A WORD ON CAMP (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #73)

American actress Patty Duke taking a break from filming on the set of 'Valley of the Dolls', 24th April 1967. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Camp: Something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing.

That’s the relevant Merriam-Webster definition. I have a couple of others.

One is the willingness (or compulsion) to laugh at other people’s misery and pass it off as the courage of cultural rebellion.

Another is the simple act of holding any woman who rejects likability at arm’s length. What better way, after all, to mock whatever said woman is trying to project in likability’s place (or, as seems to have been the case with the film version of Valley of the Dolls in general, and Patty Duke’s genuinely raw, abrasive performance in particular, a means for gay intellectuals to project a “sensibility” which, from the outside at least, seems at least as straitjacketed as the conformist culture it supposedly rejects).

Duke’s recent death led me to the movie, which I’ve been meaning to catch since it came out on Special Edition DVD a decade back.

I’m not sure I would call what Duke did here “acting” in any formal sense. Knowing what we know now about her life to that point and her then undiagnosed bipolarity, her performance–so often defined as “cringeworthy” that picture above should probably be co-opted by Merriam-Webster as shorthand –has the feel of a self-administered therapy session, edging toward primal scream. It is in no way fun or easy to watch.

That is probably why it has become perhaps the most mocked performance in the history of film. There’s always a special place in our culture for any performer–especially any female performer–who goes to a place where they simply don’t care what we think. This is supposed to be the very last word in “over the top,” but I found myself wondering just how subdued an actress is supposed to be playing a drug-addled, bed-hopping, emotionally crippled alcoholic whose life is falling apart?

Not very, I’d say, but I guess everyone’s mileage varies for this sort of thing.

Other actresses have certainly kept the world at bay more serenely (see Vera Miles, whose price is to be the forever unsung muse of both Alfred Hitchcock’s and John Ford’s late masterpieces) or more artfully (see Vivien Leigh, whose price is to seldom if ever be mentioned as the actress of the century, despite blowing Olivier off the screen in That Hamilton Woman,  the only occasion when he was fool enough to test himself against her, and scaring Brando into permanent retreat even while he was giving his own greatest performance). But in a movie that really is a narrative shambles and, for all that’s been projected onto it as a “trash” masterpiece that broke so many “taboos,” extremely tight-assed and pearl-clutching in every other respect, she alone is alive on the screen.

That picture above is from the set, not the movie itself. But the spirit of it is in almost every frame. After a while, it even pervades the legion of lifeless scenes that don’t feature “Neely O’Hara,” who everybody always knew was based on Judy Garland and who Patty Duke turned into a roman a clef of herself.

I’m not sure I would call the performance deep. Given the abilities Duke demonstrated so often elsewhere, when she wasn’t playing herself, I’m not even sure I would call it skillful. I get why people laugh.

In a dying culture, after all, nothing’s funnier than someone else’s pain and nothing’s more reassuring than the belief that, if we laugh hard enough, the mountain won’t fall on us.

SUBJECT TO UPDATING…ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS ON THE SIGHT AND SOUND POLL

I don’t want anybody to get the wrong idea. I enjoy these lists. I just find the narrowness of their scope kind of simultaneously amusing and frustrating. I mean, do they have to always end up being more about the herd-like mentality of professional critics than about the medium itself?

One reason I think these lists (and it happens the same way with books and records) arrive virtually devoid of idiosyncracies is that the process itself is narrow. If I understand it correctly, everybody submits a list of ten, from which of final list of fifty or a hundred is compiled. So I propose a new method:

Instead of listing a “top ten” have each critic send a list of “films I couldn’t possibly in good conscience leave out of my top ten if I knew I didn’t have to impress anyone else.” Some people might list four or five films, some people might list two hundred.

This way, instead of a completely arbitrary number, what you would be getting is a list of films that critics care most deeply about–and I bet at least a few more surprises would percolate to the top. If not to the top ten, then at least the top fifty.

So, strictly for fun:

1920s:

The Passion of Joan of Arc
The General (any Keaton really….But the paucity of entries here tells me I am way-y-y-y behind in my silent film watching)

1930s:

Gone With the Wind (Yes, it’s all that. Deal with it.)
Drums Along the Mohawk
The Bank Dick
Pygmalion (No way I’m leaving Wendy Hiller off this list)
Stage Door
Top Hat
Carefree (Ginger doing “The Yam” and shooting skeet. Fred hanging in. That is what I call art.)
Young Mr. Lincoln
The Rules of the Game

1940s:

The Maltese Falcon
Citizen Kane
The Curse of the Cat People
Double Indemnity
That Hamilton Woman
The Lady Eve
Shadow of a Doubt
Notorious
They Were Expendable
His Girl Friday
The Asphalt Jungle
The Pirate (You keep Debbie Reynolds. I’ll keep Judy Garland)
White Heat
Out of the Past
The Fallen Idol
Fort Apache

The 1950s:

Clash By Night
Orpheus
Beat the Devil
The Big Heat
Roman Holiday
High Noon
A Streetcar Named Desire
In A Lonely Place
The Searchers
Kind Hearts and Coronets
3:10 to Yuma
A Star is Born
The Sweet Smell of Success
Gigi (You keep Debbie Reynolds. I’ll keep Leslie Caron)
Tiger Bay (No way I’m leaving Hayley Mills off this list, though if I really had any guts I’d include The Truth About Spring)
The Naked Spur
Some Came Running
Paths of Glory

The 1960s:

L’Avventura
The Best Man
The Misfits
Cape Fear (The Night of the Hunter was pure abstraction. Max Cady? Him I recognize. And him I fear.)
Swiss Family Robinson (The only film I know for certain Lucas and Spielberg have seen all the way through. Too bad their numberless acolytes have not.)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Miracle Worker
Charade
Dr. Strangelove (Can’t believe Kubrick made my list twice)
The Americanization of Emily
The Apartment
The Graduate
Medium Cool
Gambit (You can never have too much Shirley MacLaine)
The T.A.M.I. Show (Just FYI: If you held me to two, it would be this and The Searchers)

The 1970s:

The Conversation
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
The Bad News Bears (Can’t leave out my autobiography. The Rebel Without a Cause of the seventies, except way funnier. And way sadder.)
I Wanna Hold Your Hand

The 1980s:

The Long Good Friday
Blow Out

(NOTE: I’m not actually opposed to the idea of more recent films being as great as films of the more distant past. I just don’t feel qualified to judge past a certain point because, frankly, I don’t get out much.)