Gossip blogs have tranformed the office water cooler and are likely the token distraction for anyone working on or near a computer. The great majority of people I know frequent them, and I’ve heard a large chunk talk about how they intend on “quitting” (this idea is my bet for the most popular New Years Resolution 2008). I’ve never suggested that I’ll ever end my frequenting of the seemingly endless array of Who-Did-What-With-Who.coms out there – except for Perez, who has become a desperare self-promoter as of late, and I’d personally like to see his 15 minutes end prompty. But just that very idea, that Perez Hilton became a near household name just by making fun of other celebrities on the internet, is at the root of my argument as to why gossip blogs are more than just a guilty pleasure. Celebrity culture is an incredibly interesting aspect of Americana: in the way it functions, in the narrative it tells, in what it says about the society that keeps it going. I was quite surprised to find how often discussion of Perez-worthy events pop up in my graduate seminars. I’ve even heard that Britney and Co’s adventures and the culture that it belongs to is one of the fastest rising thesis topics. Just a few weeks ago, a professor of mine wondered what Andy Warhol would do if he were still alive to see this drastic extension of some of the ideas he brought forth. “He’d probably not be able to handle it,” she said. “He’d probably just start making furniture.” But while Andy is sadly no longer with us, another celebrity connoisseur is still alive and following celebrity’s erratic steps into the 21st century.
Kenneth Anger, who I had known mostly for his experimental shorts (that traumatized me six year ago during my second week of undergrad film studies), is likely one of the most interesting contemporary men I’ve ever come across. He was born 1927, and was a child star in films of the 1930s. He began making films at the age of 9, reflecting his interest in the occult and, and then by his teens merging these ideas with a lot of homoeroticism (theres a great DVD set that shows some of the work he did his late teens, and its quite amazing). His extensive filmography includes some of the most notable experimental works in American film. He was close friends with Alfred Kinsey, Mick Jagger and the founder of the Church of Satan. Summarizing his work as a filmmaker and his drama as a person is impossible, so just look him up. What I’m leading up to is that, in 1958, he wrote a book, Hollywood Babylon (which you can buy for under $10). I read it for a seminar last year and it was immensely fascinating. It reads sorta like vintage US Weekly, but with a better written narrative and considerably more shocking events. And its guilt free: This book is historical, educational, and provides ENDLESS conversation pieces. A quick list of some of the events he covered:
-the drug-related death of Olive Thomas and subsequent scandal surrounding Jack Pickford;
-the drug addictions of Juanita Hansen, Alma Rubens and Barbara La Marr;
-the alleged sexual masochism of Mary Nolan;
-the statutory rape charges and subsequent trial of Errol Flynn and how it might have been ;
-the mysterious death of film producer Thomas Ince aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst;
-the extra-marital affair of Mary Astor with playwright George S. Kaufman as told through her diary;
-the career declines of Mae Murray, Pola Negri, Louise Brooks, Marie Prevost and John Gilbert;
-the relationships of Rudolph Valentino;
-the lesbianism of Alla Nazimova;
-Erich von Stroheim’s on-set difficulties;
-the relationship between William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies;
-the Fatty Arbuckle-Virginia Rappe scandal (he raped her with a glass bottle!);
-the drug-related deaths of Wallace Reid, Judy Garland, and (allegedly) Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer;
-the shotgun marriages of Charlie Chaplin to Mildred Harris and Lita Grey plus the Joan Barry paternity -scandal;
-the suicides of Lupe Vélez, Carole Landis, Peg Entwistle, Gwili Andre, Albert Dekker, Lou Tellegen, Bobby Harron, Max Linder, George Sanders, and Clara Blandick;
-the rise and fall of Frances Farmer and her appalling treatment in mental institutions;
-the homosexuality of Ramon Novarro and his subsequent murder by male prostitutes;
-the mysterious deaths of Thelma Todd and Marilyn Monroe;
-the death of gangster Bugsy Siegel by the hands of Lucky Luciano and Siegel’s moll Virginia Hill, and the decline and death of Jayne Mansfield (who is featured on the book’s cover in the 1975 publication);
And this is not only a limited inventory, but the book itself only brings us up to the late 1950s. So when people ever suggest that Britney or Lindsay are getting out of hand, tell them to read “Babylon.” I question whether either of them would have even made the final edit. Anger did follow it up with a slightly less juicy sequel in 1984, and there have been rumors that he has written a second sequel but recent developments in the American legal system have prevented him from releasing it.
Last year, Anger came to Concordia University in Montreal and gave a talk. I’m assuming most people expected him to talk about his films (which were being showcased at a festival at the same time), but instead, he answered the question as to whether he still cares about celebrity culture nearly 50 years after “Babylon” first came out. For the better half of his talk, all Anger did was talk about Tom Cruise. He told a story about how in the 1980s, he was hanging out with Cruise, and Cruise asked why his penis was leaking… Anger explained to him that he had an STD from all the gay sex he’d been having. Anger continued with various (conspiracy?) theories about Cruise and Katie Holmes and while many experimental film scholars probably were disappointed by his often incoherent ramblings – it was the most entertaining talk I’d ever seen in an academic environment.
But it also made me wonder if Anger’s ramblings were true. His book disclosed so much about celebrities of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, that people at the time had no clue was going on (and I wonder how Anger got some of this information as its miraculously detailed). Today, people shrug that off because the internet and digital cameras and phone video cameras allow everything to be so easily caught on tape and on the internet in minutes. People seem to think that there is a lot more truth to celebrity exposure now than ever before. But my guess is that if Hollywood Babylon 3 ever does hit the shelfs, Mr. Cruise and a few of his fine-feathered friends might have some stories to tell that do rival Fatty Arbuckle and friends.
I came across this a few days ago in one of my pre-sleep youtube fests.. Its selection isn’t really a continuation of what I was just talking about – and the clip itself isn’t particuarly entertaining – but just looking at the virginal queen of pop and the heterosexual queen of nice in 1999 makes clear that nothing is quite as it seems (not saying we didnt already know back then, but still.. its fun to watch considering their 180s):