Interviews » Conversations with Gary Giddins

Conversations with Gary Giddins: on his book, Natural Selection

Gary Giddins,

author of

Natural Selection:

Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books

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Long recognized as America’s most brilliant jazz writer, the winner of many major awards — including the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award — and author of a highly popular biography of Bing Crosby, Gary Giddins has also produced a wide range of stimulating and original cultural criticism in other fields. With Natural Selection , he brings together the best of these previously uncollected essays, including a few written expressly for this volume.

The range of topics is spellbinding. Writing with insight, humor, and a famously deft touch, he offers sharp-edged perspectives on such diverse subjects as Federico Fellini and Jean Renoir, Norman Mailer and Ralph Ellison, Marlon Brando and Groucho Marx, Duke Ellington and Bob Dylan, horror and noir, the cartoon version of Animal Farm and the comic book series Classics Illustrated.

 Giddins brings to criticism an uncommon ability, long demonstrated in his music writing, to address in very few words an entire career, so that we get an in-depth portrait of the artist beyond the film, book, or recording under review.  For instance, Giddins offers a stunning reappraisal of Doris Day, who he terms “the coolest and sexiest female singer of slow ballads in film history.” He argues eloquently for a reconsideration of the forgotten German-language novelist Soma Morgenstern. In a section on comedy, he offers fresh perspectives on the three great silent film stars — Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd — while resurrecting the legendary Jack Benny and reevaluating the controversial Jerry Lewis. There’s also a memorable look at Bing Crosby’s film career (he calls Crosby’s blockbuster Going My Way “a neglected masterpiece”) and a close examination of Marcel Carne’s beloved Children of Paradise.  He also supplies excellent commentary on jazz: major and underrated figures, and especially the uses of jazz in film.#

In a June, 2007 interview, Giddins — a long-time contributor to Jerry Jazz Musician — discusses Natural Selection, his career path, and again demonstrates the unique intelligence that has made him one of his generation’s most important cultural critics.

 


 Conversation hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.

 

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“Words — so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”

– Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Dexterity, by Charlie Parker

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JJM  In addition to biographical commentary on specific artistic figures, Natural Selection includes commentary and history on incredibly diverse subjects like the Vitaphone shorts, Classics Illustrated comics, Berkeley in the 1960’s, and the invention of the movies. What is the process you go through to determine what you are going to write about?

GG  It often depends on circumstances. For instance, I was a movie reviewer at the Village Voice in 1990, and Berkeley in the Sixties was a movie I had to write about that particular week. Many pieces, especially when writing for a newspaper, result from the process of determining what the column will be about — I look at new records, club listings, what movie is opening, and then I choose what seems likely to be the most interesting material for an essay. On the other hand, there are subjects I ruminate about, sometimes for years, waiting for the opportune time to explore them. Two essays that I wanted to write about for a long time but never found the opportunity are the final ones in Natural Selection, about the German language writers Freidrich Durrenmatt, who was Swiss, and Soma Morgenstern, who was Galician. I had written short pieces on them for the Voice in the 1970s, but had meant to elaborate on them. With Natural Selection coming out, I spent the summer writing those essays so that they could be included. That’s not a luxury I can often afford, but I can be pretty obsessive and I had to do them.

JJM  How different is it now that you are no longer writing for the Village Voice?

GG  I write a DVD column for the New York Sun every other week and it is similar to the Voice in that I have space enough for about 1,300 words, but I am tied to what is being released in any given week. DVDs are released on Tuesday by every company — I have no idea why — and the column also runs on Tuesday. There are usually a lot of titles to choose from and I pick things that make for good essays. I’m too old to write about stuff that doesn’t excite me one way or another. The same goes for columns I write for Jazz Times and DGA Quarterly, which is a wonderful magazine that James Greenberg edits for the Directors’ Guild.

JJM You write about the actor Alain Delon, the director Robert Bresson, the film I Am Curious Yellow— subjects that are not exactly in the mainstream of contemporary culture, of which very little has generally been written. You like to operate on the frontiers of criticism, don’t you?

GG  That’s a dramatic way of putting it. I don’t know what the frontier is; traditionally, the frontier is what’s new. With DVDs, I write almost exclusively about what’s old. Criticism is the process of reinterpretation. Every generation has to review the classics in light of its experience and the accumulation of history. What I find fascinating about DVDs or classic jazz or literature is the basic question: Do these works, whether or not they are regarded as classic, continue to speak to us and how?  Of course, a lot of what I do is salvage artists who have been forgotten or overlooked. Received wisdom is the enemy of criticism. King Lear isn’t a classic because Sam Johnson or Harold Bloom said so. It isn’t a classic for me until it becomes part of my life and I can feel and just maybe express its greatness.

One of my favorite lines from Johnson is “The basis of all excellence is truth. He who professes its power ought to feel it.” Don’t tell me that Duke Ellington is a great composer unless his music lives in you. The old cliché about fiction writers applies to non-fiction writers as well: Write what you know — what you know and what you want to find out.

JJM  My point about you operating on the frontiers of criticism is that you are writing about subjects few others are……

GG  I know what you’re saying. Much of what I write about, especially jazz, is not in the mainstream. A piece on jazz is the last thing you can sell to most mainstream magazines — the only kind they want is “jazz is dead” or “jazz is back.” Today, even when I write for a mainstream jazz magazine, I have to assume that the readership is on a learning curve. I recently wrote a piece for Jazz Times about Chu Berry, and I can’t take for granted that readers, who may have just started listening to jazz, have heard of him. But, then, that is one of the reasons I write — to let people know. If you have any spine at all you have to go with what interests you. Otherwise, what’s the point? There are easier ways to make a living.

JJMDo you still get excited when you see your ideas in print?

GG  Yes. I hesitated to answer because on some level the question seems absurd to me. How could I still get excited after 35 years? But, yes, of course, it’s still a turn-on. Not seeing it in print so much as having a good day writing. When I know I’ve done good work, I’m elated. When I see it in print, I see the awkward phrases, solecisms, repetitions, imprecise words, etc, that drive me crazy, and revise the piece so that, years later, if I’m compiling a book of essays I have a fairly stable version to work with.

When I left the Voice at the end of 2003, I thought I would focus on writing books, and most of my time is spent on that — Natural Selection is the second in three years, and I am in the process of finishing up a textbook. After that, I’ll get back to the second volume of my Crosby biography, which I’ve never stopped researching. Nevertheless, I wanted to keep my hand in as a journalist and jazz and film are two abiding subjects for me and have been since 1972, when I wrote for the Hollywood Reporter and Down Beat. If I don’t see my by-line every once in a while, I’m not sure I’m still alive. As important as books are to me, newspaper and magazine pieces structure my life and bring in income and I love to do them.

JJM There is a stunning amount of what I would call “edu-tainment” in your work. Your essays are fulfilling in a variety of ways — as commentary, as education, as entertainment, and as biography. I especially enjoy it when you tie your subjects together with other art and artists. For example, this is an excerpt from your essay on the comedian Harold Lloyd called “Hanging Tough:”

“The most intriguing received wisdom regarding Harold is his putative niceness, when in fact his serious flaws, in nearly every picture, primed audiences with points of identification. It’s a stretch to compare him with Macbeth, though not so much if one remembers Mary McCarthy’s description of the Scottish golfer, the murderous Babbitt, prey to over-imagination and delusion.”

How much research do you have to do before writing something like that?

GG The main research is watching the movie. I make a lot of notes and it’s a joke around here that I fill up two yellow pads per column and either fail to look at them or use about two percent. But that’s how I work. Sometimes, I go back and read older essays about films, often to get a sense of the original critical reception. I have a huge library of books on music and film, and I depend on IMDB, which is to movies what Brian Rust, Jepsen, Bruyninckx and those guys are to jazz discography. Sometimes I check the AFI Catalogs for background or look at biographies of the directors and stars. But mostly I watch the movie and then watch it again.

Richard Schickel, a wonderfully prolific critic and documentary filmmaker, reviewed Natural Selection for the Los Angeles Times, one of the best reviews I’ve ever received, and he made the same point you did about the varied references. What can I say? I read a lot and most of my interests are in the arts. It’s natural that one realm is going to remind you of parallels in another. I don’t see how that can be avoided. Some editors drive me crazy because they are concerned that readers won’t be able to pick up on connections, but that’s what makes it interesting. The arts represent different ways of expressing visions of the world and they always interbreed and comment upon one another, always.

I just did a review of The Third Man, a movie I dearly love and that I have seen dozens of times. But for the first time, I realized that the framing device is similar to that of Madame Bovary in that both began in the first person and then move to objective or omniscient narration. Flaubert had always puzzled me that way: He begins by recalling the first time “we” saw Charles Bovary, and within a few paragraphs the “we” disappears. Watching The Third Man it hit me that the narrative framework is similar, and suddenly I understood what Flaubert was doing, moving from intimate reflection to a rather brutal objectification. Somebody once told me, after I mentioned how lucky it was that I happened to read a book or hear a piece of music that reflected on the work I was reviewing, that luck isn’t accidental; you prepare yourself to be lucky. If you pay attention, the odds are in your favor that you will see patterns and connections.

JJMYour sense of humor comes out more for me when I read your film criticism…

GG Really?

JJM  Yes. Does writing about film provide more opportunity for you to express your sense of humor than when writing about music or literature?

GG  Boy, I am the last person to answer that. Only the reader would know. I don’t see any difference at all. Whatever triggers your wit is … well, I don’t know how to analyze that. Maybe it comes out more obviously in film writing because it is so much more of a concrete art, the enactment of stories. I wrote about that in the introduction to Natural Selection. With music, you are describing something that is essentially abstract and once you’ve named the tune and the musicians, you are flying free, responding emotionally and intellectually. So maybe the manifestation of wit is a bit more esoteric.

JJMIn a 1948 essay entitled “Harlem is Nowhere,” Ralph Ellison wrote “The lyrical ritual elements of folk jazz have given way to the near-themeless technical virtuosity of bebop, a further triumph of technology over humanism.” In retrospect, Ellison’s opinion today seems ridiculous…

GG You interviewed me once about Ellison, and rereading a lot of his essays came as a shock. There are many brilliant insights, where he nails various aspects of American music eloquently and precisely, but some of it is written with deep prejudice against the new and has to be taken as such.

JJM I bring up Ellison’s quote to illustrate how critics have to put their opinions on the line all the time, and how the potential always exists that they will make statements that could eventually make themselves seem ineffectual. Does this looming criticism of a critic’s own work get in the way of writing cutting-edge criticism?

GG It can. In the 1950’s and for some time after, several critics were afraid to say anything negative about anything because so many of them had made asses of themselves during the bebop period. So, instead of having the nerve to say what they felt and taking a chance on being historically wrong, whatever that means, they championed everything. You are stuck with what you write but you are allowed to change your mind. I love changing my mind.

I was reading a book about the history of Columbia Records by Gary Marmorstein, and he writes about Miles Davis in the early 1970’s. He quotes a devastating review I wrote of Agharta, one I have rescinded more than once; as I got older, I found that Agharta was a record I had come to like a lot. I have a short essay, “Miles Electric,” in Natural Selection, which begins with my recounting how I changed my mind about Agharta. Well, to people who only read Marmorstein’s book, I’m someone who hates that record, period. But that’s fine. Marmorstein is writing history and in 1975 the critical reception to that album was what it was. So, to answer your question, yes, you are stuck with what you know and feel and if you don’t have the brass to articulate that, you aren’t cut out to be a critic.

JJM In the introduction to the second edition of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley wrote, “On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”

GG Yes, and he also writes “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”

JJM Exactly. So, he is basically saying that you are stuck with what you wrote, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t evolve.

GG You can change your mind and you can say, “What an idiot I was,” but at the moment that you are writing, you have to go with what you think. If you try to second guess yourself according to what others may think you’ve cut yourself off at the knees.

JJM And if you aren’t true to yourself the reader is going to pick up on that…

GG Of course. Insincerity in criticism is pretty transparent. Look at Huxley, who I have long venerated, and whose 11 novels and 40 or so other volumes I have read and reread. Yet nobody hated jazz more than he did. He wrote vicious stuff, verging on racist cant, in the 1920’s, characterizing jazz as either Al Jolson, which was an honest mistake if you’re living in London and the world tells you to take The Jazz Singer at face value, and as barbarous jungle music, which is inexcusable. He was wrong there and right about other things. When he published his great postwar novel, Time Must Have a Stop, someone wrote a letter to Thomas Mann, sniping at Huxley, who had so disappointed them during the war with his relentless pacifism. And Mann wrote back saying that, yes, Aldous was a drag during the war, but how can anyone who loves literature not rejoice at the appearance of a new book as vibrant and innovative as Time Must Have a Stop? Albert Murray, one of my mentors, told me a long time ago that you don’t evaluate an artist or a writer or a critic by his lapses; you evaluate them by what is good and true in their work, what you can use, what you take away from it. Edmund Wilson is important because of what he wrote about Civil War literature, the literary history of socialism, the foundation of literary modernism, and much more, not because he didn’t understand Kafka. We all have blind spots.

JJM  While on the subject of Albert Murray, in a 1986 essay, the writer Joe Cohen quotes Murray as saying “…musicians…don’t need to have the ability to analyze the context and meaning of their music. That’s for writers to do.” Is that something you would agree with?

GG Pretty much. Most musicians, especially before the bop era and probably even before the last 20 or 30 years, took whatever work they could get and did not analyze the context. Mosaic’s Chu Berry is a reminder that this incredibly pleasing, luxurious music took place in the 1930’s, a terrible time — Depression, racism, anti-Semitism, war. Despite this, the music is filled with optimism and fun. I don’t think the musicians were thinking about historic ironies — they were worried about mastering the music. Thirty years later, or 50 years later, critics who weren’t alive back then try to understand what the music meant in the context of that era. That’s not the job of the artist. It’s one of the things that we do.

Great art needs to be reinterpreted constantly. A novel seems one way to the people for whom it was written; subsequent generations may exalt or deride it or both, first one take, then the other. It may go out of print. Then a critic discovers it, writes a convincing review claiming it to be a masterpiece, and it gets a second chance. This happens all the time — criticism is filled with examples. T.S. Eliot brought John Donne back to English lit, much as Mendelssohn brought Bach back to German music. Now we see it with Ellison, who was treated as a god for the last half century. Arnold Rampersad’s biography, however, has unleashed frequent attacks. Since Ellison doesn’t appear to have been a nice guy, people take pot shots at his writings, including Invisible Man. This novel is only a half-century old so we won’t really know what its standing in American letters is for another 20 years. In 1900, Moby Dick was forgotten or considered unreadable. The critic Morris Dickstein recently wrote in praise of a forgotten novelist named John Williams. After reading Stoner, perhaps the great novel about academic life, and especially Augustus, which takes up where Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March left off, I was so knocked out I wrote Morris to thank him for rediscovering Williams.

Movies age in a different way. At the time it’s made, the questions are: “Is it a good film? Is it entertaining? Does it mean anything?” But 70 or 80 years later, it may have additional interest beyond all that; it takes on a kind of anthropological interest, as a peephole into another era. It’s a tricky proposition because movies have long provided fantasies mandated by censors, but even the nature of what is or is not censurable assumes historic interest. Pop art is very good at that, especially movies and genre lit. Try to read the prose of Lloyd C. Douglas, one of the bestselling pompous American writers of the 20th century — can’t be done. His prose can put a weak person into a coma. Yet some movies made from his work, like the two versions of The Magnificent Obsession, are perversely watchable.

JJM  John Gennari, who wrote a book on jazz criticism called Blowin’ Hot and Cool, wrote, “In a field of black creative leadership, most jazz critics are white, and they’ve often brought to their work a heightened sense of social purpose in a culture in which crossing the color line historically has been fraught with complications.” Among so many other excellent points, his book often points out how jazz critics express their political viewpoints through their criticism. Is there a different social dynamic in place when writing about literature and film?

GG  Certainly. I grew up in a community where every single house was owned by a white family that employed a black live-in maid. I write about this in the intro to Weather Bird — growing up in a segregated community and discovering that virtually all the musicians I loved were black when the only way you saw blacks in movies and on TV was as maids and porters and bug-eyed idiots with names like Napolean or Roosevelt or Rastus. Meanwhile, you’re listening to Ellington and Armstrong or Chuck Berry or James Brown or Miles or Sonny Rollins or Sarah Vaughan and you realize just how immense the big lie was, how profound the cultural divide is. Then you realize the degree to which jazz has been bracketed outside the mainstream culture for racist reasons, or how only a white musician could get into certain doors, and that will affect your perspective.

The thing about racism is that, in a way, the racist suffers, too — not to the point of being hanged or enslaved, but to the degree that he deprives himself of the gifts of an entire group of people. As we talked about during our conversation on New Orleans, that city’s racism cost it millions of dollars worth of tourist money if they had honored jazz the way Nashville honored country music. Perhaps if the city coffers had been full and the city itself established as a major tourist destination, it would have repaired its levies.

JJMRight.  In the case of New Orleans, an important part of American history gets overlooked because of  racism…..

GG  When I was growing up, you saw it in the way Jews were talked about in literature. The 1950’s and 1960’s were major years for Jewish-American writers like J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth — amazing period. Before that, most Jewish writers of consequence were proletariat-type novelists, writing about the lives of the poor with a strong political angle; even the great Henry Roth was tagged as a social conscience writer. They were talked about as “Jewish novelists” — not as American novelists writing about what they knew of America. One of many reasons I admire Roth, for my money the greatest living American novelist, is his refusal to curb himself according to mandates about what was or was not good for the Jews.

Now they are saying Ellison couldn’t write a second novel because he abandoned the black community. There may be truth to that, but I find that hard to buy — it’s a simplistic psychological answer to an unknowable situation. This country loves its hyphens — we remain African-American, Jewish-American, Italian-American, Irish-American, Asian-American, and so forth, but the incredible thing about America is that the first generation born here inherits, as if by magic, a new history. Your past is George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as though your family had been here 400 years. I don’t know anything about Polish history, which is where my maternal grandparents were raised. It has no meaning to me. I may read Henryk Sienkiewicz, With Fire and Sword, that kind of thing, or more pertinent writers like Soma Morgenstern and Joseph Roth to learn of the world of my literal forefathers, but I read Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville to learn where I come from.

JJM Given all the diversity in our society now, does America still have a blues-based culture at its core as Ellison claimed 75 years ago, or has jazz just become part of an artificial popular culture?

GG  It’s still there, but it has mutated. Hip-hop is something that I am sure Ellison would have despised, and I have no love for it either, although I have much respect for it. I am amazed at how so many hip-hop artists become great actors — something to marvel at. That aside, hip-hop comes out of that blues culture, but turns it into something else. It is not about 12 bars, it is not about minor thirds or major sevenths. Blues culture changes. In jazz, blues scales remain dominant and I don’t see any sign of that changing. It’s still there in rock, it’s there in country music. It isn’t always in the forefront of mainstream white pop, but then a lot of mainstream white music doesn’t endure as well as blues-based music, does it?

JJM  Has the purpose of the jazz musician changed during the era of Wynton Marsalis?

GG  I don’t know about the purpose, but this goes back to the question you asked regarding social context. I can’t think of many young musicians who don’t have college educations similar to mine, or who haven’t been to music school or a graduate program. Many jazz musicians were college educated in the 1920s, but most of the great ones didn’t have much formal education after high school; their education took place on the road, on bandstands. Herbie Hancock went to the same college I did but he dropped out his third year because he got an offer to tour with Donald Byrd. There is nothing to compare with that kind of experience, even for a former child prodigy like Herbie. But today, almost every musician you meet has been to college, so there is a certain intellectual basis for what they play, if only because they had a homework assignment that required them to write a variation on the changes to “Giant Steps.”

JJM  What do you want to accomplish in the next five years?

GG I want to finish the textbook I have been writing for the last three years with Scott DeVeaux. I hope to have the manuscript finished by September. The thing that I most want to do is to complete the Crosby book. This has been the center of my life for a long time, and I have been away from it too long. I have been freelancing more than ever before, and I have a daughter going to college, so I have a lot of financial obligations. Once I finish Bing I have several ideas for books that I’ve been nursing a long time.

JJM Is fiction in your future at all?

GG It’s funny — people frequently ask me that and I don’t know why, since I have never published fiction. One publisher actually offered me a small advance if I would write a novel. I wrote part of a novel, mostly for the diversion, when I was a colonist at Macdowell the first time, and I did enjoy it; every once in a while I pull it out and revise parts of it. If I had financial independence I might finish it, but I am not a novelist. It’s not something I’ve got a burning need to do. I do have a burning need to write criticism, which I guess is why I’m a critic.

Many would-be writers read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet — at least the first letter, the key one, when he tells the young poet that he is a writer if he thinks he would have to die were he told he could not write. When I was a kid I responded to that — Literature or Death! I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. But the next step is finding out what kind of writer you are. Most people are interested in novels and poetry but there are a handful of us who are cursed with a need to write criticism and who get satisfaction from writing criticism. If that’s where your talent lies, you gotta go for it.

 

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“Sin titulo,” by Jazzamoart

“What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism.”

Octavio Paz

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Flight 19, by Andrew Hill

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Five short excerpts from Natural Selection

 


– From “Regrets, They’ve Had a Few”

(Sinatra)

How blunter than a serpent’s tooth is the ambivalent child of a neglectful yet powerful parent.  Tina Sinatra’s Executive Producer credit appears on the screen at the close of both halves of her five-hour CBS miniseries, Sinatra — a punch line that may or may not explain the preceding spectacle.  Her portrait is a defense of her father’s honor and an unmitigated assault on his style; that is, she absolves dad of the more damning accusations concerning mob involvement and physical intimidation, but she revels in depicting him as a lout — a compulsive adulterer and bully who lost his charm almost immediately after he sank his teeth in Hollywood, or vice versa. He should have spent more time with his kids.  By the lights of Tina, his youngest of three, they barely existed for him, and so they barely exist in her dramatization. They are background props, remote and forlorn.  Frank Jr.’s kidnapping is never mentioned; neither are Nancy’s boots.

– Village Voice, 1992

 


– From “Mixing Hot Licks with Vanilla”

(Fats Waller/Glenn Miller)

[Glenn] Miller and [Fats] Waller embody the A side and B side of a time when melodic tranquility and robust rhythms found common cause.  Listeners who come of age in such a period think it will last forever — ask any veteran of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  But the Swing Era expired in short order; hip-hop is already twice its age.  The end of the war meant the end of the big bands, as the music that followed — bebop, rhythm and blues, pop novelties — moved away from gentle lyricism and foxtrot rhythms.  Yet the Swing Era has much to teach us.  Beyond the pleasures of their performances, Waller and Miller provide another service:  They humble critical stereotypes and show ways that jazz and pop once enriched each other, and might still.

– The New Yorker, 2004

 


– From “Ways We Weren’t”

(Vitaphone Shorts)

The demonization of jazz in the 1920s and — in a verbatim replay of rhetorical hyperbole — rock and roll in the 1950s is a familiar tale of American cultural ambivalence.  In both eras, the guardians of morality warned that the young were being corrupted.  They meant sex, though they often referred to drugs and Communism, and of course they were right.  But fear of sexual havoc masked the more intense fear of race, of sex between the races:  The Ladies Home Journal of 1921 blamed jazz for the increase in rape; 30 years later a Lait and Mortimer best seller, U.S.A. Confidential, blamed black and integrated music for the warping of white womanhood. Well, they were right about one thing:  vernacular music did more to promote integration and tolerance than the combined efforts of politicians, athletes, and high-art pundits.

Village Voice, 1995

 


– From “Incomparable”

(Greta Garbo)

Back in 1965, 24 years after Greta Garbo, at 36, walked away from the most fabled Hollywood career of her era, the historian A.J.P. Taylor judged her the dominant figure in film in the 1930s, but one whose allure had vanished — “a sex symbol who now appears in retrospect astonishingly sexless.”  At the time, that assessment seemed astonishingly clueless, yet it always comes to mind when I watch her movies.  Taylor was not far wrong, beyond his assumption that sex symbolism and sexiness invariably go hand in hand, as they did for, say Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe.  Ingrid Bergman and Simone Signoret were sexy without being sex symbols; Garbo epitomizes sexual conflict without the desire to seduce her audience.  She was too remote and self-involved to exude salacious promise — the planes of her face too perfect, the angularity of her slope-shouldered body too concealing.  yet as a sex symbol, who can compare?  The prolific film chronicler James Robert Parish came closer to the mark when he referred to her “carnal spirituality.”

“All my life I’ve been a symbol,” Garbo’s Queen Christina laments.  During the long afterlife of her career, between 1941 — when the disastrous “Two-Faced Woman” suggested that her future in movies might be too ordinary or competitive to suit her own mythology — and 1990, when she died, her very presence furthered the saga of the Swedish sphinx who surmounted Hollywood on her own terms.  Hidden among mortals but for rare sightings, she required no public relations to sustain the suspicion that she might be the finest actress the movies ever produced, unimaginable in any other medium.”

The New York Sun, 2005

 


From “Blond and Beaming”

(Doris Day)

Oscar Levant’s much-repeate crack about knowing Doris Day before she was a virgin has grown stale.  But it had bite four decades ago, when a new generation was discovering its sexuality and Day was shielding her middle-age chastity with the tenacity of the Viet Minh in Hanoi.  In truth, the only thing virginal about her was her insuperable blond and beaming independence, fortified by confidence, notwithstanding the occasional “Ooooh, he makes me so mad” episode.  In a blond and beaming era, she went her own way, never parodying sexuality, a la Marilyn, or bottling it up better to smolder, a la Princess Grace.  Yet she ended happily in bed more than either of them, almost always on her own terms.  Over the course of 25 years, she survived more than three dozen leading men, representing three generations of style and/or beefcake; most of them quickly faded while she marched cheerfully onward.

The coolest and sexiest female singer of slow-ballads in movie history; the only female band singer to achieve movie-musical superstardom; and the only major star of movie musicals, female or otherwise, to survive their passing and win even greater popularity in comedies, Day had been around.  She had toured as a dancer at 12, signed as a band singer at 16 (a car accident had forced her to change priorities), married and had a son at 18, and had the number one record in the country at 20 — “Sentimental Journey,” with Les Brown and His Band of Renown, in 1944.  Maybe she looked like the girl next door, but her voice, with its impeccable intonation and uncanny lilt (taking her time, she turned vowels into sighs), promised sultry nights in the Casbah.  Seek out her Christmas CD and see what she does with “Winter Wonderland.”  Or stick with the moves, and notice how she halts that misguided epic, Jumbo, to emote a full-bore “My Romance” — candid and captivating, and never a trace of sentimentality.

The New York Sun, 2005

 


Natural Selection:

Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books

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Gary Giddins products at Amazon.com


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This conversation took place on June 22, 2007

 

 
# Text from publisher.