Tag Archives: lolita

Who Was the Real Holly Golightly?

People want to know.

When Vladimir Nabokov published “Lolita,” readers assumed, wrongly, that he himself was Humbert Humbert, and that somewhere out there, a real Lolita -– or Lolitas -– was wandering around New England enchanting older nymphetophiles all the way to their graves or beds, whatever came first. Years earlier, when Thomas Mann published “Death in Venice,” people wondered at who the real Tadzio was (there’s even a small book on the subject: “The Real Tadzio” by Gilbert Adair), just as they wondered, and still wonder, which of Philip Roth’s hot-blooded intellectuals are the closest to Roth himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same was true of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Truman Capote’s story of Manhattan’s most freewheeling, fun-loving, semi-depressive call girl.

As long as there has been fiction, there has been the presumption that certain types of writers -– those working with incendiary, vaguely autobiographical material -– are only capable of romans à clef. Authors may deny it, some even adamantly, and yet their readers insist. But why? Are the priggish out for a scapegoat? Someone to pay for the titillation they refuse to call “imagination”? Or maybe it’s more innocent, and these readers are simply fans looking for another way to engage with the material they love.

When “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was published in the late-’50s, people wanted Capote to cough up names. His whole life long, Truman was forced, privately and in the press, to account for Holly Golightly. Who was she really? “The main reason I wrote about Holly,” the author said in a Playboy interview, “outside of the fact that I liked her so much, was that she was such a symbol of all these girls who come to New York and spin in the sun for a moment like May flies and then disappear.” That’s one answer.

Somewhat problematically, Capote’s cast of real-life characters changed from year to year. Was Holly really the dancer Joan McCracken, who was at one time married to Jack Dunphy, Capote’s longtime lover? It’s true that she, like Holly, met the news of her brother’s death with a fabulous, violent tantrum. Was there meaning in that? And of course there was also the young and lovely Carol Grace, who Capote met soon after her divorce from William Saroyan. And what about Gloria Vanderbilt? She was young and lovely too, and lived in a brownstone like Holly’s, and often entertained houseguest Russell Hurd, a charming gay man with, as she wrote, “the looks of Charlton Heston and the wit of Noel Coward.” That’s Holly and our narrator, is it not?

To read more, please visit the Wall Street Journal’s blog, Speakeasy.


Kubrick Before the Chill

There’s a whole lotta Kubrick love going on at Not Coming To a Theater Near You. So I threw down for one of the greats.

To watch Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s first masterpiece, fifty years after its release, is to oversee the great web of Kubrick’s career. In each direction you can see a strand of thought leading on toward a film of the future. In time, the bravura dolly shots that follow General Mireau through the trenches of World War I, will become the unyielding long takes of Full Metal Jacket, following Gunnery Sergeant Hartman as he dispenses his savage insults to his platoon. The expansive white interiors of General George Broulard’s chateau, sterile in their civility, will be reprised to similar effect in 2001A Clockwork Orange, and Eyes Wide Shut, films in which places of elegance – like the barren theater where Alex’s cronies do their raping, and the site of the latter film’s famous orgy – are made desolate and cold. And Paths of Glory’s execution scene, as painful a moment as any Kubrick ever filmed, is composed with a stateliness that looks ahead to the excruciatingly paced duels of Barry Lyndon.

There are nascent proclivities here, but none is more pervasive, or upsetting, than the thematic strand connecting Paths of Glory to Dr. Strangelove—futility in the face of cold-blooded savagery. Looking at the iniquities of war, with its bloodsoaked barracks and Kafkaesque bureaucracies, there seem to be only two reasonable responses: one can either scream in horror or laugh in disbelief. Paths of Glory is Kubrick’s dramatization of the former; Strangelove, the latter.

Paths of Glory – a film about three men portentously court-marshaled and executed to justify the horrid incompetence of their superiors – is fueled by ironic tensions of guilty innocents and innocent criminals, a fact that Kubrick reiterates structurally, through his use of incongruous contrasts. We are not meant to laugh at the awful hard cut that takes us from the aftermath of an execution to teatime. We’re meant to recoil, as Kubrick does, from “civilized” apathy. Like Kubrick’s Humbert Humbert, Generals Mireau and Broulard are all manners and no man. Worse than mere pretense, their so-called refinement and intellectual sophistication is actually antithetical to human dignity. Paths of Glory’s court-marshal, governed by a cluster of highly decorated officials, is a display of vaulted iniquity, positing the formal values of due process over the needs of man. “Gentlemen of the court,” says Dax, “there are times that I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race, and this is one such occasion.” To be a gentleman of the sort Dax is addressing is to know nothing of what it means to be human.

There’s more. Please read on at Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Stiff Uppers

I’ve always been a sucker for a good thwarted or impossible romance, stories wherein the hero or heroine has to deny or hide his or her passion from his or herself or loved one or the world around him or her. You know, profane love.

Every country has their version. The Italians and French do it in opera, the Latins do it in Magic Realism, and the Americans do it in romantic comedy. But no one does it better than the British.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the English have always excelled at erotic sublimation, and I for one get a big kick out of watching them – I mean, their actors – suffer in noble silence. Yes, “noble silence.” Is this not at the heart of every great Jeremy Irons performance, from Brideshead Revisited all the way up through Damage? (Is he not the noblest screen sufferer since Liv Ullmann? [Yes.])

It’s actors like Irons that make the “lie on your back and think of England” subgenre so cinematic. If you’re not sure, check him out as Proust (Swann in Love), The French Lieutenant (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), Kafka (Kafka), either of the two Mantle brothers (Dead Ringers), René Gallimard (M. Butterfly), or Humbert Humbert (guess). You’ve never seen such cold passion.

In the seconds before Irons finally breaks down (and he always does, in an inevitable third act reversal), I always get that here we go rush of Fred Astaire approaching the parquet. His every wrinkle tells of bottomless heart pain beyond imagination, and each quiver of the hope to overcome it. When his moment of wordless eruption at long last arrives, you can’t help but feel a little bit grateful for the opportunity to observe, from the comfort of your home (or theater), nothing less than the destruction of a human being, a man thrown off the cliff of his very own beliefs. But of course it’s just acting. No Limeys were harmed in the making of this motion picture.

So when I heard Colin Firth was going to be doing the minimal thing in A Single Man, I got very excited in a very quiet way. Before I pressed play, I sat in my room, in a wooden chair by the window, stared out onto the street and just thought. If you were to see me, you wouldn’t know what I was thinking, but you would be sure that I was thinking something, and if you were to judge by the muted shadow across half my face, you might reckon it was something serious. You might even be affected by what you were seeing – a man, sitting by a window, looking out onto the street. But what is he feeling?

To read Firth’s face is to squint into the fog at a blade of grass thirty miles away. The only way to know what’s going on in his head is to be told, with a choice flashback, and Tom Ford tells and tells. But this is only performance by association, by implication. Critics love this – they went for it hook, line, and sinker in I’ve Loved You So Long – but remove the actor’s reactions from their context, and they present like the Kuleshov Effect gone bad. That makes Firth’s performance less a performance than an editor’s creation. Noble silence? No, just silence. Without those inserts, you have a man in a chair.

My heart ached more for Firth than his character. He’s a good actor, but no actor can overcome the kind of vacuum Firth was up against in A Single Man. When a boat heads into the wind and looses steerage, sailors call it being “in irons.” When a British actor tries to show you everything by showing you nothing, I call it “not Irons.”

Dear Adrian

Dear Adrian,

The other night, my friend and I were having a falafel down by the beach, and your name came up, and I managed to convince him that you were worth a serious look. Having seen Fatal Attraction fairly recently, and not wanting to reopen the Eszterhas mess of Flashdance, we decided on Indecent Proposal.

I have to admit, I was nervous. I knew I was in safe territory with 9 ½ weeks and Lolita and Unfaithful, but all I could remember from Indecent Proposal was the air of Dawn Steel goofiness about it, the instant-camp quality that surrounded the movie when it came out almost twenty years ago. And after spending the full lunch defending you, extolling your knack for inserts, your sensitive handling of actresses, and your amazingly variant sex scenes, I didn’t want to roll the dice (as it were) on what I was sure would be an unwise gamble.

(Are you in France, btw?)

But I was wrong, Adrian. Really wrong. Indecent Proposal looks better now than it ever did. Parts of it are terrific.

Of course, there’s really no way you can surmount the problem of your material, which even you must admit is TV stuff. (“If you ever want something badly let it go. If it comes back to you, then it’s yours forever.”) There were certain moments when I could practically feel a tampon commercial coming on, moments when I understood why coming to your defense has been an uphill battle.

But can we get back to those sex scenes? Where your contemporaries went in for things like panting stomachs and sweaty brows and – dear God – pans up from a trail of discarded clothes, you draw in all of these wonderful little naturalistic details, and allow room for accidents (like when Woody Harrelson climbs on top of Demi and accidentally turns over a chair), and you never fall for stupid slow motion stuff, or gooey power ballads, or any of the other jive that screams PEOPLE DOING IT IN MOVIE.

You’re interested in your characters enjoying each other. I can’t remember, for instance, the last time I saw two grown-up lovers actually laugh in the middle of a fuck. But in Indecent Proposal you allow it to happen. That kind of observational insight draws us into them being drawn into each other and makes the whole ridiculous arrangement (“One night with your wife for a million dollars…”) seem real. Good move, Adrian. Good move.

Anyhow, we miss you over here.



P.S. Even if no one else is saying it, I just wanted to say I know you’re an auteur.


As a kid, going to the movies with some highly versed, critically attuned picture people, I noticed there was one revered acting word that kept cropping up, one that they would inevitably link to work they admired. The word was “courageous.” The best performances, they said, were turned out by “courageous actors.”

At first, I didn’t get it. For years, really, I struggled to understand what could make an actor “courageous.” Outside of putting him or her self in a place of physical danger, when applied to a performer, the term didn’t make sense to me. Was it a figure of speech? A short cut or piece of inside lingo?

And then finally I felt it. I can’t remember if it was Lolita or Next Stop, Greenwich Village or Blume in Love or A Place in the Sun or A Patch of Blue, but watching Shelley Winters – who I always admired but never quite knew why – I suddenly understood. Not intellectually, but on the gut level. What I saw was an actress throwing herself body and soul into emotional largesse, unafraid to play at a level of intense vulnerability.

Sometimes Shelley was so despairing that it scared me. And I don’t mean to say that her characters simply suffered – any good actor could simply suffer – Shelley managed to add to that suffering hidden, often contradictory aspects of her characters’ personalities. But while another less gifted actor might let all the colors muddy the palette, Shelley wrangled her conflicting streams of passion like a conductor leading a hundred-piece orchestra. The feelings she evinced were not the safe, well-trod emotions that words could put fences around. Rather, they always seemed fresh and specific and utterly independent of timeworn acting clichés. Upon closer inspection, I began to understand further, intellectually this time. Shelley was scouting new ground. Sometimes it didn’t work, but she always took the risk. She took the risk because she was brave. She was a courageous actress.

But she wasn’t operatic. Her largesse wasn’t about size; it was about reality. Because of Shelley’s conflicting streams, she could create characters that looked so ridiculous, and at the same time, so credible. Despite their theatricality, they’re never broad. Her Charlotte Haze in Lolita is a perfect example. In the clip I’ve chosen (which doesn’t really get going until four minutes in), notice how Shelley plays it just a little too big, like a whining young girl, and then, surprisingly, instantly interrupts our feeling of incredulity with an expression of yearning, or humanizing gesture of kindness. The conflict produces a rich character, full of dynamic oppositions – and Kubrick knew it. He let the camera hold on her in a tight, unyielding close up, without music, and gave her little by way of ambient sound. Shelley’s alone out there. But Kubrick knew she could handle it. She could handle anything.

Shelley Winters, one of my favorite actors, died four years ago yesterday, at the age of 85.