History is rarely the whole story

Michael JacksonI got an odd feeling last night watching news coverage of the sudden death of “King of Pop” Michael Jackson.  As statements from Jackson’s friends and colleagues were being read on air by the anchors, one was from John Landis, who directed Jackson in the groundbreaking THRILLER (1983) video.  For the sake of full disclosure, I should say I was never a Jackson fan.  John Landis was what brought me to THRILLER again and again.  Landis had scored big with the back-to-back successes of ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) and TRADING PLACES (1982).  At the time of their collaboration on THRILLER, Jackson was ascending to the pinnacle of his extraordinary career; the first allegations of pedophilia that would dog him through the remainder of his short life were still a decade away.  Landis, however, was in freefall.  In 1982, while filming an action scene for his contribution to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983), Landis inadvertently caused the deaths of veteran Hollywood actor Vic Morrow and child performers Renee Chen and Myca-Dinh Le when a helicopter rigged for a spectacular crash landed too close to the actors, killing them instantly.  Landis and others were tried for involuntary manslaughter.  Landis was acquitted of the more serious charge but settled out of court with the survivors of the victims when a civil court found him liable  for the deaths.  Though Michael Jackson was never actually charged in connection with the 1993 accusation of child molestation, a subsequent trial involving another minor ended in acquittal.  As Landis’ heartfelt words of condolence to Jackson’s family were read aloud, I struggled to keep my mind in the moment and not flash back on all that history.

Fatty

Celebrity scandals seem so much a product of the media-circus modernity but they too have a long history in this town.  Before the wood putty had hardened in the joins of Tinseltown celebrities were getting themselves in big trouble.  Though he’s little remembered today, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a prominent figure of the silent era and the subject of one of Hollywood’s first scandals.  When Hollywood hopeful Virginia Rappe died after attending an alcohol-fueled Labor Day party thrown by Arbuckle at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel, the actor was charged with manslaughter.  It had been alleged by Rappe’s friend, Bambina Maud Delmont, that Arbuckle had raped the would-be actress using a piece of ice to penetrate her, and that this blunt object had perforated the girl’s bladder.  Police speculated that it was Arbuckle’s excessive weight that had crushed Rappe, causing peritonitis.  Newspapers exaggerated Delmont’s claims and printed police speculation as fact.  In both tabloids and respectable newspapers (particularly ones owned by William Randolph Hearst), the alleged piece of ice became a Coca Cola or champagne bottle.  Public hatred for the moon-faced comedian grew through three trials.  The first and second of these ended in deadlocked juries.  When a third trial ended in not only an acquittal but an apology from the jury, Arbuckle had little to celebrate.  He had been banned from making movies in the United States, he had lost his income, his home, his cars, and he owed his lawyers more than half a million dollars.  Though the ban was lifted eight months after it was levied, he was unable to find regular work.  Using a pseudonym, Arbuckle directed several pictures and was on the cusp of an acting comeback when he died in his sleep in June 1933 at the age of 46.

408982_03_blake

Anyone reading about Fatty Arbuckle these days will, as I did 30 years ago, come at the story back-to-front, learning first of the scandal that destroyed his career and afterward about his acting, his accomplishments (among them, discovering Buster Keaton and Bob Hope) and his place in Hollywood history.  I suppose movie-lovers younger than I am will have the same relationship to Robert Blake.  Born Michael James Vincenzo Gubitosi in Nutley, New Jersey, only five weeks after the death of Fatty Arbuckle, “Mickey Gubitosi” was a late addition to Hal Roach’s “Our Gang,” replacing Eugene “Porky” Lee.  Like Michael Jackson, Mickey suffered at the hands of an abusive father and was a troubled youth who often found himself in trouble with the law.  After a stint in the army, he returned to Hollywood as Robert Blake and built a career for himself in television and films until his crossover role in IN COLD BLOOD (1967), an adaptation of the true crime chronicle by Truman Capote.  Blake was often associated with crime on screens large and small.  He played good cops in ELECTRAGLIDE IN BLUE (1973) and BUSTING (1975) and on the hit ABC series BARETTA (1975-1978).  After a good decade, Blake’s career continued in fits and starts.  For television, he played doomed Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa in BLOOD FEUD (1983) and multiple murderer John List in JUDGMENT DAY: THE JOHN LIST STORY (1993).    He seemed poised for a big screen comeback after contributing a ghoulish cameo to David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY (1997) but was in April 2002 arrested for the 2001 murder of his estranged second wife Bonnie Lee Blakely.  Three years later, a jury found Blake not guilty of the crime and he was – that word again – acquitted.  Nevertheless, LOST HIGHWAY remains Blake’s last film.

Gig_YoungAll this to say that it can be complicated to follow and appreciate the work of an artist, be it a singer/dancer like Michael Jackson, a director like John Landis or an actor like Robert Blake apart from their troubles.  It can be impossible to separate a performer from the circumstances of his or her deaths or the harm they have brought to others.  In October 1978, an ailing and depressed Gig Young (who had a decade  earlier scored a “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar for his work in THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?), shot his bride of three weeks to death and then turned the gun on himself.  In April of 1990, character actor Albert Salmi (CADDYSHACK, BRUBAKER), who is said to have suffered from manic depression, killed his estranged wife and himself in their Spokane, Washington home.  In May 1998, TV and film comic Phil Hartman was murdered by his estranged wife, who then turned the gun on herself.  The murders of Sal Mineo, Sharon Tate, Bob Crane, Adrienne Shelly and Victor Killian and the suicides of Carole Landis, Inger Stevens, Chester Morris, Don “Red” Barry, Walter Slezak, Capucine, Brian Keith and others cannot help but to color the work they did in life.  Who can watch Mineo as a fresh faced youth in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) without flashing on his slaying in a parking garage in 1976 (the crime bracketed by the fatal car crash of James Dean in 1955 and the drowning of Natalie Wood in 1981)?  Who can separate the iconic likes of Lupe Velez (THE GAUCHO, MEXICAN SPITFIRE), Marilyn Monroe (GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, BUS STOP, SOME LIKE IT HOT),  Albert Dekkar (DOCTOR CYCLOPS, KISS ME DEADLY, THE WILD BUNCH) or David Carradine (DEATH RACE 2000, BOUND FOR GLORY, KILL BILL) from the bizarre circumstances of their untimely and tragic deaths?

Lex Barker002Actors were never meant to be celebrities.  They were meant to be in character on stage and invisible elsewhere.  In many countries, they were considered second class citizens and couldn’t be buried in hallowed ground.  Who knows when all that changed but in some ways not much is different in the Cult of Personality.  In elevating celebrities to a god-like status, we set them up to fall and fall hard.  Most of us are, in some way, complicit in their hounding by journalists, by fans, by the paparazzi.  Even if we do little more than pick up a copy of The Enquirer in a supermarket checkout line, we contribute to the mania for scrutiny that catches noted personalities in compromising positions.  The curse of morbid curiosity is that we are left in a limbo of never knowing for certain what went on at the St. Francis Hotel on September 5, 1921, whether Robert Blake did or did not cause Bonnie Blakeley’s death, whether movie Tarzan Lex Barker did or did not molest wife Lana Turner’s young daughter Cheryl (as the adult Cheryl Crane alleged in her 1988 memoirs), whether Sammy Davis, Jr. and Jayne Mansfield were really Satanists, whether Errol Flynn was guilty of the statutory rape of two underage girls in 1942 or if Lionel Atwill staged an orgy at his 1940 Christmas party or what went on at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.  We have to remember, of course, that we have no right to know.  (To paraphrase Eric Sevareid, we have only the right to find out.)  We shouldn’t expect so much from the famous.  After all, the ingredients for the manufacture of make-believe are all harvested from real life.  Our distraction, our escape, our flights of fancy are all formed, whether or not we care to acknowledge it, from basic (and at times base) human emotions – the qualities, yearnings, insecurities, contradictions, and foibles that make us all, rich or poor, famous or obscure, interesting characters. In suggesting that we all take a collective step or two away from show business, I don’t mean we should protect the famous but rather protect ourselves.  We don’t appreciate how fragile we really are, we little people in the dark.  Can any of us ever again enjoy art in a pure way, stripped of gossip or envy or misplaced adoration?  When all of the skeletons have been pulled out of all the closets, we may find we’ve lost more than we’ve gained.  As Arthur Miller wrote so hauntingly in AFTER THE FALL, “Who can be innocent again on this mountain of skulls?”

0 Response History is rarely the whole story
Posted By suzidoll : June 26, 2009 9:50 pm

This was a beautifully written post on issues of scandal and celebrity. In writing biographies of actors and entertainers, I have researched many a tragic life and it sucked something out of me to be treading in someone’s private business, even if I didn’t repeat it. “Fans” who fall for the media’s line that we have the “right to know,” and seek out scandal in a star’s personal life rather than appreciation for their work, lose a bit of their humanity and compassion for every juicy detail and tidbit of gossip they revel in.

Posted By suzidoll : June 26, 2009 9:50 pm

This was a beautifully written post on issues of scandal and celebrity. In writing biographies of actors and entertainers, I have researched many a tragic life and it sucked something out of me to be treading in someone’s private business, even if I didn’t repeat it. “Fans” who fall for the media’s line that we have the “right to know,” and seek out scandal in a star’s personal life rather than appreciation for their work, lose a bit of their humanity and compassion for every juicy detail and tidbit of gossip they revel in.

Posted By Helen : June 27, 2009 9:31 am

I have to concur with Suzidoll–great post. While I enjoy gossip too, I’m always conflicted about what I should know and what I shouldn’t know. I’ve read well written biographies of some stars, but mostly what I’ve read is an exercise in tearing them down. But I find I’m more disappointed in the writer than the celebrity when gossip, that is in no way verifiable, is repeated. And I thoroughly disgusted by the tabloids I see every time I check out at the grocery/drug store. It’s no surprise that Jon & Kate Gosselin are divorcing. I don’t know what they expected from featuring their family on a TV show, but it seems like no good comes from it. I’m not saying that they are important in the grand scheme of things, but did they deserve to have every move they make splashed all over the tabs? I don’t know. Some folks think they do, some don’t. I think the less we know about anyone in the public eye, the better off we’d be. Unless their behavior is antithetical to the messages they espouse, like in the recent adultry case involving the governor of South Carolina. I can’t stand hypocracy and it deserves to be exposed. See–I’m conflicted.

Posted By Helen : June 27, 2009 9:31 am

I have to concur with Suzidoll–great post. While I enjoy gossip too, I’m always conflicted about what I should know and what I shouldn’t know. I’ve read well written biographies of some stars, but mostly what I’ve read is an exercise in tearing them down. But I find I’m more disappointed in the writer than the celebrity when gossip, that is in no way verifiable, is repeated. And I thoroughly disgusted by the tabloids I see every time I check out at the grocery/drug store. It’s no surprise that Jon & Kate Gosselin are divorcing. I don’t know what they expected from featuring their family on a TV show, but it seems like no good comes from it. I’m not saying that they are important in the grand scheme of things, but did they deserve to have every move they make splashed all over the tabs? I don’t know. Some folks think they do, some don’t. I think the less we know about anyone in the public eye, the better off we’d be. Unless their behavior is antithetical to the messages they espouse, like in the recent adultry case involving the governor of South Carolina. I can’t stand hypocracy and it deserves to be exposed. See–I’m conflicted.

Posted By libradoll : June 28, 2009 6:59 pm

Kudos on a brilliantly written piece of movie lore. Even as far back as the days of Fatty Arbuckle the public seemed to be only too eager to eat up all the worst scandal about celebrities. Were we not so eager scandal sheets would not be in business today. A far cry from my old Photoplay magazines with pretty pictures of pretty people! My question is : WHY?
Jealousy perhaps? Or maybe us ‘regular’ folks just like to think that even celebrities are flawed & it makes us feel better about ourselves? That’s a pretty sad state of affairs.
I was never a Jackson fan but no one can deny the enormous contribution he made to the music industry.
I also had absolutely no interest in hearing about David Carradine’s sexuality form an ex-wife not even 24 hours after he had died. Shame on her!
That’s my rant for the day. Thanks again for that wonderful piece.

Posted By libradoll : June 28, 2009 6:59 pm

Kudos on a brilliantly written piece of movie lore. Even as far back as the days of Fatty Arbuckle the public seemed to be only too eager to eat up all the worst scandal about celebrities. Were we not so eager scandal sheets would not be in business today. A far cry from my old Photoplay magazines with pretty pictures of pretty people! My question is : WHY?
Jealousy perhaps? Or maybe us ‘regular’ folks just like to think that even celebrities are flawed & it makes us feel better about ourselves? That’s a pretty sad state of affairs.
I was never a Jackson fan but no one can deny the enormous contribution he made to the music industry.
I also had absolutely no interest in hearing about David Carradine’s sexuality form an ex-wife not even 24 hours after he had died. Shame on her!
That’s my rant for the day. Thanks again for that wonderful piece.

Posted By Al Lowe : June 30, 2009 9:44 am

Here are a few thoughts on the subject from someone with a degree in journalism who has earned money as a newspaper reporter.

Blame it all on our Founding Fathers. They allowed us freedom of the press. I am sure that the political leaders of this country immediately regretted granting us that freedom.
But…and you are going to have to trust me on this, the alternative, control of the media, is much, much worse.

Am I sorry for a politician or movie world celebrity whose name is dragged through the mud?
Not much.
Remember, they knew what they were getting into when they got into the game.
If you get into the game, you have to pay the price.

What I do resent is a knee jerk dislike of the media that many folks have. Most reporters I know are hard working, all too human people who try their darndest to do a good job. The people who badmouth the media wouldn’t do much better if they had to earn their livings as reporters.

A well-known actress made a movie in my town, Pittsburgh, recently, and was quoted in Rolling Stone with a terrible insult about Pittsburgh. She said later it was taken out of context. Out of context? Ridiculous. How can a horrible insult, meant in no other way than as a horrible insult, be out of context?

The media makes people responsible for their actions. If you are a politician and promote family values you shouldn’t fool around with other women. Likewise, if you are a movie or TV star couple promoting yourselves as the ideal marriage, you again shouldn’t pursue other people.

Should we know the uglier facts about celebrated people in the entertainment world? Well, generally the ugly facts are true. If you don’t want anyone to know about it, you never should have done it. You’re not John Doe any more. You’re a star. There are many, many perks to stardom. But, of course, there is this down side.

Michael Jackson did some bizarre things. Fatty Arbuckle did throw a wild party. At best, Robert Blake had a pathetic relationship with that woman. I could go on.

Maybe someone will disagree with this. If so, they have freedom of speech and press. They can tell me so, if they want.

Posted By Al Lowe : June 30, 2009 9:44 am

Here are a few thoughts on the subject from someone with a degree in journalism who has earned money as a newspaper reporter.

Blame it all on our Founding Fathers. They allowed us freedom of the press. I am sure that the political leaders of this country immediately regretted granting us that freedom.
But…and you are going to have to trust me on this, the alternative, control of the media, is much, much worse.

Am I sorry for a politician or movie world celebrity whose name is dragged through the mud?
Not much.
Remember, they knew what they were getting into when they got into the game.
If you get into the game, you have to pay the price.

What I do resent is a knee jerk dislike of the media that many folks have. Most reporters I know are hard working, all too human people who try their darndest to do a good job. The people who badmouth the media wouldn’t do much better if they had to earn their livings as reporters.

A well-known actress made a movie in my town, Pittsburgh, recently, and was quoted in Rolling Stone with a terrible insult about Pittsburgh. She said later it was taken out of context. Out of context? Ridiculous. How can a horrible insult, meant in no other way than as a horrible insult, be out of context?

The media makes people responsible for their actions. If you are a politician and promote family values you shouldn’t fool around with other women. Likewise, if you are a movie or TV star couple promoting yourselves as the ideal marriage, you again shouldn’t pursue other people.

Should we know the uglier facts about celebrated people in the entertainment world? Well, generally the ugly facts are true. If you don’t want anyone to know about it, you never should have done it. You’re not John Doe any more. You’re a star. There are many, many perks to stardom. But, of course, there is this down side.

Michael Jackson did some bizarre things. Fatty Arbuckle did throw a wild party. At best, Robert Blake had a pathetic relationship with that woman. I could go on.

Maybe someone will disagree with this. If so, they have freedom of speech and press. They can tell me so, if they want.

Posted By Beth : July 13, 2009 2:05 am

Excellent post on the scandalous and, as outcome would usually have it, tragic behavior that marred our stars..however,lest it be forgotten, they too were only human. They may have been idolized, but nonetheless, very much like most of us in their insecurities and weaknessess. What is so very, very sad is that so many people seem to derive great pleasure in ranting and raving on whatever “dirt” they can expose toward the character of a fallen star. This is especially true of the deceased, especially if they were handed the misfortune of tragic or sudden, unexpected death. If they are plagued with accusations of unlawful or perversed behavior, we lap it up and lick our lips out loud! If their behavior is considered outlandish, we swallow it whole and beg for more. When will we ever learn to truly appreciate the many marvelous gifts our stars have given us without benefit of maligning their character when they’re gone? How much raw talent does it take to be a mega-star, to live your life without solitude from the masses, to be labeled odd, excessive, or worse yet, accused of murder or indecent or immoral behavior? Personally, I couldn’t handle it…I wonder how many us average Joe’s and Josephine’s could.
Let our celebrated stars and their contribution of talent or genius be remembered for just that – their memorable talent, the gift they gave to the world. To be put on display with a God given talent is a tough order to fill when it encompasses your entire quality of life. To have no real freedom, to be a constant target for rumor and gossip, to live your entire life in a “fish bowl” – has got to be tough! Would you ever really be able to trust anyone?
Let the dead rest in peace and let us remember their gifts and not their mistakes and shortcomings. The higher you soar, the further you can fall…bless those extremely talented individuals, living or dead, that had the enourmous amount of courage it took to fly so very, very high!

Posted By Beth : July 13, 2009 2:05 am

Excellent post on the scandalous and, as outcome would usually have it, tragic behavior that marred our stars..however,lest it be forgotten, they too were only human. They may have been idolized, but nonetheless, very much like most of us in their insecurities and weaknessess. What is so very, very sad is that so many people seem to derive great pleasure in ranting and raving on whatever “dirt” they can expose toward the character of a fallen star. This is especially true of the deceased, especially if they were handed the misfortune of tragic or sudden, unexpected death. If they are plagued with accusations of unlawful or perversed behavior, we lap it up and lick our lips out loud! If their behavior is considered outlandish, we swallow it whole and beg for more. When will we ever learn to truly appreciate the many marvelous gifts our stars have given us without benefit of maligning their character when they’re gone? How much raw talent does it take to be a mega-star, to live your life without solitude from the masses, to be labeled odd, excessive, or worse yet, accused of murder or indecent or immoral behavior? Personally, I couldn’t handle it…I wonder how many us average Joe’s and Josephine’s could.
Let our celebrated stars and their contribution of talent or genius be remembered for just that – their memorable talent, the gift they gave to the world. To be put on display with a God given talent is a tough order to fill when it encompasses your entire quality of life. To have no real freedom, to be a constant target for rumor and gossip, to live your entire life in a “fish bowl” – has got to be tough! Would you ever really be able to trust anyone?
Let the dead rest in peace and let us remember their gifts and not their mistakes and shortcomings. The higher you soar, the further you can fall…bless those extremely talented individuals, living or dead, that had the enourmous amount of courage it took to fly so very, very high!

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : July 15, 2009 10:43 pm

[...] events and fear of what your eyes might see. As my fellow Morlock RHSmith eloquently outlined here a few weeks ago in his blog on Hollywood’s scandals and audience fixation on them, I would [...]

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : July 15, 2009 10:43 pm

[...] events and fear of what your eyes might see. As my fellow Morlock RHSmith eloquently outlined here a few weeks ago in his blog on Hollywood’s scandals and audience fixation on them, I would [...]

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