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JUNE 2, 2018

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JUNE 2, 2018
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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Head to Head
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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (Movie); Secrets of My Life (Biography); Stay Down and Take It (Short Fiction)

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Movie) written by Matt Greenhalgh, based on the memoir by Peter Turner; directed by Paul McGuigan; starring Annette Benning, Jamie Bell, Kenneth Cranham, Julie Walters, Vanessa Redgrave

In a recent review, I was lamenting the bombast of current movies and pining for some of the quietly charming movies of the kind we used to get from Ealing studios. Well, here’s one that beautifully fits that description.

It’s the true story – based on Peter Turner’s memoir – of his affair with Gloria Grahame, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1952. The movie catches up with her nearly thirty years later when her career is on a precipitous downhill slope. While working in theatre in England, she becomes seriously ill. Peter, a much younger actor who happens to be her boyfriend, takes her to his family home where his parents, thrilled to have an actual movie star under their roof, want to look after her.

The movie turns on two dramatic pivots. The first one is that Gloria doesn’t want to admit that she’s seriously ill, in spite of many signs to the contrary. That’s not an unusual premise for a drama but the other one is something that I haven’t seen dramatized often: the patient doesn’t want her family to be informed about her condition. Gloria, trying to insist that she’s getting better, refuses to let the Turners contact her family back in the US; Peter’s family feels that isn’t right and they’re having a crisis of conscience about what they should do.

(The real life complications of Gloria’s marriages and the rather messy life behind her are glossed over. But that’s okay, isn’t it, in a movie that wants to tell a poignat little story about something that happened to somebody whose past may have been rather lurid?)

Annette Benning is perfect as the ageing actress who’s buoyed up by the attentions of this younger man. Under his rapt gaze, she blossoms and almost becomes her youthful self again. If, however, someone inadvertently happens to remind her of her real age, she can suddenly turn into something of a termagant. Jamie Bell, in the role of Peter, has the harder job of convincing us that he is truly in love with this older woman. Not a very expressive actor, he goes through most of the movie with pretty much of a deadpan look on his face. Maybe he – and the director – felt that was a safer choice than trying to show Peter as head-over-heels in love, but I can’t help wondering what the movie might have been like if we’d had a bit more of a sense of his being carried away.

At first, I was afraid that this was going to be pure soap opera. Some elements seem to belong to that genre. There are some clichs, for instance, such as the crusty mum (Julie Walters) who turns out to have a heart of gold. But the movie won me over with its skillful artistry – such as the adroit handling of the flashbacks that are necessary to show how Gloria and Peter met and fell in love. Someone will simply walk though a door, say, and suddenly we are in another place some years earlier. I also appreciated the fact that Peter’s family doesn’t make any to-do about their son’s relationship with this older woman. No questions asked; they simply accept her as his friend and, therefore, someone they must help. One of the movie’s most ingenious tactics is that a scene is sometimes shown from two different points of view. That leads us to discover that what’s really happening isn’t at all what we thought on first seeing the scenario.

And speaking of artistic touches, there’s the delicious cameo by Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s mother. What you might call an added benefit is the black and white clip at the end that appears to show the real Gloria actually receiving her Oscar at the Academy Awards in 1952 with none other than a young-ish Bob Hope presiding.

 

Secrets of My Life (Memoir) by Caitlyn Jenner, 2017

I don’t think of myself as a person who craves celebrity gossip. (Maybe that’s because I don’t crave celebrity gossip.) Then why read this book? For salacious detail? Well, a reader can’t absolutely rule out that motivation. But I think my main reason in this case was the search for insight: I wanted to see if Ms. Jenner’s story could help me to better understand why someone would do what she has done.

But first, a point of word usage. In an attempt at coherence, I will refer to the author in the pre-transition period as Bruce, with the consequent male pronoun, and in the post-transition period as Caitlyn or Ms. Jenner, with the female pronoun. That’s not a violation of the author’s identity. After all, Caitlyn looks back on Bruce as a real person and appreciates his accomplishments as such. "Bruce was not a lie," she says. "Bruce existed: what I did lie about or obfuscate was Caitlyn’s existence."

Regarding her transition from male to female, Ms. Jenner is completely candid and honest, but her situation is still somewhat puzzling. Take her declaration that transitioning "has nothing to do with your sexual preference and everything to do with the gender that is embedded within you from birth regardless of your physical characteristics." She says that she was never sexually attracted to men, only women. (And yet, she says, Bruce’s sex life with women was nowhere near as studly as people might have expected from an Olympic hero.) Caitlyn also says that while growing up "I never felt feminine, but I did identify as female." What that means, I cannot grasp. I guess you just have to take Caitlyn’s word for it when she says that God made Bruce handsome, athletic, smart and articulate but then threw in a curveball to see how Bruce could handle it: "He gave me the soul of a female."

It seems that the woman in Bruce asserted herself mainly in a fondness for women’s clothes. First, he was ransacking the closets of his sister and his mother for private dressing-up sessions. After his Olympic win, he would be standing before big audiences, giving motivational speeches about seizing your dream and living up to your potential, but meanwhile he was wearing a bra and panties under his male apparel. Afterwards in his hotel, he’d don full female gear, including wig and heels, then traipse around town to see how it felt.

Some people might think that a person’s sense of his or her sexual identity would stem, to some degree, from the way the person is perceived by the surrounding world. Not so, in Bruce’s case. Hardly anybody could have been regarded as a bigger male hero than Bruce. He was hailed as the ultimate male champion, the paragon of male achievement. But it appears that the jock culture felt rather phony to Bruce. Caitlyn spends a few pages in the book deploring the kind of masculinity paraded by someone like O.J. Simpson. (Bruce’s third wife, Kris Kardashian, was a friend of O.J.’s wife, Nicole, and it was Kris’s ex-husband who defended O.J. in his trial for the murder of Nicole.) As two athletic superstars with social connections, Bruce and O.J. were often thrown together but the connection was barely tolerable to Bruce. O.J. was a bragging, blustering brand of masculinity that Bruce found repugnant.

In any case, Ms. Jenner points out, Bruce’s own athletic prowess didn’t mean much in the long run – as far as the media were concerned. "The media loves you until they hate you. They elevate, then denigrate. They fixate, then grow bored. They make you larger than life, then smaller than life." By the mid 1980s, the public – as represented by the media – was glad to see him gone. "Live by celebrity. Die by it."

But come Bruce’s transition period, the media latched onto a new story. Caitlyn says it felt like "being a piata for the media." When the tabloids were hounding him like dogs after a fox, he thought about the gun in the house. Why not use it on himself to end the agony? But then came this insight:

I realize that suicide is never the answer, although I can see how a trans person, in the heat of despair, could be driven to it. For all my pain, I have had a life that has been inspiring and positive to others. I have had every possible creature comfort. I don’t want to end it. I don’t want to put my kids through something like that.

It was in March of 2015 that Bruce definitely became Caitlyn. Her new birth certificate brought tears of joy, yet tears of sadness for the end of Bruce. It seems that her relationships with her children continue in a somewhat variable pattern. Mostly, they were supportive at first; since then there seems to have been some pulling back by some of them. But Ms. Jenner fully sympathizes with any problems the transition might have caused those who are close to her.

About her new status, Ms. Jenner says something that might surprise some people but the honesty and accuracy of it are admirable: "I am firmly on the side of womanhood. But I am not a woman. Nor will I ever be." She goes on to say: "I am a trans woman. There is a difference."

About trans people in general Ms. Jenner says:

We have radically changed, but we still retain many of our core beliefs, or at least I have. I am different than I was. I feel different and I look different, but I am not as different in personality as is sometimes assumed.

Ms. Jenner acknowledges that her attempts to speak up on behalf of trans people haven’t always been welcomed. But she feels no malice towards protestors who dismiss her as a "clueless rich white woman." Recognizing that many trans women have been victims of abuse, violence, unemployment, even murder, Ms. Jenner says "I continue to raise money for the trans community because I have the platform to do so."

Ms. Jenner gives full credit to writer Buzz Bissinger for pulling together her meandering recollections. The result is a brisk, easily readable book with clear, concise prose. Mr. Bissinger even manages to inject some suspence into the story at the point where, because the tabloids are hassling Bruce so much, he’s coming to the decision that he’s going to have to tell his manager, his lawyer and his PR person about his upcoming transition.

I don’t feel, though, that the subject’s personality comes through in the book. Ms. Jenner says a few times that humour is one of her favourite ways of deflecting any conflict but there are few traces of that trait in the book. One of them has to do with the famous Vanity Fair cover of Ms. Jenner shot by Annie Leibowitz. Describing the set-up for the shoot, Ms. Jenner says that Jessica Diehl, VF’s fashion and style director, "thinks I have the look of a 1980s Amazonian model with a slender frame, which is what I may want carved on my tombstone, along with a quote from Diehl saying I look perfect in Tom Ford."

One of Ms. Jenner’s best touches of humour comes in this tribute to Mr. Bissinger:

He can be a little moody (actually very moody). He can be a little snappish (actually very snappish). But if you can get past the black leather and the skull rings and the black-polished fingernails, he is warm and funny.

We do learn a few details about Ms. Jenner as a person, apart from the gender issue. She likes expensive toys – Porsches and planes – but doesn’t care much about money. By the standards of her Malibu neighbourhood, Ms. Jenner’s house could almost be considered a shack, she says. She’s cool with the basic amenities: the water runs, the toilet works, there are no leaks. She has simple tastes in food and avoids the kinds of places celebrities patronize in order to be seen."I prefer to be in places not to be seen and think McDonald’s approaches haute cusine, depending on how crispy the fries are." In other restaurants, Ms. Jenner says, she always has meatloaf and mashed potatoes if that meal is available.

Those tidbits help us to get some sense of Ms. Jenner’s life in the world but much of the book seems to be taking place in her head. It’s mostly about her thoughts and ideas on the subject of gender. You don’t get the impression that she’s a natural story-teller. The book lacks the novelistic elements – such as settings, atmosphere and dialogue – that would help you to feel immersed in a character’s everyday life. The message that comes through clearest, perhaps, is that human beings can be pretty darn complicated. Most of us try to hide how complicated we are. It takes someone like Ms. Jenner to remind us of the fact.

 

Stay Down and Take It (Short Fiction) by Ben Marcus, The New Yorker, May 28, 2018

A couple who are apparently in late middle-age are driving inland to try to escape a huge storm that is threatening the island they live on. They take a pass on a shelter that has been set up in a high school gymnasium with hundreds of cots arranged in a grid. Driving on, they find that none of the hotels within range are answering their phones. Meanwhile, the storm is beginning to lash their car.

It’s hard to say whether or not I like this story. What I can truly attest to is that it’s astounding. The story, told from the wife’s point of view, is mainly a collection of the irritations that have been building up in her in these many years of marriage. She’s nearly driven mad, we realize, by her husband’s foibles and by her duty, as wife, to be tolerant of them, kind and patient with him. The resulting description of the woman’s mind and her behaviour brandishes a searing honesty that feels something like a combination of Edward Albee, August Strindberg and Samuel Beckett. Perhaps what makes the story so striking is the banality and ordinariness of the woman’s gripes as set within the cataclysmic meteorological event that’s happening.

Is there any uplift in the end? Any concession to the conventional coziness and affection that we expect in any writing about marriage? Read it yourself and see what you think. 

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com