Head On Back to Tennessee (Williams)

Lately, people have been talking about their binges of watching Breaking Bad. I’ve never seen a minute of it. Instead, here’s my binge-lite story.

I recently saw Blue Jasmine and liked Woody Allen’s reworking of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Having seen the play at least twice, I could pick up on the references. Last night I went back to the cultural output of Williams himself with The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston, with Ava Gardner and teen hottie Sue Lyon melting the DVD with fine support from Richard Burton.

This marked yet another checkmark on my list of Tennessee Williams’ plays and movies I’ve seen. Over the last six months, I’ve done my own slow-mo binge watching of his films and found them all riveting. I didn’t set out to do this; the works just crept up on me like a sinuous southern vine wrapping itself around my Netflix list and, with a drawl and flirtatious glance, beckoning me to abandon myself.

The addiction must have begun in my early years, as so many addictions do, when I saw a high school or college production of The Glass Menagerie. I’ll pay it the highest compliment I can for a literary work: I remembered part of it almost verbatim, the lines that say,

“The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass.”

The current Williams kick began about six months ago when I pulled Suddenly, Last Summer off the shelf of my local library, mostly because I was going through an Elizabeth Taylor movie binge. While I didn’t know what to expect, I was familiar with the iconic beach photo of La Liz, with her wind-tossed hair and tight one-piece swimsuit.

What a treat awaited me! The film’s over-the-top Southern atmosphere (always appealing to me) with high-voltage performances by Taylor and Katherine Hepburn, haunted by the mysterious death of Hepburn’s son on a European vacation, drew me in. Mental illness, asylums, lust-crazed patients, the final confrontation that explains everything and plenty of shrieking and emoting by Taylor made the movie appealing.

I checked out other movies as some buzzer went off in my head in response to external stimuli. When Scarlett Johansson played Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, I decided to see the original film with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. This was one of those plays and movies I had always heard about but never seen. The title and general outline are so much a part of American culture that I had a sense of deja vue—like I had seen it, but I really hadn’t. And as I did see it, I felt I wasn’t seeing what I expected. Taylor delivered all the voluptuousness I expected, but the undercurrent of childlessness deeply moved me, as her yearnings collided with her husband’s drinking and unspoken feelings about a friend’s suicide.

Night of the Iguana took the basic elements of regret, alcohol, confusion, male dissolution and repressed female yearnings in a Mexican setting, with Richard Burton the fallen minister leading a tour group from a Texas Baptist college on a tour of Mexico. He’s got a troubling penchant for young women, and Carroll Baker steps smartly into the role to show that you don’t have to be unclothed to be steamy.

She soon leaves the stage as Ava Gardner’s Maxine, a hotel proprietor, takes the stage. I had never seen Ava Gardner in a movie before, and let’s say she made a big impression with her tousled hair, forward style and glimpses of longing and vulnerability. She plays off another female character, Deborah Kerr, as a hotel guest. I had to chuckle at the scene where Gardner romps in the Mexican surf with two shirtless Mexican houseboys at her hotel – the scene reminded me of Kerr’s aquatic embrace with Burt Lancaster in the Hawaiian surf 11 years earlier in From Here to Eternity.

Iguana rolls to an explosive end (typical for Williams material) with Burton trussed up in a hammock as he roars through his alcohol addiction. The romantic hopes and tangles sort themselves out and the movie concludes with a tentatively hopeful note.

I’m already looking forward to the next entries in my Williamsfest s drawn from this best-of list – Baby Doll, Summer and Smoke, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. I may not score many points in the pop-culture department, but I know what I like when I see it. Call it the writing, the late 50s-early 60s acting style, the Southern settings – whatever it is, I’m ready to curl up with some more Williams. And based on what I’ve seen, I’m going to spin off into more of Liz Taylor and Ava Gardner.

The Jong Show, Lust Made Flesh

Author Erica Jong is now marking the 40th anniversary of the publication of Fear of Flying. She has sold 27 million copies of it. She can probably be published anywhere she wants, on any topic. She’s been a media celebrity since the Nixon era and she’s working on a new book called, daringly enough, Fear of Dying (it’s not a sequel). She’s written 22 books, is 71 years old and looks and sounds great and she likes to write and talk about sex.

When I learned she would be speaking at the Westport Public Library last week, I knew I had to drop everything to get there to hear her. After all these decades of quietly, politely lusting after her, our moment of spiritual communion had arrived.

Erica Jong 111-edit

Actually, I didn’t pine for her so much as for the concept of her. Erica the lusty (those early pictures of her!), Erica the educated, Erica the Jewish — she fit into the image of women that fascinate me. I wasn’t a groupie, wasn’t a big reader of her non-Fear of Flying works, she just hovered in my imagination more so than, say, Mary Higgins Clark. And the fact that Jong and I live in adjoining towns means that we share even the same physical space–if she likes to go to the Stop & Shop in Westport, CT, that is.

After a slowww commute home from Manhattan, I raced to the library and found the meeting room jammed. I squeezed in and leaned against the back wall, camera and notebook in hand.

“It’s an amazing event that Fear of Flying is 40,” she said in a wry tone. “I wish I was 40.” The sales went far beyond any possible expectation. She aimed for sales of 3,500 given the literary nature of the book. Instead, it found an audience and now three new editions are in the works, along with the digitization of her back list and decades-long discussions about a movie version (big-name actresses like Goldie Hawn and Barbra Streisand have aged into their golden years waiting for the role to materialize).

She gave the audience, mostly middle-aged and above suburban women, a shiver of naughty delight by reading passage of Fear of Flying about the world-historical concept of the zipless fuck. She read,

The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game . The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving.” No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.

“Nowadays they call these things ‘hookups.’ Are they better for today’s girls? I don’t think so,” she mused.

Whatever Fear of Flying accomplished, it did not herald an ongoing surge of sexual delight. Forty years on, she says with dismay, she’s hearing from young women that “the sex out there is not that great,” what with men so exhausted and disoriented by computer sex that, come the opportunity to engage with a real-life woman, they just can’t perform. Yes, impotence casts its fierce and flaccid shadow across the land.

I was surprised by the amount of time Jong and the audience spent slagging 50 Shades of Grey (soon to be a major motion picture, which Fear of Flying has yet to achieve). She called it “unreadable” and repetitious, badly in need of a copy editor. Not only the writing but the characters came under her harsh commentary. The main character, the young and sullied innocent Anastasia, disappointed Jong with her eager acquisition of stuff, a long, long slide from the enlightened women of the early 1970s, when Fear of Flying raised hopes that “we were new kinds of women” and nobody would have sex for money.

(Jong’s comments echo a past theme of hers. In 2011, she edited the anthology Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex, which in one online ad compared itself favorably to 50 Shades, as if the two were in some kind of psychic, feminine competition.)

Time flies, and flying (a reference in part to Jong’s literal fear of flying) will soon share space with dying in Fear of Dying. The book, 10 years in the works, is about a 60ish actress, Vanessa Wunderman, who can’t get good parts and has to deal with the ageing process, made more painful because of her beauty. Death surrounds her, even her dog, a “Jewdle,” or Jewish poodle. Still, “sex and death dance well together.”

Asked by an elderly wag who yelled from the back of the room, “Is there sex after death?”, Jong quipped, “I hope so. It’s supposed to be the ultimate sex.”

At 71, Jong knows about mortality, involving lives lived long and deeply. Her mother lived to be 101, and her father into his 90s — she noted that the day after the Westport presentation was the yahrtzeit, or Jewish anniversary, of her father’s passing.

Jong made her politics very clear through the evening. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the Tea Party, even the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg — all the personifications of pure evil. Scandinavian democracies and progressive politics — all good! I wanted to ask her if she had any political views that deviated even one iota from the standard progressive thinking, but I kept quiet. I didn’t want to wreck our special time together with a dumb statement (I’m a master of that, you know) and, anyway, I didn’t want to be mauled by the suburban matrons who clearly agreed with everything Jong said. She delivered her message and answered questions with grace and energy and the polish you’d expect from a veteran of decades of readings, interviews and appearances.

I’ll check out some of her other books and see how they sound now that I’ve seen the author in the flesh. Maybe I’ll pick up some good writerly ideas.

I should be so blessed at 71 as Jong is.