Sunday, December 14, 2008

Passings: Beverly Garland, Bettie Page, Van Johnson

For anyone of a certain age, or anyone far-sighted enough to appreciate film or pop culture of an era other than this one, the last couple of weeks have been especially heart-breaking.

Bettie Page, who died at age 85 on Thursday, left an indelible impact on the country's--nay, the world's--collective sexuality that can't be overstated. Oh, and any man who does not harbor a hemisphere-sized crush on her is a fool.

In a world so celebrity and pop-culture saturated that the word 'icon' gets tossed around like used Kleenex, Page was the real deal. Like most pioneers, she received little recognition (even outright derision) during her pin-up model prime, but her striking signature look--jet-black hair and bangs, crystalline eyes eternally generating playful sensuality in those Irving Klaw photos--generated a major aesthetic and erotic ripple effect.

And now that she's gone, it's awfully easy to see Bettie Page as a martyr for the Sexual Revolution. Aside from her brief heyday as a Klaw Cutie, she led a pretty harrowing life--abuse from family and spouses, chemical dependency, mental instability, trouble with the law--while this ass-backwards world caught up with the sexual frankness she represented, and she went utterly unrewarded for it until her last few years on Earth.

Careerist parasites like Madonna and Britney Spears pretty effectively walked on Page's back (metaphorically speaking) to achieve their cynical brand of financial and sexual freedom, but they never clued into what made (and continues to make) Irving Klaw's most enduring cheesecake/fetish model immortal. One look at her in photos or on film brings home the point in full, saturated color. That smile, those beckoning-yet-strangely innocent sparkling eyes, and most importantly (really!) the strategic concealment of The Full Monty by lace/cotton/ostrich feathers in most of her photos--the cumulative elements manage to capture the mystery, the allure, the fun, and the magickal joy of sex more vividly than a warehouse full of Jenna Jameson videos ever will. Thank you, Bettie Page: You were a revolutionary and a liberator...And you looked way better in fishnets and g-strings than Che Guevara ever woulda.

Unlike Bettie Page, Beverly Garland never seemed like a mythic archetype, or a martyr. In fact, a significant part of Garland's legacy (she passed away on December 5 at the age of 82) has always been her utter lack of pretense. In her work, she was every inch a real woman, whether she faced zipper-backed monsters in B-horror flicks, crooks as TV's first lady cop in the syndicated TV series Decoy, or a small phalanx of cute sitcom kids as adopted mom to My Three Sons.

Garland already received hefty career appraisal in these electronic pages during last year's Horrorpalooza, so feel free to go here for a more detailed overview and film recommendations. Today, all you'll get is a celebration of what a terrific lady Beverly Garland was to me personally.

We met in the early nineties in Seattle. I was finishing a shift at a thankless telemarketing job in the University District, when I got a call from Rita that Beverly Garland was appearing at the Northgate Mall (just three blocks from our apartment at the time). I rushed to the mall as fast as Metro Transit could carry me.

Garland made the trek from her Hollywood stomping grounds as part of the mall's Senior Health Fair, and she made one great living testament to good senior living. She looked terrific--healthy, downright youthful despite being in her late sixties at the time, and elegantly dressed in an incredibly chic black-and-white pantsuit that any twenty-something model would've killed to wear so well. It was in the spring at one of the mall's lowest sales ebbs, so there were probably six people in attendance besides Rita and I, but Garland greeted us with the same genuine delight she'd have given an audience of two thousand.

After an articulate and engaging talk about her life, health and exercise regimen, she opened up the floor to questions. And being far too much of a nerd to pass up the opportunity, I barraged her with them. Garland let fly with candid, vivid, and frequently hysterical stories about working in low-budget cinema, and the many great talents she'd shared screen time with, for about an hour. This was a few years before she'd committed her storehouse of wonderful stories to Scarlet Street and Filmfax magazines in detailed print interviews, so Rita and I felt immeasurably privileged.

Afterwards Garland stayed on to sign autographs. She was (thank God) tickled pink at the questions I'd fielded her, leaning close to me as she signed my copy of The Movie World of Roger Corman with a wink as she stated proudly, "That's me--a B-Movie Baby!" Then she thanked us sincerely and earnestly for coming out to hear her speak, and gave Rita and I a big hug. It was probably the most wonderful talk with a professional actor that I've ever had in my life.

Years later, I sent Beverly Garland an autograph request, including a postcard with an image from her 1957 opus Not of this Earth. She sent it back signed, along with an 8 x 10 repro of the poster, also signed, and in a larger envelope that she provided and paid for the extra postage on. She was that kind of dame.

Class acts like that are rare birds nowadays, but such good-egg-ness seemed to come naturally to movie actors who came of age artistically in the forties and fifties. Van Johnson, who passed away December 12 at the ripe old age of 92, epitomized that graciousness. He was, by all accounts, as genial and nice off-screen as the characters he frequently played.

His career spanned six decades, and he worked alongside some of the greatest legends in Hollywood, but with his freckled, boyish good looks and amiable manner it was easy for audiences to take him for granted. He represented--with a refreshing absence of pretense, irony, or condescension--the archetypical all-American Nice Guy.

But Johnson could--and frequently did--turn in performances that easily rivaled those of his more mythologized co-stars: A double-feature of 1949's war movie Battleground, and the 1954 classic The Caine Mutiny handily proves it.

The former details a US army batallion's harrowing tour of duty in Bastogne during The Battle of the Bulge. It's a straightforward action drama (deftly directed by William Wellman) that turns a surprisingly unflinching look at the alternately tedious and terrifying ritual of World War II active duty. Johnson nets star billing here, but his Sgt. Holley feels solidly and effortlessly like one of the guys (always a generous actor, he's totally at ease as one member of an ensemble that includes Ricardo Montalban, James Whitmore, John Hodiak, and a lot of other dynamite character actors at the top of their games). And when fate forces him into command, Johnson lets the viewer see the transformation of this carefree guy into a hardened leader with downright contemporary brushstrokes.

Of course, The Caine Mutiny stands as an unparalleled classic, but even if you've seen it a million times, pop it in again once more and pay extra attention to Johnson's work. God knows it's easy to get lost in the celebrated fireworks of Humphrey Bogart's Captain Queeg, and (to a lesser extent) Jose Ferrer's power in the film's final courtroom scenes. But Van Johnson does the movie's heaviest dramatic lifting, almost without you noticing.

His Lieutenant Steve Maryk, a stand-up Naval officer put on the spot when he decides to overrule his insane captain's edicts, undergoes the movie's most complex character arc as his faith in Captain Queeg (and by extent, the U.S. Navy) gets shaken to its roots. The moment that sells the tautly-edited and starkly-lit mutiny scene comes precisely when director Edward Dmytryk hones in tight on Maryk's face, and the executive officer makes the decision to wrest control of the Caine from Queeg's grasp. Every fiber of doubt, conflict, fear, and resolve that plays inside of Maryk courses over Johnson's face in the space of a few seconds: It's a phenomenal moment of film acting, and again as Johnson was want to do, he brings it off with such unforced naturalness you almost don't notice it.

Rita, incidentally, had a mammoth crush on Johnson as a kid, so his loss registered extra-strongly for her (see her brief but eloquent tribute here). That loss was amplified by the great kindness Van Johnson showed her through the mail.

Rita sent Johnson a heartfelt fan letter about ten years ago. He replied with an autographed 8 x 10, and a handwritten note on the envelope. "Nice letter! Why aren't they all as easy as you?" he wrote, punctuating the note with a smiley face.

Good question. Especially in the context of a guy as nice as Van Johnson.

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