Friday, May 14, 2010


Ever since I was a kid, I've always found obituaries fascinating and personal. Even if I didn't know the people, I'd relate to something in their stories or the stories of their deaths. Maybe they were my grandparents' or parents' ages, or now mine, or their occupations or accomplishments in the arts or politics interested me.

Here's the quasi-personal connection to three recent passings:

LYNE REDGRAVE's starring, and star-making, role in GEORGY GIRL (here's a blurry clip of the opening) in 1966 introduced an expansion of the idea, at least to me, of an openess about looks and character that though I'd been exposed to it before in terms of sympathetic understanding in art and books and movies and music (from MARTY to novelty pop tunes like "She's too fat for me" etc.) seemed new.

It's ludicrous now in the age of obesity to think of the young Lynne Redgrave as anything other than attractive and healthy looking, but back in the age of Twiggy, her slightly heftier frame telegraphed "ingenue's friend" rather than "romantic lead" so casting her as the object of any leading man's sexual interest was bold enough, including an aging leading man (James Mason, which made it seem even more sinister and Humbert Humbert-ish) created an aura of breakthrough subject-matter to this flick that marked it, at least in my mind and experience at the time (I had just spent four years in the service and hadn't gone back to school yet) as stunningly honest and fresh and another sign the times were changing.

I fell in love with the character she played and with the idea of overcoming old conventions by taking bold new actions, as was happening all around me, and I had been doing my part in for years. Now it was being confirmed in what I considered (and still do) a work of art like GEORGY GIRL. And the title song made it seem even more a part of contemporary changes in which "swinging London" played such a big part. A great double bill, just for comparison's sake in terms of these times vs. back then, would be to rent and watch in tandem GEORGY GIRL and the recent AN EDUCATION.

ALAN SILLITOE is one of those names I suspect has been mostly forgotten by even avid readers. Though some of his writing lasts in the form of movies like his most impactful novel SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (trailer here) or THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (opening few minutes here). The latter is where I first discovered him, with the long story that put him on the literary map as one of the most powerful writers among the group known as "The Angry Young Men" of late 1950s England, who were often linked to and compared to The Beat phenomenon occurring over here contemporaneously. (I was totally into a paperback anthology back then that had selections from both groups and kept it around for decades before it disappeared.)

I remember reading THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER as a teenager late at night in my attic room after my siblings had all grown up and moved out and feeling my own brand of loneliness and challenge. I identified with the runner and in retrospect think I was influenced by his ultimate decision in the central race/metaphor of the story to make similar choices after I first read it, to opt out of the race and into my own version of what life could be and mean. Which caused a lot of friction at home and in the world that Alan Sillitoe is partially responsible for!

LENA HORNE is the first celebrity I had any personal connection to, as distant as it was. I fell in love with her watching that almost surreal film clip of her 1943 film version of "Stormy Weather" (here's a link). This was in the early 1950s when I caught it on TV as a boy. But when I saw her on TV in real time singing on Ed Sullivan or wherever, I didn't dig her as much as I did in that old film clip.

There was always something off-putting in her presence, as if she were begrudgingly sharing her limited—but still obviously impressive—singing chops and extraordinary looks, which, it turns out, she was. Because of the racism she faced as a glamorous film beauty who wasn't allowed to even play the part of "the mulatto" in the '50's film version of SHOWBOAT (Ava Gardner got the role and listened to Lena Horne recordings to match her sound and phrasing etc.), let alone the lead in her own flicks. (As times went on that balance, the way I saw it at least, may have reversed, with her singing becoming more impactful and her beauty less so.)

But she was so fair skinned it seemed ludicrous in a way that fed my budding anger at the racial incongruities and stupidities, including the dumb classifications of "white" and "black" in a world that seemed so obviously to me an array of shades that incorporated almost every possibility in either category. I admired Horne, but as I became a working musician for a while myself and in the jazz world to some extent, her singing didn't live up to the best of those I later dug so much.

In high school I was best friends with a kid we called "Spanish Harry" though I don't think there was anything Hispanic in his ancestry. His father worked in an office in Manhattan, commuting from a neat little bungalow in a nearby working class town. But it turned out when Harry's father was young and living in Manhattan in the 1920s, he was hit by a subway train and got a settlement from the city that allowed him to live the high life for a few years until the money ran out.

During those years be became a regular at The Cotton Club, in Harlem, where he got to know the always chaperoned (as he told it) young singer Lena Horne. They became such good friends that even decades later, in the late 1950s, Horne still sent Harry's father a Christmas card every year. When Harry first showed the latest one to me one holiday season, I felt like I was in the presence of living history, and a part of the history I was most interested in: race relations and jazz music. I was touched by the possibilities this opened up to my mind and obviously never forgot it.

I think that's the thing that sometimes is missed in the personal revelations that have become so common nowadays but were so rare when I was coming up and that inspired me to make so much of my own writing personal in ways that at the time seemed new and fresh and trailblazing to me but now may seem old hat to the generations that followed. The connections I'm always trying to make—sometimes more successfully than others—to the ways in which one person's achievements or attempts to accomplish something significantly new or original or so personal it's uniqueness impacts someone else to spin off their own version of original personal truth.

If that makes sense. I just tried to simply do it, not theorize about it. But since the operation I think about these things in new and obviously theorizing ways.

[PS: If anyone cal help me figure out how to embed the youTube slips linked to in this post I'd sure appreciate it. Woops, obviously meant "can" and "clips"—just more of the post-brain-surgery ways I write, and this was after I already corrected several typos!]


Elisabeth said...

Thanks for this, Michael. I especially love the Horne clip and the opportunity to read about her struggle against racism.

You bring those obituaries to life. I love reading them too. I had thought it was age related.

My interest in obits began when I turned forty. my daughters think my interest in the death notices is ghoulish, but I suspect their turn will come too, one day soon enough.

AlamedaTom said...

[PS: If anyone cal help me figure out how to embed the youTube slips linked to in this post I'd sure appreciate it. Woops, obviously meant "can" and "clips"—just more of the post-brain-surgery ways I write, and this was after I already corrected several typos!]

Lal: Try this:

It's not as hard as it looks.

~ Willy

Jamie Rose said...

Great post Lals. I love all your posts but I especially love reading your takes on other artists. Especially those a bit off others radar like Stilltoe. I am always so impressed about your almost encyclopedic knowledge of most art topics (writing, painting, acting), world history and politics. And this is even post brain surgery. I wish I could have a Michael Lally brain chip embedded in my head. Love you.


Lally said...

thanks everybody.