As you probably already know, I left my library job at the beginning of February to write full-time, and I’m now working on my novel in earnest. Working on this book has required some concerted research on a few topics and famous individuals for reasons I can’t reveal yet. These are all obsessions I’ve harbored for some time. I believe in writing through and about one’s obsessions, which is the surest way to get yourself onto the page. Anyway, here are some of the current obsessions I’m researching (which is not just code for “watching their movies endlessly,” though it does include that) because of how they touch on what I’m working on.
What can I say about Tuesday? She was strange, gorgeous, perhaps the tiniest bit cracked, rebellious, and so, so talented. She could emote with a minimum of movement and inflection, loneliness and alienation shining easily from her teen idol face. The list of star-making roles she turned down—Bonnie and Clyde, Rosemary’s Baby, True Grit, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Cactus Flower–would make most actresses salivate, but she never wanted to be a huge star, and she only wanted to do roles that challenged her. There is an essential loneliness to every role she did take, a sadness that doesn’t need or want your pity.
If Tuesday was a bit cracked, Gloria Grahame was fractured and fissured. I hurt every time she’s on screen. What a lonely soul, simultaneously impish and longing for acceptance. It never feels like she really found it in Hollywood, not with an Oscar, not with a successful string of films across two decades. There was something in her that she seemed to think was unlovable, but fuck you if you were going to pity her for it. Throw scalding coffee in her face, and you better expect matching scars before long. She is my favorite actress of classic Hollywood.
Ray went from obscure to all but devoted film buffs to obscure to all but the film buffs who read Quentin Tarantino interviews in 2009 when QT named Brad Pitt’s guerrilla Lieutenant Aldo Rayne in Inglourious Basterds after the troubled actor. Ray was an anomaly in classic Hollywood. He didn’t come from acting stock, but got a break when he drove his brother to an audition and got picked instead. He had the body of a football lineman and the gentleness of a little boy. His famed voice sounded like it was forced out through cotton, gravel, and whiskey, but it was the last one that ended up derailing his career.
Velez’s story is one of the great tragedies of golden age Hollywood, and has been misrepresented in everything from the notorious book Hollywood Babylon to the pilot episode of Frasier. Velez killed herself at the age of 36 after reportedly refusing to abort her illegitimate pregnancy. She prepared an elaborate and elegant death scene, but the popular (and almost definitely false) story goes that her peaceful overdose turned ghastly when she ran to the bathroom to vomit and drowned in the toilet. Forget all this lurid (and inaccurate) nonsense. When she was alive, she was a dynamo of emotive and physical power, drawing the camera to her slightest movement.
Theresa Harris had something of a tragic Hollywood life in a completely different sense from Velez. Harris was a fantastic actress, showing poise, grace, and confident maturity, but the tragedy came from the racist climate that mostly limited this exceptional performer to bit role as maids and natives. Harris can be found in the corners of so many great films, delivering her precious few lines with refinement to the top billed white performers around her. Baby Face, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and countless other films would not be the same without her, and would have been significantly better had Harris been given more material to work with and room to move. That we’ll never get to see the starring roles Harris deserved is a tremendous disappointment.
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