VIVIEN LEIGH…A Handy Ten

Tennessee Williams thought she was the finest dramatic actress of her day, Noel Coward the best comedienne (a side that was seen only in her very earliest films and on stage). I’ll have some educated guesses here about what Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando really thought.

She was severely bi-polar in an age when that condition was, to put it mildly, not well understood. She spoke seven languages, had a reputation as a spectacular hostess, won two Oscars and a Tony, and I suspect would have traded every bit of it for a kind word from her peers (“Oh no, Vivien, you mustn’t do that,” John Gielgud once said, when she asked him to read lines with her while she was practicing for Juliet. “That requires a real actress.”).

And that was just her friends.

Like many geniuses who deliver a shock to the system, she got most of those kind words (including from Gielgud) after she was safely dead, at 53, of tuberculosis, having spent years receiving periodic electroshock treatments.

And, like many geniuses safely dead, she remains misunderstood by those who fawn and carp alike.

She is the only person who has ever truly frightened me while giving a performance on screen–and I confess I was frightened both for and of her.

I do not blame anyone for refusing to get her. For those who dare….

1)  Gone WIth the Wind (1939)
D: VIctor Fleming

It’s fascinating to see her screen tests which–despite an early childhood in Colonial India that I suspect gave her instinctive insights into the Plantation South her Hollywood competition couldn’t comprehend–barely hint she would take over the character of Scarlett O’Hara so fully that imagining anyone else in the part was soon rendered not only moot but ridiculous. It was an art-house performance, given not in a Euro-classic masterminded by some bleak or pointilist master like Dreyer or Bergman or Renoir, but in a (make that the) Hollywood blockbuster that stretched to nearly four hours, had at least three principal directors and was micro-managed by the definitive example of that dread antithesis of Art, the Super Producer. And it was a (make that the) star turn given by someone who was not yet a star. Her own screen time ran to nearly two-and-a-half hours. I once watched it without sound and then listened to it with my eyes closed, back-to-back, trying to catch a false note. No such luck. I also developed a habit over the years of counting how many times Scarlett physically assaults someone. It’s somewhere around a dozen but I’ve never managed to convince myself I didn’t miss one or two. In short, there’s nothing else like it. Whenever there is a list of greatest film performances and someone else is on top (there always is–and it’s never her Blanche DuBois, the only real competition), I laugh. People amuse me sometimes.

2) Waterloo Bridge (1940)
D: Mervin LeRoy

A remake of a 1931 weeper, Leigh and co-star Robert Taylor both named it as the favorite of their own movies. Though she had been turned down for Rebecca (after a screen test that was no further from Joan Fontaine’s fine performance than Leigh’s GWTW test had been from her Scarlett) this was an interesting place to land. After Gone With the Wind, Leigh gravitated by hook or crook toward self-destructive characters who increasingly mirrored her own life and personality. This one is a gut-punch, to my mind more subtle and delicate than the fine earlier version, thanks mostly to Leigh’s ability to turn melodrama into the real thing, even if she had to live it. I won’t tell you how it ends, only that, like most of her post-Scarlett adventures, it is prescient and not an easy watch.

3) That Hamilton Woman (1941)
D: Alexander Korda

Does one really need to do more than look at those two shots and realize they are the same actress in the same movie? Or should I add that there is no hint of strain in the transition? She spent the rest of her marriage to co-star Laurence Olivier begging him to do another movie with her (especially Shakespeare, his specialty!). He refused….and kept the reputation as the Great Thespian of the two, which I suspect he knew he had not earned. Clever man.

“After? There is no after.”

I should mention before moving along, that if Hollywood had been serious about having Oscars match Art, she would have won for both of the preceding movies (she was nominated for neither). For better or worse she wouldn’t make another movie for nearly five years.

4) Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
D: Gabriel Pascal

And a curious thing it was. She may have gone after it harder than she went after Gone With the Wind. The resulting film is–like just about every Shaw play that wasn’t based on Pygmaliion–about equal parts maddeningly entertaining and just maddening. (He’s my favorite playwright but his style rarely translated well to film.) The worst part was that Leigh suffered a miscarriage during the filming. It was one of several but this one seemed to cost her the best chance of having a child with Olivier. For someone who was already at least flirting with mental illness, it was bound to leave a scar. The movie reflects some of that. It’s still worth seeing, as a curio if nothing else (and for the impeccable Claude Rains as a definitively Shavian Julius Caesar). But nothing in it matches the photograph of Leigh with Shaw that Kendra Bean dug up for her excellent book of such photos (with insightful essay) dedicated to Leigh’s life and career (which I reviewed here). There are grainy reproductions on the net, but by all means find the book. The picture there of Leigh standing between Shaw and director Pascal contains multitudes. If the old man had still been on his game, he would have written a play about her pursuit of his approval–and I bet it would have made a better movie than Caesar and Cleopatra or perhaps even Pygmalion. Especially if he convinced her to play herself.

5) Anna Karenina (1948)
D: Julien Duvivier

By now the pattern was set. She was a complex narrative actress in a simple narrative medium…so the construction of the connective tissue required to drive home the telling details in stories that took place over years (and, here, miles) was generally left to her. Everyone else could do their thing, as she could play with or against anyone (Clark Gable, Leslie Howard,  Robert Taylor, Olivier, Claude Rains, here Ralph Richardson, all except Olivier just because she was asked–you try it some time). Anna’s not the plum part some make it out to be. I don’t quite buy Garbo in the role (I buy the movie, and Garbo, just not the part where we all know she’s going to kill herself–what you might call the Anna part–though I accept I am in the minority) and it left Keira Knightley lost and confused. How would Gielgud have put it? It requires a real actress. Someone who can make you feel the weight of going under that train that every English major in the world knows is coming for her from the beginning even if they’ve never been within ten miles of Tolstoy. She does that. Mostly, I think, by giving it just a touch of cold and allowing the passion underneath to show through only at the crucial moments. It didn’t win her any friends or awards, but you can start to see why she only made a movie every three years.

6) A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
D: Elia Kazan

“Yes dear, you strike a lovely match. But will you burn down the cornfield?”

Which meant the next one was this, the truly frightening one. I watched it for the first (and so far only) time about fifteen years ago. My response to Brando was So this is where he got that reputation.

My response to Leigh was You can’t do that.

Not because the part required a “real” actress (though it did), but because, when you are living in someone else’s skin, there are places you can’t go and expect to come all the way back–especially if the someone else is having a rape-induced mental breakdown. Leigh, alone among screen actors, went there. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. A few years later, on a visit to New York, I saw an Off-Broadway play called Orson’s Shadow (if it’s ever near you, see it) which is, among other things, about the last days of Leigh and Olivier’s marriage. In the lobby during intermission I wandered around, reading the play notices. One of them contained a quote with which I was previously unfamiliar (as I was with Leigh’s history of serious mental problems):

“She (Blanche) is a tragic figure and I understand her. But, playing her tipped me into madness.”

If you want to know what the affect on Brando was, read any story of his sad pathetic life. Like Olivier in That Hamilton Woman, he knew what had happened, even if (as with Olivier) there was an entire cottage industry devoted to insisting it wasn’t so.

He went on to be careful and mannered and lauded in On the Waterfront–prelude to a lifetime of being showered with accolades and represented as the epitome of approved good taste masquerading as revolution.

She was carried off her next film set in a strait-jacket.

One of these days. I’ll watch this one again.

7) The Deep Blue Sea (1955)
D: Anatole Litvak

(No box office you say? With advertising like that? Just one of life’s little mysteries.)

This has apparently never been available in any home video format. I’ve seen it only in a grainy bootleg version which is barely watchable. But there’s enough there to know she had, post Streetcar and post breakdown, mastered a certain kind of fragility which gave her characters a vulnerability everyone else has been forced, for their own protection, to play act. Again, not an easy watch.

8) The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)
D: Jose Quintero

A good double bill with The Deep Blue Sea. Same train, different time. Similar result. Tennessee Williams insisted she was the only one who could play the part on screen. He knew what he was about. Hell, he probably wrote it about her, even if only subconsciously. Not an easy watch…but you know that by now. Don’t let its fame (or infamy) or good-not-great reputation or Warren Beatty playing an Italian fool you. Beatty’s quite good, she knew how to make this stuff hurt all along–and she only got better at it. Everyone who has walked through the beauty-terrified-of-losing-her-looks narrative since has done so in her footsteps. Maybe someone has filled her shoes, but, if so, I haven’t seen it. Here, as elsewhere, when she destroys herself, you not only believe, you believe there was no other way.

9) Ship of Fools (1965)
D: Stanley Kramer

After? There is no after.

She was dead in two years.

10) Vivien Leigh with Kenneth Tynan, Sam Goldwyn and Edward R. Murrow.

Permit yourself to time travel. Their like, good and bad, are with us in every age. Her like, we won’t see again.

Except for Kazan, she worked with no director who could be mistaken for an auteur, though none were less than solid professionals.

John Gielgud was a fine actor, by many accounts a wonder of the stage. By every account superior to his dear friend Vivien.

Today, though, when we hear her name, we think of Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche Dubois, of Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire.

When we hear his name, we think of Arthur, if not Arthur 2.

Talent abides.

Genius finds a way.

TRACK-BY-TRACK: Hot Rocks 1964-71

Hot Rocks 1964-71
The Rolling Stones (1971)

Starting something new…

[NOTE: The links below are a mix of studio and live cuts….I just picked a version that conveyed the mood.]

As my long-time readers will have guessed by now, I’m not fond of doing straight up record reviews. I’ve done a few, but not as many as might be expected given the concerns of this blog. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, and unlike movies and books, traditional record reviews seem to lack easy connections to the broader context I prefer.

But more of my free time is spent listening to music than anything else so it makes sense for me to find a way to comment more on individual records.

I’m not giving up on highlighting singles in the How Much Can One Record Mean category (“Brown Sugar” really is due), or singers in the Vocalist of the Month category. But those essays require maximum effort and concentration. Any writer only has so much of that to give.

Especially with a large part of mine going to fiction (and a fifty-hour-a-week job  on the side to pay bills and such), I’ve been looking for a way to get more music writing on here in a focused, album-oriented form. Upshot is a new category called Track-by-Track, whereby I just roll out the tracks from some classic album and say whatever comes to mind during a latest listen.

Unfiltered, I hope….

History: Hot Rocks 1964-71 is by far the biggest selling album in the Rolling Stones’ catalog, moving twelve million copies to date. The album was meant to grab money and did. The Stones had just fallen out with their manager, Allen Klein, who had reportedly duped them out of their early catalog. Mick’s deal with Beelzebub evidently didn’t prepare him for Business Mangers.

Knowing he wouldn’t have access to the band’s future material, Klein’s label (ABKCO) released Hot Rocks to cash in on the moment .

I’m sure the mercenary nature of the release was well known to the rock press of the time, and I assume it helps explain the opinions ranging from a decided coolness (see Dave Marsh in the Rolling Stone Record Guide) to outright hostility (see Robert Christgau’s contemporary B- review in the Village Voice, since collected in Christgau’s Record Guide to Rock Albums of the 70s).

Whatever their real objections, the basic stated objections to the album as a Rolling Stones’ record, was that it was both too skimpy to convey the Stones’ real significance and too obvious to be of any use to those who already understood that significance.

Well, maybe.

But Hot Rocks, while not everything it might have been, is still an essential album. All these years later, you can learn things from it.

In the “not perfect” column:

-A pedestrian front cover. The picture on the back–a Dark Angel surrounded by Cro-Magnons–is the essence of the early and mid-period Stones represented on the tracks within. As a front cover it would have been one of the best ever. The Five Haircuts look that’s there instead is neither here nor there. Not terrible but certainly not memorable. Mostly, it’s appropo of nothing. That’s something no album cover–let alone one representing the cream of a great band’s greatest period–should ever be.

-Track selection: Though it was a big hit, I’d of dropped the atypical “As Tears Go By” (done better by Marianne Faithfull anyway) and added “It’s All Over Now.” “Play With Fire,” “Ruby Tuesday”  and “Wild Horses” are all great and plenty enough to represent Mick’s ballad singing.

-And a bit of bad luck: The band co-owned the Sticky Fingers tracks with Klein/ABKCO, so “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” were available to close out the album. But one more album (Exile on Main Street) and one more year and this could have closed with “Tumbling Dice”….which would have been perfect in every way. That not being an option, whoever was making the track selection and sequencing decisions for ABKCO should have reversed the final two tracks and concluded with “Brown Sugar.” The greatest side opener in the history of albums would have made an even greater closer here…and a perfect capstone on the themes the Stones had explored from the beginning and were to become trapped by in the long years to come.

Like I say, it needs it own essay…

But against all that, there’s this. Far from being inessential to people who loved the Stones (because, per Christgau, it offered nothing not already available on their great albums), Hot Rocks had much to offer even the acolyte, then and now. “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and “Honky Tonk Women”–all huge hits and three of their (or anyone’s) most essential–weren’t on any original album. “Mother’s Little Helper” hadn’t been on any original US album. The live version of “Midnight Rambler” was stronger than the (still great) studio version on Let It Bleed and only available on a live album Christgau did not recommend. That meant nearly twenty percent of what Hot Rocks placed in the company of the band’s greatest and most iconic music was, at the time, either not available on albums of similar quality…or any album at all.

Sounds like a bargain to me.

It’s still a bargain.

1st Disc:

“Time Is On My Side”–Perfect. The Stones’ first American top ten. Irma Thomas still claims they swiped it from her and that it was her big chance for a pop hit. That’s nonsense. It was her B-side of an A-Side that went #52 Pop. Anyway, she had swiped it from Kai Winding, the whiter-than-white big band leader who recorded the original the previous year. Her version was fine, (love the spoken word part). But even if they’d gone head-to-head, the Stones would have won the old-fashioned way–by being better. Especially great here, because you don’t have to hold your breath waiting to find out if it’s one of Mick’s epic fails–which were not infrequent in the days when he was learning Black American English phonetically.

“Heart Of Stone”–The Great Theme arrives, best summed up as: Just Try It Bitch. With a searing guitar break, of course. Those were already the band’s other great theme.

“Play With Fire”–Did I mention a Theme? The boy’s quick, too. Only took him a heart-of-stone beat to move up from Street Lollies to the Aristocracy. Minor Aristocracy maybe, but still. He hates her worse, too. Just like a poor boy should. Especially if the poor part was faux.

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”–The great leap, especially the vocal. Servants to the Blues no longer. From now on, they would play master. Or, if they felt like it, “Massa.” Just try and stop them. And, of course, they did it with a lyric that pretended they weren’t getting what everybody knew you weren’t getting, even if you made it with three chicks the week they (or was it their chick?) were on a losing streak. Didn’t tell any of your chicks not to play with fire, did you? No matter how bad you wanted to? Didn’t think so.

“As Tears Go By”–The closest thing to a weak track. Not really weak, but no aspect of it–lyrics, music, vocal–fit the Stones’ ethos and that makes it a drag on any album, even it it always sounded okay on the radio.

“Get Off Of My Cloud”–Lethal. Just Try It Bitch switched out for hare-brained politics. Just Try It World! I’ll make you feel so-o-o-o-o bad. And who lives on the ninety-ninth floor anyway? Surely not the Aristocracy.

“Mother’s Little Helper”–Their side-wipe at Middle Class Hypocrisy. Mom whines about the kids and everything else, but is on her way to OD’ing on Tranquilizers. Ha, ha, ha!. A touch obvious and nothing Shaw hadn’t done better decades before. But they sounded exactly like an addled American garage band catching their one moment of inspiration and that was a huge part of their cachet.  Also a neat sideways bend into the folk rock that would define them in ’66 and ’67 as Brian Jones set out to prove that you didn’t have to be a hypocrite to wind up in the bottom of the swimming pool, not breathing.

“19th Nervous Breakdown”–A perfect fusion of their purely musical R&B roots and their lyrical misogyny, which was just left-field enough for those who needed them to be something other than louts to project as irony…or, better yet, “irony.” You know, the kind no one gets but you. But they really did walk a fine line between empathy and assault….for a while.

“Paint It Black”–A whisper-to-a-scream call to the stalker lurking inside Everyman. Shaded by the possibility that, in 1966, Everyman was, like as not, a nineteen-year-old clearing a rice paddy with an M-16.

“Under My Thumb”–The Aristocracy nailed. Then ruled. Not by you….but you could dream, if you were so inclined. This is probably what Harvey Weinstein–fourteen in the summer of ’66–meant when he said things were different when he was growing up.

“Ruby Tuesday”–A rare and beautiful exception to the rule, perhaps because Keith wrote the lyrics about someone (a Show Biz kid named Linda Keith) for whom he had enough affection to alert her English actor dad when she was on the verge of disappearing forever. Into the underbelly of New York city and the arms of Jimi Hendrix as it happened. A rescue operation was launched. She was saved. Whether it was written before, during or after, this is about the hope that she–and the thousands like her who were a new phenomenon of the culture that enabled the Stones, and which they enabled in turn–would be. That’s still what it’s about.

“Let’s Spend The Night Together”–Ode to a one night stand with someone who is probably not Ruby Tuesday. Back on track, back on the sly, and a perfect close–musically, lyrically, spiritually–to the first period.

2nd Disc:

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”–The end draws near for the Brian Jones era with (coincidentally or not) the first entry in the Stones’ advanced efforts to find (or was it create? and from what?) the perfect rock and roll record by fusing straight up rape-and-pillage music with a stance on the era’s politics that had something for everyone. You could be one with them (by pretending they were merely being “ironic”) or you could be appalled by them (by believing they meant what they said, even if they remained at arm’s length from everyone, including themselves). But good luck trying to ignore them.

“Street Fighting Man”–And then they doubled down…Worth remembering they turned the sixties back on themselves before Altamont.

“Sympathy For The Devil”–Brian Jones now reduced to “backing vocalist.” On Wikipedia, this is referred to as “samba rock.” Of course it is. Is that why I can still hear Satan laughing? Then again, if ever a record could constitute its own category….

“Honky Tonk Women”–MIck Taylor introduces himself, and, unbelievably, a harder edge, abetted here by Reparata and the Delrons, among others. The Shangri-Las, alas, were not available. Just as well. If they had been, the world might have cracked open. Not especially memorable in its “Country Honk” incarnation on Let It Bleed (where it didn’t bleed a bit). Here it bleeds. And, for those counting that’s four “most perfect ever rock and roll records in a row”…and, for once, just possibly ironic, no matter how often MIck and/or Keith had ever met a gin-soaked barroom queen, in Memphis or anywhere else.

“Gimme Shelter”–Make that five in a row….irony grows distant. It can’t keep company with dread. If it’s not really a celebration of rape (and the destruction of everything)–or at least of the victim learning to want what the rapist wants (which is one way for everything to end)–it’s not really scary is it? But at least they hired a woman to talk back.

“Midnight Rambler (Live)”–Longer, looser and tougher than the excellent version on Let It Bleed. And if “I’ll stick my knife right down your throat” has ever sounded “ironic” anywhere, it certainly isn’t here. The theme seems fully formed by now….As though there could be no further developments. There were to be further developments.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”–Donald Trump’s theme song, from Day One of his campaign to date. It’s now obvious they wrote it for him…and only him. Steve Bannon he sent packing. Not this. There are those who believe its selection could only have been focus-grouped. They’re the same people who have spent thirty straight months getting their teeth kicked in and promising tomorrow will be different. Somewhere or other, somebody once said “Childhood living is easy to do…” I’ll keep listening. It’ll come to me.

“Brown Sugar”–Further developments. Slave rape. The irresistible joy of it no less. Top Five all over the English-speaking world in 1971. #1 in the U.S. (I have no idea what this says about them, or us). And, if irony, meaningless. I still expect them to play it with gusto at Trump’s second inaugural. Not only that, it has a good beat and you can dance to it! This probably should have closed…but it sounds great coming from the fade of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” as if they were re-purposing themselves for one last great thrust.

“Wild Horses”–And, finally, the rapist wants what the victim wants…”Now you’ve decided to show me the same.” Lolly? Aristocrat? Super model? Royalty? I still wonder.

Maybe it’s just as well it closes here.