken behavior certainly merit attention and even, at times, derision, but why is his height alluded to alongside descriptions of his behavior, as if the two were related? He is one of the most popular, lauded, influential, powerful and wealthy men of all time, yet there is usually a derisive smirk on the faces of commentators and poison in their prose when they refer to him. How many times have you heard journalists laugh because a shorty like Tom Cruise thinks himself worthy of the amazonian goddesses at his side? And how minuscule, how lilliputian, is this allegedly tiny and unworthy human being who thinks he’s man enough to stand next to Katie Holmes (who is five feet eight) or Nicole Kidman (who is five feet ten)? At five feet seven, he’s two inches shorter than the average U.S. male. Two inches. The width of a small lemon. But because he dares to fall in love with women who are taller than he, he is castigated and verbally emasculated by media outlets on a nearly daily basis. How ridiculous is that?

For the fun of it, consider the following list of shorter-than-average famous men. Consider their accomplishments, personalities, their talents, their influences on culture. Think about whether they fit general stereotypes of short men. Then consider whether you have unwittingly bought in to these stereotypes, or carelessly perpetuated any of them. It’s so common, and so easy to do. But it’s not fair. It’s time to stand up for the little guy.

Five feet tall: David Ben-Gurion • Andrew Carnegie • Danny DeVito • Fiorello LaGuardia

Five feet two: Buckminster Fuller • Paul Simon

Five feet three: Mohandas Gandhi • Martin Scorsese

Five feet four: Ludwig van Beethoven • Mel Brooks • Elton John • Pablo Picasso • Rod Serling • Auguste Rodin

Five feet five: Harry Houdini • J.R.R. Tolkien • Lou Reed • Armand Hammer • Gus Grissom • Sammy Davis Jr.

Five feet six: Alfred Hitchcock • Bob Dylan • Peter Falk • William Faulkner • Elijah Wood • Dustin Hoffman • Spud Webb • T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)

Five feet seven: Martin Luther King, Jr. • Stephen Spielberg • Robin Williams • Mario Andretti • Bono • Doug Flutie • F. Scott Fitzgerald • David Eckstein • James Cagney • Salvador Dali • Al Pacino

The World of a 1960s Housewife

Good Housekeeping

[Revised from an article published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

I recently purchased a cache of vintage magazines from 1960 to 1971, and have marveled at the extent to which the content,  writing styles,  focus of advertisers and willingness to talk candidly about social issues changed over the course of that decade.

The transition from the height of the Cold War in 1960 to U.S. immersion in a  very unpopular war in Vietnam in 1971 is fascinating. During this period, women’s magazines changed more than they had in any other single decade since the Depression. In 1960 they were filled with home-centered fantasies and prescriptive articles telling how to be the ideal wife and mother with perfectly starched aprons, a fresh darling dress and matching heels, an adoring husband and well-fed children who loved your latest Jello creation. By 1971 they were covering serious, formerly unmentionable subjects like sexual problems, psychiatry and psychotherapy, rising drug use among youth, and other hot-button social issues and political stories that would never have made it into a women’s magazine a decade earlier. Of course, there were still articles with titles like “17 New Designer Patterns for Fall” and “The Foods that Make You Prettier.”

I was surprised to notice how many of the products advertised in 1960 would be found to be downright dangerous in the following ten to twenty years. The archetypal housewife of 1960 had the specter of The Bomb looming over her life and she was trying to use modern chemistry and technology to provide a cleaner, whiter, safer life for her family. How ironic, then, that these fresh technologies and newly synthesized chemical compounds would later be the cause of so much unnecessary suffering.

The oldest of the magazines is an issue of Good Housekeeping from May 1960. The very first page of the issue has an ad for Ipana toothpaste touting their new germ-killing ingredient, hexachlorophene. I remembered the brouhaha caused by hexachlorophene in the early seventies, when it was discovered that the potent germ killer, chemically related to herbicides, was toxic and could cause cerebral swelling and brain damage in humans. We had pHisoHex, a very popular facial cleanser incorporating hexachlorophene, in our home when I was a child. I remember when it and other affected products were pulled from the market with much alarming media coverage in 1973. The product is actually still sold and used to prep skin for surgery and fight infections that haven’t responded to other treatment, but packaging warns against excess hexachlorophene absorption and the possible dangers to the central nervous system.

I didn’t have to look far to find another dangerous product marketed to anxious mothers with sick children. Page 4 features an article for St. Joseph Aspirin for Children, a delicious treat I remember from my childhood. Tiny orange-flavored aspirin tablets for children were chewable and so tasty, the company had to invent child-proof caps (which I remember opening for my grandmother because she didn’t my childish dexterity). Kids ate them like candy. Of course, by the 1980s it was discovered that Reye’s syndrome, a severe illness which can cause acute encephalopathy, can be caused by giving aspirin to children. When this was understood and NSAIDs like Ibuprofen began to be recommended for children’s use in place of aspirin, the number of cases of Reye’s syndrome dropped dramatically across the country. Plough was a smart enough company to change their marketing for what had been called “baby aspirin” to take advantage of the discovery that small amounts of aspirin taken daily could help ward off strokes in older people with high blood pressure. The company now markets the same product to older people who don’t have the risk of contracting Reye’s disease that children have.

Though not an advertisement, I do have to give a shout-out to the column “Foods with a Foreign Flavor,” which featured “Three festive recipes from Colonial America,” which is, of course, completely contrary to the point of having a column about international foods. Best of all was the recipe for Maple-Nut Whip Pie, which included as a primary and necessary ingredient a package of unflavored gelatin, which, as you may know, wasn’t a product found in Colonial American kitchens. A whipped cream pie based on gelatin and egg whites whipped into a near meringue—no recipe could be more foreign to an early Colonial American.

Warner’s, still a major maker of women’s undergarments, featured a lovely layout of mannequins wearing scary bras and girdles to keep women’s bodies completely jiggle-free. My favorite set? Probably the “Most famous Double-Play” high-topped girdle with built-in garters (remember, pantyhose hadn’t been invented yet) in the elegant blue pearl colorway, with “Matching pantie” and “A’Lure” bra. The ad exults, “Happy you! Your hunt-and-fret days of girdle choosing are over!” Each girdle offers some new fresh Hell of discomfort so that you might fit more snugly into that Jackie Kennedy-knock-off skirted suit made of fatteningly bumpy chenille that was so popular at the time. “Some with midriff-shaping Sta-Up-Top! Some with hip-slimming side panels; all with flattening back panels!” Because every woman wants a flat behind, right? Huh. This was an era when a natural wiggle was the sign of a loose woman, and a woman who wore a dress without a slip was an absolute hussy. The ad claims these products had “All-over slimming made magically comfortable,” but my mom’s girdles were tighter than compression bandages and lined in horrible rubber ridges. In hot weather, those ridges pressed deeply into her skin. There was little that was less magically comfortable than those horrid, tight, hot, constricting monstrosities. They were better than rib-crushing corsets, but a far cry from today’s comfy undies.


Berlei high-line girdle ad from the 1960s

The Equitable Life Insurance ad on Page 21 features a serious, carefully dressed woman in a kitchen doing deep knee-bends next to the stove while her husband and son sit at the kitchen table ignoring their cherry-topped grapefruit halves to ogle the hot mama who has kicked off her shoes and is earnestly working to keep her fine figure. It’s like a scene right out of “Mad Men,” set in the early 1960s in the Madison Avenue ad world, where a woman’s job was to get and keep a man, and where men taught boys to look at women, even mom, as objects of desire and little else.

Do you remember Fizzies, the tablets dropped into plain water than created instantly carbonated drinks? Kids loved them, and most of us tried to get our moms to let us have some to suck on without water so we could feel the effervescent action directly on our tongues. Page 24’s ad promises “Fizzies are FUN to make and drink—and so GOOD for you!” I had to wonder how they could make this claim about the “sprizzling, sparkling goodness” of their product, which was “as up-to-date as the newest jet.” It turns out “Mothers prefer Fizzies, too—they’re two-ways better for health. No sugar—safer for teeth—won’t destroy healthy appetites.” Hmm, no sugar? They wouldn’t be sweetened with saccharin, the earliest artificial sweetener, would they? My research confirmed that yes, they were. And saccharin was the focus of yet another health scare in the early 1970s; in fact, the USDA attempted to ban the substance in 1972, as another artificial sweetener, cyclamate had been banned in 1969 after causing bladder tumors and cancer in rats. Cyclamate had been used in an earlier formulation of Fizzies. Saccharin was and remains banned in Canada while remaining the third most popular artificial sweetener in the U.S.

The attractive opera star Roberta Peters is featured in two different ads in this issue, one for St. Joseph’s Aspirin, the other for Murine eye drops. It’s hard to imagine a mainstream magazine featuring a coloratura soprano diva to sell anything at all nowadays, the art form is so much less popular among the general public. Roberta Peters was a well-known figure then, not only on the stage but also on TV and radio. Even though the average American lived on modest means in a modest home or apartment with much less education than is normal now, there was a greater ease with an interest in classical vocal and orchestral music at the time. Leonard Bernstein‘s Young People’s Concerts featuring classical music interspersed with Bernstein’s captivating commentary were televised from Lincoln Center in New York City to the rest of the country for a decade beginning in 1962, and they were enormously popular, helping people of all ages to become conversant with the classical canon.

Skipping recipes for curried fruit bake and a jeweled Bavarian (a dessert that includes raspberry “gelatine,” port wine, eggs, scalded milk and heavy cream—ugh), I find an ad for Velveeta, the “pasteurized process cheese spread” of my childhood that seems to have been melted all over everything. There’s an exciting frost-free Frigidaire (and if you don’t think a frost-free freezer isn’t exciting, you’ve never defrosted an iced-over fridge and dealt with the resulting puddles on your floor). Another ad features a woman in pearls wearing a spotless white blouse and no apron while she cleans a filthy oven. Such fantasy. My favorite product name in this issue? That would be the cream deodorant with this straightforward moniker: ODO-RO-NO.

Hey, are you old enough to remember bad home perms? Girls whose moms had left the permanent wave solution on their heads so long they ended up looking like frizzed-out poodles? Here on page 153 is Bobbi, a home perm kit that you put in at night and don’t wash out until morning. Trying to sleep while wearing hard plastic perm curlers all night is one thing; having that horrible-smelling chemical stew sitting on your head for eight hours and breathing it in is another. On page 157 is Come Alive Gray, the hair color for women who like their gray hair. Add a brilliant pearly glow, enjoy a gleaming silver, or “add lustre . . . with rich, smoky tones.” I remember these different shades of gray on old ladies: lots of slightly lavender, blue or even pink hair was popular for a time, and these chic ladies sometimes dyed their poodles to match.

Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper sports a head full of home permanent curlers in the film “American Hustle,” which takes place during the perm-crazy 1970s

Ah, doilies! I’d forgotten how popular they once were. Paper doilies under every cake, plastic doilies under Hummel figurines (because “Your ‘best’ looks better on plastic Roylies”), even crocheted lace doilies on backs of chairs to keep the hair oil off the furniture (that’s why they were called antimacassars—to keep the macassar men’s hair oil off the brocade). And Brillo pads! They were once so popular before nylon scrubber sponges came along to save us from quickly rusting soap-imbued metal mesh pads that stabbed one with loose, sharp aluminum points. By 1960, Brillo pads contained “Jeweler’s Polish” and produced a “richer, livelier lather.” Yes, lively soapsuds.

“Live Outside and Love It!” You can with Hudson pesticide sprayers and dusters. Wear your pretty spring dress and spray DDT all over your roses while your husband teaches your daughter to putt six feet away and your son sits at Dad’s feet, looking up adoringly. All of that is charmingly illustrated in Good Housekeeping. Of course, in 1960 gardeners had no idea that DDT was so extremely toxic that it would be banned in 1972, and so persistent that it still shows up regularly in the blood of people alive today. In the United States DDT was detected in almost all human blood samples tested by the Centers for Disease Control in 2005. It is still commonly detected in food samples tested by the FDA.

Make light work of chores indoors by playing your new miniature radio with six transistors. This tiny beauty is only four by six inches and costs just $39.95—that’s in 1960 dollars, when the average income of a four-person family was $5600 per year.

Isn’t it odd that not one but at least two tuna canners wanted to compare their tuna to chicken last century? I knew of Chicken of the Sea, but had you heard of Breast-O’-Chicken Tuna? And have you tasted Pretzel Meat Loaf? Yes, meat loaf made with the lavish inclusion of crushed pretzels, “catsup” and canned mushrooms. There’s a recipe on page 215 you won’t want to miss. (Urp.)

What other hazardous materials was advertised here? Well, there’s a baby powder that’s almost certainly made of talc, which contains asbestos and has been asserted to raise the risk of ovarian cancer in females who use it in the genital area. Nowadays pediatricians recommend avoiding talcum powder and suggest using powders with a cornstarch base instead. A few pages later is a hot steam vaporizer, the kind I scalded myself on numerous times as a kid. The glass got so hot, the steam burnt my fingers or legs as I neared it, and the whole thing had a rounded bottom so it could tip and spill nearly boiling water and hot liquid Vick’s Vapo-Rub (which was melted in the well on the top and sprayed into the air, leaving a fine petroleum-based film all over the windows and, it turns out, irritating the lungs as well). Thank goodness for today’s cool-air humidifiers.

Next page? Mothballs! Very toxic, made with naphthalene, they can cause all sorts of bad side effects with increased exposure, and can cause death when eaten. Why would you eat a mothball? Ask all the little kids who’ve tried them! A few pages later we find insect killer spray (very likely DDT-laced). Anxious about the hazards in this big, crazy world? Why not brighten up your home interiors with a coat or two of SatinTone paint? People of the Mad Men era used this (probably leaded) oil paint on the walls of baby’s rooms and the volatile vapors stunk up their homes and burn their throats for days before it finally dried. It’s hard to overstate how wonderful the invention of fast-drying, low-stink indoor acrylic paint is.

Honestly, this magazine is a minefield of health and safety disasters just waiting to happen. What a fascinating reminder of how much we’ve learned in the last fifty years about environmental toxins, hazardous home-based chemicals and healthy eating!

The Times of Harvey Milk


[Revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

In 1978, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk, were assassinated by Dan White, another San Francisco supervisor. Dianne Feinstein, now a U.S. Senator from California, was president of the board of supervisors; she witnessed the aftermath and announced the tragedy to the press, and rose to the position of mayor of San Francisco as a result of the assassination.

I remember the time vividly. When I was a young girl, I had met George Moscone, then a California state senator, at a Democratic party rally I attended with my mother, and I was starstruck to meet someone whose face I had seen smiling on our television during nightly newscasts. Beyond the fact of his familiarity was his personal charm; Moscone was energetic, charismatic and bigger than life. The assassination was shocking, happening as it did at the hands of a coworker of both of the victims, an attractive and clean-cut fellow whose blind rage inspired a dramatic and highly publicized trial in which killer Dan White was convicted of manslaughter, the lightest possible charge against him, based in part on the fact that his attorneys said he’d gone temporarily mad because of the large quantity of junk food he’d consumed prior to the crimes. This “Twinkie defense” outraged people across the country and inspired a change to California criminal law.

The murder also inspired the creation of an odd and controversial work of art by one of my favorite Bay Area artists, sculptor Robert Arneson (who received his Master of Fine Arts degree from my alma mater, Mills College). In 1980 Arneson was commissioned to create a work to memorialize Moscone in San Francisco’s new Moscone Convention Center. It is a mystery to me why the Arts Commission would ask a sculptor as famously irreverent and outrageous as Arneson, who had made a name for himself sculpting wild and ridiculous ceramic self-portraits, to commemorate someone who was best remembered for the brutal and horrible circumstances of his death. The bust of Moscone was done in Arneson’s usual style, which is to say it was bold, disturbing and unflattering, and, most shocking of all, it was placed on a large pedestal which commemorated the circumstances of Moscone’s murder. Arneson was asked to change the work and refused, nor would he consent to have the sculpture displayed with the pedestal art hidden. He returned the commission he had been paid for the piece and resold the sculpture. It is powerful and arresting, singularly disturbing and unlike any official commemorative sculpture I have ever seen.

At the time of the murders, the greatest attention was given to the killing of the mayor; I was aware that another supervisor who was openly gay had also been murdered, but in the general news of the time my memory is that most Bay Area news media treated that as a decidedly secondary part of the story. Since then, however, little has been said or written about George Moscone that most people, even in the Bay Area, would know much about; few would remember much about him beyond his having been murdered and having had a San Francisco convention center named for him, while Harvey Milk has inspired a very successful, Academy Award–winning documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk” and is the subject of “Milk,” a moving and important biopic by director Gus Van Sant starring Sean Penn as gay rights pioneer and civic reformer Harvey Milk, which won Penn his second Academy Award for the Best Performance by An Actor in a Leading Role. What makes Milk worth such attention and even adulation is of course not the nature of his death but the powerful story of his life and what he did with it during his 48 short years.

The quality of biographical films is often limited by the fact that they are usually conceived of as propaganda of some sort and are meant to elicit certain strong feelings from the audience. Biopics like “Ray” or the disappointingly inaccurate film “A Beautiful Mind” are crafted to make heroes of those they lionize and as a result their realism and subtlety are compromised and the truth is often completely distorted. The best among them may feel stilted or fake at times but may still provide opportunities for actors to make a deep impact on us by presenting audience-manipulating lines of emotionally fraught dialog and fake scenarios built on half-truths with a candor, vulnerability and freshness that transcends the stale, set-up quality of the stories that comprise the film. “Milk” is one of the better biopics, but it still suffers from a prefabricated, lionizing, misty-eyed mindset. However, Sean Penn’s performance as Milk is so heartbreakingly lovely, naturalistic and moving that I can highly recommend the film despite the weaknesses in the script and direction. It is worth seeing in order to learn the remarkable story of the man, who was so incredibly brave, and to see how, in the hands of a truly masterful actor, even a flawed script can be burnished until it breathes and glows.

Harvey Milk spent only a few short years in San Francisco, but during that time he proved himself to be a masterful manipulator of the media and an inspirational force against anti-gay bigotry. A remarkably effective community organizer, he helped the budding gay rights movement to solidify and strengthen not only in San Francisco but throughout California, which galvanized gay activists across the country and coaxed gay and lesbian people nationwide to come out, stand up for their civil rights and prove to the world in general, to people both gay and straight, that honest, openly gay people could live fulfilling, successful lives. Milk said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet also destroy every closet door in the country.” As a tireless, charming and articulate man with an understanding of the concerns and needs of the more conservative elements of society (he had, after all, been a closeted insurance salesman and upstanding member of the establishment for many years in New York), he was particularly well-suited to the role of cross-over politician, making friends among Teamsters and drag queens alike.

While the documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” is perhaps the better picture in showing a more accurate portrayal of the man, “Milk” will be seen by many more people and will leave a vivid impression on the world in a way that a carefully made but less popular documentary could never do, and for this I’m grateful to Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn for giving life to such an important figure in the history of civil rights in the United States.

city hall

Sean Penn (right) at San Francisco City Hall in a scene from “Milk”

Throughout “Milk” are many scenes of the beautiful San Francisco City Hall, the gorgeous beaux-arts building that is an elegant centerpiece and a virtual wedding cake of a civic building, but also the scene of the horrific murders of Moscone and Milk. I was married in San Francisco City Hall in 1990 (as Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were in 1954—I figured if it was glamorous and gorgeous enough for them, it was good enough for me), and several of my favorite photos from my wedding day were taken on the same steps and in front of the same doors that appear repeatedly in the film. I was married on the first day of summer, and the week of the summer solstice has been designated Gay Pride Week in big cities across the country ever since world-changing riots were held by angry gay citizens in protest after the arrest of gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City on June 28, 1969. (When in Manhattan, it’s worth a detour to stop by the Stonewall on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, as my daughter and I have. It’s not often one can stand at an epicenter of seismic social change.)

It is in part due to the efforts of Harvey Milk and his supporters that such celebrations and artworks were socially acceptable in a San Francisco civic building twelve years after Milk’s death. Another proof of his continuing influence was the presence of an ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) rally which took place just outside the building on my wedding day. We in the wedding party stood behind the line of police officers who were all dressed in riot gear (all except police chief Frank Jordan, later the mayor of San Francisco, who wore his standard uniform), each of them looking grimly beyond his shield and baton at the loud but peaceful protesters outside. We who stood behind them felt we were on the wrong side of the law, so to speak. I would have preferred to be standing in my purple wedding suit outside the building alongside the green-haired protester wearing the Butthole Surfers T-shirt, but we had to wait our turn inside the building to be called to marry.

There was great pleasure in feeling solidarity with our LGBT sisters and brothers on a day when my then-husband and I celebrated our heterosexual union. Since then, laws in nearly 20 states have changed to allow the legal marriage of homosexual couples, and every time another state takes a big step forward toward marriage equality, I think of Harvey Milk and the important place he had in the early days of the struggle that has brought us so much closer to true equality for people of all sexual orientations. I think also of the fact that, over thirty years after his death, so many virulently bigoted people still feel free to spew their nonsensical hatred toward our gay brothers and sisters and to vote to keep them down. We must act up and speak up for each other, even if we are lucky enough not to have to fight this fight personally every day. As Harvey said, “Hope will never be silent.” We must never let it be.

The Robin Hood of the Art World


[This article originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Is graffiti art? And if it is, is the defacement of others’ property ever justifiable in the service of art? When is graffiti (or “guerilla art,” or “street art”) okay? When it says something meaningful? When it’s well done? When it’s pretty? When famous people say it’s art?

Let’s suggest for a moment that it’s always wrong to deface others’ property. After a graffiti attack, once a property has already been defaced, is there ever a justification in leaving the defacement/art in place? What if it’s really great-looking, astonishingly intricate, brilliant in its message: would those circumstances justify the illegal (and some would say unethical) action that created it?

These are important questions to consider when discussing or viewing graffiti art or “street art,” and a documentary that addresses them would be fascinating. However, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the excellent new documentary on street art, doesn’t address any of them. And it doesn’t need to. Subtitled “The world’s first Street Art disaster movie,” it’s a fascinating film on its own merits, even though it leaves the ethics of all the principal characters in the film essentially unexplored. The film itself may be at least in part an elaborate hoax. If it is, it’s still worth seeing.

The most famous graffiti artist in the world, and certainly one of the most talented, is a Briton who goes by the pseudonym Banksy. Banksy is a wily and elusive character who has been creating graffiti art, first in England and then internationally, since the early 1990s. He began as a common tagger but after too many run-ins with the law, he decided he needed to develop a new style that would allow him to prep a public outdoor space, create his art as quickly as possible, then disappear before cops could show up and arrest him. He developed a system in which he created a series of stencils, then smuggled them to various spots around Britain and used one or more of them to build up intricate and often sophisticated images, sometimes adding freehand strokes to the stenciled areas. His pieces often feature wry comments spray-painted next to or within the images. Subjects have ranged from small single-color rats (a frequent motif) to huge murals of policemen in riot gear dancing with daisies. He’s often created life-sized people or animals, including policemen kissing each other and children in surprising situations. His messages are usually usually anti-war, anti-capitalist or anti-establishment.

Over time, Banksy’s wit, talent and cleverness at hiding his identity made him a cult figure, and his art became so desired and in such great demand that people began removing his works from walls, cutting chunks out of tagged buildings and selling them at auction, even on eBay. He has created a number of pieces on canvas as well, and they now sell for grand sums at no less august an institution than Sotheby’s.

Banksy often paints works that mimic the style and subject matter of old masters but which show clever twists, such as a 17th century village scene in which the buildings are covered in modern graffiti. He has repeatedly smuggled his paintings into major art galleries such as the Tate in London and New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum, then hung each piece, complete with fancy frame and descriptive placard, among famous masterpieces. Sometimes museums have taken weeks to discover the subterfuge before removing his works. In 2005 his version of a primitive Lascaux-style cave painting depicting a human figure hunting wildlife while pushing a shopping cart was hung in the British Museum. When it was discovered, the British Museum, home to such important pieces as the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon’s Elgin Marbles, wisely added Banksy’s painting to the permanent collection.

Despite his remarkably varied artistic talent, Banksy fits well into the graffiti artist or “street artist” genre because of his guerilla-style illegal forays into public places, which he then vandalizes, albeit wittily and with great skill, leaving evidence of his cunning alongside artistic talent. Many street artists have more swagger than technical skill, and the “Screw you, society!” anarchic message their graffiti announces to the world is usually more compelling than the actual art they produce. Banksy is not unusual among graffitists in his desire to remain anonymous and avoid arrest for his illegal activities, but he does show particular skill, subtlety and cleverness.

Some of his ruses, such as cutting a red British telephone box in half, reassembling it and welding it so looks as if it’s been hacked in two and bent, and then burying a hatchet in it, take not just daring and skill but some major resources to create, transport and maneuver into place. For fun several years ago, he counterfeited a million pounds worth of British currency with the face of Princess Diana taking the place of Queen Elizabeth II, but the results were so believable that attempts to spend the faux currency were all too successful, and he ended up with boxes of funny-money that he didn’t dare distribute for fear of being prosecuted for a federal crime.

Banksy’s story is perhaps the most compelling one in the world of graffiti art, but it takes an unexpected back seat to the story of his videographer in the Banksy-made film Exit Through the Gift Shop. The documentary made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is packing arthouse cinemas around the world just a few months after its debut. The gist of the story is this: In the 1990s, Thierry Guetta, a French-born entrepreneur, ran a successful LA clothing boutique which sold vintage rock-and-roller and punky clothes which he bought for almost nothing in scrap bundles and sold for obscenely high prices. On the side, he began obsessively videotaping everything, including the illegal activities of his cousin, a French graffiti artist who made small mosaics based on bit-mapped Space Invaders videogame characters. His cousin, who called himself Space Invader, allowed Guetta to film him gluing his guerilla-art mosaics around Europe and America, and Guetta’s videotaping obsession finally had a focus. He started documenting almost all the top players in the street art movement to the exclusion of doing almost anything else throughout the 1990s and most of the 2000s.

One artist who allowed Guetta constant access was Shepard Fairey, first famous for spreading over a million images of Andre the Giant‘s face on stickers and posters around the world, all atop the word OBEY, as if he were the ubiquitous Big Brother of Orwell’s distopian classic 1984. Later Fairey became famous for the red and blue poster of Barack Obama above the word HOPE that becames an official image of Obama’s campaign and has since been endlessly parodied. Fairey is now being sued by the Associated Press because he didn’t have permission to use the AP photo he based the poster on. A likeable guy who gets around, Fairey had become friendly with Banksy. Fairey was impressed after seeing Guetta’s obsessive compulsion to document graffitists and Guetta’s willingness to put himself in harm’s way and spend his own money and time helping Fairey and other street artists create and hang their work. According to the documentary, he felt Guetta could be trusted to meet and even videotape Banksy when Banksy came to Los Angeles. Guetta proved himself an extremely willing, friendly and helpful assistant, driving Banksy around, showing him the best public walls on which to ply his craft, and making his life and his art easier. Banksy soon allowed Guetta to film him at work, trusting that Guetta would keep his identity safe, which he did.

Here’s where the questions of who is an artist and what is art get confused. If you want to keep the upshot of the documentary a mystery, you might want to skip the next three paragraphs.

Eventually, Banksy felt it was time for Thierry Guetta to edit his huge collection of Banksy videos into a documentary, something Guetta had said he would eventually do but for which he had no training or experience. According to Banksy, after six months Guetta had cobbled together a headache-inducing, chopped-and-diced fiasco of a film without any narrative at all, a barrage of undifferentiated random images from his thousands of uncataloged videotapes of Banksy and other graffiti artists. Upon seeing this mess, Banksy suggested that Thierry give over access to all the videos and Banksy himself would create a movie out of them. To distract Guetta, Banksy suggested that Guetta should go off for six months and create art of his own and then have a little show. This made some sort of sense; the videographer had started doing some stencils of himself around LA and signing them MBW, which he said stood for Mr. Brainwash. Banksy thought Guetta would have a small vanity show someplace and the distraction would get him out of Banksy’s hair while Banksy put together a reasonable documentary out of Guetta’s frightening mishmash of videotape.

However, Guetta, now consumed with the idea that he was an artiste who could make a fortune and have a giant, splashy, expensive solo show that would wow the world, mortaged his house, hired a cadre of actual artists, prop designers and contractors, and rented a huge, expensive space in downtown LA. He told other artists to make largely unattractive knock-offs of Andy Warhol-style pop art pieces and spray painted silkscreen images of pop culture icons, claimed and signed them all as his own work, and relentlessly hyped himself around LA as the next big thing. Seven thousand people lined up to see Mr. Brainwash’s opening and his hundreds of derivative paintings, many of them created by others with almost no or no input from Guetta at all.

LA loved him. He sold a million dollars worth of “art” in two weeks. So many people flooded the gallery that what had been expected to be a two-week show stayed up for two months. Madonna asked him to create a Warholesque image of her for her latest greatest hits album. Mr. Brainwash has his first New York show this spring. And the joke was on Banksy. Or was it? While it illustrates the phoniness of the art world that he’s always reviled and parodied, a significant contingent of art world critics and followers believe they recognize the clever guiding hand of Banksy himself behind this cynical, clever and amusing film; they believe he put up the money for Guetta’s show and is using Guetta as a frontman for his ruse.

Whether this is a clever con or simply a wild situation that spun out of control while Banksy was distracted by the editing down of Guetta’s archive of tapes, it is a perfect illustration of the sort of art world nonsense Banksy has always opposed. Banksy has staged it as the story of an authentic (if anarchistic) hermitic artist who hides out among us and goes by a pseudonym vs. the faux-artist con-man entrepreneur with little if any talent for art and no insight into what makes it good, important or inspiring. Even when Banksy has created art meant to be sold to the throngs angling to pay real money to own a genuine Banksy, he has happily bitten the hands that feed him.

In 2007, Sotheby’s auction house auctioned off three of his pieces for a total of over £170,000; to coincide with the second day of auctions, Banksy updated his website with a new image of an auction house scene showing people bidding on a picture that said, “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit.” In his quest to meet and videotape all the bright lights of the street art movement, Guetta, on the other hand, became so hungry to be seen as a creator and star rather than part of the supporting cast of the art world that he created a huge show out of nothing but borrowed money and chutzpah, and, horribly, pulled it off.

The question of whether what guerilla street artists do (trespassing and defacing property that is not theirs) is ethical or justifiable is never addressed in this film. That’s understandable; Banksy is an outlaw hero who probably sees himself as akin to Butch Cassidy or Robin Hood, someone who points out the flaws in the system in an outrageously public way while remaining essentially invisible, only popping out often enough to build his legend and prove his existence. There’s no reason why such a person would want to draw attention to the dark side of what he does, especially when he doesn’t appear to recognize any darkness in it.

A film this cleverly and entertainingly made adds to his allure and stature while presenting his actions in the best possible light. Without ever explaining or justifying himself, he wangles his way into the audience’s affections and makes the story unfold in a way that builds sympathy for the characters, all of whom are literal outlaws. We find ourselves rooting for them to get away with their trespasses without ever feeling like we’re being manipulated or spoonfed with obvious and unnecessary explanations or justifications. Banksy really knows how to tell and sell a story, and, like a sleight-of-hand master, how to distract us from many of the important issues without our stopping to think, hey, what about the elephant in the room?

Speaking of which, there’s a great scene in which Banksy places an actual live elephant in the middle of a gallery show in order to prove a point. Of course, the point is lost on the media; they report that PETA (and LA Animal Services) didn’t like him painting an elephant with children’s facepaints and putting it on display, which is indeed newsworthy, but they seemed to have no concern with what the point of his painting the elephant was. This example of his disdain for people who don’t think about the meaning or point of art is astute, but it also shows his arrogance in thinking that, because others don’t share his sophisticated ideas and opinions on art, their own tastes, questions and concerns about what he does and how he does it are not just debatable but abominable proof of their philistinism. While I share his disappointment that people are so happy to accept pop culture simplifications of art rather than develop opinions of their own, I find his open contempt for people who don’t share his worldview distressingly self-absorbed and arrogant.

Banksy shows himself to be a witty and articulate man, both via his art and in the speeches he makes to the camera in this documentary. He speaks and gesticulates while wearing a dark hoody that obscures his face and and has his voice altered digitally. He could have been interviewed off camera and had the documentary’s narrator Rhys Ifans, the dryly entertaining Welsh actor, repeat his words to ensure that nobody could recognize his speech patterns or accent, but Banksy clearly enjoys scooting out of the shadows just a bit, providing blurry-faced proof of his escapades to the world via Guetta’s videos, letting people hear his accent, albeit in altered form. He is playing with his anonymity here, heightening the drama yet again, just as he does in his art, working the darkness and spray cans and stencils until he’s constructed a shadowy version of himself that he can carefully control access to.

Banksy appears to have a strong system of values (often fine ones, like looking out for the little guy and avoiding governmental tyranny), but seems to have little respect for the rights of others whose values differ (such as those who own property which he would like to cover in examples of his self-expression). This places him squarely alongside other heroes of the anarchistic British punk movement who have determined that destruction and defacement of things that they don’t value is justification enough for ignoring laws which seek to respect property and and which respect the needs of a society based on the rule of law.

In an attempt to focus attention on exploitative flaws in the capitalist system, socialists or, even further to the left on the political spectrum, anarchists like Banksy sometimes feel justified in ignoring property rights entirely, saying they are an artificial and damaging construct which enslaves the poor and empowers the rich, thus denying basic human rights and dignity. If you believe that an entire system is wrong, it can be tempting to determine that you will no longer acknowledge its rules or its power over you and decide to do things your own way. But just as unfettered capitalism can lead to great selfishness and a lack of awareness or concern for the needs of others, unfettered socialism can lead to societies which refuse to give incentives or rewards for exceptional efforts or remarkable talents, and which can be perverted into unhealthy organisms which stamp out originality or innovation. Fortunately, hybrid societies with capitalistic bases and strong (though imperfect) social safety nets exist in several nations around the world. They show that a respect for the innate worth of every individual and the responsibility of society to look after its weakest members can be balanced with respect and recompense for exceptional talent and effort. They also show that respecting a person’s property rights is an important component in respecting the person herself. No nation balances these opposing needs perfectly, but it is encouraging that millions around the world still strive to perfect their systems.

A healthy and safe hybrid society runs on respect for all the people in it, as well as for their legally-obtained possessions. And while Banksy has often shown himself to have a certain integrity, pointing out flaws in the art world and questioning the values of modern society, he has also shown a willingness to profit (sometimes enormously) by engaging in the same art world he mocks. To have true integrity, one could argue that he would have to turn down chances to make money off his art, but by selling works directly through Sotheby’s, even as he mocks the process, he has become a part of the system he claims to disdain. On the one hand, I want to see someone so talented and original, someone of his wit and insight and great skill, benefit from his ability and be able to make a good living as an artist. On the other hand, it saddens me to see him revel in becoming rich off the sale of his own private possessions while feeling no compunction about messing with the possessions of others and mocking the owners in the process. He then makes those whose property he has vandalized look bad when they seek to remove his art, even though, if they leave it in place, they give a message to all graffiti artists and other vandals that if you’re famous and clever or do a good enough job at it, the rules of respecting other’s space and property no longer apply.

A society which makes exceptions for disrespect of property and laws of trespass invites evisceration of the social compact. Sad as I am to see some of Banksy’s work disappear, I cannot blame the owners of the defaced spaces for showing their resolve not to let themselves become victims of vandalism, even clever or attractive vandalism, without a fight. Furthermore, Banksy knows that much of his work will be defaced or destroyed; he has chosen his medium and locations for precisely this reason. The impermanence makes seeing it as quickly as possible imperative, and that makes him an extra hot commodity and burnishes his oppressed outlaw image. It makes him a romantic figure of brash mystery.

Banksy can act as cynical about the superficialities of the art world as he wants, but he’s making huge sums of money off that very world nowadays, so he’s benefiting from the system he finds so corrupt. His hands aren’t clean, either.